The Nicene Creed: An Introduction (Book Review)

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Phillip Cary’s The Nicene Creed: An Introduction is a joyful initiation into the holy mysteries of the catholic faith. Cary’s Introduction guides the reader through the logic and language of the Church’s most significant Creed. For those unfamiliar with the articles of Nicene faith, Cary shows how the Nicene Creed is the means by which we might manage to say several things that are not untrue about the triune God we worship and whose life we participate in. For those who have already spent ages of ages in these articles, Cary’s Introduction is a friend coming to meditate with you on these wonders anew.

The Nicene Creed originated as a pastoral initiative guarding the Church’s faith and worship, particularly the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity, against the enticing mistakes of Arianism. We still need the Creed to perform this role in our own day. A 2022 “State of Theology” survey conducted by Lifeway found 73% of adult evangelicals in the US agree with the statement “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” Arianism is alive and thriving in American churches. Regular recitation and instruction in the fundamentals of the Nicene faith is as needed today as it was in Gregory’s age. Phillip Cary’s Introduction meets this need. 

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Cary’s introduction is a gift to the Church and would be especially useful in the context of youth or adult discipleship ministries. The concise chapters, inviting prose, and patient explanation make this book an ideal resource for designing introductory classes on the Nicene faith. The pastoral tone of The Nicene Creed is a model for communicating the Creed’s challenging articles in engaging and fresh ways.

The Need for the Creed

“The Nicene Creed originated because ancient Christians were appalled” (Cary 1). The Council of Nicaea (325AD) recognized the creeping shadow of Arianism, and its denial of Jesus’ divinity, as a threat to the Church’s holy life. The Nicene Creed developed as a pastoral initiative at this first ecumenical council, was solidified at the second council convened in Constantinople (381AD) and officially adopted as the standard of Nicene faith at the Council of Chalcedon (451AD; Cary 5-7).

St Gregory of Nyssa, a participant in the Council of Constantinople, explained the pastoral concern this way: if Jesus is a created being, then his nature is the same as human nature. What good is it to be baptized into just another human nature? Of what use is baptism if it has no ability to conform us into the nature of the uncreated God? How could baptism possibly shape us toward a holiness and virtue not of ourselves?

For Gregory, confessing good and right Trinitarian theology at baptism is the first step toward right ethics, right justice, and right love of neighbor. If Jesus is a created creature like us, as the Arians believed, then “hope for a change for the better would be vain” since our vicious nature would remain unaltered (Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Discourse 151). Trinitarian baptism is “such a little thing!” one might be forgiven for not recognizing it as the one and only door into participation in the life of God. (Catechetical Lectures 144). Yet baptism is the first step into the virtuous life (Cary 8). If the Church gets baptism wrong, the Church gets the Gospel wrong. And so, the Nicene Creed emerged as a handrail along the edge of Holy Mystery.

Structure and Content

The Nicene Creed: An Introduction opens with a brief mapping of historical contexts. The book is divided into three sections: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God the Son is further divided in two to focus on what the Creed’s articles have to say about Jesus’ human and divine natures. No word is wasted in the Nicene Creed, and the book’s pacing teaches readers to appreciate each article’s concise subtlety.

Cary focuses on the robust sanity of the Creed’s formulations of the Christian faith. For example, the Creed’s claim about God’s creation of “all things visible and invisible” is to say something important about the geography of God’s realm. God is not “up there” above the clouds; God’s realm is “above and beyond the whole visible universe” (31). When the Creed teaches us Jesus “ascended into heaven” and “is seated at the right hand of the Father” we are invited to contemplate Jesus in “the place beyond all places” (144; 151). And yet! The Creed invites us to see God’s throne high above so we might “recognize that from this height there is nothing that escapes his view” (152). God is beyond the veil, but (take comfort!) it is an ever-so-thin veil.

Cary reflects on the communal significance of the Creed; the confession of the Nicene Creed is a marker of corporate identity. “To repeat the Creed aloud is to confess the faith” (17-8). The Creed is symbolic (a symbolum in the proper sense) of the Nicene faith in that it functions as an oath or pledge of allegiance of the faith. Cary’s historical introduction outlines the role creeds played in the earliest baptismal rites of the Church. Catechumens would pledge their allegiance to Christ in the midst of their baptism then just as they do today (19). The Church’s weekly participation in this pledge disciples the Body of Christ into loyal fidelity to her one Lord and King. When the Church confesses the Nicene Creed, she repeats her pledge of allegiance to the one true Trinitarian God (81).

Cary’s introduction briefly considers the filioque and its historical development. He also offers a reflection for moving forward with the Creed in liturgical spaces. Cary’s commendation matches the 1978 Lambeth Conference and the ACNA’s prayer book: yes, the filioque is true when rightly understood (and so Anglicans rightly profess the trueness of Article V). But the filioque was not determined to be an essential article by the ecumenical councils, and unity is the task of the Creed. “We can affirm [the truth of the filioque] while also insisting that it is in a very important sense optional” (185-8). As our prayer book recommends, so Cary also commends refraining from saying the filioque in public confession of the Nicene Creed.

The Creed in Translation

Rather than reflecting on an established translation of the Nicene Creed, Cary offers his own at the start of the Introduction. Cary’s translation, freed from the constraints of liturgical need, reflects the underlying syntax of the Greek and Latin formulations in unique ways. Comparing his translation (and subsequent commentary) with the translation of the Creed in the ACNA’s prayer book aids the reader in better appreciating the logic of Nicene nuance. 

Cary’s translation mirrors the 2019 BCP at several points. Against other renderings of the Nicene Creed, Cary commends describing Jesus’ origination with “eternally begotten” (60). The 1662 BCP’s “begotten before all worlds” has its own wonderful literary artistry for those with ears to hear the Tudor English (and do not miss Cary’s delightful excursus into the language of “worlds” and “ages” at the end of his book; 207-210). But “eternally begotten” strikes the right note for the English of our own age. It captures the mysterious paradox of the very time-bound action of begetting with its inseparable tie to the eternal timelessness of Christ’s own origination, and does so while also staying faithful to the concise syntax of the Creed’s native Greek (62-3).

Cary’s translation differs from the 2019 BCP at other points, and these differences offer opportunity for reflection on what is gained and what is missed in the challenges of any translation. For example, Cary renders homoousios with “having the same being,” a phrase he considers more precise than “of one Being.” “Of one being” rightly captures the Nicene insistence on God’s one essence. But in our recitation of this article, we should not lose sight of Nicea’s focus on the reality that “every divine attribute in the Son is the same as in the Father” (78). In terms of divinity, the Son is the very same as the Father.

A Resource for Church Ministry

The Nicene Creed: An Introduction concludes by explaining how to teach the Trinity in layman’s terms. Cary’s epilogue “ the Trinity in Simple Terms” shows how this book could be adapted into a classroom setting for adult discipleship focused on “essential” or basic theology. Cary’s book models how the essential articles of the Nicene Creed “can be stated in simple language, without technical terminology,” and in this final section he does precisely this with the Trinity (214-5). Anyone can teach the basics of the Trinity in seven simple sentences, and never need use the phrase “three in one”

  1. The Father is God.
  2. The Son is God.
  3. The Holy Spirit is God.
  4. The Father is not the Son.
  5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
  6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
  7. There is only one God.

From this basic starting point, teachers could then adapt the rest of the book to fill in and expound upon these seven sentences. 

For preachers looking for a useful resource to assuage the annual anxiety of a Trinity Sunday sermon, Cary offers pastoral wisdom: “No preacher need be flummoxed by the impossibility of explaining how God is three in one. You can teach the doctrine of the Trinity without ever bothering with the word ‘three.’” Rather, Cary argues “what is essential is the faith in God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – that is confessed in the Creed” (214). Preach this faith and one has done all the Creed aims to do.

Phillip Cary’s The Nicene Creed: An Introduction is a model for how to write dense theology in accessible prose. Cary’s concise chapters make this Introduction a useful tool for teachers of any background or degree. For those who lead church book clubs or lay discipleship-focused ministries, The Nicene Creed: An Introduction is a great resource to serve as a textbook for the class and a framework for designing a curriculum of essential Christian theology.

Published on

May 16, 2023

Author

Ben A. Brown

Ben co-leads the Adult Spiritual Growth Classes ministry alongside his wife Lauren at Holy Cross Cathedral in Loganville, GA. Ben holds an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Seminary and enjoys playing trains with his two young sons.

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