In the introduction to this series on the Nicene Creed we took a brief look at the history leading up to the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 (Go to this link for that article). Now we turn to the first couple of words of the creed itself.
We rise, after the homily and the scripture readings that we’ve heard proclaimed to us, and profess our faith in the things we’ve just participated in, in the sacrifice we are about to be witnesses to, in all that the Church teaches through this summary of Catholic Faith. But before we get to the nature of Christ, the existence of the Holy Trinity, or any other dogma or doctrine, we start out by proclaiming our personal acceptance of all that follows.
It seems like a pretty simple thing to say we believe, but it is actually one of the most amazing and wonderful things we can ever say. Belief is the first step in justification, and is absolutely necessary for salvation. Jesus said “he who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16) The writer of Hebrews said “without faith it’s impossible to please God.” (Hebrews 11:6)
But here’s the kicker; not only is salvation a gift, and a gift that is only attainable through faith, but faith itself is also a gift. Let that sink in for a moment!
The Church made it absolutely clear when it condemned the Pelagian heresy that the the grace of conversion precedes our own commitment to turn to God, paragraph 2001 of the Catechism quotes Saint Augustine (who personally engaged in battle of dogma and doctrine with Pelagius) on how grace both precedes and follows us in all we do in our relationship with God and good works towards man;
“Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.” -St Augustine, On Nature and Grace
Seen through this light, we are reminded that God first loved us, before we ever knew it, and before we turned to Him in faith.
“In One God…”
For us, and in our time, belief in a single deity isn’t something we’d call revolutionary, but in the days of the early church it certainly was. To Jewish converts, this was just a continuation of the monotheism they’d been practicing for over a thousand years (sometimes they were very out of practice), and in fact Christianity is the fulfillment and completion of Judaism, so this made perfect sense to them. To gentile converts, the idea of a single God was almost unheard of. The Greeks had spread their Olympian pantheon all over the eastern Mediterranean, and mix that with the smattering of Canaanite, Mesopotamian and Persian gods that were worshiped in the Roman Empire and the idea of choosing just was just something that wasn’t done.
In the 3rd century a Roman emperor actually made that choice for the empire. His name was Elagabalus, and he was a priest of the Syrian god El-Gabal before his accession to the throne. He started a campaign of raising the cult of his god over and above those of the Roman-Greek pantheon that had been worshiped in Rome since the days of Romulus and Remus. To say this didn’t go over well would be an understatement. For his religious activities, but not just his religious activities, he was assassinated after just a few years in Rome. The message was clear; worship whoever you want, but denying the Roman gods had consequences, even for an emperor.
Now that isn’t to say that gentiles had a problem with adding another god to their ever growing list of deities. They had no problem recognizing the gods of lands in which they conquered or travelled, and even the Caesars had sacrifices offered in their behalf at the Temple in Jerusalem. This can partly be attributed to piety, but also is likely just a symptom of their pagan superstition, in the way that pagans were constantly hedging their bets and sacrificing to any and all gods so as not to get on their bad side.
The problem that many Christians ran into in Ancient Rome wasn’t that they worship a God that was foreign to the Romans, it’s that they refused to even acknowledge the existence of the Roman’s gods. This is seen in the way that Christians were often accused of being atheists in official Roman court proceedings.
It’s often easy to imagine the Roman Empire was thoroughly Christianized when this line of the Creed was written, but that is not the case. The council was held in 325, and only a decade earlier Christians were a persecuted minority and the thought of a Christian emperor was unheard of, and the empire wasn’t completely Christianized until Theodosius a couple generations after the council.
So this line, essentially codifying that we not only believe all the preceding articles about our God, but that we explicitly are denying the existence of all other gods, would’ve been revolutionary in the ancient world, and we shouldn’t take that for granted.
The God of the Bible isn’t one being among many, He is the only necessary being in the universe, He is the first cause, the unmoved mover, He is pure being and essence itself, and as He revealed in the Divine Name, He is who is. There is nothing and no one like God, He is above and beyond all others in such a way that He can’t even really be compared to any other being.
He is God, and none others are.