June 19, 325
On this 1,687th anniversary of the proclamation of the Nicene Creed (the original, not the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 which is now often inaccurately called the Nicene Creed) I was thinking of a comment that a friend of mine posted to my Facebook yesterday. What my friend wrote was, “I don’t get why folks are so concerned about the details between all of the Christian faiths.” This is something of a remarkable statement when you think about it because the implication is that doctrine doesn’t really matter. It certainly is the worldview of Unitarian Universalism but even to non-denominational Christianity (whatever that might mean) does doctrine and dogma really not matter?
The bishops gathered at Nicea in 325 had done so at the invitation of the emperor Constantine to settle a matter that was rending Christian orthodoxy. Namely, was Jesus Christ one person of the Triune God or was He a being created by God and subservient to Him? Still our savior perhaps, but something less than a true God. The doctrine that Jesus Christ was a created being was a doctrine promoted by the popular Alexandrian presbyter Arius and because of this came eventually to be known as Arianism. Arianism was a relatively popular heresy, and in some forms is still with us in the 21st Century, but it was not a theology that was especially accepted among the bishops and was relatively quickly denounced as heretical. The Nicene Creed was the Ecumenical Council’s dogmatization of the theology of who Jesus Christ was in relation to God the Father and remains the cornerstone of most traditions typically considered to be Christian.
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come again to judge the living and the dead;
And in the Holy Spirit.
And those who say, “there once was when He was not,” and, “before He was begotten He was not,” and, “that He came to be from things that were not,” or from other hypostasis or substance, affirming that the Son of God is subject to change or alteration–these the catholic and apostolic church anathematizes.
An anathema was an extreme sanction within the early Church, and remains so today within Orthodox Christianity which is the direct unbroken continuation of that Church, whereby a person was expelled from the Church–not restricted in their communion as with the often misunderstood excommunication, but expelled completely. This response by the gathered bishops displayed their deep concern about Arianism because they believed, as the Orthodox Church does today, that what people believe influences what they do and can set them on a path very far from authentic Christianity and in doing so endanger their salvation. Indeed, it is believed that Arianism was not a completely novel doctrine advanced by Arius, but a development of his exposure to lesser heretical teachings of Lucian his mentor. False teaching breeding false teaching.
As such I believe that doctrine and dogma not only matter and are worth arguing over but that they are essential to Christianity being more than a secular philosophy but a transformative faith that is intended to be lived. To provide an analogy, carelessness in doctrine and dogma is akin to a physician saying, “The important thing for people to remember is that water is required for life. If people drink from the sea, a sewage line, or some other adulterated water supply who are we to be concerned. They are after all drinking water.” The Church is a hospital for sinners and should be providing the cleanest “water” possible.
Though I believe it to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church I am not opposed to people arguing that the Orthodox Christian Church is heterodox, heretical, or even non-Christian and so I could scarcely blame anyone for making such an argument against the Roman Catholic Church. What I am opposed to is when people make spurious, bad faith, and/or purposefully rude comments about a faith tradition. If someone is going to make a claim, they should at least attempt to be accurate and accept corrections when it is pointed out that they are making theological claims at odds with the actual teachings of the tradition or are misrepresenting history.