Thank you for inviting me to speak with you this morning. I want to present some of my concerns about the Trinitarian Church. I begin with a discussion of my background; then a brief history of the reasons for the Nicene Creed; next I will parse it; and conclude with some general concerns.
I come to the discussion with a comparatively inappropriate background. My training was in mathematics and statistics with an abiding interest in poetry and history. My family historically belonged to the Congregational Church until my great grandfather converted to the Episcopal Church. We may have been related to James Freeman who served as a Anglican minister at King’s Chapel, Boston. He is sometimes named the first Unitarian cleric in America because he renounced the required Athanasian Creed and re-wrote the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to eliminate all references to the Trinity.
Today I want to present my thoughts on leaving the Church. I have gone through periods of spiritual reassessment. Most recently the concern began while reading the Old Testament, a habit acquired as part of Morning Prayer. At some point, probably part way through Exodus or Joshua, I became ill at the thought of what I was reading. The violence and genocide of the Canaanites overwhelmed me. At that point my concerns and doubts began to coalesce. Evident problems with the Nicene Creed formed part of my thinking, which was evolving when reading George Santayana’s Skepticism and Animal Faith and Charles Freeman’s (no relation) The Closing of the Western Mind.
At the beginning of the Fourth Century of the Common Era (CE) the Roman Empire was in turmoil with nearly continuous civil war. Let me set the political conditions by reading the first verse of “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In 312 CE Constantine the Great defeated Maxentius at Milvian Bridge to become co-emperor of the Roman Empire. It is noteworthy that according to legend, the night before the battle he had a vision of the sign “Chi Rho,” the first letters Christ in Greek. He had this emblazoned on the shields of his army before the battle. The victory marked the beginning of what may have been his conversion to Christianity. One of his first acts as co-Emperor was to invoke the Edict of Milan that recognized Christianity as a religion no longer subject to persecution.
The ensuing years allowed Constantine to consolidate his power and eliminate his political rivals. However, the Christian bishops argued endlessly about the theology associated with the new religion. This tended to disrupt the Empire, putting it directly in conflict with Constantine’s goal of maintaining Pax Romana. The specific controversy was over Arianism, which holds that the Son is distinct and therefore subordinate to the Father. A dozen years after Constantine’s victory he commissioned the Nicene Creed in 325. The creed affirmed the Trinity which asserts the equality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Constantine believed the creed would end the argument. But he needed to re-assure Romans that the pagan religions, which had guided Rome a millennium, would remain on an equal footing with Christianity. Prior to the Nicene Creed, he decreed the day of the sun, Dies Solis or Sunday, as a Roman day of rest. He constantly promoted Eastern religions, including Christianity and Sol Invictus, as a means of assuring peace in his empire.
At the time of Creed’s adoption Christianity was not the state religion. Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 381. This declared Nicene Trinitarian Christianity to be the sole imperial religion and therefore Catholic or universal. Subsequently, the First Council of Constantinople affirmed the orthodoxy of the Creed. This established the equality and eternity of the Trinity. Moreover, it asserted the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. This was disputed and subsequently led to the Great Schism of the Roman Catholic Church.
The critical point noted by Charles Freeman is that the Councils effectively ended all further debate about the main beliefs of Christian theology. It established conditions under which heresy and apostasy could be established. The nature of heresy was established in the Athanasian Creed, to which the Reverend Freeman objected.
The Nicene Creed also emphasizes the evangelical mission of the Church and its client states. Thus, the Creed became a central affirmation of Christian Churches, which remains true to this day. Given its role in theology it is important to carefully parse its words.
The Creed contains thirteen sentences divided into three paragraphs. The first sentence of the Creed affirms the belief in one God and his creation of heaven and earth. I think the affirmation is anachronistic once we recognize that the universe has existed for billions of years. Contemplation of the early origins of the universe has led directly to the Big Bang Theory, among others. The assertion of belief in a single God responsible for creation cuts off this line of inquiry.
But why should there be only one god? For thousands of years people coexisted with a myriad of gods and in many ways, it was a cordial existence. So called pagans and their mythology can view gods as exemplars, not rulers. This differs sharply from the notion of a single father figure as god.
To fully appreciate the implications of a single deity, one needs to recognize the emergence of Radical Monotheism that created an adversarial relationship with a single god, which continues to this day. Abraham is credited with asserting a single god rules and must be obeyed. Disobedience carries great risk. This criticality is emphasized in the Ten Commandments.
Among others, the Protestant Roger Williams noted in the 17th Century that the first half of the Ten Commandments demands devotion to the power and worship of God. Neither he nor Ann Hutchinson objected to the broad guidelines for human interaction in the second half of the commandments. Each also believed that human action was necessary for salvation. For this they were exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Christianity picked up the attendant militancy of Radical Monotheism through what is known as the Great Commission, found in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew asserts that after his resurrection, Christ ordered his disciples and all believers to evangelize and baptize the nations of the world. A similar command by Jesus, while still human, is found in the Gospel of Luke as well as a the appended verses of the Gospel of Mark. This commission has been repeatedly invoked to justify worldwide colonization by European empires.
Finally, Mohammad wrote the Quran invoking submission to a single deity. The conquest by Islam of much of the world was a response to this belief. Islam first moved across North Africa searching for converts. Later it swept across south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Invoking the primacy of Allah, Islamists forced the conversions of Buddhists, Hindus, Vodun, and Yoruba. For the most part Islam has not required the conversion of Christians and Jews, merely that they pay special taxes.
In summary the first paragraph of the Creed both cuts off theological and scientific discussion. It creates an adversarial relationship with the transcendent. Finally, it urges the convert to action against the other beliefs.
The Creed’s second paragraph of six sentences asks us to believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ. Yet there is little contemporary evidence that he even lived. Josephus wrote the only independent contemporary account of Jesus. In the Antiquities of the Jews, he mentions both the crucifixion of Jesus whom he describes as the Messiah and a wise teacher, although this may have been partially the result of later Christian redactions. He also mentions Jesus’s brother, James. Finally, he does describe the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas.
Paul wrote the first Christian reports of Jesus, yet he acknowledges never having met Jesus when he lived. He minimally discusses Jesus’s life. Mostly he argues that Jesus systematically supported a theocentric view of the Torah. Paul is particularly clear that Jesus objected to the Temple focus of the Jews under Herod and the Romans. Paul does make clear that he had a remarkable vision on the road to Damascus. He also spent a great deal of time in conflict with Peter and the other Apostles in Jerusalem.
To be clear, much of the deification of Jesus, the Christ, relies on Paul’s writing. Supporting theology developed after the creed beginning with St. Augustine. It is important to remember he spoke no Hebrew and little Greek, so Augustine’s thought reflected Roman translations of Paul and the Gospels into Latin.
Subsequent accounts, the Gospels, were written two to four generations after the reported crucifixion. The oldest, Mark, does not clearly affirm the resurrection especially if one acknowledges Chapter 16 may well have ended at verse 8, before an appended resurrection story. On reflection the Gospels may demonstrate the truth of Santayana’s adage that “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people weren’t there.”
Notions of Jesus’s virgin birth and his unity with God were very much a subject of debate until the fourth century of the Common Era. We know from the Gospel texts and Paul’s letters that Jesus had several brothers and sisters. The notion that Mary was without sin did not become absolute church dogma until 1854 when Pope Pius IX adopted it ex cathedra without Vatican consultation.
In summary, the Creed’s statements concerning the second member of the Trinity essentially allowed the persecution of Arians as heretics. It also attempted to end discussion of Jesus as the co-equal of God. Basically, it made any consideration of the solely human nature of Jesus, heresy.
The Creed’s final paragraph asserts the existence of a Holy Spirit. The existence of a Holy Spirit is not obvious in the Gospels. It is frequently found amongst the characters of the Gospel of Luke, primarily as a description of why individuals act or believe certain things. There is some reporting of the presence of God affirming his son at various points. This is symbolized by a dove at Jesus’s baptism.
The reality of the Holy Spirit was a subject of great debate and appears to have been appended to the Creed late in the discussions. It remains as a justification for the belief in God’s continuous and personal presence in the world. The inclusion of the Holy Spirit in the Creed contributed to the schism of Roman and Orthodox churches which remains unresolved today.
The Creed finishes with dogma about the Church, sins, and resurrection. These tend to pull together a lingering set of beliefs that may assure hope and unity. But little follows directly from Jesus’s teaching. Moreover, none of that seems necessary for leading a wholesome life. In simpler terms the final paragraph of the Creed wraps up the Christian beliefs and affirms a dogma without reason or proof.
This leads me to believe the Creed serves primarily as theological assertions. It was originally adopted at the behest of Constantine in hopes of stopping bickering amongst Church leaders. By forcing the adoption of the creed, Emperors were able to assert absolute authority over the Roman Empire.
In summary, the core beliefs of apostolic churches are found in the Nicene Creed. The Creed was adopted as means to insure the continuation of Pax Romana. It affirms the centrality of radical monotheism, the deification of an individual, and the broad outlines of a universal church. It became a state religion and continued as such for a millennium and a half. Arguably the Church and governments today use similar arguments to maintain their rule.
This systematic control began to change with the emergence of humanistic thought during the Renaissance. Among the characteristics of the Renaissance was the re-discovery of the ancient Greek and Hebrew texts. This led to new translations and interpretations. It culminated in the next schisms of the Church with the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. But the central role of absolute monarchy was slow to be undermined.
Today, it appears that the emergence of liberal democracies in the West has led to the relative reduction of what became regal and state oppression. These democracies, except for the United States, are notable for their dedication to social systems that are deeply committed to the sanctity of all living humans.
I believe the survival of these democracies requires the centrality of critical thinking in a relentless search of truth.
A search that has been systematically blocked by a creed that creates a narrow set of dogmas.
Having argued against the Creed and its role in narrowing the Christian Church, how can one remain? That would require another longer talk. But in telegraphic terms: The Church has endured for two millennia. It provides a source of solace for billions of people. I would be beyond arrogant to reject an historic and present reality. This humbling fact affects many who may have questions of faith. In the last decade of his life George Santayana lived in the care of Catholic sisters, but he remained true to his doubts and insisted on not being buried in consecrated ground. Let me finish with a note of personal angst found at the end of “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
- Charles Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason. Vintage Books, 2005.
- Charles Freeman, A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State. Abrams Press, 2009.
- John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
- James J. O’Donnell, Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity. Harper Collins, 2015.
- Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition. Yale University Press, 2003.