The word in Greek for Almighty is pantokrator . It has the flavor of not just power but of being full of potential. The creed affirms a God full of possibilities. When we use this creed it is not just enough to recite it but it must also be interpreted and celebrated. It is not like a contract that we would sign but more like a song we would sing.
The key feature of the creed is the Trinitarian structure. So what does this mean for us and for the world in general?
The creed uses Greek Philosophy to present and explain a Jewish God and that is the biggest difficulty we have with the Creed. For example we quickly come upon the tricky word homoousias which is usually translated “of the same substance. This places us in the realm of metaphysics which is not a good place to be because meta means that it does not come from our experience rather it comes from our imaginations, which are incapable of generating reality. Our minds are really good at in fact generating idols.
For me Homoousias indicates an identity of character between the one named Father and Jesus. This word is very important because it means that The Father is exactly like the Son. Of one being with the Father means that think and react the same. They are not good cop and bad cop. The Creed is helps us to constantly rethinking the implications of what it means to have a Jesus-centered faith. If we just “sign” it, if we just recite it we miss the point. We are meant to take it all in, absorb it, meditate and reflect upon it, and begin to allow it to reframe our theologies. If we sing it, if it becomes a worship document, if it becomes a prayer then we will have rightly understood it.
This of one being with the Father is crucial to our understanding of God. Jesus and his Father act and react with a singular being. One of the earliest Christian heresies was Marcionism. Marcion could not reconcile the message of the gracious God he found in the writings of Paul with the violent capricious God of the Old Testament scriptures. Anytime anyone brings up this question about the variance between the things that were attributed to God in the Old and what Jesus did they are automatically looked at in the light of Marcion. The Nicene Creed has no mention of the phrase (“according to the Scriptures”) after affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection. Notice that the Nicene Creed says “who has spoken through the prophets” And As we know the prophets were among the most severe critics of the Kings of Israel and their temple and sacrifices. The creed does NOT say: “The Holy Spirit, who has spoken through the Law and the prophets.”
Just because someone sees a difference between the portraits of God in the two testaments doesn’t mean they are a Marcionite. In the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus Jesus taught that all the law and the prophets must be reinterpreted by himself. Marcion who lived from 80- 150 AD, was a teacher who asked the question what does the violent God of the Jewish Scriptures have to do with the gracious, compassionate God revealed through the life of Jesus?
This is really difficult because God does appear to change between the testaments. There have been a number of ways to solve this problem but none until now have been satisfactory. Marcion’s solution was to throw out the Jewish Scriptures and collect New Testament documents that had been purged of this Jewish influence (Luke and some of Paul’s letters). Influenced by the polytheism of his time and emerging Gnosticism, Marcion taught that there were two gods, the Creator God of the Jews and the higher God, who was Spirit, this latter God revealed in Jesus. By rejecting the ‘violent God’ of the Jewish Bible, Marcion also rejected the world made by the Creator, the world of flesh, blood and sweat.
The church leaders who opposed Marcion contended otherwise when they said it was one and the same God; that the God who created was the God who redeemed. This was the orthodox solution, which would soon run into a host of major problems and one in particular: how to reconcile the character of God as found in the Jewish Scriptures with the character of God found in the person of Jesus.
There were many unfulfilling attempt at explaining the difference. One try was to say one was promise and the other fulfillment. Or God could not reveal himself all at once, because of our limited understanding. Or postulating different historical dispensations, God acts certain ways at certain periods of time.
Finally it was Augustine’s theory that predominated. That is best known in his law-gospel dichotomy. These solutions while rejecting the two gods theory of Marcion tended to be quite as dualistic as his was. Essentially God’s character has two sides light and dark, loving and wrathful, merciful and punishing. This two-faced god has dominated Christian theology ever since. The early church fathers were dominated by categories of Greek philosophy. The problem with his is that God was already a known quantity, what God could or could not do was already decided, apart from God’s revelation to the Jewish people throughout history and ultimately in Jesus life. When you start by thinking you know everything you can’t learn or experience anything new.
These early theologians were trying to put a square peg in a round hole by bringing together the dynamic revelatory God of Judaism with the static unchangeable thought patterns of Greek philosophy. One can see this over and over again. The God of Exodus 3:14 (“I will be who I will be”) who will not be named, labeled or boxed became the god who is unchangeable, without feeling, apart from space, time and history. This is a god who cannot suffer and who is not affected by the human situation. This god is remote and far removed from us this god is not biblical.
Therefore the early church fathers rejected the dualism of Marcion only to succumb to philosophical dualism. This affected the way they interpreted their Scriptures, both the Jewish canon and the emerging New Testament. They began to develop a doctrine of God that was both parts oil and water, Jewish and Greek, biblical and pagan. To put it quite bluntly, the definition of God that comes out of Greek philosophy cannot contain the biblical revelation of the dynamic character of the Trinitarian God known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” It is nearly unaffected by Jesus life and death. Nor can we harmonize the character of Jesus with that of certain traditions about “God” in the Jewish Scriptures.
I would say that a reading of the Creed suggests that the writers are following a specific trajectory “a prophetic reading of the Law”, a reading which critiqued the sacrificial system and its attendant sacrificial violence. An example of this can be found in Jeremiah 7, a text Jesus cites in the episode where he symbolically shuts down the Temple. Jeremiah 7:21-23 “this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! 22 For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people.”
Jeremiah is saying that the sacrificial system was not part of the original Torah. Jeremiah was in contradiction to Torah. And, it is clear from the context that Jeremiah is a trenchant critic of the sacrificial system and the Temple.
So is Jeremiah a Marcionite? Is Jesus? Hardly! To critique the portrait of God found in certain texts of the Jewish Scriptures is not to engage in Marcionism but to follow the lead of the One God who by the Spirit “has spoken through the prophets.” So are we ready yet to rethink the relation between the Testaments and follow Jesus?
I believe we are and next Wednesday we will explore the question of what it means to be Orthodox or Creed following.