Process Christians and the Nicene Creed – November 2013

Question: Should process Christians affirm the Nicene Creed?

Publication Month: November 2013

If “to affirm” means to agree with everything in it, then the answer with regard to the Nicene Creed must surely be No. But that would apply to virtually anything. In that sense I do not affirm the Bible or Luther or even Whitehead. I assume that is not the meaning of the question.

If “to affirm” the creed is to affirm the primacy of the creedal approach to Christianity, again my answer is emphatically No. Creeds and confessions and articles of religion have their place in Christian history, but they are all historical documents dealing with the issues of their time in the language and with the available conceptuality of their time. As long as they are read with that understanding, they are illuminating and valuable. If their formulations are supposed to bind all Christians then they must all be opposed in the name of Christian freedom and the historical consciousness to which the Bible has contributed so greatly.

The question may, however, take all this for granted. The issue may be whether the way it deals with the relation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be interpreted and affirmed in process terms. This is a serious and important question. We process Christians, along with Christians in every age who use the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, need to wrestle with the question of how to think of their relations. How do our formulations relate to these fourth century ones?

My view is that with one change, we might “affirm” the Nicene solution. I would like to call it a clarification, because the alternative simply does not make sense. The idea that a human being by the name of Jesus and already designated as “Messiah” existed in heaven before all ages is nonsensical. In contrast, the prologue of the Gospel of John does make sense. There we are told that the “Word” was with God and was God, and that God created through the Word. This connects with the Stoic idea of the Word (the Logos).

John says that this is the true light that enlightens everyone. This light became incarnate in a human being was named Jesus. Jesus is the name of the man in whom the Logos became incarnate. To use the “Lord Jesus Christ” to name that which became incarnate as well as the one in whom it became incarnate is confusing and misleading. This double use has been responsible for a great deal of confusion and has misled many Christians. I do not see how a process Christian can affirm that.

Of course, there are other problems. The metaphysical and cosmological assumptions of the creed are different from ours. Attributing the paternity of Jesus to the Holy Spirit and the maternity to a virgin makes little sense to liberal Christians generally. The account of the Holy Spirit as “Lord” does not distinguish it from either the Father or the Word. Applying to it the term “Life-giver” seems to take away from what John attributes to the Word.

The language of “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” permeates the rhetoric of our churches; so we, too, need to make some sense of these terms. I would suggest that the “Father” is God in an I-Thou relationship with us. The “Holy Spirit” is God as inwardly liberating, empowering, calling, and inspiring us.

The problem is with the “Son” which suffers in our rhetoric also from a double use. We use it most commonly in speaking of Jesus, who we regard as the incarnation of God. Incarnation is a unique mode of God’s presence that gives to his words and deeds special authority for us.

For me this would suffice and would be the most natural interpretation of the baptismal formula, but it does not constitute the orthodox Trinity. To have the orthodox Trinity we must distinguish the divine that was incarnate in Jesus from the divine that is present in us and in all things. There is nothing in process thought that prevents such distinctions with regard to God. As Whiteheadians we could distinguish the Word or Son as the Primordial Nature of God from the Spirit as the Consequent Nature of God. I do not favor this because, although it would solve the problem of having a Trinity of truly distinguishable realities that are all truly God, it would not fit well with biblical or current rhetoric. I prefer simply to say that the divine reality to which I pray is the same reality that I encounter as fully realized in Jesus and find working in my life and in other creatures as well.

My overall conclusion thus seems to be that, as a “process Christian” I cannot “affirm” the Nicene Creed and prefer not to recite it. But, on this, as on most other matters, I am not an absolutist. I might find myself in a congregation that, on successive Sundays, recited different creeds, thereby recognizing that we are part of a complex historical movement in which our fellow believers have expressed their faith in many ways. I would then be comfortable reciting the creed as an expression of solidarity with all who seek to be followers of Jesus.