The Bible’s Lucky Decoder Glasses (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 1)

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The First Council of Nicea

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(Part 1)

In 1934, the Little Orphan Annie radio show hit on a terrific marketing gimmick: kids could mail away for a “secret decoder ring” in order to decipher hidden messages.

Perhaps you remember the young protagonist, Ralphie, in the classic movie, “A Christmas Story,” ordering one…

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…only to be disappointed that the “secret message” was nothing more than “a  crummy commercial.”

If you grew up in the sixties you might have had Johnny Quest “lucky decoder glasses” to interpret secret messages.

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It may surprise you to know that there are “lucky decoder glasses” to reading and interpreting the Bible – A set of lenses Christians have looked through as keys to understanding the Bible for nearly 2000 years.

Everyone has a set of interpretive lenses through which they see the world and read any text. For orthodox Christianity those lenses are a document originally written in 325 CE called, “The Nicene Creed.”

Settling Fights

As with all doctrinal statements, the Nicene Creed was written to settle a fight. More precisely to clear up confusion over the Bible’s teaching about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God. You see, Jesus was so unique that people had a hard time “getting” him. Now, my evangelical friends will say, “The Bible settles who Jesus is, just read the plain meaning of the text!” The only problem is “reading the plain meaning” was not working. The early church was reading the Bible…in fact, not only were they reading from the same Testament, they were even reading from the same Gospel, and yet coming to radically different conclusions.

Let’s be honest, the Christian claim that Jesus is fully God while at the same time being fully human is pretty confusing. It shattered any existing thought paradigm. Two thousand years later it is still pretty tough to wrap one’s mind around a claim that astounding.

It may be of interest to you that the early Christians struggled with the humanity of Jesus more than his deity. Greeks, influenced by Gnostic thought and the idea “flesh” was corrupt and “spirit” was good,  had a tough time with the notion that Jesus could be a real, actual human. So the early church wrote a creed we know as the “Apostle’s Creed.” It was used in Baptisms. The line, “Born of a virgin” was included specifically to insist that Jesus was an actual, real, burping, got gassy, snored while sleeping on his back, human being.

A century and a half later the struggle had shifted. A priest named Arius had started teaching that Jesus was something less than God (as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons teach today).

Arius’ new teaching began to win people over. (It helped that he was a good preacher and musician. He penned a catchy ditty that all the cool kids were singing, “There was a time when he was not…”) Arius argued out of the gospel of John, “Jesus said, ‘The father is greater than I.'” (John 14:28) The church answered with, “The father and I are one.’  (John 10:30) and ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the father.‘” (John 14:9) So there they are: reading the same gospel and coming to two thoroughly opposite conclusions as to Jesus’ identity and the nature of his relationship with the Father. So is Jesus less than or equal too the Father? This really, really matters because Jesus’ role is to make sacrifice for sins. If Jesus is anything less than completely holy, anything less than divine, his sacrifice will be incomplete…and we will remain dead in our trespasses. (1 John 2:2, Heb 9:26-10:12)

When the “Bible alone” is not enough

How did the church settle this dispute? Is the faith to be, as Arius’ would have had it, endlessly malleable or is there an inner core that is non-negotiable – a “…faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all“? (Vincent of Lerins, early 400s.)

The church had two trump cards in this argument: catholicity and orthodoxy. 1) Catholicity (universal), the unbroken line of bishops (apostolic authority) traced back to Jesus – an argument of continuity of relationship with Jesus (those related to Jesus by touch). 2) Orthodoxy, an argument of continuity in Jesus’ teachings (those related to Jesus by teaching). The church has argued one or the other for 2,000 years, but both were seen as vital.

Those bishop’s unbroken interpretation of the scriptures present in the conciliar statements generated when they met in worldwide (ecumenical) council. The first of these councils met  in a town in Turkey named Nicea in 325CE. 318 bishops from all around the world attended. They came from as far away as England. The meeting was presided upon by no less dignitary than the rather newly converted emperor of Rome, Constantine. The statement they wrote, stating in unambiguous terms, that Jesus was fully and completely God in flesh, was signed by 315 of the bishops present (Arius and two cronies refused).

Since that time, Christians, whether they are aware of the fact or not, read the Bible through the “lucky decoder lenses” of those bishop’s statement, the Nicene Creed.

And, since the Nicene Creed is so undergirds how we view and interpret the rest of the Bible, it is a pretty decent idea to, as more and more churches are beginning to, pray that creed in church every Sunday. 

(Part two: Creeds: “The Substance of the faith” not “things indifferent” – Creeds are not confessions and it is above our pay grade to rewrite them.)

 

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10 thoughts on “The Bible’s Lucky Decoder Glasses (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 1)

  1. Awesome visual, with a ton of scripture references for the various phrases of the Nicene Creed! Thanks so much, Matt.

    I have been fascinated by Arius and Athanasius (and their fight) for decades. Amazing, that the known world was almost pulled to pieces by this conflict.

      • I know! I took an excellent Christology course at Garrett-Evangelical TSem co-taught by two superb instructors. A Theology prof and a Church History/Greek prof (area of specialty Church Fathers!!). They were awesome. One of the best courses I’ve ever taken. Ever. We looked at four representative Church Fathers, the Christological Controversy, and four representative 20th century theologians.

        I wish I wish I wish I could read more for pleasure. Alas, reading is now for sermon prep, or bible study prep, or some other event prep. (Oh, yes. And the once-in-a-while murder mystery, for frivolous enjoyment!) It’s all good, though! @chaplaineliza

  2. Matt, I’m amazed, with your ability to bring complicated matters of faith and make them understandable to all of us. I salute you. The notion of “worldview” caught on a few decades ago. Now it is the “diagnosis of the month” for almost everything going on in lay theology. You make it so simple and understandable. “A decoder ring.” I laughed, it is great stuff.

    On coming to faith I late discovered I always bring along my quirky personality and I am challenged to “let this mind be in you . . . ” Then when I bump into someone else’s quirkiness my “world view” get knocked off center and I “get my knickers in a twist.” Anxiety rears its head and we push and shove. Hence we recreate the Historic Councils of the church and recreate the process in our contemporary “Councils.”

    I find that refreshing. No matter how intellectual and logical I become; no matter how clearly I define and push and solve and debate and argue, there’s always something else that challenges to me to think and change and grow. As I return to History-land I find I’m not the first to meet these issues. There is always before us The Grand Mystery.

    The first of my two cents; we have yet to solve every Mystery of the Faith.
    The second: we must never stop trying. It’s how I grow and recognize the Majestic Awesomeness of God and the simplicity of Faith.

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