“O gladsome light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed! Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are worthy at all times to be praised by holy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of Life, and to be glorified through all the worlds.”
– Phos Hilaron, recognized by Basil of Caesarea in the 4th century as an ancient and beloved Christian hymn
“What do you believe?”
Since the fourth century, Christians across time and space have answered that question by confessing the Nicene creed. Amidst great turmoil and controversy, church leaders met at Nicaea in the year 325 AD, and then again at Constantinople in 381 AD, to formulate the following creed:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten 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 and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and 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, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who 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.
Of everything that can or should be said as a statement of Christian belief, why has the church confessed these specific things for seventeen centuries? Where did this creed come from? What figures or texts in its backstory might provide further context for, or develop the implications of, these articles of faith – some of which are less intuitive than others? Is the theology of this creed even intelligible to us today, who inhabit very different plausibility structures of the modern, secularizing West? Differently, is this creed merely the product of ancient imperial politics, implicated in failures of Christian exploitation and oppression in ages past and present? How might we, in a culture of expressive individualism, tie our deepest convictions about God, self, others, and the world to a symbol of faith given to us, which we entrust to others, participating in something ever ancient and ever new, something that precedes us and will long outlast our fleeting and desperate lives?
Even among those who claim the name of Christ, the theology of the Nicene creed and key figures in its formulation and legacy may not seem self-evidently worthwhile. There has been no shortage of confusion and controversy in the last few centuries over key areas of Christian doctrine, especially in regard to the doctrine of God, the Trinity, Christology, and more.
The symbol of faith handed down to us from the Nicene fathers was forged amidst controversies over how to understand vital Christian doctrines such as Christology and the Trinity, acknowledging some views as in accordance with the teaching of Scripture and ruling out others as heretical, some of which resurface in later centuries in different forms. More recently, historic Christian beliefs have been under-emphasized, challenged, and renounced in different ways by both progressive and conservative Christians. From controversies over social models of the Trinity, to how the Father and the Son relate to one another eternally, recent debates and debacles signal that there is no better time to give a fresh hearing to the sources of early Christian trinitarian and Christological reflection.
We manifestly need fruitful resources from the roots in our Christian tradition we all draw upon, especially where we understand ourselves as Protestants committed to the ongoing project of Reformed catholicity. The proponents and early defenders of the Nicene faith might be a singularly resourceful well from which to drink deeply, as one of the few things all Christians hold in common.
The colossal failures and challenges of catechesis and spiritual formation today not only cannot, but arguably should not, be solved by merely yet one more product in the market of religious digital media. A podcast is no substitute for lifelong repentance, service, and discipleship within the flesh-and-blood friendships of the church, the Body and Bride of Christ, who are baptized into the one, three-fold name and partake in the one bread together.
Even so, might there be ways for a podcast to serve the church, or are there specific, good things that a focused series could accomplish? If we long for meaningful ways to inhabit the Christian faith, might there be forgotten or mis-remembered brothers and sisters in our family story with whom we can imaginatively identify as we seek to take up their script and creatively improvise how we might faithfully love the people and places to whom God has sent us?
We are excited to announce a new podcast entitled Passages, which strives to retrieve riches from the church’s history for the constructive work of faithful worship and witness today.
We have aspired to create a podcast with a reverent but accessible tone befitting the subject matter of our podcast, namely, the Nicene creed and its backstory. Where many podcasts are less structured, with all the banter and gaps of an unscripted conversation, in preparing Passages we have aimed for it to have the production quality and feel of a scripted, narrative-based series, like NPR’s Serial or the New York Time’s The Daily. Enormous credit goes to Caleb Wait for producing and editing the series. Joshua Heavin and Caleb Wait wrote and recorded the script and conducted the show’s interviews. Writing, recording, and producing this series over the course of the last year has at times proved significantly challenging, and our hope is that we have contributed something useful to the church. Our beautiful artwork is from Julius Spradley at Contemplative Icons, who has beautifully captured our testimony to “Light from Light,” the watchfulness of advent in which the whole passageway of the Christian life is traversed, and our passing on of what has been entrusted to us in the passages written by the church fathers. Music, composition, and production for the series is from Aaron Feeney, who welcomes inquiries. Jake Meador encouraged us throughout, and we appreciate everyone who supports Mere Orthodoxy for making this series possible. This project was a labor of love, executed in a time of great trials.
The first season of Passages explores the backstory of the Nicene creed. Where line-by-line exposition of the creed, or a demonstration of its scriptural claims, is worthwhile, our focus is on key figures, texts, and themes in early Christian history who shaped the Nicene creed and its early reception in the fourth century. Drawing upon the scholarship of patristic specialists such as Lewis Ayres, John Behr, Khaled Anatolios, and many others, we strive to tell the dramatic story of how the Nicene creed emerged and was defended by its early proponents.
Moving through the Nicene creed across the series, we begin by exploring the confession that we believe in one God, the Father and Creator. Where early figures such as Marcion suggested there was a malevolent, creator god of the Old Testament and a different, loving god in the New Testament, early Christian interpretation of Scripture insisted that the one God of Israel, the maker of all things, has acted in the fullness of time in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus and sending of the Spirit. We explore Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, and Tertullian’s Against Marcion. Subsequently, we explore the incarnation of the Son of God with Athanasius of Alexandria, and learn from “the Theologian,” Gregory of Nazianzus, about the eternal generation of the Son of God who is of the same essence as the Father.
We explore the final articles of the creed with the brothers Basil of Caesarea about the Holy Spirit, and from Gregory of Nyssa about the Christian life. From these and many other early Christians we explore how the proponents of the Nicene faith related their theology to solidarity with the poor, affirming the irreducible worth and dignity of human beings created in the image of God in Christ, opposition to slavery, the significance of baptism, early Christian worship and hymns, and the apocalyptic watchfulness of at present looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Perhaps the most enjoyable portion of the series explores the life, work, teaching, and prayers of Gregory and Basil’s older sister, St. Macrina the Younger.
At the heart of the series is guided close readings of several key early Christian texts, such as On the Incarnation by Athanasius of Alexandria, the theological orations of Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Holy Spirit by Basil of Caesarea, The Life of Moses, the Life of St. Macrina, On the Soul and the Resurrection by Gregory of Nyssa, and many other works by early Christian figures. Along the way, we conduct interviews with several world-class historical and systematic theologians, who offer enormously insightful guidance along the way, such as Amy Brown Hughes, Fred Sanders, Khaled Anatolios, Michael Horton, Scott Swain, Stephen Bagby, and others; we thank each of them immensely for taking time to contribute to this project.
The Goal of Passages
One of our foremost goals with this podcast is to encourage listeners to read early Christian texts. The contemporary moment is simultaneously among the best and worst times in history to study theology in the Christian tradition. On one hand, translations of historic Christian texts are available for free anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse; furthermore, wonderful and affordable new translations into English of early Christian texts written in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and other languages are being published, such as the fantastic “Popular Patristics” series from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
However, our current religious landscape is dominated by ‘presentism,’ in both its progressive and conservative manifestations. A kind of chronological snobbery or disdain for the past can be found among those on the left who seek to break from failures in our past, but also among those on the right whereby a biblicist and hyper-individualistic sense of immediacy between the individual believer and the Bible neglects the rule of faith handed down to us by the church.
Besides all of this, the endless distractions of digital media and the infinitely-novel, tantalizing, designed-to-be-addictive amusements we carry in our pockets on our phones are sufficient to derail even the most disciplined disciples. We are catechized by social media waterfall timelines, and malformed by the daily liturgies of contemporary life that train us to glorify and enjoy ourselves supremely, even at the cost of others and the earth our common home. We have our own celebrities within our buffet of Christian sub-cultures, and we confuse things that are popular, convenient, and marketable with those costly and abiding things that are beautiful, cruciform, and true. In such rocky and thorny soil, the long and slow fruits of wisdom and faithfulness are not effortlessly cultivated.
Our quiet act of rebellion is to return, as so many have at perilous-turned-decisive moments in church history, to passages from the church fathers and mothers in hopes of discovering guides and assistance in our passageway through the Christian life. There we do not find flawless figures who said and did everything aright; rather, we find relatable Christians who struggled to handle themselves, their crises, and their churches in more and less helpful ways.
What resources do we hope future theologians and ethicists and biblical commentators will draw upon as they navigate the yet-unknown challenges of tomorrow? What instincts and habits do we hope to cultivate in our lives, or what hymns and prayers do we hope to work as second-nature into our hearts and minds, that we and our churches might call them to mind amidst the joys and sorrows, wonders and horrors of life and death? We hope to ignite the imaginations of those who have never read early Christian literature for themselves to a lifetime of returning again and again to re-read the Scriptures with those who have gone before us. Plans for future seasons of the podcast are tentative at the moment, but we are exploring opportunities to devote future seasons of Passages to figures such as Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, and many others.
To Know God Is Its Own Reward
At countless moments in the church’s history, the church in trying times has turned to the ancient testimony of the church to find resources for reform and guidance along a path of wisdom. In the mid-1530’s John Calvin, on the run from the turmoil and total chaos of the unfolding Protestant Reformation in France, took refuge with friends in the south of France, where he “pored over editions of the early church fathers, which he would soon be able to quote from memory” as he drafted the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. In the 20th century, the theological project of ressourcement, a return to the sources, was spurred by the Nouvelle théologie movement among Roman Catholics, spurring fresh study and translation of the church fathers for new challenges on the church’s horizon. As participants in the church’s unfolding drama, we hope to promote such efforts once again.
Not only academic theologians, but popular Christian discourse, and the life our churches will neglect historical and theological study to our own peril. If we are serious about loving people in practical ways or hope to cultivate healthy Christian institutions to pass on to forthcoming generations, then the church must again and again return to the center of its life, which is not ourselves, but God and the things of God. As John Webster suggested, in a sense “there is only one Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in its inward and outward movements,” because “the object of Christian theology is twofold: God the Holy Trinity and all other things relative to God.”
Such an outlook is no detached retreat from the exigencies of the time and place to which we are sent. In St. Augustine’s extraordinary City of God, written over thirteen years in the aftermath of the fallen Roman empire’s decadence and turmoil, his social and political vision is centered around and culminates upon God. God, for Augustine, is God’s own best gift to us:
The reward of virtue will be God himself, who gave the virtue, together with the promise of himself, the best and greatest of all possible promises… He will be the goal of all our longings; and we shall see him for ever; we shall love him without satiety; we shall praise him without wearying. This will be the duty, the delight, the activity of all, shared by all who share the life of eternity.
Previously, Augustine’s introspective autobiography, Confessions, opened with a justly-famous declaration. Whether searching the depths of human desire, the interior life of the mind, the nature of time, the mystery of memory, or the follies and foibles of youth, Augustine is driven towards God as the desire of our souls:
‘You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised (Ps. 47:2): great is your power and your wisdom is immeasurable’ (Ps. 146:5). Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him’ (2 Cor. 4:10), carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you ‘resist the proud’ (1 Pet. 5:5). Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
Notably, in the final lines of his City of God, God is not only the elusive desire of our frail, fickle, individual hearts. God is also the meaning of cosmic history and the revealed mystery from whom and towards whom all of creation moves, when “after this present age God will rest, as it were, on the seventh [Sabbath] day, and he will cause us, who are the seventh day, to find our rest in him.”
As those who long for this God, we invite you to join with us in learning from the church fathers and mothers. We aspire to be instructed in the school of trinitarian theology; like Evagrius, we hope to become theologians, those who pray truly. Augustine’s concluding prayer in his study of the Trinity is a fitting place for our beginning. Join with us, as we unite our voices with those who have gone before us, as well as others who are yet to come:
O Lord our God, we believe in you, Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Truth would not have said, Go and baptize the nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19), unless you were a triad. Nor would you have commanded us to be baptized, Lord God, in the name of any who is not Lord God. Nor would it have been said with divine authority, Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God (Dt. 6:4), unless while being a triad you were still one Lord God. And if you, God and Father, were yourself also the Son and your Word Jesus Christ, were yourself also your gift the Holy Spirit, we would not read in the documents of truth God sent his Son (Gal 4:4), nor would you, only-begotten one, have said of the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name (Jn 14:26), and, whom I will send you from the Father (Jn 15:26).
Directing my attention toward this rule of faith as best I could, as far you enabled me to, I have sought you and desired to see intellectually what I have believed, and I have argued much and toiled much. O Lord my God, my one hope, listen to me lest out of weariness I should stop wanting to seek you, but let me seek your face always, and with ardor. Do you yourself give me the strength to seek, having caused yourself to be found and having given me the hope of finding you more and more.
Before you lies my strength and my weakness; preserve the one, heal the other. Before you lies my knowledge and my ignorance; where you have opened to me, receive me as I come in; where you have shut to me, open to me as I knock. Let me remember you, let me understand you, let me love you. Increase these things in me until you refashion me entirely.
Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 38. ↑
John B. Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology,” The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York, NY: T&T Clark Bloomsbury, 2012), 145. ↑
John B. Webster, “What Makes Theology Theological?” God Without Measure I: God and the Works of God (New York, NY: T&T Clark Bloomsbury, 2016), 213. ↑
St. Augustine, City of God, trans. by Henry Bettenson (New York, NY: Penguin, 2003), XXII.30.1090. ↑
St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. by Henry Chadwick (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
Joshua Heavin (PhD, Aberdeen) is a curate and deacon at an Anglican church in the Dallas area, and an adjunct professor in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Christian University, and at West Texas A&M University.