In the Nicene Creed we confess that “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets…”
Previously, in episode 8, we learned from Basil of Caesarea about the Holy Spirit, how the creed of Constantinople in 381 expanded upon the 325 formula from Nicaea, and we discussed the trinitarian relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In this episode we explore some fundamental questions about early Christian worship and witness. Is all of this theology only abstract, fluttering in the ether, or does it ever touch the concrete realities of life in the body in this world? For Basil of Caesarea, his theology of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, and integrated approach to Christian theology and ethics meant that we must worship and love God by loving our neighbors – and most especially the vulnerable, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, those with disabilities, the sick, the dying, and the poor. Basil’s theological vision drove his work to establish ‘the new city’ and revolutionized medical history by establishing the world’s first hospitals.
More broadly, early Christian doctrinal convictions shifted how the poor were understood in antiquity, as noted by scholars such as Peter Brown and Robert Louis Wilken. We read excerpts from Basil’s excoriating, thunderous sermons advocating for solidarity with and generosity towards the poor, and our obligations to reciprocate the grace that has been shown to us in Christ.
Moreover, this episode continues to explore what is meant in the creed where we confess that the Spirit “proceeds” from the Father, which is not necessarily the most self-evident or intuitive line in the creed. We hear again from Gregory of Nazianzus, who rules out any notion of hierarchy or subordination within God’s life as Trinity, and we note the revolutionary way Gregory of Nazianzus described the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity during a time of tremendous controversy and conflict.
Finally, this episode concludes with a call to worship. Alongside care for the poor and deeds of justice, how did early Christians worship God in song, as they drew up this formula in the creed about worshipping the Father, Son, and Spirit that we still confess today? Notably, some hymns that have been translated into English originated with Prudentius in the fourth century and other early Christian hymn writers, who expound themes that are found in the Nicene Creed. Understanding this context can give new life to these hymns such as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” “Holy God We Praise Thy Name (the Te Deum),” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and more.
Finally, this episode concludes by pondering one of the oldest songs in the history of Christian hymnody. Basil, in his “On the Holy Spirit” notes that by his day in the fourth century, a certain hymn had come to be well-known and loved by the church, which was already ancient in Basil’s time. This hymn was sung at the evening lamp-lighting prayer service, and praises the one God by giving glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; this song is still in the Evening Prayer service of the Book of Common Prayer, “Phos Hilaron (Gladsome Light).”
Next time on Passages, we will continue learning from the Cappadocians, as we turn to the final articles of the Nicene Creed. What did early Christians mean when they confessed that the believed in the resurrection of the dead and looked for the life of the world to come? How did they understand baptism for the forgiveness in sins? And what did it mean to confess belief in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church? To explore these questions and more in the backstory of the Nicene Creed, we will at last introduce Gregory of Nyssa and meet his teacher, his older sister, St. Macrina the Younger. Passages is available on most podcast platforms.
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.