Recently I was standing on a beach at a wild place called Fascadale on the north coast of Ardnamurchan in the Scottish Highlands. The name means ‘field of the ship’ in old Norse, and it is a natural harbour with rocky cliffs protecting a horseshoe-shaped bay. The beach is piled high with stones - for millennia turning against each other over and over with the tide and the rain and the stream - and the occasional human footprint.
I picked up a stone with a triangular shape as it reminded me of the Trinity. On inspection it had many layers visible within it, compressed and smoothed together under the unimaginable weight of the ancient volcano which makes up the land mass - the only geographical feature in Scotland visible from space. The stone had different colours, different materials, pressed together, but also signs of cracking and fracture. There were many tiny holes visible in the surface and tiny specks of mica shimmered and sparkled. In its natural state the stone is likely to be wet and therefore shiny and slippery.
Words too can be slippery with many layers embedded within them. Like the name Fascadale they can carry the story of their use. Like a stone, they can change over time.
The words of the Nicene Creed are no exception. It might make us feel safe to think of the words of the Creed as unchanging and unchangeable guardians of the central doctrines of the Christian faith. But just as the stones roll and wear over time and the beach changes its shape with each tide and each passing footstep, so it is a mistake to think that these sentences are propositions whose meanings are exact and fixed over time. God is not easily fixable or containable within our human language.
The early church struggled, as we do still, with the problem of how to express their experience of God’s involvement with human history and their sense of the transcendence, the otherness, the unknowability of God. The Creed we say today in English as a collective statement of faith is a compression of many layers, containing translations of both Latin and Greek words, each with their own story to tell.
The word ‘being’ for example, in the sentence “of one being with the Father” is an attempt to come to terms with belief in the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus - but how can God’s being be both indivisible and divisible, such that two persons can be ‘of one being’ and yet be separate ‘persons’?
The 4th century Church tried to settle this question with a great Council held in Nicea - hence the Nicene Creed - in which two competing claims about the person of Christ were played out: on the one hand Athanasius, defending the idea of Jesus as fully God and fully human; on the other, Arius, who argued that Jesus became divine but that there was a time when he was not divine. Athanasius carried the day (actually the council lasted for some years, like our present day Anglican synod!) but not without stretching language to its limits and beyond.
And what then of the controversy concerning the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit? Is the Spirit in some way subordinate to the other persons of the Trinity if he ‘proceeds from’ the Father and the Son? In the original formulation following Nicea , the words ‘and from the Son’ were not present but were added later by the Roman church. The Eastern part of the church, based in Alexandria, objected to these additional words because they seemed to limit the role of the Father in the Trinity. So serious was the disagreement over these three words (only one word in Latin - filioque) that it became one of the principle causes of the Great Schism (or ‘split’) between the Western (Roman) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches in 1054.
So what are we to make of this? I have three brief observations. Firstly, the Nicene Creed starts with ‘we’. It is a collective statement of faith, not an ‘I’ statement (though other creeds such as the Apostle’s creed do start with ‘I’). It is a statement of how a people understands itself, its faith and its inheritance of faith. To that extent, it represents a community based on communication over time. It is about being ‘on the beach’ and not about being a particular pebble.
Secondly, language is social. It evolved as a human skill in order to pass on important information to those not present at an event. It is therefore an expression of our diversity and our separateness from one another. It represents a way of overcoming that separateness. It is important therefore that we seek to hold ‘difference’ together, always remembering that the words we use are slippery and change their form. Therefore the language of faith should never be used to overpower another - it is not a weapon. Communication through language is part of the gifting of God to his diverse creation.
Finally and most importantly, the main story embedded within the Creed is not about our belief in a particular kind of God, but about God’s belief in us - it is about God being for us and with us and in relationship with us. In other words it is about belief as a relationship of trust rather than as an exclusive set of propositions that inevitably slip and slide.
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