By the Rev. Mike Marsh
“We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.”
With just 21 words the Nicene Creed describes God. Twenty-one words? That’s it? Surely there is more that can be said about God. I suspect there is. Maybe, however, that’s not the question. Maybe the better question is, “At what risk do we say more?” Let’s not forget God’s question to Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge” (Job 38:2)?
How, then, do we talk about God when God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, our ways are not God’s ways, and God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9)? Very carefully. Otherwise we risk imaging God and creating an idol with our words and thoughts.
A good friend, mentor, and teacher of mine used to remind me that when it comes to theology we often say more than we really know or can know. It was his way of warning me to be humble, cautious, and not too certain when speaking of God. Perhaps that is why creedal statements are so concise and lacking in specifics. God is not a problem to be solved, a question to be answered, or a doctrine to be explained, but a mystery to be experienced.
Creedal statements come not so much from our intellectual understanding but from our heart. As with our professions of love for another, our creedal statements offer declarations not proofs. Whether we are confessing our love for another or our belief in God, the challenge is always to live according to what we have declared. What then are we declaring in this first section of the Nicene Creed?
First, we are declaring that God exists. It is a declaration that God is God and we are not. We are believers in God’s existence thereby distinguishing ourselves from atheists and agnostics. We are affirming a mystery, a presence, an existence at the heart of the world that is beyond our ability to control, explain, measure, or manipulate. There is more to our life and world than what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
Second, in declaring God to be one we are echoing the ancient confession, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4). There is no distinction between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God Jesus calls Father. “God’s work in and through Israel is the implicit premise for God’s new work in Christ” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, p. 72). The oneness of God will not permit us to speak about an Old Testament God and a New Testament God, a God of judgment and a God of mercy, a God of law and a God of grace. Our finite minds cannot reconcile an all-powerful God and human free will, or divine goodness and human suffering. But we are not called to understand; rather, we are called to experience the oneness of God that invites us deeper into the mystery of these paradoxes.
Our third declaration is that God is Father. This does not mean that God has sexuality or gender. Neither is it a projection of human fatherhood on God. It means that God is personal and relational. God is not abstract, indifferent to, or uninvolved in the life of the world and humanity. God can be known and experienced. To state the obvious, one is a father by having a child. In the Old Testament this is revealed in God’s creating and nurturing a people, Israel. In the New Testament God’s fatherhood is directly and most clearly revealed through his Son, Jesus. Through the “spirit of adoption” we participate in Jesus’ filial relationship and can approach God as “our father,” and cry, “Abba, Father” (Ro. 8:15).
The designation of God as “the almighty” is our fourth creedal declaration. It distinguishes God from humanity and is the premise of our prayer and the basis upon which we appeal to God. However, the personal existence of this all-powerful God means “God can do all things and God chooses to do some things” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, p. 86). This is clearly demonstrated when, at Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). Again, creedal statements declare but offer no explanation of how or why. With this fourth declaration we confess that God is “the almighty” even in the midst of suffering, apparent evil, and circumstances we neither want nor understand, trusting “that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Ro. 8:28).
Our final declaration designates God as creator, the “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” God is the source and origin of all that is. Creation is, therefore, good. There is both material (seen) reality and nonmaterial (unseen) reality. Thus, there is more to creation than what we can perceive by the physical senses. The spiritual world is as real as the material world. Nothing that exists has its existence outside of God. This does not mean that creation is God but that creation points to and reveals God’s presence and activity. Creation is not simply a historic event, limited to the distant past. It is the present and ongoing work of God “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
Having begun with God’s question to Job, let us hear a piece of Job’s final response to God: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). At some point all our talk of God must give way to the profundity of silence.
1. What are your images of God? Where did they come from? Have they changed over your lifetime? If so, how? How have they sustained and grown you? How have they prevented growth?
2. In what ways does the Creed challenge or support your image of God?
3. How does your life reflect what the Creed professes?
4. Implicit in our statements about God are corresponding statements about humanity. What is being said about humanity in the declarations of this first part of the Nicene Creed?