Februrary 1, 2018
By Jessica LaGrone
This is the fourth article in our series on the Nicene Creed. You can access the rest of the series here.
Some time ago I was at a conference where the presenter ended a prayer by praying “In the name of the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. Amen.” My head popped up to see if anyone around me had noticed or reacted to the substitution used for the names of the Trinity, but the room seemed to continue with business as usual.
The use of “Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer” as a substitute for the Trinitarian formula is nothing new. Karl Barth objected to this change by insisting that “God Himself cannot be dissolved into His work and activity [for us]” (Church Dogmatics, I/2, pp. 878-879). God is bigger than anything He has done or will do. God is personal, not simply functional, and to reduce the ways we address God to functions denies the Personhood of God as well as His desire to know us personally, not simply functionally.
Those substituting these roles for the Trinitarian formula usually do so with an objection to the masculine language used for God. While I don’t want to enter the debate about gendered language here (that would take an entirely different set of posts), the Nicene Creed gives us good reason not to engage in a flattening of the Trinity into roles.
The controversies of the time during which the Nicene Creed was developed centered around the identity of the Son of God and whether Jesus should be considered equal with God the Father. The question of whether the Son was co-eternal or was a created being was the tinderbox of the controversy, and the language of the Nicene Creed gave a definitive answer, declaring Jesus “begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”
As David Watson has shared beautifully here, the Nicene Creed clarifies the Christian belief that “Jesus is, in fact, God, and not a created being. The Son of God is eternal, not temporal. Jesus was not an angel, a spirit, or a man with special powers. He is God, the incarnate Son who has come forth eternally from the Father.”
The Creed goes a step further to clarify that the Son could not have been created, because He was present already at creation, and was Himself creating, because it was “through Him all things were made.”
For some of us, this idea of Christ as co-creator disrupts our childhood pictures of God creating, which may include images of a wizened old man with a long beard waving his arms about over the cosmos as they came into being. Now that I think about it, my own images there may come more from the old wizard in the animated version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia than from any truly Biblical teaching.
Assuming that God the Father creates is usually an easy truth for us to grasp, but limiting that enormously important act to one person of the Trinity isn’t an adequate witness to a Biblical understanding of God. A description of God that divides up roles as if they’re chores to be accomplished leads to the assumption that each person of the Trinity can only function in a certain way: The Father creates, the Son redeems, the Spirit sustains. Here is where the Nicene Creed pushes back in full force, declaring of Jesus that it is “through Him all things are made.”
This language comes to us directly from John 1:3: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” It’s also echoed in Colossians 1:16 “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
These and other verses help us affirm the presence and agency of Christ in the act of creation. The Creed will go on to affirm the Holy Spirit as “The Lord and Giver of Life” – reminding us that that Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation (a verb that has echoes of a bird brooding over a nest as it hatches new life). As Marilyn Micks puts it in her work on the Nicene Creed, Loving the Questions, “All of God does whatever God does” (p. 32).
The presence and power of the Son in creation affirms Christ’s love for all of creation. It not only confirms the sovereignty of God the Son, but also the dignity of creation itself. If ALL things were made through Him, then we can look at the creation that surrounds us and declare with God that it is very good. We can believe wholeheartedly that we have never laid eyes on a person who is not God’s handiwork and a recipient of the love and craftsmanship of the fullness of the Trinity. When we witness the deep dysfunction in the current state of our world, we can remember that understanding the full Trinity as Creator sets up the understanding of the fullness of God in the act of Redemption as well, since He made and loves the work of His hands.
It’s no accident that God has chosen the most personal and familial of relationships to reveal Himself and help us understand how intimately He wants to relate to us. While no human word will ever completely capture the nature of God, rather than rejecting the words God uses in Scripture to reveal Himself, we should ask why they are used and what they can tell us about the God who made us and loves us.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Jessica LaGrone is Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary. She is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Council.