The most diverse gathering of people I have ever encountered participated in a Bible study program in Paris. We came from six continents, claimed many different primary languages and were almost as many skin colors. We came from a global variety of Protestant denominations and Roman Catholic churches. We had economic statuses that ranged from homeless to the world’s elite. We included nannies, government officials, political refugees, housewives, retired grandparents, business men and women, professional musicians, fashion models, a CIA agent, an ex-prostitute and that is just what I remember.
I was part of the group for three years and remember it as one of, if not the most, faith-enriching experiences of my life. What made this so special was not simply learning about other cultures, worldviews and experiences, (although that was indeed stirring). The exhilarating and faith-bolstering experience we enjoyed when we gathered to study the Scriptures together, was that in spite of our differences, we knew and were encountering the same Jesus Christ. Our “God talk” left us all marveling not only at what we learned from each other’s differently crafted lenses on the Bible, but also at how we recognized God’s enlightenment in each other’s understanding of the Scriptures as we shared with one another. It was the Bible and our commitment to it that opened us up to one another and drew us closer to Christ in a most marvelous way.
I confess I have spent much energy trying to replicate that special experience. I believe it was indeed a foretaste of the glory divine described in Revelation 7 when a great multitude from “every nation, tribe, people and language” will stand before the throne worshipping God and the Lamb. This “Coming Great Church” is indeed ushered in when “we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” and strive together for it. A key to achieving this eventual reality is uncovering and holding fast to the meaning of this phrase and the overall intent of the Nicene Creed from its beginning.
The Church’s creedal tradition developed over the centuries in response to heresies such as Gnosticism, Marcionism, Docetism, and Arianism. Over a number of decades in the fourth century the Nicene Creed fostered a widespread unity in the church that was grounded in the truth of Scripture.
The creed uses careful language when it states “we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” First, these statements affirm the Church is essential. While the Church has never been a pure or perfect instrument, the creed acknowledges it is the chosen instrument to which all belong who believe in Jesus the Christ and seek to follow him as Savior and Lord. Furthermore, the Church is purposefully communal and intended to fulfill Christ’s mission. We should never ignore or refuse to challenge its inadequacies and its complicity in evil, but we must also embrace the witness of its story and the testimony to it in the Scriptures.
Unity is emphasized by first declaring our need to be one Church. This imagery corresponds to the oneness of the Trinity. Such oneness is diversity-in-communion. It does not demand uniformity. It does, however, affirm Paul’s message that each should be “thinking the same way, having the same love, being united and agreeing with each other,” (Phil 2:2). The Scriptures provide the anchor for such oneness.
The call to be holy means the Church must witness to the power and presence of the risen Lord Jesus. We should embody a difference from the world that can be seen and replicated. The struggle with this call to holiness is perhaps the greatest cause of disunity within the Church.
We confess that the Church is catholic in that it is worldwide or universal. It is neither bound to the authority of the Roman Catholic papacy, nor is it merely a federation of local congregations. It is a reminder of the Church’s unity in orthodoxy despite varied locations, languages, ethnicities, races, or denominations.
The Church is to remain apostolic, both in a traditional and a prophetic sense. The apostolic tradition insists on continuity with the teachings and morals of the apostles as revealed in the Bible and in the traditions and interpretations of the living Church. Yet tradition is to be tempered by the prophetic. Prophetic apostolicity means striving for renewal that comes through the continued work of the Holy Spirit. Holding the traditional and prophetic understandings of an apostolic Church in tension by continually looking to the Scriptures is essential.
The Nicene Creed remains a key confessional statement particularly in cultures where faith concerns are characterized as personal pursuits rather than as communal commitments and shared practices. Affirming “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” reminds us that we are members of a body of believers extending across time and many lands.
Today, for most of us, our dominant cultures certainly do not conform to the teachings of orthodox Christianity. Many Christians today have more in common with displaced or immigrant communities that need strategies and methods for survival in our varied local contexts. This reality heightens the value and power of the Nicene Creed’s relevance for us. As we struggle to remain faithful amidst the swirling winds of eclectic ideas and doctrine, the Nicene Creed’s orthodox statements offer comfort, hope and clarity. For just as my experience in Paris taught and reminds me, the creed teaches and reminds us all that we are not alone in our orthodox faith but indeed part of “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”
by Beth Caulfield
Reverend Beth Caulfield is Campus Pastor of Sharptown North Church in Woolwich Township New Jersey. She is a founding member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.