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Last Thursday was the feast day of St Athanasius, born in the year 296 and dying in 373, he lived through the period when the Christian church became an established church under Constantine and when the discussions and debates that had been ongoing about what it was the church universally believed in were to be largely resolved. The one thing that Constantine was sure of was that there was one God and in seeking to unify the empire, that had previously been ruled by a tetrachy of emperors but was now under Constantineís control, he quickly discovered that Christians were inclined to imperil the unity that our religion proclaims and.
This conference was not you see in any way a compromise, a deep theological truth was explored and a decision made. Jesus, they said, was of one substance with the Father. It must have been an extraordinary place to be and Athanasius was there. In the Book of Common Prayer, you will find his creed, which has even more commas, more sub clauses refining and re-refining the clarity of the council of Nicea. I shall quote a very small part:
quality the father has the Son has and the Holy Spirit has
Father is immeasurable
Father is eternal
Athanasius wanted to leave no doubt!
In a moment, we will say the Nicene Creed together. As we do so, I would like us to let those commas speak. Help them to carry their full weight, each one needs the beat perhaps of a crochet to allow us to dwell on the meaning to take our part in the holy thinking of that debate held almost 17 hundred years ago and to explore the mystery of the Trinity.
, as you know, this is still sadly the case today.
The question that he found dividing the churches was what was the nature of Jesus and how was he related to God? The way that Constantine chose to settle this question was in many ways remarkable. Rather than make a judgement in his capacity as emperor, using the imperial legal mechanisms he recognised that there was a higher power than himself and so he called a council. He chose the city of Nicea, now the lakeside town of Iznik, telling the delegates that the weather was excellent, the facilities unparalleled, the food would be good and, in case that wasnít enough, that he would be present. An invitation not to be ignored and so 318 bishops assembled in 325 to debate the question.
The trouble was that the one God, the God of the Hebrews, the creator of heaven and earth was eternal and unknowable and so some thought that the Gospels, which told us much about Jesus, implied that in some sense he was different, that firstly we knew rather a lot and that whilst God was without beginning, Jesus had a beginning, that he had been created.
A creed is a uniform declaration of faith, common to all Christians, free from any denominationalism and universal. They had surely existed before Constantine; there are fragments of them in ancient manuscripts and fragments too in the Gospel of John. However, this creed, of Nicea, the Nicene Creed as we know it now, was especially concerned with defining what was really meant by those commonly held beliefs.
So letís take a look at it
We believe in one God
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ
We believe in the Holy Spirit
However, the key to this document lies within the commas, in those sub clauses that are designed to add precision to the imprecise.
the father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
Of all that is, seen and unseen.
Everyone could agree on that, and then
Christ, the only son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father (note that eternally, just like God)
God from God (no distinction you see), Light from Light
true God from true God, (just in case we had not understood)
Begotten not made
Of one being with the father