The Nicene Creed: Thinking with Bishop Barron’s Lectures – The First Three Words

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The Nicene Creed grew out of the work of two ecumenical councils in the fourth century. (Image credit: Catholic News Herald)

My parish, St. Raphael’s in Springfield, Minnesota, has started an adult education course on the Nicene Creed. We listen to and discuss a series of video lectures by Bishop Robert Barron. (From Word on Fire: The Creed) The bishop’s first discourse led us through the first three words of the Nicene Creed. There was enough material here for serious reflection.

The Nicene Creed begins

I believe in one God, the almighty Father, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

Bishop Barron begins by noting that not all religions have creeds. Christianity yes, and it has an important place in our lives of faith. This says something distinctive about the Christian faith.

Christianity is more than an attitude towards life and a way of acting. Christianity speaks to us of the world, of ourselves and of God. Christians make statements, and what we say is right or wrong. We pledge to uphold these claims when we offer a credo to the world.

In the fourth century, some 300 years after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Church knew it needed an official statement of what Christians believed. The Nicene Creed, elaborated in theological debate and through two ecumenical councils at Nicea and Constantinople, responded to this need. Since then, virtually all Christian denominations express their faith with the Nicene Creed.

The first word, “I/we”

In the 1970s, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy adopted a translation of the Nicene Creed. It was the first English version of the Nicene Creed that I learned to recite in church, and it differed from the Latin text. It was mostly an attempt at a more everyday English interpretation of the same ideas, but one change was substantial. This changed “I believe” (Creed in Latin) to “We believe”. In 2011, a Vatican commission reversed this change, along with others. We say now, as the priest did before in Latin, “I believe.”

Bishop Barron discusses this issue and notes that the original Greek text, dating from the fourth century, says “We believe”, not “I believe”. (Pisteuomen, not Pisteuo, in Greek.) The logic for “We” is twofold. First, and obviously, in church we profess this faith together. Second, it’s not like we come by faith on our own. As Catholic theologian David Tracy says, we believe with the apostles. Or, as I like to say in a private prayer:

I believe with the Communion of Saints on earth and in heaven, the Catholic Church; with the apostles, the martyrs, the teachers and all those who encourage me in word and deed; and with those who gave me faith and life, Dave, Rose Marie and all my ancestors.

I don’t believe of my own say-so.

But the formula “I believe” has a long tradition of liturgical use. It goes back even further than the Nicene Creed. From the earliest times, a candidate for entry into the Church would recite a creed at baptism. He or she would start by saying “I believe”.

Barron thinks both forms are important, but I have a feeling he would prefer the “We” form to the mass.

The second word, “believe”

Atheists, says the bishop, make an unjustified criticism of the Christian faith. They oppose faith and the knowledge that science provides. As if faith was to take a position arbitrarily, and knowledge was to believe with evidence. In fact, no one lives without some sort of faith guiding most things they believe in. We rely on the experience of others we trust to tell us the truth, whether it’s backyard gossip or a school textbook.

Our personal relationships depend on faith, especially when it comes to a relationship of love. I had gathered a lot of factual and factual knowledge about the person who became my wife, and her about me, before we got married. All this evidence was not enough to prove that she loved me or even that I loved her. Nothing in my experience could ever allow me to say, with the kind of evidence one seeks in science, that loving another person is even possible or reasonable. But what would life be like without the romantic commitment leap?

Barron says faith is not the same as knowledge. But it is not less than knowledge.

The third word, “in”

Like Bishop Barron, I set great store by this little word, “in”. I think of someone who says, “I believe in you.” When you say “I believe in God”, that’s how it is. Contrary to believing a simple fact, it involves a person personally. Believing in someone is much more than believing that they exist.

The bishop gives this personal involvement a grammatical support of the Latin language. Latin uses the same word, “in”, for “in” and “into” in English. Latin speakers have differentiated the two meanings by the noun endings that follow. Latin is a strongly inflected language. Word endings, or inflections, have specific meanings. An end implies a static presence, in this case “in”. A different ending involves movement, “in”. The Latin Credo begins with “Credo in unum Deum”. The word for God, “Deum,” has the ending that implies movement.

According to the Christian creed, believing in God is not a chair exercise. To believe is already to embark on a path of personal commitment. We believe in God. We enter into God’s story when we recite the Nicene Creed at Mass.

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