Credo I

The first article of the creed, be it the older Roman or "Apostles'" creed, or the later versions of the Nicene creed, says very little. And, by comparison with the second and third articles, it was left relatively unchanged. The identification of God as Father was presumed understood by all sides—it was only the equality of the Son and Spirit that were contested. But for that reason, because we misunderstood it, we have been able to put it to use saying things it does not say. For example: this article of the creed is not about a person of the Trinity. Assuming that it was, we have used it that way, but its words don't line up with that approach.

Let's have a fresh look at the trinitarian logic of the creed through its first article.

The Old Roman Symbol, or the "Apostles' Creed"

Let's get the critical issues out of the way: surely this isn't the confession of the apostles, if by that we mean the generation proximate to the followers of Jesus. Of the Old Roman Symbol there are parallel 4th c. Greek and Latin versions, and the Latin is found in the hand of Rufinus, who we know also translated (and interpreted and modified) Origen and Eusebius. However, given the other and earlier hands in which pieces of it appear, the creed here is principally a Latin document, a product of the West, a product of gentile (so thoroughly gentile, in fact, that the word seems almost silly here) Christians. Valuable, and relatively early, certainly. But far from the "original" creed.

Of course, there is no "original" creed to be found. Paul gives us reason to believe that in the generation contemporary with the apostles, it was very much like the early Reformed church: local confessions for local polities. A confession is a shibboleth. It describes one's belonging to, or affinity with, a given community of believers. And perhaps this creed had its origin in one such community in the Western Empire. But given the second-article references to the birth narrative as well as the passion narrative, the creed we have today is unlikely to be earlier than the second century—and likely a good bit later. In this form, it is a confession of a faith found in the circulating canon of the gospels, and not something more uncritically Jewish.

That said, let's start with the basic version it presents of the first article: credo in deum patrem omnipotentem creatorem cæli et terræ. This is a personal confession, and the basic claim is "I believe in God," credo in deum. More properly, "I place my trust in God." This is not a statement about the belief that God exists, or one's opinion regarding such a god. But it is not enough simply to say credo in deum; one must answer quis deum: "Which god is that?"

Two phrases answer, to clarify who God is. The first is found in all versions, though the second is not: deus pater omnipotens est, that we can agree on. And, atque est deus creator cæli et terræ. God is the all-capable father, first; and second, God is the one who has created heaven and earth. In each case a noun, in the same case as deum, marking an equation, specifically an identification. God is father, and God is creator.

"Father," of course, comes with notions of virtue, potency, power. And as a matter of sheer negative theology, we claim that God is devoid of a lack in this respect. All earthly fathers reach the end of their virtue, their potency, their abilities, at some point. There will be something they cannot do, or attempting it, something they cannot complete. They will fail. God will not. There is, we claim with the confessors of this creed, no incapacity in God.

"Creator" may be a bit harder word to get behind, when we're so good at getting around the concepts embedded in "father." The verb creo means to make, to bring into being, to cause. And it's a verb that applies to us. Sure, it's not as pedestrian as the word that will be substituted at Nice, factor, from facio, to do or to make. It's more about original craft, and less about accounting for the existence of something in a given state. The outcome is an artisanal good, rather than a manufactured one.

But even this is given that touch of the via negativa, because we only make discrete, individual things, however heroic or pedestrian the process. God is credited with the production of "heaven and earth." This is what we call a merism, using two extreme terms to define an entire range between them. There is nothing not in the heavens, on the earth, or within its depths. God is the artisan whose handiwork is all that exists.

Now, it has to be said that these two clarifications don't say very much! They attribute greatness to God, they place God squarely atop two categories of action and being in the world, in infinite superiority ... but they don't really answer the question in detail. Which god is that, exactly? But we know where the answer is, and why these two categories. The answer is in scripture. The creed is merely a pointer outside itself, a reference to the scriptural content of the faith.

In this article, the creed points beyond itself to the law and the prophets, to the psalms, to the witness to the god who is both the creator of all that exists, and the father by adoption of the people Israel—and by extension, in Christ, the father of all those who have been grafted into her. If the creed is lighter on details in this article than it is in the second article, those details can still be found in the writings that compose our witness to God's actions in history. The one who confesses this creed knows God already, and is not here engaged in explaining God's essence or existence.

Trinitarian Wrangling

I said that the first article didn't change much in the conciliar process, but it certainly did change. And unlike the Old Roman Symbol, we know where the changes came from! I won't bother explaining the history of the ecumenical councils to you, as you can get that information from many other places. I'll just dive in.

The first article of the Nicene creed reads this way: credimus in unum deum patrem omnipotentem omnium visibilium et invisibilium factorem. It becomes a communal confession, "we believe," and also a confession not of a merely particular god, but of a singular god. The phrase "maker of everything visible and invisible" is decently parallel to the "creator of heaven and earth" reference, but comes from a different metaphysic than Genesis. This is native thought, not citation.

After Constantinople, these two phrases are merged. The final ecumenical version of this article of the creed reads credo in unum deum patrem omnipotentem factorem cæli et terræ, visibilium omnium et invisibilium. We move back to a personal confession, "I believe," and still in one singular god, but now the Hebrew merism of "heaven and earth" is filled out by the more native Latin "everything visible and invisible." The verb remains facio rather than creo, but the emphasis is still on God as the origin of absolutely everything of any sort anywhere.

Now, given that the conciliar process was focused on a defense and further definition of the orthodox doctrine of the trinity, it's interesting to note that the resulting confession in no way justifies a person called "father". The first article is not a defense, or otherwise a recontextualization, of the deity of the Father as a person of the Trinity. It says no such thing! It is a defense of the singular unity of God.

The change from singular to plural confession, and back to singular again, is theologically irrelevant. It doesn't matter doctrinally whether "I" or "we" confess—it matters what. And the nuances of describing God's creative activity belong to a separate locus. In neither version do they really speak differently about the being of God. The only truly important change is the addition of the modifier unum, "one God." It's not even unscriptural, as the Shema has always read adonai echad. This is the Nicene emphasis added to the first article of the creed.

Now, it's fairly obvious to even a casual reader of the literature that the council fathers believed there was such a distinction to be made as to say that "father" is the name of a "person" or hypostasis of God. The controversy revolved around taking "Father" to be the identifier of "God," such that "Son" could not therefore be identified equally. And it's a classical logical error, really. If x = y, then y = x. If God is the Father, the Father is God. And if y != z, especially if z < y, then z != x. If the Son is not the Father, and especially as sons are often less than their fathers, then the Son cannot be equally God.

What is missing is that the creed in no way authorizes us—even in the later conciliar versions—to make this commutation and substitution. The scripture it references certainly doesn't! But in the process of defending against the second error, that of making the Son less than the Father, we did manage to swallow the conversion of the credal statement into an equation. We managed to misunderstand the first article as speaking of the Father, as the second and third speak of the Son and Spirit.

Reading with Fresh Eyes

It is important to understand that these are undeniably trinitarian symbols. And that they are just as undeniably drawn from faithful wrestling with scripture! But it is just as important, if not moreso, to understand what they say about the internal relations of the godhead, about God's being and becoming. If what we have in the first article, after Nicea, is an emphasis on the singular unity of God, it is not for that reason an emphasis opposed to the doctrine of the trinity. This is not a unitarian symbol. But it is a monotheistic one.

The question cannot therefore be asked how these three come to be one. We cannot begin from the presumption that there are these three, Father, Son, and Spirit—especially if we make the appalling step of identifying the person of the Father with the God of the Old Testament—and then ask how their unity comes about. We must recall that we are speaking about this one, God, and ask how this God is trinity. This is the Nicene emphasis.

If we refuse to take this article of the creed as a reversible equation between "God" and "Father," and instead read it as an identification, that God is the all-capable father, the logic of the subsequent articles changes. It certainly becomes more Jewish. This messianic Son, as John says, is the Father in person. If you have seen him, you have seen the Father. Jesus is God incarnate. And yet there is this relationship, in which Jesus is clearly also the Son before the Father, a relationship in which—as we say theologically, ad intra—Jesus relates to God as his Father in the ways that all of Israel relates to God as their Father. God comes to be both Father and Son in the incarnation, and quite literally. There is not more or less of God, but the relationship that had been external between creation and creator, the adoption into personal relationship of the creation by the creator, has been taken up into the life of God.

In placing our trust in the messianic Son, Jesus, and in calling him our Lord, our master, the one we obey, we are not contradicting the first statement, that we place our trust in God, who is our all-capable Father and the creator of all that is. Nor do we then confess the Spirit as a third—for in the second article we have already confessed that the Spirit is also God, the same Father of whom Jesus is the Son, quite literally in the act of begetting Jesus. And we will then also call the Spirit Lord, though there is no competition between Jesus and the Spirit for this title.

God is Lord. God is Father. These are titles, one of which becomes unmistakably more concrete in the incarnation. God is Spirit, and God takes on flesh and blood, our own flesh and blood, not through supernatural manifestation but through natural birth. And that birth changes everything we know about God. That birth is what forces us to talk about this one God in simultaneous plurality, in internal self-relationship because of this unique means by which God chose to partake of external relationships.

The incarnation, and the resulting life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is why these are the three terms, "father," "son," and "spirit," that we must hold together in this internal self-relationship. They cannot be further reduced, because we cannot do without them in the crucial period of time of the incarnation. But they do not refer to more than one god. They refer to the existence of the one God in the central reality of our salvation. God is these three, and these three are God. "One God in trinity, and the Trinity in unity."

The Nicene Fiddly Bits

You might rightly complain that I haven't done justice to all the modifications to the second and third articles that result from the conciliar process of defending the doctrine of the trinity from subordinationism. And since I'm trying to work on the first article here, that's somewhat intentional. But one can't touch the first article in isolation, so let's touch the fiddly bits the Fathers felt had to be added to defend the doctrine, and see what all this can make of them.

In the second article, the crucial fiddly bits are: ... ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula, deum de deo, lumen de lumine, deum verum de deo vero, genitum non factum, consubstantialem Patri; per quem omnia facta sunt. The last bit is just an incorporation of the logic that the Son is the incarnation of the same logos of the Father. It's John 1. And "by whom all things were made" logically requires the first bit, "born of the Father before all worlds/realms/ages/etc...". That is, if you presume that eternity is a space of time parallel to time itself, just with a workshop at the front end and garbage collection at the rear, and also presume that the logos-Son must therefore pre-exist all things, simply becoming incarnate at a specific point somewhere along the line.

I get why it's there, I get how it works, but I have to reject that interpretation, because the logos asarkos is one of the worst ideas we've ever had, besides being unnecessary to the doctrine. There's a part of the Exercises for Christmas in which St. Ignatius invites us to consider this picture of eternity, the Trinitarian Persons sitting around contemplating what to do about the wickedness and evil on the earth, which has obviously been going on for millennia, and I find it farcically appalling.

The solution to there being more of God at some point is not to make that point pretemporal. It is to make there not be "more" of God because of the incarnation. God is not 1, not a basic unit, such that the Son should therefore be added as another unit to make 2. Nor is the Son other than God, such that positing that the Son is also creator requires that these two exist before the creation of all things. The incarnation does not change the unity of God.

That said, I can quite agree with the middle string of fiddly bits. The assertions of the Son relative to the Father than he is "God from God, light from light, true god from true god" is in no way contradictory to what I have said. I have, in fact, been attempting to hold firmly to this logic. I don't feel the need to deal with substance metaphysics, but to say that the Son and the Father are one God, and not two separate beings, is the same fundamental assertion. And, of course, Jesus comes by his humanity genitally, not in any artificially manufactured sense. He is quite literally born human.

And that gets us to the third article, and the deep controversy of the filioque and the ways the Spirit is wedged into the binary of Father and Son. Certainly the Spirit procedit ad nostrum ex Patre filioque, as it is the gift of God in the persons of both the Father and the Son to the apostolic community. And yet the Spirit is not the product of Father and Son, as one will note in the second article. The Spirit is already in existence. If we can say the filioque, we should also be able to say Filius procedit ex Patre spirituque (to which point I see folks like Mike Liccione and Tom Weinandy have been led already). We already essentially confess this in the second article. The Spirit is the means of the fathering of the Son. If that is so, then we might also say that the Son is therefore the means by which the Spirit becomes quite literally Father, and so something like Pater procedit ex Spiritu filioque. Now that might be the fount of some serious issues!

What would such language do? It certainly would balance the three, but there have been numerous ways of doing that across the years. This language does it by breaking the monarchy of the Father. "The Father" is not the originary person of God, to which is therefore added the Son and then the Spirit. Which is what I'm attempting to say absolutely. The creeds do not force me to agree that the Father is God in any prior sense. We do not confess that as a matter of fact—it is simply how we have interpreted our confessions of the first article in practice, and for a very long time.

The creeds, however, only permit me to say that God is Father, and then provide me with language as to the nature of the paternity of God in the quite specific case of the self-filiation of God in Jesus Christ. Only at such a point must I confront the existence of Father and Son within the existence of God—and at such a point I must fall back on the Nicene emphasis that God is one. Not that God is one of these two, but that God who is these two, and indeed these three, is one God, the same, the God who created all that exists and has become our Father, the father of all gentiles, in the birth of a Son.

The Trinity in unity. Now there's a Christmas miracle!


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