Theology is in the Prepositions


Fresco depicting the First General Council of Constantinople in the narthex of St. Athanasius church on Mount Athos.

1st Council of Constantinople.

A seminary professor once told me that all of theology is in the prepositions. This is mostly true. Take the Nicene Creed, for example. The second clause concerns the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the first half of that clause with which we are concerned.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made.

I recently heard someone quoting the creed incorrectly. He was intending to quote from the original creed from the council of Nicea when he said: “God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God.” That tiny change of preposition makes all the difference. When we say “Light of Light,” the first is not contingent upon the second. This is a statement of identity. Were we to say “Light from Light,” the first is contingent upon the second. The two are not the same; the first is lesser than the second.

When we say “Very God of Very God,” we are making a statement about the self-existent God existing in a multiplicity of persons. When we say “Very God from Very God,” we are saying only the second is self-existent; we are saying the second preceded the first; we are saying the second is the source of the first; we are saying our Lord Jesus Christ is a created being.

A contingent being owes its existence to something else. My existence is contingent upon my parents; upon the people who employed my father; upon the farmers who grew my food; upon the truckers who transported my food; upon the supermarket that sold my food; upon the government that provided basic infrastructure; etc. I am not a self-existent being. My life is not my own.

The bible tells me that when I see Him, I shall be like Him, for I shall see Him as He is. I shall not be Him, but I shall be like Him. The Orthodox call this theosis; that we shall become gods by grace, but not God in essence. In other words, we shall be god from God, but not God of God.

The Church and The Apostles’ Creed

Icon of the Synaxis of All Saints

Synaxis of All Saints

The Apostles’ Creed (along with the 10 Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer) is the basis for the Catechisms of the Western Churches. The Apostles’ Creed belongs to the Western Church and has never been accepted as a Creed in the Eastern Church. There are a number of reasons for this, but most importantly it is because The Apostles’ Creed both contains theological errors and is the source of even more.[1]

The primary theological problem with the Apostles’ Creed is that it is divided into only three articles: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.[2] In The Apostles’ Creed, the person and work of the Holy Spirit are combined with that of the Church, leading to confusion.[3]

On the other hand, The Nicene Creed has four articles, representing the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. The third article on the Holy Spirit is more extensive, describing the person and work of the Holy Spirit apart from His work in and through the Church.[4] The lack of a similar emphasis in The Apostles’ Creed, along with the conflation of the Holy Spirit and the Church, is the basis upon which the Reformers and their Confessions rejected the authority of the Church and replaced it with the idea that the Holy Spirit works individually instead of corporately. On the other hand, the Nicene Creed separates the Church into its own article, making Nicene Christianity distinct from that of the Western Church.[5]

Luther used the Apostles’ Creed as the structure for both his Small and Large Catechisms. In Luther’s Small Catechism, there is no discussion of the Church. However, his Large Catechism contains the following:

“I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms. I am also a part and member of the same, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering it. For formerly, before we had attained to this, we were altogether of the devil, knowing nothing of God and of Christ. Thus, until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with the holy congregation or Christendom, by means of which He fetches us to Christ and which He employs to teach and preach to us the Word, whereby He works and promotes sanctification, causing it [this community] daily to grow and become strong in the faith and its fruits which He produces.”

It might be difficult to recognize, but Luther’s definition of the Church is based upon his distinction between the visible and invisible Church. The visible Church is the Eucharistic assembly and contains a “mixed multitude” (Ex 12:38; Ne 13:3). The invisible Church is what Luther has in mind, which is his “little holy group and congregation of pure saints”. Luther’s visible Church is without authority while the authority of the invisible Church is the Holy Spirit.

Lutherans recite the Apostle’s Creed in their Divine Service, reserving The Nicene Creed for limited occasions. The lack of familiarity with The Nicene Creed prevents Lutherans (and perhaps others) from recognizing that what they have theologically combined into a single article is divided into two separate articles in The Nicene Creed. Consequently they (along with other Protestants) feel comfortable in rejecting the Church as a source of authority.

The Reformed Churches follow the Heidelberg Catechism which contains the text of The Apostles’ Creed and organizes its questions and answers around the same. Like the Lutheran Creeds, the Heidelberg Confession subsumes the Church into the work of the Holy Spirit.[6]

The Anglican Catechism of 1662 contains the text of The Apostles’ Creed. Moreover, it divides its questions and answers around the Creed’s three articles. The Catechism continuously mentions the Church as an authority, but never defines it – not even in the context of the Holy Spirit.

I find it interesting that the Protestants of the Magisterial Reformation all organize their confessions of faith in the same manner as does the Roman Catholic Church. Part I of the Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church is organized around the three articles of The Apostles’ Creed. Because Rome’s Catechism runs to 904 pages (including indices and glossary), it can spend a great deal of time on the single clause concerning the Church, treating this single clause as though it bears the same weight as the fourth article of The Nicene Creed. The more succinct Protestant Catechisms do not take The Nicene Creed into account and thus are easily able to reject the Church as a visible, corporate, and authoritative entity through which the Holy Spirit works.

  1. A subtle theological problem with The Apostles’ Creed has to do with when Jesus descended into Hell. The Apostles’ Creed would insist you believe this happened prior to the resurrection, leading to the belief among some that the Christ suffered the pangs of Hell. The problem does not have to with the timing as such (since the Orthodox Church’s liturgy for Holy Saturday is explicitly about Christ’s descent into Hell), but with the inclusion of this without a proper theological explanation. The lack of a reference to Christ’s “leading captivity captive” has led to a variety of speculative theologies about what Christ was doing during His time in Hell, leading some to infer that Christ suffered there for our sins, and leading others to infer that the “spirits in prison” were the demons, to whom Christ proclaimed His victory.
  2. The Heidelberg Catechism makes this clear: “Q. How are these articles divided? A. Into three parts: God the Father and our creation; God the Son and our deliverance; and God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification. Luther’s Small Catechism uses the same division.
  3. The Apostles’ Creed, Article III: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen
  4. The Nicene Creed, Article III: And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spoke by the prophets.
  5. The Nicene Creed, Article IV: In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, And the life of the world to come. Amen.
  6. I do not imply the Holy Spirit does not work in the Church; far from it. Instead, it is clear that the Holy Spirit works corporately, in and through the Church. This in no way indicates that the Holy Spirit does not deal with individual people, but rather that such work is always in the context of the Church of Christ.