In working on the most recent issue of Christian History & Biography ("Debating Jesus' Divinity"), we once again ran into the old canard that the Nicene bishops relied more on Greek philosophical concepts than on the Bible. That is the conventional wisdom in some circles, but let's take a closer look at what those bishops did. With the help of Norwegian church historian Oscar Skarsaune and his book In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish influences on Early Christianity (IVP, 2002), we'll learn a different story.

Let's begin at the beginning. The oldest creeds were simple baptismal vows—affirmations of belief in God the Father, in Jesus the Messiah, his Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Hints of such early baptismal statements can be found in Justin (writing about 150) and Tertullian (writing between 190 and 200).

By about 220, baptismal candidates were affirming a slightly more complex set of beliefs. Here is how the Roman presbyter Hippolytus describes the questions they were asked:

Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?
Do you believe in the Messiah (Christus) Jesus, the Son of God,
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose the third day living from the dead and ascended into the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?

If you translate those "Do you believe" questions into "I believe" statements, you have something very much like the Old Roman Creed which took final form in the Apostles' Creed (5th century).

These baptismal vows say a lot more about Jesus and his activity than they do about God the Father or the Holy Spirit.  That's because they focus on Jesus' role as the Messiah rather than on his relationship to the other members of the Godhead. This summary of activity is similar to earlier summaries found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, a document called the Preaching of Peter (about AD 125), and Justin's First Apology (about AD 150). According to Skarsaune, this Messianic focus reveals a very Jewish interest. As the church composed the Nicene Creed, it added a focus on Christ's person to its previous focus on his work.

The Nicene Creed retained a summary of Jesus' activity as Messiah, but it added material about the way the Son is related to the Father. Consider the italicized words in the following excerpt from Nicaea.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only begotten, God from God, light from light, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, … .

In addition, the Nicene formulation introduced the idea that the Son participated in Creation. It also talks about the Incarnation more "theologically." Instead of following the pattern of Matthew and Luke, saying that Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary (as the Old Roman Creed did), this statement of belief follows John in talking about the Son becoming flesh.

The Old Roman creed, says Skarsaune, was oriented "horizontally" along a timeline. It portrays Jesus as the Messiah who did the deeds predicted by the prophets. This new "eastern" creed is oriented vertically. "The one who was with God and created the world with him, 'came down,' suffered, rose again, and shall finally descend once more as the final judge. The 'movement' in this creed is 'vertical' the whole time."

Some people claim that this difference is part of the "Hellenization" of the gospel as it moved from Hebrew to Greek culture. But Skarsaune makes a telling point: Evidence shows that "most Hellenists actually reacted with disgust and contempt at the very idea of a divine incarnation, and with charges of blasphemy when they heard that the incarnate Son of God had suffered the uttermost shame of crucifixion."

Biblical roots

So if this teaching really wasn't crafted to appeal to Greek culture, where did it come from?

Skarsaune traces the New Testament passages about the pre-existence of the Son of God (1 Cor. 8:6; Col 1:15-17; Heb. 1:2-3; Rev. 3:14; John 1:1-4). All of these passages cast the Son in the role of the mediator of God's creative activity.

When Jewish texts talk about some being that participates in God's creation, they talk about "Wisdom." In both the biblical book of Proverbs and the apocryphal book of Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is personified and is said to participate in God's creative activity.

The apocryphal book of Sirach takes it a step farther by talking about Wisdom seeking a place to dwell on earth (become incarnate?) but finding none until "the Creator of all things … chose the place for my tent." This is the same tent metaphor John uses in saying that the Word became flesh and (literally translated) "tented among us." Of course, this does not refer to just any tent, but to the wilderness tabernacle, the tent that was the dwelling place of God's glory.

Not only are there parallels between the New Testament language about Christ's pre-existence and earlier Jewish texts about Wisdom, there are additional parallels with Jewish writings about God's law, the Torah. Jesus scandalized people by speaking God's law in his own name. People thought he was blasphemous because he forgave sins. He offered weary people his "yoke"—the very word the rabbis used about the Torah. He said that where two or three gathered in his name, he would be with them—just as the rabbis said that where two or three sat with the Torah, God's Shekhina presence would be with them. Jesus is not a spokesman for Wisdom, says Skarsaune. He is Wisdom in person. He is not a spokesman for the Torah. He is Torah in person. And he is God's Shekhina presence in person. This kind of Christology could only arise in a Jewish context, not a Hellenistic one.

Now consider the lines about the nature of the Son that the Nicene bishops inserted into the formulations. They all emphasize that the Son is of the same "stuff" as the Father. When an artist creates a work of art, it is something different from the artist. But when an artist begets a child, the child is of the same stuff as the artist. The older Jewish texts about Wisdom talked about her being related to God as radiance is to the source of light. In the 200s, Tertullian picked up on this analogy as he wrote about the relationship between the Father and the Son, and in the 300s, the Nicene bishops condensed it into that little phrase, "Light from Light."  All of these Nicene images parallel Jewish sources about Wisdom and Torah, the same sources echoed by the New Testament writers and the post-apostolic writers.

The critics who once charged that the creed's theology was distorted by Greek philosophy now need to recognize that it is actually very biblical—and Jewish.

Read David Neff's 2003 review of In the Shadow of the Temple.
Read a 2003 interview with Oscar Skarsaune.

Read more about the Nicene Creed and why it is important to the church today.