From the Gospels to the Creeds – March 2013


In a second term of adult education talks to mark the Year of Faith, St Peter’s and St Simon’s parishes in Partick, Glasgow, considered the Early Fathers of the Church.

The mystery of the Second Vatican Council is how the ideas of a group of mostly French and Belgian Dominicans and Jesuits who were supposed to be private advisors quickly prevailed over the public drafts prepared by the Roman Curia for the 2,500 bishops. One thing these periti had in common was they were steeped in the Early Fathers of the Church – Athanasius, Basil, Nyssa and Nazianzen in the East: Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Leo in the West. Was it the study of ‘Patristics’ that gave them the confidence to challenge the modern Fathers of Vatican II?

The Council brought Catholics back to the Scriptures. A knowledge of Patristics gives us an idea of how we got from the Gospels to the Creeds. This was the subject of the second term of talks for the Year of Faith. Gerald Bostock, a retired Methodist minister from Perth, led off with his speciality, Origen of Alexandria.

Origen of Alexandria
Gerald described Origen as the first theologian of the church. He was born in 184 in Alexandria, the great seaport near the Nile Delta. His mother was Egyptian (his name is probably from Horus, an Egyptian god) and his father was Greek, later a martyr and a canonised saint. Significantly his first importance is as a scripture scholar. He endeavoured even before Jerome to put together the ‘canon’ of approved New Testament writings. He is known to have got on well with Jewish scholars when writing the Hexapla, five Greek translations of the Old Testament against the Hebrew original.

But he is better known as one of the first to discuss the philosophical consequences of Christian faith. Alexandria was a famous city with a legendary library. Its lighthouse was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Founded by Alexander the Great, it was the capital of Egypt until the Muslim conquest. This put Origen in touch with other intellectuals in the pursuit of truth.

If we know how tentative Origen was, even about the Trinity, that gives us a sense of how long the journey was between the Gospels and the Creeds. Previous to him there had been only hymns and the formulae required for adult baptism. Indeed he was later exiled to Palestine and condemned for some of his views. Although renowned for his asceticism and tortured for the faith he was never canonised.

Gerald concluded by saying there is still something of a choice between Origen’s Greek thoughts and the Latin approach of Augustine. He reminded us that even in Rome Mass was celebrated in Greek for the first couple of centuries. After it had been translated into Latin, Gregory the Great inserted the Kyrie Eleison to remind us of our roots. Today’s short, popular Eucharistic Prayer two was written originally in Greek by Hippolytus of Rome, one of the first of the Early Fathers.

The road to Nicaea
Following this Professor Emeritus of Church History in Glasgow University Ian Hazlett took us on a whirlwind tour of the road to Nicaea.

First he provided us with a map of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. It was divided between the Latin West centred on Rome and the Greek East centred on New Rome, Constantinople. The fourth century was the time when the Emperor himself became a Christian bringing an end to persecution. By the end of the century another Emperor declared that Christianity was the only permitted religion (with concessions for Judaism).

Ian highlighted first of all the Apostolic Fathers connected to the School of St John the Evangelist whose writings follow on immediately after the New Testament. These were Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. They were followed in the second century by the great Apologists, Justin Martyr in Rome, Theophilus in Antioch and Athenagoras in Athens.

The age of the Classical Fathers of the Church began, as we had heard, with Origen. They include Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria and Cyril, bishop in Jerusalem. Then as we proceed north from Antioch through the Cilician Gate into what was Asia Minor, now central Turkey, we reach Cappadocia and the great school of Basil and his brother Gregory of Nyssa with their friend Gregory of Nazianzene and their contemporary John Chrysostom in Constantinople.

Further east there were others like Aphrahat ‘the Persian Sage’ whose writings are still extant. Then there were the ‘losers’ in the great theological debates: Arius who triggered the need for the first Council of the Church; Donatus in Latin North Africa who wanted a church of the pure only; Pelagius, the British opponent of Augustine; Nestorius whose teachings are still widely accepted in the Eastern Churches. There were also the Desert Fathers who removed themselves from theological controversy – Anthony of Egypt, Martin who settled in Tours at the Western extremity of the Empire and Basil the Great. And last but not least Ian reminded us of the role of Christian women in the early centuries, many of them educated and wealthy. Among them was Helen the mother of Constantine and Marcia his mistress; Monica the mother of Augustine and Paula who bankrolled Jerome.

Naturally in the west we are more familiar with the names of Ambrose in Milan, Augustine in Roman North Africa and Jerome who left Rome to go to Bethlehem in order to provide a reliable Latin translation of the Greek scriptures, the Vulgate. Nevertheless we do well to remember that the journey from the Gospels to the Creeds was made almost entirely in the Greek half of the Empire.

The Creeds
It was left to Rev Dr Jamie Walker, former Chaplain at the University of St Andrews, to conclude the short series with a deeper look at the Creeds. Biblical religion has always been creedal, he said, from the Shema of the Old Testament to various formularies about Jesus in the New. However we should not underestimate the task of the early Greek teachers and martyrs as they tried to reconcile this Semitic tradition with the Platonic culture in which they lived.

Plato was a dualist who separated the spiritual from the material. This was an obstacle to belief that Jesus Christ was both human and divine. At the level of faith this is resolved by belief in the Trinity on the one hand and belief in salvation by one like us on the other. But the faith of the early church was evangelical. They wanted to convince everyone of this, including the followers of Plato.

One of the most enthusiastic evangelisers was Arius, priest in Alexandria. Arius was more accommodating to Plato. Jesus, he said, had not been divine from the beginning. The persons of the Trinity therefore are not all equal. This was strongly resisted by his bishop Cyril who was strongly supported by the deacon Athanasius. Arius did not accept the bishop’s strictures and the quarrel spread to other parts of the Empire.

It was Constantine, not yet a Christian, who moved to put an end to a dispute which threatened unity in the church which he was hoping to use to manage his vast domains. In 325 AD he summoned a Council at Nicaea near Constantinople to establish unity on the matters at hand. More than 300 epi-skopoi (Latin: super-visors) or bishops who managed the local churches attended, six from the West. They developed the Creed used in Caesarea in Palestine by adding the Greek term homo-ousios (same being) to describe the status of the Son and affirming the Trinity as three equal persons in one substance. Arius was anathematised for not accepting the clear meaning of the scriptures.

Constantine’s politics had little immediate effect on the life of the church since Arius continued to flourish. It was Athanasius who was exiled. Arius’ point was that it was the new technical Greek term that was unscriptural. It was only gradually that the views of Athanasius prevailed. Even then there were Christians unsure about the role of the Spirit. The Spirit was only briefly mentioned in the last line of the Creed proclaimed at Nicaea.

In 381 a second Council was convoked, this time in the Emperor’s own city of Constantinople. A smaller number were in attendance this time, none from the West. To include the Spirit they extended considerably the final section of Nicaea’s Creed into the form that we know today. But it was only in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon (not far from Nicaea) that this composite Nicaean – Constantinopolitan Creed was approved of as the ‘Nicene’ creed. Chalcedon was well attended and approved of by Pope Leo the Great.

Modern resonance was given to what otherwise might seem abstruse when the 2011 English translation of the Roman Missal changed the wording of the Nicene Creed from ‘of one being’ to ‘consubstantial’. This was part of the Latinisation of the English since substance, rather than being, was the term preferred by the Latin Father Tertullian for the Greek ousion. Interestingly the 2011 English missal offers a choice of using at Mass either the ‘Nicene’ Creed or the ‘Apostles’ Creed which, with its 12 shorter statements, bypasses the Arian controversy.

Although this latter simplified Creed was only finally formulated around the eighth and ninth centuries, it can be traced back to formularies used for Baptismal interrogations in the early church. It therefore traces more easily the journey from the Gospels to the Creeds. The fact that many of us still remember it from school may be another reason to recommend it for use on Sundays.

Patristics, Jamie told us, formed a key part in the training for ministry in the Church of Scotland. We know from the writings of Newman that the Fathers were also widely read among Anglicans. So the Vatican II periti had this in common not only with the Reformed observers at the Council but even more so with the participants from the Eastern Churches. The Catholic teaching that we have inherited has been located more in post Reformation cathechisms. Vatican II restored the Scriptures as the basis of Tradition. The Fathers of the early Church are a key link in our Year of Faith journey from ancient Tradition to the modern Catechism.

Willy Slavin is the parish priest of St Simon’s, Partick.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.