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The Idea of Nicaea in the Early Church Councils, AD 431-451, by Mark Smith

03 May 2019

Mark Edwards explores ironies in the credal disputes of the Fathers

AS THE opening chapter of this excellent study observes, we know very little of the genesis of the Nicene Creed, still less of the intentions of those who framed it. Even our one contemporary source, the letter of Eusebius of Caesarea, exists in two versions, one adding and one omitting the final anathema upon those who say that Jesus Christ is a creature.

While he takes only cursory notice of this important fact, Smith’s second chapter is an ample review of two decades of scholarship on the fourth century. He justly concludes that, while the purported champions of Nicaea denounced their opponents when they failed to honour the letter of the Nicene Creed, the tenets that they themselves espoused were often embellishments or tendentious paraphrases of the original formula. The shibboleth that guided the deliberations at Ephesus in 431 was not read as it might have been read in 325, but as it had been reinterpreted by Athanasius and the Cappadocians.

On the other hand, personal confessions that combined the Nicene articles with affirmations of the Virgin birth and the prophetic ministry of the Holy Spirit had been current for 60 years before the Council of Ephesus; Nestorius, the defeated party in 431, had initially taken his stand on just such a version of the Creed, propounded in his own see of Constantinople in 381. His antagonist Cyril of Alexandria took pleasure in correcting him, but only after he himself had appealed to the Nicene fathers in support of his contention that the Virgin was not only Mother of Christ, but Mother of God.

As Smith observes, Nestorius is no less devoted to the Creed than Cyril, while the latter is no less determined than Nestorius to adapt its phrases to his own theology. In fact, his insistence on making the “Logos” the subject of every clause (with the consequence that the Word is the one who is born of Mary and tastes death on the Cross) belies the studious omission of this title in the text of 325.

SuperstockSt Athanasius, whose feast day was yesterday, portrayed in later Western style by Francesco Solimeno (1657-1747) in Naples Cathedral

Cyril, like Athanasius, asserts the sufficiency of the Nicene Creed, and yet is just as ready as Athanasius to augment it with his own inferences and corollaries. Thanks to the Constantinopolitan Council that he disdains, he now possesses a pneumatology that enables him to ascribe the decrees of Ephesus to the same Spirit as presided at Nicaea. Smith’s justifiable irony is sustained in his closing chapter on the Council of Chalcedon (451), in intent an elucidation rather than a correction of Cyril.

While it was also obliged to uphold the Tome of Leo I, in which the Apostles’ Creed is confounded with that of Nicaea, it justifies this hybrid by quoting the Creed of Constantinople for the first time. Chalcedon is, indeed, a worthy successor to that council, because it inculcates the same principle, that the only way to preserve the intent of the Creed is to amend it under the vigilant operation of the same Spirit who gives life when the letter kills.

Professor Mark Edwards is Lecturer in Patristics at the University of Oxford, and Tutor in Theology at Christ Church, Oxford.



The Idea of Nicaea in the Early Church Councils, AD 431-451
Mark Smith
OUP £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50

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