The Empire’s Creed

Icon depicting Constantine accompanied by the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea

The Nicene Creed developed in 325 C.E. at the Council of Nicaea convened by Emperor Constantine does not begin with the liberative words for the poor and oppressed that Luke’s Jesus reads at the beginning of his ministry.

Empire approved Chrisitianity would never approve a creed that began with the following words based on the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke:

We believe that Jesus was sent to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…

See Luke 4:18-19

A creed with such language would likely be viewed as a direct threat to the stability and order of the Roman Empire, so instead of words of liberation and justice, the empire approved a creed that focuses on individual repentance, forgiveness of individual sins, and everlasting judgment of persons in the next life rather than meaningful liberation in this one.

In my reading of the Nicene Creed, I do not interpret it as offering hope for liberation of the poor and oppressed in this life, though in conversations with others it is clear that many persons do interpret the words as offering such hope. I have been touched to hear that many persons find hope for liberation in this life in its words. However, as I read the creed, I interpret it as directing hope for liberation to life after death, but only if you believe and do what the empire approved church tells you to. In effect, the Nicene Creed functions as an Imperial Creed to further the imperial interest in order and stability based on unity of belief, and order is often in conflict with justice and liberation.

If the Nicene Creed functions as an imperial creed as I interpret it to do so, it would come as no surprise that it would foster the development of an imperial theology such as represented by Augustine (354-430 C.E.) that would focus primarily on a God of cosmic order rather than a God of compassion who works to lift up the lowly, an order that blames the suffering and slavery of the vulnerable on their sin instead of viewing such evil as being the result of the systemic injustice of empire.

The imperial creed established in Nicaea and the imperial theology to follow cultivated a relationship between church and empire that benefited those with ecclesial and political power but did little to challenge the unjust systems that kept the poor and oppressed in their place. The only good news for the poor and oppressed was that they need not suffer eternally if they believe and do what the imperial church prescribes, and this is news that is much better for the powerful in this life than it is for the oppressed. It is much better news for an emperor than it is for the poor.

2 comments

  1. Exactly right. Here is a easy but disturbing way to put it: In the Sermon on the Mount there is not a single word by Jesus about what to believe, only words about what to do and how to be in the world. At Nicaea, the creed that would define Christianity to this day has not a single word in it about what to do and how to be in the world, ONLY words about what to believe. We might call this, The Great Reversal, and the church will never be relevant again until it reverses the Great Reversal.

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