Tag Archives: Nicene Creed

Wisdom, Logos, and a Cosmic Christology

Stained Glass at Faith Lutheran Church, Little Rock, Arkansas


One of the challenges that people of faith face when attempting to talk about their experience of the divine is how to articulate their experience of God when the experience transcends traditional language for talking about God. This is the challenge that the early followers of Jesus faced as they attempted to use scripture to describe the experience of Jesus and his identity in relation to the God of Israel. One of the ways of talking about the identity of Jesus that would emerge as one of the important pieces of the early church’s discussion of what we call Christology (literally words about Christ but attempting to discuss the identity of Christ) was the idea of Christ being the wisdom of God.

The Wisdom of God in the Scriptures

In the Hebrew Scriptures and Apocrypha

Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures is personified in Proverbs 8-9 and is placed alongside the LORD the God of Israel in the act of creation:

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding in water. Before the mountain had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. Proverbs 8: 22-31

In Proverbs, the character of wisdom is a woman (and both the Hebrew Chokmah and the Greek Sophia which we translate as wisdom are grammatically feminine). Wisdom is portrayed as a ‘first creation’ of God and while a valued partner to God this personification of wisdom is not considered an equal to the creator, but rather a treasured servant who delights in the word of the LORD in creating the heavens and the earth. This woman Wisdom is prevalent in the book of Proverbs and then also appears in the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach:

She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well. I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride, and became enamored of her beauty. She glorifies her noble birth by living with God, and the Lord of all loves her. For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God, and an associate in his works. Wisdom 8: 1-4

Wisdom was created before all other things, and prudent understanding from eternity. The root of wisdom — to whom has it been revealed? Her subtleties — who knows them? 8 There is but one who is wise, greatly to be feared, seated upon his throne — the Lord. 9 It is he who created her; he saw her and took her measure; he poured her out upon all his works, Sirach 8: 4-9

The Wisdom of God in the New Testament

As the early followers of Jesus began to attempt to describe the identity of Jesus, they used the character of divine wisdom who was present in creation as a way of attempting to discuss the cosmic character of who Jesus was. The best know example is Colossians 1: 15-20

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The linking of Jesus and Wisdom is also behind much of Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 1-2 and Matthew 11: 17 and its parallel in Luke 7: 35.

Wisdom and Logos

Philo of Alexandria, 20 BCE- 50 CE, a Jewish writer and thinker is credited with translating the Hebrew concept of divine Wisdom into the masculine idea of Logos (Word), a popular idea in Greek philosophy of the time. Logos and its linkage to the divine Wisdom’s part in creation stands behind the language of John 1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. John 1: 1-4

Wisdom/Logos Divine Christology and the Early Church’s Struggle Over Christ’s Identity

As the early church encountered a philosophical culture of the Hellenistic (Greek speaking) world there was a desire to continue to refine how Jesus and the God of Israel (and eventually the Spirit of God) were related. As Christology was refined at the early church councils like Nicaea (CE 325) (where much of the Nicene creed is formulated particularly the language around Jesus the Son, final form is reached at the council of Constantinople in CE 381) and Chalcedon (CE 451) which demarcated the orthodox views of the early church that Christ was (in contrast to the followers of Arian) fully divine and not a ‘creature’ of God the Father and that Christ has a fully human and fully divine nature (in contrast to the ‘monophysites’ in 451) emerge out of this Greek philosophical world where the early church leaders worked. While these positions are using the best wisdom and language of the church in the fourth and fifth century and pull on the language of the scriptures it is also important not to impose on the writers of the New Testament these more philosophical views. The New Testament was written to answer the question of Christ’s identity to a predominantly Hebrew way of thinking which is more comfortable with linking Christ with the God of Israel without precisely determining the nature of that relationship.

The Place of Authority 2-6: The Constantinian Revolution Part 2-Councils, Canons and Creeds

Icon of the Council of Nicea

I mentioned in an early post (see the Place of Authority 2-3) that Christianity came into contact with the Greek culture and even though Christianity attempted to remain true to its Jewish roots, the questions and the terms of the dialogue were set by the Greek culture. The arguments and theology of early church leaders like Justin, Clement of Alexandria and Origen had conducted the debate with the surrounding culture in terms the culture was familiar with. Especially in the Eastern (Greek speaking) half of the church there was an emerging conflict between the philosophical ideas of what God should be like and various readings of Scripture. Remember that almost all of the early Christian leaders read the scriptures allegorically, and just as there are multiple ways of reading scripture today the early church had this struggle with this as well.

In 325 CE Emperor Constantine called the leaders of the early church together at Nicea, a city in modern day Turkey near Constantinople (Istanbul). Many of the issues dealt with were practical, having to do with which leaders and position would carry the greatest authority, how to readmit lapsed Christians, and how to elects individuals to fill the various leadership roles within the church. These were all essential tasks for an organization which had moved from being decentralized and rather small to a much more organized and broad church. It was within this meeting that some of the theological differences present came to the surface and had to be dealt with.

The controversy is named Arianism for a presbyter named Arius who found himself in conflict with the bishop of Alexandria (appropriately named Alexander) over the relation of Jesus and the Father. At the council of Nicea an Alexandrian controversy became a controversy that consumed the first council when a few convinced Arians, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia attempted to have the assembly rebuke Alexander for his condemnation of Arius’ teachings. At stake was whether the person of the Christ was divine with the Father or whether he was a created creature. Originally the assembly wanted to create a confession stringing together biblical texts, but they found it difficult to unmistakably refute Arianism using only scripture, but would eventually create a creed heavily dependent on a mixture of biblical and philosophical language to reject Arianism. This would be the beginning of the Nicene Creed (the Nicene Creed we use today would effectively be finished at the council of Constantinople in 381 CE but the first two paragraphs come from the Council of Nicea). This is the language agreed on in Nicea about Christ:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father, through whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth, who for us humans and for our salvation descended and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.

The controversy was all about the person of Christ, and I find it interesting that the controversy stays there throughout this period and never moves to consider the work or the teaching of Christ. This creed, begun in a council called and presided over by an emperor not yet baptized, would be the one statement of faith that would be agreed upon by the Western and Eastern Church and would at a later point be a part of the controversy that would split the two, but that is a later story.

Even though the canon was not fixed at the Council of Nicea, as many people believe, the canon had taken the decisive shape by this point. Revelation and Hebrews would eventually gain enough acceptance to be viewed by most as a part of the New Testament. Yet the gospels and the letters of the New Testament began to be used more as a tool for theological ideas rather than understood in their own right. Christianity, like its predecessor Judaism, was moving on its own temple and monarchy trajectory-except now the temple was the church and the monarch was the Roman Emperor. Creeds would begin to become more influential than story, councils would become the interpreter of scriptures and although with the translation of the Bible in to Latin by Jerome made it available in the language of the Western half of the empire both illiteracy and the unavailability of copies of the scriptures in either the Greek or Latin would make the authority rest with the educated elite of both the ruling and clerical class.

There is certainly much to criticize about this era of Christianity’s struggle with authority from many people’s standpoints, especially as we find ourselves coming into a post-Christendom era (according to many commentators) but there is also much to admire. This was a time of theological giants: Athanasius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus), John Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose and perhaps the greatest of this group (from a Western Church perspective) Ambrose’s student Augustine of Hippo. The shape of the church in both the West and the East would be shaped for the next 1,000 years during this era. At the beginning of the fifth century the political climate would change as Rome’s loses its position as the sole imperial authority and we enter what is commonly called the Medieval Era. Much will be lost in the coming era, but the church will be the authority that many look to in the midst of the crisis Christianity will continue to spread throughout Europe, although in the Middle East and Africa a new player will emerge on the scene. It is to this era we will turn next.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com