Jumble sales of the apocalypse: The curious history of the Creed
Simon Jenkins tells the curious history of the Creed
Every Sunday morning after the sermon, congregations in many churches get the chance to answer back. As the preacher sinks exhausted into his or her pew, congregants stand and turn their attention to a 222-word statement originally written in technical Greek in the fourth century. ‘I believe in one God,’ it begins. Although the Creed isn’t necessarily intended as a rebuke to the sermon, it sometimes can be if preachers go off piste – as in the accidental heresy of the sermon handout where a predictive text error resulted in the following statement: ‘Jesus described the Holy Spirit as a Parakeet.’
The Nicene Creed (also known by its grand title, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) was first drafted at the Council of Nicea in 325, and then given a major upgrade at a second council in Constantinople almost 60 years later. The council was called so the Church could put to bed some of the crazy ideas circulating about who Jesus was, and to make a final decision on what it believed about God the Son and his relationship to the Father. Although for some the Creed is the epitome of trying to believe six impossible things before breakfast, I’ve always found its language stirring, from the arresting opening in Latin, Credo in unum Deum, to the beautiful description of Jesus as ‘light from light’, which is even more beguiling in the Greek: phos ek photos.
Nicea was a one-of-a-kind event for the Roman world of its day. It was an international gathering, and nothing like it had ever been seen before. As 318 bishops hit the road, each of them with a retinue of presbyters and deacons, there were traffic jams on the roads to Nicea, on the northwest coast of what is now Turkey. It was like a military operation, except that the theological in-fighting was mostly nonviolent.
On the winning side was Athanasius, a gifted young deacon from Alexandria, who represented the Pope of Egypt and captivated the council by his brilliant oratory. On the losing side was Arius, a 70-year-old priest, also from Alexandria. Tall and stick thin, Arius had a weird way of twisting his body while he spoke. ‘Just like the wrigglings of a snake!’ his enemies said. Arius didn’t have a seat in the council, but when he was called as a witness he sang the songs he had composed, which had popularised his theology among the street sellers, sailors and shopkeepers of his home town. As he sang, he danced and frolicked, which scandalised the rest of the council, who clapped their hands over their ears and shut their eyes. Nicea wasn’t just a church council – it was a musical.
Among the clerics at Nicea was Spyridon, a simple shepherd turned bishop, from Cyprus. He and his deacon rode to the council on two mules, a white and a chestnut. One night – so the story goes – while hastening through Asia Minor, they stopped at a roadside inn. Watching them arrive with unholy anxiety was a group of bishops, who feared that Spyridon’s simple piety and magnetic personality might cloud the big issues of the council. They decided to put a spoke in his wheels.
Early in the morning, they got up before dawn, caught Spyridon’s mules, cut off their heads, and made a quick getaway on the road to Nicea. A few minutes later, Spyridion also rose and found his terrified deacon with the dead mules. In the darkness, he coolly told the deacon to place the heads back on the bodies.
Then he gave a sign, and the two mules staggered to their feet, shook their heads as if waking from a deep sleep, and the party set off. As day broke, they overtook the bishops, who were astonished to see the resurrected mules, especially as the deacon had mixed up the two heads in the dark. Spyridion’s white mule now had a chestnut head, while his deacon’s was vice versa.
Thankfully, this tall tale about Spyridion and his mules didn’t make it into the final text of the Creed. But there have been other additions to it in more recent times, such as the secretary of a Toronto church who had the task of producing two funeral service sheets for the same day. To save time, she used the search-and-replace function to find ‘Mary’ (the first of the departed) in the document and replace her with ‘Edna’ for the second service.
All went well until the congregation got halfway through the Apostles’ Creed. They found themselves affirming: ‘And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Edna…’
Simon Jenkins is Editor of shipoffools.com. His book, Jumble Sales of the Apocalypse (SPCK, 2017, £9.99) is available from urcshop.co.uk
This article was published in the April 2018 edition of Reform