Metaphors in the Nicene Creed I

A "fundamentalist" is someone who takes everything in the Bible literally.  A "liberal theologian" is one who takes most of it metaphorically.  Or so everyone says.

The problem with this simplistic dichotomy is that language is fundamentally metaphorical.  We seldom open our mouths without resorting to a metaphor.  I'm not talking about explicit, literary metaphors such as my love is like a red, red rose.  (PS if you tell me that this is a simile instead of a metaphor, I will do something like shooting you.  Despite what they teach in schools these days, a simile is one kind of metaphor.)  I'm talking about metaphors which are embedded in the way we talk and thing, like in these phrases: flying into a rage, upper crust manners, a fever going down, and so on.

As soon as we talk about abstractions, or real concrete entities which happen to be outside of our immediate sensory experiences, we can only think about things metaphorically.  And this means that much of our language will be metaphorical as well.

Particularly endemic are spatial metaphors.  In addition to the ubiquitous up and down, these tend to be embedded in prepositions such as in, on, above, under, between, and so on.  Even in pure math, if I talk about an element in a set (as though a set were a box), or a function from the real numbers to the complex numbers (as though it involved motion), or a group over the integers, or I say that a number is higher than another number, I'm using metaphors without even realizing it.  For more information on the way metaphors pervade our language and thinking, I recommend (the first half of) Metaphors We Live By, which is by George Lakoff (one of my parents' linguistics profs) and Mark Johnson.

Thus it is not surprising that there will also be metaphors in theology.  Of course theology is metaphorical, just like everything else. To illustrate this point, I will discuss some of the metaphors implicit in the Nicene Creed.  This is the most important statement of Christian beliefs in the world, and is accepted by almost all Christians worldwide including Catholics, Orthodox, Coptic, Assyrian, virtually all Protestants, etc.  The first draft of the Creed was written in 325 in order to clarify belief in the Trinity, especially to combat the Arian heresy, named after a theologian named Arius who taught that Jesus was a created being, and therefore was not fully divine, but was subordinate to the Father.  In 381 the Creed was expanded and edited, to say more about the Holy Spirit, and about the Church.

The Creed was simultaneously written in Latin and Greek, with slightly different texts.  Additional variations come about from translation into English.  My base text of the Creed of 381 comes from here, but I have made some changes to the translation for clarity and accuracy of meaning.  Red indicates the presence of a metaphor which I wish to discuss; blue represents other kinds of notes.  Green means I wasn't quite sure whether it should be considered a metaphor—for example, it might be regarded as a dead metaphor, an alternative literal meaning, or just an unusual application of the ordinary meaning of the word.

Note that when I say that a word is metaphorical, I mean that it is metaphorical under the traditional/conservative/orthodox interpretation as it would have been understood by educated ancient people—which is often wrongly referred to as the "literal" meaning.  I am not talking about any modern "liberal" reinterpretation of what Christian theology means.

I believe in one God,
the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all times,
God of God, Light of Light,
true God of true God,
begotten, not made,
of the same Being with the Father;
through whom all things were made;

Who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate
by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven,
and sits on the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory,
to judge both the living and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son];
who with the Father and the Son together
is worshipped and glorified;
who spoke by the Prophets.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church;
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the time to come.  Amen.

As you see there are a lot of metaphors here.  There would be even more red here if I had highlighted metaphors every time they appear, instead of just once each.  Sometimes it is ambiguous whether a word involves a metaphor or not, so I had to make some judgment calls.

What follows is my commentary for Article I of the Creed, having to do with the Father.  In order to prevent this post form becoming unduly long, I will put my commentary on Article II (the Son), and Article III (The Holy Spirit) into separate posts.

I: Greek version has "We" here instead.
believe in: a standard English metaphor used in nontheological contexts.  One does not literally "place our belief in" something, as if it were a container.
God: At least in modern English, this word is not a metaphor, even though all of our thoughts about God involve metaphorical thinking.  "God" is not any specific metaphor, but rather the name for that reality to which the metaphors refer.  In order to confuse you, in Christian theology (and the New Testament), "God" can refer to either (a) specifically the Father, or (b) the divinity of all three Persons.
one ... God: denies polytheism.  There is only one God, who is the Father.  Since the Son and Spirit are natural outflowings of the divine nature, and are share the exact same divine nature as the Father, and the exact same will, they are not regarded as additional gods.  I'm not sure I'd want to call "one" a metaphor, but arguably the word is being used in a somewhat unusual way in Trinitarian theology.
Father: God is not literally a male parent
maker: normally this word refers to a person who constructs something out of something else, but God makes in the sense of giving things existence, ex nihilo.
heaven: literally means sky, but also means Heaven in the theological sense, another universe besides ours which was created by God.
invisible: I like to think about neutrinos here, but the theologians who wrote this were probably thinking about something more like angels.  In any case, this is a catch-all term for everything that is not apparent to our senses, emphasizing that God is the creator of all things.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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