Metaphors in the Nicene Creed II

This is a continuation of the previous post describing metaphors in the Nicene Creed.  Red = metaphor, green = unsure, blue = another comment.  The second article of the Creed concerns the Son, affirming his full divinity, his role in creation, and his Incarnation as a human being:

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.

Lord: literally means an aristocratic nobleman ruling over some territory.
Christ: Greek translation of "Messiah"; both terms literally mean someone anointed by pouring oil on them, as a consecration ceremony in order to inaugurate them in some important role (such as priest or king).  Jesus is called Christ, not because he was anointed with oil, but because he is anointed by the Holy Spirit.
only begotten Son of God: literally "begotten" refers to the act by which a man or animal sires a child. But the Father did not generate the Son by having sex, so "Son" does not have the same meaning as for humans. Furthermore, earthly sires are older than their children, but this does not apply to the divine begetting of the Son, as the next line states. It means that the Son is not created ex nihilo, but rather is an offspring from the Father's being. (Although this could not have been otherwise, it was still voluntary in the sense that it was not a compulsion, but happens in accordance with the Father's will.) In a gender-mixed metaphor, St. Augustine even suggested we should think of the Son as coming from the "womb" of the Father!
times: a better translation of saecula/αιώνων than the more frequent translation "worlds"
before all times: literally if something happens before a time t_1, we mean that it happened at some other time t_2 which is earlier than t_1. Clearly this cannot be the case for "before all times", since by definition there was no time before time began. This must therefore be a metaphor for "eternally".
God of God: this text was in the original 325 Creed, but apparently someone tried to edit it out of the 381 version because of its redudancy. As a result it is in the Latin version but not the Greek version. Oops.
of: in "God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God", probably means something like "coming out of" which is a metaphor (the Son does not literally emerge from the Father, as if they were located in space.)
Light of Light: God is not made of photons
not made: same technical use of "made" found above for "maker": the Son is not a created being but is fully divine.
Being: also translated "substance" (from the Latin substantia) or essence (from the Greek "ούσια"). However neither word is exactly clear in English. To us, "substance" suggests a chemical or material, but to the ancient philosophers it meant the underlying being of something, its essential nature or existence.
of the same Being with: this is one word in the Latin consubstantialem or Greek ὁμοούσιον. This is the word which Arius and his followers were unable to accept. It is a metaphor to the extent that it differs from the standard philosophical usage of the word. It says that the Father and Son have the exact same Being. Since there is just one God, this does not just mean the same kind of being, as two human beings have the same basic nature. Rather, even though the Father and Son are distinguishable in certain respects, they are so closely associated that they should be regarded as a single "entity".
through: but the Son is not literally an opening. If we translate this "by means of", the Son is not literally a mechanical tool either.
for: this is actually pretty close to the literal meaning "for the sake of / in order to benefit"
men: believe it or not, this seemingly masculine English word includes women and children as well! However the Latin word homines and the Greek word ανθρώπους are even more gender-neutral than the English "men"; these languages have separate words vir and ανηρ which refer specifically to adult males.
salvation: literally means "rescue", for example if someone saves your life from a burning building. I wasn't totally sure whether to count this as a metaphor or not. Being rescued from the effects of sin and death would seem to fall under the general category of being rescued, but on the other hand the earthly examples of salvation are illustrative metaphors which help us think about the meaning of salvation in the technical theological sense.
came down from heaven: but heaven in the theological sense is not actually located vertically above the earth. Also, "before" the incarnation, the Son did not have a body, not even one "located" in a "place" called "Heaven". I think here heaven is best thought of as a metonymy for the presence of God, and so "came down from heaven" refers to the Son coming from a state of being with the Father, so as to take on a new existence on Earth. Even this is not quite right though, because the Son's existence with the Father is timeless, and in that sense the Son never stopped being in heaven. So strictly speaking, it would be better to say that the Son started being on Earth in a new way. What the language "came down" gets right is that the Son pre-existed before he was conceived in Mary's womb.
incarnate: means "became flesh", but with the caveat that his divinity was not transfomed into flesh, rather a complete human nature was added to his divinity.
made man: see above
by the Holy Spirit: that is "by means of" the Spirit, as though the Spirit were an instrument. See notes on the next article for metaphors in "Holy Spirit".
under: refers to the jurisdiction of an earthly ruler using the metaphor of vertical elevation.
rose again: in 1st century Jewish burial customs, bodies were placed on slabs which were actually elevated from the ground. Thus, when Jesus "rose" from the dead, he actually would have moved downwards to reach the ground level. Once again the vertical axis is being used to describe a change of status (from dead to alive).  This is not what most people would mean by "taking the Resurrection metaphorically", but it is a metaphor nonetheless.
ascended into heaven: as in the case of "came down", Heaven is not literally located above the Earth. However, the ascent is not really the opposite of the descent. The descent was really the act of acquiring a human body (and mind). But the ascent did not involve discarding his body, as though Christ stopped being human. Instead he remains human forever, although in a transformed ("glorified") state. In fact, it is not even clear that "Heaven" means the same thing in both places. In the descent, I argued that Heaven just means the presence of God. In the ascent, one might suppose that there is some created "place" in which Jesus' body currently dwells. As Jesus said to his disciples:

"My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (John 14:2-3)

But see the next phrase.
sits on the right hand of the Father: but the Father has no body and therefore no literal "right hand". Instead this phrase means that Christ is elevated to a position of special favor with God. (Notice that if I translate into fancy phrases, we tend to think of it as being less crudely literal, but in fact the spatial metaphor of ascent is still implicit in the words "elevation" and "position"! The "cruder" expressions for metaphors are actually better, because you notice that you are using them.) Similarly, the verb "sits" emphasizes that he is at rest, and secure in his reign over the universe. As with the phrase "sitting monarch", it does not require him to literally be in a chair.
come again: once again a term for motion, used to describe something more subtle. Since this hasn't happened yet, we need to be careful, but we believe that Jesus' body—the same Jewish man that was crucified—will once again be visibly manifested on Earth, in a way that will be dramatic and obvious to everyone (Matthew 24:27)
glory: literally either fame or glowing. Both might literally apply to the situation of the Second Coming (if it is similar to the Transfiguration), especially if the point is to distinguish it from his first coming in humility. However, the term "glory" may also be a metaphor to describe the invisible glory that comes from being recognized by God, and being transformed into his spiritual likeness. In his letter to St. Timothy, St. Paul refers to this invisible glory as "unapproachable light":

"Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen." (1 Timothy 6:12-16)

Since no one can see it, it's clear Paul is not referring to electromagnetic radiation here.
judge: a literal judge is an earthly magistrate who settles disputes between people, but Christ refused that role: "Who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" (Luke 12:14).  He is the judge because our response to him determines our eternal destiny.  Even there he does not judge in the usual way:

"I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.  If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.   There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day." (John 12:47-48)

kingdom: Similarly Christ's kingdom is very different from an earthly kingdom. He reigns, not with force, but in men's hearts. "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, then my servants would fight, to prevent me from being delivered to the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place" (John 18:36).

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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