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The Nicene Creed: The Portrait of the King

Date: 
October 30, 2020

I concluded my previous note with questions about the need for confessions and creeds. Is it not enough to simply have the Bible? Why do we need a confession of faith, when we have God’s inspired and inerrant Word? Can (or should) we not simply confess, “Jesus is Lord” as Paul says in Romans 10:9?

Arguing that we need confessions and creeds may call into question the sufficiency of Scripture. I agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” (WCF 1.6) We should agree with what the confession states, but we can also acknowledge the value of the confession itself, which affirms the sufficiency of Scripture.

We don’t need confessions and creeds because Scripture is deficient. Confessions and creeds don’t supplement Scripture, they acknowledge and affirm Scripture.

In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons considered the question of why we need confessions and creeds. At the time, there were Gnostic Christians who confessed, “Jesus is Lord” but what they meant by that confession denied what Scripture affirmed. They denied that the Lord Jesus was incarnate, that he suffered and died in our place for our sin, and that he was raised in the flesh on the third day. They said they believed in the resurrection, but for them resurrection meant spiritual enlightenment and liberation from the body.

Both true believers and Gnostics were confessing the lordship of Christ and his resurrection, but the Gnostics denied what Scripture affirmed about the lordship of Christ and his resurrection. In response to the Gnostics, the church wrote a confession of faith that affirmed what Scripture revealed and taught about God. This confession was called “the rule of faith” or “the rule of truth,” which Irenaeus cites in his big book Against Heresies:

The church, dispersed throughout the world to the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples the faith in one God the Father Almighty, “who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them” (Exod. 20:11), and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, incarnate for our salvation, and in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets predicted the dispensations of God: the coming, the birth from the Virgin, the passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension of the beloved Jesus Christ our Lord in the flesh into the heavens, and his coming from the heavens in the glory of the Father to “recapitulate all things” (Eph. 1:10) and raise up all flesh of the human race ... (Adv. haer. I.10.1).

The rule of faith is simply a summary of the what the Bible affirms about the Triune God, creation, and redemption.

The word “rule” is a translation of the Latin word regula and the Greek word kanōn (canon). The rule of faith or canon of truth was a doctrinal statement which regulated or canonized Christian teaching and faith. Think of how we use a ruler. We use it to measure things and we use it to draw straight lines. The rule of faith functions the same way. Various ideas, truth claims, and interpretations of Scripture can be measured by the rule of faith and can be proven straight (or crooked) by their alignment with the rule of faith.

The rule of faith regulates biblical interpretation. Irenaeus writes that the Gnostics tried to prove their doctrine by “changing the interpretations and twisting the exegesis” of Scripture (Adv. haer. I.3.6). He uses an analogy to illustrate this twisting exegesis. He compares Scripture to a mosaic portrait of a king. Looking at isolated passages of Scripture can be like looking at individual stones or tiles in the mosaic; however, when you step back, you see that there’s a logic and an ordering to the stones, which together present the portrait of the king. The rule of faith is analogous to the image of the king. It’s the picture we see when we look at the biblical message as a whole.

The Gnostics had taken the various stones of the mosaic and rearranged them, producing the image of a dog or a fox. They quoted Scripture, but they twisted it to promote their own false doctrine. Irenaeus warns, “such is their doctrine, which the prophets did not proclaim, the Lord did not teach, and the apostles did not transmit. They boast that they have known it more abundantly than anyone else, citing it from unwritten sources … They contradict the order and the continuity of the scriptures and, as best they can, dissolve the members of the truth” (Adv. haer. I.8.1).

There’s an order and continuity of the Scriptures, which provides the basic structure and content of biblical doctrine. When the order and continuity of Scripture is recognized, the image of the king is seen. He cannot be mistaken for a fox. The Nicene Creed provides the basic outline of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. Any doctrine claiming to be derived from Scripture can be measured by this outline.

We confess that Jesus is Lord, which means he is the eternal Son from the Father. We confess One God, who is Triune, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In my next note, we’ll consider what it means to confess “we believe in one God.”

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