“Truly, truly I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.”
I still remember standing next to my dad at church. He was talking to another adult about adulty things like the weather or President Reagan (er, uh, Bush...I mean, W). I don’t remember because I was looking at my dad’s feet. I noticed his feet pointed out, and quickly adjusted my own to match. There are hundreds more significant traits I have copied from my father over the years, but this one always comes to mind when I consider this part of the Creed. It reminds me of Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of John, “Truly, truly I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.”
The Nicene Creed is carefully framed. As it transitions from its statement that the Creator of all things is the one God we know as Father, it begins a new sentence. “We believe in...” but now the object switches from “one God” to “one Lord.” It is no longer God’s title, but his name, “I Am.” This is a subtle way to signal that we are still dealing with the one God known through the Old Testament Scriptures, but that this God is not just “the Father,” but also “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.” This not only identifies the “one God” by giving his name, it further defines “Father” by naming his Son.
As you already know if you’ve been reading along with us, the Creed is not the composition of the bishops assembled at the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. It is based on a pattern of Christian confession that begins to take shape as early as the second century AD. Paul’s favorite way to open his epistles was “Grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” “The only Son” is one of the Apostle John’s favorite ways to describe Jesus. This phrase is often rendered “the Only-Begotten Son” by some older translations. However you translate them, these titles had been associated with one another for over 200 years by the time they get stuck in the Nicene Creed—we might say for as long as Christians had been reading the Apostles John and Paul.
But with all this talk of Jesus being the Son of God, and with the emphasis on his being born from a virgin, one might get the impression that Jesus became the Son of God at his birth. In the early centuries of the church, those who spoke of his “becoming the Son of God” usually pointed to an event 30 years after his birth in Bethlehem. Adoptionists claimed he was adopted as the Son of God at his baptism by John in the Jordan. Against the Adoptionists, the framers of the Creed insist that the Father-Son relationship is an eternal one.
This would also clinch a much greater dispute in the church. If you’ve been reading along with the series, you know it was the pote-mouthed Arius who claimed “there was a time when the Son was not.” Indeed, God brought the Son into existence long before he created anything else, but clearly if one is a son, there was a time when he didn’t exist, right? I mean, have you ever seen a son that didn’t come into existence at a point in time? Christians in the 4th century will claim Arius is asking the wrong question. The real question is “Have you ever seen a son that didn’t bear the traits of his father?”
Remember my dad’s feet? Turns out that his feet had more to do with his hip alignment than his service in the Marine Corps, and if I would have looked at my own feet before adjusting them I would have notice I had already inherited my dad’s wonky hips. Eternality, like hip alignment, is hereditary. Arius had been trying to defend monotheism, and the sole-deity of the Father. But you don’t do the Father any favors by saying he begat the Son imperfectly. In fact, you deny him Fatherhood. If there was a time when he didn’t have a Son, then there was a time when he was not Father.
No, the Son of God is eternally begotten of the Father. Gregory of Nazianzus explains “He is from, not after.” He is “God from God.” He is “Light from Light.” He is “true God from true God.”
Tyson Guthrie - Flower Mound Faculty & Theology Department Coordinator