April 1st, 2019
This article is adapted from La fede nicena è la base teologica dell’ecumenismo?, “Studi di teologia” 61 (2019) pp. 65-69.
The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) is often studied by church historians who are interested in coming to terms with the affirmation of orthodox Christology founded on the consubstantiality between the Father and the Son (i.e. the Son having the same divine nature as the Father). Not just a historical event, Nicaea evokes a doctrinal symbol, hinged on the Trinitarian faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Its explicitly trinitarian framework has become the normative reference point for orthodox Christianity.
The terms “Nicene faith” or “Nicene Christianity” are considered synonyms of Christianity. They are sufficiently defined in the essentials, but still free from the subsequent confessional incrustations that “divided” Christianity between the Eastern and Western Churches in the 11th century and the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in the 16th century.
Wanting to commend the plausibility of the Christian faith, in 1952 the British intellectual C.S. Lewis coined the expression “mere Christianity.” He did so precisely to indicate those essential contours of the Christian faith that are enucleated in the Nicene creed, which all Christians, whatever tradition they belong to (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc.), make their own. In contemporary ecumenical theology, the “Nicene faith”, often referred to as the “Great Tradition”, is considered the theological platform on which all traditional Christian families must recognize each other since they all stem from the historical tree of Nicene Christianity. In this perspective, Nicaea is a symbol of the undivided past that becomes the hope of a unity to be rediscovered.
The Appeal to Nicene Christianity in Evangelicalism
The strong appeal to the “Nicene faith” goes beyond ecumenical circles. Wanting to overcome the fundamentalist tendency that has downplayed the historical heritage of the faith, important sectors of the evangelical world have loudly called on evangelicalism to “reclaim” the apostolic testimony that finds its dogmatic symbol par excellence in the Nicene faith. This pressing invitation has set in motion a certain dynamism in the study of the Church Fathers in the last few decades, even among evangelical scholars. The idea has gained popularity amongst evangelicals that the Nicene faith (centered on the profession of the Trinity and on an orthodox Christology) is the common ground between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, while differences would lie in doctrines such as soteriology, ecclesiology, Mariology, etc. The Nicene faith apparently shared by all is the common basis that would reflect “a deeper agreement” between all the expressions of Christianity, “despite profound disagreements” between them that have occurred later. In the words of Craig Carter, “The Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy begins with the Old and New Testaments, crystalizes in the fourth-century trinitarian debates, and then continues through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the leading Protestant Reformers, post-Reformation scholasticism, and contemporary conservative Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant confessional theology”. Here is the “Nicene” ecumenism of the great tradition: a transversal front that embraces the conservatives of all the families of Christendom and that incorporates all those who refer to Nicaea as their theological platform.
The question to ask is whether or not the Nicene faith can play the role that is assigned to it. One needs to verify the plausibility of the idea that contemporary ecumenism can find in Nicaea a meeting point that historically precedes the confessional controversies, theologically welcomes all the confessions developed after Nicaea, and provides an ecumenical common basis for rebuilding the lost unity.
So, is the Nicene faith (or can it be) the theological basis for contemporary ecumenism? The answer is negative for at least three reasons. Let’s look at them in order.
Three Objections to the Ecumenical Use of the Nicene Faith
First, the vocabulary of Nicaea to which all confessions refer is the same: God the Father, Jesus Christ, salvation, Holy Spirit, virgin Mary, church, a holy apostolic catholic church, baptism, remission of sins. But while the signifiers are the same, inasmuch as the same sounds combine to form the same words linked together in the same order, the same cannot be said of the theological meaning of the words used. When a Roman Catholic refers to the “virgin Mary”, to “salvation”, to “the church”, etc., does he mean the same thing as an evangelical, an orthodox, or a liberal Protestant would mean when using the same words? Of course not. Think of the word “salvation”: a Roman Catholic would understand it as a sacramental journey under the authority of the church and with the help of the intercessions of Mary and the saints; an evangelical understands salvation as being grounded solely on Jesus Christ and received by faith alone; a liberal would tend to understand it as the attempt to be a better person who lives in a better society. The word is the same but the meaning is substantially different. How can the reference to Nicaea bridge the gap? Think of the word “church”: the Roman Catholic has a view of the church as a hierarchical society whose absolute leader is the Pope, who is given the title of vicar of Christ; evangelicals understand the church largely as a fellowship of believers who bear witness to the gospel but who do not prolong the incarnation of Jesus Christ and therefore do not reclaim his prerogatives. The “Great Tradition” speaks of the “church”, but do we believe the same “church”? Examples could be easily multiplied.
There is an area of overlap and an area of differentiation that makes the use of the same terms equivocal. In fact, the words of the Nicene creed are marked by theologically different understandings. In the common recitation, the impression is that they all say the same thing; this is true on a phonetic level, but not at the semantic level. Calling the Nicene faith the common basis can be an emotional appeal, but it is not a responsible action because, while the impression is given that we say the same things, the reality is that we are saying different things.
Second, Nicaea is not a point of arrival, but a step in the history of the church. For example, Nicaea was followed by Ephesus (431 AD), which dogmatized the Marian title of “mother of God”; the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which defined justification as a synergistic process within a sacramental system; the Marian dogmas of the immaculate conception (1854) and bodily assumption (1950); the First Vatican Council (1870) with the dogma of papal infallibility; and by Vatican II (1962-1965) with its inclusive catholicity. The theology of the various traditions is today characterized by a doctrinal and spiritual stratification that is irreversible and no longer that of Nicaea. For example, Roman Catholicism has given dogmatic status to its Mariology and Papacy. These Marian and papal dogmas impinge on Christology, the doctrine of the Spirit, ecclesiology, and salvation. When Nicaea refers to Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and the church, present-day Roman Catholicism also reads Mary into the background. When Nicaea refers to salvation and the forgiveness of sins, Roman Catholicism after Trent reads the sacraments and indulgences. It is not possible to put the clock back as if 1700 years of history had not happened. It is simplistic, as well as antihistoric, to think that the common profession of Nicaea can be extracted from the important additions, which have become the Roman Catholic interpretative keys of creedal Christianity. Nicaea can’t bring people together because Evangelicals and Catholics have developed different dogmas and practices in their histories in all key areas of the Christian faith.
Third and finally, the Nicene faith cannot be the basis of contemporary ecumenism because of the different role that the different Christian traditions ascribe to the profession of a creed. What does it mean to “profess” a creed like that of Nicaea? To learn it by heart and recite it? To believe in the affirmations it contains? To identify oneself in the worldview to which it gives voice? To perform a conventional act linked to a traditional religious practice? To mechanically repeat a “jingle” that evokes our childhood? The range of possibilities for the appropriation of Nicaea is wide. For example, how many liberal Christians (who would have no problem saying that Nicaea is important) believe that God is truly the Creator of the heavens and the earth? How convinced are they that Jesus was really born of the virgin Mary, or that He bodily rose from the dead? If we have even a little acquaintance with contemporary theology, we will realize how many interpretations there are of these and other cornerstones of the Christian faith. So what does it mean to profess the united faith in a united way if, despite reciting the same words, we believe substantially different doctrines? In addition, for how many nominal Christians does the recitation of the creed make a difference in their life? What does it mean to say “I believe …” for many people who, despite having been baptized and occasionally attending religious services, are not regenerated, and therefore are not believers? Of course they can recite the Nicene creed, but this profession is very often a rhetorical exercise with almost no spiritual value. Reciting it together does not in and of itself bring unity.
Referring to Nicaea as the common basis of ecumenism is wishful thinking rather than theologically responsible hope. In light of these three reasons, among Christian confessions and traditions there is a deeper disagreement, despite some areas of apparent and formal agreement. The way of unity always passes by the biblical truth that the Council of Nicaea tried to honor, even in the complexities of history. In itself, Nicaea is necessary. But it is not sufficient to express the biblical unity for which the Lord Jesus prayed and gave His life in order to achieve.
 See for example C. Steitz (ed.), Nicene Christianity. The Future of a New Ecumenism (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004).
 T. George (ed.), Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith. Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011).
 For a survey see K. Stewart, Evangelicalism and Patristic Chrisitianity: 1517 to the present, “The Evangelical Quarterly” 80.4 (2008) pp. 307-321.
 This is the approach taken by the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative since 1994. A collection of all the ECT documents can be found in T. George – T.G. Guarino (edd.), Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015).
 As it is argued by K. Collins – J. Walls, Roman but not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (Grand Rapids: MI, Baker, 2017) p. 78.
 C.A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Pre-modern Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018) p. xi.