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“We believe” or “I believe” A look at the Nicene Creed

“We believe” or “I believe” A look at the Nicene Creed

We believe” or “I believe.” Every Sunday we proclaim our faith by means of the words of the Nicene Creed. This creed is the result of controversies in the early church. Incorrect views about God and about Jesus led the church to articulate her faith at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and the Council of Constantinople (381 AD).   

The English translation of this text (and, in fact, the whole Mass) which we have used for the past 40 years is now being revised. It is most likely that we shall be using these new texts by Fall 2011.

“I believe,” is the correct translation of the Latin, credo, and thus will replace the current, “We believe.” This reminds us that this is how we respond, as individuals, to the questions of our faith, even when we make this response in unison with others. Our faith demands an individual commitment.

The phrase, “of all that is seen and unseen,” has now become “of all things visible and invisible.” This is simply a more literal translation of the Latin, visibilium omnium et invisibilium.

We currently say that the Son is “eternally begotten of the Father.” The new text will read “born of the Father before all ages.” Two issues are at work here. “Born” is the normal translation of the Latin, natus est. However, it is clear that the early church, and we as well, do not think of this as a one-time event. It is not like saying, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem,” even though the same word, “born,” is being used. The Son is always being born of the Father and the Father is always begetting the Son. This new translation, while being faithful to the Latin, may cause some difficulties which “begotten” in the current translation did not cause. We will have to make sure we instruct one another on the true meaning of “born” in this context.

The second issue of this phrase is that “before all ages” is more faithful to the Latin, ante omnia saecula. Again, however, we have to be careful that we do not read this as an event that took place sometime long, long ago. Rather, we have to understand that this is an on-going eternal relationship between the Father and the Son which is beyond the ages or outside of time.

Another major change in our text is that the current words, “one in being with the Father,” will now be recited, “consubtantial with the Father.” This is a direct bringing into English of the Latin, consubstantialem patri. Even though this is a difficult word, it is good for us to become accustomed to it, for it is a technical term. Everything that exists – rocks, plants and people – all have being and we all have that being in God. So to use the term “being” does not quite capture the uniqueness of the fact that the Father and the Son, together with the Holy Spirit, are of the same substance, that is, that there is only one God. Consubstantial can mean both “with the substance” of the Father and “the very substance” of the Father. “One in being” does not quite catch that. So we will have to add a new term to our vocabulary, but that is not such a bad thing.

Another term we will have to learn is “incarnate.” Our current text reads, “he was born of the Virgin Mary,” while the new text will read, “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” This translates the Latin, incarnatus est … ex Maria Virgine. Again, this is simply a more precise translation. It also has the benefit of challenging all of us to grasp the significance of the incarnation of Christ, that is, his coming to us “in flesh.” God the Eternal and Almighty has loved us so much as to take on our flesh. This is such a fuller word than the simple word, “born,” in the current text.

There are a number of other minor changes to the Creed. We will all probably have to use a booklet or Mass card for some Sundays before we can memorize this new translation of the Creed. That will give us an opportunity to look at the words, reflect upon them, and say them aloud as the expression of what we hold as the core of our faith.

(Many thanks, for elements of this column, to Lynne Courter Broughton, “Begotten in Eternity, but Incarnate in Time,” Antiphon 13:2 (2009):132-158.)