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Thomas Jackson – AAR 2009 Upper Midwest Mtg.

Revisiting the Nicene Creed: A Feminist Perspective When placed in dialogue with the Nicene Creed’s depiction of the divine, the lived experiences of feminist theologians and laypersons give rise to a variety of theological and ecclesial concerns. In order to address these rising concerns, re-envisioning of the Creed is necessary. A new vision of creedal statements should be formulated in such a way as to maintain the confessional nature of the creeds while putting an end to the verbiages within these statements that facilitate oppressive misinterpretations. Feminist theologians offer some of the following concerns in order to prompt such re-envisioning; the attribution of male sexuality to each Trinitarian person, the under-qualified use of Lord as a descriptive image, and a tendency toward stagnant pneumatology. The Nicene Creed has been particularly selected as the object of our examination because of its concern for the life of faith as one of communal kinship and solidarity. Creedal sections, which elicit feminist critique, will be presented, followed with elaborations of feminist concern, and our examination will conclude with the submission of an alternative wording for the Creed. The creed progresses through an organized confession of distinction persons, however mention is made of other Trinitarian persons within articles that are not particularly designated for them. Our examination
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will reflect this interrelationship in an effort to emphasize the cohesive, though diverse, nature of the triune God. The purpose of this presentation is not to reaffirm, reject, or replace the entirety of the Nicene Creed but to open the door to constructive, critical conversations upon Christianity’s cherished statements of faith. The First Article: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. – The Nicene Creed; First Article Two aspects of the first article of the Nicene Creed concern feminist theologians. We shall begin first, with the critiqued description of God as Father. Secondly we shall address feminist concerns with the ‘almightyness’ of such a father. Concern #1) The Nicene Creed confesses belief in God the Father. The image of father is indeed scriptural, both Old and New Testaments attest to this image. Isaiah 64:8 says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” More familiar to the theological imagination, Matthew 6:9 attests to Jesus directing his disciples to, “Pray then in this way; Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” One of many scriptural examples using the image

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of Father, the Lord’s Prayer has cemented this image into the theological vocabulary of Christians across the world. Used as the principal descriptor for the first person, the image of Father projects characteristics upon the divine. This is unavoidable in matters of language. The manner in which someone or something is described is inherently connected to the manner in which that person or thing is considered. Some characteristics of fatherhood are wholesome, beautiful, and helpful in describing the nature of God. Other characteristics of fatherhood however, as exemplified throughout the tragic events of our time, are less than beneficial. Elizabeth Johnson asserts that, whether wholesome or not, such imagery “functions as a tool of symbolic violence against the full self-identity of female persons, blocking their identity as images of God and curtailing their access to divine power.” 1 In consideration of Father as a theological metaphor, we must be clear about two things; First, use of fatherhood as a metaphor for the divine should not be rejected simply because of conflicting contemporary examples of fatherhood. Although different kinds of fathers exist in various contexts, consideration of the divine is constrained if the metaphor of fatherhood is
Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is : The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 38.

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solely qualified by the wholesome examples with which we may identify. The Lord’s Prayer is directed to a heavenly father who grants daily bread to all people, forgives sins, saves from trial, and delivers from evil. However, scripture also attests to attributes of fatherhood considered unwholesome. Deuteronomy 31:16-17 records the words of the divine unto Moses. “Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst … they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them. My anger will be kindled against them in that day. I will forsake them and hide my face from them; they will become easy prey, and many terrible troubles will come upon them.” Anger and separation are divine characteristics also attested to within prophetic works, but we must emphasize that such examples are not paradigmatic to the nature of the God we encounter in scripture. Nevertheless, it is important to note their presence. Second, the imagery used to facilitate conceptualization of and communication with the divine should not be constrained to fatherhood. Mary Daly writes; “If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male dominated. … Within this context, a mystification of roles takes place: the husband dominating the wife represents God himself. What is happening, of course, is the familiar mechanism by which the images and values of a given society are

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projected into a realm of beliefs which in turn justify the social infrastructure.” 2 In addition to the myriad of examples supporting the image of father, there are maternal examples as well. The Gospels record Jesus’ parabolic description of the divine as a woman searching diligently for a lost coin as well as Christ’s own desire to gather up the children of Jerusalem, as a hen gathers her brood. Sole adherence to fatherhood as a metaphor constitutive of the divine identity, even when constrained to the first Trinitarian person, is idolatry. It is idolatrous because, like coronary heart disease, it prevents circulation of the divine vitality to creation and prevents creation from freely responding to God’s gifts of grace. Concerning the constraint placed upon the divine through gendered metaphor, Johnson writes; “The mystery of God is properly understood as neither male nor female but transcends both in an unimaginable way. But insofar as God creates both male and female in the divine image and is the source of the perfections of both, either can equally well be used as metaphor to point to divine mystery. Both in fact are needed for less inadequate speech about God, in whose image the human race is created.” 3

Mary Daly, "After the Death of God the Father," Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion (1979): 54.


Johnson, She Who Is : The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, 55.

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The feminist critique of the image of Father is not simply one made against sexist andocentric ideology. It also recognizes the way such imagery prevents all of humanity from participation in the divine. Concern #2) The first article quantifies and qualifies the image of Father, using almighty to describe the first Trinitarian person. Chiefly this descriptor is used to quantify the divine as omnipotent. Throughout history, ‘almighty-ness’ has carried various qualitative meanings concerning the way power is employed. Given the corruption of individuals and institutions in our era, it is easy to identify dehumanizing and detrimental examples of rulers, companies, or countries depicted as almighty. To portray the divine in terms of might, leads one close to a precipice of misunderstanding. If one is familiar with systematic abuses of power or physical abuse within the home, depicting the divine primarily in terms of power and might is problematic at best. The problematic aspect of using ‘almighty’ as theological adjective comes precisely as we understand the divine’s use of power in history. In Jeremiah 25:9, King Nebuchadnezzar is described as the servant of God, using the power of kingdom to lay siege to Jerusalem. Contemporary circumstances, though theologically misinterpreted, are also seen as the divine’s use of power in order to punish humanity. Here one has only to
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recall the radical boycotts of Westboro Baptist Church or the unfortunate comments of Jerry Falwell following 9/11. In contrast to these unsettling examples, the nature of God is understood qualitatively as omnipotent and quantitatively as omni-benevolent. Concerning omnipotence, the divine is rightly imaged as one whose possession of power cannot be rivaled. Omnibenevolence concerns the employment of power insofar as the Christ-event testifies to the divine display of power chiefly in weakness. We are called to confess and proclaim Christ’s death on a torturous instrument of execution as a victorious redemption. Therefore, we are challenged to conceptualize the divine use of power through a different hermeneutic. Through the radical sacrifice of God’s own self on the cross, Christians have their realities transformed by faith, knowing that God is ready, willing, and able to work in and through circumstances foreseen and unforeseen. The Second Article: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. – The Nicene Creed; Second Article
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In the description of the second Trinitarian person’s distinctive qualities, the interrelation of the triune Godhead gives rise to several theological complications. Three thematic concerns are of particular interest. We shall begin our examination first with the imagery of lordship and kingdom. The second item of concern is the ambiguous gendered language arising from depictions of Trinitarian interpersonal relationality. The third item we shall consider is the qualification of the soteriological work of Christ. Concern #1) The most troubling aspect of the second article, for global feminist theologians, is the imagery of lordship and kingdom used to describe Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is confessed as Lord, one who sits at the right hand of the Father, and one whose kingdom will have no end. Feminist and liberation theologians view this imagery as predominantly manifested throughout history in oppressive, dehumanizing patriarchal institutions of subjugation. To those who have not been so fortunate as to live in contexts of comfort and safety, these images of lordship and kingdom are instantly targeted by a theological hermeneutic of suspicion. ‘What sort of Lord are we confessing here?’ Such a question is common from Latin American or African feminist theologians. These women (and men) have experienced corrupt systems of government and
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communal organizations wherein positions of authority are employed for the abuse, neglect, oppression, and subjugation of women or entire ethnic communities. To hear the word ‘lord’ or ‘kingdom’ from such a perspective is to elicit images of oppressive dominion and malevolent leadership. Without a fleshed out confession to qualify the sort of soteriological work accomplished in and through the incarnation, this question remains open and valid. The life of Christ is not depicted within the creedal confession, so we are also left to wonder what sort of kingdom we are confessing here as well. In the absence of scriptural assurances within the creed itself, to qualify the images of lordship and kingdom, feminist and liberation theologians find themselves hesitant to resign their sense of security to religious institutions. With ecclesial communities already critiqued for demonizing the feminine and excluding women from egalitarian positions of leadership and service, it is of little surprise that these images are difficult to accept. It should also be noted that this language is repugnant to Western feminist theologians as well. In an era where economic equality between the sexes is absent, where individual rights are pressured by social or governmental interests, and where gender segregation struggles against societal norms, such images are also received as threatening and treated with suspicion. If we are to understand the incarnation as a distinct relational
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move on the part of divine to connect with and redeem creation, then we need to establish imagery depicting such a move, connection, and redemption in a faithful manner. Concern #2) Within the second article, the masculinity of the first person is depicted using verbiage associated with femininity. ‘Begotten’ is the specific verb in question, describing the manner in which the first Trinitarian person begets the second. In the composition of the Creed, this verb is particularly important insofar as it combats the Arian heresy, which asserted that Jesus Christ was a created being and was not ‘of one being with the father.’ Feminists are critical of this verb’s use insofar as the divine is pictured as the subject ‘driving’ the verb in question. In consideration of the second person as uncreated and begotten from the first, the most useful metaphor is that of childbirth. The focus of both the word ‘begotten’ and the metaphor of childbirth concerns the description of the second person’s coeternity within the Trinity. Simply put, the most effective way of conceiving the homoousian connection between the first and second persons of the Trinity is to consider the relationship between mother and child. When a mother first looks at her child, she identifies and connects with it; her eyes, nose, or smile have taken form in this new being which, although being intimately related to herself, is simultaneously and uniquely other. The
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metaphorical use of the female with the verb ‘begotten’ is useful because it describes the connection between two individuals of the same substance. The feminist critique against this metaphorical theology arises as the socalled ‘fatherhood’ of the first person is understood to be performing a conceptually feminine action. Theologically, any feminine nature of the divine is thereby relegated to a function of the wholly masculine identity. This relegation continues in the creedal discussion of the incarnation of the second Trinitarian person “by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Ecclesial interpretations of the Creed tend to interpret this phrase in light of the creedal treatment of the third article. The Holy Spirit is therefore regarded as masculine and highly involved in the incarnation of the second person. Feminist theologians however, connect the Holy Spirit with the feminine Shekinah of the Old Testament. The Shekinah is the intimate, creative indwelling of the Spirit of God and is associated with the incarnation. Therefore, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit, the feminine creative power of the Shekinah, that the second person is enfleshed in the womb of the Virgin. In this constructive move, the female is seen as responsible for bringing the male into existence. This is fallacious insofar as it represents yet another constraining instance of gender projection upon the divine. Despite differences among interpretations of the gendered nature of the Trinity, there
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is nevertheless an acknowledged mutuality of involvement among Trinitarian persons. The incarnation testifies to cooperation among Trinitarian persons, not a gender battle for ‘primacy.’ Concern #3) The under-qualification of the soteriological work of the incarnate Christ is of global concern to many feminist and liberation theologians. The second article states that the Jesus Christ came down from heaven “for us and for our salvation” and suffered crucifixion “for our sake.” The Nicene Creed was not intended to undertake the variety of atonement theories, but the questions of feminist and global liberation theologians still stand. What people are included in the ‘us’ for whom Christ became incarnate? What sort of salvation is opened up in the incarnation and through the crucifixion? Historically, women were included in the ‘us’ insofar as they adhered to the ‘divinely ordained’ hierarchical leadership of males. The salvation accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Christ was largely constrained to the spiritual realm, the salvation of one’s soul. The concerns of feminist and liberation theologians; salvation from poverty, oppression, sexism, racism, etc. were deemed of lesser importance. In order to alleviate the concerns of feminist theologians and laypersons, descriptions of Christ’s soteriological work within the creed require fuller qualification.
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The Third Article: We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen. – The Nicene Creed, Third Article The third article could be considered as the ‘theological catch-all’ for the Nicene Creed. Whereas the other articles flesh out the theological nuances of their respective Triune Person, the third article gives passing mention of the Holy Spirit. Focus is given instead to ecclesiology, sacramentality, and eschatology. Indeed these areas of Christian theology are integrally linked to the Holy Spirit, but their focus here raises an important question. Is there a theological sense of subservience conveyed upon the Holy Spirit? One would have valid reasons for asserting such a proposition. There is no mention of the Holy Spirit within the first article. Within the second article, the Holy Spirit is mechanically likened to a conduit through which the preexistent Logos passed into the physical realm. Despite this inferential critique of inferiority, feminist theologians raise three concerns regarding the third article. First, we shall briefly examine the reemergence of the imagery of lordship. The second concern to be examined is the troublesome (though necessary) language of filioque. The third item of
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concern is the seemingly static portrayal of the third person’s prophetic work. Concern #1) Once more feminist theologians find themselves confronted with the troublesome imagery of lordship. Since we have addressed this issue twice before, this instantiation requires only a little more to be said. The Holy Spirit’s activity in and through the prophetic calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying of all people, is an activity characterized in a radically different matter from the myriad of historical and contemporary images of lordship. This activity is characterized by its humility, inspiration, and empowerment and not by pride, domination, and subjugation. Concern #2) The troublesome, though necessary, inclusion of the filioque clause within the third article is, to put it brashly, a necessary evil. Its inclusion at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 was to combat the notion that the Holy Spirit was somehow inferior to the first and second persons. Concern regarding the inferiority of the Holy Spirit is assuaged by the clarification that, with the first and second Trinitarian persons, the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified. Despite this careful theological footwork to maintain coequality, there is still an ecclesial sense of inferiority regarding the nature of that worship and glorification. Pentecostalism and
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Greek Orthodoxy hold a high regard for the third person. Within the Western church however, it is more common for the Holy Spirit to finish out the list of divine persons to whom the faithful address their prayers and praise. The feminist concern here is that, given the rich feminine pneumatology within the Old Testament, more esteem and worship should be ascribed to the many and various ways through which the Holy Spirit has worked and is working in the world. Concern #3) With this concern for increased consideration, representation, and participation; we arrive at a related, feminist concern with the third article of the creed. The third article uses the past tense, describing how the Holy Spirit “has spoken through the prophets.” There is a troubling sense of finality and stagnation in these words. Feminist theologians and lay persons alike cry out in wonder, “What about now? Doesn’t the Holy Spirit speak through prophets and prophetesses now?” The concern for participation here out-sounds any critique against the masculine pronoun describing the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, we must be careful to note the difference between the literal concern within the Creed itself and the spiritual concern of feminist theologians who critique it on this matter. When the Creed speaks with finality of the Holy Spirit’s speech through prophetic witness, it does so to emphasize that the Messianic
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promise to which those prophets pointed has already arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ has indeed come and so the feminist concern must be reworded. Following the Christ-event, the Holy Spirit’s activity is understood as in and among the priesthood of believers, male and female, within their apostolic vocational preaching and service. Apostolic witness inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit pushes toward concrete manifestations of God’s vitality and compassion, and lives in the expectant hope for “resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Conclusion: It is with such a hope and in light of the critiques and concerns previously raised, that the following humble re-envisioning of the Creed is offered. We may consider creedal statements as completed puzzles, consolidating the many and various pieces of Christian theology into one holistic image. Instead, it is more helpful to regard the creed as a mystery into which we are invited to partake in discerning the nuances and intricacies of the unfathomable divine. Again, this effort is not intended to replace the Nicene Creed, but to encourage conversation concerning aspects of the Creed that give us cause for anxiety or joy. This is a humble attempt to reimagine the confessions of the creed with the concerns of contemporary feminist theology in mind.
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We believe in one omnipotent God, who employed divine potency in the creation of heaven, earth, and all that exists. We confess that all things have come into being through this same God, those seen and unseen, those remembered and those forgotten. We praise the omnipotent God who, through divine benevolence, has and continues to nurture and sustain all of creation. We believe in the creative and redemptive Word of God. This Word is borne of God from eternity, not created but birthed forth from God’s very self. Through this Word of God all things were made, those seen and unseen. For the salvation of all of creation; humanity, plants and animals, this Word of God was pleased to dwell among humanity and left divine habitation. By the intimate, creative, and indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, this Word of God became enfleshed in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born man. So that all of humanity and creation might be reconciled into the full honor, integrity, and health of relationship with the divine, this divine enfleshed Word of God was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and dwells in glory, with and as, the omnipotent God. This resurrected, enfleshed Word of God will come again in glory, to judge the world in righteousness, and to inaugurate an eternal kingdom of justice, life, and peace. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the consoling, challenging, and inspiring Spirit of God; the giver of life. The Holy Spirit has been sent into the world by the omnipotent God and is also enflamed in our hearts in and through the proclaimed Word of God. Together with the omnipotent God and the Word of God, in one holistic divine being, the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified for the many and various ways this Spirit has and continues to inspire, transform, and reconcile all the faithful, male and female alike. The Holy Spirit of God has spoken and continues to speak to and among us through the Word of God and faithful proclamation. The Triune God, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit inspires, gathers, and sanctifies the whole Christian church, making and keeping it holy just as God is holy. The Holy Spirit of God is vitally at work in the proclaimed Word of God, baptismal rebirth, and in the Eucharistic forgiveness of sins. This same Spirit inspires us to live and serve the Triune God in paths of mercy, justice, and peace, as we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
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