I Believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth
To us today, it sounds a little odd to begin a creed with anything so obvious as the fact that there exists but one God, and that this almighty Father is the creator of heaven and earth. Given that the rest of the creed is devoted to proclaiming the Church’s position on controversial things (such as the full divinity of Jesus), how could the fact that God the Father is the creator be remotely controversial?
Welcome to the wonderful and whacky world of Gnosticism. Gnosticism is the title given by scholars to a series of sects in the early Christian centuries proclaiming a rival version of Christianity. Each had its own founder, the earliest (if you don’t count the great grand-daddy of heretics, Simon Magus; see Acts 8:9f) being Marcion who taught at Rome in the second century and died 160 A.D. Each teacher put his own spin on the historic Christian Faith, and each competed for disciples (i.e. for money; they would usually charge fees for their lectures). Some of the more successful teachers were Valentinus and Basilides. The movement produced its own literature, including the now-famous Gospel of Judas, which was written in about the late second century. The Gnostics were a diverse bunch, but they did share certain things in common.
One thing they shared in common was a disdain for the plain meaning of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (that is doubtless why some Gnostic groups produced their own gospels). Isolated sayings of Jesus were seized upon and subjected to wild and symbolic interpretations. Another thing they shared was a disdain for the historic and apostolic Church, which they regarded as too unspiritual and as fit only for beginners at best. The really spiritual people, the ones in the know (the word “gnostic” comes from the Greek word gnosis, knowledge) would, of course, shun that unspiritual bunch of plodders and join the Gnostics instead.
Another thing they all shared in common was a horror of the physical world. They thought that an earthly, physical, fleshly existence was radically incompatible with a truly spiritual life, and so obviously the one true God would never have done anything so crass and tasteless as creating matter. How then did matter come to exist? Through a series of emanations, or aeons. The one true God was too exalted to soil Himself with the physical creation. He emitted an inferior emanation, who in turn emitted an inferior emanation, etc., etc., etc. How many emanations were necessary before the last one was inferior enough and crass enough to create the heaven and the earth? By one count, forty. And oh yes: the Jewish God was considered the crass creator of heaven and earth, but He was so far down the line that He was in ignorance of the emanations above Him.
For people of that time, it was all so exciting. How deliciously esoteric! St. Irenaeus, in his massive multi-volume work known now as Against Heresies, unravels all this nonsense, patiently explaining to his Orthodox readers what the various Gnostic teachers taught in their varied systems. He takes, for example, the teaching of Valentinus (Against Heresies, Bk I, chapter 11). Valentinus posited a certain two-fold being, the Dyad, one part called Inexpressible and the other part called Silence. From this Dyad, a second dyad was produced, called Father and Truth. From these four another four were emitted, whom Valentinus calls Word, Life, Man, and Church. This is the Ogdoad, the Eight. From Word and Life, ten more were emitted, and from Man and Church, another twelve. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Each Gnostic teacher seemed to have his own spin, and produce names more or less at will. Indeed, Irenaeus lampoons them for clearly making it up as they go along. And he says in effect, Anybody could invent their own religion like this. I could do it. Let me try:
There is a certain Pre-source, a power existing before every other essence. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd, and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, produced a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-emptiness, the Cucumber and the Melon brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus! (the quote is from Against Heresies, Bk. I, chapter 11)
Ouch. Point taken. By playing their own game and showing the Gnostics up through a kind of reductio ad absurdum, Irenaeus reveals Gnosticism as the nonsense it is. It all sounds bizarre to us today, but at that time, the Gnostics gained a great following. For the Gnostics as a whole, the Father of our Lord Jesus was not the creator God of the Old Testament. This creator God was an inferior deity, and Jesus, sent by the Father, came essentially to undo His work. Their view that the physical created world of sex, blood, excrement, and death was all too wretched and unspiritual to be the work of a truly exalted God desperately needed contradicting. And so the Church set about to contradict it in the opening words of the Creed.
Against the assertions of the Gnostics, the Church proclaims that there is only one God—the creator God of the Old Testament. There were no emanations from Him, no lesser deities, no emitted gods. The one true God was the creator—and this God was also the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. As challenging as bits of the Old Testament record might be to explain, the Old Testament God was indeed the Father of Jesus. Devaluing the created world as if it were some kind of divine mistake or something unspiritual from which we needed to be freed was out of the question. The world, though fallen, was created good, and it remains good. Food is good, and all food could be eaten if offered with thanksgiving. Sex was good, and could be lawfully used in marriage. Wine was good, and not only gladdened the heart of man (Psalm 104:15) but became a source of grace and salvation in the Eucharist. The body was good, and in Christ could become the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
The Gnostics that St. Irenaeus knew have long since ceased being a threat to the faithful of the Church. But, sad to say, some of their spirit lingers in the world. Whenever one devalues or rejects the Old Testament as “sub-Christian” or as “less inspired” or as “contradictory” to the Gospel, we see the lingering influence of Gnosticism. It is as if Marcion stirs in his long sleep, for he was adamant that the Old Testament and its inferior deity had no place in the Church.
Confessing the opening words of the Creed commits us to the view that the God of the Old Testament is our God, the One who sent and worked through His Son to bring us a salvation that transcended all that He had done before. It also commits us to an implacable monotheism, and to the view that all the multitudes of other gods (such as we find so numerous in the Indian subcontinent) are not truly gods at all. As the Psalmist says: “All the gods of the peoples are idols; but the Lord made the heavens” (Ps. 96:5). We believe the Psalmist. We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
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