In our modern Orthodox Liturgy, the Creed is prefaced by a diaconal word of command. That is, just before the Creed is chanted or sung, the deacon cries out, “The doors! The doors!” and only after this does he invite the faithful to join in reciting the Creed by saying, “In wisdom, let us attend!” In its original context, the deacon was calling out to the door-keeper who stood by the main doors into the church, telling him to close and guard the doors against uninvited and unwanted intruders. In the days of the pre-Nicene church, it was a poignantly practical command—what they were all about to do (offer the Eucharist) was a capital offence under Roman law, and the lives of all the worshippers could be immediately forfeit if the Roman soldiers broke in and caught them all. Hence the command to guard the doors.
The Creed was not introduced into the Divine Liturgy until about the late fifth century, under Peter the Fuller, patriarch of Antioch, long after the practical reasons for guarding the doors had ceased to apply. By the time the Creed was introduced, the assembled church had no reason to fear being raided by the Roman police and hauled off for punishment. Nonetheless, the liturgical proximity of the command to guard the doors with the recitation of the Creed is fortuitous, for both the guarding and the recitation serve to accomplish the same purpose.
That purpose is exclusion. The doors were closed to keep out those who had no spiritual right to attend the gathering of the holy Church around its Lord. The doors therefore formed not only a physical barrier between the Church and the World, but also a kind of symbol of the Church’s eschatological separation from the World as well. The World was indeed called to salvation, but the road to salvation led first to the baptismal font, and no one who had not first been immersed in its saving waters could join in the Eucharistic communion of the gathered Church. The closed doors stood as mute witness that the unbaptized or heretical world had no place among the Orthodox faithful.
It is the same with the Creed. Its purpose was to exclude error and keep those who embraced error away from the communion of those united in the truth. In our day, our culture exults in inclusivity. The word “inclusivity” is a kind of magic word, a happy word, a word of commendation. It joins other happy words like “tolerant,” “kind,” “generous,” “liberal,” “progressive.” To lack any of these virtues, our culture insists, is to fall short of authentic living, and this failure betrays a cold heart and a mean spirit. No one in our culture wants to be denounced as intolerant or as not being inclusive. All must be welcome everywhere, and excluding someone for any reason is judged to be a fault.
Thus, our culture does nothing to prepare us to appreciate this exclusionary function of the Creed. Our culture finds it disturbing and incomprehensible that anyone would be excluded from a religious act (such as receiving Holy Communion) because of their religious views, but that is precisely why the Nicene and Constantinopolitan statements were created. These creeds did nothing to increase the greater numerical unity of the Church, or to include more people happily within its fold. Arius and his supporters were already part of the wider Church before the Council met in 325, along with Athanasius and the three hundred and eighteen Fathers. But Arius was spreading spiritual poison, and it was urgently necessary that the bishops as spiritual shepherds protect their flock from it. They did so by excluding Arius and his like from the Church. If they could not bring Arius to sanity (as clearly they could not), they could at least stop the insanity from spreading among their own people. Thus the Creed was created as a litmus test to keep out those spreading error and poison. It was a line drawn in the sand, marking the extreme limits of truth and tolerance, beyond which the Church dare not go. It was a door, barred against the intruder and the wolf. The door-keeper in the pre-Nicene church guarded the doors. The bishops of Nicea and afterward guarded the true faith.
This means, of course, that truth is more important than unity, since the three hundred and eighteen deliberately chose the saving truth about Christ over greater inclusivity in the Church. Or, more precisely, this means that unity is based on truth, so that without agreement in the truth there can be no unity. And there was no truth more basic than this. The Fathers did not make agreement over (say) the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews the litmus test of unity, and exclude those of different opinions. They did not make liturgical conformity the basis for shared communion in the Church. Rather, they made the Christological question, “What do you think of Christ? Whose Son is He?” (Matthew 22:42) the basis of Eucharistic communion. Salvation consists of worshipping Jesus and giving one’s life to Him, of falling before Him and crying from the heart, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). It was to secure this saving confession from its faithful that the Fathers of Nicea drew their creedal line in the sand, and closed the doors of Communion to any who refused to offer this cry.
Nicea was a long time ago. But the choice they faced in a hot May in 325 A.D. still remains before us all today. In the contemporary world, many voices offer rival interpretations about Jesus of Nazareth, and many deny that He is the everlasting Son of the everlasting Father. For them, Jesus is a celebrity, a teacher, a wise man, the founder of an important world religion—but that is all. For the three hundred and eighteen, He was more than that. He was the divine Son of God, light from light, true God from true God, homoousios with the Father, the One by whom all things were made. There is no question more urgent and no choice more important than the choice between these two options. Nicea was a long time ago. But now is the moment of salvation. The Creed bids us make the right choice.
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