Tradition and Normative Texts in Christianity

The following is the text of a lecture. – Accompanying slides are here.


“Tradition and Normative Texts in Christianity” – Tradition is a key concept in Christianity. It is closely connected to the concepts of normativity or authority.

It is characteristic for normative traditions

  • that they are subject to a permanent process of change,
  • that they adapt to new conditions and cultural contexts,
  • that they are open to re-interpretation and re-construction.

The “Nicene” Creed

In my presentation I now would like to focus on one normative Christian text with which I currently deal in my work on the edition of the “Dokumente zur Geschichte des arianischen Streites” and which Christians almost everywhere today use. It is the so called “Nicene” Creed. Taking this text as a particularly well suited example I would like to provide insights into the processes that lead to normativity in the first place and that then transform normative texts in the course of history.

Besides the bible, of course, the “Nicene” Creed is one of the key texts in Christian tradition. There may be no need for proof for that, but as an example I want to point you to Article VIII from the “39 Articles of Religion” of the Church of England (→ Slide 2). It says: “THE Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed.” The creed is therefore the quintessence of Christian belief in so far as it extricates the substance of the quite diverse and sometimes even contradictory biblical texts about “God and the world”.

At least from the 5th century on this “Nicene” Creed has and had its place in the Christian instruction and hence in the sacrament of baptism. Furthermore it is central in the regular Christian worship. I’d like to show you here an example from the tradition of the Church of England, the Sunday liturgy according to the book of “Common Worship” (→ Slide 3), where the congregation recites “The (Nicene) Creed” after the sermon. I could easily provide comparable examples from my own, the Lutheran, or from the Roman Catholic tradition, or like here (→ Slide 4) from the Orthodox tradition, where the lector recites the “symbol of faith” (σύμβολον τῆς πίστεως) and the chorus answers with “Amen”. This practice is, as you well know, a traditional one, which goes back to the medieval and the late antique church. (→ Slide 5) Here you see two examples of liturgical manuscripts from St Gallen in Switzerland, a gradual on the left and a missal with the rubric “Symbolum Nicenum” on the right side. In the Latin speaking church we find this practice first in the second canon of the third council of Toledo in 589, which states: (→ Slide 6) “…the synod decided, that in all churches in Spain, Gaul and Galitia, according to the model of the eastern churches, the symbol of faith of the Council of Constantinople, i.e. of the 150 bishops, should be recited. And before the Lord’s prayer is said, it should be preached to the people in clear voice.” As it is stated by the Council of Toledo, the Greek speeking church introduced the creed already before that into the liturgy, in connection to the conflicts in the wake of the Council of Chalcedon in 451,namely with the Monophysists Peter Fullo in Antioch and Timotheos I. in Constantinople, as stated by the Historian Theodoros Anagnostes: “Peter Fullo invented it that the symbol is said in the services, which was not said before.”

Nicene Creed?

You all most probably know the words of “the Creed” and you most probably are well aware of the fact, that the text of this creed used in Christian worship is not the symbol of the first ecumenical council that convened in Nicea in 325, but the (I must say: alleged) symbol of the second “ecumenical” council of Constantinople in 381.

This explicit identification of the creed of Constantinople with the creed of Nicea seems to be a western medieval tradition. But also in the Greek speaking east the differences between the two texts had been leveled out at least from the Council of Chalcedon on, as the main difference between both symbols was seen in the third article and mainly in the explanations on the Holy Spirit. To that point we shall come back in due course.

The Synod of Constantinople

(→ Slide 8) The Synod of Constantinople was convened in the first half of the year 381 by Emperor Theodosius I who wanted to put through his program of empowering Nicene orthodoxy after having come to power in the wake of the battle death of the Homoean (“Arian”) Emperor Valens.

The agenda therefore was quite straightforward: 1st, the confirmation of “Nicea” and 2nd, the election of a new bishop of Constantinople as Theodosius had removed the Homoean bishop Demophilos from office and had him forced out of the city. Due to the death of Meletius of Antioch and the abdication of the then Constantinopolitan bishop Gregory of Nazianzus more topics arose during the synod, but that was definitely not intended by Theodosius.

As asked by the emperor the synod confirmed all decisions made by the Council of Nicea in 325 and it appointed Gregory as new bishop, and after his resignation the new Christian convert Nectarius. Furthermore and caused by some events connect to the synod, it formulated a canon that bishops should not interfere in other dioceses and that the bishop of Constantinople as “new Rome” should have a honorary precedence over the other bishops, but after the see of Rome – nonetheless this canon caused the Western church to not recognize the canon as well as the Synod of Constantinople in general for quite a long time.

Ecumenical Council?

In Christian tradition this Council of Constantinopel is recieved as the 2nd ecumenical council after the first one in Nicea. But what is an ecumenical synod anyway? A common definition (like for example in the late antique so called Beneševič conciliar synopsis) is that it has to be convened by the emperor, that it has to have participants from the whole empire, and that it passes dogmatic decisions against heresy.

So, if we apply that definition to the Council of Constantinople, we would have to say: “No, it’s not an ecumenical council.” Because if we look at the map that I made that shows the (→ Slide 10) participants, and if you consider the political situation in the empire – Theodosius being the eastern emperor, it was from the beginning an eastern synod and not even with participants from all eastern provinces. Tradition, for example the so called Hoeschel conciliar synopsis, solves this problem by claiming that Damasus of Rome took part.

But there is also another solution: The synod itself or more precisely its successor, the Constantinopolitan synod of 382, claims to be an ecumenical synod in a polemic account against the Western (eg. Roman) Church and their arrogance against the eastern bishops. It puts itself in line with the highly acclaimed first ecumenical synod of Nicea which already then has almost the status of sanctity it definitely achieved at the Council of Ephesus in 431. “Ecumenical” thus understood is not a matter of geographic comprehensiveness, but of orthodoxy. And at the Synod of Chalcedon in 451 Constantinople, too, achieves officially this status of sanctity as “second ecumenical council”.

The traditional account of the Council of Constantinople

(→ Slide 11) I have already presented to you the agenda and the decisions of the synod. This presentation was first of all based on the few texts written by the synod: the letter to the emperor, the Synodikon and the list of participants, and then on the historiographical reports. Maybe you already missed one topic, I have not mentioned in my account: the Holy Spirit.

Because the traditional account of the Council of Constantinople is focused on one point: It is the synod against Macedonius (and against the Pneumatomachians). We can see it here in the 9th century manuscript of the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus or we can read it, for example, (→ Slide 12) in the Beneševič conciliar synopsis: “Against Macedonius who blasphemed against the Holy Spirit.” Or in Isidor’s Etymologiae. Or in the “Viae dux” of Anastasius of Sinai who even clearer than Isidor states that the synod added the third article to the Creed of Nicea. Besides, if we look at this statement (as well as at the comparable in the Hoeschel conciliar synopsis or at the depiction in the Paris manuscript), we cannot evade the impression that Macedonius is present at the Council of Constantinople – but in 381 he was already about 20 years dead! And furthermore, if we look at the sources of the synod, also the Pneumatomachians as a group play no exceptional role – besides of being condemned alongside the Eunomians, the Arians (i.e. Homoeans), the Sabellians, the Marcellians, the Photinians, and the Apolinarians. Contrary to the account of the council made by modern research, the “Macedonians” lead by Eleusius of Cyzicus, Marcianus of Lampsacus and Euethius of Ephesus, who were also invited by Theodosius, do not leave the Council – as they actually do –, because they do deny the deity of the Spirit, but because they refuse to confess the Symbol of Nicea as a matter of principle stating that they prefer to stay with the Arian (eg. Homoean) symbol, that is the symbol of the Synod of Constantinople in 360, which had been normative under Emperor Valens. Maybe even the dissatisfaction of Gregory of Nazianzus with the Synod of Constantinople which is preeminent in his account in his poem “De vita sua” is connected to the missing discussion about the question of the Holy Spirit which simply was not in the interest or focus of the emperor, but which he considered to be the cardinal question.

The Creed of Constantinople

(→ Slide 14) I come to the last tradition connected to the Council of Constantinople I would like to deal with today: “The Creed of Constantinople”, of which you see here the two most probably oldest surviving witnesses, two fragmentary papyri, both dated by the editors into the fifth century.

And this dating into the fifth century already points to the substantial problem of transmission we are confronted with: The Creed of Constantinopel surfaces only in the year 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, when it is twice (or thrice in the Latin version of the Acts) recited following the Creed of Nicea. (→ Slide 16) It even becomes part of the decision, the ὅρος, of the synod and is thus codified as pneumatological amendment to the Nicene Creed.

The Acts of the Council of Ephesus in 431 (the 3rd ecumenical council) that are cited by the Council of Chalcedon, know only the Nicene Creed and in their well known Canon 7 the fathers of Ephesus even explicitly prohibit new creeds. And thus the so called Robber Synod of Ephesus in 449 as well as the Constantinopolitan Synod of 448, both also cited in the Acts of Chalcedon, know Nicea as the first and Ephesus (the synod of 431) as second ecumenical council. So for example Stephen of Ephesus requests in Ephesus 449: “Let the definition that was issued by the 318 holy fathers at Nicaea and confirmed at Ephesus be read, for the maintenance of the orthodox faith.” It is the Creed of the Nicene Council of 325 which maintains orthodoxy.

Because of these findings, i.e. the late evidence for the Constantinopolitan Creed, theologians already in the 19th century had severe doubts that this Creed belongs to the Council of 381. And the discussion is still going on with various solutions being put forward – and so I, too, have thoughts on the historical place of the Creed, but that’s another lecture.

In any case: Both because of the late evidence and the meaningful silence before Chalcedon and even more because of the total lack of evidence in the documents of the council itself – including the Edict by Theodosius which also insinuates other formula than those of the Constantinopolitan Creed – this creed has not been written by the fathers of the council of 381, but has only later been attached to it by tradition.

It would be interesting, but I skip here the addition of the “filioque” to the Creed by the latin speaking church and its implications for the Western - Orthodox relationship until today (with funny consequences in the western liturgical practice of not saying the “and from the son” in ecumenical services with Orthodox Christians).


I presented to you four processes of building traditions connected to the Creed:

  1. The connection between the “Creed of Constantinople” with the Council of Constantinople
  2. The Council of Constantinople as synod against Macedonius/-ians
  3. The designation as “ecumenical” council
  4. The identification of the Nicene and the Constantinopolitan Creed

Those traditions came up at different stages in Late Antiquity and it would be interesting for further research what exactly were the new conditions and contexts that lead to the invention of each of these traditions and to the re-construction of the historical and theological facts.

But before coming to the end I want to come back to my starting point and would like to ask after all this “destruction” of tradition, how to deal with normative texts and traditions in Christianity of today?

It is the responsibility of academic theology (and so also of Patristics) to undertake a historical-critical assessment of normative texts and traditions and thus to get a deeper understanding of those texts and traditions.

But it is also our responsibility to make the Church sensible to these constant changes and adaptions in history and to encourage the Church to find expressions of faith that are in an adequate language Christians today can understand and join in. But at the same time, this should not imply to dismiss tradition (or normative texts) at all.