The Nicene Creed and MJ

This is day 2 of the Hashivenu Forum in Los Angeles (see yesterday’s post for more about Hashivenu). We heard a paper today by Mark Kinzer, “Finding Our Way Through Nicaea: The Deity of Yeshua, Bilateral Ecclesiology, and Redemptive Encounter With the Living God.” We also had a great deal of discussion about Rabbi Kinzer’s paper, including responses from two other scholars, Darrell Bock and Paul Saal.

The Nicene Creed is recited in many churches, but as someone brought up in discussion, is little understood. When you ask the question, “Is it right to say that Yeshua is God?” you will find a number of misunderstandings whether you say yes or no.

If you say yes, someone will object, “There is more to God than Yeshua.”

If you say no, someone will object, “But the deity of Yeshua is part of apostolic faith.”

What Mark Kinzer does in his paper is explore Christian and Jewish thought and suggest that we, as Messianic Jews, stand in between and can possibly take the “two communal traditions as one ruptured whole” and “perform a tikkun — a repair of what was broken.”

Messianic Jews cannot simply accept the Nicene Creed at face value. Neither can we reject its truth claims out of hand.

The Nicene Creed has problems for us:
(1) The role played by Constantine is problematic, bringing political ends into a theological discussion.
(2) The Nicene Creed is unilateral, bringing the voice of the multi-national church to the table, but excluding the Jewish followers of Yeshua of that time from the discussion.
(3) The Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.) made statements of a blatantly anti-Jewish tenor.
(4) The Nicene Creed is structurally supersessionist, omitting Israel from the story completely.

Yet, the Nicene Creed set about to deny some things we too, as Messianic Jews, would want to deny:
(1) That Yeshua is not eternal, but has a beginning.
(2) That he was created.
(3) That he is of a different nature than God.
(4) That he is changing and mutable.

The Nicene Creed is about the church’s struggle with Arianism. The Arians were committed philosophically to a completely transcendent God. But such a God cannot enter into human history and something like the incarnation is impossible when your view of deity admits of no immanence. Another way to say that is that if God is wholly other, absolutely beyond time and space, then God cannot be present with us. Thus, the Arians had to believe Yeshua was not God, but a created being sent by God.

Kinzer uses one simple text to show how the apostles dealt with the mystery of Yeshua’s relationship with the Father:

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

This passage, from 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, is known in much literature as the New Testament Shema. It is Paul adopting the language of Deuteronomy 6:4 to express the relationship between Yeshua and the Father. The Shema is expanded to include Yeshua in “a differentiated but singular deity.”

One God – the Father – from whom . . .

One Lord – Yeshua – through whom . . .

In other words, existence comes from the Father but is carried out through the Son. Paul uses God and Lord (Lord here is the usual way in Greek the apostles denote God’s name). The Father is God and Yeshua is the Lord (confusion creeps in here because Lord does not always mean deity, but it is almost certainly meant here).

The idea is that the Father is transcendent and the source of all things and the Son is the agent through whom the Father’s work is done and the two are one. Hebrews 1:3 says it well:

The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things.

Kinzer’s paper goes into much more depth, but I am trying to be both brief and to simplify the language here.

What will surprise many readers is to know that Judaism, not only in the Second Temple period, but also throughout the Middle Ages, deals with a controversy that is parallel to that of Nicaea.

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that it was pronounced to be avodah zara to believe in Yeshua’s deity and in the Trinity.

But even after that, and certainly before it, Judaism has had discussions at great length and of tremendous importance trying to balance the idea of a transcendent/separate/wholly other God and an immanent/present God.

One example is the medieval battle between the Karaites and normative Jews. The Karaites were against the rabbinic writings but believed the written Torah. They were rivals and often debated and criticized the rabbis. Rabbinic literature has many anthropomorphisms of God.

One of the clearest and most unusual is talk of God laying tefillin (wearing phylacteries) and holding arguments about Torah matters with the angels and so on.

The Karaites criticized this kind of talk making God to be comparable to a man. Saadia Gaon and others retreated to a sort of philosophical God. They said that the Shekhina and other mediate forms of deity (angel of the Lord, Wisdom, the Word, the Glory, etc.) were created forms without the substance of God. They were more like holograms, as we might say, than emanations of God.

But this means that God has never actually been present. So the mystics and kabbalists reacted against this sanitized God. They ultimately came up with something that is very familiar to anyone who knows a little kabbalah:
(1) The Ein Sof is God in his actual being, unknowable, separate, and wholly other.
(2) But the Ein Sof sends out emanations, the sefirot. They come in gradually lesser degrees of holiness, which are classically numbered at ten.

There is evidence in the Hebrew Bible that something like what the mystics describe really is going on.

So the controversy in rabbinic Judaism is such that outside criticism caused some rabbis to propose something similar to the Arians whom the Council of Nicaea opposed. These rationalists described a wholly other God who cannot be present with us. Just as the Nicene Creed found a solution in a binitarian view of Father and Son, one and distinct, the Son radiating from the Father, so the mystics of Judaism proposed sefirot emanating from the direct, unknowable being of God.

It is common in Christian circles for people not to understand the relationship of Father and Son. Many people confuse Yeshua with the Father and fail to see a clear differentiation. Yeshua mediates the Father but does not replace. Yeshua is subordinate to the Father, but not because he is of a lower kind of deity.

Paul Saal demonstrated how in popular discussion people can be unaware of the differentiation of Father and Son and can cry heresy when someone is simply restating what the Nicene Creed affirms. He once explained to someone that Yeshua is not God in the sense of being the Ein Sof. Rather, Yeshua is like the sum of all the sefirot. The person claimed that Saal did not then actually believe in the deity of Yeshua! Yet Saal’s description mirrors not only the Nicene Creed, but also Hebrews 1:3.

Kinzer’s paper wraps up with a description of Messianic Jewish theology as a protest against the boundary drawn by mainstream Judaism against the deity of Yeshua. There are other boundary breakers too, such as the Lubavitch who believe their deceased rebbe is divine.

Kinzer says that MJ will only survive if we succeed in our protest against the boundaries. If MJ is never credited as a Judaism, but is always regarded as avodah zara, then we will likely fade away in time.

We are repairing the broken pieces, standing between church creeds and rabbinic discussions, and trying to make them whole. We are looking for a way to express what Nicaea affirms and what it denies in Jewish language. Our commitment to Yeshua’s lordship must not diminish and hiding our belief in it from public view will not serve us. At the risk of being misunderstood by our Jewish people, we have to affirm that Yeshua is God, even when we don’t have time to explain all the possible misunderstandings. And the idea of a divine Messiah is something difficult to describe in Jewish language because of the many centuries of boundary drawing. We pray for tikkun olam.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, Mark Kinzer, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Theology, Yeshua and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to The Nicene Creed and MJ

  1. ichthus888 says:

    If you’ve not read Richard Bauckham’s work in this area, you’ll find it both interesting and congenial (“Jesus and the God of Israel”).


  2. judeoxian says:

    Wish I was there! Would love to get a copy of Kinzer’s paper.

    I have to rush off to work, and will probably post more thoughts later, but here are just some initial thoughts re: MJ problems with the Creed:

    1. I would agree that Constantine’s presence in the whole spiel is a problem. It probably was for those in attendance as well. I would emphasize that Constantine didn’t really have a theological axe to grind, but just wanted a unifying creed. His intentions were pragmatic. That this was the case can be seen in Constantine’s later rejection of the original Creed of Nicea, and the fact he was later baptised by Eusebius of Nicomedia, one of the leading Arian bishop at the council.

    2. I have frequently heard in Messianic circles that Jewish Christians were intentionally excluded from the council, yet have never seen anything in terms of proof. The traditional number of those in attendance were only 318, and it may have been less. All were from the east (which makes sense, since this was a theological/philosophical issue that interested the eaterners). The bishop of Rome and other western bishops did not attend. I would say Jewish Christians were no more excluded than those in Rome and the western empire.

    3. The anti-Jewish statements of Constantine and the like are not apart of the official documents of the Council. Affirming the Creed has nothing to do with endorsing those statements, as can be seen by the Roman Catholic Church and other high church traditions (such as the Lutheran Church) denouncing of anti-Judaism/anti-Semitism.

    4. While many interpret the Creed in a supersessionist manner (re: one holy, catholic, and apostolic church), is does not necessarily need to be so. That a “holy” congregation is a key descriptor of Israel goes without saying. In “catholic,” the Creed affirms the universal unity of believers in Yeshua, (Israel and the Nations) a key tenant of bilateral ecclesiology. In “apostolic,” it affirms the connection to the original faith and practice of the apostles, something very near and dear to Messianic Judaism.

    I’ll post more later. Great discussion Derek.

  3. warland52 says:

    I was about to post that you were mainly conflating unattractive elements of the council with the creed it produced, but then noticed the post by Judeoxtian has made the specific points. Not that this isn’t a very good post – as usual.

    The Trinity and Incarnation is a “mystery” which means we can approach it and gain some understanding from the “outside” but cannot completely penetrate it. Logical problems (based on limits of our minds and language) will continue to pop up. Of course, some analogies from jewish mysticism are interesting and may be helpful in some sense. Not sure why the material from the era where this was debated cannot still be helpful as well. For example, the “Athanasian Creed” provides more detail.

    I highly recommend Father Benedict Groeschel’s multi-part series on the Trinity which I’ve listened to many times. Available still I think on

    You’ll like it…he sounds like a wise rabbi…:-)

  4. Mishkan David says:


    An excellent summary of this issue. I have long maintained that most Christian are, practically speaking, either unitarian or bi-theistic. They are usually unable to calmly hash out the points you have raised.

    Similarly, Maimonides’ “Guide to the Perplexed” makes it quite clear that the Rambam held precisely to the rationalistic view you describe. In his attempt to uphold a high view of deity, he concluded that the Ein Sof is completely untouchable and unfeeling. The result is a philosophical, deistic sort of God.

    As always, I applaud every attempt at enhancing tikkun olam through increased understanding of the issues that lay beneath all the rhetoric. Thanks for sharing some of the discussion that is going on at the conference.

  5. I’ve been operating with the idea that while the Nicene Creed is accurate, in essence, it’s a rather clumsy way in which the church responded when driven into a corner by the Aryans. It did help in clarifying matters for the orthodox, but, ever since, we’ve been stuck with a wordy explanation that has encumbered dialogues with the Orthodox Jewish and the Muslim communities. Even many Christians find it hard to understand — they relate as though they were three Gods.

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  7. christian4moses says:

    Two things:

    1. When you write:

    What Mark Kinzer does in his paper is explore Christian and Jewish thought and suggest that we, as Messianic Jews, stand in between and can possibly take the “two communal traditions as one ruptured whole” and “perform a tikkun — a repair of what was broken.”

    In what way do you envision MJ to stand in between Christian and Jewish thought? At the end of the day you are affirming the Nicene creed right? If thats the case, how much of a middle position do you take wrt this issue? Am I missing the point when I get the impression that its mainly Judaism that needs to give in on this issue?

    2. Is the alternative to Nicea only Arianism? I ask this because it seems the discussion you related was a choice between these two options, while I think there arent many Messianics that actually hold to Arianism but the ones that deviate rather to some modern form of Dynamic Monarchianism, that holds the Father as the only true God and Jesus as his human Messiah.

  8. christian4moses:

    I am growing in my understanding and in ways of expressing the idea of Yeshua as emanating from the Father. I will be putting in more time and thought on this.

    Hashivenu MJ’s deny what the Nicene Creed denies and we affirm the same points, but are seeking different language. We do not condemn the Church or the Creed because of the issues I mentioned (Constantine, exclusion of MJ’s, structural supersessionism). We believe the Creed is good in spite of these.

    But neither are we asking Judaism to “give” anything. We are seeking to express the Son as radiating from the Father in Jewish terms and in consistency with Jewish thought. Few Jews are committed to the medieval opinion that Christians are idolaters. Yes, we are asking Jewish leaders to give on that one. But the divine Messiah or divine intermediary idea is not Christian, but pre-Christian and has continued in rabbinic and kabbalistic thought to present day.

    Derek Leman

  9. daviddom says:

    “There is evidence in the Hebrew Bible that something like what the mystics describe really is going on.”

    Can you give an example?

  10. Quickly, since I am on my way to bed early tonight, let me mention three examples from the Hebrew Bible that are background for the idea sefirot which developed later:

    1. Deuteronomy: the place where my name dwells (Jerusalem sanctuary).

    2. Exodus through Numbers: differing levels of holiness in the manifestations of God’s glory (some the people can see, some Moses can converse with, some prevent Moses from entering the tent, some kill if anyone enters the presence, Moses can see the backside but not the face of God, etc.).

    3. Ezekiel’s chariot vision.

    Derek Leman

  11. daviddom says:

    As far as I am concerned, too many sages studied and were influenced by Hellenistic philosophy in the middle ages. The “Unknown God” is, of course, Platonic, found in his dialoges with Critias and Timaeus. Lesser dieties and spirits also abounded, sent forth from higher gods. The Kabbalah’s mysticism is also something I would encourage caution over. In many areas it is little different than Greek mysticism and its creation of similar spirits. Remember, the oaks that spoke to Apollo. Greek mythology is fun, but it was poor material for mystic and Polish Jews to Jewify to try and comprehend the living God that made clear he was not far away, but a God near at hand. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?”

    • Joseph says:

      The most influential Rabbi of post-exilic Judaism, Moses Maimonides, re-wrote Jewish theology according Greek Aristotlean philosophy, following the Averroean way of merging Islam and Aristotleanism.

      Contemporary Rabbinic Judaism is heavily influenced by Greek thought and Islam, as well as Gnostic and Eastern religions.

      To talk nowadays about Jewish vs Greek thought is a bit of a myth I think.

  12. daviddom:

    It sounds like all you need to make up your mind is some connection to “Greek” thought and something is then rejected. There is nothing Satanic about Greek thought. There were idols in Israel worshipped in Hebrew using forms exactly like those in the Hebrew Bible. Much of the ritual in the Hebrew Bible is a variation on pagan worship rituals. El Elyon as in Genesis 14 is a god worshipped in Canaanite settings, yet seems to be regarded by the Psalmist and by Abraham as a vestigial worship if the true Creator. Just because a culture had idols somewhere in its history does not make it Satanic. Greek thinking brought you the very computer you are using.

    Meanwhile, mysticism did not originate amongst the Hasidim of Poland.

    If you care about this subject, you should delve into it more deeply rather than rejecting it with some dubious historical arguments.

    Yes, God fills heaven and earth. But the question the mystics are asking and also the Arians and the orthodox Christians is how? Does God will heaven and earth through the Son and Spirit (Word, Wisdom, Glory, Name, Presence)? Is it the Father who fills the world (or the Ein Sof, or God in his direct being)? These are not Greek questions to ask. The same God who fills heaven and earth also said he would choose a place for his name to dwell. How does that makes sense? It’s a Hebraic question, I would say to you. Meanwhile, the idea that abstract (Greek) thinking is somehow wrong puts into question a number of abstract (Greek?) ideas in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

    I don’t think you can maintain this theme of rejecting all Greek thinking.

    Derek Leman

  13. Joseph says:

    Here’s a book you’ll like dealing with anthromorphosism and rabbinics:

  14. Joseph says:

    Kinzer’s paper wraps up with a description of Messianic Jewish theology as a protest against the boundary drawn by mainstream Judaism against the deity of Yeshua. There are other boundary breakers too, such as the Lubavitch who believe their deceased rebbe is divine.

    I dunno, can’t it be said that mainstream Judaism is a reaction against the deity of Yeshua, rather than the other way round? I don’t think either worship of Yeshua or Schneerson is a protest – there’s something of the divine, messianic essence within the Jewish religion which may break out at any point.

    There are similarities between Yeshua-followers and Schneerson-followers, but big differences too – not just in how Yeshua-followers are treated by the Jewish establishment, but also on the truth of our claims – Yeshua’s are true and Schneerson’s aren’t.

  15. masmid says:

    Those Lubavitchers who believe that their rebbe was the moshiach donot claim that he was God in the flesh. They view him as a tzaddik, which I believe he was, although they believe he was the tzaddik of tzaddikim, which I obviously don’t. I believe Yeshua was the tzaddik of tzaddikim and the Moshiach. They do not apply the Christian God-man notion to Schneerson, with the exception of a few renegade “Elokists” such as Rabbi Ariel Sokolovsky.

  16. masmid:

    Yes, well the “renegade Elokists” are Jews too. Hence my point. And the idea of divine intermediaries did not wait for the modern Lubavitch movement. They’ve been around at least since Philo.

    Derek Leman

  17. masmid says:

    Lubavitch Messianism is not considered a mainstream beleif in Judaism, and those Lubavitchers who believe that the Rebbe was God are certainly not representative of Jewish thought. You cannot read fringe beliefs into what is considered normative Jewish hashkafa, nor can you cite what some people of Jewish extractation do as an embodiment or expression of normative, acceptable Jewish thought. For instance, some Jews may not believe in God, and may even follow Jewish customs and lifestyle patterns nominally. These people and their Jewish atheism have existed at least since the time of the Hashmonim, and coalesce nowadays under the banner of Humanistic Judaism (and even are considered a legitimate stream within Reform Judaism, as that movement has included “nontheistic” orders of service within its siddurim, ever since the 1977 “Gates of Prayer”). Despite the fact that nontheism is a belief that has existed within klal yisroel for centuries, the fact that something has merely existed historically, socially, or anthropologically does not make it correct. Existence is not an indicator of acceptance or legitimacy. A belief’s legitimacy is not demonstrated by its existence- it must be held to the higher standard of textual support.

    • Joseph says:

      Masmid, can you find me a Lubavitcher who will say outright that Schneerson is NOT the Messiah? How did they reach that conclusion but by the teachings of the Rebbe? And how did the Rebbe come to believe he was the Messiah were it not for his father, the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, who thought he was the Messiah? And how woul d such messianism appear within Lubavitch without the context of Lubavitch messianic teachings? And how would these teachings appear without the wider context of Hasidic Judaism? etc etc.

  18. masmid says:

    Sure. I know plenty of Lubavitchers who are not Meshichim. The Rebbe never said he was the Messiah, but he did tell his followers to do all that they could to bring the world towards Geulah. The belief came about because people believed the Rebbe was responsible for certain “signs and wonders” such as accurately predicting the Gufl War, in their view. People also took the Talmudic statement in Sanhedrin 98b that the Messiah’s name is Menachem (comforter) literally to mean that the Messiah’s name would be Menachem, as in Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

    I think that Messianic thought has always been present in Jewish thought. However, I think that applying Deity staus to the Messiah is not an idea substantiated by mainstream Jewish thought. However, there always been a notion of a tzaddik, a fully human individual who was godly and perfected without being HaShem himself, and who had the ability to serve as an intermediary between heaven and earth (similar to how Catholics view the saints).

    • Joseph says:

      Shabbatei Zevi was announced by Nathan of Gaza as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God – you can read about this in Gershom Scholem’s biography of Zevi.

      If you ask me, the tzaddik seems suspiciously similar to the divine Messiah idea we have – Breslov’s Nachman being a perfect example:

  19. masmid says:

    “There HAS always been…”

  20. daviddom says:

    I think masmid hit the nail on the head. (post 18)

    Folk concepts abound, popular concepts have always been with us. Mysticism is age old, and yes it did not start with Polish Hasidism but that is the major bridge to its modern continuance in certain circles. Normative religious Jewish thought still maintains the authority of the Talmud, which maintains folio after folio the authority of scripture. The Sanhedrin itself must base its rulings on scripture, not sectarian mysticism or the Zohar, as noted in one recent popular case of the “Uprooting.”

    Not only is the Nicene Creed foreign to Jewish thought, mixing it with the Zohar as an excuse to make it more Jewish is specious. Over half of Jews are secularists, and those that aren’t don’t necessarily relate to the Zohar. Who are you reaching by this?

    Ironically, it was one of my ongoing struggles with the Oxford Philosophic Society to bring Greek discipline to the discussions and to remind them that logic is the symmetry of thought. As there is symmetry of physical forms, so is logic the expression of rational thinking which is testified to by conclusions that are supported by premises. However, I’ll overlook the comments about my dislike for anything Greek.

    That being said, I will amplify my point of caution. Greek paganism was a nature religion; it tried to explain events that way. The case of the oaks talking to Apollo. That is a Greek myth. I don’t know why the devil got mentioned above. It’s a myth of spirits dwelling in groves. When one tries to make God into something of varying degrees of emanating holiness, some that kill, some that don’t, that is mimicking primitive paganism and its belief in haunting spirits. To take quasi-gnostic philosophies and vain jangle them with the holy things of God is to retrogress and become a modern mythmaker little more advanced than the superstitions that tried to explain wisps of wind in groves of trees.

    I would no more use Greek pagan rationalizing to explain God than I would use pre-Mosaic Canaanite understanding of God. He told Moses plainly he was known as the God Almighty (El Elyon) before. That was not an invitation to use Canaanite El Elyon as the interpretive base for what God would now reveal at Horeb and through the prophets. It is expected, as sons of Noah, that they would still show signs of having worshiped the same God Almighty with some remembrance of the truth of who that was.

    The very reason God started his revelations at Horeb and continued them through the prophets was to bring us out of ignorance and perfect our knowledge of him. Any pagan analogies should be vanquished by now; they should not be used to explain God. If some Jews got involved in pagan mysticism later and made God the object of their corrupted imaginations it does not make holy their error.

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  24. truthceeker says:

    Great Overview! I read Mark’s book, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism. I plan on reading it again because it’s packed with so much. Peace be with you. :-)

  25. truthceeker:

    Your blog is interesting. Keep up the good work.

    Derek Leman

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