In our week-by-week Thursday walk-through of the service of Holy Communion, we come now to the Nicene Creed.  Amidst the very many blog posts and articles that cropped up early this summer with the release of the 2019 Prayer Book came one writer who objected to the translation of the Nicene Creed.  This was, in many ways, a very strange complaint, because the new translation in our book was made and approved by our College of Bishops six years ago, in 2013.  It’s been available since the very first Texts for Common Prayer were released, and some churches, like mine, have been using it ever since.  It’s a bit late to complain.  The nature of the complaint, too, in my opinion, is more a questioning of motive than it is of actual substance.

Nevertheless, one should be very attentive to how the Creeds are translated.  Article of Religion #8 places the Creeds on a very high level of authority: they “ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.”  So, just like Bible translation, it’s very important that we get a decent translation of the Creeds before us.  With that in mind, let’s take a look at the text, comparing 1662, 2019, and 1979.

  • 1662: I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible:
  • 2019: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible.
  • 1979: We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

The modern we/I switch is one of the main objections the aforementioned critic took issue with.  The functional difference here is that in the context of the Eucharist, our affirmation of faith is corporate (while the Apostles’ Creed in the Daily Office is our place to say “I believe…”).  There is a fair bit of history behind the I/we translation choices which I’ll let you research yourself if you’re curious.

The other big difference in this opening line is the terminology “visible and invisible” versus “seen and unseen.”  The problem with the latter translation was that it opened the Creed (and thus the entirety of the biblical faith) to the possibility of demythologization.  Among the excesses of modernist thought, this subtle wording change paves the way for the rejection of angels and demons, and the devil, as these are things invisible.  “Unseen” suggests a more empirical approach to reality and metaphysics which can easily be used to “correct” the Bible.

  • 1662: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father, By whom all things were made:
  • 2019: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten 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.
  • 1979: 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.

The repetition of “we believe” is a modern concession to English grammar.  The whole creed is technically one giant sentence, but that’s pretty incomprehensible to the modern reader.  A couple hundred years ago, it was still in practice to make giant compound sentences nearly an entire page long, but readership has changed since then, and thus so have our approaches to dealing with punctuation and repetition.

In terms of actual substance, note that we got “only-begotten” back, omitted in 1979, “eternally begotten” is a theological clarification in the modern translations, “of one substance” is equated to “of one being” (more theological technical terms).  Nothing controversial here, just basic orthodox Christology.

  • 1662: Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man, And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.
  • 2019: For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
  • 1979: 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;

“For us men” became “For us” in contemporary English, as the gender-neutral use of “men” goes on the decline.  At least this is an instance of that word where its omission isn’t a problem, as it is in some verses of Scripture.

The similar language in 1662 and 2019 – “incarnate from/by the Holy Spirit/Ghost of/and the Virgin Mary” – is highly preferable to the 1979’s translation “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary”.  The latter separates the Holy Spirit from the Annunciation and conception of Jesus by a degree that is neither necessary nor precedented.  “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you”, the archangel Gabriel told Mary, not “the power of the Spirit will descend upon you”.

There is an interesting difference in where to end the sentence/phrase which you can see at the end of this section and the beginning of the next.  It seems to me primarily a matter of logical organization rather than of direct theological import.

  • 1662: He suffered and was buried, And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and dead: Whose kingdom shall have no end.
  • 2019: 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.
  • 1979: 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.

Apart from language style and punctuation, there’s no substantial change here at all.

  • 1662: And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets.
  • 2019: We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],† who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
  • 1979: 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.

Again, nothing here is of any substantial difference, just language style and translation methods.  Except one… the filioque – the phrase “and the Son”.  This is a bit of a historical-theological bugbear.  The original text of this Creed, on which the 2019 translation is based, does not include that phrase.  A Lambeth Council (representing Anglicans world-wide) decision in 1978 encouraged future liturgical texts to drop the filioque even though it is a constant feature of the entire Western Church.  It (and the way in which the Roman Popes “authorized” it) was one of the wedges driven between East and West, leading to the final split in 1054.  To drop the filioque is a gesture of good will toward the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and (potentially) a return to primitive creedal orthodoxy.  Does this little word really make much difference, theologically, let alone practically?  It can, but it doesn’t necessarily have to.  So our prayer book has bracketed the phrase and included a footnote reference to a longer statement about the issue, written by our bishops in 2013, as an opportunity for further education and learning.

  • 1662: And I believe one Catholick and Apostolick Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the Resurrection of the dead, And the life of the world to come. Amen.
  • 2019: 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.
  • 1979: 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.

To be honest, the difference between “believe in one… church” and “believe one… church” has always puzzled me.  Go ask some other more educated priest than I.  Or if you, please comment about it, so I can understand it too!

There seems to be a bit of a mixed report about the word “holy”… it is a traditional part of the Creed, one of the “four marks of the Church” – one, holy, catholic, apostolic.  How it got omitted from the Prayer Book tradition until 1979 escapes me.  The legend that it was a printing error that got enshrined in England and American practice is unconvincing.

One can argue that there is a difference between the precise meaning of “remission of sins” and “forgiveness of sins”, but the effect is at least the same.

So there you go.  If you’ve been used to the 1979 Creed, hopefully this has helped you see the improvements we’ve got in our new book.  It’s high time to make the switch if you haven’t already!

2 thoughts on “Nicene Creed Translation

  1. I find the line “born before all ages” salient. It flies in the face of the linear narrative of history (and common sense!). Notice how the Old Testament, written in Hebrew, reads right to left, and the New Testament, left to right? This reinforces the statement that history begins with Jesus, and moves in opposite directions from there…Thanks for the article.

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