Ryan M. McGraw’s Review of THE NICENE CREED: AN INTRODUCTION, by Phillip Cary

Published on September 11, 2023 by Eugene Ho

Lexham Press, 2023 | 238 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Ryan M. McGraw


As the author of this volume notes, “The Creed represented in this book is the most widely-used confession of faith in the Christian world” (6). Christians across denominational lines continue to confess the Creed in public worship, which places a premium on grasping its meaning in simple terms. Though rich theological reflection and debate fed into the Nicene Creed, its authors designed it to be a basic Christian confession for all believers. This excellent guide to the Nicene Creed explains its every phrase clearly and briefly, with sensitivity to historical ideas and their grounding in Scripture. This is precisely the kind of introduction that average believers have needed to use the Creed well as an expression of faith and worship in and to the Triune God.

Cary follows the natural divisions of the Creed, organizing its contents into articles about the Father, Son, and Spirit. Reflecting the greater space devoted to the Son in the Creed, he appropriately treats the eternal Son and then the Son as incarnate. Explaining the Creed phrase by phrase (10), the book consists of a large collection of short chapters. The author’s three aims are to explain the language of the Creed, to promote further study, and to uncover the thought behind the Creed in Scripture (11-12). Cary achieves all three of these aims consistently and effectively. Defining and illustrating terms that may not be as familiar to readers today (like the technical use of “symbol;” 18), and uncovering Scriptural reasoning that led to the Creed, he gives readers enough understanding to help them worship without turning the book into a technical historical study. The illuminating epilogue summarizes “the Trinity in simple terms” by stating seven propositions (borrowed from Augustine), without using a “three in one” formula (215). This summary is highly valuable for teaching the Trinity, following the Creed, in simple terms to churches without bogging people down with technical language.

A good example of combining all three of the author’s goals stands out in his explanation that the Son “became human.” Cary notes that the Latin version of the Creed has “he was made man,” while the Greek avoids language of making or creating (123). Guarding against importing change into Christ’s deity by making or becoming, he cites Gregory Nazianzen, who explains, “he remained what he was and took up what he was not.” Additionally, Christ’s assumption of human flesh included the entire person, body and soul (124). This was why Nazianzen added, “What is not taken up and assumed is not healed” (124). In other words, to save body and soul of human beings, Christ had to take a body and soul of human nature. Cary then cites Philippians 2:7 (“took upon him the form of a servant”) to show that Christ did not become less than God when he took up true humanity. Engaging a later church council (Chalcedon), he then concludes that Christ was a “perfect” man in that he was fully a man, and he was sinless, offering a spotless sacrifice for our sins (125). Such a combination of historical accuracy, simplicity, and biblical fidelity is a rare feat for any author, enabling Cary to assist all Christians in learning more clearly what they believe about the Trinity and why.

Readers will likely find several historical details illuminating. For instance, the original Nicene Creed included anathemas (condemnations) of erroneous positions, which our churches omit in versions of the Creed that we use in public worship. Additionally, there are at least three differences between the Eastern Creed in Greek and its Western Latin translation (9), the most substantial of which relates to the procession of the Spirit, all of which the author explains. In addition to useful content, the book is well-written, engaging, and memorable, and the publisher has presented a beautifully designed publication. This book explains all the key terms and phrases surrounding the Godhead with exceptional clarity and precision, without losing readability. This even includes celebrating the “beauty” of the idea that the Father eternally communicates his divinity to the Son and to the Spirit by wholly giving himself to them in love without beginning or end (85-86). While many modern readers may find communication of essence from Father to Son etc. to be abstract or difficult, Cary shows why the idea is not only embedded in the most widely accepted Christian Creed, but how it promotes rather than diminishes the divine equality of the persons. 

Of particular interest is Cary’s treatment of the filioque, or the “double procession” of the Spirit from the Son as well as from the Father, which the Council of Toledo added to the Western Creed in 675. This is the form in which Western Christians know and confess the Creed. Ultimately, Cary argues that the church should not require confessing the filioque as a standard of Christian orthodoxy. Adding the clause marked “the tragic difference” in the Eastern and Western versions of the Creed (185). He notes well that the West added it without consulting the East, asserting that “The Creed should not have been expanded except by an ecumenical council in which all branches of the church participate” (185), concluding that you don’t have to accept it to be a Christian (186). Noting that his claim will be controversial, Cary adds that the filioque is “true but not essential to the Nicene faith, and therefore does not belong to the Creed.” It is thus “optional” and “should not remain in the Creed,” and he personally avoids confessing it in worship (186). Still, he defends a correct understanding of the filioque, observing that though Augustine developed the view of the “double procession of the Spirit,” he meant that the Father and the Son were one source of the Spirit (187). He still taught that the Father remained the “source of all that is divine.” In other words, he did not abstract the “one divine essence” from the Father. The divine absence abstractly begets nothing (188). Cary thus defends the filioque, while not requiring it in a basic confession of the Christian faith. He may be right with regard to the average believer, though good reasons remain for requiring the filioque of ministers, especially in a Reformed context. Often denying the double procession of the Spirit (from the Father and the Son) has consequences in teaching and preaching because the filioque inseparably weds the Spirit’s mission in applying salvation to the Son’s in accomplishing salvation.

There is one fly in the ointment in this otherwise outstanding book. Drawing on Psalm 2:8 (“You are my Son; today I have begotten You”), Cary states, “This is the language of adoption” (54). While adding that this language pulls back into the Son’s eternal generation (55), he implies strongly that Christ was an adopted son of God as well as the natural Son of God. This implication is puzzling, both in light of Scripture and in light of the historical context of the Nicene Creed. Traditionally, the church has affirmed that Jesus’s personal identity is that of the eternal Son of God. While being a true human being, Jesus is not a human person. His humanity is the humanity of God the Son. Particularly following Nicaea, theologians have consistently affirmed that allowing Christ to be an adopted son of God in any sense would entail Nestorianism, which means treating Jesus as though he is two persons rather than one divine person with two natures. Ascribing adoption to Jesus thus introduces a substantial historical and theological flaw into an otherwise valuable text. Later, Cary distinguishes believers as adopted sons and daughters from Christ as “the Son of God by nature” (58), which is the right way of putting things. It is possible that this reviewer has misunderstood the author’s intentions in these expressions, but even if this is the case, it illustrates the need for greater clarity on adoption in relation to Jesus’ Sonship. This section marks a strange ambiguity in an otherwise exceptionally clear book.

The Nicene Creed: An Introduction is something that the church has long needed. Despite some controversial points, the book’s brevity, precision, and simplicity are precisely the combination that believers need to use the Creed meaningfully and devotionally. Setting the right tone for this kind of study, Cary notes, “The logic of Christian worship is thus the logic of the Nicene faith…It is theology catching up with what Christians have always believed when they worship” (190). Read this book in order to make our implicit Trinitarian devotion and explicit confession of faith.


Ryan McGraw
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

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Lexham Press, 2023 | 238 pages

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