Women and the Creed: “For Us Humans and for Our Salvation”

by John Fotopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou

First Council of Nicaea

For a little more than a decade, a new translation of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed recited in the Divine Liturgy has been implemented in the parishes of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA). The desire to use a uniform translation of the Creed is commendable and long overdue.

The new GOA translation of the Creed was issued in 2005 and it is very similar to the one in the widely used “red liturgy book” entitled, The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1985). The “red liturgy book” was a collaborative effort by the faculties of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and it is a little unclear why the GOA felt the need to alter what was an already excellent translation of the Creed.

Among the changes in the new translation of the Creed, the one that is most noticeable and has received the most attention is the GOA’s translation, “for us men and for our salvation” over and against the former Hellenic College-Holy Cross translation, “for us and for our salvation.”

This change to the word “men” is unjustifiable and, quite simply, a mistake.

It is unjustifiable because “men” is not the most accurate translation for the word ἀνθρώπους in contemporary English. Rather, translating ἀνθρώπους as “men” can be viewed, at best, as an expression of outdated English usage and, at worst, as an expression of gender exclusive English translation. There is no good reason to use outdated English in a new translation of the Creed or to use a gender exclusive English term when ἀνθρώπους is meant to be inclusive. The word ἄνθρωπος is the generic term for a human being in ancient Greek, while there are other terms for “man” and “woman.” In ancient Greek, the term for “man” is ἀνήρ and the term for “woman” is γυνή. The phrase δι’ ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους (“for us humans”) in the Creed—instead of δι’ ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἄνδρας (“for us men”)— was obviously deliberate and inclusive insofar as it conveys that the Son of God came down from heaven for all humans, not just for males. In fact, the formulation τὸν δι’ ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους καὶ διὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν σωτηρίαν κατελθόντα ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν is meant to correspond with the next clause—καὶ σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου, καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα. It is the Son of God who came down from heaven “for us humans (δι’ ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους)…” and “became human (καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα).”

A similar mistranslation has occurred with the GOA’s rendering of καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα as “and became man,” which should be translated accurately as “and became human.” The correspondence of those two clauses of the Creed is evident by the common humanity that the Son of God assumed in the Incarnation so as to save humanity. This correspondence is also evident grammatically in the first clause by the masculine accusative definite article τὸν (which functions like the relative pronoun “Who”) modified by κατελθόντα (“came down” or “descended”), as well as being modified in the following clause by σαρκωθέντα and ἐνανθρωπήσαντα (all three words being masculine accusative participles). What is remarkably ironic is that rather than attempting to convey the actual inclusive meaning of the Greek text, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese decided to create a new translation using semantically outdated and misleading language. If the words “man” or “men” did ever truly function as generic English terms for human beings in the history of the English language, they no longer do so today. To be sure, living languages are dynamic and changing. Collective usage of a living language in the present determines meaning, not etymology or usage in past decades or centuries.

The GOA’s new translation is a mistake because rather than actually illuminating the meaning of the Creed to convey that the Son of God became human for the salvation of all human beings, the new “for us men” raises questions among both men and women in the Orthodox Church as to the intention behind such a change. Such issues of language and translation are not insignificant or petty since language encodes our values and influences our worldviews. In a Church where women’s roles are already restricted, many interpret the change as a coded message about women’s “rightful” place within the Orthodox Church. It is, indeed, hard not to interpret the change as some kind of statement against the call for inclusive language within the liturgy that has been expressed over the past few decades by certain Christian voices, including some Orthodox. It is hard not to read the change as a stance against “feminism.” It is hard not to feel that any attempt to justify this new GOA translation is merely cover for pushback against one of the many “liberal” movements to emerge within the past few decades.

There is a disturbing trend defining the Orthodox Church in the present moment, to which the politics of translation evident in the new version of the Creed is a symptom: there are Orthodox Christians who feel the need to be diametrically opposed to forms of thought that emerge outside of the Orthodox tradition, especially if these forms of thought challenge a particular understanding of Orthodoxy. Various feminist forms of thought challenge the role of women in the Orthodox Church, even raising the question of the theological justification of excluding women from ordination. Rather than listening, the response is normally to dismiss feminism as antithetical to Orthodoxy because of its so-called modern, secularist presuppositions. In Russia today, the Russian Orthodox Church feels the need to redefine the language of human rights so as to express a “pure” Orthodox understanding of it over and against the “godless” liberal version. The Orthodox Church has also avoided condemning violence that is targeted explicitly against LGBTQ persons, for fear of legitimizing the “gay agenda.” There are even arguments being made for a so-called “Benedict option,” where Orthodox Christians are urged to withdraw from collapsing Western cultural norms caused by tolerance for LGBTQ rights, just as St. Benedict withdrew from collapsing Roman cultural norms in the 6th century.

However, self-identification vis-à-vis the proximate other was not always the way Christians defined themselves. It is often thought that Christians opposed themselves to the Roman Empire, when, in fact, they eventually became proud Romans, affirming all that was good in the empire—laws, culture—even while they exerted Christian criticism against the Roman Empire’s injustices. The Fathers of the Church rejected pagan religions, but they absorbed all that they thought was good and correct in pagan philosophy, Greco-Roman rhetoric, literature, art, hymnody, architecture, and ritual, to name only a few areas of ancient culture. Moreover, the logic of diametrical opposition is simply not theologically consistent with the logic of Incarnation in which God’s presence is discernible throughout creation, certainly beyond the boundaries of the Orthodox Church.

As Orthodox Christians, we have nothing to fear; and, since we have nothing to fear, we should be open to questions, challenges, and even insights from non-Orthodox forms of thought. At least some of those “modern” insights would not be so new, but would echo the wisdom of the Greeks and the intention of the Fathers as expressed in our Creed. Let all of us urge our local hierarchs and parish priests to encourage all Orthodox jurisdictions to revise official translations of the Creed in accordance with the intentions of the Fathers, declaring together that it was the Son of God “Who for us humans and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.”

John Fotopoulos is an Associate Professor of New Testament in the Department of Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana.  

Aristotle Papanikolaou is Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.