The Nicene Creed
Founding Documents (8)
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper. To be with your forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive… John 14.15-17
Out of controversy, conviction
The Apostles’ Creed, as we have mentioned, seems to have come together out of the rules of faith that were in use among the churches of the Roman Empire prior to the fourth century. The existence of different rules of faith, all very similar, together with the readiness with which the Apostles’ Creed came into standard use indicates the superintending work of the Spirit in building the Church as a holy temple unto the Lord during those early years (Eph. 2.19-22).
Beginning in the late third century, however, the Lord would use another means to clarify the Kingdom convictions of His people. As controversy began to trouble the churches throughout the Roman world, it became necessary for a more formal, more direct, and more universal response from orthodox church leaders. The Council of Nicea in 325 AD was a direct result of the threat of the Arian heresy which was everywhere gaining ground.
According to Arius, an elder in the church at Alexandria, the Word of God Who became Jesus Christ was not eternally God. The Arian watch-phrase was, “there was when He was not.” The Word and Christ were not eternally-begotten of the Father, as is assumed in the Apostles’ Creed, but begotten in time. By His obedience and good work Christ became God, and so, by implication, can all who follow in His steps.
The pastors and bishops meeting in Nicea condemned this view, which taught that Jesus was “of like substance” as the Father, rather than “of the same substance” as God. Orthodox clarity hinged on one letter. Would the council approve the Arians – homoiousious or “like substance” – or the orthodox – homoousious or “same substance” – phrasing? In the end, the orthodox view prevailed, and the Nicene Creed was proclaimed – a clarification of the Church’s orthodox convictions arising out of the womb of controversy.
Done, but not complete
The Arian controversy raged on after the Council of Nicea for another generation. Because the Arian view was more agreeable to certain political figures, it at times held sway, at least, in certain strategic places in the Empire. At such times, orthodox bishops like Athanasius bore the brunt of imperial persecution.
The orthodox pastors and theologians persevered, however, and their view, and that of the Nicene Creed, ultimately prevailed. Yet, toward the end of the fourth century, another heresy arose questioning the deity of the Holy Spirit. Again the bishops convened, this time in Constantinople in 381 AD, and out of their deliberations came what we today know and is everywhere used as the Nicene Creed. The connection between the original Nicene Creed and that promulgated at Constantinople is not entirely clear; however, the latter seems to have been constructed largely on the former.
The Nicene Creed is not so much an improvement of the Apostles’ Creed as an enlargement, detailing more of the convictions of the Church concerning the critical beliefs to be professed by those who are inheriting the Kingdom of God. The Trinitarian format of the earlier creed continues in this one, but certain additions in each section make the Nicene Creed much more valuable for liturgical and instructional purposes in the Church.
Here is the Creed in its entirety:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, he 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 make; who for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets; and we believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church; we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins; and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Let’s briefly examine a few of the details of this creed, section by section.
God the Father
Here again we find a simple but comprehensive statement of faith in God as Father and Creator. The addition of the phrase, “all things visible and invisible,” shows the Church’s growing awareness of the vastness of the cosmos and reality and continuity of the unseen realm, and establishes God as “Almighty” over all created things.
By this time even the Emperors of Rome had come under the Lordship of God, so that not only impersonal reality but all of human life and culture and all political existence was understood to be subject to God the Father Almighty.
God the Son
The Nicene Creed continues the emphasis on the historicity of Jesus; at the same time, it is clear the bishops and pastors labored to establish His deity by every possible means. This is the intention of “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” His eternality is declared in the phrase, “begotten, not made” and His oneness with God as God is confessed in the famous homoousious phrase.
The creed also places more emphasis on the fact that Jesus is King and Judge and that He presides over an eternal Kingdom, which He gives to His people as they seek it earnestly.
God the Spirit
The Nicene Creed continues the teaching of the Apostles’ Creed concerning the works of the Spirit – building the Church through baptism and the forgiveness of sin. At the same time, we can see how the bishops and pastors worked to identify the Spirit as one with the Father and Son, God alike with them, to be worshiped and glorified equally.
There is also a hint at the Church’s understanding that the Spirit was He Who inspired the Scriptures (“spoke by the prophets”), a doctrine which was understood from the beginning of the Church, although the necessity of elaborating this conviction would only come in later ages.
Thus, by the end of the fourth century, the Church had solidified the foundations of Trinitarian faith, established the central significance of the Kingdom of God, and outlined the broad parameters of orthodox Christian belief. Subsequent centuries, as we shall see, continued to develop the thinking of the early Church, always within the framework of faith and under the guidance of the Fathers. For while the Church Fathers did not develop as full and complete a confession of faith as later generations would provide, yet, as doctrinal and creedal development demonstrates, what they preached and taught was foundational, following the outlines of the Nicene Creed, in clarifying and enlarging the Church’s understanding of her beliefs and calling within the Kingdom of God.
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