We Believe: Part 3 “History of the Nicene Creed"

The Nicene Creed is not really the Nicene Creed. 

This may not be the best way to begin an article on the history of the Nicene Creed, but I hope it captures your attention. Let me explain.
In the year 325, roughly three hundred Bishops from across the world met to discuss various matters at the Council of Nicaea. By the end of this Council, in addition to several Canons (or church laws) being published, the Bishops also approved the first official Christian statement of faith. This statement quickly became known as the Nicene Creed.
But this is not the exact form of the Creed that we recite today.

In the year 381, over fifty years after the Council of Nicaea, the world’s Bishops met again, this time in the city of Constantinople. Like at Nicaea, they had lots of work to do, but along the way they actually expanded upon the Nicene Creed that was originally drafted in 325. Except for the addition of one small—but controversial—Latin word in the 6th century by some in the Western Church, the version of the Creed stemming from the Council of Constantinople in 381 has been unchanged to this day. (More on that pesky word in a later post.)

So the Creed we recite today is actually from the Council of Constantinople in 381. Its official name, since it stems from these two Councils, is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. But since it was actually just an adaptation and expansion upon the original Creed from Nicaea in 325, it has popularly been referred to as the Nicene Creed throughout the centuries. (Plus, Niceno-Constantinopolitan is a bit of a mouth-full.)

So the Nicene Creed isn’t technically the Nicene Creed, but we call it the Nicene Creed. Make sense?

I think it is helpful for us to know these things, but I want to back up to an even more important question: Why did Constantine call a Church council in the first place?

Constantine did not invent the idea of a Church Council (see Acts 15, for example) but he did call the world’s first ecumenical Council that included Bishops from the British Isles all the way to India.

But again: why? What were they gathered to discuss at this council?

Even before Christians were able to worship publicly there were debates brewing over the person and nature of Jesus. Not just who he was, but—if it is ok to ask the question this way—what he was. God? Man? Half-God Half Man? (For the record, the answers to those questions are Yes, Yes, and a definitive No.)

Debating these fine points of theology might seem a little overboard to the casual observer. But what happens when two people who claim to love and follow Jesus actually believe fundamentally different things about who Jesus is? Is there a point that difference in belief about the person of Jesus actually excludes you from being considered Christian? 

If you believe that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, who took on flesh and lived among humanity ... and I believe that Jesus was just a traveling magician who started a very successful cult, one of us is so wrong that only one of us can be right. Only one of us gets to bear the name “Christian.” 

It turns out there are some things that you cannot believe about Jesus and claim to be a Christian. One such belief faced the Church in the Fourth Century. And the Nicene Creed answers it definitively.

In 4th century Alexandria—one of the great centers of Christianity at the time—a Priest by the name of Arius was gaining popularity for his ability to preach.

One of his popular teachings even sounds really cool to say in Greek: ἦν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν (Ain potty otty ook ain)

Say it out loud: ἦν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν (Ain potty otty ook ain)

Isn’t that cool? Say it again. ἦν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν (Ain potty otty ook ain)

Unfortunately, this phrase translates to “There was a time when he was not.” 

As in, “There was a time when Jesus did not exist.” 

In other words: Jesus is not eternal. He was created. He, like us, came into existence at some point in time. Jesus is not God.

Does that raise any issues for you? If so, you are not alone: The Church has, through the Council of Nicaea, spoken on this matter: you cannot believe that Jesus was created and be part of the true Christian church. To be part of the Church catholic (another loaded phrase that we will talk more about later), you must affirm that Jesus is eternal. That he was “not made.” 

In the years following the Council of Nicea, another form of Arianism began to gain popularity. This adaptation of Arius’s teaching was seen by some as acceptable according to the wording of the 325 version of the Creed.

Because of this, the Bishops at the Council of Constantinople in 381 expanded upon the language about Jesus in the original Nicene Creed. If you were to compare the text of the 325 and 381 versions, you would notice that it is primarily the middle section, on the person of Jesus, that was expanded upon the most at Constantinople.

Arius, and other heretics like him, are usually just trying to make sense of something confusing in the Bible. Christianity, like Judaism, is committed to monotheism: the belief in only one God. But Christians also worship Jesus and the Holy Spirit. How are we supposed to make sense of this? Do we believe in three Gods?

The easiest answer to this dilemma was to say that the Son and the Spirit are somehow less fully-divine than the Father. This was Arius’s approach. The Father is God, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit were just God-like. 

This is the way many early Christian heresies originated: seeking an easy answer over a more nuanced, biblically-faithful one. (Be careful when you offer easy answers to complex questions about our faith.)

The Bishops at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, keeping in line with how the Church had been reading the Old and New Testaments, insisted on being faithful to the Bible even when it makes things more complicated. We believe in a Jesus who was begotten, not made, and who is of one substance with the Father. And we believe in the Holy Spirit, who is also the Lord. Who, with the Father and the Son, is worshiped and glorified.

I hope this historical background will be helpful as I am joined over the next couple of months by other Coram Deo Faculty as we explore a number of specific phrases found in the Creed.

Jon R. Jordan / Logic School Director
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