We are unsure who wrote the original version of the Nicene Creed. The Coptic Church traditionally believes it was written by Pope Athanasius of Alexandria. It could also have been the local creed of Christians in Caesarea, or perhaps it was a baptismal creed recorded by Eusebius. In any event, it was adopted to forge a uniform statement of belief among early Christians at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. At that point in time, some Christian groups had chosen to believe that although Jesus was divine, he had been created by God. Called the Arian controversy, this meant that Jesus was not co-equal with God. The clergy who attended the First Council of Nicaea were determined to make a firm statement of faith that would reflect their views.
In order to put the Arian controversy to rest, the original version of the Nicene Creed made it very clear that Jesus was of the same substance as God and the Holy Spirit.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, 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 [both in heaven and on earth];
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
- Source: Wikipedia
The First Council of Constantinople adopted a different version of the Nicene Creed in 381 A.D. The longer version which follows is now generally recognized as the formally adopted Nicene Creed. A literal translation of the original Greek text with Western liturgical changes emphasizes the power of God, and that God is three persons (The Holy Trinity): there is God the Father, God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Ghost (Spirit).
We believe (I believe) in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. (God of God) light of light, true God of true God. Begotten not made, consubstantial to the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again according to the Scriptures. And ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose Kingdom there shall be no end. And (I believe) in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son), who together with the Father and the Son is to be adored and glorified, who spoke by the Prophets. And one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We confess (I confess) one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for (I look for) the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen."
- Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia
A third statement of beliefs can be found in the Apostles’ Creed that apparently originated in the second or third century. Although similar in text to the Nicene Creed, the basis of the Apostles’ Creed was the theology of the Canonical Gospels. Broadly accepted in the West, it avoids any explicit statements about the divinity of Jesus. Its use can be found in Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches. The English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC) adopted a formal English version in 1988:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Neither version of the Nicene Creed, nor the Apostles’ Creed, can be found in the Bible as integral texts. One can, however, find passages in the Bible to support the convictions expressed by these statements of belief. Early Church fathers brought these passages together as an interpretation of the theology found in the Bible. The phrase “who for us men” has been the source of some controversy, because it appears to mean women and children are not able to receive salvation. Alternative versions of the Nicene Creed use the term “for us and for our salvation” in order to avoid this controversy. There is also some doubt whether or not Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion. It is thought, by many, that Jesus arose to be with God after his crucifixion. He then reappeared on the third day to console and inspire his followers. These are among the metaphysical points that philosophers, theologians, and academics love to argue about.
Prepared by the International Consultation on English Texts, this version is used by many mainline communions in the United States and other English-speaking countries.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. 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, one in Being with the Father. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of 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. 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. 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.
There are fragmentary references to the concept of a trinity in the scriptures and early church fathers apparently brought these together to express the meaning of the scripture in a form that would support their beliefs. As adopted in 381 A.D, the Nicene Creed became widely is accepted by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and many Protestant churches as a statement of Christian faith.
The Apostles’ Creed is more likely to be used in Western Christian Churches. Some evangelical and other Christian congregations consider the Nicene Creed to be helpful, but not authoritative – a designation they reserve for the Bible. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with some other Christian congregations, reject some of the statements in the Nicene Creed.
Paul the Apostle believed Jesus existed before his conception and should be referred to as Lord (God). But it would appear Paul did not think of God in a Trinitarian sense. The source and creation of the Nicene Creeds and the emphasis on the Trinity can be discovered by analyzing the history of the early Church.
Arius (c. 250 – 336), who was a cleric in Alexandria, Egypt, taught that Jesus was not co-eternal with his father and is therefore distinct from the Father. Arius also argued that Jesus was created at a specific point in time. This belief is different from the concept of Sabellianism (or modalism) which characterizes the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as being three aspects of one God, rather than three different persons. If the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are different aspects of the same God, then it was an aspect of God who was born a man, suffered on the cross and experienced resurrection. Arianism was based on the Gospel of John 14:28 “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I." and Colossians 1:15 where Paul proclaims —"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation." Popular during the 300s, the teachings of Arius (Arianism) were deemed heretical by the First Council of Nicaea (325). Although Arius was exonerated in 335, he was again pronounced a heretic at the Ecumenical First Council of Constantinople in 381. Arianism virtually disappeared as a principle by the late 600s.
Constantine (c. 272? – 337). Much of this debate and activity was influenced by Emperor Constantine (also known as Constantine the Great, or Saint Constantine) who was the supreme civil leader and authority of the Roman Empire from 306 to 337 A.D. He was acutely aware there was a growing interest in Christianity within the Empire. Constantine’s first edict about the Christians has been lost. His second edict in 313 A.D. granted them the freedom of religious worship and the recognition of the State. In his political role he also summoned the bishops of the western provinces to Arelate (Arles) in A.D. 314, where they attempted to resolve a split that had occurred within the church in Africa called Donatist schism.
Constantine reasoned that if Christians were unified in their beliefs, then Christianity could act as a religious force to unify the far flung regions of his domain. Constantine surveyed the political landscape and determined Athanism had stronger support. In order to bring theological order to Christianity, Constantine needed to eliminate competing visions of doctrine (and constant bickering among the bishops). Constantine therefore welcomed the development of the Nicene Creed as a unified statement of beliefs. The bishops who gathered together in 325 at Nicaea were able to agree on the nature and relationship of Jesus as the son of God, establish a common date for the celebration of Easter, and issue the first unified profession of Christian faith. The use of peaceful (if sometimes contentious) debate to resolve theological issues shows us one side of Constantine’s nature. On the other hand, he often used brutal methods to enforce these agreements against anyone (including Christians) who didn’t like them.
Flavius Valentinianus (c. 371 – 392), also known as Valentinian II, was Roman Emperor of the Western Roman Empire from A.D. 375 to 392. Valentinian II was influenced by his Arian mother, the Empress Justina, to oppose the Nicean party. This, of course, infuriated Aurelius Ambrosius (Saint Ambrose) who was archbishop of Milan and a supporter of Nicene Christianity.
Theodosius I (c. 347 – 395), who is also known as Theodosius the Great, was Roman Emperor from 379 to 395. After the death of Valentinian II in 392, Theodosius became the last emperor to rule over both the eastern and the western halves of the Roman Empire. The cohesive forces which had held the Roman Empire together were in decline. The Roman top down slave labor economic model was being replaced by a feudal system of economic and social organization. Feudalism brought with it a long period of intellectual rigidity, and the emergence of the Catholic Church as the primary source of doctrinal belief. In order to promote the religious cohesion of his domain, Theodosius made Nicene Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 (the edict of Thessalonica), defeated any opposition to his decision, and ordered the destruction of several pagan temples.
Constantine had organized the First Council of Nicaea in 325. But a lesser known Council at Rimini in 359 supported the Arian position, and a Council of Constantinople in 360 tried to make a compromise between Arian and the Athanistic views. But bickering continued. In 381, it became clear the early Church was still embroiled in heated debate over the nature of Christ (known as Christology). Opinions ranged from those who believed he was human; to a substantial number of Christians who wanted to believe Jesus was entirely divine. The most persistent confrontation was between Athanism which viewed the Father and the son as being one and eternal; and the Arian view that the Father and the son are similar, but that the Father created the son and is therefore greater.
It was Emperor Theodosius I who was compelled to call the bishops together for the Council of Constantinople in 381. He again firmly supported the Nicene view of Christ, and rejected the Arian position. A new version of the Nicene Creed was crafted to ensure there was no doubt that Jesus, the Father, and The Holy Ghost was of one “substance”. He supported the Athanism (Nicene) view even though, ironically, he was baptized on his deathbed by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia.
It should also be pointed out that neither a local council at Constantinople in 382, nor the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431, mention the revised version of the Nicene Creed. Instead, the Ephesus council reiterated the original 325 version of the creed in their denouncement of Nestorianism.
Explicit mention of the 381 A. D. version first appears in the records of the fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The Council of Chalcedon issued the view that Christ is a being of two natures, one human and one divine - “united with neither confusion nor division.” Called the doctrine of hypostatic union, Chalcedonian orthodoxy is still the official conviction in many Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Justinian I (c. 482 – 565) known as Justinian the Great, was a Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565. He tried to restore the Roman Empire by reconquering former Roman territory from Italy to the Atlantic. His generals succeeded in taking the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa, Dalmatia, Sicily, Italy (including Rome), and most of southern Iberia (Spania). Justinian I regulated everything, both in religion and in law. He firmly believed the unity of the Empire was interdependent with the unconditional unity of Christianity. His solution was to strictly enforce orthodox Nicean Christology. He established Roman state control over all doctrine, theological opinion, and details of worship. Justinian I established Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem as primary centers of Imperial Church leadership. Unfortunately for Justinian, the restored Empire soon began to crumble, weakened by a terrifying outbreak of bubonic plague in the early 540s, and outright rejection of the Emperor’s authority.
Muslim conquests, beginning in the 600s, converted most of North Africa, the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, and Spain to Islam, further weakening the Byzantine Empire. Churches of the Oriental Orthodoxy seceded from the Byzantine State Church. Because of the fragmented structure of feudalism, Churches within Europe were likely to be loyal to local rulers. When Charlemagne was crowned as Emperor of the Romans by his ally Pope Leo III in 800 A.D, the split between the western and eastern churches became irrevocable. The Great Schism resulted in the mutual excommunication of both Roman and Constantinople Popes in 1054 A.D.
Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) provided a systematic Christology to resolve existing issues, and assert the Christ’s human attributes were perfect in every possible way. He believed Jesus was divine and not just a human male. Jesus did, however, have a (rational) human soul and hence there was a duality of divine and human characteristics that existed simultaneously in his human body. Aquinas wrote that God had a three part nature: God the Father, God the Son as knowledge of self (God is aware of himself), and the Holy Spirit which is the love that binds God’s self-knowledge and God. The perception is, therefore, of three persons perfectly united and perfectly interrelated within the essence of God. Aquinas believed God assumed the nature of man so that man might become God.
Some evangelical Christians reject the Nicene Creed, not for its content, but simply because it is not found in the Bible. Sola Scriptura ("by Scripture alone") is the doctrine that the Bible is the final authority on all matters of belief. Only those doctrines found directly within the scriptures, or can be indirectly discovered by using logical deduction from the scriptures, are valid Christian beliefs.
Surveys of American adults indicate many do not believe (or know) the content of the Nicene Creed. When Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University conducted a poll of 1007 adults and asked the question: "Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?” 54 percent said no, 35 percent replied yes, and the rest were undecided. On the other hand, 90 percent of American adults believe in God or a Supreme Being, 65 percent are absolutely certain God exists, 72 percent believe in an afterlife in which they will have "some sort of consciousness," 63 percent are absolutely certain Jesus died and physically arose from the dead, and 60 percent believe Mary was a virgin mother. It would appear that roughly half of all people who have attended church recently believe in a personal physical resurrection. This percentage drops to 25 percent for non-church goers.
- Source: Most Americans doubt the resurrection of the body. Scripps Howard News Service, Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, 2006
The scriptures never reveal the Trinity as a theological concept. Instead the roles of Jesus and God are clearly separate and distinct. Jesus prays to God and calls Him father. For example, there is only one “true God” described in John 17:1-26 when Jesus the son is praying to God the Father. In John 20:17 Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” In John 14: 27-28 Jesus says “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give unto you, not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Ye have heard how I said unto you, ‘I go away and come again unto you.’ If ye loved Me, ye would rejoice because I said, ‘I go unto the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.” In John 7:33 Jesus said, "I am with you for only a short time, and then I am going to the one who sent me.” And In Matthew 27:46 Jesus cried with a loud voice, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" just as he was dying on the cross.
There are other examples of a clear distinction between Jesus as a man, and God as the Father. It is troubling (for some) this distinction would appear to contradict the concept that Jesus is God, or of the same substance as God. What should we believe? Our basic problem is that the Bible is a very large text. It is possible to prove most anything by quoting separate passages out of context (as we have done here). And then there is this eternal question: Is Jesus God?
Every organization, including political, religious, or corporate entities, needs to have a statement of purpose in order to focus member or employee activity on a set of common objectives. These statements frequently include ethical and procedural references, and emphasize what members or employees are expected to believe. The early church was no different. Christian doctrine was not clearly established. Theological controversies were common and often divisive. Christianity needed a universally accepted creed in order to establish the bedrock upon which the church could build its theology. Church elders would have been compelled to proclaim a core set of beliefs in order to unify local congregations, and there must have been many different statements of belief by the time the first council was held in Nicaea. One must concede, however, the circumstances of these councils were primarily motivated by political considerations. The Roman Emperors were struggling to maintain social and political cohesion among far flung and often contentious subject domains. Uniform religious beliefs and practices were (and still are) an integral component of social order.
The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds were created in response to the need for a uniform statement of Christian beliefs. As we may expect, they mirror contemporary fourth-century theology concerning the nature of God, Jesus, and the elements of faith. They have been the source of continuing debate and occasionally derisive comment – even in the 21st century. Some of the concepts are difficult to understand (and believe). For example, it is hard to accept the idea Jesus is God when he so obviously was born and lived his life as a man. In addition, the relationship of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit continue to be the source of controversy. One can reasonably ask: Was it necessary for Jesus to be (called) a God in order to give him the status of a legitimate King (Pontifex Maximus – Latin for "Greatest Pontiff") who could be superior to the pagan gods of Rome? And is a virgin birth a necessary requisite for Jesus to be born a King? Detractors sometimes refer to these beliefs as a mix of pagan and ancient Greek mythology.
For most Christians, both Creeds continue to express the core of Christian theology. We must never lose the moral compass Jesus brought to us. The Nicene Creed is very relevant for those Christians who choose to believe Jesus is an incarnation of God on earth in human form, and the Apostles’ Creed continues to provide a statement of faith for Christians who like to think of Jesus as being a divine human. Both Creeds affirm there is only one God who is maker of heaven and earth, Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilot, and on the third day after his death He arose to be with his father. These statements of faith have provided comfort and confidence for millions of Christians, and they will continue to do so.
As Christians we should be willing to recognize and respect other systems of spiritual faith. Those who seek a closer relationship with God (by whatever name that is familiar to them) may choose to follow the testaments of other theologies (Buddhist or Hindu, for example). In addition, we must recognize and respect the fact that belief systems are not static. The accumulation of human knowledge will always act to transform theology and philosophy.
Twenty-first century Christians may choose to have alternative beliefs about the nature of God, the importance of spiritual connection in prayer and meditation, and the divinity of Jesus Christ. We may choose to believe God is an unseen - but ever present - spiritual force with whom we are able to connect through meditation and prayer, and we may be more comfortable with the concept God is actually a unity of Father, Mother and Holy Spirit. Given the historical circumstances, it is logical to believe Jesus was born a human, was influenced by the presence of God throughout his entire life, thought of God as a father (who art in heaven), and became one with the conscious power (energy) of God through prayer and meditation – a path we seek to follow.
No matter what one may choose to believe, in the end we are drawn to meditate on the spirit behind these theological beliefs. We are created as individuals. The beliefs of one may not be right for another. We are, each one of us, challenged to find our own way to God. As my father has said, “Seek and Ye shall find.” If we want to find God, and his son, we must look for them through prayer and meditation.
It is worth the effort.