Last month we looked at the first of the three ecumenical creeds—the Apostles’ Creed. This month we consider the second—the Nicene Creed.
The first version of the Nicene Creed came from the First Ecumenical Council held in Nicea in 325. The council was convened by Emperor Constantine for the stated reason of combating the Arian heresy that was threatening the church (many question the sincerity of Constantine’s faith—he was baptized by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia the council—and question whether Constantine may have had the more political motive of unifying the Roman Empire through the council). Arius held that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God. Rather for Arius Jesus was the adopted son of God; here Jesus began his life as an ordinary man but then, because of his excellence, God adopted him and made him god-like. For the church gathered at Nicea this was a violation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. As a result, the church in the Nicene Creed included the important term homoousios (transliterated from the Greek language), a term with ambiguous meaning between ‘of one substance’ and ‘of the same substance.’ The chief purpose for including the term was to say that the Son was not adopted to be God but rather was equally divine with the Father. The Council of Nicea thus excluded Arianism in the case of the Son. However, the issue of the divinity of the Holy Spirit was not yet in dispute, and thus the original Nicene Creed ended by simply confessing, “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”
In the time after the Council of Nicea, Arianism continued to thrive as many Arians rose to prominence as bishops in the church. Athanasius, the leading theologian advocating the doctrine of the Trinity after Nicea, was exiled from his church in Alexandria at least five times because of his orthodox Trinitarian position. Over time, however, things began to change. The so-called ‘Cappadocian Fathers’ (Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) increased in prominence as theologians and leaders of the church. Largely as a result of their efforts, the Second Ecumenical Council was convened in Constantinople in 381. This council expanded the Nicene Creed’s third article so that the creed issuing from this council is sometimes referred to as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which creed is nearly identical with the creed we use as the Nicene Creed in our worship today. This creed confessed the Holy Spirit as “the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified.” It further confessedthat the Spirit works intimately in the church’s life. The Eastern Orthodox Church today continues to use basically the creed that resulted from the Council of Constantinople.
A final significant stage of the Nicene Creed came from the Council of Toledo in 589. The Visigoth the king Reccared converted from Arianism to orthodox Christianity. Under Reccared’s leadership Spain and the Council of Toledo accepted the divinity of the Son and changed the wording of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed to state that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (in Latin, filioque) as a way of confessing that the Son is divine and the second person of the Trinity. The Eastern Orthodox Church refused this innovation, and as this opposition increased over time the scene was set for the East-West Schism of the church in 1054.
In spite of these differences between the East and West, the Nicene Creed that is still confessed by nearly the entire church on earth is almost identical in wording in all places. All may still revere this creed especially for its clear confession that Jesus is God and thus capable of saving us and thus worthy of our worship. While the Apostles’ Creed focuses on what the divine persons of the Trinity do in history, the Nicene Creed shifts somewhat and begins to look also at the eternal life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We will see that the Athanasian Creed even more reflects upon the eternal fellowship of the Trinity.