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The How and Why of the Nicene Creed

Our statement of faith grew organically out of the conflicts in the Church

Paul Senz

“I believe in one God.” This is the first line of two of the most succinct and profound statements of faith in the history of the Church, and it is a line that immediately sets Christianity apart from so much that came before or has come since.

The English word creed comes from the Latin credere, “to believe,” and is typically a list of propositions to which one is assenting. This is often more than an expression of personal piety, or a mission statement: it is a common statement of unity of belief. This idea of unity of belief is an important insight into the development of the historical Christian creeds and their role in the fight against heresy and heterodoxy, as well as their role in correct catechesis.

It is important for a community to have a common statement of belief. This can be seen everywhere, from corporate mission statements to pacts in children’s backyard clubs. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “Whoever says ‘I believe’ says ‘I pledge myself to what we believe.’ Communion in faith needs a common language of faith, normative for all and uniting all in the same confession of faith” (CCC 185).

One thing important to remember about the creeds is that they are not comprehensive statements of everything that Catholics believe. It is easy to find examples of fundamental Catholic beliefs that are not mentioned in any of the standard creeds of the Church: the Eucharist, the ministry of Jesus, the primacy of the pope, purgatory—the Apostles and Nicene creeds address none of these. Nevertheless, we know they are intrinsic elements of Catholic belief.

The purpose of the creeds is to identify the heart of the Christian faith, to express belief in certain teachings that were controversial or disputed at one time or another in the past. These creeds grew organically out of the life of the Church. They are teaching tools, methods of catechesis, propositions that one must give assent to in order to be baptized and join the Church.

How did the creeds come to be?

Too often the Creed is rattled off without a second thought, as with many things in the liturgy or, indeed, in our daily lives. It is just something we do, something we say every week, and we don’t really think about what we are saying. We don’t give much thought to what the words really mean, let alone where they came from.

Many of the lines and assertions in the Creed were settled after years, decades, even centuries of debate. Here we will look specifically at the creed that came out of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople and how the Christian understanding of the Trinity developed and was articulated in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The earliest creeds developed out of the baptismal liturgy. As is still the case today, the candidate for baptism (or his parents and godparents) would respond to a series of questions, giving him the opportunity to assent to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

“From the beginning, the apostolic Church expressed and handed on her faith in brief formulae normative for all. But already very early on, the Church also wanted to gather the essential elements of her faith into organic and articulated summaries, intended especially for candidates for baptism” (CCC 186).

In an age when illiteracy was common, it was an important and helpful catechetical tool to have a short, memorizable symbol of the Faith. The core of Christian belief could be distilled into such a creed, which could then serve as the basis for instruction.

These creeds reflected what has come to be known as a “hierarchy of truths”—which is not to say that some things are more true than others or that some beliefs are disposable while others are integral. Rather, what it means is that there is a heart of the faith, a core, a foundation, and some beliefs are more closely related to that core than are others.

Catholics believe, for example, that every person has a guardian angel, but this is not stated in any creed because it is not central to the faith. The heart of Christian faith is the Trinity (cf. CCC 243), and everything else flows from that.

The Apostles Creed

The exact origin of the Apostles Creed is unclear. There is a tradition that the creed comes from the apostles themselves and that each of the Twelve wrote one of the twelve articles on the day of Pentecost after the descent of the Holy Spirit (of course, by this point, St. Matthias had already been chosen to replace Judas Iscariot [Acts 1:12-26]).

Now, this is almost certainly apocryphal, but at the least the creed is a statement of the faith of the apostles, handed down through so many generations until it was distilled in this form at some point.

The oldest form we have of the Apostles Creed comes to us from Hippolytus of Rome around A.D. 215, and it appears to have been from a baptismal liturgy. Part of the reason scholars think this is because it is in the format of a question-and-answer exchange, most likely between the celebrant and the about-to-be-baptized.

This is not the oldest creed we have. In fact, there are quite a number of creeds preceding it, including in Sacred Scripture (e.g. Phil. 2:5-8), the Creed of Justin Martyr (contained in Apology I, 13), the Creed of Irenaeus (contained in The Preaching of the Apostles 6), and others. Even the baptismal formula itself is a creed and probably served as the primeval Christian creed upon which all others are based.

This trinitarian formula for the creeds is recognized in the Catechism as well:

The Creed is divided into three parts: “the first part speaks of the first divine Person and the wonderful work of creation; the next speaks of the second divine Person and the mystery of his redemption of men; the final part speaks of the third divine Person, the origin and source of our sanctification” [quoting the Roman Catechism] (CCC 190).

Of course, the creed that Catholics encounter most often is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. It came out of the first two ecumenical councils in Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (381), though it is usually referred to simply as the Nicene Creed. As has usually been the case in the history of the Church, these councils were convoked in response to theological controversies raging at the time.

More than simply academic disputes, these were controversies that endangered souls, touching as they did on the most fundamental Christian beliefs. The bishops and others gathered at these councils in order to discern the true and orthodox response to heresy.

In the earliest centuries of the Church, its leaders had yet to carefully consider many of the issues that have since been clarified and defined. Somewhat surprisingly, one thing the Church did not define until the fourth century was the key question about the person of Jesus.

Response to heresy

In Alexandria, Egypt, in the early fourth century, a priest named Arius was spreading dangerous ideas about the person of Jesus. Put simply, Arius believed and taught that the Son of God was a creature, not co-eternal with the Father, not of the same substance. This put the Son on a lower level than the Father. In many ways, Arianism neuters the concept of Jesus’ salvific work and diminishes him to simply a helpful teacher rather than a divine savior.

Arius taught that the Father created the Logos, and so Christ did not exist from all time and was not divine himself. Making the Son a creature made him subordinate to the Father. Arius felt that the Church overemphasized the divinity of Jesus to the detriment of his humanity.

Arius was excommunicated by the bishops of Egypt in 319, but he continued to gather followers, including bishops. This made Arianism a huge problem. This was not a fringe group; it comprised a large number of believers, some of whom were clergy.

Arius’s teachings created tremendous conflict, starting in his native Alexandria. He used every method at his disposal to spread his errors, including composing songs. Arianism continued to spread despite the efforts of the bishop of Alexandria, even claiming several bishops as adherents. Constantine, the Roman emperor, called a general council of the whole civilized world to address this pressing theological issue.

The bishops met at Nicea in 325. The council produced a succinct definition of the orthodox faith in Jesus Christ: they described the Son as of the same being or substance as the Father. Consubstantialis is the Latin word, which may sound familiar to modern ears, since the current liturgical translation of the creed has the term rendered as consubstantial. In Greek, the term used was homoousios, as opposed to homoiousios (“of similar substance”).

There were 250 to 300 or more bishops present at the council. (There seems to be a consensus of 318 among those who were there.) All but two assented to the creed that was developed, which detailed the orthodox position on Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Those two bishops, along with Arius, were banished by order of the emperor.

The Council of Nicea was the first time that the Church really delved into Christology in an official and systematic way, making an effort to formulate a deeper understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. As has so often been the case in the Church’s history, these strides forward in theology are the result of a desperate need in response to heresy.

The years following the council were not free of controversy. Constantine was persuaded to pardon Arius and even ordered the exiled Arian bishops reinstated in their dioceses. St. Athanasius, the great defender of orthodoxy and enemy of Arianism, was banished from Alexandria, and Arius was all set to return—but he died suddenly before he could.

Even after the council’s condemnation of Arianism, these errors continued to spread and gain traction, with the Arians becoming much more numerous and influential, counting Constantine’s successor among their number.

A few short decades later, the second ecumenical council was called, held this time in Constantinople in 381. Arianism had put down deep roots all over the empire, but by this time the emperor was once again a Catholic, so he wanted the matter settled once and for all.

The council fathers reaffirmed the condemnation of Arianism from Nicea and went on to clarify the nature of the Holy Spirit. Lines about the Holy Spirit were added to the creed, hence the name “Niceno-Constantinopolitan.” The Arians’ belief that the Holy Spirit was created by the Son (and thus even further subordinate in a sort of trinitarian hierarchy) earned them the name Pneumatomachs—“killers of the Spirit”—and a condemnation from the council.

While the Arian ideas are what resulted in the calling of the council, there was also a condemnation of the Docetists in the language of this new creed. Docetism is the belief that Christ did not really become man—that he only appeared to be human, which would mean that his suffering also was only apparent. This teaching, which grew during the second and third centuries, was condemned with the phrase “suffered death and was buried” (passus et sepultus est).

Pride of place

The Creed arose out of need. It was the result of trouble and strife, of theologians and bishops and priests leading people astray with erroneous teaching. Heresy spread far and wide and threatened the souls of those who fell victim to it. Ecumenical councils met in order to determine how to talk about these things.

Arianism has by no means been wiped from the face of the Earth. It remains with us today in a modified form among those who insist that Jesus was simply a creature. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and others claim that Jesus was created, not co-eternal and divine. Countless secularists treat Jesus as even less than that: simply a teacher, a sort of primordial hippie.

There are many of these creeds, so why is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed given pride of place? We recite it every Sunday and solemnity. We know why the Apostles Creed is seen as so important—between the tradition that it was actually composed by the apostles and the fact that it is an ancient creed that certainly teaches the faith of the apostles—but what about the Nicene Creed?

The Catechism makes the point that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed “draws its great authority from the fact that it stems from the first two ecumenical councils (in 325 and 381). It remains common to all the great Churches of both East and West to this day” (CCC 195). This creed is a spectacular summary of the heart of the Christian faith and serves as a renewal of our baptismal promises each time it is recited by Catholics, Orthodox, and other Christians all around the world.

(It also helps that it is of very manageable length. The Athanasian Creed and the Credo of the People of God by St. Paul VI are much longer and more unwieldy in a liturgical setting.)

There is one more point to remember about these creeds: they are not simply a list of beliefs, like a set of rules for joining a club. When we say, “I believe,” we are uniting ourselves with those beliefs, and our “Amen” says that we will stake our very lives on these truths. The Church has developed the creeds as a sure guide to the heart of the Christian faith.

Sidebar: The Twelve Sections of the Creed and Articles of Faith

Article 1: I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

Article 2: And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

Article 3: Who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

Article 4: He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

Article 5: He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.

Article 6: He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

Article 7: He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Article 8: I believe in the Holy Spirit.

Article 9: the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,

Article 10: the forgiveness of sins,

Article 11: the resurrection of the body,

Article 12: And in life everlasting.

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