The Nicene Creed: how it became the way it is in the 1979 Prayer Book
For a discussion of Rublev’s icon, click here. The Nicene Creed, our catholic confession of faith, appears as a unified document that carefully outlines our faith in a Triune God: One God in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Like most doctrinal statements, however, the Nicene Creed was not written in one sitting, nor was it written in a vacuum. This essay will describe the doctrine of God as three persons in Trinity using the framework of the historical contexts of the Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), explaining the reasons for convoking each Council and the basic theological decisions of these Councils. In short, we will explore how the Nicene Creed got to be the way it is today in the 1979 Prayer Book.
First Ecumenical Council at Nicea: 325
When the first draft of the Nicene Creed was drawn up in 325, the chief impetus for doing so was the heresy of Arianism (as taught by the presbyter Arius of Alexandria, Egypt in the early fourth century) which taught, among other peculiar beliefs, that Jesus Christ, “The Son,” was a creation of the “The Father.” A popular way of expressing this belief for those who agreed with Arius’ teachings was “There was a time when he [The Son] was not.” Arius taught that the Father, in the beginning, created (or begot) the Son, who then, with the Father, created the world. Arius’ Jesus, then, became a created being: his “godness” was removed.
Pope Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, summoned Arius for questioning. Arius was later excommunicated by a council of Egyptian bishops and went to Nicomedia from where he wrote many letters defending his beliefs. So great was Arius’ following and influence, that Emperor Constantine convoked a council of bishops in Nicaea where the first draft of what we now call the Nicene Creed was promulgated by a decided majority as a creedal statement of faith – and a firm rejection of Arius’ teaching that Jesus Christ was “begotten” son of an “unbegotten” Father.
The chief proponent for the full deity of Christ was Athanasius, a deacon in Alexandria, who would later go on to succeed Alexander as Bishop. The Creed the bishops assented to in 325 is, for the most part, contained in the Nicene Creed as it appears in our 1979 Prayer Book beginning with “We believe in one God . . .” and ending immediately after “. . . and in the Holy Spirit.” It’s purpose was clear: to refute the teachings of Arius and to affirm the orthodox doctrine of One God in Three Persons with specific attention to the Christology of the Son.
Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople: 381
The Council of Nicea did not end the Arian controversy. By 327 Emperor Constantine had begun to regret the decisions of 325; he granted amnesty to Arian leaders and exiled the Egyptian Bishop of Alexandria Athanasius who continued to defend Nicene Christianity. An additional heretical teaching, promoted by Bishop Macedonius of Constantinople, denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Macedonius’ followers were referred to as pneumatomachians or “fighters of the spirit.” These pneumatomachians also believed that God the Son was a similar essence of substance as the Father, but not the same substance. Macedonianism taught that the Holy Spirit was not a person – or hypostasis – but merely a power of God. The Spirit, then was inferior to the Father and the Son. Another sect, led by bishop Apollinarius who opposed the teaching of Arius, argued that Jesus did not have a human soul and was not fully human. In 381 Emperor Flavius Theodosius convoked the First Council of Constantinople, the second meeting of bishops (also known as the Second Ecumenical Council) where they reaffirmed and expanded the Nicene Creed of 325 to further address issues of Christ’s divinity and humanity, and added five articles to the Creed concerning the Holy Spirit’s nature and character: Lord, giver of life, a procession from the Father (using John 15:26 as a proof text), is worshiped and glorified with the Father and the Son, has spoken through the prophets.
Influential theologians at the time were St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Patriarch of Constantinople, and presider at the Second Ecumenical Council and St. Gregory of Nyssa. This expanded and modified Creed became the definitive document on the doctrine of the Trinity: one God in three persons or hypostases. Although there were to be additional Councils and heresies, the Creed was essentially codified in 381 and received in 431 when the Council convened to discuss the Nestorian controversy. There was, however, a heavily disputed clause added in 589 by the Third Council of Toledo primarily to oppose Arianism (which continued to teach Jesus as a created being) among the Germanic peoples. In the place where the original Creed reads “We believe in the Holy Spirit . . . who proceeds from the Father” the amended creed reads “. . . from the Father and the Son.” Pope Leo III forbade the addition of the “filioque” (as it became to be known) and ordered the original Nicene Creed engraved on silver plates so that his conclusion would not be overturned in the future. The filioque clause would eventually contribute (among many other causes) to the Great Schism of East and West in 1054 when medieval Christianity split into the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Although the phrase “and the Son” still appears in your 1979 Prayer Book, you can expect to see it omitted in the next reprinting as a result of a Lambeth Resolution in 1988 calling for its removal.
Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus: 431
Emperor Theodosius II convoked the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 to address the Nestorian controversy. Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, objected to the popular practice of calling the Virgin Mary the “Mother of God” or Theotokos. Nestorius taught that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a man, Jesus Christ, not God the Logos. The Logos, Nestorianism taught, only dwelled in Christ whose physical body provided a kind of temple for the Logos. Nestorius promoted the term Christotokos for Mary: the Mother of Christ. The Council, after summoning Nestorius three times to no avail, denounced Nestorius’ teaching as erroneous and stripped him of his bishopric. They declared Jesus to be both a complete man and a complete God, and upheld the Virgin Mary as Theotokos because she gave birth not to a man, but to a God who became a man. The Council declared the text of the Creed, in its present form of 325 and 381, as complete and forbade any changes. St. Cyril of Alexandria was a central figure in the Third Ecumenical Council as its spokesperson and president.
Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon: 451
Flavius Marcianus, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire from 450 until his death in 457, convoked the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon across the Straits from Constantinople. The council was concerned, yet again, with the nature of Jesus Christ. Monophytism, from the Greek mono (one or alone) and physis (nature) took the Christological position that Christ had only one nature: Divine. While Christ was human, they believed, his less-perfect human nature was dissolved into his more perfect divine nature. The council condemned Monophytism and reaffirmed that Jesus has two and complete natures as defined by previous councils. These two natures, the Council argued, operate harmoniously without confusion. They are not divided or separate (as the Nestorians argued), nor did they undergo any change (as the Monophsites contended). The Council gave a clear and full statement of orthodox Christology in a document defining the union of the divine and human natures of Christ. This document, which concentrates specifically on the nature of Jesus Christ, reflects a very clear, and, as some argue, a final statement on the orthodox theology of Christ as at once man and god. The statement declares itself to be “unanimous” in its teaching that Jesus is: perfect in humanity and in divinity; truly God (an Alexandrian notion) and truly man (an Antiochian notion); consubstantial with God and with humanity. It established the absolute limits of theological speculation using words like “unconfusedly,” “unchangeably,” “indivisibly” and “inseperably”. (The 1888 Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral does not list the Chalcedonian Statement in its encapsulation of the fundamentals of a doctrine for Communion surrounding scriptures, creeds, sacraments and historic episcopate.)
It is interesting to note that the Chalcedonian Statement does not appear to contain any doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit, nor does it use the word “Trinity.” It must be remembered that this is a single paragraph lifted from a larger document that speaks about the decisions reached at Nicea in 325 by the “318 Fathers” in attendance and at Constantinople in 381 by the “150 Fathers” in attendance, which includes all the theology of the Holy Spirit we discussed earlier.
The doctrine of the Trinity and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed
Our brief discussion of the four Ecumenical Councils of 325, 381, 431 and 451, then, lays the groundwork for our discussion about the Trinity as we understand it in and from the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed we recite today, our profession of who we believe God to be in our day and age. Referring to the creed on page 358 of your Prayer Books, let us re-examine our understanding of “Trinity” from what the text says us remembering that this document comes to us as a result of strenuous debate and redebate over the course of 126 years and four Councils.
We believe in One God
Here we assert a belief, individually and communally, that only one God exists, an echo of the Shema, that ancient declaration from Deuteronomy that begins “Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
The Father the Almighty. God the Father – as Father – is the first person (hypostasis) or reality in the Godhead. The Father is the origin of the Trinity. Early Christians would refer to God as “unbegotten” as their way to say that God the Father had no beginning and is outside our understanding of time and space. Almighty – from the Greek pantocrator – speaks about God the Father’s capacity to do with unlimited power. We sometimes use the word omnipotent – power without limitation – to describe this characteristic of God the Father.
Maker of Heaven and Earth, of All that is seen and unseen. God the Father is the creator of the cosmos and everything in it. Some early sects (the Gnostics and the Marcionites) believed that God the Father created the spirit, or “unseen” world, but that another god – a demiurge – created the lesser, or “seen” material world. The phrase “seen and unseen” dispels this idea.
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ
Here is the beginning of our confession of the second member of the Trinity. The title “Lord” (adonai in Hebrew and kyrios in Greek) are both applied to YHWH in the Hebrew Bible. This is a powerful connotation that means much more than “master.”
The Only Son of God. The Son and the Father have a unique relationship. Jesus is the only son of God by nature.
Eternally begotten of the Father. “Begotten” means produced, born or generated. God the Son is born out of the essence of God the Father. As God is eternal, Jesus, as his eternally begotten Son, shares his eternal nature. God from God, Light from Light. Jesus exists in relation to God. The Son is not the Father, but the Father and the Son are God. Some early Christians, known as Modalists or Sabellians, believed that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were one God who changes roles or “modes.” The scriptures have all three persons interacting at the same time at Jesus’ baptism.
True God from True God. Jesus is not a half-god, neither is he an inferior god. The Arians believed that Jesus was a creation of God, making him a “god” but not the “true God.” The Creed here goes to pains to assert that Jesus is as much God as God is God.
Begotten not made. This Creedal phrase tells us that the Son was not created out of nothingness and was “begotten” not as an event in time, but in a permanent relationship to God.
Of one being with the Father. God the Father and God the Son are of one substance. They are equally divine. They share the same essence (homoousia) while maintaining their individual identity as Father and Son.
Through him all things were made. Scripture tells us that God the Son was the creator of the universe (John 1:1). He is the agent of creation.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven. Jesus, the divine, came to earth as Jesus, the human.
By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus becomes man in the womb of Mary. He became, as the Creed says, “incarnate” – embodied in human flesh, as a human in every way sharing the heavenly nature of his Father, and the earthly nature of his mother.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. If the Creed here appears to be stating the obvious, that is because it is. When the Creed says Jesus was “crucified” and that he “suffered” death, it is refuting the beliefs (as so much of the Creed does) of the early Docetists who believed that Jesus only appeared or seemed to be human but was in fact simply going through the motions of being a human. In short, they believed that Jesus only appeared to suffer, only appeared to die, etc. Here the Creed affirms that Jesus was fully human.
On the third day he rose again according to the scriptures. Just as Jesus really died, he really rose in fulfilment of the scriptures – another response to the Docetists.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. Jesus returns to the Father where he shares his authority.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end. Here we affirm our belief and our faith that Jesus will return as judge of all who have ever lived or died, and his kingdom – the Kingdom of Heaven – will never be destroyed.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life
You will remember that the original Creed of 325 ended abruptly after the words “Holy Spirit.” The Creed here refutes the beliefs of the Macedonians that the Holy Spirit was not divine. The Holy Spirit is also referred to as “Lord.” The title “Lord” (adonai in Hebrew and kyrios in Greek) are both applied to YHWH in the Hebrew Bible.
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Just as the Son is “begotten” of the Father, the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father. Here the Creed tells of the unique relationship the Holy Spirit has with the Father and of the Holy Spirit’s divinity. (Remember, from our earlier discussion, that the phrase “and the Son” – added in 589 – was not part of the original Creed and remains a major division between the Eastern and Western branches of the Holy Catholic Church, largely because the Western Church added the phrase without input from the Eastern Church.
With the Father and Son, He is Worshiped and Glorified. The Holy Spirit is God as are the Father and the Son, and worthy of the same worship due to the Father and the Son.
He Has Spoken Through the Prophets. The Spirit inspired the prophets of old, and inspires the Church today.
We Believe in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The creed requires belief in a catholic (from the Greek kata meaning “with respect to” and holos meaning “whole”) Church, whose origins are ancient and historical, going back to the Apostles themselves.
We Acknowledge One Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins. God forgives us of our sins, and we are born again. This belief in baptism’s saving power is ancient and universally acknowledged in the early Christian writings. It is worth noting that if someone has been validly baptized in the name of the Trinity (i.e. “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”), re-baptism would be unnecessary and even inappropriate.
We Look for the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life of the World to Come. Here we jointly affirm our hope for the ultimate reconciliation of man to God in a future life in the presence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as glorified souls and bodies.
And even now, despite our best efforts to understand this confession, we draw on our faith in this great mystery of the oneness and the threeness of the Christian God. The Creed speaks of our corporate belief in the nature and character of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It does not require a statement of fact from us as to how we understand or live out this belief. It is our corporate confession at the Mass as believers, and our private confession in prayer that God lives as one and in the persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit “One God, World without End.”