In my previous article, I started a series on the Creeds of the Catholic Church. Having dealt with the Apostles’ Creed, I now turn to the Nicene Creed.
I will begin by reviewing the history of the Nicene Creed. I will include the Creed in the text and finally analyze the Creed.
History and controversy
The Nicene Creed (or the Nicene-Constantinople Creed) appears to have been a product of the Council of Constantinople in 381. However, it would not be officially declared until the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
The Creed was a response to several heresies promulgated in the early Church. What has become known as the Arian heresy is of particular concern. This heresy believed that there was a “time” (the word time must be understood by analogy since God exists outside of time) before Jesus exists, before He is begotten of the Father. So the Arian heresy taught that Jesus was the firstborn of all creation, but only a creature – a God-like creature, but not God.
Eventually, the Council of Nicaea condemned the Arian heresy and confirmed that Jesus was of the same substance (and essence) as God the Father. Yet the Nicene Creed would not be without controversy. The source of the dispute is what is called the Filioque clause. The Filioque is a Latin term meaning “and the Son”.
The term is meant to express the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. Although a complex issue, the Filioque controversy revolves around whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son. It is the teaching of the Catholic Church that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Let us now turn to the formulation of the Nicene Creed.
The Nicene Creed
“I believe in one God, the almighty Father, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, uncreated, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation, he came down from Heaven, and by the Holy Spirit became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For us he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures. He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, who gives life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets. I believe in a holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess a Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
Analysis of the creed
For the purpose of analyzing the Nicene Creed, it is useful to divide it into six articles.
Section 1. “I believe in one God, the almighty Father, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”
The first article confirms the Catholic belief in monotheism and establishes God as the Father of creation. Like the Apostles’ Creed, it was necessary to argue against the polytheism of paganism. The use of the Dad referring to the first Person of the triune God reflects the way Jesus refers to God (Matthew 6:9) as well as an indication of the personal nature of God.
Section 2. “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, uncreated, consubstantial with the Father; through him everything was done. For us men and for our salvation, he came down from Heaven.
Jesus Christ, as the Son of God, is the second person of the Holy Trinity. Jesus proceeds eternally from the Father and is one substance with God the Father. By stating that Jesus is “begotten, not created, consubstantial with the Father,” this article directly refutes the Arian heresy.
Section 3. “and by the Holy Spirit became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
God the Son incarnated in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. By virtue of being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, God became a human being in Jesus. This article has ramifications for the economy of salvation, and it also serves to refute the Docetist heresy. Docetism claimed that Jesus was God, but only appeared to become human and have a physical body. Catholicism teaches that Jesus was truly human.
Section 4. “For us, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures. He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
This article emphasizes that Jesus died for the sins of mankind. It also places the suffering, crucifixion and death of Jesus in historical context by referring to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
The statement that Jesus not only rose from the dead, but did so by his own power, is also significant. This, too, makes His Divinity clear. Moreover, Jesus was resurrected in a physical and glorified body. By declaring that Jesus was resurrected in accordance with the Scriptures (for example, Hosea 6:1-2 and Daniel 12:2), the Creed declares that Jesus is the Messiah announced in the Old Testament.
The ascension of Jesus is even more proof of his divinity. In the ancient world, sitting at the King’s right hand was not only a seat of honor but also meant that one was equal to the King. By stating that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, the Creed again confirms Jesus as God.
Finally, the article predicts the second coming of Christ, the general judgment and the introduction of the Kingdom of God.
Section 5.“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, who gives life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.”
As the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is properly called Lord and giver of life. The Holy Spirit is the life-giving and life-sustaining breath of God. The Holy Spirit is properly glorified and loved as God, with the Father and the Son.
As mentioned above, the Filioque (and the Son) clause is meant to combat the Arian heresy. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, but not in a generative sense. Instead, the Holy Spirit precedes like a spira- tion. The spiration means spirit or breath of God. The Father knows himself (knowledge is logos in Greek). The Logos is the Son. As the Father knows himself, he loves himself, and this is the Holy Spirit.
Finally, this love of God as the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets of old and continues to speak through the Church today.
Section 6. “I believe in a one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
The Creed concludes by referring to the four marks of the Church: that she is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Jesus founded a Church (Matthew 16:18). The Church is holy because Jesus is holy. The Church is Catholic because its liturgy and teachings are uniform throughout the world. The Church is apostolic because its origins and teachings go back to the apostles. Additionally, there has been an unbroken line of Catholic bishops proclaiming the gospel.
Baptism is the sacrament by which original sin is forgiven (Mark 16:15-16). As the sacrament leaves an indelible mark, it can only be done once.
The Creed reiterates the biblical teaching of the resurrection of the body (2 Maccabees 7:9 and 1 Corinthians 15:13). Finally, the Creed professes our hope of eternal life in Heaven (ie the world to come).
In this work I have sought to explain one of the Catholic Church’s most fundamental statements of faith and a summary of Orthodox belief, the Nicene Creed.
Not only does the Creed express the mystery of the Holy Trinity, but it is also a powerful tool against heresy.