A short history of the Nicene Creed

Photo: BookyBuggy/Shutterstock

Every Sunday, midway through Mass, we rise and pray together the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth” and so on. Unfortunately for some, the Creed can seem somewhat rote, something taken for granted, and something recited together in a monotonous tone. Yet, this profession of faith is far from being routine or dull — it was born of great faith and even great controversies in the centuries of the early Church.

In the first few centuries after Christ, Christians strove to find precise language to coherently express the truth that Jesus was truly God and truly man. Some proposed theories that bounced between extremes. Docetists claimed Jesus was really God and only seemed to be human. Ebionites thought Jesus was only human but denied his pre-existence and divinity. The Church, by the pronouncements of bishops and local councils, condemned these ideas as false, and slowly developed language to express the true belief — and to combat the many heresies that were arising.

Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine and the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 holding the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. Photo: Public Domain

One heretical idea, however, straddled the line so subtly that it captured the assent of many. Arius, a popular priest of Alexandria, taught that the Son indeed was begotten of the Father, but that there must then have been a time when the Son did not exist, a time before he was begotten. Thus, Arius taught, Jesus, the Son of God, was the first-born of all creation, but only a creature — a godlike creature, but not God.

Arius’ erroneous notion of the relationship between the Son and the Father was quickly adopted by many, while others maintained that the Son was not a creature, but eternal and truly God. 

Furious debate broke out among Christians, with serious consequences: The cities of the Roman Empire were disturbed by riots and pitched battles between opposing sides; bishops were exiled from their sees and replaced by Arian bishops. 

The early ecumenical councils 

To quell the turmoil, Emperor Constantine called all the bishops of the world to meet in Nicaea, across the straits from his new capital, Constantinople. In A.D. 325, the first worldwide (ecumenical) council in the Church’s history took place. Presided over by two papal legates (the pope himself remained in Rome), the assembled fathers heard from Arius but later condemned his ideas. (They also condemned Docetism as a heresy.) 

The Council of Nicaea helped to repair a Christian world riven over a single but crucial Greek letter that separated doctrinal truth from heresy: Was the Son of the same substance (homoousios) to the Father, or of a similar substance (homoiousios)? We hear that truth — homoousios — repeated once more today in the revised language of the Creed, in the third edition of the Roman Missal: that Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 242).

In the end, the members of the council drafted a profession of faith in which they affirmed the Church’s belief that Jesus was truly God made man, eternally begotten of the Father and born from the Virgin Mary. The council’s creed stated unequivocally that the Son was of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father. 

16th-century fresco depicting the Council of Nicaea. Photo: Public Domain

This profession began with the words we believe, or in Latin, credimus, from which we derive our English word creed. Thus, this statement from Nicaea is today called the Nicene Creed.  

Though the Creed we recite today is essentially the same as centuries ago, it has undergone a few modifications. Originally, the Creed concluded simply “and we believe in the Holy Spirit.” The Church’s definitive statement about the divinity and co-equality of the Third Person of the Trinity would not be added until the next ecumenical council at Constantinople in A.D. 381. (Thus, the Creed we pray at Mass is technically named the “Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.”)

At Constantinople, the council fathers added to the Creed that the Spirit is “the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.” You may notice that this differs from what the Creed states today: that the Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the Son.” How did this addition come about? 

While the Church fathers clearly followed Scripture in identifying the Spirit as “the Spirit of Christ,” the way they expressed the nature of the relation between the persons of the Trinity differed. The Greek fathers, such as St. Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers (St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa), preferred to say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. The Latin fathers and writers (Tertullian, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and St. Augustine) tended to say that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son (in Latin, filioque). 

In the West, the filioque was added to the Creed gradually between the eighth and 11th centuries. The Eastern Churches took exception to this, saying that the Creed should not be changed without the approval of another ecumenical council. The issue remains a point of disagreement between the East and West (see CCC, 246-248).

Oldest extant manuscript of the Nicene Creed, dated to the sixth century. Photo: The John Rylands Library, Manchester, England

The essence of our faith

The Nicene Creed is one of the Catholic Church’s most foundational statements of faith and summary of orthodox belief. It expresses the deepest of mysteries, the Holy Trinity. 

Some have asked why, if the Creed is so central, it does not say anything about the Eucharist, which the Church says is the “source and summit” (CCC, 1324) of our faith? There are a couple of ways to respond. 

First, while the Eucharist is essential, the Catechism teaches that the Trinity is the central mystery of our faith (see CCC, 261). Reception of the Eucharist brings us into communion with the Trinity. Second, creeds and other statements of faith are written in response to particular challenges of the moment, and in the early fourth century, no one was seriously denying the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is not contained in the Creed precisely because it was uncontroversial!

The Catechism teaches that the Trinity is the central mystery of our faith.

The Creed communicates the essence of our faith. Its formation was fueled by the love of God, despite periods of debate. 

The next time you pray the Creed during Mass, imagine faithful Catholics doing battle over an article of faith. Imagine 300 bishops arrayed in the great hall of a Byzantine palace. Imagine the Creed being chanted in Latin and Greek in basilicas and cathedrals for centuries. Imagine the gift of the Trinity that we profess. Maybe it won’t seem so monotonous then!  

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