The Nicene Creed as we know it is more accurately called the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed. This is because the creed we have is a product, by and large, of both the Ecumenical Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). I say by and large because later there was in the Western Church an important addition that contributed to the split between the Western (Latin) and the Eastern (Greek) Churches. In what follows we will look first at the Creed of the Council of Nicea, then at the enlargements of this creed at the Council of Constantinople and finally, at the Western addition to the Creed.
The Nicene Creed of 325
The history of this creed is absolutely fascinating. But we will not be able to get into all the intrigues and struggles here. In 325 Emperor Constantine called the first ecumenical synod to settle the dispute over the relationship between the Son and the Father. The theological battles were so intense that it affected the politics, and so the Emperor sought to bring peace and harmony back to the empire by sorting out this theological dispute. Or so he hoped. Three-hundred-eighteen bishops arrived for the big occasion. All except one were from the Eastern Church.
The dispute was started by a man named Arius, who taught that the Son was not God but that he was merely a creature created by God. He took the word “begotten” to mean “made.” In response to this teaching, the council adopted a very strong statement that affirmed the deity of the Son. After confessing the Father to be the Creator they confess that they believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” In particular the word “homoousios” (“being of one substance”) was included in the creed to make emphatic that the Father and the Son both partake in one divine nature.
To make emphatic its rejection of Arianism it also includes at the end of its confession the following anathema:
But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.1
All the bishops except for two signed the creed. What a victory for orthodox faith! But we should not celebrate too soon because, although the creed was accepted and Arius was banned, the orthodoxy of this creed did not immediately settle the unrest and did not immediately become the accepted teaching of the church.
The Addition of Constantinople (381)
It was not long after the Council of Nicea that the emperor changed his mind and began to favor the Arians. He withdrew the ban on Arius in 335, and the church received him back into the fellowship. In Alexandria, where all the trouble with Arius started, Athanasius had become bishop in 328 and fought the battle for Nicene orthodoxy. The struggle and peril that the church faced during this troubled time as it sought to establish the clear biblical teaching about Christ can be seen in his life. He was exiled no less than five times during his lifetime for his vigorous defense of the Nicene Creed.2 He saw himself fighting alone against the whole world (contra mundum), since the Arian party had the ears of most of the emperors during this time. It was a dark time in the life of God’s church for the truth was in great jeopardy of being denied!
But through the work of men like Athanasius the Lord maintained the truth of the full deity of the Son with the Father during this dark time. And in 381 the new emperor Theodosius I called together another ecumenical council of 150 (Eastern) bishops. At this council the Nicene Creed was again maintained, and Arianism in all its forms was condemned. This council also elaborated the earlier creed’s confession about the Holy Spirit in light of recent heresies that questioned the deity of the Holy Spirit. The first Creed only confessed that we believe “in the Holy Spirit.” Now this was elaborated to say “And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life; who proceedeth from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the prophets. And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
And so the deity of both the Son and the Spirit was upheld in the church against those who denied it. We see how the church, in its desire to remain faithful to the Word of God, in its fight against false teaching, struggled to define clearly the truth of God’s word and set it apart from all false teaching. The creeds are not only statements of the true Christian faith, but they are also standards to measure all teaching to see whether a person is faithful to God’s word or not, in the fundamental areas.
The Addition of the Western Church (589)
But this is not the end of the story of the creed as we know it in its Western form. Almost all of the bishops who attended these first two ecumenical councils were from the Eastern (Greek-speaking) church, but their work was also accepted by the Western (Latin-speaking) church. This creed was the first to get universal authority in the church and is still the primary creed in the Eastern churches (Greek & Russian Orthodox) and is expounded in all their catechisms.
In the Western church the phrase “and the Son” (Filioque) was added to the confession at some point in the statement about the Holy Spirit that says “who proceedeth from the Father.” (Now reading: “who proceedeth from the Father and the Son.”) When this happened is unknown, but it is first officially attested to at the third Council of Toledo in Spain, 589. The addition was not accepted by the Greek church, since they emphasize the Father as the root and cause of the deity from whom the Spirit proceeds alone which is “an eternal inner-Trinitarian process.” This is not to be confused, they maintain, with the temporal mission of the Holy Spirit sent by the Father and the Son. The Latin church took procession in a much wider sense, seeking to maintain the “co-equality of the Son with the Father,”3 and so upheld the teaching of Augustine on the double procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. The Filioque clause and the authority of the pope led the Great Schism in 1054 between the Eastern and Western churches. We are heirs of the Western church and so uphold the Filioque clause in our version of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed.
The history of this creed reveals to us the long years of agony and conflict that raged in the church to maintain the central truths of our faith. Let us not neglect or take for granted these precious truths, for which so many of God’s most faithful saints suffered so much. Let us enter more and more into the riches and glory of these truths so that we can always be ready “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
1. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christiandom. Vol. 1: The History of Creeds. Baker: 1998:29.
2. See John Piper, Contending for our All, 2006:35–75 (Crossway) for a brief biography of Athanasius and his struggle for the faith.
3. Creeds of Christiandom. Vol. 1: The History of Creeds. Baker: 1998:26.
Rev. Jacques Roets is the pastor of Redeemer United Reformed Church in Dyer, Indiana.