The Nicene Creed is the most famous and influential creed in the history of the church, as it was the product of a theological controversy concerning the deity of Jesus Christ. It is the first creed to obtain universal authority in the church, and, unlike the Apostles’ Creed, it included a specific statement regarding the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed began as a baptismal confession that was a teaching tool for new converts.
The form in which the Nicene Creed exists today is not the original form of the Creed. In fact, it has existed in three forms—the original Nicene, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan, and the later Latin Creed.
The Different Forms
The first was the product of the Council of Nicea (325 AD) in which the Arian heresy of the subordination of the Son was declared heretical. According to the Creed, the Son is homoousios (“of one substance”) with the Father, which means he is fully and entirely God.
The second form added to the section on the Holy Spirit and omitted a polemical anathema against the Arians. Its origins can be traced to the second ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381.
The Nicene Creed encapsulates the entire good news of the gospel into a short and rich summary.
The final Latin (or Western) form of the Creed differs from the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed by only one word: filioque (“and the Son”). According to Philip Schaff, “next to the authority of the Pope, [this] is the chief source of the greatest schism in Christendom.” The Greek Church emphasized the Father as both the root and cause of deity, and argued for the single profession of the Spirit from the Father alone. In this way, the Eastern Church wanted to emphasize the eternal generation of both the Son and the Spirit by the Father.
This stood in contrast to the West, who argued that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, a formulation that is to be understood as a procession of temporal missions. The Latin Church desired to maintain the equal divinity of the Son with the Father, so they added the word filioque (“and the Son”) to the Creed without consulting the East, thus inciting a conflict with the Eastern Church.
There are several important features in the Nicene Creed.
- As a product of a polemical debate, it is more explicit than the Apostles’ Creed concerning the full divinity of the members of the Trinity.
- It is Trinitarian in its structure, affirming the divinity and mission of all three persons of the Triune God.
- Its Christology—while orthodox—is less developed than that of the Chalcedonian Creed. It describes the full deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit by asserting that each of the persons of the Trinity are to be worshipped. By insisting that the Son is “of one substance” with the Father, any sort of Trinitarian subordinationism is ruled out.
- The full life and work of Christ is declared in several sentences, acknowledging that his mission was “for us and for our salvation.”
- Like all of the ecumenical Creeds, the Nicene Creed does not set forth any specific theory or view of the atonement.
- It gives the Holy Spirit a more significant place than the Apostles’ Creed.
As a creed recited in many churches every Sunday, many Christians are very familiar with its contents. While significant as an historical document, the Nicene Creed encapsulates the entire good news of the gospel into a short and rich summary. It describes the Triune God, who turns toward humanity in the person of Jesus, the God-man who suffered, died, rose again, and ascended. Additonally, the Creed goes on to express our future hope, which is a motivating factor in the Christian life.
The Nicene Creed
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And 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. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in 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.”