The Nicene Creed — Origins and Development

Posted on October 5, 2011 by


(In response to a suggestion from a commenter, I am going to be publishing a chapter-by-chapter review of a book called The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters.)

The word “creed” comes from credo or “I believe”. What do Christians believe? What is the unifying belief system of our universal Church? Our emphasis on orthodoxy over orthopraxy is, after all, our most unique theological aspect. Why do we need a creed at all? Can’t we each just read the Bible for ourselves, without the theological and political straitjacket of a uniform creed? Why did the Apostle’s Creed, and then the Nicene Creed, ever come into being, in the first place?

In the beginning

The Nicene Creed is essentially Christianity’s expansion of the Jewish Shema, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” So, the recitation of a creed was already common practice among the Jews, and Christians carried this into their new Church.

This expansion is begun in the New Testament, especially in the following passages:

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (ESV)

 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

2 Corinthians 13:14 (ESV)

 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

The first passage is significant in its recitation of Jesus’ life as an actual human being, the second the triune nature of our Godhead. Both of these are vital passages because the denial of the Trinity and the human/deity Jesus were the source of numerous heresies (including Gnosticism and Arianism), which was countered by the development of various creeds.

The Early Church later came up with popularizations of the following creeds:

Ignatius of Antioch:

Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly begotten of God and of the Virgin, but not after the same manner. For indeed God and man are not the same. He truly assumed a body; for “the Word was made flesh,” and lived upon earth without sin. For says He, “Which of you convicteth me of sin?” He did in reality both eat and drink. He was crucified and died under Pontius Pilate. He really, and not merely in appearance, was crucified, and died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth… He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but He arose accompanied by a multitude; and rent asunder that means of separation which had existed from the beginning of the world, and cast down its partition-wall. He also rose again in three days, the Father raising Him up; and after spending forty days with the apostles, He was received up to the Father, and “sat down at His right hand, expecting till His enemies are placed under His feet.

The Epistula Apostolorum:

They are the symbol of our faith in the Lord of the Christians (in the great christendom), even in the Father, the Lord Almighty, and in Jesus Christ our redeemer, in the Holy Ghost the comforter, in the holy church, and in the remission of sins.

These things did our Lord and Saviour reveal unto us and teach us. And we do even as he, that ye may become partakers in the grace of our Lord and in our ministry and our giving of thanks (glory), and think upon life eternal. Be ye steadfast and waver not in the knowledge and confidence of our Lord Jesus Christ, and he will have mercy on you and save you everlastingly, world without end.

The Martyr Justin:

“That according to which we worship the God of the Christians, whom we reckon to be one from the beginning, the maker and fashioner of the whole creation, visible and invisible; and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who had also been preached beforehand by the prophets as about to be present with the race of men, the herald of salvation and teacher of good disciples.

The elders of the church of Smyma:

We too know in truth one God; we know Christ; we know that the Son suffered even as He suffered, and died even as He died, and rose again on the third day, and is at the right hand of the Father, and comes to judge the living and the dead. And these things which we have learned we allege.

The Apostle’s Creed

These various creeds eventually spawned a more formal version, called the Apostle’s Creed, which is still used in churches today. The earliest version is from Tertullian:

The rule of faith, indeed, is altogether one, alone immoveable and irreformable; the rule, to wit, of believing in one only God omnipotent, the Creator of the universe, and His Son Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised again the third day from the dead, received in the heavens, sitting now at the right (hand) of the Father, destined to come to judge quick and dead through the resurrection of the flesh as well (as of the spirit).

which was followed by the baptismal form in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus:

“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?”
“Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?”

and eventually merged to form the modern Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

The ecumenical council of Nicea

Later, in response to the rise of the heresies of Arius, an ecumenical eastern council formed to create a binding creed, as summoned by the emperor Constantinople. Constantine had a vision of a unified Roman Empire, and he wished to use a unified Christian Church as the glue to hold that empire together (per Eusebius).

The first creed they produced is noticeably political in tone. Not only is the ending a clear warning against heresy, but the beginning is a “we” rather than the traditional “I”. This was a true declaration of faith:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ek tes ousias] of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father [homoousion to patri], through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.

Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made out of nothing (ex ouk onton); or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father], or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic Church anathematizes.

The second, and final, creed — the one we now know as the Nicene Creed, but which was written in Constantinople under the emperor Theodosius I, and then added to again in Toledo in 589 AD — is

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen. 
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end. 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Amen. The end.

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