We’re in a series of articles exploring the councils and creeds of the Christian church. Why? Because when it comes to faithfully and diligently working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) we miss a great deal when we simply try to construct our own “real Christianity” with nothing more than a bible. To take heed from those who have gone before us is to benefit from the wealth found in the most important theological declarations of the Christian tradition.
Today we continue the series with a look at the council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed.
The Nicene Creed is actually the culmination of effort from two ecumenical councils (Nicea in 325 AD and Constantinople in 381 AD) and a century of wrestling over the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. During the reign of Emperor Constantine the most divisive schism that the Christian church had ever experienced broke out. This great controversy – known as Arianism (after it’s loudest voice, Arius of Alexandria) – taught that Jesus Christ was a creature and not equal with the Father. Arius’ followers believed that despite Jesus being an incomparably great creature, still “there was [a time] when the Son was not.” This teaching caused the church to think through the orthodox view of the Trinity in a clearer way than stated in the Apostles’ Creed.
The very first ecumenical council of the Christian church saw 318 bishops from East and West branches of Christianity come together for two months. Here a number of secondary issues received decrees, but the issue of primary importance was the Arian controversy (it was also known as subordinationism, because it subjected Christ the lesser to God the greater). Things escalated quicker than expected, when soon after the council opening someone called for a reading of the Arian position as a place to begin. One of the Arian bishops read a statement which clearly denied the deity of the Son of God, designating him a creature and not equal with the Father. Expecting to hear something more moderate, the bishops were horrified at such blatant heresy, and the riot only stopped at the emperor’s command. The council immediately turned to articulating a clear statement of orthodox Trinitarian belief.
Patterned after the Apostles’ Creed, but adding wording to clearly exclude Arianism, it states:
We 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 humans and for our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit.
The original creed ends at this point, finishing with a statement specifically condemning those who would assert that Jesus isn’t completely co-equal and co-eternal as the second member of the Trinity.
Why it Matters
Statements like “being of one substance” and “light of light” serve as the analogy we can hang our Trinitarian thinking on. How can you separate light from light? You can’t. Neither can the Father and Son be separated; Jesus is of the same substance and thus truly God. Although we may simply accept it without question today, the fact that Jesus (and the Holy Spirit) are equally God is non-negotiable for Christians. Arian heresies are far from dead; Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, and others deny the true deity of Jesus, and the Nicene Creed settles this point, ascribing to Jesus his proper glory and majesty.