The Nicene Creed is the definitive statement of Christian orthodoxy.
Origins of the Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed was formulated at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in AD 325 to combat Arianism, and it was expanded at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in AD 381 to balance its coverage of the Trinity by including the Holy Spirit. It is the only creed that was promulgated by any of the seven ecumenical councils and thus it is the only creed that is truly ecumenical and universal. In the Orthodox Church, it is the only creed.
The New Testament and the Nicene Creed are deeply entangled with each other. The wording and the concepts in the Nicene Creed come from the New Testament—in fact, one of the most important debates at the Council of Nicaea concerned whether it is proper to include a word in the Nicene Creed that does not occur in the New Testament. On the other hand, at the time that the Church issued the official canon of the New Testament, it customarily compared writings to the Nicene Creed to determine if they were orthodox. So you are correct if you say that the Nicene Creed proceeds from the New Testament, and you are correct if you say that the New Testament is certified by the Nicene Creed.
To put it more precisely, the Nicene Creed and the canon of the New Testament were formed together as part of the same process.
The Nicene Council and the Trinity
The Nicene Council did not invent the Trinity in the early fourth century, as some people imagine. A full century before the Nicene Council, Tertullian wrote a voluminous explanation and defense of the Trinity and was viewed by his third-century contemporaries as defending the orthodox Christian faith to nonbelievers. A couple of decades before Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus, bishops at opposite ends of the Mediterranean basin, both taught the Trinity. A half century or more before Irenaeus and Clement, we find Trinitarian teachings in the authentic works of Justin Martyr, who died in 157. St. Ignatius, a respected bishop, was martyred in his old age. On his way to his martyrdom, he wrote epistles to the churches along the way, making theological statements that are best understood in the context of Trinitarian theology. It is important to note that Ignatius was born about AD 33 and that during his adulthood, people who had known the apostles were still alive. Finally, the Didache, an ancient manual of church discipline that could possibly date from the middle of the first century, quotes the Trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19 in its instructions for baptism.
We can trace the dogma of the Trinity straight back to apostolic times. We have it from the pens of bishops and theologians who were charged with preserving and passing on the faith and who lived all over the Mediterranean basin. From this we can only conclude that mainstream theology in the ancient church before the Council of Nicaea was Trinitarian.
The filioque Clause
In AD 589, a church council in Toledo, Spain, modified the Nicene Creed so that the Holy Spirit is said to proceed from the Father and the Son. (In Latin, and the Son is filioque, so this is known as the filioque clause.) There may not have been any particular motive for this change, because it looks like something a scribe would do to mend the text. It is also possible that the change was intended to strengthen the defense of the Trinity. The filioque clause spread through the western part of the church. In 796, Paulinus of Aquileia defended the filioque clause at the Synod of Friuli, which indicates that it was opposed, and after about 800 it crept into the liturgy in the Frankish Empire. Some Frankish monks used the filioque clause in their monastery in Jerusalem in 807, but eastern monks disputed it as improper. Because the Frankish monks were from the west, the matter was escalated to the bishop of Rome (Pope Leo III). He approved of the sentiment, but he opposed the change in the wording. Leo arranged for the creed in its original form (without the filioque clause) to be engraved on silver tablets and he had them placed at St. Peter’s tomb. After the split between Rome and Constantinople, the filioque clause became part of the Nicene Creed in the Roman Catholic Church. This happened at the Council of Lyons, in France, in 1274.
In 1439, at the Roman Catholic Council of Florence, the Roman Catholic Church invited the Eastern Orthodox Churches and attempted a reunion. There were many issues, some of which seem trivial today, but the most important ones were the papacy and the filioque clause in the Creed, which is our subject here.
The Orthodox delegates to the council agreed to everything the Catholics wanted, but they were under pressure. At the time, Islam was spreading by warfare, and Orthodox lands were under attack. All attempts to make peace had failed. The Orthodox wanted military aid from the west, and the pope agreed to help them, but only if they signed the agreement. So they all did, except for Markos Eugenikos, the titular bishop of Ephesus. He did not sign the agreement because he thought it was a sell-out. The pope announced that without Markos’ signature the deal was off. When the Orthodox delegation returned home, only Markos was hailed as a hero, because he was the only one who did not compromise his integrity—the others regretted their actions. In the west, Markos is viewed as the man who prevented the unity of the church. In the east, he is St. Mark of Ephesus, “the conscience of Orthodoxy.”
The Orthodox do not accept the filioque clause for scriptural, theological, and procedural reasons:
- Scriptural Reasons
- The Orthodox argue from Scripture that the Father sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name (John 14:26). Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will come, not that He will send the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father. Saying “and the Son” adds to the Scriptural revelation. Catholics feel that Scriptural references to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ validate the filioque clause.
- Theological Reasons
- To the Orthodox, saying that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son has the effect of collapsing the Trinity in on itself. The relationship between the Father and the Son is begetting and the relationship between the Father and the Spirit is procession. Begetting is an eternal relationship, not an event in time; likewise, procession is an eternal relationship, not an event in time. Catholics feel the filioque clause strengthens the dogma of the Trinity. Both sides agree on the equality of the Persons of the Trinity.
We don’t use these words very often, so a point of clarification is in order: a father begets, a mother conceives. Jesus is begotten of the Father and conceived of the Virgin Mary. The begetting is an eternal relationship, the conception is an event in time.
- Procedural Reasons
- The Orthodox maintain that one part of the Church does not have the authority to change what is the property of the whole Church. Since Canon VII of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in AD 431 is still in effect, the Nicene Creed can only be changed by a true Ecumenical Council. The Catholics believe that the Council of Lyons in 1274 was ecumenical. Whether or not it was ecumenical depends on your view of the jurisdiction of the pope, so that goes back to the issue of the papacy.
Protestants inherited the filioque clause from the Roman Catholic Church. After recent consultations with the Orthodox, the US Episcopal Church agreed to drop the filioque clause from the Nicene Creed in their next version of the Book of Common Prayer.
The Importance of the Nicene Creed Today
The Church formulated the Nicene Creed before it issued an official list of the books of the New Testament that were already in use as Holy Scripture. Another way of looking at it is that God chose the people who were bound by the Nicene Creed to affirm the contents of the New Testament, thereby endorsing the theology of the creed. The Nicene Creed is therefore a reliable test of our interpretation of the New Testament. If we are at variance with the Nicene Creed, we are in error. So whoever denies the theology of the Nicene Creed must also deny the theology of the New Testament, and whoever upholds the New Testament as Holy Scripture must also affirm the theology of the Nicene Creed.
In the beginning, the Church did not have a formal creed, nor did it have a formal list of the books in the New Testament. Then it formulated the Nicene Creed to express its doctrines and to serve as a test of orthodox teaching. So for a while there was a Church with the Nicene Creed but, even though it used the books of the New Testament as Holy Scripture, it had no official statement saying that they were. After the Church was bound by the Nicene Creed, it made a formal list of the books in the New Testament. Therefore, whoever attempts to reconstruct the ancient Church with an official list of New Testament books but without the Nicene Creed is reconstructing an imaginary church that never existed. This doesn’t mean their church is invalid, it just means that it isn’t a historic reconstruction, because in any part of Church history in which there was an official list of New Testament books, the Nicene Creed was the official expression of faith and the final test of orthodoxy.
The Nicene Creed is official in all eastern churches, in the Roman Catholic Church, and in all of the mainline Protestant denominations.
The Nicene Creed in Worship
Obviously, the liturgy of the church predates the Creed. At some point, someone inserted the Creed into the liturgy, and since it is impossible to remove it without appearing to disagree with it, it has stayed in.
Today, liturgical Christian worship always includes the Nicene Creed whenever there is Communion. It is a corporate proclamation that corresponds to the Schema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one”) in the synagogue liturgy.
For More Insight…
The Nicene Creed was specifically designed to combat Arianism, Manichaeism, Apollinarianism, and Monarchianism (and its variants, Modalism, Patripassianism, and Sabellianism). You can get greater insight into the Nicene Creed by understanding the heresies it was meant to combat. You can also read a timeline comparing the formation of the New Testament canon with the history of the Nicene Creed.
Note that the creed uses the word ‘catholic’ in its dictionary meaning of ‘universal.’
This text of the Nicene Creed is in the public domain.