I based this essay on the second part of the creed that was formulated at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicæa in 325, was put into its final form at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381, and was made inalterable by local councils at the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431. It is most properly called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, but since that is as hard to type as it is to pronounce, I follow general practice and refer to it simply as the “Nicene Creed.”
The Text of the Nicene Creed
From the International Consultation on English Texts
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.
My Faith—The Son, Jesus Christ
I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ
I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, that He is the Christ promised by the ancient prophets of Israel. He became incarnate in first-century Palestine, during the time that it was part of the Roman Empire. He became fully incarnate. He did not seem to be present; He was truly present, living in the social, economic, political, linguistic, legal, cultural, and historical context of the age.
This means that God’s self-revelation is always contextual. In order to understand God’s message, I must understand the context in which God speaks it. This goes far beyond saying that Bible study is only valid with a Bible dictionary and a Greek lexicon! It means that there is no scientific discipline or field of human knowledge that is categorically irrelevant to my understanding of God’s self-revelation.
By confessing that the Lord is incarnate in Jesus Christ, I am claiming that only Jesus Christ is the incarnate Lord; there is no other God, nor is there any other way to God. However, I am mindful of Jesus’ prophetic parable in Matthew 25:31-46. Therefore I assert that Jesus alone has the prerogative of identifying His followers. In the light of this passage, it may very well turn out that Jesus will reject many who profess to be Christians and accept others who profess other religions, but have unwittingly had a relationship of trust and obedience with Him.
Hence Jesus’ claim of exclusivity should cause me to be humble, not proud. We know the broad outlines of the Church, but we can never be certain that we know precisely who is within and who is without.
Jesus is the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father
First century Roman and Hebrew society was different from ours. The functions of our businesses and families were combined in the institution of the household, and society was nepotistic. Women could be heads of households and could operate businesses. However, the only way for a person to function as another person’s legal agent was to be that person’s son. It was a common practice to adopt as a son a slave or employee who exhibited particular business acumen. Therefore, in the first century, sonship was primarily a legal institution, which not only gave the adoptee inheritance rights; it also gave him what we would call a power of attorney.
When I say that Jesus is the Son of God, the masculine content is incidental. The primary meaning of this phrase is that Jesus exercises God’s power of attorney; He is legally equal to God. He causes us to be adopted as sons, which means that we become God’s agents in this world. However, if Jesus effects our adoption, there is no one to effect His adoption. Therefore, He must be the Son of God by birthright. Jesus can only have God’s agency if God is literally His Father.
Therefore I affirm that the Virgin Mary is the Θεοτοκος, and that Jesus is begotten, not of Joseph, not of Panthera, but of the Father. In this I see the necessity for the terms “Father” and “Son” as relational terms. Therefore the “begetting” is an eternal relationship between the “Father” and the “Son,” which had its culmination when the Θεοτοκος conceived Jesus in her womb.
When I say that Jesus is truly God, begotten of God, and truly human, born of the Θεοτοκος, I do not affirm that Jesus and His Father are two different parts of God, for God has neither parts nor passions. Jesus and His Father are both fully and truly God, yet they are two persons, much in the sense that I can form two one-person corporations in Delaware and be three legal persons as a result, without dividing myself into parts.
Jesus is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father
Because Jesus’ natural father is God, Jesus is God from God, just as the offspring of a giraffe is a giraffe. He is light from light, true God from true God; He is begotten, but not a creature. He has one being (or “substance”) with the Father. Since there is only one God, this means that He is more than just God in a representational or legal sense; He is God Himself.
We, on the other hand, are neither begotten nor born of God. We are God’s creatures, made of the same elements that make up nonsentient matter. Jesus is of the essence and substance of God, but we are only of the essence and substance of the created realm.
Through Jesus all things were made
If we confess that Jesus Christ is the incarnate, and we admit that God is eternal and unchangeable in attributes, then we must confess that Jesus is the agent of creation.
For us and for our salvation, Jesus came down from heaven
I affirm that Jesus existed before His birth, but I deny that we do. We have no preexistence as spirit beings in the divine realm, but Jesus does. Jesus, being God, exists eternally before the beginning, and exists eternally after the ending of all things. Jesus is the “yesterday” before the very first dawn, and the “tomorrow” after the sunset on the very last day. In the incarnation, God invaded His own creation. Because God took on the substance and essence of the universe, this act is the beginning of the redemption, not just of the human race, but also of the entire created realm.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus became incarnate from the Virgin Mary
I confess that Jesus is the Christ. He did not become the Christ after His birth or cease to be the Christ after His Death.
Jesus became incarnate from the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. Her child was fully human and fully God even in her womb; therefore, I affirm the inseparably simultaneous truths that the Virgin Mary bore a true human being and that she bore the one eternal God. I affirm that the Virgin Mary is the Θεοτοκος, the bearer of God. She is not just a Χριστοτοκος, who bore less than the fullness of God, nor is she a lucky woman whose child attained high office. She is not just lucky; she is blessed.
It is necessary for Mary to be a virgin. Jesus cannot have had a human father. If Jesus had had a gentile Father, He would have been an unclean sacrifice. If Jesus had a Jewish father, He would have been an illegal sacrifice. It is only through Jesus’ virgin birth that He is qualified for His sacrificial role.
Mary is the Θεοτοκος, the most blessed of all women, the woman who potty-trained God, the very first Christian. Through God’s interaction with Mary, we see God’s great humility. We must honor her, and with her all women. For in the incarnation, God condescended to become a man, but dealt with a woman as an equal. Mary is also the model for the Church, for as she bore the Word of God to the world in her flesh, we as the Church must bear the Word of God to the world in our deeds.
There is a sense in which the Trinity is centered on women, for I confess that God is the Father of Mary’s baby, God is the Son of Mary, and God is the Spirit who led Mary into that truth. We must emulate Mary in this way, allowing God to be the Father of all we conceive, God to be the Son of all of our labor, and God to be the Spirit who leads us into all truth. The terminology of the Trinity is not fully relational until we include Mary, and with her all women, and with them, the entire human race. In this we see the beginning hints of our eventual theosis.
Jesus is truly human
In the same sense that Jesus is truly God because He is begotten of God, He is also truly human, because He is born of the Virgin Mary. He is fully and truly human in every respect, just as He is fully and completely God in every respect. For this reason He suffers every hardship and adversity, every trial, trouble, tribulation, and temptation that we suffer—yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He is compassionate, patient, and forgiving, and He expects us to treat each other the same way.
For our sake Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate
I accomplish two things by saying that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
First, I affirm that His incarnation and salvific acts took place in history in a specific time and a specific place.
Second, I affirm that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, not by him. The Sanhedrin did not crucify Jesus, because they were unable by the rules of their jurisprudence to find Him guilty. He confessed to the charges, in effect finding Himself guilty, throwing the trial into the penalty phase. The Sanhedrin was neither free to choose the penalty nor free to impose it. Pilate attempted to avoid the crucifixion but failed. Only Jesus was in control of events. He acquiesced to His crucifixion. He did it voluntarily for our sake.
If we affirm Jesus as the incarnate God, we must deny that anyone crucified Him, for two reasons:
- Anyone who is able to compel has the greater power, in which case we should worship the crucifier, not the crucified.
- If Jesus’ death on the cross was compelled and not voluntary, the crucifixion is a tragedy, not an offering.
Thus no one is morally responsible for crucifying Jesus. He volunteered.
Finally, I assert that Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified for the sake of the human race. This has at least two aspects. First, His act of voluntary self-sacrifice redeems us by satisfying His own requirement for righteousness and holiness, thus relieving us of the burden we cannot carry. Second, He demonstrates to us, by undergoing spectacular public death and resurrection, that He is able to keep His promise to raise us up into eternal life.
Jesus died and was buried
Jesus truly died. He did not just appear to die, nor did He swoon. We can say that God died on the cross. This is important, because death is an inevitable part of human existence. In Jesus’ death, we have consolation that God understands what is it like even to die from Personal experience. By affirming that He was buried, we strengthen this assertion.
On the third day Jesus rose again in accordance with the Scriptures
Jesus rested in the tomb on the second day, thus observing the Sabbath and thereby satisfying all requirements. In His resurrection on the third day, He demonstrated His sovereignty over death and His ability to raise the dead. This is our confidence of a life that transcends our present existence on earth. The phrase “in accordance with the scriptures” affirms continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures and affirms that the Hebrew Scriptures are fulfilled, not just in His resurrection, but also in every aspect of His life and ministry.
Jesus ascended into heaven
The word “heaven” can mean three things in both Greek and English. In the case of the Ascension, we do not mean that Jesus’ destination was the meteorological sky, though He is described as passing through the clouds. We also do not mean the astronomical sky, where we find the stars and planets. What is clearly meant is that Jesus returned to heaven in the sense that He returned to the divine transcendental realm beyond the universe (Hebrews 9:11).
To me, the most important thing about the Ascension in Acts 1 is that Jesus did not discard His body. In other words, the Ascension is not the dis-incarnation of Jesus Christ. The scripture reads:
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
—Acts 1:9 (NRSV)
It does not read as follows:
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and suddenly there was a puff of smoke. His spent human body fell to the ground; His invigorated divine nature returned to His Father.
—Acts 1:9 (Imaginary Text)
There is no ancient doctrine that Jesus became disincarnate at the Ascension, such as we sometimes find in popular contemporary Christianity. I affirm that Jesus retained His body and remains incarnate to this day. My reasons are as follows:
- The bodies we receive at the resurrection are everlasting, thus His must also, or He is not the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 1 John 3:2).
- If Jesus’ resurrection body is not permanent, and He is to serve as the model for what happens to us, then we have no assurance even in the promise of the resurrection.
- If we say that Jesus discards His resurrection body to enter the divine realm, then we affirm the Gnostic dualism of matter and the divine.
- If we assert that Jesus died but the Christ rose, then we affirm two entities, and that the incarnation was incomplete. This recreates Arianism, and it contradicts scripture, which refers to the Resurrected One quite plainly as Jesus. (The Resurrected One is Jesus in Acts 1:11, 7:55, 13:33, 18:5, Romans 4:24, Galatians 1:12. The Christ is Jesus in Acts 3:20, 18:28.) It also robs the Resurrection of any consolation for us, because if the man Jesus ended at Calvary, is our grave not also our end?
- If we affirm that Jesus became disincarnate, it creates pastoral problems about the continuity of personal identity at death—a layperson might rightly ask, “If the person who went to heaven when Jesus died was not really Jesus, then when I die, who goes to heaven?”
- Contrary to what some modern western writers allege, Paul’s term “spiritual body” is not synonymous with “immaterial body.” The terms “spiritual” and “immaterial” are not synonymous even in English. For example, many people would agree that the United Methodist Hymnal is a spiritual book, yet when I drop it on my toe, it hurts. Making the resurrection body immaterial resurrects the Gnostic dualism of spirit and matter.
- The angels said that Jesus would return in the manner that He left (Acts 1:11). There is no doctrine that Jesus sticks His body into a wardrobe until He puts it back on for His return. Any teaching that Jesus’ body is a costume impugns the doctrine of the Incarnation, because then Jesus is no longer truly human. His humanity becomes a sort of hand puppet operated by some celestial being.
Jesus remains incarnate for all eternity. We can approach our God confidently, knowing that He can still sympathize with our human limitations and temptations even today (Hebrews 4:15).
Intellectually, I understand the Ascension as affirming that Jesus bodily left the universe and went to a place that isn’t a place (Hebrews 9:11). Even in terms of modern cosmology, this does not require Him to travel bodily through intergalactic space, because cosmologically, every point in the universe is at the boundary. His destination is heaven, the presence of God, which we may take in this context to mean something on the order of the control booth of the universe.
Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father
Statistically, most people are right-handed. In a primitive age where everyone bears a weapon, a person sitting at your right could easily reach across to the left and slay you with a dagger. For the person sitting at your left, this would be a very awkward and easily thwarted act. Thus the seat to the immediate right of a prominent person is the seat of honor for the most trusted person.
Therefore, this is a metaphor that states that Jesus is in the presence of His Father, in that place-that-is-not-a-place, and is the agent of God even now. Jesus is presently in charge of the entire universe. His rule is now. That means that there is purpose and meaning in our adversities in our life today, because Jesus rules over our adversities in the same way that the sun shines over the clouds on a stormy day, driving the weather, perhaps for our short-term suffering, but ultimately for our long-term benefit. It causes us to see the hardships and adversities of life in a different light—we can affirm that our short-term pain is our long-term gain (Psalm 34:19, John 16:33, Acts 14:22).
Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead
I affirm that Jesus is coming again, in the way He departed, but in a way that is obvious to all people everywhere. When He came in Palestine, people did not recognize Him as the Lord who made them, but the demons didMatthew 8:29. When He comes the second time, everyone will recognize who He is, either to their delight or to their regret.
A lot of people have very detailed eschatologies, with raptures and tribulations and millennia and such, but I affirm only that Jesus will come again, that there will be a resurrection on the last day, and that those who are righteous through their faith in Him will enter into His eternal glory.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus describes the Last Judgment. Since the Last Judgment has not yet occurred, the passage is actually a prophecy, much like the prophecy of Jonah. In the course of the judgment, Jesus, speaking of His own role, says the following:
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Bible quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® niv® ©1973, 1978, 1984 by the international Bible society, used by permission of zondervan Bible publishers. All rights reserved.