Teaching Our Faith — A history of the Nicene Creed

This series of teaching editorials focuses on themes of the Creed, the topic of this season’s Why Catholic? process.

This Sunday, Catholics during Mass will begin their profession of faith by saying “I believe …” This profession of faith, called the Nicene Creed, is so much a part of our Catholic identity that we forget that it was not always there. Where did it come from and why do we have it? Here is a brief history.

In the year 312 A.D., a Roman general named Constantine emerged as the new “Emperor of the West,” proclaiming that his triumph was due to the Christian God who helped defeat his rival Maxentius. Although he was technically not a Christian, he established a policy of religious tolerance for the Christians and openly displayed Christian symbols.

Constantine was concerned about keeping the empire unified, which included the unification of the Church. When a priest named Arius defied his bishop, Alexander, about the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, Constantine felt the need to intervene. Why? By the year 324, Arius had enough followers that his movement threatened the unity of the Church and the stability of the Empire.

Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt, developed a teaching that challenged the idea that the Word as it applied to God the Son was not eternal. Based on his readings of Proverbs 8:22-31, Arius concluded that the Word was uttered to serve in God’s creative activity and that this Word did not pre-exist. According to the church historian Thomas Bokenkotter, Arius wrote, “Before he was begotten or created or ordained or established, he did not exist.”

Arius’ teachings further led to the belief that although Jesus was the most superior human of God’s creation, he was just that, a human, not divine. This was contrary to what most of the Church believed at the time, based on John’s Gospel. Jesus, the Word incarnate, had always existed and participated not only in the world’s redemption but also in its creation.

Constantine recognized that the denial of Christ’s divinity by some Christians meant that a divided Church could mean a divided empire. On May 25, 325, Constantine forced the issue by calling the first ecumenical council composed of 220 bishops. It was held at Nicaea.

Nicaea was a Hellenistic city located in northwestern Asia Minor. Constantine encouraged the bishops to dialogue in a peaceful manner hoping to maintain some sense of unity among the factions. Constantine, himself, even participated. What finally emerged from the debates was the recognition that what Arius was teaching was not what the bishop’s had been preaching all along. The teachings of Arius were condemned, and the divinity of Christ was now a non-negotiable teaching of the Church.

The expression of this truth was formulated into what we call the Nicene Creed, which stated that the Son was “begotten” not created and that the Son was “made of the same stuff” or “consubstantial” with the Father. To clarify, the Word was divine and was equal to the Father in every way. The bishops further reasoned that salvation could only take place if Jesus was divine. Sin could not be overcome by mere human efforts, for only God had the power to save.

Resistance to the teaching that the Son was consubstantial with the Father continued until 381 when the teaching was reinforced at the Council of Constantinople. It was also at this council that the Holy Spirit was defined as consubstantial with the Father and the Son. The challenge was to distinguish the Spirit from the Father and the Son while recognizing that all three were made of the same essence. The solution was the revelation that the Spirit proceeded from the love between the Father and the Son. The doctrine of the Trinity was finally absolute and the Creed would now be known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The final approval of the Creed occurred at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

This time the humanity of Jesus was in question and it took church leaders such as Pope Leo I to emphasize that “it is as dangerous an evil to deny the truth of the human nature of Christ as it is to refuse to believe that his glory is equal to the Father.” Chalcedon brought an end to the “divinity vs. humanity” debates concerning Christ’s nature and person.

The Creed that first emerged from Nicaea had undergone decades of scrutiny but was finally upheld as the definitive expression of Christian faith that continues to live into the present age.

Art Turner is the Director of Faith Formation for the Office of Lifelong Formation and Education and a member of Mary Queen of Peace Church.

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