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The Nicene Creed — what is it and why is it called that?

This creed gets its name from a time and place: the first ecumenical Church council held at Nicaea, which is now known as İznik in northwestern Turkey, in 325 AD.

Now that may raise another question for you: what is an ecumenical council? Well, to explain more about the Nicene Creed, we are going to have to take a look at The First Council of Nicaea in order to better understand why this creed was written.

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First things first though; an “ecumenical council” is ideally a Church-wide meeting where all the Bishops from all across the Church come together to hold a very large and very important meeting to discuss topics and issues affecting the whole Body of Believers, with the results intended to be binding on all believers. Most often, these Councils were called to combat heresy and false teachers who had come about and gained enough popularity that it warranted an official response, with the creeds being the result after proper orthodoxy had been ratified.

Seeking unity, the Council was convened by Constantine I in response to the Arian controversy which had gripped the Greek-speaking East. The teaching of Arius of Alexandria were considered heretical by most bishops of the time, fearing that it would cost people their salvation. 1800 bishops were invited by Constantine (that was every bishop across the Roman Empire), but only around 250-320 turned up from across the Empire, except Britain, according to the various surviving documents from different attendees.

This Council was an extremely historic event as nothing quite like it had happened before since the Council of Jerusalem around 50 AD (Acts 15), which convened in a similar manner to counter controversial and false teaching which was upsetting the Church Body. As with that Council, the Nicene Council and its outcome was intended for the whole of the Church global.

What actually happened at Nicaea

I won’t go into too much detail about everything the Council discussed, but other than condemning and exiling Arius for his false teaching that the Son of God was a created being (or “creature”) out of nothing like the rest of creation, the council aimed to settle on a uniform date for celebrating Easter as the East followed Jewish customs of Passover for the date, and the West followed another custom. Other than that, the other decrees (“canons”) declared were to do with how bishops should be consecrated, how bishops and priests should stay within their parishes and some rules on lending money with interest. There were 20 short canons/rulings in all which you can read here, if you’re interested to see exactly what went on.

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For another viewpoint of what occurred during the Council, Eusebius of Cæsarea (who you may know as the author of Ecclesiastical History) was in attendance and wrote a letter covering the events to send back to his Diocese explaining the formation of the creed and why and how they came up with it. You can read his letter here, or you can also read the letter of Athanasius who was also present at the council as a secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria, here. It’s also often said that Nicholas of Myra (also known as Saint Nicholas – yes, that St. Nick) attended and actually slapped Arius across the face(!), but that is most likely an exaggeration at best, or an urban legend.

If you do read the canons of the council and the letters of Eusebius and Athansius, you’ll see that the Nicene Council had some specific goals to achieve and that their main objective was that of the divine nature of Christ and how to deal with the teaching of Arius. What they didn’t do, as some pervasive myths claim, was to “decide what went in the Bible”, “create Catholicism”, “change the Sabbath to Sunday”, or “invent the deity of Christ”! The internet allows for a lot of nonsense to get spread, especially when much of the disinformation was proliferated by a Hollywood film and originated in a bestselling Dan Brown book, The Da Vinci Code.

The Reason for the Creed

First of all, then, in the presence of our most religious Sovereign Constantine, investigation was made of matters concerning the impiety and transgression of Arius and his adherents; and it was unanimously decreed that he and his impious opinion should be anathematized, together with the blasphemous words and speculations in which he indulged, blaspheming the Son of God, and saying that he is from things that are not, and that before he was begotten he was not, and that there was a time when he was not, and that the Son of God is by his free will capable of vice and virtue; saying also that he is a creature.

The Synodal Letter, Council of Nicaea

And the words invented by them [the Arians], and spoken contrary to the mind of Scripture, are as follows:—

God was not always the Father; but there was a time when God was not the Father. The Word of God was not always, but was made 'from things that are not;' for He who is God fashioned the non-existing from the non-existing; wherefore there was a time when He was not. For the Son is a thing created, and a thing made: nor is He like to the Father in substance; nor is He the true and natural Word of the Father; nor is He His true Wisdom; but He is one of the things fashioned and made.

Epistles on Arianism and the Deposition of Arius

These quotes pretty much lay the groundwork for why the creed and council was necessary and what it aimed to achieve: an outline of proper orthodoxy which laid down the correct and Scriptural view concerning the nature of Christ’s divine nature and relation to the Trinity. By making this the official set of beliefs, this was hoped to quash the Arianism which was spreading and unite the churches together in a holy unity (John 17:20-23). And for much of history, this creed has served that purpose in acting as the “gatekeeper” of orthodoxy, pointing people towards the proper understanding of God and the Christian faith via Scripturally-based statements.

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Some of you reading this may already be familiar with this creed, others may recognise aspects of it, but you may not realise that the fuller and longer version that is more common actually came around 56 years later from the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. The initial creed was much shorter and included a statement at the end specifically targeting the teachings of Arius. This wasn’t the only revision the Nicene Creed went under, as there was another addition many centuries later which caused some serious controversy, which exists even to this day.

The Filioque controversy

“And the Son” – filioque in Latin: the phrase in the creed which has caused the most controversy and division, was not added officially into the Roman Rite (and is still excluded in the East) until much later in 1014 AD; and on the face of it, it seems like such an innocent and small addition. Yet arguably these three little words (or one Latin word) contributed towards the Great Schism of 1054 AD, which split the Eastern and Western Church into what we now know as Roman Catholics (West) and Eastern Orthodoxy (East) as it has large implications on Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity. If you want to read more on the history of this controversy, Wikipedia has a large article on it with many references and sources to follow through on.

The Nicene Creed

In the table below, you will see the original creed from the Nicene Council, plus the additions from the Constantinople Council alongside the where these statements come from in Scripture, so that you can better see the development of this creed. The filioque is included in italics on its own line for clarity.

Nicene Creed (325)

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Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381)

Scriptural Basis

We believe in one God,

We believe in one God,

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Mark 12:29, 32; Eph 4:6; Deuteronomy 6:4

the Father Almighty,

the Father Almighty,

Matthew 6:9; 2 Cor 6:18; Eph 4:6; Malachi 2:10; Exodus 6:3; Gen 35:11

 
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maker of heaven and earth,

Genesis 1:1; John 1:1; Isaiah 44:24

maker of all things visible and invisible;

and of all things visible and invisible.

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Colossians 1:16; Romans 1:20

and in one Lord Jesus Christ,

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,

Romans 10:9; Eph 4:5,6

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the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father,

the only-begotten Son of God,

John 3:16; Matthew 16:16

 

begotten of His Father before all worlds,

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John 1:2

God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,

Light of Light, very God of very God,

John 17:22; John 8:12; John 1:1; Colossians 2:9

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begotten (γεννηθέντα), not made,

begotten, not made,

John 1:2; 3:16

being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον) with the Father.

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being of one substance with the Father,

John 1:18; 10:30

By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth.

by Whom all things were made.

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Rom 11:36; Hebrews 1:2,10; John 1:3, 10; Col 1:16; 1 Cor 8:6

Who for us men and for our salvation

Who for us men and for our salvation

Col 1:13-14; 1 Thess. 5:9; Matt 1:21; 1 Timothy 2:4; Romans 3:23

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came down

came down from heaven

John 3:13, 3:31; 6:38, 41

and was incarnate

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and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary,

Luke 1:34-35

and was made man.

and was made man,

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John 1:14; Heb 2:14

 

and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.

Mark 15:15, 25; John 19:16-18; 1 Peter 2:24

He suffered

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He suffered and was buried,

John 19:1-3; Luke 23:53; Matt 27:50, 59-60

and the third day he rose again,

and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,

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1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Luke 24:6, 45-46; Mark 9:31; 16:9; Acts 10:40

and ascended into heaven.

and ascended into heaven,

Acts 1:9

 
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and sits at the right hand of the Father.

Mark 16:19; Luke 22:69; Acts 7:55

And he shall come again

And He shall come again with glory

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Matthew 26:64; Mark 13:26; Jn 14:3; 1 Thess. 4:17

to judge both the living and the dead.

to judge both the living and the dead.

Acts 10:42; Matthew 3:12; 16:27; 2 Cor 5:10; 2 Tim 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5

 
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Whose kingdom shall have no end.

Heb 1:8; 2 Peter 1:11

And in the Holy Ghost.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life

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Acts 1:8; John 6:63; 2 Cor 3:6

 

Who proceeds from the Father,

John 15:26

 

and the Son; (Latin: filioque)

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John 16:7

 

Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,

2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 1:13-14; 1 Peter 1:2,12; Phil 3:3; Romans 12:1

 

Who has spoken through the prophets.

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1 Peter 1:10-11; Eph 3:5; Matthew 2:23; Hebrews 1:1

 

And we believe in one, holy, catholic (universal) and Apostolic Church.

Eph 4:4; Eph 1:4, 5:27; Matt 28:19; John 17:20-23; Acts 1:8; Eph 2:20; Matt 16:18; Rom 12: 4-5; 1 Cor 10:17; Col 1:18

 

We acknowledge one baptism

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Eph 4:5; Gal 3:27; 1 Cor 12:13

 

for the forgiveness of sins,

Acts 2:38; 22:16; Col 2: 12-13; 1 Peter 3:21

 

we look for the resurrection of the dead

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John 11:25; Luke 20:36; John 5:28-29; Rom 6:4-5; 1 Thess. 4:16

 

And the life of the world to come. Amen.

2 Peter 3:13; Rev 21:1

And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not (ἤν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν), or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion (τρεπτὸν) — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

   
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That's all for the Council of Nicaea, I hope this has helped to clarify what happened at Nicaea and why the Church decided to create such a creed in defense of true doctrine against heresy; and if you missed it before, you can also read my article about the Apostle’s Creed to see how and why that came about.

Don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss any more updates in this series and leave any thoughts in the comments below!


Further Reading and Sources:

 

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