I’ll be honest – church wasn’t a passion of mine when I was a kid. (Hard to believe, right?) I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t completely understand its importance. I can still remember certain things happening in church when I was just a few years old. One of them feels more vivid than the rest: my reaction to the Nicene Creed.
I had always understood that there were two main creeds we confessed in church – The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Of the two of them, the Apostles’ creed was shorter, and easier to understand. Every time our congregation recited the Nicene Creed, I became slightly frustrated. To me, it was just a long-winded version of the Apostles’ Creed. Half the stuff in it didn’t even make sense to me. God from God? Light from Light? What was the point of adding this language when the Apostles’ Creed was a perfectly good summary of Christianity?
The Apostles’ Creed definitely is a eloquent summary of the Christian faith. It highlights all three persons of the Trinity, briefly describing their areas of work and purpose. It predates the Nicene Creed, being an early confession of the Church. Early Church tradition stated that it was actually written by the Twelve Apostles, though realistically it was just a statement formulated later in the Church, having its roots in the true confession of the Apostles. It served the Church well as a confession of the true Christian faith.
The Council of Nicaea
Flash forward to the year 318 A.D. An elder of the Church, named Arius, began teaching and proclaiming that Jesus was not actually God. Rather, He was an exalted servant of the Father, not actually being divine Himself. Arius had a variety of reasons for believing this, citing Jesus’ humanity, death, and display of human emotion as reasons Jesus couldn’t actually be God. At the time that this heresy arose, the Church had not yet officially and explicitly stated the doctrine of Christ’s two natures. The ideas of Arius made sense to many Christians, giving it momentum within some of the Church.
In a reaction to the spreading of this heresy, known as Arianism, a council was called together in the city of Nicaea. The council was a meeting of elders, bishops, and presbyters of the Church. The meeting consisted of a great deal of debate and discussion over the divinity of Jesus. Because His divinity was the main issue, the persons of the Father and the Holy Spirit were not a main focus.
What does this Mean?
The council ultimately ruled against the teachings of Arius; Jesus was declared to be God, just as were the Father and the Holy Spirit. However, the council didn’t just write a simple or vague statement on Jesus’ divinity. The specific wording found in the Nicene Creed was chosen so that there would be no room for another heresy to develop concerning Jesus’ divinity. The Nicene Creed specifically states:
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.
The objective of the phrases “God from God,” “Light from Light,” “True God from true God,” and “begotten, not made, of one being with the Father,” is to emphasize the fact that Jesus and the Father are “of the same substance.” (Known as homoouisios, from the Greek word “μοούσιος,” meaning “same essence.) Jesus’ unity with the Father was emphasized, while still confessing that He is the Son of God. Jesus is confessed as the true and eternal God, just the same as the other two persons of the Trinity. It is also stated that the world was created through Him. The portion of the Creed that is quoted above is the most significant addition to the general template of the Apostles’ Creed.
The implication of Jesus not being God can be discussed at great length, but in summary it has to do with our salvation. No mere human or created creature could be the one to atone the sins of the entire world. It is imperative that God Himself was our atonement.
It is difficult to actually wrap our minds around the fact that Jesus is both God and man. It’s impossible to comprehend that there are three persons, yet only one God. Instead of attempting to understand the great mysteries of the Lord, we humbly submit to the amazing Truth he has revealed to us.
Needless to say, I no longer get upset when confessing the Nicene Creed. It’s my prayer that you, too, would contemplate and recognize the importance of this confession. Ultimately, it unites modern Christians with the historical Church in one faith. Let us rejoice in the fact that Jesus has preserved the one holy and apostolic Church through all of history, and will continue to do so until he returns in glory.
“Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’
1. Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils, Grand Rapids, 2014, p. 34.