Where Did We Get the Nicene Creed and Why Do We Say It?
- Candice Lucey Contributing Writer
- 2021 25 Jan
“We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only begotten, that is from the Father's substance, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made.” This statement, part of the Nicene Creed, is central to Christianity. While it might seem obvious to many of us that Jesus is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, not everyone agrees, and the argument is an ancient one.
What Is the Nicene Creed?
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, more people began asking questions about who Jesus was and is. This is why apostles like Peter and Paul began to define the theology behind Christology (the study of Christ). But the verse which most directly claims that Jesus is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit is John 1:1-3. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”
There was still confusion, however, so church leaders met at an ecumenical assembly, called the Council of Nicea, which was the first of its kind, to compose a belief statement or creed regarding the most important tenet of the faith: that Christ “has no beginning;” He is one with the “Father from his own essence.” This assembly marked the first time that clerics from across the globe (or the Empire at that time) gathered to officially agree on a theological point. The “Nicene Creed is an excellent starting point for Christology and is accepted as authoritative by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and major Protestant churches,” wrote Alyssa Roat in her article “What Is Christology?”
When Do We Say This?
The Nicene Creed is not recited in most Protestant churches, at least not regularly. It was absorbed into the Apostles’ Creed which, according to Christianity.com author Jared Wilson, “distills the basic outline of what it means to be a Christian into a short summation that belies the depth and richness of what it proclaims” (Apostles Creed, Part 1).
“Only a fifth of congregations always include creeds or statements of faith in worship” according to Joan Huyser-Honig in “The Case for Reciting Creeds” (worship.calvin.edu). In the US, creeds are more likely to be valued in Episcopal, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Reformed churches as well as others, and the Catholic Church still recites the Nicene Creed today. Statistically, older churches founded prior to 1945 tend to recite creeds and newer churches are less likely to recite creeds (though there are exceptions). The majority of leaders in newer, gospel-centered churches believe the creed but seldom refer to it per se. You’ll see in a statement of faith whether or not an individual church teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one - they always make that clear if it’s central to their beliefs. The Nicene Creed is implied in a pastor’s sermons but not read out verbatim.
Why Is the Nicene Creed Important Today?
Christian creeds or belief statements still have value, and the Nicene Creed remains important for several reasons.
1. It helps to establish the historicity of Christ. The “record keepers of Imperial Roman culture” left a trail of intellectual breadcrumbs that lead empirical thinkers to Christ. Documents beyond the Bible itself add weight to the arguments that Christ was not only real, but he was crucified and ascended into heaven. Eusebius’s recollections of the assembly and the creed itself add to the heft of documentary evidence.
2. The Assembly itself is a testimony of faith. Many of the men who gathered to argue for or against Christ’s eternal nature had endured torture for their beliefs. Yet, they were willing to stand up for the validity of the church. For anyone who doubts the legitimacy of faith in Christ, all you have to do is recognize what so many of the participants were willing to go through for his name’s sake while still retaining faith and trust in their Savior.
3. The Nicene Creed is evidence of a rational faith. Descriptions of the Assembly from which the document emerged demonstrate that two opinions were presented and debated; this wasn’t one leader charismatically manipulating an audience to accept the doctrine. “The two sides argued fiercely. Finally, someone suggested a way to break the impasse: write a creed to which all should subscribe. Six weeks later, several days before the council ended, the statement had been hammered out” (Is Jesus God? Asked the Council of Nicea). This was a matter which deserved and demanded prolonged attention to the facts. But God wants us to ask good questions, he isn’t afraid of them. In Isaiah 1:18 he invites us: “come, let us reason together.” We are reminded by the history of the Nicene Creed that the Christian faith is not blind; we must educate ourselves about what we believe and why by rereading areas of the Bible that flesh out the Triune nature of God. Without a knowledgeable foundation, we make poor witnesses for Christ. “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15)
4. The Nicene Creed beautifully represents powerful themes of our faith. Christ is light, truth, and substance. While the language might seem outdated, grab hold of these words: they say a great deal about the God we worship. He dispels darkness, he speaks only the truth, and he is real. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
5. The Nicene Creed clearly asserts the deity of Christ and, therefore, remains fundamental to the Church. Anyone who places faith in Christ must realize that he is no Savior at all unless he is the God of this belief statement. Jesus, being fully man and fully God, closed the gap between sinful man and Holy God; the humanity of Christ was able to redeem mankind and the deity of Christ is how it was and is possible. 1 John 2:2 puts it this way: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Jesus himself said “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
6. The council of Nicea “established a precedent.” Six more assemblies would take place in order to settle the question. Church bodies still gather to answer pressing questions, reminding us of the value of wise leadership and also of the global nature of the church family. Dr. Albert R. Mohler wrote in “Why Is the Apostles' Creed Important? ” that “Christians must return to historic Christianity, which emerged from the rich doctrinal commitments and evangelical fervor of the apostles” who “attempted to construct a worldview and theology based upon the teachings of the Bible.”
The Nicene Creed is essential to the Christian faith. Any faith without it is something other than Christianity. In order to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to know where we stand and take courage in a belief with rational, ancient foundations. Jesus’ nature as both wholly man and wholly God is a mystery, but we don’t have to fully understand it to see the evidence. Scripture makes it plain. He was named “Immanuel” or “God with us.”
Jesus told his disciples he is the only way to God and that those who saw Jesus had seen the Father. He said so himself.
Christianity.com, ‘What Is Christology?’ ‘Is Jesus God? Asked the Council of Nicea’ ‘Does Proof of Jesus Other Than the Bible Exist?’ ‘Why Is the Apostles’ Creed Important?’
Worship.calvin.edu, ‘The Case for Reciting Creeds in Worship’
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.