The Nicene Creed – Part 2

The Creed as we know it today arose from the short formula used at baptism.  Before Jesus Christ ascended into heaven he said to his disciples “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) And this is what the apostles did, traveling the world, preaching the Gospel and baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We know that at baptism now the person being baptized is plunged into the water three times as the priest says “the servant of God (name) is baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” If we look at the text of the baptismal service, prior to this plunging into the water the person being baptized (or the person’s sponsor in the case of a small child) is asked to recite the Creed to show that the person accepts the faith of the church. We have to remember that our baptismal service dates from the time when most people being baptized were adults and part of becoming a Christian was showing that one accepted the faith of the church and that was done by reciting the Creed. However, the Creed as we have it now, is a creation of the 4th century AD, as we shall see. Originally, before we had a full Creed, the one being baptized acknowledged that they accepted the church’s belief in the Holy Trinity.
When we recite the Creed, we say that Jesus Christ is “true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father…” This part of the Creed was established at the 1st ecumenical council held in the city of Nicea in 325 AD and it came about in this way: in the early 4th century, a priest of Alexandria in Egypt (then one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire) named Arius started teaching that Jesus Christ was not truly God. Aries was willing to say that Jesus was the Son of God, the Word of God, the Redeemer, the Savior and so on, but not that He was God. In a sense, Arius was like many modern people who will speak of Jesus Christ as a great moral leader, a spiritual master, but not God. In any case, many people were disturbed by Arius’ teaching and the Roman Empire itself was shaken, so much so that the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, called for a meeting of bishops, an ecumenical council, to discuss the issue and settle it. This issue came down to this: if Jesus is not God, He cannot save us. No human creature, no matter how exalted, could conquer the power of sin, death and the devil, and give eternal life to humanity. Furthermore, the council Fathers knew that the church had been baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit right from the beginning of the church, showing a belief that Jesus Christ is on the same level, so to speak, as the Father and the Holy Spirit. After much debate the council fathers established the sections of the Creed up to the part about the Holy Spirit (this was expanded at a later council), saying that Jesus Christ was of “one essence with the Father.” This word essence or substance (ousia in Greek) shows that Jesus Christ shares the same uncreated existence as the Father does. A follower of Arius could never accept this formula and Arius and those with him were excommunicated from the church.
This may seem like abstract theological arguments, but really the heart of our salvation is at stake. If Jesus is not truly God he cannot save us. No creature can do this, only God can. And so by establishing this first part of the Creed by the fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council in 325 AD, the reality of our salvation through Jesus Christ, true God of true God, is affirmed.

Fr. John