The Nicene Creed: : its Origin & Development

In this article we shall look at why in 325AD it was necessary to formulate such a creed at all, and how it needed to be added to within just 50 years.

Try to imagine, if you will, being a new Christian in a period say about a hundred years after the last books of the New Testament were written, i.e. about 200AD. Perhaps, through the encouragement of a parent, friend or work colleague, or may be a Christian minister himself, you have become a Christian – baptised and confirmed. Now you are part also of a worshipping community meeting most likely in a home, for very few church buildings if any were around then. For you, the historic Jesus of Nazareth whom you learnt about (not exactly in an Alpha Course but something similar) and who gave his life sacrificially for everyone and for you, is really and truly alive. He is someone you can truly believe in and trust; with whom you can converse and talk in helpful prayer, and know personally as a real friend and companion. He is someone whose life and teaching you wish to emulate and follow, giving richer purpose and worthwhile meaning to your life. Moreover, he enables you to live a moral life of genuine goodness, purity and unselfish love. And, because you know only too well that you often fail him, and let him and others down, he can still ‘clean up’ your heart and conscience and give you a fresh start.

You have discovered and learnt – perhaps very gradually, for this is profound ‘stuff’- that this Jesus whom you love wholeheartedly, was (indeed is) not only a truly real and fully human being born of Mary, but also in some almost incredible way is nothing less than divine . . . God himself. And as you grew in this remarkable faith and way of life you, like many others who really think about it, were sometimes puzzled by the question: what do I make of this enigma that Jesus is both human and divine? Can it really have been possible, and if so, why? How can I explain it e.g. to my own children as they think about matters of faith, the serious questions of life, and make their own choices as they must; or to folk who want to know why I believe what to them is strange stuff! [If you the reader have not thought along these lines I will be very surprised. I certainly have and still do!]

It was these kind of issues and questions that not only the ordinary thinking members of churches faced, but much more so, the churches’ leaders and teachers, the Bishops and Clergy. Moreover, the questions faced were not only about the nature of the historic Jesus, but of the one eternal God himself, and the nature of the Christian Church too. Remember that this was the era of countless gods and diverse often strange religions, and where both were brought into the civil and political arena, and often where the gods were made by law to be worshipped. Remember also that at this time you would certainly have had the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament now), but not a complete New Testament; perhaps just one or two Gospels or first editions of them, and a few only of the Letters of Paul and others. It is many years before the official Canon of Scripture (the Bible as we know it now) was promulgated after much debate as to what writings might or might not be included.

It was to give the best possible definitive answer to all the endless questions and debates about Jesus and God and Church that prompted the Churches’ Bishops to gather in prayerful Council. The earlier shorter creeds needed amplification. There had been far too much often unseemly, even heated and acrimonious, debate! Ideas had been expressed by many that did not fairly and fully represent the New Testament portrayal of Jesus. Some ideas were quite way out, plainly wrong or heretical. Some went so far as to claim that humankind can sort out his own sinful state and moral dilemma himself, not needing Jesus as the absolutely necessary Saviour. They saw Jesus as a great teacher and example, but no more than that.

Hence, after long prayerful debate, the first Creed of Nicea was drawn up in 325AD. The Bishops in Council believed that the Holy Spirit would guide them, just as Jesus had promised, to lead the Church, and so us also, to a better understanding of Saving Truth in Christ (See John 16:13). They followed the pattern of those first Apostles who had wrestled with major issues concerning the very existence and purpose of the Christian Church and its Faith (See Acts 15:28).  They believed that God would speak through them and confirm their conclusions.  And we too can believe and trust that this first Catholic & Ecumenical Creed (i.e. world-wide and representative of all the universal Churches), in seeking to affirm the Christian Faith, as revealed and taught in God’s Word of Holy Scripture, has the guidance, ‘seal and approval’ of God’s Spirit.

However clear in content, and healing after tough debate as this Creed certainly was, it was soon felt that improvements should still be made!  Hence in 381AD, at another mainly Eastern Council held at Constantinople (the eastern capital of the Roman Empire – now called Istanbul in modern Turkey) it was decided to strengthen the earlier definition that Jesus was also God as well as Human. That the work of the Holy Spirit and the nature of the Church should also be included in more detail, and some other statements enlarged. Strictly speaking we should call the Creed we now recite on Sundays the Niceno-Constantinopoitan Creed of 381AD. However, we’ll stick to the more familiar and easier title “The Nicene Creed”.

Dear loving Creator and life-giving God, the birth of every baby is a thing of wonder, miracle and joy.  Yet always it is preceded by uncertainties, and often pain and anxiety before the final pain of delivery. But then follows the overwhelming joy of a unique new child, loved by you, and delightfully lovable by mother, father, and all.  The pain and fears have passed.  A new life has begun, with a future of good hope in a journey for ever with you Lord.

Dear Lord of the Church, the story of how your Church wrestles with the eternal truths of the Christian Faith is just like that. Those early centuries were marked by strong hopes, but also frequent pain; yet eventually the birth of a richer truth and understanding of your holy Word. Help us Lord, each one of us in our own personal journey and faith, and in our common life together in Christ, to know that your guidance is constant and unfailing. That in the confusions and divisions still of to-days’ Church you do not leave us, and that a greater fullness of truth, harmony and unity, love and peace is not so far away. So please keep us faithful to the task, and thank you Lord for your dear Son’s sake. Amen.

George Abell