The Nicene Creed: A Short Commentary
The Nicene Creed is an important creed in the history of the Christian faith. It expounds the Trinitarian faith of Jesus, the apostles, and the early Church. Composed originally at the Council of Nicaea, and confirmed in its final form at the Council of Constantinople. Despite its importance, far too few Christians understand what the Nicene Creed is and why it is important. Because of this, I thought it would be a good idea to release a commentary on the Nicene Creed, albeit a very brief one. There is much that could be expounded that I will not do in this post. Rather, I will simply try to post in such a way as to help the average Christian understand what the Creed is saying. The form that will be presented here is the form that was finalized at the Council of Constantinople.
We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
The opening line of the Nicene Creed is a strong affirmation of monotheism. It asserts that there is only one God. It asserts that this God is Maker of all things that we can see and all things that we cannot see. Thus, the Nicene Creed rules out any pretense of tritheism in its very opening line. It also implies God's omnipotence, for God is the Almighty. Thus, there cannot be any pretense of a god like the ones the pagans worshiped. Rather, we are talking about a God is who greater than that.
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.
This is an important line in the Nicene Creed, because it cuts against the heresies of Arianism and Semi-Arianism. This section of the Creed exposits that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, a distinct Person. Yet at the same time it calls him "Light from Light, true God from true God," and makes it clear that he is "begotten, not made, of one being with the Father." This cuts against the Arian heresy precisely because Arius and his followers saw Jesus as the first of God's creation, making him something less than God. The view of Arius runs contrary to what we read in Scripture (in both the Old and New Testaments), the early Church fathers, and the practice of the early Church. Jesus clearly understood himself to be God.
Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
This section asserts that all things were made through him. The Son is the Agent of Creation. Apart from the cooperating work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, nothing would have ever came to be. After making this point, the Nicene Creed steps into the realm of soteriology. Christ came down from heaven for the sake of our salvation. It was not a selfish motive that drove him to become incarnate. Rather, it was selfless love for us that did so. The Creed asserts that by the Holy Spirit, Jesus became incarnate by the virgin Mary. He was born of a supernatural birth, not a human birth. When the Creed asserts that he was "made" man, we cannot take this to be a concession to Arianism. The context of this word makes it clear that we are speaking of his being made in human likeness. That is, of his taking on human flesh. His human body was made, but the Logos has existed forever. Jesus, in his flesh, was crucified for our sins under the authority of Pontius Pilate. He actually died and was actually buried in a tomb whose location was known.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
This section asserts the Resurrection of Christ. In the same way that Christ was bodily buried, he was also bodily raised. This appears to be implied clearly in the Creed. After rising, Christ ascended into heaven to sit at the Father's right hand, which is his rightful place, having the Name that is above every other Name. The Creed then moves to the area of eschatology, where it proclaims that Christ will return with glory. His return will be majestic. When he returns, he will judge those who are still alive when he returns, as well as those who are dead. He will reign in righteousness, justice, and love forever and ever without end. This is the hope that we, as Christians, have to look forward to.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
The Creed then turns to Pneumatology. It asserts the deity of the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. He is called the Lord and Giver of Life because it is he who regenerates our hearts and makes us new creations. The Creed makes it clear that he is worshipped and glorified in the exact same manner as the Father and the Son. We pray to the Father. We pray to the Son. We pray to the Spirit. We worship the Father. We worship the Son. We worship the Spirit. To fail to worship one or two Persons of the Trinity, but not all three Persons is blasphemy. The Creed, as recited in the West, has the addition that is located in brackets above. This was added at some point in Church history after the Council of Constantinople. While we don't know exactly when or why it was added, it is an addition to the original creed. While Christians in both the East and the West would agree that the Spirit comes from the Father through the Son, this addition was, historically speaking, not warranted. The original Creed did not contain this addition.
The Creed also asserts that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the Prophets. That is, the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired the prophetic utterances. Paul and Peter make this claim when they discuss the nature of Scripture in their various epistles.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The Creed then moves to ecclesiology. According to the Nicene Creed, the Church had four characteristics. First, it was one. That is, it was single and united. Second, it was holy. Third, it was catholic. This phrase does not refer, as some would think, to the Catholic Church as it stands today. Since there had not yet been a split between Eastern and Western Churches at this time, such a distinction could not be made. Catholic, as used in this sense, has a meaning similar to "universal." Fourth, the Church was apostolic. The leaders of the Church are the spiritual descendants of the apostles.
The Creed acknowledges one baptism. This is important, because it means that anyone who is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be accepted by another Church. The Creed states that we look for the resurrection of the dead. That is, one day, our mortal bodies will be raised to life when Christ returns. We also look forward to the life to come--the reign of Christ. Amen.