Unlike the Apostles’ Creed, which most believe emerged organically in the life of the early church over several decades, the Nicene Creed was the product of a very specific action item, at a very extraordinary conference. You see, early in the 4th century AD, the church has significant internal conflict. (Can you imagine that? The early church … in conflict? I thought that was just for us contemporary, divisive people!)
Specifically, there was debate about the person of Jesus. The Apostle’s Creed had made statements about the historical person of Jesus: His conception, passion, crucifixion, ascension and return. It told us what He did, but didn’t tell us Who He was. A debate raged over whether Jesus was, in fact, God in the flesh. One group, whose chief spokesman was a winsome, brilliant pastor from Egypt named Arius, believed that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, and therefore less than God (called Arians, and Arianism). On the other side were those who believed that Jesus was wholly God – as God as the Father is God.
Each side turned to the Bible for their proofs. Both had articulate spokesmen. Heels were dug in deeply. You might ask, “why don’t they just let each other believe what they want?” But it’s not that easy. They certainly couldn’t worship together, because they couldn’t ascribe to Jesus the same things. Beyond that, if Jesus is less than God, it’s blasphemy to call Him fully God. But, if Jesus is fully God, it’s blasphemy to say He’s not! Both sides saw the other as not only a different opinion, but a heresy.
The Political Solution
Meanwhile, Constantine had become the Emperor of the Roman Empire, and had chosen to see Christianity tolerated in His realm. He saw the value in the people being united by a shared faith – but quickly learned that the Christians were not united among themselves. He decided to get the Arianism issue resolved. So it was Constantine who called for the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, only eight months after becoming the sole Roman Emperor (this was obviously a high priority item in his administration!). It’s a shame the church couldn’t get it together on its own, but we can still be glad that the government forced the church to make important conclusions about what it believes.
The Conclusions of the Council: The Nicene Creed
Many issues were discussed at Nicaea, but nothing as important as the person of Jesus. The conclusions hammered out at the Council are contained in what we now call the Nicene Creed. It is a thicker, meatier version of the Apostles’ Creed, which they seem to have used as their foundation for their new statements. Here are the key items they layered upon the Apostles’ Creed that have become what we today call “orthodoxy” (right belief):
- Jesus is begotten of the Father, but “eternally begotten” – in other words, there was never a time when Jesus was not. He is eternal. Like God (because He is God).
- This begetting does not make Jesus less than the Father. Rather, Jesus is God (from God), true God (from true God), very God (from very God). God!
- The Father and Jesus constitute a single “being”, a single “substance”. Jesus is as God as the Father is God.
- Both the Father and Jesus were behind the creation of all things. Again, this was to affirm that Jesus was in no way less than God.
- The Holy Spirit is also God: “Lord”, “giver of life”, and to be worshiped and glorified (which only God should receive).
Does this really matter?
YES!!!!! As the early church father Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 AD) famously said in the days after the formulation of the Nicene Creed, “What is not assumed, is not redeemed.” In short, Jesus had to be God, because only God can redeem man. And Jesus had to be man in order to be the “first-born from the dead” (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:4). Creator had to become creation to save creation, but had to remain God to remain the perfect sacrifice. As soon as you say Jesus is less than God, his sacrifice for our sin isn’t enough. As soon as you say Jesus is less than man, then He no longer represents us … He is no longer the “second Adam” (Rom. 5:12-19, 1 Cor. 15:45), but is some sort of hybrid human. Jesus saves what He becomes while remaining Who He is. Otherwise, all is lost.
(By the way, modern day Arianism is propagated and practiced by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Scientology, and some Pentecostal groups. Most liberal mainline denominations, including United Methodists, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Episcopalians, and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Lutherans don’t believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, sinlessness, miracles, resurrection and ascension … so Jesus’ “divinity” may be considered, but it has nothing to do with redemption.)
So, despite the good, hard work done in Nicaea 1,693 years ago, the battle over the truth of Who Jesus was and is rages on. In our Lutheran tradition, on every Communion Sunday, we proclaim the Nicene Creed, anchoring our souls to this indispensable, pivotal, redeeming truth. God became man – my only hope of being reconciled to God!
A few words about the Athanasian Creed, coming soon.