Throughout history creeds have been used to define a community of faith. These statements are usually developed and affirmed by representatives of each of the various factions within a community to affirm core beliefs that would bind them together.
The Nicene Creed is the earliest example of this process within the Christian Church. After Emperor Constantine had united the Roman Empire a theological dispute threatened to undo what his armies had accomplished. Thus he gathered 318 bishops at Nicaea to hammer out a creed that the whole Empire could affirm.
In AD 320 a new theology was forming around the idea that God the Father had formed God the Son. Thus the Father and the Son would be of different substances and the Son would be subordinate to the Father. Established theologians insisted that God is both the source of being (Creator) and the order of the Universe (Word) and that the Son must be fully divine (same substance) to effect salvation. After much bitter debate a creed was adopted, named after the city where it had been written, and those who affirmed different substances were excommunicated.
Yet the minority party was not defeated and drew many supporters, including Constantine’s son and subsequent Emperor, Constantius. During Constantius’ reign the Creed was amended adding one letter, the smallest letter in the Greek language, an iota, changing the meaning of the key phrase from the “same substance” to “similar substance”. Thus a saying arose from what had been the majority party: “Not one iota more!”
In AD 381 under yet another Emperor, formed a new council which made a few modifications to the Creed from Nicaea giving us what we now call the Nicene Creed which includes the phrase: “being of one substance with the Father” and expanding the statement on the Holy Spirit.
After rigorous study this Creed was officially adopted in AD 451. Those 130 years of debate gained the Church four key elements to the understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ:
- Jesus Christ is fully divine.
- Jesus Christ is fully human.
- Jesus Christ is fully integrated, one being.
- Jesus Christ has two natures: divine and human, a mystery beyond human understanding.
This would have been a great ending, except that in AD 1014 the Bishop of Rome unilaterally added two words to the Latin version of the statement on the Holy Spirit so that it then would read that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This assumption of authority over an ecumenical council incensed the Eastern Church contributing to a split in AD 1054.
None the less, with or without those words added over a thousand years ago, the Nicene Creed remains the one statement accepted by Roman Catholics, by Eastern Orthodox Catholics, and by Protestants. Thus with these words we can affirm what “We believe” as the universal Christian Church.
I will have more to say about the Nicene Creed and its implications for us at 8:15 a.m. and 10 a.m. on Sunday, October 1st, World Communion Sunday, at Temple Terrace Presbyterian Church.
Robert Shaw, Pastor