Table of Contents
Nicene Creed: An Introduction
Before we get into exploring the Nicene Creed, it seems important to consider a few questions. Why do we have a creed? What point does it serve? What is the history behind it? Giving consideration to these questions will be helpful as we start our series on the Nicene Creed.
When we consider the Trinity, it can be the case that it is so familiar to us that we cannot imagine it to have been a significant source of controversy in the Church. And yet, given that Christianity arose from the monotheistic nature of Judaism, there is a fundamental belief in one God. Deuteronomy 6:4 says this: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!” Determining the relationship between the Father and the Son posed an interesting dilemma for the early Christians, even as far as the fourth century.
Moreover, the Incarnation is equally something we can take for granted. We tend to accept that Jesus was fully God and fully human. The errors tended to stress the divinity of Jesus only or the humanity of Jesus only. The challenge can be summed up in the quote from The Catholic Digest sums this up well:
In the first few centuries after Christ, Christians strove to find precise language to coherently express the truth that Jesus was truly God and truly man. Some proposed theories that bounced between extremes. Docetists claimed Jesus was really God and only seemed to be human. Ebionites thought Jesus was only human but denied his pre-existence and divinity. The Church, by the pronouncements of bishops and local councils, condemned these ideas as false, and slowly developed language to express the true belief — and to combat the many heresies that were arising.The Catholic Digest
The biggest heresy to arise at the Council of Nicea was Arianism. The controversy was stirred by a priest whose name was Arius, and those who agreed with him were known as Arians. The Council was convened by Constantine, the emperor and occurred from May to August in the year 325.
The challenge was reconciling Jesus who came in human form (and thus appeared to have a beginning) with the concept of an eternal Father who has always existed, without beginning or end. To put it simply, the problem could be stated like this:
1. There is one God.
2. If God is divine, he must have always existed without beginning or end.
3. If both the Father and the Son are divine, there would be two gods, but there are not. There is only one God.
4. So, the Son came from the Father, as a creature of the father, even though the Son exceeds all other creatures.
And so the question concerned the divinity of Jesus Christ. If Jesus was created by the Father, he could not have been divine. If Jesus was divine, how is it we can claim one God? The solution was to condemn Arianism. It did so by teaching that Jesus was one in substance (the Greek word is homoousios) one substance with the Father. Jesus, the Word, shared the divine substance with the Father, and was equal to the Father.
To make fully clear its condemnation of Arianism, the Council of Nicaea formulated a creed to state explicitly its condemnation of the Arian position. This Nicene Creed was edited in 381 to add more of what we believe about the Holy Spirit, stating the Holy Spirit, too, was co-equal with the Father and the Son. The Creed we say at Mass today is based on the revised Nicene Creed and is called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Why it is called a Creed
The word creed comes from the Latin verb, credere which means to believe. The creed is placed essentially at the middle of the Mass, as the end of the Liturgy of the Word and a transition to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Why does the Church believe it is important for us to recite the creed? Because the Mass is primarily about a work. We get the word liturgy from the Greek word which means “the people’s work.” But this work arises from foundational beliefs we share as Catholics. In the next reflections on the creed we will spell out what those beliefs are.
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