Three Things Christians Should Understand about the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed
The Ecumenical Councils of Nicea in 325 A.D. and Constantinople in 381 A.D. sought to establish a consensus and conformity of belief in the Christian church through the assembling of its leadership from across Christendom. Both of these councils produced uniformed Christian doctrine, expressed in the Creed of Nicaea, as well as canons of orthodox doctrine for the guidance of the Church in all locations. The Creed remained basically unchanged at the Council of Constantinople with the exception of the clarification of the Holy Spirit. This new creed, later known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, stands as a unique essential Christian public profession of the faith, used to identify heretics or any disconformities within each Christian community. The Creed is an epitome, not a full definition, of what is required for personal orthodoxy in addition to functioning as an implicit condemnation of specific doctrinal errors, which had arisen in the early Church.1
As we settle into the twenty-first century, it has become evident that most evangelical Christians know little to nothing of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, let alone its implications for faith and practice. Rather than detailing the historical and theological needs that lead to the creation of the Creed we will focus on three key points, showing how they interact with Christian faith today.
First, the central focus of the creed is the Trinitarian nature of God. The Nicene fathers argued that the Father was always a Father, and consequently that the Son always existed with Him, co-equally and con-substantially. The Nicene fathers fought against the belief that the Son was unequal to the Father, because it effectively destroyed the unity of the Godhead. Rather, they insisted that such a view was in contravention of such Scriptures as John 10:30 “I and the Father are one” and John 1:1 “the Word was God.” Saint Athanasius declared that the Son had no beginning, but had an “eternal derivation” from the Father, and therefore was co-eternal with him, and equal to God in all aspects. In a similar vein the Cappadocian Fathers argued that the Holy Spirit was also co-eternal with the Father and the Son and equal to God in all aspects. The Church Fathers held that to deny equality to any of the Persons of the Trinity was to rob God of existence and constituted the greatest heresy.
Second, the purpose of the Creed was to give continuity to Christianity as it expanded over the world. As the faith spread across the globe it found itself interacting with the customs and practices of the indigenous people. Christianity at its core constitutes a fundamental change of life and practice and often found itself at odds with the practices of these indigenous groups. In many instances new converts found themselves adopting the practices of Christianity in conjunction with their old way of life. This led to a myriad of heretical beliefs, such as the belief that Christ was never a man, that He was not God, that the Holy Spirit was not God, that the body was evil, and many other heretical views of God and humanity. The Creed gave a firm theological basis for universal Christian faith and doctrine so that as the faith spread globally its core tenants would stay firm. The expression of the Creed was the expression of what it meant to follow Christ, especially in areas where literacy was nearly non-existent. The Creed allowed a believer to measure other beliefs against the core tenets of Christianity even if they had no access to the Scriptures themselves.
Third, the Creed demonstrates the unity of thought in Christian practice from the earliest days to the modern world. The Creed stands as one of the building blocks of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Additionally, it remains as one of the few commonalities in the great expressions of Christian thought and practice in the world today, uniting that which has been divided. As we read the creed it harkens back to a time when the faithful fought to hold together the body of Christ and protect it from ideologies that would both distort and ruin what the Lord Himself created. Their love of God and His Church led them to develop a Creed that would help every individual member of the Church to strive for unity in belief and practice.
As we continue into the twenty-first century the church is being bombarded by the world to accept ideologies and practices that run counter to Christian thought and practice. We have the choice to stand firm and declare with the Church Fathers that the beauty of the Church is worth fighting to maintain. Recapturing the theological depth of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed allows for every member of the Church to accurately express the theological truths that have held us in unity since the Lord ascended back to heaven. May He find us faithful and pure when He returns for us.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made:
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;
And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father;
And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets;
And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.
We look for the Resurrection of the dead,
And the Life of the age to come. Amen.