The Nicene Creed: Learning the faith of the Church

Dec 2017    

What I have said previously about the function and place of the Apostles’ Creed in the liturgy could also be said of the Nicene Creed (or the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, AD 381) since one or the other could be used in the liturgy. But there are two significant differences.

The Apostles’ Creed was a baptismal creed to address the candidate for baptism. This is why it is formulated as a personal profession: “I believe…”

The Nicene Creed was promulgated at the Council of Constantinople by a gathering of bishops. Thus it is presented as a corporate confession of the whole Church: “We believe…”

Another difference is that while both creeds are Trinitarian in structure, the Nicene Creed is a fuller expression of the Trinitarian faith. This is because it was formulated explicitly to combat certain heresies relating to the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Three developments stand out when we examine the content of the Nicene Creed.

First, the article concerning Jesus Christ makes explicit His relation to the Father and His full divinity or equality with the Father. The statement “light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being (consubstantial) with the Father…” affirms in very unambiguous terms the fact that Jesus is truly God and not a creature. This is to repudiate Arianism (and, we may add, Jehovah’s Witnesses).

The second development is the article on the Holy Spirit. Whereas the Apostles’ Creed simply has “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, the Nicene Creed is much more elaborate. The Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son, is worshipped and glorified…” It stresses the divinity of the Holy Spirit and His equality with the Father and the Son, since only as God is He “together worshipped” and “together glorified” (in the Greek text) with the Father and the Son. This emphasis rejects the heresy which denies the divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit.

The terms “together worshipped” and “together glorified” carry another implication which is particularly relevant for today. In some charismatic circles, the Spirit and His work has become a subject of such intense focus that it loses its connection with the Father and the Son. The result is a fixation on spiritual gifts and extraordinary phenomena. The ancient Church has its share of ‘spiritualists’, but it wisely avoided the danger by glorifying the Spirit in the Trinity. This is seen in the many hymns and prayers where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are praised, such as the Doxology and the Gloria Patri.

A third development of the Creed is that it clearly spells out the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Son is “eternally begotten out of the Father” while the Spirit “proceeds from the Father”. The Trinitarian relationship has a certain order in which the Father is the ‘source’ of the Son and Holy Spirit. The Eastern Orthodox Church designates this relationship as the “monarchy of the Father”. The Father is the sole originator (monē archē). There is a certain ‘order’ in the Trinity, but this ‘order’ does not imply subordination or domination.

This needs to be emphasised against a modern conception of the Trinity as a society of pure equals, which is then used to justify an egalitarian ideology that eliminates all differences, including sexual difference, and regards them as merely social constructs. Such an ideology defines my maleness or femaleness as the result of the way I am socially conditioned. If I feel like a female, even if I am biologically a male, then I am female. And in the name of ‘inclusivity’, I have the right to be classified as a female! It sounds ludicrous to most Asians, but in the West, this is taken with utmost seriousness.

Although the content of the Nicene Creed dealt with the issues of its day, it also has much to teach us concerning the challenges the Church faces today. If modern Christians are to rediscover their true Christian identity, the Church needs to find a place for the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds in its catechetical instruction and in its liturgy.

The Rev Dr Simon Chan –
is a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College, and was formerly the Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology there. This is the second of a two-part series on our Christian creeds (read the first part in MM Nov 2017, P16-17).

Public domain photo of icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea obtained via Wikipedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nicaea_icon.jpg


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