The Nicene Creed
Defining a statement of faith
Every Sunday in many churches all over the world, Christians recite something called the Creed—so called because it states essential Christian beliefs about God, and because it proclaims a loving trust in God.
The word comes from the Latin credo, meaning I believe or I trust, and is the basis of English words such as credible—meaning believable, and creditable, meaning trustworthy.
Since before the New Testament was written, Christians felt the need to have a memorable formula to express what they believe about God and Jesus, and what they believe Jesus came to do for the world. At the most basic level, they believe that God created everything, lived a human life as the man Jesus, and that—ever since—the Spirit of God (who is, of course, also the Spirit of Jesus), has continued to work in the world for good, both in the lives of Christians and more widely.
There are various summaries of belief found in the New Testament, and similar versions may have been used at baptisms. As time went by, and Christians had to work out in detail what beliefs they could agree on, the statements became more elaborate. The precise relationship had to be worked out between the man Jesus, who possessed God’s full nature and authority, and God, ‘the Father’, to whom Jesus prayed during his earthly life. And how did the Holy Spirit fit in? It seemed necessary, too, to record the essential facts of Jesus’ life, his birth from the Virgin Mary, and his execution under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. (This fixes the ministry and death of Jesus to a fairly precise range of dates, AD26-AD36: this is not some mythological saviour, but a man who really lived at a particular time and place.)
Several different creeds emerged from this process, although only two—the Nicene Creed and the shorter Apostles’ Creed—are regularly recited today. The Nicene Creed is the most famous: it dates from the 4th century, and was worked out in the years following the Council of Nicaea in AD325 (and the later Council of Constantinople).
There are two misunderstandings about the council of Nicaea. Firstly, the bishops present weren’t simply indulging in flowery philosophical speculation, but trying desperately to express accurately the main message of the New Testament: that the fully human Jesus had all the nature and authority of the one Creator God. This wasn’t easy! So, inevitably, it involved a lot of argument and disagreement. Also, the emperor Constantine, who called the council together, wasn’t trying to impose some authorised set of beliefs: he was a practical man, who just wanted to get some agreement so that he could go back to governing his empire.
The bishops were sinful human beings like the rest of us (and had all the bad habits of people who sit on committees!) but, in the end, the majestic Nicene Creed turned out to be a profound and prayerful statement of faith, and Christians recite it on a regular basis to let its truth sink into their hearts and lives.
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