Many Christians are familiar with the Nicene Creed, but may be a little less familiar with the story of its development at the Council of Nicea in 325. It is arguable that aside from the decades following Jesus’ death, the fourth century was the most influential period in the history of the Christian church. In the span of a generation, the church transitioned from a persecuted, oppressed minority to a recognized force in the public square. It is difficult to overstate the significance of the dramatic turn of events experienced by church leaders during this period. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, the Nicene Creed represents an integral part in the story and identify of 21st century Christians.
Christians endured some of the most intense persecution recorded during the rule of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Diocletian in the early 300s. Some faced death for professing Christ and others were physically marked and scarred by torture. However, their situation took an astounding turn following the conversion of Constantine in 312. Within a short period, Constantine co-issued The Edict of Milan, which granted an end to persecution and freedom of religious practice around the empire. For the first time large Christian churches were built in public spaces and Christian art became more visible. Christianity increasingly adopted a more public posture and recognizable image. The stigma of being Christian quickly faded under the Emperor’s endorsement.
It was Emperor Constantine who called together bishops from across the Roman Empire to meet at the Council of Nicea in 325. The Emperor was concerned about disunity in the church over differences of belief regarding the nature of Christ, specifically how to speak about His divinity. The Council of Nicea was the first meeting of church leaders of this scale, with likely 200-300 bishops attending. This gathering of leaders and their accompanying entourages represented the Christian Church from across the empire. It was from this council that the Nicene Creed emerged as a statement of faith.
The Nicene Creed is a confession of faith that expresses the divinity and unity of the trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Creed articulated the church’s understanding of Scripture during a time of division. Though it would take decades for the Creed to become cemented in the Christian tradition, it was a significant step towards a unified expression of core truths revealed in the life and work of Jesus Christ.
Ninth grade students recently read an excerpt from The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters by Luke Timothy Johnson. In the article, the author points out that a creed, as a communal profession of faith makes little sense to the modern mind. For some, faith is the antithesis of critical thinking and empirical evidence. Johnson wants the Creed to be controversial for Christians in the sense that Christians recognize the countercultural claims that we make when we recite the Creed. Professing God the Father as the maker of heaven and earth has a host of implications for our view of ourselves, each other, and the world.
The Nicene Creed is the most universally affirmed confession of faith in Christendom and is adopted as a foundational document of Logos Academy and thus serves as unifying statement of belief for Christians from many different denominations and traditions represented in our school community. There are several important lessons for us and our students as we reflect on the Creed. The first is the reality of our shared Christian heritage. In an age of individualism and self-expression, awareness and appreciation for our heritage (familial, religious, locational, vocational, etc.) is often dismissed as antiquated or even oppressive. Yet, it is in understanding and receiving our history that we begin to see ourselves and our places in the world with greater clarity. This vision allows us to experience joy as we learn to see and appreciate the details of where God has placed us. Second, the Creed is a humble reminder for all Christians that our faithful witness to Christ in this world is a shared task. Christians across the centuries and continents have lived and died with these words as the basic summary of their faith. Third, the Creed is a reminder that we must seek God’s Spirit as we labor in the present and trust Him for the future. The Christians of the 4th century could have hardly known that their patient endurance of persecution would bear tremendous fruit that would nourish Christians for centuries to come.
The Nicene Creed
I 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 only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered and was buried, and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; And He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one universal and apostolic church; I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.