Before we consider the various words and phrases of the Nicene Creed, I want to situate the creed in its historical context. The creed did not fall down from the sky one day in the 4th century. It was originally composed to summarize the early church’s confession and worship of the Triune God revealed in Scripture. The creed was also written to rule out certain false teaching about God.
The final form of the creed was established at the Council of Constantinople in 381. This final form is a revision of the creed that was drafted at the Council of Nicaea in 325, which is why it’s called the Nicene Creed. When we compare the two versions, we find a few minor revisions and clarifications in the middle section on God the Son and a significant expansion of the third section on God the Holy Spirit. In fact, the creed drafted at Nicaea concluded with this simple statement, “and in the Holy Spirit.”
In this note, I want outline the historical context for the Council of Nicaea in 325. In the next note, I’ll outline the context for the Council of Constantinople in 381.
In 313, Constantine, who ruled the Western Roman empire, and Licinius, who ruled the Eastern Roman empire, co-signed the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity a legal religion. The church was no longer subject to state persecution and was now given significant visibility and influence in the Roman empire; however, there were divisions within the church. In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius in battle and became the sole emperor. With the empire now united under his rule, he was concerned about division within the church. He called the Council of Nicaea in 325 to address these divisions.
The council was a gathering of bishops from various parts of the Roman empire. Many of these bishops had been tortured for their faith during the time of persecution. They’d been beaten and scourged, had their eyes gouged out and their noses cut off. And, yet, here they were, hobbled, maimed, and gathered in an imperial palace, at the emperor’s request and the emperor’s expense.
They debated and discussed a variety of doctrinal and practical concerns, such as the date of Easter; however, the primary source of controversy and division was the teaching of a priest in Alexandria named Arius. Arius had a narrow doctrine of God. In his view, one of the defining attributes of God is that he is unbegotten. For Arius, “unbegottenness” is definitive of divinity.
Arius had philosophical and theological reasons for this position, but his primary concern was that we maintain a crystal-clear distinction and separation between God, the Creator, and his creation. Pagan theology too often conflated divinity and humanity. In the pagan myths, the gods were always getting mixed up and compromised with human beings. Thus, Arius was concerned that we recognize and defend God’s absolute transcendence. There was lots of begetting among the pagan gods, but the one true God is unbegotten.
We can appreciate Arius’s desire to maintain a clear distinction between the Creator and the creation; however, his insistence of the application of certain terminology (i.e., “unbegottenness”) prevented him from rightly receiving God’s own self-revelation in Scripture. God’s Word declares that the Son of God is begotten from the Father (John 1:14; 1:18; 3:16; 3:18). For Arius, the Son cannot be God, because he is begotten and “unbegottenness” is definitive of divinity. Arius taught that the Son is a creature and not God.
His teaching was popular. It’s reported that the dock-workers in Alexandria used to sing songs about the Son, “there once was a time when he was not.” When the bishops gathered in Nicaea, the primary item on the agenda was to examine and respond to Arius’s teaching.
In my next note, I will give a brief outline of the historical context for the council of Constantinople in 381. For now, I conclude with a comment on the first line of the creed. It does not begin, “We believe in One God, the Unbegotten,” but “We believe in One God, the Father.” Fatherhood is definitive of divinity, and if God is Father, he is also Son. Through the Son we know the Father, not the Unbegotten. And “God’s Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).