Contend Earnestly: The Nicene Creed: Introduction

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Nicene Creed: Introduction

At the end of our church service, gathering, or whatever you want to call it, we, as a church, read aloud the Nicene Creed. I wanted to take some posts to go through it and give the Scriptural references for each point and then a brief commentary. In this introduction, I want to give a quick background from The Moody Handbook of Theology so you'll know what the creed is and why it was formed.

The most prominent name in the Trinitarian controversy is Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria. In opposition to modalistic monarchianism, Arius taught that only one who is called God is eternal and, in fact, is incompre hensible. To suggest that Christ is eternal would be to affirm two Gods. Arius taught that the Son had a beginning; there was a time when the Son did not exist. The Son was not of the “same substance” (Gk. homoousios) as the Father; the Son was created by the Father—also referred to (incorrectly) by Arius as being generated by the Father. Arius further taught that Christ was created prior to all other creation, He being the medium through which God later created. As such, Christ is the highest ranking of all created beings, however Christ is subject to change because He is not God.

Arius was opposed by the highly capable Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius stressed the oneness of God while maintaining three distinct Persons within the Godhead. He also propounded the eternal existence of the Son. Athanasius stands out in the history of the church as one of the brilliant defenders of orthodoxy.

Because of the Arian controversy, the Council of Nicea met in a.d. 325 to deal with the problem. Three hundred bishops attended. The council rejected Arianism and any concessions to Arius and, with the approval of the emperor, adopted the following creed.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ousias] of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance [homoousion] with the Father, through whom all things came to be, those things that are in heaven and those things that are on earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and was made man, suffered, rose the third day, ascended into the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.

The designation homoousion stressed that Christ is not merely like the Father but He is of the identical substance as the Father. The terms “God from God” and “true God from true God” further stressed the deity of Christ. At the same time “begotten, not made” and “came down” stressed His eternality.

Following the council of Nicea controversy continued, with the center of controversy revolving around the term homoousian, a term to which many objected. The controversy shifted back and forth, with both Arius and Athanasius being banished at different times. The West favored Athanasius’s view, whereas the East wanted a modified statement. In a.d. 381 Emperor Theodosius convened the Council of Constantinople and accepted the Nicene Creed, reaffirming the homoousian clause.

Good as it was, the Nicene Creed only affirmed “We believe in the Holy Ghost.” There was no clear doctrinal formulation concerning the Person of the Holy Spirit. Arius, meanwhile, taught that the Holy Spirit was the first creation of the Son. Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople, taught that the Holy Spirit was a creature, like angels, subordinate to the Son. Athanasius emphasized that the Holy Spirit was also of the same substance (homoousian) as the Son and the Father. It was not until the Council of Constantinople in a.d. 381, however, that the matter was settled. The council adopted the following statement: “We believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.” The statement emphasized that the Holy Spirit was not subordinate to the Son nor the Father but was of the same substance as Father and Son.
Enns, Paul P.: The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago, Ill. : Moody Press, 1997, c1989, S. 420


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