In this series we will be considering some of the most important, universally accepted (by the main traditions who identify as 'Christian') creeds in the Christian community. The following creeds have been accepted by most orthodox churches: Apostles (c. 180), Nicene (325), Niceno-Constantinopolitan (381), Chalcedon (451), and Athanasian (c. 500). The nature of these creeds are such that they discuss the nature of the Godhead, specifically the intra-Trinitarian relationships by attempting (As best we can) to explain who the Son and the Spirit and their role or purpose in the Triune work of God. There are many other creeds that are held by some denominations (such as, for example, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Orthodox) that contain elements of great truths, but are not universally held as essential. These will not be fully explicated in the following series.
DISCLAIMER: Though it shouldn't have to be said, it is nevertheless wise to make this point clear: Creeds do not replace or stand above Scripture. The Creeds are an elucidation of key doctrines of the faith that shape and protect 'orthodox' worship. They were drafted in response to heretical beliefs that were popular but denigrated and diminished the nature (And thus the work) of Christ and/or the Spirit. The Creeds are in full accordance with Scripture as to explain essential elements of true, orthodox, Christian dogma and doctrine, but they are not a replacement of, or rewriting of, that holy writ. We can affirm the doctrines as explained in the creeds wholeheartedly because they illuminate what the Bible reveals, while maintain the truth of sola scriptura.
The Council of Nicea in 325 AD ultimately led to the creation of the orthodox creed we now understand as the Nicene Creed. It sought to answer the question of Arianism by addressing the nature of Jesus of Nazareth and his relationship to God the Father. More of the context, below.
It should be noted that the Nicene Creed was further edited in 381 AD to include a more robust and thorough application concerning the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It should also be noted that there was another addition in the 600s to include the phrase 'and the Son' (the Filioque clause) to the procession of the Spirit (in the edited 381 creed). This issue would come to be the primary cause for the split of the Church in 1054 (though not the only reason). For clarification, I accept the Filioque Clause as correct.
There have, in recent days, been discussion over whether the Son was always, in eternity, submissive to the Father (often called Eternal Submission of the Son, or ESS). I firmly believe and argue that this is not the case, but that the Persons of the Trinity, in their nature, are coequal, coeternal, and coactive in all that the Triune God does, wills, acts, and superintends. ESS is often appealed to on the basis of complementarian relationships and the doctrine of complementarianism. I reject the use of the Godhead to bolster our social doctrines, especially when Scripture itself gives us actual imagery and doctrine on that same matter.
God is not a means to our theological ends. He is God. We do not use Him to make our point. Complementarianism can be argued from Scripture without this theological trickery that leads us down dangerous doctrinal paths.
Context of the Creed:
Not long after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus questions began to abound about the exact nature of this Jesus. Was He, as claimed, the Son of God? Was He another revolutionary like Maccabeus? If He was the Son of God, what did that mean? Was He a son of God as Adam had been in Genesis? Was He a son in the same way that Israel was God's son? Or was there something more, unique, and powerful about this Jesus of Nazareth?
A cursory, even childlike, reading of the New Testament tells us that the early church believed Jesus to be more than another holy prophet (like John the Baptist or Honi the Circle Drawer). Rather, they argued for an understanding of Jesus as God the Son made flesh. This can be found in all four Gospel accounts, Paul's letters, and the book of Hebrews, without any controversy (or, at least, there shouldn't be much controversy!).
Yet, it is equally true that the New Testament doesn't explicitly give a rigid doctrine of the Trinity, nor does it give us an exact formula for the nature of the Son, nor His eternal relationship to the Father. We can find these doctrines through careful reading of the texts, but it isn't an explicit, laid-out formula.
Thus, when the early church members were worshipping Christ, they were eager to ensure that their worship was right, appropriate, and honouring to God. But the questions about who Jesus is remained: Who is He? How does He relate to the Father?
In the first and second century, there were numerous heresies that developed such as the Gnostics who argued for a secret knowledge that revealed the true Gospel to true adherents. They were probably the legacy of the 'superapostles' with whom Paul argued so frequently - charismatic leaders who profiteered by using Christianity as their vehicle for personal power.
A greater threat, however, was Marcion of Sinope who actively denied most of the Old Testament Scriptures and rejected YHWH as merely a provincial, bloodthirsty, god of the Jews. Jesus, Marcion argued, was Son of the True God and edited most of the New Testament writings to suit his needs. He did think of himself as a true follower of Paul, who was, in turn, the only apostle of Jesus. It was the prevalence and popularity of this leader that began a recognized need within the early church to codify the texts of Scripture into a legitimate, and accepted, canon of texts and orthodox doctrine. This process would finally be considered closed in 397 AD in a letter by Augustine where he explicitly lists all 66 books.
Another threat developed in the decades later and came to become synonymous with Bishop Arius. The Arian heresy was developed by Arius in Alexandria and was very definitely non-Trinitarian. Rather than accepting that Jesus was in some way of the same nature and essence with the Father, which, according to Arius, would make Jesus a second God, Arius argued that Jesus was the firstborn of creation - He was unique, special, and indeed even the Messiah - but He was not 'God' as there was only one God.
To make this argument he appealed to Scripture and derived his doctrine from texts in the Bible. And, very swiftly, he became exceptionally popular and powerful. His doctrine spread like wildfire across the Christian world (and is still very much alive today). In due course the controversy spread through the churches and the empire and vying factions began to cause civil unrest: rioting would take place in the streets. This ultimately required Constantine to get involved in the discussion in order to quell the fighting.
The life of Arius (and his primary opponent, Athanasius), is fantastic and, frankly, would make a great movie. We won't get into their biographies in this post, but there will be a post on Athanasius in the future. Both had seasons of being in the ascendency, and both had seasons of exile, depending on how things were seen by the majority within the Emperor's court.
In 325 AD a council was called by the Emperor to answer the question 'once and for all.' The expectation was that the gathered bishops would finally decide which side was right, and force all bishops to adhere to the rule of the majority, thereby eradicating dissent and stopping the falsehood (whichever side was deemed false) in its track.
So, what was it that Arius was asserting? He argued that the Son was not eternal, nor coequal, with God. He effectively argued that there was a time when the Son was not. In other words, the Son was created by God. Yes, He is a distinct being, the firstborn of the resurrection, and the firstborn of the New Creation, but He is the firstborn. He is not eternal.
And what did Athanasius and the Trinitarians argue? Athanasius, and his mentor Alexander, argued that there was never a time when the Son was not. He was begotten by the Father, not created. This, they argued, pertained to His relationship as Son, not His nature as a created being. Likewise, His being the firstborn of creation did not speak of His nature as a created being, but His right as the incarnate Elder brother of all who believe. He is the firstborn of the resurrection in His incarnate being and therefore has the rights of the Elder brother. Using the same texts, they came out with very different answers to the doctrine of the Son.
Both sides were given their opportunity to speak and give their position. By the end of the ecumenical (universal) council, only three were unwilling to side with the Trinitarians, of which Arius was one. These three who refused to accept the Trinitarian Nicean Creed were exiled and the matter was deemed finished. (Of course, it wasn't.)
Text of the Creed:
Here is the text of the 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,
Begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father,
God of God,]
Light of Light, very God of very God,
Begotten, not made,
Consubstantial with the Father.
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
Hopefully you notice the very strong language that affirms the nature of the Son. He is begotten of the Father (not created, is the clear implication); He is of the same essence, very God of very God; not made; of the same substance as the Father etc. Not only is His nature equal, but He does the things that only God can do, such as creating and redeeming.
Notice also, of course, that there is no definitive statement on the Holy Ghost. That would become clearer in the second council's articulation because, by then, the nature of the Son would be less controversial and the discussion would move towards trying to understand the nature of the Spirit.
Implications of the Creed:
The implications of the creed are essential for the Christian faith. Below are three implications that I argue are the most important (there are many, many more, implications for this creed, of course).
The Doctrine of the Trinity
Without being too obvious, the primary implication in terms of prominence and priority is, of course, the doctrine of the Trinity. This creed demonstrates that the doctrine of God must be a doctrine of Triunity within the Godhead. The Father is God, the Son is God, and (although not explicated), the Spirit is God.
Nicea, in 325, was not attempting to defend the Trinity so much as it was attempting to defend the divinity of the Son, but the implications of this defence naturally, and inevitably, lead to the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, we must acknowledge that when we speak of 'God' we are speaking of God as one Triune Being in Three distinct Persons.
Not Three Gods
Likewise, however, we must reject the idea of three Beings (such as three separate, divine entities). God is not one being who is Father, another being who is Son, and a third being who is the Spirit, but is One Being in essence and nature, yet distinct as Father, Son and Spirit. This repudiates another heresy: tritheism (the idea that there are three gods).
Thus, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father, or Son, and so on. There are not three beings, only one. And they are not interchangeable, they are distinct Persons. This matters in how we think of God and in how we understand the work of the Godhead.
Distinct Persons with Distinct Roles acting in Harmonious Unity
The Three Persons of God all are involved in the work, will, and activities of the Godhead, though their role in that work differs. For example, the Father sent the Son, the Son did not send the Father. The Son, therefore, is the One who is sent and thus the One who, in His incarnate nature, died upon the cross. The Father did not die on the cross, nor did the Spirit. Their work is not interchangeable. This truth repudiates another heresy: modalism (the idea that God is Father, Spirit, or Son, depending on the era of revelation, i.e., OT = Father; NT = Son; Church age = Spirit. God reveals Himself in different masks at different times).
God is fully God as Father, and as Son, and as Spirit. He is One Being in Three Persons. Nicea begins the formation of this essential doctrine. More will be said on this in a future post in my series Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith.
The Doctrine of Christ (Christology)
Another implication of Nicea (325) is the doctrine of Christ. Just as Nicea explains that God is Triune, it also explains that the Son is eternal and also human (upon the incarnation, obviously). This means that Jesus of Nazareth is fully God even as He is also fully man. The creed at Chalcedon begins to flesh out what this means in greater detail. Suffice it to say, however, that Nicea, again, provides the formulaic framework for that later clarification.
Nicea (325) maintains this reality. The Son is God, thus He is consubstantial with the Father, He is equal with the Father in His divinity and not subordinate to the Father in His divinity, and He is of the same light, holiness, perfection, goodness, power etc., as the Father. He is fully God ('very God of very God').
Yet He is also incarnate, and in the incarnation is fully human. Again, this will be greater clarified in Nicea (381) but the foundations are laid here. It was in His incarnate state (as fully God and fully man) that the eternal Son was able to suffer, die, rise again for the sins of His people.
As Gregory of Nazianzus made clear, 'What He has not assumed, He has not redeemed.' In other words, if Jesus is not truly, fully, really, human, He cannot redeem we who are truly, fully, really, only human. This repudiates the heresy of Gnosticism, which argues that Jesus only appeared to be human. Jesus was fully human, and fully God, and only because this is true can redemption for sinful humanity be possible. Consider, for example, Genesis 3, where God promised a serpent crusher - if human Adam cannot destroy sin, then the destroyer must be divine. Yet, He must also be human to redeem sinful humanity. Or Genesis 15, where YHWH promises Abram that He will bear the consequences of the broken covenant (that will be broken by Abram's descendants, not God). Or a host of other texts. The only logical, biblical answer to the conundrum of sin is the divinity and humanity of God the Son.
The Nicean Creed of 325 upholds the truth that Jesus was God the eternal Son made flesh.
The Doctrine of Salvation (Soteriology)
A third essential implication of Nicean theology pertains to the doctrine of salvation. As mentioned above, the fact that Jesus is both fully God and fully man means that we can have a genuine redemption. Salvation for sin is something that is possible because God in Christ defeated sin, and Christ as man paid the debt as our substitution. This is called substitutionary atonement. Many disagree with this idea (and it is certainly not the only way to speak of the atonement - like a diamond, the atonement glitters in different hues depending on the angle of light you shine towards it) but I argue that you cannot adequately speak of the Gospel without truly presenting this view of the cross.
Jesus, as God, defeats sin on the cross by being made to be our sin. Yet, equally, Jesus, as man, the final Adam, defeats sin by dying as our substitute. This means that, in the resurrection, He is able to be our Elder Brother through adoption. We are now in His family as redeemed brothers and sisters through our union with Him.
Salvation is literally impossible if Jesus of Nazareth is not fully God and fully Man. This is why Athanasius fought so hard against the Arian heresy - if Jesus is not man, He cannot redeem humanity. Likewise, if He is not God, he cannot redeem humanity. There is absolutely no hope at all for sinful creation if Nicene Theology is incorrect.
Human beings are saved by the work of the Messiah who fulfills the OT prophecies about the promised serpent crusher, the suffering servant, the Davidic king who is God the Son made flesh.
This is vital, of course, because it means that, if our salvation is achieved by Jesus the incarnate man, then it is indeed for human beings. And, if our salvation is achieved by Jesus the incarnate Son, then it is indeed guaranteed because God is the all-powerful being. It cannot be jeopardized, lost, stolen, taken away, uncertain, or dependent upon us.
Nicea (325) lays the foundation for the revealing of the Trinitarian explanation of the Biblical gospel. It does not create it, but simply provides a true and helpful formula to understand the fullest depths of this majestic and glorious doctrine.
Christian Applications of the Creed:
There are, equally, vital applications of the creed to our human frame that flow from the implications. Some of these applications we will discuss below. As always, this is not exhaustive, but it is my hope that you begin to see how these creeds matter to us, and how we can use them to bring us to a place of worship for who God is.
The doctrine of God is not, first and foremost, an intellectual thing to get right. It is a spiritual truth that breeds worship. If we truly understand who God is in His glorious Triune beauty, then our first reaction (as well as every other one) ought to be worship. Why? Because our God is not some one-dimensional being like the 'gods' of old. Nor is our God like the selfish, inward-focused gods of monotheism.
Rather, in His Triunity, He exemplifies perfect love, perfect holiness, perfect community with Himself, as Father to Son, Son to Spirit, etc. He is utterly, transcendently, amazingly, unique in who He is. And yet He is good, not tyrannical. And yet He is compassionate. And yet He is merciful, even in His justice. And yet He cares for man. As the 8th Psalm says, 'What is man that you are mindful of him, o God?' Why is God mindful? Not because He is like the gods of old who used humanity as slaves. Not because He is like the gods of today who demand obedience to flatter His power. No. He is mindful of humanity because of the overflow of His intra-Triune love. Because He is a God who is love, He creates a creation to love them, and He loves them by His holiness, justice, mercy, and judgements. Not only that, but for His own people whom He redeems, through Christ, we are able to enter into that eternal Triune relationship by being coheirs with Christ. We share in that amazing Triune love.
Even though we are sinners and sin repeatedly, horribly, and in every conceivable way, our worship is protected and preserved because of Him. We are in Him through faith and will never be taken away. No sin can diminish the reality of salvation, and thus we ought to worship our triune God.
The reality of the Triune God, when we begin to understand it, is absolutely incredible. Orthodoxy, therefore, should lead to doxology.
Just as we know that no sin can steal us from God if we are in Christ, we therefore can have assurance: salvation does not rest upon our obedience, our goodness, the strength even of our faith. If it did, we would all surely be lost. Rather, our assurance is in the one who achieves salvation. If God is the Saviour (and He is) then nothing and no one can compromise, jeopardize, or remove it. It is ours and rests upon God's faithfulness.
The believer does not hope in the strength of His own faith (which often grows cold) but rather rests in the promises of Romans 8. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is why one of the most human prayers in all of Scripture is one with which we can most accurately identify: 'I believe, Lord help my unbelief.'
Be confident. The Triune God saves. He saves as our Father who calls us, predestines us, sent the Son to the cross, and who adopts us because of Jesus. He saves as the Son, our Elder Brother, who died in our place to appease the wrath of the Triune God, and who is raised as the firstborn of the new creation which we can enter, through faith in Him. And He saves as the Spirit who illuminates the work of Jesus and applies it to us so that we are sealed by His indwelling presence as a down payment and guarantee.
Be assured; no matter the crap days you may experience; if you are in Christ, you are in Him indeed, and in Him forever.
If this doesn't lead to a deep wellspring of spiritual joy, then nothing will. No amount of gimmicks, no amount of religious clichés or idealistic foppishness, or political activity will provide you with any real and lasting joy.
Of course the opposite is equally true. If we truly grasp the depths of this truth, like Athanasius saw, then our joy is complete and full no matter the circumstances we experience. Granted, circumstances will occasionally dampen our spirits, challenge our zeal, even weaken our faith. But if we rest in the power and presence of the Triune God as revealed in Scripture and explained in Nicea 325 and 381, then our hope and joy will shine through our sorrows.
One final application ought to be concerning the church. If I am redeemed by the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, in accordance to the will of the Father and the indwelling of the Spirit, then I am a brother with Christ, a co-heir to the promises of eternity that are His by right of being firstborn, yet which He shares with His people. If I am one of those, then so are you.
Then so are you. If you are in Christ, you, too, share that dignity of being Christ's sibling according to the promise of faith.
This should shape how we think, how we act, how we treat one another. We are to be known by our love. Why? Because we are all sharing in Christ, together. There is, therefore, no place in the church for arrogance, for favouritism, for a haughty spirit, a lack of grace and forgiveness, but, instead, because of this Trinitarian reality, it is to be a place for mercy and compassion, for humbling ourselves before others, for confessing our sins one to another and offering the hope of the Gospel in return.
Sadly, too many churches are (correctly) only known for arrogant legalism or flagrant antinomianism (i.e., ignoring God's holiness). But if we truly grasp the nature of what the Triune God achieves for His people, it should lead to merciful humility and perseverance with one another because our horizontal relationships are a human reflection of that vertical relationship with God that we, each, share in individually. The church is, in a way, the corporate reflection of that vertical relationship.
We are to show the world true community and true harmonious loving relationships because we, who were sinners, were shown that by our Triune God, who, in His mercy, did not leave us in death, but sent the Son that we might be reconciled to Him.
I hope that you found this post interesting and helpful. Here is a hymn that I wrote on the doctrine of the Trinity. It seeks to explain the Persons of the Trinity and their unique work whilst rejoicing in their unity of Being and purpose.
As ever, please feel free to leave comments!