The Nicene Creed can not be fully appreciated without a proper understanding of its history.
The Nicene Creed arose out of the great Trinitarian controversy that rocked the church early in her history and threatened her very existence.
The Christian church from the beginning of her existence has believed the truth of the Trinity, that God is somehow three yet one. This is the current thought running throughout the whole of Scripture. It is expressed in the baptism formula where the church is instructed to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is implied in the benediction of the Apostle Paul upon the church: “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all” (II Cor. 13:14). In these and many other passages of Holy Writ it is quite apparent that God is triune, three yet one. And whereas the Christian church has always believed this truth she was not able in the beginning of her history to give expression to this truth in very clear and concise terms.
The truth that God is triune is basic to all the great truths of the Scripture. It is the one foundation upon which everything else rests. A denial of the triune character of God will inevitably lead to a denial of the whole of the truth of God. For that reason the powers of darkness chose to attack this doctrine first in the church’s history. For the first 300 years of her existence, the devil had sought to destroy the church through terrible persecution. This failing he next sought to destroy her by attacking the very foundation of the truth upon which her whole existence depended—the doctrine of the Trinity. He was aided in this by the fact that the church in her early history had not come to a concise understanding of these things.
The Trinitarian controversy developed around the identity of Jesus Christ. That the Father is God was not a matter of dispute. Neither was there much discussion at first concerning the Holy Spirit. If Jesus is God, co-eternal and co-equal with the Father, then it simply follows that the Holy Spirit is also God in the same sense of the word. But if Jesus be something less than God, then the Holy Spirit is simply some impersonal power of God. The identity of Jesus therefore was the key to this controversy.
This controversy had its roots in the contradictory theology of Origen. Origen (A.D. 185-254) was a church father who lived in Alexandria of Egypt. Origen was a speculative and original thinker. His greatest downfall was the influence he allowed heathen philosophy to have upon his theology. The result was that much of his theology bordered on heresy. This is especially true if judged in light of its further development. Origen’s teachings concerning Christ are what interest us at this point. Origen taught on the one hand that Jesus Christ is the Son of God eternally generated of the Father. He attributed to Christ many of the attributes of God, especially emphasizing that Christ is eternal with the Father. This suggests that Jesus is somehow divine, which was exactly Origen’s conviction. On the other hand, however, Origen virtually contradicted this by teaching that the eternal generation of the Son by the Father is not rooted in God’s being but in His counsel or will. Consequently, Origen taught that the Son of God was eternally created by the Father. The eternal generation of the Son by the Father consists in the communication of a divine yet secondary substance to the Son. The Son therefore is divine, yet subordinate. He is a secondary God beneath the Father. This view of Origen is confusing to say the least. And because Origen was a prominent figure in the church this confusion would spell trouble for the church in the years ahead.
Over the years two discernable positions developed within the church. There were those who emphasized the teaching of Origen concerning the eternal generation of the Son. They taught that although the Father and the Son were personally distinct they were nonetheless of the same essence or being. In light of subsequent history this view has been called the orthodox view. The chief proponents of this view were Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and later Athanasius, an arch-deacon of Alexandria. Over against this arose the view of Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria. He took as his starting point the idea of Origen that the Son of God is created of the Father and therefore subordinate to the Father. From this he deduced that whereas Christ is truly the Creator of all things, He is nevertheless only a creature Himself and therefore not truly divine.
As these two ideas emerged the church soon became hopelessly entangled in bitter controversy. The contest between these two views broke out about A.D. 318. For their denial of the true deity of Christ, Arius and his followers were deposed and excommunicated by a council of a hundred Egyptian and Libyan bishops at Alexandria in A.D. 321. This did not stop Arius from spreading his blasphemous lies. He continued to propagate his views in Palestine and Nicomedia. Nor was Arius without his sympathizers even among the bishops of the church. Consequently, the church saw bishop rise up against bishop and province against province. The entire church was engulfed in controversy.
In A.D. 325 the emperor Constantine called an ecumenical council, the first ever, representing the whole Christian church, to settle this matter. This council was held in Nicea, the second city of Bithynia, which was a province of Asia Minor. Nicea was chosen for the site of this very important council because it was only 20 miles from the imperial residence in Nicomedia. This council was attended by 318 bishops, about one-sixth of all the bishops of the church. Although the whole church was represented at this council, the eastern branch of the church was more strongly represented than the western branch. The council was convened around Pentecost, the end of May, and lasted until the 25th of July of the same year.
Very soon three distinct parties or groups emerged at the council. There was the orthodox party led by Athanasius, the arch-deacon of Alexandria, who had just recently come to prominence in the church. He would be the future spokesman for the orthodox view. This group firmly clung to the deity of Christ. They were at first a minority. They were however more talented and influential than the other two groups. The second group was led by Arius and numbered about 20 bishops. These propagated the views of Arius which flatly denied the deity of Christ. Then there was the third group which composed the vast majority of the delegates. These more or less took a middle ground. Philip Schaff in his History of the Christian ChurchVolume III, page 628, describes this majority group thus: “Many of them had an orthodox instinct, but little discernment; others were disciples of Origen, or preferred simply Biblical expression to a scholastic terminology; others had no firm convictions, but only uncertain opinions, and were therefore easily swayed by the arguments of the stronger party or by mere external considerations”.
According to His promise to lead the church into all the truth, God used Athanasius and the orthodox party to sway the majority to the orthodox position and confess the deity of Christ. Because the statement adopted by the council of Nicea differs somewhat from the Nicene Creed as we have it today, we quote that which the council adopted in full. 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, i.e., of the essence of the Father, God of God, and) Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by Whom all things were made (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 cometh to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
And those who say: there was a time when He was not; and: He was not before He was made; and: He was made out of nothing, or out of another substance or thing, or the Son of God is created, or changeable, or alterable;—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic church. This confession was certainly a victory for the truth and for the church. Yet this was not the end of this controversy as we shall see in a future article.