The Nicene Creed

Article 4: He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; and suffered and was buried. 

In the previous article of this creed the early church confessed that the Son of God was incarnated for us men and for our salvation. Now in Article 4 the church proceeded to show how the Son incarnate accomplishes this salvation of man. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. 

The suffering of Jesus Christ and His crucifixion under Pontius Pilate belong together. For it was especially at the cross that our Lord suffered. 

The suffering of Christ on the cross forms the heart of the gospel. This suffering was certainly one of the main themes of the O.T. Scriptures. So much was this the case that on two occasions after His resurrection our Lord demonstrated to His disciples from the O.T. Scriptures that His suffering had been clearly prophesied. This He showed to the two travelers on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-27) and to several of His disciples by the sea of Galilee (Luke 24:45, 46). In like manner both Paul and Peter in their preaching to the Jews repeatedly demonstrated from the O.T. Scriptures the sufferings of Christ (cf. Acts 3:18Acts 17:2, 3). In turn Paul himself acknowledged in his epistles that he preached only one thing: Jesus Christ and Him crucified (cf. I Cor. 1:23, 2:2). The suffering and crucifixion of Christ therefore form the very heart of the gospel. And in harmony with that the early church confessed her faith in the cross of Christ. 

We may ask at this point, to what degree did the early church understand the meaning and significance of the cross? 

The true meaning of the cross was certainly apprehended by the early church. She certainly understood that at the cross Christ died for our sins and that His death was a sacrifice for sin. The church fathers at this time spoke in terms of redemption, satisfaction for sin, and reconciliation. Perhaps Athanasius, the great defender of the true deity of Christ, had the clearest understanding of the cross. He spoke of death as being the punishment of God upon man’s sin. And man is under the condemnation of sin on account of his sin. However, said Athanasius, it is not fitting that God allow the creation to perish. Consequently, the divine Word of God took upon Himself our nature that He might redeem us from sin. This redemption He accomplished on the cross as He bore the punishment of sin. Certainly the early church was not without some understanding of the cross of Christ. 

However, it is also true that in many ways the early church had only a vague understanding of these things. A study of the early church fathers will reveal that in many instances they used the terminology of the Bible concerning Christ’s suffering and death without fully understanding its implication. In addition to this, the early church fathers sometimes espoused erroneous ideas concerning the atonement of Christ. There were some, for example, who claimed that the blood of martyrs also atoned for sin in a measure. Then there was the idea held by some that the death of Christ served as a ransom for sin not to God but to Satan. The idea here was that Satan held man under his dominion and would release man from the bonds of sin only if a ransom was paid to him. This Christ did through His suffering and death on the cross. The satisfaction of the cross therefore was not to God but to Satan. However, in spite of these ideas that surfaced in the writings of some in the early church, it is nevertheless true that in the main the early church did sense the true significance of the cross. Even here she had the truth, if only in seed form. 

And beyond this it was really impossible for the church at this time to go. Before she could grow in her understanding of the cross it was necessary that she first develop in other areas of the truth. For example, it was necessary to understand Who Christ really is. Is He truly God? Is He merely a man? Is He some combination of this, or some other kind of creature? The answer to these questions certainly has a direct bearing on the nature and purpose of Christ’s suffering on the cross. And these questions were answered, by the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, which authored the Nicene creed, as well as by the council of Chalcedon (A.D. 425). 

However, this was not enough. To come to understand the cross as a sacrifice for sin the church also had to understand the nature of man’s sin and of the fall. What is the relation between the fall and the sinfulness of man today? Just what happened to man at the fall? How sinful is man? What is the nature of sin? These questions were answered by Augustine in the 5th century as he opposed the heretic Pelagius. 

Once these questions were settled it was possible to grapple with the true meaning of the cross. And this was done especially by the great theologian Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, at the end of the 11th century and the beginning of the 12th century. In his book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) Anselm not only showed the need for the incarnation of Christ but also developed very beautifully the doctrine of the atonement. But it was especially the Reformers of the great Protestant Reformation who developed the meaning of the cross. This they did especially as they developed the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone over against the Roman Catholic error of justification by works. This richer and fuller development of the truth of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion are embodied in our Reformed creeds (cf. especially Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 15, 16; Belgic Confession, Articles 20, 21; Canons of Dordt, Second Head of Doctrine).

In this connection it is interesting to note that the early church in this 4th article of the Nicene creed makes mention of the fact that Christ was crucified “under Pontius Pilate.” The Heidelberg Catechism in Q. 38 makes a special point of this. There the Catechism teaches that to free us from the severe judgment of God it was necessary for Christ to be condemned by a temporal judge. For that reason He suffered “under Pontius Pilate.” The early church evidently attached no such significance to this phrase in her early creed. According to Augustine the only significance of the phrase “under Pontius Pilate” was to establish the date of the crucifixion. And this is in harmony with the original Greek in which the Nicene creed was written. The phrase “under Pontius Pilate” has the idea of “in the time of Pontius Pilate” and not “under the jurisdiction of Pontius Pilate” as the Catechism interprets it. 

In this 4th article the early church also mentioned Christ’s burial. 

It is rather difficult to ascertain the significance the church at this time placed on Christ’s burial. 

According to the church father Rufinus (A.D. 330-410), who wrote a commentary of the Apostles’ creed, the burial of Christ implied Christ’s descension into hell. The doctrine of Christ’s descension into hell is found already in the synodical declarations of Sirmium, Nice, and Constantinople (A.D. 359-360). This expression eventually found its way into the Apostles’ Creed. By Christ’s descension into hell the. early church meant a literal, bodily descent into hell after His death and before His resurrection. By hell the early church meant not the place of torment but the part of Sheol where the souls of the O.T. saints were retained until the coming of Christ. According to this idea, the souls of the O.T. saints could not be glorified at death. This is because Christ had not come as yet and redeemed them from the power of sin and death. Consequently, at death the souls of the O.T. saints departed to a part of Sheol where they knew neither suffering nor glory. And there they waited for the coming of the Christ. Hence, after His death Christ personally descended into this part of Sheol to release the souls of the O.T. saints and bring them to Paradise. This doctrine certainly is not biblical. Nor is it likely that the church had this in mind when she confessed in this 4th article that Christ was buried. 

It is more likely that the early church inserted this confession of Christ’s burial to bear witness to the death of Christ. Christ not only suffered on the cross; He also died the physical death. And to His death the burial of Christ bears witness. The grave is the place of the dead. Christ was buried because He died. 

The death of Christ was really denied by both Arius and Appolinarius. We have already seen some of the heresies of Arius, who denied that Jesus is truly God. On the question of Christ’s divinity Appolinarius was orthodox. However, both Arius and Appolinarius denied that Christ possessed a complete human nature. They both maintained that Christ possessed a human body but not a human soul. The Word (Logos) took the place of the human soul. And here Arius and Appolinarius differed. Arius maintained that the Logos is created of the Father and therefore not truly divine. Appolinarius on the other hand acknowledged that the Logos is truly divine, co-equal and eternal with the Father. However, they both made the mistake of denying that Christ has a complete human nature. And this in turn made it impossible for them to maintain the real death of Christ. For death involves the separation of body and soul. But without a human soul, physical death is impossible. Hence, the burial of Christ, which testifies of His death, certainly condemned both the views of Arius and Appolinarius. 

And it would appear that this confession on Christ’s burial was inserted in the Nicene Creed especially to condemn these two heretics. That is evident from especially two things. First, this confession concerning Christ’s burial was not included in the original creed as adopted by the Council of Nicea in 325 but was added by the Council of Constantinople in 381. Secondly, it was at the Council of Constantinople that both Arius and Appolinarius were condemned. You will recall that the views of Arius were condemned by Nicea in 325, but revived. They were not finally condemned until Constantinople in 381. During the interval between these two councils the errors of Appolinarius arose, only to be condemned by Constantinople. It would certainly appear therefore that this confession concerning Christ’s burial was added to condemn the error of these two heretics and to assert the death of Christ on the cross. 

And this confession is very important. As our Catechism points out in Q. 40 it was necessary for Christ to humble Himself even unto death. This was necessary because satisfaction for sin can be made in no other way than by the death of the Son of God. 

We confess therefore with the church of all ages that Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate and was crucified. And to establish that His suffering was complete and perfect, involving even death, we also confess that He was buried (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 41).