The Nicene Creed

Article 3 (cont’d) 

Article 3 of the Nicene Creed speaks of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, “Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” 

We have already discussed in a previous article the idea of the incarnation. Through the wonder work of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the eternal Son of God took upon Himself our flesh. He Who is eternally God also became a man. This is the wonder of the incarnation. This wonder is set forth in the Nicene Creed especially in the phrase, “and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost by the Virgin Mary.” 

There needs to be discussed yet the remaining expressions of this article, namely, that the Son of God was incarnate “for us men and for our salvation,” that He “came down from heaven” and that He “was made man.” 

The idea that the Son of God was incarnate “for us men, and for our salvation” was inserted by the early church in her creed to contradict the error of Arianism. 

The position of Arius and his followers can be summed up in the statement: the Son of God was made for us men and for our creation. In a previous article we have seen that to Arius God is so highly exalted that it was impossible for Him to create the universe directly. Due to His highly transcendent character God could create the universe only through an intermediary. Hence, He created the Word or Logos as His Son. And it was through the Word that God in turn created the heavens and the earth.

This according to Arius is the chief significance of the Son of God. It is true that Arius acknowledged the incarnation of the Son of God. And Arius also connected the incarnation of the Son to the salvation of man. The Son of God became flesh to bring salvation to man. However, because Arius denied the true divinity of the Son it ultimately became impossible to speak of Arius’ Christ as the Savior of men. For how can one who is less than God reconcile fallen man to God? Besides, this in the thought and scheme of Arius was secondary. The primary significance of the Son of God was not man’s salvation but man’s creation. For without the Son creation was impossible. God created the Son exactly so that He could through the Son create man and the universe.

Over against this idea the early church confessed that it was for man, that is, for his salvation, that the Son of God was incarnate. It is true of course that the Son of God also took part in the creation of man. This is John 1:1-3, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . . All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made.” However, the eternal Son of God is also the Savior of man. He is that Savior and can be that Savior only because He is truly God. He alone is able to bring man back to God. Hence, the primary significance of the Son of God for man is his salvation. And that salvation is possible only through the incarnation. This is the emphasis of the Scriptures. And this truth the early church also set forth here in her creed. 

In this connection the early church also confessed that the Son of God “came down from heaven.” The Son of God came down from heaven for us men and our salvation and was incarnate. In this way the early church sought to emphasize over against the Arians that the Son of God came into the flesh voluntarily

According to the Arians, the Son of God is not one with the Father. As far as His being or essence is concerned He is different from the Father. And He is subordinate to the Father. That implies two things. First, this means that the will of the Son is not the will of the Father. Because they are not one in being, neither are they one as to their will. The Father has His will and the Son has His own will. Secondly, because the Son is subordinate to the Father in every way, so too is the will of the Son subordinate to the will of the Father. The Son must do what the Father wills even if it be contrary to His own will. Carrying this error through to the incarnation of the Son, the Arians could only acknowledge that the Son was incarnate according to the will of the Father. It was not necessarily the will of the Son that He come into the humiliation of man to suffer and die and secure the salvation of man. 

To emphasize the willingness of the Son to be incarnate, the early church confessed that He came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation. 

We read repeatedly in the Scriptures that God is in heaven. We are even taught to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” 

That God is in heaven is of course not to be understood in the sense that God’s very being is limited to heaven, to be found only in heaven. For God is everywhere present. In recognition of this we are told in II Chronicles 6:18 concerning God, “Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee.” 

Nevertheless, the Bible still presents heaven as God’s dwelling place. This is to be understood in the sense that God has manifest Himself in a special sense in heaven. It is in heaven that God especially reveals His love and fellowship to His own. It is in heaven therefore that we can see the face of God. It is in heaven that we can live and dwell with God in covenant fellowship as nowhere else. And therefore it is also from heaven that the wrath of God is revealed against the wickedness and unrighteousness of men (Romans 1:18). 

Quite in harmony with this idea the Scriptures also connect the sovereignty of God with the fact that His abode is in heaven. The will of God is not limited in any way. God for example is never required to do anything against His will. Nor can anything frustrate the will of God. That which God has determined to do He most certainly will accomplish. He is the sovereign God. And this is evident from the fact that He is in heaven. He Who is so highly exalted that His very throne and dwelling place is in heaven must surely be sovereign in all His ways. And so we read in Psalm 115:3, “But our God is in the heavens: He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased.” 

And now in this third article of the Nicene Creed the early church confessed that the Son of God came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation and was incarnate. In light of all that we have just seen it is quite obvious that in this way the early church sought to confess that the Son of God took upon Himself our flesh by His own will. The incarnation was not the will of the Father in distinction from the will of His Son. No! For the Son of God has His abiding place in heaven. And He Whose abode is in heaven does only according to His own will. In the incarnation therefore the Son of God was a willing participant. 

This is in harmony with the confession of the church in Article 2 of this same creed that the Son of God is very God of very God, of one substance with the Father. The Son is one with the Father in being. They both subsist in the one divine being. And to that one divine being there belongs the one will of God, which is the will of the Father and the Son. What the Father wills therefore the Son also wills. This applies also to the incarnation. It was the will of the Father and the Son that the Son should in the fullness of time take upon Himself our flesh. 

What a beautiful truth this is! How precious is our Savior. For He came into our sin and death not against His will but according to His will. We know this for He came down from nothing less than heaven itself. 

Finally, the early church in this third article of her creed confessed that being incarnate by the Holy Ghost, the Son of God “was made man.” 

Again the church sought at this point to emphasize the truth of God over against the error of the Arians. The Arians taught that through the incarnation the Son of God did not become a complete man. They taught rather that the Son took upon Himself only the flesh of man, that is, a human body of flesh. Christ however never possessed a human soul. The rational soul of Jesus was the divine mind of the Son of God. Hence, He was not completely man, just as He was never completely God. 

Over against this the church confessed that through the incarnation the Son of God became man. To express this the church coined a new word. The phrase, “was made man,” is in the original Greek of the Nicene Creed only one word, expressing the idea of assuming manhood. Hence, the early church, in addition to confessing that Jesus Christ is truly God, also confessed that He is truly man. He is both God and man. 

If we examine the truths set forth here in the Nicene Creed in the light of subsequent history, we find that much more needed to be said by the church on these subjects. The truth concerning the identity of Jesus Christ our Savior had not been brought to its full development in the Nicene Creed. Nor did the church at this time fully understand the incarnation in relation to the salvation of man. 

However, as the powers of darkness attacked the truths set forth here in the Nicene Creed and the church was called to defend these truths, she was able to bring these truths to a further state of development. 

Thus, for example, through the errors of such men as Apollinaris, Nestorius, and Eutyches the early church was forced to develop more fully the identity of Jesus Christ. They came to see, on the basis of God’s Word, that Jesus Christ is not two persons as some claimed, but one person, the divine person of the eternal Son of God. Furthermore, Jesus possesses through the incarnation not only the divine nature of God but also a real and complete human nature. And these two natures, the divine and the human, are perfectly united in the divine person of Christ “without confusion, without conversion, without severance, and without division.” These conclusions were arrived at in the great councils of Constantinople (A.D. 381), Ephesus (A.D. 431), and Chalcedon (A.D. 451).

Having established the full identity of the Savior, Jesus Christ, the church was later able also to develop the relation between the incarnation of Christ and His work of salvation. This was done especially by Anselm in the eleventh century. In his work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) Anselm developed the truth of the atonement and demonstrated how that to atone for the sin of man God indeed had to become man. The fruits of Anselm’s work were later incorporated into our own Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 5 and 6. 

But it all began with the Nicene Creed. The truths confessed here in Article 3 became the basis for further development of the doctrines which we today hold most dear.