The Nicene Creed

Article 2 of the Nicene Creed reads as follows: “And (I believe) in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by Whom all things were made.” We have already discussed much of this second article. We have discussed the confession of the church that there is one Lord Jesus Christ by Whom all things were made. We have discussed too the confession of the early church that Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds. There remains yet to be discussed the truth that Jesus Christ is “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.” These expressions were inserted in the Nicene Creed especially against the followers of Arius. You recall that the controversy with Arius and his followers was the historical occasion for the writing of this creed. It was especially to settle this controversy that the Council of Nicea was convened in A.D. 325 and this particular creed was formulated. It was especially through these expressions which we now consider that the early church set forth the truth of God’s Word over against the error of the Arians. 

What were the teachings of Arius? Arius began with the transcendence of God. To Arius, God the Father was a far away, unknowable, inaccessible God, hidden in deep mystery and separated by an infinite chasm from man and the creation. Beginning with this concept of God, Arius could not imagine the possibility of God directly creating the universe. Due to His highly transcendent character it was possible for God to create the universe only through an intermediary. Hence, He created the Word, or Logos, as His Son. And it was through this Word that God in turn created the universe. According to the view of Arius therefore the Son of God is not eternal. Certainly He existed before the universe; for the universe was created by Him. Yet He has a beginning. There was a time when He was not. He is therefore not eternal. Nor is He of the same essence or being as the Father. Arius did contend that the Son is divine. However, His divine nature is different from that of the Father. Being a created God, the Son is to be viewed as a lower God, a subordinate God to the Father. In turn therefore He is limited in knowledge and power and wisdom. The Son is able also to sin so that He constantly needs the grace of God the Father. Nevertheless, because He is the Son of God, He is the proper object of our worship. Finally, Arius taught that this Logos or Word was incarnate. Through the virgin birth the Son of God came into our flesh, the Logos or Word taking the place of the reasoning human spirit. Such in brief were the views of Arius. 

To contradict especially these views and to confess the truth of God’s Word over against them, the early church confessed that Jesus Christ is “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” 

First then we have the expression that Christ is “Light of Light.” Now the word “of” in the expression “Light of Light” has the idea of source. Hence, the meaning is that Jesus Christ is Light out of or proceeding from Light. And this is Scriptural. It is true that we do not find this expression as such in Scripture. Yet the idea expressed here is definitely in the Scriptures. For, first of all, Christ is identified in the Scriptures as Light. This we read for example in John 1:6-9. Here we are told that John (the Baptist) “came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light . . . . He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” And according to the context this Light is Jesus Christ. But, in the second place, we also read that God is Light. “God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). Now the point of the expression “Light of Light” is that the Light of Christ finds its source in the Light of God and is therefore identical to the Light of God. There are not two Lights which shine and radiate in the creation. There is only one. This Light is the pure perfection of God’s very being. That Light Christ also possesses. And through Christ, the Light of God’s infinite perfections is manifest to and in man. Hence, Christ is not essentially different from God the Father but essentially the same. This idea is certainly expressed in Hebrews 1:3 where Christ is called “the brightness of His (i.e., God’s) glory.” God’s glory is the radiation or manifestation of the perfections of His divine being. It is the shining forth of God as “the Light in Whom is no darkness.” And the brightness of that glorious Light of God is Christ. Even as the rays of the sun are the brightness of the sun, so is Christ the brightness of the glory Light of God. He is “Light of Light,” one with the Father. 

What was expressed figuratively in the expression just considered was expressed outrightly in the next phrase of the Nicene Creed, viz., that Christ is “very God of very God.” The word translated “very” could perhaps better be translated “true.” It is a Greek word meaning “real and true, genuine.” Hence, Christ is “true God of (out of) true God.” The Scriptures designate both God the Father and Jesus Christ as the true God. Thus for example in John 17:3, Christ praying to God the Father proclaims, “And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God.” In like manner we read of Jesus Christ in I John 5:20, “This is the true God, and life eternal.” Now following the idea that Christ is Light of Light, the early church continued to confess that He is true God out of true God. That is, He is truly God even as the Father is truly God. And as true God He finds His source in the Father. 

It is rather interesting to note that in its original form as adopted by the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, the Nicene Creed simply confessed that Jesus Christ is “God of God.” But as you recall from previous articles, the controversy concerning the identity of Christ still raged in the church after this council, so that another council was called in Constantinople in A.D. 381 to settle the question once and for all. At this latter council the original creed was altered somewhat to deny the position of Arius any room whatsoever in the church. One such revision was to strengthen the phrase “God of God” to “very God of very God.” The reason for this change was that the followers of Arius found that they could very well live with the idea that Jesus is “God of God.” For they too proclaimed that Jesus is God. They simply reserved the right to add that Jesus was not God in the same sense that the Father is; that He is a subordinate God. Hence, to rule out any idea of subordination of the Son and to emphasize that Jesus is God in the same sense as is the Father, the early church amended her creed to confess that Jesus Christ is “very God of very God.” 

The next phrase inserted in the Nicene Creed to contradict the error of the Arians is that Jesus is “begotten, not made.” It is rather striking that in this second article the early church already confessed that Jesus Christ is the “only-begotten Son of God.” Why then the addition that Jesus is “begotten, not made”? The answer is to be found in the fact that the Arians also claimed that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God. However, they did not give this term the content that the Scriptures do. We have seen in a previous article that the title “only-begotten Son of God” given to Jesus indicates that He is brought forth by the Father in such a way that ‘He possesses the whole of the divine nature with the Father. He is co-eternal, co-essential, and co-equal with the Father. Any honest study of this term in light of the whole of Scripture will reveal this fact. However, the Arians did not interpret this title in this manner. Nor could they and still maintain their teaching that Jesus was created of the Father, is essentially different from the Father and is subordinate to the Father. Hence, they interpreted the expression under consideration in a figurative sense. That Christ is begotten of God means that He was created of God. That Christ is the only-begotten means that He was the first creature of God through Whom God created all things. To rule out this erroneous and unbiblical interpretation of a most important and beautiful expression in Scripture, the early church proclaimed that Jesus was “begotten, not made.” The effect of this insertion therefore was to emphasize that Jesus is not begotten of God in the sense of creation. Finally, there is the phrase “being of one substance with the Father.” It was this phrase that especially marked the defeat of Arianism in the church. This particular phrase was not incorporated into the original creed as formulated and adopted by the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. It was added later by the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 which made minor revisions on the creed. The inclusion of this phrase reflects the controversy that continued after the Council of Nicea and which we considered some time ago at the beginning of our series on this creed. You recall that the Council of Nicea failed to settle the controversy in the early church concerning the identity of Christ. Afterward especially three camps emerged, each with its own watchword. There were first the Arians whose watchword was hetero-ousion. By this they meant that Christ was different in substance or being from the Father. Then there was the middle camp which spoke of homoi-ousion, that is, Christ has a like substance or being with the Father.

Finally, there was the orthodox camp whose watchword was homo-ousion. By this they meant to emphasize that Christ is one in substance or being with the Father. And this is the expression we find here in the Nicene Creed. The expression “being of one substance with the Father” was the watchword of the orthodox camp. Its inclusion into the creed of the church by the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 marked the complete victory of the Orthodox party and the truth of God’s Word on this particular issue! 

This truth the true church of God confesses even today. The trend today in the church world is to view Jesus as merely a man. He is essentially no different from any one of us. We call this Modernism. However, this is essentially the same error that prevailed in the early church. It may come in a little different form. But it is essentially the same lie. The ago old lie of the devil to deny the true identity of our Savior has never really died. And over against this lie the church of Jesus Christ must still confess with the early church her faith “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten-Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by Whom all things were made.”