The Nicene Creed

The Apostles’ Creed which very closely resembles-the Nicene Creed is commonly divided into 12 articles. This is done, for example, by the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 7, where the Apostles’ Creed is called the “articles of our catholic undoubted Christian faith.” In like manner it is also possible to divide the Nicene Creed into 12 articles. This is done, for example, by Philip Schaff in his The Creeds of Christendom (cf. Vol. 1 pages 27, 28). For the sake of convenience and reference we too will so divide the Nicene Creed into 12 articles. If we do so, the creed is divided in the following manner:

1. I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. 

2. And 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; 

3. Who, for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnated by the Holy Ghost of .the Virgin Mary, and was made man; 

4. And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; and suffered and was buried; 

5. And the third day He rose again, according to the Scripture;

6. And ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; 

7. And He shall come again, with glory to judge the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end. 

8. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the prophets. 

9. And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church; 

10. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; 

11. And I look for the resurrection of the dead; 

12. And the life of the world to come. Amen.

Having the Nicene Creed once more before us we notice especially three things in general about its composition. First, the Nicene Creed is based on the baptism formula. Just prior to His ascension into heaven, Christ instructed the Apostles to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). It is around this formula for baptism that the Nicene Creed has been constructed. The main line that runs through the whole creed is, “I believe in one God, the Father (Art. 1). . . and in one Lord Jesus Christ (Art. 2). . . and in the Holy Ghost (Art. 8).” Everything else stated in this creed only serves to explain that main thought. And this is in harmony with the purpose of the creed. It was formulated to set forth the truth of the Trinity over against the error of Arianism. What better way is there to do this than by constructing a creed around the very baptism formula which sets forth the truth of the Trinity?

Secondly, we notice that the Nicene Creed in its development of the truth follows the general chronological order of history. It begins with God the Father and the creation of all things. Next it proceeds to speak of our Lord Jesus Christ: His birth, His suffering and death, His burial, His resurrection, His ascension, His sitting at God’s right hand, and finally His return in judgment. Then it speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit in the one holy catholic and apostolic church. This is all concluded with the final resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. 

Finally, we notice about the Nicene Creed in general that it sets forth essentially the whole truth of God in a very brief and concise form. What the Heidelberg Catechism says in Lord’s Day 7 about the Apostles’ Creed also applies to the Nicene Creed: it briefly teaches all things promised us in the gospel. A quick analysis of the Nicene Creed will reveal that basically all the doctrines of Scripture are touched. Yet they are simply stated and not developed to any degree. Often the very words or phrases of Scripture are simply set forth without any further explanation. This in turn makes the Nicene Creed along with the Apostles’ Creed especially fit for use in the liturgy of the worship of the church. 

This brings us to the question of our approach to the Nicene Creed. More than one approach is possible. It is possible for example to develop quite extensively each doctrine mentioned in the creed. This is what the Heidelberg Catechism does with the Apostles’ Creed in Lord’s Day 8-22. It gives a positive development of each truth or doctrine which is only stated in the Apostles’ Creed. This would be possible to do also with the Nicene Creed. But, because the Nicene Creed so closely resembles the Apostles’ Creed, to take such an approach would merely be to duplicate the Heidelberg Catechism and what has been written explaining the Heidelberg Catechism. This is not our intention. 

Our intention is rather to approach the Nicene Creed from an historical viewpoint. We want to consider for example what this creed meant to the early Christian church. To what specifically was she giving expression when she formulated this creed? What was her understanding of the various elements in this creed? Furthermore we want to view this creed in light of the errors that the church faced. The early church lived in a society that was predominantly pagan. Idolatry in its most crude and vulgar form prevailed. Besides, many errors had crept into the church itself. We have seen briefly the errors of Arianism and Semi-Arianism. There were other errors that plagued the church as well at this time. It was these errors, both within and without, that the early church sought to combat through the Nicene Creed. What were these errors which the church faced? And .how did she seek to maintain the truth over against these errors in her creeds? This is the approach we want to take. 

This kind of approach is very worthwhile. The value of this approach is especially twofold. First, to study the ancient creeds in this way gives us an opportunity to study the battle of faith as it was fought by the early Christian church. The Nicene Creed was the product of the battle of faith. It marked a victory. It was a victory for the truth over against the lie, a victory for Christ over against the Devil. The creed of Nicea however was not THE victory; it was only A victory. The final victory of Christ and the truth over against the lie and all the powers of darkness awaits the coming of Christ from heaven. And so the battle continued to rage after Nicea and rages even to this day. The battle which the church is presently fighting is therefore the same battle as fought by the early church. Time and circumstances have changed; but the battle is essentially the same. The enemy is the same; his weapons and tactics are the same; the key to the church’s victory is the same. Consequently, it is of great value to study the struggles and warfare of the church of the past. Many important and necessary lessons are to be learned in this way which are invaluable for the church of the present as she continues in the same battle.

The second value of approaching the Nicene Creed from an historical viewpoint is that it will aid us in coming to a better understanding and appreciation of our own Reformed creeds. As pointed out in an earlier article the ancient ecumenical creeds of the church are the root out of which have grown our own Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dordt. The development of the truth over the ages must be viewed organically. The truth has grown and developed much like a tree or a plant grows. The early Christian church had essentially the whole truth of God; only she had it in seed form. Through the work of the Spirit, however, that seed of the truth grew and developed so that now it is a plant or a tree. What the church has today in her Reformed creeds is nothing new or different from what the early church had in her creeds. What we have today is simply further developed. But here we see the value of approaching the ancient creeds and the Nicene Creed in particular from an historical viewpoint. By studying the truth as the early church possessed it and confessed it will help us to understand and appreciate the same truth as it is more fully set forth in our own creeds.