That Nicene Creed: Its History and Importance

(Use of any part of this critique requires proper citation.)

When I first heard the Nicene Creed recited at my church, I wondered why we did so, and what was the importance of this seemingly traditional recitation. But one day, when I paid attention to the words, I was moved to tears. Still, I didn't know why the Creed was written, or its historical importance for the body of Christ. When I had the opportunity to do so, I researched it for one of my classes. I hope this is as revelatory for you as it was for me!

The Council at Nicaea: Seeking Unity, Establishing Truth


It can be said that Trinitarian theology began when Jesus told the disciples that the Father would send the Helper, who was the Spirit, to be their teacher as Jesus would be leaving them. Resolving the relationship the between the Father and the Son, and the Son to the Spirit would prove to be a controversial issue for the church in the centuries following Christ’s resurrection. Rooted in the Hebrew tradition, Christianity was a monotheistic religion from its inception.

Because Arius’ false doctrine regarding Jesus’ relationship to the Father had been dividing the church in the Roman Empire, Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to address various issues, to protect the empire from division, and to establish the foundational truths of the faith.

Pre-Nicene Theology

Justin Martyr believed God alone was to be worshipped and acknowledged as the Creator of the universe. He used His Word, the Logos as His instrument of creation. Tatian argued that anything that was created was formed by God though His Word. Iranaeus held that God created from nothing (ex nihilo) through His Word, His Wisdom which was His Spirit. J.N.D Kelly in his book, Early Christian Doctrines, summarizes the theology of the early church as believing God made Himself known through Jesus. When God raised Jesus from the dead, He offered a restored relationship to humankind through Him. After Jesus was resurrected, the Father sent His Holy Spirit to guide, comfort, and teach His people. Although uncanonized, the theology regarding the triune God began to take shape in the early church as evidenced in the writings of Ignatius and Justin. Kelly explains that it was in the second century that the understanding of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit began to become tradition in the church. He quotes Irenaeus who clearly mentions God the Father, the Word of God as the Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Irenaeus viewed God as one who contained His Word which was the Son, and His Wisdom, whom he associated with the Spirit. Irenaeus’ views reflect the theology of his mentor, Polycarp, who was a student of the apostle John. He argues that the Father is made known through the manifestation of the Son, and acknowledgement of the Son is revealed through the Spirit. All are seen as divine. Kelly argues that Irenaeus’ theology was “most explicitly Trinitarian.”

The third century saw variations arise with regard to Trinitarian theology. Tertullian viewed God as the “Father who commands, the Son who obeys, and the Spirit Who makes us understand.” He was the first to use “trinitas” as a title for God. Tertullian emphasized that the will of the Father was the Word, and they were in complete unity. He also taught that the Logos or the Son was homousia or “one substance” with the Father. The Trinitarian theology of the West and in Rome was founded on the views of Tertullian. Initially, these views were considered heretical by Popes Zephyrinus and Callistus.
Novatian followed his teaching only loosely. Novatian believed the Son was coeternal with the Father yet he avoided defining the unity between them. He considered the Spirit a gift from God but not necessarily one with the Father and Son.

Origen Theology

Origen’s theology influenced those who were involved on each of the opposing sides of the Nicaean crisis. Kelly calls Origen’s Trinitarianism a “brilliant reinterpretation of the traditional triadic rule of faith.” God was God alone, and the only true God. The Son was begotten of the Father “by and eternal act” so that He was always with the Father, and there was never a time when He was not. Origen states that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three persons, existing distinctly and of different subsistence, yet one “in unanimity, harmony and identity of will.” Although it is difficult to attribute to Origen a belief in consubstantiality between the Father and the Son, he insists they are one God. Kelly argues that Origen’s theology reveals his view that the Son and Spirit are images of the Father and are subordinate to Him. As a reflection of the Father, the Son is only due secondary honor. Origen referred to the Son as a creature whose substance came from the Father. (EPIPHANIUS-ON-ORIGEN (c. 310 to 403 C.E.): “...Well then, I shall quote his own words from the First Psalm his doctrinal speculations in it --- word for word, so that no one may call ( my attack on him ) vexatious, And here, at once, is the text of every word, to show you, scholarly hearer, THAT ORIGEN PLAINLY HELD THAT THE SON OF GOD IS [Gk., κτίσμα ] ( A CREATURE ), and also show you, from his impudence about the Son, THAT HE TAUGHT THAT THE HOLY SPIRIT IS A CREATURE OF A CREATURE.)

Kelly expounds on Origen’s view that the Logos of the Father was attached to one of many eternally existing souls, and Jesus was the One who then became inseparable from the Father as He remained in union with the Logos as all others fell away. He was thus created by the Spirit in a woman, One with God and worthy to be called His Son with both a divine and human nature. While the soul of the man was fused with the Logos, this tradition subordinated the Son to the Father.

The extent of Origen’s influence on third century Trinitarianism is evident on both sides of the Nicaean controversy. From Origen’s theology, two schools would develop—one from those who revered his view of the Son’s relationship with the Father, and the other from those who agreed with his doctrine of subordinationism of the Son to the Father.

Alexander vs. Arian Theology

The theological battle between Alexander and Arian sparked the Council of Nicaea and threatened the existence of Christianity. Bishop Alexander of Alexandria was a moderate follower of Origen theology. His position can be ascertained through letters he wrote in criticism of Arius, one of the most charismatic presbyters in the region who followed a more radical Origenist position of subordination. Alexander insisted that Christ is not a creature, and although He is unique from the Father, He came from the Father and is co-eternal with and inseparable from Him. There was “no instant” in which the Father was without the Son. Alexander debated with Arius over Christ’s eternal existence.

Arius had learned his theology from his teacher, Lucian, who founded the theological school in Antioch. He learned a rational, critical method of exegesis emphasizing history and grammar in Scripture. Arius believed that God alone was ingenerate, eternal, and without beginning. He was indivisible and so His being could not be shared. Arius would not give the Son equality with the Father, denied Him eternal generation, and refused Him as the same substance as God the Father.

Arius believed that the Word of God, or Logos, was created before anything else was made, but Jesus only exists by the Father’s will as does all of creation. If Jesus was consubstantial with the Father then God Himself was no more than a physical being. Arius insisted that the Son was “begotten,” meaning He was created. To believe in the Logos as coeternal with the Father was to deny monotheism and to say that the Father was divisible. Arius questioned how could the Father could share His divinity with another. Because the Father is indivisible, the Son must not be eternally God, but He must be created. Arius also believed that the Son, as a creature, had a beginning, although He was created before time began. Arius stated in a letter to his friend, Eusebius of Nicodemia, “There was a time when He was not.”

Arius defends his position once again to Eusebius. “And before He was begotten or created or ordained or founded, he was not.” Arius further argued that the Son had no direct communication with or knowledge of the Father. Because He is a creature, albeit of a higher order, the Son “knows and sees proportionately to His capacity, just as our knowledge is adapted to our powers.”

The Arians attributed to Christ Scriptures that appeared to indicate weakness and subordination to the Father. John 14:28, Jesus states, “I am going to the Father, for My Father is greater than I.” In his book, Early Christian Doctrines, JND Kelly states that the Arian teaching reduced Jesus to a demigod or an inferior deity. He further relates their teaching to “an Origenistic milieu,” although Arius rejected Origen’s view of eternal generation and took his doctrine of subordination further than Origen’s intent.

Furthermore, Arius felt that the Son was subject to both change and sin and was given special grace from the Father to remain sinless. That same grace enabled Him to be called the Son, although Arians believed that this was an honorary title. A problematic issue posed by Arius’ theology was maintaining that Christ was uniquely the Son and yet a creature. If He is a creature, how can He then be worshipped, and how was He able to redeem other creatures? Alexander followed Origen’s idea of eternal generation--that there was no time that the Father existed without the Son. The Father and Son are “two realities inseparable from one another.” He argued that Arius’ position denied the Word’s divinity, thus denying the divinity of Jesus Christ.

At a synod in Alexandria in 317 or 318, Alexander had Arius’ teachings condemned. In 324, Alexander held a “provincial synod” to bring a truce between Arius and himself. The truce was acknowledged, but Alexander anathematized Arius, and Arius refused the truce. Alexander ousted Arius from all posts in Alexandria. This spurred Arius’ resolve, and he appealed to the people who sang the songs he wrote in the streets. What started as a local quarrel began to reach beyond their see. Arius broadened his support from beyond his region into the empire, appealing to bishops, including Eusebius of Nicomedia who sided with the deposed presbyter and openly opposed Alexander. Arius also won the support of historian Eusebius of Caesarea who had also been trained in the theology of Origen.

Events at the Council of Nicaea

In what may be considered a political and ecumenical move, Roman Emperor Constantine called a council at Nicaea for the bishops in the Roman Empire. Constantine’s motivation for this council was not only to discuss the dissention in the church but to prevent division in the empire itself, which he had been working to unite. Constantine summoned the bishops to Nicaea after a failed attempt to reconcile Alexander and Arius while journeying to Alexandria. He also held another synod to hear Eusebius’s recant regarding his Christology. He also combined with the synod a victory celebration of his victory over co-emperor, Licinius to become sole Roman Emperor. This victory was critical to the upcoming events. Prior to a battle at Milvian Bridge, Constantine was said to have seen a vision of a cross under which was the inscription, “Conquer by this.” After his subsequent victories, He promoted and legalized Christianity. His involvement with church affairs was spurred by his desire for unity in the Roman world.

The Council at Nicaea held in 325 is known to be the first ecumenical council in the history of the church. The Emperor opened the meeting with a call for unity in the church. Eusebius of Nicomedia represented the Arian position and Alexander sent his assistant, Athanasius. Eusebius presented a creed representing the Arian doctrine. It was wholly rejected by the Council so much so it is said that after it was presented, it was ripped in pieces and almost all the bishops renounced Arius.
Athanasius stood for the complete deity of the Son of God as it was imperative to his doctrine of redemption. His opponents accused him of Sabellianism, (the nontrinitarian belief that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son and Holy Spirit are different modes or aspects of one God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons in God Himself) which he vehemently denied. Athanasius saw the Godhead as a “numerical unity, but that nevertheless Father and Son are to be distinguished within this unity as two.”

The key issue at stake was defining Christ’s relationship to the Father as the “Son of God,” the “Word,” and “the Logos.” Arius’ acknowledged one God who was Himself the only true, immortal, wise, sovereign judge of all. The church should honor Jesus and yet not offer Him what was due the Father alone as He was begotten from the Father. It was evident that Arius was a student of the Scriptures. However, he was accused of distorting Scriptures to support his heresies. Some of these included Luke 5:52 which states “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men,” and Scriptures such as Romans 8:29 and Colossians 1:15 which calls Jesus the firstborn of many. Texts such as John 1:1 which states the Logos was with God in the beginning and Hebrews 1:3 stating Jesus has God’s nature were lodged against Arian arguments.

In his book, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Mark A. Noll argues that two strategies were at work at the council to effectively rebut the teachings of Arius. The “logic of salvation,” defended Jesus divinity by revealing that unless Christ was truly God, He could not offer salvation to humanity and freedom from sin and death. The other strategy was the argument that the church prayed in the name of Jesus in order to ascend to the Father. Baptisms were also conducted in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Praises in the church were regularly offered to Jesus Christ, the Savior. The daily life of the church was anti-Arian.

Athanasius and the bishops sought to find terms unacceptable to the Arians. A discussion ensued regarding the word, homoousios, meaning “one substance” whose use was suggested by Constantine to avoid any vagueness regarding Christ’s relationship to the Father. Within the word, homoousios, or one substance, the Son is as divine as the Father. This was critically important as the decisions made at the council would define for the church the relationship of the Son to the Father as well as the Son’s work as the Savior. Some preferred the word, homoiousios, to refer to Jesus relationship with the Father as being “of a similar substance.” At the council it was decided that homoousios was justified in Jesus words from John 10:30, “I and the Father are One.”

Eusebius of Caesarea presented his church’s creed which was accepted and amended to declare the Son to be of the same substance as the Father. The Creed of Nicaea clarified that the Son, although begotten, was not made. He is homoousios --of one substance with the Father, “true God from true God.” Because Christ was “begotten, not made,” He was not created by the Father but was the Son of God from eternity. His incarnation was “for us men and our salvation.” His effectiveness as the Savior was dependent on His perfect unity with God and His eternal
existence. Salvation could not come from a creature. It must only come from God. Agreed upon by the Council were the words of what would stand as the Nicene Creed:

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, Only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, Very God from Very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, both things in heaven and things in earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, was made man, suffered, and rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven, and cometh to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.

The Creed was followed by condemnation of Arian theology stating “these the catholic and apostolic church anathematizes.” The affirmations contained in the Creed attest to the council’s desire to reject Arianism and uphold the notion that the Logos was not created or less than the Father but of one substance with Him, begotten, not made. The Emperor succeeded in securing an almost unanimous agreement. All but two of the attending bishops of the council accepted the Creed that was formulated at Nicaea, and the theological misconceptions of Arianism were formally debunked, which is what the creed was meant to accomplish. Some who signed did so under duress. A section of the Council viewed homoousios as materialistic and Sabellian. However, whether desiring to come to a compromise or wanting to avoid excommunication and exile, all but two agreed to the Creed. In his work, From Christ to Constantine, James MacKinnon argues that the Council’s agreement of the Creed was “more apparent than real.” The term homoousios was for many of the attendants a concern as it appeared Sabellian, and many may have been forced by the Emperor, rather than agreed upon by good conscience. Jerald C. Brauer insists that without the Emperor’s intervention, it is unlikely that attendants at Nicaea would have adopted the homoousios.

Constantine exiled Arius and several of his fellow-presbyters to Illyricum, and he ordered Arius’ writings to be burned and the possession of his works a capital crime. It became foundational to church theology for centuries after the Council. Arius had attempted to comprehend the Son’s relationship to the Father by human logic. The Creed stood as “a bulwark against the persistent human tendency to prefer logical deductions concerning what God must be like and how He must act to the lived realities of God’s self disclosure.”

Post-Nicene Issues

Because Constantine had intervened in church matters, he set a precedent with his successors and gave stability to Christian communities who previously had seen themselves as pilgrims without stability. The distinction between church and state affairs was blurred. In the fourth century, to some this was so much so that they sought to escape the church to find Christ as hermits and monks. While Constantine was alive, the Creed was viewed as the foundation of the church.

Athanasius succeeded Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria and took up the battle against Arianism. He believed the Arians attributed human characteristics to God “in an inappropriate and illogical fashion.” He insisted they had an irreverent attitude toward God, and argued that in Arian theology was polytheistic as the divinity of the Triad was not eternal. His conviction rested upon the redemption. Through Christ, man has restored fellowship with God and is given the privilege to be called a child of God. Only One who is divine is able to impart this life to men. The Son shares the same nature and divinity as the Father.

MacKinnon insists that the Arian controversy disrupted the church for almost sixty years after the Council. Led by Eusebius of Nicomedia, Arians were able to regain much lost ground. Some of the bishops who had attended the Council at Nicaea later signed Arian confessions of faith. It seemed that the condemnation of Arius at the council spurred an empire-wide Christological debate. Eusebius of Nicodemia came against the doctrine of homoousios and called it a Sabellian heresy.

Athanasius stood his ground against multiple exiles and false accusations, defending the outcome of the Nicene Council. Constantine recalled exiled bishops and returned them to their sees after professing the Nicene faith. He opened dialogue with Arius who made a satisfactory profession of Nicene faith. He requested to be reinstated in Alexandria. In a letter from Constantine to Alexander dated early 328, Constantine attests that Arius accepted the theology of the creed and he should be accepted into communion, hinting that Constantine was not as theologically assertive or knowledgeable as some attribute.


Athanasius was consecrated as Bishop of Alexandria in June, 328. Athanasius refused to receive Arius into communion, and in a series of false charges and set ups, he was subsequently exiled. However, it must be said that there were never doctrinal charges filed against Athanasius. Arian parties rose and fought to reestablish Arius to his former position. Constantine met with Arius in Nicomedia where the latter recanted his position, and Constantine reconsidered the case against him. At a synod in Jerusalem in 335, Arius’ banishment was overturned and he was readmitted into communion. In a charitable arrangement for the man who had fallen ill, Constantine arranged for Arius to be restored at Constantinople. He died the day before his reinstatement was to take place.

It is said that if it were not for the unrelenting battle Athanasius fought against Arianism, the church may have wholly taken up the false doctrine. Arian theology is still practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Like Arians in the fourth century, they use Proverbs 8:22 as Scriptural support to prove that Jesus was a created being. This teaching can be seen in many Watchtower publications.Ironically, it behooves the Jehovah Witness community to follow instructions from the Watchtower, "We need to examine, not only what we personally believe, but also what is taught by any religious organization with which we may be associated. Are its teachings in full harmony with God's Word, or are they based on the traditions of men? If we are lovers of the Truth, there is nothing to fear from such an examination."

Ayerst, David, and Fisher, A.S.T. Records of Chyristianity. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, Inc. 1971.

Barnes, Timothy. "The Exile and Recalls of Arius." Journal of Theological Studies 60, no. 1 (2009): 109-129.

Brauer, Jerald C., Ed. The Impact of the Church Upon its Culture: Reappraisals of the History of Christianity. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1974.

DelCogliano, Mark. "Basil of Caesarea on Proverbs 8:22 and the Source of Pro-Nicene Theology." Journal of Theological Studies 59, no. 1 (Apr2008): 183-190.

Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Volume One, From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1984.

Hall, Christoper A. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002.

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978.

Lietzmann, Hans. A History of the Early Church. New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1953.

MacKinnon, James. From Christ to Constantine: The Rise and Growth of the Early Church. New York, NY: Longmans, Green and Co, 1936.

McDowell, Josh. “Handbook of Today’s Religions: Jehovah Witnesses.” Accessed from (March 5, 2011).

Noll, Mark A. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997.

Schroeder, Rev. H.J. Disciplanary Decrees of the General Councils. London, England: B. Herder Book Co, 1937.


  1. Pretty much the same heresies exist today. They're just dressed up differently. The creed is just as important today as it was then. Scott S.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts