This document of faith succinctly summarizes some of the basic teachings of the Church. Unfortunately, however, few of us, when reciting this most important statement of belief and faith, understand its radical nature and countercultural teachings, let alone the Church’s rationale in its creation or its historical origins. While some see the Creed as controversial, others sleepwalk through its recitation, understanding little about the controversies associated with it or why the document was determined necessary for the faithful.
The significance of the Creed in our liturgical celebration necessitates that Catholics know and appreciate how and why the document was created.
The nascent Christian community found itself in a hostile environment that asked many questions and wanted answers. The polytheistic Roman Empire, although it had dealt with the monotheism of Judaism, found the new way of Christianity to be even more problematic.
Not only did proponents of this new religious community refuse to worship the multiple gods of the Romans, but they expressed belief that Jesus, who had been put to death to satisfy the wishes of the Jewish elite, was himself God.
The Hebrew community, as well, from whom all the early followers of Jesus came, could never acknowledge Jesus as Messiah or God. For them, the messianic promise as described by the prophets in Jeremiah 23:5-6 and Micah 5:2-5 was not fulfilled in Jesus’ life.
The belief generally accepted by Jews concerning the Messiah was that he would be a great king who would return Israel to its former greatness, as described by Jeremiah and Micah.
Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, but the prophecy of old was not seemingly fulfilled, leading many to believe Jesus was a false prophet. The image of the Messiah as a Suffering Servant (see Is 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-7; 52:13—53:12) was not in the Jewish mindset.
The continuing presence of the Roman invaders and the failure of Israel to once again claim the greatness of the Davidic kingdom were clear proof to the Jews that Jesus could not be Cristos, the Messiah. For the Christian community to claim that Jesus was God was even more problematic, as the Hebrew understanding of monotheism would be violated.
This political and religious situation necessitated that the Christian community begin to respond, to better define itself and what followers of Jesus believed. First, early disciples of Christ had to define their experience of Jesus — who was He, what did He teach, and what was His command for his followers? Next, Christians had to clarify their complex understanding of God.
How could God be understood as Trinity and not violate the basic principle of monotheism? Because early Christians had not clearly answered the concerns and questions of those around them and defined their theology, many misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions about this new faith arose. Thus it was necessary to correct these errant beliefs in some systematic and formal way.
Christians needed to distinguish themselves from many other competing religious ideas, not only the polytheism of the Romans and the monotheism of the Jews, but also heresies such as Gnosticism and Docetism. Gnosticism was based on a dualism of good and evil where gnosis, knowledge necessary for salvation, was randomly bestowed upon individuals. Salvation, thus, was not determined by God, but was random by nature. Docetism was the belief that Jesus only appeared to be human, similar to a mirage. This heresy arose as a way to explain how Jesus could be simultaneously both human and divine.
In response to these challenges, several of the early Church Fathers produced various treatises that began to define the Christian understanding of Jesus, God and the Church. From their spiritual roots, the first followers of Jesus looked to the Torah for inspiration and guidance. The famous Shema Israel provided a start: “Here, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:4, RSV).
Within their newfound community there were several important contributors who, through their writings, initiated the process of defining the Christian message.
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-107) challenged the heresy of Docetism, forcefully stating that Jesus Christ was both human and divine, a basic tenant of faith for those of the “New Way.”
Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), in his “First Apology,” articulated the baptism formula first proclaimed by Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (see 28:19).
Tertullian (160-220) produced “The Rule of Faith,” succinctly bringing together many of the teachings of Christianity.
It was Hippolytus (d.c. 235), however, who gave us the most significant precursor to the Nicene-Constantopolitan Creed in his “Apostolic Tradition,” wherein he provides the Apostles’ Creed, which today is recited to begin the Rosary and is utilized as a great statement of faith.
The aforementioned need of the early Christian community to better define its beliefs and to differentiate itself from competing ideologies and ideas provided the initial impetus for the construction of the Creed, but a more proximate catalyst arose in the early fourth century with the teachings of Arius, a priest from Alexandria, Egypt. In Psalm 2:7, Arius read, “You are my beloved son; today I have begotten you.” In passages in Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5, he found almost the exact same words, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.”
Arius fell into heresy, reasoning that if Jesus was begotten there was a time He did not exist. Therefore, Jesus could not possibly be divine, since He had a beginning. He concluded that Jesus was a perfect creature, a mediator between God and the world.
Arius’ ideas did not go unchallenged. Athanasius, who became bishop of Alexandria at the time Arius was proclaiming his ideas, totally rejected this heretical view. Rightly, he said that the Son, Jesus, was eternally begotten, and that the Father and the Son were of one substance.
He used the Greek word homoousius, a philosophical term meaning “of one substance,” to describe the relationship between Jesus and the Father. He discounted Arius’ idea that a non-divine person could save mankind. Only God could redeem humanity from the sin of Adam.
The controversy raised by Arius spread throughout the Eastern Church, causing a great furor and leading to the first ecumenical council of the Church, which met at Nicaea (present-day Turkey) in A.D. 325.
The principal work of the council was to condemn the heresy of Arius and to generate a formal written Creed that would express clearly and succinctly what the Church taught about Jesus and his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit. Thus the Nicene Creed was produced.
Arius was condemned, and the great statement of faith, the Creed, had been written. But the heretical ideas of Arius not only did not die, but actually spread. In a famous quote, St. Jerome, who produced the Latin Vulgate, once opined, “The world awoke and found itself Arian.”
Most bishops in the Eastern Church were led astray by the Arian controversy and thus it was necessary for the Church to once again reassert itself in a public way. Led by the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus, the bishops once again assembled in an ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381.
A Statement of Faith
Discussions at the council centered on describing that which was common, ousia, and that which was proper hypostases to each member of the Trinity. In the process the council fathers produced an updated Creed that clarified the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Arianism was finally defeated, and the Church had a statement of faith which we continue to use today in our celebrations of the Eucharist.
For almost 1,700 years the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed has served the Church as a statement of faith that articulates our belief in the Trinity, the relationship of its members, and the importance and significance of the Church as one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.
When reciting the Creed each week, however, few of us understand the rationale for its creation and the history behind it. A greater appreciation for the development of this great statement of faith can, hopefully, help us to profess and live its teachings better in our daily lives.
Father Richard Gribble is a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross.