The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which Latin-rite Catholics profess each Sunday and solemnity at Mass, is an ancient document from the late fourth century.
With the lightning speed with which contemporary society moves, it might be logical to ask what relevance a document produced so long ago could have on contemporary life in general and Catholicism more specifically, especially when many “sleepwalk” through its recitation. The age of a document and ignorance of its content and significance are, however, not good indicators of relevance. Rather, it is incumbent upon those who profess such a creed to understand what is being professed and to discover its significance and relevance in our world today.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Part I, Section 2) provides a detailed analysis of every part of the Creed, which is broken down into major sections on teachings on the Father; beliefs concerning the Son, Jesus Christ; a theology of the Holy Spirit; and ecclesiology, the description of the distinctive four marks of the Catholic Church. The Creed opens by expressing belief in God the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. The early Church Fathers thus affirm the basic teaching from Genesis that God, the “unmoved mover” of ancient philosophy, is responsible for the world which we encounter about us each day.
After this brief introductory comment about the Father, the Creed enters into its longest and most significant section, which details many important teachings with respect to Jesus Christ. Since, as we recall, it was the heresy of Arianism that challenged the divinity of Christ and was the proximate reason to write the Creed, it is appropriate that the Councils at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) concentrated their teaching on Jesus, the central figure of Christian faith.
First, the Creed clarifies Jesus’ divinity and his relationship to the Father. Rejecting Arius’ interpretation of the biblical passage “today I have begotten you,” the Creed speaks of Jesus as “only begotten,” “born before all time,” “true God from true God.” To clarify further and to make more concrete, this great statement of faith affirms that Jesus was “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” The councils wanted to make absolutely clear that not only was Jesus divine and, therefore, existed before all time, but also that he and the Father were homoousios, of the same substance.
Next, the Creed speaks clearly of the humanity of Jesus. First, we are taught that Jesus was sent from heaven for our salvation. The incarnation of Jesus in the womb of Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit (see Lk 1:26-38) is affirmed. The document then speaks of the Paschal Mystery — the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It affirms that he was crucified, was buried and rose on the third day, all as predicted by Scripture. Last, the document affirms that Jesus ascended to the Father and will one day return “to judge the living and the dead.”
Teachings concerning the third person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, conclude this portion of the Creed. The document teaches that the Spirit is Lord and, thus, on the same level as the Father and the Son. The Spirit is described as one “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” the latter three words filioque, being added at the Third Synod of Council of Toledo in 589. The Profession of Faith clearly states that the Holy Spirit was the inspiration of the prophets.
The Four Marks
After its description of the Trinity and the relationship of its Three Persons, the Creed concludes with a section on ecclesiology, professing what have become known as the four marks of the Church. First, the document affirms that the Church is one. The Catechism teaches that the Church is one because of her source; she is one because of her soul. While the Church has always enjoyed the great diversity which comes from the variety of God’s gifts, the unity of people, the oneness of the Church, is essential (see Nos. 813-814).
The Church is also described as holy. United with Christ, the Church is sanctified through Him. All the activities of the Church are directed toward the sanctification of men and women, an act which makes the Church, by definition, holy (see Nos. 823-827).
Next, the Church is described as Catholic. This is seen in a double sense: First, the concept of Catholic means universal. Where there is Jesus Christ there is the Catholic Church. Second, however, the Church is also Catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of humanity (see Nos. 830-831).
Last, the Church is described as apostolic, because she is founded on the apostles. This is manifested in three ways: the Church was and remains built on the foundation of the apostles; with the help of the Spirit the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, the deposit of faith; and “she continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops” (No. 857).
Why Is the Creed Relevant?
Contemporary society’s attraction to all that is new, innovative and progressive might lead some to believe that a document such as the Creed, which has been basically fixed in its present form for nearly 1,500 years, has no relevance. However, as the expression goes, to judge a book by its cover is not a proper indication of the value of anything or any person. How can the Creed be utilized today? How can its teachings be beneficial to contemporary Catholics?
The answers to these important questions must begin by understanding the countercultural nature of the Creed. Modernity seems to scoff at belief based on faith alone. Thus to profess the teachings of the Creed one must be willing to stand against the contemporary tide of popular opinion. Anyone today who confesses a religious creed runs the risk of being labeled as intellectually inept or simply ignorant of reality. Professing the Creed and its teachings, which contradict the world, requires one to bear witness to a certain understanding of faith. Those who witness to the reality of God and the teachings of the Church may appear foolish in the eyes of the sophisticated. Thus the Creed stands as a relevant document that stands against the secular wave which seeks to envelop the world.
The Creed is also relevant today because it serves as a rule of faith for members of the Church. The Creed guides our understanding of Scripture, for it was developed through an interpretive process of the Bible. Additionally, through its use of philosophical terms, such as homoousios (of one substance), the Creed goes beyond Scripture. It provides the words that explicate the fundamental convictions concerning God, the world and humanity. Thus, as a rule of faith, the Creed provides a norm for Christian understanding.
Besides serving as a rule of faith, the Creed also provides a definition of faith. The document, while not exhausting the meaning of Christian life and practice, provides boundaries for Christian belief and, therefore, the Christian community. It finds a relevance that clearly articulates Christian belief with respect to God and the Church. Yet, many aspects and teachings of the Church are not addressed. Additionally, the Creed describes how God is manifest in the world; it presents the efficacious nature of God’s action. In short, the Creed constructs a Christian worldview that is opposed to contemporary life.
Last, the Creed has important relevance as a guide for Christian practice. While the document does not guide every move, it does establish right belief that is orthodoxy and helps us to recognize right practice — namely, orthopraxy. Following the ancient dictum of the Church, Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief), the Creed, a prayer placed at the central point of the Mass, clearly demonstrates our belief, guiding us in our daily actions.
The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is not nor was it intended to be a systematic presentation of the Faith; rather it serves as a functional guide, succinctly displaying the basic teachings of Catholicism. Organized in sections that present teachings on the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and the essential four marks of the Church — one, holy, Catholic and apostolic — the Creed as a countercultural document is relevant today as a rule and definition of faith. Having a deeper appreciation for the teaching and significance of this essential document can help Catholics to live their faith more fully and completely today and in the future.
Father Richard Gribble is a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross and a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. He holds a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America.
The Nicene Creed
I believe in one God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.