The Nicene Creed - Part 1
by Msgr. David Lasieur
I believe in one God, the Father almighty... And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord...God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father... I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life...
These are among the words we say every Sunday and holy day, our profession of faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: the Nicene Creed. We may say these words without much thought; but there is a hard-fought history behind these words which makes them precious, even if taken for granted.
Two Church councils in the 4th century, one in the city of Nicaea, the other in Constantinople (both in modern- day Turkey), gave us these words that define our Catholic belief in God as a Trinity of co-equal Persons.
But consider this: in the first three centuries of the Church, the only guidance regarding our faith in God, his Son and the Holy Spirit, were found in Scripture, especially the New Testament. Where, then, did Christians get the idea that the Son is “one in being” with the Father (consubstantial)?
This is the type of question that caused Arius, a 4th century priest of Alexandria, Egypt, to start one of the most dangerous heresies in Christian history. He interpreted some passages in the gospels in such a way that he taught that “there was a time when the Son of God was not” – that the Son was not co-eternal, nor of the same substance as God the Father. This teaching, known as the Arian heresy, almost destroyed the Church as we know it today.
How would someone interpret the following passages if all they had were the gospels without commentary?
• If you truly loved me, you would rejoice to know that I go to the Father, because he is greater than I (John 14:28).
• No one knows the day nor the hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son; only the Father knows (Mark 13:32) • Why do you call me good? God is the only one who is good (Luke 18:19).
• My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? (Matthew 27:46).
It’s not difficult to see that someone could misinterpret such passages. As it happened, Arius was a brilliant and influential preacher who had a large following among the people of Alexandria. Before long the Arian heresy went viral, dividing the Roman Empire along theological lines, Arians on one side and orthodox believers on the other. Jesus, however, had declared that not even the gates of hell would prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18).
The Emperor, Constantine, concerned that his realm would be torn asunder by this debate, called for a church council in the town of Nicaea to which some 300 bishops came. The year was AD 325 and included among the bishops was a young deacon named Athanasius of Alexandria (293-373), later bishop of Alexandria and now known as a doctor of the Church. It is largely due to him that we today can profess the truths found in the Nicene Creed. We are fortunate to belong to a universal Church with a teaching authority that can resolve questions that speak to the very heart of our faith and our salvation; Christ speaks through his Church.
I will have more to say in future articles about the Creed that is shared with Catholics and by other Christian believers, including the Orthodox Churches, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists. While there are bodies of believers who do not accept the Creed – Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-Day Saints among them – we as Catholics recognize it a core statement of our faith as well as a renewal of our baptismal promises every time we say it together during Mass.
Msgr. David Lasieur