The Nicene Creed - Part 3
by Msgr. David Lasieur
In the last two Catholic Voices articles, we’ve been speaking about the Nicene Creed that we proclaim at Mass on Sundays and holy days. In the Creed we recite the basic facts of our faith in a way that is similar to our recitation of the Apostles’ Creed (a much older statement of our faith from the second century).
As we have said, the Nicene Creed that we say is the compilation of the results of two Church councils, those of Nicaea (325) and of Constantinople (381). Our Creed is thus properly called the “Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed”, but for obvious reasons the title has been abbreviated.
If you look at a copy of the Creed and bracket its main divisions, you will see how much space is devoted to the Son of God – fully a third concerns our beliefs in him. The Father receives two lines and the Holy Spirit receives four in the Creed that we say. Why the imbalance?
In the early Church, hardly anyone disputed belief in God the Father – he is almighty, the creator of heaven and earth and of all things seen and unseen. This belief was not an issue at the time of Nicaea. The Son, as we have said in the previous two articles, was the source of contention at both councils and thus received the most attention.
At Nicaea the Holy Spirit received one line “...and [we believe] in the Holy Spirit”. But by the time of Constantinople, there were four lines dedicated to the Spirit:
- The Lord and giver of life,
- Who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],
- Who is adored and glorified with the Father and the Son, - Who has spoken through the prophets.
Why the expansion of attributes of the Holy Spirit? After Nicaea there was increased interest in the Holy Spirit: some writers said that the Spirit was “in the third rank”, “a third power” after the Father and the Son. According to historian JND Kelly, some Arians held that the Spirit was merely the “noblest of creatures produced by the Son at the Father’s bidding”. Others argued from the absence in the bible of any reference to the Spirit’s divinity.
But Athanasius, who helped win the day at Nicaea, and other Church Fathers, taught that the Holy Spirit is fully divine, consubstantial with the Father and the Son, and that “if the Holy Spirit were a creature, we should have no participation in God through him; we would be united to a creature and alien from the divine nature...” For Athanasius the Holy Spirit is fully divine and is consubstantial with the Father and the Son. God exists eternally as three distinct Persons, sharing one indivisible substance or “God-ness”. As such, the Holy Spirit is the “Lord and giver of life, is adored with the Father and the Son and has spoken through the prophets”.
The Creed is a much more complex document than I have presented here. Take, for example, the words “and the Son” that I bracketed above in the attributes of the Holy Spirit in the Creed. The text of the Creed of 381 did not include these words until later. We now say that the “Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son”; but Orthodox Christians deny the that the Spirit proceeds from the Son: ...the Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name... (John 14:26). This difference became known as the filioque (“and the Son” in Latin) controversy and was an element of the split between Western and Eastern Christianity in AD 1054 that exists to this day. However, in the year AD 447, Pope Leo I confessed dogmatically that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 246-248).
Our Creed helps us to define ourselves as a Church, as children of God the Father, as followers of Jesus Christ and as filled and guided by the Holy Spirit. It does not contain everything we believe, such as the Eucharist, but it does unite us with Christians of other beliefs. The Creed is sometimes called the “symbol” (Greek for “bring together”) of our Faith, meaning that which brings us together in a common belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Msgr. David Lasieur