Where did the Nicene Creed come from?
All Catholics use the Nicene Creed as the declaration of their faith. It is also called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed because it was defined at the Councils of Nicaea (325 A.D.) and Constantinople (381 A.D.).
The Nicene Creed explains the Church’s teachings about the Trinity and affirms historical realities of Jesus’ life. The creed does not directly quote Scripture, but it is based on biblical truths.
The Council of Nicaea was the first general counsel of the Church since the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem.
It set conditions for Gentiles to join the Church. Roman persecution of Christians had just ended 12 years earlier, but now the Church was divided over the question of Jesus’ divinity. A priest named Arius in Alexandria, Egypt led the Heretics who claimed that if Jesus was begotten by God, He must have had a beginning like every other part of God’s creation – therefore, Jesus was not fully God.
The theological dispute threatened the peace of the Roman empire, this made Emperor Constantine – at the request of several concerned bishops – to call for a meeting of all the Church’s bishops in the easily accessible town of Nicaea (present-day Iznik, Turkey), organized like the Roman Senate with himself as a non-voting observer. The council met in Senatus Palace (which now lies under Lake Iznik).
An estimated 318 bishops came from Rome, Jerusalem and Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Greece, Asia Minor, Persia, Georgia, Armenia, Gaul, Hispania, and the Danube. Among them was Pope St. Silvester, St. Nicholas of Myra, St. Eusebius of Caesarea (considered as the Church’s first historian), St. Athanasius and St. Alexander of Alexandria. Each bishop could bring up to two priests and three deacons, so the total attendance could have been as many as 1,800.
Many of these bishops were persecuted and the marks had shown on their faces – they had faced the threat of death for their faith and they were sensitive to details of doctrine. These were strong men in faith.
The council’s main purpose was to quash the Arian heresy and settle the doctrine of the Trinity – that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were three divine persons in complete union. The term “Trinity” was not new, of course. Besides Jesus’ references to it in Scripture, many early Church fathers had written about it from the 1st century onward.
Besides the Arian heresy, the council fathers wanted to settle the date for celebrating Easter, and they had to contend with various practical problems such as usury and self-castration.
On May 20, 325, the council opened. It is likely they had a draft from Bishop Hosius of Cordova to consider, as several creeds were already in use by Christians to identify themselves, and as a means of inclusion and recognition, especially at baptism. In Rome, for example, the Apostles’ Creed was popular.
After being in session for an entire month, the council promulgated on June 19 the original Nicene Creed, written in Greek. All but two of the bishops, who were Arian sympathizers, approved the text. Those two bishops, as well as Arius, were excommunicated and exiled.
Besides the creed, the council decided that the date for Easter should be calculated uniformly and separate from the Jewish calendar, using the lunar calendar instead. But it took centuries for the calculations to be worked out in practice, and disagreement remains between Catholics in the West and Orthodox in the East.
The council also promulgated 20 new church laws, called canons. These included: prohibiting self-castration (which some had thought was a path to greater holiness), prohibiting young women from entering a cleric’s home; requiring bishops to be ordained in the presence of at least three other bishops; prohibiting the removal of priests; forbidding usury among the clergy; determining the order of bishops, then priests, then deacons receiving Holy Communion; declaring invalid any baptisms done by heretics; acknowledging the special authority of the patriarchs of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch in their respective regions; and setting a minimum time frame for catechumens to prepare for baptism.
The long-term effects of the Council of Nicaea were significant. For the first time, leaders of the Church convened to agree on a doctrinal statement. In the short term, however, the council did not stamp out the heresy it was convened to discuss, and upheaval continued for some time even after Arius himself died.
It was only a few years after the Council of Nicaea that Arius returned to Constantinople and asked to be readmitted to the Church. But Arius did not renounce his heresy, so the Church refused. Emperor Constantine intervened in the dispute, setting a date for Arius to attend Mass and be forcibly readmitted to Communion. While he was waiting for Constantine to arrive so he could go into Mass, Arius stopped to relieve himself. His bowels burst out of his body, and he died instantly.
The Nicene Creed did not become a part of Mass until the early 6th century when Patriarch Timothy of Constantinople started the practice to combat heresy. Its popularity spread throughout the Byzantine Empire, then to Spain, France, and northern Europe. In 1114 Emperor Henry II, who had come to Rome for his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, was surprised that they did not recite the creed. He was told that since Rome had never erred in matters of faith there was no need for the Romans to proclaim it at Mass. However, it was included in deference to the new emperor and has pretty much remained ever since – not at daily Mass, but on Sundays and feast days.
Finally, the Nicene Creed expressed what the early leaders of the Church found to be Biblical, traditional and orthodox in their Christian faith – a faith in Jesus Christ that we continue to proclaim 1,700 years later.