The Nicene Creed

HISTORY (cont'd)

The statement of faith adopted by the Council of Nicea (AD 325) had certainly been a victory for the truth. Nicea had condemned the error of Arius that Jesus was merely a creature and not truly God. Positively, Nicea had confessed that Jesus Christ is "the Son of God, begotten of the Father (the only begotten, i.e., .of the essence of the Father, God of God, and) Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father." 

The victory gained at the Council of Nicea, however, was rather short-lived. The three parties that had emerged at the Council of Nicea remained. In fact, each became hardened in its position. The Arians as well as the majority that had taken a middle ground between the Arian and Orthodox position claimed that they had signed the creed of Nicea under pressure. Consequently, the battle resumed with three very discernible positions to be found in the Christian church. There were the Arians who used the termhetero-ousion as the test of orthodoxy. By that expression they meant that Christ was of a differentessence than the Father. In direct opposition to the Arians was the Orthodox party. Their watchword washomo-ousion. By this term they meant that Christ was of the same essence as the Father and therefore with the Father is co-equally and co-eternally God. Finally, there were the Semi- Arians who took the middle ground. Their watchword was homoi-ousion, which meant that Christ was of like essence with the Father. They differed from the Arians in that they acknowledged that Christ is indeed eternal and divine. But they were not prepared to side with the Orthodox party which maintained that Christ is God in the full sense of the word as the Father. Hence, Christ is oflike essence with the Father. 

As a result of these various views, a number of regional councils were held, each taking a position in this matter, often contradicting and condemning one another. Many bishops and church leaders were deposed and banished. Athanasius, who had emerged as the leader of the Orthodox party, was deposed several times as bishop of Alexandria and forced to flee in exile. The fortunes of these various parties also rose and fell according to the theological inclinations of the various emperors that ruled in Rome. The Roman emperors often took definite sides in this debate and were not above using their power and influence to champion the cause of the party with which they sympathized. As the controversy continued to develop it began to appear as though the orthodox position, adopted at the great council of Nicea, would ultimately be rejected and that the Semi-Arian view would finally emerge victorious. 

In all fairness to the Semi-Arians, two things must be noted. First, they soundly rejected the error of Arius that Christ was simply a creature and not divine. The Semi-Arians maintained very strongly the divinity of Christ. Secondly, many of the Semi-Arians were hindered by a confusion in terminology. A clear enough distinction had not been made between the terms "person" and "essence." Consequently, when the Orthodox party maintained that Christ was of the sameessence as the Father, many understood them to teach a unity of persons. In other words, they suspected that the Orthodox party was obliterating any real distinction between the Father and the Son, so that they were simply one and the same. Hence, they clung to the term homoi-ousion—Christ is of likeessence with the Father. 

With the rise of a new generation of theologians, that which separated the Orthodox party from those that clung to the homoi-ousion position slowly melted away. Many of the Semi-Arians had in their heart agreed with the Nicene faith; but because of the confusion of terminology had rejected the formulation of Nicea. Hence, through the efforts of men like Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nizanzus, and Gregory of Nyssa the Semi-Arians were slowly won to the orthodox position originally expressed in the Nicene creed. 

At the same time, however, the question of the Holy Spirit also came more and more to the fore. Not only are the Father and the Son mentioned in Scripture; so also is the Holy Spirit. In fact, they are often mentioned together. Consequently, the church also faced the question of the identity of the Holy Spirit. This was not the center of the controversy. The controversy in the church centered in the identity of Christ and His relation to the Father. But the question of the Holy Spirit was unavoidable. 

Various positions were held concerning the Holy Spirit. The Arians viewed the Holy Spirit as a creature, a created being. Even as the Father had created the Son, so also had the Son created the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit therefore is subordinate to the Son even as the Son is subordinate to the Father. This left the Arians with one God and two demi-gods. The Semi-Arians by and large also asserted the creation of the Holy Spirit. This followed from their repudiation of the fact that the Son is of the same essence as the Father but is only of like essence. Even the Orthodox party was at first unsure as to the identity of the Holy Spirit. There were some in fact who wanted to make the Holy Spirit merely a divine power or attribute of God. 

As the question of Christ's identity became more and more settled, so too did the question of the identity of the Holy Spirit. If the Son is of the same essence as the Father, so too is the Spirit. If the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, so too is the Holy Spirit. This simply follows from the fact that all three are so often mentioned together in the Scriptures. In light of the Scriptures, God can not be two in one; He must be three in one-triune. 

This truth which the church now came to see rather universally was officially adopted by the second ecumenical council held at Constantinople in A.D. 381, well over 50 years after the Council of Nicea. This council was called by the emperor Theodosius I who himself was convinced of the orthodox view. After the exit of 36 Semi-Arian bishops the council consisted of 150 bishops. These represented the eastern branch of the church. The western branch or Latin church was not represented at all. This was perhaps due to the fact that the Latin church had quite some time before this come to see the truth of the Trinity. The council of Constantinople did essentially two things: first, it re-affirmed the truth of Nicea; secondly, it went beyond Nicea and confirmed also the true Godhead of the Holy Spirit. Especially two changes were made in the statement of faith adopted at Nicea in A.D. 325. First, the conclusion of the original statement of faith was elided. This had been a condemnation of all those who denied the true deity of Christ [cf. our previous article for this conclusion). The second change was an additional paragraph spelling out more in detail the identity and work of the Holy Spirit. The original statement of Nicea had merely stated, "(We believe) in the Holy Ghost." The statement, adopted by the council of Constantinople, was quite more extensive, "(We believe) in the Holy Ghost, Who is Lord and Giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets. . .one holy catholic and apostolic church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen." 

The council of Constantinople gave us our Nicene Creed in its present form with but one exception. In the statement concerning the Holy Spirit as adopted by the council of Constantinople, the Spirit is said to proceed from the Father. At the Synod of Toledo (A.D. 689) there was added the fact that the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Son. This addition is rather significant in that it leaves no room for subordination in the Godhead. The Arians and Semi-Arians had such a subordination. In their views the Holy Spirit is subordinate to the Son Who in turn is also subordinate to the Father. The statement of Constantinople which confessed the procession of the Spirit only from the Father left room for this kind of subordination. To attribute the procession of the Spirit solely to the Father makes the Father the sole fountain of the Godhead. This is one step away from giving to the Father a position of rank over the Son and the Spirit. Hence, there was added the truth that the Holy Spirit proceeds also from the Son. 

This addition was not received by the eastern or Greek branch of the church. The Greek church opposed this insertion from the beginning and still does today. This insertion, known as the Filioque clause ("filoque" meaning "and the son") along with the question of the supremacy of the bishop of Rome as pope led eventually to a split between the Greek and Latin church in A.D. 1054. The Greek or eastern church is known today as the Greek or Eastern Orthodox church. The Latin church which retains the Filioque clause in the Nicene creed became known as the Roman Catholic church. Our roots are historically in the latter church. From her we have received the Nicene creed in its present form.