The Nicene Creed is the most widely accepted summation of Christian faith in the world. It was adopted, rejected, revised and finally adopted again by the majority of Christian leaders (bishops) in the 300s amidst a great deal of political infighting (some things never change). If anything qualifies as an official Christian account of who and what God is, and of what Jesus and the Spirit have to do with God, this is it.
It is clear that if the bishops of that century had understood God in the way God is promoted and ridiculed in today’s popular writings, they would never have endorsed this creed. They understood their own lives to be diversely filled and surrounded by the uncontainable presence of the one God, and they were searching for ways to speak of this that did not reduce God to a static formula or a ridiculous picture.
It’s important today to understand how this creed was not a list of arbitrary speculations but an attempt to articulate an engaging spiritual practice that could not be fully captured in any language. This brief commentary attempts to do that.
“We believe in …” For the bishops who framed this creed (in 325—finalized in 381), believing-in meant ultimately trusting what ultimately surrounds and enlivens us and our trusting—believing-in was also believing-within. It was not inferring the existence of something absent but awakening trustfully to the inescapably present. They drew from the New Testament and from several philosophical schools of the time to interpret every finite, measurable thing as a manifestation of the infinite and immeasurable One within and beyond all things, “one God … above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).
“… one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” For these bishops this meant that the inescapably present power beyond and before all other powers, the power ultimately surrounding and enlivening us, our trusting, and everything else, is ultimately one and, most importantly, ultimately providing, like a parent, like the one Jesus called “Father.” “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). (Note: The original Greek word for “almighty”—pantokrator—can mean “ruler of all,” but it also means “holder of all”: “God is called pantokrator because he himself holds and embraces all things—Theophilus of Antioch, ?- c. 183, Ad Autolycum 1,4. The Latin translation, omnipotentem, is thus a bit misleading.)
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…” For these bishops, again, believing-in Jesus as Lord also meant believing-within Jesus. “For us … there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). To them Jesus was not just someone who had lived and died long ago but someone who lives now in a way that, again, ultimately surrounds and enlivens us, our trusting, and everything else. They were indwelling Jesus’ life, and Jesus’ life was indwelling theirs. They also believed him to be the Christ, Israel’s hoped-for anointed leader, who “conquered” the occupying Romans not with an army but with a message and a newly enlivened community that the Romans could not conquer.
“… the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.” For these bishops this meant that Jesus’ all-embracing life is so intimately related to the ultimately parental power, God, that he could be called, not just God’s only son, but, in a different way, God. The one power beyond and before all other powers has both a parental aspect and a filial (offspring-like) aspect. And Jesus’ all-embracing life embodies this filial aspect. So instead of simply calling him God, the bishops called him “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” Though Jesus’ life had a beginning among us, the filial relationship he embodies has no beginning or end and is one with the ultimately parental power. (This was the big debating point in the 300s—some bishops believed that this filial relationship was not intrinsically one with the ultimately parental power. They believed that the ultimately parental power once existed without this parental/filial relationship. They were outvoted in 325, made a major comeback, then got outvoted again in 381.) While this filial relationship in God has no beginning, everything that has a beginning begins as a reflection of this filial relationship. In other words, through this filial relationship “all things were made.”
“For us and for our salvation” The bishops believed that this fully human life of God-from-God was a response to our deepest human need. Our deepest need, they believed, is for unconflicted communion with God and one another in a way that fulfills our humanity instead of denying it. That communion becomes possible because God-from-God shares our humanity fully.
“he came down from heaven” The bishops did not literally believe that God-from-God had been living up in the sky until Jesus’ birth. God-from-God was already present as Wisdom (Sophia) and Word (Logos). As Saint Augustine phrased it a few years later, in Jesus’ life Wisdom “came to a place where she already was.”
“was incarnate … and became truly human.” The bishops insisted that God-from-God did not just show up disguised as one of us. God-from-God actually lived as one of us. Jesus was not an “avatar” (like Krishna, the Hindu God Vishnu disguised as human but not really human at all). He was as human as you and I. The bishops insisted that his divinity is inseparable from his humanity.
“… of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary …” Like most of the New Testament, the first version of the Nicene Creed (in 325) does not mention Mary at all. The bishops added this phrase to the finalized version in 381 to insist that Jesus’ full humanity had an intimately divine origin. Although, as Matthew and Luke recount, Mary’s pregnancy provoked scandalous rumors, the ultimate power at work here was the Holy Spirit (more about the Spirit later). Jesus’ scandalous birth, like his scandalous life and death, was the epitome of holiness. And his mother Mary’s role in this was likewise scandalous but holy. Through an unwed pregnancy, Mary became “the God-bearer.” These are the crucial theological points. Biological questions are a side issue. The bishops clearly did not doubt Mary’s physical virginity. But their theological points do not depend on that.
“For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” The bishops viewed Jesus’ execution as God-from-God sharing our humanity even in its most conflicted state. God-from-God is not only rejected but killed by the powers that be. What would seem impossible—the death of the deathless God-from-God—happened. Instead of meeting our violent rejection of God with an even more violent rejection of us (as we would naturally expect), God-from-God is our ultimate victim.
“On the third day he rose again” The bishops believed that Jesus’ death, the death of God-from-God, did not finally end his life. Instead, it made him more alive, and more life-giving, than anyone could have imagined. Some of his first followers reported actually seeing him soon afterwards. According to the very earliest written testimony, his risen presence was embodied, but embodied spiritually, not physically, in a way that was life-giving (1 Corinthians 15:44-45). To repeat, to the bishops Jesus was not just someone who had lived and died long ago but someone who lives now in a way that, again, ultimately surrounds and enlivens us, our trusting, and everything else.
“… in accordance with the Scriptures.” The bishops believed that Jesus’ life, death and risen life were the ultimate spiritual meaning of every sacred writing (Luke 24:27). Following St. Paul’s example (e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; Galatians 4:21-5:1), they employed all sorts of figurative interpretations to find Christ everywhere in the sacred writings of the Jewish people. This way of interpreting scripture strikes most of us today as implausible, but it was a common practice in popular philosophical and religious movements of the time, in which the bishops had been trained. They believed that God-from-God was intimately involved in the peculiar story of one individual, and in the similarly peculiar story of his people, for the sake of blessing all people. And any interpretation that reinforced this belief was considered acceptable.
“… he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” The bishops did not doubt Luke’s stories of Jesus rising up into the sky. But they also understood his being raised from death to the right hand of God “in the heavenly places” as one single event, not two events separated by a period of time (Ephesians 1:20). To repeat a point made earlier, the bishops knew that rising up into the sky, even if it happened, was a symbolic way of pointing to a new phase in the ever-present, parental/filial relationship between God and God-from-God. Likewise, they knew that God did not literally have a right or a left hand and that Jesus was not literally sitting in a chair somewhere up above their heads. The bishops were acknowledging that, after a time, Jesus’ first followers stopped reporting startling appearances of their risen Lord and started speaking more in terms of his ongoing spiritual presence making them members of his risen body. Jesus is no longer present as he once was—instead he is now present in a new way.
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” The bishops believed that Jesus, God-from-God, is no longer with us as he once was, that he is now with us in a new way, and that someday he will be with us and everybody else in a way that nobody can deny. They believed that in one sense the reign of God had already arrived in Jesus, while in another sense it had yet to arrive. They pictured this as the return of a conquering monarch, but they understood this to mean something that cannot be pictured—”the fullness of him who fills all in all,” which is “above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:23, 21).
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” Once again, believing-in also meant believing-within. The bishops mentioned the Holy Spirit in the 325 version of this creed but said nothing else. In the 381 version they said that the Spirit is both God-from-God and God-with-God, inseparable from Jesus while differing from Jesus. This was a way of acknowledging that while Jesus truly embodies God-from-God, Jesus does not exhaust God-from-God. The Spirit has been active from the beginning, breathing life into the world and inspiring truthful speaking. The Spirit, so to speak, overflows the life, death and risen life of Jesus, making this unique, particular happening shareable with us and everything else. The Spirit “spells out” the diversified unity and unified diversity between God and God-from-God. At this stage in the creed the bishops are saying in effect that the unity of God is infinitely expressed and diversely shared. Through the Spirit, the bishops’ own lives were diversely filled and surrounded by the uncontainable presence of the one God.
“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” Throughout the creed, but especially here, the bishops are drawing heavily on Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” The underlying purpose of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople was to put an end to divisive movements in the “one body” of Christ. The Church, Christ’s gathered body, is constantly summoned to visible unity, holiness, universality (“catholic” means “universal”), and to continuity with the apostles who founded it. It’s summoned to this because this is what it has already begun to be, thanks to its one life-giving Spirit, one embodied Lord, one all-empowering God above all and through all and in all.
“We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” The bishops again drew upon Ephesians 4. For them, baptism, which literally means “immersion,” was a rite by which any individual of any age could participate in God’s own uniquely renewing immersion in the world. The rite is performed only once to signify unity. Immersion was the preferred practice, but other methods of bathing were allowed in different circumstances.
“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Although the bishops were at home with a variety of worldviews that insisted upon the immortality of the soul apart from the body, such extra-biblical ideas have no place in this creed. They looked instead for the embodied resurrection of the dead. They viewed their and our resurrection, like Jesus’ resurrection, as a spiritual renewal of bodily existence beyond present boundaries. For these bishops, as for the writers of scripture, embodied existence is as spiritual as anything disembodied. The resurrection of the dead actually begins with our participation in one baptism and continues beyond our last breath into the all-renewing life of the world to come. They did not venture to add any more details about this.
—Fr. Charles Allen
Addendum: How I Would Reframe This Creed’s Fundamental Truths Today
As an Episcopalian I commend reciting the Nicene Creed as is (translated of course) in corporate worship. I’ve said more about what reciting creeds means in my Church here. But if asked to say, in current terms, what the framers of this Creed were trying to say in ancient terms, it would go something like this:
We awaken trustfully to the Self-Giving One, from whom, through whom and in whom all things are, ever-present yet incomprehensible, God, whom Jesus called Father.
We awaken trustfully to following Jesus, God’s Anointed, before all others, whose common life with us shares no less than God’s life, through which all else originates.
Beginning with Mary’s unwed but holy condition, God’s life was Spiritually embodied for us in Jesus’ fully human birth and uncontainable life. He was executed by the powers that be, sharing death and rejection faced by us all. But neither death nor rejection could end or contain the common life he has begun with us. This executed life is one with God’s life. The story remains unfinished, yet again and again all past and present lives are weighed and renewed in its unfolding.
We awaken trustfully to the life-giving Spirit, the holy, interpersonal expression of God’s shared life, who brings ever-new communion and prophetic direction beyond established channels. We awaken trustfully to unity and holiness as we share self-giving common life with all. We see every renewing immersion into God’s life as one with God’s prior, renewing immersion into ours. We greet each moment as the renewal of all past living and as the promise of all living yet to arrive.
Let it be.