The creeds express the fundamental beliefs which preoccupied the church at the time of writing, usually in response to heresies of the day. At first glance, it may appear that the Nicene Creed, first written in 325 AD and expanded in 451, is a departure from the “simple truths” expressed in the earlier Apostles’ Creed (c. 150 AD).
The anti-trinitarian argument goes something like this: At the close of the New Testament period, with the death of the original apostles and the completion of the canon of Scripture, the church began to stray from Apostolic teaching. It came under the influence of Greek philosophy and later was pressured by Constantine to adopt the doctrine of the Trinity. This deviation can be seen by comparing the Apostles’ Creed, which is clearly Scriptural in its terminology and content, with the Nicene Creed which departs from Scriptural teaching and introduces the doctrine of the Trinity.
Two important errors are made with this argument. The first is to forget that creeds are first and foremost documents for their time. To fully understand a creed, we need to understand its context. The second error is to posit a discontinuity of doctrine from New Testament times through to the fourth century. In other words, to assert that the doctrine of the Trinity popped up from nowhere and was a fourth century invention forced upon the church. With the Council of Nicea in 325 we do indeed reach a fork in the road, doctrinally. But it wasn’t the mainstream (“orthodox”) church that took the detour. It had demonstrable continuity of teaching from apostolic times. Development in sophistication of its theology, yes, but no overall deviation from scriptural truth. The Nicene creed was written to oppose the major heresy of the day, the real doctrinal digression— Arianism.
If we examine the extant writings of the church from the immediate post-apostolic period through the second and third centuries, we can readily demonstrate a continuity of core doctrine. From earliest times there was a belief that there is one true God rather than a pantheon of divinities, that Jesus Christ is Lord and God and that the Holy Spirit is divine and personal. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in some way a unity that constitutes the Godhead. Until the church was freed from persecution in 311 AD, it was preoccupied with defending the faith to hostile outsiders and with countering the heresies of the second and third centuries, such as Gnosticism. In fact, far from being unduly influenced by pagan philosophy in developing a fuller understanding of the Godhead, Christianity firmly rebuffed it. The ideas of God becoming human and bodily resurrection are about as far from Greek dualistic thinking as you can get.
Although there was much discussion as to how God could be one and yet in a different sense three, the basic doctrine held firm. There is one God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each divine, yet there are not three Gods. They are one in the unique essence of what constitutes divinity, and yet there are three distinctives within the Godhead.
Inevitably, though, conflict arose. Different perspectives on the same basic truths were carried to one extreme or the other. From the vantage of one extreme perspective, the opposite emphasis appeared heretical. The Latin thinkers of the Western church tended to emphasise God’s unity and blur the distinctions between Father, Son and Spirit. In its extreme form this gave rise to Modalism, the teaching that the Father, Son and Spirit are merely modes of manifestation of the Godhead, perhaps succeeding each other in different phases of salvation history. The Greek-speaking thinkers in the Eastern church were more interested in the distinctiveness of the Father, Son and Spirit. Throw in a few nuances of translation between Greek and Latin and you have the seedbed for misunderstanding and misrepresentation of each other’s position.
The catalyst which forced the church to come to a consensus, which resulted in the orthodox articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, was the teaching of Arius of Alexandria. This was the major fork in the road and it defined which was the main highway and which the deviation.
The crux of the debate was the status of the Word in relation to the Godhead; was he fully divine or was he a creature of the Father who is only designated divine as a courtesy? Arius, an elder of the church in Alexandria, affirmed “one God, who is alone ingenerate (self-existent), alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone possessing immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign, alone judge of all, etc.” The being (Greek ousia) of God is unique, and the Father alone is this uncreated, eternal transcendent and indivisible God. The Son, Arius reasoned, must therefore be a perfect creature whom the Father formed out of nothing, begetting only in the sense of “making.” The Son had a beginning, before the creation of time, because he was the agent of creation as Scripture attests. But he is, like all other creatures, “alien from and utterly dissimilar to the Father’s essence and individual being” and unlike the Father, must be liable to change and have the potential to sin. The Son is therefore “God” in name only. This is the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses today. (The Christadelphian position is somewhat different; Christ is not a creature formed from nothing, but was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, did not pre-exist and was not involved in creation. Unitarians go even further in asserting that Jesus was a mere man, the natural son of Joseph and Mary).
Arius was a persuasive preacher and master of propaganda, engaging the public through use of popular songs and slogans. The Greek church was threatened with a major division. This threatened the tenuous unity of the empire which Constantine had determined to unite under the banner of Christianity, which is why the emperor convened and sponsored the ecumenical council at Nicea in June of 325 AD, to organize the church in its new position within the empire and to resolve the Arian crisis.
The Council opposed Arianism and condemned Arius, attesting to the divinity and immutability of the Son. Because both sides could put forward individual scriptural passages and construct arguments which supported their own position and opposed the other, there was some difficulty in making a succinct statement, using Bible quotations alone, that could unmistakably express the positive position and reject the negative. Hence it was decided to formulate a creed that summarized the orthodox position. The critical decision was to use the word homoousios — of the same substance — to describe the Son’s relation to the Father’s being or essence, rather than homoiousios – of similar substance.
In terms of expressing the nature of unity and diversity within the Godhead and in particular the status of the Son, the second century Apostles Creed did not go far enough, hence a new creed was required, without discarding the older one. The original form is the creed produced at Nicea in 325. It was ratified in an expanded form by the Council of Constantinople in 381 to become the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed and accepted in its present form at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Here is the original form as written down by Eusebius of Caesarea, the fourth century church historian:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible, And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made; of one substance (homoousios) with the Father; through whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth, who for us men and for our salvation, descended and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.
An addendum anathematised Arianism: “But those who say that there was when he was not, and that before being begotten he was not, or that he came from that which is not, or that the Son of God is of a different substance (hypostasis) or essence (ousia) or that he is created, or mutable, these the catholic (i.e., universal) church anathematizes.”
The objective here is clearly to explain the orthodox position as against Arianism, which is why there is no detail on the Holy Spirit. The expanded version of 381 reintroduced details from the Apostles’ Creed, making it a broader statement of orthodox faith. This later creed also put forward the deity of the Holy Spirit, concerning which considerable further discussion had taken place in the interim.
We believe in one God, the Father, Ruler of all, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible,
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made; of one substance (homoousios) with the Father; by whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father (and the Son was later added) Who with the Father and Son together is worshiped and glorified; Who spake through the prophets;
In one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
The arrangement of the creed is triadic; Father, Son, Holy Spirit, in keeping with the Scriptural pattern (Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 12:4–6; 2 Cor 13:14;1 Pet 1:2) and Christian writings from the New Testament period onwards. The reference to the Father as Creator reminds the Greek-thinking reader that the dualistic idea — the ultimate Deity could not possibly have created “evil” matter — is false. There is one God, not a hierarchy of spiritual beings and this one God created everything.
The Son is not part of this creation, as against Arius’ teachings. He is begotten, not made. He is the same substance (homoousios) with the Father and existed for all eternity rather than having a beginning (John 1;1–2, 14; 17:5; Heb 13:8; 1 John 1:1–2). The Son is the one by whom all things were made; if he made all things then how could he be a creature? (John 1:3; Col 1:15–17; 1 Cor 8:6; Heb 1:1–3, 8, 10).
The Son became flesh for our salvation; he came down from heaven and became incarnate (from the Latin, carne, flesh; John 1:14; 3:13–17, 31; 6:38-46; Gal 4:4–5; 1 John 4:14) in the womb of the Virgin Mary — Mary being a virgin, no human father was involved (Matt 1:23-25; Luke 1:34-35).
Jesus Christ was a real man, no mere appearance of humanity; he suffered, died and was buried and he rose again (Gal 4:4; Heb 2:17–18; 1 John 4:2; 2 John :7; Rom 14:9; 1 Cor 15:3–12; 1 Thess 4:14–17).
His position at the right hand of the Father denotes his supreme authority (Matt 28:18; Col 1:14–20; Rom 8:34, Col 3:1, Eph 1:20–23; 4:10; Phil 2:9–11) and right to be worshipped as God (Rev 5:12–13, 19:10; Heb 1:6; Matt 2:2, 11; Matt 14:33, 28:9; Luke 24:52; John 9:38) and to return to exercise the prerogative of God; judgment (Rom 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10; John 5:17–22). God is separate from his creation and no creature can be worshiped as God; the Son is worthy of worship, a prerogative of God alone, which demolishes Arius’ argument that the Son is a created being.
The Arian controversy and the Council of Nicea were preoccupied with the deity of the Son. During the period between Nicea and Constantinople there was increasing interest in, and discussion about, the status of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Godhead. Arius regarded the Spirit in the same way he regarded the Son — as of different essence from the Father. Around 360 AD, Athanasius, who had been an observer at Nicea and a significant opponent of Arius, began to actively teach what had long been simply a given, that the Spirit is fully divine, consubstantial (of the same substance, homoousios) with the Father and the Son. According to Scripture, the Spirit has nothing in common with creatures and is one with the Godhead. He belongs in essence to the Son as to the Father, he is the Spirit of the Son and bestowed by the Son. He participated with the Son in creation and he sanctifies and enlightens and makes us partakers of God. If he were a creature, he could not do these things.
Gregory of Nyssa (335–395 AD) simultaneously defended three principles; God as unity, simple and undivided; the distinction between Creator and creation which precludes any degrees of divinity and the evidence that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each real and distinguishable and each properly named God. What was being sought by Gregory in the east and Augustine (354–430 AD) in the west was not the definitive statement of what constitutes the divine essence, because that is beyond human comprehension. Rather, they sought a coherent way of expressing revealed truths in appropriate language. The underlying issue was (and for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians and Unitarians still is) whether the Father alone is the monarchial God, in which case the Son must be “below the line” dividing Creator from creation and hence of infinitely inferior rank, or whether the monarchy is the shared glory, “above the line,” of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The result of these further discussions was the fully articulated doctrine of the Trinity, as expressed in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed in 381.
These creeds do not usurp the place of Scripture, nor do they contradict it. They are statements of orthodoxy specifically attuned to the issues that challenged orthodoxy in their day. Topics that are not covered in detail, or even at all, were simply not controversial. To attack the creeds out of historical context is to stoop to the lowest levels of argument, which is to misrepresent the argument that is opposed, and to attack the character and motives of the opponent; to be a Thessalonian antagonist rather than a Berean truth-seeker (Acts 17:11). As Paul exhorts in 2 Cor 13: 5-14:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves… But we pray to God that you may not do wrong… For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth… The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.