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The Birth of a Creed

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It is likely that on June 19, AD325, after several days of very heated debate, the first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, the Council of Nicaea, drafted what we know today as the Nicene Creed, recited by the faithful at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days throughout the year. The date is not universally certain because little of the records of this great Church event were kept.

Although there were many apologists and theologians writing in the first centuries of the Christian faith, getting everything ‘down on paper’ was still a developing art. When the first Christians, followers of the Way, began to appear, they were encouraged by faith-filled authors. Rather than anything that became a part of the canon New Testament, their first most popular read was The Shepherd of Hermas. This inspirational story was always considered a valuable piece of work, but was never part of the Bible. As the letters of St Paul and the synoptic Gospels began to appear, they became the favorites of Christians everywhere.

It was in the wording of those early Church documents, that heretics found a basis for their beliefs. One of the first debates was over the person of Jesus Christ: human or Divine, or was he both? The only synoptic Gospel that mentions a three-in-one personality of the Holy Trinity is Matthew, and the contention has always been that “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19)” was added to the Gospel sometime later. All three persons of the Trinity are included strongly in the Gospel of John which was written closer to the end of the first century, but he does not connect them as one being per se.

Tertullian, the great, prolific theologian of the early Church is often credited with the first use of the word ‘Trinity.’ Before that, there was a wide range of ideas floating among the faithful. Today, we may think of Christians as divided by their beliefs, whether Protestant or Catholic, Roman, Coptic, or Orthodox, but as the followers of Jesus began to gather, they were also divided by their beliefs. Some were more Jewish than others, and some more Gentile. Paul was a Roman citizen and a Jew who was called by God to take the good news to the Gentiles. It was a major division between the two camps when Jesus’ followers were called Christians for the first time at Antioch (Gentile country) and not in Jerusalem.

It was in this scattering of ideas that heretics found root. One of the earliest of these was a priest named Marcion, who may have used his family’s wealth to buy his position. In the second century, he took Paul’s letter to the Galatians as literally as could be done. He asserted that the difference between Jews and Christians was the Law of Moses, and suggested that adherence to it would alienate Christians from Christ, which in itself, does not totally disagree with Paul’s assertion. The concept of Marcionism went one step further and declared that there were two different Gods in the Bible: the one in the Old Testament was not the same as the one in the New Testament. One was essentially mean and vengeful while the other was compassionate and merciful. This heresy persisted for some time.

The most divisional heresy of the early Church was Arianism. It lingered through the first centuries, even after the Council of Nicaea, and remnants of it still exist today. At one time, Arians outnumbered the ‘catholic’ Christians and dominated much of the church in North Africa, a region that exceeded the authority of Rome in population and influence. The two factions could not settle their differences themselves, and the intercession of Emperor Constantine I was required to do so.

Arius was a priest in Alexandria, Egypt who had a propensity for stirring things up. He was controversial and ambitious, a dangerous combination. He was excommunicated from the Church at least twice and was reinstated at least once, but still expected to become the Bishop of Alexandria. A priest named Alexander was chosen over him. Arius waited for the right moment, and when the bishop spoke of the Holy Trinity, he made a very public condemnation all based on one word from the Gospel of John: begotten. To be ‘begotten’ would suggest that the Son did not always exist, but was created and is subordinate to the Father.

The priest did not begin the heresy that bears his name, nor was he its greatest proponent; that title belonged to Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was friendly with Rome, particularly Constantine. The emperor wanted peace in the empire, and that meant getting the Christians all on the same page. Eusebius helped to convince him that a synod of bishops was the answer.

Constantine summoned all bishops east and west and more than three hundred attended; the exact number is uncertain. The Arians were allowed to speak, and all might have gone without a hitch had it not been for the secretary of Bishop Alexander, Athanasius. With the future saint’s prompting, the council condemned Arius, but they also recognized a need to have a firm doctrine.

What the bishops adopted that day was the skeleton of what we know as the Nicene Creed, a complete statement of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. That first creed had a few asterisks attached and included statements to the severity of teaching any other doctrine. Over time those conditions would be deleted from the wording but not from the mission of the Church.

The Nicene Creed gave birth to a word that enlivens the Roman Missal, the Catholic book of worship, from the original Latin Vulgate translated by St Jerome. That word became reality on this day in 325. Consubstantial: of the same substance! That is for all the faithful to believe, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one and the same from the beginning, now, and always will be.

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