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The Nicene Creed

They think they have identified it, submerged in the clear, shallow waters near the shores of Iznik Golu in modern Turkey. This ancient church was destroyed centuries ago by an earthquake that also caused the ground to sink into the lake. The ancient name of Iznik was Nicea. In this church the Council of Nicea was held in A.D. 325, and here the Nicene Creed was adopted.

We commonly recite this creed during our communion services. The first thing we notice is how similar it is to the Apostles’ Creed. The same material is presented in the same Trinitarian order, but in a somewhat fuller manner. For example, the Father is Creator also “of all things visible and invisible.” The work of the Son is again presented by listing the chief events in His life: He was incarnate, was crucified, suffered, died and was buried, rose from the dead, ascended, sits at God’s right hand, and will return for judgment. All this is quite similar to the Apostles’ Creed.

But the added part is very different, both in language and content. “Begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father, By whom all things were made.” Here the tone is different; it’s more formal, technical, theological. To understand why this is, we need some background.

Because of the influence of a heretic named Arius, the church was engaged in a titanic debate over how to answer the question Jesus has put to each of us, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) Arius and his followers—and they were many—were answering very much as the Jehovah’s Witnesses of our day answer. They said that Jesus is a created being, greater even than angels and archangels. He was, they said, created before the heavens and the earth. He was the creature nearest in nature to God, sharing a similar nature. But He was not true God, nor was He due the same glory and honor.

In response, the church rose up and declared that Jesus was begotten in eternity by the Father and thus shared His eternal nature and divine being. He was God from God. An analogy was given. They were inseparable, as light is from light. He was begotten, not made, not created, did not come into being, not even before time. The vital, clinching phrase was, “Being of one substance with the Father.” This the Arians could not accept or get around. They fought to substitute “a similar substance.”

Why is this so important? The Creed stresses Christ’s work for our salvation. “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven.” He was “crucified also for us.” The confessors were convinced that only a truly divine Savior is able to save. And they confessed that this is what Jesus is.

We wish we could say that this settled the matter, but it didn’t. Over the next few centuries, Arianism very nearly prevailed. It was overcome in the Roman Empire, but before this happened, the barbarian tribes had been converted to Arian Christianity. When they invaded the Roman Empire, they reintroduced this error. Finally, however, it was defeated. The church where the confessors met may have been ruined by an earthquake, but the truth proclaimed there has survived the shock waves of false teaching and prevailed.

The third article was very brief, simply: “And I believe in the Holy Ghost.” The rest was added by another council in A.D. 381 when it became necessary to state clearly that the Holy Spirit is also truly God.

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.