Last week I talked about the history of creeds in Christianity, and some details about the Apostles’ Creed. This week I want to continue the creed conversation by talking about the Nicene and Athanasian creeds.
The Nicene creed is the more complex of the two creeds commonly used in Christian worship. It is similar in structure to the Apostles’ Creed – it speaks about the Trinitarian God and works of creation, redemption and sanctification. However, it is much longer, taking time to make statements about Christ’s divinity.
The Nicene creed was formed during a period of theological controversy, particularly a debate beginning with Arius, a bishop from Alexandria who argued that Christ was not eternal or divine in essence. This debate over the deity of Christ lasted for centuries, and it was Athanasius who took the firm position that Christ is fully divine. Athanasius became one of the most influential theologians in Christian church history.
Athanasius argued that the Son of God is of one substance with the father. The Son must be divine, or the entire essence of the Christian faith is lost; if Christ is not divine, salvation is impossible. To be a perfect mediator, Christ must be both fully God and fully man.
The Council of Nicea, first called together by then emperor Constantine, was composed of representatives of the church from both the East and West to solve particular theological issues. This council affirmed Athanasius’ belief that Christ is divine, and this affirmation was included in the creed that is now known as the Nicene Creed. The most significant phrases in the creed, to rebut the beliefs of Arius, are “begotten, not made” and “of one substance with the Father”.
According to the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book, either the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed may be spoken. “The Nicene Creed is appropriate during Advent, Christmas, Easter, and on festival days; the Apostles’ Creed during Lent and at other times.”
For comparison’s sake, here are the texts of both the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.*
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
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 us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,*
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
You can definitely see that the three parts are the same in each version of the creed, and that the Nicene Creed expounds the topic of each part further than the Apostles’ Creed.
The third and final creed used is the Athanasian Creed. It is the longest and most theologically complex of the creeds. It was not written for refuting a particular heresy – it is an expansion of the teachings of the Nicene Creed, and is an extended exposition of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It was named after St. Athanasius, who was the same man who was behind the arguments that led to the Nicene Creed. Contrary to some erroneous beliefs, he didn’t write this creed–it was written long after he died, probably sometime in the 6th century.
This creed includes both a positive statement of doctrine, and a refutation of heresy. It begins and ends with assertion that all who are to be saved must hold to the beliefs outlined in this statement–one’s very salvation is at stake depending on who one confesses God is.
In the Middle Ages, this creed was commonly confessed in public worship, but over time its usage has declined. There is no particular reason for the decline, except perhaps a pragmatic one – it is very long, and most congregations opt for the shorter Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. In the more recent past, the tradition was to recite the Athanasian Creed on the Feast of the Holy Trinity. Interestingly, it is not included in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book (c. 2006) at all.
Whoever wants to be saved
should above all cling to the catholic faith.
Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable
will doubtless perish eternally.
Now this is the catholic faith:
We worship one God in trinity
and the Trinity in unity,
neither confusing the persons
nor dividing the divine being.
For the Father is one person,
the Son is another,
and the Spirit is still another.
But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
is one, equal in glory,
coeternal in majesty.
What the Father is,
the Son is,
and so is the Holy Spirit.
Uncreated is the Father;
uncreated is the Son;
uncreated is the Spirit.
The Father is infinite;
the Son is infinite;
the Holy Spirit is infinite.
Eternal is the Father;
eternal is the Son;
eternal is the Spirit:
And yet there are not three eternal beings,
but one who is eternal;
as there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings,
but one who is uncreated and unlimited.
Almighty is the Father;
almighty is the Son;
almighty is the Spirit:
And yet there are not three almighty beings,
but one who is almighty.
Thus the Father is God;
the Son is God;
the Holy Spirit is God:
And yet there are not three gods,
but one God.
Thus the Father is Lord;
the Son is Lord;
the Holy Spirit is Lord:
And yet there are not three lords,
but one Lord.
As Christian truth compels us to acknowledge
each distinct person as God and Lord,
so catholic religion forbids us
to say that there are three gods or lords.
The Father was neither made
nor created nor begotten;
the Son was neither made nor created,
but was alone begotten of the Father;
the Spirit was neither made nor created,
but is proceeding from the Father and the Son.
Thus there is one Father, not three fathers;
one Son, not three sons;
one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.
And in this Trinity, no one is before or after,
greater or less than the other;
but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal;
and so we must worship the Trinity in unity
and the one God in three persons.
Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.
It is necessary for eternal salvation that one also faithfully believe
that our Lord Jesus became flesh.
For this is the true faith that we believe and confess:
That our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son,
is both God and man.
He is God, begotten before all worlds
from the being of the Father,
and he is man, born in the world
from the being of his mother—
existing fully as God,
and fully as man
with a rational soul and a human body;
equal to the Father in divinity,
subordinate to the Father in humanity.
Although he is God and man,
he is not divided,
but is one Christ.
He is united because God
has taken humanity into himself;
he does not transform deity into humanity.
He is completely one in the unity of his person,
without confusing his natures.
For as the rational soul and body are one person,
so the one Christ is God and man.
He suffered death for our salvation.
He descended into hell
and rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
At his coming all people shall rise bodily
to give an account of their own deeds.
Those who have done good will enter eternal life,
those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.
This is the catholic faith.
One cannot be saved
without believing this firmly and faithfully.
I hope you enjoyed this blog about the three main statements of faith that have been, or are now still in use during our worship. May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love! Amen.