Nicene Creed – line by line

We say this creed every Sunday in the Eucharist service.  It is the central creed or belief of Christianity and goes back to 325AD.  On Trinity Sunday it is good to break it down into its essential meaning. 

Walls of Nicea

"I believe in one God"

The Greek, Latin and proper English translations begin with "I" believe, because reciting the creed is an individual expression of belief.

"the Father Almighty "

God the Father is the first person, within the Godhead. The Father is the "origin" or "source" of the Trinity. From Him, came somehow the other two. God the Father is often called "God Unbegotten" in early Christian thought.

"Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible: "

Everything that is was created by God. Some early sects, the Gnostics and Marcionites, believed that God the Father created the spirit world, but that an "evil" god (called the demiurge) created the similarly evil material world.

"And in one Lord Jesus Christ, "

Jesus is Lord and Master of all this creation. No tyrant, Jesus is Lord, teacher, counselor, friend and servant.

"the only-begotten Son of God "

Jesus is in a unique relationship with God the Father, His only Son. While Hebrew kings were sons of God symbolically, Jesus is the only Son of God by nature.

"Begotten of his Father before all worlds "

Begotten has the meaning of born, generated, or produced. God the Son is out of the essence of God the Father. The Son shares the essential nature of God with the Father. Since God is eternal, the Son, being begotten of God, is also eternal. Jesus was begotten of the Father before this world came into being and was present at its creation.

"God of God, Light of Light "

God the Son exists in relation to God the Father. The Son is not the Father, but they both are God. Just as a torch is lit one to another, the Father and Son are distinct, but both light to the world. Add in the Holy Spirit. Three in one. One of three. Not one, three, yet one. Scriptures have all three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in action at the same time at Jesus’ baptism. Scripture has the Father and Son as two as well as one.

In John’s gospel, the Father and Son testify as two witnesses, not one (John 8:17-18). St. Athanasius, writing during the Nicene era, said that the Father and Son are one as "the sight of two eyes is one," probably the best analogy. Another analogy is the musical C-chord. The C, E, and G notes are all distinct notes, but joined together as one chord, the sound is richer and more dynamic than had the notes been played individually. The chords are all equally important in producing the full, dynamic, sound of the chord, but the sound is lacking and thin if one of the notes is left out.

"Very God of very God "

God the Son is fully and utterly God, distinct but not separate from the Father.

This was to counter thoughts of the Arians under Arias (250-336AD). They believed that Jesus could be called god but not true God. In other words, they believed the Jesus was a creature – the first creation of God, necessary to mediate between the unknowable distant God (a concept borrowed from Platonic thought) and creation. There was a time “when Jesus was not.” Because God knew that the Logos would be perfect, the title god could be bestowed upon the Son "by participation," but "true God" was a title reserved only for the unknowable Father

"Begotten, not made "

Some today (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and in the past (Arians) have suggested God created Jesus like God would an angel. The creed tells the Son is not created out of nothing. Since the Son’s creation from the Father occurred before time was created, begotten refers to a permanent relationship as opposed to an event within time.

"Being of one substance with the Father "

Father and Son share the same substance or essence of divinity. That is, the Father and Son both share the qualities and essential nature that make one in reality God. However, sharing the same substance does not mean they share identity of person. They share a common nature, the essential qualities and essence of humanity, but are not the same person (although unlike the persons of the Trinity, humans do not share one will).

"By whom all things were made "

Through The Son, as Word of God, all things have been created. As Logos, the Son is the agent and artificer of creation.

"Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven "

Jesus came from heaven, from a reality other than our own.

And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man

God the Son became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He was born of a virgin through the Holy Ghost. God truly became human in Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was and is a real human being, not simply a spirit or ghost. The incarnation of God in Christ is the ultimate act of love, because rather than sending an angel or good human to accomplish the redemption and restoration of creation, God Himself became human.

"And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried "

Jesus died on a cross, suffered as humans do, truly died, and was laid in a tomb. Notice that in addition to being "true God from true God," Jesus is fully human as well. The early Docetists" believed Jesus only seemed to be human, but was not, and simply went through the motions of being human. Thus, when Jesus ate, they said, he only pretended to eat. Docetism was a very early heresy, addressed by the Gospel and Letters of St. John, as well as in St. Ignatius’ letters in AD 110 AD.

"And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures "

Jesus was resurrected bodily as the Scriptures say. Just as Jesus truly died, he truly rose from the dead three days later. The bodily resurrection is the keystone of Christian doctrine and experience. However, Jesus was not just physically resuscitated (as was Lazarus), but rather his body was transformed at the resurrection. Rejection of the bodily resurrection is a rejection of the foundation of Christianity.

"And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father: "

Jesus left this world after His resurrection. In ancient science, heaven was thought to be above the sky (notice how on a starry night the sky looks like a dome that one could pierce through). In the Scriptures, Jesus is said to ascend to heaven. Luke had to render the event into his own scientific paradigm, so he said Jesus "went up" to heaven. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, i.e. sharing authority with the Father, and not just literally sitting next to the Father.

"And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end. "

Jesus will come again to judge both the living and dead. His kingdom will not be destroyed, despite all of humanity’s efforts. Jesus, like God the Father, is timeless. He is, was and always will be. Likewise His Kingdom.

"And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life "

The Holy Ghost is the “breath” God breathed to give life to the world in Genesis. His light illuminates our path after our birth as Paul’s New Man in Christ.

The original Nicene Creed of 325AD ended right here with the Holy Ghost. The remainder of the Creed was approved at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. However, most scholars believe that the text of the full creed dates prior to this council, and that the bishops simply gave their approval to a local creed already in use. The reason these additions were included in the Nicene Creed is that some 4th century Christians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The names given to these heretics were Macedonians (named after a heretical bishop) 

"Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son "

The Son is said to be begotten, while the Spirit is said to proceed. Both words convey that the Son and Spirit are in special relationships to the Father, yet also fully divine.

Filoque Clause – the phrase "and the Son," in Latin, filioque, was not in the original text of the creed, but was added in Western Churches over time as a tool against Arians who believe Jesus is “not of one essence with the father” and came into existence when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Eastern Churches opposed the addition of the filioque, while Western churches accept it. The inclusion of it by the West led to a split with the Eastern churches in 1054 which continues to this day.

John 14:16 “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.” John 14:26 tells us, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name…” John 15:26 tells us, “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, He will testify about me.” See also John 14:16 and Philippians 1:19. These Scriptures seem to indicate that the Spirit is sent out by both the Father and the Son. The essential matter in the filioque clause is a desire to protect the deity of the Holy Spirit.

Eastern Church – opposed the filioque clause object because they believe the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son makes the Holy Spirit “subservient” to the Father and Son.

Western Church- upholds the the filioque clause believing that the Holy Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son does not impact the Spirit being equally God with the Father and the Son. “Proceeds from the Father and the Son" means "proceeds from the Father through the Son."

"Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified "

The Holy Spirit is God as are the Father and the Son, and is due the same worship as the Father and the Son.

"Who spake by the Prophets "

As the Holy Ghost gives us insight and understanding today, so it is believed He gave the same to the Old Testament prophets.

"And I believe one Catholic and Apostolic Church "

The creed affirms the belief in the Catholic (universal) Church, whose origins are ancient and historical, going back to the Apostles themselves. This is the universal church tracing its ancestry, roots and beliefs back to the apostles themselves. The ordained ministry claims an Apostolic Succession, wherein apostles appointed leaders, who themselves appointed new leaders to replace them, a process continuing to this day. The claim to literal Apostolic line today is found primarily in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

"I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins "

Baptism or initiation has often been called Christening and the name we are given there is our Christian name, our last name being our surname. In Baptism, our life is dedicated to Christ. Hence the term Christening. Christians believe through the waters of baptism, God forgives us of our sins, and we are born again. This belief in baptism’s saving power is ancient and universally acknowledged in the early Christian writings.

"And the Life of the world to come "

The end of the Creed addresses the end of life here on earth and talks about the world to come. Christians have the promise of a bodily resurrection with a new and glorified physical body from Christ. The Creed affirms that bodily resurrection, as promised by Christ. Heaven is a place to look forward to, not to fear. Christ describes the experience of this world as “looking darkly, as through a glass.” This came from the time when “glass” was translucent, rather than transparent.


2 thoughts on “Nicene Creed – line by line”

  1. Thank you, this is clear and helpful. I have also read that 1500 years ago the Greek words in John and the Creed may have had a slightly different meaning than the Latin words. As the Roman Empire separated, the East and West no longer fully understood each other’s language, which contributed to the separation.

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