Church History – the truth behind the Nicene Creed

I’ve recently been talking about theology and Church history, saying that they are good things to know, even though a faith that is grounded on a belief system rather than on God can be somewhat shaken.

In weeks past I’ve also mentioned that a failure in most modern, Evangelical churches is the lack of any sort of corporate confession; I am, of course, speaking of confessing a creed, or belief, rather than confession of sins (as in, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord…”). Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, and a few others all include, at some point in their worship, a recital of one of the generally accepted creeds, usually the “Apostles” or the Nicene.

I like the creeds. However, we should also understand their historical context; otherwise, they become simply historical artifacts.

The Nicene Creed, for example, was developed at the Council of Nicea, held in A.D. 325. As many know, the main issue was whether Jesus was of the same substance as the Father, or not. Athanasius, our hero, believed that Jesus was of a timeless generation (eternal) and of the same substance as the Father. Arius and his followers were the bad guys, believing Jesus to have been created by the Father before the beginning of time, and so “the same but different” than the Father.

What many don’t know is that neither of these positions held the majority view, and that Athanasius couldn’t have won a simple majority vote, without help. Most of the church elders were someplace in the middle, believing that Jesus had to be different than the Father. This is perfectly understandable, considering they didn’t have hundreds of years of trinitarian theology to fall back on, and were obviously concerned about not falling into a polytheist heresy. The majority of leaders wanted the Nicene Creed to say that the Son was of a similar nature to the Father (close, but no cigar).

So, how was the decision made? By unanimous vote? By prophetic proclamation?

No. The decision was made by none other than Constantine, who was apparently tired of the arguing. Constantine, that conqueror who made Christianity his state religion, influenced the vote. (This information, by the way, didn’t come from Dan Brown, but from reliable Christian sources.) Constantine, of course, was the one who organized the Council in the first place, to try to unify the Church. (His “one God, one Lord, one faith, one church, one empire, one emperor” slogan was hard to use while the Church argued over major doctrines.)

As you might guess, the debate over the nature of Jesus continued for years, notwithstanding the Council of 325. Political clout is no match for theology. A 2nd council was held in 381, where the Creed was “upgraded” a bit, and the closing lines added. There is still some dispute over the language concerning the Holy Spirit, whether it proceeds from just the Father (as the Eastern churches hold), or from both the Father and the Son. But, otherwise, the Nicene Creed is now the standard, universal creed of the Church.

It’s a good creed – and it saddens me that we don’t expect people to learn it anymore. Without this, and the simpler Apostles’ Creed, I can only guess how fractured the Church would really be… or would it? In spite of the differences of theology, interpretation and so on, the gates of Hell are not prevailing against the Church. After all, God promised.

The beauty of studying Church history is not that you dig up all of the church’s skeletons, but that we can learn the context for our current faith, as well as see how God has indeed revealed Himself through the ages.

2 thoughts on “Church History – the truth behind the Nicene Creed”

  1. It’s important to recognize that Jesus said “in spirit and in truth. One of the points of mentioning these topics is to point out that in many (if not most) contemporary churches they’ve chosen “in spirit” and the truth is suffering. The creeds – yes, even the Nicene – at the very least serves as an anchor for our faith. I’m betting that if you really consider what you bring to church each week that comes from your heritage, you’d see what I’m talking about. Many people have none of that – and you don’t get good theology from worship choruses. Sunday after Sunday I see “zeal not according to knowledge.” I believe both are important.

    And, by the way, I’ve been in church leadership long enough to know that the way things are done today are often scarier than anything that happened at the council of Nicea…

  2. I knew there was something suspicious about the Council of Nicea. Now I know. Constantine, the supposed Christian/politician blurred so many truths that the church system which is in place today is because of things he instituted on his watch; things that are a far cry from the teachings and ways of Jesus and the hierarchy He came to destroy!!! Constantine, the compromisor, which, by the way, is what politician means.Yes, knowing church history is important in the same way world history is-don’t make the same mistakes!!!Unfortunately,billions have as they dutifully carry out religious traditions of man often at the expense of a relationship with Jesus Christ Himself and His Body.
    I’m an ex-Lutheran too but do not want to go back to reciting “what I believe” like a parrot making it a head thing than something from the heart. Out of the heart the mouth speaks. God wants worshippers who will worship Him in Spirit and Truth, not people who are told what to say and then say it. “I hear you talking but your heart is far from me,” says the Lord. (Well, something like that)

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