The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

Home / Trinity in You Blog / Assorted Topics on Everything / The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

The Nicene Creed was initially designed as a unified confession for bishops.  For these leaders, this creed  was the best reflection of the apostolic tradition and summed up all they held to be true regarding the gospel.  It was a careful evolution from statements made throughout the church in the ancient mediterranean world that was handed to them from the apostles.  If we examine these letters written firstly by Paul himself in 1Corinthians 15 and follow the early writers into the second century through to the Nicene Council of 325AD, we find there is very little variation between these statements of beliefs and the Nicene Creed.  The Creed handed down at this council was not without its controversy. For the first time, a non-scriptural word homoousios was introduced, traditionally  translated “same substance.”  I believe this word is better translated “same being” as it was in reference to Exodus 3.14  to be (God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”).  If we want to be very precise, then the intended meaning put forward by Athanasius could very well be: of the same to be with the Father.  I will try to give a background into this period of history to show the importance of such a creed at this time in history and why it such a vital document for the church today.

Particular attention must be paid to the term homoousios.  This term means of the same being.  At the time of the Nicene Council in 325AD, it appeared to have been adopted with considerable reservations. As the decades rolled on after the Nicene Council, many distanced and divided themselves from the concept of homoousios.  However, other heresies started to rise such as; Apollinarianism—Christ did not assume a human mind as the human mind was replaced by the divine mind—and then Nestorianism—where Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human. Thus Mary was the mother of Jesus and not the Mother of God.  There were other premises that tried to press in and corrupt the ancient truth. It began to emerge that the term homoousios was so very important in upholding what the fathers called the bond of faith, that which firmly fixed Jesus Christ as the invariant, dynamic point from which all the ways and works of God is to be drawn Eventually there was a shift from concerns with the word itself towards an understanding of the power of what the word stood for. For the church this term meant that faith in Jesus Christ is simultaneous with having faith in God, equally with the Father.  It meant God acted and spoke in the Person of Jesus Christ and it is through Him all things were made making Him Creator, equally with the Father.  When we say through Him, we mean Jesus Christ had a direct hand and action in creating the universe and all that is in it. As we encounter Him, we have access to real and authentic knowledge of God. Furthermore, it meant the human nature of Jesus Christ was assumed into His divine nature.  This did not mean one nature dissolved into the other. Rather it meant the divinity of Jesus and His humanity acted as one.

With the many heresies that tried to infiltrate the Apostolic tradition and change it, the church fathers found themselves faced with the extremely subtle, deceitful methods of invention. Though widely considered the most accurate way, the fathers endeavoured to remain entirely within the scope of Scripture. This left the very tradition the fathers endeavoured to preserve open to manipulation and twisting of its intended meaning.  The non-biblical term homoousios was introduced as a safeguard against those who attempted to corrupt the truth.  The heretics utterly protested to this term purely on the basis that it was non-biblical. Yet the heretics often used non-biblical methods and words to support their heretical views.   On the one hand, there came a tug of war. At one end they had to avoid a slide into Arianism in all its forms. Some preferred the term homoiousios, meaning like the father. This could easily play into the hands of the Arians.  At the other end, many tried to avoid the word homoousios for the fear of sliding into Sabellianism.  There was much confusion as to which direction orthodoxy should go and by trying to turn anywhere else but the term homoousios left doors open for heretics to gain a foothold and corrupt the Apostolic truth. The decades following the Council of Nicaea put the word homoousios under much rigorous testing and clarification so that its purpose was made clear. By the Council of Constantinople in 381AD the term homoousios was affirmed as the most suitable way to preserve the faith.

By finally adopting homoousios to Patri (ὁμοούσιοσ τῷ Πατρί) as the universal means of defining the relationship between the Father and the Son and agree on what the word stood for, it was now possible to have a universal confession that preserved the very faith that was consistent with what was handed to them by the Apostles. Of the same being preserves the inherent being and nature of God within the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, to seek true knowledge of God begins in Him and is accessible to all.  What one says about the Christian God can be tested against the rule of faith which is Jesus Christ Himself.  If we move away from Him, then the knowledge of God becomes empty. If the Godness of Jesus Christ is undermined and removed partly or completely, then we have nothing but theories and presuppositions from the heart of humanity’s fantasies.  The Christian rule then becomes whatever anyone wants it to be.  The term homoousios broadens our picture of who God is and brings us more clarity and detail on what is contained in that picture. Not only do we each see it but we see it collectively.  We also hear collectively what the picture is trying to tell us. Firstly it shows us the bond between the being of the Son and the being of the Father is one. Secondly it shows us the bond between the divinity of Jesus and His humanity operates as one so the word and acts of Jesus Christ are the actual words and acts of God.  Thirdly, it shows us Jesus Christ is also united to our mortal being and nature. Fourthly, it shows that Jesus Christ is intrinsically connected to the very fabric of all creation.

If the homoousion is not true, the picture disappears and it is restricted according to a particular opinion and a particular idea at the hands of the one who proposes them.  In the church today, we have 30000+ denominations with as many and varied opinions and ideas. Many of them do not have a fixed rule of faith accessible to all. I obviously cannot speak for all the denominations but speaking generally we find a logical bridge is built between the theoretical theological principles based on selected strings of scriptures and a god they have created in their own minds.  For as long as Jesus Christ is ignored as the one and only source for all the ways and works of God, knowledge is placed in the hands of the dark motives of ordinary human beings and becomes powerless. God forbid! Let God be true and every man a liar (Rom. 3.4).  As we seek clarity on the ways and works of God, in the end, we must treat every human being, I mean literally every single one of us, as if we are in total darkness to the ways and works of God.  If we push aside Jesus Christ as the precise point for which we can all equally obtain true knowledge of God, then we listen to lies rather than God. The only light that is shed in our minds is true light and has its source in our true God, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore we let Jesus Christ be true and every man a liar.

The truth of such a phrase as homoousios to Patri (ὁμοούσιοσ τῷ Πατρί), ie of the same being with the Father, give us the assurance that the light which shines forth from out of the being of the Man, Jesus Christ, is the very same light which shines forth from out of the being of the Father.  It is this one God in whom the Son appeared to us as this Man, Jesus Christ, is the one shining light who shines in the darkness of humanity. As we come into the light, we declare Him to be true and as we assent to His knowledge we become partakers and witnesses of the light of which we share by grace. By maintaining Jesus Christ’s union with the Father and the rule which determines the manner in which we speak of Him, then our language is transformed, which the father’s described as Godliness. We speak the same as Jesus Christ, our true God, speaks. When we speak Christ’s language as the one true God, then we speak as if He is speaking through us. When we allow Him to speak through us, then we cannot help but speak the very same as was handed down by the Apostles. It is the reality of the Word made flesh in His identity of being with the Father that gives us the scope of the whole message of Scripture. When we hold this to be true and we willingly come to this knowledge then our language will reflect the reality of the object we testify to. Our confession will be consistent with what the apostles taught from the beginning.

Athanasius used such practice in his many writings defending the faith against the Arians.  Ignore this reality of Jesus Christ as the fundamental point from which all truth is measured and we walk in darkness. The language of God is muted and whatever is said is anyone’s guess.  Turn from darkness and embrace the reality of the unity of being between Jesus Christ and the Father then it is the light of Christ that shines when we speak.  The language that follows is the empirical understanding of the knowledge of God that is precisely reflected in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.

When the Nicene Creed was formulated with the word homoousios inserted into it, this word was considered a synonym with hypostasis. I believe it is important to take into consideration the understanding that these two words were often used interchangeably; literally ousia is hypostasis.  So in its earliest days, this is how Athanasius defended the use of homoousios (Ad Afros 4).  At the time of the Arian controversy, this was satisfactory enough to push the gospel and Arianism as far apart as possible.  There were some who were concerned the Christian faith was perilously close to Sabellianism and tried various other ways and means of saying the same thing without this non-scriptural term.  It was to no avail as it allowed the heretical errors to creep in and take hold.  Though it was initially used in a negative way to keep Arian ways of interpretation out of the tradition, it gradually began to be understood that it had the ability to uphold the bond of faith from which the fathers so vigorously held.  This crucial clause in the Creed, And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from his Father before all ages, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father(or: of the same being), through whom all things were made: who for us men and our salvation, came down from heaven and was made flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, as was made man . . . shows us that God was made man like us men.  This key word, homoousios cuts out all ambiguity regarding the eternal nature of Jesus Christ taking into Himself the human nature from the Virgin Mary and becoming man.  It preserved the ancient tradition and made it clear what it is the ancient church believed.  By AD451 the whole of Christendom gathered behind this Creed and ratified it as the one true creed that truly reflected what was taught from the very beginning.

What does this really mean for us today?  If we want to remain true to that which was taught from the very beginning by the apostles themselves then we declare and confess ALL the Nicene Creed says to be true.  When we do so, we stand within the freedom of the gospel they delivered to those very first Christians.  There is no other way. There is nothing else that needs to be added or taken away.  There is nothing more that needs to be said and it does not stop short of expressing the truth in the most concise and in the most fullest way.  Standing under this confession means we are being directed under the power of the Spirit of which nothing in heaven, on earth or under the earth can separate.  If this is not part of our confession, then we have wandered into darkness. If this is not what we teach, then we are blind teaching blindness to others.  If anyone tries to tell us there is an alternative to this creed, then you can be sure that what they will declare are they very same heresies this creed stood against.  It is only in the Light of Jesus Christ do we see the Light of the Triune God in all its fulness.  It is only in the Light of Jesus Christ do we understand the true nature and character of the Father, Son and Spirit.  It is only in the Light of Jesus Christ do we fully understand our adoption into their Triune life.