EARLY CHRISTIAN HISTORY
The Nicene Creed
In the early fourth century AD, Christian bishops in the Roman Empire traveled to the ancient town of Nicaea at the direction of Emperior Constantine the Great for the first time as an ecumenical council.
Many of the bishops had walked in suffering for their faith during times of persecution, but now they rode in comfort to Nicaea with numerous priests and deacons--all traveling at the emperor's expense. Among the notable bishops was Eusebius of Caesarea, later to be called the 'father of church history'.
Nicaea is now called Iznik, in modern-day Turkey, and is located in a fertile basin at the eastern edge of Lake Ascanius and surrounded by hills.
Constantine called the clerics together to unify the 4th century church in the face of growing theological disputes, primarily over the nature and divinity of Jesus Christ.
Some 300 bishops gathered in the emperor's grand lakeside palace. In the center of the chamber, on a throne, lay the four gospels. Constantine was dressed in a purple gown and wore a silver diadem. He opened the Council of Nicaea by saying, "I rejoice to see you here, yet I should be more pleased to see unity and affection among you."
The dispute began when a bishop of early Christianity preached Christ was created by God. This horrified many clerics, who argued that Christ co-existed eternally with God.
Constantine told the delegates assembled in the Senatus Palace in Nicaea to resolve their differences. Many bishops argued that God the Father created Christ the Son before the beginning of time, while others asserted that Christ had the same divine essence as God the Father.
If Christ is not God, then how can he overcome the infinite gap between God and man?
The bishops finally voted and approved the first Nicene Creed in 325 AD. But disagreement over the meaning of Scripture on the deity of Christ continued for more than fifty years. Another council of bishops met in Constantinople in 381 AD and adopted an expanded form of the earlier creed.
The creed affirms the doctrine of the Trinity: that God is three "persons" (Father, Son, and Spirit) in one nature or essence. Each person is fully divine, yet each is distinct.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty!
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
"No other major religion confesses or worships a three-in-one deity. . . . Chrisitans themselves are hard pressed to explain what they mean when they sing of the "blessed Trinity." Most are content to treat the doctrine as a piece of sublime mystery. It wasn't so in the early church. Fourth-century Christians felt a nagging restlessness about the doctrine, like scholars who have a piece of unfinished research. Three in One and One in Three, each identical and yet different? With such mysteries to disagree upon, it wasn't long before everyone was calling somebody else a heretic." (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language)
People who reject the doctrine of the Trinity argue today that it was neither taught by Jesus nor part of the early church, but rather was imposed by Constantine on the bishops who gathered at Nicaea.
But this was not the case.
The doctrine is at the heart of Christ's Great Commission in the New Testament, which tells believers to ". . . go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.." The doctrine was a widely held belief before the council met. Among the leading church fathers who defended the doctrine were Polycarp, Justin, Martyr, Ignatius, Tertullian, and Origen.
The Nicene Creed is the most widely accepted and used brief statements of the Christian Faith. In Liturgical Churches, it is said every Sunday as part of the Liturgy. It is Common Ground to East Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, and many other Christian denominations. Many Christian denomanations that do not have a tradition of using it in their services nevertheless are committed to the doctrines it teaches.
To us in the 21st century, the first Council of Nicaea is like a mountain in the landscape of the early church. For the protagonists themselves, though, it was more of an emergency meeting forced on the parties by Roman imperial power to stop an internal religious squabble.
The bishops found themselves in a swamp of controversy that, at times, seemed to threaten the very life of the early Christian church.
To understand the council's significance, we need to enter the minds of the two sides of the dispute and ask why the question of Jesus' divinity caused so much bitterness and confusion. The answer: like other "simple" questions, this was in fact a highly complex and provocative theological issue.
Who came to the gathering of bishops? Of the roughly three hundred clerics, most were from Eastern churches, with only six or seven recorded as having come from Western. Among them were Ossius of Cordoba, Caecilianus of Carthage, and two representatives from the church of Rome. "The small number from the West reflected the general ignorance among churches of those theological issues that had embroiled the East," according to D.H. Williams, professor of patristics and historical theology.
Why Do We Need the Nicene Creed?
You begin with the simple and inescapable fact that the Scriptures must be interpreted. The Bible is not a doctrinal treatise. It's not a catechism. It's not a set of well-defined teachings. It's basically a narrative, a story about what God has done in the coming of Christ.
So from the beginning, how to understand the various parts of the Scriptures in relation one to another was an enormous challenge for Christians.
The conviction of the early church was that the Bible was one book. It had one story. So you had to try to find a way to bring what was read in Paul's letter, for instance, into relation to what was read in Mark.
And this wasn't a simple matter of quoting biblical verses; there were honest differences of opinion as to who they were to be understood.
The basic problem was that early Christians began, as Jews, with the belief that God was one. On the basis of his teachings and miracles, the kind of person Jesus was, and because he rose from the dead, Christians said, "This man is not like any other man"--he is in some sense divine, or God.
But how do you say that God is one when you've got two identifiable realities--God the Father and God the Son--and claim they're God? That's the problem. And it's not an easy problem to solve.
The church very early on attracted well-educated people, and they began to think about what they confessed, what they believed, and to say, "Well, what does this mean?" or "How can this be, in light of what is said elsewhere in Scripture?"
And eventually the problem emerged, namely, "How can we believe in one God and claim that Jesus, a human being, is also God?" That led to the controversy.
The Nicene Creed tries to define, to use more precise language for the church's faith, to set boundaries. It even introduces a word that is not in the Bible, homoousios, of one substance or being. The bishops felt that it helped explain how God could be one yet two-fold (the debate about the Holy Spirit followed two generations later).
With that term the council fathers wished to say that in whatever way God is God, Christ also is God and comes into being eternally from the Father--and not made like human beings.
(Adapted in part from a longer interview with Robert Louis Wilken, the William Kenan Professor of Early Christian History at the University of Virginia, with Christian History & Biography, 2005)
What We Learn from the Early Church
Dr. Tim Keller of the Gospel Coaliton HERE
What Do Earliest Christian Manuscripts Tell Us About Their Readers?
Dr. Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh HERE
A Survey of Church History, Part 1 AD 100 to 600 (Video Series)
Dr. Robert Godfrey of Ligonier Ministries HERE
What Really Happened at Nicaea?
Christian Research Institute HERE
Submerged Church Honoring Council of Nicaea in 325 AD Discovered
Associates for Biblical Research HERE
Translations of Writings of Ante-Nicene Fathers To 325 AD
Reprint of Edinburgh Edition, 1913 HERE
Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume One, by Phillip Schaff
Christian Classics Ethereal Library HERE
Read more articles about the early church
One of several books you will find here worth reading . . .
Nicaea and its Legacy, by Lewis Ayres. This book offers a new account of the most important century in the development of Christian belief after Christ. He shows how the doctrine of the Trinity was developed, and in particular argues that a conception of God's mysteriousness and spiritual progress towards understanding is central to that doctrine. He also proposes that modern theologies of the Trinity fail to appreciate the depth and power of Nicene trinitarianism.
A Personal Relationship with Christ
A personal relationship with Christ begins at the moment of our salvation. Only when we are born spiritually into God's family do we become members of His spiritual kingdom. While we may not know exactly when this new life begins, we can understand the steps we need to begin this new relationship:
(Adapted from Our Daily Bread)
Early Christian History
Contact us at: email@example.com
Copyright 2020. EarlyChristians.net. All rights reserved.