By Peter Amsterdam
March 31, 2020
(Points for this article were taken from The Creed, by Luke Timothy Johnson.1)
Throughout Christian history, various statements of belief have condensed the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith into relatively short statements generally known as creeds. The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, which means “I believe.” Creeds, sometimes called confessions of faith or articles of faith, summarize in a formal statement the basic or essential beliefs of a particular denomination, or in some cases of Christianity overall.
The focus in this short series will be the creed commonly known as the Nicene Creed, written in AD 325 at the First Council of Nicaea. It was revised at the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381. The formal name of this creed is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It is an ecumenical creed, which means that it focuses on the beliefs regarding God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, that are accepted as true by all Christians. As such, it can be recited by all Christians, and is accepted by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and major Protestant churches.
The basis of the creed is found in the Old Testament proclamation by Moses known as the Shema:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”2
This was the foundational statement of faith of the Jewish people. That God is one is also clearly stated within the New Testament. When Jesus was asked which commandment was most important of all, He stated,
“The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”3
In the book of James we find,
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!4
Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it became necessary for the first disciples, all of whom were Jewish, to alter their understanding of God. They saw Jesus’ miracles, heard His teaching, witnessed His death, and then saw Him alive once again, and this changed their understanding of who He was.
Jesus rising from the dead was a life-changing event for believers, which Scripture describes as having become a new creation.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.5
Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.6
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven, the believers who had become new creations began to understand that Jesus was Christ, Lord, and Son of God. This understanding of Jesus’ deity caused a separation from the Jewish belief system.
If Jesus’ followers had only considered Him to be “the Christ,”7 which means the anointed one, the “Messiah,” they most likely wouldn’t have faced the opposition and persecution from Judaism that they did. Rather, His followers would have been seen as a messianic movement within Judaism, albeit a failed one, because of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The conviction which separated the early Christians from their fellow Jews was that Jesus is Lord. Christians were applying the name LORD, which in Judaism was reserved exclusively for the God of Israel, to Jesus, who in the eyes of the Jewish leadership was a convicted, crucified criminal.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.8
God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.9
Elsewhere, the apostle Paul states,
Although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.10
Paul maintains the supremacy of the Father as the one God, the Creator. However, he also expresses Jesus’ status and His function in a manner which points to both an equality with and subordination to God. He assigns the name God to the Father and “Lord” to Jesus, which ascribes divinity to both.
Having pointed to Jesus as Christ and as Lord, Paul then speaks of Jesus as the Son of God in light of His resurrection.
Concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.11
Paul also quotes the words of Psalm 2:7,
I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.”12
In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul refers to God who sends His Son, and he then refers to the Spirit of his Son.
When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”13
Here, the Spirit is recognized as different from God the Father and from the Son.
Elsewhere, Paul refers to the Holy Spirit as being both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. … For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. … The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.14
Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. A core belief of Christianity is that there is one God and that He is tri-personal. God has interaction and a personal relationship between the different Persons within the being of God.15
While the Old Testament doesn’t specifically state that God is tri-personal, there are verses which allude to it.
Draw near to Me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there. And now the Lord God has sent Me, and His Spirit.16
Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son’s name? Surely you know!17
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”18
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.”19
Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.20
I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”21
In the New Testament, the understanding that there are three Persons in the being of God became clear. As I wrote elsewhere,
The understanding of the three persons in one God became clearer in the New Testament because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the believers. The followers of Jesus came to understand that He was God, but was distinct from the Father, and that the Holy Spirit was also God, but was distinct from the Father and the Son. So it was in New Testament times that the truth of the Trinity unfolded and was revealed.22
In the second century, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, wrote a number of letters to the churches in Asia Minor and Rome. In one of them, he wrote:
Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who is of the stock of David, who is of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight to the beings of heaven, of earth and the underworld, who was also truly raised from the dead.23
He provided historical details about Jesus, such as naming David, Mary, and Pontius Pilate, and put an emphasis on Jesus being truly born, eating and drinking, being persecuted, and dying, to make the point that Jesus fully shared in the human condition.
Another early Christian writing, Justin Martyr’s First Apology 61, states that believers receive baptism “In the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” Then as the person was led to baptismal water, “there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sin, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe.” As they entered the water, the other names were invoked: “And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illumined is washed.” This early baptism ritual brings the understanding that God is “Father and Lord of the universe,” Jesus is “Saviour,” and the Holy Spirit is the one who “through the prophets foretold all things about.”
The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed summarizes what the Bible teaches about the Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Subsequent articles will cover the text of the Creed phrase by phrase, but here is the Creed in its entirety.24 (Some versions begin with “I believe” instead of “We believe.”)
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
(To be continued in Part Two.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 The Creed—What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (New York: Doubleday, 2003).
2 Deuteronomy 6:4.
3 Mark 12:29–30.
4 James 2:19.
5 2 Corinthians 5:16–17.
6 Galatians 6:15.
7 Mark 8:29.
8 Romans 10:9.
9 Philippians 2:9–11.
10 1 Corinthians 8:5–6.
11 Romans 1:3–4.
12 Acts 13:33 quoting Psalm 2:7.
13 Galatians 4:4–6.
14 Romans 8:9–16.
16 Isaiah 48:16.
17 Proverbs 30:4.
18 Genesis 1:26.
19 Genesis 3:22.
20 Genesis 11:7.
21 Isaiah 6:8.
23 Letter to the Trallians 9:1–2.