LESSONS FROM LITURGY: A History of the Nicene Creed and Why We Still Care
Father Thomas Pressley

LESSONS FROM LITURGY: A History of the Nicene Creed and Why We Still Care

By Father Thomas Pressley

Although the Nicene Creed rolls off the tongue of every Catholic with ease — or at least with mumbled inclusion after the Sunday homily — many Protestant denominations reject the Nicene Creed or any creed as something unbiblical or manmade, an attempt to add something to the infallible and sufficient Word of God, the Bible. Until, possibly, now, according to the recent 2024 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Annual Meeting.

I admit I did not attend this June meeting; my rather unofficial updates came through the New York Times, a dinner conversation with a friend, and the SBC’s final “Proposed Resolutions” document. With this unimpressive journalism as the background, I did find some of their topics worth noting. 

The first NYT headline informed me of three things: there is an SBC, they have an annual meeting, and the convention seemed to reject in-vitro fertilization in a discussion affirming the dignity of every human being from conception to death, including frozen embryos. The second headline said the convention, in a close battle, voted to continue to allow women pastors in their churches. Although I too certainly rejoice to hear about the dignity of every human life and confess I have not given much thought to the debate on women pastors in Protestant denominations, the theological discussion that most intrigued this priest came at dinner with a visiting priest friend: the SBC discussed formally adding the Nicene Creed to their statement of faith. Wow!

To clarify, any discussion of Protestant denominations is difficult because of the great diversity in church beliefs and structures; the last 500 years of reformations have not facilitated “in general” statements about Protestantism. There are certainly Protestants who hold the Nicene Creed to be authentic and authoritative. However, the Southern Baptist denomination has long held a distinctive stance within the broader Christian community: a commitment to being non-creedal. This position means that, historically, Southern Baptists have refrained from binding themselves officially or authoritatively to any doctrinal statements outside of Scripture itself.

But this discussion of adopting the Nicene Creed within the Baptist faith led me to consider the historical importance of the Nicene Creed itself. What is the Nicene Creed which we confess every Sunday? We know it by heart, but do we know whence it came?

In 325 A.D., Emperor Constantine summoned an ecumenical council in the city of Nicaea, located in modern day Turkey. An ecumenical council is a gathering of bishops and Church leaders to discuss doctrines of the faith and to clarify what we believe. After Christianity became legal with the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., various false beliefs grew in prominence. A priest of Alexandria named Arius taught that Jesus was our savior but not God; instead, he was a super-creature raised in dignity above the rest of creation. The controversy between the Arians and the Christians claiming the divinity of Christ negatively impacted the empire enough that Constantine intervened to seek a resolution. Fortunately for the blossoming religion of Christianity, God allowed the council to see the truth of his son Jesus’ divinity, and the council correctly determined that Jesus is God.

In 381 A.D., another ecumenical council was summoned in Constantinople, now Istanbul, to finalize the teachings on Christ’s divinity and clarify his humanity, as well as defend the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Both councils, the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople, developed a symbol of the faith, that which we call a creed. The first Nicene Creed was shorter, dealing predominately with the divinity of Christ and ending with the abrupt, “and in the Holy Spirit.” At Constantinople, the council took the already approved creed from Nicaea, developed the section on the humanity of Christ, and expanded the section on the Holy Spirit. What we now pray at every Sunday liturgy is the fruit of episcopal discussion and debate from over 1,600 years ago. The creed unites us to the past and present Church.

Two points come to mind in reference to the creed and the SBC. First, what a joy to dwell in the same Church which has spent 2,000 years clarifying what it means to be Christian. What a joy knowing we share the same beliefs as the early Church Fathers, those closest to the apostles and Christ.

Second, in his high priestly prayer (John 17), Jesus prays repeatedly that his disciples may be one. We should be encouraged that the SBC chose to discuss a topic so fundamental to the faith as the Nicene Creed. Any agreement on faith and morals that we find with our Protestant brothers and sisters is an opportunity to help spread the good news of salvation and encourage the pursuit of truth. All truth is from Christ, and when we pursue the truth, we pursue Christ.
(Father Thomas Pressley serves as parochial vicar at St. Mary’s Cathedral.)

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