The Nicene Creed has defined historical orthodoxy for centuries. It is broad enough to include Calvinists and Roman Catholics. Despite all of our differences and even some anathemas, we can ecumenically rejoice in our shared Nicene faith. We may lodge major theological objections toward one another. Roman Catholics may be offended by the low Marian theology exhibited throughout Protestant churches, while we Protestants are aghast at the reverence for the Mother of God. Yet Calvinists and Catholics share the Nicene faith.
I am not focusing so much on our differences. In fact, I am not even focusing on the similarities between Catholicism and Calvinism. Instead, I want to write a little about the Nicene Creed. It has defined the Christian faith for centuries. Christians who believe it and even recite it every week may have questions about some of the language. We may wonder what it means or if it has a biblical foundation. Of course, I am not a church historian. But I think I can provide a bit of theological context.
We believe in one God…
“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”
It might surprise you to learn that this expression of pure monotheism is quoted from 1st Corinthians 8:6. The text reads, “For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” Many scholars think this verse is Paul’s application of Israel’s shema. The shema is the thesis statement for the nation of Israel. It comes from Deuteronomy 6:4, which says that “the Lord our God is one.” Paul adjusted the shema to include the incarnation.
This means that trinitarian and Nicene Christians are thoroughly monotheistic. Oneness Pentecostals who cite Deuteronomy 6:4 against trinitarians are not understanding that the Nicene faith is monotheistic at its core. We believe in the shema. But we also believe with the apostle Paul that it needs to be adjusted to include the incarnation. This line also expresses what is known as divine aseity. Aseity entails that all things are contingent upon God. As expressed by Paul in 1st Corinthians 8:6, Christ also possesses divine aseity. This would also exclude the existence of platonic forms, insofar as they have their being independently of God.
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ…
“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.”
Though Nicene Christians are monotheists, we also believe that there are three persons within God. God is the what while the Father, the Son and the Spirit are the who. Jesus Christ is the Son. These lines within the creed have two relationships with 1st Corinthians 8:6. First, it rightly ascribes divine aseity to the Lord Jesus Christ just as Paul and John did, in saying “Through him all things were made” (John 1:3). For the authors of the Nicene Creed (and the Bible), Jesus was “true God” and “of the same essence as the Father” which essentially means that Jesus is God. Second, it uses some philosophical categories that the would have been unknown to the apostle Paul.
This is what theologians refer to as the eternal generation of the Son. It is expressed in statements like “begotten from the Father before all ages.” The concept of “God from God” indicates this as well. On pages 28-38 of his book Was Jesus God?, Dr. Richard Swinburne argued for this position. He suggested that the eternal generation of the Son would be a necessary consequence of God’s love. If God is intrinsically loving, there must be an intrinsic relationship within the Godhead. The Son would have proceeded from the Father in eternity. That is not to say that the Father was chronologically prior to the Son. There was never a time when the Son was not. Nicene Christianity is expressing an eternal procession. There is a logical rather than a chronological priority.
For us and for our salvation…
“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.”
Interestingly, Oneness Pentecostal theologians such as Dr. David K. Bernard have suggested that the Nicene Creed can be interpreted in a way that is consistent with their theology. Oneness Pentecostalism is the view that Jesus Christ is the only person within the Godhead. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are different modes that he takes on. The Father is his divine nature while the Son is his human nature. Bernard thinks that you can interpret the Nicene Creed in those terms. But that does not make sense of the creed’s reference to the incarnation. Bernard would have to say that “God from God” was the incarnation. Yet the text says that the “God from God” became a man. So the incarnation is referring to the second person of the trinity according to the Nicene Creed.
This line begins by providing the purpose of the incarnation, which is our salvation. If you were to ask the writers of the creed, they would probably also say that it was for the redemption of the whole world. A time will come when Christ makes all things new. This might be where Dr. NT Wright’s New Perspective on Paul is relevant. Dr. Wright suggests that Christians focus too much on the idea of how we can get into Heaven. But if you look at the full narrative extending from the covenant that God made with Abraham, you will see that it is a story of God’s covenant with his people and how we can enter into it. That covenant will be the redemption of the entire world and our souls. We also see an affirmation of the Virgin birth and true humanity of Christ. While Christ was truly God, he was also truly man. The apostle Paul says that he was a “descendant of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3).
He was crucified for us…
“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.”
A historian will tell you that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. But the notion that he was crucified for us is a theological additive. The apostle Paul tells us that while Christ was under the curse of God, he became a curse on our behalf (Galatians 3:13). The Nicene Creed is actually drawing from 1st Corinthians 15:3-8, which is one of the earliest creeds of the Christian church. It is pre-Pauline, and many scholars believe that he learned it from Peter and James shortly after his conversion. It should be noted that the Nicene Creed does not delineate any specific model of the atonement. This would serve as a unifying element between Calvinists and Catholics. As a Calvinist, I believe in a substitutionary model of the atonement, which is to say that Christ died in the place of his people. Most Roman Catholics would think of the atonement a little differently, namely that Christ freed us from the powers of darkness. Strictly speaking, both are compatible with one another and the Nicene Creed leaves the door open.
An objection to the substitutionary model is that it does not actually require a resurrection. Christ could have died in the place of his people and just remained dead. The Christus Victor model does require a resurrection, otherwise the powers of darkness would have remained undefeated. But I do not think the best way to think of this is to pit these models against each other. It may be that there are different layers of the atonement. A comprehensive understanding would lead us to be open to several different models.
When we say that Christ ascended into Heaven, we mean he took his rightful place where he spent eternity. The only difference is that he is returning with a truly human nature, standing at the Father’s side for all eternity. Since he is in a glorified human body, he is no longer enduring the humiliating state of being in our likeness. Paul calls Christ’s resurrection the “first fruits of the resurrection of the dead” (1st Corinthians 15:23), and we know that we will rise to the same glorified state as Christ. Until then, Christ is at the Father’s side advocating for us when we sin (1st John 2:1). He is pointing back to the crucifixion where our sins were nailed to the cross.
He will come again with glory…
He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will never end.
We often lament this fallen world. We will ask where God’s justice is. Evil monarchs rise up and good people fall by the sword. This message of God’s judgment is actually a message of hope. Jesus tells us that all of those who did evil will be raised to a resurrection of judgment (John 5:29). Across the theological spectrum, from Calvinists to Catholics, Nicene Christians know that evil and suffering will be vanquished. The Judge of all the earth will do what is right (Genesis 18:25) and give his people a righteous kingdom that will never end. Isaiah 9:6-7 reads:
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,
On the throne of David and over his kingdom,
To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness
From then on and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit…
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.
The third person of the trinity is the Holy Spirit. Identifying him as the “giver of life,” the creed could have two things in mind. First, in Genesis 1:2, we see that the Holy Spirit is hovering or “brooding” over the deep. Some scholars associate this brooding with the production of biological life. Second, the authors could have Pentecost in mind. The Holy Spirit gives new life, such that the old man is dead and the new has arisen (2nd Corinthians 5:17). This also completes the metaphor of baptism, where the old man is being buried with Christ and then rises again from the dead.
This line also uses the language of eternal generation. He proceeds from the Father and the Son. See the above discussion about the procession of the Son from the Father. Richard Swinburne has some interesting insight in the cited pages above. He suggested that the greatest expression of love is to share that love with somebody else. The Father and the Son needed to share their love, and so the Holy Spirit proceeded from that relationship. But again, this is an eternal procession. So there was never a time when the Holy Spirit was absent.
In affirming that the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets, the creed is probably affirming the books of the Old and New Testaments. But like its affirmation of the atonement, it allows a little room for different interpretations. There are different theories of how the Holy Spirit inspired the prophets. Some think he inspired in such a way that they could not err while writing. Others have different ideas. I think Nicene Christianity welcomes both parties.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church…
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.
Most Protestants will tell you that there is a difference between catholicism and Catholicism. The former relates to the universal church rather than one specific congregation or denomination. This would be the holy catholic and apostolic church the Nicene Creed is referring to. The latter relates to Roman Catholicism. That would also have implications for how we understand church history. If we relate every usage of the word catholic to Roman Catholicism, then the Roman Catholic Church would have pretty deep roots. It seems like that would be difficult to establish either way. We just know that the Nicene Creed reveres the church as Christ’s body and a beacon of light in the world (Matthew 5:16).
Beyond that, the creed does seem to affirm baptismal regeneration. Baptismal regeneration is the view that water baptism is the mechanism by which faith and justification are wrought. It seems to be citing Acts 2:38, which reads “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Intriguingly, the typical Protestant interpretation of Acts 2:38 would not be available when interpreting the Nicene Creed. We might say that repentance is grammatically connected to the remission of sins, but baptism is not. In the Nicene Creed, water baptism absolutely is connected to the remission of sins.
Another possible interpretation of Acts 2:38 is the flexibility of the word “for”. It can sometimes be used like this: “I am going to the store, for their have coffee.” It can also be used as “I am going to the store for coffee.” The first usage would create a different relationship with baptism and the remission of sins. It would be like saying, “Get baptized because of the remission of sins.” But no matter your interpretation of Acts 2:38, we can all agree that baptism introduces the believer into the body of Christ and God’s covenant. It is very strongly tied in with salvation in the New Testament, even if it does not literally wash away sins.
We can also all affirm that we hope in the future resurrection. Many people wonder about what will happen when they die and whether there is an afterlife. But Christ provides an answer. His resurrection from the dead is our hope of eternal life. Since he rose, we know that we, too, will rise in his likeness and be with him forever in the world to come.
Why Calvinists And Catholics Share The Nicene Faith
Catholics and Calvinists have a lot of major differences that should not be overlooked. Many of us even disagree about justification. But when expressing their faith, the theologians of old wrote about who God is. We should look to the Nicene Creed as an expression of our shared faith and a model for how we can meditate on God and everything he has done.