Why the Nicene Creed?
How does one choose the most significant Christian confession?
There are thousands of different creeds, catechisms, and confessions which Christians have used in liturgy and for instruction over the centuries. From the earliest centuries until today, various Christian bodies have searched for ways to distill Scripture and tradition into statements that serve the church in forming disciples. These statements are ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, Reformed and Arminian, progressive and evangelical. How does one decide?
The World Council of Churches, in a series of meetings and documents throughout the 20th century, decided to use the Nicene Creed. First drafted in 325 and approved at the First Ecumenical Councils in Nicea, it was modified and again approved in Constantinople in 381 (thus its formal title is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed). In 1991 the WCC produced a document, Confessing the One Faith (Faith & Order #153), expounding on this creed as a basis for the doctrinal work needed to work towards full visible unity of the constituent churches. The essay addresses up front why the WCC chose the Nicene Creed for this important role:
Why was this Creed chosen? At a time when erroneous positions on Christ and the Holy Spirit were already tearing the Church apart, the Ecumenical Councils set forth the faith of the apostolic community which it is the Church’s mission to safeguard, defend and transmit. The essential truths of this faith were summarized and articulated in creeds or confessions of faith, most often in the liturgical context of baptism.
The credal statement known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is a typically Eastern creed, the core of which dates back to the Council of Nicea (325), while its third article is linked with the Council of Constantinople (381). Because it is used in the liturgies of both East and West it is undoubtedly the best witness to the unity of the churches in the apostolic faith, as Faith and Order affirmed at Lausanne (1927). It reminds all Christians and all communities of their faith, and links it with the faith of all ages and all places. The churches of the Reformation have included it in their credal books as a reference text that objectively expresses the faith, making no concessions to religious sentimentality, and drawing directly on Scripture. (Preface, ix.)
The World Council of Churches has judged this statement of faith so significant that they made it the basis of ecumenical dialogue for nearly a century. This alone should be reason enough for Christians in 2016 to embrace it. For in confessing together this creed from the 4th century, we join with Christians across time and space. The WCC document continues:
The Nicene Creed as a confession of faith belongs to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In the Nicene Creed the individual joins with all the baptized gathered together in each and every place, now and throughout the ages, in the Church’s proclamation of faith: “we believe in”. The confession “we believe in” articulates not only the trust of individuals and God’s grace, but it also affirms the trust of the whole Church in God. There is a bond of communion among those who join together in making a common confession of their faith. However, as long as the churches which confess the Creed are not united with one another, the visible communion of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church remains impaired.
Just as in baptism the confession of faith is made in response to God’s grace, so too the Church’s on-going confession is made in response to God’s grace and love, most particularly vouchsafed in the preached word and celebrated sacraments of the Church. Hence the Church’s liturgy is the proper context for the Church’s confession of faith. (pp. 15-16)
This is why the Nicene Creed is, as its broad use across a number of communions and by the chief ecumenical body on the globe testify, the preeminent statement of Christian confession. As Christians have recognized since 381, nothing else witnesses to the unity of the apostolic faith in the undivided church with both the theological beauty and ecumenical authority that can match this ancient confession.
Why the Nicene Creed? There is simply no substitute.