Every church has a creed. A creed is a set of religious beliefs approved by a church. A creed usually consists of a brief written statement of beliefs. Some churches use written creeds that have a long history such as the “Nicene Creed.” Some churches claim to be “non-creedal” churches but this just means that there is no formal written creed that a member must accept in order to be a member. Actually, these “non-creedal” churches have specific “beliefs” that a member is expected to affirm. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word “credo” meaning I believe.
The theology of Paul became dominant in the early Christian movement but one of Paul’s ideas caused much debate among church leaders. Although Paul believed that Jesus was “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:5) and Paul referred to Jesus as the “Son” of God, Paul believed that Jesus was subordinate to “God the Father” (I Corinthians 8:6; 15:28). If the “Father” and “Son” were both divine but one ranked lower than the other, this sounded like “two Gods” or polytheism (belief in more than one God). To refute the accusation that they were polytheistic, various church leaders tried to explain how Jesus related to “God the Father.”
This theological question was debated by church leaders for three centuries! There were charges and countercharges of “heresy” against one another. The Roman emperor Constantine, who viewed the Christian church as a positive influence in the empire, became concerned that the theological controversy might threaten the unity and stability of the empire. So Constantine called the church leaders together in a Council at Nicaea to settle the matter in 325 AD.
At that time, a Christian priest named Arius in Alexandria, Egypt, was preaching that Jesus was divine because he had been created by God the Father before the world existed but that Jesus was subordinate to God the Father. Arius’ view became known as “Arianism.” Arius’ bishop, Alexander, and the theologian Athanasius argued that Jesus was co-eternal (had always existed) and had equality with God the Father.
After a long and bitter debate at the Council of Nicaea, the view of Alexander and Athanasius prevailed and was adopted by the council which produced a written creed as follows:
“We believe in one God the Father All-Sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible;
“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and on earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.
“And (we believe) in the Holy Spirit.
“But those who say, ‘There was (a time) when he (Jesus) was not (in existence),’ and ‘Before he (Jesus) was begotten he was not (in existence),’ or that ‘He (Jesus) came into being from what-is-not,’ or those that allege, that the Son of God is ‘Of a different substance or essence’ or ‘created’ or ‘changeable’ or ‘alterable,’ these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes (condemns).”
The above creed makes it very clear that the church council at Nicaea declared that Jesus the “Son of God” was co-eternal with God the Father, a position taken by Alexander and Athanasius in opposition to the position taken by Arius who believed that God the Father had created Jesus before the world was created.
By viewing Jesus and God the Father as co-eternal (existing always) and being of the same “substance” and “essence”, the Council of Nicaea contributed to the use of the terms “Jesus” and “God” in a synonymous and interchangeable way. The terms are used interchangeably in sermons and some church hymns today.
However, the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) did not really settle anything. The debate continued about the relationship of Jesus to “God the Father.” Another church council met at Antioch in 341 AD and wrote a rather ambiguous creed that could be interpreted that Jesus and “God the Father” were co-eternal but had different “personalities” and held different “ranks.” This creed was acceptable to Arian churches in the East but the Western bishops held a council at Sardica in 343 AD supporting the Council of Nicaea creed.
In 344/345 AD another council at Antioch produced a creed that sounded like the Creed of Nicaea but allowed an Arian interpretation. In 357 AD, a council at Sirmium adopted an Arian creed that stated that the “Father” is greater than the “Son” but this creed was opposed by a council at Ancyra in 358 AD. Another council at Sirmium in 359 AD produced a creed that was more of a compromise but in 381 AD a council at Constantinople reaffirmed the Creed of Nicaea from 325 AD.
The Council of Constantinople did not leave a record of the creed it produced in 381 AD but the following creed came to be used generally in the church after that date and was affirmed by the church council at Chalcedon in 451 AD. This creed became known as the “Nicene Creed” because it is based on the Creed of Nicaea (325 AD) but substantial additions and modifications were made to the creed of 325 AD.
The “Nicene Creed” became the “orthodox” creed in trinitarian Christian churches and is recited in some churches today. This creed is as follows:
“We believe in one God the Father All-Sovereign, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and cometh again with glory to judge living and dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end;
“And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-giver, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets;
“(And) in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
“We acknowledge one baptism unto the remission of sins.
“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.”
The “Nicene Creed” officially created the church doctrine of the “Trinity” of God as “Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit” who are “worshipped together.” This creed also included the doctrine that “remission of sins” came through baptism.
The western churches (under the leadership of the church at Rome), and the eastern churches (under the leadership of churches at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria) gradually drifted apart and split in 1054 when the church at Rome tried to assert leadership over all churches through the pope in Rome. In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation began in the western “catholic” church. The Protestant Reformation produced innumerable Christian sects which wrote their own creeds or statements of beliefs. Although there are significant differences in the beliefs held by various Christian sects, the theology of Paul has provided a core of beliefs to the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. Paul’s belief that Jesus was “in the form of God” is reflected in the creedal statement that the “Son” is of “one substance with the Father.”
Athanasius, a major architect of the creed of Nicaea (325 AD), adopted Paul’s doctrine of salvation coming through the death of Jesus. Believing that death is the penalty for sin, Athanasius wrote, “What then ought God do about this matter? Demand repentance….? But this would not safeguard the honour of God’s character, for He would remain inconsistent if death did not hold sway over man…. What else was needed (to save humankind from death) but the Word (logos) of God….” Here, Athanasius is using the Greek term “logos” to refer to Jesus.
(Note: “Logos” literally means “word.” Logos is the word used by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus to refer to the “reason” or “creative mind” that brought order out of chaos when the world was created. Later Greek philosophers said that it is the logos that gives intelligence to human beings. This philosophy is seen in the first chapter of the book of John.)
Then Athanasius explained, “The Word takes on a body (Jesus) capable of death, in order that, by participating in the Word, it might be worthy to die instead of all (humankind)…. Hence he (Jesus) did away with death for all who are like him by the offering of a substitute. For it was reasonable that the Word, who is above all, fulfilled the liability in (by) his death, and thus the incorruptible Son of God, ….naturally clothes all (believers) with the incorruption in promise concerning the resurrection (from death).”
It is clear that Athanasius adopted Paul’s theory of salvation which is called the “substitutionary theory of the atonement.” In this theory, Jesus substituted his death for the death of humankind, thus paying the “death penalty” which humankind had allegedly incurred by sin (disobedience to God). According to Paul and Athanasius, repentance from sin is not enough to obtain God’s forgiveness.
As seen in the “Nicene Creed,” the early church believed that salvation from sin and death came through water baptism. The creed states, “We confess one baptism for the remission of sins.” Since baptism is a function performed by the church, this belief gave the Christian clergy control over who could be “saved.” It also produced a belief that infants inherited guilt from “Adam’s sin” and were condemned to hell from the time of birth unless baptized by a Christian priest.
The theology of the Nicene Creed was carried over into the Lutheran churches in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 states:
“We unanimously hold and teach, in accordance with the decree of the Council of Nicaea, ….all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ womb. ….Moreover, this inborn sickness and heredity sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit. ….God the Son became man …. was crucified, died and buried in order to be a sacrifice not only for original sin but for all other sins and to propituate God’s wrath. ….It is taught among us that Baptism is necessary and that grace is offered through it. Children, too, should be baptized, for in Baptism they are committed to God and become acceptable to Him.”
During the Protestant Reformation, the “Reformed” churches, led by John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Menlanchthon, and others, differed in some respects from the Lutheran churches but accepted trinitarian theology and Paul’s theory of salvation through the death of Jesus.
An antitrinitarian movement also began in the sixteenth century and was opposed by the Roman Catholic Church and by Martin Luther and John Calvin, leaders of Protestant churches. This antitrinitarian movement, led by Michael Servetus of Spain, Francis David of Transylvania, and Faustus Socinus of Italy, later became known as Unitarianism.
The antitrinitarians viewed Jesus as subordinate to God “the Father,” but there was no agreement among them as to who Jesus was. Michael Servetus (1511-1553) believed that God was Jesus’ father but that Jesus did not exist before he was born on earth, so Jesus was separate from God and subordinate to God. Francis David (1510-1579) believed that Jesus was “begotten in the womb of the virgin (Mary) by the Holy Spirit” and that Jesus did not exist before his birth on earth. Francis David believed that Jesus was both “God and man.” Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) believed that Jesus was a “true man by nature” but not a “mere man” because he was “conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”
John Biddle (1615-1662) of England taught that Jesus had “no other than a human nature.” Theophilus Lindsey (1733-1804), who organized the first Unitarian congregation in England, believed that Jesus was a “man of the Jewish nation.” Thomas Belsham (1750-1829) of England believed in the “unity of God and the simple humanity of Jesus Christ.”
In 1819, the American minister William Ellery Channing preached his famous sermon entitled “Unitarian Christianity” in which he admitted that there were various opinions among Unitarians about Jesus but there was agreement that Jesus’ death was not necessary to save people from the penalty of sin. Channing said that God is always ready to forgive those who repent.
Christian Unitarianism flourished in England in the 18th century and in the United States in the 19th century but declined and virtually vanished in the 20th century because there was no clear agreement among Unitarians regarding the identity and mission of Jesus. In 1985, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in the United States deleted from its by-laws the traditional Unitarian Christian affirmation of “love to God and love to humanity,” thus officially separating the UUA from its Judeo-Christian heritage.
Historically, some Unitarian Christians have been able to recognize that the religion of Jesus is simply “love for God and love for neighbor,” and some Unitarian Christians have been able to recognize that Jesus saw himself as a human being like ourselves. But it was in the seventeenth century (C.E.) that a religious movement called “deism,” clearly recognized the humanity of Jesus and the universality of religious truths.
The Deists opposed the exclusive doctrines that were considered “orthodox” in trinitarian Christian churches such as “original sin” and the corruption of human nature, the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus, supernatural miracles and prophecies, the exclusive revelations of truth from God to individuals or through “holy books” such as the Bible or Qu’ran (Koran), and vicarious sacrifice to atone for sin. The Deists emphasized religion based on nature and human reason that promoted belief in God and virtuous living.