While the origins of the Apostles’ Creed are somewhat unclear, the creation of the Nicene Creed happened at a specific time and for specific reasons.
As the early church began to develop, it was forced into determining what was orthodox and what was heresy, what was accepted as doctrine and what was “anathema,” cursed as outside of orthodoxy. This forced determinism resulted from competing ideas and philosophies that were gaining traction among the young believers in a relatively young belief system. The church had to correct what it determined to be heresy and establish doctrinal and practical norms that would be consistent for all people who called themselves “Christian.”
Of course, this is what motivated the writing of many of the New Testament epistles. The apostle Paul, for example, wrote to the church at Colosse in part to counter “hollow and deceptive philosophy,” which was being used to try to deceive the church with “fine-sounding arguments.” (See Colossians chapter two.) As much as Paul, Peter, and John wrote to encourage the believers in what they already knew to be true, they also wrote to combat false teaching and to establish the boundaries of sound doctrine.
Similarly, as the early church continued to grow, combating false teaching became a reason for the establishment of a Scriptural canon. Paul, Peter, John, and others had written, but not all writings were widely used or recognized as authoritative. Therefore, the early church had to determine criteria by which writings could be qualified as authoritative and then grouped together to create an accepted standard by which competing ideas could be evaluated. Such a group of letters and writings came together as a canon and by the late 2nd century something resembling the New Testament was formed.
The formation of the New Testament didn’t quench all discussion however, and in the 3rd century a guy name Arius popularized the idea that Jesus was a created being and not, therefore, equal with God, a belief that came to be known as Arianism.
Combating Arianism was one of the reasons for the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, at which the first version of what is now known as the Nicene Creed was created. In 381 AD it was amended and today its various versions, all commonly referred to by the same name, are used in a variety of Christian traditions. Here is an English version:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Of course, the phrases intended to combat Arianism are obvious. Clearly the early church believed that Jesus was not created but was eternal and equal with God.
Beyond that, although it is a little more detailed than the Apostles’ Creed, all that we said about the Apostles’ Creed could apply to it as well. The Nicene Creed is an announcement of the gospel, a statement of truth of the good news about Jesus. “One Church, one baptism, the resurrection of the dead, the life of the world to come.” Some versions use the plural “We believe,” and others “I believe,” but there is nothing about those who don’t believe, no attempt at determining who is in or out, or even the notion that such categories exist. Jesus is the judge of both the living and the dead, and even the dead are expected to experience resurrection. Both creeds announce the good news and leave it at that.
So, just like with the Apostles’ Creed, I don’t think we find anything in the Nicene Creed that would prohibit a belief in ultimate redemption, nothing that would discourage someone from being an “Ultimate Redemptionist.”
That seems like good news.
Interestingly enough, “Ultimate Redemptionist” is how some have described Gregory of Nyssa, who was heavily involved at the council in 381 AD, having been described as the “editor” of the Nicene Creed. Apparently everyone else at the Council of Constantinople was okay with him believing God was ultimately going to redeem everyone. So, maybe he wasn’t alone in his belief.
Really good news, really.
We’ll talk about Gregory next time.