Oldest extant manuscript of the Nicene Creed, dated to the 6th Century
The purpose of a creed is to provide a doctrinal statement of correct belief or orthodoxy. The creeds of Christianity have been drawn up at times of conflict about doctrine: acceptance or rejection of a creed served to distinguish believers and deniers of particular doctrines. For that reason, a creed was called in Greek a σύμβολον (symbolon), which originally meant half of a broken object which, when fitted to the other half, verified the bearer's identity. The Greek word passed through Latin symbolum into English "symbol", which only later took on the meaning of an outward sign of something.
The Nicene Creed was adopted to resolve the Arian controversy, whose leader, Arius, a clergyman of Alexandria, "objected to Alexander's (the bishop of the time) apparent carelessness in blurring the distinction of nature between the Father and the Son by his emphasis on eternal generation". In reply, Alexander accused Arius of denying the divinity of the Son and also of being too "Jewish" and "Greek" in his thought. Alexander and his supporters created the Nicene Creed to clarify the key tenets of the Christian faith in response to the widespread adoption of Arius' doctrine, which was henceforth marked as heresy.
The Nicene Creed of 325 explicitly affirms the co-essential divinity of the Son, applying to him the term "consubstantial". The 381 version speaks of the Holy Spirit as worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son. The later Athanasian Creed (not used in Eastern Christianity) describes in much greater detail the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The earlier Apostles' Creed does not explicitly affirm the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, but in the view of many who use it, this doctrine is implicit in it.
Original Nicene Creed of 325
The original Nicene Creed was first adopted in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea. At that time, the text ended with the words "We believe in the Holy Spirit", after which various anathemas against Arian propositions were added.
F. J. A. Hort and Adolf Harnack argued that the Nicene creed was the local creed of Caesarea (an important center of Early Christianity) recited in the council by Eusebius of Caesarea. Their case relied largely on a very specific interpretation of Eusebius' own account of the Council's proceedings. More recent scholarship has not been convinced by their arguments. The large number of secondary divergences from the text of the creed quoted by Eusebius make it unlikely that it was used as a starting point by those who drafted the conciliar creed. Their initial text was probably a local creed from a Syro–Palestinian source into which they awkwardly inserted phrases to define the Nicene theology. The Eusebian Creed may thus have been either a second or one of many nominations for the Nicene Creed.
Soon after the Council of Nicaea, new formulae of faith were composed, most of them variations of the Nicene Symbol, to counter new phases of Arianism. The Catholic Encyclopedia identifies at least four before the Council of Sardica (341), where a new form was presented and inserted in the Acts of the Council, though it was not agreed on.
What is known as the "Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed" or the "Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed" received this name because of a belief that it was adopted at the Second Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 381 as a modification of the original Nicene Creed of 325. In that light, it also came to be very commonly known simply as the "Nicene Creed". It is the only authoritative ecumenical statement of the Christian faith accepted by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and the major Protestant denominations. (The Apostles' and Athanasian creeds are not as widely accepted.)
It differs in a number of respects, both by addition and omission, from the creed adopted at the First Council of Nicaea. The most notable difference is the additional section "And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver-of-Life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets. And [we believe] in one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, [and] we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen."
Since the end of the 19th century, scholars have questioned the traditional explanation of the origin of this creed, which has been passed down in the name of the council, whose official acts have been lost over time. A local council of Constantinople in 382 and the third ecumenical council (Ephesus, 431) made no mention of it, with the latter affirming the 325 creed of Nicaea as a valid statement of the faith and using it to denounce Nestorianism. Though some scholarship claims that hints of the later creed's existence are discernible in some writings, no extant document gives its text or makes explicit mention of it earlier than the fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon in 451. Many of the bishops of the 451 council themselves had never heard of it and initially greeted it skeptically, but it was then produced from the episcopal archives of Constantinople, and the council accepted it "not as supplying any omission but as an authentic interpretation of the faith of Nicaea". In spite of the questions raised, it is considered most likely that this creed was in fact adopted at the 381 second ecumenical council.
On the basis of evidence both internal and external to the text, it has been argued that this creed originated not as an editing of the original Creed proposed at Nicaea in 325, but as an independent creed (probably an older baptismal creed) modified to make it more like the Nicene Creed. Some scholars have argued that the creed may have been presented at Chalcedon as "a precedent for drawing up new creeds and definitions to supplement the Creed of Nicaea, as a way of getting round the ban on new creeds in Canon 7 of Ephesus". It is generally agreed that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed is not simply an expansion of the Creed of Nicaea, and was probably based on another traditional creed independent of the one from Nicaea.
The third Ecumenical Council (Council of Ephesus of 431) reaffirmed the original 325 version of the Nicene Creed and declared that "it is unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different (ἑτέραν) faith as a rival to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicaea" (i.e., the 325 creed). The word ἑτέραν is more accurately translated as used by the Council to mean "different", "contradictory", rather than "another". This statement has been interpreted as a prohibition against changing this creed or composing others, but not all accept this interpretation. This question is connected with the controversy whether a creed proclaimed by an Ecumenical Council is definitive in excluding not only excisions from its text but also additions to it.
In one respect, the Eastern Orthodox Church's received text of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed differs from the earliest text, which is included in the acts of the Council of Chalcedon of 451: The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the singular forms of verbs such as "I believe", in place of the plural form ("we believe") used by the council. Byzantine Rite Eastern Catholic Churches use exactly the same form of the Creed, since the Catholic Church teaches that it is wrong to add "and the Son" to the Greek verb "ἐκπορευόμενον", though correct to add it to the Latin "qui procedit", which does not have precisely the same meaning. The form generally used in Western churches does add "and the Son" and also the phrase "God from God", which is found in the original 325 Creed.
Comparison between creed of 325 and creed of 381
The following table, which indicates by [square brackets] the portions of the 325 text that were omitted or moved in 381, and uses italics to indicate what phrases, absent in the 325 text, were added in 381, juxtaposes the earlier (AD 325) and later (AD 381) forms of this Creed in the English translation given in Philip Schaff's compilation The Creeds of Christendom (1877).
|First Council of Nicaea (325)
||First Council of Constantinople (381)
|We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
||We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
|And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
||And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
|By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];
||by whom all things were made;
|Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
||who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
|He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
||he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
|From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
||from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead. ;
||whose kingdom shall have no end.
|And in the Holy Ghost.
||And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.
||In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
|[But those who say: 'There was a time when he was not;' and 'He was not before he was made;' and 'He was made out of nothing,' or 'He is of another substance' or 'essence,' or 'The Son of God is created,' or 'changeable,' or 'alterable'— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]
The differences between the actual wordings (in Greek) adopted in 325 and in 381 can be presented in a similar way, as follows:
|First Council of Nicaea (325)
||First Council of Constantinople (381)
|Πιστεύομεν εἰς ἕνα Θεὸν Πατέρα παντοκράτορα, πάντων ὁρατῶν τε και ἀοράτων ποιητήν.
||Πιστεύομεν εἰς ἕνα Θεὸν Πατέρα παντοκράτορα, ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς, ὁρατῶν τε πάντων καὶ ἀοράτων.
|Πιστεύομεν εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ, γεννηθέντα ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς [μονογενῆ, τοὐτέστιν ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ Πατρός, Θεὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ,] φῶς ἐκ φωτός, θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα, οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί
||Καὶ εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων, φῶς ἐκ φωτός, Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί·
|δι' οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο, [τά τε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ καὶ τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς]
||δι' οὗ τὰ πάντα ἐγένετο·
|τὸν δι' ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους καὶ διὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν σωτηρίαν κατελθόντα καὶ σαρκωθέντα καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα,
||τὸν δι' ἡμᾶς τοὺς ἀνθρώπους καὶ διὰ τὴν ἡμετέραν σωτηρίαν κατελθόντα ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν καὶ σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα,
|παθόντα, καὶ ἀναστάντα τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ, καὶ ἀνελθόντα εἰς τοὺς οὐρανούς,
σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου, καὶ παθόντα καὶ ταφέντα, καὶ ἀναστάντα τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ κατὰ τὰς γραφάς, καὶ ἀνελθόντα εἰς τοὺς οὐρανούς, καὶ καθεζόμενον ἐκ δεξιῶν τοῦ Πατρός,
|καὶ ἐρχόμενον κρῖναι ζῶντας καὶ νεκρούς.
||καὶ πάλιν ἐρχόμενον μετὰ δόξης κρῖναι ζῶντας καὶ νεκρούς·
||οὗ τῆς βασιλείας οὐκ ἔσται τέλος.
|Καὶ εἰς τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα.
||Καὶ εἰς τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον, τὸ Κύριον, τὸ ζῳοποιόν, τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον, τὸ σὺν Πατρὶ καὶ Υἱῷ συμπροσκυνούμενον καὶ συνδοξαζόμενον, τὸ λαλῆσαν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν. Εἰς μίαν, ἁγίαν, καθολικὴν καὶ ἀποστολικὴν Ἐκκλησίαν· ὁμολογοῦμεν ἓν βάπτισμα εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν· προσδοκοῦμεν ἀνάστασιν νεκρῶν, καὶ ζωὴν τοῦ μέλλοντος αἰῶνος. Ἀμήν.
|[Τοὺς δὲ λέγοντας, Ἦν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν, καὶ Πρὶν γεννηθῆναι οὐκ ἦν, καὶ ὅτι Ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων εγένετο, ἢ Ἐξ ἑτέρας ὑποστάσεως ἢ οὐσίας φάσκοντας εἶναι, ἢ κτιστόν, ἢ τρεπτόν, ἢ ἀλλοιωτὸν τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ, τούτους ἀναθεματίζει ἡ ἁγία καθολικὴ καὶ ἀποστολικὴ ἐκκλησία].
In the late 6th century, some Latin-speaking churches added the words "and from the Son" (Canon VII of the Third Ecumenical Council, since the words were not included in the text by either the Council of Nicaea or that of Constantinople. This was incorporated into the liturgical practice of Rome in 1014. Filioque eventually became one of the main causes for the East-West Schism in 1054, and the failures of the repeated union attempts.
The Vatican stated in 1995 that, while the words καὶ τοῦ Υἱοῦ ("and the Son") would indeed be heretical if used with the Greek verb ἐκπορεύομαι—which is one of the terms used by St. Gregory of Nazianzus and the one adopted by the Council of Constantinople—the word Filioque is not heretical when associated with the Latin verb procedo and the related word processio. Whereas the verb ἐκπορεύομαι (from ἐκ, "out of" and πορεύομαι "to come or go") in Gregory and other Fathers necessarily means "to originate from a cause or principle," the Latin term procedo (from pro, "forward;" and cedo, "to go") has no such connotation and simply denotes the communication of the Divine Essence or Substance. In this sense, processio is similar in meaning to the Greek term προϊέναι, used by the Fathers from Alexandria (especially Cyril of Alexandria) as well as others. Partly due to the influence of the Latin translations of the New Testament (especially of John 15:26), the term ἐκπορευόμενον (the present participle of ἐκπορεύομαι) in the creed was translated into Latin as procedentem. In time, the Latin version of the Creed came to be interpreted in the West in the light of the Western concept of processio, which required the affirmation of the Filioque to avoid the heresy of Arianism.
Views on the importance of this creed
The view that the Nicene Creed can serve as a touchstone of true Christian faith is reflected in the name "symbol of faith", which was given to it in Greek and Latin, when in those languages the word "symbol" meant a "token for identification (by comparison with a counterpart)".
In the Roman Rite Mass, the Latin text of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, with "Deum de Deo" (God from God) and "Filioque" (and from the Son), phrases absent in the original text, was previously the only form used for the "profession of faith". The Roman Missal now refers to it jointly with the Apostles' Creed as "the Symbol or Profession of Faith or Creed", describing the second as "the baptismal Symbol of the Roman Church, known as the Apostles' Creed".
The liturgies of the ancient Churches of Eastern Christianity (Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, Church of the East and the Eastern Catholic Churches), use the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, never the Western Apostles' Creed.
While in certain places where the Byzantine Rite is used, the choir or congregation sings the Creed at the Divine Liturgy, in many places the Creed is typically recited by the cantor, who in this capacity represents the whole congregation although many, and sometimes all, members of the congregation may join in rhythmic recitation. Where the latter is the practice, it is customary to invite, as a token of honor, any prominent lay member of the congregation who happens to be present, e.g., royalty, a visiting dignitary, the Mayor, etc., to recite the Creed in lieu of the cantor. This practice stems from the tradition that the prerogative to recite the Creed belonged to the Emperor, speaking for his populace.
Some evangelical and other Christians consider the Nicene Creed helpful and to a certain extent authoritative, but not infallibly so in view of their belief that only Scripture is truly authoritative. Non-Trinitarian groups, such as the Church of the New Jerusalem, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jehovah's Witnesses, explicitly reject some of the statements in the Nicene Creed.