“I believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible…”
These words should be familiar to us, so familiar in fact that just reading that one sentence probably sets our mind in motion to finish the rest of the creed. Kind of like when someone says the first few lines of a song that you know by heart, you start to sing along, maybe not out loud, but it gets planted in your mind either way.
We repeat this creed, along with all the parishioners around us, some of us louder than others. Sometimes the priest just starts us off with the first sentence, and sometimes he leads the whole way. Regardless of how your parish recites the creed, it is an integral part of the Mass, and one that all too often is overlooked.
History of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed
Before we dive into the articles of faith that are declared in the creed, let’s take a moment to look at how the creed even came to be in the first place. So where does this statement of faith come from, how long has it been around, and why does it contain what it contains?
When Emperor Constantine came to power as the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire after the battle of Milvian Bridge in AD 312, he became interested in Christianity (some say he converted before the battle, some say he was only interested and didn’t actually convert until his deathbed baptism). This interest, spurred on by a vision he had the day before his major victory, and no doubt fed by his mother, Saint Helena of Constantinople, who converted to Christianity soon after him becoming emperor, led Constantine to issue the Edict of Milan in AD 313 officially ending Christian persecution in the Empire.
But despite this new age of toleration, all was not well in the Church. Many of the teachings, doctrines and dogmas of the Church that we take for granted were being challenged and heresies of all kinds were raging like fires burning out of control. Many of these heresies were Christological, denying either a fundamental tenant of faith about Jesus, or going so far as to denying He was even God.
One of these heresies that had gained a very large following, and had many passionate bishops on both sides of the issue, was Arianism. This belief, postulated and promoted by a priest named Arius from Alexandria, stated that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but was created by the Father in time. It denied that Jesus was co-eternal with the Father and that He had existed from all eternity. The opponents of Arianism said that if Christ was a created being, then He couldn’t be equal with the Father, and so was not fully God.
Constantine recognized the dangers this Arian heresy posed to the unity of the Church, despite being a relative newcomer to Christianity, and so when asked by a synod of bishops in 325 to call a Council to decide the issue he agreed.
When the bishops from all around the world arrived in Nicaea, a town not far from Constantine’s imperial court in Nicomedia, they debated the issue that brought them there. Legend says that the debates got so heated that Saint Nicholas of Myrna (yes that Saint Nick) punched Arius in the face. After months of prayer, debate, arguments and fist fights, the Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea produced the Nicene Creed. Because the primary purpose of the council was to counter a Christological heresy, the majority of the creed focuses on the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity.
But the development of the creed as we know it doesn’t end in that summer of AD 325. We call it the Nicene Creed, but a more accurate name is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The original Nicene Creed ends with “I believe in the Holy Spirit” and then some anathemas against Arianism. The lines we profess about the Holy Spirit and the Marks of the Church were added at the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381.
The repudiation and condemnation of Arius and his teachings at Nicaea left his supporters undeterred and somewhat emboldened. Despite the best efforts of the Council Fathers, the Popes, and the Church as a whole, it would be centuries until this dangerous heresy was finally snuffed out, only to raise its head in recent years under new names.