Theology Corner

Addressing commonly asked questions about Christianity from the perspective of a non-theologian

45. WHAT IS THE NICENE CREED?

The Nicene Creed was adopted at the First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicaea in Bithynia during the summer of 325 A.D.  The Council was requested by the Emperor Constantine who hoped to restore peace to the Church which was greatly distressed by the Arian controversy.  It was called “the Council of the three hundred and eighteen holy fathers” because 318 were thought to be in attendance.  The Greek symbol for three hundred and eighteen is TIH which came to be regarded as the ideal number in the championship of truth against error, T standing for the cross and IH being the first two letters in IHSOUS.  At the time of the Nicene Council, none of the participants seem to have had any realization of its great importance for the whole future history of Christianity.  The original creed differs in only a few points from that which came to be used universally in the Church.  Here is the text of the latter:

 

I 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 only-begotten Son of God; begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of light, Very God of very God, begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He arose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead: whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the prophets; and I believe in one Catholic and Apostolic Church; I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead; and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

 

The original Nicene Creed, as adopted in 325 A.D., contained the following sentence at the end:

But the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church anathemizes those who say there was a time when the Son was not, or that he was not before he was begotten, or that he was made of things not existing, or who say that the Son of God was of any other substance or essence, or created, or liable to change or conversion.

This sentence was directed specifically at the Arians who insisted Jesus was a created being.  The controversy arose because the Greek word monogenes was translated as only begotten by the early church. This translation persisted long after the Nicene Creed was issued in 325 A.D.  Only in the past 100 years or so has a more accurate translation become available.  For example:

 

In John 1:14 of the New King James Version, Jesus is referred to as the only begotten of the Father.  

In John 1:14 of the NIV, Jesus is referred to as the one and only Son, who came from the Father.

 

In John 1:18 of the New King James Version, Jesus is referred to as the only begotten Son.

In John 1:18 of the NIV, Jesus is referred to as God, the only Son

 

In John 3:16 and 4:9 of the New King James Version, Jesus is referred to as the only begotten Son.

In John 3:16 and 4:9 of the NIV, Jesus is referred to as the one and only Son.

 

The church fathers of the fourth century took the word monogenes as derived from mono, meaning only, and gennao, meaning generate or beget.  Thus, the English words only begotten are derived from fourth century usage.  As explained by Buswell, “When the orthodox church fathers were challenged by the Arians, who said that Christ was a created being and who pointed to the word monogenes for their evidence, the orthodox fathers did not have the facilities to prove that the word has nothing to do with begetting, but they knew that in the light of other Scriptures, Christ was not created: ‘There never was a time when He was not.’  They therefore accepted the word begotten but added the words not created.” 

However, careful lexicographical studies prove beyond question that the word monogenes is not derived from the root gennao (to generate or beget) but is derived from genos which means type or kind.  The word monogenes, therefore, means one and only or unique!  For example, the French Bible correctly reads son fils unique for the English his only begotten Son.

It can be said, with confidence, that the Bible has nothing whatsoever to say about begetting as an eternal relationship between the Father and the Son.  The Nicene Creed deals with this issue by saying begotten not made which reduces the meaning of begotten to zero.