Adoption of the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed attempted to standardize Christian doctrine and restore Christian unity; it became the only creed accepted by all major bodies of the Christian church: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the fourth century c.e., faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ was firmly established in Christian worship, but it was not precisely defined theologically, especially in relation to the divinity of God the Father. Arius, a presbyter in the Baucalis district of Alexandria, hoped to clarify these matters and, in line with a strong trend in Hellenistic philosophy, was anxious to assert the unity and immutability of God. For Arius, God must of necessity be one, alone, and eternal. The world, the realm of change so completely foreign to the nature of God, must be created by an intermediary being, the Son, or Word. Arius was willing to countenance the worship traditionally given the Son because as Son he was a perfect creature standing in such a special relation to God that he might well be called “only begotten God.” Yet he remained a creature whose “substance,” or nature, was separate and related to the eternal Father. Unlike God the Father, the Son had a beginning, and in the words of a popular Arian slogan concerning the Son, “There was when he was not.” Arius
Alexander, Saint
Eusebius of Caesarea
Eusebius of Nicomedia
Constantine the Great
Hosius of Córdoba
Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint

Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, totally rejected Arius’s denial of the full divinity of Christ. When Arius made an appeal for popular support by composing theological songs based on his teachings, such as Thalia or Spiritual Banquet, Saint Alexander denounced him, took steps to depose him, and forced him into exile in Syria where he had powerful friends in Bishops Eusebius of Caesarea, Theodotus of Laodicea, and Eusebius of Nicomedia.

The dispute, which by now had assumed serious proportions, came to the attention of Emperor Constantine. While Constantine the Great seems to have had little understanding of the complex issues that were being debated, he was anxious to secure theological agreement within the Church as a bulwark of political stability. Because both sides in the dispute could find both Scriptural support and support from earlier theological writers for their positions, there was no immediate way to resolve the dispute. When imperial letters and the efforts of his ecclesiastical adviser Bishop Hosius of Córdoba failed to end the contention, Constantine decided, with little or no precedent, to call together a council of all Christian bishops. In taking such action, he established the precedent of calling Church councils to resolve theological disputes as a means of preserving ecclesiastical unity. To facilitate matters, he extended to the bishops the courtesy of the imperial coach service.

On May 20, 325 c.e., the council opened in Nicaea near Constantinople with about three hundred bishops in attendance. Except for seven bishops from the Western Roman Empire and a few from beyond the Eastern Roman Empire frontier, all were from the East. For the most part, they were not learned theologians. The absent Arius had his mouthpieces in Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia; Alexander had at his elbow his deacon and successor Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, who was later to play the leading part in the post-Nicene disputes with the Arians.

The council, which opened with great splendor with Constantine’s greetings and admonitions, was presided over by Hosius of Córdoba. The actual course by which the council drafted a creed is obscure. It appears that a radical Arian creed was almost unanimously rejected early in the course of debate, but the formulation of the orthodox belief proved to be more difficult.

As a number of anti-Arian phrases attest, the creed represents a complete condemnation of the teachings of Arius. The term “begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father,” directly rejected the Arian position that the Son was created out of nothing. The Nicene Creed further asserts that the Son was “Very God of very God,” denying the Arian stand that God the Father was unique and that the Son was God in some secondary sense, not “true God.” The phrase “begotten not made” again states the belief that the Son was one in nature with the Father and related to him in a way that the Creation was not. In response to the Arian objection that the begetting of the Son required a Father who was prior, the Nicene defenders referred to Origen’s teaching of the eternal generation of the Son by the Father. The wording “of one substance with the Father” asserted the full deity of the Son in a way which admitted no Arianizing interpretation. However, the word homoousios, “of the same substance,” presented certain difficulties. It was not a biblical term and moreover had been condemned in another context by an earlier synod. To some, it suggested a materialistic concept of God and courted the danger of the Sabellian heresy, which completely identified the persons of the Father and the Son. Later, in the 350’s, the word homoousios became the keynote in a three-way struggle between the radical Arians, who said that the Son was not of the same substance as the Father; the conservatives, who believed that the Son was of “like” substance with the Father; and the defenders of the Nicene formula. Finally, the creed explicitly condemned a number of Arian teachings. When the supporters of Arius at the council were given the choice of signing the creed or going into exile, all but two signed. Arius himself was banished and his writings burned by imperial order. The Church also anathematized all those who claimed there was a time when the Son did not exist.


Before Nicaea, Christian symbols had been primarily local and liturgical creeds, used for the instruction of catechumens. The Nicene formula was a theological creed intended for universal subscription, not as a replacement for the older creeds but as a theological test for Church leaders.

The council, however, did not finally end the dispute. Arius’s followers were able to exert pressure on the emperor and the Church, and Arius was readmitted in 327 c.e. At the Council of Tyre in 335, Athanasius was banned from the Church. The dispute continued until a further council was called at Constantinople in 381, the Second Ecumenical Council. It was there that the more fully developed Nicene Creed was formally adopted. It included the provisions of the Creed adopted by the Council of Nicaea and enlarged the section on the Holy Spirit.

The creed formulated by the two councils of Nicaea and Constantinople is the Nicene, or Niceno-Constantinopolitan, Creed found in the liturgy of most Christian churches, including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant faiths.

Further Reading

  • Barnes, Timothy D. Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. An examination of the relationship between Constantine the Great and Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Barnes, Timothy D. Constantine and Eusebius. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. Contains a discussion of the Council of Nicaea as part of Constantine’s attempt to create a unified Roman Empire.
  • Burrus, Virginia. Begotten, Not Made: Conceiving Manhood in Late Antiquity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. An examination of the Nicene Creed, Arianism, and the roles of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria and Saint Ambrose.
  • Grant, Michael. Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994. Discusses the Council of Nicaea in terms of Constantine’s concern for a unified faith.
  • Hebblethwaite, Brian. The Essence of Christianity: A Fresh Look at the Nicene Creed. London: SPCK, 1996. Contains a discussion of the contemporary significance of the Nicene Creed.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Saint Ambrose; Saint Athanasius of Alexandria; Constantine the Great; Eusebius of Caesarea; Jesus. Nicene Creed