In the first three centuries, the church found itself in a hostile environment. On the one hand, it grappled with the challenge of relating the language of the gospel, developed in a Hebraic and Jewish-Christian context, to a Graeco-Roman world. On the other hand, it was threatened not only by persecution, but also by ideas that were in conflict with the biblical witness.
In A.D. 312, Constantine won control of the Roman Empire in the battle of Milvian Bridge. Attributing his victory to the intervention of Jesus Christ, he elevated Christianity to favored status in the empire. "One God, one Lord, one faith, one church, one empire, one emperor" became his motto.
The new emperor soon discovered that "one faith and one church" were fractured by theological disputes, especially conflicting understandings of the nature of Christ, long a point of controversy. Arius, a priest of the church in Alexandria, asserted that the divine Christ, the Word through whom all things have their existence, was created by God before the beginning of time. Therefore, the divinity of Christ was similar to the divinity of God, but not of the same essence. Arius was opposed by the bishop, Alexander, together with his associate and successor, Athanasius. They affirmed that the divinity of Christ, the Son, is of the same substance as the divinity of God, the Father. To hold otherwise, they said, was to open the possibility of polytheism, and to imply that knowledge of God in Christ was not final knowledge of God.
To counter a widening rift within the church, Constantine convened a council in Nicaea in A.D. 325. A creed reflecting the position of Alexander and Athanasius was written and signed by a majority of the bishops. Nevertheless, the two parties continued to battle each other. In A.D. 381, a second council met in Constantinople. It adopted a revised and expanded form of the A.D. 325 creed, now known as the Nicene Creed.
The Nicene Creed is the most ecumenical of creeds. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) joins with Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and most Protestant churches in affirming it. Nevertheless, in contrast to Eastern Orthodox churches, the western churches state that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but from the Father and the Son. To the eastern churches, saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son threatens the distinctiveness of the person of the Holy Spirit; to the western churches, the filioque guards the unity of the triune God. This issue remains unresolved in the ecumenical dialogue.
The Nicene Creed has been regarded as a touchstone of true Christian faith, though not a complete expression of it. When the word "symbol" meant a "token for identification (by comparison with a counterpart)", the Nicene Creed was given, in Greek and Latin, the name "symbol of faith", a name still used even in languages in which "symbol" no longer has that meaning.
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". Use of the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal, which contains only the Latin text of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, is still permitted, with certain limitations on its public use. The liturgies of the ancient Churches of Eastern Christianity (Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, Assyrian Church of the East) and the Eastern Catholic Churches), use the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, never the Western Apostles' Creed.
While not necessarily rejecting the Nicene Creed as erroneous, some evangelical and other Christians, on the basis of their sola scriptura view, consider it as in no way authoritative because it is not part of the Bible, and do not recite it in their services.
The Church of the New Jerusalem, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and similar groups, accept the Christian Scriptures in whole or in part, but reject post-Apostolic statements such as the Nicene Creed. They consider themselves Christians, an identification contested by others who consider acceptance of the Nicene Creed a key part of Christian orthodoxy.
The Nicene Creed
"I believe, then, in God the Father omnipotent. I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord God, born of the Father, not created.
I believe that he has always been with the Father, not only since time began but before all time. For the Father could not have been so named unless he had a son; and there could be no son without a father. But as for those who say: "There was a time when he was not," I reject them with curses, and call men to witness that they are separated from the church.
I believe that the word of the Father by which all things were made was Christ.
I believe that this word was made flesh and by its suffering the world was redeemed, and
I believe that humanity, not deity, was subject to the suffering.
I believe that he rose again on the third day, that he freed sinful man, that he ascended to heaven, that he sits on the right hand of the Father, that he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father, that it is not inferior and is not of later origin, but is God, equal and always coeternal with the Father and the Son, consubstantial in its nature, equal in omnipotence, equally eternal in its essence, and that it has never existed apart from the Father and the Son and is not inferior to the Father and the Son.
I believe that this holy Trinity exists with separation of persons, and one person is that of the Father, another that the Son, another that of the Holy Spirit. And in this Trinity confess that there is one Deity, one power, one essence.
I believe that the blessed Mary was a virgin after the birth as she was a virgin before.
I believe that the soul is immortal but that nevertheless it has no part in deity.
And I faithfully believe all things that were established at Nicæa by the three hundred and eighteen bishops. But as to the end of the world I hold beliefs which I learned from our forefathers, that Antichrist will come first. An Antichrist will first propose circumcision, asserting that he is Christ; next he will place his statue in the temple at Jerusalem to be worshipped, just as we read that the Lord said: "You shall see the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place." But the Lord himself declared that that day is hidden from all men, saying; "But of that day and that hour knoweth no one not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father alone." Moreover we shall here make answer to the heretics who attack us, asserting that the Son is inferior to the Father since he is ignorant of this day. Let them learn then that Son here is the name applied to the Christian people, of whom God says: "I shall be to them a father and they shall be to me for sons." For if he had spoken these words of the only begotten Son he would never have given the angels first place. For he uses these words: "Not even the angels in heaven nor the Son", showing that he spoke these words not of the only-begotten but of the people of adoption. But our end is Christ himself, who will graciously bestow eternal life on us if we turn to him."
The Nicene Creed: