Was Jesus Created? Why We Need the Nicene Creed
Michael Agapito | APRIL 30, 2019 | 5 MIN READ
Have you ever opened your front door to see sharply dressed individuals, tracts in their hands, ready to tell you all about “Jehovah?” These people, known as “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” believe that Jesus is the first and greatest created being who is “like God” or “similar to God.” Anything greater than that, they claim, is tantamount to polytheism. Yikes.
This false teaching is nothing new to the church. Jehovah’s Witnesses have a rough counterpart in a fourth-century heresy known as Arianism. The early church’s response? A statement known as “The Nicene Creed,” which Christians throughout church history have believed and professed to combat heresies. And like the other creeds, it is important that we familiarize ourselves with it.
The year is 325 A.D. More than 900 Christian leaders and delegates have arrived at Nicea (now modern-day Turkey) from various corners of the Roman Empire — some traveling thousands of miles. Attendants included those who had survived intense persecution for their faith during the days when Christianity was essentially outlawed. Some are missing limbs. Others had been blinded during their torture. And they all have convened to discuss one matter: the controversy of Arianism, promulgated by its namesake, a man named Arius.
Arius was a charismatic preacher who taught that Jesus was the first and greatest created being, but was not God himself (sound familiar?). He was a gifted orator and had gained quite a following, even producing popular worship songs that proclaimed, “There was a time when the Son was not!”
He argued that Jesus was “like God” or “similar to God” (homoiousion in Greek, or “of a similar substance”). In contrast, other church leaders (including Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, and Saint Nicholas) maintained that Jesus is God (homoousion, or “of the same substance,” literally a one-letter difference in English).
This stirred up quite the controversy, and the First Council of Nicaea was convened to debate and discuss the matter according to the witness of Scripture. The bishops in attendance spent weeks thoughtfully poring through the Bible. The matter was taken to a vote and homoousion — of the same substance — won by an overwhelming majority, with only a few bishops siding with Arius. Arianism was condemned, and the “Nicene Creed” (also known by its longer and more difficult name, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) would reach its final form in the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., which added more precise language about the Holy Spirit.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Creeds help us to answer that question clearly, concisely, and correctly.
When you read the Nicene Creed, you may notice that it is strikingly similar to the Apostles’ Creed. But unlike its predecessor, which was created to instruct converts and prepare them for baptism, the Nicene Creed was created in response to false teaching, hence the extended articles on Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It gives us the proper vocabulary to speak accurately about Jesus, precisely because others were using careless and imprecise language at the time.
Creeds guard us from error and help us speak correctly about God, not just individually but corporately. The Nicene Creed states “We believe” instead of “I believe” because it was meant to be the definitive statement of faith for the whole church. Whereas the Apostles’ Creed was usually affirmed by individuals before their baptism, the Nicene Creed was recited by believers in the context of corporate worship, a practice that continues in many denominations and congregations to this day. As with the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed is historic Christianity.
“No Creed but the Bible?”
Detractors of creeds often say that there is “no creed but the Bible” (which, by the way, is a creed). However, anyone can say that they believe the Bible. Arius said he believed the Bible. But it’s what you believe about the Bible and what it says that matters.
For example, both Arius and the Nicene Creed supporters referred to Jesus as “God’s only begotten Son” according to Scripture (John 1:14, 1:18, 3:16). Yet they differed on what they meant by that. Arius believed that Jesus was created, like how the sun creates light (hence why his song claimed that there was a time when the Son did not exist). But the church fathers also recognized scriptures that attested to Jesus’ eternality (e.g. John 1:1, Philippians 2), and argued that the Son was “eternally begotten”, or “begotten before all worlds” (as another version puts it). They distinguished between being “created/made” and “begotten.”
As usual, C.S. Lewis helps us out here:
“To beget is to become the father of: to create is to make [...] When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a wireless set — or he may make something more like himself than a wireless set: say, a statue [...] What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man.” (Emphases added)
In the same way, the Nicene Creed asserts that Jesus was “begotten, not made”, because he is “one Being” with the Father (“homoousion”, the same “essence” or “substance”). In other words, Jesus is God by nature. He is not some creation or emanation of God, like light from the sun. He is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” In the same way, the Holy Spirit is recognized as worthy of worship together “with the Father and Son”, and is similarly described using very scriptural language (“proceeding” from the Father and Son; John 15:26).
See how the creeds help us speak about God? Thoughtful Christians have wrestled with these topics for the past two millennia, and we don’t have to go back to the drawing board when discussing these doctrines. The creeds are tried and tested ways of speaking about God, and they are at your disposal.
So the next time a Jehovah’s Witness comes knocking at your door accusing you of polytheism, you can smile knowing that you have hundreds of years of faithful Christian witness at your back.
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic* and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
* “Catholic” here simply means “universal”, not “Roman Catholic.”
Author’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles that explore historical creeds and confessions of faith throughout the history of the church. We have begun by exploring the ecumenical creeds of the early church and then will transition into studying the confessions of the Reformation Era. Some readers may discover facts about their tradition or denomination that they had not known previously. For the next article, we will examine the Chalcedonian Creed.
Michael Agapito is the Resident Director at University Baptist Church, ministering to the students at the University of Illinois. He is also a seminary student, pursuing a Masters of Divinity in the hopes of becoming a pastor. He has a B.S. in psychology from the University of Illinois and M.A. in Counseling from Wheaton College. Michael has been happily married since last July to his wife Amy, who is his partner in ministry and biggest cheerleader.