Who Wrote the Nicene Creed and Why Does It Matter?

The Nicene Creed is one of the most important documents in the history of Christianity. But who wrote it? This is a question I was unable to find the answer to until I read the original sources for myself. I recommend R. P. C. Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God which is helpful for tracking down primary source material. The first version of the creed was written by Eusebius of Caesarea and then changed to include language which explicitly condemned Arianism. The creed he proposed at the council can be found in the letter to his congregation on the Nicene Creed. I have created the following chart to show how indebted the language of the creed is to Eusebius:

Eusebius’ Proposed Creed

Nicene-Constantinople Creed of 381

We believe in one God, Father, Almighty, maker of all things seen and unseen;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ the Word of God, God from God, Light from Light, Life from Life, only-begotten Son, first-born of all creation, begotten from the Father before all ages, through whom all things have come into being, who was incarnate for our salvation; and spent his life among men, and suffered and rose the third day and went up to the Father and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit.

We believe each of these three exists, the Father truly Father and Son truly Son and Holy Spirit truly Holy Spirit, as our Lord said when he sent his disciples to preach, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We are deeply convinced that these things are so and that this is our belief and has long been so and that we hold by this faith until death, anathematizing all atheist heresy. We bear witness that we have always believed this with heart and soul, ever since we have been conscious of ourselves, and that we now believe and truly proclaim God Almighty and the Lord Jesus Christ, and are ready to demonstrate by arguments and to persuade you that we have always so believed and so preached in times past.

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten not made,
of one substance (homoousion) with the Father,
through Whom all things came into existence,
Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down from the heavens,
and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became man,
and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered and was buried,
and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures
and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father,
and will come again with glory to judge living and dead,
of Whose kingdom there will be no end;
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver,
Who proceeds from the Father,
Who with the Father and the Son is together worshiped and together glorified,
Who spoke through the prophets;
in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church.
We confess one baptism for the remission of sins;
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen

After presenting his creed to the council, Eusebius said:

“When we presented this faith, there was no opportunity for resistance by anyone. But our emperor, most beloved of God, himself first of all witnessed that this was most orthodox. He agreed that even he himself thought thus, and he ordered all to assent to subscribe to the teachings and to be in harmony with them, although only one word, homoousios, was added.”

The key difference between Eusebius and the Nicene Creed is the inclusion of homoousios or that the Son is of the same nature as the Father. The Arians had no problem with the creed until homoousios was introduced. Ambrose, in his work On the Faith, reproduces a portion of a letter from the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia (not Caesarea) that was read at the council: “If, indeed, we say that the Son of God is uncreated, then we are beginning to declare that he is homoousios with the Father” (3.15). As a result, homoousios was adopted because it was the one term the Arians could not agree to. It was also broad enough that the non-Arian parties involved at Nicaea could read whatever meaning they wanted into it, thus preserving the unity of the church which was Constantine’s greatest concern.

Arius, in his letter to Alexander of Alexandria, uses language that is similar to the creed when he writes that the Father “begot an only-begotten Son before eternal times. . . . Thus there are three hypostases. . . . the Son begotten timelessly before everything, alone was caused to subsist by the Father.” The Arian Creed of Sirmium in 357 affirms that Christ was “born from him before the ages . . . the Son is born from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, whose generation as Son, as has been said, no one knows except the Father; and that the Son of God himself our Lord and God, as it is said, assumed flesh . . . the Trinity should always be preserved, as we read in the gospel.” The Arians could even call Christ “God” in a qualified sense and use terms like “Trinity” and “three hypostases” which they defined differently from the orthodox while rejecting homoousios.

The incredible irony of Eusebius’ writing of the first version of the creed is that he was a supporter of Arius rather than being an orthodox trinitarian. He held to a subordinationist form of Logos Christology which taught that Christ only existed eternally in the mind of God, but not as a distinct person from him until he was begotten. He also denied the deity of the Holy Spirit. He says concerning the Spirit:

“But only the Son has been honored by the paternal Godhead, that he might be the maker and creator of all the geneta, both visi­ble and invisible, and even of the existence of the Paraclete Spirit. . . . But the Paraclete Spirit is neither God nor Son, since he does not get his origin from the Father like the Son, but is one of the things which came into being through the Son” (Ecclesiastical Theology 3.6.3).

Eusebius says in the letter to his congregation explaining how he could sign the Nicene Creed that the Son did not exist in actuality before he was begotten:

“Since even before he was begotten in actuality, he was in the Father ingenerately in potentiality, since the Father is always the Father.”

He says in his Demonstratio Evangelica:

“Perhaps one might say that the Son originated like a perfume and ray of a light from the Father’s unoriginated nature and ineffable substance infinite ages ago, or rather before all ages, and that once he had come into existence he has eternal being and existence along with the Father. . . . He has his own substance and existence and has not co-existed unoriginatedly with the Father. . . . And anyone would allow that a father exists before a son” (5.1).

“But the Father precedes the Son and has preceded him in existence, inasmuch as he alone is unbegotten. The One, perfect in himself and first in order as Father and the cause of the Son’s existence. . . . Receiving from the Father both his being and the character of his being. . . . Unthinkably brought into being from all time, or rather before all times, by the Father’s transcendent and inconceivable will and power” (4.3).

“He first before all things was made by the Father, as something one in form, the instrument of every existence and nature” (4.4).

“He is the perfect creation of a perfect Creator” (4.2).

“I return to my Lord all thanks . . . For we do not say that the Son was with the Father, but that the Father was before the Son. But the Son of God himself, knowing well that he was greater than all, and knowing that he was other than the Father, and less than and subject to Him, very piously teaches this to us also when he says, ‘The Father who sent me is greater than I’ . . . Since the Son also is himself God, but not true God” (Letter to Bishop Euphration).

The Son is not without beginning like the Father is:

“When you hear the Logos called God by the evangelist, you are not to understand him as intending to imply that the Logos is anarchos and unbegotten like His Father, but that He was in arche” (Ecclesiastical Theology 2.14.3 as cited in G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, 145).

Eusebius had previously supported Arius and declared his teachings to be biblical. Even after Nicaea, he was present at the Council of Tyre in 335 which exiled Athanasius for teaching that Jesus is God while reinstating Arius (Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 59). Eusebius only begrudgingly supported the addition of homoousios in the Creed and defined the term differently than the party of Athanasius. Eusebius agreed with the Arians that the Son is not eternally existent as a distinct person from the Father. The Arians believed that because Christ was begotten by the Father (based on their understanding of Proverbs 8:22-25), this made Christ a created being. Athanasius held with Origen that this begetting is an eternal act and therefore there was never a time when he was not.

This means that Eusebius’ statement that Christ was “begotten from the Father before all ages” is not an affirmation of eternal generation (which Eusebius did not believe in), but of Logos Christology where begetting results in Christ’s existence as a person. Eternal generation does not teach that the Son was begotten before all ages, but that this begetting is an eternal necessary continuous act that occurs from everlasting to everlasting in timeless eternity. This terminology was later reinterpreted as teaching eternal generation because of the influence of Athanasius. This may be one reason why “before all ages” was absent from the original Nicene Creed of 325 but present in the Constantinople revision which keeps Eusebius’ original language. By that time, Origen’s concept of eternal generation had become the dominant belief instead of the Logos Christology of the second century Christian apologists because it was better able to answer the objections of Arianism. Logos Christology was the fountain from which Arianism and eternal generation sprang when Origen rejected Logos Christology for being irreconcilable with the immutability of God. Eusebius’ beliefs represent the old guard of Logos Christology with a subordinationist bent before eternal generation became the dominant position in Christianity.

So why isn’t the Eusebian authorship of the Nicene Creed talked about more in books and articles on the Council of Nicaea? I believe the reason for this is because it is an embarrassing historical revelation that calls into question the belief that the Nicene Creed is definitional for what it means to be a Christian when most of the language of the creed about Christ is drawn from a non-trinitarian subordinationist who supported Arius and only signed the Nicene Creed in its final form because of political pressure and the desire to be restored to fellowship with the church after being censured at the Council of Antioch in 325. The Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia by not signing the creed had more integrity than Eusebius of Caesarea. It is homoousios (which Eusebius defined differently than the orthodox), not the begetting language (which the Arians had no problem affirming) that distinguishes trinitarianism from Arianism.

I believe the Arians, the proponents of Logos Christology, and the proponents of eternal generation all misunderstood Proverbs 8:22-25 and the begetting language of Scripture with regard to the Son. Acts 13:33-34, Hebrews 1:4-5, and 5:5-6 interpret Psalm 2:6-7 as being fulfilled in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ, not in an act of begetting before the foundation of the world which potentially compromises the eternal existence of Christ. It is the words of Christ, not Eusebius of Caesarea, which unite all Christians together. His words alone will never pass away (Matt 24:35). I’ll take the Bible any day over the words of a non-trinitarian.

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7 thoughts on “Who Wrote the Nicene Creed and Why Does It Matter?

  1. You will also find links to primary sources at http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/nicaea.html

    I don’t think it is helpful to say that Eusebius did not believe in the Trinity. I’m sure that he did! That was Christian teaching from Tertullian onwards. But questions about the place of the Spirit were not really on anyone’s mind at that point, so I think it is very risky to extract a sentence from a work really about something else in this way. The exact details of how the Trinity worked, and the balances between the persons, are not obvious from the bible, and they were worked out over the 4-5th century.

    I’m sceptical about councils after Nicaea myself. Certainly the bible must come first. But there is no way that any of us are qualified to engage with whether those councils got the details right.

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  2. Thank you for replying Roger. I believe the eternal existence of Christ and the Holy Spirit are essential to the doctrine of the Trinity and since Eusebius did not believe in these, I would put him outside of biblical orthodoxy. Since eternality is an attribute of God, to deny that Christ and the Holy Spirit are eternal would be to deny an attribute of God to them. Here are some of the texts I am thinking of: (Isa 9:6; John 1:1-3; 8:58; Col 2:9; Heb 7:3; 9:14; 1 John 1:2; Rev 1:4, 8; 22:13).

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    1. Thank you Anton. I recommend James White’s book “The Forgotten Trinity” and my article “Explaining the Trinity” for further reading. Always make the text of Scripture your foundation and test all things by it.

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