The Nicene Creed

Canon Michael Hull, our Assistant Priest, writes:

Although we use the Apostles’ and the Athanasian Creeds in our Anglican liturgies, the Nicene Creed is the one most familiar to us because we recite it every Sunday at the Eucharist. The Nicene Creed was composed in stages in the fourth century at Council of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) to foster consensus across the wider Church on public expressions of Christian doctrine. The Nicene Creed gradually crept into eucharistic celebrations and is found in the lion’s share of them, both East and West, from the eleventh century. As a result of its omnipresence on Sundays, many of us can recite the Nicene Creed by heart, even though few of us can recite a biblical passage of similar length by heart because we have professed the Nicene Creed weekly for most of our lives.

Back in 2005, the late writer David Foster Wallace spun a yarn. ‘There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What’s water?”’ Wallace went on to say, ‘… if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.’ 

The Nicene Creed is akin to the water in Wallace’s yarn for us who worship weekly at the Eucharist: all around us, nevertheless hard to sense because it encompasses, albeit in pithy phrases, the fundamental Christian doctrines permeating our prayer and belief. In the same way I say ‘I believe…’ when I recite the Creed, I am mindful of Ps. 139.6—‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.’ We affirm God the Father as Creator, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We affirm Jesus Christ as God and at the same time human; as once dead, now alive and still to come again to us. We affirm the Holy Spirit also as God, whom we call ‘the giver of life’. Moreover, we affirm one baptism by which our sins are forgiven and the resurrection of the dead in a world to come. That is a great deal of affirmation, to be sure, and every bit of it touches on our interpretation of Holy Scripture wherein these realities are revealed. 

The life-giving water of the Faith is all around us in the Nicene Creed, and it is far too much for us to fathom in a lifetime of Sundays. That is one reason why the Nicene Creed is weighty in the Western and Eastern Churches equally. The Creed’s origins date back before the Great Schism (1054) when, at least notionally, the Church was one. Many consider the Creed to be the touchstone of Christian doctrine. For that reason, there has been a move on since the nineteenth century for us to attend more carefully to the Creed’s translation than in the past. Originally written in Greek, it was widely used in the West in Latin translations that developed over the centuries as did the West’s appreciation of the relationship among the Persons of the Holy Trinity. It was the Latin translations that were used at the Reformation when the Creed worked its way into European vernaculars including English. Today, we continue to update our translations, currently based on the Greek texts; some contemporary translations drop ‘… and the Son’ from the Latin-based ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’, whilst the West seems to hold fast to the doctrine of the Spirit’s procession from both Father and Son. The debate that spirals around the Nicene Creed’s translation and the interpretation of the Christian doctrine it affirms may be challenging, yet its depths are the very baptismal waters into which we happily plunge as we put out into the deep of Christian theological speculation (cf. Lk. 5.4; Jn 21.6).

It behoves us, then, to pay close attention when we recite the Nicene Creed on Sundays. We should mark well the important realities the Creed encapsulates and the eucharistic context in which we repeat it weekly. It is a God-given opportunity for us to contemplate the metaphorical water of God’s revealed truth. Like the Prophet Job, we may baulk at God’s Wisdom (38.4–42.6) now and again, yet we find again and again that it is all around us and more than worthy of our affirmation in the Nicene Creed.

The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He has been Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute since the Summer of 2023 after eight years as its Director of Studies.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.