A Question About the Creeds
Question: What are the differences between the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed?
Answer: This is a great question, and thank you for asking it. From a theological standpoint, there is no difference in the doctrine taught in the Apostles’ Creed and the doctrine taught in the Nicene Creed. Both affirm that God the Father is the “Maker of heaven and earth.” Both affirm that Jesus Christ is the “only-begotten Son” of the Father who was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” (or “incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary”). Both affirm Jesus’ suffering under Pontus Pilate, His death, and His burial. Both affirm Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. Both affirm the glorious return of Jesus “to judge the living and the dead.” Finally, both affirm the Holy Spirit, the catholicity (i.e., “universality”) of the church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting. So they both contain the same basic Trinitarian theology.
Now there are obvious differences in content. The Apostles’ Creed is much shorter than the Nicene Creed. The Apostles’ Creed contains the troublesome line “He descended into hell,” whereas the Nicene does not. The Nicene Creed seems to be an expansion of and a fleshing out of the Apostles’ Creed, and there’s a reason behind this, which we will get to in a moment. But let’s take a brief look at the history behind these two ancient creeds of the Christian church.
Much of the material I am about to present is derived from a book titled Creeds, Confessions, & Catechisms: A Reader’s Edition (edited by Chad Van Dixhoorn, published by Crossway Books). Now a “creed” is a statement, or summary, of belief. It’s derived from the Latin word credō, which means “I believe.” Creeds became a shorthand was to summarize the Christian faith. You have to remember, no one had printed Bibles until the 16th century, so a credal statement such as the Apostles’ Creed was a way to summarize what the Bible taught. Additionally, it’s fairly easy to commit to memory, so it also was a great tool for teaching the faith. Finally, creeds were a way to weed out false converts from true converts.
Now despite its name, the Apostles’ Creed was not written by the Apostles of Jesus Christ. It is called The Apostles’ Creed because the doctrine is contains is the apostolic doctrine that was taught during the apostolic era of the church. No one knows who (even if it was a single “who”) wrote the creed or when the creed was written. Best guesses was the Apostles’ Creed originated from early credal statements dating back to the late 2nd century (ca 180AD).
The Nicene Creed is a lot easier to trace historically. We know who wrote it, when it was written, and when, how, and why it was modified. Though we call it the Nicene Creed, its technical name is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (though we just call it the “Nicene” Creed). The history of the creed comes out of doctrinal problems in the early church during the 4th century. As is often the case in church history, a heresy pops up and the church meets to condemn the heresy and affirm the true faith once for all delivered to the saints. That was the case behind the Nicene Creed. In the early 4th century, an Alexandrian bishop named Arius began teaching that Christ was not divine, but was God’s highest creation, and thus subordinate to God. After much controversy, a church council was called and held in Nicaea in the year 325AD. The council condemned Arius and his teachings as heretical and developed the Nicene Creed as a statement of the pure doctrine.
Now as noted earlier, the Nicene Creed expands and fleshes out the doctrine of the Apostles’ Creed. For example, instead of simply saying, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, our Lord,” the Nicene Creed reads, “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” Notice how the Nicene Creed fleshes out the doctrine of Christ by emphasizing the eternal deity of the Son of God. He was not God’s first and highest creation, but is Himself very God of very God. The Nicene Creed was a direct response to the Arian heresy and it in no uncertain terms, declares the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now I highlighted a phrase in the creed (“one substance”). This was of particular importance at Nicaea. In the Greek, the phrase is a single word homoousios, which literally means “of same being, same substance.” There was a semi-Arian “halfway” house position that put forth the phrase homoiousios, or “of similar, like substance.” This was rejected for “one substance.”
Now I also mentioned that the Nicene Creed underwent some revisions. In the year 381AD there was another church council called the Council of Constantinople, and they provided some revisions to the Nicene Creed in regards to the Holy Spirit. Then at an even later date (ca 6th century), a single line was changed which sparked a controversy in the church. The western church (think Roman Catholic) added a single phrase to the line “And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” That phrase, “and the Son,” is known as the Filioque, which is Latin for “from the Son.” The eastern church (think Eastern Orthodox) did not approve of the change, and this was a major cause of what became the Great Schism of 1054AD when the eastern church broke away from the western church. Anyway, the Nicene Creed of 381AD with the addition of the Filioque is the same Nicene Creed we affirm and use in our church today.
I hope this helps!
~ Pastor Carl