The Missionary Motivation of the Nicene Creed

by Christy Thornton

When most of us think about the early church creeds, mission doesn’t usually cross our minds. We may think of the creeds as boring theology or words for ritual repetition. Perhaps to our surprise, though, mission plays an important role in framing the creeds—the Nicene Creed in particular.

The central questions for the Council of Nicaea—the council in which the Nicene Creed was written—were “Who is God?” and “What is the gospel?” They didn’t consider these questions for the fun of theological conjecture. They sought to articulate truthful theology for the sake of gospel fidelity. The Council of Nicaea was concerned that the gospel proclaimed by the church be unto salvation for those who hear it and believe. As such, the Nicene Creed is deeply missional.

The Drama Around the Nicene Creed in Alexandria

Before we look more directly at the Nicene Creed, we need to be somewhat familiar with its historical context. The scene played out in early fourth-century Alexandria, Egypt.

The leader of the church in Alexandria, fittingly named Alexander, had been teaching from the Bible that the Father and the Son are both eternally existent and that the Son can reveal the Father because the Son is the Father’s exact image. In other words, when the Bible says God is “I AM” (Ex. 3:14 ESV, used throughout) or the “Beginning and the End” (Rev. 21:6) or who “was and is and is to come” (Rev. 1:8), it describes the whole Godhead, not just the Father. And when Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9), he means we have seen the Father’s exact same being, not God’s being channeled through something more accessible.

Enter Arius. Arius was a bright, winsome, emerging leader in the area. He disagreed with Alexander. When Arius read the Bible, he saw a hierarchy in the Trinity. He taught that the Father is the one “who alone has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16), and that the Son is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) who had to have been created by the Father. In other words, according to Arius, Jesus may be God but in a way lesser than God the Father.

Eventually, the issues in Alexandria spread around the region and caused such a ruckus that the emperor called a meeting of church leaders to resolve the matter—the Council of Nicaea.

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Source: Church Leaders