“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God….”
The Nicene Creed’s description of the Father is remarkably succinct: only 19 words, in our English translation, speak of our faith in the One who is the Source of all. It may seem surprising at first to note that the Creed devotes over six times as many words to its description of the Son. In fact, over half of the Nicene Creed is devoted to professing the Church’s faith in the Son.
One reason for this is the history behind the formation of the Creed. As pastors in the early Church tried to distill the message of Scripture and tradition as to who God is and what He has done for us in Christ, controversies erupted over the various distillations. There were comparatively few controversies involving our faith in the Father. There were many more over our faith in the Son and in His relation to the Father and to humankind. Some denied the true divinity of the Son. Others said that He only appeared to become human but never really shared in our flesh. Hence, the care that the Nicene Creed takes in adding phrase upon phrase to proclaim the true divinity of the Son, while also affirming that the Son became truly human in Jesus, a man like us: that He truly suffered, died, and rose from the dead. The Creed does not hesitate to state that Jesus is truly God and truly human.
The very existence of these controversies, however, points to a far more significant reason why the Creed has such a focus on the Son. Who Jesus is matters. That last sentence is a great understatement: Jesus matters more than any human being who has ever lived or who will ever live. Pastors of the early Church saw that if Jesus was not truly God, He could not have saved us. If Jesus was not truly human, then it was not us that He saved.
There is more. If Jesus is truly God and truly human, then He reveals to us who God is. The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, He spoke to us through the Son” (Heb 1:1-2). John’s Gospel begins by proclaiming Jesus to be the Word, who existed before all creation, and through whom everything was made. Paul’s letter to the Colossians tells us: “He (the Son) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15).
Jesus, the Son, is the hinge of all history, the One through whom the Father both created the cosmos and through whom the cosmos was redeemed. If Jesus truly is who the Creed says He is; if He is who our faith proclaims Him to be, then we own Him our love, devotion, adoration, and will. We exist because of Him and in Him. We can be forgiven and healed because of Him. The entire universe will be freed from its slavery to sin because of Him.
We see this centrality of Jesus reflected in the New Testament. One especially notable example is the Gospel of Mark. This Gospel is organized in such a way that it leads up to a conversation between Jesus and His disciples at Caesarea Philippi, and then, the Gospel’s focus changes after that conversation and moves inexorably to Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.
Jesus asks His disciples what the people as a whole are saying about Him. The disciples list what they have heard: some people call Jesus a prophet like the prophets of past centuries; others say that He is Elijah or John the Baptist returned from the dead. Jesus then poses the question to His disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Christ.” The rest of Mark’s Gospel and the New Testament lay out what that means, both for Jesus and for us. John’s Gospel adds that we are judged – or, rather, that we judge ourselves – by how we answer that question. Everything depends on getting that answer right.
This is why the authors of the Nicene Creed put such effort into describing the Son. Even though we know that human words can’t capture all of who God is, we must try. Some words come closer than others. The words in the Creed are the fruit of centuries of prayer, argument, reflection, and living of the faith even when it meant suffering and death. Everything depends on knowing who Jesus is. Everything depends on getting the answer to His question right. May we pray these words of the Creed carefully and meditatively. They speak of the Source of everything.
Fr. Mark Nolette