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When people talk about "The Nicene Creed," it seems that they are often referring to the document associated with the Council of Constantinople (AD 381). I'm sure there are many reasons for this, one of which being the similarity between that creed and the one produced by the AD 325 Council of Nicaea (cf. Wikipedia's comparison of the 325 and 381 creeds).

However, I've learned that it is not universally held that the 381 council actually meant to update the 325 creed. Britannica says:

Additional discoveries of documents in the 20th century, however, indicated that the situation was more complex, and the actual development of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed has been the subject of scholarly dispute. [...] It was probably based on a baptismal creed already in existence, but it was an independent document and not an enlargement of the Creed of Nicaea.

If this is the case, then it would seem to be incorrect to refer to the AD 381 creed as the "Nicene" creed, or even the "Niceno-Constantinopolitan" creed (as Britannica does), since there would be no direct connection between the two creeds.

What is an overview of the historical evidence regarding the origin of the AD 381 "Nicene Creed"? Did its authors intend for it to be an update of the AD 325 creed? Did any contemporaries call the AD 381 creed "Nicene"?

Or is the 381 creed better understood to be an independent creed?

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  • Is the argument that both the 325 and the 381 versions were based on an earlier creed? That would be a tough argument to make, since almost all of the wording of the 325 version, except the closing anathemas, is contained in the 381 version. How would the presumed earlier creed be any different than the 325 Nicene Creed? Jan 18 '16 at 15:54
  • @LeeWoofenden From what I can tell, I don't think the argument is that they are both based on a single earlier creed... Britannica says it was an "independent" document, for example. Perhaps the hypothetical basis for the 381 creed included more of the language that the 381 creed has that the 325 creed doesn't. But ultimately, I'm not sure; I think a good answer to the question would have to deal with this issue. Jan 18 '16 at 16:01
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There are many differences in wording, although with very similar meaning, allowing the assumption that the two creeds are independent of each other, linked only by being based on an earlier baptismal creed. Even so, the authors of the 381 Creed were inevitably aware of the Nicene Creed of 325. Actual evidence that the Creed of 381 is dependent on the Creed of 325 is found in the words "being of one substance [being] with the Father."

Elaine Pagels says, in Beyond Belief, page 174, that this phrase was inserted into the Nicene Creed at the insistence of Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, in order to fully exclude the views of Arius, whom Alexander had excommunicated for alleged heresy. Thus, these words could not have been received from a pre-Nicene document, and their existence in the Creed of 381 makes that document at least partly dependent on the Nicene Creed of 325.

Further circumstantial evidence is that the longer and more sophisticated wording of the later Creed is a theological elaboration that is typically found in later versions of a document, and therefore potential evidence that the 381 version is an update of the 325 document rather than of an even simpler, earlier document. The reference to Mary likely to be a result of the Mariology that developed over the later decades of the fourth century.

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In the article on the First Council of Constantinople, the Catholic Encyclopedia says:

[The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed] is traditionally held to be an enlargement of the Nicene Creed, with emphasis on the Divinity of the Holy Spirit. It seems, however, to be of earlier origin, and was probably composed (369-73) by St. Cyril of Jerusalem as an expression of the faith of that Church (Bois), though its adoption by this council gave it special authority, both as a baptismal creed and as a theological formula.

So the "Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed" was probably just the creed composed (369-73) by St. Cyril of Jerusalem as an expression of the faith of that Church and not, as traditionally held, an enlargement of the "Creed of Nicaea."

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J.N.D. Kelly Early Christian Creeds,

“Of all existing creeds it is the only one for which ‘ecumenicity’...can be claimed.”

Kelly devotes 35 pages to this Creed, and though unfair to his work to cite such a snippet, he writes near end of the Chapter,

This creed seemed to...be the “faith of the Nicene Fathers”...dealing with the heresies of the hour

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As the other answers already indicate, the description of the Son as homoousion (of the same substance) with the Father, is found for the first time in the Nicene Creed of 325. After Nicaea followed a period of intense controversy. As indicated by the following names of the sides in that controversy, it was not about the entire creed, but specifically about the word homoousion:

  1. Homoousian = Same Substance,
  2. Homoiousian = Similar Substance,
  3. Heteroousian = Different Substance,
  4. Homoian = In this view, we should not talk about God’s substance because that is not revealed in the Scriptures.

(See the Wikipedia page on the Arian Controversy for more detail.)

Since that same controversial and unscriptural word appears in the creed of 381, that creed was an update of the 325-creed. As the question also noted, the Wikipedia page on the Nicene creed compares the two creeds and shows huge similarities.

However, rather than saying that Britannica is wrong, I propose we understand the quote from Britannica differently. To explain:

Confounded the confusion

The 325-creed was formulated near the beginning of the Arian Controversy but it only served to increase the confusion:

"The creed of Nicaea, sanctioned by imperial decree … only added increased confusion and complication to the problem it was intended to solve." (Boyd, p38)

"The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, it ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as heresy even at that period." (Hanson)

50 Year Arian Controversy

This resulted, then, in that huge controversy for the next 50 years when the church rejected the Nicene Creed and proposed various alternatives. For example:

“A string of councils began to be called in which the formula of Nicaea was called into question and even drastically modified.” (Steven Wedgeworth)

“In 357 a council held in Sirmium in Illyria forbade the use of ousia (nature) in speaking of the relationship between the Father and the Son. With this, the homoousios of Nicaea became a dead confession." (A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, p117)

That 357-creed stated:

“No one can doubt that the Father is greater in honor and dignity and Godhead, and in the very name of Father, the Son Himself testifying, ‘The Father that sent me is greater than I’ (John 10:29, 14:28) … the Father is greater, and the Son subordinated to the Father.”

At another council at Seleucia in 359, the majority accepted a "similar substance" (Homo-i-ousian) creed, saying that the substance of the Son is similar to the substance of the Father.

But emperor Constantius requested a third council, at Constantinople, of both the eastern and western bishops, to resolve the split at Seleucia. At first, that council accepted a Heteroousion (different substance) creed, but after the emperor exiled some of the leaders of that view, the council reverted to a homoian creed.

For more information, see Arian controversy - Wikipedia.

Cappadocian Fathers

My point is that, during that 50-year period, while the Nicene Creed was rejected by the church, Athanasius kept on working vigorously in defense of the Nicene Creed. At the end of his life, his cause was taken up by the three Cappadocian fathers, who were all born after the Nicene Creed of 325 was formulated. However, they did more than just to defend the Nicene Creed. Rather, they developed new theories.

Firstly, they redefined the word hypostasis in order to deal with the confusion caused by the Nicene Creed:

It was mainly under the influence of the Cappadocian Fathers that the terminology was clarified and standardized so that the formula "three hypostases in one ousia" came to be accepted as an epitome of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. (González, Justo L. (1987). A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. p. 307.) (Hypostasis)

They also developed the view of the Holy Spirit that was taken up in the 381-creed. The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “God,” p. 568, states that the teaching of the three Cappadocian Fathers “made it possible for the Council of Constantinople (381) to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which up to that point had nowhere been clearly stated, not even in Scripture.”

Proposal

I propose, therefore, that although the creed of 381 reads very similar to the creed of 325, we understand the Brittanica-statement to say that the Arian Controversy stimulated a huge jump in the development of the Trinity doctrine and that what the authors of the 381 creed meant by that creed is significantly different from what the authors of the 325 creed meant.

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