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Roots of the Nicene Creed

Date: September 11, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: When was the Nicene Creed added to the Roman liturgy? – R.S., United States

Answer: From a historical perspective, the creed as we know it was first sketched out at the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), although in its developed form, it first appears in the acts of the Council of Chalcedon (451).

This creed was probably based on a baptismal profession of faith and encapsulated what was perceived as the essential tenets of the faith. An example of such a baptismal creed is the Apostles’ Creed, which can also be used at Mass on some occasions.

Above all, the Nicene Creed was a response to Arian and other heresies, and it defended the doctrine of the Trinity and Christ's true humanity and divinity. It was never intended to be an exhaustive exposition of every aspect of the faith, which is why not all doctrinal issues are covered by the creed.

The practice of reciting the creed at Mass is attributed to Patriarch Timothy of Constantinople (511-517), and the initiative was copied in other churches under Byzantine influence, including that part of southern Spain which was under the empire at that time.

About 568, the Byzantine emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565) ordered the creed recited at every Mass within his dominions. Twenty years later (in 589) the Visigoth king of Spain, Reccared I (reigned 586-601), renounced the Arian heresy in favor of Catholicism and, inspired by the Byzantine practice, ordered the creed said at every Mass.

About two centuries later, we find the practice of reciting the creed in France. The custom spread slowly to other parts of Northern Europe.

Finally, when in 1114, Henry II came to Rome for his coronation as Holy Roman emperor, he was surprised that they did not recite the creed. He was told that since Rome had never erred in matters of faith, there was no need for the Romans to proclaim it at Mass. However, it was included in deference to the emperor and has pretty much remained ever since, albeit not at every Mass but only on Sundays and solemnities.

Eastern and Western Christians use the same creed, except that the Latin version adds the expression "filioque" (and the Son) to the article regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit. This addition may also have been added independently in Persia around the year 410.

For the Latin tradition, the addition would appear to be grounded above all on the writings of St. Augustine (354-430) regarding the Trinity. Whatever the origin, this difference has given rise to highly complex theological discussions, even though the two positions have grown closer and less polemical over the last few years.

Despite this difference, there is a common understanding among all Christians that the creed encapsulates the essential elements of the Christian faith and that no true Christian would deny one of its articles.

Of course, there has been and will continue to be much discussion and debate as to how to interpret, explain and live out each one of its elements. 

For Catholics, the first part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is an exposition of the creed, in this case, the simple Apostles’ Creed, and there have been other expositions of the creed in diverse Christian traditions.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, city, state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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