I believe … We say these words every Sunday as we profess our faith by praying the Nicene Creed together as a community. Promulgated in the fourth century AD at the Ecumentical Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, this prayer lays out the central beliefs and doctrines of Christian faith. It was meant to be a symbol of orthodox Christian belief as opposed to heretical beliefs that denied the divinity of Jesus Christ and, by extension, the Trinity. In the early centuries of the Church, catechumens (those who were converting to Christianity), clergymen, and the people in the pews would all use the prayer as a means of affirming that they accepted the Apostolic and Trinitarian Christian faith. Because it focuses on the basics of Christianity, the creed is accepted by Christians of all backgrounds, including Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestants.
Having said this, when we pray the creed at Mass, many of us probably say the words by habit without really thinking about their meaning. Can you say the Nicene Creed from memory without a group saying it with you? The point is, while many of us can say the prayer by habit with the church community at Mass, we may not be able to say the whole creed by ourselves without having the words in front of us. I’ve experienced several occasions where a priest started off by leading the Nicene Creed but stopped about halfway through. Invariably, the rhythm was broken as the congregation, me included, began to fumble the words after he stopped. Considering that we say this prayer as a community week after week and yet we still may not be able to say it individually, one could ask whether we even understand the words we’re saying. If we don’t know or understand our faith intellectually, how can we hope to act on it, to bring it from our heads to hearts?
Here we touch on an essential point about the Nicene Creed. At the beginning of each of the main parts (or articles) of the creed we say, I believe. In his book, The Creed, theologian Berard Marthaler emphasizes that, in its modern uses, the word believe is subjective and often has connotations of opinion or uncertainty. However, Marthaler points out that, in the ancient world, to say you believed in something was more objective. It implied commitment to something, or more often, someone. In the context of the Nicene Creed to believe means making a firm commitment to the truths revealed through Scripture and Tradition and, more importantly, to relationship with God (the Father, the Son and the Spirit).
To firmly believe the content of the Christian faith therefore meant, and still means, more than giving our intellectual assent. If we truly believe in something, we should not remain unchanged but should respond to this belief. This is why, traditionally, Christian theologians have distinguished between the content of the faith (what we believe) and the act of faith (how we live out or respond to that belief when we truly understand it). The content and act of faith reinforce each other. If we believe something with absolute certainty we naturally respond to that belief. At the same time, people should be able get at least to some idea of what we believe from our actions. If I believe a building is on fire, I will naturally try to get out of it. In a similar way, if I believe, with certainty, that God created the earth and is revealed through the works of creation, I will be a good steward of natural resources (conserve water, recycle,, buy from environmentally responsible companies, etc.).
While the words of the Nicene Creed express only the content of our faith, by affirming that we believe these doctrines, we are challenged to act on this belief. When we profess belief in the various articles of the Nicene Creed but fail to act on them or, even worse, act in a way that is contrary to them, those around us may question the truth and validity of the Christian faith. This is the reason serious failures on the part of Christian leaders or seemingly devout Christians often cause scandal. Such scandals lead some people to doubt the gospel message.
If we hope to live out the act of faith, we must first know and understand the content of our faith. When we say the Nicene Creed on Sundays, we should think about what we are saying so that we are able to act on what we claim to believe. To do this, it may be necessary to seek out information in order to come to a better understanding of what we profess to believe: What does it mean when we say that Jesus was “born of the Father before all ages” or that He is “consubstantial with the father?” Why is the Holy Spirit “the Lord, the giver of life?” How can we say the Church is “holy” when those within the Church sin?
This article is the first in a series on the Nicene Creed. Throughout this series, we will look at each part of the Creed discover what exactly we are professing to believe when we say it (the content of faith) and how we can and should respond to this belief once we understand it (the act of faith). Hopefully this will bring us to a greater appreciation and understanding of this great prayer and, in doing so, enable us to whole heartedly say, “I believe…”