Last month I preached on the Apostles’ Creed in response to the old heresy of Arianism. I thought we needed some tightening up on two persistent heresies: Arianism and Gnosticism. I said that the Apostles’ Creed was developed against Arius. But Ryan Fouts, PhD candidate in theology pointed out that Arius could have agreed with the Apostles’ Creed. It was the Nicene Creed that was developed against Arius and his heresy that Jesus was not God.

So I asked Ryan to tell us the difference, and here is what he wrote. I pass it along…

The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed – what’s the Difference?

The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy Christian church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.

The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church, I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Historical Origins of the two Creeds:
Apostles’ Creed:  The earliest creeds were often “baptismal creeds,” serving as a confession of faith at the time of one’s baptism.  St. Polycarp (a student of John, the Apostle) says his student Irenaeus, “taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.”   According to St. Polycarp and Irenaeus, the “rule of truth” received and confessed by every Christian at his baptism was transmitted by the apostles  — Hence the name, “Apostles’ Creed” refers to the fact that the Creed confessed at one’s baptism is the same faith the Apostle’s handed down to us through the church.  While there were a variety of baptismal creeds in the early church, eventually the need to standardize these creeds was expressed.  In the early 3rd Century the Latin/Western Church developed the “Old Roman Creed.”  This was used as a baptismal creed throughout the Western world. That is, it was used as a statement one would speak before being baptized. An outgrowth of the “Old Roman Creed,” the text of the “Apostles’ Creed” as we know it took its present shape in the eighth century.  The Apostles’ Creed, because of its continuity with the early baptismal creeds, can be said to be both the oldest and the youngest of Christendom’s creeds.

Nicene Creed:  The Early Christians encountered a number of difficulties attempting to maintain the distinction between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit while remaining monotheists.  Think about it!  No one had talked about the “Trinity” in the terms we now know and love!  If the Father is God, but Jesus is also God, how can we be monotheists? Arianism, also known as Subordinationism, aptly named after the first leading proponent of the view, Arius of Alexandria, asserted that Jesus Christ was created, he was a “creature,” but not the creator.    Because Jesus was not co-eternal with the Father, according to Arius, he was “lower” than the Father.  Because of the growing division in Christendom, the Emperor Constantine called a council, shortly after taking control of the entire empire, to resolve the disputes.  The council became known as the Council of Nicea (325).  At Nicea, the first edition of our present Nicene Creed was formulated, with some anti-Arian additions, from a baptismal creed proposed by Eusebius of Caesarea. It included one paragraph no longer included in the Creed, “But those who say, There was when the Son of God was not, and before he was begotten he was not, and that he came into being from things that are not, or that he is of a different hypostasis or substance, or that he is mutable or alterable – the Catholic and Apostolic church anathematizes.” Two Arian bishops who refused to sign the Creed were exiled.  The Council of Constantinople (381) was called to order by the Emperor Theodosius to deal with the lingering problem of Arianism, along with new errors (particularly concerning the divinity of the Holy Spirit). Through omissions, alterations, and additions, this council gave to the Nicene Creed its present form.  Because of this, it is sometimes called the Niceno-Contantinopolitan Creed. The Council of Toledo (589) Added the phrase “filioque” (and the Son) to the Creed in reference to the Spirit’s procession.  This would eventually contribute to the great schism between the West and the East.

Key Differences:

Language: While the Apostles’ Creed likely has origins in the Greek language, the earliest extant manuscripts available are in Latin.  The Nicene Creed was originally produced in Greek, reflecting the struggle the early Church had with Greek philosophical ideas (couched in Greek language) that led to heresies like Gnosticism and Arianism.

I Believe/We Believe: The Apostles’ Creed begins with the first-person singular, “I believe,” as it was used as a confession of one’s faith at his or her baptism. It also had an additional function—because most common people did not have access to New Testament books (and most were illiterate) the Apostle’s Creed was basically the people’s Bible.  It was an easily memorable summary of what the New Testament contained about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.   If someone were to ever ask a Christian, “what do you believe?” the Apostles’ Creed gave them a simple formula to follow in their response.  Thus, the “I believe” of the Apostles’ Creed emphasized the personal dimension of faith.  No one can “believe” for you.  It’s appropriately associated, then, with the Christian sacrament/ordinance of Baptism.

The Nicene Creed—while many churches use a mis-translation that says “I believe”—begins with “we believe.”  The Nicene Creed emerged at a time when Christendom was divided over significant issues. By employing the first-person plural, “we believe,” the Nicene Creed emphasizes the unity of the church.  In spite of whatever differences Christians might have about peripheral issues, the Nicene Creed is a powerful confession of our unity in the essentials of the Christian faith.  For this reason, the Church has historically used the Nicene Creed in conjunction with the celebration of the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper.  As an expression of unity, the Nicene Creed reinforces what we also celebrate and confess at the Lord’s Table.  We belong together, and together we belong to Christ.

“…descended into hell…”  The controversial phrase found in the Apostles’ Creed is absent from the Nicene Creed.  The Latin, “descendit ad inferos,” was likely an adaptation from an earlier Greek from taken from Ephesians 9:9 where it says that Jesus had “descended into the lower parts of the earth.”  While the Apostles’ Creed has earlier origins than the Nicene Creed, the final form of the Apostles’ Creed is not developed into much later. The earliest occurrence of the “descent into hell” clause in the Apostles’ Creed actually appeared in 359 in an Eastern creed that was ultimately rejected as being tinged with Arianism!  The clause was either unknown to the formulators of the Nicene Creed or it was left out because—while it does not affirm Arian ideas per se—it was associated with the heresy the Nicene Creed was designed to reject.  In the West, the phrase “descendet ad inferos” doesn’t appear officially until about 700 A.D.

Thanks Ryan for your wonderful intellect and clarity!