Jesus’ Death and the Nicene Creed
Q: Why doesn’t the Nicene Creed specifically state that Jesus Christ died? The other two Ecumenical Creeds both say that He “died” or “rose from the dead.” Doesn’t this omission feed into some of the errors which precipitated the necessity of the creeds in the first place, involving the reality that Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God?
A: I cannot presume to speak for Saint Athanasius and his fellow confessors at the Council of Nicaea, but will hazard a guess based upon the Creed’s wording and the general theological climate of the time. Granted, there were some few who denied that Christ had truly died, but this was a small minority. Even the majority of the most blatant heretics admitted that Jesus had died. And since Emperor Constantine had called the Council to address Arianism, they focused mainly on its errors. Thus the Creed doesn’t emphasize Jesus’ death.
However, unless we severely twist its words, we’re compelled to confess that Jesus died as we say the Nicene Creed. In it, we profess belief that Jesus was “crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures.” Crucifixion was capital punishment, death its intended end. To those who accepted the testimony of the apostles and evangelists, stating that He was “crucified” and “buried” meant that He likewise had died. And since it specifically says that He “rose again,” what, other than death, fits the context should someone ask, “He rose from what?”
The heresy of Docetism (Jesus only seemed to die and perhaps only seemed to have a human body) finds more refutation later in the Creed. Based largely upon Gnostic and Neo-Platonic thinking that matter was evil (or less good) than spirit, Docetism cared little about the disposition of the body — either that of Christ or of a believer.
Islam likewise denies that Jesus truly died on the cross. In the Qur’an, the Shakir translation of Sura 4:157 says, “And their saying: ‘Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the messenger of Allah’; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure.”
When the Nicene Creed looks for “the resurrection of the dead,” it looks for the reversal of our bodily death — an event having its “firstfruits” in the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead (see 1 Corinthians 15:20-23). The reality of our own resurrection ties directly to the reality of Christ’s resurrection; the authenticity of His resurrection relates directly to the certainty of His own death. Islam, Gnosticism, and other heretical philosophies thus are dashed to pieces, not only by the clear words of Scripture but also by the Church’s Creeds.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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