Joseph Ratzinger on the Creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople

The following is an excerpt from Joseph Ratzinger’s Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, available online at TCR1.


Sixteen hundred years ago, at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, that confession of faith was formulated that, even today, is the common possession of nearly all Christian churches and ecclesial communities. Memorial celebrations in Rome and Constantinople reminded us of the date; in Germany, it was underscored by a joint statement of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. The ancient Creed became, for separated Christians, a signpost on the road to unity. It will be rewarding, therefore, to examine it more closely. How did it originate? What does it mean?

The question seems even more relevant when we consider that the situation of the Church prior to that Council was anything but ideal. Basil, the great Bishop of Caesaria (in present-day Turkey), who is justly regarded as one of the architects of this Council, which, in fact, he did not live to attend, compared the state of the Church at that time with a night battle at sea: everything is in turmoil; friend and foe are no longer distinguishable in the encompassing gloom and the incessant and desolate shouting; both sides strike out randomly. The Church, according to Basil, was in a state of indescribable confusion. I shall attempt to explain, as briefly as possible, how this situation came about and then to ask how the Council of Constantinople succeeded in rescuing and reuniting the Church that had fallen prey to divisive factions. However, it is not my intention in these remarks simply to scrutinize more or less curiously a past now distant but, rather, to speak of our own fate, of the Church of today with her hopes and needs. [page 113]

It is in this spirit that we turn now to the history of the fourth century, at the beginning of which the Emperor Constantine brought about such a great change in the religious policy of the Roman Empire, putting an end to the three-hundred-year-old struggle against Christianity, which he declared an officially legal and, soon thereafter, specially favored religion. In doing so, he was responding not only to the actual strength that Christianity had meanwhile acquired in the Roman Empire but also to the mood of his own century. The gods of Greece and Rome had ceased to be credible; they no longer existed outside of poetry or served any legitimate political purpose; they could no longer offer either individuals or society a moral foundation for their way of life. The turn to monotheism was in the air; it was, in fact, long overdue. On the other hand, it was also clear that one could not pray to a god who was just the product of the philosophers and that, from such a god, no fullness of power was to be expected either in politics or in ethics. The belief in one God had to have a genuinely religious origin, that is, it had to rest on revelation, if it was to bind and be accepted as binding. For that reason, the eyes of the intelligentsia had long been turned toward Judaism, which could point to a monotheism with a strongly religious foundation. But Jewish monotheism was so linked to national traditions and ritual prescriptions that Judaism was unthinkable as the common religion of the Mediterranean world. The young Christian religion, on the other hand, had demonstrated more and more clearly, in its hard struggle against the great variety of spiritual movements that proceeded from Judaism, its potential as a new world religion. Constantine recognized this and began, circumspectly but nevertheless determinedly, to smooth its way toward becoming the new universal religion.

In the meantime, it soon became apparent that, while Christianity was indeed a belief in only one God, it was, at the same time, far more than a purely philosophical monotheism. This was clear, above all, in its confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. At a time when Christendom was, as it were, officially acknowledged as heir to the ancient philosophy and as a rational religion, the conflict about the meaning of the concept “Son of God” could not fail to reach dramatic proportions. The struggle [page 114] between political accommodation, philosophical enlightenment and the resistance of religion to both of them began to affect the Church more deeply than she had ever been affected by external persecution. Constantine observed with consternation this movement that was diametrically counter to his plans for a new unity of the Empire on the basis of the unity of Christian belief. The incipient schism in the Church was for him a political problem; he was, however, farseeing enough to recognize that the unity of the Church could not be achieved by political measures but only by religious ones, that is, by awakening the unitive forces within the Christian faith itself. Consequently, he convoked the first ecumenical council in history, an assemblage of the bishops of the world, in Nicaea, a city in Asia Minor not far from the metropolis he had founded in Constantinople. This Council definitively rejected the notion of a Christianity of accommodation. In the years preceding the Council, the theologian Arius of Alexandria in Egypt had offered a very attractive model of such a Christendom. He explained Christian belief as monotheism in the strictest sense of philosophical thought. That meant, above all, that the designation of Christ as “Son of God” was not to be taken literally. According to philosophical monothism, Christ could not be God in the true sense of the word but only an intermediate being whom God used for the creation of the world and for his relationships with human beings. The word “God” as a designation for Christ was to be used only, as it were, in quotation marks; with the necessary restrictions, however, its use could be permitted the faithful for reasons of piety.

This solution was extraordinarily appealing. The philosophical offensiveness of the expression “Son of God” was thereby avoided, and Christology was fully embedded in a framework acceptable to the ruling modes of thought. The biblical texts could also be explained in this way while holding fast to the language of tradition. The Nicene Fathers rejected this possibility: they insisted that the Bible could and must be taken literally in what concerned its most crucial point—its witness to Jesus Christ. If it says “Son”, it means “Son”. The Fathers translated the expression “Son of God” by the formula: Christ is one in Being with the Father; he is God in the literal sense, not just in quotation marks. They incorporated the formula “one in Being with the Father” into their confession of faith, their creed. If a philosophical concept was thus joined to the biblical words, it was only for the purpose of saying, without fear of misunderstanding, that the Bible is to be taken seriously in its literal meaning and is not to be modified by philosophical accommodations to a mode of thought that is more [page 115] widely acceptable. Thus the appropriation of philosophy by faith occurs here in a way exactly opposite to the way in which Arius had appropriated it: whereas he measured Christianity by the norms of enlightened understanding and altered it accordingly, the Council Fathers used philosophy in order to clarify, beyond the possibility of misunderstanding, the belief that is the essence of Christianity.

By this decision, Christianity’s right to be taken seriously as a religion and its role as a spiritual entity in its own right were both vindicated. But this was more than the enlightened world of that time was prepared to accept. Although the Nicene Creed was protected by the authority of both Emperor and bishops, that is, by the ranking authorities of both Church and state, it found acceptance at first only in the West, where the supremacy of the bishop of Rome was fully recognized; moreover, the West lay outside the great philosophical movements of the age and was, in consequence, not so affected by their intellectual upheavals as was the Greek-speaking East. There, the eminent Alexandrian Bishop Athanasius stood almost alone in his acceptance of Nicaea. Throughout the Eastern Church, there arose that indescribable confusion of which Basil speaks. More and more new formulas were invented by way of compromise, but, instead of uniting, they served only to increase the number of factions.

In view of this situation, Constantine had begun to distance himself from the unenforceable decision of the Council of Nicaea. His son Constantius II pursued a policy of deliberate rejection of the Nicene Creed. As a politician, he attempted to establish unity on the basis of the least common denominator. The Council had, it was true, declared that Christ was one in Being with the Father, but did there not now exist a number of formulas that spoke instead of the Son’s similarity to the Father? Constantius adopted the version that said Christ was “like the Father in accordance with the Scripture” and had this formula approved in 360 by the Synod of Constantinople, thus formally annulling the Nicene Creed. From a political point of view, this must have been regarded as an exceptionally clever compromise, since faith was in this way firmly referred to the Bible. For did not the formula explicitly say: Christ is as the Bible says he is? An apparently pious solution was thereby reached that based faith simply and solely on the word of Scripture. But it also deprived the Church of the right to make her own decisions and placed the concrete ordering of ecclesial matters in the hands of the state.

It soon became apparent that this escape into biblicism was far from [page 116] establishing the dominance of the word of Scripture. For Nicaea had not ranged itself against the Bible; on the contrary, it had officially expounded the Bible in terms of the universal faith of the Church, thus making it effective in its full strength. Now, however, the Church was disavowing her own decision, and, consequently, her right to make her own decisions, by referring the individual to the word of the Bible but, at the same time, leaving in doubt what was actually being said about this central question. In consequence, the Church no longer had a voice of her own, and the Bible ceased to be a universal word: it was delivered over to contending theological factions, thus surrendering the Church to the power of politics, which must now make the decisions that the Church no longer claimed the authority to make. By a kind of inner necessity, biblicism was followed by the domination of theological factions and the Church’s surrender to politics.

But a Church that has, to this extent, lost her inner strength is no longer of any political interest because no spiritual force emanates from her. Theodosius, the new Emperor from the West, was well aware of this fact. He therefore altered the politico-religious course of the Empire, directing it once again toward Nicaea, which, shortly after his assumption of office in 379, he again confirmed as the valid foundation of Church unity. He clearly rejected both the purely political and the biblicist norms by declaring as normative the faith of the pope in Rome and of the bishop of Alexandria. By this action, the Church was again recognized as the maker of her own decisions and the source of the universal and binding interpretation of the Bible. She was freed from her bondage to the political structure and placed anew under her own control. For the Council of Nicaea had declared that the bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were the authoritative guardians of the universal faith of the Church. Because Antioch was floundering in a vortex of politically determined theologies, the Emperor was compelled, however, to turn to Rome and Alexandria; hence this imperial decree likewise marks for us a stage in the development of the authority of the bishop of Rome with regard to the faith of the whole Church. The Emperor’s decision was a step in the right direction to the extent that it returned the Church to herself. On the other hand, the function of politics in matters of faith was once again overvalued; for if Nicaea was to be accepted as valid in the East, that [page 117] acceptance had to come from the inner conviction of the Church in the East. In February 380, therefore, the Emperor was obliged to temper his too precipitate action and to make an even greater effort to strengthen and reconcile the inner regenerative powers of the Church in the East.

These powers had, in fact, been developed during the years in which the Nicene faith was under harassment. We have, from the year 382, a shocking letter addressed to Pope Damasus in Rome by the bishops once again assembled in Constantinople in which they report how many bishops in the East had suffered for the faith during the years of suppression. Many had gone into exile and had died there. Others had suffered at home rather than in exile. They had been stoned and tortured; those who survived could indeed say of themselves that they bore the wounds of Christ in their bodies (cf. Gal 6:17). Faith like this, which proved itself in suffering, was possessed of an inner radiance that the political opportunists among the bishops could not appreciate. Since the middle of the fourth century, however, a new theological power had been increasingly in evidence. At first, it had been philosophical and political accommodation in the face of biblicism that rules almost exclusively; Nicaea found little resonance and, therefore, few followers among the intelligentsia. Then there arose three individuals whose words retain even today their power to enlighten: the above-mentioned Bishop Basil of Caesarea; his brother, Gregory of Nyssa; and the friend of his well-remembered student days in Athens, Gregory of Nazianzus. These three theologians of Asia Minor became a stabilizing force for the second generation of theologians after Nicaea, which succeeded in so broadening and deepening the intellectual bases of the Nicene faith as to make it more readily comprehensible to a wider circle of seeking individuals. Through the efforts of these men, Nicaean orthodoxy also regained its appeal even in the politico-religious realm. For the achieving of a new consensus, it was certainly of decisive importance that Meletius, Bishop of Antioch and a bitter opponent of the older Nicaean bishops of Rome and Alexandria, joined the younger generation, providing a basis for the formation of a majority that would ultimately unify the East once again under the aegis of the Nicene faith. This unification occurred at the Council of Constantinople in 381. To make this understandable, we must prefix a short explanation.

The increased scrutiny of the intellectual bases of the Nicene faith that [page 118] took place in the circle of the younger generation of Nicaeans led not only to a new understanding but also to new difficulties. At the beginning of the fourth century, the question about Christ had been the principal problem of Christian monotheism. Christ was either excluded from the concept of God as required by philosophical monotheism or included as required by biblical tradition. But in the attempt to think through the Christian concept of God in these terms, one inevitably encountered the question of the Holy Spirit. In its confession of faith, Nicaea had dealt thoroughly with the question of Christ. About the Holy Spirit, however, it had merely repeated the ancient baptismal confession: “…and in the Holy Spirit”. That was no longer enough. There was reason to fear that the debate about the Holy Spirit would lead anew to the same drama as had arisen in connection with the question about the Son. With its confession of belief in the Holy Spirit, which it added to the already existing Nicene Creed, the Council of Constantinople avoided this eventuality and restored unity to the Church. How did it accomplish this? The answer is not an easy one.

In the year 379, a Synod at Antioch had already worked toward a new consensus; it was possible to rely on 150 bishops of the Near East. By a clever move on the part of the Emperor, the extremists of both sides were not invited to the Council. He excluded representatives of the West, whose hard line in favor of Nicaea had made it difficult to win over those who had thus far resisted it; but he also omitted from the Council the irreconcilable opponents of Nicaea, thus eliminating a priori the possibility of violent tensions among the participants. But such a tactic could have had the opposite effect of evoking opposition; hence, while it can go far toward explaining the reaching of a consensus, it cannot explain the wide acceptance of this consensus. For this we must look for deeper causes. I see four principal ones:

1. The philosophical achievement of the younger generation of Nicaeans lay principally in the fact that they attacked the problem of Christian monotheism from a new angle. In the initial debate at the beginning of the fourth century, the concept of monotheism, on the one hand, had been opposed to the confession of the divinity of Jesus Christ, on the other. It was not easy to combine the two. The theologians of the second generation after Nicaea realized that the question of monotheism had to be completely rethought. They understood that belief in Christ and the Holy Spirit was not in opposition to monotheism but rather revealed, for the first time, its true greatness. They adopted the Platonic model of the three hypostases and recognized, on that basis, that the oneness of God consisted precisely in the oneness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The [page 119] oneness of being, wisdom and love is a higher oneness than the oneness of undifferentiatedness. They recognized that the true oneness of God was to be understood in terms of the spiritual, not of the atom, the material; they recognized that it was precisely this confession of the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, which seemed to run counter to monotheism, that actually revealed the nature of the divine oneness and allowed the great and illuminating notion of a God who is divine to emerge in contrast to the notion of a God conceived by man. In this way, the Holy Spirit did not become an additional problem to be reconciled with monotheism but rather—since the Holy Spirit opened the way to the doctrine of the Trinity and, with it, to a new appropriation of the deepest thought of antiquity—the solution of the christological problem and the door to Christian monotheism.

Gregory of Nazianzus combined this new, personalistic and spiritual understanding of being, of reality as such, with a new philosophy of history, which he interpreted as progressive history, as the history of a continuing revelation and, therefore, of a progressive education of mankind by faith. He identified the first stage in this progress as the leading of the human race out of the darkness of the worship of false gods and into the knowledge of the one true God—as the transition from human beliefs to revelation. The second stage, which coincided with the transition from the Old to the New Testament, from law to grace, from the particularity of Israel to the universality of the salvation of all peoples, led to knowledge of the Son of God; it was, as it were, the passage from Father to Son. Now, in the third stage, the Holy Spirit and, along with him, the whole mystery of God was revealed. The trinitarian nature of God is reflected in the historicity of human existence, which, for its part, parallels the history of revelation. The present era of the Church thus became comprehensible to man as fulfillment, as a time in which a long journey reached its goal.

2. The decrees of Constantinople corresponded, then, to a certain confidence of thought as well as to the self-assurance of an age in which, as it were, a new threshold of history was crossed. But it is impossible for philosophy alone to keep the Church in existence. Generally speaking, an intensification of thought is possible only if it has been preceded by an intensification of experience. The new theology of the Cappadocians, which made possible the triumph of Constantinople, rested in fact on the new intellectual experience that owed its existence to the Nicene faith. It is [page 120] unthinkable without the suffering of the martyrs who defended their faith against the state church and, in a time of crisis, had recourse to a deep-rooted reliance on prayer and on the liturgy of the Church. Basil developed his doctrine of the Holy Spirit, his concept of Christian monotheism, entirely from the liturgy of the Church; his book about the Holy Spirit is, at bottom, nothing other than a theology of liturgy. He begins with a discussion of baptism: Christ commissioned the apostles to make all people his disciples by baptizing them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). In the biblical context of baptism, Basil found the fundamental law of Christian life and prayer. Thus the reality of Christian prayer was the guideline for philosophy. One does not first form a mental image of God and then try to pray to it; on the contrary, there exists first the experience of prayer, which, in turn, rests on the sacrament, that is, on the experience of God that was communicated to the apostles and continues to exist in the Church—the experience of Jesus Christ himself, who could make God known to us only because God was known to him.

Another definitive element originated also with Basil, the real pioneer of the new unity. Confession of the Holy Spirit goes hand in hand, in this theology, with the theme of Church reform. Devotion to the Holy Spirit is for him, not a theological theory, but a search for the spirit of faith, a search for divine life and for the renewal of the Church through the Spirit. It is a criticism of the state church and a search for the Church of faith, for a truly spiritual community of faith and life. Thus Basil became the Father of Monasticism, which he wanted to establish in the Church, not as a unique group separated from the rest of Christianity, but as the model of a brotherhood of faith, in which the ideals that gave it birth continue to thrive: “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; … everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32; cf. 2:42–47). The foundation of this ecclesial life and this concept of the Church was belief in the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, from this lived confession of the Holy Spirit proceeded a persuasive power that was stronger than any rationalistic accommodation or decree of the state.

3. From this depth of faith and thought, Basil patiently sought the dialogue and accomplished the work of persuasion without which the crevasses of separation could not have been filled. Many found that he went too far. His friend Gregory of Nazianzus saw in his arguments a tendency toward indecisiveness and ambiguity that he could not condone. Athanasius, who, with noble inflexibility, had supported the Nicene faith [page 121] singlehandedly for half a century amidst a flood of contumely and contradiction, was better able to understand Basil on this point. He realized that, in this way, the Bishop of Caesarea had, in truly apostolic manner, become weak with the weak. At the Council of Constantinople, it was the arguments of Basil, who had meantime died, that led to the choice of relatively open formulations of faith in the Holy Spirit, a language of religious experience that was intended to and did in fact make it possible for as many as possible to accept these words. Such compromises can be dangerous and Gregory of Nazianzus rejected them with sharp words. In this case, the compromise was protected by the liturgical witness and the spiritual life that made it possible and, at the same time, gave it its unequivocal meaning.

4. The Church of the West was at first indignant at the autocratic and unilateral action of the Emperor, who, as we saw above, had invited only the East to the Council. The bishops of the Council were well aware of the problem thus created: a new dependence on the state. They tried to free themselves from this bondage at another assembly in 382 by sending a moving letter to Pope Damasus and asking his approval of the results of the Council. Representatives of the West did not, in fact, attend the Council until seventy years later at the Council of Chalcedon, but the action of the Eastern bishops is important in its own right. It recognizes the predominance of the ecclesiastical over the political structure and gives expression to their intention of binding themselves to the whole Church in a union that can exist only in union with the bishop of Rome. Here, too, Constantinople offered a meaningful sign that contributed to the healing of the rift that already existed between East and West and to the restoration to the whole Church of a unity that persisted for centuries.

It is not difficult, I think, to see how much we can learn today from this long history. Today, too, the Church cannot be saved by compromise and accommodation or by mere theorizing but only by self-reflection and a depth of faith that opens the door to the Holy Spirit and his unifying power. However numerous the human factors that were necessary for the achievement of unity at the Council of Constantinople, it is also ultimately through these factors that it becomes clear that the unity of the Church is not to be brought about by human effort but can be effected only by the Holy Spirit. Anyone who looks back on this Council knows that this is not a denial of individual effort, not an expression of resignation, but the strongest word of hope that can be conceived.


Header Image: Dreifaltigkeitssäule, Linz.

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