Chapter 2: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic

The early church of the first few centuries after Pentecost understood well the meaning of “taking up your cross” (Matthew 16:24). Eleven of the twelve apostles were publicly executed in the course of their ministry; the twelfth was exiled to the island of Patmos, from which he never returned. Like the Sanhedrin in the book of Acts, the Roman Emperors were relentless in their efforts to stamp out Christianity. Countless Christians died as martyrs in ten severe “waves” of persecution from the time of Nero and Domitian in the first century to the time of Diocletian in 303 A.D.

Remarkably, the church not only survived–it thrived in these conditions. As one early Christian writer, Tertullian, observed in the year 197: the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the early church. Churches started sprouting up in surprising places all around Africa, Asia, and the Roman Empire. Missionary bishops like Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons eruditely defended the faith of the apostles in encounters with different cultures and sophisticated readers. The surest proof of their faith in Jesus’ resurrection was the way these Christians faced the threat of death without fear. The early, persecuted church grew as an organic social movement out of deep spiritual resources and rising popular sentiment. “And the Lord added to their numbers daily those who were being saved” (Acts 5:14).

Then, just after the turn of the fourth century, A.D., the world turned upside down.

In 313 A.D., after centuries of state-sponsored persecution, the Roman Emperors of East and West signed an Edict of Toleration which granted legal status to Christianity and promised benevolence toward Christians. Under these new conditions, the church was faced with a different kind of challenge. Could a faith forged in diverse conditions and galvanized under the threat of a common enemy hold its center and stay relevant without the blood of martyrs? Could this church work alongside the kings and powers of this age to keep the peace, bring justice, truth, and order for the common good?

A profound, affirmative answer came in the form of the Council of Nicaea, an assembly of the church’s leaders and teachers called together from all corners of the known world by the Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. What might have been an occasion for division and political strife became a celebration of the unbroken unity of the Christian faith and the triumph of the biblical story of God for all the nations. Under the influence and direction of the Holy Spirit, the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) reaffirmed and summarized the faith of the apostles in a definitive statement that would be come to be known as the Nicene Creed:
 
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
 
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.
 
And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father,
and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.