Johannine Themes in the Early Church Councils
by David Arias

Johannine Influence on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed


This page constitutes a brief Johannine commentary on the propositions of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. This commentary has been divided into two sections under each creedal statement. The first section is always a listing of the ways in which the words from each creedal statement are and are not found and used in St. John's Gospel. The second section, under each creedal statement is always dedicated to the way(s) in which the respective creedal has been interpreted in Patristic Theology. In this second section, I have, by no means, attempted to be exhaustive in my listing of the Patristic commentaries on the Johannine issues, themes, and teachings which in one way or another touch upon the statements of this important Creed. Rather, I have selected to list and discuss some of the more prominent Patristic commentaries on the Johannine themes which overlap with the truths described in this Creed. Essentially, this commentary is an attempt to read the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed from the point of view of the Early Church Fathers, insofar as this is possible, who were imbued both with Johannine themes and with serious theological reflections upon Johannine and many other biblical teachings.

I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

Biblical Commentary:

It is significant to note that in St. John's Gospel the verb "believe" appears more than fifty times. The term "faith" is never used once. Hence, it seems that this Gospel, more than the others, emphasizes the actual act of believing. The "Father" is also mentioned numerous times in the Fourth Gospel. It is clear from the Fourth Gospel that the Father is a Person distinct from Jesus Christ by Whom Jesus Christ was sent into the world and to Whom He returns (e.g. 6:57; 13:1). The Prologue (1:1-18) furthermore, makes evident that the Father (i.e., God), Whose Word becomes incarnate, is the one who made (i.e., created) all things, that were made, through His Word.

Patristic Commentary:

In Roman Catholic Theology the term "faith" can have distinct but analogous meanings. On the side of the subject "faith" can refer either to a supernatural virtue which is infused by God or to an act which proceeds from the supernatural virtue. In addition, on the side of the object, "faith" can refer to the object of one's belief. Now, according to this same Theology, in order for faith to really be present in one's soul all three of these elements must be present since each one implies the existence of the other two. We find in Scripture references, both implicit and explicit, to these various aspects and necessary conditions required for faith.

It is interesting, though, that St. John's Gospel consistently focuses on the act of faith. The term "faith" itself is never used in St. John's Gospel. However, the verb "believe" is used more than fifty time all throughout the Gospel, from beginning to end. St. John seems to put emphasis on the radical importance of the act of believing. Indeed, "believing" is not only central to the Fourth Gospel but it has to do with the very reason the Gospel was written. In 20:31, St. John says, "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name." Thus, we see that believing in Jesus Christ is a necessary condition for salvation and is, at least one of the means, whereby one comes to share in eternal life.

In addition to this, we also find, in St. John's Gospel, that there can be progression from various levels or stages of belief to higher or more perfect levels of stages of belief. A paradigmatic case of this progression can be found in chapter 9 with the story of the man born blind. We see here, as the story moves along, a progression in the man's belief in Jesus Christ. The man born blind progresses, in faith, from one who recognizes Jesus Christ as a miracle worker and man from God (9:30-34) to one who recognizes, believes, and worships Jesus Christ as the Son of God (9:38).

Furthermore, in St. John's Gospel, we find that one of the most basic dichotomies between groups of human persons is constituted based on one's belief of unbelief in Jesus Christ. Just as light and darkness are distinct and opposed to each other as contraries so are believers and unbelievers distinct and opposed to each other as contraries in St. John's Gospel (e.g. 1:18-21). Thus, we see in 8:24 the strong words of Jesus Christ: "You are from below, I am from above. You are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in you sin."

Thus, we see, that a Johannine reading of the first part of this first proposition emphasizes several things. First, there is the need to continuously make acts of faith or belief in Jesus Christ. It's not enough to believe merely once, but one's belief and trust in Jesus Christ, as the Son of God, must be continuous and constant. Furthermore, one must strive, by God's grace, to ever deepen one's faith in Jesus Christ. One must always strive to know, love, and trust Jesus Christ more intimately and profoundly. And lastly, for our purposes here, one must realize the grave necessity of having faith in Jesus Christ. For according to St. John, this living faith in Jesus Christ means the difference between spiritual life and spiritual death.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, by Whom all things were made,

Biblical Commentary:

It is significant that the Fourth Gospel is the only Gospel which refers to Christ as the 'only-begotten" of the Father (1:14). This means that the terminology of "only-begotten" to refer to Christ is explicitly and uniquely Johannine. Also, one could argue that the notion of the Son being "born of the Father before all ages," is implicitly Johannine. For, we see that from the Prologue the Son was God and was with God in the beginning before all things were created. But since there is no time before there is creation, since time follows upon change, it follows that the Son was "born of the Father before all ages." In addition to this, the Prologue also seems to contain within itself each of the other statements within this section of the Creed. For we find in 1:9 that the Word is the "true Light that enlightens every man who comes into the world." Furthermore, since we know that the Word is the only-begotten of God (1:14), and since we know that He is Light (1:9), and since we know that He is "true God"(1:1) and that "all things were made through Him," (1:3) we can say that this entire creedal statement is Johannine in its Theology.

Patristic Commentary:

As is noted in the essay, The Eternal Logos and the Divinity of Christ, this proposition of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed really expresses the essence of the Christology of the Council of Niceae over against that of the Arians. By defining the truth that Christ is "consubstantial with the Father" this Creed teaches that Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, is God in the same sense that God the Father is God since they each possess the one (numerical) divine nature. It is interesting to note that the Council of Constantinople added, in this proposition, the statement, "born of the Father before all ages," to the Creed as it was defined by the Council of Nicaea. This one phrase is significant for it further distances Catholic Christology from Arian Christology insofar as it clearly emphasizes the eternal existence of God the Son. This phrase helps to make the distinction between being "begotten" and being "made" all the more clear. In other words, this added phrase seems to make clearer the teaching that the generation of God the Son is an eternal ad intra divine act which is altogether devoid of motion or change since eternity is completely free from any succession or passage from potency to act whatsoever.

When one reads this creedal statement it almost immediately brings to mind, as it did for the Early Church Fathers, such as St. Augustine and St. Athanasius (see The Eternal Logos and the Divinity of Christ), the Prologue of St. John's Gospel. For in this statement there seems to be an almost direct borrowing from the theology of John 1:1-18: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him, nothing was made that has been made....And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. And we saw His glory - glory as of the only-begotten of the Father - full of grace and of truth." In fact, many Early Church Fathers, in defending the divinity of the Logos and, thus, His eternal co-existence with God the Father, appeal to this Prologue of St. John's Gospel. It is of interest to note that, by the thirteenth century, such Christological reflection had taken place on this Prologue that St. Thomas Aquinas could comment that even the imperfect tense used by St. John is fittingly employed to describe the eternal existence of the Word of God. St. Thomas, in his Commentary on St. John, writes:

Now we should consider that it says that the Word was (erat), which is stated in the past imperfect tense. This tense is most appropriate for designating eternal things if we consider the nature of time and of the things that exist in time. For what is future is not yet in act; but what is present is in act, and by the fact that it is in act what is present is not described as having been. Now the past perfect tense indicates something that has existed, has already come to an end, and has now ceased to be. The past imperfect tense, on the other hand, indicates that something has been, has not yet come to an end, nor has ceased to be, but still endures. Thus, whenever St. John mentions eternal things he expressly says "was" (erat, past imperfect tense), but when he refers to anything temporal he says "has been" (fuit, past perfect tense), as will be clear later. But so far as concerns the notion of the present, the best way to designate eternity is the present tense, which indicates that something is in act, and this is always characteristic of eternal things. And so it is in Exodus (3:14): "I am Who am." And St. Augustine says: "He alone truly is whose being does not know a past and a future." We should note that this verb was, according to the Gloss, is not understood here as indicating temporal changes, as other verbs do, but as signifying the existence of a thing. Thus it is also called a substantive verb (I, 39). Thus, St. Thomas notes that even the verb tense that St. John employs, in the first line of the Prologue, fittingly indicates both the eternal existence of the Word and the priority of creative causality that the Word has, along with the other two Persons of the Blessed Trinity, in relation to His creation.

One might object to this sort of reasoning, as did the Arians, and hold that the Son can neither be of the same nature as the Father, nor be co-eternal with Him, for Christ clearly says of Himself, "If you loved me, you would indeed rejoice that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). However, the Early Church Fathers and the Medieval Doctors would answer this objection by drawing a distinction between Christ's human nature and divine nature. They would say that, in this passage just cited, Christ is referring to His human nature and is merely claiming the God the Father is greater than His assumed human nature. Regarding His divine nature, on the other hand, Christ is co-equal with God the Father since He is consubstantial with Him. Moreover, the Fathers of the Church claim that this is the only possible interpretation of this text since any other interpretation would be rendered incoherent insofar as it would not be in accordance either with the rest of Scripture's testimony about Who Christ is, or with official Catholic Christology.

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and became man.

Biblical Commentary:

Even though the Fourth Gospel does not say that the Son of God "for us men and for our salvation came down from heave," it does, nonetheless, teach that "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him" (3:16-17). The Theology expressed in these two statements seems to be virtually the same if not identically the same in all respects even though the words used to express it differ. Furthermore, John 1:14 says "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we saw His glory - as of the only-begotten of the Father - full of grace and truth." This verse seems to show that the Theology of the Incarnation, as expressed in the Creed is definitely rooted in St. John's Gospel. However, it should also be noted that the role of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation are not mentioned explicitly in St. John's Gospel as they are in the Synoptics. In fact, the Blessed Virgin is only referred to explicitly in three chapters of the Gospel and in all of these places She is referred to as the Mother of Jesus (see John 2, 6, 19).

Patristic Commentary:

To a certain extent this creedal statement is directed against the heresy of Docetism, which was especially prominent in the second and third centuries. Docetism held that Christ did not in truth assume a real human nature, but rather only an apparent human nature. Influenced by Gnostic dualism, the Docetists held that since material reality is essentially evil it is inconceivable that God could become truly incarnate. Thus, they held that the Word only became apparently incarnate. Thus, this creedal statement affirms the historical Incarnation wherein the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity assumed a real human nature.

St. John's Gospel, in the Prologue, teaches that "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And we saw His glory - glory as of the only-begotten of the Father - full of grace and truth....And of His fulness we have all received, grace for grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has at any time seen God. The only-begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has revealed Him" (1:14-18). This text is significant in that it helps us to better understand the function of the assumed human nature of Christ, which is discussed in this creedal statement. From this Johannine text we see that Christ's human nature is a created instrument, which the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity uses, in order to communicate His grace and truth to the world. As a result, this instrument is itself full of grace and truth. That is, Christ's human nature is deified or sanctified insofar as it is full with the fulness of grace and truth. This focus, on the completely deified or sanctified human nature of Christ, incidentally, provides the foundation for saying that Christ's human nature is the created exemplar or model of human nature. Thus, virtually contained in the Doctrine of the Incarnation is the entire doctrine of the interior or spiritual life.

And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered, and was buried. And He rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures. And He ascended into Heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; of Whose Kingdom there shall be no end.

Biblical Commentary:

The trial under Pontius Pilate and the scourging, crowing, and the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ are all recorded in St. John's Gospel 18:28-19:30. Furthermore, the Resurrection is recorded in 20:1-18. An interesting note is that the Ascension of Christ is nowhere mentioned in St. John's Gospel. While certainly not denying the Ascension it seems that the Fourth Gospel focuses more on the perpetual presence of Christ with His disciples especially through the perpetual presence of the Paraclete or Holy Spirit (16:5-16). As for the Second Coming of Christ in order to judge the world this seems to be alluded to in John 14:1-7 where Christ promises to return and to take His disciples with Him to the Father. In addition, there are numerous references, throughout the Gospel, to "eternal life" which is promised to those who believe in the Son (e.g. 3:36). This, together with passages such 14:1-7 and 18:36 (where Christ explicitly says that He is a King of a Kingdom not of this world), argue for a Johannine Theology of an everlasting kingdom.

Patristic Commentary:

In John 18:28-38 St. John describes the dialogue that occurred between Christ and Pontius Pilate previous to the crucifixion. In this dialogue Christ declares that His kingdom is not of this world. In response to this, "Pilate, therefore said to Him, 'Thou art then a king?' Jesus answered, 'Thou sayest it; I am a king. This is why I was born, and why I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.' Pilate said to Him, 'What is truth?'" In this dialogue the reader is left to draw the conclusion, from the last two lines, that Pilate must not be of the truth for he certainly does not "hear" Christ's voice. This theme of spiritual deafness is one which spans throughout the Gospel of St. John and one of the teachings which is clearly conveys, as understood by the Church Fathers, is that unless we are moved by Christ's grace, we cannot approach Him, be justified, or be His disciple. (see The Necessity of Intrinsically Efficacious Actual Graces for the Performance of Salutary Acts). We see these theme further explicated, for example, in John 10:25-30. Here the Jews ask Christ to openly reveal to them whether or not He is the Christ. In response, Christ says, "I tell you and you do not believe. The works that I do in the name of my Father, these bear witness concerning me. But you do not believe because you are not of my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me. And I give them everlasting life; and they shall never perish, neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given to me is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch anything out of the hand of the Father. I and the Father are one." The Fathers of the Church, both Early and Medieval, see in this important text, a doctrine of God's sovereign efficacious grace which is able to infallibly convert hearts, open spiritual "ears," and move souls along the way to salvation. Thus, texts like these help us to remember that any salutary acts which we perform are entirely the product of God's intrinsically efficacious actual graces. If we keep this truth in mind as we profess this Creed, we should notice that the very act wherein we profess the Creed is completely motivated by, sustained by, and brought to completion by the intrinsically efficacious actual grace of God of which Christ speaks in the Gospel of St. John.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and Son is worshiped and glorified; Who spoke by the prophets.

Biblical Commentary:

The "Holy Spirit" is referred to explicitly as the Holy Spirit twice in St. John's Gospel (1:33; 14:26). On numerous other occasions the Holy Spirit is simply referred to as the "Spirit." In addition, the Holy Spirit is seen, in Johannine Theology, to be a "Giver of Life" insofar as one can be "born of the Spirit" (3:6-8). St. John's Gospel also teaches explicitly that the Spirit "proceeds from the Father" (15:26). Although the Holy Spirit is nowhere, in St. John's Gospel, explicitly called God or divine it does seem that one could argue that this is implicitly taught. For the Holy Spirit possesses the fulness of knowledge (16:13) and is the Distributor of Divine Life (3:5) both of which attributes belong to God alone (Ott, 59).

Patristic Commentary:

One of the chief concerns of the Council of Constantinople was to dogmatically define the divinity of God the Holy Spirit. During the fourth century the divinity of the Holy Spirit was denied by the heresy known as Macedonianism. The Macedonians held that God the Holy Spirit was a mere creature, albeit a very exalted and noble creature. In a sense, Macedonianism is nothing more than Arianism applied to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. Over against this heretical view the Council of Constantinople affirmed that the Holy Spirit is consubstantial with God the Father and God the Son. To the Nicene statement "And in the Holy Spirit," the Council of Constantinople added "..., the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified; Who spoke through the prophets." Although this addition does not explicitly affirm the Holy Spirit's consubstantiality with the Father and the Son, it does, nonetheless, presuppose it. For, the Holy Spirit can only be called "Lord," be said to "proceed from the Father," and be worthy of being "worshiped and glorified" together with the Father and the Son upon the supposition that He too is a divine Person Who possesses the one (numerical) divine nature.

A little more than two centuries following the Council of Constantinople the Roman Catholic Church, in 589, at the Third Synod of Toledo, added the famous "and the Son" (filioque) following the phrase, "Who proceeds from the Father..." Thus, the whole statement now reads, "And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son, Who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified; Who spoke through the prophets." The reason it is important to mention the addition of the filioque is because this addition, by the Catholic Church, was defended theologically through appeals to the Pneumatology present in the Gospel of St. John. For example, even as early as St. Augustine, we find appeals to Johannine texts (esp. 15:26) cited in order to demonstrate the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son as from one single Principle of origin (De Trinitate, XV, 47-48). One of the favorite Johannine texts used by Catholic theologians to justify the filioque statement has historically been John 15:26b - "...the Paraclete Whom I will send you from the Father...." From this text one can argue to the necessity of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son in the following manner: "This external mission [of the Holy Spirit] (ad extra) is to a certain extent the continuation of the Eternal Procession in time. From the mission one can therefore infer the Eternal Procession. The eternal production corresponds to the mission, and the eternal being produced corresponds to the being sent. As, according to the testimony of Holy Scripture, the Holy Spirit is sent from the Father and from the Son, it must be inferred that He is produced by the Father and by the Son" (Ott, 63).

In addition to helping buttress the filioque doctrine, the Pneumatology of the Fourth Gospel also emphasizes the perpetual presence of Christ's Spirit with the Christian community. We see, for example, in chapter 16 the necessity, in God's plan, for the sending of the Spirit of truth. Christ says, "Many things yet I have to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will teach you all the truth. For He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He will hear He will speak, and the things that are to come He will declare to you. He will glorify me, because He will receive of what is mine and declare it to you" (16:12-14). If we read the creedal statements of the Holy Spirit in light of this Johannine text we come to realize that by professing that the Holy Spirit is the "Giver of Life"we not only mean that He is the Giver of supernatural life (i.e., grace) but also that He is the Giver of truth. Part of the mission of God the Holy Spirit is to lead His Church into all truth so that His Church is perfected in its Faith and, thus, in the way of salvation.

And in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Biblical Commentary:

Even though in St. John's Gospel there is no explicit mention of the "Church" with Her four marks, listed above, we can say that there is a definite group of disciples of Jesus Christ (which includes, at least, the elect) that is to be one as the Father and Son are one and that is left by Jesus Christ under the leadership of St. Peter (see, e.g. 17:9-10; 20-23; 21:15-19). The word "Baptism" per se nowhere appears in St. John's Gospel, although "baptize" appears twice (1:26; 1:33), "baptized" appears three times (3:22; 3:23; 4:2), the word "baptizes" appears once (1:33), and the word "baptizing" appears seven times (1:25; 1:28; 1:31; 3:23; 3:26; 4:1; 10:40). The nature of this Baptism, moreover, seems to be regenerative especially when one reads the account of Baptism and being "born again" in chapter 3. The Resurrection of the Dead is clearly taught in St. John's Gospel, for example in John 5:29 and 11:24-25. In addition to this those who have done good will rise to unto life while those who have done evil will rise unto judgement (5:29).

Patristic Commentary:

Throughout the history of the Catholic Church John 3:5, "Amen, amen, I say unto thee, unless a man is born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," has been appealed to in order to support the regenerative nature of the Sacrament of Baptism. (see John 3:5 and the Necessity of Water Baptism) This great Johannine text reminds us that baptism does not merely wash away sin, although it certainly does that. For, as the Council of Trent teaches, justification, which is achieved in Baptism, "is not remission of sin merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace and of the gifts whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting" (Decree on Justification, ch. 7). Thus, the Johannine theology of John 3:5 reminds us that in baptism one receives a new supernatural life principle whereby one is made to participate (via created grace) in the Life of the Spirit, that is, in the Life of God Himself. Commenting on the Spirit as the Principle of spiritual regeneration, St. Thomas says:

Now there is a reason why spiritual regeneration comes from the Spirit. It is necessary that the one generated be generated in the likeness of the one generating; but we are regenerated as sons of God, in the likeness of His true Son. Therefore, it is necessary that our spiritual regeneration come about through that by which we are made like the true Son; and this comes about by our having His Spirit: "If any one does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His" (Rom. 8:9); "By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us: because He has given us of His Spirit (1 Jn. 4:13). Thus spiritual regeneration must come from the Holy Spirit. "You did not receive the spirit of slavery, putting you in fear again, but the spirit of adoption" (Rom. 8:15); "It is the Spirit that gives life" (John 6:63) (Commentary on St. John, 442). It is important to see that in the one act of spiritual regeneration God simultaneously frees His human creatures from the bondage of sin and translates them into a created participation in His very Life such that we become sons and daughters of God Himself. For in seeing this we see the total purpose of spiritual regeneration as it is received in the Sacrament of Baptism.

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