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, Who was begotten of the Father before all worlds. Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten and not made, and being of one substance with His 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 and of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. And He became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and He suffered, died, and was buried, and on the third day He rose according to His will. And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of His Father. And He will come again with great glory to judge both the living and the dead, and His kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life to all, Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets and Apostles.
And in one Holy Catholic (Universal) and Apostolic Church. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the new life in the world to come. Amen.
Explanation of the Nicene Creed
The first Ecumenical Synod at Nicaea in A.D. 325 formulated the fundamental beliefs of all Christians in what has since been known as the Nicene Creed (also called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, because the complete present form was defined by bishops in both Nicaea and Constantinople). The Nicene Creed is ultimately about the Trinity, but it also affirms historical realities of Jesus' life. To this day, this remains the creed of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
Let’s look at it line by line with explanations.
We Believe in One True God
As Christians, we believe that one God exists. The creed states the assumption of the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Notice the English translation of the creed says "we" believe. The creed is an act of unity, and is both my confession and our confession.
The Father, Almighty
Jesus frequently calls God "Father" in the Scriptures, and this usage implies a loving God active within His creation. God the Father is the first person, or distinction, within the Godhead. The Father is in a sense the "origin" or "source" of the Trinity. God the Father is often called "God Unbegotten" in early Christian thought.
Maker of Heaven and Earth, of All Things Visible and Invisible.
We believe that God created the visible and invisible elements of the cosmos. Thus, God created everything. Some early sects, the Gnostics and Marcionites, believed that God the Father created the spirit world, but that an "evil" god (called the demiurge) created the similarly evil material world. The creed dispels such a notion.
And in the One Lord Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ is the Lord of all. The title Lord means Jesus is master of all, and the title has connotations of deity, since the Hebrew title adonai and Greek title kyrios (both meaning Lord) were applied to Yahweh in the Old Testament. However, unlike earthly rulers, Jesus is a friend to the oppressed and a servant to all.
The Only Begotten Son of God
Jesus is in a unique relationship with God. While Hebrew kings were considered sons of God symbolically (see Psalm 2), Jesus is the only true Son of God.
Begotten of the Father Before All Worlds
Begotten has the meaning of born, generated, or produced. God the Son is born out of the essence of God the Father. Just as a child shares the same humanness as his or her parents, the Son shares the essential nature of God with the Father. Since God is eternal, the Son, being generate from God, is also eternal. The Son is often called the Only-Begotten God in early Christian literature, including John 1:18 in many manuscripts.
Light of Light
God the Son exists in relation to God the Father. The Son is not the Father, but they both are God. Just as a torch is lit one to another, the Father and Son are distinct, but both light. Some Christians, called Sabellians or Modalists, said that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God who changes roles. So when God creates, he is Father, while on earth, he is Son, and so forth. However, the Scriptures have all three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, interacting at the same time, as shown at Jesus' baptism. The language of scripture also suggests that the Father and Son are somehow two as well as one. In John's gospel, the Father and Son testify as two witnesses, not one (John 8:17-18). Related to this, St. Athanasius, writing during the Nicene era, reportedly said that the Father and Son are one as "the sight of two eyes is one." Another illustration is the musical chord. Think of a C-chord. The C, E, and G notes are all distinct notes, but joined together as one chord, the sound is richer and more dynamic than had the notes been played individually. The chords are all equally important in producing the full, dynamic, sound of the chord, but the sound is lacking and thin if one of the notes is left out.
True God of True God
God the Son is not a half-god or inferior to God the Father. God the Son is fully and utterly God, distinct from the Father, yet not divided from the Father. The ancient Arians believed Jesus could be called god but not true God. In other words, they believed the Logos (the Word) was the first creation of God, necessary to mediate between the unknowable distant God (a concept borrowed from Platonic thought) and creation. Because God knew the Logos would be perfect, the title god could be given to the Son "by participation," but "true God" was a reality reserved only for the unknowable Father. This is the Ante-Nicene "Logos Theology" of St. Justin and Athenagoras taken to an unintended extreme.
Begotten, Not Made
Some Christians today and in the past (the Arians) said that God created Jesus, like God would an angel. The creed tells us that just as when a woman gives birth she does not create a child out of nothing, being born from God, the Son is not created out of nothing. Since the Son's birth from the Father occurred before time was created, begotten refers more to a permanent relationship as opposed to an event within time.
Being of the Same Substance (homo-ousia) with the Father
God the Father and God the Son are equally divine, united in substance and will. Father and Son share the same substance or essence of divinity. That is, the Father and Son both share the qualities and essential being that make one in reality God. However, sharing the same substance does not mean they share identity of person. While certainly an inadequate example, think of you and I. We are both fully human, possessing the essential qualities and essence of humanity, but not the same person.
And By Whom All Things Were Made
The Bible tells us that through The Son, as Word of God, all things have been created. As Logos, the Son is the agent and artificer of creation.
Who For Us Men and for Our Salvation, Came Down from Heaven
Jesus came from heaven, from a numinous reality other than our own. While the creed says "down," it is important to remember that our language is limited by our own time and spatiality. Heaven is not up, anymore than God is biologically a male father. However, due to the limits of language, we are forced to describe heaven spatially.
And Was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary and Became Man
God the Son became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He was born of a virgin through the Holy Spirit. God truly became man in Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth was and is a real human being, not simply a spirit or ghost. The incarnation of God in Christ is the ultimate act of love, because rather than sending an angel or good human to accomplish the redemption and restoration of creation, God Himself became human. Some religious groups denied that Jesus was born of a virgin, such as the Jewish-influenced Ebionites. The virgin birth seems to be the first doctrine many modern day skeptics reject. Even today, many who say the creed weekly do not believe Mary was a virgin. However, in the mind of the Church, Mary's status as virgin remains an essential Christian belief.
And Was Crucified For Us Under Pontius Pilate; He Suffered, Died, and Was Buried
Jesus died on a cross, suffered as humans do, truly died, and was laid in a tomb. Despite what some critics will level against it, the Nicene is creed is more than just metaphysical speculation, and includes important historical confessions. Notice that in addition to being "true God from true God," Jesus is fully human as well. The early Docetists, named from the Greek word dokeo, "to seem," believed Jesus only seemed to be human, but was not, and simply went through the motions of being human. Thus, when Jesus ate, they said, he only pretended to eat. Docetism is a very early heresy, fought by the Gospel and Letters of St. John, as well as in St. Ignatius' letters in AD 110.
On the Third Day He Rose Again According to His Will
Jesus was resurrected bodily as the Scripture says. The bodily resurrection is the keystone of Christian doctrine and experience. However, Jesus was not just physically resuscitated as was Lazarus, but rather his body was also transformed at the resurrection. Rejection of the bodily resurrection is a rejection of the foundation of ancient Christianity.
He Ascended Into Heaven and Is Seated at the Right Hand of the Father
In ancient science, heaven was thought to be situated above the sky dome (notice how on a starry night the sky looks like a dome that one could pierce through if one could get that high, e.g. by building a large tower). So in the scriptures, Jesus is said to ascend to heaven. Whatever happened that day, Luke had to render the event into his own scientific paradigm, so he said Jesus "went up" to heaven. Again, we are limited by our concept of spatiality. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, i.e. sharing authority with the Father, and not literally sitting next to the Father.
He Will Come Again in Glory to Judge the Living and the Dead and His Kingdom Will Have No End
Jesus is coming again to righteously judge the living and dead. His kingdom cannot be destroyed, despite all of mankind's efforts. The creed says Jesus is coming; it does not say when or how. As Christ told us, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).
We Believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life
The Holy Spirit is also called "Lord." The Holy Spirit sustains our lives as Christians, illuminating us after the new birth. The original Creed of Nicaea simply ended with "We believe in the Holy Spirit." The other additions were approved at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. However, most scholars believe that the text of the full creed dates prior to this council, and that the bishops simply gave their approval to a creed already in use.
Who Proceeds From the Father
The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and He is true God and to be worshiped as equal to the Father and the Son. We believe that the Father is the source with the Son the ever begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit is the ever proceeding from the Father. Three hypostases: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit yet one God and one nature.
Jesus says to His apostles that I will send you the Holy Spirit from the Father: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name” (John 14:26).
So we believe that God the Father is the one God, with His Son and His Holy Spirit. Three distinct persons, united, in communion with each other and yet they are one in essence and undivided.
And Who With the Father and Son is Worshiped and Glorified
The Holy Spirit is God as are the Father and the Son, and worthy of the worship due to the Father and Son. These additions at Constantinople in AD 381 were directed at various heresies, particularly those who denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. The names given to these heretics were Macedonians (named after a heretical bishop) or pneumatomachi ("fighters against the Spirit").
Who Spoke through the Prophets and the Apostles
The Spirit inspired the prophets of old, and inspires the Church today.
We Believe in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church
We believe in the Holy Catholic (universal) Church, whose origins are ancient and historical. The church was built upon the faith and witness of the apostles. This witness survives through Apostolic Succession, wherein apostles appointed leaders, who appointed leaders, who appointed leaders, etc, to the present day.
We Acknowledge One Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins
We believe that sacramentally through the waters of baptism, God forgives our sin, and that there is only one baptism necessary. This belief in baptism's power is ancient and practically universally acknowledged in the early Christian writings.
We Look for the Resurrection of the Dead, and the New Life in the World to Come
We as Christians always hope for the end, where the universe is fully reconciled to God. The creed seems to affirm both the existence of a soul-filled heaven and the later resurrection of the dead when soul meets glorified body.
Remember that the creed is ultimately derived from the worship of Christians, who baptize in the name of the Trinity, and pray to the Father in the name of the Son, through the Holy Spirit. Being born from experience, the creed tries not to define God's nature exactly and precisely like a science textbook would describe something. God's threeness and God's oneness are concepts we can begin to grasp, but never fully comprehend. Just as the mind cannot fully intellectualize love or joy, neither can the mind fully intellectualize God. The creed is a framework, but is not meant to be a detailed scientific analysis of God.
Ultimately, the creed is lived out and experienced, rather than simply intellectually processed.
**Acknowledgment: Portions of this explanation were taken and modified from David Bennett