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HISTORY of Christian Theology

The Nicene Creed replaced the dominate Logos centered Christian theology that placed Jesus as an intermediary between humans and God and subordinated the Son to the Father.

Historical Context

Before we discuss the Nicene Creed we need to set the stage for the controversy leading up to the 1st Council of Nicaea that created the Nicene Creed. Sadly, power-politics played a major role in the early Church. The major metropolitan areas of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch rivaled for supremacy. In particular, the two major schools located in Alexandria and Antioch engaged in sustained and intense rivalry for centuries.

The Christian school of Alexandria tapped into a long legacy of learning based in that city. During the 3rd Century B.C. its Greek Ptolemaic rulers constructed one of the largest and most important libraries in the ancient world. For centuries Alexandria functioned as a major center for philosophy and learning. The Platonist Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, emphasized an allegoric approach to interpret scripture. This method was adopted by many early Christian fathers. Indeed, Augustine was converted to Christianity when Ambrose introduced him to this technique to help Augustine overcome his objections to many Old Testament stories and rituals. The Alexandrian school became the center for this Platonist perspective in Christianity, which emphasized the spiritual and downplayed the empirical. They liked to quote Paul: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor 3:6). They accused their opponents in Antioch, who read the scriptures literally, of killing the true gospel message.

On the other hand, the proponents of the school in Antioch accused the Alexandrians of corrupting the clear literal meaning of scripture. So, the dispute carried on, each school writing polemic literature defending their approach to right-thinking and attacking the other. The Antiochians strove to separate the divine and human nature of Jesus and emphasized the humanity of Christ, while the Alexandrians emphasized the union of the divine and the human natures of Christ with the dominance of the divine.

The dispute came to a head when the dynamic theologian Arius, who was trained in Antioch, moved to Alexandria and became a priest at one of the local churches. He taught that Christ was a creature subordinate to God the Father, and that there was a time when he did not exist, because he was created by the Father. This upset a cross-town rival priest named Athanasius who strongly claimed that God was one and that Arius was teaching heresy. He complained to the local bishop, Alexander, and the fight became very intense.

To help get a sense of what was happening, imagine a modern day setting where a charismatic fundamentalist Baptist preacher from Texas moves to Boston and becomes the priest at a local Catholic parish. He becomes very popular teaching that infant baptism is not scriptural and it is just plain hooey. This upsets a hot-blooded Irish priest from a neighboring parish, who cannot rest until this heresy is stopped dead.

This dispute in Alexandria spread and involved the whole empire. Bishops as far away as Spain put in their two-cents regarding the issue. It became so hotly contested that Christians were ridiculed by their pagan neighbors. Here is how one ancient record describes the atmosphere at the time:

“Everywhere in the public squares, at the crossroads, on the streets and lanes, people would stop you and discourse at random about the trinity. If you asked something of the moneychanger, he would begin discussing the question of the Begotten and Unbegotten. If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father was greater and the Son is subordinate to him. If you went to take a bath, the Anomoean bath attendant would tell you that in his opinion the Son came from nothing.”1

Another ancient historian wrote:

“The workmen in the port, the sailor, the idle and the common people in the street knew these songs [written by Arius], and assailed the ears of the faithful of Alexandria with them. Whence endless fights… The public was interested in these questions, even the pagan public, who, be it well understood, made use of the occasion to amuse themselves at the expense of the Christians and of their beliefs. The quarrel of Arius and Alexander echoed even in the theatres.”2

The glue that Constantine had recently chosen to hold his empire together was tearing it apart.

Constantine

The glue that Constantine had recently chosen to hold his empire together was tearing it apart. Something had to be done, so he called a counsel of the bishops to be held in Nicaea in AD 325.

Typically, historians state that the orthodox position prevailed at this council, but that is true simply because that is the position that ultimately prevailed and became the orthodox position. The victors write the history. In reality, both Arius’ and Athanasius’ positions were extremes at the time. By far the dominate position was the Logos Theology (described below), which had been the orthodox teaching of the Church for two to three centuries. This teaching fell in the middle of these two extremes and was referred to as semi-Arianism. However, this position was too nebulous and subject to continued debate to satisfy the emperor’s need of a definitive conclusion in order to end the fighting. Ultimately, the Emperor chose Athanasius’ Trinitarian position at the Council of Nicaea, and most of the bishops in attendance fell in line under threat of banishment.

However, that did not end the controversy that raged on for centuries. It is much easier to tell people what to believe than to actually get people to change their opinions. Over the next 100 years the orthodox doctrine of the Church regarding the trinity swung back and forth between Arianism and Trinitarianism depending on what the emperor believed at the time. Many of the same bishops would vote one way in one council and the opposite way in a later council. Most of the converts to Christianity outside of the Empire were converted to an Arian version of Christianity, complicating the matter. However, in A.D. 496, the Frankish King, Clovis I, under the influence of his Catholic wife, converted to Roman Catholicism with its Trinitarian doctrine of deity. Over the next three hundred years he and his heirs proceeded to conquer the Arian Christian kingdoms in Europe leading to the creation of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire when the Pope crowned Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day, A.D. 800.

Platonic Influence

What was the big deal that they were fighting about? To us it may appear that they were quibbling over words, but such an assumption would be a mistake. To them, they were arguing over the very nature of God and their personal salvation. In order to understand why this was so important to them, we need to understand where they were coming from.

Christianity sprang from Jewish and Greco-Roman parents, and its religious and cultural DNA came from those roots. Christianity began as a Jewish sect in a Greco-Roman world, and both influences contributed to the debate regarding the nature of God leading up to the Council of Nicaea.

The Greco-Roman world held a schizophrenic view regarding divinity. On one hand, the ideas of various monotheistic philosophical schools prevailed in rational discussions, while the myths of the Pantheons of gods dominated social religious practice. Christians adopted, or at least adhered to, many of the philosophical concepts accepted by educated Romans, while they rejected wholesale the pagan gods as not only false myths but demons or stories created by the devil.

The philosophical ideas that influenced Christianity began with Heraclitus (550-480 B.C.) who introduced the idea of the logos as the universal mind that permeated everything and was the source of the harmony and order of the universe. The word logos literally means “word” but it developed a much broader meaning over the centuries leading up to the birth of Christianity. Socrates (470-399 B.C.) believed in one god, but it was Plato (427-347 B.C.) who later introduced the idea of eternity or a dimension beyond time to Greek philosophy. Plato taught that this physical world was created by a transcendent eternal being, a master craftsman, who initiated time and fashioned this material universe in replica of a pre-existing eternal model. Therefore, that which is eternal–outside of time–is divine, while this material world is his creation and all humans and other living things are creatures. Aristotle (385-323 B.C.) believed in one god that was the “prime mover unmoved,” the first cause of all things. Plato and Aristotle advocated differing versions of a similar idea that matter replicates eternal forms, which became accepted Greco-Roman doctrine for millennia. In the 3rd Century B.C., Stoic philosophers adopted many of these earlier ideas and developed a more sophisticated doctrine regarding the logos as a sort of divine spiritual principle. This became the basic element of most Greco-Roman philosophy at the time of Christ. The logos represented reason, intelligent discourse, eternal truth, and the universal law that governs nature and human happiness, an intelligent principle that is part of the essence of all things, the source of creation; in sum a pantheistic god.

Judaism was the first recorded monotheistic religion. Over millennia its leaders made a concerted effort to combat the polytheistic influences in the world around them. Yet, the concept of the logos played a role in its theology. The Aramaic term memra, which interpreted means “the Word,” was found throughout the Targums (Rabbinical writings that interpreted the Hebrew Bible) leading up to the time of Christ. This term is often used as a substitute for the name of God in scriptures dealing with the creation and the source of wisdom such as in the Book of Proverbs. The Platonist Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, used the concept of logos extensively. He taught that the Word was a shadow of God that he used to create the world, the second most universal thing after God, and that the Word was not like the uncreated God, but was also not like created humans; the logos existed in an state between both. He combined the Jewish ideas with Platonist concepts to claim that the logos was the sum total of all ideas in this intelligible world, was God’s creative word and his revelator. By the time Christianity was born, many Jews shared the Greco-Roman view that the logos, the Word of God, was a life force that enabled the creations of a monotheistic god or force to move, breathe and exist. This concept was generally accepted by the Christian community.

The Apostle John opened his gospel by drawing on this Jewish and Greco-Roman understanding of the logos, the Word of God, when he wrote:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.”

These concepts were not new to his Jewish or Gentile audience. What was revolutionary was his assertion that: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14). The idea that Jesus was the logos incarnate became a central Christian doctrine.

Logos Theology

The earliest Christian apologist Justin Martyr (approximately A.D. 100-165) used the familiar concept of the logos to describe the divine nature of Christ. According to Justin, Jesus was the personification of the logos and embodied a fullness of the logos principles. The rest of humanity, however, had a seed of the logos that ennobled their soul. This seed of truth sown in the hearts of men was the source of correct thinking and right living. It acted as the law by which one will be judged. As a seed, it was capable of growing as humans embraced truth and righteousness. It functioned as a light of Christ inside each person bringing life and understanding of the divine. Consequently, great moral teachers of the past, such as Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato, were Christian without actually realizing it.

He emphatically declared that the Son was distinct in number from the Father, and subordinate to the Father.

Justin taught that God the Father was the source of the logos and inseparable from it just as the sun is the source of its light. However, he argued that even more than the sun is distinct from the light that emanated from it Christ was a separate person from God the Father. He emphatically declared that the Son was distinct in number from the Father, and subordinate to the Father. To prove this point, he referred to passages of scripture such as where God the Father spoke with a distinct rational divine being prior to creation. (Genesis 1:26). Yet, Justin also emphasized the divinity of Christ. Indeed, he asserted that Christ, not the Father, was the divine entity with whom the Old Testament prophets interacted. He taught that the Son was unified with the Father in that he was begotten from the Father just as one flame can kindle a separate fire, each in essence being the same yet distinct.

bible

One of the main doctrines taught by Justin that later became central to the debate leading up to the Council of Nicaea and a key component of the mystery of the Trinity was the timing of the Son’s creation. According to Justin, God the Father, who existed outside of time, created the Son by his own will and power as the first step in the creative process. Even though the Father existed prior to the Son, the Logos (Christ) was created before the physical universe so he technically was not a creature (as Arius later insisted). Yet Christ was subordinate to the Father in regard to the creation and as a revelatory intermediary between the Father and humans. He also taught that the Son was worshiped in second place after God the Father.

This concept of Christ being subordinate to the Father, while remaining unified with Him, was a central doctrine of the Christian community, and served as the framework for minor disputes that occasionally occurred leading up to the Arian controversy. Some theologians such as Origin and Tertullian acknowledged the subordination of the Son while others such as Irenaeus emphasized the unity of God. Even so, Irenaeus recognized an intermediary role of the Word and taught, “the Word became a man, so that men may become gods.” Orthodox theology and most theologians prior to the Arian Controversy acknowledged some level of subordination of Christ in relation to the Father.3

Sabellian Heresy

A Trinitarian dispute occurred around A.D. 220 when a priest named Sabellius argued that the godhead did not consist of three separate persons but instead was one entity working through three different modes or aspects: creation through the Father, redemption through the Son, and sanctification through the Holy Spirit. His teachings emphasized the unity and absolute divinity and greatness of God and held that dividing God into three separate persons diminished his greatness. His ideas at first gained favor with some theologians, including the Pope, but were soon rejected by the Pope and most Christians, who continued to hold to a belief in the distinct personhood of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This heresy in its general application is variously referred to as Sabellianism, Modalistic Monarchianism and Patripassianism. Asserting that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply different names of the same entity, or that God can appear in different forms, or even using a three leaf clover to explain the Trinity, in a broad sense are all examples of the Sabellian Heresy. Later, when the issue of the Trinity came to a head in Alexandria, Arius and his followers were quick to falsely accuse his rival Athanasius and those who adhered to his Trinitarian formulation, of Sabellianism.

The Arian Controversy

Arius simply took the doctrine of subordination to its logical conclusion based on the accepted reasoning of his time. If the Son originated from the Father, then there was a time when the Son did not exist. Based on the accepted Platonist and Aristotelian assumption that everything divine is eternal and not created, then Christ is not wholly divine. Consequently, he is a created being, a creature of God, who is independent from and subordinate to the Father. Arius quoted numerous scriptures to support his proposition, such as:

“for my Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28)

“The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” (John 5:19)

“But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” (Mark 13:32)

“Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” (Luke 2:52)

“this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3)

“Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.” (Mark 10:18)

“O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matthew 26:39)

“a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” (Matthew 17:5)

“God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9)

To combat their opponents claim that the Father and Son are one, they quoted John 17:21-22, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us… And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one.” Jesus prayed that his followers will become united with the Father in the same way that the Son and the Father are unified. So, the Son is a distinct being from the Father just like humans are, and their unity does not rise to the level of being the same person, essence or substance.

Meanwhile, Athanasius insisted on the oneness and immateriality of God as understood by the Platonist philosophy taught in the Alexandrian school of theology. He and his followers quoted scriptures to support their position, such as:

“I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30)

“the Father is in me, and I in him.” (John 10:38)

“he that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

“there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:6)

Council of Nicaea

First Council of Nicaea

As previously mentioned, when the controversy became so heated, public and widespread, the new Emperor Constantine felt the need to call a council to settle the matter. Constantine not only called the council, but also presided over its opening ceremony, participated in its discussions and ultimately had the final say over its outcome as its de facto supreme ruler. Even though Constantine would not be baptized until on his death bed years later, which was not uncommon for believers in that day, Constantine referred to himself as Bishop of External Affairs throughout his reign. He insisted on a solution regarding the nature of God that would be definitive enough to end the dispute so that tranquility could be restored to the Empire.

At the start of the Council of Nicaea there were basically three main divisions. The majority were moderates who represented the orthodox position up to the time of the Arian controversy and were referred to as semi-Arian. They professed the divinity of Christ but were hesitant to recognize his complete unity and equality with the Father. The larger of the minority views was Athanasius’ Trinitarian position of perfect equality between the Father and the Son from all eternity, followed by strict Arians who held that Jesus was a creature and not fully divine.

I will not bore you with all of the council’s internal political wrangling that took place. It ultimately culminated in the creation and adoption of a new term to describe the Christian Godhead, homoousios, meaning one essence or one substance. This new term, “the same substance,” was chosen over various rival suggestions in order to give no room for any leanings toward Arian ideas as the orthodox doctrine had done prior to this controversy.

The Nicene Creed

The final formulation of the original Nicene Creed created during the First Council of Nicaea that is now accepted by all traditional Christians reads as follows:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.”

The following addendum was attached to this creed:

“But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is create,’ or ‘changeable,’ or alterable’― they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

This creed was later expanded in 381 A.D. at the First Council of Constantinople to read as follows:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, earth, and of all things visible and invisible. and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the 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 Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets. In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge our baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

The Mystery of the Trinity

This formulation of the Trinity created at the 1st Council of Nicaea resulted in the mystery of the Trinity: that God is one indivisible substance yet three distinct persons, and that the Son was begotten by the Father yet there was never a time when the Son did not exist as a separate person from the Father. These contradictions were tolerated by the council due to its acceptance of the belief that God was incomprehensible.

As previously mentioned, this creed and anathema did not immediately end the controversy as Constantine had hoped, but over time it eventually became settled Christian doctrine. Augustine tried to explain this concept of the Trinity as follows:

“The Father is God; the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God.
The Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not the Father.
There is one God, and only one God.”
(Augustine of Hippo: On the Trinity)

In order to try to understand the reasoning behind this orthodox concept of the Trinity, one needs to forget to count. Instead, one needs to focus on relationships. The three separate entities are one because they are the same substance or essence and all have the same will and the same actions. What distinguishes them is their relationship with each other. The Son originates from the Father, but the Father does not originate from the Son. Likewise, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, while the Father does not proceed from the Holy Spirit. Even though the Son and Holy Spirit originate and proceed from the Father there never was a time when they did not exist as separate persons from the Father.

The concept that the Trinity consists of three separate persons is somewhat clarified by the Latin word, hypostasis, translated as person, that was used in these discussions. It does not mean a separate consciousness, personality or will that we associate with the word “person.” This term actually means “mask,” referring to the dramatic character that an actor played in the theater. So, each member of the Trinity plays three separate roles more than they are three separate persons, as we understand the term. This sounds a lot like the Sabellian Heresy that Arius accused his rivals of adopting. Regardless, to counter that allegation, orthodox doctrine maintains that each member of the Trinity is still distinct in number due to their relationships and roles even though they remain one substance. The concept of the Trinity as adopted by the Great Church at the First Council of Nicaea is a human attempt to explain the incomprehensible God of the creeds.

Resurrected Christ w/Thomas

The legacy of the Nicene Creed was a shift of Christianity’s focus from what Jesus did to who he was. This fundamental shift is symbolized by Christmas (celebrating the incarnation of God) supplanting Easter (celebrating the resurrection of Christ) as the major Christian holiday or “holy day.”

The legacy of the Nicene Creed was a shift of Christianity’s focus from what Jesus did to who he was. This fundamental shift is symbolized by Christmas (celebrating the incarnation of God) supplanting Easter (celebrating the resurrection of Christ) as the major Christian holiday or “holy day.” We will see how this shift in emphasis led to the next major controversy in the Church: If the Father and the Son are the same essence, then who or what was Jesus? The Christological Controversy regarding the incarnation of Christ soon emerged and would not be resolved until the Third Council of Constantinople in A.D. 680.


1 Gregory of Nyssa, Oration on the Divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, Page 46:557.
2 Histoire Ancienne de I’Eglise, Vol. II, p.137-138.
3 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. 5, preface.

IMAGES:

Athena Pronaia Sanctuary at Delphi, Greece. Constructed between 380–360 B.C., De architectura Book VII.

Statue of Constantine the Great commemorating his accession as Roman Emperor in A.D. 306. Outside York Minster, York, UK.

Plato and His Disciples in the Garden of the Academy, from La Vie Des Savants Illustres.

Ancient Cryllic Bible

Fresco of Emperor Constantine at Council in Nicaea church Hospital de los Venerables Sacerdotes by Juan de Valdes Leal, Seville, Spain.

Painting of resurrected Jesus Christ with Thomas the apostle. Christ Between the Apostles by Sebastiano Santi in Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli church, Venice, Italy.

 

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