“Sure, I believe in Christ,” the young man replied when I brought up the subject of religion.
“Which Christ?” I asked.
“Well, you know, Jesus.”
“The Jesus who is God?”
“No, Jesus the teacher.”
I’ve learned never to let a person tell me he believes in Christ without asking: “Which Christ?” Albert Schweitzer believed in a Christ who was essentially insane; Bultmann believed in a mythological Christ; Kant believed in a human Christ; and many modern cultists believe in a created Christ. To say “I believe in Christ” is meaningless without definition.
That’s why an understanding of the Council of Nicaea is basic to Christian theology. In A.D. 325, 318 bishops met near Constantinople to wrestle with the question of the deity of Christ and the Trinity.
The early church fathers, for the most part, did not have a clear conception of the Trinity. The New Testament clearly presents Christ as God, but how can such a doctrine be reconciled with the fact that there is only one God? If Christ is God and yet distinct from the Father, are there not two Gods? And if the Holy Spirit also is God, are there not three?
These controversies agitated the Roman Empire for more than 50 years. Church historian Philip Schaff wrote, “In the Nicene Age minds crashed against each other and fought the decisive battles for and against the doctrines of the true deity of Christ, with which the divinity of Christianity stands or falls.”
During the third century, Monarchianism (the word means “one ruler”), a view that stressed the unity of God, spread throughout the church. Because of its stress on God’s unity, it held that the so-called three persons were actually modes in which God manifested Himself. Both Christ and the Holy Spirit are God the Father, but in a different guise. Just as the same man may be a father, a son, and a brother, so the one person of God the Father played different roles.
This form of Monarchianism affirmed the true deity of Christ, but held that the Father Himself became incarnate. Noetus, one of its followers, wrote, “When the Father had not yet been born, He was rightly called the Father; but when it pleased Him to submit to birth, having been born, He became the Son, He of Himself and not of another.”
Although Monarchianism affirmed both the unity of God and the deity of Christ, it was judged a heresy. It could not satisfactorily account for those instances in which Christ spoke to His Father, for it would have to hold that Christ was speaking to Himself. Or in what sense could the Father forsake the Son at the cross if the Son was simply the Father in a different role? Did the Father forsake Himself?
Tertullian (ca. 160-215), one of the first theologians to affirm the tri-personality of God, accused the Monarchians of denying the Holy Spirit and believing that God the Father was crucified.
A second view also gained popularity. Origen, a theologian from Alexandria, combatted the heresy of Monarchianism, but he believed that the Son was subordinate to the Father. He sometimes even referred to the Son as the Theos Deuteros – the second God.
Origen’s statements about Christ are contradictory because on the one hand he claimed to believe in Christ’s deity, yet he also held that the Father and the Son had separate essences. And exactly what he meant by the subordination of the Son to the Father is also unclear.
Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, took Origen’s view a step further: If the Son has a different essence from the Father, it is logical to suppose that He was a created being. This would explain the subordination of the Son to the Father in such passages as Mark 13:32; John 5:19; 14:28; and 1 Corinthians 15:28.
“If the Father begat the Son, He that was begotten had a beginning of existence,” Arius said. “And from this it was evident, that there was (a time) when the Son was not.”
Arius believed that the Son was created out of nothing, but He was the first and greatest of the beings brought forth by God. Through the Son the world was created. The Son is worthy of worship because He was adopted by God.
Theologian and apologist Athanasius (ca. 296-373) held a third position. A champion of orthodoxy, he insisted that the following propositions could be believed without contradiction:
- Christ and the Holy Spirit are both fully God.
- Both are, in some sense, distinct from one another and from the Father.
- God is one.
Athanasius believed the three persons were not separate, which would lead to polytheism, but shared oneness of essence. As church historian Reinhold Seeberg wrote, Athanasius realized that “only if Christ is God, in the full sense of the word and without qualification, has God entered humanity, and only then have fellowship with God, the forgiveness of sins, the truth of God, and immortality been certainly brought to men.”
Athanasius argued that the Scriptures required belief in the Trinity.
After Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity in 312, he issued an edict that granted toleration to the Christian religion and in essence proclaimed Christianity the religion of the empire. Confused by the theological debates that raged regarding the person of Christ, he was persuaded to convene a general council at Nicaea to resolve the bitter disputes. Constantine gave the opening speech, urging reconciliation.
Three groups attended the council. The Arians stressed their belief that Christ was a separate created substance from the Father. Athanasius and his party opposed them.
Historian Eusebius of Caesarea led a large middle party. His position represented a compromise: He sided with the Arians in saying that Christ was of a different substance from the Father, but agreed with Athanasius that Christ was divine. He suggested that the nature of Christ be described as homoiousios (similar) to God the Father’s.
Athanasius challenged him, insisting that the nature of Christ was homoousios (the same) as God the Father’s. Although these two words differ only in the addition of the smallest of the Greek letters, the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity rested upon this distinction. The church was almost split over nothing but one “iota,” but the fate of orthodoxy depended on what word was used.
After much debate, Constantine saw that Eusebius’ compromise would not be accepted, so he sided with Athanasius. The council adopted this statement: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father. . . .”
The words used could not be interpreted in any other way except to say that the Son was fully God. The creed also included a condemnation of Arianism. All except a handful of bishops signed the document.
Some delegates, however, felt that Constantine’s influence had determined the outcome. Athanasius, though he was victorious, would rather have convinced the council by his own arguments than to have the dispute settled by a political figure.
Arianism spread throughout the church, and subsequent emperors sided with whatever faction had a majority. But Athanasius continued to oppose Arianism with such tenacity that it was said “Athanasius against the world!” Five times Athanasius was driven into exile, but he never wavered in his commitment to the full deity of Jesus Christ.
Gradually, Nicaean theology prevailed, particularly in the West. Later, the Arians began to disagree among themselves and their influence waned. The Council of Rome (341) and Constantinople (381) ratified the Nicene Creed, which has become the basis of orthodoxy to this day.
In his book The Trinity, Augustine further developed Nicaean theology. He stressed the unity of essence and the trinity of persons in the Godhead. But he was careful to point out that they are not like human persons who are separate entities; rather, they have a mutual interpenetration and interdwelling.
Augustine admitted that the word person is not a good term to use because it implies polytheism, but he used it “not in order to express [the relationship], but in order not to be silent.” He realized that no word can properly express the trinitarian relationship. Person conveys a sense of individuality and separateness; mode is too impersonal.
One professor said, “If we could strip person of its sense of individuality or aspect of its impersonal quality, either would serve.”
An analogy might help. Augustine said that because man was created in the image of God, his mind was an example of the Trinity: Memory, intelligence, and will each share the same substance, yet they are distinct in function.
Sometimes the charge is made that Christians believe a contradiction – that one equals three. This, of course, is false. We are not saying that one God equals three Gods, but that the one God is revealed in three “persons,” understanding that person cannot be interpreted in an individualistic sense.
Those who fought for the full deity of Christ at Nicaea correctly understood that the salvation or damnation of immortal souls was at stake.
Even if Christ were the highest and most noble creature of God’s creation, God Himself would then be only indirectly involved in fallen man’s predicament. Salvation would have cost God little. Only because of God’s personal involvement in Christ can we say “salvation is of the Lord.”
A judge in California declared a man guilty of a misdemeanor and prescribed the fine to be paid. He then left the bench, stood by the defendant, and paid the fine for him.
In salvation, God both declares us guilty and pays our debt. Only He can satisfy His own requirements. Faith in a savior who was himself created is misplaced because God alone can reconcile us to Himself.
Erwin W. Lutzer, MOODY, April, 1984, pp. 23, 24.