The Church had always confessed the divinity of Christ. The New Testament had proclaimed Jesus as the divine Son of God, and the phrase “Christ our God” had been used since the days of St. Ignatius of Antioch (in his Epistle to the Romans), who died about 107 A.D.
The problem arose when theologians tried to express how this belief was consistent with the Church’s confession of monotheism, or belief in only one God. If the Father were God and Jesus were God, were there then two Gods? Or was Jesus somehow the same Person as the Father, one Person just performing two different roles? How was one to understand the Trinity? Eventually, a satisfactory conceptual vocabulary would be hammered out, but in the beginning, the details of a consistently Biblical Trinitarian theology were far from clear.
That was why heretical options could be placed on the ecclesiastical table and win adherents. Arius of Alexandria offered one such option: according to this view, only the Father was true God in the absolute sense, and the Word (or Logos) was divine only in a kind of derivative, honourary sense. Everyone confessed that Jesus was “the only-begotten Son”; Arius equated begetting with creating, and concluded inevitably that before the Word was begotten, He did not exist. There was a time (before time, actually) when God was just God; then He begot the Word and the Word had His beginning before time began. It was through this Word that God (now “God the Father”) created the world. This created Word was obviously radically unequal to the Father, and not divine in the strictest sense of the word (no pun intended). When Arius’ bishop Alexander rebuked him for teaching this doctrine of Christ, Arius turned on his bishop. The great battle had begun.
And the battle rapidly spread beyond Alexandria. Soon the whole Roman world was abuzz with the controversy, with people taking sides. The Church was becoming hideously divided at just the moment when it had stepped onto the world stage with renewed visibility. The Emperor who facilitated this stepping onto the stage, Constantine, was fired by a vision of one God-one Empire-one Emperor-one Church. The Church, divided by Arius’ teaching, threatened this glorious vision. The thing had to be resolved, and quickly.
Constantine of course knew that the way the Church had resolved its controversies ever since the days of the apostles (see Acts 15) was by calling a council. That is, the Church called together all the affected pastors (that is, the bishops) and got their take on the controversial matters at hand. The bishops would talk and reach a consensus, and present that consensus to the wider Church. Sometimes the consensus took hold immediately and found acceptance, and sometimes it took a while. Sometimes it did not take hold at all, and it was back to the conciliar drawing board. It was messy, and final resolution of heresies and schisms usually took a long time. But councils were how the Church dealt with such things, confident that the Holy Spirit would eventually lead the wider church into all truth. Accordingly, Constantine called a council.
He originally invited all the bishops he could to meet, at his expense, at the town of Ancyra, in modern-day Turkey. He later changed the location to Nicea, which was closer to some of the western bishops and had a nicer climate. It was also close to the Imperial city of Nicomedia. They met there on May 20, 325 A.D. Numbers vary, but some estimate that about 320 bishops attended, mostly from the east. This was hardly all the bishops in the world, but it gave an impressively representative slice of the empire-wide Church. If they could agree upon a consensus, it would, Constantine thought, have great moral authority as this consensus was presented to the wider church.
It quickly became apparent that Arius was out of luck. His doctrine was too radical for most of the bishops, who felt that confessing Christ’s divinity only in some honourary sense was to not confess His divinity at all. They needed a confession of Christ that all could agree upon, one that stated His full and true divinity in the clearest possible terms. As said in the previous lesson, all local churches had their own baptismal creeds in which Christ was confessed as “God’s only Son.”The problem was that all of these creeds used only Biblical terms, and it was precisely these Biblical terms and titles for Christ that Arius and his supporters were so good at distorting and misinterpreting. Something more was needed—terms and titles and descriptions that not even the Arians (as they were called by their detractors) could wriggle out of.
Eventually, they took as their basis a creed from a Syro-Palestine church and added certain expansions and phrases to it to make it absolutely clear that Christ was divine in the fullest sense of the word. To make it even more clear that Arius’ teaching was out of court (both metaphorically and literally), certain other assertions were added. The final document looked like this:
We believe in one God, the Father, the 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 from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, of the same essence 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, and ascended into heaven. From there He will come to judge the living and the dead.
And in the Holy Spirit.
But those who say: ‘There was when He was not;’ and ‘He was not before He was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another hypostasis or essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—these the catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.
Obviously, this is not quite the Creed we say in Church every Sunday. What happened? And where is there any description of the Holy Spirit?
The fact is that the Fathers of Nicea were only interested in countering the assertions and distortions of Arius, and so they concentrated all their attention on affirming what Arius had denied and explicitly denying what Arius had affirmed. The document was never meant for liturgical use, but as a kind of litmus test to determine whether or not a bishop should be deposed for heretical Arian teaching or allowed to keep his post as being Orthodox. Bishops were required at the Council to sign on to this consensus statement or be deposed. Of the approximately 320 bishops present, 318 signed on, with only a few hold-outs. The hold outs were deposed, and their sees declared vacant. In older days, this would involve a long show-down through the subsequent years between schismatic sees and the Orthodox majority. The show-down now was to be dramatically shorter since Constantine could enforce obedience. “Sign or get out” were the options. Like I said, most signed.
It would be nice to report that after the Council of Nicea ended, everyone packed up, went back home, and lived happily ever after. In fact the historical truth is a lot messier, and for the next generation or so, the standard raised at Nicea would fight to gain final empire-wide acceptance from the faithful.
Other councils were held, which produced other statements and proffered other Christological options. Maybe saying that Christ was of the same essence [Greek homoousios] with the Father was too much. How about “of like essence”—Greek homoiousios? After all, it’s only the difference of a single little “i”. So the battle went on and on and on.
Eventually it became apparent that the only real choice was between Nicea and Arius, for either Christ was fully God (as Nicea affirmed) or not God at all (as Arius affirmed). By definition, one can’t be “almost God” or “sort of God”—being divine is in this sense like being pregnant: either you are or you aren’t. No one can be “a little pregnant.” So with divinity and creation: one is on one side of the infinite gap between the uncreated and the created or on the other side. Either one is God, or one is a created being. You can’t be “a little bit divine.” Given this choice of Christologies, most of the faithful knew where they stood, and Nicea became established as the standard of Orthodoxy, their Fathers praised forever after as “the three hundred and eighteen.”
But Arianism had a longer shelf life than one might have imagined, and some of its ideas lingered on in other heresies. Some in the fourth century might have been prepared to acknowledge that the Son was divine, but not the Holy Spirit. He was a creature. So the battle was joined again, with the heresy denying the full divinity of the Holy Spirit again striving for supremacy. The heresy is sometimes called “Macedonianism,” after a bishop Macedonius of Constantinople. Its detractors also dubbed its defenders “Pneumatomachians”—“ fighters against the Spirit.” It was to deal with this heresy that the Church met again in council in Constantinople in 381. This council added the phrases affirming the full divinity of the Holy Spirit (though it refrained from using the term homoousios, perhaps for political reasons). It also added some of the more traditional (and as far as Arian debate went, uncontroversial) phrases about Jesus being born of the Virgin, and crucified under Pontius Pilate.
So the Creed we presently chant in Church has enjoyed a long and developed history. It is not, strictly speaking, “the Nicene Creed,” but rather “the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.” In our books, quite sensibly, we cherish it simply as “the Symbol of Faith.”
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