As mentioned in a previous article on the history of the Nicene Creed, a controversy erupted in the church of the fourth century through the teachings of Arius. Though granting that Jesus existed before His birth at Bethlehem as the Word of the Father, Arius denied that this Word was fully divine. Rather Arius taught that only God was fully divine, and so only God was unchangeable, inalterable, and uncreated. The Word, on the other hand, was created, so that there was a time before time began that He did not exist. The Son of God, therefore, being a part of creation, was changeable and alterable, as all of creation must necessarily be, and He was of another essence than God was. In fact the Word was radically unlike God, since God was infinite and the Word was finite. One could call the Word “God,” but only as a kind of devotional courtesy.
This was the teaching of Arius and his supporters against which the three hundred and eighteen Fathers took square aim at Nicea. Baptismal creeds up until that time had confined themselves to using Biblical language, titles, and terms. That had worked fine, because the main rivals to the Christians were Jews and pagans, both of whom denied that Jesus was the Son of God at all, and so it was sufficient for baptismal candidates to confess Him as Son of God to distinguish themselves from unbelievers. Now, however, the danger to the Church’s teaching came not from outside the Church, but from within. Arius used verses from the Bible to promote his errors, and it seemed there was no Bible verse that Arius could not twist to his own liking and interpretation. A new strategy must be found other than simply using Biblical terms to describe Christ. The Fathers of Nicea found this new strategy in using philosophical terms.
We have seen how the original Creed of Nicea underwent some development and expansion later on at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Rather than track these minute changes here, we will simply take our present version of the Creed and see how its phrases serve to refute the teaching of Arius and proclaim the Church’s faith in the full divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.
Like all other baptismal creeds, our Symbol of Faith begins its Christological section by confessing Jesus as “one Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages.” So far so good—and uncontroversial. Arius and his crew would have no problem confessing Jesus in these terms—especially since they identified “begetting” with “creating.” Therefore, the three hundred and eighteen Fathers added phrases designed to exclude Arian interpretation.
One such phrase is “God is light.” This is a direct quote from 1 John 1:5. And if God the Father is light, this phrase says that Jesus also is light—light from the light of the Father. Thus the Son is equal to the Father, since both are light. God is also described as “true God” by Christ in His final prayer recorded in John 17:3 (“this is eternal life, that they [the disciples] know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent”). This next phrase says that Christ also is true God, sharing equally in the full divinity of the Father, so that the term “true God” describes both the Father and the Son. (This is also spelled out in 1 John 5:20, which reads, “We are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” The final “this” refers to “His Son Jesus Christ.” Grammatically, it could refer back to “Him who is true,” but it would have been rather dull and tautologous for John to have simply meant, “This One who is true is the true God” More likely, John’s point was precisely that it was Jesus who was the true God, especially since this was the main point of his Gospel.)
The next phrase is a master-stroke. Arius had identified “begetting” with “creating”—a reasonable identification most of the time, since as far as human beings are concerned, the time when our physical fathers begot us was when we were first created. The verb ginomai could mean “born” or “begotten” (as in Galatians 4:4, and therefore identical in meaning to gennao, begotten, as used in Luke 1:35) or it could mean “created” as in John 1:3. Arius capitalized on this ambiguity. The Fathers who inserted this phrase “begotten [Greek gennao], not created [Greek poieo]” made the crucial distinction, and insisted that being begotten did not necessarily mean being created. God was not like men, and being begotten did not necessarily entail being created. The Word was eternally begotten by the Father, but was not created. By refusing Arius’ identification of “begetting” with “creating” at a stroke, the Fathers of Nicea struck from the hands of Arius one of his most powerful weapons.
The next phrase of the Creed continues this powerful assertion of Christ’s divinity, for it asserts that He was “of the same essence [Greek homoousios] as the Father.” The concept of essence (Greek ousia) was a philosophical concept, and although the word homoousios involved a word that had a dark history, in this context it was precisely the word that was needed, for it made clear that Christ had the same essence as the Father—that He was as divine as the Father was. There was no way that even Arius could wriggle out of such a precise philosophical word, and in the decades to come, the debate would center on such philosophical terminology. The concept of “essence” was simple enough for any to grasp—it meant that each reproduced according to its kind. Human beings reproduced human beings; dogs reproduced dogs, and cats reproduced cats. One’s “essence” described what one was. A human being’s essence is its humanity; a dog’s essence is its dogginess, and God’s essence is His divinity. If Christ was of the same essence of the Father, He was as divine as the Father was.
The last phrase of the Creed asserts that Jesus of Nazareth is the creator of the world, though its intent may be misunderstood by the English version. Some English-speaking people understand this part of the Creed to say that Jesus is one essence with the Father by whom (i.e., by the Father) all things were made.” What the Creed actually says is that it is by Jesus that “all things were made.” It ascribes the creation to Jesus, not just to the Father. Christ is so divine that He is the Creator. As St. John’s Gospel says, “All things were made by Him [i.e., by Christ] and without Him was not anything made that was was made” (John 1:3). Every tree, leaf, flower, cloud, and baby was made by Jesus.
This emphatic assertion of the full divinity of Jesus is at least as relevant now as it was when the three hundred and eighteen Fathers proclaimed it at Nicea in 325. Any number of people today are prepared to accept Jesus of Nazareth as a great teacher, and as the founder of a major world religion. What matters supremely is whether or not one is also prepared to accept Him as the divine Lord through whom the world was created. For salvation consists in offering our lives to Him, and no one will sensibly offer their lives to a mere human celebrity. This offering is only fitly made to almighty God. The council Fathers of Nicea long ago proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed almighty God in the flesh, and that one may truly and fitly give one’s life to Him.
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