The Confession of Christ (Part Two): Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Although there had been many regional councils before the year 325, none ever had the opportunity to act in the sweeping manner of the Council of Nicaea.
The council had been called owing to a controversy, originating in the church of Alexandria, that had been in the making for more than a century.
The problem at hand concerned an Alexandrian parish priest, Arius, who had confronted his bishop, Alexander, and his young deacon, Athanasius, over the doctrine of Christ. Alexandria, since the time of Origen, had been known for varieties of speculative theology. According to Arius, Jesus was indeed a creature of the very highest order, but to say that Jesus and God are substantially the same was unacceptable. For Arius, it violated neo-Platonic categories and confused the idea of the absolute and the particular. By contrast, from the viewpoint of Alexander and Athanasius, this teaching of Arius was heretical because it would lead to idolatry, in that Christians, who worshiped the person of Christ, would be worshipping a mere creature, a practice strictly prohibited regardless of the singularity of that creature. Such a belief would also make the atonement wrought by Christ to no effect, for as a creature, His sacrifice would be without eternal significance and value. Now, while it is fair to say that Arianism was not monolithic at the time, having a variety of opinions that ranged across a scale of theological speculation, the heart of the Arian proposition was recognized as one that deviated from the normative faith and practice of the early Church and threatened the very foundations of Christian doctrine.
To settle the issue, the emperor Constantine, himself a recent convert, convened a council of bishops in the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor. Contrary to popular legend, Constantine himself had little to do with the deliberations of the bishops. In the end, the council declared its support for Alexander and affirmed that, in Jesus Christ, God truly appeared on earth as the second person of the Holy Trinity – the Son. The council also defined the person of Jesus as “being of one substance (homoousias) with the Father” and as having been “begotten, not made”. This formulation disallowed the Arian speculation that Christ was merely of a “similar (homoiousias) substance”. The creedal definition also allowed for generation in and from God, while disallowing any idea that Christ is a creation or some element of the created order.
For the early Church, the Incarnation held pride of place in its theology. It revolved around the notion that God in Christ assumed all humanity with a promise of restoration not merely in relationship but in essence. Later, in his treatise, On the Incarnation, Athanasius would write that “God became man that we might become God”. While this might seem a provocative statement to some, it should be seen in the light of Christ’s own words in John 17: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The promise is for redeemed humanity to share in the life of the Trinity. That promise would be made void if Christ were merely a creature and, therefore, in His essence, bound by time and circumstance. You see, in the orthodox view, in his death and resurrection, Christ’s hand reaches back to the very beginning to grasp the hands of Adam and Eve while, at the same instant, he reaches forward through the millennia to grasp our hand – yours and mine. He grasps our hands as individuals and as a community of faith to bring us into the life of God himself in the Trinity. In assuming all, He heals all… In the words of the Orthodox hymn, “Thou brought Adam to life, Eve dances with joy and the ends of the earth know thy glory”.
Although the Arian controversy continued in certain regions for a number of years, the Church had spoken with authority concerning the faith. Perhaps more importantly, the Church began to understand more fully, and attempt to define more exactly, the implications of the Incarnation both in the life of the believer and in the life of the Christian community.
The formula of faith issued at Nicaea had minor changes made in it at the first ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381, and it is substantially in that form that the creed comes down to us today. An additional phrase was later added by the Western Church, known as the filioque (“who proceedeth from the Father and the Son”) which, it must be admitted, lacked the sanction of an ecumenical council and created ill will with the Eastern Church. Nonetheless, the Nicene Creed remains a defining formula of faith for Christians around the world. In both the West and in the East, this is the normative Creed to be said (or sung) at the celebration of the Eucharist expressing the fullness of the Faith.
The Nicene Creed
I 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, begotten of his Father before all worlds, 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; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he 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; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Live, who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. AMEN.