Nicene Creed from LC-MS Lutheran Service Book
I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
I believe 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 Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And on the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead whose kingdom will have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one, holy, Christian1 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.
1 The actual word here in the original documents is καθoλικηv (from kaqoliko,j) which get transliterated as catholic and which means universal. Hence, most Christians around the world use the word catholic at this point when reciting the Creed instead of the word Christian. From the time of the very early church in the first century and onward, the terms catholic (meaning universal) and orthodox (meaning right belief) were common terms used by the many Christian writers in explaining their faith in Jesus, the Christ. That is, their faith was both catholic and orthodox. To avoid using these two terms in the proper context and with their most informative meanings in our own day and age is to shortchange ourselves in our own personal journeys of faith. In fact, catholic is one of the four “marks of the Church” (Latin notae ecclesiae which is translated as notes of the Church). That is, the “marks of the Church” are the Church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” (meaning: one Church; set apart for God’s will; universal; and in essential continuity with apostolic teaching) . In addition to these marks the Protestant reformers also emphasized the marks of the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments.
Every time we come together as community to worship God, at the height of which is our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we liturgically recite the Nicene Creed before doing so. On those Sundays when there is no communion, something I might add would disturb even Luther himself, we recite the Apostles’ Creed, itself a later creed by a couple centuries. For the past one thousand seven hundred years this Nicene Creed has been the only Creed used in the East, and about century later in the West it began to be used as well. Still, every time it is prayed in our Lutheran Eucharistic liturgy, most who recite it, or read it, really don’t understand some of the “who, what and why” that’s going on in the actual Creed itself. Nor, for that matter do the Catholics, the Orthodox, the Anglicans nor other Protestants when and if they use it.
Yes, many understand much of what is being said in the Creed but there are portions few fully grasp. In other words, many Christians around the world really only know some of what they are saying when reciting the Nicene Creed. While some individuals and denominations are better about it than others, still, one would think that just maybe every Christian would be at least somewhat interested in what they were actually saying and praying when reciting the Creed. But then again, maybe not.
First, the Nicene Creed is inherently and inextricably connected to the season of Advent during which time we celebrate the Incarnation of God himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, this Jesus who fulfilled all of the OT expectations of both the human Messiah and the divine Son of God, both long-promised and long-awaited. The fact of the matter is that the largest portion of the Nicene Creed addresses Christology, that is, it addresses exactly who this Jesus of Nazareth really was with respect to God’s wonderful plan of salvation for his good Creation – and for the pinnacle of that good Creation, humanity – us.
For instance, the Creed used 132 words to illumine the Son and yet only 94 words are needed to illumine both the Father and the Spirit! That alone tells us what the focus of this Creed was meant to be. Jesus as the human Messiah and Jesus as the divine Son of God!
God’s plan of salvation only came to fruition through this Jesus. In fact, it was only through Jesus that salvation could have even happened in the first place. Without Jesus there would be no salvation. Without God becoming human, there would have been no salvation. The Creed makes it quite clear that we are to know and have faith in this Jesus. Otherwise, we will not know salvation and eternal life. It’s really that pointed and yet that simple.
So then, what is going on in this Nicene Creed that is so important for us people of faith to know and discern? What’s being said that’s so important for our faith and for to the living of our lives as Christian people of faith in Jesus? Why do we pray the Creed at every Lord’s Supper? What is so special about this Creed? To answer those questions we need to first better understand what happened in the Church following the founding events of the first Easter on April 5, 33. What happened with those men and women of the early Church that ultimately led almost three hundred years later to the formulation of this all important Creed that’s found at the heart of what we Christians believe?
To answer those questions we must first look into a little Christian history. We have to look back to the ancient Christian Church and learn more about what was happening in those very exciting, yet most turbulent, times to our Christian predecessors. We Christians come together as beneficiaries of the blood, sweat and tears of untold Christians, both men and women, both the very old as well as the very young, who have gone before us. We know the names of some of these people who gave their all for the faith. We have many documents that tell their story. However, the vast majority of these people of faith are anonymous to us and known but to God himself.
Many agree that we Christians have got it good here in America. Some, in fact, say we have it too good, that being a Christian in America is too easy. Some say a faith not tested is no faith at all. Some say that faith not tested in the crucible of life is empty of what God’s purposes are for his created beings – to be living lives of Christian discipleship. This having it too easy, however, has not always been the case within Christianity. I’m reminded here of something Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in The Cost of Discipleship toward the end of his short life:
“Schweigen im Angesicht des Bösen ist selbst böse. Nicht zu sprechen ist, zu sprechen. Nicht zu handeln ist, zu handeln.”
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
The persecution of those people who would one day early on be derogatorily called Christianos (meaning “Christians”) actually began during the ministry of Jesus as we read in the gospels, Paul’s letters as well as elsewhere in the NT. That persecution continued in the time of the beginning Church. Sometimes the persecution was greater than at other times – and sometimes not. But persecution has always been there. Persecution is a part of our Christian heritage and, in fact, as we speak, there are Christians being martyred in Africa and parts of Asia. Within the past couple weeks at least 37 Christians died in Iraq.
Following his death, resurrection and ascension in the year 33 persecution not only failed to level off but it instead continued to rachet up. Our first primary document of that time period, 1 Th, written in the year 50, tells us something about this persecution of Christians. [Christians lost their jobs, experienced terrible economic depravation, were hated and sometimes viciously persecuted. They experienced social hostility and ostracism of an unbelievable severity and were subject to even mob violence.]
Other primary documents, including our own NT documents, gradually add to the picture about persecution through the first century and on into the following centuries.
For instance, we know quite a bit about persecutions beginning with Nero in the year 64. The NT tells us of more persecutions through the rest of the first century. While those persecutions under Nero were local and not widespread, that would change drastically by the early second century.
Jumping ahead now to the beginning in the second century, we know that the disposition of the Romans towards the Christians changed precipitously for the worse around the year 108. First of all we have the 7 letters of Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, dated to 108, give or take. From what we know, Ignatius had actually been appointed to his bishopric by Peter himself. But Ignatius had been convicted by the Romans for failing to worship the Roman pantheon of gods.
In order to make an example of Ignatius and thereby get the attention of the rest of the Christians in Ignatius’s part of the world in southeast Asia Minor, Ignatius was singled out and rounded up by the Roman authorities and was taken from Antioch to Rome to eventually be put to death through Christian martyrdom. He would meet his end by being thrown to the wild beasts to be torn to pieces in the amphitheater. The Roman idea here was, “Take their leaders down and the rest of those Christians will get the point!”
So it was that around 108 Ignatius was on his way to Rome where he would undergo Christian martyrdom in the amphitheater. At first the Roman plan was obviously to persecute the Christian leaders. They assumed that would get the attention of all the rest of these Christian people who would, in turn, clean up their own acts. All the Roman government wanted was for these Christians to worship the Roman gods “for the sake of everyone” in the empire. However, true Christians could not do that. Ex 20 3. [Say something here about polytheistic understandings here.]
But around 108 was this time of the “Great Change” in the Roman Empire. For instance, we have the actual back-and-forth correspondence between Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, written around the year 110, to the Roman emperor Trajan dealing with how to go about persecuting these Christians. By the time of Pliny we see that the Romans were no longer limiting their persecution to the higher ups within Christianity, the bishops, for instance, but now there had developed this “Great Change” in that all Christians were now subject to persecution, including death, whether one was a man or a woman, whether one was young or old. All Christians were to be summarily put to death if they refused to worship the Roman gods. And so they were.
Then, through the second century, when the Romans realized that the martyrdom of these Christians was still not getting the attention of these recalcitrant Christians, the Romans then added torture to the mix. Only following torture would the Christians then be killed.
An all-too-brief Chronology
50 1 Th
108-110 the “Great Change” with Pliny’s persecution
155/6 martyrdom of Polycarp
165 martyrdom of Justin Martyr
177 persecutions in Gaul
180 persecutions in North Africa
250-1 Decian persecution – empire-wide, door-to-door, the libellus
253-260 Valerian persecution
303-311 “The Great Persecution” – the greatest persecution of all, systematic, again empire-wide
312 The Battle of the Milvian Bridge and Constantine
313 The Edict of Milan granted universal tolerance of all belief systems
318 The activity of Arius begins
318 Athanasius, On the Incarnation
325 The Council of Nicaea
the seven ecumenical councils
1. the Council of Nicaea in 325
2. the Council of Constantinople in 381
3. the Council of Ephesus in 431
4. the Council of Chalcedon in 451
5. the Council of II Constantinople 553
6. the Council of III Constantinople 680
7. the Council of II Nicaea in 787
Again, telescoping here, Constantine won the Battle of Milvian Bridge and assumed the emperorship of the Roman Empire.
The Edict of Milan and The Great Reversal
Constantine won an overwhelming victor, and the very next year 313 we got the Edict of Milan which, although it especially focused on the persecuted Christians, provided universal tolerance for all faiths and beliefs. The Edict was very historical because it was the first time in history that we had a decree like this which granted universal tolerance of all belief systems. Whether you were polytheistic, traditional pagan, Christian, Gnostic, whatever, there was now toleration for all forms of belief. This was a key moment in the history of western civilization.
So now Christians could practice their faith; they didn’t need to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Christians could now believe as they wished. It was the first time in the history of the Roman Empire that you had this freedom given to the Christians. There had been three long centuries of persecution starting with the various forms of persecution in the first century which was then followed by the more severe persecutions and martyrdoms during the time of Pliny. Then torture was added to the mix. Next, we had the empire wide persecutions of Decius and Valerius which eventually culminated in the Great Persecution. And now we had this great reversal which allowed Christians to live and practice their faith.
What a reversal it was! This great reversal had come almost immediately after the worst and most horrific of all the persecutions. It’s difficult to describe the sense of joy you read about in the literature of that time that talked about how Christians could now be Christians without fearing for their lives, without being put to death.
In the end there was this incredible sea change in which the Church went from being persecuted by the Romans to being not only not persecuted but even favored by Constantine. Constantine apparently became a semi-convert to Christianity and very much supported the church but he later became, from the Nicene point of view, confused and subsequently turned against the Nicene bishops. Historians to this day debate the sincerity of his conversion. Later, his son Constantius would viciously persecute the Nicene bishops.
It was also in the early fourth century that the Church was still dealing with various heresies, for instance, that of the Gnostic Christians, that of Sabellius and that of the Donatists. But the heresy that would create the most problems would be that of Arius, a priest in Alexandria, who would argue that it was impossible that a human being who was a created creature could also be God. In other words, Arius argued the scriptures did not say that Jesus was fully God nor that he was God come in the flesh. Instead, Arius argued that Jesus was no more than the highest of created beings. For Arius, Jesus was a creature just like we humans are creatures of God. Jesus was not begotten of the Father before Creation – before all time. Arius’s views (Arianism) spread widely and quickly meaning that, obviously, he would be opposed to those Christians who held to the catholic and orthodox faith, such as for instance, a Christian like Athanasius.
Things did settle down for a little while after the Great Persecution. For the first time Christians were free of persecution and living in a time of peace so they went about living their Christian lives, studying their Scriptures, and so on. This began a wonderful era of theological reflection and production of great works, one of which is Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. We’ve previously discussed two of the three greatest classical theologians, Irenaeus and Augustine, and now we study Athanasius.
Athanasius was a young Christian in Alexandria, Egypt, who in his childhood and early teenage years had lived through the horrific time of persecution and violence against Christians known as the “Great Persecution.” Athanasius had seen many of his friends and relatives put to death for their faith. As such, Athanasius had been schooled in this “school of the Great Persecution” because he had lived through it in his childhood and teen years. In 318, about five years after the end of the “Great Persecution,” he wrote a little book called On the Incarnation which to this day is considered a classic within theology.
Athanasius was about 21 at this writing. When reading On the Incarnation it’s patently obvious that Athanasius was mature beyond his years. This book would become universally recognized as one of the greatest works ever within Christian theology. To this day it’s still recognized as a theological masterpiece. With this book Athanasius would become recognized as one of the foremost and greatest of Christian theologians of all time.
We’ve previously talked about the basic catholic paradigm (small “c”) for theology when approaching scripture. Within that Christian paradigm you approach Scripture in light of the core Christian truths. Those core Christian truths include the Rule of Faith and centrally that Christ is your ultimate authority for theology and so on.
the Rule of Faith
All of Christianity is indebted to the work of British scholar J. N. D. Kelly for most of what we know and understand about our very important creeds in the Church.
The very early Church had no encompassing fixed worded documents like the creeds we now use in the Church. Instead, the early Church had what was variously called the Rule of Faith. This Rule of Faith was a fixed, authoritative set of beliefs but those beliefs had not yet been ensconced into a creed, that is, into an official, fixed formulation in a set, unalterable text and wording (such as we have in the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed).
So from the beginning of the Church, and although there was no creed, there was the Rule of faith – the main term used by the early Christians in both the Greek and the Latin for their set of core beliefs. Specific references in the NT to the Rule of Faith show up with such phrases as: form of teaching; pattern of teaching (Ro 6 17); rule of teaching; standard of teaching; model of teaching; form of doctrine; norm of faith or the rule of the truth. So although we present day Christians most often miss the mention of the Rule of Faith in Scripture, those of the early Church on hearing one of these phrases would have immediately made the connection to their (and our) Rule of Faith.
In other words, Kelly said that the early Church had no creed in the sense of a fixed wording but it had an authoritative, fixed core body of beliefs and confession. This Rule of Faith was not a creed because although it had a fixed content, it had no fixed wording. That’s what defines what is a creed: it has fixed wording. So there was a diversity in wording to the Rule of Faith. Thus, the Rule of Faith contained a fixed set of core beliefs that were sacrosanct (inviolable) and which they would die (and did) for even though it had no fixed wording. Hence, the early Christians hung loose when it came to having a fixed wording. A fixed wording to them at that point was not at as important as was having the proper core content. So there was this unity of faith in the diversity with which they could express their faith through the Rule of Faith.
Kelly has shown that there was all sorts of diversity within the NT. For instance, John used a very different vocabulary than did Paul who himself used a very different style than did Matthew, Mark or Luke. Peter’s style was different still. And then you have the apocalyptic language of Re! Still, Kelly showed they all shared this common core set of teachings – the Rule of Faith. As such, he saw a very positive role for diversity in the early Christian documents, preaching style, language, approach and vocabulary because at the center of it all was this core set of beliefs uniting them all. When Kelly uses the word diversity he’s talking about this diversity in preaching styles, vocabulary and so on which does not impact unity. So there was this wonderful diversity in the early Church but there was no diversity in the content of the core beliefs.
In this book On the Incarnation we have one of the first theological explorations of these great Christian truths. Athanasius explored the riches and the reason for the Incarnation. Athanasius took the Incarnation as a given and then he asked the questions, “Why did the Incarnation have to happen? Why was it necessary? What’s the Incarnation all about?” And so we see that in his book On the Incarnation Athanasius theologically explored the Incarnation.
On the Incarnation was written a year or two before the Arian controversy would explode, and it wonderfully lets us in on what the average “Joseph and Mary Christian” would have known about the Incarnation in the early fourth century. On the Incarnation provides an understanding of Christ’s person which Athanasius in this work could just assume of his Christian reader. In fact, in On the Incarnation there is absolutely no sense that there is any controversy at all about any of these matters concerning the Incarnation. These were things about which Athanasius could just take for granted that all Christian readers knew and agreed to.
However, within a year of this writing Arius will arrive with a different teaching causing an explosion of controversy.
While we normally take about two to three hours (in the ancient Christianity class) to discuss the wealth of theological knowledge found in On the Incarnation, allow me to include just a few of those things Athanasius wonderfully clarified for us.
According to Athanasius, Creation and the renewal of Creation brought by Christ were wonderfully linked together. Through the Incarnation the renewal and restoration of all Creation would be brought about by the same God who created Creation in the first place. This understanding was a very important fulcrum within Athanasius’s thought. The renewal and restoration of all Creation was very clear throughout the Bible, and, further, ancient Christians didn’t tune out this renewal as all too often modern days Christians do. In other words, the renewal and restoration of all Creation was a constant theme within the classical theologians such as Athanasius (and later theologians like Luther), even though we hear about it but infrequently in our own day and age. This was how they were hard-wired. Everything they knew and sought to know, they did so through the lenses of the renewal and restoration of all Creation and the concomitant resurrection of the body.
What was the human plight to which God was responding which made the Incarnation necessary, and how did the Incarnation bring about the solution to that human plight? Athanasius answered this question in two different ways by calling attention to the fact that there were two different aspects in which Jesus did this, 1. and 2.
1. Athanasius saw a couple of important dimensions to the human plight. Human beings were corrupted and given over to death by which Athanasius did not mean corrupted in the moral or spiritual sense – which, of course, human beings certainly were also. Instead and also, Athanasius was saying that human beings were corrupted in the physical sense. By that Athanasius meant human beings were corrupted and given over to death, to the physical corruption which the body underwent in death. So there was more than just the moral, spiritual corruption in play. There was a twofold corruption of both the spiritual and the physical, and the Incarnation was addressing both of these.
Notice that this emphasis on the human plight was this very physical reality of human death. Death was (and is) humanity’s great enemy. Athanasius talked about how the incarnate Lord came to do away with (physical) corruption (with death) by he, himself, our Lord, conquering death. Often in our modern western cultural ways of thinking, this part of the message is not stressed and, unfortunately, even purposely downplayed. Instead, the Church universal may stress that Christ forgave our sins, which is certainly true and very important, but to fail to stress the conquering of physical death through Christ’s resurrection is to fail to stress what is at the heart of the ultimate goal of this whole divine re-creative process of which we are all a part – the renewal and restoration of all Creation and the resurrection of the body. That is, at the heart of God’s ultimate goal is the reversal of death itself. Hence, when we fail to stress Christ’s conquering of death that, in turn, causes us to fail to stress our own physical resurrection of the body which will come at the consummation of the present evil age (as Paul himself put it in Ga 1 4). Again, typology. Christ’s resurrection and then our (the general) resurrection. As we say in the doxology of the Lord’s Prayer: Christ’s resurrection will provide the power for the resurrection of all when Christ comes again.
On the other hand, it’s notable that we recall that for the early Christians (unlike many contemporary Christians), at the center of the message was Christ conquering death through his resurrection. That is, through his resurrection Christ had destroyed death.
Christ had been victorious over death, and in On the Incarnation, Athanasius talked about how Christ, by going through death when he was not bound to death as mere humans were (and are), … when Christ went through death, he undid and conquered the power of death, and he did so by rising from the dead – thereby doing away with corruption in his resurrection. And Christ’s resurrection was the “first” resurrection – the first fruits of the resurrection (as Paul himself stressed it in 1 Cor 15 20, 23). 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
So Athanasius was actually talking about the curse of “the Fall” in Ge 3 as physical death – this curse that meant that for every human life, death would be the final and last word. You’ll recall that evil, sin, suffering and death were not a part of God’s original good Creation. There was none of that in Ge 1-2. But because of free will (free choice), evil, sin, suffering and death had become evil intruders into God’s good Creation.
As such, Athanasius said that one reason the Incarnation was so necessary was because Christ, who was life, could, through his death and resurrection, destroy death and bring this life. Through his own death and resurrection Christ would bring this very physical, resurrection life which we also see was so important in all the creeds. … And I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. Amen. It’s right there in all our creeds. It’s so important that it brings the whole Creed to its natural conclusion! The resurrection and the renewal and restoration of all Creation!
That is, through the Incarnation of the Son and through his death and resurrection, Jesus would bring about this resurrection of the flesh, this resurrection of the physical body. Therefore, Christ would not only undo spiritual corruption but Christ would undo physical corruption as well. Christ would undo death itself. That’s how the early Church understood this and we should as well.
2. What was the human plight which made the Incarnation necessary, and how did the Incarnation bring about the solution according to Athanasius? [This is the same question as posed in above but it comes from a different focus point within On the Incarnation.] Athanasius again discussed another dimension of the human plight (idolatry) which made the Incarnation necessary. What was the core human dilemma here and what was its source? Why did people not know God? Not only did people need forgiveness of sins but they needed to be released from the power of sin. Hence, human idolatry had made the Incarnation necessary.
The idea in Athanasius’s On the Incarnation was that the people had consciously and deliberately turned away from God which is, by definition, idolatry. And further compounding the problem, the people led lives which turned them even further and further from God. Humans knew the curse of human idolatry. This led humans to not know the one, true Creator God and to turn to various idols. Human beings made their own gods; they worshiped creatures, possessions and whatever else as gods. The list of our “other gods” is endless. Hence, according to Athanasius the core problem was idolatry. (In fact, according to everyone in the Bible, the core problem to everything, to every problem is idolatry. Ex 20 3 ff.) However, by becoming incarnate the Son revealed the true God in his own human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. That was who we were to worship. Therefore, our hearts could now embrace the true God and turn from idolatry.
So it was that here in On the Incarnation Athanasius focused on this human alienation from God, this simple turning away from God. Through the Incarnation, Christ had healed that too. Athanasius told us that Christ healed human beings inwardly, and, therefore, because of the Incarnation, human beings could now turn from idolatry and from a heart opposed to God. Because of the Incarnation human beings could turn back to God. And in the Incarnation Christ also healed all human beings outwardly. Christ had brought the hope of the resurrection and physical, everlasting life in what would be God’s renewed Creation at the consummation of the present evil age when Christ would come again.
In order to further reveal who Jesus was, Athanasius also addressed Jesus’ “ordinary” actions, such as eating, drinking and walking, as well as Jesus’ “extraordinary” acts, such as his healings, exorcisms and miracles (paragraphs 17-18). Remember the two parts of the Incarnation: the humanity of the Word made flesh and the divinity. God made flesh. The Incarnation.
ordinary and extraordinary actions
According to Athanasius Jesus’ “ordinary” actions – such as eating, drinking, fatigue, sleeping, walking, and his physical presence – revealed Jesus’ fully human nature, his humanity. For instance, we have in Jn 11 35 evda,krusen o` VIhsou/jÅ Jesus wept. Jesus’ ordinary actions revealed that he had a true body which was at the heart of his Incarnation. Were Jesus not incarnate, were Jesus not fully flesh and bones, everything would short-circuit. Without the Incarnation there could have been no human death nor human rising from the dead and eventual ascension. And, without Jesus’ resurrection they would be no resurrection of “us”. It all fits together. Snap!
So Jesus’ ordinary actions showed that Jesus had a real body and that he was truly human which was important for Athanasius (and for us, too) because the docetists (for example, the Gnostics of the second century) would later say (in the 70’s) that Jesus was not truly human. Docetism comes from the Greek word doke,w which means to seem. For instance, the docetists believed that not Jesus but a “double” for Jesus had actually died on the cross because according to the docetists the true divine Jesus only “seemed” to have a physical human body which could not, of course, have been crucified. “Divine beings don’t just up and die on a cross for heaven’s sake” according to the docetists! So, according to the docetists, at the last minute God did a switcheroo and put a double on the cross. Some docetists argued this double was Simon of Cyrene whom we see in Mk 15 21 and elsewhere. However, according to Athanasius that was a fully wrong understanding because Jesus was fully human and his ordinary actions showed that. So there, docetists!!!
Within docetic thought the idea of Jesus having a human body would defile his divinity. Athanasius, however, showed that the true understanding of the text was the exact opposite of docetic thought because Jesus’ human body sanctified his humanity. For Athanasius the Incarnation was crucial, just as it is for us! Hence, Athanasius rejected both the view of the Ebionites that Jesus was only man and not God, and he rejected the view of the docetists (such as the Gnostics) that Jesus was divine but not man. Athanasius believed and showed that Jesus was both man and God so he said Jesus’ ordinary actions showed he was truly a man. He was physical. He walked. He ate. He drank. He did what human beings naturally did. Ordinary actions.
According to Athanasius Jesus’ “extraordinary” acts (paragraphs 17-18) – such as his miracles, healings, exorcisms, control over nature – all of these revealed Jesus’ divine nature. Jesus’ extraordinary actions showed that he was truly God. It was not that when he became human that he ceased to be God. In his Incarnation Jesus was both human while still remaining divine. Jesus was both fully divine as well as fully human, just as he remains to this day but now glorified.
Therefore, his ordinary actions showed he was a man, and his extraordinary showed that he was God, both of which when taken together revealed the two sides of the Incarnation. So for Athanasius both ordinary and extraordinary actions were necessary because both sides of the Incarnation were crucial – that he was truly God and that he was truly human – because only by God becoming human could humanity be restored and death be defeated and salvation come to humanity. Therefore, Athanasius saw all of Jesus’ actions in the gospels as pointing to the truth of the Incarnation, and in this aspect, Jesus’ extraordinary actions pointed to the truth of Jesus’ divine nature.
Note: Now some could say that we see healings and such all through the OT. How would Jesus doing miracles and rising from the dead prove that he was God and that, by implication, Elijah and Elisha were not? That is, prophets like Elijah and Elisha did miracles in the OT. Elisha raised the widow’s son from the dead and so on. Athanasius raised this same question elsewhere in this work. The difference that Athanasius pointed to elsewhere in this work was that the prophets always did their healings and other miracles in the power and name of YHWH, the God of Israel, in praying to God. Jesus, on the other hand, did miracles in his own power and authority. Jesus did not, like the prophet would, speak in the name of God and say “Thus says the Lord”. Instead, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount in Mt 5, said five times you have heard that it was said … but I say to you, … (The author of the commandments themselves, Jesus, was explaining, changing and in some cases abrogating what the commandments said. Jesus said ‘here’s what I say’ and he taught it without any basis in the OT. He taught on his own authority.) Likewise in Jesus’ miracles he did not, like Elisha did, call on the Lord and say “Lord, heal this person.” Instead, Jesus himself by his own power healed. That’s the difference between the actions of a prophet like Elijah and Jesus himself.
So Athanasius pointed out that faith in the Incarnation was central to Christian faith. Jesus had won salvation through his Incarnation and what would follow from it: his death, resurrection and ascension. And also, through these ordinary and extraordinary actions Jesus was showing his Incarnation clearly so that his Incarnation could be the ground of faith, that he really was God come in human flesh, that he really was God come for the salvation of the world through his death and resurrection and so forth. So Athanasius saw this unity of actions in Christ, and all of these actions were by the same person and all of them were showing that this one person had these two natures which were necessary to bring about human redemption. And the human redemption we’re talking about would be both the transformation of human hearts and lives back to orientation toward God and worship of God as well as the transformation of death into resurrection. Snap!
Arius and the Nicene creed
Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation in 318. This little book (but a great writing) lets us see the work of a great Christian theologian, but it also lets us see what Athanasius could assume his readers already understood. He could just assume that his Christian reader could accept all of this. Athanasius never argued for the Incarnation in his little book On the Incarnation. Instead, he just illumined the benefits and importance of the Incarnation. He just wanted to enlarge on and enrich everyone’s understanding of the Incarnation. Notice he didn’t say that “some of us believe in this Incarnation and some of us do not.” Nor did he say “I’ve got to convince you of the Incarnation.” No, all Christians believed the Incarnation and Athanasius was just further exploring the Incarnation. Thus, he could just assume on the part of his Christian readers a belief in the Incarnation.
But shortly after that in 319, six years after the Edict of Milan, a great controversy erupted when Arius, a priest (presbyter or pastor) at Alexandria, came on the scene and began to spread a teaching about Jesus that was very different from what we read in On the Incarnation. Others, like the Gnostics two hundred years previously, had come along denying the human side of the Incarnation. Arius, on the other hand, had a problem with the divine side of the Incarnation. For Arius it was impossible that a human being who was a creature could also be God.
Note: By this time the church was on the cusp of having a complete canon; a little later in the century (367) the canon would be complete. So by this time most people accepted the Hebrew scriptures (what one day would be called the OT) and most people accepted a group of newer writings that had come along since the time of Paul beginning in the year 50, writings which one day become what we today accept as and call the NT.
Arius argued that what Athanasius had to say in On the Incarnation was all wrong. Arius argued the scriptures did not say that Jesus was fully God nor that he was God come in the flesh. Instead, Arius argued that Jesus was the highest of created beings. Arius’ views (Arianism) spread widely and quickly, meaning that, obviously, he would become the opponent of Athanasius.
Arius was probably the first figure in antiquity who learned how to use the media with his own “sound bites”. Whereas Athanasius would write these long works, Arius did his theology in terms of slogans in order to spread his ideas. [Unfortunately, politicians of every variety have turned this into an art form in our own day and age.] Arius was famous for three great slogans / assertions – although he had others – which were pretty much the exact opposite of what we saw in Athanasius’s work On the Incarnation. In the Greek these slogans have a nice little jingle about them which they, for the most part, lose when translated into English. According to Arius:
1. “Jesus was not fully God, but the highest of created beings, a creature of God.” Arius argued that Jesus was not true God but only an exalted creature created in time. Arius said, ‘sure, Jesus existed before he was born in a stable. And, sure, Jesus was not just any creature of God’ but according to Arius ‘Jesus was the highest of God’s creatures – higher than the angels from even before the Creation of the world’. Arius pointed out that ‘the Bible called Jesus the only begotten Son of God. Therefore’, according to Arius, ‘if Jesus was begotten, he therefore must have been begotten “in time”’. Hence, Jesus was not “everlasting God”’ according to Arius but ‘he was instead only a creature of God – the highest and most exalted of God’s creatures but a creature nevertheless’. That’s what Arius argued.
2. Therefore, Jesus was not eternal in that, as Arius put it, “There was a time when he was not.” As such, if there was a time when he was not, he clearly could not have been God because there was no time in which God was not. That is, Jesus was not from all eternity but ‘Jesus was a creature created in time’ just like the angels had been. Therefore, according to Arius, both Jesus and the angels were but creations of God. Only God was eternal. Therefore, ‘if Jesus was not from all eternity, he could not be God’ according to Arius.
The orthodox responded by pointing out all the times scripture calls him God such as in the Fourth Gospel’s prologue and in Tt 2 and so forth. So Arius, being quite quick on his feet and doing what politicians of every age have done, responded with another slogan …
3. Arius also concluded that although Jesus was called God in the NT, “he that was Jesus was called God in name only.”
Arius recognized that the scriptures over and over called Jesus God, that they called him the only son who was God, that Jesus had made God known Jn 118 and so on. So Arius said that when scripture called Jesus God, it was just a metaphor or some transferred sense. Scripture didn’t really mean it, at least, according to Arius. Scripture used just a figure of speech and it didn’t really mean he was God.
This has been a thumbnail description of Arius’ theology – which, of course, the Church opposed.
Notably, Arius and his followers had no problem craftily confessing that Jesus was the Christ because, after all, that was just the Davidic king stream of expectation. That to Arius and his followers had nothing whatsoever to do with the more important OT stream of expectation, that of the coming of YHWH to Zion, that is, that of God himself coming to be with his people forever. As such, Arius and his followers freely confessed that Jesus was the Lord but they would do so thinking lord, small “l”, not the divine name, LORD meaning YHWH or God. No, Jesus wasn’t that at all. Jesus was just some exalted master-type figure.
This is another reason we must carefully make the distinction between Jesus as Messiah and Jesus as Son of God in whatever particular text we are dealing with when studying Scripture. It DOES make a difference!
Further, the Arians also confessed Jesus as the Son of God but as a mere creature, not the divine, eternal Son of God. They confessed Jesus as the Son of God, which was clearly confessed throughout the scriptures, but Arius contended Jesus in scriptures was called “God in name only” as we noted above. That is, “God” was just an honorific title given to Jesus because, according to Arius, Jesus was not truly God. For Arius to call Jesus the Son of God was just fine because it was just another doxological way of giving praise to Jesus as an exalted creature. [A doxology is a form of praise to God.]
So Jesus was called “God” in name only. In other words, just as all heretics do, Arius twisted the scriptures. For instance, the climax of the gospel of Jn clearly say of Jesus in Thomas’ confession my Lord and my God (Jn 20 28). Arius said it didn’t really mean God. Arius said, “He’s called God in name but he’s not really God.”
To combat this Arian heresy the Church used a word homoousion (meaning of one essence with) not found in scripture. See more of this discussion just below.
Arius’ thinking introduced an incredible controversy. Obviously! You can see how Arius’ point of view overthrew everything on the Incarnation as believed by the catholic and orthodox Christians such as Athanasius. For Athanasius Arius was attacking the very core of the faith because the Incarnation was entirely how mankind was to be renewed. The Incarnation was how death was to be defeated. And, the Incarnation was how everlasting life would again come. All the Creation had been renewed and restored to God through the Incarnation! Still, it was all a process. Always keep this in mind when studying Scripture. It’s a process in progress.
Another movement which predated Arianism and which had somewhat given rise to Arianism was Sabellianism which had been begun by Sabellius. Sabellianism said that there were not three persons in one God (the mystery of the Trinity) but, according to the Sabellians, Father, Son and Holy Spirit were just three different masks, modes or ways in which God revealed himself at different times in salvation history. In the time of Creation and Israel God was the Father. Then, when it came time for the gospels and so on, for salvation’s sake God revealed himself as the Son. Then, in the time of the Church God revealed himself as the Holy Spirit. There were no three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Sabellianism; there were just three masks or modes by which God revealed himself, and these three masks were not distinct from one another. As such, according to Sabellius, when Jesus prayed to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was praying to himself!!!
This broke down the distinction between Father and Son. Within Sabellianism “Father” and “Son” were just two different masks that God wore in the course of salvation history. To Sabellians saying that the Son was of one essence, nature or substance with the Father was the same as saying that the Father and the Son were the same. They excluded the distinction between Father and Son and Holy Spirit.
Many in the Church to this day mistakenly confuse the doctrine of the Trinity with Sabellianism. These types do not understand how the Son could pray to the Father in the Garden because to them the Father and the Son were one and the same which is what the Sabellians hold to.
On the other hand, the doctrine of the Trinity said that the Father and the Son were distinct. The doctrine of the Trinity is that there are three persons within this one God. So it makes perfect sense within the doctrine of the Trinity that the Son would pray to the Father in the Garden. There are distinct persons, and all three are fully God.
Arianism and Sabellianism were the two big movements that laid in the background leading up to the first ecumenical council in Nicaea in 325.
the development of doctrine
As theologians and historians look at these councils, it becomes clear that all the controversies were addressed. Additionally, and importantly, in hammering out the way to address these controversies, in hammering out these theological questions, in producing new theological terminology to express these biblical truths, the church wondrously developed its theological repertoire on how to talk about these truths in Scripture. And so by the time you get to these seven ecumenical councils beginning in 325 AD there has already been a wonderful development in theological vocabulary and theological thinking about the Incarnation, development which will only continue as we move through these first few centuries of the Church.
For example, if you ever talk with someone who’s confused about the Trinity or who does not know any of the church’s traditional theological vocabulary about the Trinity, or the Incarnation, or the two natures of Christ, they will oftentimes be very confused. When one comes to these mysterious, complex truths, it’s easy to fall by the wayside if you don’t first grasp the proper vocabulary in order to talk about these truths. Some people will try to explain matters by saying that Jesus was a part of God, trying to express the idea that “well, there are these three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” They find they can’t say that Jesus is God without remainder as if there is not the Father and Holy Spirit. Nor can they say Jesus is not God so they say something like he’s a part of God. But there are all sorts of problems expressing it that way too.
Fortunately, no good theologian ever expresses it that way because through all these centuries, these councils hammered out a precise way of talking about these things. So these concepts serve as portable stories – concepts like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Nicene Definition, the Chalcedon Definition, the two natures of Christ and so on … these concepts present a way of thinking about these things without going off the deep end, one way or the other. Understanding these concepts helps everyone keep on track in what are sometimes rather murky waters.
Once again, in this discussion of the ecumenical councils we are going to see this development of doctrine within Christian theology. The same thing happens when we read Scripture. That is, although the truth of Scripture never changes, our understanding of the truth can develop over time and thereby become more full and rich. Then, armed with that new understanding, it’s not as though we’ve added something to Scripture that was not there already. Instead, you have learned to use terms not found in Scripture in order to better understand what Scripture is bringing to you. For instance, some of these terms would include terms we’ll be discussing in this Bible class, terms such as homoousion (meaning of one nature), ousia (meaning nature), physis (meaning person), the two natures of Christ (divine and human) and so on. Although this language was not used in Scripture, theologians through the centuries have used these words in their writings and discussions among each other. Therefore, understanding the meanings of these terms helps to develop one’s understanding of Scripture in such a way that it helps us to more fully bring out the implications of what is actually there in Scripture. And one of the more important benefits for sticking it out in learning these things is that in the end, our faith will always be strengthened, and we’ll be better prepared to withstand the assaults on our faith from wherever they may come. That’s just the way it works.
Once again, all of this didn’t just come about in some ivory tower with theologians sitting around pondering “what ifs”. All of this happened in the trenches of theological differences and wars. This was history in the making. It took courage on the part of many people in this process of the development of doctrine. It all happened in the hurly-burly of history and controversy, and the blood of many devout believers was shed for this to take place. Just as we Christians of the twenty-first century are to respect our predecessors who went to their deaths fro their Christian beliefs, as well as those of our present times who are doing the same in Africa and Asia and elsewhere, we are to extend a similar hand of gratitude, appreciation and respect for those who fought these matters out in the worst of conditions during the first several centuries of Christianity. It is always tragic to misrepresent the motives and actions of those who paid and continue to pay the ultimate price for their faith, and, as such, we are to honor these people of faith.
Up to this point in time there in the early fourth century had been no ecumenical councils. They had started to have some councils for business-type matters of the church, meetings at which bishops would come together to accomplish church business, but there had never been a council to discuss a particular key theological topic. However, Arius had created just such a controversy and so the orthodox Christians were arguing that Arius’ teachings had to be rejected as non-Christian. On the other hand, others looked to Arius’ slogans and began to accept them.
All of this controversy would eventually result in the Council of Nicea in 325, the first of the seven ecumenical councils – councils which would be foundational for Christian theology for centuries to come. Athanasius called on Constantine who was emperor to call a council in order to show how Arius’ teaching was wrong and corrupting the church.
At first Constantine saw this just as a battle among theologians. “So what?! Who cares whether or not Jesus was fully God or the highest of created beings? That really doesn’t matter.” Constantine was not very theologically astute.
The ecumenical councils were gatherings of representatives from the ecumenical church in order to discuss important issues. A NT example would be that of the Jerusalem council discussed in Ac 15. Councils were called through the early centuries of the Christian church in order to deliberate, especially on doctrines of the Trinity and Christology.
the seven ecumenical councils
1. the Council of Nicaea in 325
2. the Council of Constantinople in 381
3. the Council of Ephesus in 431
4. the Council of Chalcedon in 451
5. the Council of II Constantinople 553
6. the Council of III Constantinople 680
7. the Council of II Nicaea in 787
(1) the Council of Nicaea in 325 (the first and most important of the seven ecumenical councils) and the Nicene creed
In the end Arius’ denial of the Incarnation got enough of a reaction that it culminated in the Council of Nicaea n s in 325, the first of the seven ecumenical councils. [The seven ecumenical (= universally accepted) Councils hammered out, in ways formative for all later Christian thought, precise theological answers to the question at the heart of the Christian faith: Who is Jesus? See listing in 325-1054 chart below.]
That a council gathered to look into these theological matters was something new; we had not seen this before. This was something new because it produced this conciliar creed, that is, a creed coming from a council. Prior to the Council of Nicea in 325 all the creeds we’ve seen, including the Old Roman Creed, were local creeds in the form of baptismal creeds or creeds used in worship in local communities. These creeds were, of course, beloved by their communities as we saw with Augustine’s use of the Creed of Hippo, his home church. So here for the first time the leaders of the church – the bishops – had gathered together in order to, on the basis of Scripture and the Rule of Faith, address and solve a specific theological controversy – which in this case was Arianism. So the bishops, including Arius, gathered from all over in order to produce a statement. This statement, this Creed, this confession in the end opposed Arius who was also rejected at the council.
Actually the conciliar creed chosen at Nicaea was a hybrid creed because the initial creed that was chosen to be the basis of the final creed was one of the local creeds in the Eastern part of Christianity. J. N. D. Kelly has a long, turgid discussion of which local creed from the East that they ultimately chose as the basis of what would become the Nicene Creed. Within that local creed the bishops interposed key phrases which addressed the specific theological controversy at hand. The bishops strove to bring out the faith they felt had always been in the Church and which now needed to be reasserted in light of this Arian controversy.
The orthodox response to Arius’ teaching as given in the Council of Nicaea in 325, and as given fuller formulation at the Council of Constantinople in 381, became the universal Christian confession we know today as the Niceno-Constanopolitan Creed by very few because it’s too hard to say, as the Nicene Creed by most people, or simply the Creed or the Symbol (in the Orthodox Church).
Constantine’s whole purpose for the council had been that there would be some compromise agreement in which everyone just agreed to get along. [Read all about what happened next, and the Council of Nicea, in the selection from Bernhard Lohse’s A Short History of Christian Doctrine in AC 36, pages 193 to 197.]
However, by the time the Nicene Council met, Constantine had had a change of heart and mind. He originally intended to force and strong-arm the bishops gathered there to simply compromise and come some kind of agreement, even if they could not agree if Jesus was God. When he arrived he found that the bishops who had assembled there, with very few exceptions, were adamantly opposed to Arius and wanted a strong statement that Jesus was fully God. Reportedly, Constantine was overwhelmed on meeting the bishops because many of them had gone through the Great Persecution. Several of them had had their arms cut off in the Great Persecution. Paphnutius, the great bishop from Egypt had had his right eye ground out of its socket. Constantine had never seen anything like that; he was not aware of all that had gone on in the Great Persecution. Constantine was so moved by this that he went about and kissed each of the wounds of these bishop martyrs. He kissed the eye socket of Paphnutius. He kissed the places where their limbs had been cut off. Therefore, Constantine did not stand in the way of the bishops coming out with a strong statement against Arius which resulted in what we call today our Nicene Creed.
The orthodox response to Arius’ teaching as given in the Council of Nicea in 325 and as given fuller formulation at the Council of Constantinople in 381 became the universal Christian confession we know today as the Nicene Creed. The Nicene creed is our first, of many, conciliar creeds, ie, having been derived from a Council. This Council had met to respond to this unique threat posed by Arius’ new teaching. Prior to this Nicene creed our previous creeds had all been local creeds. These local creeds had arisen of necessity in various areas of worship and baptism. Beginning with their local Rule of Faith they had then been put into written form for their area. A good example of these would be the Old Roman Creed used, of course, in Rome, which was usually abbreviated with the letter “R” in their various writings.
But with the Nicene creed something different happened. In light of the Arian controversy these bishops assembled in Council and interpreted and applied scripture in the context of the Rule of faith in order to come up with this conciliar creed. Our other local creeds were based on the oral Rule of faith from the apostles. Here the bishops looked at Scripture in light of the Rule of faith. So this Nicene Creed was a different kind of creed, a conciliar creed meant to settle a particular theological controversy, the one posed by Arius. The earlier local creeds were not like that; they were not meant to settle a particular theological controversy.
In terms of its Trinitarian structure and its wording the Nicene creed was not all that different from our Old Roman Creed from the West. It had the same threefold structure of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and it used the same events. In fact, the Nicene creed was a hybrid because the bishops of Nicea used one of the local creeds in the East as their basis and then they entered various phrases to specifically address the issues raised by Arius and to point out that Arius’ understanding of Christ was not Christian. The local creeds, of course, tended to be very similar to one another. So the Nicene Creed was a conciliar creed that was based on a local creed but which had been enriched with clauses to say that Arianism was incorrect.
Hence, responding to the controversy about who Jesus really was, the bishops came up with the Nicene Creed which was also crucial for forming the church’s theological vocabulary when talking about the Trinity, about the Incarnation. Thus, in the course of dealing with this Arian controversy, the bishops united at the Council of Nicea in 325 would also sharpen their understanding of the issues at hand. And the controversy is actually going to force them to put things more precisely than they had ever been put before.
the Nicene Creed’s response to Arius
The ancient creeds all have the Trinitarian structure. The Nicene Creed took its basic ground plan in broad span and details from the other local creeds. Clearly, the second clause about Jesus in the Nicene Creed had to be the longest because the major controversy regarding the Godhead lay in Christology – the person of the Son. Who was Jesus? That’s where the controversy lay. So the second clause had to be the most full. So in order to respond directly to and reject Arius’ teaching, the Council of Nicea in 325 added these phrases to the local creeds:
begotten of the Father before time began (which is in some creeds eternally begotten of the Father), Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father, through whom [i.e. the Son] all things were created.
Thus Arianism was soundly rejected in the Nicene Creed.
*1 First, begotten of the Father before time began is crucial because Arius had referred to the fact that Jn calls Jesus the only begotten son and inferred that must have happened in time. Therefore, according to Arius, Jesus had to have been begotten. One of Arius’ slogans was “there was a time when he was not.” Therefore, in Arius’ thinking begotten meant something like created.
In response to Arius, and crucial for Christian theological thought and vocabulary ever since, the Nicene creed told Arius that he got it wrong because the Nicene bishops were saying this was an “eternal generation of the Son”, an eternal begetting of the Son in which you had this Father-Son relationship within the Godhead, within God, from all eternity. Jesus was not begotten in time. Jesus was begotten of the Father before time began. That was to say that Jesus was eternally begotten of the Father.
In other words, and against Arius, there was never a time when the Son was not. begotten of the Father before time began meant from eternity to eternity there is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There never was a time when there was not “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Jesus was eternal because God was eternal.
This is a mystery. It was an eternal generation of the Son. Hence, theologians call this the eternal generation of the son, and that comes from this theological vocabulary introduced by the Nicene creed. [See also “eternal generation of the Son” in Jn 15 26. Edit later. June 13, 2012] This did not happen in time; it was something that was eternal. God was not God apart from being Father and Son.
*2 Second, the Nicene creed responded to Arius’ claim that “Jesus was called God in name only” with the phrase Light from Light, true God from true God. This reminds us of Ignatius’s semi-creed in which he said he truly died; he truly was raised. Therefore, Jesus was not God in some other sense. In other words, when the scriptures call Jesus God, they mean Jesus is God. Jesus is true God. Jesus is truly God; he’s the same being with the Father. What makes the Father God also makes the son God.
*3 Third, begotten, not created also directly counters Arius’ slogan, “Jesus is not fully God, but the highest of created beings, a creature of God.” This phrase points out that the Bible talks about Jesus not as the only created Son of God, but the only begotten Son of God – God in the flesh. Jesus was God just as the Father was God and just as the Spirit was God.
So notice that Arianism was very forcefully rejected by the Nicene Creed. The Creed also addressed and rejected Sabellianism which was in the background here. It did so by noting that there was one God the Father who was distinct from the Son. It was the Son who came down from heaven, who became incarnate; it was not the Father who came down.
Next follows one of the most famous lines in the Nicene Creed.
*4 Fourth, because Jesus is begotten, not created (like any other thing or creature), Jesus is of one essence with the Father. homoousion in the Greek, means of one essence with and which is also translated as nature or substance. homoousion comes from two Greek words: homo meaning same and ousia meaning essence, nature or substance. This is so important that among theologians it’s referred to as “The Mighty Homoousion.” Additionally, the homoousion – Jesus is of one nature with the Father – is sometimes called the Nicene Definition (just as we will later have the Chalcedon Definition that will come out of the Council of Chalcedon in 451). In other words, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 Jesus “was defined” as “Jesus is of one nature with the Father. They both shared the same nature, the same essence, the same substance.”
The mighty homoousion did the lion’s share of the work against Arius. Homoousion said “whatever made the Father the Father, whatever made God God, the Son is that! Whatever it is that made God God – the divine nature, the divine essence – Jesus has that just like the Father has that. Jesus truly was God and he was truly God in the flesh. So homoousion guarded the divine side of the Incarnation. The essence that made God God, the Son has that as much as does the Father.
Homoousion is the one “phrase” in the creed that did not actually correspond to some passage in scripture. Just as a human being begets a human being and not a fox or a box, so also the Father begets the Son. Therefore, the Son is of the same essence as the Father. If the Father is God, his Son, therefore, must be fully God. He’s of one essence (or substance) with the Father.
This approach using homoousion was the great, mighty weapon against the Arians because with everything else you drew from scripture, the Arians would counter with their own special interpretation of what scripture was saying there.
For instance, if one said, “Doesn’t scripture say that Jesus is God and not a creature?”, the Arians would answer with “He is called God in name only.”
So even with the other aspects of the Nicene Creed the Arians would say, “I accept that but I interpret it my own way. He’s really only a creature.” For example, Arius would say that “yes, I believe Jesus is true God of true God” but by that he would mean by that “God in name only.” The Arians used “God” in a different sense.
The one thing, however, that trapped the Arians – because they could not accept nor get around it – was this term homoousion because homoousion was unambiguous and its use said that the Son is one essence, nature or substance with the Father. In other words, whatever essence it was that made the Father God and the one only God, that essence was shared by Father and Son (and by the Spirit)! This was clearly saying without any wiggle room that he was truly God. Everything that made the Father God, the Son also had. The Son was God just as the Father was God. The Mighty Homoousion.
There was no way the Arians could explain that away because the use of homoousion was saying that this Son was truly God just as the Father was God. Hence, homoousion was the great weapon against the Arians. homoousion – of one nature (essence) – was the one word in the Creed not drawn directly from scripture. This was the way that the Nicene bishops brought out the sense and meaning of Scripture in such a way as to exclude this Arian belief that Jesus was something less than God. Of course, the Arians could not accept the homoousion.
This homoousion [of one essence, of one substance] had been very controversial because it seems like philosophical, not scriptural terminology, but the bishops agreed that it expressed the content of scripture. essence – its nature – was what makes something what it is. My essence is what makes me what I am. Essence is the being of something. Our essence is that we are creatures. God’s essence or nature is that he’s divine. The very nature and being of the Father is divine – as is that of the Son and the Spirit.
Just as did the true Christians, Arius said he was willing to use all these titles that scripture gave to Jesus but he saw them only as titles. To Arius and his followers Jesus was really only a creature. Jesus was only called God and he was only called the Lord and so on. It wasn’t that he actually was God or was the Lord and so on. This was just another crafty way for Arius to misuse scripture. Eisegesis.
The Church in the Nicene Creed responded with And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father. That is, whatever makes God what God is, whatever makes the Father what the Father is, that’s what the Son is. of one essence is one (mighty) word in the Greek. Therefore, the Church found that using homoousion put the heretics to flight because Arius and his fellow heretics could not confess of one essence with the Father. When one confesses of one essence with the Father it makes it beyond doubt that you are confessing that whatever the Father is so also is the Son and so also is the Spirit. The Son is truly God as the Father is God. The Son is of one essence with the Father. So the mighty word homoousion cancels out all heresies, all of these false concepts about Christ.
homoousion remains mighty through the centuries to this day. Many contemporary, modern, unbelieving theologians are more than happy to say in their sermons that Jesus is God and so on. But if you actually look at their writings and talk to them, they admit that they say what they say doxologically. That is, they mean it as a form of praise to God. They will say, “I call Jesus God because he is such a wonderful person and guide to what we should be and I think Jesus is the best representation of what a godly life should be.” But these types don’t truly believe Jesus is truly God. So to this day they will confess parts of the Nicene creed like “Jesus is God” but, like Arius, they won’t really mean what they are saying. But what they won’t confess is homoousion – of one essence with the Father – because that’s that’s unambiguous. If you confess that, if you confess the homoousion, you are confessing that Jesus is truly, truly God. So homoousion remains mighty to this day.
We confess that Jesus is truly and fully God. So whatever the Father is so also is the Son.
The Father is eternal; the Son is eternal. By his very being the Father is eternal.
The Father is divine in his very being so also the Son is divine in his very being.
The Father is uncreated so also is the Son uncreated.
The Father is truly God, in his essence, in his nature. So also is the son truly God in his nature, in his essence.
This is a central affirmation of the creed because it says we don’t believe Jesus is God in some lesser sense. Instead, we believe Jesus is truly God because he’s of one essence with the Father.
Notice that within this conversation about the mighty homoousion there is this wonderful development going on. It’s not just that the orthodox bishops addressed the controversy and then just stood pat. Instead, we had this development in one’s thinking, understanding and in our theological language in which we now understood the Trinity more clearly. The Trinity was this very difficult concept to understand in which you had these three persons but one God. Jesus was not a created being, separate from God; he was God just as the Father was God. So we have this idea here that there is this one, divine essence, this one nature that makes God God but within that one, divine essence, within that one God, there were the three persons. There was one essence but there were three persons.
Some misunderstand the Trinity and will say something like “the Trinity makes no sense because the Son is not the Father – so the Trinity must be false.” Of course, that’s not what the doctrine of the Trinity says. It does not say that the Son is the Father. Instead, it says very clearly that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct but they share the same divine nature, the same divine essence. There is one God in three persons, as mysterious and ineffable (defying expression or description) as that is.
So this conversation about “the mighty homoousion” helped the Church to develop new language in talking about these things in which in one fell swoop, saying the Son was one essence with the Father also said he was the Son distinct from the Father – otherwise how could he be of one essence with the Father? – but he’s also God just as the Father is God. So we got from the discussions at this time this advance in the theological thinking and language, explaining, opening up and developing the truths of scripture. That is, those involved found new ways of talking about these deeply theological aspects of our Christian faith which allowed those involved at the time to have more meaningful conversations about these matters with one another because they better understood the actual theological content of Scripture as well as what they were each trying to say about the matter under discussion.
Note: These were then, as they remain today, very lofty theological concepts. In order to more properly understand some of these matters we’ll quite often have to reread these materials as needed. Don’t be upset with yourself if in the first reading of some of these concepts that you do not understand everything that’s being said. It happens to all of us.
This Trinitarian framework was further underscored by the threefold character of the Trinitarian shape or structure of the creed, Father in clause one, Son in clause two and Holy Spirit in clause three. So, again, in this Nicene Creed Jesus is truly, fully God, not a creature of God, but God.
Notice the bishops were preserving the distinction between Father and Son. Homoousion guarded against both Arianism (because the Son was truly God) and Sabellianism (because the Son was not the same as the Father but the Son shared the divine essence / nature of the Father).
The mighty homoousion was also responding to a view called Sabellianism which had previously entered into the picture. See Sabellianism notes above. Sabellians excluded the distinction between Father and Son so they, too, could not accept the homoousion.
Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, embraced the mighty homoousion.
When the Arians rejected the divinity of Jesus, they were rather craftily using an ambiguity in the word ousia. This ambiguity will be at the heart of the Arian reaction. ousia – which means nature or essence – can have a couple different senses in Greek.
ousia can be used in the Greek to refer to: nature or person
**1 the nature of divinity
The Father and Son are distinctive persons but they share one, common, divine nature just as we read in the Nicene Creed. That is, in the mystery of the Trinity, the Son was God just as the Father was God just as the Spirit was God. The Son was of one nature, one essence or one ousia with the Father. Whatever made the Father God, the Son also had and the Spirit also had. Each of the three persons had that same nature or essence. So it was saying here that there really were three persons but the Son was of one essence with the Father meaning that the Son was God just like the Father was God just like the Spirit was God. So this understanding did not break down the distinction of persons between Father and Son.
The Council of Nicea in 325 clearly meant the meaning of nature or essence when they used the word homoousion and that’s how they used the meaning of the word in the Creed. There were three divine Persons all of whom shared this one nature or essence which strongly countered Arius.
For example, we have something similar in the phrase human nature. We humans all have a common human nature which we share but which does not deny that we are all individual humans. That’s how the Nicene Creed used the word ousia.
But, just like our word nature, the Greek word ousia could also be used to mean person. Just like we might talk about so-and-so-so’s wonderful nature, we might talk about her wonderful person.
Notice that if ousia is used in the sense of divine nature such as how the Nicene Creed used it, it was saying that the Son was God just like the Father was God in the mystery of the Trinity. On the other hand, if ousia was used in the sense of person, then it would be saying Father and Son were the same person which would cancel out the distinction between Father and Son. As such, you would be denying the distinction between the persons of Father and Son!
The Nicene bishops did not want to do that by any means. The Nicene Creed had this Trinitarian framework – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three distinct persons but one God. And the three persons shared the same divine nature / essence.
Seeking to find a way out, the Arians said – deceitfully, misinterpreting what the fathers of the Council of Nicea in 325 meant – the Arians said that ousia meant person here. “Aha! These Nicene theologians are saying the Father and Son are the same person!” The ambiguity of the term ousia confused many people, especially Constantine. And the waters were further muddled because the Arians then dishonestly began spreading the message that the Nicene theologians meant person by this in the first place!
The Arians were trying to convince people that homoousion in the Nicene Creed act meant person, when, clearly, the intent of the Nicene bishops was anything but that. The Arians were therefore accusing the Nicene theologians of the heresy of Sabellianism. However, it was, in fact, the Arians who were “calling the kettle black”. It was, in fact, the Arians who were the actual Sabellians; it was the Arians who didn’t believe there was a distinction between Father and Son and Holy Spirit.
*5 Fifth, the phrase through whom [i.e. the Son] all things were created tells us Jesus was the creator. In other words, the previous phrase of one essence (or substance) with the Father tells us Jesus was fully God, and the following phrase through whom [i.e. the Son] all things were created tells us Jesus himself was the creator.
So we have this dramatic event in which at one point it looked as if Constantine was going to derail the council. But, overawed by these bishops who had gone through the Great Persecution, he just listened as the bishops put together this creed. In fact, there is even good evidence that Constantine’s own advisor suggested this language of one essence with the Father as the most powerful way of refuting the Arian heresy. So the Nicene Creed comes out of the Nicene Council in 325.
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, seen and unseen;
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, seen and unseen;
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, begotten of the Father before time began, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father, through whom [i.e. the Son] all things were created. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, became incarnate through the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and became fully human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, he suffered, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is enthroned at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will have no end.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, begotten of the Father before time began, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father, through whom [i.e. the Son] all things were created. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, became incarnate through the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and became fully human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, he suffered, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is enthroned at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. Together with the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He spoke through the prophets. And we believe one, holy, catholic apostolic Church. We confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and we await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Together with the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He spoke through the prophets. And we believe one, holy, catholic apostolic Church. We confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and we await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
* The blue font denotes phrases added in the fourth century to respond to Arius’ teaching. Theologians call this “the eternal generation of the Son”.
** In our own day and age, the only difference between the Eastern and Western version of the Creed is in the magenta font but that comes from a few centuries later.
In summary, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 Arianism was rejected. Not only was Jesus fully human, contrary to the Gnostics, but Jesus was also fully divine, contrary to Arius. Jesus was God come in the flesh.
The Aftermath of the Council of Nicea in 325
The Arian Reversal / The Arian Reaction / Triumph & Athanasius
So the Nicene creed is the second of our two central creeds of Christianity – the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene creed. They are different.
The Apostles’ Creed comes from the Old Roman Creed, a local creed. See above.
The Nicene Creed comes from a council, the Council of Nicea in 325, which itself began with a local creed from the east. [See discussion above under Council of Nicea in 325.]
The Nicene creed is the foundation for Christian theological thought on Christology and the Trinity. The Nicene creed is the most universal of Christian creeds, accepted by almost all Christians today.
All of this brings us to the aftermath of the Council of Nicaea, the first of the seven ecumenical councils. After the Council there was the beginning of what historians call the Arian Reaction, the Arian Triumph or the Arian Reversal. The various Arian bishops who had refused to accept the Nicene Creed and confess that Jesus is God had been deposed from their bishoprics following the Nicene Council in 325.
Constantine [February 27, 272 – May 22, 337] et. al. were totally befuddled by this confusion between the Nicene bishops and the Arians. Constantine thought it was just a battle of words, and he wanted everyone to “just get along.” Therefore, in 327 Constantine had an abrupt change of heart that had dramatic effects on the Church, on Arius and Athanasius and all the bishops. There was this incredibly strong reaction against the Nicene Creed and against the Nicene faith in favor of Arius, and to make matters all the worse, it was all led by Constantine himself! Also in 327 Constantine reinstated the deposed Arian bishops. Constantine wasn’t opposed to the Nicene bishops; he was just confused by this argument.
Why did Constantine reinstate the Arian bishops? The Arians said they couldn’t accept the homoousion. To them Jesus was not of one essence with the Father. To them the homoousion broke down the distinction between Father and Son. Bingo! That had been precisely why the Nicene bishops had used the phrase in the first place. This was the one word the Arians could not accept because they could not take the word homoousion and reinterpret their way around it.
In reading through the Arian correspondence we find that they weren’t up front about this. The Arians used the ambiguity of the homoousion term to push a different theology in which Jesus was only a creature. The Arian’s real reason for disagreement with the Nicene bishops was that they believed Jesus was only a creature and not fully God. However, what they said to Constantine et. al. was that they were not Sabellians. See notes above. The Arians’ disingenuous objection used an ambiguity in the word homoousion so that they could avoid their real reason for objecting to the word homoousion.
So the ambiguity of the ousia portion of the term homoousion (discussed above) allowed the Arians – who were really Sabellians to especially confuse Constantine regarding their real purpose. The Arians said they couldn’t accept the Nicene Creed because it was Sabellianism which broke down the distinction between the Father and the Son. The Arians were playing on the ambiguity within the word homoousion with the meaning of the ousia portion of the word. The Arians really meant the meaning of ousia in sense 2. above: as person. To the Arians the Father and Son were of one person. That is, they were not two distinct persons, Father and Son. (See notes above.)
For a period of 40 years there was a reaction (the Arian reaction) against the decision of the Nicene Council. During this period there was a great revival of Arius’ view. In fact, Arianism seemed to be spreading everywhere and gaining the upper hand. Sometimes it seemed that the only thing opposing Arianism was the now-middle aged, and then growing old, Athanasius. Over a period of 40 years the young Athanasius fought the battle against this Arian reaction. So strong was the Arian reaction that Athanasius was repeatedly persecuted and often exiled from his bishopric. Athanasius suffered all sorts of persecutions and adversities.
As noted above many were confused by this, not the least of whom was Constantine himself. Further, Constantine didn’t want to get involved in all of this incomprehensible theological stuff. He wanted everyone to just get along. Thus, beginning in 327 he decided to reinstate the Arian bishops. The orthodox and Arian bishops were just supposed to agree to his decision and get along together! That’s what Constantine in his theological naivety expected. Because of Constantine’s lack of understanding you can imagine Constantine’s anger and wrath [after all he was the emperor] when Athanasius and other orthodox Nicene bishops refused to accept the Arian bishops as true bishops. The orthodox bishops were adamant in that the Arian bishops were denying that Jesus was God which was central to the scriptures – the Incarnation – and they adamantly said they could not accept the Arians as bishops.
Constantine saw this as nothing more than a fight about words. He saw Athanasius and those like him as the true problem in all this. They were seen as hard-liner nut cases who refused to get along with the Arians. Athanasius was seen as recalcitrant and intolerant because he wouldn’t accept these Arians as true bishops. Therefore, in 336, 11 years after the Council had met in Nicaea, Constantine finally banished Athanasius from his bishopric to the hinterlands. Then, in the same year a few months after Athanasius was banished from his bishopric by Constantine and put into exile, Constantine, in a last and biggest step of reinstatement, recalled Arius from exile and reinstated him as a presbyter in the church. This same time period began a thirty-year series of exiles and banishments endured by Athanasius known as “the Arian reversal.” Athanasius’ “thirty-year series of exiles.” Arius, whose views had been condemned as non-Christian in the Nicene Creed from the Council of Nicea in 325, had been reinstated!
When in 337 Arius was brought back for reinstallation, and on the eve of the ceremony in which he was to be gloriously reinstalled as presbyter in his church, Arius suffered an intestinal hemorrhage in the bath. He died and was never reinstated.
During this time of Athanasius’s “thirty-year series of exiles” was the time of the Arian reaction. The Arians grew steadily stronger. The Arians used the confusion surrounding the meaning of ousia (divine nature or person) to point the finger at Athanasius for being a Sabellian. However, Athanasius believed in the distinction between Father and Son but he also believed the Son was fully God as did the other Nicene bishops. So the Arians were spreading this disinformation about Athanasius saying Athanasius didn’t believe that.
Constantine died in 337. During this time the followers of Arius grew stronger and stronger, as did a moderate faction of Arians called the “SemiArians”. Some of the Semi-Arians were compromisers with Arius; most of them were those who believed in the divinity of the Son as much as Athanasius but there still was this confusion about how the term ousia should be used. The Semi-Arians were looking for some kind of compromise regarding Jesus being God and being the highest of the God’s exalted creatures.
So what was at the heart of this struggle was that key term in the Nicene Creed, the homoousion. Athanasius, in his theological wisdom and understanding in dealing with the facts, now looking back in retrospect, said that under no circumstances could they give this up because this was the one defense against the true Arians. Either Jesus was God or he was not! If Jesus was a creature, even if he was the highest of God’s creatures, he could not help us! The Incarnation would mean nothing! Athanasius pointed out that the church stood or would fall on this point. So only Athanasius and a few other bishops continued to oppose the Semi-Arians just as they continued to oppose the Arians.
On the other hand, both Arians and Semi-Arians said the Nicene Creed should be rejected. Still, Athanasius and a few other bishops continued to defend the Nicene Creed and the homoousion.
There were many sympathizers to Arius like Constantine. In this climate the Nicene theologians, as they came to be called, seemed to be impossibly intransigent radicals, extremists and even nut cases. Constantine and then later after his death, his son Constantius, even more so, supported the Arians and the Semi-Arians, and they even more viciously than before began to persecute the Nicene theologians. Constantius was totally on the side of the Arians and felt that if you would just get rid of these nut cases, everybody would get along.
Athanasius would be exiled and banished, over and over. During this period Athanasius was frequently hunted out by the imperial authorities, and he often very narrowly escaped death. Council after council called by the emperor during this time condemned Athanasius by name and supported Arianism in one form or another. Arianism became stronger and stronger. Other Nicene bishops were condemned and exiled. The power and fury of the empire had turned against the Nicene bishops. So there was confrontation and conflict between the Nicene theologians and the emperor. In this situation it took a lot of courage to continue supporting the Nicene Council and the Nicene Creed.
the courage of the Nicene bishops
Ambrose, the famous bishop of Milan, reprimanded Constantius to his face saying, “The emperor is in the Church, not above it.” He said the king should get out of doing theology and stick to doing king stuff.
Lucifer, bishop of Cagliari, being even more forthright, questioned whether the emperor, in light of the actions he had taken in supporting the Arians and the Semi-Arians, was even in the Church after all. He courageously wrote a famous pamphlet called On Apostate Kings which was directed at Constantine and Constantius having turned away from the faith. You can imagine how well that was received. Lucifer wrote another pamphlet entitled Let Us Die for the Son of God which exhorted Christians to die for this faith in the Incarnation.
In another instance the imperial commissioner came to the famous theologian Basil of Caesarea, another Nicene bishop, and demanded compliance with the emperor’s decrees under threat of torture. Basil sharply answered that he would not do it, and the imperial commissioner was taken aback saying, “I have never met someone who would speak so impudently to an imperial commissioner. Basil replied, “Perhaps you have never met a bishop before.”
Still, the most courageous leader of the Nicene faction was Athanasius. One Arian writer at the time said derisively about Athanasius, “It’s just Athanasius against the world.” In fact, from this whole period has come a proverb that was used in antiquity and which is used by historians today: Athanasius contra mundum which means Athanasius against the world.
Athanasius often escaped death during this time frame. There are many interesting accounts relating to Athanasius. He was often exiled and then brought back.
One time when he was bishop of Alexandria he was escaping from the imperial soldiers on the Nile. They came after him on the Nile but they had a faster boat so they were rapidly catching up. So Athanasius reversed course on the Nile and he went right past them as they continued south on the Nile. As the soldiers passed by Athanasius’ boat they yelled, “Have you seen Athanasius?” Athanasius replied, “He’s very close!” and just kept heading north on the Nile as the soldiers headed south.
During this whole time Athanasius was hidden away by friends, supporters and in monasteries. All the time he was pouring forth these books and pamphlets on the Trinity and on Christ’s divinity and on the Nicene Creed and so on. At this time Athanasius was on the lamb, and the Arians were in the ascendancy backed by imperial power.
So what will happen with these Nicene theologians? To the Nicene Creed?
the turning of the tide
Then came the turning of the tide with two important events which led to this turning of the tide:
the (third) Council of Sirmium in 357 [The first Council of Sirmium was in 347 and the second in 351.] (See chronology chart below) and
the peace conference at Alexandria.
The Council of Sirmium in 357 was controlled by Arians and their supporters. It marked the high point of Arianism. After the Arian bishops had, as they thought, done a number on the Council of Nicea in 325 and had put that out of the way so that it would never be used again, they called their own councils to come up with their own Arian creed. During this whole time the Arian bishops were in a time of increasing influence and power. The Arians knew they were in power and could do pretty much what they wanted to. Thereby emboldened for the first time they came out with what was clearly an Arian creed backed by the imperial forces. Hence, Arianism appeared to be completely triumphant. Calling this Arian Council and promulgating this Arian creed was perhaps the most triumphant moment of Arianism.
Something new was afoot. Up to this point the Arians were using innuendo, nuance and suggestion to get across their Arian views that Jesus was not fully God. It seems as though from the earliest sources that many of the bishops within the Semi-Arian faction were not actually Arians. They, instead, believed that Jesus was fully God; they believed in the Incarnation but they were confused by the arguments of the Arians that the Council of Nicea in 325 had broken down the distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There was a lot of confusion on all sides generated by the Arians use of innuendo, nuance and suggestion. The Arians were “playing games” with the language. That’s one of the reasons this Arian Reversal could keep on gaining ground.
But at the Council of Sirmium, the Arians, feeling flushed with their victories and so impregnable and in such a position of power, the Arians did not use innuendo, nuance or deception. Instead, they just very clearly stated the Arian view that Jesus was not God, that Jesus was only a creature of God. They were very up front and clear so that no one now could miss it. It came across like a thunderbolt
The Nicene theologians reacted strongly to this Arian creed. During this period there arose in the western portion of the empire one of the greatest champions of the Nicene council and theology, Hilary of Poitiers [ pot , ] who is known as “the Athanasius of the West” because Athanasius hailed from the East. [Read Wilken’s brilliant analysis of Christian thought on the Trinity in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, pages 8093.] Hilary’s greatest work, On the Trinity, was written in 360 at the peak of the Arian triumph. Hilary fully understood the issues (that Jesus was not God and a creature of God according to the Arians). Hilary supported that Jesus was God, and he fully supported the Nicene Creed against Arianism.
This apparent triumph of Arianism was, in fact, the turning of the tide because many Semi-Arians were not truly sympathetic with Arianism; they were just confused about the term ousia and about the issues. They believed in the divinity of Christ but they actually thought the Arians did too. This was how deceptive the Arians had been with their arguments. The Arians were the typical politicians of their time. They said one thing to the masses but thought and did something entirely different. Now, however, with the Arian creed people found out differently. Arianism had in a sense revealed itself for what it really was. Arianism was unmasked. So this moderate element which had turned so strongly to the Arians and against the Nicene view now turned back the other way to the Nicene perspective. There was still much confusion and discussion but the tide really turned when Arianism was unmasked at the Council of Sirmium.
Hilary was shocked by the Council of Sirmium; he could not believe the Arians had been that bold. Hilary refused to call the Arian creed a symbolum (what the ancient Christians used for what we call creed); he famously and simply labeled it The Blasphemy. But, in time, this apparent triumph of Arianism became its undoing – the turning of the tide. Many in the Semi-Arian group believed in the divinity of Christ, that Jesus was truly God, but they were confused by the surrounding homoousion discussion and what it meant. Now, what the Arians believed had been unmasked by what they said at Sirmium. The Arians outright rejected the divinity of Christ. To them Christ was not God in any sense; he was only a creature. True, perhaps he was more exalted than you or I but still he was just a creature – not God.
So suddenly the eyes of many were opened and many of those in the Semi-Arian camp realized they had not backed the right horse. Some in the Arian camp also realized that what came out of Sirmium was not what they themselves believed. Therefore, the confusion that had dogged the whole issue began to clear when Arianism showed its true colors at Sirmium.
When Arianism showed its true colors at Sirmium, that paved the way for a second event which led to the turning of the tide: Athanasius’ Peace Conference at Alexandria in 362. Now that everyone was reevaluating their position and the issues had been clarified, Athanasius gathered as many bishops and theologians as he could to Alexandria. Both Nicene and Arian theologians were gathered together in order to settle the confusion. Athanasius’s Peace Conference was the key thing that clarified issues and turned the tide back to the Nicene faith. And here was how they did it.
This conference hammered out an understanding of terms thereby clarifying the confusion. Those at Alexandria all agreed to use the terms in the same way. Remember, Arius had purposely obfuscated and confused people by saying the Nicene Creed’s use of ousia meant person and not divine nature when, in fact, those at Nicaea had meant for it to mean divine nature or divine essence. Those at Nicaea had meant that there were two distinct persons, Father and Son, who shared the same divine nature – which meant that the Son was truly God. That is, whatever made the Father God, the Son also has that. The Son is God just as the Father is God. The Son was not a created creature of God; he was God. In his humanity he was a creature but he was God come in the flesh. Instead, subsequently the Arians had deceptively changed ousia in that time to mean person which broke down the distinction between Father and Son. Hence, the Arians said the Nicene theologians were denying the distinction of the persons in the Trinity.
Therefore, and subsequently, led by Athanasius these bishops decided to use ousia exclusively – and they understood they were doing that – for the divine nature or divine essence. That is, whatever it is that makes God God, the Son has it too. No more would there be the confusion when one said “Christ is one ousia with the Father”. No longer would there be the confusion that you might somehow mean he’s one person with the Father thereby obliterating the distinction between Father and Son. So at Alexandria they agreed they would use ousia to mean the divine nature shared by Father and Son.
Further, they decided they would use another term for the persons within the Trinity which makes the Son distinct from the Father – hypostasis. So ousia was to be used to refer to the divine nature, and hypostasis was to be used for the persons. Therefore, now in our modern English there will be this distinction that will always be used in Christian theology between the divine nature and the divine person. Before 362 they had not worked out that terminological distinction. It was hammered out for the first time there at Alexandria in 362 in the heat of controversy and under the threat of imperial violence and torture.
By the way, this confusion about terms happens all the time in theological, philosophical and scientific controversies in which sometimes it’s just a misunderstanding of terms that’s at the core of the problem(s) being discussed. However, this need for specificity was especially understandable in light of the fact that ancient Greek philosophy – such as with Plato and Aristotle – did not have a word for person. In fact, it was in this Christian theological discussion by Christian theologians that first worked out the full meaning of what we know as person. They had some rough idea of a human being but they had not worked out this full, rich concept of person that we know now. In fact, part of the heritage of this in our western culture in which we have this full idea of a human person and what that is and what that involves, … part of the heritage of Athanasius’ Peace Conference was that it then became possible, and only then possible to know what a human person was and is. That understanding came about from the Church’s working out the distinction between the persons and the Trinity. That’s where our concept of person in the West comes from. So they were hammering out things that were not only going to be fruitful for understanding the mysteries of the Trinity, but these things would also be fruitful for even understanding our own human nature and our human person. This development of theological language and theology was really amazing stuff. Now, the terminological confusion at least for those terms was now out of the picture.
This Christian theological terminology is still important to this day when talking about the Trinity, when talking about the divine nature / essence and the persons. All of that was hammered out at Athanasius’ Peace Conference in Alexandria in 362. Much suffering had to be endured by the Nicene theologians before this all-important distinction between nature and person could be hammered out historically. Out of that conference came Athanasius’ famous phrase “one divine nature (ousia), three equally divine persons (hypostases).” Our distinction between the divine essence or nature and the divine person is just a translation of the Greek words ousia and hypostasis.
Athanasius is sometimes called by theologians the saint who saved the Christian faith of the Nicene variety, the non Arian variety, because it was largely through Athanasius’ efforts and his afflictions and persecutions that finally the Nicene creed’s emphasis on the true Incarnation of Christ – that Jesus was truly God come in the flesh – eventually did win the day. In the end Athanasius’s support of the Incarnation did win the day but only after this 40 year Arian reaction. That’s why Athanasius is sometimes called the saint who saved the Christian faith.
All of this prepares the way for the second council of the seven ecumenical councils: the Council of Constantinople in 381. A second Council was necessary because the Council of Nicaea in 325 had become so controversial. The Council of Constantinople in 381 confirmed the Council of Nicaea in 325.
(2) the Council of Constantinople in 381 (the second ecumenical Council)
Athanasius’ Peace Conference at Alexandria in 362 prepared the ground for the Council of Constantinople in 381. A second Council was necessary because the Council of Nicaea in 325 had become so controversial. See 325-1054 chart just above. At the Council of Constantinople in 381, against the Arians and the Semi-Arians, Nicea and its Nicene Creed were confirmed. Council of Nicea was ecumenical and universally accepted. During the period of the Arian reaction many had rejected the Nicene Council but it was now affirmed. After much courage had been shown and blood had been shed by bishops such as Athanasius and others, the truth that the Council of Nicea had sought to propagate, that Jesus was God in the flesh, was now confirmed. Jesus was not a creature; Jesus was God made human; Jesus was God.
Athanasius (296 – May 2, 373) was vindicated, even though it was after his death. Although he never got to see it, most of his life was spent suffering for this result. Although he was but a presbyter at Nicaea, Athanasius was the key figure there. He was the key figure who had supported the Nicene faith through thick and thin, through exiles and banishments. Then, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, Athanasius’s true faithfulness to scripture and Christian truth were vindicated.
So the Nicene Creed of 325 was incorporated and confirmed in the Creed at Constantinople. This Council said we confirm the creed of Nicaea and it expanded Nicea with new clauses on the divinity of the Holy Spirit in order to bring out the Spirit’s divinity clearly as well – this one divine nature, one God but three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How did it accomplish this?
The third article of the Nicene Creed was very weak – we believe in the Holy Spirit. The third article was not in controversy. The controversy at Nicaea had to do with the divinity of Jesus as compromised by Arius and his followers. Was he or was he not truly God was the question. Just as Arius had denied the divinity of the Son, which had always been assumed, some denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. These Spirit deniers said the Spirit was some sort of created force given by God or some sort of created being made by God. So that also had to be clarified just as they were clarifying the relationship of the Son and the Father. They had to clarify that the Holy Spirit was truly God and distinct from Father and Son, just as the Father and the Son were truly God and distinct from one another.
So at Constantinople there was an expansion of the clause dealing with the Holy Spirit, and clauses were added confirming the hope of the resurrection and the renewal and restoration of all Creation – this hope in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. This was added to make the Nicene Creed more full. The original Nicene Creed had been directed fully at answering the challenge of Arius as noted above which had to do with the Arian misunderstanding of the divinity of Christ. The Constantinopolitan Creed was an expansion of the Nicene Creed that made it more full and rich like the Apostles’ Creed in which all of the main truths of the faith were there summarized. Hence, the Nicene Creed we use today is the Creed in the fuller, richer, expanded form which came out of the Council of Constantinople – the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed – but we still call it the Nicene Creed, for short.
Once we have learned about the Arian reaction, about “Athanasius against the world” and the Council of Constantinople we have finished the story of the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed. We see it confirmed in 381 at Constantinople. Again, this was just a local creed expanded with clauses to confirm the Incarnation – Jesus was God in the flesh, the divinity of the Holy Spirit and so forth.
This whole story of the second ecumenical Council has a certain logic to it. As you think about who God is, your focus in Christian theology is on the Incarnation – Jesus is God in the flesh. So we ask how that can work? How can there be one God and yet Jesus can be God? How can there be one God and yet both the Son and the Father be God?
The Incarnation itself was not really explained by the Rule of Faith. Still, you had a development in thought as they hammered out the distinction. To be sure, there was one divine nature; there was one God but there were three persons in this one God. Not surprisingly, it took a lot of hammering out to work through these questions. There were helpful and good ways to talk about it but there were also nonbiblical and harmful ways of talking about it. Still, it was hammered out, not in the ivory tower of a theologian who was just thinking these things through, but in the thinking of a theologian like Athanasius hiding out in the corner of a monastery knowing that the imperial authorities might grab and kill him at any moment. It was worked out through blood, sweat and tears.
So you can talk about it as being through logical questions that the faith was developed and that you theologically developed these truths of the faith, but it was always never something that just logically happened. Instead, it happened in the midst of controversy, violence, persecution and so forth. While it happened in the midst of controversy, there was still a certain logic that it followed.
the Christological controversies
Next, if you now see that Jesus was God in the flesh and that revealed the mystery of the Trinity – there is one God but three persons – the next logical question about Jesus would regard the two natures of Jesus, that of being both fully divine and fully human. In other words since Jesus was God in the flesh as Nicaea confessed and Constantinople confirmed, the next logical questions would have been, “How were the divine and the human natures related to one another in Jesus? And what would be good, consistent, helpful and biblical ways of expressing that theologically? And, what would be wrong, harmful, misleading and unscriptural ways of expression which would actually lead you away from the truth of the Incarnation?”
This was a natural theological progression and question that would arise following the decisions of the first two Councils.
Just as with the Nicene Creed and Jesus’ divinity, the relationship of the divine and human natures within Christ would be hammered out only through another series of tumultuous controversies which historians call the Christological controversies.
Remember first that the Gnostic texts were concerned to promulgate this anti-Creation view in which the flesh was bad and so on. Therefore, all of them were concerned to say that the true, living Lord could not be incarnate in human flesh. Some of them, in fact, simply said there was no human Jesus at all. They contended that there was just this divinely-given video of someone who seemed to be human but really wasn’t. Some of them said there was a human Jesus but that the divine Jesus, or the divine son, or the divine one didn’t become incarnate as a human being but for a time only inhabited that person. With this Gnostic thinking the divine Jesus evicted the previous owner of that body and inhabited it for awhile. Go figure! To some of those Gnostics who were not thinking very clearly, they could say, “Oh, that’s the Incarnation!” But it wasn’t the Incarnation. They were not saying that this son of god while remaining god became a human being. In their wacked thinking they were saying that for a time this divine entity possessed a human being who was already there. So this, of course, was not a true Incarnation, a true connection between the divine and the human. It was just this divine son inhabiting a human being for a time. To these Gnostic thinkers this was a way of talking about the divine and human natures but dividing them in such a way that there was no true Incarnation.
Therefore, what were ways that one could talk about the Son of God and Jesus and the two natures of Christ and do so in such a way that it was not fully talking about Incarnation? This Christological controversy was the question that would be hashed out in the next five ecumenical councils
printed through here February 12, 2014
Christology deals with the identity of Jesus as the Christ. This was and is a most important subject matter to address. The next four ecumenical councils will all be focused on various controversies that arose as the church hammered out this developing understanding of how one was to express this truth that Jesus was both God and man in one person. The first controversy started with Nestorius (381 to 386 – 450), the bishop of Constantinople (428-431). In other words, he was not just any bishop but a bishop of one the five great patriarchal sees (patriarchal bishoprics of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem here given in order of their prominence, influence and authority within the ancient church). These five were the big hitters; they were the patriarchal bishoprics over all the other bishops in their see, and these five patriarchs appointed all the bishops underneath them.
As part of the general understanding of Jesus’ Christology by this time was that Mary was theotokos, “God-bearer” – or as they called her in the church, the mother of God. [See theotokos discussion at Lk 1 43.] The heretic Nestorius objected to this saying you should not call Mary the mother of God but the mother of Christ or the mother of the humanity of the Son of God. Nestorius believed in the Incarnation but his understanding of the Incarnation paralleled Gnostic understandings of the Incarnation. He believed not that God became man in Jesus but that “Jesus was a man somehow mysteriously united to God in some special way” but in a way that stopped short of saying “this man was God.”
At a certain point Nestorius began to give sermons and write things like this in propounding his views. Nestorius’ understanding of the relationship of the divine and human natures in Christ was that Jesus was a man united to God in some mysterious, intimate way, a union that was perfected as Jesus grew from infancy to adulthood. Nestorius contended that Jesus was a man who had been somehow united to God more fully than any other human being ever had been or would be united to God. In other words, Mary had given birth to this baby who was united to God in some intimate way and therefore, of course, it would be inappropriate to call her the mother of God.
Hence, Nestorius was saying something different than was being stated in the Nicene Creed. Nestorius was not saying Jesus was the mystery of the nativity of Jesus, God come in the flesh. Instead, Nestorius was saying that Jesus was in some way, maybe more than a prophet, but like what you might have with a prophet who is someone indwelt and powered by God in some way; Jesus was like that. He was simply a man but united to God.
Although Nestorius said he believed in the Incarnation, he was especially scandalized by the lovely story of Christmas and Jesus’ birth as Lord in a manger and so on. To Nestorius it was scandalous to think that a little gurgling baby could be God, a baby who could not even talk and who was incapable of doing anything for itself. That was impossible in his view.
Other theologians and those in the pews responded by asking him, “Isn’t Jesus God from the moment of his conception in the womb of the virgin Mary?” Nestorius answered disdainfully in this famous quote, “I would never call a three-month old child ‘God’.” According to Nestorius Mary had not given birth to one who is God but to a man who was somehow mysteriously united to God. That is, God was not conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. Thus, for Nestorius there was not a full union in the divine and human natures in Christ; Christ was a man, and Mary had given birth to a man who was in some way united to God but not in such a way that you can say she had given birth to God. For Nestorius Jesus was not God come in the flesh. Instead, Mary had given birth to a man who was in some mysterious way united to God, and that union grew as Jesus grew to adulthood. This view of the relationship of the divine and human natures in Christ became known as Nestorianism.
Of course, this created another tumultuous controversy which was the controversy addressed in our third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431.
(3) the Council of Ephesus in 431 (the third ecumenical council)
It was at the Council of Ephesus in 431 that the church instead said that Nestorius was missing the wonderful truth and mystery of the Incarnation. Nestorianism was rejected.
Nestorius had done the same thing that Arius had done; he had denied that God had truly become flesh.
Nestorius had done something like what the Gnostics had done; he had denied that the Son of God had become truly human.
Nestorius had denied that Mary could be called the mother of God incarnate.
From all these things we see that Nestorianism fell far short of a true belief of the Incarnation.
Cyril of Alexandria (376-44), the patriarch of Alexandria (412-444), wrote extensively and was a leading protagonist in the Christological controversies of the fifth century. He was a central figure in the Council of Ephesus in 431, which led to the deposition of Nestorius as Patriarch of Constantinople. He was the most important patristic theologian leading up to the important Christological definition at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Cyril said there was one person of the Son of God; he was divine and he was human; but he was one person. Christ was not to be thought of as a divine person and that somehow his flesh was extrinsic from his personhood. Through the Incarnation the Son of God had taken on human flesh and had become one person which included both the divine and the human natures. When the Incarnation happened, the one person of the Son of God became in his fully divine personhood fully human, and the human and divine parts were part of that one person.
Cyril of Alexandria was very important in the development of the church’s language for Paul’s teaching on the Incarnation that we read about in 1 Cor 8 in which we read 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. Paul said the one person of the Son of God in the womb of the virgin Mary assumed human flesh. Humanity was taken into God. God had assumed flesh in the womb of the virgin in such as way that Jesus’ mother Mary was the mother of God – theotokos. Contrary to the understanding of Nestorius, that was the big dogmatic declaration from the Council of Ephesus in 431.
The fathers of the Council of Ephesus in 431 unanimously said good Pauline theology was that Mary did indeed conceive in her womb the eternal Son of God who had assumed human flesh in her womb. Therefore, the very moment Jesus was conceived, he was truly God being made human. It was this ultimate mystery. He was God made human in the mystery of the Incarnation.
In doing so the Council was safeguarding this Pauline teaching of the Incarnation. This child conceived in Mary was truly God come in human flesh. Both the humanity and the divinity of Jesus were part of one person, and Mary was the mother of that one person who was both Son of God and Son of Man. Mary was the mother of God. Everything else in Paul’s thought and theology flowed from the Incarnation which was crucially central.
In other words, Ephesus affirmed that Jesus was not merely a man somehow united to God. Instead, that baby born of the virgin Mary was God. Jesus was God come in the flesh. He was God become human; Jesus was one person, the Son of God who had now become human.
Hence, it was the finding of this Council that that baby in the manger was and is God. In other words, not only had Mary given birth to Jesus, to which Nestorius would agree, and not only had Mary given birth to Christ, to which Nestorius would also agree, but, according to the Council of Ephesus in 431 Mary had given birth to God, to which Nestorius did not agree. The Council affirmed that God had become a man. Mary was the mother of God. Therefore, with Jesus’ birth from the virgin Mary you could talk about Mary as the mother of God incarnate (theotokos). [See theotokos discussion at Lk 1 43.] Hence, at Ephesus the council gave this theological definition of Mary as the mother of God in order to safeguard the true divinity of Christ. He was truly God, not some lesser being united to God. Jesus was God. So we call Mary the mother of God because the Incarnation was an event in history. And in that Incarnation the Son of God took on human flesh and, therefore, Mary was the mother of God. That is, if you disbelieve that Mary was the mother of God, you disbelieve the Incarnation and you are not Christian in the sense of “biblical fourfold story Christianity”.
This was one of the central phrases of the controversy because Nestorius refused to call Mary the mother of God. The Council of Ephesus, however, agreed that Mary was the mother of God incarnate and that Jesus was fully God. Jesus had two natures, divine and human, but they were united in one person in such a way that this person was both God and man (the hypostatic union). There was never a time when you could say, “This is Jesus the human being but he is not God.” Or, there was never a time you could say, “This is Jesus who is God but he is not a human being.” Jesus was both; he was both fully God and fully man.
Clearly the idea here was that Jesus was the everlasting Son of God and he was so without beginning and without end. Jesus’ human nature had begun with his Incarnation – when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary as the Nicene Creed says. That one who was conceived in her womb was immediately at conception God. The one conceived was Jesus who was both God and man. The one to whom she gave birth was Jesus who was both God and man. So the Council of Ephesus in 431 said you could not stop short – as Nestorius had – and say that the virgin Mary was the mother of Christ or the mother of Jesus but not the mother of God. Instead, Mary was truly the mother of God because the one she conceived and the one to whom she gave birth was God. Therefore, at this Council of Ephesus in 431 Nestorius was removed from his bishopric because he didn’t believe fully in the divinity of Christ.
So we see here historically within the Church that Mary should be called the mother of God. As such, Orthodox, Catholic and some Protestant Christians very frequently talk about Mary as the mother of God. Other Christians avoid that.
What we should see from this discussion is what is actually meant when Christians use the phrase mother of God. Unfortunate, some modern theologians are easily confused about what that means. To say “Mary was the mother of God” is not to say that God can begin God’s existence at some point in time. It’s not to say that Mary was prior to God. It’s not to say that Mary was somehow divine. It’s not to say that Mary could have given birth to the divine nature, that she could have given birth to God in the sense of God coming into existence. It’s not meant to say anything directly about Mary at all in spite of some “theologians” who say so. Of course, it does say something about Mary but the point of the Council was to say something about who Jesus was. And when theologians lose sight of that insight, they get off on wrong trajectories in the blink of an eye. Not good.
And, therefore, the Council was affirming that the human being borne of Mary was God incarnate. Hence, to say “Mary was the mother of God” is to make a Christological statement about Jesus which says that the child conceived in her womb was God from the get go and therefore she was the mother of God. Jesus was nothing less than God come in the flesh. Jesus was God incarnate.
Mary, in fact, was the one chosen to give birth to the one who entered into the world as God. From the moment of conception through the power of the Holy Spirit that was God there in Mary’s womb. The one to whom she gave birth was actually God come in the flesh. Jesus was not a human being that somehow God inhabited or who was in some way indwelt by God as Nestorius had proffered. No! Not at all! Instead, Jesus was truly God who, out of grace and mercy to save humankind and to renew all things, had willed himself to be born into this world as a human being. So Mary is to be called the mother of God. Mary had conceived and given birth to the one who was truly God. Mary was the mother of God incarnate. So those traditions which frequently say “Mary was the mother of God incarnate” are saying “Jesus was and is fully God”. That’s why this understanding of theotokos is so important. It goes directly to whom Jesus is – God in the flesh!
Following the Council of Ephesus the next controversy began with Eutyches. It seems like each of these controversies found some way in which you could go wrong about how you thought, taught or preached about the two natures of Christ. In response to these controversies as they arose, all of these seven ecumenical councils reaffirmed the truth of the Incarnation.
Eutyches thought through this issue of how Jesus’ divine and human natures were related. He definitely wanted to avoid Nestorianism with which he disagreed, but he seems to have been confused. It’s not clear what he was trying to say but the gist of it seems to be that Jesus did not have two natures, divine and human, but instead, according to Eutyches, these two natures were fused into a third nature! That is, according to Eutyches, Jesus’ person was a fusion of the divine and human natures producing a new, third nature. He argued that the two natures of Jesus were united in such a way that there was this fusion of the two. Using Eutyches’ logic, if there was a fusion, and the two natures had fused into another nature, then Jesus was no longer God and Jesus was not true man either. He was something in between. He was neither God nor man.
In other words, God was born into the world as a human being and when that happened, he had ceased to be God and have a divine nature – at least according to Eutyches. It ceased because he was united with the divine nature to have a true human nature. It was a nature that was sort of an amalgamation, a fusion of the two, not a fusion in the sense of a full union – that this one person was God and man – but a fusion in such a way that you could no longer say that this person was God because this person had become a new nature uniting God and humanity. Further, you could not say this person was human because they had become a new person uniting human and divine natures. So in Eytyches’s mind it was a third nature, a third nature that was not God and man but a fusion of the two which was something different. Therefore, in Eutyches’s theology Jesus was neither God nor man.
What about updating the Creed from now on? Are we going to change it every time a controversy arises?
By this time in the whole process of these Councils this question was being asked. After all they had just updated the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Would they just keep doing this as further controversies came along? No. By the third ecumenical council – the Council of Ephesus in 431 – the decision was made that they would not formulate a new Creed every time a council came together to deal with new issues. Instead, they would formulate new definitions and statements to pinpoint the meaning of those creeds and scripture in order to guard against heresies. However, these definitions were not something you would put into a Creed.
This decision at Ephesus was a very wise and spirit-led decision because otherwise our Creed would have become astronomically large and impossible to say during a worship service. So the decision was made that there was but the one Creed. Therefore, when new heresies would arise, the church would stand against those heresies with the decisions of the ecumenical councils. So the subsequent Councils would no longer formulate new creeds but they would instead present further statements or definitions of the words and understandings already held in the Nicene Creed itself.
Historically, there have been no ecumenical councils since the seventh Council at Nicaea in 787 because of the tragic division within the church. Without unity of the patriarchs you cannot even have an ecumenical council.
So the response to Eutyches came swiftly at the fourth council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
(4) the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (the fourth ecumenical council)
The Council of Chalcedon was one of the richest Councils and probably the most important Council following Nicaea. At Chalcedon we had this wonderful development of thought and theology. Some theologians had been focusing on two wrong and opposite ways of viewing the union of the divine and human natures. Nestorianism was still around just as it had been at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Nestorius said there was no true union and therefore Jesus was not truly God come in the flesh. On the other hand, Eutychus said there was a union in such a way that Jesus was no longer God or man. Instead, according to Eutychus, Jesus was some third nature because of this fusion thing.
Both Nestorius and Eutyches were rejected at Chalcedon. Nestorius had divided the two natures so that God had not really become man in Christ. Eutyches had taken the opposite mistaken position and said the two natures were so united that the two natures no longer existed. Jesus was neither God nor man. So the Council of Chalcedon in 451 rejected both Nestorius and Eutyches.
In line with what had been decided at Ephesus regarding the formulation of new definitions and statements regarding the faith, out of Chalcedon we get the famous “Chalcedonian Definition”. To this day the Chalcedon Definition still plays a crucial role within Christian theological thought and reflection on Christology and Jesus’ person. Both Nestorius and Eutychus had rejected the two natures of Christ. Nestorius had said Jesus only had the one nature, that of man, but somehow he had this God-relatedness. Eutyches had said Jesus was neither God nor man but a fusion of the two. Against the mistakes of Eutyches and Nestorius, the Chalcedon Definition famously said, “in Christ the two natures, divine and human, are united without change, without confusion, without division, without separation.” There you go! A wonderful summary.
The first two prepositional phrases – without change, without confusion – were directed at Eutyches who said there was this fusion in which Jesus was no longer God and no longer man. In the Incarnation Jesus did not cease to be God. The point of the Incarnation according to the Council was that although he became true man, he did not cease to be God. So Chalcedon confirmed that with this incredible miracle in which God became man, he did not cease to be God. The two natures were united without change, without confusion.
The next two prepositional phrases – they were united in one person, Christ, without division, without separation – were directed against Nestorius. Jesus was one person with two natures.
All the seven ecumenical councils are important but of all of them the Council of Nicea in 325 is the most important, as you might imagine. Second in importance to the Council of Nicea in 325 would be the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Interestingly the Council of Chalcedon in 451 suffered the same immediate fate that the Council of Nicea in 325 did in that there was a great reaction against it immediately afterwards.
the monophysite controversy
Monophysite means one nature.
The irony here is that this Chalcedonian Definition gave rise to a great reaction to the Chalcedonian Definition and a new controversy called the “monophysite controversy” – which again was about the two natures of Christ. If you love abstruse theological terms, questions and thinking, you are going to love this discussion.
Because of its depth, we’ll not discuss this controversy in class. That said, if any of you actually do read this section and have questions about the monophysite controversy, I’ll gladly help clear those questions up for you!
First, once again with this controversy, just like in the earlier controversies during the time of the Arian reaction, there appeared to be a confusion of terms at the heart of things, a confusion over the Greek word fu,sij which is transliterated as physis and pronounced as f sis and which means nature. In other words, people who really believed the same thing often didn’t understand that they believed the same thing as some others believed because there was this confusion of terms between the two groups. That was especially the case here with the monophysite controversy.
At Chalcedon they talked about Christ’s two natures – physis – in his one person. Discussion about the two natures of Christ was sometimes ambiguous because there were two different ways you could understand the word physis: sense “A” and sense “B” shown below.
“A” nature ( physis ) = ousia ( meaning nature, essence, substance ) Chalcedon
“B” nature ( physis ) = hypostasis ( meaning person ) Nestorius
physis could mean the same as ousia, an important term we saw before. Everyone agreed that this was to be used to refer to nature or essence. Or,
physis could be used the same as hypostasis or person. They had already worked out that distinction between ousia and hypostasis, but they had not worked out how you were to use physis.
The Chalcedonians had used, and meant to use, physis in the sense of ousia, that is, to mean nature or essence. So their use of physis made perfect sense because they were saying that there were in the one person of Christ two distinct natures, two essences, divine and human, united without change, without confusion, without division, without separation in one person. The Chalcedonian Definition.
However, what if where you lived, especially in the east, where the people used the word physis to mean person as we see in “B” above? Let’s say you lived a long way from Chalcedon and in your area people used physis to mean person. What would you think was going on when someone talked about the two natures of Christ? What would you have thought they were saying? You would have thought that they were saying that Jesus was two persons! They would be saying that Christ had a split personality! – which sounds like Nestorius where you somehow had God floating around Jesus in some way. Nestorius talked about the Son of God and then there was the human being Jesus and they were separate. There was not a true Incarnation in Nestorian thinking.
So we see here that they hadn’t worked out all the vocabulary yet, in this case, the meaning and usage of the word physis.
Because of this difference in the understanding of the word physis, those Nicene orthodox type believers who understood and used physis as meaning person (“B”) thought that Chalcedon was a heretical Nestorian council that was denying that Jesus was one person and that the Chalcedonians were instead saying there were two persons – not two natures or two essences BUT two persons, dividing the person as if there was no Incarnation! When you understand the meaning of physis as the Chalcedonians did, that physis meant nature, and not person, you would have known that the Chalcedonians had a proper understanding of the two natures of Jesus in the one person of the Son. But if your use of physis was that the word meant person, and not nature, then you would have seen the Chalcedonians as heretics (which they would have been because Christ was NOT two persons!). These Nicene type believers thought the Council of Chalcedon was saying there was not one person, both God and man, but two persons.
Those who rejected the Chalcedonian Definition because they understood the word physis as meaning hypostasis – person – were called monophysites, meaning “one who believes in (only) one person of Christ”. They used nature in the sense of person and so they rightly said there was one person. They said “we are Christians and we believe there is one person of Christ.” The Chacedonians also believed there was one person of Christ. It was just that the two groups were using the terms differently. They had the same theology but they were using the terms differently.
The monophysites never believed there was just the one nature in Christ. They believed that Christ had two natures, that Christ was fully God and fully man – the divine and human natures. Still, this distinction, this confusion in the way the terms were used led to this great controversy in which these monophysites rejected the Council of Chalcedon largely because there was this confusion in terms. They thought the Council of Chalcedon was denying that there was one person of Christ and claiming that there were actually two persons in Christ. So they rejected the Council of Chalcedon which resulted in the monophysite schism of 451. See chronology chart.
Therefore, it was not by chance that we have both the Council of Chalcedon and the monophysite schism occurring in 451 because Chalcedon actually gave rise to the schism. Bishops, especially in the East, in Egypt, in Syria and Ethiopia and Armenia rejected Chalcedon because they were convinced that Chalcedon had, like Nestorius, denied the unity of the person and had denied the true Incarnation. As a result of the schism for the first time in places like Alexandria you had not one but two bishops! – the Chalcedonian bishop and the bishop who rejected Chalcedon.
This group does so to this very day! This group of churches that broke away from the other Orthodox Christians are to this day called the Oriental Orthodox because they are especially the Orthodox in the far east and so on. See chronology chart.
Oriental Orthodox are also called monophysite Christians because monophysite means one physis – and the monophysites use physis to mean person. Jesus is but one person and not two is their understanding, just as it is with the Chalcedonian Christians. The more correct term to use would be Oriental Orthodox because the Oriental Orthodox object to the term monophysite.
Following Chalcedon we get this movement led by this group of theologians known as the Neo-Chalcedonians. There is a lot of misunderstanding and bad blood with many thinking those at Chalcedon were a bunch of heretics because they believed that Chalcedon had said there were two persons in Christ. On the other hand, the people at Chalcedon didn’t understand why these others couldn’t understand there were two natures of Christ and so on. So you had one side thinking they were Nestorians and the other side thinking the other side was following the views of Eutyches and so on. The Neo-Chalcedonians consisted of bishops, teachers, presbyters, and pastors; they saw that there was really terminological confusion at the heart of this controversy and they tried to affect a reconciliation.
That comes about at the fifth ecumenical council, the Council of II Constantinople in 553.
(5) the Council of II Constantinople in 553 (the fifth ecumenical council)
The Council of II Constantinople was a “peace” council meant first of all to heal this terminological misunderstanding that had led to the schism and secondly to bring the Oriental Orthodox back into union with other Orthodox Christians. At this Council Chalcedon was confirmed and Origenism was rejected. [Origenism was a form of Gnosticism propagated by the theologian Origen. It’s discussed below.]
Chalcedon was confirmed. What the Council of Chalcedon in 451 had formulated was confirmed at Constantinople in 553. But it was confirmed in such a way as to try and bring on board those – the monophysites – who had that misunderstanding because of the term physis. The Chalcedonian Definition was confirmed and further defined as they tried to clear up many misunderstandings. This monophysite controversy was mediated by saying Chalcedon was expressing the true biblical, orthodox, Christian faith. It addressed the misunderstanding of terms which was at the heart of the controversy.
This Council was, in fact, largely successful in bringing unity between many Chalcedonian and Oriental Orthodox Christians. Once they understood they were saying the same thing, and in spite of the difference in terminology, they could then have unity was the understanding at the Council. The Oriental Orthodox actually believed the same thing as did the Chalcedonians; they were just putting it differently because they were using the word physis differently. The Chalcedonian Christians were using physis to mean Jesus’ two natures, and the Oriental Orthodox Christians were using it to mean person which meant, to them, that the Chalcedonians meant two persons. However, they both had the same theology of Jesus both fully God and fully man.
Still, there were some holdouts, again especially in the East – some of the Egyptians, Ethiopians, the Armenian bishops and so on – who continued to reject Chalcedon, and they do so to this very day. In other words, although many of the Oriental Orthodox had come to understand that it was just a terminological issue, some said they were still suspicious that the Council of Chalcedon was supporting Nestorius. They thought that in order to be faithful to Christ they had to reject Chalcedon. So, bringing this controversy forward to the present time, the Oriental Orthodox of today accept only the first three councils: Council of Nicaea in 325; Council of Constantinople in 381; and Council of Ephesus in 431. But they do not accept the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Recent theological discussions between Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Christians on the one hand and Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians on the other hand have once again confirmed that the misunderstanding was only terminological. In these dialogues it’s become very clear that all of them share the same faith; it’s just that there is this difference in terminology. The Oriental Orthodox are talking about one person of Christ just as the Chalcedonian Christians are. They’ve been separated for all these centuries but when they started talking, they realized there were talking about the same thing. They all have shared the same faith as the Chalcedonian bishops and the rest of the church but there had been this misunderstanding in terminology in which they thought the Council of Chalcedon in 451 was saying something that the Council actually was not saying. What had kept them apart was this misunderstanding of how the word physis was being used. This, of course, had led to the schism. Once they agreed to use the terms in the same way, they found they were in agreement.
A reunion of the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox on the one hand and the Catholic and the Oriental Orthodox appears to be on the horizon. Many observers now believe that there is nothing standing in the way of a reunification of the Oriental Orthodox with both the Catholics and the Orthodox Church. After all these centuries of misunderstanding there may one day an actual reunion between these churches. In fact, they’ve had joint worship services and that sort of thing.
Something being under-reported by the media is that it is these Oriental Orthodox Christians, as well as some Orthodox, who are being currently persecuted to the point of mass genocide in Egypt by Islamic extremists and others. Egypt and Syria are the strongholds of the Oriental Orthodox Christians.
Origenism was also rejected at this council. Origen was this great orthodox theologian in many respects but he had become influenced by Gnosticism with respect to his views of the resurrection. Hence, Origen waffled on the resurrection from the dead which he said was not a physical body of flesh and bones that had been raised but a body composed of spirit, a so-called spiritual body. [Origen misunderstood Paul’s language in 1 Cor 15.]
Hence, at this Council Origen’s denial of the renewal and restoration of all Creation was emphatically rejected. That is, similarly, just as was done with the eventual Apostles’ Creed, in order to counter the Gnostic teaching, this Council talked about not just the resurrection of the body but the resurrection of the flesh. Of course, the Gnostics denied the resurrection altogether. Origen’s attempt at a mediating solution which said that it was only a spiritual resurrection of a spiritual body was emphatically rejected, and the Council reaffirmed the true, physical, fleshly resurrection of the body and the renewal and restoration of all Creation to come.
(6) the Council of III Constantinople in 680 (the sixth ecumenical council)
By this point the key Christological controversies had been already hammered out. The Council of Ephesus in 431 had rejected Nestorianism. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 had formulated the Chalcedonian Definition, steering between Nestorianism and Eutychianism. The Council of II Constantinople 553 had confirmed Chalcedon.
We should also notice that with each of these controversies, they not only responded to the controversies but they also further developed Christian teaching – Christian dogma. This was not development in the sense of you had “A” and then you developed that in “B” but it was development that allowed you to understand “A” more fully. There was development in our understanding of how rightly to talk about the two natures of Christ and of how not to do that. There was a deepening of our understanding of the scriptural teaching of the Incarnation of Jesus. For instance, we had the Chalcedonian Definition which helped us understand that better.
One further Christological controversy arose having to do with Jesus’ human power of will. In other words, another place that cried out for understanding centered on the question, “Was Jesus fully human in every way or was there some way in which because of the Incarnation Jesus was fully God but not quite fully human?” “And, if Jesus was fully human, did he also have the human power of desire and will or were those replaced by the divine will?” These were very recondite (profound, hard to answer) questions with which the fathers of the Church had to deal.
In this regard one view that cropped up was to first of all acknowledge that Jesus was fully human. Then, knowing that to be fully human meant that human beings not only had bodies but that they also had souls, minds and the power of will, some theologians said Jesus was fully human except he did not have the human power of willing. These theologians proffered that Jesus’ human will had to have been replaced by the divine will. This understanding led to what was called the monothelite (meaning one will) controversy. The monothelite position argued for just the one will in Jesus, and that will was the divine will. That is, the monothelite position was that Jesus was God in every way but that he had no human will.
Also, as we’ve seen already, the Roman Empire, and the powers that be, were sometimes on the side of what became the orthodox councils but sometimes they were not. Most often they just wanted the theologians to stop their bickering and stop creating these controversies and just be at peace. Again, there was a period when the imperial authorities decided, and very reasonably so, that this was a rather recondite controversy so why do we just not bother with this? Why don’t we all just get along? Let’s just not make a big deal out of this. However, in this situation the power of the imperial state was aligned in favor of the monothelite position and against the correct thinking of many Christian (catholic and orthodox) bishops and writers who understood the core theological importance of what was in question.
Fortunately, there were wonderful theological works written at this point contradicting this “Jesus didn’t have a human will” position, and the most famous writer of all was Maximus the Confessor ( c. 580 – August 13, 662), a monk in Jerusalem, who wrote extensively on this issue defending the concept that Jesus had a true human will. His title Confessor here means he suffered for the Christian faith but he was not directly martyred.
He not only strongly argued that Jesus had a true human will but he pointed out that Jesus having a true human will was crucial for salvation.
Maximus made the point that if in any way Jesus was not fully human, if he did not have everything that belonged to being a human, not only a human body but a human soul, a human mind and a human power of will, then Jesus would not have been fully human. Further, if Jesus had not conquered sin and death not only as God but also as man, then his redemption would be meaningless. Then Jesus’ struggle in the Garden where he said, not my will but your be done, would have been meaningless. Therefore, Maximus argued that if Jesus was not fully human, then Jesus could not have been the redeemer of the world. Jesus had to be fully human in every way possible for him to be able to redeem lost humanity. For instance, Maximus famously said, “Whatever Christ has not assumed, he has not redeemed.” Sharp man this Maximus!
For instance, remember the Gnostics who said that Jesus never assumed a human body; it just seemed to be human. That’s docetism. Someone like Maximus would say “well, if Jesus has not assumed our human body, then how can he rise from the dead and conquer death for us?” Again, “Whatever Christ has not assumed, he has not redeemed.”
Other quotes include:
“Let yourself die while striving, rather than living in laziness. For those who die while trying to keep the commandments are just as much martyrs as those who died for Christ’s sake.”
“Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God.”
“You should know that you have been greatly benefitted when you have suffered deeply because of some insult or indignity; for by means of the indignity self-esteem has been driven out of you.”
“When you are insulted by someone or humiliated, guard against angry thoughts, lest they arouse a feeling of irritation, and so cut you off from love and place you in the realm of hatred.”
“If God suffers in the flesh when He is made man, should we not rejoice when we suffer, for we have God to share our sufferings? This shared suffering confers the kingdom on us. For he spoke truly who said, ‘If we suffer with Him, then we shall also be glorified with Him’ (Ro 8 17).”
“Nothing created by God is evil. It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. It is only the misuse of things that is evil, not the things themselves.”
Maximus the Confessor and other theologians saw in this monothelite controversy a very subtle form of Gnosticism in which Jesus was not fully human after all. For instance, according to the monothelites, when Jesus was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed to the Father, “Let this cup pass from me. Not what I will but what you will,” this was just a charade.
However, in Maximus’ dramatic recounting of the Garden of Gethsemane event, Jesus’ agony was a true agony and testing in which for the salvation of all he had to conquer not only in his divine will but Jesus also had to conquer in his human will. In other words, it was not only as God but also as man that Jesus brought about human redemption as he went to the cross for us. Maximus said that in order for Jesus to be fully human, he had to have a human power of will. It was crucial for our Christian faith that Jesus did have a true power of human will.
That was very controversial because these were quite abstruse theological questions.
So Maximus was sent into exile when the monothelites were in control and the imperial forces were weighted in the monothelite’s favor. Also, the emperor commanded Maximus to stop writing about these matters because his writings were stirring up people and creating controversies. The emperor was, in effect, commanding, “Don’t talk about how there are two wills in Christ. Don’t talk about how Christ has a true human will and a divine will. Don’t talk about how they work together as he wills as one person for our salvation.”
On the other hand, Maximus could not stop preaching and teaching about the truth of Scripture. He believed it was crucial to the faith that Jesus have a true human power of will in order for Jesus to be truly human and for the Incarnation to be complete. It was a core theological point and Maximus could not stop writing about it. So the emperor had Maximus brought from the monastery and recalled him to Constantinople in 662 where Maximus was put on trial. In the end, Maximus’s right hand was cut off so he could no longer write about this and his tongue was cut out so he could no longer speak about it. Maximus died shortly thereafter in exile in 662, but through his work the view of Maximus later prevailed at the Council of Constantinople III in 680.
So Maximus said, “Whatever Christ has not assumed, he has not redeemed.” This was affirmed at this sixth ecumenical council which promulgated that there were (and are) two powers of will – one human and one divine – in Christ acting as one. In other words, not only did Jesus have the divine will but he also had this human power of will that all humans have. Jesus was fully human including the human power of will that belongs to being fully human. Further, Christ’s divine and human wills work together as one. That is, the two act together with his divine nature because he’s one person acting as one person.
Therefore, just as the Council of Constantinople in 381 had vindicated Athanasius, here the third council at Constantinople vindicated Maximus the Confessor.
So we see these fine points of theology were worked out in the midst of the blood, sweat and tears on the part of those who were involved. Once again, you see this as a nice development of dogma and clarification of the recondite theological issues. But this was all accomplished in the midst of controversy, oppression and violence with the imperial forces who were here in this case once again on the side of the monothelites and against someone like Maximus the Confessor.
(7) the Council of II Nicaea in 787 (the seventh ecumenical council)
So the first of the seven ecumenical councils was at Nicaea and the last of the seven was there as well. At the core of the call for this seventh Council was the iconoclastic controversy which had begun in 726 and which lasted until 843. Only eventually did the iconoclastic controversy die out.
An icon is an image, picture, painting or statue of Christ, of various biblical figures or of one the saints. Icons had adorned the churches from the very beginning but by 726 iconoclasm (the rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical) had begun to rachet up. Then, in 730 things had really become inflamed. There was a growing movement which contended that these images of Christ and of the saints were inappropriate. This movement contended that it was wrong to have a picture of Christ. So you had these people called the iconoclasts who wanted to destroy the images. The word iconoclastic means breaking these images.
The iconoclastic movement became stronger and stronger and ultimately led to this council in 787. There was probably a big relationship to the Muslim conquests taking place because the Muslim faith was also strongly against images. So Christian theologians began to wonder whether or not it was right for Christianity to have its images. So in 730 the emperor declared that all icons of Christ were outlawed. All icons were to be removed from the churches and systematically destroyed. Those refusing to destroy or give up their images and pictures of Christ were viciously persecuted. Were one not to comply with the emperor, they would experience the most terrible, violent penalties including death.
The key theologian involved in this was John of Damascus 676-754 (See chart.) who wrote the famous work which summarized the Christian faith, On the Orthodox Faith. John of Damascus argued that not only was it OK to have images of Christ, but that it was un-Christian to demand that one not have an image of Christ. John of Damascus went back to scripture and looked at the second commandment: You shall make no graven images. John said that God was not like the idols of the nations; God was the ever living God; he was not flesh but spirit. God therefore could not be depicted; he could not be imaged; and there could be no images of God.
However, John of Damascus said that although the OT says you shall have no images of God, now, between that time in the OT and now had since come the great event of the history of the whole cosmos, the Incarnation. In other words, God had become visible in Christ. Everything had changed with the Incarnation. As you all know by now, the Incarnation was, in fact, at the heart of all of these ecumenical councils.
God was truly human, and if he was truly human, you could have an image of Christ. With the Incarnation of Christ the invisible God became visible. The God who could not be depicted became a human being who, by nature, if you were a true human being, could be now seen!!! You could be painted; you could be depicted. The Incarnation of Christ had changed everything. So it was not only correct to make icons of Jesus but it would also be wrong not to make these icons because Jesus could be pictured because Jesus was fully human! If Jesus were not fully human, he could not have been pictured.
Therefore, John of Damascus and the other supporters of the proper use of images argued that if you say you cannot have an image of Christ, for example, a statue of Christ or have pictures of Christ’s resurrection in a Sunday school book or have a picture of Jesus in your home, if you argue you could not have these things, you were, therefore, ultimately denying the reality of Christ’s human nature. And if you were doing that, you were denying the reality of the Incarnation!!! Ouch!
In other words, the theological foundation of all icons of Jesus was the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! They are also related to the Christian theology of Creation because they show the goodness of created things. In other words, it was not bad to make an icon of Jesus; it was a good thing. That is, now that God had come incarnate in the flesh, now that God had become visible in Christ, we should make icons of him as aids to worship. Now that Christ’s Spirit and power were at work in the Church leading us to great holiness of life and to the great heroes of the faith, it was more than permissible to make pictures of those heroes and to venerate those icons if one so desired.
As such, John of Damascus said to deny icons was nonsense because Jesus was not only God but he was God and man. He was the God-Man, and therefore Jesus could and should be depicted. In fact, if you did not depict him, you were somehow denying the Incarnation. Pictures and statues of Jesus were wonderful because Jesus was not just God; Jesus was God and man. He was the invisible God become visible.
Further, worship was, and is, due only to God alone. To worship even the holiest of saints, for example, Peter or Paul, you have denied the faith and you have become nor more than any other disbelieving pagan. It’s only God who is due worship. Still, we can give respect, regard and veneration to angels, to all the saints such as Peter and Paul and to Mary the theotokos, and we can do that through a variety of icons be they pictures, statues, paintings, stained glass windows, images or whatever. But we are to never worship these icons. Never!
We are not to worship pictures or statues of Jesus even though these images are acceptable aids to worship. We worship Jesus, not the image of Jesus, but we can have these images of Jesus because God had become visible in Christ. This helps explain the misunderstanding about icons shown by some of the reformers during the Reformation and since that time as demonstrated by the absence of icons in many denominations’ sanctuaries.
As did the theologians at the Council of II Nicaea in 787, John of Damascus made this important distinction between veneration and worship [ proskune,w ], a distinction which has been important ever since in Christian theology.
Veneration is the honor and respect you give to an image of Christ or to the saints as a follower of Christ. So you can give great veneration to an image of Christ; you can honor and venerate the saints – John the Baptist, Mary, etc. – but you can never worship these images. Worship was to be given to God alone.
Hence, in the misunderstanding of the iconoclasts, they argued that if you venerated or honored an icon of Christ or the saints, it was the same thing as worshiping that image. On the other hand, the supporters of the icons argued for this distinction between veneration and worship. You were to only worship God, but you could venerate the icons; you could use and venerate the images of Christ and of the saints and so forth.
Once again, in this anti-Gnostic sort of move John of Damascus argued that images show also the goodness of created things. Therefore, you can use material like paint and wood and cloth to make images of Christ, and that was good a proper because now Christ had entered into Creation and had redeemed all created things. Thus, he argued, if you say you can’t make an image of Christ, you are ultimately not fully grasping and understanding the Incarnation.
And so, the iconoclastic viewpoint was rejected at this seventh ecumenical council but only after much courage and bloodshed. Hence, the Council of Nicaea II stated that God alone was due worship, but images were acceptable aids to worship because God had become visible in Christ. The Incarnation.
the authority of the seven Councils for Christians today [See ecumenical councils chart above]
The seven ecumenical councils were received differently by different Christians depending on their take in the Christian theological paradigm and how it functions within their denomination. The Christian theological paradigm functions in two ways within Christianity:
Orthodox – Catholic theological paradigm and
the Protestant theological paradigm.
In the Orthodox – Catholic paradigm you come with the seven ecumenical councils and the Bible already pre-made together. They are built in together from the start. You say the Church through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, through the guidance of Christ himself, had these seven ecumenical councils that have said you cannot talk about the Incarnation like Nestorius did. You cannot believe that Jesus was just a creature and not fully God. So the seven ecumenical councils, together with the Creed, …
The sources of theological authority for the Orthodox – Catholic paradigm are: scripture; Creed and Magisterium. The bishops assembled under the guidance of the Holy Spirit along with the seven ecumenical councils are of authority. You read scripture in light of these councils.
That’s why Catholic and Orthodox Christians accept these seven ecumenical councils.
The difference is that the Greek Orthodox accept these first 7 ecumenical councils and only these 7 because they are the councils occurring before the division in 1054. You cannot have an ecumenical council until the church is reunited. There are some other reasons as well.
The Roman Catholic Church also accept these first 7 ecumenical councils but, in addition, they also accept the 14 other councils that occurred in the West after the division in 1054. So the Roman Catholic Church accept a total of 21 Councils. Still, among Catholics these first 7 are by far the most important of the 21 councils.
As for the Protestants, the great majority of them accept all 7 of the ecumenical councils. The operating Christian theological paradigm for Protestants is Scripture alone. Scripture is your only authority. As such, the Protestants accept the 7 ecumenical councils because they believe that everything the 7 ecumenical councils say is scriptural. So, on that basis, these Protestants accept the 7 ecumenical councils.
There is a difference stemming from the hermeneutical / theological difference between Catholics and Protestants. Orthodox and Catholics accept these councils as authoritative in their own right. They have divine authority because to them the Holy Spirit led the Church to define things in this way. So there is a different understanding of how their authority works but both Catholic and Protestant accept the authority of these 7 ecumenical councils.
The Oriental Orthodox only accept Councils I, II, and III. However, this may change now that the Orientals are talking with the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church.