The Council Of Nicaea And Christmas- What Child Is This Anyway?
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
Peace In Rome Brings Other Problems
The world was finally at peace. Constantine had defeated his rival and taken the helm of the Empire. As Emperor, he ended the persecution of the Church and professed faith in Christ. The new “Christian era” could begin now. So far, so good, right? Well, kind of.
It would not be easy. Once the persecutions were over, it was now safe to profess faith in Christ publicly. In fact, confessing Christ publicly even became “the thing to do” no matter what you believed or how you lived. The Church now had before it an enormous task of discipling the faithful and disciplining the unrepentant. In many ways, during this transition period, the Church failed. But at one crucial point, through some heated discussion and debate… the Church got it right.
The story begins in Egypt, in the city of Alexandria. An elder there, Arius, began to preach his own revision of who Jesus Christ was. Arius was a rationalist. He wanted a God who made sense to human reason. Earlier, the Christian gospel had denounced the polytheism of the pagan world. Well and good. But the Church insisted that the Father was God and that Christ, the Son, was also God. But that’s two gods. That’s polytheism, Arius argued. And so Arius soon campaigned vigorously for what he believed to be an unflinching monotheism.
The Arian Jesus
Arius insisted that there is only one God, the Father. He believed the Father alone is eternal and uncreated. He also believed the Father is wholly unlike anything in the created world. But like the God of neo-orthodoxy, he is ineffable in his transcendence. To Arius, God the Father is entirely beyond human categories of description: “God himself then in his own nature is ineffable by all men. Equal or like himself he alone has none or one in glory.” So describes Arius in his Thalia, a mixture of prose and poetry that described his theology.
So who is the Son then? Arius said that the Son is the greatest of God’s creatures. He isn’t God, but only the Son of God, and that only by adoption: “The Unbegun made the Son a beginning of things originated, and advanced him as a Son to himself by adoption. He has nothing proper to God in proper subsistence. For he is not equal, no, nor one essence with him.”
The Son, then, for Arius is a temporal and finite creature. He isn’t all knowing. He can’t even comprehend the Father, let alone reveal him to us. Arius said it this way: “To speak in brief, God is ineffable to the Son. For he is to himself what he is, that is, unspeakable. So that nothing which is called comprehensible does the Son know to speak about; for it is impossible for him to investigate the Father, who is by himself.” Arius declared God to be “forever silent.” So much so that not even his Son can describe him. But for Arius, it didn’t stop there.
Arius Opens A Dangerous Door
Arius went further. Since the Son is a created being, it would be possible for God to create other sons or “godlings” as great as Jesus. According to Arius: “One equal to the Son, the Superior is able to beget; but one more excellent, or superior, or greater, he is not able.” Arius believed that God could have many adopted sons, each one less than the perfect revelation of the Father and yet each potentially more relevant culturally or historically than the others.
Arius said he wanted a religion that made sense and yet he placed his version of God beyond any sort of intelligible description. Arius said he wanted a monotheistic religion and yet he opened the door for a plethora of new gods. He wanted clarity in religion but couldn’t bring himself to believe that Scripture was true and infallible. Arius wanted Christianity but abandoned the self-revealing God and the divine Savior. In the end, Arius created a world that did just what he wanted to avoid at all costs. Arius created a world that didn’t make sense.
The Council of Nicaea Meets To Sort it Out
Constantine wanted to ensure the unity of his empire. He knew (as most contemporary leaders don’t) that the roots of social and cultural unity are ultimately religious. A people, an empire, always moves in the name of its true God (Micah 4:5). Constantine knew his empire needed religious as well as political unity. And it was…
With great displeasure that he witnessed the Arian controversy. At first, he tried low-key intervention and diplomacy. It didn’t work. So he tried something new. He called together the first ecumenical council of bishops and presbyters in the history of the Church. Constantine wanted a unified, peaceful empire, and he thought the key was a unified Church.
The Council met at Nicaea in Bithynia. 318 bishops attended. The emperor paid the expenses of all the delegates. He made all the logistical arrangements and was also present at the Council meetings. At a critical moment, he even encouraged the adoption of an objective biblical orthodoxy. And yet he never interfered in the Council’s deliberations or tried to force his own opinions on the Council.
Arius Makes His Pitch
Meanwhile, Arius came to Nicaea along with some of his followers. They insisted that the Son is of a different essence (heteroousion) than the Father. The slightly larger “orthodox party” led by Alexander of Alexandria and Hosius of Spain, insisted that the Son is of one essence (homoousion) with the Father. In other words, Arius’ opponents at the Council declared that the Son is truly divine.
There was also a relatively large middle-of-the-road party, led by the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea. For one reason or another, many of the “middle of the road” bishops were also unwilling to commit to the word homoousion. They preferred the word that differed by one letter… the word homoiousion. It meant “of like essence.” The Son was of like essence with the Father. He was like God. (but not God)
As is often His way, God stirred the pot in such a way as to make compromise untenable. First, Arius spoke to the assembled bishops and made his position very clear: the Son is not deity; he is a mere creature. To his surprise, many of the bishops reacted violently. Including one St. Nicholas of Myra. They would have none of Arius’s ideas. Arius had seriously underestimated the novelty of his position. He also underestimated his ability to convince other bishops with his written arguments.
The Council Of Nicaea Says “Not So Fast”
The Council quickly wrote off Arius’s position as heresy. But they then found it had an even more difficult task. They needed a statement of belief that would cover who Jesus was. They were forced to create an official position on the matter. What words could the council use to draw a sharp line that would place orthodox believers on one side while firmly putting Arius and his followers on the other?
The Council went to great lengths discussing the Scriptural references for the issue. Surely one of them would serve as a litmus test for Christological orthodoxy. Finally, the orthodox bishops “confronted the Arians with the sections of Scriptural which appeared to leave no doubt as to the eternal Godhead of the Son. But to their surprise, they were met with perfect acquiescence on the side of the Arians. The Arians agreed to everything.
As each test for orthodoxy was propounded, the Arians whispered and made hand signals to each other, evidently hinting that each test could be safely accepted, since they had already prepared what they thought were overwhelming responses. The truth was, Arius and his friends had been at this game for a while. They had an explanation of some sort for every passage of Scripture that declared the Son’s eternal deity.
A Clear Expression Is Finally On The Table
On top of that, the Council was still troubled by the word homoousion. It isn’t in Scripture after all. Further, it didn’t have a long history of well-defined use. It seemed they were at an impasse.
About this time, one of Arius’s main supporters, Eusebius of Nicomedia asked to address the Council. He believed that the Arian position was about to lose the debate. Here again, was the hand of God in history. Eusebius’ address was in error.
But here’s the thing: he felt compelled to testify against the orthodox position in the most precise, but the harshest language he could. And so he did. He put it all on the table.
A Shocked Council Responds
The Council was shocked. Finally, the matter was out in the open, and the position was made crystal clear. The orthodox members of Council responded, and in the end, the Council of Nicaea gave us the first form of what we now call the Nicene Creed. It read in part:
We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through whom all things came into being, both in heaven and in earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, becoming human. He suffered, and the third day he rose and ascended into the heavens. And he will come to judge both the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.
Interestingly, in its original form, written in 325, the Council’s decision ended with an anathema, based on Galatians 1:8-9, which is a pronouncement of God’s wrath against anyone who would reject the truth of who Jesus really is:
But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
It would be nice to believe that the Council of Nicaea settled the Christological issue of Jesus’ humanity and deity once and for all. It didn’t. The controversies continued and continue to this day. But the Church, for the first time, had confessed Christ in the clearest possible terms, and later generations would continue to build on that confession:
Jesus is God and the eternal Word of the Father. He is God, come in the flesh… the Saviour of the World.
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