The Nicene Creed and Its Aftermath
[Reference Note: As this article relies primarily on First Three Centuries by Alvan Lamson, page numbers enclosed in parentheses are to Lamson’s book. References to other works are enclosed in parentheses with the work’s title or the author’s name listed in “References” at the end of this article.]
Nicene Creed and Its Aftermath
What did the Council of Nicaea mean when it declared “that the Son was consubstantial with the Father” (p. 332)? It “intended to assert that the Son was ‘in all respects like the Father,’ and, ‘unlike all creatures made by him,’ in opposition to Arius, who maintained that he was a creature, and therefore not strictly divine” (pp. 332-333). Thus, “[i]t expressed, not numerical identity of substance, but sameness of kind. One man is of the same substance or nature with another, as they belong to the same order of beings. So the Son of God is of the same substance with the Father: he partakes, in common with him, of a divine, though not of the same individual, nature. Divine begets divine, as human begets human. The distinction between person and being was unknown to the Fathers: it is a refinement of latter times. The Father and Son had the same specific nature, yet constituted distinct subsistences, persons, beings” (p. 333). Basically, this was the doctrine of the ante-Nicene Fathers, unless by the expression “‘of a different substance,’ which some of them applied to the Son, they mean to teach something more than that he had an individual existence distinct from the Father” (p. 333).
When it condemned Paul of Samosata, the Second Council of Antioch had used the term “consubstantial.” However, the Council rejected it, declaring “that the Son was not consubstantial with the Father” (p. 334).
According to Athanasius, “consubstantial” as used in the Nicene Creed meant that the “ Son has ‘no similitude to creatures, nor is cognate with them’: he is the ‘true offspring of the substance of the Father.’ — ‘The substance of the Father was the beginning, the root, and fountain of the Son, who has a true likeness to Him that begat him; and is not separated from the Father, as we are, by being of a substance foreign to his’” (p. 334). Further, “[o]ne man ‘is of the same nature with another as regards substance.’ But ‘a man and a dog are of different natures: therefore what is of the same nature is consubstantial; what is of a different nature is of another substance,’ or not consubstantial” (p. 334). Thus, “Christ was by birth God, as man is by birth man. There is one species of divinity, as one species of humanity, and, as all men are of the same substance (that is, all human), so the Father and Son are of the same substance (that is, both divine)” (p 335).
The Council of Nicaea did not change the notion of the Son being subordinate to the Father, and, therefore, the Son was not equal to the Father. The doctrine of the Son being subordinate to the Father was maintained until the time of Augustine. (Amazingly, around 400 years [Q&A] were needed for Christians to discover that the Scriptures taught that the Son was eternal and equal to the Father. Obviously, the Trinity Doctrine is not clearly taught by the Scriptures if 400 years are needed to discover it.) The Son was “begotten, dependent, and derived” (p. 336). It maintained the notion that the Father and the Son were two beings.
After the Council of Nicaea issued its decree, orthodoxy began undergoing a real and important change. By introducing the term “consubstantial,” which was “capable of a sense very different from that originally attributed to it by the Platonists and Platonizing Fathers” (p. 336), the Council inadvertently started this change. At the time of the Nicene Creed was adopted, “consubstantial” was “understood to express only specific sameness of nature” (p. 336). Afterwards, it came “to signify individual identity” (p. 336).
The ante-Nicene Fathers taught “the supremacy of the Father, and the real and proper inferiority of the Son, without qualification; making them, in fact, two beings” (p. 336). Moreover, “the Son was voluntarily begotten of the Father before the creation of the world, but not from eternity.” (p. 336-337). Later, the Trinitarians “asserted, not simply an equality of nature between the Father and Son, but their individual and numerical identity; though this was not originally the doctrine of Athanasius, nor of the Church till some time after the middle of the fourth century” (p. 336). Also, according to these later Trinitarians, the Son was necessarily begotten from eternity. By the time that the Athanasian Creed was formulated, Athanasius, the greatest of all the Nicene Fathers, was no longer a Trinitarian in the sense of that Creed.
In response to the accusation that the Council of Nicaea had introduced two Gods, the orthodox Trinitarians initially replied “that they worshipped the one only and true God, who is over all, supreme; that the Son was inferior, another, different, different in essence, the minister of the Father, and in all respects subject to his will, and entitled, therefore, to only inferior homage” (p. 237). When Arians began taking advantage of these arguments, orthodoxy changed its defense. They argued that the Father and the Son “were of one individual essence, and, therefore, there was only one object of supreme worship” (p. 337),
In response to the many passages of Scriptures that calm that the Son is inferior to the Father, “the fiction of the two natures in Jesus Christ was introduced, and then all [the older] difficulties vanished” (p. 337). Thus, the “Son, as God, was co-equal with the Father; as man, he was inferior: as God, he could send; as man, he could be: in his human nature, he could pray to himself in his divine; as man, he could assert that he was ignorant of the day of judgment, which, as God, he knew” (p. 338). (“Controversy had still to settle what had been the conditions of Christ’s human life, and in what relations his humanity stood to his divinity. This was the remarkable conclusion at which the Church arrived, that the two natures were so far united in one person, that it was proper to honour Mary as the mother of God; but that as there were still two natures, it was not necessary to affirm that God was crucified” [p. 337n]).
The Nicene Creed only mentioned the Holy Spirit in very general terms. Was the Holy Spirit subordinate to the Father and the Son, which was the doctrine of the ante-Nicene Fathers? Was the Holy Spirit “a mode of divine operation” (p. 339)? Was it a creation of God or God Himself? Some theologians did not “‘attribute to the Spirit the name of God, because the Scripture does not expressly so call him’” (p. 339). In 381, the Council of Constantinople answered these questions by “declaring that the Holy Spirit is to be worshipped and glorified together with the Father and Son” (p. 339).
Over time, the Nicene Creed was modified such that the Son became eternal and equal to the Father in a numerical one of essence. Along with the Holy Spirit, they became three Gods in one God — a Triune God. (Except for some terminology that only those versed in religious jargon can distinguish, what is the difference between the Trinity Doctrine and Sabellianism? One uses “person” where the other uses “manifestation.” Nevertheless, Sabellianism does a better job of maintaining monotheism than does the modern Trinity Doctrine, which relies heavily on assertions.)
The Nicene Council left Christianity with curses from which it has yet recovered. In its attempt to avoid the Scylla of Sabellianism and the Charybdis of Arianism, it converted “‘what was before a scholastic subtlety into an article of the Catholic faith’” (p. 341). With the Nicene Creed “Emperor Constantine (the first of the Caesars who acknowledged the faith of the cross), left to the world a pernicious example of intolerance and bigotry, which subsequent times have but too faithfully imitated” (p. 352). (Well illustrating such intolerance were the religious wars of Europe beginning with the Reformation where first the Catholic Church tried to suppress the Protestant heretics, and then Protestants tried to purge their ranks of heretics, i.e., those who disagreed with their particular brand of Christianity.)
Membership in the early Church did not require a certain belief in the nature of Christ. Hase wrote, “The only condition of admission to the Church, was a promise to live a new life, and an acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah. In this acknowledgment free scope was given to all those views of the nature of the Messiah, which prevailed among the people, from a simple recognition of him as the Son of David, and a man filled with the Spirit of God, to a belief in him as an angel, and an impersonation of some one of the attributes of Jehovah” (Hase, p. 41). About the early Christians, Pressense writes, “Christians were then specially anxious that religion should not be regarded as consisting in a correct opinion with regard to God. Religion was to them essentially a moral and living principle, without, however, . . . being on that account vague and uncertain. . . . The Christian faith at this time, as always, has for its great object Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Saviour of the world” (Pressense, p. 195). How things changed. After the Council of Nicaea, one could not join the church without consent to the Nicene Creed. Over time the Creed was modified into the Trinity Doctrine. Most denominations require a belief, or at least no statement of unbelief, in the Trinity Doctrine. Most still condemn as heretics those who do not adhere to the Trinity Doctrine — even to proclaiming that they are not true Christians. Thus, the early church displayed much more religious tolerance within Christianity than the Catholic Church ever has and than most Protestant denominations until the eighteenth century or even today.
As shown above, the Trinity Doctrine did not begin to develop until Greek philosophy was applied to Christianity. The Apostolic Fathers had no conception of the Trinity. When the Greek philosophy of Plato was applied to the Scriptures, then the Trinity Doctrine began to develop. Logos ceased to mean the spoken word and became God’s reason, a second God, the Son. Thus, the Logos-doctrine, which is the foundation on which the Trinity Doctrine is built, entered Christianity.
Next came the thought of a trinity and the notion of the eternal existence of the Logos, the Son. This was followed by the Son having both a divine and human nature with a rational human soul. Also, the possibility of the Son’s eternal generation began to occur.
When the Arian controversy started, orthodoxy held that the Son was pre-existing, but he had a beginning, was inferior to the Father, and a distinct being and, therefore, a different essence. When Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria began teaching more oneness of the Father and Son, Arius accused him of Sabellianism — thus, began the Arian controversy. Although Arius thought that he was defending the doctrine of the Trinity as it existed then, Alexander and others disagreed. Arius had stripped the Trinity of its Platonic metaphysics. The Arian controversy peaked with the Council of Nicaea, which issued the Nicene Creed. Among other things, the creed declared the Father and the Son to be one substance. The Nicene Creed was as close to, if not closer to, Sabellianism, which the church had condemned, as it was the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity that existed before its adoption.
By the Council of Nicaea in 325, the divinity of the Son was declared, and he was made eternal and the Father’s equal (as Nicene Creed was later interpreted and revised). In 381, the Council of Constantinople amended the Nicene Creed to declare the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In 431, the Council of Ephesus defined the personal unity of Christ and declared Mary the Mother of God. (This is one aspect of the Trinity Doctrine that the Protestants ignore, and where the Catholics are logically correct. If Mary is the mother of Christ Jesus, and if Christ Jesus is God, then Mary has to be the mother of God. If she is not the mother of God, then one or both premises have to be incorrect.) The Trinity Doctrine was completed in 431 by the Council of Chalcedon, which defined the two natures of Christ, divine and human. (Distinguishing the difference between the Trinitarian version of Jesus having a dual nature, human and divine, and the version of some of the old heresies is difficult.)
With the acts of these four councils, all the ante-Nicene Fathers became de facto heretics, if not de jure, heretics, because their doctrine of the Son is more unitarian, monotheistic, than trinitarian, tritheistic. They believed that the Son had a beginning, that is, he is not eternal. Moreover, the Son was inferior to the Father. (Based on the criteria that Alford sets out in his manual on the Trinity [Alford, pp. 98-101], all the Fathers discussed above, with the possible exception of Dionysius of Rome, were unitarians, strictly speaking. Furthermore, nearly all, if not all, other ante-Nicene Fathers were also unitarians. Moreover, based on their writings, the Trinity Doctrine, and Alford’s criteria, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Peter, and Paul appear to be heretics and unitarians.)
Without the application of Platonism to the Scriptures, it is doubtful that the Trinity Doctrine as is exists today would have ever been developed. Without the Platonist interpretation of the Scriptures, most likely orthodox Christianity would have remained monotheistic religion in the Old Testament sense instead of becoming a tritheistic religion with a Triune God. Of the Fathers discussed above, it most likely would follow the teachings of Clement of Rome, Polycarp, or Artemon. (Of the Fathers discussed above their Christology was probably the closest to the Scriptures.)
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Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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