- December 1st, 2013
Earlier this year I taught about the early history of that great Christian doctrine, the Divinity of Christ. In the rest of this post you can find my notes covering this topic.
THE CHURCH DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY - 9/15/13 (Introducing the Council of Nicea (325) and its Theology.)
Prologue. As long as there have been Christians, they have worshiped Christ (as in the letter of Pliny the younger to Emperor Trajan, for example, dated about 112 AD: Christians in Bythinia then, where Pliny served as governor, "were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god"). Yet, there were years of controversy before the church came to an understanding of what this means - to worship Christ.
Why did Constantine become a Christian? Causes known to history:
1. The piety of his mother, Helena. Helena later as dowager empress was a great patron of Christian shrines in the Holy Land.
2. God answered Constantine's prayer for victory just before the battle of Milvian Bridge, 312, at which he defeated a rival contestant for the imperial throne.
The Arian heresy appeared in history first at a 4th century meeting of church leaders in Alexandria. Bishop Alexander asked the clerics assembled for their opinion on certain points of doctrine. It soon became obvious that Arius, a prominent presbyter, favored the idea that Christ was merely a creature, and thus, cannot properly be called "God". But the bishop's right-hand man, the deacon Athanasius, favored the proper divinity of Christ (and this, indeed, was also the confession of Bishop Alexander). This became a dispute threatening the unity of the church throughout the Empire - thus, Constantine convened a council to settle the dispute.
From tertullian.org: Some people seem to think that the council,... [now considered the First Ecumenical Council] either invented the New Testament, or edited it to remove references to reincarnation (or whatever) or burned large numbers of heretical works, or whatever. These are in error.
It was not a council of all the Bishops of the Christian Church. It was council of the Eastern half of the Empire (the term "Oikoumenee" connoted the Empire) - Christians beyond the Empire were mostly not represented - and Christians of the Western Empire were represented by just a few delegates. The creed of Nicea is ecumenical in the current sense of the word, not because all Christians were represented there, but due to the general subsequent acceptance of the creed by all Christians.
Yet all of the Empire's bishops were invited, and those who came had their expenses paid. Constantine himself opened the council with imperial splendor - and words of comfort and peace. For the bishops, this was an astounding reversal of fortune, like a dream come true. In that province (Bythinia), about 2 centuries before, Christians had been put to death if discovered. Among the assembled bishops were some who still bore the wounds and scars inflicted upon them by imperial tormentors during the great persecution under Diocletian. Yet here was the heir of all the Caesars, appearing not as their enemy, but their friend and patron. But as the Bible says, "Put no confidence in princes..." (Ps. 146). Bishops would soon learn that a professedly Christian emperor might well not support the true religion, but rather, heresy.
The largest party at the Council of Nicea were "moderates", semi-Arians - who disliked the irreverence of Arius against Christ, but likewise disliked the idea that the Christian faith had to be defined using a term not found in Scripture. Yet, the Emperor Constantine, having heard both sides, favored the Orthodox solution to the dispute. (Orthodox and moderates were clearly the 2 largest parties at the council. The emperor, although no theologian, correctly discerned that the moderate party (with a little imperial pressure) would sign on to the crucial formula that the Son is "of one substance" with the Father.) Thus, the Council seemed to end with Arius' utter humiliation. Only he, and 2 sympathetic bishops out of more than 300 at Nicea, would not sign the document stating the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father. These 3 were banished (secular punishment) and excommunicated (the church's ultimate sanction).
After the council, the Nicene party lost the Emperor's favor and the support of most moderates. Orthodox leaders were often themselves banished, anti-Nicene figures rehabilitated. Fairly soon Constantine even recalled Arius from banishment. In his anti-Nicene bias, some time later Constantine ordered the relevant bishop to receive Arius back into the communion of the church. (Significantly, Arius himself died the night before he was to be received.) It did not help matters that Marcellus of Ancyra, on the Nicene side, proved to be unsound on the distinction of persons in the Trinity. Of this period Jerome wrote: "the world groaned to find itself Arian".
Yet, in the decades after Constantine, the moderate party gradually came to support the Nicene cause. True, the Nicenes used a term not found in Scripture - but so did the Arians, in stating their views. The objection to figures like Marcellus was overcome by a younger generation of Nicene theologians (such as the Cappodocian fathers: Basil and the two Gregories) who stressed the distinctness of the persons of the Trinity as well as the divine unity. Indeed, these younger theologians often had originally been of the moderate party, but in time progressed toward a fully Orthodox position.
"Trinity" - Does not distinguish Orthodoxy from heresy in this era. Every church teacher back then had a doctrine of the Trinity - but many of them taught a doctrine of the Trinity that was heretical.
"of one substance" (consubstantial; Greek, homo-ousios). Against any idea that the Son of God is not really one with the Father.
"begotten, not made". The Arians would only admit a divine sonship that made the Logos (Word) of John 1 merely the first thing God created. Thus, Arians could not agree with this phrase.
"person" (hypostasis). Not used to define the Trinity in the Nicene creed, but used by the fathers of that era to teach that the divinity of Christ, for example, does not mean that every scripture statement about God applies to the person of the Son. The concept here is somewhat analogous to, but not equivalent to, human personality (see next term).
"circumincession" (perichoresis). Used by the fathers of that era to teach that unlike human persons for example, the Persons of the Trinity are not separate individuals. They exist only in union with each other; they are One Being.
"economic" versus "ontological" Trinity - in the economy of redemption, the Father sends the Son to be incarnate and die for sinners, to whom redemption is applied by the mission of the Spirit. Now one could ask: is it ONLY in the economy of redemption that there is this distinction of the divine Persons? It is heretical to answer, "yes". Such would be the heresy Sabellianism, for example (as we find in Marcellus of Ancyra) - the view that as revealed in redemption, the divine Persons are merely like alternate roles that the One Being plays - that before creation and redemption, before time, no distinction of persons is possible in the One Divine Being. The Nicene Creed (and scripture) teaches not only the unity of Father and Son (they are One Being, consubstantial) but also the eternal divine sonship of the John 1 Logos or Word - not a divine sonship that only begins in time. Thus, Marcellus erred in confessing an "economic" but not an "ontological" Trinity of Divine Persons.
The creed as approved by Nicea is like that found in the hymnbook, altered as follows.
Put a period after "Holy Spirit" and omit the rest (added by a later council). After that, add:
"But those who say: 'There was 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." (The condemned phrases are all statements that Arius or his followers had made, expressing their heresy.)
The creed as we use it includes the final paragraph ("and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord (literally 'Lordly'), and giver of life...") added by the Second Council (380) to oppose denying the deity of the Holy Spirit - and amended later (Toledo, 581) to assert the Spirit proceeds from Father AND Son. Almost 500 years later the Eastern Orthodox (who had not amended the creed in this way) and Western Catholicism separated on several grounds, including this "and the Son" clause. But it is a fair question to ask whether this difference was more of a pretext to justify schism, rather than the efficient cause (as the two sides had more or less gotten along for several centuries in spite of the difference).
Imperial Politics to the time of Constantine and his successors.
1. There had been more than a century of weak emperors and thus, chronic wars between contenders for the throne. The empire needed a statesman who would fix this problem.
2. Policies of Diocletian, Constantine's great predecessor.
A. unleashed the greatest persecution of the church - saw Christians as endangering the unity of empire. (Note: eventually under Christian emperors, paganism and heresy would be persecuted for similar reasons.)
B. saw the emperorship as too big a job for one man any longer. Split the empire east and west (amicably).
C. attempted to have each emperor succeeded by an apprentice, chosen according to ability not heredity.
D. remaining liberties of the Roman citizenry were more and more eroded. Heavy taxation to support strong defense.
3. Constantine the Great.
A. saw the church as needed to unify the empire (unfortunately, also the reverse).
B. He became sole emperor. With few exceptions, nobody after Constantine could rule both Eastern and Western halves of the Empire - Diocletian was wiser in seeing the need for more than one emperor. But, Constantine agreed to the idea of splitting the Empire into Eastern and Western halves - and founded Constantinople as new Eastern capital.
C. the succession to the emperorship became mostly hereditary (interrupted by occasional coups).
D. in religion the settlement of doctrine at Nicea was his policy; but later in his reign he disapproved of the pro-Nicene creed party as too independent, favored semi-Arianism. Exiled Athanasius.
4. Constantine's sons as his successors usually favored semi-Arianism. By the time of Gregory Nazianus (about 380's), Arians occupied most of the Constantinople city churches. Gregory, although bishop of the city then, had to start with just 1 church for the pro-Nicene party. Constantine's sons exiled Athanasius repeatedly. They also repeatedly convened church councils in their unsuccessful quest to replace the Nicene Creed with a creed according to their policies which the church as a whole would adopt.
5. Julian the Apostate (361-363) was the last pagan emperor, although of course at the time it was not certain he was the last. Would the empire even remain Christian? (It did; public opinion by then was generally unsympathetic to Julian's pagan fanaticism). In keeping with tradition, he exiled Athanasius.
6. Valens (364-378) was the last Arian emperor (he reigned in the East). As the cause of Christianity was helped by Constantine's military victories, so the cause of Arianism in the East suffered a perhaps fatal political blow when Valens lead the Roman legions to annihilation by barbarians at the battle of Adrianople - the worst defeat for the Roman army in centuries. Considering this crushing defeat, it certainly looked like God did not bless Arianism.
7. Valens' successor Theodosius was Orthodox. His policy gave us the final form of the Nicene creed as settled by the Second Ecumenical Council of the church.
How can we say for example that the Father "is not identical to" the Son; yet both the Father "is" God, and the Son "is" God? Isn't this a contradiction?
Answer 1: the Father "is not identical to" the Son because each has a personal property not shared by the other. Only the Son is begotten - obviously not true of the Father, who begets the Son. By contrast, when we say that the Father "is" God, and the Son "is" God - this is "predication", similar to our saying that a chair is mauve-colored. Predication ("the chair is mauve", "the Son is God") states what sort of being we are talking about. In the Trinity 3 Persons each have unique properties, yet they are One Being. (No 3 human persons are so related.)
Answer 2: it is true that even some theologians have thought the Trinity is a contradiction - with the idea that noncontradiction is only a law of creation which does not bind God. Yet there are certainly sound Reformed theologians who dissent. (One example is from William Green of Old Princeton in his "Christian Doctrine", page 17: "Yet they" [i.e. the facts composing the Doctrine of the Trinity] "involve no contradiction...") This is the sound view to hold, because (a) any supposed contradiction in the scripture doctrine of the Trinity would be a contradiction in scripture - which is impossible. The enemies of the faith have for thousands of years attempted to show that there are contradictions in scripture - in vain. And (b) the purpose of Christian revelation is not to reveal God as unreasonable (a-logos), but on the contrary reasonable ("In the beginning was the Word (logos)", John 1:1a).
Possible criticisms of the church doctrine of the Trinity.
1. Unreasonable. Answer: see the previous section, to which I add: really this objection is an attack on the Christian faith itself. Christian faith requires looking to Christ for the salvation which only God can provide. The Nicene creed is really more reasonable than what unreflective Christians are easily tempted to do - apply to Jesus every statement about God found in scripture.
2. A capitulation to Greek philosophy. Answer: it is obvious that the Arian side in the controversy was the one that was compromised by Greek philosophy - like the Gnostics before them, seeing God as too absolute to directly save the world, the Arians invented the unscriptural notion of a demigod who could do the job.
3. Uses terms that go beyond scripture. Answer: in terms of literal terminology it is true, for example, one cannot find "of one substance" in scripture. But the sense of the term is found in the scripture texts that prove the doctrine of the Trinity. And as with the ancient Arians, it appears that one cannot deny the church doctrine of the Trinity without using terms that go beyond scripture.
And yet: "All synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both." (WCF 31.4) While the creed of Nicea is scriptural, the way in which the fathers of that era defended the faith was not necessarily ideal.
A. Perhaps for some figures of that era, the doctrine believed was too much a matter of (secular) politics.
B. A high Christology is in practice most firmly adhered to because of sound soteriological convictions. (Analogy to our dialog with cults today.) Some of the fathers (such as Athanasius) understood this, but I think some did not.
C. As the church doctrine of the Trinity developed in history, it must be noted that we see an increasing reliance upon church tradition - as opposed to the sole authority of scripture - to prove all the points involved. The classic reference illustrating this tendency is Basil of Caesarea "On the Holy Spirit", dated near the time of the Second Council. Look at the 380 creedal paragraph on the Spirit and ask yourself: how can I prove that the Spirit is to be "worshiped and glorified"? That's a tough question, right? Well, evidently St Basil thought so too, because to clinch this point in his book, he refers the reader to what the liturgy of the church of that era said. (These were phrases similar to what are now found in our "Gloria Patri"). I hope it is pretty obvious to Protestants that relying on the tradition of the church to prove doctrinal points is unsound. If the church happens to be right on the points in question, faith is not harmed. But if not, this is a recipe for establishing false, rather than true, religion (Matthew 15:9) - as centuries of medieval error attest.