Understanding the Trinity: The Council of Nicaea

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When speaking about the doctrine of the Trinity we need to have a general understanding of the council of Nicaea. This council was a pinnacle point within the formation of the Church’s language when speaking about God.

Leading up to Nicaea

Before the council of Nicaea took place there were many who were attempting to understand the Scriptures and reconcile them. But in 312CE Emperor Constantine had his conversion to Christianity and the entire political and religious landscape changed. Before Constantine’s conversion, he was considered a god. Once Christianity was accepted and made the official religion of Rome there were a lot of political implications at stake. It was important that Rome understood and held to a sound religious belief.

We should not overstate the political side of the issue. The Church had been attempting to reconcile the understanding of who Christ is since His ascension. Much had been written and there was a good amount of unity among believers. What is more, Constantine did not decide the outcome of Nicaea, nor did he play a huge role within the council. Rather, he called the council with the understanding that the issues at hand needed to be worked out.

Ryan Reeves contends that there was a consensus among Christians that Jesus was divine, and that the main issues at the center of the Council of Nicaea were over language. What exactly was meant when Christians called Jesus Lord or God?

Controversies

For us to better understand why this was important we should first look at some of the controversies that were taking. The first controversy was over Modalism (also known as Sabellianism). This teaching suggested that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all the one God showing up in different modes. This may be explained with an illustration such as, if a man were a fire-fighter by day, a police officer by night, and a plumber on the weekends. It is all the same person just dressing up in different outfits.

One of the large problems with such a view is that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all distinct from each other within the Scriptures. For example, how can Jesus say, “not my will, but yours, be done” in Luke 22:42? Or why does Jesus speak of the Holy Spirit as “another helper” in John 14:16?

Arius

Another controversy that came up was that of Arianism. Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria Egypt who gained a following. Augustine opposed Arius’ teaching and eventually a letter was written to Constantine about this dispute. Arius claimed that Jesus was a created being and a lesser god than the Father. Arius once wrote:

“We know one God, alone unbegotten, the Son begotten by the Father, is created, and was not before he was begotten…”

Arius did not understand the covenantal language of Psalm 2 and believed the term “begotten” meant “created.” This was huge misstep and one that moved Arius into certain heresy. (To learn more about what it means that Jesus was begotten, read my post on the subject Here)

One of the main objections that is raised against Arius by Augustine is that if Jesus is a created creature like us, then how is it that He could effect salvation?

Back to Divine Simplicity

As has already been discussed in my post on Divine Simplicity, God is the fullness of a thing. God is not simply very loving, nor is God 50% love, rather, God is love. In the same way, God is not a very holy being, and he is not simply the “most” holy, but rather, God is holiness (Is. 6:3, Rev. 4:8). In contrast, sin is unholiness (Rom. 3:21). If we are marked by sin we cannot be in communion with the infinitely holy God (Psalm 5:4) or we would diminish His holiness. Our mark of sin is an infinite stain against the holiness of God.

As a result a single death cannot pay for sins. The blood of an innocent bull or goat does not remove an infinite stain. There is only one thing that can do such a thing, that is a life that is itself infinite. This is the reason the deity of Christ is such a central issue. If Jesus’ life has a beginning, it is not “big enough.” It is not sufficient to satisfy the holiness of God. In contrast to this, if the payment is not made for sin by the only life that has no beginning and no end (i.e. God) it must be paid through a different means. The reason the eternal punishment of the wicked is a biblical truth is because the eternal holiness of God is a reality.

In other words, if Jesus had a beginning His life is not a sufficient payment for sin. If God simply needed a life that was sinless to die for our sins, then the sacrifice of bulls and goats would have been enough to pay for our sins. But this was not the case and Jesus is the only sacrifice that can pay for our sins.

Reason for Nicaea

With all this said, we can pinpoint two major reasons the council of Nicaea was called.

  1. After civil war and a great persecution of Christians, Emperor Constantine didn’t want a theological issue to split the kingdom. This point is debatable. Although it is never said, many scholars believe this is why Constantine got involved and helped pay to bring this council together.
  2. The second reason was to make official language on how we would speak about Christ in relationship to the Father. Although most of the Church was already settled on this issue, the language that was being used needed to be exact. This need arose due to various controversies (including the Arian Controversy) that were beginning to arise.

Interesting History

Before we move to the result of the Council of Nicaea, I would like to share one of my favorite pieces of history from the council. During the council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas (from whom Santa Clause is supposedly based on) listened to Arius defend his position. St. Nicholas became more and more agitated by what was being said until finally he stood up, walked across the room and slapped Arius across the face. So the next time someone is talking about good old Santa Clause, you can let them know that he was not above slapping people for heresy.

Nicaean Creed

From this council came the famous Nicean Creed. This creed has been altered a bit from it’s original writing which stated:

We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down, and became incarnate and became man, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and dead, And in the Holy Spirit. But as for those who say, There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or created, or is subject to alteration or change – these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.

 

For a more in-depth look at the council of Nicaea, I would highly recommend Dr. Ryan Reeves YouTube video on this.

 


Photo by Brandon Morgan

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