Apologetics Index
History of the Creeds

History of the Creeds


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Introduction   Theology   Christology   Anthropology   

Theology - The Relationships of the Persons in the Trinity

A. The Relationship of the Son to the Father

The problem of the relationship between God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ became an acute problem in the Church soon after the cessation of persecution. In Western Europe, Tertullian, for example, insisted upon the unity of essence in three personalities as the correct interpretation of the Trinity. Hence the dispute centered in the Eastern section of the Empire. It must be remembered that the Church has always had to fight Unitarian conceptions of Christ. Modern Unitarianism has had its forerunners in Arianism and sixteenth century Socinianism.

In 318 or 319, Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, discussed with his presbyters "The Unity of the Trinity." One of the presbyters, Arius, an ascetic scholar and popular preacher, attacked the sermon because he believed that it failed to uphold a distinction among the persons in the Godhead. In his desire to avoid a polytheistic conception of God, Arius took a position that did injustice to the true deity of Christ.

The issue was soteriological in nature. Could Christ save man if He were a demi-god, less than true God, and of a similar or different essence from the Father as Eusebius and Arius respectively asserted? Just what was His relationship to the Father? The controversy became so bitter that Alexander had Arius condemned by a synod. Arius then fled to the friendly place of Eusibius, the bishop of Nicodemia, who had been his schoolmate. Since the dispute centered in Asia Minor, it threatened the unity of the Empire as well as that of the Church. Constantinople tried to settle the dispute by letters to the bishop of Alexandria and Arius, but the dispute had gone beyond the power even of a letter from the Emperor. Constantine then called a council of the bishops of the Church to work out a solution to the dispute. This council met at Nicaea in the early summer of 325. Three hundred bishops of the church were present, but less than ten were from the Western section of the Empire. The Emperor presided over the council and paid its expenses. For the first time the Church found itself dominated by the political leadership of the head of the state. The perennial problem of the relationship between the Church and state emerged clearly here, but the bishops were too busy dealing with theological heresy to think of that particular problem.

Three views were put forth at the council. Arius, who was backed by Eusebius of Nicodemia (to be distinguished from Eusibius of Caesarea) and a minority of those present, insisted that Christ had not existed from all eternity but had a beginning by the creative act of God prior to time. He believed that Christ was of a different (heteros) essence or substance than the Father. Because of the virtue of His life and His obedience to God's will, Christ was to be considered divine. But Arius believed that Christ was a being, created out of nothing, subordinate to the Father and of a different essence from the Father. He was not coequal, coeternal or consubstantial with the Father. To Arius He was divine but not deity.

Athanasius became the chief exponent of what became the orthodox view. His wealthy parents had provided for his theological education in the famous catechetical school of Alexandria. His work De Incarnatione presented his idea of the doctrine of Christ. At the council this young man, slightly over thirty, insisted that Christ had existed from all eternity with the Father and was of the same essence (homousios) as the Father, although He was a distinct personality. He insisted upon these things because he believed that, if Christ were less than He had stated Him to be, He could not be the Saviour of men. The question of man's eternal salvation was involved in the relationship of the Father and the Son according to Athanasius. He held that Christ was coequal, coeternal and consubstantial with the Father, and for these views he suffered exile five times before his death.

Tthe largest party was lead by the gentle scholar and church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, whose dislike of controversy led him to propose a view that he hoped would be an acceptable compromise. He proposed a moderate view which would combine the best ideas of Arius and Athanasius. Over two hundred of those present followed his views at first. He taught that Christ was not created out of nothing as Arius had insisted, but that He was begotten of the Father before time in eternity. Christ was of a like (homoi) or similar essence to the Father. His creed became the basis of the creed that was finally drawn at Nicaea, but that one differed from his in its insistence upon the unity of essence or substance of the Father and the Son.

Orthodoxy gained a temporary victory at Nicaea by the assertion of the eternity of Christ and the identity of His substance with that of the Father. However, the creed formulated here must not be confused with the Nicene Creed used by the Church today, although that creed grew out of the formulation at Nicaea. The creed of 325 stops with the phrase "And in the Holy Spirit" and is followed by a section condemning Arius' views.

Between 325 and 361 under Constantine and his sons orthodoxy had to face a reaction that led to its defeat and the temporary victory of Arianism. A second reaction against orthodoxy, with orthodoxy's final victory in 381, came between 361 and 381. Theodosius defined as the faith of true Christians the views formulated by the orthodox at Nicaea, but the years between 325 and 381 were marked by bitterness and contention. The Council of Constantinople in 381 stated in Canon 1 of its decisions that the faith of the 318 father at Nicaea "shall not be set aside but shall remain dominant." This decision was approved at Chalcedon in 451. Thus it is the creed accepted at Constantinople that is today known as the Nicene Creed and is used in the Church. Between 381 and 590 the Church busied itself with the task of bringing Christianity to the Teutonic tribes and winning the Arian tribes back to orthodox Christianity.

We can be thankful that the orthodox party was finally triumphant at Constantinople in 381 when we consider the havoc wrought in the Church by the Unitarian ideas. Arianism, to which Modernism and Unitarianism are both related, was rejected as an article of the Christian faith. Nicaea cost the Church its independence, however, for the Church became imperial from this time and was increasingly dominated by the emperor. The Church in the West was able to rise above this domination, but the Church in the East never freed itself from the domination by the political power of the State.

The Relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father

Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople between 341 and 360, taught that the Holy Spirit was "a minister and a servant" on a level with the angels. He believed that the Holy Spirit was a creature subordinate to the Father and Son. This was a denial of the true deity of the Holy Spirit and would be as harmful to the conception of the Holy Spirit as views of Arius were to the conception of Christ. The ecumenical Council of Constantinople condemned the views of Macedonius in 381. When the creed of Constantinople, , our Nicene Creed, was recited at the third Council of Toleda in 589 the words "and the Son" (filioque) were added to the statement "that proceedeth from the Father" which is concerned with the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Father and the Son. The Western churches since then have insisted upon the true deity and the personality of the Holy Spirit as coequal, coeternal and consubstantial with the Father and the Son.

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