The debate that caused a council

Have you even had a debate that got so fierce that there had to be an arbitrator? Someone or a group of people who help settle the issue, a mini council, as it were, to figure out who was telling ‘porkie pies’ (Lies). Maybe it was a court case where each side put forth their view of what transpired and a judge would work out who was in the wrong. Surely this type of thing has never happened in the church? Well think again! There were times in the early church where 7 councils were held to sort out major theological issues that were plaguing the church. These seven councils cover a time period from 325-787 AD, they arose at different times when certain issues were raised concerning orthodox belief. The first of these councils was the council of Nicaea.

The year was 325 AD, the place, a small town 137 kms south of Constantinople named Nicaea. In this small, unassuming town was a gathering of 312 Bishops and the emperor of Rome, Constantine. The feeling, in that town, in the hall that they were meeting must have been palpable. Not long before the church was persecuted, Christians were put to death and tortured. It had been reported that some of the bishops sported reminders of torture that was meted out to them. According to one source “Some of the bishops who gathered at the meeting hall looked as if they had barely survived a battlefield. One was missing an eye. Another, also with an eye gouged out, dragged hamstrung legs. Still another’s hands had been scorched. Others wore the scars of scourging beneath their shirts. These victims of torture took their places among hundreds of other bishops.” (https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/is-jesus-god-11629651.html).

But what was the reason for meeting? What was the debate about? Why was the emperor there? These are questions worth asking, especially for us so removed in time from the debate that was raging at the time. The two main players in this are Arius, a priest in Alexandria and Athanasius who was an aide to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. These two men held the fate of our understanding of Christ’s nature. Arius’ view was that Jesus was a creation of the Father. “There was a time when the Son was not.”  The first being to be created, Jesus was nonetheless only a creature, he was not eternal. Athanasius on the other hand held the view that Jesus, the Word, existed eternally with the Father, was divine, and could not be created. Alexander and his aide, Athanasius, believed that by denying Christ’s deity, Arianism threatened the core of Christian faith. To give a little more context, this was not merely a debate between two people, there was among the church a spilt between those who supported the views of Arius and those who supported the views of Athanasius. While the numbers were on the side of Athanasius, there was still considerable numbers for the case of Arius.

Athanasius was and is still seen, as the champion of orthodoxy. The Christology debate was important, this was not merely a secondary side issue, it was a fundamental primary theological issue. Was Christ a created being, created by the God the Father, was there a time when he did not exist? Or was He eternal, was not a created being, had always been. This was foundational to our understanding of who Christ is and how He achieved salvation for us. The emperor was involved primarily because he wanted unity in the church for political reasons. If the church was divided what hope does the empire stand?

So have the views of Arius been wiped off the face of the earth? Not entirely. There are still groups who support his theology. They would not see themselves as Arians but their view of Christ is very firmly Arianism. So who are these groups that support an unorthodox view of Christ’s nature? The main one that is very well known is the Jehovah’s witnesses. They see Jesus as a created being. In fact they believe that while He is ‘god’ He is not Almighty God or Jehovah. Basically, their view of Jesus is that the Archangel Michael. “The Word” of John 1:1, and wisdom personified in Proverbs 8 refer to Jesus in his pre-human existence and that he resumed these identities after his ascension to heaven following his death and resurrection. They see Jesus as a created being. (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/the-11-beliefs-you-should-know-about-jehovahs-witnesses-when-they-knock-at-the-door/) Are there others who support the Arius view? The Christadelphians also hold to the view that Christ is a created being. These are the main two groups. From here it is hard to pin down any other group.

So why does this matter? Isn’t this just for those theologians who reside in their ivory tower, who do nothing other than talk, debate, drink coffee, and write books that only other theologians read? Not at all. We, as believers, should know what our beliefs are. Why do we believe these things to be true and right? While we don’t all need to have a degree in theology, we should all be informed as to how our beliefs were clarified by these debates. Let us learn from our history so that we don’t make the same mistakes.

Here is what is known as the Nicene Creed: While we in the ‘Church of Christ’ don’t hold to any ‘creeds’, this one sets out what the early church believed as a church movement that wants to ‘restore’ New Testament Christianity.  This is a helpful creed and food for thought.

We believe in one God,
      the Father Almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      begotten from the Father before all ages,
           God from God,
           Light from Light,
           true God from true God,
      begotten, not made;
      of the same essence as the Father.
      Through Him all things were made.
      For us and for our salvation
           He came down from heaven;
           He became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
           and was made human.
           He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
           He suffered and was buried.
           The third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures.
           He ascended to heaven
           and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
           He will come again with glory
           to judge the living and the dead.
           His kingdom will never end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the Lord, the giver of life.
      He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
      and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
      He spoke through the prophets.
      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
      We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
      We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
      and to life in the world to come. Amen.

In Christ our redeemer Ps Jeff