Monday, September 19

A Winsome Untruth

The first Ecumenical Council was convened in the Byzantine city of Nicea in 325 by the recently converted Roman emperor, Constantine. It was a momentous occasion--the first time the church had convened a universal synodical meeting since the time of Peter, James, John, Barnabas, and Paul at Jerusalem to discuss the initial outreach of the largely Jewish church to the Gentiles.

Three hundred and twelve bishops gathered. In the center of the room, on a throne, lay the four gospels. The emperor himself, dressed in a purple gown and with a silver diadem, opened the council saying, "I rejoice to see you here, yet I should be more pleased to see unity and affection among you." The next few days would be devoted to achieve that purpose, if at all possible, by finding an agreeable way to describe precisely who Jesus was.

The problem was that a prominent Eastern bishop, Arius had been preaching that Christ was actually a creation of God--the first of all his creatures, of course, but a creation nonetheless. He was not of the essence or substance or nature of God. "There was a time when the Son was not," he and his followers insisted. They even made up popular Unitarian songs, slogans, and jingles with catchy tunes to propagandize their ideas among the masses. The appeal was very compelling--this new non-Trinitarian was simple to understand and required no complex doctrinal formulas to explain. It was a very sane, rational, straightforward, seeker-sensitive, relevant, charismatic, and contemporary counterfeit faith. It was a winsome untruth.

Bishop Alexander of Alexandria was horrified. Jesus, the Word, had co-existed eternally with God the Father he argued. If Christ were not God, then man could not be saved, for only the infinite and holy God could forgive sin. He deposed Arius. Arius did not go quietly. He gathered followers and continued to teach his pernicious doctrine. The factions rioted. The unity of the empire was shaken. Constantine was alarmed. And that was why he called the council in the first place.

As the council progressed, the bishop of Nicomedia defended Arius' views, attempting to prove logically that Jesus, the Son of God, was a created being. Opposition bishops snatched his speech from his hand and flung it in shreds to the floor. They had suffered for Christ, some of them greatly, in the persecutions of Diocletian. They weren't about to stand by and hear their Lord blasphemed. Otherwise, to what purpose had they borne their gouged eyes, scourged backs, hamstrung legs and scorched hands?

The issues of Nicea boiled down to this. If Christ is not God, how can He overcome the infinite gap between God and man? If a created being could do it, there were angels aplenty with the power. Indeed, why could not any good man himself bridge the gap? On the other hand, Jesus had to be truly man, otherwise how could he represent mankind?

The orthodox bishops ultimately prevailed. Arius was condemned. At that point the council decided to write a creed that clarified the Bible’s teaching on the nature of Christ’s person and incarnation. The Nicean Creed became a document of fundamental importance to the church and gave clarity to the issues of orthodoxy and heterodoxy.


Johnny! said...

Was it Arius himself, or an Arian bishop, that jolly ol' St. Nick belted at the council?

gileskirk said...

According to legend, both! Ho, ho, ho!

Johnny! said...

Let's just all agree that it's true.

Nathanael said...

I recently had the book I Believe: The Nicene Creed recommended to my family. It looks superb.

Dan said...

Forgive me, but you seem to be depicting Arius as some kind of malevolent rogue. Granted, his doctrines are as "pernicious" as you say, but are you being fair to him, the man?

gileskirk said...

Yes, indeed he was a malevolent rogue. Just read the accounts of what he and his followers did to vilify the orthodox champions like Athanasius and such a conclusion is hard to escape. That is altogether fair.

badbrad said...

I just finished reading Athanasius' defense of the deity of Christ. Hard to believe that many of the issues the modern church struggles with were addressed so clearly many centuries ago. I hope blogs such as this challenges us to look back to our spiritual forefathers and the rich wisdom they offered in defense of the Gospel. Keep up the inspiring writing!