Tuesday, 31 January 2012
Discuss the events leading to the Nicene Creed
This essay will discuss the events leading to the writing and agreement of the Nicene Creed. It will start with a brief introduction to Christian faith statements, their purpose and method of definition; before moving onto a historical synopsis of the 3rd and 4th century church in its culture, the heresies and debates around, the need for the unification and the pulling together of the Nicene Creed itself.
Christian Faith Statements
Why do we have faith statements?
Right from the resurrection there has been a need to have a concise, clear, unequivocal understanding of Jesus and his resurrection. This was the first doctrine of Christianity, the first identified need for a faith statement. In modern times, the Christian church, as many organised religions, provides statements which define the accepted understanding of the faith. These are provided both as a way of explaining the Christian faith but also as a way of ensuring that the faith is taught and preached correctly. McGrath explains how the “Christian faith has both epistemological and soteriological aspects.. [regarding] .. how things about God may be known, and how salvation may be grasped” (McGrath, 2009, p181). These are complex and are contained within the accepted faith statements in a way that can be read, digested and understood by all believers. The creed can be described as a “road map which indicates the beauties of this new world to whomever shares the sacrament of baptism has brought us" (Bezancon, 1993, p1). It is not a set of instructions or an encyclopaedia of faith knowledge, but a joining of the church together through space and time to the certainty of our salvation through Jesus Christ.
How do we define Doctrine?
Doctrine is the belief determined by the church from the study of God (theology); it is about teaching the truth of the church. The New Testament was compiled to reveal God’s nature “through the person of Jesus Christ” (Richardson, 1972, p31). As the church started to understand the significance of Jesus it needed to focus on the way of “charting his relationship with humanity and divinity” (McGrath, 2009, p272). This need resulted in the Christian doctrine of the person of Christ; ‘Christology’; which explores why the church believes that Jesus holds the key to the nature of God and human destiny.
Heresies and debates
Where there is teaching about truths and faith, there will be debate. For the most part these will be part of the development of the faith and thus valuable; however some of these become a risk to the church and its teaching through the confusion they may cause. This has been as true for the early church as it is now. Heresies within the church itself “are one of the most serious obstacles to the successful preaching of the Gospel…the early church discovered the need to present a united front” (Richardson, 1972, p32). It was necessary to keep the gospel true and clear.
Heretics in the second and third centuries included the Docetists, who believed that Jesus was “a phantom, an appearance” (Richardson, 1972, p35) and the Gnostics who “attempted to give the church’s faith an intellectual expression” (Richardson, 1972, p40). In order to counteract these heresies the Catholic Church was conceived “as the main body of Christians distinct from the heresies.
This moved beyond Ignatius’ meaning of ‘catholic’ as ‘universal’ and became to be used as meaning the orthodox, non-schismatic church” (Richardson, 1972, p39).
As those before them, the Alexandrians were attempting to “present the challenges of the person of Christ in terms of their own lives” (Richardson, 1972, p42) in order to bring the Christian faith real purpose, meaning and relevance. Alexandria was the centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, and the “centre for leaning and science” (Richardson, 1972, p42) and the following of Plato’s principles. One of the heads of the Alexandrian catechical school in the second century was Clement, a keen platonist who “attempted to explain the Person of Christ by the Rational Principle” (Richardson, 1972, p43). His pupil Origen was a Christian but thought as a Greek, attempting to provide proof and rationality for all his life including his faith. Origen “subordinated Christ to the Father and taught that the Son existed for all eternity with the Father” (Richardson, 1972, p44). This started the discussions, debates and friction around the relationship of Jesus to God.
The need for church unification over the Person of Christ
When Constantine, Roman Emperor, converted to Christianity in 312AD following his direction “in a dream to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers and thus to join battle" (Stevenson, 2002, p284); the Christian Religion began expanding again, following previous persecutions and decline. He and Licinius granted "to the Christians and to all others, full authority to follow whatever worship each man has desired...,that no man be refused toleration" (Stevenson, 2002, p284).
He further made provisions for the restoration of property which had been taken during persecution. Following this “Christianity became fashionable” (Richardson, 1972, p51) and people converted to become respectable, not as a faith conversion necessarily. Thus, ‘Christians’ converted for social reasons brought in pagan ideas of God. Thoughts that God is unknowable and unreachable, led by the founder Arius, became known as Arianism. Arius was a priest in Alexandria who preached his views on the divinity of Christ and subsequently quarrelled with his Bishop in 318AD. Arius’ teaching verged on “polytheism and stood little chance of acceptance … [but]… he had powerful friends and was a master of propaganda” (Kelly, 1989, p231).
Athanasius upheld the accepted doctrines and understanding of Jesus as part of God; he quarrelled with Arius leading to a rent in the church which had to be settled to establish peace within the church. The debate centred on two terms as possible descriptions of the relation of Father to the Son; ‘Of like substance’/‘of like being’ and the rival term ‘of the same substance/being’. The latter prevailed but the Arians could not come to terms with the concept of Jesus being God; they saw this as inconceivable, understanding that he must have come as a creature created by God.
In 324AD the Emperor Constantine “called his attention to the affair, determined to re-establish the doctrinal unity in the church” (Kelly, 1989, p231). For the Roman Emperor, power was key to everything; this required a stable society and for a Christian society, a stable church. Constantine’s confidant on ecclesiastical matters was Ossius whose sympathies were anti-Arian. Ossius “chaired a synod in Antioch early in 325AD” (Kelly, 1989, p231); after this Constantine called a Council in Nicaea to “end the rent and controversy” (Richardson, 1972, p52).
At the council “Arius emphasised the self-subsistence of God” and Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria’s Deacon, defended his superior’s orthodoxy, stating that only God can save and bring eternal life [therefore] Jesus is God incarnate” (McGrath, 2009. p285). The council, with the 318 bishops in attendance, agreed with Athanasius and condemned Arianism.
Agreeing the Nicene Creed
The council of Nicaea in 325AD discussed the creed as a faith statement. They took Paul’s writings and the work undertaken in the interim and developed it to bring full clarity to the knowledge of the faith. The issue of the person of Christ was a key one, discussed at length, forming the doctrine of Christ and a faith statement. In the end the council removed the word ‘Logos’ meaning Son or Word from the creed since it was thought to be too impersonal in the Greek. It is important to note that the council was not where the Nicene Creed was finally agreed. However it is thought that the ‘Nicene Creed’ as we know it, was discussed at the council; it is found in its present form in a treatise called ‘Ancoratus’ written in 372AD by Epiphanius.
The Nicene Creed includes details relating to the person of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, as well as affirmations of Christ’s unity with God. “This creed was intended to affirm the full divinity of Christ against the Arian understanding of his creaturely status” (McGrath, 2009, p15). In the fifty years following the council of Nicaea the Christian world continued to side either with Athanasius or Arius on Jesus and his relationship with God; the church remained divided. Athanasius was exiled five times for his faith and died before the issue was ever resolved.
In 381AD one hundred and fifty bishops met in Constantinople and Arianism “was abandoned” (Richardson, 1972, p54). The council of Constantinople “ratified the Nicene Creed, parts of which were taken over from the creed affirmed by the Council of Nicea in 325AD” (Richardson, 1972, p55). By the end of the fourth century the church had decided that Jesus was “truly divine and truly human; of two natures” (McGrath, 2009, p273). This is the Chalcedon definition as set out as the council of the same name in 451AD.
As this essay has shown the Nicene Creed was written, developed, discussed and finalised amongst much debate, controversy and church conflict. It was always accepted as important and this very fact increased the stakes for all involved, that their understanding of the faith be retained. The Person of Christ became the key area of fracture for the church in the fourth century when it was finalised and through the political actions and church movements it was confirmed that Jesus is part of God. In this light it is important to remember that although the church had to convene the council of Nicea, “it was not a new doctrine, it was defending what it had always believed and experienced" (Bezancon, 1993, p57). In fact the start of the creed dates as far back as Paul and his peers who started writing faith statements based on their knowledge of Jesus, his life and resurrection. The creed exists so that as Christians we can fully understand what we believe, that we know therefore how to spread our faith to others and so that we might be united.
This is as true now as it was at the resurrection, for the early church fathers, through the third and fourth centuries and for eternity. The creed was written to unify, and together we stand as children of God knowing our faith through the words they wrote.