The purpose of Creeds in Christianity

Introduction

Once the massive difficulties of persecution were history with the coming of the Christian emperors, the concentration of Christianity turned to defining and defending Christ and the Trinity. The first issues came in addressing Christ’s relationship with the Father, this controversy touched on the divinity of Jesus; however, in affirming the full deity of Jesus, the council at Nicene opened the door to other questions. Questions like, if Jesus is fully God, is he also man, if Jesus is God and the Father is God, doesn’t that mean there are two Gods; and what about the Holy Spirit? Augustine points out the difficulty in his discussion of the trinity, “… the name of either substance or person is common to them.”[1] Over the first 451 years of Christianity definitions had to be made about the Trinity and the nature of Christ in his humanity and deity; it was the great ecumenical councils, where men of God got together and hammered out the details, that set the tone for Christianity in the millennia to come.

Nicene Creed of 325

Arius was the “pastor of the influential Baucalis Church,”[2] the error of Arianism is named after his teaching that Jesus was not the same as God the Father. The argument escalated until there were tensions in the streets between the “Homoousians and Homoiousians”[3] Emperor Constantine saw that this was an issue of peace in the Roman Empire and called the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD. The position of Arius was disputed by the bishop Athanasius.[4] The basic creed of Christianity was known as the Old Roman Creed. According to Shelley the Old Roman Creed was a “baptismal confession in second-century Rome.”[5] After the council awarded Athanasius “a resounding victory at Nicaea over his elderly opponent, Arius.”[6] The council set about setting out a statement on Orthodoxy. It was very similar to the Old Roman Creed but made great emphasis on the deity of Christ specifically Jesus being the same substance as the Father. They adopted the word Homoousios,[7] “being of one substance (Homoousios) with the Father.”[8] One of the elements of Arianism was the discussion of Jesus’ origins. Arius claimed that the term begotten was indicative of a beginning for Jesus, or creation for Jesus. The Council at Nicaea addressed this concern with the words “begotten, not made.” The emphasis is on Jesus not being a creature, not made, but having a co-eternal existence with the Father.

Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381

Jesus’ eternality set the tone for the trinity when it comes to the Father and Son, however, the Holy Spirit was still a matter of question that needed settling. Pneumatomachians which, according to Ferguson, means “[t]hose who fight against the Holy Spirit.”[9] So the second ecumenical council was convened by Theodosius I”[10] in order to answer this question of the nature of the Holy Spirit, along with addressing the question of Jesus’ human nature that the Apollinarians denied. The address of Jesus’ human nature is seen in the words, “became man”[11] and “was made flesh.”[12] Some arguments did arise over the authority of the Constantinople council because it was not convened in Rome, however, it was minor and was only a foreshadowing of the split between east and west[13] that was coming in the icon controversy. Probably the most important statement about the divinity of Holy Spirit in the creed that addressed the Pneumatomachians is the statement, “who with Father and Son is worshipped.”[14] The Pneumatomachians, also called “Macedonians” after Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople,”[15] interpreted the passages about the Holy Spirit literally when he is referred to as breath or wind.[16] They concluded that the Holy Spirit then would be an impersonal force like human breath. When the Constantinople Council declared that the Holy Spirit was to be worshipped, thus declaring his person a deity apart from the Father and the Son, they stood indirect opposition to the Pneumatomachians, because one simply does not worship personal objects, without being called an idolater. The last nail in the coffin for Pneumatomachianism is the statement that the Holy Spirit is “Lord and the Life-giver.”[17] This statement directly implies volition on the part of the Holy Spirit, which is a personal attribute. Now, with the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed declaring the deity of the Holy Spirit, the full scope of the trinity is present in the creeds of Christianity, yet there were more definitions to be made.

Definition of Chalcedon

The primary concern with at Chalcedon was dealing with the “twoness”[18] of Christ. The Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan creed affirmed Christ’s dual humanity and divinity. Apollinarianism was addressed at Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan, as mentioned above. At the council at Ephesus “Nestorianism was condemned.”[19] Nestorianism taught that Jesus was two persons. The Eutychians took the next logical steps and said if Christ is both God and Human and one person, then there must be a mixture between the humanity and the divinity. Leo the Great highlights this tension when he preached,

Therefore in consequence of this unity of person which is to be understood in both natures, we read of the Son of Man also descending from heaven, when the Son of God took flesh from the Virgin who bore Him.[20]

Emperor Marcian called the fourth General Council of Chalcedon[21] in 451 AD. to makes the necessary distinctions in the way the person of Jesus was understood. The council updated the definitions in the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed with respect to the nature of Christ’s humanity and deity and their existence in his one person. The most important line in the new definition is probably “complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man.”[22] This definition does force the hearer to accept a little mystery in order to affirm it. Just as the Trinity is three and one, Christ is affirmed as two fully and one fully. This doctrine is often referred to as the hypostatic union, which comes from the Greek word hypostasis.[23]

Conclusion

“God is not a God of confusion”[24] the scripture declares. The men that participated in the great ecumenical councils understood that confusion would reign without a right biblical definition for the God head and for Christ. They also understood that getting away from this definition could have eternal consequences. In the end, the great ecumenical councils proclaimed that God is three and one, Jesus is fully human and fully divine in one person.

 

Citations

[1]. Augustine of Hippo, “On the Trinity,” in St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Arthur West Haddan, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 110.

[2]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 100.

[3], Term used by Dr. Jacob Hicks in the HTH-510-O500 – Christian History I class form. DQ1.

Homoiousios (literally, “of similar substance”) was used by Semi-Arians to argue that the Son was of similar but not identical substance as God the Father. Homoousios (literally, “same in substance”) was used by Athanasius and others to argue that the Son derives his substance from the Father:

Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 61.

[4]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 103.

[5]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 54.

[6]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 103.

[7]. See note 3.

[8]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 102.

[9]. Everett, Ferguson. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 208.

[10]. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Introduction and Biographic Information (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 490.

[11]. Everett, Ferguson. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 210.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. Ibid, 207.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. Ibid, 210.

[18]. Ibid, 255.

[19]. Nathan P. Feldmeth, Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 44.

[20]. Leo the Great, “Letters,” in Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Lett Feltoe, vol. 12a, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895), 41.

[21]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 114.

[22]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 114.

[23] Hypostasis is a Greek noun first used by Eastern theologians in the early centuries of church history to refer to the three persons of the Trinity.

Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 61.

[24] 1 Corinthians 14:33, ESV.

 

Bibliography

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Introduction and Biographic Information (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

Augustine of Hippo, “On the Trinity,” in St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Arthur West Haddan, vol. 3, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887).

Feldmeth, Nathan P. Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008),

Ferguson, Everett. 2013. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Grenz, Stanley. Guretzki, David and Nordling, Cherith Fee. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999),

Leo the Great, “Letters,” in Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Lett Feltoe, vol. 12a, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895),

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995).

 

 

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