June 19, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: Deciding if the Son is equal to the Father

John F. Fink(Eleventh in a series of columns)

Imagine that you were an early Christian in Rome, Alexandria, Lyons, Antioch or Constantinople. You have learned enough about Jesus Christ to believe in him, and to join one of the communities of his followers. By the early fourth century, Christianity was winning over most of the people. But you have questions.

Who was Jesus? He did things that no human could do, like cure people, multiply food, walk on water, and rise from the dead. He also claimed to be equal to the Father. So, was he God? But he also had been a baby, grew to be a man, got tired, cried, bled and died. So, was he a human?

We can understand, then, what a tough time the early Christians had in trying to understand just who Jesus was. Many ideas were advanced, usually by very sincere and devout men, which eventually had to be condemned as heresy.

The Jews believed in one God, but they had no idea that he could be more than one person. Pagan gentiles might have believed in many gods, but each was one person. Only Christians believed both that there is only one God and that he is three persons—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

At the beginning of the fourth century, a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, named Arius taught that the Father created the Son. This, obviously, meant that the Son was not equal to the Father. Arius’ teaching, which came to be known as Arianism, was widely accepted and was causing great division within the Roman Empire.

For that reason, rather than for any theological reason, Emperor Constantine thought it important to settle the matter. He wasn’t even a Christian at the time, but he called what became recognized as the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. Nicaea was right across the Sea of Marmara from Constantinople.

Between 200 and 300 bishops from across the Mediterranean world attended. Constantine invited Pope Sylvester in Rome to attend, but he sent two priests to represent him. After much argumentation, the council condemned Arianism and accepted an official creed. As modified by later councils, this became the Nicene Creed that Catholics recite at Masses on weekends and solemn feast days.

The creed as passed at Nicaea was explicit in condemning “those who say there was [a time] when the Son of God was not, and before he was begotten he was not.”

Constantine confirmed the council’s decrees and proclaimed them the law of the Roman Empire.

That hardly ended the battle against Arianism though. Especially after Constantine’s death, it was to spread widely, and even Constantine was baptized by an Arian bishop on his deathbed. His successors favored Arianism. Arians and semi-Arians established their own hierarchies and churches, and caused a great deal of trouble for several centuries.

Nor did the Nicene Creed really settle the question of who Jesus was and the relationship of his divinity and his humanity, the questions I asked in the second paragraph of this column. Those matters had to await future councils. †

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