The Creed of Nicea

Okay, I’m posting this right away after my last blog, so you probably haven’t seen the previous one yet. If you have the time, make sure you read it, though this one can be read by itself, too. It’s not really a part two, just a different approach to a question asked by Craig Allerts in A High View of Scripture? The question is “Does it make sense to say that the fourth-century church was making very good decisions about the Bible but mostly poor ones about everything else?”

Again, as I mentioned in the last post, his point is that Evangelicals today accept the books of the Bible that were set in the 4th century but they believe the 4th century church was corrupt. Does this make sense? Allerts believes that the Scriptures and the church are inexorably tied together, which of course they are. However, the 4th century church didn’t really pick the books of the Bible. They just picked from among those used by their predecessors, then attempted to nail down the collection of books of Scripture so that it could not be changed.

In the last post, I addressed the issue of the canon of Scripture. In this post, I want to address something more specific, which is the councils that addressed the canon of Scripture.

It has always amazed me that apologetic groups (i.e., those specializing in defending the faith, usually anti-cult groups), like the Christian Research Institute (CRI), claim to hold to the historic Christian faith, and then they mention the “great creeds” of the church. There are so many contradicting ideas involved in these claims that it’s hard to know where to start.

The first contradicting idea is the one Allerts points out. The Councils that gave us all the “great creeds” were held by ecclesiastical bishops representing churches that Protestants would consider cold, corrupt and Roman Catholic (though they were by no means ruled by Rome yet). If I were to produce the writings of the bishops present at these councils and ask Protestants to review them, they would disagree almost as thoroughly with those writings as they would with the writings of modern Catholics. Why, then, would CRI point to the “great creeds” as emblematic of the historic Christian faith?

As an aside here, I once wrote CRI and asked them about this. I pointed out some major doctrines that were believed from the 2nd century through the time of the councils, and I asked them if they believed those doctrines, which I knew they didn’t believe. They said no, of course, so I asked them why they said they accept the historic Christian faith, when in fact they really disagree with it. They replied that whatever the Bible says is the historic Christian faith, which makes a joke of their use of “the historic Christian faith” to refute the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.

The second contradicting idea is what they mean by the “great creeds.” An article on their web site (http://www.equip.org/site/c.muI1LaMNJrE/b.2708569/k.B787/JAE1001.htm), written by the note apologist Norman Geisler, says that there are three creeds: the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are pretty much the same creed. There’s very little difference in wording. There’s an official Creed from Nicea, and there’s a later creed, only slightly adjusted, that’s probably wrongly attributed to the Council of Constantinople in 381. That later creed is the Apostles’ Creed. In between those two is the Athanasian Creed, which contradicts the other two. However, we’ve turned the Trinity into such a “mystery” that everyone pretends like they don’t contradict. I’ll explain the contradiction under the next point.

Finally, CRI and the other apologists, along with the Roman Catholics and almost everyone else DO NOT AGREE WITH THE NICENE CREED OR THE APOSTLES’ CREED! (Sorry, I really try to avoid caps, but this is a such a ludicrous thing, it’s worth shouting about.) HELLO, HELLO! Is anyone paying attention here? Catholics and Protestants alike recite this creed. CRI calls it an essential of the historic Christian faith, BUT THEY DON’T AGREE WITH IT.

The Nicene Creed (and the Apostles Creed) begin with “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty . . .” (The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus I:5). The wording is exactly the same as 1 Cor. 8:6. It does not say, “We believe in one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” On the other hand, the Athanasian Creed does say that. It reads, “So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet there are not three Gods, but one God” (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02033b.htm).

It was not until after Nicea that our modern idea of the “mystery” of the Trinity existed. In the early church, the Father was the one God, and he had a Son. The Son, they explained, is the Word of the Father. He always existed inside of the Father, but at some point in eternity past, the Father birthed the Word from out of himself in some way we cannot comprehend. They loved to quote Psalm 45:1 (LXX), “My heart has emitted a good Word,” and Prov. 8:22 (also LXX), “The Lord has created me the beginning of his ways for his works,” in reference to this eternal begetting of the Word.

The Word, they explained, is like a beam coming from the sun. It is of the  same essence and nature as the sun, not of a different nature. Thus, the Word of God is made of divinity, of the divine substance. Angels, ourselves, animals, the sun, moon, stars, and the earth were all made from nothing. They are all formed of a created substance we can simply refer to as “matter.” All matter had a beginning. It is not eternal, and it is not divine. The Word of God, however, is not made of matter. He is from the divine substance, because he is the Word of God, who  has always existed inside of God. Thus he is divine and can be called God.

However, for us, as 1 Cor. 8:6 says, there is but one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. How do we resolve this “mystery”? Tertullian, referred to as “the father of the Trinity doctrine” by historians because he was the first to use the word Trinity (in latin; Athenagoras used the Greek word Triad), explains it this way:

If the Father and Son are alike to be invoked I shall call the Father “God” and invoke Jesus Christ as “Lord.” But when Christ alone [is mentioned] I shall be able to call him “God” . . . For I would give the name of “sun” even to a sunbeam, considered by itself; however, if I were mentioning the sun from which the ray emanates, I certainly should at once withdraw the name of “sun” from the mere beam. For though I do not make two suns, still I reckon both the sun and its ray to be as much two things and two forms of one undivided substance as God and his Word, as the Father and the Son.

You will find that this practice of Tertullian’s is the consistent practice of the apostles in Scripture, as well as the practice of all the other Pre-Nicene Christian writers. If the Son is mentioned alone, he is called God. If he is mentioned with the Father, then the Father is called God and the Son Lord. This is because, as the Scripture repeatedly says, and as the Nicene Creed affirms, there is one God, and that one God is the Father.

While the Jehovah’s Witness version of John 1:1, which calls the Word “a god,” is not correct, neither is our translation, “The Word is God.” I have both read books on the subject and sat through a lesson on John 1:1 in Greek class. According to literally everything I’ve seen, in the last clause of John 1:1 the word “God” is used as an adjective. One book I read suggested the best translation would be, ” . . . and the Word has the character and nature of God.” Really, though, it seems apparent to me that the proper way to translate God as an adjective is to use the adjective form of God, which is “Divine.” John 1:1 should read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was Divine.” The Word, as the Nicene Creed confirms, is of the substance of God. He is like God, not like creatures. He is the Creator and not the created.

This is what the Nicene Creed means by “God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God.” It adds that he is “begotten, not made” and “one in substance with the Father.”

In the end, the important thing to note is that the Nicene Creed, unlike the Athanasian Creed, says, “We believe in one God, the Father.” It is this simple affirmation that CRI and most Protestants do not agree with. They do not understand the doctrine of the early church, and they don’t want to. They don’t want to understand what the Nicene Creed says the early church believed because they don’t want to deal with the fact that they don’t agree with it.

There are ramifications to this unreality (I hesitate to call it dishonesty). Jehovah’s Witnesses get to walk into people’s homes and point out John 17:3, a prayer by Jesus that reads, ” . . . that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” “See,” the JW says to the soon-to-be-ensnared soul, “you have been deceived by Christendom. There is no Trinity. The Father is the only true God.” Who can answer them? This is Jesus Christ himself saying that the Father is the only true God.

Unlike the modern Protestant view, the Jehovah’s Witness view did exist prior to Nicea, and it was rejected by the church both before and at Nicea. The JW view is that the Son was created from nothing, like the angels. Thus, he had a beginning and is not eternal. The JW’s say that God somehow made the Son to be god, but not Almighty God, like the Father. The result is that they have two Gods: one major God and one minor, created God. There are two divinities in the JW system: one uncreated divinity of the Father and another created divinity of the Son. This was exactly the teaching of Arius that was rejected at Nicea. To the early church, there is only one divinity. The Son, being the eternal Word of the Father, who always existed inside of the Father, is of the same substance–the same divinity–as the Father (“one in substance with the Father, God from God . . . “). He is not created, but born (“begotten, not made”).

On the other hand, we Protestants–and the modern Roman Catholics as well–have no room to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Our view, that the one God is three co-equal persons, wasn’t developed until after Nicea. It was a merger of modalism (Jesus only: the view that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same divine person filling three roles, like an actor), which had been common in the early church at least as far back as the 2nd century, and the Nicene view.

Nor are we convincing to those who hear us argue with JW’s. We look bad when they point out John 17:3 or 1 Tim. 2:4 (“There is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus”). They have been able to make a booklet on the early Christian view of the Trinity, where they pull quotes written from the Nicene viewpoint, but they make them look like they represent the JW/Arian viewpoint, the same thing they do with Jn. 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; and 1 Tim. 2:4.

I recommend reading through Tertullian’s Against Praxeas. Some of it is hard to understand, but some of it is extremely insightful into the early Christian view of the Trinity. It’s not a long booklet, and it’s representative of everything else you’ll read in the early Christian writings on the subject. You can also try Athenagoras’ A Plea for the Christians, which is a somewhat longer work generally defending Christianity, but it has a lot of insightful and helpful comments about the relationship of the Son and the Father. Both can be found for free online. You can always look at http://www.ccel.org for any early Christian writing.

Oh, you may be wondering what I’m going to say about the Holy Spirit in reference to Nicea. I’m going to say what the Council of Nicea said, nothing more and nothing less: “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”

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