The Trinity, the Council of Nicea, and the Substance of God

In A.D. 325, Eusebius, the first church historian and the bishop (link opens in new window) of the church in Caesarea, wrote a letter.

To me, it is one of the most surprisingly ignored letters in the history of the church.

THe letter is an explanation of the Nicene Creed immediately after its acceptance by the bishops present at the Council of Nicea. Despite the fact that Eusebius says, “We did not neglect to investigate the distinct sense of the expressions,” no one, not even historians, seems to pay any attention to Eusebius’ explanation of what was meant by the wording of the Nicene Creed.

Understand that the Nicene Creed is the basis of the Apostles Creed, which is recited in all Catholic churches and many Protestant churches every week to this day. Numerous Christian organizations use the Apostles Creed as a basic statement of faith, requiring all those they fellowship with to assent to it.

Yet most, if not all, of those churches don’t believe the Nicene Creed.

Shocking Statements in the Nicene Creed

The most shocking statement of all in the Nicene Creed is right on the surface. It is its basic declaration of belief:

We believe in one God, the Father …

This statement is not followed by a clarification explaining that what we actually believe is in one God who is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Instead it reads …

We believe in one God, the Father … and in one Lord, Jesus Christ … and in the Holy Spirit

We Believe in One God, the Father

I’m reading a book right now by Justo Gonzalez, an excellent, well-informed historian.

Justo Gonzales is a professional historian. He knows a lot more than I do. I love his books, and I highly recommend him.

Yet in his chapter on the Trinity, when he expounds on the Nicene Creed for 6 pages, he never mentions that it says that there is one God, the Father. He never mentions that Christian writings previous to Nicea use the same terminology. He never points out that even the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 8:6, uses the same terminology.

Nor does he mention that Jesus Christ himself calls the Father, separating the Father from himself, the one true God (Jn. 17:3).

Combating Arianism

The Nicene Creed was convened to put the doctrines of Arius, an elder in the church at Alexandria, to rest.

Arius taught that the Son, Jesus, was created by the Father in the beginning in the same manner that angels, people, and the universe were created. He taught that Jesus was created from nothing.

Admittedly, he also taught that the Son was the first and greatest creation of God the Father. He taught that the Son went on to create everything else.

Nonetheless, he taught that the Son was created from nothing, and the church objected to this.

The Difference between Arianism and Orthodox Christianity

Today, most people believe that the difference between Arius and all the bishops at Nicea (except two who embraced Arius’ doctrines) is that Arius taught that the Father was the one God while everyone else taught that the one God was three persons.

Let me pause to point out here that there’s an element of truth in this. The Trinity is a complicated subject, which is the reason that there is so much error on the subject.

The real difference between Arianism and the Nicene Creed is this …

Orthodox Christianity teaches that the Son was created from the substance of God, and Arius taught that the Son was created from nothing.

Both views allowed Christians to say that there is one God, the Father. Obviously, that had to be true because the Nicene Creed says that there is one God, the Father.

The Nicene view, which is taught in every early Christian writing from the time of the apostles until Nicea, teaches that the Son was then birthed from the substance of God, not created from nothing.

Matter and “God”

The early church liked to call everything God created “matter.” It didn’t matter—sorry for the accidental pun—whether they were referring to dirt, air, stars, animals, the spirit of men, or angels. If God created it from nothing, then it was matter.

Matter had a beginning, so matter is not eternal.

Anything, they argued, that had a beginning could have an end.

Therefore, if the Son was created from nothing, it didn’t matter what you called him, he wasn’t really eternal, and he isn’t really divine. If he had a beginning, then he can have an end.

Thus, Arianism made the Son to be mortal.

To the early churches, the only substance in the universe besides matter was “God.” The divine substance is that unknowable essence that God is made of. That substance alone is eternal. That substance alone has always existed.

In the same way, that substance alone cannot cease to exist. It had no beginning, and thus it can have no end.

The substance of God is truly eternal.

Homoousios

The Nicene Creed was not created from nothing, either.

The early churches all had their own creed. It was called the rule of faith, and it was taught to every member at baptism.

The Nicene Creed was based on the rule of faith of the church at Caesarea.

Eusebius’ letter gives the church at Caesarea’s rule of faith and explains that it was agreed to by all the members of the council. The council then added to it …

It was Constantine who …

… exhort[ed] all present to give [the creed of Caesarea] their assent … with the insertion, however, of that single word homoousios.

Homoousios means "same substance."

In other words, the Council of Nicea was trying to emphasize that the Son was of the same substance as God, the Father.

In this way, the council emphasized that the Son was truly eternal and truly divine.

Emphasizing Substance

The emphasis on substance is all over the Nicene Creed …

"… that is, of the substance of the Father"

"… God from God … true God from true God"

"… begotten, not made, of the same substance as the Father"

And the council added something at the end that most of us do not repeat today …

"But those who … assert that ‘he is of other substance or essence than the Father’ … the catholic and apostolic church of God anathematizes.

Three times in that short creed the substance of God is mentioned.

Actually, the substance of God is mentioned four times because "God from God" and "true God from true God" is also a reference to the substance or essence of God.

The phrase "God from God," nor ever "true God from true God," cannot be a reference to saying that the Son is the one true God, or "part" of the one true God because the creed has already said, "There is one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ."

Why Does This Matter

Why am I bringing all this up? Does this really matter?

The reason I give for bringing all this up is that the Council of Nicea was convened to put Arianism to rest. Yet our interpretation of the Nicene Creed has allowed Arianism to crop up anew in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Yes, it is our fault that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are able to prosper and thrive.

The Nicene Creed is scriptural. Understood correctly, it allows us still to say what 1 Corinthians 8:6 says, "For us there is but one God, the Father."

The Nicene Creed also allows us to understand John 17:3 in its plain sense. It’s part of a prayer by Jesus, and Jesus says, "This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

By the Nicene understanding, we can still believe that there is only one God, the Father, yet allow Jesus to still be truly divine and called God.

By our modern understanding, Jesus is truly divine, but we don’t believe that the Father is the one true God, as Jesus said. Instead, we believe that the one true God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together in some mysterious way that confuses everyone.

As a result, the Jehovah’s Witnesses thrive on quoting John 17:3 and 1 Corinthians 8:6. Those verses seem to support the JW position and refute ours.

Those verses do refute ours. They do not, however, support the JW view, and that’s why there’s so many other verses that we can use to answer the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Verses Versus Verses

Today, with all our various modern traditions, it is normal for churches to use verses against one another. One church uses verses that seem to teach eternal security, and another church uses verses that seem to teach we can lose our salvation.

This doesn’t seem to bother us. We present our verses, and as long as we think we have more verses than the other church, then we can hold onto our doctrine.

It’s almost like we’re content to believe the Bible contradicts itself!

It doesn’t contradict itself. We’ve simply lost a lot of apostolic teachings over the centuries, and we’re not interested enough to get them back!

(By the way, I cover apostolic teaching on eternal security and losing your salvation on numerous pages of my Christian history site, such as one I titled Sola Fide.)

Summing Up the Council of Nicea

According to the Council of Nicea—and according to the Bible and the writings of the churches prior to Nicea—there is one God, the Father.

Then, either eternally—so that it had always happened, there being no time prior to the beginning—or in the beginning the one God, the Father, gave birth to his Word. The Word was "begotten, not made."

The Son was not created from nothing. He was, quite literally, the Word or Reason of God. Formerly, inside of the Father, having always existed inside of the Father, he was birthed as a second person to Almighty God, thus making God the Father and the Word his Son.

What About the Holy Spirit?

The Council of Nicea doesn’t address this. They state simply, "We believe in the Holy Spirit."

The Scriptures don’t address the subject of God’s Spirit very well, either, though I should point out that the Spirit of God is mentioned throughout the Old Testament, yet the Jews didn’t (and still don’t) teach a duality. They don’t teach two persons in one God. They simply mention God’s Spirit.

Later, after Nicea, the Church added that the Spirit "proceeds from the Father." (I use "churches" prior to Nicea because that’s how it worked. After Nicea, once there were general councils and four bishops who ruled over all of Christendom, I use "Church.")

Sometime before A.D. 800, the Roman Catholic Church made it "proceeds from the Father and the Son," and the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox are still divided over that to this day.

Scriptural and Early Church Support

This blog is already incredibly long. I did not fill it with Scripture or early church quotes. You can find such references at Christian History for Everyman.

I will point out that the early churches used to quote Psalm 45:1 from the Septuagint, "My heart has emitted a good Word," and Prov. 22:8, "The Lord created me the beginning of his ways and works," to support their view.

Like John 17:3 and 1 Cor. 8:6, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have co-opted Prov. 22:8 to their view because we have forgotten what the early church taught.

I’d like us to be able to understand the Scriptures for what they say, know what the apostles taught their churches, and understand the Nicene Creed.

Thus, this post on my blog.

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2 Responses to The Trinity, the Council of Nicea, and the Substance of God

  1. Pingback: The Rest of the Old Old Story » Grace and Peace

  2. Jeremiah Briggs says:

    I'm usually on a different page but……. its apparent that facts and information on God is more important to many folks rather than being known by Him i.e. " Depart from me ye workers of iniquity. I never knew you" Sigh.. The debates continue………

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