Book Teaser: The Council of Nicea and the Trinity

I’m off by myself for another couple days working on a book on the Council of Nicea. I have no working title for it at the moment.

I’ve hit a point where I think if I show you a couple excerpts, I might be able to pique your interest. So here goes.

If any of the following seems somewhat abrupt, there’s two reasons. Some of this is still in rough draft form, and I have left paragraphs out for brevity:

At the heart of the Nicene Creed is the threefold statement of belief:

We believe in one God, the Father … and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God … also in the Holy Spirit.

That is the basic outline. The rest of the creed is explanatory.

Notice that the one God, according to the Nicene Creed, is the Father. Jesus is the one Lord and the Son of God, and nothing at all is said about the Holy Spirit except that he exists.

We all know that the Bible occasionally applies the title “God” to the Father only. In fact, 1 Corinthians 8:6 says it in almost the exact same words as the Nicene Creed:

But for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we for him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through him.

The issue is really not whether modern Christians are okay with the way the New Testament writings talk about God.

The question is whether we would dare use the same terminology.

I believe that if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we have adopted a view of the Trinity that is different from Nicea. We would never write a creed that says, “We believe in one God, the Father, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit.” That simply is not the terminology we would use.

Instead, we would use something closer to what is known as the Athanasian Creed, which Athanasius did not write, but dates to somewhere around the end of his life in A.D. 360. I am quoting just portions of it here because it is quite long. You can read the whole creed at Christian History for Everyman.

We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity …
The Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Spirit Almighty
Yet there are not three Almighties, but one Almighty
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God
Yet there are not three Gods, but one God

No wonder the Trinity is so confusing to people! Is this anything like the wonderfully clear explanations of the pre-Nicene Christians that we’ve been reading about?

In the book here, there is a list of statements on the Trinity from the five largest Christian denominations in the USA, including the Roman Catholics; all of which use Athanasian Creed terminology and not Nicene terminology.

But what is normative? Finding one verse and pointing out the Nicene Creed is nice, but was this the way the early Christians and, more importantly, the apostles spoke on a regular basis?

Let’s find out.

First, though, I’d like to point out the explanation that Tertullian, writing around A.D. 210, gives for the terminology that’s in the Nicene Creed (though, of course, he’s not referring to the Nicene Creed itself, which wouldn’t be written for over a century).

I shall follow the apostle [Paul], so that if the Father and the Son are alike to be invoked, I shall call the Father “God” and invoke Jesus Christ as “Lord.”
     But when Christ alone [is invoked], I shall be able to call him “God.” As the same apostle says, “Of whom is Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever” [Rom. 9:5].
     For I should give the name of “sun” even to a sunbeam, considered by itself. But if I were mentioning the sun from which the ray emanates, I would certainly withdraw the name of sun from the mere beam. For although I do not make two suns, still I shall 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. (Against Praxeas 13).

Tertullian seems to think Nicene terminology is normative. He seems to think that the apostles, or at least the apostle Paul, only called Jesus God when the Father is not being discussed along with him. Is this true?

If you’re familiar with the Scriptures, you probably don’t need me to tell you it’s true. You already know. But let’s give you some statistics:

  • The Father is referred to as God in a verse where Jesus is also mentioned 42 times.
  • Jesus is referred to as God in a verse where the Father is also mentioned 0 times.
  • God is used in such a way as to clearly indicate a reference to all three persons of the Trinity 0 times.
  • Jesus is called God in a verse where the Father is not mentioned at least 7 times. There are several others that are subject to interpretation.

Now I’m going to complain here a little bit because I believe I’m rightfully angry.

In all the studies of the Trinity that have been published since the printing press has been invented, is it really true that no one has noticed these things? While scholars and historians were publishing careful definitions of hypostasis and ousios, did they really not notice that the Nicene Creed calls the Father the one God and we don’t? Did they really never run across Tertullian’s explanation of the reason for that?

I can’t help but feel that never publishing Tertullian’s explanation of when to call Jesus God while repeatedly mentioning that Tertullian was the first early Christian writer to use the term Trinity is, well, dishonest. Worse, it’s larceny! We have been robbed of a closer, easier relationship with the Scriptures and a better understanding of God, within the context he’s been revealed to us! We’re not overstepping our bounds in understanding God more fully this way; instead, we are holding more closely to "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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