Anglican Essentials: Going Deeper–Articulating the faith

2. In what way is Jesus God–the Nicene Creed

The 4th Century represented a major turning point in the Roman empire.  After military, political, and economic crises of the 3rd century, the Empire changed in fundamental ways as a result of structural reforms made by the emperors Diocletian (reigned 284-305) and Constantine (reigned 307-337).  Diocletian was pagan and led the last persecution of Christians, which was intense and serious.  Constantine legalized Christianity in the Empire in 314 (the “Edict of Milan”) but was only baptized on his deathbed. 

Arius (c256-336), a priest (presbyter) of Alexandria got into a dispute in 318 with his Bishop, Alexander, over the divinity of Christ.  In order to maintain that God is one (not two), Arius taught that Jesus was created by the Father, and was a lesser being.  While divine, Jesus was not fully God.  His catch phrase was “There was a time when the Son was not.”  Arius had studied with Lucian, a priest of Antioch.  His ideas tended to be defended among Christians associated with Antioch.

Constantine called the first ecumenical (worldwide) council of the Church, the Council of Nicaea, in 325 to deal with the “Arian crisis” that was causing serious division in the Church.  Over 300 bishops attended from all over the Roman world.   The “Nicene Creed” is named after this Council, although it was not finalized until after the next ecumenical council of Constantinople in 381. 

The basic issue: There is one God, yet Christ is worshiped as God.  How can this be?  Is Christ fully God?  The Council of Nicaea condemned Arius and affirmed Christ as “of the same substance” (“homoousion”) with the Father. 

Between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople, the Church was torn by the conflict between the Arians (Jesus was not fully God) and the Catholics (Jesus is fully God).  At one point it almost seemed as if the Church was going to become Arian.  The Emperors Constantius II (337-361) and Valens (364-378) were both Arian and worked to enforce the Arian viewpoint.  The barbarian Visigoths were converted to Christianity as Arians, and many of the later “barbarians” Goths in the east and west were Arian.

Theodosius (346-395, Emperor from 379) established the Catholic Nicene faith as the religion of the empire (edict with co-emperor Gratian in 380), acted against the Arians and paganism in the Empire, called the 2nd Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381.  The Council was presided over by Meletius of Antioch and after his death by Gregory Nazianzus.  The Council adopted the “Nicene” Creed, adding new material on the Holy Spirit.  Arianism began to die out after this Council.

During the Arian crisis, the basic Christian understanding of God as a Trinity of Persons was articulated by the orthodox Church Fathers.  The original Creed of Nicaea in 325 was weak on the Holy Spirit, affirming only “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”  The section of the Creed on the Holy Spirit was expanded at the Council of Constantinople to include the growing appreciation of the Trinitarian nature of God: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.”

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