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Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "The Church Councils." To view all parts, click the link below.
The church in the second and third centuries was divided in its opinions as regarding the nature of Christ and His relationship to the Father. (The position of the Holy Spirit had not yet taken a prominent role in the disputes.)
Bishop Alexander of Alexandria (Egypt) had adopted and developed Origen’s idea of the “eternal generation” of the Son. Origen had taught that “the creative activity of God, which was produced by the Son and the created world was outside of time” (The God of Jesus, Kegan A. Chandler, p. 166). In fact, rather than seeing the ages of time as being one of God’s good creations, as Hebrews 1:2 tells us, he eliminated time in favor of a timeless “now.” Hence, to him all creation existed in a timeless present.
In that context of timelessness, Origen spoke about “the eternal sonship” of Christ, casting aside all notions of time back to the generation of the Logos as well as beyond it. The effect was that the “begotten” Son of God lost His point of origination. An “eternal begetting” was a contradiction in terms, but by His Greek philosophical mindset, this was explained as a mystical paradox. The Hebrew mindset would have considered it to be nonsense.
Respecting Time and Space
Hebrews 1:2 speaks of “His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world [aion, “the age”].” In other words, time was created by the Father through Christ. It was therefore part of the creation that He later pronounced “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Neither matter nor time is evil.
Origen was heavily influenced by Greek thought. Chandler tells us, “Origen, like the Gnostics, had evidently adopted the Platonic view that matter was not only inherently imperfect, but that it was even a disgusting pollution” (The God of Jesus, p. 174). So also he denied the existence of time in a philosophical way, as if denying God’s creation would honor Him. The same attitude toward time is seen in some today.
While it is certainly possible, when moving by the Spirit, to transcend both time and space (or distance), we are not to despise any of God’s creation but to rule it with integrity and respect. The entire Sabbath system and the Jubilee Calendar in Scripture depends upon the creation of time. It forms the basis of prophecy. Jesus did not violate the Sabbath, as the Jews thought, but was its Lord (Luke 6:5) and the Lord of Time as a whole. Though He ruled time, He did not despise it.
Judgment time cycles cannot be breached, although men and nations may certainly lessen the negative effects of divine judgment by repentance and by submitting to the just sentences.
Likewise, both Elijah and Philip transcended space (distance) when Elijah outran the chariot of King Ahab from Mount Carmel to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:46) and Philip was translocated to Azotus (Acts 8:39, 40). Yet these were exceptions, for under normal circumstances, both had to walk to get to their destinations. Both had respect for time and space.
The Greeks despised the material creation, and Origen took this a logical step further by despising time as well. This was the foundation of his idea of “eternal begetting.” It was an attempt to explain the perfection of the Son within the context of evil matter. If the Son was begotten at the beginning, how could He have an origination point without being somehow connected to “evil” matter?
Origen’s solution was to theorize an “eternal begetting,” which is like teaching about timeless time, black whiteness, or immaterial matter. The inherent contradiction then took on the air of spiritual philosophy, and only those who were unspiritual would disagree. It is not so different from the story of the emperor’s new clothes, which were in fact no clothes at all. It was proclaimed that only good men could see his new clothes. Hence, everyone admired his new clothes, even though the emperor was, in fact, naked.
Origen had been a presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt. A century later Alexander, the bishop at the same church, built upon Origen’s terminology. He began teaching that Christ’s Sonship had been for all eternity. This led to the idea that the Father and Son were “consubstantial” (Greek: homoousios, “same substance”), which established the philosophical basis for what later became known as the coequal and coeternal Trinity.
Personally, I have no objection to the term, as long as it is defined according to what Jesus said about Himself. For instance, if I say that my son and I are “of the same substance,” it does not mean that he and I are the same person but are made of the same flesh and blood. Applying it to Jesus, who was begotten by spiritual seed by His heavenly Father, we can see that Jesus was indeed “of the same substance” as His Father.
After all, that is part of the meaningful revelation of a Father-Son relationship. However, the philosophical and religious meaning of words can go beyond its simple definition. In this case, the word was defined to mean that the Father and son were one Person, obliterating the long-held distinction between the Father and the Son.
Now Arius was a presbyter from Libya serving the church at Baucalis. He objected to Bishop Alexander’s innovative teaching. Arius insisted that “the only true God” of Jesus (John 17:3) was the only God that was truly eternal and that He had created a Son in the realm of time before creating the rest of the world. He used Colossians 1:15 as proof that the Son was “the firstborn of all creation,” and that the Son was on the order of an angelic being who later was incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth.
The Arian view came to be summarized this way: “If Jesus is the Son of God, then there was a time when He was not.” His main problem, in my view, was that he used the term “created,” rather than begotten. Furthermore, he believed that the Son was created ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” which contradicted Tertullian, but which actually was a position that later became settled theology in the church.
In my view, God created all things ek autou, “out of Himself” (Romans 11:36). This ought not to be taken in a Pantheistic sense. It does not mean that we are God, but rather that the Creator God fills all things and therefore has a personal stake in all creation. What we feel, He feels. Because it all goes through Him and back to Him in the end, as Paul says, He must therefore reconcile all creation. Failing to accomplish this goal would render Him incomplete for eternity.
At any rate, Arius was outspokenly defiant, and his views were widely accepted. About 320 A.D. Bishop Alexander found it necessary to excommunicate him for insubordination and heresy. The controversy, however, only intensified, as it usually does when a clash of doctrines is met with pride and brute force rather than humility and prayerful reasoning.
The Council of Nicea
The Arian controversy threatened the unity of the church and with it the Roman Empire itself. The Emperor Constantine, along with his fellow caesars, Licinius and Galerius, had issued the Edict of Toleration in 311 A.D., followed two years later by the Edict of Milan which legalized Christianity. These ended the persecutions under the previous administration of Diocletian.
Neither of these edicts would have been made apart from Constantine’s insistence. He himself was of the royal family in Britain. His mother, Helena of York, was an avid Christian, though her husband, Constantius, was not. Constantine himself had publicly adopted Christianity in 312, as he said, after his vision of the cross, by which he won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. This was the point where he departed from his father’s paganism and adopted his mother’s Christianity.
Of course, as Emperor, he still believed that he had the right to make war and to execute those who plotted against him or who were insubordinate. Hence, his religion hardly meets with approval from our present perspective. Nonetheless, the Christians in his day were very grateful for what he did for them in stopping the reign of terror under Diocletian.
Constantine’s “toleration” was less than ideal at times, since he was tolerant only to the point where the empire’s unity was not being threatened. He called for his first Christian councils in 314, 315, and 316 A.D. to deal with the Donatist controversy in hopes of uniting the church. When the councils ruled against the Donatists, the Donatists refused to give up their churches, and Constantine then enforced the ruling of the councils with brute force.
In the midst of this, the Arian controversy began about 315 A.D., and eventually, Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. to try to establish Christian truth and force it upon all who disagreed with the established creed. There was no real freedom of conscience. The love of God was defined in religious terms (creeds), rather than as one’s relationship with God. In the end, love was sacrificed on the altar of church unity, and the emperor forced everyone to worship at that altar.
The Council of Nicea was attended by only a handful of churchmen. It was far from “universal,” yet the church later claimed that it was the first ecumenical (universal) council of the Catholic Church. That was hardly true, for there were others that were far more “universal,” including the Council of Rimini-Seleucia in 359, attended by more than 500 bishops from both East and West. It actually adopted the Arian creed, and so in later years when the tide again turned, it lost its ecumenical status along with its orthodoxy.
Many have thought that the Council of Nicea established the Trinity, but that is not the case. The Council made the Father and Son coequal and coeternal (Binitarian Theology). The main proof text used by Athenasius, “The Hammer,” was John 10:30, where Jesus said, “I and My Father are one.” Instead of interpreting this as being one in purpose or of one mind, Athenasius insisted that it meant that Father and Son were one Person. This violated Jesus’ other words, where He always deferred to His Father (John 5:19, 20) and said that His Father was greater (John 14:28).
Decades later, the Holy Spirit was added to make a Trinity. That Council only made brief mention of the Holy Spirit, saying, “We believe in the Holy Spirit,” a statement which was agreed upon by all. It was not until 381 at the Council of Constantinople that the Trinity, including the Holy Spirit, was established as orthodox truth.
The term homoousios to describe the Father-Son relationship had already been condemned in 268 by the Council of Antioch, for it had been used and defined in an earlier Gnostic writing entitled Poimandres. This writing taught that Nous, “Mind, Intellect,” i.e., the Supreme God was said to be homoousios with His Son, the Logos.
Arius himself argued against the use of the term on the grounds that it had been promoted by Mani (the founder of Manicheanism) and Valentinus, who had already been condemned and exiled earlier as a heretic.
Hence, when Constantine suggested its use at the Nicene Council in 325, the word was met with much criticism by those who dared to oppose the emperor. Athenasius took Constantine’s suggestion and became the apostle of homoousios during the Council itself. Hence, the official creed read:
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance [homoousios] with the Father.”
Even so, Athenasius refused to use the word for next fifteen years, which suggests that he had doubts about his own creed. Constantine died in 335, and the Council of Antioch in 341 made changes to the Athenasian Creed, dropping the word homoousios. That Council also changed “true God from true God” (whatever that meant) to a simple and ambiguous “God from God,” which did not offend the Subordinationists of the day.
The Council of Sardica in 343 drew up a new creed without using homoousios.
Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "The Church Councils." To view all parts, click the link below.