Many times I’ve heard people express the ideas “There won’t be a theology exam that I’ll need to pass to get into Heaven, “ or “Why do we need creeds? They are unnecessary.” It’s true enough that we won’t likely sit for an exam at the base of the Pearly Gates and recitation of a creed during Mass seems rote and pointless, but there is a very good reason that the Church sees to it that we understand God correctly and that we state these creeds. We worship what we know. The more imperfect our understanding of God, the more imperfect our worship of Him will be. One example of the importance of this true understanding was the Arian heresy which plagued the Early Church. In fact, May 20th, 325 A.D. is traditionally accepted as the date of the commencement of the Council of Nicaea, which sought to define what Christians had always believed about the divinity of Jesus Christ in the face of the Arian attempts to undermine it.
Questions about the nature of Jesus Christ and his relation to God the Father and the Holy Spirit rose up very quickly after his death. Many had tried before to rationally explain the truths passed down. Many said the Father was the same as the Son. Others said Jesus wasn’t God. One of those men was a priest in Alexandria, Egypt named Arius.
Arius was tall and lean, handsome, polite, and incredibly intelligent. He claimed he understood the nature of God clearly. In brief, Arius taught that the Son was created by the Father. He then argued that if the Son was created, he had a beginning, and thus there was a time when he did not exist. If the Son had a beginning, it follows that he was not eternal and, therefore, he could not be God. Therefore, Father alone was true God.
What does this line of logic mean for our faith? Jesus Christ requires both full humanity and full divinity in order to satisfy the conditions for our salvation. In other words, if Jesus Christ wasn’t God, then we cannot be saved. Without a Divine Nature, Jesus’ death on the cross would be as efficacious as my death on a cross – completely and utterly worthless. A Christ who is not divine cannot bring men to the Divine. This isn’t merely a thought experiment along the lines of the mocking question, “How many Angels can fit on the head of a pin”.
Seeming to teach a more reasonable and understandable approach to the nature of Christ, Arius drew an avid following with his preaching. In deliberate disobedience to his bishop, Arius began a writing campaign to spread his doctrines through letters, pamphlets, and popular songs. Bishops began lining up both for and against him. Both sides appealed to Emperor Constantine. The Emperor sent his tutor, Bishop Hosius down to Alexandria to determine the issue and come up with a plan. Bishop Hosius determined that a council of all the Bishops was needed to solve the problem.
The Council of Nicaea
Emperor Constantine ordered a council to take place near his new capital of Constantinople. Presided over by Bishop Hosius and two representatives of the Pope, the council included over 300 bishops from around the world.
Each bishop took a turn standing up and stating their opinion. Discussion followed. Arius spoke nearly every day, plainly explaining aspects of his teachings in front of the bishops. Arguing the case against Arius’s teaching was a deacon (and future saint), Athanasius, who countered that the Son, being begotten of the Father, is consubstantial (of the same substance as) with the Father, and that therefore the Son is God. The bishops turned to the Sacred Scriptures but every passage the orthodox bishops brought up to show that Jesus was divine was interpreted by the Arians to mean just the opposite. This is an example of why the Bible alone cannot be our sole guide.
The bishops turned to the Sacred Tradition (constant teaching through the ages) of the Church and compared that to Arius’ more extreme writings. At this point, it became abundantly clear just how far he had strayed in his teaching and his support crumbled. Led by deacon Athanasius of Alexandria, the “orthodox” bishops negotiated back and forth to find the best statement of belief to assert the correct understanding of the nature of God in order to stop the spread of Arianism. The Arian-leaning bishops proposed several vague formulas to which they could easily sign and maintain their unorthodox beliefs. The council decided something more specific and precise was needed.
The Nicene Creed
Only the term homousious, Greek for “consubstantial,” or “one in being,” was clear enough to explain what had always been believed. This term hammered home the idea that Jesus was the same substance as God the Father, and thus equally uncreated, unchangeable, and eternal. Bishop Hosius convinced the Emperor to use this term as part of a creed meant for all Christians to adhere to which more clearly conveyed an accurate understanding of the true teachings of the Church. This creed became known as the Nicene Creed. This is what it said:
”We believe in one only God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one only Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the sole-begotten of the Father, that is to say of the Father’s substance, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten not made, consubstantial (homoousion) with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down, became incarnate, became man, suffered, was raised again on the third day, ascended back to heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit. As for those who say ‘There was a time when He did not exist; before He was begotten He did not exist; He was made from nothing or from another substance or essence; the Son of God is a created being, changeable, capable of alteration, ‘ to such as these the Catholic Church says Anathema.”
This creed was expanded upon at the next council when the Church faced challenges to the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The improved creed is the one pronounced by Christians all over the world today, the Nicene-Constantinople Creed.
So now you know that small theological details have large consequences and that creeds are a means by which the Church safeguards these hard-fought truths for future generations to have. With more-perfect knowledge of God, we can more-perfectly worship Him.
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