In this essay Daniel Gullotta investigates the significance of the Council of Nicaea in the emergence of Trinitarian Doctrine and the factors that contributed to its development
Looking for the Trinity
Many Christians and non-Christians look for a 'moment' or an event when Jesus of Nazareth 'became' God in the beliefs of the Church. Those seeking to find 'the Trinity' in the New Testament will be sadly disappointed and those who simply point to the Council of Nicaea will not do justice to the issue. The problem is that people see the Trinity as a doctrine that can be as easily explained and just as easily thrown away. The Trinity was and is a doctrine that was developed over time through revelation and reflection. The journey to our Creedal understanding of the Trinity moves beyond the New Testament, and begins to take life in the apostolic fathers, and second and third-century fathers of the church, and far beyond. Most important to this development in the emerging doctrine was the Arian controversy and the Council of Nicaea.
This essay will explore and study the significance of the Council of Nicaea in the emergence of Trinitarian Doctrine and investigate what factors contributed to the development of this doctrine.
The Early Church Fathers
The Trinitarian formula occurred early in the Church and in looking at the development of the Trinitarian doctrine, we must begin with the examining the second- and third-century attempts to understand and interpret this Trinitarian formula. The human and divine natures of Jesus began to consume much of Christian thought throughout the centuries. Philosophy began to intrude on theological interpretations, as deeper clarity was sought into the meaning of Jesus' life, words and actions. Many questions arose in relation to the portrait of Christ painted by the evangelists. What did it mean when Jesus said, "The Father and I are one" (Jn. 10:30)? How was Jesus' own knowledge and equality perceived in relation to his incarnate divinity and the Trinity when he admits that he is not privy to information that only the Father knows (Mk. 13:32)? What were the meanings behind Jesus' cry of isolation and abandonment on the cross — "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!" (Mk. 15:34; Mt. 27:46)?
Justin Martyr (100-165) believed that one could establish Christ's divinity from the Old Testament appearances and prophecies, even without sacrificing faith in the one God. Central to Justin's apologetics was that worshipping Jesus did not contradict monotheism. Justin argued that the Son, sharing in the essence (ousia)and mind of God, was and is truly divine. The Son was the Logos, the word, who creates, organizes, and affects the who comos. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century – 202), in conflict with Maricon and the Gnostics, stressed the fully human, bodily, bloody, and fleshy reality of Christ. Important also to Irenaeus was the fact that Christ's existence was eternal, against the notion that he was merely "produced" or "generated". Irenaeus rejected Maricon's separation of the God of the Old Testament from the God the Father and argued that they were truly one and the same. In light of the incarnation, Irenaeus held fast that the Son became "truly man" and discarded the idea that Christ "pretended" or "appeared" human.
Perhaps the most influential writer before the Arian conflict and the Council of Nicaea is the Alexandrian Origen (185-254). Against the theology of the adoptionists, who while including Christ's divinity, held that he was a creature whom God had adopted as his Son, Origen insisted on the eternal generation of the Son. He identified the Son with the Wisdom of the Word, keeping along the themes of Justin and Tertullian, he clarified the eternal generation of the Word as "light from light". He also argued that the Son and the Holy Spirit were in "subordination", rather then inferior in power, to the Father as the ultimate principle, and set many of the foundations in understanding the tripersonal God.
Arius – "there was a time when he was not"
However, shortly after Origen's death a priest from Alexandria wished to push the subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit further. This priest's name was Arius (256-336). Like many Alexandrians who inherited Origen's understandings that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were distinct, subsistent realties who shared in the one divine nature but manifested certain subordination, Arius could not move past what he saw as a contradiction to monotheism. Although Arius believed that Christ was the Word of God, incarnate in human form, and divine, nevertheless Christ was subordinate to God the Father; he denied that the Son had the same nature and substance as God. The Son-Logos, Arius allowed, might well have pre-dated the rest of creation, but it was inappropriate to imagine that he shared the divine pre-existence. Thus, it was important to confess the principle that "there was a time when he (the Logos) was not".
Arius being skilled at writing hymns and liturgy soon worked his theology into the minds of his parishioners. Because of Arius, the diocese of Alexandria was in serious disarray and everyone, theologian or not, seemed to be drawn to this controversial debate. Gregory of Nyssa (340-94) summarized the situation as follows: "If you ask a man for change, he will give you a piece of philosophy concerning the Begotten and the Unbigoted; if you enquire the price of a loaf, he replies: 'The Father is greater and the Son inferior'; or if you ask whether the bath is ready, the answer you receive is that the Son was made out of nothing.'"
The bishop of the diocese, Alexander of Alexandria (Late 2nd Century – 326), would not allow a theologian's dispute to sprout out publicly in such an alarming, and in turn Arius was censured for denying the Son's eternity and true divinity. Deposed from his priestly office, Arius immediately appealed against that disciplinary decision to one of the most powerful bishops of the era, Eusebius of Nicomedia, a kinsman by marriage to Constantine the emperor. Arius and Eusebius had been students together and shared a common theological view. Eusebius, the court theologian of the imperial capital, knew that if Arius was being attacked then so was he. From that moment onwards he was determined to squash what he regarded as a "foolish Egyptian piety". By elevating the Son of God to the same status as God the Father, he argued, Christianity would compromise its claim to be a monotheist religion and from this stance he marshalled numerous supporters.
"Of one substance"
Constantine summoned the bishops to his private lakeside palace at Nicaea in Asia Minor.
The bitterness of this debate seemed remarkable to many observers, but it was a clash between two confessional traditions that had been uneasy companions in the church for generations. So notorious had the falling out of Eastern bishops become over this matter that it was brought to the attention of Emperor Constantine who, in 324, had defeated his last rival to become sole monarch of all the Roman Empire. Constantine decided to use the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his claiming of the throne (an event that sparked a civil war), which would be celebrated in 325, to help settle the embarrassing dispute among his allies, the bishops. The chaos in the eastern territories had to be solved for Constantine to effectively demonstrate that he had "brought peace".
Constantine summoned the bishops to his private lakeside palace at Nicaea in Asia Minor. Tradition holds that 318 clergy were in attendance, however as this is a Greek number-cipher for the cross, many modern historians think that around 250 is a more accurate figure. The majority of the bishops were not well educated, and only a few of them were skilled rhetoricians and theologians. Sadly there is no official record of the Council however the most important contribution of the first Ecumenical Council was the formation of a creed that could claim universal authority. The creed was adapted from a baptismal confession that was popular in Palestine, although with several additions. Most notable of these additions was the phrases "true God from true God" and "of one substance with the Father".
We believe in one God the Father all power, make of all things, both seen and unseen and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten from the Father, of one substance with the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten note made, consubstantial with the Father, through all things came to be… And the in the Holy Spirit.
Arius and his followers could either sign this profession of faith or be sent into exile. Arius chose the latter.
Developments & Debates (Then and Now)
Nicaea by no means settled the Trinitarian and Christological controversy and debates by any means. Even though the term "consubstantial" (homoousios) was applied to the Son, only thirty years after the council the term was hardly even used. While the Council of Nicaea did not end the debate it did pave the way for continuous debates as to how the one substance of the Father and the Son could be reconciled with the distinction affirmed to them. The creed would set the tone for the next council, the First Council of Constantinople (381). The language expressed would inspire the minds of great theologians like Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. It is clear by looking at the development of the Trinitarian Doctrine we can see the theological, political, and social factors that influenced the debate throughout history. Rather than providing a complete and 'perfect' understanding, Nicaea developed and deepened the Church's understanding of the Triune God. Nicaea stands as a reminder to us how the Christian faith didn't "drop from the sky one day", but it was through discernment, dialogue, debate, and discussion that we proudly rise on a Sunday and "confess our faith — the faith of the Church".
 Yuri Koszarycz, Concerns for the Unity of Faith (The ORB: The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies), www.the-orb.net/textbooks/eccles/unity.html.
 William J. La Due, The Trinity Guide to the Trinity (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2003), 32.
 Ibid., 33.
 Gerald O'Collins, The Tripersonal God: Understanding and Interpreting the Trinity (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 97.
 Ibid., 109.
 Ibid., 111.
 Ibid., 111.
 Bernard Lonergan, The Way to Nicaea(London: Lonergan & Todd, 1976), 69-71.
 John Anthony Mcguckin, The Road to Nicaea, (Christianity Today, 2006), www.ctlibrary.com/ch/2005/issue85/theroadtonicaea.html.
 William G. Rusch, The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 35.
 The Road to Nicaea
 The Road to Nicaea
 La Due, Trinity Guide, 41.
Daniel Gullotta is a student at ACU National, studying a Bachelor's degree in Theology. He is a convert to the Anglican Church and a member of MEC's Youth Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane.
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