Stephen Nichols – The Nicene Creed and the Importance of a Single Letter

Posted On June 22, 2016

Time Wasted?

We believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father. —The Nicene Creed

You might have heard someone refer to theologians as wasting time and energy in their ivory-tower debates. (In the interest of full disclosure, I for one have never lived or worked in an ivory tower, and I can’t say I ever met a fellow theologian who has.) The ivory tower expression reflects the sentiment of those who easily grow weary of apparently inane theological debate and the seemingly endless wrestling over views on peripheral matters.

Indeed, to the making of theological views on any and all subjects there appears to be no end. Yet the church could not be as grateful to anyone as they can and should be to Athanasius, a theologian who wrangled over not just a word but over a letter for six decades! Athanasius spent his life in one long theological debate over apparent minutiae. And if he hadn’t, we’d all be in trouble.

Athanasius’s tenacity paid off. After his death in 373, the second ecumenical council convened at Constantinople in 381. Constantius II had long passed from the scene, and Theodosius II, who ruled over the Eastern Empire from 379–395, was anxious to rout the Arian controversy, in which Arius held the view that Christ was more than human, but not identical in essence or being to God. At Constantinople II any potential nod to Arianism, or even a wink to it, was put out of the church once and for all. Athanasius’s view of Christ as being of one substance or essence (homoousion) with the Father won the day, while Arius’s view of Christ as similar substance with the Father (homoiousion) was declared to be outside the bounds of orthodoxy and thus condemned.

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