The prophets of the Old Testament did not have to speculate about the nature of God. They saw and conversed him face to face, and some of them have left descriptions of his appearance. New Testament accounts confirm the ancient understanding of God, but disputes about his nature arose in Christianity during the second century AD. The problem arose because the Christians, while accepting a Godhead comprising Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, claimed to be monotheists like the Jews from whom they sprang. The argument did not set well with the rabbis and others, who argued that three persons make three gods.
In an attempt to reconcile the New Testament descriptions of the Godhead, i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with the concept of monotheism, early Christian theologians employed Greek philosophy, using terms found in pre-Christian philosophical discussions but not employed in the Greek New Testament, such as ousia (generally rendered “essence”), hypostasis (generally rendered “substance”), physis (“nature”), and prosopon (“person”). 1 Objections to the use of such terms included the fact that they were used by the heretical Gnostics, and objections to the terms hypostasis and homoousia (“same substance” or, from the later Latin version, “consubstantial”) had already been raised at the synods of Antioch, held between AD 264-268, which rejected the word homoousia. In time, the unification of Christianity depended on formalization of the philosophical arguments. The first real opportunity to do so came in the early fourth century AD.
Council of Nicea
The Egyptian church was embroiled in bitter disputes about the nature of the Godhead. Arius, one of the presbyters (elders), denied the Christ had existed forever, declaring that he was begotten of the Father and hence came into being after him. Athenasius, the bishop of Alexandria, countered that Christ had always been divine and hence eternal. His followers maintained that the Father was eternally Father and the Son eternally Son—something that cannot be supported from scripture.
In an effort to solve the dispute and to unite Christianity in its definition of the Godhead, the emperor Constantine, not yet baptized, called a council to be held in the city of Nicea (in what is today western Turkey ) in AD 325. Some 2,000 clergymen, mostly priests, with some bishops, attended, with the government paying their travel expenses. The bishop of Rome was ill, and sent some priests in his place.
At the outset, the Arians were the most numerous and Constantine, who presided over the Council, was advised by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea and biographer of the emperor, to support them. But later, when the Emperor lent his support to Athanasius, many of the others went to that side to gain their sovereign’s favor. 2
At the end of the proceedings, a creed was formalized, which tried to show that Jesus was begotten of God from eternity. The original creed reads as follows:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.”
Though many objected to the use of the term homoousia (“same substance”), citing its rejection by the synods of Antioch , the creed ended up declaring that Christ was of the very same substance with the Father. This ultimately led to the trinitarian view of one God manifest in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. E. Royston Pike (a member of the Church of England) explains how this error came about, explaining that, following the council,
“the orthodox Catholics maintained that Christ was co-eternal with the Father and, like him, unoriginate. Their view was expressed in the Nicene Creed where the mystical oneness of nature of God the Son and God the Father is expressed by the word homoousios, ‘of one substance with.’ Oneness of nature was not intended to mean oneness of person, however: the First and Second Persons were not identical but separate. Subsequently there was an attempt to close the breach between the Catholics and the Arians, and it. was suggested that homoiosios, “of like nature,” might be substituted for homoousios. The suggestion only increased the theological warfare, and Gibbon referred to ‘the furious contests which the difference of a single dipthong excited.’” 3
It is likely that some of the early Christians meant to say that the Father and the son were made of the same type of substance, but not that they were two persons in one substance. The latter concept came to prevail in time. Meanwhile, with the Arians more numerous in parts of the empire, it is interesting that Constantine was baptized by an Arian priest and that two of his three immediate successors (his sons) were also Arians.
Of the Nicene Creed, Pike wrote that it is
“One of the three principal doctrinal statements of Christianity. It was framed at the Council held at Nicea (Nice), a city of Bithnia in Asia Minor , under the presidency of the Emperor Constantine in 325. In the main it is an explanation of the orthodox view of the nature of Christ, who is stated to be not only of like substance or nature (homoiousion) but of one or the same substance or nature (homoousion) with the Father. At the Council of Constantinople in 381 the addition was made of the tenet of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, whence the creed is styled the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Finally, some time in the 5 th century the Western Church added the statement that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Son (filiqoque)—an addition which was repudiated by the Eastern Church. In spite of this, the Nicene Creed is the only one that is adopted by all the Christian Churches. In the Church of England it is recited at Holy Comunion.” 4
Council of Constantinople
The Nicene Creed did not put an end to controversy. Another council was held in AD 381 at Constantinople to refine the creed. Here is the wording of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed, after the additions mentioned by Pike:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-Begotten Son of God begotten of the Father before the worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (essence) with the Father; by whom all things were made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life; who proceedeth from the Father (and the Son); who, with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the prophets. And (I believe) one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to area. Amen.”
This Creed is commonly called simply the “Nicene Creed,” though it clearly is an expansion of the original. The words “and the Son” in parentheses are not accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches because they were not in the original. 5 The Creed is used by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches, and most other Protestant churches. 6 Ironically, it makes the Holy Ghost, rather than God the Father, the father of Jesus, which necessitated having Christ begotten of the Father only in Spirit. 7
The Athanasian Creed is also commonly called the “Nicene Creed.” It was written to “explain” the original, supposedly by Athanasius, but certainly much later. Today, the verbs is and are are added to the text and the word “incomprehensible” has been replaced by “infinite.” The Creed is accepted by the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, and reads as follows:
“And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons: nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son: and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal. As also there are not three incomprehensibles nor three uncreates, but one uncreate and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty: and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet there are not three Almightites: but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet there are not three Lords: but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be both God and Lord, so are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion, to say, there be three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is afore, or after another; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity. Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood. Who although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God; One altogether, not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting, and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”
One wonders if God can be more incomprehensible than this creed.
The earliest written version of the so-called “Apostles’ Creed” is perhaps the Interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus (ca. AD 215). The current form is first found in the writings of Caesarius of Arles (died AD 542) and reads as follows:
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.”
The tradition that the creed was developed by the apostles, each of them uttering one of its twelve articles, arose in the fifth century AD. Its real origin is unknown, though it is clearly tied to Western, rather than Eastern, Christianity, being used by the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, and many Baptist churches.
Eastern Orthodox Creeds
With the minor exceptions noted earlier, the Eastern Orthodox churches accept the earlier creeds adopted at the ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople. The Orthodox Synod of 1672 adopted the following Confession of Dositheus, Patriarch of Jerusalem, who was in attendance:
“We believe in one God, true, almighty, and infinite, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the Father unbegotten; the Son begotten of the Father before the ages, and consubstantial with Him; and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father, and consubstantial with the Father and the Son. These three Persons in one essence we call the All-holy Trinity,—by all creation to be ever blessed, glorified and adored.
The Augsberg Confession comprises the Articles of Faith and Doctrine of the Lutheran Church, of which Article 10 reads,
“We unanimously hold and teach, in accordance with the decree of the Council of Nicaea, that there is one divine essence, which is called and which is truly God, and that there are three persons in this one divine essence, equal in power and alike eternal: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. All three are one divine essence, eternal, without division, without end, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, one creator and preserver of all things visible and invisible. The word “person” is to be understood as the Fathers employed the term in this connection, not as a part of a property of another but as that which exists of itself.” 8
Anglican and Related Creeds
The following creed comprises Article 10 in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1662:
“There is but one living and true God, Everlasting; without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, both visible and invisible; and in the unity of this Godhead, there are three persons of one substance, power, and eternity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” 9
The various break-offs from the Church of England have similar creeds. For example, article 1 of the Methodist Articles of Religion declares, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Article 2 reads, “ The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.” Article 4 reaffirms that “ The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God. ”
The Westminster Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church declares,
“There is but one living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal most just and terrible in his judgments; hating all sin, and who will be no means clear the guilty.” (Article 1)
“In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.” (Article 3)
The Declaration of Faith, also known as the New Hampshire Confession, defines the American Baptist Church ‘s belief in God. Article 2 reads,
“(We believe) that there is one, and only one, living and true God, (an infinite, intelligent Spirit,) whose name is Jehovah, the Maker and Supreme Ruler of heaven and earth; inexpressibly glorious in holiness; (and) worthy of all possible honor, confidence, and love; revealed under the personal and divine distinctions of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; equal in every divine perfection, and executing distinct but harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.”
In 1925, the Southern Baptist Convention received a report of its Committee on Baptist Faith and Message, of which the second paragraph reads,
“There is one and only one living and true God, an intelligent, spiritual and personal Being, the Creator, Preserver and Ruler of the universe, infinite in holiness and all other perfections, to whom we owe the highest love, reverence and obedience. He is revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence or being.”
Join John Tvedtnes tomorrow as he begins to explain Concepts about God and a Biblical Examination of the Facts here on Meridian.
1 Even modern theologians are hard-pressed to explain the creedal definition of God without employing ancient Greek terminology. Thus, one modern Christian leader, Dr. Andrew Miller, writing on “ The Role Of The Baby Jesus In The Trinity,” says : “The Baby Jesus is a temporal prosopon of the Logos hypostatic branch of the Trinity and is the conduit through which the circuit of Agape is grounded in Humanity. Like all the hypostases, the Baby Jesus is a fully integrated, homoousian manifestation of the Trinity, having two natures, both Infantile and Divine—Baby and God.” Posted at http://objectiveministries.org/pastorscorner/
2 Though the Arians remained numerous throughout the centuries that followed, especially among the Visigoths of western Europe, their subsequent decline put them in the clear minority and they have been labeled the “most famous of the Christian heresies” by E. Royston Pike, Encyclopedia of Religion and Religions (London: Allen and Unwin, 1951), 29. Ironically, the apostle Paul noted that, because of the manner in which he worshiped God, he was considered a heretic by those of the Jewish faith from which he had come (Acts 24:14-16).
3 Ibid., 29. An excellent example of the disputes is that of the Council of Seleucia. In AD 358, the emperor Constantius II, son of Constantine and himself an Arian, called for two councils, one in the east at Nicomedia , one in the west at Ariminum, to discuss the Arian question. When an earthquake hit Nicomedia and killed, among others, its bishop, the venue was changed to Seleucia , where 160 bishops assembled the following year. “The emperor had prohibited the introduction of any term into the formularies of faith which was not found in the Sacred Scriptures” and some of the bishops hence argued that “the terms ‘consubstantial’ and ‘of similar substance’” should be rejected but “to confess clearly that the Son is like unto the Father.” In the end, the terminology was retained and the earlier creeds reaffirmed. For a detailed description of the council, see Sozomen (died ca. AD 447), Ecclesiastical History 4.22-23, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , Second Series (reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 2:316-319.
4 E. Royston Pike, Encyclopedia of Religion and Religions , 276.
5 The Orthodox rely on Jesus’ saying in John 15:26 that “the Spirit of truth .
. . proceedeth from the Father.”
6 Note that, according to John 15:26, the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father, but not the Son, while in John 8:42 we learn that the Son also proceeds from the Father.
7 The idea derives from Luke 1:35, where the angel Gabriel says to Mary, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Latter-day Saints see this as an indication that one cannot endure the presence of God without being transfigured by the presence of the Holy Ghost.
8 Latter-day Saints sometimes make the mistake of thinking that Trinitarians believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are a single person. But in Trinitarian thought, they are each a “person,” though the three persons together constitute a single God. The term rendered “person” in the English translations is Greek hypostasis , which is not used in reference to members of the Godhead in the Bible. The Greek term literally means “standing under,” hence “foundation,” and later came to be understood as “essence, being.”
9 It is unclear whether the ideas of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) played a role in the creed adopted in his lifetime or whether his writings reflect the creed. It was he who developed the theory of an “infinite universe,” in which gravitation, which he considered to be the power of God, ruled everywhere. Newton wrote that God had no body, parts, or passions. In addition, he wrote that “God is the same God, always and everywhere. He is omnipresent not virtually only but also substantially; for virtue cannot subsist without substance.” He also contradicted himself in some of his writings, saying of God that “He is not duration of space, but He endures and is present . . . by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space.” H. S. Thayer, ed., Newton’s Philosophy of Nature: Selections from his Writings (New York: Hafner, 1953, 42-44).