Description / Transcription
I hope that you have with you or grabbed a copy on your way in of this little booklet, pamphlet, on the Nicene Creed. If you don’t have one, you should turn in the Red Trinity Hymnal to page 846 and there you can find a copy of the Nicene Creed. It will be good to have it open in front of you. In fact, we didn’t do this last week, but it would be good for us to read it together.
One of the ways in which you can tell this initial creed of Nicaea versus the Nicene Creed, one of the main differences, the creed of Nicaea is not written in a liturgical way. It’s not written in a way that is easily read. Even though the Nicene Creed is somewhat long, and it has complicated theology as we’ll see in a moment, it does read very well and is good for liturgical use and worship like this.
So let’s stand, and hopefully you have a copy of this or you’ve turned to it now in the hymnal, and let’s confess together. Christian, what do we believe?
We believe in one God the Father almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
Of all things visible and invisible:
And 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,
by whom all things were made;
who for us and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary,
and was made man,
and was crucified also 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 is seated at the right hand of the Father.
And He shall come again with glory
to judge both the living and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son together
is worshiped and glorified,
who spoke by the prophets.
And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.
And I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
You may be seated.
You can see quite obviously there are three sections. One about the Father, one about the Son, and in the creed one about the Holy Spirit.
Now on one level this tells us something important about the controversies in the early Church. You notice, well, there’s nothing here about gender identity. There’s nothing here about the millennium. There is about the kingdom that never ends. There is nothing here about inerrancy. Any creed or confession or catechism is to some degree going to reflect the various issues that were alive at the time and so these issues are chiefly about Christology, the person of Christ, and the doctrine of God, namely the trinity.
But the trinitarian focus tells us not only what was going on in the historical context, but it also tells us what should be important to us, not just what was important to them. The early Church didn’t start talking about the trinity only when heresies arose, as if for a couple hundred years it wasn’t really something that was important to them. No, as we saw last week, from the very beginning the church’s liturgies, prayers, hymns, baptismal formulas, these things which maybe get lumped under the category of “are you a liturgical church or not,” well, these are things that from the earliest days in the Church were already there and were being used and they often had trinitarian form like this and trinitarian content.
Being a Christian was irreducibly about believing in and worshiping the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So it’s important from the very beginning because for most Christians in 2023 I daresay that the doctrine of the trinity, yes, yes, yes, that’s somewhere on our statement of faith, somewhere on our website, but it is not a doctrine that forms the shaping power of the head and of the heart, but it should. And it did here in the early Church.
Now notice, we’re going to look at two particular words. One is translated “only begotten,” and the other is translated “one substance.” So both of these have to do with the person of Christ. We’re going to get there.
But notice the structure just a little bit more. The longest section, as you can see, is about this middle section, about the Son. Beginning is a very short section, only one sentence about the Father, and then concluding is a medium-length section on the Holy Spirit, bringing in elements of our salvation and forgiveness and the doctrine of the Church.
Now this is not because the Father is just a little important, the Son’s really important, and then the Holy Spirit’s kind of Goldilocks right in the middle. The historical reality is that there was no controversy surrounding the person of the Father, that He was God, that was obvious. There was a lot to debate, however, about the person of the Son and then the debate continues with the person of the Holy Spirit.
If you have this brochure with you, you can turn, and remember the Creed of Nicaea is what the council in 325 actually adopted, and then building on that theological legacy what we know as the Nicene Creed was adopted at the Council of Constantinople in 381. But if you look at the Creed of Nicaea, notice its section on the Holy Spirit. It says, “And in the Holy Spirit.” Well, that’s sort of covering your bases, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So a couple generations later, by the time we get to the Nicene Creed itself, you can see that there’s much more that is said about the Holy Spirit.
So none of this is to imply one member of the trinity is more important than another, but it does tell us something about the relative controversies of the day and there is some theological significance here. We would never say that the Son is more important than the Father or the Spirit, that would be heretical. At the same time, it is true that we know the Father through the Son and the Spirit reveals the Son and glorifies the Son. That’s what Jesus says in John 14 and John 16. In other words, it makes sense both historically and theologically that the most important section in the Creed would deal largely with the person and the work of Jesus Christ, because it’s through Christ that we bring glory to God the Father and the Holy Spirit’s work is to throw a spotlight that we might know Christ. There is a reason that the Church took very early on one of its chief symbols to be the cross. It’s nothing against the symbolism of a dove, but it’s more fitting that the Church would have a cross because the Holy Spirit’s work is not to draw attention to Himself, but rather to draw attention to Christ, His person and His work.
So we’re going to get to these two terms, “only begotten” and “one substance.”
But first notice what is said about God the Father. Only one sentence and yet the Creed tells us four things about God. Notice, number one – there is only one God. So not many gods, not rival gods, not gods and goddesses. One God. This is what the Israelites believed, the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” or “The Lord is one God.”
Keep in mind though we inhabit the western world where it seems very normal that there’s just one God, this was utterly strange and extraordinary in the Roman world. The only people chiefly that believed in one God were the Jews and the Christians. One God.
Second. Notice this God, He is the Father. God the Father is not a biological male. He doesn’t have a body. But it is important to recognize that God has revealed Himself in Scripture using exclusively masculine names and titles. Not that there isn’t the occasional imagery about God like a when brooding over her chicks, but when it comes to God revealing names and titles, it is King, not queen, husband, not wife, Father, not mother.
God is Father in at least two senses. One, that we are His children, but here even more importantly, He is Father because He has a Son. The Nicene Creed can say that God is Father because Jesus Christ is His Son. In fact, this is an important implied part of the argument which we’ll come to a little later, that only can God the Father be eternal if God the Son can be eternal. If at some point a Son had to be made, then God the Father was not always the Father. So He is Father.
So one God. He’s Father.
Third, He is almighty. The Creed, originally written in Greek, uses the word, it’s a great word, Pantokratora, meaning ruler of all, or almighty.
Interestingly, nine of the ten uses of the word Pantokratora in the New Testament are found in Revelation and there the term is applied almost in equal amount to God the Father and to God the Son. He is God the almighty.
Then fourth, He is the Creator. Everything except for God exists because God has willed it into existence. God alone exists independently. Theologians call that the Doctrine of His Aseity, that is, His independence. He is maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
So all of that in the first section, the first sentence. It’s important in its own right, and it’s also important so that we can understand if that’s something to say about God, Father, what do we say now about God that we call the Son?
There’s one God, we call Him Father, and yet, the next paragraph, we also believe in one Lord Jesus Christ. This means intuitively even though we don’t have all of the categories lined up, you ought to be thinking, all right, so there’s some way in which there’s one God, we know that, and yet we just confessed the Father and now we’ve confessed the Son and by the end we will confess the Holy Spirit. So the language the Creed uses already without giving all the technical terminology, is leading the Christian to this conclusion.
As I said last week, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, they have somewhere their origins in the ancient baptismal formulas, which asked adult converts to baptism, they asked them, “Do you believe in the Father?” and there was a section, “Do you believe in the Son? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” So in some ways, all of this theological discussion in the early Church is trying to say, “How do we come up with the right language to describe and to defend this reality which we can see so plainly in Scripture? There’s one God, the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, but the Father’s not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father.”
Those series of statements, each of which can be shown from Scripture form the biblical doctrine of the trinity, and then this theology is to try to say how can we say all of those things at the same time.
Jesus Christ is called one, lest we think that this divine man was actually two persons. Later at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Church will define more exactly how Christ is one person with two natures, but that’s not yet the front burner issue that Nicaea has to deal with.
The Creed starts by affirming that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God, so that’s the first of the two words that we want to look at tonight. The Greek word translated “only begotten” is “monogenes.” You could spell it, English transliteration, m-o-n-o-g-e-n-e-s. Mono, like one, and genes, like to come forth, or to be brought forth. The only brought forth, the only begotten Son.
It’s a word that is used five times in the New Testament with reference to Jesus, monogenes. John 1:14, John 1:18, John 3:16, John 3:18, 1 John 4:9 – For God so loved the world that He gave… Now depending on your age, what’s the next, what rolls off your tongue? That He gave “His only begotten Son.” I’m so old, I’m so old that I first memorized John 3:16 in the King James version because the NIV was barely even a thing, and many of you would have done so as well.
The King James translated those “monogenes,” that term, as “only begotten.” Modern English translations use something like “one and only” or “one of a kind.” This isn’t the time to get into what is a better translation, but surely the theology is not dependent upon the translation in John of monogenes.
But the Creed is, no doubt, using intentionally this same term which is used of Jesus in John’s writings, both in His Gospel and in His first letter. Translated in the King James and here in the Nicene Creed monogenes as “only begotten.”
God is Father, chiefly because He has a Son. Jesus is the Son because He has a Father. And the way in which the Son relates to the Father is by begetting, or to put it in the reverse order, the Father generates the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father, the Father generates the Son. The Son is from “the substance of the Father.” That’s what the Creed of Nicaea, the first version there, says.
So the Son’s essence, and we’re going to slow down in a minute and talk about these terms, but the Son’s essence, or His being, derives from the essence of the Father. One thing we can say about the Father that we cannot say about the Son is that the Father is unbegotten.
Theologians call this the personal properties of the persons of the trinity. It sounds complicated, but it just means what are those properties, what are those things that are proper to the Father but not to the Son, to the Son but not to the Spirit. What can you say? How do you distinguish? Because we’re going to hear, there’s a lot of things we want to say absolutely identical about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But they’re not just three different modes of being, so what are their personal properties?
Well, one of the things you can say about the Father but not the Son is the Father was unbegotten. No one begat the Father. So by the same token, one thing you can say about the Son that you can’t say about the Father is that the Son is begotten. Clear as mud.
Okay, what does that mean? Well, let’s back up and remember what the Arians were teaching. This presbyter or pastor in the city of Alexandria, he started airing his opinions around A.D. 318. The Arians agreed that Jesus Christ was the only begotten Son of God. That was language that they agreed on. What they didn’t agree on is what those words meant.
In a letter to Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, so Alexandria in Egypt is one of the chief Christian cities of the day, later Athanasius will become the bishop of Alexandria. Here’s it’s Alexander. Arius, a presbyter in the city, he writes a letter. He explains that God “was the begetter of His only Son before endless ages through whom He made both the ages and all that is.” That’s Arius.
So Arius would not have objected to saying that Christ was begotten of the Father before all worlds. Arius probably would have agreed to that. Yeah, before there were worlds, before there was matter, some time that isn’t even exactly time, the Son was begotten. Arius agrees with all that.
But in the letter to Alexander, he says more. He argued that the Son “timelessly begotten by the Father was ‘created’ and established before all ages and did not exist prior to His begetting.” Ah. So there’s the issue. Arius is willing to say of course He’s begotten of the Father, He’s begotten before all ages, no problem. But Arius’ contention is to be a begotten Son is to be a created Son. To be the first of the Father’s creations. So there was when the Son was not, something, cannot even quite call it time, when the Son, so the Son’s existence, according to Arius, is not eternal.
So notice what the Creed does. The Creed is going to make a series of statements in definition of only begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds.
Now notice four further statements which are trying to counteract Arius’ claims. So one, you read there, God of God. It’s possible that you have misread this. This is not a superlative, like holy of holies. That’s a typical Hebrew way of saying “the holiest.” Or king of kings, Lord of lords. He’s the kingliest king. That’s not this phrase. It’s not a superlative that He’s the goddest of God.
The “of” here is more like “from.” Speaking of a kind of derivation. Jesus Christ is God from God. And the fact that God is used in both halves of the formula suggests the Son is the same kind of God as the God from which His godhood comes. That little phrase also communicates, and this will be very important, we’ll come back to. Right now you’re thinking he’s said we’re coming back to a lot of things. Just hold on.
It also communicates that the Son is not a part of God. He’s wholly, w-h-o-l-l-y , wholly God of God. The generation of the Son does not imply the division of the Godhead. Here’s God, [sound effect] rip Him in half, there’s a Father, there’s a Son. No. It doesn’t involve the multiplication of deities. Okay, here’s God, put Him in the copy machine, there’s the Son. No, the Son is God, the Father is God, the Son is of the Father, and we do not say the Father is of the Son. It goes in this one direction.
So there’s one God and the Son is God of this God.
Now we continue.
Light of light. Well, that sounds like the very same thing, just waxing poetic. But it means something a little different, because here we’re dealing with a term, or you might say an attribute, a title. The argument implied is that if the term means the same thing with both the Father and the Son, then they must be of both the same stuff.
Here’s how you can say it. A property, property think maybe attribute, a property shared in common that means the same thing with both signifies a common nature. Or here’s how to put it more simply: The Son is not a lesser light than the Father.
Because that was implied in Arius’ teaching, they do not share in equal glories. No, no, no. The Son is every bit of light as the Father is light. This is, there’s no dimmer switch. It’s not a 100 watt and 99 watt. Light of light.
Very God of very God. That’s the third statement. Now this clause is crucial because the defenders of Arius might have possibly said that the Son was God of God. They might have affirmed something like that. Because indeed Arius fully acknowledged Jesus was God. You just have to open your Bible and read John 1, “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Thomas says, “My Lord and my God.” So Arius knew his Bible.
Of course he said Jesus was God, but it’s what kind of God. For Arius it was a lesser God, it was a God that was not eternal as the Father was, so Arius might have said, “Oh, of course, the Son is God. Yep, He’s God and He comes from God.”
But now the Creed is tightening the screws with this little phrase, no, no, no, He’s very God, of very God. Arius could not have affirmed that. The Word was God, that’s plain from John 1. But now it’s clarified the Word, unlike Arius’ contention, he thought the Word was unlike the Father’s essence. No, the Word was God and every bit true God and very God as the God that the Word was with and the God that the Word was.
So four statements. God of God, light of light, very God of very God, and here’s the fourth statement: The Son was not made.
Ah, now we come to the crux of the argument in this clause related to the monogenes. There is no way that Arius or his party could possibly defend this assertion. For Arius, you could not be begotten. It just in his mind, begotten meant made. Begotten meant created. To be a begotten Son was to be a created Son.
Every single son here, every one of us, was begotten of a parent and there was a time when we did not exist. We were made. We came into being.
So Arius is thinking well, that’s how it works with human generation, that’s how it must work with divine generation.
But the Creed says absolutely not. The Son’s begotten-ness is not like our begotten-ness. At least not in every respect. Nothing was made in the Son’s begotten-ness. No one was created. Never was there a time when the Son was not. Not in time, not before time. He is begotten, not created.
Now take a deep breath. No doubt we are in the realm of some mystery. Now mystery, you don’t just play the mystery card every time your brain hurts a little bit. Let’s not be lazy. Too many Christians just predestination, ah, mystery. Millennium, ah, mystery. No, no. Save the mystery card for after you’ve done a lot of hard thinking already.
By mystery I don’t mean contradiction. I mean rather something that cannot fully be grasped by the human mind. So listen carefully. I’m going to try to make some precise theological statements about this doctrine which is called “eternal generation,” the eternal generation of the Son. This eternal begetting is like human begetting in that one essence begets the same essence. That is, a human being gives birth to a human being. You’re both made of human stuff. So it’s similar in that respect.
But unlike human generation, or human begetting, this eternal generation does not involve any physical reproduction.
So eternal generation is hyperphysical. You say that sounds like my 9-year-old. No, hyperphysical meaning huper physical, meaning beyond physical, or you could think not material. So don’t think in material terms, which is hard for us not to do. So it’s not material. It’s hyperphysical.
Eternal generation is infinite, meaning it doesn’t take place in time. There wasn’t some eon before the ages began. It’s like, okay, mark it down right now, here’s My Son. No, it’s eternal and it’s ineffable, which means it cannot be fully comprehended.
So this theological language must be very careful, precise, refined. We would not say that eternal generation is the creating of the Son’s divinity, but we would say that it’s the communication of the Son’s divine essence. It didn’t make something but it’s the communication, it’s how the Son is a Son and is the divine Son of and from the Father.
The key is that the Father does not create the Son. Or create a divine essence for the Son. Nicene orthodoxy means to affirm that the Son is distinguished from the Father.
This language of “only begotten” helps explain how can the Godhead consist of multiple persons without there being multiple essences. So in a nutshell, that’s where all this language… Okay, the Godhead has multiple, what shall we call them? Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet not multiple essences, not multiple beings. How do we describe this? Well, one of the key terms is to say that the Son is begotten or eternally generated. This points us in the direction of the Son’s coequality with the Father. The connection is not biological, but we can understand something of what Jesus means when He says He is in the Father and the Father is in Him. This language makes some intuitive sense because we know a Son comes from His Father, therefore we bow the knee to Christ and we bring glory to God the Father as His only begotten.
All right. That was the easy word. Okay. Here’s the hard one. So look, continuing with the Nicene Creed, begotten, not made. That’s where we left off, and here’s the second term we’re going to look at tonight with our time remaining: Being of one substance with the Father.
This is the single most important and contested word in the Nicene Creed. It is the Greek word homoousia, or depending on the declension, homoousion or homoousios, but homoousia, translated “of one substance.” That’s what you have here. Sometimes it’s rendered “same substance, same essence.”
At one level the word is easy to understand. It is a compound of two Greek words – home, h-o-m-o, which means same, and ousia, o-u-s-i-a, which means something like essence or being. Homoousia, same essence or being. The same God stuff, the same characteristic. Whatever it is that makes God to be God, the Son is God in the same way. One in being, one in essence. Sometimes it’s translated “co-essential” or “consubstantial.”
Now when the 318 bishops at Nicaea used this because they used it in the Creed of Nicaea and then it’s used again in the Nicene Creed, the term did not have a precise meaning. It was used in a variety of ways. It wasn’t yet the key to anyone’s theology. But it was introduced, and as I said last week, likely introduced by Constantine himself, probably with his theological advisor nudging him to do so, this word homoousia was introduced because the bishops there knew Arius would not accept it. There are some times when you’re writing a statement of faith you’re trying to find common ground because you really know we’re really basically in agreement, let’s find the right way to say it. And then there are other times that you say I know we are not at all in agreement and let’s make sure that this reflects that we’re not saying the same thing, and this was one of those times.
Arius, again in his letter to Alexander, said the Son “is not eternal or co-eternal or equally self-sufficient with the Father.” That was Arius.
The Creed of Nicaea condemned those who asserted that the Son of God was of a different hypostasis, or substance, ousia. Here those words mean the same thing, but that will change in some important ways.
If you open your pamphlet you see this here in the middle, the Creed of Nicaea, that last paragraph? “Those who say there was when He was not and being born before He was not and that He came into existence out of nothing,” those are all slogans from the Arians, or quotations from Arius himself, “or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, these the Church condemns.”
So there’s a lot of terms here and what happens sometimes in the development of doctrine is certain terms at first are somewhat ambiguous and they come to have more precise meanings. So again it would be more helpful if I had a ginormous chalkboard to write behind me, but if you’re thinking they’re basically came to be, especially after Chalcedon this gets more cemented, a set of words that have to do with being and then a set of words that have to do with person.
So ousia, we’ve already seen, is a word for the divine essence. Another Greek word physis, p-h-y-s-i-s, phusis, physis, meaning nature, very similar to essence or being, that word physis is usually used in describing the two natures of Christ.
And then there’s a Latin word, substantia, from which we get our English word substance.
So these words, ousia, physis, substantia, are all kind of in this category of how are we talking about something’s being.
Then there are “person” words. So this one, hypostasis, which here in 325 is used synonymous with being, but comes to mean an individual subsistence in the divine being.
Or another Greek word gets introduced, prosopon, and then the Latin term, which will be familiar to you, persona, from which we get “person.”
So this is in one category are “being” terms and in another category are “person” terms, and to say it most clearly and simply, the doctrine of the trinity, one God, there’s one essence, three persons. There’s one God-ness and there’s three persons and all have that same God-ness.
The key at the Council of Nicaea is that the Son is affirmed to be of the same stuff as the Father. That means whatever sort of God the Father is, the Son, homoousia, is the same sort of God. This precludes the Son being a created being because you can’t have the Son as the same God-ness of God the Father if God the Father is eternal and God the Son is not eternal.
This is important, as I alluded to earlier, not only for the identity of the Son, but for the identity of the Father. So think about it. If the Son is not eternal, it’s hard to see how the Father as Father is eternal. If at some moment, we’ll call it, the Son is created, prior to that can we call the first person of the trinity God the Father when He has not yet a Son? No. The eternality of the Son is bound up in the eternality of the Father and vice versa.
Now one of the main objections to this language of homoousia, both then and now, is that Nicaea was relying on an overly philosophical understanding of Christ. Some of you have this going through your head. It’s understandable. You might be saying, okay, I know seminary professors need a job, I get that, but wow, is this really the Jesus of the Bible? Did the Church corrupt the pure and simple faith of the apostles and made it into something so complicated and esoteric? Was the Church guilty of hellenizing, that just means Greek, hellenizing a Hebraic religion? Sometimes you see people like to do this – Hebrew religion good, Hellenistic Greek religion bad.
Or you might think, why not just use the language of the Bible?
If you’re thinking that, good news and bad news. Good news – you’re tracking with perhaps the main objection to the Nicene Creed. Bad news – it’s the one the Arians liked. So good news, bad news.
But how do we respond to that?
There’s a few things we can say. One, more than you might realize, the New Testament already employs many Greek philosophical categories. In the beginning was the logos. Now it’s exactly what the Greeks’ philosophy understood by logos, but that was a widespread, well-known Greek philosophical term and it’s right there in John 1.
Philippians 2:6 speaks of Christ being in the form, the morphe of God. Hebrews 1:3 says the Son is the exact imprint of God’s nature, and you know the Greek word there, hypostasis, so that’s in the Bible. Elsewhere we read of the divine nature, Romans 1:20. The fullness of deity. 1 Timothy 6:17 praises the king of glory as immortal, invisible, the only God.
All that to say it’s not as if the New Testament itself is absent of some of these philosophical terms. That was the culture in which they lived and it was important to speak that language.
Second response. The Church was responding to the claims that Arius made. This is really important. It’s not as if the Church said let’s have a council and let’s, how should we, what do you saying about Christ? What? Homoousia? Let’s put that in there.
It was Arius who first started with these philosophical distinctions, begotten, uh uh uh, but He wasn’t made, or He was made, He was created.
So it was in response to Arius and his philosophical theology that the Church had to say, okay, we need to address this.
Then a third response. We need nonbiblical words to summarize and protect biblical truth.
In the 350s, so Council of Nicaea 325, Constantinople 381, right in the middle Athanasius, who has grown to be the great defender of Nicaea, he writes a little book, Defense of the Nicene Definition, written in the 350s, and he addresses this issue. This is one of the chief things, why didn’t we just use the language of the Bible? And this was the objection that ordinary, orthodox-minded, good Christians said, yeah, that’s a good point. Why didn’t we just use the language of the Bible? And Athanasius’ argument was that we didn’t mean the same things with the same words, that if at the Council of Nicaea they had just said “let’s just quote Bible verses,” of course the Arians would have agreed.
But they knew they did not really agree on what those Scriptures meant. So Athanasius said, “Look, if your argument is not about the phrases but about what Scripture teaches, then tell me what do you think Scripture teaches?” The bishops would have preferred a statement to use only scriptural language, but they realized that that would have allowed people to give a dishonest affirmation of the Creed and so they needed to use this word homoousia. They used it in 325, they used it again in the Nicene Creed, and 381.
And in the intervening time, a number of rival parties, we won’t go into it, but a number of rival parties emerged trying to understand exactly, well, was that the right phrase? Was that the right term? Because even some very good Christians weren’t so sure that homoousia was the right term to use to describe the Son.
I mentioned Athanasius. He’s not one of the bishops, he’s a deacon at the Council of Nicaea, but then he becomes a bishop and he’s the great champion for Nicene orthodoxy in the 4th century. After he dies, the mantle of leadership falls to three Cappadocian’s, that’s where they were from; Basil of Cesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, they’re brothers, and their best friend, Gregory of Nazianzus. You just wonder when the two brothers and their best friend are hanging out, do they just know someday we’re going to be the Cappadocians? We’re going to be these great trinitarian heroes.
But initially they, too, had reservations about homoousia, and they were not Arians at all. That wasn’t their sympathy.
So what was the issue? Well, they worried, and so did some other Christians, that this homoousia, it sounded too material. For example, if the Father and the Son are of the same substance, the same essence, does that suggest that the Son was a portion of the Father?
If I have a ball of Play-Doh, here it is, smells very good, don’t eat it, here’s a ball of Play-Doh and I rip a part of that and I make a new ball and I have two, you can say this is of the same substance. This Play-Doh number two is of the same substance as Play-Doh number one. Is that what we mean by homoousia? A division of the divine nature? Because that’s one way that you could have identical natures. Same stuff, same substance.
So Basil, for example, wasn’t so sure. He thought, well, maybe we should say that the Son is like in every way, His essence is like in every way to the essence of the Father. He actually wasn’t trying to say something different that Nicaea, but he wondered if maybe that was safer language.
He eventually came to defend homoousia. He said he initially thought that the phrase “like according to substance” would fit the bill as long as the word “indistinguishable” was attached. Okay, this is like their essence but it’s indistinguishable. But he was afraid that word “indistinguishable” would get lost and you would only be left with “like” and “like” doesn’t sound the same as “same.”
Here’s what he says, Basil: “After all we frequently use the term ‘like’ for similarities that are faint and utterly inferior to the archetypes, so then since I think same and substance is less liable to distortion, I, too, adopt this term.”
So he came around to say, yes, this homoousia is the best term to use. That it set aside, it precluded Arianism, and I promise you we’re almost done, it also in his mind, we’ll come to this in the next couple of weeks, also precluded another heresy called Sabellianism, after someone named Sabellius, but you may know it more simply as modalism. That’s why, I’m sorry if you’ve done this before, but don’t use the water/ice/vapor analogy for the trinity. That’s Modalism, that’s one thing appearing in different modes of being as liquid/ice or liquid/solid, what’s the other one, gas.
So Sabellianism is a kind of Modalism, like maybe a mask. So there’s one God and He kind of puts on a Father mask, Father takes that off, He comes back out, I’m the Son, then takes it off and He’s the Holy Spirit. There was some danger that that’s what “person” meant. So Modalism is there’s one God and He just appears in different modes.
Well, the Church wanted to avoid that heresy. Some worried one substance might mean, ah, the Father and the Son are just one substance but God wearing a different mask. The Nicene Creed means to avoid both heresies, which is why it says earlier “very God of very God,” not “God with two masks” but “very God,” “that person of very God.” Same essence of God-ness, two persons, not just two modes.
If the Son is the same substance as the Father, He cannot be the Father’s creation, for if the Son once was not then He’s a different kind of being than the eternal Father. That’s against Arianism.
Likewise, if the Son is the same essence as the Father, then He cannot merely be another manifestation of the Father because nothing can be homoousia with itself. That was the argument. So that’s against Modalism. You can’t be homoousia with itself. There’s an individuality between the Father and the Son.
In the end, the word “homoousia” was deemed critical for defending what they found so clear in the New Testament, that the Son of God is fully God. Just one passage for example. 1 Corinthians 8:6 – “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came, and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came through whom we live.”
Now why is that such an important verse? Because everyone recognizes it’s taking the Shema, that quintessential definition of Jewish monotheism, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” and it’s inserting two persons.
Hear it again: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things came, and there is but one Lord.” That’s the language of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
And here into the holiest statement of Old Testament monotheism Paul is saying, yes, there is one God and you know Him now as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Of course, that’s not to preclude that the Spirit also, but there He’s just thinking the Father and the Son.
So here we close. If all of this is hard to understand, you are not alone. The most brilliant theologians in history have gladly acknowledged that the doctrine of the Trinity is full of mystery, but mystery does not mean unreasonable or irrational. Mystery does not mean two plus two equals five. Mystery means we are finite creatures and so we cannot fully grasp infinite realities. When faced with these glorious mysteries, it’s often wise to think how we pray and how we sing.
Intuitively, the Church is often led by the Spirit and led by the Word, so we know, even if we don’t have all of the theological categories quite in place, that Jesus Christ is to be worshipped in just the way as the Father is to be worshiped. We give Him just the same honor and praise and glory, the Son as the Father. If that is the case, it must be that they are of the same essence.
Think of what we sing, and we’ll sing in just a moment, Adeste Fideles, “O, Come Let Us Adore Him.” God of God, light of light, lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb, very God begotten, not created. The Nicene Creed and all of its glorious theology we sing at Christmas. Many of us have been singing Nicene theology since before we could read or write and we know it to be true. The Christ child we worship in the manger is none other than very God of very God, the only begotten Son who is from the Father but was not created or made by Him.
Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word, thank You for the way in which you guide the Church. The Church is not inerrant, human creeds are not inerrant, but You have given to us by standing on the shoulders of giants, and reading the Scriptures not all alone but with the great communion of saints, to understand as much as we can these great mysteries. So move us in head and heart that the end would be praise and doxology, to come and adore You. In Jesus we pray. Amen.