Human beings have argued, fought and even killed other humans, over the identity of God and how we understand God. Christians have argued, fought and even killed other Christians over how we understand the divinity and humanity of Jesus and the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity.
In the midst of these “discussions,” the Roman emperor, Constantine, called the bishops of the church into the “definitive” church council in Nicaea, Turkey, in the year 325 AD. Constantine was concerned about uniting the empire, and a united church would certainly help him reach his goal. The church’s goal for the council was to establish the true nature of Christ (human and divine) and to develop an understanding of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God in three persons. Out of this conference came both unity and heresy. This “definitive council” was followed by other “definitive councils:” Constantinople, 381; Ephesus, 431; and Chalcedon, 451. Each council gave us the church’s definitive answers. Did I mention that at some of these councils the bishops got into fist fights and had to spend the night in jail? Perhaps a look at these councils will give us insight into things we will never know for sure, until we find ourselves in the nearer presence of our Lord, at which time we will likely find that it does not matter.
A brief look at the creeds may help us understand why we believe what we believe, why others believe what they believe and what is truly important in our relationship with God and one another.
Nicaea’s primary goal was to establish the nature of Jesus as both completely God and completely human, thus countering early heresies that Jesus was “only God,” or “only human,” clarifying the Son’s relationship to the Father. Secondarily, this council began the work of developing an understanding of the Trinity as one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This later work would continue in 381 AD at the Council of Constantinople.
Constantinople confirmed the Nicene Creed, expanding the doctrine of the two natures of Christ and expanding and clarifying the definition of the Trinity “one God in three persons, and of the same substance.” This became the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which liturgical churches recite today as the Nicene Creed.
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified…” (BCP, p.358)
While the Trinity is rarely expressed specifically, the basis for the Creeds is found in Scripture and I share two examples: “Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come…’" (John 16:12-15)
And Jesus’ promise to all of us: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. . .the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:18-27)
This is God’s good news for us today!
Ben Alford is the former rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Albertville.