Theological Showdown — The Big One

What was the biggest showdown in church history? One could make an argument for the 16th Century Reformation, which impacted the church dramatically. Or the split of the Western and the Eastern church in the 11th Century, which had the same kind of impact. But perhaps the biggest showdown of them all was the battle between Arius and the proponents of what became the Nicene Creed. This is admirably sketched in Ronald Heine, Classical Christian Doctrine.

The issues: the earliest Christians believed in one and only one God. They believed as well that Jesus, the Son of God, was fully God. How to articulate Jesus as “God” and, at the same time, hold firmly to one God? That’s the issue. Some attempts made the Son a second kind of god, while modalism ended up with one God but appearing in different modes over time, while some simply said Jesus wasn’t God like the one God. He had to be human.

Arius of Alexandria believed in one God, and believed the one God was absolutely unique and his term was that this one God was “unbegotten.” The Son, Arius argued, was “begotten.” Since the term “begotten” would have meant the Son had the same “nature” as the Father, which is what orthodoxy affirms, Arius made it clear that his understanding of “begotten” meant “created” and that meant the Father and the Son did not have the same nature.

The story is rather well known and quite capable of caricature, which Dan Brown did. But Constantine saw this issue rending the empire in two, especially in the east, so he got the bishops together at Nicea, in Western Turkey today, for a council and the Nicene Council brought together the consensus of the church on christology. That is, it sought to clarify how the Son could be divine and the Father divine, have one God and not two gods. Yes, it sought peace here also to create peace in the empire. Some 200-300 bishops attended, though the balance of numbers was eastern. This set of lines articulates a christology that opposes Arius:

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.

The word “begotten” does not mean “created” and he is “eternally” begotten so the Son is eternal and always was. He is “of one being” with the Father.

One God, yet the Father and Son each is God and of the same nature. Two persons, one nature. (Three persons when we factor in the Holy Spirit.)

The debate lingered but this became the orthodox position of the church. This council did not determine this orthodox theology for this theology existed prior to Nicea. This was a precise and clear articulation and an articulation on which the bishops agreed and one that became orthodox christology. It is still orthodox christology.

Athanasius argued, and he was orthodoxy’s most articulate theologian, that death cannot be defeated by a human; only God can defeat and undo death. This is an early glimpse of Anselm. And one can worship Jesus Christ only if he is God. One should not worship a human. It is important here to mention the exceptional work of Larry Hurtado whose life project was showing that high christology emerged not so much from theological debate but from very early Christian experience in worship. (See his Lord Jesus Christ.)

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Ken Schenck

    I’m curious what this is a picture of. I was in Iznik a few weeks ago and saw the mosque where the second council of Nicaea was, but couldn’t find any information on where the first one of 325 was. This looks like a picture of somewhere along the old wall of the city. Is it thought to be the location?

  • scotmcknight

    My understanding is this is the earliest church in Nicea but after the church in which the Council met.

  • Jon G


    The issues: the earliest Christians believed in one and only one God. They believed as well that Jesus, the Son of God, was fully God. How to articulate Jesus as “God” and, at the same time, hold firmly to one God? That’s the issue. Some attempts made the Son a second kind of god, while modalism ended up with one God but appearing in different modes over time, while some simply said Jesus wasn’t God like the one God. He had to be human.”
    What about viewing God the way Christians view themselves? We are each a body and a spirit which together make a person. I, Jon G, have a body and have a spirit and, with the relationship between the two, I AM Jon G. Without the body, I am not Jon G and without the spirit, I am not Jon G. My body and my spirit are not “modes” of me and yet my body and spirit are fully me.
    I see Jesus as the body that God has and the Holy Spirit as the spirit that God has. These are not modes but attributes. And they can “speak” to each other because, although our spirit and bodies are not the same, they are in relationship. My spirit pushes my body and my body informs my spirit.
    Also, on the word begotten…yes, it does not mean created, but it implies created. How can one be begotten without first being created. It is a nonsensical statement. My church had a discussion this weekend on John 3:16 and they, as is typical nowadays, took begotten out of the verse (only begotten Son) making room for “one and only Son”. What a travesty. The word is begotten and by using “one and only” Trinitarians are effectively promoting tri-theism.

  • http://redmarkedward.com/ Mark Edward

    My main issue with this topic is that I consistently notice orthodox Christians insisting upon the creeds to define our theology: if someone uses the Bible and doesn’t agree exactly with typical orthodoxy, somehow the lesser authority of those historic creeds is used to trump any debate about the Bible, the alleged higher authority.

    And while they may not be doing it consciously, I see that happening in the creed itself (‘begotten’ is used to refer to Jesus’ ‘eternal’ origins, when no NT text uses the word in such a way), as well as Athanasius’ argument (contrary to him, all NT texts have Jesus being raised from death by the Father, not by any inherent power of his own).

    And if the Nicene Creed is an authoritative post-Biblical preservation of the exact, exact, exact understanding of this ‘module’ of proper theology, why didn’t they just do the same things with all the other modules (the manner of creation, the issue of a sin nature, the right theory of eschatology, etc.)?

    So my big question is: if we use a post-Biblical creed as an authority over our articulation of theology, shouldn’t that logically lead to a perspective on creeds akin to the RCC, where their creeds (catechism, whatever) are just as binding as Biblical authority?

  • ChrisOakes

    I, too, have an issue with the term “eternally begotten.” Besides the fact that it is not biblical (and as Jon G. mentioned above, even “begotten” by itself has been discarded by many translations), I have trouble understanding what exactly the term means.

  • Jean

    Mark:

    Check out John 2:19: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’”

    And also, John 1:1-2: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.”

    There is authority in the Bible for Christ having eternal origins and for Christ having power to raise himself from the dead.

    I don’t think creeds should be given authority over scripture, but we should give some deference to tradition.

  • Ken Schenck

    Thanks!

  • http://redmarkedward.com/ Mark Edward

    Thanks for taking the time to reply, Jean.

    John 1.1-2 really has nothing to do with anything I said above. You should please carefully note that I did not object to Jesus ‘having eternal origins’. Rather, my complaint was specifically about the use of the word ‘begotten’; that the creeds’ designation of Jesus being ‘eternally begotten’ is not simply a self-contradiction in definitions, it is against the Biblical example of how the word is used (i.e. of Jesus’ conception, birth, resurrection, and ascension/exaltation). My argument was that, when it comes to Biblical vs. creedal defintions of ‘begotten’, we’re told not to use the Biblical definition (having a beginning point), but the creedal re-definition instead (having an eternal… non… beginning point?). I don’t object to the ‘eternal’ part when speaking of Jesus. Just the particular phrasing ‘eternally begotten’.

    You have a valid point bringing up John 2.19. Setting aside this one verse momentarily, however, /every/ other passage in the NT that refers to the resurrection of Jesus has him being raised (i.e. he is the object of the verb ‘raised’). Those verses that actually specify the one doing the raising (the subject of the verb) are 100% consistently: God the Father raised Jesus. When we come back to GJohn as a whole, Jesus also consistently says that he does nothing of his own will or power, only what the Father directs and empowers him to do. So even /if/ Jesus raised himself from the dead, it is explicitly because God the Father gave him the power and authority to do so. Athanasius’ argument ‘that death cannot be defeated by a human; only God can defeat and undo death’ is true, but it can’t really be used as an argument for the divinity of Jesus if the Biblical witness is that Jesus was raised from death only because the Father raised him / enabled him to be raised.

    I definitely agree we should allow some weight to be given to tradition. But that’s not what happens with the creeds, or at least the Nicene Creed specifically. In the minds of many Christians (Protestants included), you are not a Christian if you disagree with the Nicene Creed… that absolute dichotomy only works if they use the Nicene Creed as equally authoritative to the Bible itself, which they /say/ they don’t.


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