|The Emperor Constantine and|
Bishops at Nicea
Well it would seem that everything we needed to know about God we learned from Jesus—that Jesus was God’s final Word of Revelation. Theologically that may be true, but it is not true historically. In fact, Jesus created a huge problem that made the Church seriously rethink everything it thought it knew about God.We take it for granted that by the death of the last apostle and the close of the canon of scripture, our doctrines were complete. We knew that there is one God in three Divine Persons. We knew that Jesus was “consubstantial” (one in being as we used to say) with the Father according to his divinity and of one human nature with us as regarding his humanity. We thought that the apostles had it all worked out. But they didn’t. It is clear from the New Testament texts that they were themselves trying to work out what made this man who is so much like us in so many respects so utterly different than us in others that he could be called “The Son of God”—and what did that mean anyway?
The Church would spend approximately three centuries trying to clarify what it believed about God and about Jesus before definitively defining the Trinity and it would take almost three more centuries before it clarified the relationship of Jesus to the Godhead—the theological fancy-schmancy word for God. There were hints of the Trinity in the New Testament books—most notably the Trinitarian formula for baptism—a command put in the mouth of Jesus by the author of “Matthew’s Gospel” that the disciples should baptize “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Actually it seems from The Book of Acts and from Paul’s writings that for a short while the Apostles and their successors were baptizing “In the Name of Jesus” and that the Trinitarian Formula came a little later—certainly by the ‘80’s AD when Matthew (or someone) wrote his Gospel. The idea that Jesus was God’s Son presented huge theological dilemmas for the early Christians. Coming out of Judaism the first Christians were rigidly committed to the Oneness of God and didn’t know how to express the idea that Jesus—the “Son”—somehow shared in the Divinity of his “Father” without ending up with two gods. And even then: what to do with the Holy Spirit? Is the Spirit a Person like Jesus or merely an emanation of the Father like my spirit would be of me and your spirit would be of you? All this gets argued back and forth through the second and third and into the fourth centuries. The whole complexity only begins to be resolved with the Council of Nicea in 325 but even then the Council never uses the word “Trinity” and while the Father and the Son have a fair bit said about them, the Holy Spirit gets somewhat lumped in with other things like baptism for the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead and assorted other doctrines.
Theophilus of Antioch writing before 190 is the first to use the word “Trinity” though the idea can be found in Ignatius at the beginning of the second century and Justin Martyr in mid-second century. Nicea was meant to answer questions about Jesus as well—who he is in relation to God (the Father) and who he is in relation to us? This had been a hot item in the second and third centuries as well with such ideas as Adoptionism, Sabellianism, and other formulae that we now consider to be heretical but which, in the day, had strong and avid believers. In the event, Nicea created more questions than it answered and it took about six more councils—Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople I, II, and III, and a second council at Nicea—to iron out the details and even then lots of Good Christians—the Armenians, the Copts, and the Chaldeans among others—bailed because they didn’t agree. Finally the Western Church (today’s Catholics along with the Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions) and Orthodox (Greek, Russian, and various other “Chalcedonian” Churches have agreed that Jesus Christ is one Person in two natures, a Divine Nature consubstantial (there’s that word again) with the Father and a human nature like our except in sin. So basically this all took six centuries to work out: people—all sorts of people like popes and bishops and saints and mystics and cleaning ladies and horse jockeys and bookies and bartenders and school teachers and even a few imperial mistresses—arguing and fighting back and forth until the consensus fidelium came to a consensus fidelium. But even then, that wasn’t the end of it. We are always rethinking God. We never get the answer to exactly say what we know in our collective heart is the precise truth. Maybe it just can’t be done. The theological process is more important than the theological product. We never stop “rethinking God.”