This article will take a brief look at the controversy concerning the person of Jesus from the second century to the present. Of course, there were many doctrinal controversies other than those centered on the person of Jesus. There were reform movements, such as Montanism in the second century, that aimed to restore at least what the reform leaders thought was the first century church. We will limit our exploration here to the controversies regarding God and the person of Christ.
Controversy is never a pleasant experience even though it is inevitable and those who serve God must defend that which is truth. Sometimes it can wind up causing more damage than the effort is worth, if not handled with correct wisdom. At times, when error is fought and defeated, the victor is left more biased and inflexible than just being firm in the Faith. Christians have been the target of persections by those who opposed truth. It has been difficult enough for Christians to suffer from such persecutions of civil governments, pagan societies and adherents of false religions. But, it is repre-hensible for those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ to act in the same ungodly manner as those who persecuted them. It seems that controversy, especially over reli-gious matters, has far too often exceeded the bounds of simple discussion for the purpose of resolving differences of belief. Religion involves emotions and emotions can be as dangerous as they are desirable and necessary. Emotions, combined with belief, can, unless carefully monitored, soon drag people down to the most vile levels of strife.
The blind sectarianism, jealousy and envy of the enemies of Jesus drove them to lying and murder, as it was also when Stephen was stoned; the Jews stopped up their ears so they could no longer hear what Stephen preached on that occasion. They killed him, as they tried to do other disciples of the Lord. From that time, the history of religious controversy is strewn with the ruined fortunes, broken and burned bodies of dissenters and the elevation to power of ungodly men. Lying, fraud, physical and emotional torture, murder, simony, deception and every other vile deed has been perpetrated in the name of standing for the truth. At times, minority factions catered to civil authorities who then entered the fray with the power of civil control; those who knew the least, carried the most weight. When civil government was absorbed by religion, the plight of men became even more helpless and hopeless.
They did not so learn Christ. Indeed, James warns, "But if ye have bitter jealousy and faction in your heart, glory not and lie not against the truth. This wisdom is not a wisdom that cometh down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where jea-lousy and faction are, there is confusion and every vile deed," James 3:14-16. All things done in the "name of Christ" are not necessarily in the name of Christ in fact, Matthew 7:21ff.
However, while acknowledging all of that, let's not lose sight of the fact that controversy in religion is inevitable. Having an absolute standard of truth in the Bible, it is certain that there will be those who dissent. What else can we say of this in light of the various dissenting sects among the Jews in the time of Jesus. Indeed, Jesus warned His disciples, Matthew 24:3-14, that false teachers would arise to draw away many. Peter says, "But there arose false prophets also among the people, as among you also there shall be false teachers, who shall privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even the Master that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their lascivious doings; by reason of whom the way of the truth shall be evil spoken of," II Peter 2:1-2. John says, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world," I John 4:1. Paul warned the elders of Ephesus of false teachers who would come from among themselves, Acts 2o:29-31. Galatians was written to combat false teachers who were disturbing churches. First and Second Timothy and Titus are full of warnings of false doctrine, false teachers and even identifying some of them by name. The rest of the New Testament testifies and warns us in many ways of the constant battle for the souls of men and the energetic pursuit of the purity of the Faith. We can expect the same circumstances in our time. The warnings of the Bible are as fresh and meaningful today as centuries ago.
Seeing that Christians are obigated to stand for truth and contend for the Faith, Jude 3, we must understand that God expects controversy to be part of our lives. Though civil governments have persecuted Christians through the centuries, our warfare is on a different level from that. Paul said, "Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, agains the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Wherefore take up the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; withal taking up the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quence all the fiery darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God: with all prayer and supplication praying at all seasons in the Spirit, and watching therunto in all perseverance and supplications for all the saints," Ephesians 6:10-18.
It's to be expected that centers of learning and religious power should also be centers, and even hotbeds, of controversy. Certainly, errors originate in many places and can come from the most backward, unknown and nondescript places. They can also come from the most ignorant and unknown individuals. It so happens that the major contro-versies of the first few centuries were prompted by the teachers and prelates within "the Church." It also happened to be these controversies that forced the formation of the first creeds. In turn, these creeds became the standard by which "orthodoxy" has been measured to the present time. Influential false teachings were not the exclusive product of the centers of learning, but these centers were the focal point of such teachings.
By the middle of the fourth century there were five great centers of "Christian" learning and power: Alexandria, Antioch, Edessa, Rome and Constantinople. Each had existed as great cities, centers of business and learning, since well before Christ. They had long contained a large Jewish population and later, many Christians as well.
Alexandria in Egypt was established by and named for Alexander the Great, in 332 B.C. It was built as a Greek city on the Mediterranean and became the capital of lower Egypt and later, the chief grain port for Rome. It had a reknowned university modeled after the one in Athens but became much the greater of the two. The Septuagint translation of the Old Testament was produced at the university in Alexandria in the second century B.C. The Jewish scholar who was a contemporary of Jesus, Philo, was from Alexandria and his teachings dominated the university there. The Gnostic, Cerin-thus, whom the apostle John opposed, was also from Alexandria. In later times, a "Christian" school was founded on the fringe of the university that could boast both Clement and Origen as the most well known teachers.
Antioch in Syria was prominent in the work of the apostle Paul, as seen in the book of Acts. It was strongly gentile even then and became the leading Greek city in the Empire. It was a natural development for it to become a center of religious learning as well as a powerful influence. Ignatius, who was put to death in Rome in 107 A.D., was a pres-byter in Antioch. A philosophical difference existed between Alexandria and Antioch which had a distinct bearing on each's views of God and the scriptures.
Edessa in Mesopotamia had very ancient origins. The Emperor Trajan decreed it a Roman military colony in 216 A.D. The importance of Edessa to the Church is highlighted by the fact of more than 300 monastries within its walls. A school had been established there by one Ephrem, a highly effective preacher, in 363 A.D. It was dedicated to the current orthodox position. During the Arian controversy, the Arians took total control of the churches and the school in Edessa for five years. The Arians were cast out and orthodoxy restablished. However, the school later became the stronghold of Nestorianism and for that reason was dissolved in 489.
Rome was more a political and religious power than an intellectual one. However, that was enough to play a very prominent part in the controversies over the Trinity. The phil-osophy identified with Rome had to do with the legal status of God/Christ. Wand says it well, "This made it inevitable that the leaders of Latin Christianity should express their doctrine of God and of Christ in legal terms. Satisfaction for sin and consequent forgiveness, rather than deification, is in their view the climax of the scheme of salvation ... For this there is necessary a mediator who shall be both God and man and shall be both perfectly. Otherwise there can be no adequate meeting-place between God and man. This was the standard by which the Romans judged every effort to explain the nature of God and the person of Christ ... For them the ultimate question in every de-bate was simply this: does the new teaching preserve fully the notion of God and man in one Christ?" The Four Great Heresies, p. 36.
The Emperor Constantine moved the seat of government from Rome to Byzantium at the beginning of the fourth century and renamed it Constantinople. He had several reasons for making the move but once made, the historical consequences were quite far reaching, moreso than Constantine could imagine. The city became the religious center for the eastern churches and rivalry with Rome resulted in the break that formed the Greek Orthodox Church in the east and Roman Catholicism in the west.
Several councils were called to assemble in Constantinople to consider heresies of their time. Most of these councils involved dealing with dissenting views concerning the person of Christ. There were places and regions other than these just noticed that were involved in controversies. Indeed, there was no place in the empire that was excluded from such influences at some time or another.
The Apostle John died about the year 100, the last of the Apostles. The New Testament was complete, Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed some thirty years before. Churches had been established all over the empire and were already showing signs of wholesale apostasy, especially in regard to church organization. This would rapidly escalate, along with other errors, in the second century.
Gnostics considered themselves to be above the "ordinary" Christians due to superior "knowledge." They were the elite, the cultured Christians. Gnosticism expanded and flourished in the second century until it was found over all of the empire. But, it did have its variations. Docetism appeared in the last decades of the first century and continued for at least a century more. Whereas Cerinthus acknowledged the physical birth and existence of Jesus, though he limited Jesus to being just another human, Docetism insisted that Jesus was only an illusion, a phantom. The name, Docetism, comes from a Greek verb that means "to seem." The name was appropriate to their position, Jesus only "seemed" real. It was based on the philosophy that matter is inherently evil, a common Gnostic belief. At a later time, Sabellius, advancing an offshoot of Docetism, would follow the same line.
A Samaritan by the name of Menander formed a sect of Gnosticism around himself, claiming to be one of the aeons sent from the celestial regions to assist poor, distressed mankind. He preached a peculiar form of baptism in his own name and claimed that he could make his followers immortal. One of his disciples was one Saturninus in Syria, at the beginning of the second century. Saturninus not only taught the usual forms of Gnosticism concerning God and Christ but also a strict asceticism that included celibacy and vegetarianism. Marriage was from Satan. Satan had revealed some prophecies as could also the spirits who made the world. While the followers of Menander continued into the sixth century, the followers of Saturninus, being few in number, died out long before.
A prominent and influential Gnostic in the early quarter of the second century was Basilides, the chief of the Egyptian Gnostics. He died about 130 A.D. Irenaeus, virtually our only source of information about him, claims Basilides taught that Simon of Cyrene was compelled not only to carry the cross of Jesus, but also was transformed into the appearance of Jesus and Jesus into that of Simon. Thus, it was actually Simon who died on the cross while Jesus, looking like Simon, laughed at the stupidity of the Jews. Basilides thought that God was some unknown, even non-existent something or other to whom he attributed certain attributes. His followers practiced all kinds of lascivious behaviour and magical arts. This branch died out in the fourth century.
Valentinus, of some uncertain origin, came to Rome about 140 A.D. He exerted a great influence, combining powerful oratory with a soaring ambition. Much of his philosophy was taken from Plato. Along with an involved Gnostic view of "God," he taught that Jesus came by Mary but only passed through her like water through a pipe. At that point, there were two schools that developed. One thought that Jesus had a physical body, but the spiritual part of Jesus was given Him at His baptism, as the Ebionites and Cerinthus also taught. The other school thought that there was only a spiritual body formed when the Holy Spirit came on Mary at conception. Therefore, Jesus' suffering and death were only symbolic.
Shortly after Valentinus arrived in Rome, Marcion made his appearance there as well. Marcion had been a pilot for sailing vessels but later turned to philosophy. His father was a Bishop who eventually excommunicated his son for teaching error. Afterward, Marcion tried to be reinstated, at least appearing to be penitent, but his father would not allow him to come back. It was at that time that Marcion went to Rome. He caused a great stir among the churches there and was intent on dividing the church with his teaching. He formed his followers into individual churches, unlike other Gnostic teachers. He thought there were two Gods and two Christs. The Old Testament God, the creator of Jewish scriptures, was evil and consequently the flesh was also. For that reason, he opposed marriage and procreation because it brought more evil physical bodies into the world. His following also died out in the fourth century.
The Apostles Creed is an early orthodox response to Gnosticism. It did not originate with any of the Apostles; that is just its name. Its origin is unknown. It was actually a second century baptismal confession and is referred to in its original form as The Old Roman Creed. Here is its original form: "I believe in God Almighty and in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried and the third day rose from the dead, who ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father, whence he comes to judge the living and the dead, and in the Holy Ghost, the holy church, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, the life everlasting."
The earliest writer, other than the apostles, that we know anything about, is Clement who is said to have been a companion of Paul, Philippians 4:3, though that is not certain. The only writing of Clement that still exists is his letter to the Corinthian church.
However, Clement doesn't enter any of the controversies over the person of Christ. Another early writer, who is unamed in his writing, is simply known as Mathetes. He says, "I do not speak of things strange to me, nor do I aim at anything inconsistent with right reason; but having been a disciple of the Apostles, I am become a teacher of the Gentiles." Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 29. He goes on to say in the same column, speaking of Jesus, "This is He who was from the beginning, who appeared as if new, and was found old, and yet who is ever born afresh in the hearts of the saints. This is He who, being from everlasting, is today called the Son; through whom the Church is enriched, and grace, widely spread ... "
One of the ancients gives us this advice, "Let no man be called good who mixes good with evil. For they speak of Christ, not that they may preach Christ, but that they may reject Christ; and they speak of the law, not that they may establish the law, but that they may proclaim things contrary to it. For they alienate Christ from the Father, and the law from Christ. They also calumniate His being born of the Virgin; they are ashamed of His cross; they deny His passion; and they do not believe his resurrection. They introduce God as a Being unknown; they suppose Christ to be unbegotten; and as to the Spirit, they do not admit that He exists. Some of them say that the Son is a mere man, and that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are but the same person, and that the creation is the work of God, not by Christ, but by some other strange power." Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 68. This is clearly an attack on Gnosticism in plain and powerful review.
Justin Martyr was born about 110 A.D. in Samaria, and died about 165 A.D. Though born in Samaria, he was a gentile. He was well educated and very capable as a debater. He is known as the first apologist, one who defends the faith against opponents. He is best known for two Apologies and his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. In the latter, he shows the cessation of the old law and its systems and defends the new order established by Jesus. In the course of his dialogue, after referring to prophecies of Jesus concerning false teachers who would arise, he says, "There are, therefore, and there were many, my friends, who, coming forward in the name of Jesus, taught both to speak and act impious and blasphemous things; and these are called by us after the name of the men from whom each doctrine and opinion had its origin. For some in one way, others in another, teach to blaspheme the Maker of all things, and Christ, who was foretold by Him as coming, and the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, with whom we have nothing in common, since we know them to be atheists, impious, unrighteous, and sinful, and confessors of Jesus in name only, instead of worshippers of Him. Yet they style themselves Christians, just as certain among the Gentiles inscribe the name of God upon the works of their own hands, and partake in nefarious and impious rites. Some are called Marcians, and some Valentinians, and some Basilidians, and some Saturnilians, and others by other names; each called after the originator of the individual opinion, just as each one of those who consider themselves philosophers, as I said before, thinks he must bear the name of the philosophy which he follows, from the name of the father of the particular doctrine. So that, in consequence of these events, we know that Jesus foreknew what would happen after him." Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 212.
The most capable and ardent defender of truth against Gnosticism was Irenaeus, born about 120 A.D. in Asia Minor and died in 202 A.D. In the last quarter of the second century, Irenaeus was a prelate in Lyons, in what is now France. He is best known for his extensive writings Against Heresies, specifically Gnosticism in all its varieties. At times, Irenaeus refers to his writings as "A Refutation and Subversion of Knowledge falsely so called." He read all of the available works of every sect of Gnosticism and personally queried their representatives. He was the premier expert on the subject in the second century. He calls the Gnostic sects by name, identifies their principle tenants and refutes them. In the course of his refutations, Irenaeus insists that Jesus was God, co-eternal and equal with the Father, was born of a virgin, came in the flesh and lived as man but was not mere man; He was both perfect God and perfect man, God come in the flesh. Irenaeus had a profound influence for centuries afterward.
Other writers of the second century dealt with other matters defending Christians against ignorant attacks by pagans, some defending the God of the Bible against general Greek ideas of idolatry.
Tertullian was the most noteworthy individual of the time, referred to as the most ancient of the Latin fathers. He was born about 160 A.D. and died sometime between 220 and 240 A.D. The date is uncertain. He was converted when he was about 40 years old and his most effective work began about the time of the death Irenaeus. About that time, Tertullian became a convert to Montanism, a strict, ascetic, puritan, reform movement to "restore" the first century church; one of many that would follow through the centuries. It was anti-hierarchy, believed in the priesthood of all believers and a return to the miraculous endowments of the first century. Although Montanus was declared to be the other comforter, paraklete, promised by Jesus, Tertullian certainly would not accept that. Tertullian was disgusted with the laxness of the Roman church and most of the strict attitudes of the Montanist agreed with his own. Living in Car-thage, he became the leader of the Montanist in Africa.
The principle works of Tertullian on Gnosticism are his five books "Against Marcion," and a shorter work "Against all Heresies." His book defending Baptism against errors of the time also contains some particular points against Gnosticism. He was as effective in this arena as was Irenaeus, both of whom were defending the orthodox views of the person of God and Christ.
The second century saw the expansion of Gnosticism but the beginning also of wide-spread and effective opposition to its errors. This opposition to Gnosticism is then car-ried into the third century by Tertullian.
Perhaps the most emotional and bitter attack on "Christianity" was mounted in the second century by a man of the world named Celsus. He was not a philosopher but was certainly well educated. Celsus was alarmed by the spread of the gospel and determined to defend his pagan way of life, worship of the emperor and stability of the empire. Celsus considered the Christians to be a threat to this. He had made a very close study of the scriptures and the circumstances of Christians of his time. Every conceivable attack on the Bible, the character and mental stability of Christians, every ridicule and abuse that could be imagined, came from the pen of Celsus. He wrote that only the simpletons, the ignoble, the senseless, slaves, women and children, the most uneducated and common men would fall for such a story as in the Bible. His attack on the virgin birth of Jesus was especially nasty. He had also accepted some of the Gnostic positions about God, which he also presents. Yet, he had virtually no effect on his age, no pagan writers of his time even recognize his existence. However, the arguments of Celsus are still being used today by atheists and skeptics.
Strangely, the works of Celsus no longer exist. The only information we have about him comes from Origen in the third century, who wrote a series of books titled "Against Celsus." Origen studied Celsus as extensively as Celsus did the Bible. He met Celsus argument for argument almost to a fault; he didn't leave a thing unnoticed.
Origen was born in Alexandria in 185 and early showed the exceptional intellect that would impress so many in the empire. Despite his talent and knowledge, his mind wandered into strange and erroneous paths. He is credited with writing six thousand works, both short and long. Among these, he wrote a corrected version of the Sept-uagint and commentaries on every book of the Bible. However, for all his intellect and industry, his monumental defense against Celsus, Origen was a combination of Stoic, Platonist and Gnostic who also tried his best to be a Christian. To Origen, God, not Jehovah, is the First Principle of all things. Jesus was eternally generated by the Father and from that standpoint was divine. Yet, being derived from the Father, Jesus is subordinate to him, a second God, God but not the God. Likewise, the Son was not to be identified with the human spoken of in the New Testament, a position the Gnostics would understand.
Origen had a great influence on many scholars of his time and for centuries afterward. However, the Roman Bishop, Anastasius, condemned Origen in 400 for blas-phemous opinions. In 553, the Council of Constantinople condemned him with anathema.
About the middle of the second century, Sabellius, after some time in Rome, became a presbyter in Ptolemais, Egypt. Sabellius taught that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were only three transient manifestations of divine power. Having fulfilled their mission in these transient forms, they then returned to one abstract substance. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, convened a council in that city that excommunicated Sabellius in 261.
Constantine became emperor in the early part of this century and was supposedly a convert to Christianity. He actually viewed the Church as a means to unifying the empire but the divided nature of the churches and prelates would not allow that. The problem was made worse because of the change in circumstances in the empire. Christians had just gone through years of severe peresecution under Diocletion and Galerius. Thousands were killed while other thousands had been maimed and impoverished. Being granted reli-gious freedom allowed them to turn attention to internal matters, which included squab-bling over doctrinal matters. It became so bitter that those who had been through per-secution by civil authorities were now insisting on the civil authorities doing the same to their opponents in the Church.
Faivre quotes Eusebius in regard to the attitude of Constantine. Constantine said, "a great godlessness was pressing down on men, and the state was threatened with total ruin, as though by a plague. There was an urgent need to find an effective remedy for these evils. What, then, was the remedy found by the Deity? God called on me to serve and swore that I was capable of carrying out his decisions. So it was that I left the sea of Brittany and the country where the sun sets and, commended by a higher power, agreed to drive out and disperse the terror that was reigning everywhere, so that the human race, informed by my intervention, might return to the service of the holy law and the blessed faith might become widespread under the power of the Most High." The Emergence of the Laity in the Early Church, p. 144. Constantine would determine the course of the Church until his death.
Into this atmosphere came the major controversy in the early part of the fourth century, Arianism, a position expressly manufactured to explain the person of Jesus Christ. It all started about 319 by one Arius, a man of less than profound intellect. He was marred by arrogance and ambition with a rather turbulent disposition. Yet, he was very eloquent with a sweet, impressive timbre to his voice. He is described as a tall, handsome man with good manners who affected a sleeveless tunic and slight cloak; he was popular with women. He had studied in the school of Lucian of Antioch who held some views similar to Arianism, which indicates that the position did not originate entirely with Arius. What Arius lacked in other abilities and characteristics he made up for with his eloquence, a doctrine that appealed to many people, both great and not so great. Arius combined his eloquence with shrewd understanding of how to appeal to the people. He wrote jingles that set forth his ideas with tunes that could be sung by the most common people and children. After having been excommunicated by the council in 321, he went to Palestine and later returned to Alexandria where his supporters rioted in the streets.
Arius had been appointed a Deacon by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, in 311. He was soon deposed by Peter, however, when Arius supported Meletius, the rebelious Bishop of Lycopolis. Peter died soon after and Achillas succeeded him. Arius feigned repentance and was restored by Achillas who then appointed him to be presbyter of the influential church of Baucalis located among the wharves and storehouses of the harbor of Alex-andria. On the death of Achillas in 313, Alexander became Bishop, a move that is reported to have greatly iritated Arius.
The eloquence of Arius soon gathered a following in Alexandria and the surrounding area. One day, when Alexander was addressing a meeting of the church leaders, he pre-sented that Jesus was co-eternal and co-equal with the Father. Arius rose to oppose him, accusing Alexander of Sabellianism. Arius then asserted his position on the subject. This was the beginning of the Arian controversy. So, two years after it was introduced, Alexander called a council of a hundred Egyptian and Lyban prelates who then condemned Arius and excommunicated him. Arius left for Palestine where his eloquence gathered a considerable following. He did have some notable friends, among whom were Eusebius the historian, who was Bishop of Caesarea. Another Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, was also a friend and fellow student of Lucian.
The Arian doctrine was simple. The major purpose for the doctrine, so it is claimed, was to present an answer to the pagans charge that Christians were polytheists. It was more acceptable to those who came from pagan backgrounds, and Gnostics could identify with it because of the emphasis on their being only "one God." So, Arianism said, Christ was the first created being, created out of nothing, by the Father. Christ then created the world by powers given to Him. Jesus, being begotten by the Father, had to be less than the one who begat Him; Jesus, as a created being, could not be eternal and equal with the Father. It was stated in a syllogism: Christ is the Logos incarnate. Christ is capable of change and suffering. Therefore, the Logos is capable of change and not equal to God. Christ was not of the same substance as the Father but was of similar substance. The difference in the words, homoousia and homoiousia was only a single letter of the alphabet, iota. Yet the difference in doctrine that resulted was tremendous.
Christie-Murray says, "Arianism had a Christology as heretical as its doctrine of the Trinity. Since Christ was the Word of God dwelling in human flesh, he must have shared the weakness of flesh and been capable of sin, and therefore he could not be God. The first Arians and the Anomoians had believed that the Divine Word was a vital principle normally represented by and analogous to the soul in man. They held that the Logos was therefore responsible for the weaknesses - hunger, thirst, fatigue, sorrow, fear of death - mentioned in the Gosple as features of Jesus's life. These proved that the Word did not share the unchangeability of God and was therefore inferior to him." A History of Heresy, p. 56.
The Emporer Constantine was concerned about the crumbling state of the empire. He fully expected a united church would bring strength and stability to this dire situation. However, in order to have the assistance of the Church to strengthen the empire, there had to be a united Church. This he did not have. He tried to stop the conflicts in the Church by Emperial decree, which failed. Seeing the extent of the division that centered in Alexandria and now was spreading throughout the empire, he called a council early in 325. A council strongly opposed to Arius, was convened in Antioch. The council censured Eusebius of Caesarea and affirmed a position that agreed with Alexander of Alexandria. This set the stage for the first ecumenical council that would be held in the summer of 325, in Nicaea, Asia Minor. It was a council decreed by Constantine and he controlled the outcome.
Three groups arrived at Nicaea, those who opposed Arius, those who supported him, who numbered only eighteen out of three hundred, and those prelates who were in between the other two groups. The Emperor opened the proceedings sitting on a low chair in the middle of the 300 surrounding prelates, one sixth of all the Bishops in the empire, and insisted on agreement between the churchmen.
The issue of Arianism was the first and most important issue of the council, though not the only one. Eusebius of Caesarea, with the support of the Emperor, was reinstated to the fellowship of the Church after partly disagreeing with Arius and setting forth his own creed to the council. Arius presented his views with firm conviction but had little support; he made a bad impression on Constantine who, heretofore, had been favorable toward his views. In some respects, at times, it was a passionate free-for-all with shouted personal attacks and verbal condemnations by the participants.
A major issue of discussion was the Greek word homoousion, referring to the Father and Son being of the same substance. Few on either side liked the use of the word because it was not found in scriptures. Because this door was opened at Nicaea to using non-Biblical terms in Church formulas, the practice increased and had great consequences in the Protestant Reformation. In that sense, at Nicaea, the authority of the scriptures was abandoned for all time to come. An important feature to understand in these con-troversies is the practice of creating new definitions, redefining terms, to either suit one's theology or to explain what one thinks is the true view of something. Once accepted, the words have been so used since that time in any controversy on the subject of Christ.
From this council came the Nicene Creed. It is accepted to this day by the Roman Catholic, Eastern, Anglican and some other churches. It became the standard of orthodoxy. It reads as follows:
"I 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 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 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 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 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 I believe 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 in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I 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."
In order to assure recognition of the target of this creed, the Arians, an appendix was added: "As to those who say: There was once when he was not; before He was begotten he was not; He was made of nothing, or of another substance or essence; the Son of God is a created being, subject to change, mutable; to such persons the Catholic Church says Anathema."
Only two Bishops refused to sign the creed and with Arius were sent into exile. Shortly after the council, two other Bishops, Eusebius of Nicomedia being one, were exiled as well. In 327, Arius wrote an ambiguous letter to Constantine in which he glossed over the real problems. It was accepted and Arius was reinstated. The next year, Eusebius of Nicomedia, the foremost defender of Arius, was reinstated and became Constantine's most trusted advisor. Controversy continued resulting in several Nicene Bishops falling into disfavor and banishment. Arius died in 336. Constantine died two years later.
Sheldon says, "The council of Nicaea did not overthrow the heresy against which it passed sentence. To be sure, for the next quarter of a century or more, there was little exhibition of strict Arianism; and the numerous synods that were convened were characterized in general by its formal repudiation. The strict Arians, for the time being, disguised their sentiments, and trained under the banner of the semi-Arians. This latter party was highly successful in its endeavors after imperial patronage. Even before the death of Constantine, there were conspicuous tokens of its influence at court. Persistent attempts were made to poison the mind of Constantine against the most able champion of the Nicene creed, namely, Athanasius, who had become Bishop of Alexandria shortly after the adjournment of the council. Slanderous charges were urged, and finally had their desired effect (336) in securing the banishment of the iron-hearted Bishop." History of The Christian Church, Vol. 1, p. 425. After Nicaea, the Arian leadership was more interested in political power and position than theological acceptance and were perpetrators of great deceit and evil. They hid their real beliefs until they could assert a strong position, which they finally achieved for a very short time.
At the death of Constantine, the empire was divided between his three sons. The western part of the empire was Nicene in sympathy while the east was Arian. There was an ebb and flow of prelates in the years that followed, first in their being in the favor of the rulers and then out and then in again. Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria who, as a deacon at Nicaea, had played a principal role in debate and hammering out the Nicene position, was banished five times and then reinstated each time. Political deceit was practiced by the prelates throughout the empire as they jockeyed for the favor of the rulers of the empire and for choice positions of power in the churches.
One of the sons of Constantine, Constantius, became sole ruler of the empire in 351-362 and favoring Arianism, enforced anti-Nicene views over the empire; dissenters were banished. After deposing most of the anti-Arian prelates, Constantius sent five thousand soldiers to arrest Athanasius in Alexandria. Athanasius was presiding over an assembly at the time the soldiers, who had surrounded the building, broke in to arrest him. Some in the congregation were killed in the struggle that ensued by the soldiers trying to reach Athanasius. But, friends got Athanasius away, who then went into hiding in the desert for the next six years. He did not waste his time in such humble exile, but wrote much of his output of books and epistles. The emperors Julian and Valens were avid Arians and continued the opposition to, and persecution of, the Nicene supporters. Through the following years, several councils were called to adopt a modified Arian view, but it was not until Theodosius became emperor in 379 that there was a change.
In 380, Theodosius issued an imperial command: "It is Our Will that all the peoples We rule shall practise that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. We shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity. We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, which We shall assume in accordance with divine judgment." Shelley, Church History In Plain Language, p. 110. The will of Theodosius was God's will.
Theodosius was avidly anti-Arian and pro-Nicaean. He wanted a united Church to help unite the empire; he insisted on a united Church. At the council of Constantinople in 381, the orthodox view triumphed and the Nicene Creed reinstated for all time to come. This would not have been accomplished except for the insistance and political backing of Theodosius. Consider just how close the Roman Catholic Church came to being Arian in its doctrine. If not for Theodosius, it well might have been. All of this is made evident in looking at the convening of the Council of Constantinople in 381. It was composed of only 150 Bishops and they were from the eastern part of the empire; Theodosius designated which Bishops would attend the council, the Roman Bishop being the most notable uninvited. It was hardly a general council of the whole Church but for the purposes of Theodosius, it was exactly as he wanted it. In addition to his having banned any religion other than the Church, he required that there be but one view of God and Christ, that view confirmed and interpreted by the council. So, in the course of things, the council anathematized Apollinarius along with some others.
Apollinarius, Bishop of Laodicea in Syria, was strictly a Nicene Trinitarian and defender of the Nicene Creed, a highly educated man who was considered by his peers to be one of the most learned men of his day. He was a prolific writer and educator and well known as a commentator. He was the tutor of Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate and was a very close friend of Athanasius of Alexandria. Yet, Appollinarius was condemned in the same council that reasserted the Nicene Creed in which he believed most fervently.
The Nicene Creed did not argue exactly how Jesus could be both God and man and was a little ambiguous on what His being man actually meant. It is worded in such a way that would leave room for an inherently inferior person, Jesus. Being passionately opposed to Arianism, Apollinarius insisted that Jesus was God come in the flesh, God incarnate. The Divine Spirit took the place of the rational soul in the man Jesus. He rejected the notion of a human spirit along with the Divine Word in that same body, a position that Nestorius would assert some seventy years later, a position likewise condemned by the "orthodox" clergy. The theology of Apollinarius was a natural outgrowth of the Nicene Creed as the theology of Nestorius was a natural outgrowth of the arguments used to oppose Apolli-narius. Further, the arguments used by the opponents of Apollinarius were as much Arian as they were Nicaean. The opponents of Apollinarius overstated his position and then replied to the overstatement.
The charge was made against Apollinarius that he denied the full humanity of Jesus. They based that on the doctrine of the original ruin of man, body, intellect and will, when Adam sinned; the whole of man had fallen into sin and if only a portion of man was taken by Jesus then only part of man was redeemed. This is an argument repeated by Philip Schaff in more modern times who insisted that (see page 79). However, there is no such things as a doctrine of "original sin" in the scriptures so the basis of the argument was groundless.
One modern theologian, a critic of Apollinarius, restates the ancient charge that Apollinarius denied the full humanity of Jesus and says this means a denial of a reasoning human mind in Jesus, a mind that can reach conclusions, can think. But, the reasoning, thinking part of man resides in his spirit and the physical brain is only the connection the spirit has with the world around him. There is no reasoning, thinking human mind apart from the spirit that resides in the body. God the Word is the original after which our spirits are patterned. He had the full ability to function as a human so that the Divine Spirit was all that was needed in addition to the human body in order for Jesus to function, perfectly, as a man.
Such an argument as the need for a rational, thinking, human mind in addition to the Divine Spirit in Jesus, leads directly to Nestorianism because if there had to be a rational, thinking, reasoning human mind in Jesus in addition to the Divine Spirit, then there had to be a human spirit along with the Divine, two spirits. Further, the enemies of Apollinarius used such arguments as Jesus being ignorant of the time of His second coming, an argument used to deny the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth even today (See my article on the Subjection of Jesus). That argument is straight out of Arianism and is still used today. It is also used today by modern Nestorians. It was the misfortune of Apollinarius to be at the wrong place at the wrong time to be reasonably heard, because he did have some ideas that needed to be considered. This is not to say that everything Apollinarius taught on this subject was correct.
Yet, controversy continued as the Church prelates argued over the meaning of homo-ousios, homoiousios, same or similar, ousia, hypostasis, prosopon, and the Latin subastantia and persona. Imperial edict and the pronouncements of Synods did not settle the basic issues on the person of Christ.
The Nestorian controversy was far more serious than that of Apollinarius; it was more to be compared with the Arian controversy. The real author of the doctrine that bears the name of Nestorius, was Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428); Nestorius had been his pupil. Theodore developed the position that the soul of a man, like his body, is taken from his parents. Although the divine element in Christ was not denied, Theodore would say, "God the Word assumed a perfect man."
Nestorius was a monk in Antioch who gained some fame as a preacher. He was appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius II in 428 in hopes of bringing about peace among the factions in Constantinople. However, Nestorius was far from being a peacemaker; he was tactless, violent, overbearing, arrogant, visciously attacking anything that he regarded as heresy, especially Apollinarianism.
The position of Nestorius was that Jesus of Nazareth was composed of two persons, the Divine Spirit, and a human spirit in one body. It's as simple as that. There were other issues involved in the controversy, such as the phrase "Mother of God." But, Nestorius is best remembered for his two spirit position.
Indeed, the early centuries saw a development of theories about the Godhead and the person of Christ. In one form or another, those theories still exist today and must be opposed.