Knowing Christ: Very God of Very God

            In the year 325, over 200 bishops met in the city of Nicea in order to settle what was then the most pressing issue of their day: who is Jesus Christ. What was astounding about this council of Christian theologians was that just thirty years earlier many of those same Bishops were in hiding, or if found, imprisoned and tortured for their public confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. It was during that time that the Roman Empire was committed to the complete annihilation of the Christian faith. And so it must have been with such a deep sense of awe and thankfulness that Eusebius, thirty years later looked around this room of bishops, many of whom had known persecution their entire lives, now being convened by the Roman Emperor himself to help bring theological clarity and unity to the Roman Empire.[1] The Emperor was Constantine who had just recently (312AD) made Christianity the legal religion of Rome. And the central focus of the council was Jesus Christ; namely is the Son of God fully divine, having existed himself from eternity past?

            This question arose out of the theological turmoil caused by Arius (250-336) and his writings which were gaining in popularity. Arius was concerned, rightly we should say, with God’s oneness. To him, Deuteronomy 6:4 was not only clear but the end of the discussion. For Arius, Jesus Christ, the son of God, was essentially different. In fact, Arius coined a phrase concerning Jesus which his followers loved to chant in the streets - “There was a time when he was not.” Athanasius, a contemporary of Arius, described this central Arian belief as “the Unbegun [God] who made the Son a beginning of things originated; and advanced Him as a Son to Himself by adoption. He has nothing proper to God in proper subsistence. For He is not equal, no, nor one in essence with Him.”[2]

            And though orthodox Christians had always seen the Son of God as a different person distinct from the Father within the Trinity, for Arius Jesus was not only someone distinct but something entirely different. Yes, he was unique among men, but he wasn’t fully God. He was the savior, but not divine. He was begotten, but not eternally so. In other words, in wanting to defend God’s oneness, the Biblical witness of God’s inter-Trinitarian diversity fell to the way-side.

            But that wasn’t the only consequence. What this ultimately meant was that Arius denied the gospel. The vast majority at Nicea (everyone except two) saw Arius’s teachings as heretical and destructive to the Christian faith. Why? Because if Jesus was not of the same divine essence as the Father, than Jesus could not reconcile sinful men to a holy and divine Father. Athanasius argued that only God could save men because only God is worthy to suffer in the place of all people.[3] In defending Jesus’ full humanity Gregory of Nazianzus rightly maintained that “What is not assumed could not be redeemed.”   

Also closely connected to this was the consequence of a Christian’s worship. Is Jesus Christ a proper object of our worship? Arius and his followers obviously said no. The Nicean Council argued persuasively and biblically that this attacked the root of the Christian faith; it undermined the gospel. This led those who composed the Nicene Creed to write that “we believe 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... Who for us and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made a man.”

            Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, writing not too long after the Nicene Council defended the Creed as biblical by pointing to John 10:30. “Moreover, Christ himself says, ‘I and the Father are one.’ He said ‘One’ in order that there be no separation of power and nature; but again he said ‘we are,’ so that you may recognize Father and Son, forasmuch as the perfect Father is believed to have begotten the perfect Son, and the Father and the Son are One, not by confusion of Person, but by unity of nature.”[4]  Indeed, by looking at John 10:31-33, we see that even the Pharisees understood Jesus to be claiming full divinity, for John tells us there that “the Jews picked up stones again to stone him.         

The irony is that Jesus, being very God of very God, became incarnate. And it is primarily in that reality that Jesus Christ can be a savior at all. It is our Trinitarian God who has accomplished salvation, the center of that salvation being found in the death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ.

            Looking back at the controversy surrounding Arius I think we can learn many lessons, though I’ll only mention three brief ones here. First, our theological understanding in one area will always have consequences in other areas. Arius, in wanting to defend monotheism did so in such a way that his Christology became biblically deficient. Which in turn effected his soteriology as well as the way he understood practical doxology and worship. Theology matters.

            Secondly, we live in a day where Creeds and Confessions are seen as weird relics of history. And yet, it is critical for the church to maintain and defend the biblical truth of Nicea.  In our own day many false religions rehash the Arian heresy. Simply put, Church History matters.

            Thirdly, in an age where the word god can mean a million different things it is good to keep the Nicene Creed in view, a Creed which affirms the biblical witness and reminds us that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, begotten of the Father. He is 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, both in Heaven and on Earth; who for us and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made a man.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.



[1] See Stephen J. Nichols, For Us And For Our Salvation (Crossway, 2007).

[2] Athanasius, De Synodis, 15.

[3] Athanasius, On the Incarnation. 54.

[4] Ambrose, Of the Christian Faith (De Fide), Book 1, Chapter 1 as found in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. X. 202-203.

 

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Stephen Unthank