Today we celebrate the Fathers of the First and Second Ecumenical Councils. These were meetings of bishops held in the 4th Century in Nicaea (modern day Iznik in northern Turkey) in 325 AD and Constantinople in 381 AD that met to deal with the hugely important question of who Christ was and is. The first time that the Church had to address this question was when Jesus challenged his disciples: “but who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)
It was not as if the Church had spent the next 300 years not really quite sure how to answer that question. The apostles knew beyond doubt that Christ was both fully human and true God. However, in later times, fresh questions and new challenges arose forcing the Church to reassess the old question and to go deeper into the answer.
This matters for us not just because we recite the Creed of these ‘two-Councils-in-one’ at every Liturgy but because work of the Nicene Fathers helps us to help people today to answer the age-old question, “who is Jesus?”
One person in the 4th Century who thought that he had the answer to that question was a certain priest in North Africa called Arius. He turned out to be probably the most dangerous and false teacher that the Church has ever encountered. Jesus Himself had warned his disciples:
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:16).
St. Paul took up this theme later in his missionary journeys, prophesying to the presbyters at Ephesus:
“28 Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God[c] which He purchased with His own blood. 29 For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.”
Arius was just such a wolf. He was probably a Libyan by birth, a pupil of Lucian of Antioch. Lucian, like some others before him in the first three Christian centuries tended to understand the lack of dependence of the Father on the Son and the Spirit as grounds for believing that only He, the Father, was God in the full sense of that word. Lucian, however, did not have his pupil’s gifts as an orator. We remember Arius for his success in popularising his teaching, not in lectures but through hymns. This led him into direct conflict with his bishop, St. Alexander (d. 328) in Alexandria, and later, St. Alexander’s young deacon St. Athanasius (c. 296 – 373), the great teacher of the faith in this time.
For Arius, since one could only speak of ‘God’ as God, there had to be a simple oneness of personhood, an identity that only the Father could fulfil. As such, although the Son of God, Christ, existed before his human birth, he was still a created being, albeit made before the Cosmos. In a statement of faith to St. Alexander, Arius used the now famous phrase that (Christ) ‘was not before he was begotten.’ Arius saw Christ as an exalted spiritual being, a sort of intermediary between God (as Father) and humanity, but when Christ acted it was not God acting directly, only his exalted created Agent, in other words Christ was “not-quite-God.”
We see a similar teaching today in the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Indeed, even some liberal Protestants have tried to rehabilitate Arius! The significance of Arius and his danger to the Church lay in his ability to recruit others to his cause, notably Eusebius of Nicomedia who probably caused more problems than Arius himself in the ongoing disputes. Moreover there was a lack of clarity in the use of language by all sides at the outset which could easily mislead when left unchallenged.
The plausibility of the Arius’ position arose from a highly selective use of Scripture, and as Alexander noted, this often involved the claim that the sufferings and humiliation of Christ ruled out his divine status. By the time the first Ecumenical Council of bishops gathered in Nicaea in 325 AD to sort this out emperors and bishops alike had succumbed to the heresy and St Athanasius, Arius’ great opponent and arguably the great architect of Nicaea, spent much of his Church life in exile. Although the first Council excluded and condemned Arian teaching, it took hard and long work over many years finally to defeat it.
By the time of the second Council of Constantinople met in 381 the Cappadocian fathers, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Gregory of Nyssa had persuasively argued that being of one essence or substantive being was what guaranteed the monotheism of the Orthodox view. St. Basil extended this argument to cover the divinity of the Spirit and this was reflected in the second version of the Nicene Creed approved in Constantinople.
Arianism itself lingered on a little longer in the west amongst the Germanic tribes but within a few generations it was a spent force ... until that is, it re-emerged in the west after the Enlightenment in different forms in certain Protestant sects, one now provocatively called the “Arian Catholic Church”! Tout ca change, tout c’est la meme chose!
How does all of this speak our position in the Church today, confronting unbelief and ignorance on a vast scale? I believe that there is one key issue that we now face in the post-Christian west. In so far as many people believe that there is a God they take the divine to be a simple, abstract, impersonal force. This became the mantra of the Star Wars series of films. “May the Force be with you!” The Force could have a light side and a dark side but it remained a single Force.
Against this Christians insist on two things that are basic to our belief in God. God is personal and God is connected to us. He is personal because He Loves us. He is connected to us because He loves us… but more than that, because of that great Love he has come amongst us as a Man both to restore our broken relationship with him arising from sin and to unite ourselves to him. All this the Father accomplished in sending the Son in human form, God from God, and in pouring out the Holy Spirit on the Church, God from God. God did not change a single personhood into three forms in sequence but rather in three persons at once He brought the whole of Creation into a redeemed intimate relationship with Himself ... the Father acting by the Son and the Spirit both to save us and to bring us life.
So, when we meet the modern day Arians at our doors, primarily the Jehovah’s Witnesses let us be clear and stand with St. Athanasius. Such is God’s great Love that, whilst remaining in heaven, He comes amongst us on earth, tripersonally. We will not sacrifice this Love of God that has saved us for the superficial and artificial so-called rationality of an impersonal and abstract deity, ingloriously isolated both from both our flesh and the beauty of His created order. That way leads to irrelevance, boredom and despair. Rather we celebrate Emmanuel, God with us.