Jesus Christ: Controversy, Part 1 (Early Church to Nicaea)

Jesus Christ: Controversy, Part 1

Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed & Selected Passages

Back in the days when I was in seminary, I was studying in my apartment, and I heard a knock at the door. I opened the door, and there were two guys standing there in suits. I immediately started wracking my brain to see if I had done anything illegal… am I going to jail? And then one of them started asking me some questions about religion and eternal life. They were Jehovah Witnesses. I stood there at the doorway listening to and answering their questions (I should have invited them in). After a couple of minutes, I started asking them questions. Would they let me see their Bible (which is a much different “translation” than our Bible) because I wanted to ask them what they believed about Jesus? Jehovah Witnesses don’t believe that Jesus Christ is fully God. They believe that Jesus was God’s first creation (and therefore He is not fully God). So I took them to John 8:58 where Jesus tells the Jewish religious leadership, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The Jewish leadership knew what Jesus was claiming (to be God Himself) because they pick up stones to kill Him. I started explaining what’s going on in the original Greek language. I see the older of the two suited guys get nervous, and I see the younger guy (who’s like the Jedi Padawan apprentice) lean in and get interested. And then all of the sudden, the older guy says that they’ve got to go. Interesting… huh… it was a fun 15 minutes.

What’s crazy about this scenario is that Christians get sucked into these conversations and leave the Christian faith by the droves because they don’t know what they believe and why they believe it, especially about Jesus Christ, who He fully is, and what He’s fully done. Why do we need to understand what we believe? What difference does it make? What are some of the core things that we need to believe in an orthodox (literally “right praise” and “right thinking”) Christian faith? Here’s what is crucial about understanding who Jesus Christ fully is:

Jesus Christ is fully God and it makes a world of difference!

What would happen if we changed central beliefs about Jesus Christ? What happens if you begin to change the reality that He is fully God? What happens if you don’t believe that He’s fully human? What changes? What’s at stake? In the next two articles, we are going to look at what we believe about the person and work of Jesus Christ, why we believe it, and what difference it makes. We are going to look at two ancient creeds developed within the first 500 years of the church’s history which clarify and affirm what the Bible teaches about the person and work of Jesus Christ. In this installment in The Story of God we are going to look at a creed that developed in the 300s AD – the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed that focuses on clarifying Jesus’ fully divinity. And in the next installment, we’ll look at what is called the “Definition of Chalcedon” from 451 AD, which clarifies and affirms what is orthodox and “right thinking” about Jesus being fully God and fully human.

As we explore the controversy surrounding the person and work of Jesus Christ, we’re going to talk about three things: (1) the History, (2) the Scriptures, and (3) the Implications.

The History

The reason that we need to look at the history is that “theology” (what we believe and articulate about God) is always “reactive.” Here’s what I mean by “reactive.” Throughout the history of the early church, everyone is tracking along with what Jesus taught the disciples. After the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the disciples, now called the Apostles (literally “the sent ones”), are out preaching the gospel, planting churches, and teaching and training new followers of Jesus what Jesus taught them. And then somewhere along the way, some of the pastors and teachers that are raised up begin to teach some wrong things about Jesus (i.e., unorthodox teaching about who Jesus fully is and what He has fully done). We see this in the New Testament as the Apostle Paul writes letters to the early churches in the first century to correct some of the teaching and things that are going on. So it continues throughout the history of the early church–right, orthodox teaching and theology is clarified and affirmed in reaction to wrong teaching. Right, orthodox teaching and theology clarifies and affirms what Jesus taught about Himself and what He did on the Cross and in and through the Resurrection.

The History of the Ancient Church. So here’s a very quick run-down on the first 600 years of the church… and at what points some major theology and orthodox teaching about Jesus is clarified.

Apostles (AD 33-100). This is the “phase” where the apostles, the sent ones of Jesus, are the first ones “on mission” with Jesus, preaching the gospel, planting churches, teaching right teaching, and training up converts and leaders to continue the work of Jesus Christ.

Church Fathers (AD 100-150). By 100 AD, all of the apostles have died (John is likely the last one to died in the late 90s AD). And the Church Fathers are the ones who take the apostles teaching and begin to help the early church focus on what it truly means to be a Christ-follower.

Apologists (AD 150-300). After 150 AD, the Christian faith and church is spreading and beginning to have influence in many lives. And the Roman Empire starts to get nervous. So there are some major persecutions of Christians during this period. The Roman Empire accuses Christians of being “a-theist” because they worship only one God instead of the pantheon of Roman gods. And the influence of the Christian faith begins to affect and impact the economic stability of the Roman Empire because all of these Roman micro-enterprises of making gold and silver statutes of gods and worship in Roman temples is threatened by this young Christian faith that is having a profound influence in peoples’ lives. So the “apologists” are writing and preaching to explain and defend the Christian faith.

Theologians (AD 300-600). Something world-altering happens in AD 313. The Roman Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity, outlaws persecution of Christians, and the Holy Roman Empire is born (we’ll talk about how “good” this was for the church in 4 weeks). So the church experiences a movement from oppression to peace… and there is a greater freedom for the church and church leaders to gather together to discuss the gospel, the church, and the theology of the Church. This is the also the period when some very aberrant teaching about the person and work of Jesus Christ begins to spread throughout the churches in the Roman Empire.

Council of Nicaea. That brings us to the council of Nicaea. The first unorthodox teaching that begins to spread is brought about by a guy named Arius, and he’s the head of a major Bible School in Alexandria, Egypt where a lot of smart guys gathered to study the Bible and talk about theology. Bottom line is that Arius taught that Jesus was the first “created” being. Arius taught that Jesus was created by God, and therefore He is not fully God. This teaching begins to spread throughout the churches across the Roman Empire. So things start to get squirrely because the core of Christian faith is now threatened. and the stability of the church is now threatened.

As a result in 325 AD, 320 church leaders and theologians gather in Nicaea, which is modern day Turkey, and they hash it out. A guy named Athanasius takes leadership in affirming what the New Testament teaches about the person and work of Jesus Christ–He is fully God (we’ll explore that more in a moment).

This council of Nicaea did not “develop” the statement and stance that Jesus is fully God. The council of Nicaea affirmed and clarified what was taught in the Scriptures by Jesus, to the apostles, and throughout the early history of the church. This is crucial. Christian theology and specifically the person and work of Jesus Christ were not a 4th century invention (as Dan Brown and the DaVinci Code would have you believe). In the 4th century, the early church affirmed and clarified what had been taught in the first century by those that walked with Jesus and witnessed His death, resurrection, and ascension.

At the end of the day at the council of Nicaea, out of the 320 pastors, church leaders, and theologians that gathered, it was 318 to 2. 318 affirmed and clarified that Jesus is fully God, while 2 believed that He isn’t. And the two are excommunicated for heresy. And what comes out of the council of Nicaea is the Nicene Creed: a statement and affirmation of orthodox theology of the Trinity and especially the person and work of Jesus.

Council of Constantinople. So we’re tracking along, hoping everything goes great, but Arius and his two excommunicated buddies aren’t too happy, and the heretical teaching about Jesus continues. So now on top of that, some wrong theology begins to surface that the Holy Spirit is not fully God. So the belief in the Trinity is once-again threatened, and in 381 AD, another council is called in Constantinople. At this council, the Nicene Creed is confirmed, clarified a bit more, and there is more discussed, clarified, and affirmed about the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, who is fully God.

So in 381 AD, we get the “Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.”

We 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 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;
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 sits on the right hand of the Father;
and will come again, with glory,
to judge both the living and the dead;
His Kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son];
who with the Father and the Son together
is worshipped and glorified;
who spoke by the Prophets.

And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church;
we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
and we look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
Amen

The Scripture

Once again, what is key to understanding this creed is that it affirms and clarifies the teaching of the Bible in regard to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Let’s look at three specific phrases in the creed and go to three specific New Testament passages to show what is affirmed and clarified from God’s word about the person and work of Jesus Christ–He is fully God and it makes a world of difference!

very God of very God: Philippians 2:6. This first phrase “very God of very God” means that Jesus Christ is God… fully God… that’s what “very God” means. There is a word and a concept presented in Philippians 2:6 that will help with this affirmation. Philippians 2:6: “… although He existed in the form of God He did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped.” A key word here is word “form” (NIV = “very nature”). This word “form” (the Greek word μορφή) has nothing to do with shape or size. It’s all about the nature of something… the “inner essence.” Paul, the author of this passage, is affirming that Jesus is in His very nature, His inner essence fully God. Jesus is very God of very God. And the context of the passage is about Jesus’ humility in leaving heaven and putting on flesh. Even though He was God (i.e., equal with God), He put on the frailty of humanity and did not continually grasp onto (literally “seize or snatch”) the rights of His divinity. At any point along the way when Jesus was being ridiculed, persecuted, and ultimately put to death for claiming that He was God, Jesus could have simply started smoking everyone in divine judgment and omnipotence (all-powerful). But He chose not to. He is God but He humbled Himself. Very God of very God. Jesus is fully God and it makes a world of difference.

begotten, not made: John 3:16. The next word that can throw us for a loop in the creed and in the New Testament is the word “begotten” that we find in John 3:16. The creed affirms that Jesus, being fully God, very God of very God, is “begotten, not made.” This statement affirms what the apostle and Gospel writer John says in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” This word “only begotten” literally means “unique, one of a kind.” There is a difference between something being begotten and something being made or created. So the Jehovah Witness guys come to my house and tell me that Jesus Christ is not fully God because He was made and created by the Father.

The verb “make” is general; one can make dinner, clothes, a house, or any other product. The “create” can have the same objects, but usually elevates the act to an art: one creates a masterpiece, or a work of art, or a symphony. While these creations bear the imprint of the creator, they do not share his nature. But “beget” is different. You can only beget a child that has the same nature as you have–a son or a daughter. Your son or your daughter will inherit his or her nature from you–genes, personality–all of it. Now follow this carefully. If Jesus is said to be the begotten Son of God, then Jesus has the same nature as the Father. If Jesus has the same nature as God the Father, then Jesus is divine and eternal as well. To call Jesus “the only begotten Son” means that he is fully divine and eternal. He is God the Son.

one substance with the Father by whom all things were made: Colossians 1:15-16. The last phrase that we need to address is the reality that Jesus is “one substance with the Father by whom all things were made.” There’s a word in Colossians 1:15 that caused some people to believe that Jesus was a created being.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him.

The emphasis of this verse is that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God.” The emphasis is on the equality of Jesus with the Father. Jesus is of the same “substance” (the creed puts it) with the Father. The Father is fully God, and Jesus is fully God. He is the image of the invisible God. Then there’s the phrase “the firstborn of all creation.” So some of those early pastors that started teaching the Jesus was created read this verse and used it as a proof text for their position. But the word “firstborn” (πρωτότοκος) means firstborn in terms of “rank.” It is referring to the supremacy of the firstborn in an ancient family–the supreme heir. The reason that Jesus Christ, God Himself is the supreme heir, the firstborn of all creation, is that He is the Creator. That’s what v. 16 tells us. How could One who was created be the Creator of all things? That would mean He created Himself (because “all” means “all”)? Jesus, God the Son, is of the same “substance” or essence as God the Father. Jesus Christ is fully God.

So those are three key phrases about the person and the work of Jesus Christ clarifying and affirming what the Scriptures taught… the Jesus is fully God.

The Implications

If we don’t believe that Jesus is fully God, there’s no need to celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday. No Jesus being fully God… no truth of God’s Word… and ultimately no purpose in the Cross or Resurrection. Am I saying that strong enough? Here’s what’s at stake:

The Truth. Once again, these early church councils did not invent or develop the teaching and theology that Jesus is fully God. They merely affirmed and clarified what God’s Word, the very Truth of God and the Truth about God tells us. The Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) affirm that Jesus Christ is fully God. That’s why when I met those Jehovah Witnesses on my doorstep, I took them to the Bible. In fact, I even took them to John 8:58 in their own version of the Bible (a part they forgot to change) when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” That “I AM” part is what got Jesus murdered. He claimed to be God. All of the Gospels and letters in the New Testament claim that Jesus is fully God. To claim anything else, you have to throw out the Bible. And if you throw out the Bible, you throw out God’s self-revelation of Himself, the ground and the source of all Truth. So Jesus Christ is fully God and it makes a world of difference.

The Cross & Resurrection. The next thing that is at stake in believing the right things about the person and work of Jesus Christ is the atonement. The “atonement” is all about the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, God Himself, taking away our sins, fully satisfying the penalty for our sin, appeasing the very wrath of God that was due us, and cleansing us of our sin. Once again, if Jesus is not fully God, the cross and the resurrection are pointless. As fully divine, fully God, He is able to fully satisfy the divine and eternal penalty of our sin for which finite humanity could not adequately or fully pay. If He was not fully God, that price and that penalty could not be fully satisfied. And if that price and penalty was not fully satisfied, your sins are not and cannot be forgiven and paid for. Therefore, you are dead forever with no hope of resurrection, no hope of restoration, no hope of “all things new.” There’s just a little bit at stake!

Jesus Christ is fully God and it makes a world of difference. Ten Thousands upon ten thousands of Christian saints have affirmed this central reality of the Christian faith for two thousand years. Jesus Christ, God the Son, the “eternally pre-existent” One (He existed before time without beginning and without end), left the very throne of heaven, donned human flesh (while remaining fully God), walked among a broken and lost humanity, died on the cross for our sin, was raised on the third day, and ascended back to the throne of heaven with the Father. Fully believing that, centering your heart and your life upon that central reality, makes all the difference in the world. Your sins are fully forgiven, the wrath of God due you has been satisfied because God took it in your stead, you can live in the hope and the reality of “all things new” because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. As a glorious, grace-filled result, you too can walk in newness of life. This is the orthodox faith, taught by the Apostles, handed down to the Church for generations to come. This is what is true and right. And most importantly, this central reality, that Jesus Christ is fully God. This is the centerpiece of the story of God–the story of the God who creates and re-creates for His glory and for your good.

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