Imagine this: theological debate rages on one particular issue, a swirling vortex of controversy. Everyone seems divided, and I mean EVERYONE. You can hardly walk down the street without people engaging you in debate, trying to prove to you one side or the other. In a post-Christian culture such as ours, this scenario seems far-fetched and unlikely to happen; after all, people don’t care that much about things theological. But that’s what it was like to live in the fourth century.
Hear the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa:
“If you ask anyone for change of silver, he will discuss with you whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the price of a loaf, you will receive the answer, that ‘the Father is greater, the Son is less.’ If you ask whether the bath is prepared, you will be solemnly told that ‘there was nothing before the Son was created.”
Is Jesus God?
Our story begins in a diocese called Alexandria, in Egypt. It begins as a question about who Jesus is, a question that echoes to this day.
If Christians worship one God and thus spurn the gods of the Romans, if they say Jesus is God does that mean they worship two? Is Jesus God? Along comes a priest named Arius. He argues that Jesus can’t be God, that if Jesus in some way comes from the Father, then there was a time when Jesus did not exist. He stresses the transcendence of God, to the point of denying divinity to Jesus.12
You see how it has some appeal? You see how there’s a part of it that makes sense? That’s the insidious part. As human beings, we crave truth, and so the kernel of truth at its core (or half-truth, as it may be) appeals to us. But if you have some of the truth without all of it, that’s a recipe for disaster.
What’s more, the question at hand is the identity of Jesus. Get that wrong and you get everything wrong.
If Arius had stayed just one guy with ideas in Alexandria, things would’ve been fairly small. But instead it unleashes a swirling vortex of controversy that engulfs the early Church. His ideas go out, unleashing a firestorm of support and opposition. He strikes a nerve with people, both clergy and laity. As St. Gregory of Nyssa says above, you can’t even walk down the street without getting drawn into it. The movement he starts goes by the name Arianism, taking its name from Arius, its founder.
Bishops and priests call small local councils together to discuss Arius and his ideas. None have worldwide sway, none settle the matter. Something needs to be done.
Constantine, as emperor, wants things settled and Christianity undivided, so he calls together a council of bishops from all over the world, a “universal” council of sorts.
It’s a bit unprecedented in the Greek and Roman world, where their religion mostly consisted of following the correct rituals or festivals or external things.3 Questions of truth, identity, and being have little place there, hence no need for councils of any kind, let alone universal councils. But in Christianity, the identity of Jesus, the nature of God, and the like are all of central importance. Christianity asserts certain things as truth, and the content of those things asserted needs to be precise and unambiguous.
The council convenes in Nicaea in 325, hearing bishops from both sides. Then, those present mull over what was heard, the testimony of Scripture, and what the Church has believed this whole time. Councils don’t invent doctrine, they explain it, making sure errors are excluded. They ask what the Church has already believed and clarify it.
The conclusion of Nicaea on the issue of Jesus’ divinity was simple: Jesus is God. In fact, He is one in nature with God the Father.
To explain their conclusions, they write a creed (named after the first word in Latin, credo, “I believe”). What exactly is a creed? And why should we care?
A creed is a summary of the faith. It’s simple, easy to remember, and easily transferrable. To use a more technical Scripture term, it can be a hermeneutic for understanding Scripture (hermeneutic means “a method or theory of interpretation” or “the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (as of the Bible)”)4. In a way, a creed is a lens through which we understand the faith.
So why do we need creeds?
As you read about the swirling vortex of controversy known as Arianism that we’ve been talking about, it probably didn’t make a ton of sense to you, and you probably wondered how he got such a huge following in the first place. After all, it seems so clear and obvious that Jesus is God, there are a ton of references to the Trinity in the Bible, and Arius’ arguments about Jesus not being divine seem weak and untenable.
That’s because you’ve been shaped by a creed. When you read the Bible, since you have a lens that’s primed you to look for things about the Trinity, you notice them. You see them more easily. They’re there regardless, but you notice them faster. Without a creed, something like Arianism can have popular appeal because people aren’t seeing what they need to.
So that settles it, right? Arianism dies down and Christianity has a peaceful next 2000 years?
Arius and followers don’t shut up following Nicaea, the Roman Empire continues to stay divided, we have a back-and-forth of some emperors Arian and some not, some dioceses start having two competing bishops (one Arian, one not) each claiming to be the valid one.
All is not lost: Nicaea was a great victory at clarifying authentic Christian belief and the tide is turning against Arius and company. The swirling vortex of controversy shifts its course, eventually paving the way for another council. But that council is still 60 years out.
Is the Holy Spirit God?
The swirling vortex of controversy first attacked Jesus’ divinity, now it sets its sights on the divinity of the Holy Spirit. There’s a group of theologians known as the Cappadocian Fathers (named after the region they’re from), consisting of St. Gregory of Nyssa, his brother St. Basil, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. They predict what’s going to happen next: we’ve settled things on the Second Person of the Trinity, but what of the Third? They predict the next debate will be on the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Basil moves quickly, writing a major work on the Holy Spirit, the first in Christian history.5
The swirling vortex of controversy builds, until the Council of Constantinople convenes in 381. It not only affirms the teachings of Nicaea (namely, that Jesus is God), but also concludes that the Holy Spirit is God.
Like Nicaea, Constantinople writes a creed, based heavily on the Nicene Creed but with additions regarding the Holy Spirit, where Nicaea had “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, Constantinople fleshed it out and explained it more, calling the Holy Spirit Lord and giver of life, saying the Holy Spirit is worshipped alongside the Father and the Son.
In fact, the Creed we say every Sunday at Mass comes from the Council of Constantinople. We shorthand call is the Nicene Creed, but it’s really the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed since it came from both councils (that’s a bit of a mouthful though).
Things stay fairly calm for the next 40 years or so. The Trinity has been explained and clarified: there is one God who is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now that people aren’t debating about it anymore, attention turns to Jesus. How can Jesus be both human and divine? That’s the question.
Is Jesus one person or two?
Along comes Nestorius. He argues that an eternal God can’t be born, and thus has a problem with calling Mary “Mother of God” (Theotokos, “God-bearer” in Greek). He argues that Mary just gave birth to Jesus’ human nature, but not His divine nature, and that post-birth the Divine Son became united with the man Jesus. So, he says it’s better to call Mary “Mother of Christ” (Christotokos, “Christ-bearer” in Greek) instead of Mother of God.
Like with Arius, you see how it has some appeal? You see how it seems to make sense? Yet its kernel of truth goes too far and leads into error.
The worry from Cyril of Alexandria is that Nestorius’ views divide Christ into one human person and one divine person, so is Jesus one or is He two? Was He just a human being born of Mary who later became united to God the Son (as Nestorius argues), or was He one person (as Cyril argues)?
The swirling vortex of controversy doesn’t stop there. It brings up another entire topic, one not discussed until two councils later. It brings up the difference between “nature” and “person”. God is one nature but three Persons, as Constantinople already clarified, but could the reverse happen, one person with more than one nature? As I said, the question doesn’t get discussed yet, but it is hanging in the background.
Is Jesus one person or two? That’s the question right now. Namely, it concludes that Jesus is one person, defending that God really became man. If Jesus is one person, and if Jesus is God, and if Mary is the mother of Jesus, then it means Mary is the Mother of God. Hence, the council defends the use of “Mother of God” as a title for Mary.
Rather than write a creed, Ephesus writes something called the Formula of Union, which states that the one born of Mary is the unique Son of God, that Jesus is both God and man yet is still one Christ, one Lord. So far so good. Then it gets controversial. The Formula of Union states that sometimes it is necessary to distinguish between things proper to Jesus’ divine nature or human nature, and thus Jesus is “out of two natures”.6
Misinterpretation abounds, and now the swirling vortex of controversy shifts: it’s no longer about Mary as Theotokos, it’s about what the word “nature” means. Can a divine nature exist alongside a human nature in one person? Does Jesus being God “wipe out” His humanity, so to speak? Or perhaps He’s part God and part man?
Does Jesus have one nature or two?
Eutyches, a monk, gets into trouble with the bishop of Dorylaeum, a city in modern-day Turkey; he preaches that at the Incarnation, Jesus’ human and divine natures fuse into one nature, and the bishop removes him from his teaching office. However, both he and his views had popular appeal, so resentment simmers against the bishop.
Along comes Dioscorus, who succeeds Cyril as bishop of Alexandria. He is described as “an ambitious and impetuous figure whose zeal to humiliate Constantinople was matched by his want of sound judgment”.7 Not a good combination. Dioscorus makes a bad situation worse.
Dioscorus moves to support Eutyches and thus show the bishops near Constantinople they were foolish for deposing him. He uses his connections in the imperial court to convince Emperor Theodosius to convene a council. He ignores Pope Leo’s letter on the matter of one person / two natures, strong-arming the bishops present into supporting his position.8
The papal legates from Rome object, for obvious reasons. Dioscorus assembles a mob, who kill one of the legates; the rest flee. When Pope Leo hears of what happened at the Council, he dubs it a “den of robbers” and refuses to accept the council’s conclusions. It goes down in history as the Robber’s Council (in Latin, Latrocinium).
The fact that the Pope refuses to accept the council’s conclusions is huge. Massive. In all the previous councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus), the Pope accepted the conclusions. But here he does not. Do councils have authority independently, or do they need to be in union with the Bishop of Rome? The fact that he refuses to approve one now implies the latter: a council needs union with the Pope. To the day, the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus are considered valid councils, but the Robber’s Council is not. To preserve unity in the Church, councils exercise authority as long as they’re in union with the Pope.
Time for a non-robber council
Emperor Theodosius refuses to bend to Pope Leo’s request for a new council to settle the question of one person / two natures. A few months later, the emperor dies in an accident on horseback, succeeded by his sister Pulcheria, who marries a man named Marcian and proclaims him emperor. The Pope’s request for a council in Italy proves impossible as the Huns threaten invasion, so instead the new council convenes in Chalcedon in 351.9
The Council of Ephesus had already made it clear that no one should compose a new creed, so Chalcedon quotes the original text of the Creed from Nicaea in 325 as well as the original from Constantinople in 381.
The council fathers reason that since Constantinople needed to go beyond Nicaea in order to explain something necessary, so also now they would need to go beyond the text of both to clear up confusion. Further councils would take the same approach, clarifying issues that hadn’t been around before.
Chalcedon explains it beautifully, so I’ll just quote part of its conclusion:
“We … confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man … to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son”10
True God and true man, two natures that are undivided but remain distinctly two. Bam.
Looking back, looking forward
The swirling vortex of controversy began with a question of Jesus’ identity and examined different parts of it. Ultimately, it led to greater clarity about who He is. But the questions didn’t stop. They haven’t stopped today. The arguments look different. “Did Jesus even exist?” wasn’t one the early Christians had to deal with, nor was “why does it even matter?”, yet both are common today.
The early Christians knew that Jesus’ identity was central. They let Him, Who is Truth, transform their lives, and in response rose up to defend Him from erroneous concepts about Him. In our own day, Jesus’ identity is still central and questions about it still abound.
Really, it’s the same question Jesus asked the apostles: “Who do you say that I am?”
- Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2012), 89.
- In addition to the works I cite, I’m also drawing upon lectures and thus I’m unable to cite individual instances. The class was Evangelization of the Ancient World, Dr. Christopher Blum, Augustine Institute, summer 2015.
- Wilken, 92
- “Hermenutic”, Merriam-Webster.com
- Wilken, 95
- Ibid., 200
- Ibid., 201
- You can find a full version in Greek original here.