I frequently see interest and conversation around the councils, and some suspicion around the creeds in relation to what the Bible presents. I also appreciate some liturgy in my own personal worship, so I wanted to research it to understand it better for myself.
The early founders of the Nicene creed of 325 did not have as well defined a “trinitarian” doctrine as did the Constantinople creed of 381. The church was trying to clarify the nature of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Godhead at that time. For them, the Scriptures clearly spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost separately in some way and with a degree of independence. The question remained in what relationship could these three persona be identified as. The aim of the Nicene creed was to provide a stance against Sabellianism or modalism, which would present the three names as mere identification of three separate modes or attributes of God. The Council of Nicaea was not supportive of this view. However, there was a real concern about going too far the other direction that the three would seem more like subordinate tri-theism, akin to the polytheism of other pagan beliefs. Similar to Tertullian much earlier before, the Nicene founders–along with Augustine–were attempting to wrestle with meaningful words to describe this hypostasis (or substance) that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had in common while yet being separate by using terms analogous to things around them. This did not get fully developed and like most analogies they had there weaknesses, but it was a start. There does not appear to be a question that the Council of Nicaea did identify with the belief that with the unity of God. But there was also the unique presence of separate Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that was too much for them to fully verbalize at that time.
By the time we get to get to the Council of Constantinople, the doctrine–set of teachings of beliefs–were more connected and complete, allowing for the addition of, “And in the Holy Ghost, who is Lord and Giver of life, who with the Father is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.” Prior to this, it’s false to think the early church was not teaching the Holy Spirit as a distinct. The question was how distinct, and if the Spirit should be worshipped as God. The question was centered around the consubstantiality (is the Spirit existent in the same substance as God) of the Spirit similar to the existing belief in the consubstantiality of the Father and the separate Son, who were yet also one. The baptismal formula (Mat. 28:19), apostolic benedictions (2 Cor. 13:14), and years of tradition helped temper the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as separate from and yet one with God through further councils of Alexandria (362), Rome (375) and Constantinople (381).
Looking to the Bible for support, I have heard of concerns around the popular baptismal formulas used by the early church that create confusion around the authority of a single entity view, or a trinitarian view. The one given in Mat. 28:19 by Jesus marks His authority and gives a clear picture of the Trinity. It does make it difficult to argue that this was the only, technical method by which to baptize, since other passages appear to show the church baptizing “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). In the trinitarian sense, Jesus clearly spoke of God as His Father, of Himself as the Son, and the consequences of speaking against the Spirit. However, the singular “name” used here in the original Greek does not negate the threefold reference. If anything, it emphasizes the unity of the three, and there is not enough to prove that this statement was to be recited verbatim.
Though the Council of Nicaea was knowingly young in their development on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, I fail to see how mentioning either this council or the later one in Constantinople implies that there was not an understanding of separate persons in the Godhead prior to this time period, or in the Bible itself. Additionally, passages given regarding oneness of God do not appear to me to discredit a trinitarian perspective, but that is rather tangential from the creedal discussion related to ancient church councils.
1. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity in History of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (1910; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 677.
2. Ibid., 663 - 665.
3. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28 in Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33B, eds. David A. Hubbard, et al. (Dallas: Word, 1995), 888.