This is the fourth installment in a series on the Nicene Creed. For previous installments see here:
In this post we will analyze the following lines of the Nicene Creed, which are primarily Christological:
And in One Lord Jesus Christ
The Only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages
God from God,
Light from Light
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
J.N.D. Kelly points out in Chapter VII of his classic Early Christian Creeds that it was primarily these clarifying lines about Christ’s nature that motivated the council, and especially St. Athanasius, in the Church’s response to the Arian heresy, which saw Jesus (the Logos) as a created being, distinct from the Father in substance, and therefore, not fully God.
These lines were formulated to not only clarify the Church’s position, but to exclude the Arian one. This core set of statements about Christ’s nature divide apostolic Christianity from heresy. However, to iterate an earlier point, these Church fathers were drawing out the natural implications of the language found in the New Testament writings themselves. Thus, after cataloguing several of the Christological passages and formulae found in the New Testament letters (e.g. Phil 2:5-11) and in the Gospels, (e.g. Mk 8:30) Kelly says this of the Church’s very early view of Christ’s nature:
In all of them [the NT Christological passages] there is no trace of fixity so far as their wording is concerned, and none of them constitutes a creed in any ordinary sense of the term. Nevertheless the Trinitarian ground-plan is all the more striking because more often than not there is nothing int he context to necessitate it. The impression inevitably conveyed is that the conception of the threefold manifestation of the Godhead was embedded deeply in Christian thinking from the start, and provided a ready-to-hand mould in which the ideas of the apostolic writers took shape. If Trinitarian creeds are rare, the Trinitarian pattern which was to dominate all later creeds was already part and parcel of the Christian doctrine of tradition"[emphasis mine]
In short, Trinitarian assumptions are found in the pens of the Apostles themselves. The Arians tried to find a way around this, because it didn’t fit their philosophical categories; but others like Athanasius understood that the text itself impressed this upon the Church (see Acts 8:36-38; 2 Cor 13:14 and Matt 28:19)
Now, as to the Truth Claims we might distill from this core, historical and apostolic assertion about Jesus’ nature, let’s put these lines in propositional form:
- I believe _that _there is one Lord Jesus Christ
- Here, Lord, carries tremendous weight. Lord (κυριος) can mean master, or earthly lord, but the Greek Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses this word to translate the Hebrew “adonai” which was the term used for the tetragrammaton (YWHW), the personal name of God which Jews were not permitted to say aloud due to its sacredness. So, to call Jesus Lord is to proclaim Him as identical to YHWH, not only in authority, but in being.
- I believe _that_Jesus Christ is the only Son of God
- But, there is a distinction to be made between the persons of God. The Father is not the Son, nor the Son Father. They have unique relations, and unique roles or actions.
- I believe that Jesus Christ was begotten from the Father before all ages
- I believe that He is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God
- I believe that He existed from eternity, and is, like the Father, uncreated
- This is crucial, because it claims that Jesus, like the Father, is uncreated. Jesus, the Logos, is a se
- I believe _that_He and the Father are of the same essence
- see Colossians 2:9
What all of these statements claim as true, is the most fundamental belief of Christian theism; for if it is true that Jesus bears all of the properties of dignity; i.e. He shares all of the essential attributes of God (e.g. eternality, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, etc.) then all other religious beliefs that claim that God is not triune, but monistic (only one person), are false. This would include Judaism and Islam. Moreover, any religious belief system that says Jesus Christ fails to possess all of the essential attributes of divinity is also false (e.g. Mormonism, Jehova’s Witnesses, some Liberal Protestantism, and Judaism and Islam again). If Jesus and the Father are of the same essence, then only this version, this historical, apostolic Christianity is true.
What would make the claim true is God’s very nature. What bears that truth to us is the words of Scripture. What helps us to see that truth more clearly, is something like this Creed. Moreover, not only do we believe the claim is true from just the Scripture on the one hand (although the Scriptures are sufficient), but also from the evidence we have of the testimony of the early church (i.e. extra-biblical evidence). The fact that we have extra-biblical evidence that the early followers of Jesus also worshipped him as God provide us with two sources of knowledge as to His divinity. And, if Jesus is divine, then the passages relating Jesus and the Holy Spirit, also imply the same divinity of the Spirit.
Trinitarian theology can be hard to explain; because there is obviously going to be mystery when it comes to the very nature of God. There are going to be aspects of God that are inscrutable, that are beyond our capacity to grasp. But, not fully understanding something does not mean that it is incoherent. Physicists don’t really know what gravity is (it is, after all, a “force”), but they can describe it with some degree of accuracy, which makes it coherent and understandable.
That said, here are two books on the Trinity that can help us go deeper into this foundational belief. The first is more introductory, the second, more advanced, but both enriching.