The early church’s fight for the doctrine of the TrinityBy James Cain
"There was a time when the Son was not.” Early in the fourth century, a young Alexandrian priest named Arius began using these words to teach that God the Son and God the Father were not equal. The Father was Creator, he said, and the Son was His first and greatest creation, which was a tacit denial of the Trinity.
Arius quickly gained a following, in part because his ideas made sense to the Greek mindset adopted by Romans of the day. Before long, the still-young church began to divide along pro-Arian and anti-Arian lines, until the emperor Constantine called church leaders together to resolve the conflict.
When Arius’s teaching started dividing the church around Alexandria, the emperor urged the bishops there to resolve the issue locally. When that seemed impossible, Constantine sent for them, asking all leaders of the church to convene at Nicea—or modern day Iznik, Turkey—to settle the Arian question: Is the Son equal to the Father?
Though more than 1,800 bishops were invited, only 318 of them descended on the city. Church historian Theodoret, relying on eyewitness accounts, said the bishops looked like “an assembled army of martyrs.” The men were veterans of the empire’s long assault on Christianity—some had lost eyes or limbs, and nearly all bore the “marks of Christ” from the persecutions they faced under Constantine’s predecessors.
The assembly wasted little time in condemning Arius’s views. The council crafted a statement of belief—a creed—that both rejected the Arian heresy and guarded against further misunderstanding of the Son’s identity and role within the Trinity. The following important phrases were inserted into a simpler, pre-existing baptismal text, forming what we know today as the Nicene Creed:
“Only-begotten”—signifying the Son’s special and eternal relationship to the Father.
“Light of Light, very God of very God”—affirms the Son’s eternal nature, shared with the Father.
“Begotten, not made”—explicitly refutes the central tenet of Arianism, that the Son was the Father’s creation.
“Of one [or the same] substance with the Father”—This phrase is the translation of the Greek word homoousios. The Son shares the same essence as the Father and, unlike the rest of creation, was not created from nothing.
A month after it began, the council ended. All but five bishops affirmed the new creed, and those who opposed, along with Arius, were exiled. The victors had fought and won an important battle for orthodox Christian belief.
A fairly simple declaration of Christian doctrine, the creed—which would be further clarified in the years to come—was born of necessity. It remains the greatest testament to the bishops’ discipline and devotion. It also set the tone for future councils, which would further refine Christian theology and defend the faith from its enemies.
The Nicene Creed
Though future leaders of the church would further clarify and expand the language of the creed, below is the original text resulting from the First Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come again to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit.