From the very beginning the early church understood the trinity as a mystery that was honoured and respected. Jesus claimed deity, and yet he was distinct from God, the promised Spirit who came at pentecost was also distinct from God and Jesus and yet was clearly divine. Before Constantine, it wasn’t a hot debate, amazement was preferred over explanation. Love for Jesus and survival were the priorities of those first Christ followers. That all changed however when Christianity became legalized under Constantine. His plan to unify his massive and fragmented empire under the banner of this burgeoning new religion known as Christianity had worked incredibly well, perhaps to well. Christian people began to fight amongst themselves now that they had the time and freedom to attempt an understanding of this great mystery of God’s three in one ness. It wasn’t long before the newly unified empire was at risk of fragmentation, this time along theological lines.
Constantine wanted it sorted, it was time for the church to meet and settle it. One idea that had been floating around since the 2nd century was Monarchialism. This idea portrayed God as one great ruling monarch, but rejected the need to make the distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit. Monarchialism attempted to explain the trinity in two different ways:
- Modalism — God is one, but he has three modes or three roles that He carries out in consecutive periods of time. Like a single actor that plays three different roles in a theatrical production.
- Rejected – This view was rejected by the church because it doesn’t accurately account for the interaction of the Trinity in New Testament, like at Jesus’ baptism for example. Also, if these representations of one God are only masks like in an ancient play then it becomes impossible to actually know the real God. The church gave modalism the thumbs down!
- Subordinationism — There is only one superior God (Father) who is assisted by lesser god’s of lower rank (Jesus & the Holy Spirit)
- Rejected – Strongly rejected at the counsel of Nicaea in 325 as shown below.
The struggle to clarify the churches position on the trinity came as a direct result of a guy named Arias. Arias taught that the word who became flesh was a lesser god of a different nature. Jesus was not eternal or omnipotent, Jesus was only God in an approximate sort of way. Jesus was the first and greatest created being, but he was not the eternal God. Arianism in this form continues on in the teachings of Jehovah Witnesses.
Arian thought appealed to pagan converts. They were more easily attracted to the idea of lesser gods, because their pagan heritage which was full of them. Christianity in this form was more palatable to the masses. In the Arian story, Jesus Christ was a divine hero, a loose approximation would be like our modern day super man. Who doesn’t love superman?! He was greater than an ordinary human being, but not the eternal God.
Arias was a powerful speaker and a gifted networker. He also was able to put catchy jingles together that promoted his understanding of Jesus, little kids and dock workers would sing his songs. He was wildly popular, so when he was excommunicated, early in the 4th century, things got ugly. With rioting in the streets going on, Emperor Constantine was prompted to call a church council in the city of Nicaea in 325 a.d. He reminded the 300 churchmen who attended the counsel that church division was worse than war. He gave them one charge. Figure it out! He didn’t much care about the conclusion just so long as everyone agreed with it!
Since Jesus had been worshipped as God in the vast majority of churches across the empire for upwards to 300 years in some places, Arias bold revision of Jesus and his place in the Godhead was met with massive disapproval. He and his supporters were regularly shouted down in the counsel. It was inconceivable that Jesus could be anything less than equal to the eternal God. The creed that came from this council nearly 2000 years ago is still accepted to this day by the vast majority of Christians world wide. Notice the emphasis on Jesus and the three in oneness of God.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made…We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets…
All the Bishops but three signed the creed in 325. Arias and two of his supporters were kicked out of the church. The controversy raged on for 50 more years before Arian thought was officially expunged from orthodox teaching.
The Semi-Arians tried to land a compromise. It didn’t work. They were ready to concede that Jesus was similar in nature to the father just so long as they did not have to say that he was of the same nature. This didn’t fly either — From the earliest of times, Christians believed that If Jesus wasn’t God in the flesh he couldn’t be the Saviour. Semi-Arianism prolonged the debate but a compromise that viewed Jesus as anything less than co-equal with God was not possible.
To the early believers in Jesus, salvation was not about going to heaven to get stuff, as Islam would later teach. It was about being united in the communion of the divine. From the orthodox point of view, the goal was not to attain equality with God or be made into a god as mormonism would much later teach, rather the believer would be welcomed into the fellowship of the triune God. He would belong in the company of God.
The first Christians loved this grand story, A relational God, coming to earth, welcoming the human into fellowship with him through the grace of Jesus by the power of the Spirit. The earliest benedictions evidenced this incredible three in oneness, II Cor 13:14 — May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. It was the Christian story, not to be changed. Beyond full comprehension to be sure, and a great mystery without doubt, but an absolutely beautiful and glorious story.
Thank you Bruce Shelley your book Church History in Plain Language, was very helpful.