Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part IV – Nicene Creed Line 2

This is the fourth installment in a series on the Nicene Creed. For earlier posts see here, here, and here.

In this post I 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 view, which claimed Jesus (the Logos) to be a created being, distinct from the Father in substance, and therefore, not fully God, even if god-like.

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 circumscribe apostolic Christianity, demarcating it from non-apostolic heresy. However, iterating an earlier point, these Nicene fathers saw themselves as drawing out the natural implications of the language found in the New Testament writings themselves. 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 (i.e. most pre-Nicene Christian communities’) 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 in the 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 styli of the Apostles themselves (e.g. John), or their companions (e.g. Luke). The Arians tried to find a way around this, because this dual nature of Jesus Christ didn’t fit their philosophical categories. But, others like Athanasius understood what the text itself impressed upon the Church (see Acts 8:36-38; 2 Cor 13:14 and Matt 28:19) and the necessity of knowing Christ as God incarnate.

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:

  1. 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 vocalized ersatz term used for the written 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.
  2. 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. Yet, from above we see that Jesus is identical to YHWH in some way, but he is the Son, He is distinct from YHWH. Thus, if Jesus’ activities are different than the Father’s, and His relation is different, then the identity equivalence must be in being. We can lay it out like this:
      1. Jesus and YHWH are identical in some way
      2. But, Jesus and YHWH are not identical in their relationship, since Jesus is the Son and YHWH is not the Son
      3. Also, Jesus and YHWH are not identical in their roles or activity, since Jesus dies for sinners and YHWH does not die for sinners
      4. Therefore, if Jesus and YHWH are identical, but not in their relationship (relatio), or in their activity (opera), then they are identical in their substance (ousia).
  3. I believe that Jesus Christ was begotten from the Father before all ages
    • This clause refers to the doctrine of eternal begetting of the Son. This has been a controversial teaching over the centuries, and there has been renewed controversy about it amongst Evangelicals in recent history. This may be a doctrine that is not necessary to defend, if our defense is of a mere Christianity. But, I leave that up to the conscience of the individual apologist.
  4. I believe that He is God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God
  5. 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
  6. I believe that He and the Father are of the same essence
    • In addition to the above arguments, see Colossians 2:9

What each 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 divinity, i.e. if He shares all of the essential attributes of God (e.g. eternality, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, etc.) then all other religious beliefs that positively claim that God is not triune, but monistic (only one person), are false. This would include Judaism and Islam, although orthodox Judaism would represent a special case.

Moreover, any religious belief system that says Jesus Christ fails to possess all or any of the essential attributes of divinity is also false (e.g. Mormonism, Jehova’s Witnesses, some Liberal Protestantism). If Jesus and the Father are of the same essence, then only this version, this historical, apostolic Christianity is absolutely true. Perhaps it sounds too harsh to call other monotheisms “false,” but, minimally, we would have to declare them as seriously deficient in their belief about ultimate reality. This has implications for those who want to hold to a kind of religious pluralism, especially when it comes to ultimate salvation.

What would make the creed’s claim true is God’s very nature. What bears that truth to us is the words of Scripture. What helps us to grasp that truth more clearly, is something like this Nicene Creed. Moreover, not only do we believe the claim is true from just the Scriptures (although the Scriptures are sufficient to know that claim to be true), but also from the evidence we have of the testimony of the early church itself (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 evidence 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 by Fred Sanders on the Trinity that can help one go deeper into this foundational belief. The first is more introductory, the second, more advanced, but both enriching.

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