Contrary to popular myth, and the perspectives offered by such movements as the Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses, Constantine did not use the Council of Nicea to impose Trinitarianism on the Empire in AD325. Indeed, it was Arianism that was coerced by the State under the political machinations of Constantius II in the following decades, but it ultimately failed because of the dogged faithfulness of Athanasius to New Testament scripture.
The language of God
The linguistic formulations of the Nicene Creed mark something of a watershed in the development of Christian theology. In previous centuries, the authors of the Bible expressed their theology by story and type, whereas Nicea expressed its theology in the language of categories, relationships and prepositions. This perspective of Nicea persists as the lingua franca of Christian theology. This is no bad thing, provided the Christian understands that the intent of the Councils and their Creeds was to point the believer to Christ, and to the scriptures that faithfully describe Him. I consider myself a Creedal Christian, but I do not consider the Creeds to be the canonical expression of Christianity. The canonial expression of Christianity is, uniquely, Jesus Christ. The Creeds, I believe, do a good job of explaining who He is and in guarding against the more dangerous misrepresentations of my Lord and God.
What makes heresy dangerous?
When I started my exploration of theology many years ago, I, like many others, wondered why it could be considered even remotely important. Surely, the important thing was how I lived my life. Surely, if I continued in my devotions, God would look after me. The Councils, I thought, were preoccupied with irrelevant minutiae, like how many angels could stand on a pin-head.
Like many others, I viewed the theological debates and creeds as an exercise in boundary-marking; if you could affirm such-and-such a formulation of words, you were in, but if you couldn’t, you were out. They were arbitrary rules designed to exclude undesirable factions from church membership, or so I thought.
However, the more I look at theology, the more importance I see in it. Fundamentally, theology shapes our understanding of what it means to be human, and I can think of nothing in the human experience more profound than that, be it expressed in a religious context or not.
The theology of Christ goes to straight the heart of the matter. Jesus Christ is not just the canonical expression of Christianity, as I noted previously, He is also the canonical expression of humanity. Whilst showing us what it means to be truly and wholly God, he also shows us what it is to be truly and wholly human.
By “canonical expression”, I mean the prototype, or the archetype; the true “thing” against which one measures all other expressions of that “thing”. For the Christian, this means following Christ. What we see Christ do, we aspire to do; what we see Christ being, we aspire to become. We do not do what we do not see Christ doing, and thus we use Him as the measuring rod of what we should do and what we should be. In this context, then, it is paramount that we have a clear picture of who Christ is, and of our relationship to Him.
It is not enough, though, to simply use Christ as the measuring rod for what we are and what we do because, as the scriptures say, He is also our saviour and judge. This understanding of Christ as our exemplar, creator, saviour and judge is intimately bound with the understanding of His nature as both fully human and fully divine. These are the issues that the Bishops took to the Councils, and they transcend denominational, or even religious boundaries. Athanasius and his colleagues strenuously argued to preserve the highest regard for both the fully human and fully divine nature of Christ, and that they were not in conflict.
If Christ’s divinity were diminished, by Arianism for example, then our humanity is diminished because something less than God had entered into and engaged our human existence. Under such a theology, human life loses it’s value because God has deemed it to be something not worth engaging in and suffering for. God would only interact with us by simulation or by proxy. God would not be giving us Himself, undermining the claim that He is love.
If Christ’s humanity were diminished, by Docetism for example, then God would remain distant, unknowable and inaccessible. We would have to become something other than human to make that vital connection to God. We would have to dismiss human experience, with all its joys and frustrations, as irrelevant or meaningless in our attempts to make ourselves into worthy superhumans. God would not be glorified in the mundanity of human existence.
It is no coincidence that Arianism typically tends towards a program-oriented religion. In it, Christ might have shown the way, but he did not become the way, which means that it remains for us to follow some religious program in an attempt to catch up to him. The Christian understanding of grace is undermined by the attempt to ascend to heaven. As is apparent in the mid 4th Century, Arianism usually degenerates into an undignified free-for-all as various voices promote their favourite routes up the mountain, to the exclusion of all others. Christ as God answers this by emphatically stating that God has already come to us – the reality of heaven has already come down to earth, and our perspective and actions need to change accordingly.
Theology matters, because it answer’s Christ’s enduring question, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15, Mark 8:27, Luke 9:20). The answer to that question also holds the answer to the concomitant question; “But who do we say that we are?”. These are the questions that are well worth asking in our quest to understand our existence and place in God’s good creation.