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Notes from Pastor David

The Council of Nicaea

February 26th, 2023

In my last note, I considered why we need confessions and creeds. I concluded that confessions and creeds follow the order and continuity of the Scriptures and give us an outline of the basic structure and content of biblical doctrine. They provide a “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13).

Before we consider the various words and phrases of the Nicene Creed, I want to situate the creed in its historical context. The creed did not fall out of the sky one day in the 4th century. It was originally composed to summarize the early church’s confession and worship of the Triune God revealed in Scripture and to rule out certain false teaching about God.

The final form of the creed was established at the Council of Constantinople in 381. This final form is a revision of the creed that was drafted at the Council of Nicaea in 325, which is why it’s called the Nicene Creed.

The Roman Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325 to address divisions within the church. The council was a gathering of bishops from various parts of the Roman empire. Many of these bishops had been tortured for their faith before Constantine ended persecution. Some were beaten and scourged, some had their eyes gouged out and their noses cut off. And, yet, here they were, hobbled, maimed, and gathered in an imperial palace, at the emperor’s request and at the emperor’s expense.

They debated and discussed a variety of doctrinal and practical concerns, such as the date of Easter; however, the primary source of controversy and division was the teaching of a priest in Alexandria named Arius. Arius had a narrow doctrine of God. In his view, one of the defining attributes of God is that he is unbegotten. For Arius, “unbegottenness” was definitive of divinity.

Arius had philosophical and theological reasons for this position, but his primary concern was that we maintain a crystal-clear distinction and separation between the Creator and creation. Pagan theology too often conflated divinity and humanity. In the pagan myths, the gods were always getting mixed up and compromised with human beings. Arius was concerned that we recognize and defend God’s absolute transcendence. There was lots of begetting among the pagan gods, but the one true God is unbegotten.

We can appreciate Arius’s desire to maintain a clear distinction between the Creator and the creation; however, his insistence that “unbegottenness” is definitive of divinity did not square with God’s own self-revelation in Scripture. God’s Word declares that the Son of God is God (John 1:1) and is begotten from the Father (John 1:14; 1:18; 3:16; 3:18). For Arius, the Son cannot be God, because he is begotten and God must be unbegotten. Thus, Arius taught that the Son is a creature and not God.

His teaching was popular. It’s reported that the dockworkers in Alexandria used to sing this little ditty about the Son: “There once was a time when he was not.” When the bishops gathered in Nicaea, the primary item on the agenda was to examine and respond to Arius’s teaching. Against Arius, the Nicene Creed confesses what Scripture reveals: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, eternally begotten from the Father, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of the same substance as the Father.”

I conclude with a comment on the first line of the creed. It does not begin, “We believe in One God, the Unbegotten,” but “We believe in One God, the Father.” Fatherhood is definitive of divinity, and if God is Father, he is also Son. Through the Son we know the Father, not the Unbegotten. And “God’s Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).