The Development of Christian Doctrine
Down to the Council of Nicĉa, 325 A.D.


    In the last chapter we traced the development of the New Testament teaching about Jesus, and saw that there was a steady progress of thought which began by regarding Jesus as truly human, simply a man, and ended by regarding him as the Logos, in some sense divine, and little less than God; though there was as yet no doctrine of the Trinity, and no belief in the complete deity of Christ.  But the Logos doctrine of the fourth Gospel furnished the germ out of which within the next two or three centuries those doctrines were to develop.  We must now follow the steps which this further development took.

    After all the immediate disciples of Jesus had passed away, and the Apostolic Age had come to an end with the close of the first century, there followed for something more than a hundred years what is known as the Age of the Apologists, during which Christians had to defend their new religion against the attacks of Jews or of Pagans, and were trying to prove it superior to the older religions.  The writers who made this defense are known as the Apologists.  Some of their writings have come down to us, and form the earliest Christian literature after the New Testament.  They themselves were the earliest Christian theologians, trying to state their religious beliefs in systematic form; and, their writings therefore serve to show us how Christian doctrines were taking shape.  The problem they were all earnestly trying to solve, in order to state the philosophy of Christianity in such a way that educated Greeks might accept it, was this: How was the Logos (now fully accepted as a fixed item in Christian thought) related to the infinite and eternal God on the one hand, and to the man Jesus of Nazareth on the other? They could not hope to see Christianity make much progress in the Greek world until this problem was satisfactorily solved.  Yet it was a difficult problem, for the nearer they made him to God, the more unreal his human life seemed to be; while the more fully they recognized his humanity, the farther be seemed to be from God.  It is these Apologists that take the next steps leading from the simpler teaching of the New Testament, far toward the doctrine of the Deity of Christ, as we shall now see by looking briefly at what four of the most prominent of them wrote.

    Justin Martyr had been a Greek philosopher before his conversion to Christianity.  As a Christian he wrote at Rome, some time after the year 140, two Apologies and other writings in defense of Christianity.  In these he teaches that the divine Reason, or Logos, was begotten by God, as his first-born, before the creation of the world.  Through him God created the world.  He was a distinct person from God, and inferior to him, yet he might be worshiped as a divine being.   He became a man upon earth in the person of Jesus.

    Irenĉus, who had been born in Asia Minor, went as missionary to southern Gaul, and there in 178 he became Bishop of Lyons.  He wrote a book against heresies, in which he taught that the Logos existed before the creation of the world, and was God’s first-born Son.  The Logos was thus truly divine, although distinct from God and inferior to him; and he became a man in Jesus, and suffered as a man, in order to bring mankind nearer to God.

    Clement of Alexandria was born in the Greek religion, but after his conversion to Christianity he became the most eminent Christian philosopher of his time, and had great influence on the thought of the Eastern Church.  In works written after 190 he teaches that the Logos was in the beginning with God, and was somehow God, and hence deserved to be worshiped; and yet he was below the Father in rank.  In Jesus he became a man, that we might learn from him how a man may become God.   Clement also took a further step toward the doctrine of the Trinity, when he spoke of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a “holy triad.”

    Tertullian was born at Carthage about 150, and was a pagan in religion until middle life; but after his conversion to Christianity he became as influential in the thought of the Western Church as Clement was in the Eastern.  In his writings he teaches that the Son (or Logos) existed before creation, and was of one substance with God, though distinct from him and subordinate to him.  He was born upon earth as Jesus; and Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mysteriously united into a trinity — a term which Tertullian was the first to introduce.

    These four examples are enough to show what was going on in Christian thought during the century after the fourth Gospel appeared.  There was a growing tendency, while still insisting that Christ was less than God, to regard him more and more as divine.  Yet in this tendency there were two dangers.  As theologians speculated upon the Logos, they were more and more losing sight of the human character of Jesus, and there was a fear lest Christianity should presently find itself worshiping two divine beings instead of one God.   This latter danger was keenly felt by those who regarded the religion of the Roman Empire, in which it was customary to deify and worship the Emperors.  So that in opposition to the beliefs we have above noticed as growing up, a contrary tendency also asserted itself, and spread widely, under the name of Monarchianism.  The Monarchians were strict monotheists.  They objected that if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all divine, then Christianity had three Gods; and they insisted instead that God was one person as well as one being.

    There were two persons closely associated with this opposing view whose names deserve to be mentioned and remembered in a history of Unitarianism.  One was Paul of Samosata.  He became in 260 Bishop of Antioch, the most important see in the Eastern Church.  He taught that though Jesus was originally a man like other men, he gradually became divine, and finally became completely united with God.  He was accused of heresy by theological and political enemies, and after three trials was at length deposed from his office and excommunicated from the Church, about 268.   Various Unitarians in later times held views more or less resembling his, and they were therefore sometimes called Samosatenians or Paulianists.

    More famous yet, though of his life little is now known, was Sabellius, whose teaching proved very attractive to large numbers.  He sought to preserve the unity of God, and at the same time to make the mystery of the Trinity more easy to comprehend, by teaching that the one God manifested himself in three different ways, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But this teaching seemed to his opponents to make Christ unreal, a mere reflection of another being, and it was therefore condemned as a heresy, and Sabellius himself was excommunicated from the church at Alexandria about 260.  Sabellianism, however, did not become extinct, for it has often reappeared in Christian history down to this very day.  Not only have Unitarians often held Sabellian views, and often been called Sabellians by the orthodox, but professed Trinitarians have often given their explanation of the Trinity in Sabellian terms, and have thus really been heretical.

    The great popularity of these Monarchian views in the third century shows that the movement toward the doctrine of the Trinity did not go on without much opposition; and Tertullian complains of how in his time the majority of Christians, being ignorant (of philosophical speculations), still hold to the simple unity of God, and are mistrustful of the Trinity.

    After Monarchianism had been suppressed, various attempts were made to state the relation of Christ1 to God in some way which should avoid Sabellianism on the one hand, and tritheism on the other.  One of these attempts was embodied in the view known as Arianism; and this has had such important relations with Unitarianism, and it comes up so often in the course of Unitarian history, that it deserves to be made as clear as possible.  The bishop of Alexandria, Alexander by name, about 318 tried to make the matter clearer by teaching that Christ had never had a beginning any more than God himself, that he had always been the Son of God, “eternally begotten” by him, and that be was of the same essential being or nature with the Father.2 Now there was in Alexandria a certain presbyter (priest or minister) of one of the parish churches, Arius by name, who felt bound to oppose this teaching.  Arius was a man well on in years, grave in manner, keen in argument, extremely self-denying in his life, and highly respected in the city for his piety and his work among the lower Classes.  He urged that this teaching of Alexander was mere Sabellianism, and that it practically meant belief in two Gods.   He held, on the contrary, that Christ was not equal to God, but inferior to him; that he did not exist with God from all eternity, but was, created by him before the creation of the world; that he was not of the same “substance” with the Father, but was created out of nothing.  This was Arianism: the belief that Christ, though a being far above man, was, yet less than God; that he was created before the creation, of the world; and that he was of a different nature from either God or man.  It will be well to recall this definition whenever Arianism is referred to in the course of the following history.

    Controversy over the question now became general, and lasted some three years.  The bishop at length commanded Arius to change his views; but Arius, as he wrote to a friend, said he would die a thousand deaths sooner than assent to opinions he did not believe.  He was accordingly deposed from office along with several of his followers, was excommunicated from the Church by a council at Alexandria in 321, and banished from the city “as an atheist.”  He then travelled widely in Syria and Asia Minor, finding many to take his part, and some of these of great influence; and the whole East was soon aflame with the controversy.  He even secured so much support that he was able to return to his work at Alexandria, where he had many followers, but this did not end the trouble.  The fires of controversy were now beyond control; and not only bishops but even the common people were quarrelling throughout many of the eastern provinces to such an extent that the Emperor himself felt compelled to take notice.  He sent his personal representative to Alexandria to get the parties to compose their quarrels, but in vain.  Nothing remained but to call a general council of the churches throughout the Empire, and submit the case to that for settlement.

    The council thus called to settle the questions in dispute in the Arian controversy was known as the Council of Nicĉa; and it was of very great importance because up to this time there had been nothing that might be called the authorized doctrine of the Church at large.  During the three centuries since Christ, as we have seen, there had been in the Church a wide difference of belief about him.  There had been a growing tendency, it is true, to give him an ever higher rank, and a teaching opposed to this tendency might here or there be condemned by some local council; but no standard of belief for the whole Church had as yet been adopted.  This was first done at the Council of Nicĉa in 325.  How this council came about, and what result it had on the doctrines of the Christian Church, we shall see in the next chapter.

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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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