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 Gods 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
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.