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The First Council

When I ask my religion classes to name some basic ideas found in Christianity, I always get the same list: Jesus was the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, died on a cross, arose after three days, and ascended to heaven. Yet one crucial idea is not mentioned: that Jesus was God. This is known as the incarnation: God became a human. When I mention this, people will say something like, "Well, sure, we meant that when we said ĎSon of Godí but we didnít say it." And I believe them. But Christians assume it today because Christians in the past dealt with conflicting ideas of Jesus. How long ago? Try the year 325. In that year, at a meeting known as the Council of Nicaea, the early church leaders declared that Jesus was God. But why was declaration necessary?

In order to answer that question, we have to talk about how the early church developed. First, the apostles laid the foundation of the church, then apologists defended Christian ideas against outside attacks, later teachers within Christianity solidified the ideas which would be accepted as Christian.

The idea that the apostles laid the foundation of Christianity is biblical: Ephesians 2:20. By the year 100, probably the last apostle alive was John, and he was an old man. By that point, Christianity had spread (thanks to the apostles!) to many parts of the Roman Empire. Also by the early 100s, the Roman Empire had begun persecuting and killing Christians. Many non-Christians did not understand this "new" faith and, while Christians were being physically killed, they attempted to kill the faith through argument.

Because of this a new type of Christian leader developed: the apologist who defended the faith in writing. We know of a number of Christian apologists from the 200s: Quadratus (the earliest we know of), Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athanagoras, and Tertullian, among others.

Yet even as attacks formed outside of Christianity, attacks formed within. Most of these attacks were developed by people who wanted to believe in Jesus but could not wrap their brains around the idea we talked about earlier, the incarnation, that God became a human. So they came up with alternate explanations; some examples: Artemon stated that Jesus was only a man, although he was greater than the prophets; Noetus stated that it was God the Father who was born, suffered, and died; and Theodotus stated that Jesus was a man who, at his baptism, was anointed with the Holy Spirit and then became Christ.

Because of this internal confusion, the church leaders met at Nicaea in 325 and produced a declaration on the nature of Christ (among other decisions): they declared the Christian understanding was that Jesus was of the "same substance" as the Father. This means that Jesus was God, thereby defeating teachings about Jesus being something less than this. And, even though we see a multitude of Christian groups today, that is one idea they all have in common.

©2007 Mark Nickens

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