Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone
Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011 8:43 pm
The Messenger, January 13, 2011
Lord, I was Born Again
a Ramblin’ Man:
Council of Nicaea, Part III
By JUSTIN WESTMORELAND
Special to The Messenger
In A.D. 325, the doctrine of the Trinity was hotly debated in the worldwide church. The Roman Emperor Constantine, a recent convert to Christianity, wrote letters to the main parties in the controversy — Alexander and Arius.
Arius was an elder in the Alexandrian church. Tall, handsome and earnestly religious, he was an eloquent preacher. However, Arius was tempted by the popular spirit of the age, which preferred the monotheism of Greco-Roman philosophy over the uniqueness of Christ and the Christian concept of God.
Alexander was the presiding bishop of the church in Alexandria. He disagreed with Arius’s position that Jesus was created and therefore different in essence from God the Father. Alexander claimed that Jesus was “un-begotten begotten.”
Arius could not fathom how a son would not have a beginning. The clear implication of Arius’s interpretation is that Jesus would be a creature and subordinate to God the Father. This serious dispute in the church threatened the stability of Constantine’s empire. When the emperor’s letters failed to resolve the dispute, he organized a council of 300 churchmen and bishops to address the matter.
At the council, violence broke out. Although the large majority had not yet taken a position on the matter, Arius and Alexander each had a very vocal minority of supporters. One of Alexander’s supporters — a young deacon named Athanasius — played a key part in the controversy, at great cost to his own life. He became a “ramblin’ man” thence forward.
The Nicene Creed was the result of hundreds of years of the church agonizing over the meaning of the historical fact that Jesus was born, lived, died and was resurrected in the public eye. Part of the difficulty of safeguarding the biblical understanding of Jesus was that words could not be found which accurately stated the reality of Jesus, who was fully divine and fully human, and of God, who was three distinct persons but still one God.
Alexander and Athanasius won Constantine’s approval. The emperor, in order to enforce the Council of Nicaea’s findings, ordered the death penalty for dissenters. He commanded that Arius and his followers be removed from their church offices and that their books be burned.
Today, nearly 1,700 years later, we sit drinking our coffee and reading the paper and we assume that all was settled in A.D. 325. It was, however, uncertain that the church’s position on Jesus Christ and his relation to God the Father would win the day. Once anathematized and deposed, Arius entered into survival mode and began mudslinging his opponents. Arius started a public relations campaign that painted Athanasius and his men as adherents to a different heresy — Sabellianism (or Modalism).
Arius charmed Constantine into restoring his full rights back into the church only two years after Nicaea. From 335-363, Arius and his followers managed to have Athanasius exiled on five separate occasions. Unfortunately for the Arians, emperors kept dying and reversing previous emperors’ decisions. The Arian party became more and more splintered and could not stand against the right doctrine of Athanasius and the Bible.
What lessons can we learn from one of the greatest committee meetings of church history? First, people are power-hungry sinners who will trample others; even so, the faithful must persevere. Also, the ambivalence of these fourth-century Christians in respecting the collective wisdom of the church and blatantly ignoring the Nicene Creed shows us the messiness that often accompanies efforts to follow Jesus and contend for historic gospel truth.
Although beaten down, Athanasius stood against the machine. Had Athanasius never resolved to follow Jesus, his life surely would have been easier, but it would not have been as blessed. Athanasius persevered for the truth because the salvation of the world was at stake: He knew that a “Jesus” who was not fully God could not save us, and there would be no good news to proclaim.
Perhaps imitation of Athanasius’s perseverance is the modern personal application for us. It is my hope that the limited days that you and I have before we go to join Athanasius can be significant to many others. By God’s grace, may we stand firm and not run from the crosses that come with holding faithfully to the Gospel. As one pastor said, “Perseverance beats zeal every time.” Persevere, friends!
Editor’s note: Justin Westmoreland, campus minister for Reformed University Fellowship at UT Martin, attends Grace Community Church (www.graceunioncity.com) in Troy with his wife and children.