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§ 4. The Church Doctrine as presented by the Council of Nice.
A. The Objects for which that Council was convened.
The object for which the Council was called together was three-fold. (1.) To remedy the confusion which prevailed in the use of several important words employed in discussions on the doctrine of the Trinity. (2.) To condemn errors which had been adopted in different parts of the Church. (3.) To frame such a statement of the doctrine as would include all its Scriptural elements, and satisfy the religious convictions of the mass of believers. This was an exceedingly difficult task.
1. Because the usus loquendi of certain important terms was not then determined. The word ὑπόστασις, for example, was used in two opposite senses. It was often taken, in its etymological sense, for substance, and is used by the Council itself as synonymous with οὐσία. But it had already begun to be used in the sense of person. 454As it expresses reality, as opposed to what is phenomenal or apparent, or mode of manifestation, it came to be universally used in the Greek Church, in the latter sense, as a safeguard against the idea of a mere modal Trinity. It will be admitted that great confusion must prevail, if one man should say there is only one ὑπόστασις in the Godhead, and another affirm that there are three, when both meant the same thing, the one using the word in the sense of substance, and the other in that of person.
In the Latin Church the same difficulty was experienced in the use of the words substantia and subsistentia. These words were often interchanged as equivalent, and both were used, sometimes in the sense of substance, and sometimes in that of suppositum. Usage finally determined the former to mean substance or essence, and the latter a mode in which substance exists, i.e., suppositum. According to established usage, therefore, there is one substance, and there are three subsistences in the Godhead.
To express the idea of a suppositum intelligens, or self-conscious agent, the Greeks first used the word πρόσωπον. But as that word properly means the face, the aspect, and as it was used by the Sabellians to express their doctrine of the threefold aspect under which the Godhead was revealed, it was rejected, and the word ὑπόστασις adopted. The Latin word persona (from per and sono) properly means a mask worn by an actor and through which he spoke; and then the role or character which the actor sustained. On this account the word had a struggle before it was adopted in the terminology of theology.
The celebrated term ὁμοούσιος, so long the subject of controversy, was not free from ambiguity. It expressed plainly enough sameness of substance, but whether that sameness was specific or numerical, the usage of the word left undecided. Porphyry is quoted as saying, that the souls of men and of irrational animals are ὁμοούσιοι, and Aristotle as saying that the stars are ὁμοούσιοι, and men and brutes are said to be ὁμοούσιοι as to their bodies; and in like manner angels, demons, and human souls, are said to be all ὁμοούσιοι. In this sense, Peter, James, and John are ὁμοούσιοι, as having the same nature in kind. On this account the use of the word was objected to, as admitting of a Tritheistic interpretation. The Council, however, determined the sense in which it was to be understood in their decisions, by saying that the Son was begotten ἐκ τῆς οὑσίας τοῦ πατρός, and by denying that He was created. As God is a spirit, and as we are spirits, we are said, in Scripture, to be like Him, and to be his children, to be of the same nature. But with 455 regard to the Son it was declared that He was of the same numerical essence with the Father; He is truly God, possessing the same attributes and entitled to the same homage. Thus explained, the word became an insuperable barrier against the adoption of the Nicene Creed by any who denied the true divinity of the Son of God.
Difference of Opinion among the Members of the Council.
2. A second difficulty with which the Council had to contend was diversity of opinion among its own members. All the conflicting views which had agitated the Church were there represented. The principal parties were, first, the Arians, who held, (1.) That the Son owed his existence to the will of the Father. (2.) That He was not eternal; but that there was a time when He was not. (3.) That He was created ἐξ οὐκ ὀντῶν, out of nothing, and was therefore κτίσμα καὶ ποίημα. (4.) That He was not immutable, but τρεπτὸς φύσει. (5.) That his preëminence consisted in the fact that He alone was created immediately by God, whereas all other creatures were created by the Son. (6.) He was not God of Himself, but was made God, ἐθεοποιήθη; that is, on account of his exalted nature, and the relation in which He stands to all other creatures, as Creator and Governor, He was entitled to divine worship.
One of the passages of Scripture on which the Arians principally relied was Prov. viii. 22, which in the Septuagint is rendered: ἔκτισέ με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ (He created me in the beginning of his ways). As Wisdom, there spoken of, was universally understood to be the Logos, and as the Septuagint was regarded as authoritative, this passage seemed to prove, beyond dispute, that the Logos or Son was created. The Orthodox were forced to explain away this passage by saying that κτίζειν was here to be taken in the sense of γεννᾶν, the word elsewhere used to express the relation between the Father and the Son. Ignorance, or neglect of the Hebrew, prevented their answering the argument of the Arians by showing that the word קָנָה, here rendered by the Septuagint ἔκτισε, means not only to establish, but to possess. The Vulgate, therefore, correetly renders the passage, “Dominus possidet me;” and the English version also reads, “The Lord possessed me.” The Arians proper constituted a small minority of the Council.
The second party included the Semi-Arians and the disciples of Origen. These held with the Arians, (1.) That the Son owed 456his existence to the will of the Father. (2.) That He was not of the same essence, but ἕτερος κατ᾽ οὐσίαν. They seemed to hold that there was an essence intermediate between the divine substance and created substances. It was in reference to this form of opinion that Augustine afterwards said,474474De Trinitate, I. vi. 9, edit. Benedictines, vol. viii. p. 1161, c. “Unde liquido apparet ipsum factum non esse per quem facta sunt omnia. Et si factus non est, creatura non est: si autem creatura non est, ejusdem cum Patre substantiæ est. Omnis enim substantia quæ Deus non est, creatura est; et quæ creatura non est, Deus est.”
(3) The Son was, therefore, subordinate to the Father, not merely in rank or mode of subsistence, but in nature. He belonged to a different order of beings. He was not αὐτόθεος, ὁ Θεός, or ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεός; but simply θεός, a term which, according to Origen, could be properly applied to the higher orders of intelligent creatures.
(4.) The Son, although thus inferior to the Father, having life in Himself, was the source of life, i.e., the Creator.
(5.) The Holy Spirit, according to most of the Arians and to Origen, was created by the Son, — the first and highest of the creatures called into being by his power.
The third party in the Council were the Orthodox, who constituted the great majority. All Christians were the worshippers of Christ. He was to them the object of supreme love and the ground of their confidence; to Him they were subject in heart and life. They looked to Him for everything. He was their God in the highest sense of the word. He was, moreover, in their apprehension, a distinct person, and not merely another name for the Father. But as the conviction was no less deeply rooted in the minds of Christians, that there is only one God or divine Being, the problem which the Council had to solve was to harmonize these apparently incompatible convictions, namely, that there is only one God, and yet that the Father is God, and the Son, as a distinct person, is God, the same in substance and equal in power and glory. The only thing to be done was, to preserve the essential elements of the doctrine, and yet not make the statement of it self-contradictory. To meet these conditions, the Council framed the following Creed, namely, “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, the maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, only begotten, begotten of the Father, that 457is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten and not made, consubstantial with the Father, by whom all things were made whether in heaven or on earth; who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven; and was incarnate and became man, suffered and rose again on the third day; ascended into heaven, and will come to judge the living and the dead. And we believe in the Holy Ghost. But those who say, that there was a time when He (the Son) was not, that He was not before He was made, or was made out of nothing, or of another or different essence or substance, that He was a creature, or mutable, or susceptible of change, the Holy Catholic Church anathematizes.”
B. Council of Constantinople.
The so-called Athanasian Creed.
The most obvious deficiency in the Nicene Creed is the omission of any definite statement concerning the Holy Spirit. This is to be accounted for by the fact that the doctrine concerning the Son, and his relation to the Father, was then the absorbing subject of controversy. Athanasius, however, and other expounders and defenders of the Nicene Creed, insisted that the Spirit is consubstantial with the Father and the Son, and that such was the mind of the Council. As this, however, was disputed, it was distinctly asserted in several provincial Councils, as in that of Alexandria, A.D. 362, and that of Rome, A.D. 375. It was opposition to this doctrine which led to the calling of the Second Ecumenical Council, which met in Constantinople, A.D. 381. In the modification of the Nicene Creed, as issued by that Council, the following words were added to the clause, “We believe in the Holy Ghost,” namely: “Who is the Lord and giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.” Some of the Greek and the great body of the Latin fathers held that the Spirit proceeded from the Son as well as from the Father, and by the Synod of Toledo, A.D. 589, the words filioque were added to the creed. This addition was one of the causes which led to the separation of the Eastern and Western Churches.
The Athanasian Creed.
After the Council of Constantinople, A.D. 381, the controversies which agitated the Church had reference to the constitution of the person of Christ. Before the questions involved in those controversies were authoritatively decided, the so-called Athanasian 458Creed, an amplification of those of Nice and of Constantinople came to be generally adopted, at least, among the Western Churches. That creed was in these words, namely: “Whoever would be saved, must first of all take care that he hold the Catholic faith, which, except a man preserve whole and inviolate, he shall without doubt perish eternally. But this is the Catholic faith, that we worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For the person of the Father is one; of the Son, another; of the Holy Spirit, another. But the divinity of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is one, the glory equal, the majesty equal. Such as is the Father, such also is the Son, and such the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is infinite, the Son is infinite, the Holy Spirit is infinite. The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal. And yet there are not three eternal Beings, but one eternal Being. As also there are not three uncreated Beings, nor three infinite Beings, but one uncreated and one infinite Being. In like manner, the Father is omnipotent, the Son is omnipotent, and the Holy Spirit is omnipotent. And yet, there are not three omnipotent Beings, but one omnipotent Being. Thus the Father is God, the Son, God, and the Holy Spirit, God. And yet there are not three Gods, but one God only. The Father is Lord, the Son, Lord, and the Holy Spirit, Lord. And yet there are not three Lords, but one Lord only. For as we are compelled by Christian truth to confess each person distinctively to be both God and Lord, we are prohibited by the Catholic religion to say that there are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made by none, nor created, nor begotten. The Son is from the Father alone, not made, not created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is not created by the Father and the Son, nor begotten, but proceeds. Therefore, there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity there is nothing prior or posterior, nothing greater or less, but all three persons are coeternal, and coequal to themselves. So that through all, as was said above, both unity in trinity, and trinity in unity is to be adored. Whoever would be saved, let him thus think concerning the Trinity.”
It is universally agreed that Athanasius was not the author of this creed. It appears only in the Latin language in its original form; and it has modes of expression borrowed from the writings of Augustine, and of Vincent of Lerins. A.D. 434. As it also contains 459allusions to subsequent controversies concerning the person of Christ, it is naturally referred to some period between the middle of the fifth and the middle of the sixth centuries. Although not issued with the authority of any Council, it was soon universally admitted in the West, and subsequently in the East, and was everywhere regarded as an ecumenical symbol.
The Doctrine of the Trinity as set forth in these three ancient creeds, — the Nicene, the Constantinopolitan, and Athanasian (so-called), — is the Church Form of that fundamental article of the Christian faith. There is no difference, except as to amplification, between these several formulas.
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