23 November 2012

Church History 6.1: Setting the boundaries of Christianity: Creeds, Heretics and Orthodoxy

An icon of the Council of Nicaea, with the Emperor Constantine and the bishops holding a scroll with the words of the Nicene Creed

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Church History Elective (TH 7864)

Friday 23 November 2012, 9 a.m.:

Church History 6.1:

Setting the boundaries of Christianity: Creeds, Heretics and Orthodoxy


The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Caroline Divine, Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), summarises the Anglican understanding of doctrinal authority in memorable form: “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of fathers in that period – the three centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.”

In our last lecture we looked at the development of the Church from the Apostolic period to the reign of Constantine and the toleration that was ushered in for Christians throughout the Empire as the fourth century unfolded.

This morning, in the light of that summary by Lancelot Andrewes, I want us to look at how we received once canon, two testaments and three creeds, and at what happened at the four general councils during those first five centuries in the life of the Church.

We have already looked at the spread of Christianity throughout the Mediterranean basin in the Apostolic and post-Apostolic age. But despite Tertullian’s statement about how this Christians loved one another, within a short space of time Christians were divided.

The Initial Heresies and Heretics

The entrance to the Basilica of Saint John in Ephesus … New Testament writings indicate early doctrinal divisions in the Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

So, first of all, let us take a step back to the second or even the first century and the first heresies.

We know that from the time of Saint Paul the leaders of the early church had to address false teachings and ideas that threatened the integrity of the Gospel, and the Johannine writings indicate a strong reaction in the Early Church to Gnosticism or Docetism.

Scholars debate when these early heresies began, but we have little evidence about them until the second century. Most of the heretics in the Early Christianity held positions of influence and authority before they came to be regarded as heretical.

These heresies forced the Early Church to define and more clearly what we believe and led to the formulation of the Creeds and the agreements on the canon of the New Testament.

Some of the early heresies we ought to be aware of at this stage include:

1, Docetism

Saint Ignatius of Antioch ... writes against the Docetics

One of the first heresies was Docetism. The word Docetic comes from the Greek word meaning “to appear.” This heresy held that Christ really did not have a physical body, but only appeared to have one, that he was truly a spiritual being, and as such, could not have had a true body.

Some scholars believe Saint John’s Gospel contains some anti-Docetic texts. For example, in Chapter 21 Christ eats fish with his disciples (see John 21: -14). It seems I John was also written to combat this heresy: “... every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (I John 4: 2).

Saint Ignatius of Antioch is clearly writing against Docetics when he says: “He was then truly born, truly grew up, truly ate and drank, was truly crucified, and died, and rose again” (Philippians 3).

2, Marcion (ca 85-ca 160)

Marcion of Sinope … found holiness and love incompatible

Marcion of Sinope, who was born ca 85, was the son of a bishop. He travelled widely as a merchant and moved to Rome ca 135, when he began to teach in the Church.

Marcion claimed there are major discrepancies between God as represented in the Old Testament and the God of Christ in the New Testament. As Angela Tilby writes, Marcion found holiness and love incompatible.

His answer was to reject the God of the Old Testament, seeing him as the evil craftsman or demiurge, the creator of an evil world. Marcion also constructed his own Biblical canon, excluding the entire Old Testament canon, and including only Saint Luke’s Gospel and Saint Paul’s letters. But he even excluded those parts of the Pauline writings that refer positively to the Old Testament, or to hell and judgment (for example II Thessalonians 1: 6-8).

His unorthodox canon, though, prompted the Church Fathers to begin naming the accepted texts. He was so influential that several Church Fathers, including Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian wrote or argued against him. But Marcionite churches continued until the early fourth century.

3, Montanus

Tertullian … defected to the Montanists

Montanus claimed ca 160 that he had an ecstatic experience of the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) and, along with two women, Maximilla and Priscilla, that he had the ability to deliver prophetic messages from God. The Montanist teachings included:

● the immanent return of Christ and the apocalyptic end of the world,
● a new outpouring of the Spirit announcing this message,
● an encouragement to embrace persecution and martyrdom.

Montanists may have been among the many martyrs in Lyons in the 177, and Tertullian defected from the church to join the Montanists. Finally, Montanism was rejected more for being fanatical than for being heretical.

4, Gnosticism:

Much of our evidence for Gnosticism is found in the Nag Hamadi collection of texts

There is some indication in the New Testament of an early form of Gnosticism. It developed strongly in the second century, which leads some scholars to date some New Testament documents to the second century. But Gnosticism truly developed in the early second century and was strongly concentrated in Egypt, with smaller centres throughout the Empire.

Gnosticism was a mixture of Jewish apocalypticism, Platonism, elements of mystery religions and early Christianity. But second century Gnosticism was not a unified movement, and it is difficult to define the views of its different groups.

Gnosticism promoted an extreme dualism, making a distinction between the body and the spirit. The “demiurge” was the evil creator of the visible or physical universe. Humans were bound in our physical bodies, and we could only be released from the confines of the body through gaining gnosis or divine knowledge.

Plato had written about the pre-existence of souls that take on a mortal body before ascending to be reunited with the realm of ideas. In Gnosticism needed this gnosis to pass through stages on its return to a state of perfection.

External Critics and Apologists

The growth of the Early Church also attracted critics like the writer Lucian, Galen the physician and Celsus the philosopher. We know of Celsus his writings through Origen’s argument against him, Contra Celsum, written almost a century later.

This consistent criticism of Christianity gave rise to the early writers known as the Apologists, including Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, and Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria in the third century.

Justin Martyr (ca 100-165):

Justin Martyr …the philosopher who became a Christian apologist

Justin had studied philosophy, particularly Stoicism and Platonism, and went on to teach philosophy. In his early 30s he met an elderly man on the seashore who impressed upon him the trustworthiness of the Gospel. Justin investigated Christianity and became convinced. He continued to wear his philosopher’s gown and to teach philosophy, but now promoted Christianity as the only true philosophy.

Justin is mainly known through his writings, including:

The Apologies, a set of discourses addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161) and his son Marcus Aurelius (161-180), appealing to their sense of decency and arguing against the persecution of Christians.

Dialogue with Trypho, his debate with an educated Jewish philosopher, emphasising how the followers of Christ represent the “new” people of God.

Justin is important for his role in the development of the New Testament canon. He refers to each of the four gospels and to many of Saint Paul’s letters.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (ca 135-202):

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons … apologist and martyr bishop

Saint Irenaeus was Bishop of Lyons in the late second century, grew up as a Christian and was a student of Polycarp. He is mainly known for his work Against Heresies (ca 175-185), a summary and brief history of all the heresies he knows, focusing on Gnosticism.

Irenaeus gives us many details about his time, recounting the succession of bishops in Rome from Peter and Paul to his day, and gives us the basis for a creed recited during his times. He also cites passages from the four canonical gospels and from almost every other New Testament book.

Tertullian (ca 155–230):

Tertullian … defected to the Montanists

Tertullian was born in Carthage, the son of a centurion, and was trained in law. He is known only for his writings. He was the first of the Latin Fathers and his Biblical quotations are from a Latin Bible. He argues against the persecution of Christians, but also had strong disagreements with other Church leaders. The most serious argument was about “second repentance” after sins such as adultery, fornication and apostasy.

As persecutions eased, many bishops found large numbers of the lapsed seeking forgiveness and readmission to the Church. But Tertullian was among those who were rigorous.

Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-215):

Saint Clement of Alexandria … the most influential of the apologists

Saint Clement of Alexandria was perhaps the most influential of the apologists and represents a period when the Church in Egypt was recovering from a 50-60 year period when Gnosticism was the dominant force.

His first major work is his Exhortation to the Greeks, a call to the educated Greek and Latin-speaking society to hear the Gospel. His Exhortation is filled with numerous citations from Greek writers and literature. In his Miscellanies, Clement attacks the main Gnostic leaders in second century Egypt, including Basilides and Valentinus. In Excerpts from Theodotus, Clement argues against Theodotus, a teacher of Valentinian Gnosticism.

The New Testament Canon:

The Book of Kells … how did we agree on the canon of Scripture?

As we saw, Marcion had his own canon that included Saint Luke’s Gospel and an edited form of most of the Pauline letters in edited form. His list is the first known listing of what is called a New Testament canon.

Justin Martyr gives several New Testament citations although he cites no New Testament writings by name.

Later, ca 170-175, Tatian produced a harmony of the four Gospels known as the Diatessaron, which reveals that the church recognised four Gospels.

The four Gospels are confirmed ca 175 by Irenaeus of Lyons in Against the Heresies. He also refers almost all the documents that become part of the New Testament, including most of the Pauline letters and, all three Pastoral letters, but not Philemon, II Peter, III John, and Jude, yet including I Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas.

Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian cite hundreds of references from almost every New Testament document, apart from four or five small epistles. From then on, the writings of an increasing number of Fathers are filled with biblical references.

The Muratorian Canon represents the oldest known list or canon of the New Testament, although the beginning and end of the manuscript are missing. The document, from ca 170 AD, was discovered in a library in Italy by Ludovico Antonio Muratori, and it lists:

● [Matthew and Mark are apparently in the missing fragment at the beginning]
● Luke and John
● The Acts of the Apostles
● All 13 Pauline letters
● I and II John ( the writer refers to two letters of John)
● Jude
● the Revelation of John

What’s missing? This list omits Hebrews, I Peter, II Peter, and III John. But it also names some books documents not later accepted as canonical.

By the middle of the second century most of the 27 documents in the canonical New Testament have gained wide acceptance, especially the four gospels. Many Gnostic texts and many orthodox texts were not accepted as canonical.

By the third century there is a noticeable increase in citations from the “inspired” writings that become the New Testament, from writers such as Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, Origen of Alexandria and Cyprian of Carthage.

By the fourth century, there is a degree of consensus among writers about the content of the New Testament. These writers include Lactantius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus), John Chrysostom, Jerome, Rufinus, and Augustine of Hippo.

The first historical reference listing the 27 canonical writings in the New Testament is in the Easter Letter of Athanasius in 367, when he states that these are the only recognised writings to be read in church.

The first church council to rule on the list was the Synod of Hippo in 393. But we only know of this decision because it was referred to at the third Synod of Carthage in 397. Even Canon 24 of Carthage does not list every single book, and there is no comment about why or how this list was agreed upon.

The New Testament developed, or evolved, over the course of the first 250 or 300 years of Church history, and no one person, no one council, made the decision.

The debate about the Trinity:

Trinitarian symbolism in the clerestory lights in Lichfield Cathedral … how did the doctrine of the Holy Trinity develop? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Belief in the Trinity begins at an early stage, but there is no significant theological writing about the Trinity outside the New Testament until the first part of the third century in the works of Origen of Alexandria.

Around 220, Sabellius, a Libyan Church leader, rejected the concept of three personalities, and sought to hold tightly to a monotheistic position. Sabellius taught a type of modalism, in which each part of the Trinity was revealed through energies but did not have a separate personality.

This theological discussion was taken up by the Bishop of Rome, Dionysius, and the Bishop of Alexandria, also named Dionysius and a student of Origen. Dionysius of Rome understood the Greek word ὑπόστᾰσις (hypostasis) to mean “substance,” while Dionysius of Alexandria was actually talking about “personality.” This linguistic struggle only made a delicate and technical discussion more difficult.

In addition, the Greek word ὁμοούσιος (homoousios), “same substance,” was introduced to the discussion to talk about whether the Father and the Son were of the “same substance.” Dionysius of Alexandria used the term “same substance,” but refused to rely on it theologically because the word was not used in any biblical text. However, Dionysius of Rome was fully prepared to accept this usage.

In the end this discussion showed the willingness of regional bishops to work together for a common faith, but it also opened the door for the future problems. The concept of ὁμοούσιος would resurface and the bishops at Nicaea would act in a definitive fashion.

Paul of Samosata

Paul of Samosata became the Bishop of Antioch ca 260, when the differences between Antioch and Alexandria come to the surface. Paul of Samosata held that Jesus had not been eternally united with the Logos, but had been infused with Logos at his baptism. Dionysius of Alexandria called a council and at a council ca 265 the Alexandrian bishops affirmed the pre-existence of Christ. Another council in 268 called on Paul of Samosata to recant. When he refused, he was condemned.

These struggles foreshadowed the principal controversy of the fourth century. The Arian controversy, in part, lead to the first major Church Council, the Council of Nicaea in 325, when the bishops were summoned by the Emperor Constantine.

Donatus and Donatism:

A dispute arose in Carthage about Bishop Caecilian who was consecrated by a traditor (“betrayer”). At the same time, Donatus was active around the region of Numidia rebaptising priests who had lapsed and giving them a commission to preach and administer the Eucharist again. It had been greed earlier that it was not necessary to rebaptise people, even if they had been baptised into a less than orthodox sect. But Donatus was doing this within the region of an accepted bishop, and without his authority.

The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments from someone who had lapsed during persecution. The Numidian bishops called a council in 312 and deposed Caecilian, but shortly afterwards Constantine ruled in favour of Caecilian and those he had appointed. The Donatists appealed to the emperor for another council and asking for bishops from Gaul.

Constantine agreed to call a council headed by Miltiades, the Bishop of Rome. When that council ruled in favour of Caecilian, the Donatists appealed again on the grounds that Miltiades had been appointed by Marcellinus, who had also lapsed during persecution. Constantine called a larger council at Arles. In all, 33 bishops, including three from Britain, attended and approved a number of canons on the date of Easter and regulations on clergy moving from one region to another. They also decided that churches would not rebaptise the lapsed or those who came from heretical sects.

In the end, Donatus and his churches continued, and the Donatist movement continued into the fifth century.

Arius and the Arian Controversy:

Arius … radical or conservative?

The story of Arius also begins during the period of persecutions. During the Diocletian persecution, bishops in Egypt were divided on how strictly to treat lapsed Christians. In prison in Alexandria, Peter, the more lax-minded Bishop of Alexandria, and Meletius, a much stricter bishop from Upper Egypt, disagreed so sharply that they hung a curtain to separate themselves in their shared prison cell to separate themselves from each other.

The dispute continued after they were released from prison. Arius was initially among the people loyal to Bishop Meletius. Meanwhile, Bishop Peter rearrested and martyred. When Arius was ordained a priest by Bishop Peter’s successor, the Meletians treated him as a traditor.

Another controversy revolved around some of the writings of Origen of Alexandria, and became the first major theological struggle over the definition of the Trinity and the main reason for Constantine calling the Council of Nicaea in 325.

After Origen’s death, Arius held that the only “unbegotten” being was the Father, and that no other was like him. Jesus, the Son, was begotten, so Arius maintained that the Son was created. If he was created, then “there was a time when he was not.”

The Meletians demanded that Arius be disciplined. At a council called in 318, 100 bishops condemned Arius to exile. His continuing influence, though, brought Constantine to call the Council of Nicaea in 325.

At first, Constantine sent Hosius, a bishop from Spain, to seek to reconcile Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and Arius. Constantine also sent envoys across the empire, inviting bishops to a council at his summer retreat in Nicaea. Around 220 bishops attended, mostly from the eastern churches, although there were eight representatives from western churches – Rome sent only two priests.

During the debates, Constantine chided Bishop Acesius for his rigid stance, saying: “Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone into heaven.”

Constantine was more interested in attaining peace and unity in the Church than he was with theology or doctrine. Three men who had been excommunicated at a previous, smaller council, including Eusebius of Caesarea, were readmitted. But the principal debate was about the views of Arius.

As Arius defended his position on the nature of Jesus, some of the bishops refused to listen. Arius was condemned in a unanimous vote, with two bishops abstaining. But this vote was not a vote on the divinity of Jesus, or on the Trinity, but specifically on the views of Arius and whether or not he should be allowed to stay in his position.

Constantine insisted on the use of the term ὁμοούσιος in a creedal formula from the council, but it was not a new term, and had been used 70 years earlier by Dionysius of Alexandria.

In the end, the teachings of Arius were condemned, a creed was drafted, and 20 canons were passed, including one on the date of Easter and others regulating how bishoprics were to operate. For example:

Canon 4: a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops of that province...at least three bishops should meet to make this decision.

Canon 5: provinces should honour excommunications pronounced by other bishops in other provinces.

Canon 6: The Bishop of Alexandria has authority over bishops in Libya and other African provinces.

Canon 10: No lapsed believer should be ordained.

Canon 15: Priests and bishops shall not move from city to city on their own accord.

The Council of Nicaea closed on 25 July 325.

The Nicene Creed:

One of the most important achievements of the Council of Nicaea was the adoption of a creedal form that defined much of our theology, Christology, and the Trinity.

However, within a short f time the creed was under attack, and eventually it was rewritten at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

The Original Creed of 325 AD:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];

Who for us, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was born in human flesh;

He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;

From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

At the end of the original creed, a clause directed against Arius was added:

But those who say: “There was a time when he was not;” and “He was not before he was made;” and “He was made out of nothing,” or “He is of another substance” or “essence,” or “The Son of God is created,” or “changeable,” or “alterable – they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

The Ecumenical Creeds:

The ecumenical creeds as we understand them within the Anglican tradition are three in number: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed.

These three Creeds have long been accepted as an integral part of Anglicanism. For example, Article 8 of the 39 Articles states: “The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’ Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture” (The Book of Common Prayer 2004, p. 780).

The common focus in Anglican theology is based on an appeal to scripture, tradition, and reason. But this was expanded in that dictum by Lancelot Andrewes.

In effect, Lancelot Andrewes is saying the tradition of the Church in Anglicanism finds its foundations in the three creeds – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed – the decisions of the first four General Councils of the Church:

● Nicaea (325)

● Constantinople (381)

● Ephesus (431)

● Chalcedon (451)

and in the first five centuries of the history of the Church, and the corpus of Patristic writings.

The three ‘ecumenical’ Creeds

1, The Apostles’ Creed:

The Twelve Apostles ... but did they write the Apostles’ Creed?

The Apostles’ Creed is used by Anglicans traditionally in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, and for most Anglicans this is the Creed first memorised, as part of the preparation for Confirmation. Although we call it one of the “ecumenical” creeds, it is only used in the Western Church and it is not found in the Eastern or Orthodox Churches.

This creed is first referred to as the Apostles’ Creed in a letter written by Saint Ambrose ca 390. By that time, there was a legend that it was written by the 12 Apostles, each writing a separate clause or phrase. It was first used as a baptismal creed in the West, and was introduced into the daily offices some time between the eighth and ninth century.

2, The Nicene Creed:

The Church of Aghia Sophia in Nicaea

Although we know the creed used at the Holy Communion or the Eucharist as the Nicene Creed, this is not what it actually is.

The Creed, which was approved at the Council of Nicaea in 325, was drawn up to defend the orthodox faith against Arianism, and includes the term ὁμοούσιον homoousion (consubstantial, of one substance with) to express the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Godhead. Four anti-Arian anathemas were appended to the original Nicene Creed and came to be regarded as an integral part of the text.

But what we know and use as the Nicene Creed is a longer formula, used in the Eucharist in both the East and West. This is more accurately known as the “Niceno-Contstantinopolitan Creed.” It is said to have been adapted at the Council of Constantinople in the year 381, although it may have been endorsed rather than drafted at that council, using the baptismal creed then in use in the Byzantine capital.

From the time of the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451, this Creed has been the defining creed of the church.

3, The Athanasian Creed:

Saint Athanasius … but did he write the Athanasian Creed?

The third of the so-called ecumenical creeds – the so-called Athanasian Creed or Quicunque Vult – is still included in The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (see pp 771-773) but has been omitted, for example, from Common Worship and New Patterns for Worship.

This creedal statement was traditionally ascribed to Saint Athanasius (ca 296-373), who succeeded Alexander as Patriarch of Alexandria. But it is a Western document, probably written around the year 428, and is used only in Western Christianity.

It sets out the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, adding a list of the most important events in Christ’s life. It also includes anathemas against those who do not subscribe to its creedal statements and definitions.

How do we know it was not written by Saint Athanasius?

It contains a number of doctrinal expressions that arose as a consequence of debates long after the time Saint Athansius, who died in Alexandria in 373. And its statements on the procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son could not be accepted in any Orthodox tradition.

The Book of Common Prayer includes the Athanasian Creed (see pp 771-773), after the Catechism of 1878 and before the Preamble and the 39 Articles. But there are no rubrics about when and how it should be used. Can you imagine situations or occasions on which you would use it? Can you ever remember it being used?

And so, although we call three creeds “ecumenical,” in reality there is only one ecumenical creed, the Nicene Creed.

The Nicene Creed and the Four Ecumenical Councils:

Like most doctrinal statements, however, the Nicene Creed was not written in one sitting, nor was it written in a vacuum. This creed was developed, worded, phrased and edited at the Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), and the version we have in The Book of Common Prayer (2004) is not the only and only, definitive, ecumenical version.

The First Ecumenical Council, Nicaea (325):

An icon of the Council of Nicaea

At the first draft of the Nicene Creed in 325, the principal problem to wrestle with was the heresy of the presbyter Arius of Alexandria, who taught, among other peculiar beliefs, that Jesus Christ, “The Son,” was a creation of the “The Father.”

A popular way of expressing this belief for those who agreed with Arius was: “There was a time when he [The Son] was not.” Arius taught that the Father, in the beginning, created (or begot) the Son, who then, with the Father, created the world. For Arius, then, Christ was a created being; his “god-ness” was removed.

Alexander, the Patriarch of Alexandria, summoned Arius for questioning, and Arius was subsequently excommunicated by a council of Egyptian bishops. In exile in Nicomedia, Arius wrote in defence of his beliefs. His following and influence grew to the point that the Emperor Constantine called a council of bishops in Nicaea (Νίκαια, present day İznik), where the first draft of what we now call the Nicene Creed was promulgated by a decided majority as a creedal statement of faith – and a firm rejection of Arius’ teaching that Christ was the “begotten” son of an “unbegotten” Father.

The principal argument for the full deity of Christ was made by Athanasius, a deacon in Alexandria who later succeeded Alexander as Patriarch. The Creed the bishops assented to in 325 is, for the most part, contained in the Nicene Creed as it appears in The Book of Common Prayer (2004), beginning with “We believe in one God . . .” and ending immediately after “in the Holy Spirit” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 205).

The purpose was clear: to refute the teachings of Arius and to affirm the orthodox doctrine of One God in Three Persons with specific attention to the Christology of the Son.

The Second Ecumenical Council, Constantinople (381):

However, the Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. By 327, the Emperor Constantine had begun to regret the decisions of 325. He granted an amnesty to the Arian leaders and sent into exile Athanasius, by now Patriarch of Alexandria, who continued to defend Nicene Christianity.

An additional heretical teaching by Macedonius – who was twice Bishop of Constantinople (342-346, 351-360) – denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The followers of Macedonius were referred to as pneumatomachians or “fighters of the spirit.” These pneumatomachians also believed that God the Son was a similar essence of substance as the Father, but not the same substance.

Macedonianism taught that the Holy Spirit was not a person – or hypostasis – but merely a power of God. The Spirit, then, was inferior to the Father and the Son.

Yet another group, led by Bishop Apollinarius who opposed the teaching of Arius, argued that Jesus did not have a human soul and was not fully human.

In 381, the Emperor Flavius Theodosius convoked the First Council of Constantinople, the second meeting of bishops (also known as the Second Ecumenical Council). Among the influential theologians at the time were Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Patriarch of Constantinople, who presided at the Second Ecumenical Council, and Saint Gregory of Nyssa, two of the Cappadocian Fathers – the third being Saint Basil the Great.

The Cappadocian Fathers, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nazianus and Saint Gregory of Nyssa

At that council, the bishops reaffirmed and expanded the Nicene Creed of 325 to address further questions about Christ’s divinity and humanity. They added five articles to the Creed concerning the Holy Spirit: the Lord, the giver of life; who proceeds from the Father (see John 15: 26): who is worshiped and glorified with the Father and the Son; and who has spoken through the prophets.

This expanded and modified Creed became the definitive document on the doctrine of the Trinity: one God in three persons or hypostases. Although more Councils and heresies followed, the Creed was essentially codified in 381 and received in 431 when the Council convened to discuss the Nestorian controversy.

However, a heavily disputed clause was added in 589 by the Third Council of Toledo primarily to counter Arianism among the Germanic peoples. Where the original Creed reads “We believe in the Holy Spirit . . . who proceeds from the Father,” the amended creed reads “. . . from the Father and the Son.”

Pope Leo III forbade the addition of the filioque clause (the words “and the Son”) and ordered the original Nicene Creed to be engraved on silver plates so that his conclusion would not be overturned in the future.

The filioque clause was one of the causes that eventually contributed to the Great Schism between East and West in 1054. The phrase “and the Son” still appears in the 2004 Book of Common Prayer, although a resolution of the 1988 Lambeth Conference called for its removal.

The Third Ecumenical Council, Ephesus (431):

Saint Mary’s Basilica … the Double Church where the Council of Ephesus met in 431 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Emperor Theodosius II called the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 to address the Nestorian controversy. Saint Cyril of Alexandria was a central figure in the Third Ecumenical Council as its spokesperson and president.

Nestorius, who was Patriarch of Constantinople, objected to the popular practice of calling the Virgin Mary the “Mother of God” or Theotokos. Nestorius taught that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a man, Jesus Christ, not God the Logos.

Nestorianism taught the Logos only dwelt in Christ, whose physical body provided a kind of temple for the Logos. Nestorius promoted the term Christotokos for Mary: the Mother of Christ.

Having summoned Nestorius three times to no avail, the Council condemned his teaching as erroneous and stripped him of his bishopric. The council declared Christ to be both a complete man and a complete God, and upheld the Virgin Mary as Theotokos because she gave birth not just to a man. The Council declared the text of the Creed, in its present form of 325 and 381, as complete and forbade any changes.

The Fourth Ecumenical Council, Chalcedon (451):

The Fourth Ecumenical Council met at Chalcedon in 451

Flavius Marcianus, Emperor of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire (450-457), called the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon (Χαλκηδών, present-day Kadıköy), across the Bosporus from Constantinople and now a suburb on the Anatolian side of Istanbul.

Once again, this council was concerned with the nature of Jesus Christ. Monophysitism, from the Greek mono (one or alone) and physis (nature) argued the Christological position that Christ had only one nature, which was Divine. While Christ was human, they believed, his less-perfect human nature was dissolved into his more perfect divine nature.

The council condemned Monophysitism and reaffirmed that Christ has two and complete natures as defined by previous councils. These two natures, the Council argued, operate harmoniously and without confusion. They are not divided or separate, as the Nestorians argued; nor did they undergo any change, as the Monophysites contended.

The Council gave a clear and full statement of orthodox Christology in a document defining the union of the divine and human natures of Christ. This document, which concentrates specifically on the nature of Christ, reflects a very clear, final statement on the orthodox theology that Christ is at once man and God.

The statement declares that is the unanimous teaching of the Church that Christ is perfect in humanity and in divinity; truly God (an Alexandrian notion) and truly man (an Antiochian notion); consubstantial with God and with humanity. It established the absolute limits of theological speculation using words like “unconfusedly,” “unchangeably,” “indivisibly” and “inseparably.”

The 1888 Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral does not list the Chalcedonian Creed among the fundament doctrines for Communion based on scriptures, creeds, sacraments and the historic episcopate.

The Chalcedonian Creed does not appear to contain any doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit, nor does it use the word Trinity. This is a single paragraph lifted from a larger document that speaks about the decisions reached at Nicea in 325 by the “318 Fathers” in attendance and at Constantinople in 381 by the “150 Fathers” in attendance.

Selected reading:

The Book of Common Prayer, the Church of Ireland, 2004.

Alison, CF, The Cruelty of Heresy (London: SPCK, 1994).
Ayers, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy (Oxford: OUP, 2004).
Bettenson, H., and Maunder, C. (eds), Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford, OUP, 3rd ed, 1999).
Geitz, ER, Gender and the Nicene Creed (New York: Church Publishing, 1995).
Gregorios, Paulos, Lazareth, WH, and Nissiotis, NA (eds), Does Chalcedon divide or unite? (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1981).
Micks, MH, Loving the Questions: an exploration of the Nicene Creed (New York: Seabury, 2005).
Stevenson, J, and Frend, WHC, Creeds, Council and Controversies (London: SPCK, revised ed, 1989).
William, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Eerdmans, revised ed, 2002)
Young, Frances, The Making of the Creeds (London: SCM Press, 1991/2002).


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Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 23 November 2012 was part of the Church History Elective (TH 7864) on the MTh course, Year I.

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