The Trinity - the Need for a Creed

Heresies with relation to the members of the Trinity took on a number of different forms.

Docetism - God pretended to be human

This theory was that Jesus was not human; God in the role of Jesus only appeared to be human, but never really suffered. This probably stemmed from the Greek view of God as utterly remote (transcendent and impassible) from this world.

(When people talk about Jesus as 'God with skin on', I understand that they're trying to say that you can understand God's love and compassion by seeing how He expressed it in Jesus - but Jesus wasn't some kind of man-shaped balloon filled on the inside with God, as opposed to flesh and blood!)

In answering this, Origen made two important contributions to the nature of Christ:

  • He declared Christ subordinate to the Father (using John 14:28).
    Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, who is greater than I am.
  • He expressed that Christ was not created, but existed eternally (as the eternal generation of the Son from the Father). The idea that Jesus was created is clearly contradicted by Jesus' statements such as John 8:58.
    Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I AM!"

The nature of Christ's subordination, however, was vague, and opened the door to other heresies.

Adoptionism - Jesus was adopted

This theory was that Jesus wasn't God as part of his eternal nature, but rather he was a good man whom God adopted - again, contradicted by statements such as John 8:58.

Modalism - God switches roles

This theory was that God plays temporary roles of Father, Son and Spirit. However, this also doesn't hold up against the Bible, as there are times when all three are acting at the same time, such as Luke 3:21-22:

One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, "You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy."

Arianism - Jesus was created as a god

This theory was that Christ was a created deity, to act as a mediator between God and the world. A similar theory was Macedonianism, which said that the Holy Spirit was a created thing inferior to both Father and Son.

The Nicene Creed

In an effort to combat these theories, an emergency creed was written by the Council of Nicea in 325, incorporated into another creed by the Council of Constantinople in 381, and finally ratified by the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451. This is now known as the Nicene creed (brackets added):

We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God (anti-Adoptian),
eternally begotten of the Father (anti-Modal),
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father (anti-Arian).
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven;
by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man (anti-Adoptian).
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried (anti-Docet).
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father (anti-Modal).
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son (anti-Modal).
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified (anti-Macedonian).
He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The doctrine of the Trinity continued to be developed, and is summarised by Tertullian's formula, "Una substantia, tres personae" - "One substance, three persons". However, our word 'person' has far more sense of a separate entity attached to it than the Latin 'persona' - which could mean the part played in social life, the social function of an individual in society, or the occupier of such a part or function. 'Persona' is midway between the function and the person, and we have no English equivalent to fully carry the shade of meaning.

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