Trinitarian Discussions & Church History

Trinity in LatinAs of late it would seem a plethora of events have conspired to break the internet. Everything from a mass murder being committed to the tragic loss of a young boy while on vacation with his family. Amidst these and other current events has been an interesting and even moving occurrence among evangelicals. In case you have been blissfully disconnected, I will take a moment to explain. The theological subject of the Trinity has recently garnered what might seem like new attention, now I will not even attempt to lay out the nuances of this discussion as others more capable than myself have done so here. However, the thumbnail sketch has to do with the eternal relationships found within the Trinity especially as related to the Father and the Son. As such I will instead point you to the fact that very helpful discussions of the Trinity are neither new nor to be feared in the history of Christ’s Church by taking a look at some of the Councils which were convened to address this very topic.

It may seem very strange to many folks in the local churches dotting the landscape of the USA or any other country that there was a time in the history of the church when issues such as the Trinity (and even if God is a Trinity) were matters of intense debate. However, this is exactly the case with the results carrying through the ages and into many of the Statements of Faith/What We Believe documents found on church websites everywhere. The question might be asked then, “How have the debates/discussions concerning the Trinity throughout church history had an impact upon what we believe today?” In order to provide an answer it will be necessary to provide some information concerning some of the early church councils followed by how the decisions made in the past are evidenced even today.

There were four ‘ecumenical councils’ from 325 – 451 dealing with the Trinitarian controversies: Nicea I, Constantinople I, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.1 In each case of the council being called, the issue at hand was specifically Christological with attention being paid to the overall codification of the Doctrine of the Trinity. In the case of Nicea I the issue was the deity of Christ, His eternal uncreated existence as God. It was the position of Arius that Christ was a created being, although the first of any/all created ones.2 He was challenged in this assertion by Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria and a deacon by the name of Athanasius.3 The council was

Athanasius

Athanasius

not convinced by Arius and subsequently condemned his understanding of Christ. The original form of the Nicene Creed was developed at this juncture.4 Less than fifty years following Nicea I the emperor called the leaders of the church to Constantinople in 381. This council resulted in the confirmation of the results of Nicea I, revision of the Nicene Creed, affirmation of the deity of the Holy Spirit, and the condemnation of Apollinarianism which claimed Christ lacked a human spirit.5 The Council of Ephesus was called in order to address the controversy between Cyril and Nestorius.6 The issue at had was whether or not Christ was a Man indwelt by God (Nestorianism) or was Christ the Incarnate Word – God become Flesh (Cyril). 7 The council determined Nestorius to be in error. Then in 451 the emperor Marcian called a council to convene in Constantinople. This time the issue was the nature of Christ – one nature, or two. The council determined that Christ was possessor of both a divine and human nature of which there was no co-mingling nor diminishing of either.8

So what are we to take from this information? If one looks closely the issues argued and decided throughout the early years of Christianity are things many Christians take for granted today. For instance, the divinity of Jesus the Christ. The description I oft repeat from my own pulpit – Christ, Fully God, Fully Man! The eternal nature of Christ, uncreated as exemplified in John 1:1-5. The divinity of the Holy Spirit. The understanding that we as Christians were created by, saved by, and serve One God in Three Persons. These truths concerning God in general and Christ in particular aretake away today taken as non-negotiables among most (especially conservative) evangelicals. How many reading this would feel comfortable in a church which stated – ‘we believe in Jesus Christ, the first of all God’s creations who came to earth as an example to us, a little higher than man, a little lower than God.’ I would dare say not one! In this way the impact of these councils has been to instruct and remind the church of those issues which have been settled in response to past controversies that we have an understanding of orthodoxy.

Even though we do not convene Church Councils of the nature discussed in this post, we should understand that much of the current theological debate occurring is focused upon similar goals. In other words, in the same way the early Church Councils sought to better understand what the Bible teaches on various topics in order to worship God more fully so also local church elders, seminary professors, and even blog contributors today.

  1. Robert C. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History, rev. and expanded ed., Zondervan Charts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), Chart 28.
  2. Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, completely rev. and expanded ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 28.
  3. Ibid. 28-34.
  4. Walton, Chart 28.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Lane, 56.
  7. Ibid., 53-56.
  8. Walton, Chart 28.