God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Then all of existence is determined by this fact. Jesus commands our allegiance, and our worship, because he is God, not just a great moral teacher or religious leader.
Prior to the Council of Nicea, however, there was little consensus as to the answer to this question. If you read through the gospels, it is very clear that Jesus is a human being, and fully human at that. But he also takes prerogatives only God could take, like forgiving sin, or commanding the wind and the waves, and they obey him! He even allowed himself to be worshiped as God. But how can this be if God is one? For over a thousand years, Jews had declared the sacred prayer called the Shema: “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” This declaration was the reason the Jewish leaders sentenced Jesus to death: he committed blasphemy. And Jesus himself confirmed with his own mouth that he was the Son of God, declaring himself equal with God.
The early church didn’t have time to think through all the implications of these two obvious truths: Jesus was human, and Jesus was God. They thought he was returning soon. But as time went on and it became obvious he wasn’t, the two truths began to seem more problematic to some. Those that questioned the humanity of Christ, like the Docetists, thought his humanity and resurrection were illusions. On the other side, some Christian thinkers questioned the divinity of Christ. (All Christian heresies related to the person of Christ resulted from the rise of Gnosticism in the first and second centuries and neoplatonism in the third century.) The most famous of these thinkers was Arius (AD 256 – 336), an early Christian theologian. It was Arianism that was up for debate at the Council of Nicea.
I was reminded of this ancient heresy in a sermon I heard recently on I Peter 3. The New Testament writers were steeped in the knowledge of the Old Testament, and used that knowledge throughout their writing (I recently learned about a Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, which I can’t wait to read). Peter does exactly this here:
14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
It is no coincidence that we find almost exactly the same words in Isaiah 8:
12 “Do not call conspiracy
everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
and do not dread it.
13 The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread.
14 He will be a holy place;
for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.
15 Many of them will stumble;
they will fall and be broken,
they will be snared and captured.”
The word Peter uses in Greek for Lord, κύριος (kurios), means “properly, a person exercising absolute ownership rights.” There is no doubt Peter is no Arian. Jesus is for him, The Lord Almighty. Why is it important we know that Jesus is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity? Stay tuned to my next post for some musings on just that.