Jackson Presbyterian Examiner will now resume its review of ten of the most pivotal events of the Christian church’s history.
3. The Council of Nicea, which dealt with the Arian controversy and the Person of Christ
In the 4th century, Arius, an Alexandrian presbyter, began teaching that Christ is the first and most exalted creature God made, but not God himself. Because his preaching sparked a controversy that centered on the identity of Christ himself—the most important point of Christian theology—Constantine assembled all of the bishops in Nicea in 325 to resolve the dispute.
Though the council didn’t end Arianism—if anything, the immediate result was that the defeated party was reinvigorated to preach all the more boldly—it did establish as Biblical, true, and orthodox the teaching that Christ is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father.” Affirming the Apostle John’s teaching that Christ, the Word, was God, Nicea removed all ambiguity about what Christians are to believe about Christ.
The Nicene Creed, cited in churches throughout the world every Sunday through the present day, embodies the theology of the Council of Nicea. This creed remains the one and only creed that has regularly been used by all Christians worldwide, both East and West. In liturgical churches, the Nicene Creed is usually recited every time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. For example, this is regularly the practice of Jackson’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church (604 Goodridge Drive). The Apostles’ and Athanasian Creed doesn’t necessarily contain anything the East would dispute, but they are Western Creeds, and have never regularly been used among Eastern Orthodox believers.
The Council of Nicea also forcefully taught the Deity of the Person of the Holy Spirit. He was declared to be the “Lord and Giver of life”; the creed says, “With the Father and the Son, he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.”
Christendom has never produced anything since Nicea that so succinctly sums up the heart of the Christian faith. To learn more about this pivotal moment in church history, read Kenneth Scott Latourette’s A History of Christianity.
4. The Council of Chalcedon, which declared Christ has two natures—human and divine
The Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) was convened to further clarify questions regarding how Christ can be regarded as fully human, as well as fully divine. The council’s conclusion was that Christ has two natures, human and divine, and the two natures are not to be confused. Christ didn’t merely appear to be human, but was in every possible respect (except sinfulness); Christ didn’t merely have God-like qualities, but is himself true God. To drive this point home, the Virgin Mary was called “Theotokos”, which, in Greek, means “God-bearer.”
The majority of Christendom affirms this council, but after Chalcedon a permanent wedge was driven between the churches in Assyria and Armenia, as well as the Coptic Church of Egypt and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. These four “non-Chalcedonian” bodies are also referred to as Oriental Orthodox Churches, or Monophysites. The non-Chalcedonian churches do not deny that Christ is fully God and fully man, but they object to saying he has two natures. Instead, they describe Christ as having “one united nature.” As they do not accept Chalcedon, the fourth ecumenical council, they likewise do not accept the decisions of any of the subsequent councils either. They are, therefore, not regarded as being in “full communion” with the Patriarch of Constantinople, who represents Eastern Orthodoxy worldwide.
Some authorities within Eastern Orthodoxy have in recent years argued that the differences between the Oriental Orthodox churches and the mainstream Orthodox Church have more to do with terminology than theology. There is a hope that these groups, long cut off from each other, can soon be reconciled to each other. To learn more about Oriental Orthodoxy, read An Unbroken Circle, edited by Pasius Altschul, which is a collection of essays by representatives, predominantly from the Coptic Church.
5. The Augustine vs. Pelagius debates concerning free will and original sin
In the 5th century, Pelagius, a British monk, taught that God wouldn’t command people to do things they weren’t capable of doing. It followed, then, that mankind has the ability to perfectly follow all of God’s commands. Pelagius taught that each person is born innocent and may determine for himself or herself whether to do good or evil.
Responding to these controversial teachings, Augustine defended the teaching that men and women are born with a sinful nature. Due to Adam’s fall into sin, all people since then have been born into “original sin” and by nature desire things that are contrary to God’s law. People don’t inherently possess the ability to believe in Christ and obey his teachings, but must be regenerated by the Holy Spirit before being able to believe or do anything good.
Augustine’s teaching of man’s complete dependence on God for salvation and total inability to save himself deeply influenced later Christian teachers, notably Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin. That man is depraved and cannot choose Christ for himself, that the redeemed are chosen by God from eternity past and enabled to believe the gospel simply due to God’s grace, and not because of anything good in themselves, are truths that were taught by Augustine long before they were taught by the Protestant confessions.
Eventually, Augustine’s teachings were hailed as Biblical, while Pelagius was denounced as a heretic. To learn more about the heart of Augustine’s theology, read his spiritual autobiography, Confessions.