Suppose you ran into an old friend of yours after you hadn’t seen each other in while. As you’re catching up, he happily mentions that he has entered into a relationship with a new girl. He seems really excited about her, so you ask her name.
“Oh, it’s either Jennifer, or Jessica, or maybe Mindy. Definitely something like that.”
“Well, what’s she look like?”
“Oh, you know, she has brown or maybe blackish blonde hair. I’m almost certain she isn’t bald, at any rate.”
What would you think of this relationship?
This is how a lot of people approach their relationship with God. But a relationship where you show no interest in what the other person is like is not a true relationship at all. Keep this is mind as we study the Arian Controversy, because while it may seem like it turns on obscure points of theology, the issue of who Jesus is and who God is stands at the very heart of Christianity.
The Council of Nicea
Having just finished reuniting the Roman world, Constantine found Christianity itself divided. To resolve the controversy and unify the empire’s new religion, he called for a church council at Nicaea. Roughly 300 bishops attended.
Many, like the holy apostle, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.
To those who attended the council, Constantine manifested great kindness, addressing them with much gentleness, and presenting them with gifts. He ordered numerous couches to be prepared for their accommodation and entertained them all at one banquet. Those who were most worthy he received at his own table, distributing the rest at the others. Observing that some among them had had the right eye torn out, and learning that this mutilation had been undergone for the sake of religion, he placed his lips upon the wounds, believing that he would extract a blessing from the kiss. After the conclusion of the feast, he again presented other gifts to them.
This is known as the first ecumenical council because it pulled in bishops from all of Christendom, including outside the Roman Empire. The council accomplished several things: the construction of the Nicene Creed, settling the method for calculating the date of Easter, and the promulgation of some early canon law, which basically gave rules for how the church should be governed. By far the most important and far-reaching consequence of this was the Nicene Creed.
The Arians submitted a document with their recommended creed, signed by 18 bishops. The backlash against it was strong; bishops actually leapt to their feet and tore the document to pieces. 16 of the signers immediately recanted. The Nicene Creed was adopted instead, and along with it the following condemnation of Arius:
And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.
A grand total of six bishops opposed the creed. In the end, four of them gave way, with only two bishops and Arius refusing to sign the creed. They were deposed and exiled. (Eusebius of Nicomedia actually signed the creed, but refused to condemn Arius, and so he was exiled as well).
This was not the end of the story
Constantine himself did not stick to the decisions of the council for long, and soon Arian bishops were allowed back in, and even gained the upper hand politically. Over the course of his life, Athanasius was exiled five different times for his dogged defense of Trinitarian Christianity. At some points, it seemed like he alone defended Nicea against the whole world. Yet, in the end, he triumphed, and now the Nicene Creed stands as one of the most basic tests of orthodoxy.
I take some comfort in this. Trinitarianism first passed the truth test of commanding the assent of the first ecumenical church council. After this, its opponents attempted to stamp it out with their superior political power, and yet it survived and thrived, just as basic Christianity had before it. Had the defenders of Nicea retained the political power, we might wonder how much of its survival was due to superior firepower instead of truth. Had they failed to gain acceptance at the council in the first place, we might wonder how the church so badly missed the truth. Happily, it passed both tests.
So what is the Trinity?
It is easier to say what it is not:
With that out the way, the Trinity can be summed up as follows:
- The Father is God
- The Son is God
- The Holy Spirit is God
- The Father is not the Son
- The Son is not the Holy Spirit
- The Holy Spirit is not the Father
- There is only one God
You can see the problem there; that last statement seems contradictory. On the other hand, delving into the ultimate nature of reality has landed physics in similar territory.
Not that that helps us understand it any better. As you have just seen, most analogies end up as a heresy instead.
That said, here’s some analogies, courtesy of the great St Augustine
Mind is composed of memory, understanding, and will. We understand our memory, remember understanding, will to remember, and will to understand, understand our willing, etc. Each of these are in a way distinct from each other, but at the same time they are all the same thing.
Just about everybody loves themselves (and usually too much). However, we are in fact allowed to love ourselves, so long as we also love our neighbor similarly. In so loving, We are simultaneously the lover, loved object, and the lover’s love.
Note that these are all still just analogies, and if you take them too far, you will probably again lapse into something that has been condemned as a heresy.
So why should we believe in this Trinity thing at all?
This is one of the few doctrines agreed on by all branches of the church, over a long, stretch of time. Those which deny it quickly lose the rest of their Christianity (see, for example, Unitarians). The messy history of how it came to be accepted also gives reason to trust it. When the church came together to consider it, they nearly unanimously came down on the side of the Trinity. Then, lest we fear that this was due to Constantine’s influence, political power almost immediately turned against it, and so Trinitarianism had to prove itself in the face of political repression, just as Christianity itself had.
- Nicene Canons – The document that the Nicene Council ultimately set forth. It is brief, and well worth your time to read, if only to debunk some of the nonsense that has been promulgated about its contents.
- On the Incarnation – Athanasius’ explanation of the Trinity and Jesus’ incarnation. If you read one book as a result of this class, make it this one.
- Class Materials – Certainly the least important document in this list, but it does contain my chess-board visualization of the post-Nicene political wrangling, of which I am rather proud.
- For good measure, the Nicene Creed in all its original glory:
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, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (γεννηθέντα), not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον, consubstantialem) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost.