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RS 200
Introduction to Religious Studies
Notes on the Council of Nicaea & the Doctrine of the Trinity
Historical Context. Early Christianity in the Roman Empire
Three phases:
c. 33 – 100 A.D. Apostolic Christianity. This is the period of earliest Christianity, during
which many of the original apostles who know Jesus still lived. This is also the period of
the composition of the New Testament texts (see the handout on Mark and the Gospels
for the stages of Gospel formation). One major event during this period was the
destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. From this point on, Christianity is
separated from Judaism (until the destruction of the Temple, some still saw Christianity
as a sect within Judaism).
c. 100-313 A.D. The Age of the Martyrs. During this second period of early
Christianity, Christianity was a minority religion within the Roman Empire. The Empire
was very religiously diverse, but the leaders of the Empire sought to keep their enormous
territory unified through mandatory worship of the Roman Gods (Jupiter, Juno &
Company) or even the Emperor himself. The Jewish community had long worked it out
with the Romans that they would be exempt from this obligation because of their ancient
fidelity to their God. While people saw Christians as a sect within Judaism, Christians
too were exempt from this obligation, but when the temple was destroyed and Christians
and Jews went their separate ways this exemption no longer covered Christians. Roman
authorities did not like Christian refusal to participate in the Imperial religion because it
challenged the authority of the Emperor and the unity of the Empire. As a result,
Christians were frequently (though not continually) subject to persecution. For this
reason, this period is called the age of the Martyrs. Martyrs (from the Greek word – to
bear witness) were people who tortured or killed by Roman authorities for refusing to
worship the Roman gods. People were often marked as Christians by their unusual
behavior. Women who refused to marry and bear children for the Roman state, Men who
refused to bear arms, and women and men who gave abundantly to the poor all bore
witness to being Christian. For these, and other actions, they were persecuted.
As a result of the precariousness of their social and political position, Christians
worshiped in private spaces (sometimes the home of a wealthy member of the
community), or in secluded places like the catacombs (large tombs). In spite of , and
sometimes because of these difficult circumstances, the Christian community grew
steadily during this period. By the end of the period, there were large Christian
communities in most of the cities of the Empire, and there were Christians among all the
social classes (from the rich to the poor).
Near the end of this period, in the increasingly unstable political situation of the Empire
(think Gladiator – powerful armies competing for authority on behalf of generals,
massive immigration by “barbarians”, and end to the ideas of Republican Rome (rule by
the Senate), there were two particularly bad bouts of persecution. The persecutions by
Decius (Roman emperor AD 249–251), and Diocletian (reigned as emperor AD 284–305)
were among the last major persecutions of Christians. Diocletian’s persecutions
continued after his retirement until the Emperor Constantine put at stop to them in 313.
In 305, Constantine, whose mother was a Christian, became co-Emperor when his father
Constanius died. With Maxentius, Constantine ruled the western part of the Empire.
In 312, Constantine defeated Maxentius in the battle of the Milvian bridge, thus
becoming sole Emperor in the West. Licinius was Emperor of the East.
At the battle of the Milvian bridge, Constantine say a sign in the heavens, and heard a
voice "by this sign you will be victor" (hoc signo victor eris) . It was a Christian symbol.
He emblazoned it on his battle gear and lead his troups to victory. From then on, he used
the Christian symbol and called Christ Lord. But he was not baptized.
In 313, together with his co-Emperor Licinius, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan,
legalizing Christianity and ending persecution of Christians.
In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius in battle and became sole Emperor of the Roman
Empire. He moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium. He called the new capital city
Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey).
325 Constantine calls and presides over the council of Nicaea because there were
disputes among Christians about the relationship in God between the Son and the Father,
and he wanted unified belief to help hold the Empire together.
The Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical council (the most recent, according to
Roman Catholic reckoning, was the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1960’s). It brought
together hundreds of bishops, many of who were survivors of the persecution.
Fall 2006
Council of Nicaea Notes:
RS 200/Brumbaugh
The theological issue at the Council of Nicaea (325)
Things most Christians agreed upon in the lead up to the Nicene controversy:
1. monotheism (which Christians inherit from Judaism and is confirmed by certain
forms of Platonism)
2. the rejection of the idea that Jesus was “merely a human being”. He is more.
3. Jesus had brought salvation to the human race;
4. the authority of the Scriptures, rightly understood.
The disagreement was over the expression of how Christian monotheism and the doctrine
(teaching) of Jesus Christ’s deity could be reconciled.
“The theological issue at stake was, or seemed to be, … the status of the Word (Logos)
and His relation to the Godhead. Was He fully divine, in the precise sense of the term,
and therefore really akin to the Father? Or was He after all a creature, superior no doubt
to the rest of creation, even by courtesy designated divine, but all the same separated by
an unbridgeable chasm from the Godhead?” (Kelly, 223).
The controversy is vividly symbolized in the characters of Arius (the arch-heretic) &
Athanasius (the champion of orthodoxy [orthodoxy=right teaching]).
The villain: the arch-heretic Arius (presbyter in Alexandria, North Africa)
The teaching of Arius: Arius’s primary interest is cosmological. That is, his starting point
is the Greek philosophical view of the world, rather than the experience of salvation from
Jesus Christ.
Arius’ affirmations with respect to God:
 Keystone: “Unique, transcendent Father, the indivisible Monad Who is
‘above and beyond reality’ Who is the cause of all things, and Who is
alone self-existent and without beginning.”
 absolute transcendence of God (the Father), the unoriginate source of all.
 alone without beginning, alone eternal, alone sovereign, etc. (therefore the
son has a beginning, is temporal and is not sovereign).
 Any other participant in the divine nature would result in a polytheism,
and mean God was divisible and subject to change. This is impossible.
 The divine nature cannot be communicated to anything/anyone else.
Arius’ affirmations with respect to the Son:
 Son must be a creature, who the Father has formed out of nothing by his
fiat (will). Beget (see the Creed: the Son is begotten, not made) in terms
of the Son is only figurative and means “to make” (meaning he is a
creature). Son is not an emanation or of the same essence as the Father
Son must have a beginning. – before the ages, “there was a when, when
he was not”.
Son has no communion or direct knowledge of the Father. He is a
creature, and is utterly dissimilar from God’s essence.
Divine titles are only titles of courtesy.
Thus, the Son is a demi-god, not really a god at all. He might be described as some, third
thing (neither God, nor an ordinary Creature, but a third kind of thing). Per, the Middle
Platonic preconceptions Arius inherited.
The Champion of Orthodoxy: Athanasius (deacon, then bishop of Alexandria)
Athanasius’ interest is primary soteriological (i.e., in salvation). He explained the
problem of Arianism in 3 points.
1. undermined doctrine of God through reintroduction of polytheism
2. made nonsense of liturgical practice of baptizing in name of the “Father and of the
Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and of praying to the Son.
3. (most important) undermined redemption in Christ because only a divine
mediator could save.
According to Athanasius, if Arianism were true, then salvation is not possible, because
for Arius, the agent of salvation is not God, but a sort of demi-god. For Athanasius (as
for Israel), either God saves, or there is no salvation. Because Christians experience
salvation from Jesus, Jesus has to be, in some sense, God.
In his position, Athanasius held in tension the two central claims involved in this dispute:
1. There is only one God, and only God saves (from Jewish/Christian experience)
2. Salvation comes from Jesus
Trinitarian language is the language the early church developed to try to talk about the
mystery of God’s saving action in Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Key language in the creed:
 begotten, not made (gennethenta, not poiethenta)
 out of the father’s substance (ek tes ousias tou patros)
 one in being with (homoousios)
26 years later: “The whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian.” St. Jerome.
In 381, after long controversy among adherents of the Nicene position, Arianism, and
something called semi-arianism, the Council of Constantinople reconfirms the faith of
Nicaea and uses the creed of Nicaea as a basis of its own creed. This NiceneConstantinope creed is one of the main creeds used in churches today.
Source: J.N.D. Kelly. Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition. San Francisco:
HarperSanFrancisco, 1960. See chapter IX, “The Nicene Crisis.”
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