Go back in time approximately two millennia, and in doing so, erase from your mind all the knowledge the church has gained as she has developed the faith once given by her Lord. Wipe from your memory all you know about eschatology (doctrine of last times), ecclesiology (doctrine of the church), soteriology (doctrine of salvation), and finally Christology. Then you will stand in the shoes of the early church and understand her consternation as she struggled to comprehend and express the great richness and complexity of Christianity.
The church of the 4th century embraced her risen and ascended Christ, and even bore His name, but as yet had not fully developed what she believed concerning her Savior, and thus had very little vocabulary to express her faith.
One of the first questions that faced the early church concerned the essence of Christ. To some of these early Christians, it seemed to be a reversion to the polytheism of paganism to call Christ God. And while Scripture clearly states that Jesus is God, it does not supply the specific terminology to express how Jesus is God and the Father is God, and yet these are only one God.
In the uncertainty of these times, a man named Arius began to teach that while Christ is divine, He is not eternal, and while He is the highest of all creatures, He nevertheless had been created. Thus, Christ is of a different substance and essence from God the Father. He supported his position by appealing to passages that emphasize the humanity of Christ such as Mark 13:32, “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”
The more perceptive in the church recognized Arius’ denial of Christ’s godhead as a denial of Christ’s work of salvation. For how can a mere creature save the rest of creation from the curse of sin? To deny Christ’s godhead was to destroy the heart of Christianity itself. Thus, these defenders of orthodoxy insisted that Christ is God, eternal not created, of the same substance and essence as the Father. The gospel of John, with such passages as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” provided the basis for their defense of Christ’s godhead.
Now the emperor Constantine, who had embraced Christianity as an alternative way to unify the rambling Roman Empire, was dismayed by this dispute over “technicalities.” In 325, therefore, he called delegates from all over the empire to Nicea, where he would preside over a discussion on the matter.
As in most disputes, there were three viewpoints: the liberal one of Arius and his followers, the orthodox one as presented by Bishop Alexander, and the position of compromise as supported by one Eusebius. Though there was a very bitter dispute that lasted many days, orthodoxy prevailed and provided some of the first vocabulary in explanation of the person of Christ:
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all the worlds, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father.
The church continued to wrestle with the issue of Christ’s person and nature. It was not until the 5th century when the Athanasian Creed was written, that the profound truth of the trinity was expressed in its entirety—that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet not three gods, but one God.
You would think that the matter would rest there, but it arose again during the days of John Calvin with a certain Servetus who claimed Jesus was a son of God, but not the Son of God, thus putting Christ on a par with the rest of God’s elect children. And there are those today yet, who fall into the same error as Arius, explicitly, by denying Christ’s deity, or implicitly, by denying the virgin birth.
While all around us we see the creeds reworded or discarded, they continue to provide us with a hard-won vocabulary that expresses the heart of the Christian faith. And yet with all our creeds and doctrines we still say with the old church father, “Man can perceive only the hem of the garment of the triune God: the cherubim cover the rest with their wings.”