The Early Christological Controversies: 1.1 Leading up to Nicaea

‘Now at Lystra there was a man sitting, who could not use his feet; he was a cripple from birth, who had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking; and Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and walked. And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the people. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out among the multitude, crying, “Men, why are you doing this? We also are men, of like nature with you, and bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” With these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.’

  • Acts 14


Often, when we look back at early Christian theology we lose sense of just how long it was before the Church had its first Ecumenical Council because of the pivotal role the Council of Nicaea plays in defining orthodoxy. But the council took place in 325 AD, and if we collect all the different theological solutions that were offered to solve the problem of how Jesus Christ was divine in the three previous centuries, we are confronted by a bewildering array of ideas that are so variable and numerous that examining them without some sort of order is more likely to obfuscate the issue and confuse us than clarify it and illuminate us. Compounding this problem, to understand the development of Christian thought of the Ante-Nicene era requires us to at least have a basic understanding of the social and philosophical environment of the Roman world of the time.

Religious belief in the Roman Empire was diverse, ranging from sophisticated to simplistic, and the Romans were historically tolerant of the beliefs of others as long as they supported the empire politically and did not offend Roman measures of decency. The rather boring Roman religion became more textured and complex as the Roman Empire expanded its borders, especially influenced by the sophistication and wealth of Greek literature and its pantheon, and it was also accompanied by the numerous other exotic deities of the Egyptians, Syrians, and other conquered lands. The exalted Graeco-Roman gods, the stately patrons of the empire that charmed the Roman intellectuals and the upper class, existed alongside the mystery religions and their secret rites that the middle and lower classes were devoted to. Religion was as pervasive as it was diverse, and sacrifices were made to the gods not only as public celebrations but were also part of the public duties of civil servants–the Senate opened their deliberations by burning incense at the Altar of Victory located within the Curia. It was in such a world that Christianity began its existence, and in such a pagan world that it grew and developed.

The early Christians appealed to the same demographic that was devoted to the mystery religions. Christians too had their own secret rites in baptism and the Eucharist (sacramentummysterion), and they organized themselves and supported their clerics voluntarily, just as the exotic mystery cults did. But what made the Christians stand out, and what caused the empire to quickly regard this nascent faith with such suspicion, is that the Christians absolutely refused to worship the gods of their neighbours and would not participate in any of the public rites the Romans thought were necessary to maintaining divine favour for their communities and the empire at large. Many of them also refused to serve in the military and civic offices. The Christians quickly earned the reputation of being subversive enemies of social custom and natural order, and for their refusal to worship the traditional gods they were regarded as atheists by the empire. But for all these suspicions Christianity attracted many because the Christians were profoundly cosmopolitan and egalitarian–they took care of not only their own but also strangers. This Christian religion proved its resilience repeatedly, not only persevering through numerous persecutions, but growing despite them. The last pagan Roman emperor, the philosopher-king Julian the Apostate (331-363 AD), begrudgingly acknowledged this quality of the Christians in the midst of his failed attempt to restore paganism in the empire after Constantine I legalized Christianity:

“The Hellenic religion does not yet prosper as I desire, and it is the fault of those who profess it; for the worship of the gods is on a splendid and magnificent scale, surpassing every prayer and every hope. May Adrasteia pardon my words, for indeed no one, a little while ago, would have ventured even to pray for a change of such a sort or so complete within so short a time. Why, then, do we think that this is enough, why do we not observe that it is their [the Christians] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception.”

With this brief picture, we can return to the experience Sts. Paul and Barnabas had at Lystra where, to their despair, the Lycaonians tried to offer sacrifice to them after Paul cured a cripple. Miraculous powers were the work of the various gods and daemons for these pagans, and such a display didn’t imply the existence or work of a One God. What we must understand here, then, is that the basic question that confronts all Christian theologians isn’t just about whether Jesus Christ is divine. This alone is actually rather mundane. In a pagan world and its imagination Barnabas and Paul could easily be taken as Zeus and Hermes, and there is no conceptual difficulty in exalting Jesus of Nazareth as an exotic deity with a resurrection narrative, like the cults of Serapis or Dionysus did before in their own devotions. The basic problem only truly reveals itself within the monotheism the Christians inherited from their Jewish origins: how is it possible to acknowledge the unity of the One God while also insisting on the divinity of Christ who is distinct from God the Father?

From the very first steps for Christian thought, this problem caused such great difficulty because the New Testament does not give us clear answers, and much of what we now take to be the obvious meaning of the text is only obvious to us now because we had the privilege of inheriting the labour of our predecessors. The most obvious and commonly recited proof-text of the divinity of Christ, John 1:1, would not have been unproblematic for the earliest Christian thinkers. A part of our modern disconnect is the fact that the magnificent rendering of this verse in the King James Version: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, which has been replicated by practically every later English translation and itself follows the rendering of the venerable Vulgate (“In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum”), is a pious translation. The Greek text is trickier and demands our close attention: “εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον και θεος ην ο λογος”. If we render this into English more literally, it comes out as something like: “In [the] beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and god was the Word”.  As we can see, in the second clause there is a definitive article before “God”, while in the third clause “God” does not have a definitive clause. This verse will encourage Origen to interpret the Son to be subordinate to the Father who is “the God”, which we will look at in more detail later.

For more familiar textual examples in English, we are confronted by how the Apostles often appear to reserve the word “God” to refer to the Father, while Christ is referred to separately as “Lord” or “Saviour” (Acts 2:22-24; Acts 7:55-56; Acts 13:23; Romans 1:1-9; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1-5; 2 John 1:3; Jude 1:1-4; Revelation 1:1-3, just to point at a few examples across the breadth of the New Testament). The title “Christ”, meaning “anointed [one]”, shows that the Apostles confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, and the title “Lord” (Kyrios) might have been taken by Hellenic Jews and the God Fearers to be a claim of identity with the God of Israel, whose sacred name was rendered as “Lord” in many of the Septuagintal texts. There are, of course, other passages which offer stronger evidence of the Godhood of Christ like St. Thomas’ confession: “My Lord and my God!”. The Greek (ο κυριος μου και ο θεος μου) shows the definitive article in front of “God” unlike the third clause of John 1:1. But harmonizing all of these various texts into a coherent and consistent interpretation is a daunting task, and how to tackle this complex problem is by no means self-evident. And while this is not a central interest for me in the context of this project, who the Holy Spirit exactly is and what the Holy Spirit’s status is in relation to the Father and the Son is even more obscure in the text of the New Testament. On the surface it sometimes seems that the naked text of the New Testament is more Binarian than Trinitarian, and the co-equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son will prove to be a live theological debate past the Council of Nicaea, prompting the Cappadocian Fathers to devote significant theological attention to the Holy Spirit.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let us stop here for now. Next, we will look at some of the early attempts at tackling the strange problem the New Testament posed, focusing primarily on the Valentinian Gnostics, Marcion, and the figure we might regard as the first “scholar of heresies”–St. Irenaeus.



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