Sometimes commentators ask why Bosco is not banned? There is a simple answer, which is that I care about his immortal soul and the souls of others, and what he, and they confess, when they say they need no religion, just a simple walk with Christ, is a commonly held position. After all, one might reasonably ask, “why does all this stuff about the Trinity matter anyway, can’t I be a Christian without an advanced degree in theology – and anyway, no one really understands it?” The answer is that we are not the first to encounter Christ, and that those who walked the earth with Him thought it vital that the tradition they passed on be held by all followers; St Paul did not merely receive a revelation and declare himself authorised to teach as he liked. What applies to Paul applies to all of us. Christians have known that orthodox belief matters because it defines, as far as we can, who Christ is – and if we fail to grasp that, we can’t have any sort of relationship with Him.
The New Testament talks much about Father and Son, and about the Holy Ghost, but as the last post outlined, understanding the relationship between between the three was a problem. Christians, after all, were Monotheists – believers in One God – and yet their sacred scriptures and their tradition seemed to contain three entities.
By the fourth century it was clear that the notion that this did not mean One God acting three parts – it would make no sort of sense, even as a deep mystery, to have Jesus praying to Himself at Gethsemane, or asking Himself to let the cup pass Him by. But the nature of the relationship between Father and Son (at this point little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit) was thrown into question by an Alexandrian priest, Arius.
Quoting John 17:3 , along with Colossians 1:15 and Proverbs 8:22 he argued that the Son was not God, but the first-born of creation – a creature, not the Creator. His bishop, Alexander, condemned him, but, as is so often the way, Arius quoted these lines of Scripture and argued that there was a ‘time when the Son was not’, defying his bishop to do anything about it. Arius was not the first, and will not be the last, clever man to think himself illuminated in a way denied to lesser intellects.
Arius posed a problem for Bishop Alexander, and so popular was his reading of Scripture, that it soon posed a problem for Bishops elsewhere. What the confrontation with Arius did was to force men who had not thought through the beliefs they confessed to do so. So what was it the Bishops held? They held that Jesus was God, in the beginning with God – a notion to make the head spin, but one which accorded with John’s Gospel and which made sense of Jesus being Divine. But Jesus was also human, so how could He be both? The Arians argued that this made no sense, and that they were more logical – Jesus was a created being sent by God to create the world and redeem mankind – but He was not God, as there was only One God. This was easily comprehensible by everyone – hence its popularity.
In order to combat this heresy, orthodox theologians, the most eminent of them being a deacon of Alexander’s, Athanasius (who succeeded him as Patriarch of Alexandria), were forced to think through how God could be both One and Three. The notion that God existed in three modes, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was a common one, but did that mean that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were somehow less than the Father? Athanasius argued that He existed in Three Persons, that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were equal and yet one. The word he used to express this concept was the Greek homoousios – that expressed the view that the Son was of “one substance” with the Father. It was from this formula that the Nicene Creed developed in 325.
The Nicene Creed answers Arianism directly, saying of Jesus that he is:
the Son of God, only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten, not made, one in substance [homoousios] with the Father …
So, God was Father, the Generator of all things, but Himself ungenerate (that is He was before, above and beyond our concepts of Time), and Jesus was generated of the Father ‘before all worlds’. The manner in which this has happened was a mystery beyond our comprehension, but it firmly established that Father and Son, and also Holy Spirit, were of the same substance (consubstantial) and therefore both one and three – for which the new word, Trinity, was coined.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 established this as Christian orthodox belief. But, as Athanasius himself was aware, the place of the Holy Spirit in this triad whilst established, had hardly been discussed. This will be the subject of the final part of this series.