Early Christianity is the period of the faith before the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. It is typically divided into the Apostolic Age and the Ante-Nicene Era. Christian bishops traveled to the town of Nicaea at the direction of Constantine the Great, gathering for the first time as an ecumenical council. The emperor had called them together to help unify the church in the face of growing theological disputes, primarily over the nature and divinity of Jesus Christ.
Nicaea (also spelled Nicea) was located in the ancient province of Anatolia, a broad peninsula between the Black and Mediterranean seas. Today, the walled town is known as Iznik, in northwestern Turkey, in a verdant basin at the eastern end of Lake Ascanius.
Many bishops who attended the great ecumenical Council of Nicaea had walked in suffering for their faith, but now they rode in comfort to Nicaea with numerous priests and deacons---all traveling at the emperor's expense. Among the notable bishops was Eusebius of Caesarea, the father of church history.
Constantine told the delegates assembled at that time in the Senatus Palace to resolve their differences.
Many bishops argued that God the Father created Christ the Son before the beginning of time, whereas others asserted that Christ has the same divine essence as God.
A creed recognizing both views was signed by most of the bishops in the summer of 325.
But disagreement over the meaning of Scriptures on the deity of Christ continued for more than fifty years, until another council of bishops met in Constantinople and adopted an expanded form of the earlier creed, which is known today as the Nicene Creed.
Image of icon depicting Constantine and Christian bishops at the
first Council of Nicaea with the Nicene Creed.
The revised creed embraced in 381 A.D. affirms the doctrine of the Trinity: that God is three "persons" (Father, Son, and Spirit) in one nature or essence. Each person is fully divine, yet each is distinct--a profound mystery to our finite human mind
This historic doctrine is at the heart of Christ's Great Commission, which tells believers to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit . . . " (Matt. 28:19)
Not everyone at that time, however, agreed that the creed was a fundamental turning point of faith. In fact, none of the bishops attending the synod expected this credo to endure as a core confession of belief.
Ayres goes on to observe that Nicaea was only "one battle in a much wider war" in the fourth century over what the Bible actually said and meant about the Father and Son--a controversy that raged for nearly sixty years.
After Theodosius became Roman emperor in A.D. 380, he began a campaign to unify all Christians under the banner of orthodoxy. A year later, he convened an ecumenical council of bishops in Constantinople to resolve the festering issues of faith that had divided people.
The clerics met from May to July in the Church Hagia Irene. They finally endorsed a longer, revised version of Nicaea's creed, emphasizing the Trinity more than the original and describing each member of the Godhead in relation to the other.
The creed is the traditional statement of Christian faith and is affirmed by Aglican, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic churches.
Today, some books by modern skeptics present the fourth century as a time in which "Jesus became God." But scholars of historical theology, such as Ayres, discount this notion. "The idea that Christians did not previously consider Jesus divine is . . . unfounded nonsense."
Perhaps the most well known of these authors is Bart Ehrman, Christian turned agnostic, and who attacks traditional beliefs about God, Jesus, and the Bible. He is a professor of religious studies and acknowledged for his skills in textual criticism of early biblical manuscripts.
Mainstream secularists in the media and elsewhere happily give him a platform, because he appears to articulate their own atheistic doubts with facts, hyperbole, and wit.
His latest book is How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. He offers the opinion that people came to believe in the divine nature of Jesus over time. In other words, it was a gradual human process, rather than a divine revelation from God.
For a critical response to Ehrman's book, I recommend reading How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature, by five well-known biblical scholars: Michael Bird (editor), Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles Hill, and Chris Tilling. (Zondervan).
The scholars don't think everything that Professor Erhman said in the book about Jesus' divinity is wrong. Rather, they dispute the historical accuracy of his account and explanation.
The debate over the Nicene Creed also was a messy business. The reason is simple: human beings are involved! Disputes among people are to be expected. We must keep in mind, however, that God is sovereign in all things. He's God and we're not.
Copyright 2017 Warren Lamb All rights reserved.