During the first 300 years of the church’s existence it was pretty disorganized. Keep in mind, this was a time before the Bible as we know it existed. There were many different copies of scripture floating around the early church. Most churches didn’t have a copy of any book of the Bible and it wouldn’t have mattered if they did because almost no one was literate. What they knew was passed down to them word of mouth. Those churches that did have some scriptures had maybe a book or two from the Old Testament, or they had one of the Gospels or one of Paul’s letters. This means that people’s ideas about who God is and what it meant to be Christian varied greatly and in the fourth century, 300 years after the church began, this problem reached a tipping point.
The many variances of belief and tradition could no longer be ignored. Especially because the church had grown and had become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Many believed that for it to continue to succeed it needed to be better organized and have theological unity on all the big issues like the nature of Jesus’ divinity and the nature of the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This was called the Christological and Trinitarian controversies.
These were controversies because it was assumed that if Jesus wasn’t fully God then he couldn’t have been perfect and sinless and therefore, his death couldn’t have been a true atonement for our sins. Or perhaps more to the point, it was assumed that if people didn’t properly understand the nature of Jesus’ divinity, then they couldn’t have the kind of faith necessary to save them. You can’t believe in what you don’t understand. I’m not agreeing with their theology but this is how they thought. So, understanding the nature of Jesus’ divinity properly and thereby understanding the entire Trinity properly became the big issue in the church at this time.
Thus, church leaders from all over Europe, north Africa, and the Middle East gathered for a series of councils and meetings to figure this out. The most important council of all was arguably the one in Nicaea in 325 because it gave us the Nicene Creed.
Creeds were used back then in the preliterate world as a way of summarizing and teaching what is considered orthodoxy or right belief. Even if you couldn’t read, you could be taught and memorize a creed. The word creed simply means, “I believe” and they were meant to be statements of faith that unified the church and distinguished who was orthodox and who was not.
Perhaps the most important part of the creed are the two sentences that describe Jesus’ divinity, “. . . the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” This superfluous language was meant to destroy Arianism, a popular view in the early church that claimed that Jesus, while divine and the Son of God, was ultimately created by God and did not always coexist with him. The Nicaean Creed was primarily meant to eliminate Arianism (it was called Arianism because its founder’s name was Arius, don’t confuse it with the Aryan nation or some white supremacy thing). Emperor Constantine told the 300 bishops present at the Nicaean council to sign the creed, reject Arianism, and all other competing views of God once and for all, or die. Nice right? That’s one way to boost church membership. To sum up the Nicene Creed, consider this diagram:
It reminds me of the Flux Capacitor from the “Back to the Future” car . . . you know the Dolorean time machine. Anyway, notice that it says the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father nor is the Holy Spirit either of the other two but that all are God. Does this clear everything up? No, of course it doesn’t and this is the point.
We should think of the Nicene Creed and any understanding of God as being like quantum mechanics. The physicist Richard Feynman said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics you do not understand quantum mechanics.” This isn’t to say that there are just some things about quantum mechanics that we haven’t figured out yet but one day we will and then all the mystery will go away. Rather, the nature of quantum mechanics itself is intrinsically mysterious. Mystery is built into the very fabric of the universe itself. The same principle applies to the Trinity and anything to do with God. God is not mysterious because we don’t understand the Bible correctly yet or because we haven’t received the right kind of theological training. God is intrinsically mysterious by nature. Therefore, anyone who claims to understand God or the Trinity does not understand these things.
Consider that nowhere in scripture will you even find the word, “Trinity.” This is a word we’ve made up and superimposed upon the text. There is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible. Nowhere does it say – here is how to understand the nature of the godhead as three beings in one. What we do find is a diversity of understandings of God.
For example, 2Jesus says in John 10:30, “The Father and I are one.” But then he prays to the father in John 17:1, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you…” Such a prayer, like all of Jesus’ prayers, raises the question – if they’re one in the same being then who is Jesus praying to? Is he praying to himself? And for that matter, why does he use this subordinate father-son language if they’re one in the same being? Further, Jesus says in John 20:17, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” If Jesus was God then why would he refer to the Father as *his* God? We could look at dozens of scriptures like this that will only serve to deepen this mystery. All this should teach us to be very humble and open-minded about our theology. And yet, ironically, it hasn’t.
It’s ironic that the Bible and the creeds, which the early church created to unite us, have led to our disunity and fracturing. It’s ironic that the diversity of views we get of God in scripture, not to mention in church history, has not taught us humility and open-mindedness but greater sectarianism. What has happened in the church is comparable to what we see going on today in social media. The Internet has made so much information and different ideas available that you can find articles, studies and data to back up anything you want. You would think that the plethora of different ideas and information out there would humble us all into realizing how little we really know about the world and each other, but it’s really having the opposite effect. We’re now more polarized than ever as a result of all this information. Everyone has become an expert and their opinion is the right one because they have the facts. When in reality what’s often going on is something called, confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias means that we cherry pick the information and ideas that support our biases while explaining away or ignoring the information or ideas that challenge our view. Confirmation bias means defining the “truth” solely through the lens of our particular worldview.
The lesson we should take way from the counsels and creeds of the early church is a lesson on embracing mystery and being humble with our view of God. It’s a lesson about not allowing our theological differences to destroy the very communities they were intended to create.
One of my favorite quotes ever is by Abraham Joshua Heschel a rabbi and mystic from the early twentieth century who said, “Hypocrisy, rather than heresy is the cause of spiritual decay.” Unfortunately, I think we’re taught the opposite, that it’s heresy that causes spiritual death and decay. It’s having the wrong beliefs, the wrong doctrines, the wrong understanding of the Trinity or of the divinity of Christ. When in reality, it’s hypocrisy that causes spiritual decay.
Hypocrisy is the true heresy which means being dishonest with others and ourselves about our unknowing, the mystery of God and all the ways we don’t live up to our so-called beliefs. Hypocrisy means claiming to believe in a loving God or claiming to love God and love others, and yet using our religion to oppress those who don’t believe or live the way we do. What could cause spiritual decay more than that?
If hypocrisy is the cause of spiritual decay, then the essence of spiritual vitality is honesty and humility. The essence of spiritual vitality is to find God in the act of love itself, in the act of compassion, and justice. However, the truth is we are both hypocrites and heretics. None of us perfectly live up to our beliefs and values. However, to admit this is to at least, on some level, to negate our hypocrisy and embrace our heresy. And we should embrace our status as heretics because to engage in theology is to engage in heresy.
No one can speak of all that God is and is not. Language inherently limits and inhibits what one can say about anything. Therefore, to speak of God is always to speak incompletely and incorrectly, but we must do it. God is simultaneously that of which we cannot speak and that of which we cannot stop speaking. We must engage in the holy act of heresy while avoiding as best as possible the pitfalls of hypocrisy. This is our task as Christians. As Peter Rollins would put it, we are called to be “orthodox heretics.”
An important lesson to learned from the creeds and councils of the early church is that definitions of heresy and orthodoxy are always evolving and changing (thanks to Tad DeLay for pointing this out here). When you think about it, heresy is nothing more than a rejected orthodoxy. Arianism was orthodoxy in many churches prior to the Nicaean council. This means that heresy shouldn’t be thought of as that which is unbiblical or unchristian per se, there’s grounds for Arianism in scripture, but rather heresy is that which violates a creed. What’s heresy one day is orthodoxy the next and vice versa. And the Cappadocian Bishops, who were responsible in large part for the crafting of the Nicaean creed, are a great example of this.
The Cappadocians were Universalists, meaning that they believed that all are eventually saved. Universalism became deemed a heresy a few hundred years later at another council in the early middle ages. So the so-called fathers of orthodoxy that so many trust even today as the architects of sound Christian doctrine, were also heretics by today’s standards. All this means that orthodoxy and heresy are constantly evolving ideas and what’s really important is how you live. How you believe what you believe matters much more than what you believe. “Hypocrisy rather than heresy is the cause of spiritual decay.”
Jesus made this same point in Matthew 7:21–23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
These people who are calling Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” have really good beliefs about him. They’re even out there preaching the gospel and performing miracles in his name. But Jesus says they have fooled themselves into thinking they believe in things they don’t. They’re hypocrites. Jesus’ true followers are not those who believe he’s Lord and even have enough faith to do works of wonder, but those who do the will of the Father. And what is the will of Father but love, compassion, justice, and mercy – to live as Christ? This is the only true orthodoxy.