Our verse of the week Hebrews 1 verse 3: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being“
Πιστεύομεν εἰς ἕνα Θεὸν Πατέρα παντοκράτορα (“Pistevo is ena Theon, Patera Pantokrator.“) With apologies to anyone who actually speaks Greek – given my pronunciation obviously I don’t – those are the opening words of one of the most frequently recited documents in history – the Nicene Creed. Each week at our services here, once the sermon is over, we stand to recite the English translation. In June I promised you a sermon about the creed if I was allocated the right readings, and the good (or bad) news is that Hebrews 1 verse 3 gave me the in I was looking for.
Go back in history to the year 325AD. By this time perhaps a little under 10% of the population of the Roman Empire are Christian. But they were drawn disproportionately from people who didn’t matter in the Roman world – the poor, slaves and women. Being a Christian had not been easy over the last 300 years. If they kept their heads down Christians were often left alone, but their religion was not officially tolerated, and there were occasional bouts of persecution. Indeed, the worst persecution in the church’s history occurred only 25 years earlier under Emperor Diocletian when Christians were tortured and killed, and churches burned.
But by 325 it’s all change – and fundamentally down to one man, Emperor Constantine. Proclaimed Emperor at York in 305, Constantine was but one of a number of ambitious generals with imperial ambitions. Over 20 years however he has defeated all his rivals and achieved supreme power. But remarkably Constantine has become a Christian. The most famous tale is that on the eve of his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 – surely in the top 10 of history’s most important events most people have never heard of – he apparently saw a vision of a cross in the sky, and that night dreamed Jesus told him “hoc in signo vincit” – by this sign you will conquer. Whether that story is true or not we don’t of course know, and despite what later writers suggested Constantine was definitely no saint. But Constantine for some reason decided the Christian God had granted him victory, and later marched his troops under Christian banners. Christianity was formally tolerated in 313, and by 325 far from persecuting Christians the Emperor is building churches and collating holy relics. So a total transformation for Christians in barely 20 years. With the zeal of a convert, Constantine is keen to unite one Empire under one Emperor and one God.
But Constantine has a nasty shock. Keen for unity, he discovers Christians are engaging in their most familiar and irritating habit – arguing furiously with one another about what the faith actually means. This must stop – so Constantine commands all the church leaders to assemble in Nicaea – modern-day Iznik in Turkey – to settle the issue at a Council of the church presided over by his Majesty. And the Nicene Creed is the statement of belief that resulted from that Council.
I wonder if you have ever got sufficiently bored in one of my sermons to flick on in the service book to study the creed with hopeful anticipation? It’s divided into 4 unequal parts. There are parts about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and a miscellaneous other section. The creed is also generally very pithy and punchy. Look at its opening words “I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” 1 pithy sentence with fewer than 25 words sum-up God. Pretty good going. Similarly, the miscellaneous other section at the end “We believe in the holy catholic and apostolic church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Again, clear and pithy.
But there’s a glaring exception. The section about Jesus is not only the longest, but the most opaque. Its opening words are repetitive and complex. It says “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father”. So not only is Jesus God from God, but apparently also True God from True God? As opposed to what? False God from false God? And we say he is “eternally begotten of the Father”, but obviously that’s not good enough because a few words later we repeat he was “begotten” but this time add “not made”. This bears the hallmarks of drafting by committee and someone trying to ram a point home about something. And that’s because this was this bit everyone was fighting about, and the Council of Nicaea was called to resolve.
The basic question at issue was “who is Jesus”? Early Christians quickly concluded Jesus was both human and divine. His earthly self was born around the year 0 as a baby in Bethlehem – see the very familiar Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. But the Bible is also clear that Jesus as a divine being did not first begin with his birth in Bethlehem. On the contrary, perhaps the most famous Christmas reading is not about the stable in Bethlehem, but the opening of John’s gospel which you will probably remember: “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God”. This is a reference to Jesus since John goes on to say “the word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son”. So John is saying that Jesus – in his divine form – always existed and was there in the beginning. Jesus himself said the same thing most notably in chapter 8 in John’s gospel when he said “Before Abraham was, I am”
You might have thought this complex enough to leave well alone. But a deacon from Alexandria called Arius just couldn’t. For him there was a clear hierarchy. God was fully-divine, and the source of all authority, and he alone has always existed. But Jesus, whilst also divine, was not the same. Jesus, Arius believed, as God’s son had been created by his father – as sons are of course in the natural world. Arius hammered home the point that Jesus is described in the Bible as God’s “begotten son”. Arius then argued
“he that was begotten, must have a beginning, and so it follows there was a time when the Son was not” – ie Jesus was created by God, and so there must have been a time when he did not exist. Arius was not arguing Jesus did not exist until the stable in Bethlehem – but rather argued that he was created first before the foundation of the world. So what, you might think? Well the point was that if Jesus was created – unlike God – then perhaps he isn’t fully divine – or perhaps isn’t divine at all.
So what was the outcome at Nicaea? Well the outcome was Arius was condemned, his teaching declared heresy, and his books burned. The opening words about Jesus in the creed are designed to make clear that the church believes Jesus was not created, was always present, and is equally divine with God. That’s why there is the repetitious emphasis on “God from God, Light from light, True God from True God”. It’s ramming the point home that Jesus and God are both equally divine. Whilst he was “begotten” he wasn’t “made” – ie he came from God but was not created. Then it says Jesus is of “one being” or “one substance” with God. That reflects our reading from Hebrews – which was my link into the whole subject today in case anyone has forgotten how we got to 325 – which says that Jesus is “the exact imprint of God’s very being”. God and Jesus are the same divine substance.
So that was what it was all about. Now does it matter? Well frankly I’m more with Constantine who couldn’t see why Christians couldn’t stop arguing about a rather obscure bit of Greek philosophy. Although as you can see I find this interesting, I am happy to accept that Jesus is divine and the son of God without needing to worry myself about how precisely that works. As I suspect most of you are too. In which case you might wonder why I bothered doing a sermon on this at all! Was I just being eccentric? Well with me that’s always a possibility. But more seriously each week we recite the creed, and its cadences, rhythms and structure can seem almost overly familiar to us (and many of us I suspect can recite it by heart). We can sometimes just say it without asking ourselves what it actually means. I have always found the opening sections about what we believe about Jesus to be the bits least easy to understand, and some of you may have thought the same. So I hope that this sermon has helped in a small way to illuminate that part of the creed. There was a State of American Theology Study in 2018 which asked American evangelicals a lot of questions. Demonstrating perhaps it’s all very complex, 70% agreed with the statement that there is one true God in 3 persons – all very orthodox. But then 57% agreed with the statement “Jesus is the first and greatest of God’s creations” – you might have been tempted to say you agreed with that before this sermon but no doubt now you see that is an Arian heresy and not what you stand and say you believe every week!
So, in summary, the opening words of the bit in the Nicene creed about Jesus emphasise that he is fully divine and equally divine with God. Precisely how that works we don’t really need to worry about unless you are an enthusiast for Greek philosophy. And finally, if you want another good reason to reject Arius’ thinking, the most famous account of his death says he was caught short in the forum in Constantinople, rushed into the public toilets, and all his bowls and guts came flooding out and he died painfully in a foul mess, and that was his punishment for his heresy. An account written by one of his theological opponents of course, so it may not be 100% true, but can you afford to take the chance…?
Edward Brown 03/10/2021