Dale Appleby

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Weekly Reflections



Early in the 4th century a dispute arose in Alexandria because of a teacher called Arius. He tried to state a Christian doctrine of God in a way that Platonists could understand. He started with the idea that the supreme God is one and that therefore Christ could not be eternal in the same way as God. Christ was not equal to the Father and had been created by the Father out of nothing, even though he was the highest of all God’s creatures.

The dispute spread until the Emperor Constantine called a Council of the church at which he would preside – at Nicea, near his headquarters in Nicomedia.

At the Council in Nicea in 325 Constantine (probably at the suggestion of Bishop Hosius of Cordova) proposed the clause, that the Son was “of one substance” (homoousios) with the Father.

Unfortunately the debate did not go away and a new Emperor, Theodosius, who did not agree with the Arians, called a Council in Constantinople in 381.

The eventual outcome was to describe God as three hypostases (three persons) in one ousia (essence). Tertullian, a theologian from Carthage, had already suggested a Latin version: “three persons and one substance”.

This Council finalised the creed we call the Nicene Creed, (what some churches call the Nicene-Constantinople Creed), a creed used by both the Western and Eastern churches.

Meanwhile the Western church was beginning to finalise the shape the Apostles’ Creed (the Eastern church never used it). This creed probably began as a baptism creed, hence “I believe...”

The Nicene Creed was a creed of the whole church (“We...”) and served to clarify what the church throughout the world believed, in contrast to the groups who believed heresies. That is what “catholic” means. It is the whole church throughout the world that believes the orthodox teachings of the Bible.

Later “Roman Catholic” referred to the Western church centred in Rome as distinct from the “Eastern Orthodox” church centred in Constantinople. In these two titles, “catholic” and “orthodox” have similar meanings.



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