Today we celebrate the first ecumenical council. This council was summoned on May 20th in the year 325 ad in the city of Nicaea by the emperor Constantine to deal with the first great controversy that had overtaken the Christian world. The council is a very important part of Christian history (though most Christians know very little about it).
One of the great lessons of the council of Nicaea is that the historical Christian Church sought to be completely united. One group of those who claimed to be Christians read the Bible in a dramatically different way than another group. This brings up an important question for us today: When two groups or even two different people read portions of the Bible in two very different ways…how do we know which group is reading the Bible correctly?
The council of Nicaea, attended by 318 bishops met to discuss and resolve questions arising from a talented and popular Alexandrian priest named Arius. Arius preached and taught that Jesus Christ was a creation of God the Father. He believed this to be true from his study of the Bible (a good indication that simply reading the Bible is not sufficient to instruct one in the proper faith). He struggled with passages such as Luke 2:52 where Jesus is shown growing in wisdom and stature. And others such as Mark 6 where Our Lord asks “how many loaves do you have?” Certainly according to Arius, if Jesus was God he would know the number of loaves, and would not need to grow in wisdom either.
Now the passages that really troubled Arius were the passages regarding our Lord’s suffering such as Our Lord being hungry or tired, and ultimately Our Lord being crucified. For Arius the question was “Do you expect me to believe that God can suffer?” The idea that God could suffer was a scandal back then and is still considered a scandal by so many today.
So what’s the big deal with the teachings of Arius? The big deal is this: there is one thing that truly separates God from all else. Only God is uncreated. Only God has no beginning. All others find their origin in Him but He does not have an origin. When anyone says that Jesus Christ is a creation what they would in fact be saying is that He is not the Son of God. And the next problem is this; if the Son of God has not suffered as a human, then we have not been saved.
The truths of the Christian faith have repercussions on our whole reality. If we believe Arius’s teaching we now have a big problem. What’s the problem? Jesus Christ is no longer capable of being our savior. You see if it was not God who went to the cross but merely a man what makes this Jewish man’s shed blood any more important than the next? Nothing. People died every day. Many were even crucified. Even if the man on the cross is really an archangel like Michael (this is what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe), what would that matter?
If we believe Arius we have another rather big problem. If we follow his teaching we are calling Jesus Christ a liar since Jesus refers to himself, not only as the Son of God but as God Himself as He states in John 8:58 “before Abraham was I AM” this I AM is none other than the name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush. There are of course many other examples but I am keeping it simple for time’s sake.
One of the great defenders of Orthodox Christianity during the council was a deacon who later became the archbishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasius. He was well known during his own lifetime even when Orthodox Christians were a minority to the Arian believers. Someone once remarked to him “Athanasius the world is against you.” to which he replied “And I am against the world.” Aside from showing the clear scriptural proof of the divinity of Our Lord, St. Athanasius went a step further by explaining why God took flesh. Athanasius tells us that the Lord Jesus became man that we might be given His divine attributes. On the Incarnation 54
What a powerful statement and understanding of our Christian faith! Yes the reason and the importance of Our Lord Jesus Christ becoming a man in the flesh was that He could heal our flesh through this act. As the Fathers have said “He took what was not natural to Him (death) so that we might take what was not natural to us (immortality). In the incarnation of Christ there is a complete transference of our worst qualities to Him, and His best qualities to us. Adam was born to live but passed on death to all of us. Christ was born to die but passed on life to all of us!
Led by the Holy Spirit, St. Athanasius along with the fathers of the first Council not only knew how to defend the Christian faith based on a sound understanding of the Bible, but they understood the ramifications for such belief. We commemorate the council because it gave us the sound interpretation of the faith that was passed down to them by the apostles.
It is this faith that demonstrates God’s love for mankind. It is this faith that clearly demonstrates why Jesus Christ chose to take flesh, suffer and die on our behalf. It is this faith that we continue to share with any and everyone who will listen.
Glory be to God forever AMEN.
Questions or Comments are welcome below!