Three who stoutly defended the Nicene Creed

Dec 2011    

The Cappadocians

THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA convened by Emperor Constantine in 325 culminated with the composition of the Nicene Creed that clearly affirmed the full deity of the Son. However, as we saw in the previous article (Methodist Message, November 2011), the Nicene Creed did not resolve the theological conflict between the orthodox Fathers and the Arians. Nor did the Council unite the Church.

In the intervening years between the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople in 381, some of the strongest supporters of Nicene orthodoxy were expelled from their episcopal domains and exiled in foreign lands even as the Arians rose in power and flourished. Synod after synod was convened in the hope of achieving a proper consensus. They produced no less than 12 different and sometimes contradictory creeds until the controversy was finally resolved at the second ecumenical Council held at Constantinople.

It was the labours of three exceptional theologians from Cappadocia – a large mountainous region east of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) – that contributed to the end of this long and bitter conflict. The Cappadocian Fathers – Basil of Caesarea (330-379), Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389) and Gregory of Nyssa (d. 385) – lived and wrote during this tumultuous period in the aftermath of the Council of Nicaea. Working in the tradition of Origen, the Cappadocians built on the contributions of Athanasius to further clarify the Church’s doctrine of the Trinity enshrined in the Nicene Creed.

The Cappadocians interpreted the central term of the Creed, homoousios (“of the same substance”), in such a way that both the deity of the Son and his distinction from the Father were emphasised. us, on the one hand they rejected the doctrine of Arius, which insisted that the Son was not co-eternal with the Father, on the other hand, they also opposed Marcellus of Ancyra who argued that the Son could be said to be co-eternal with the Father because there was no real distinction between the two.

The trio from Cappadocia clarified the relationship between members of the Godhead by sharpening the distinction between ousia (“essence” or “substance”) and hypostasis (“person”). Following the Fathers of Nicaea they taught that God is one ousia and three hypostases.

Using philosophical categories that could be traced back to Aristotle, Basil maintained that the distinction between essence and person was analogous to the distinction between the general and the particular. In the doctrine of the Trinity, Basil stressed, the Church confessed both the community of essence and the distinction of persons.

“Wherefore in the case of the Godhead,” Basil writes, “we confess one essence (or substance), so as not to give a variant definition of existence, but we confess a particular hypostasis in order that our conception of Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be without confusion and clear.” A failure to acknowledge the distinct persons within the Godhead, argued Basil, would lead to error: “if we have no distinct perception of the separate characteristics of fatherhood, sonship and sanctification, we cannot possibly have a sound account of our faith”.

BASIL WAS ALSO ONE of the earliest theologians to devote an entire treatise on the Holy Spirit. Against the pneumatomachians or Macedonians (“the Spirit-fighters”), who taught that the Holy Spirit is a creature, Basil defended the full deity of the third person of the Trinity. Appealing to Jesus’ commandment of baptism in Matthew’s Gospel, Basil writes: “If … the Spirit is there conjoined with the Father and the Son, and no one is so shameless as to say anything else, then let them not lay blame on us for following the words of Scripture.” Against the “Spirit-fighters” Basil declares: “But we will not slacken our defence of the truth. We will not cowardly abandon the cause. e Lord has delivered to us as a necessary and saving doctrine that the Holy Spirit is to be ranked with the Father.”

Detractors have often accused the Cappadocians of advocating tritheism, i.e., belief in three gods. In order to refute this allegation, the Cappadocians argued that the unity of action in the triune God suggested that there was only one source of action.

In his densely argued treatise, To Ablabius: One Not ree Gods, Gregory of Nyssa writes: “When we inquire whence the good gift came to us, we find, through the guidance of the Scriptures, that it was through the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. us the Holy Trinity brings to effect every operation in a similar way.” In other words, because there is only one action, there is only one agent.

One of the most important contributions to the doctrine of God came from the pen of Gregory of Nazianzus. He taught that the being of God must not only be understood in terms of traditional divine attributes like eternity, omnipotence and goodness. It must also be conceived of in terms of relationship (schesis). us, the three persons in the Godhead must not be seen as individual selves or independent centres of will and consciousness (like a three-member committee). Rather, they must be understood as interdependent relationships within a communion of Being. “Father,” writes Gregory, “is not the name either of an essence or of an action, but is the name of a relation, in which the Father stands in relation to the Son and the Son to the Father.”

Finally, Gregory of Nazianzus reminded us that not all monotheisms are alike. Christian monotheism is always trinitarian. is means that for the Christian, God cannot be conceived of in any other way except that he is triune. In a beautiful passage in Gregory’s Oration on Holy Baptism, we read: “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the ree; no sooner do I distinguish em than I am carried back to the One … When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.”

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.


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