While on earth, our Lord confirmed that He and the Father are one (John 10:30). On the other hand, He asked, “Why do you call me good, no one but my Father is good?” (Mark 10:18). Putting those two statements together is not very easy. However, the Bible does not leave only that question to resolve. Jesus could tell the “unknown” inquisitive sinner hiding in a tree that He would have lunch with him while also claiming that no one knows the time or the hour but the Father (Mark 13:32).
There is an inherent tension in these and other biblical passages. To express the tension sharply, the big issue relative to Jesus’ earthly ministry is this: The divine One who turned water into wine, who raised His friend Lazarus from the grave, who walked on water and commanded His friend Peter to do the same, could also die a bloody and shameful death upon the cross.
Truly Jesus is the God-man, but the relationship between the two is not that easy to figure out. The resurrection did not make the situation any simpler. After conquering death, Mary could worship Him and hold onto His feet. His new body still had nail marks that Thomas could see and touch. Jesus could cook a fish breakfast for His depressed fishing disciples. But He could also walk through locked doors, and after talking to some disciples, He could suddenly vanish. At the end of His time on earth, after being seen (He was no apparition) by many, He ascended bodily to heaven and is now seated at the Father’s right hand.
These and other Scripture passages taught the ancient church, and they teach us today, to cry out: “Jesus is God!” Our voices unify with Christians of two thousand years ago and rejoice that we have a great High Priest who “knows” our weaknesses because He is truly man. We confess with them that Jesus of Nazareth, a man born of Mary, is also “Lord.”
While we sing the same song of praise, our world is different from that of Christ’s followers during the first four centuries. We don’t have to worship in catacombs, and, at least here in America, government officials don’t want us dead for our profession of faith. Fortunately, the fourth-century world of Christian persecution came to a screaming stop when the Emperor Constantine rescinded past anti-Christian decrees and elevated Christianity to the official faith of the empire. Suddenly, the church had time and leisure to reflect upon these difficult, and seemingly contradictory, biblical truths.
Facing our task from another direction, we ask: How has the church understood Paul’s teaching, who tells us that Jesus took “the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7), and the teaching of the beloved disciple who reminds us that we “beheld His glory”? (John 1:14). Granting that Jesus Christ is the God-man, the church had to determine how it was possible for the divine and the human to come together. Those questions were resolved in the fourth century, from the time of the council of Nicaea (325) to the council of Constantinople (381).
The Call For a Meeting at Nicaea
As is so often the case in the church, a controversy arose over these difficult issues. Particular figures became associated with different theological positions. On the one hand there was the theologian named Arius. For him, certain themes of Scripture were very important. For example, in the Jewish synagogues a particular Hebrew phrase, called the “Shema,” was memorized and repeated: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4). This is good and true teaching! Nevertheless, if the Lord is “One,” how does Jesus fit into the equation? The answer for Arius was simple. At the incarnation, Jesus of Nazareth “became” the God-man. Once again, on first reading, this phrase too is correct. Jesus did become the God-man two-thousand years ago when He was born of the virgin.
But lurking behind this correct phrase was an overflowing garbage can of bad ideas. Any orthodox Christian today affirms that Jesus “became” the God-man in the little town of Bethlehem, but we also affirm that the second person of the Trinity existed in full deity before that time. This pre-existence of Christ was the rub for Arius. He did not believe it, and he said, “there was a time when He was not [the eternal Son of God].”
At this point in the debate, orthodoxy’s hero, Athanasius, rightfully raised a shout of alarm. To state the issue clearly and concisely, Arius’ followers had denied the full eternal deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father. This is heresy.
However, Arius’ position was easy to understand. It supposedly helped to “clarify” the biblical problems. It was an attractive position, but it was wrong! The debate between Athanasius and Arius’ followers rolled like thunder around the empire. To resolve the controversy, the Emperor Constantine called for a giant church meeting.
Amid much debate, the theologians who met in 325 at the council of Nicaea had established the eternal preexistent Godhead of Christ. Their formulations excluded Arianism from the church. Jesus was declared to be “of one substance” with the Father. The Greek word for “of one, or same, substance” is homoousios. It consists of two words smashed together. Most know that the word “homo” means “same” — “ousia” means “substance.”
With this first great council, grounds for peace in the church had been established. A good theological stance had been taken, and the controversy about Christ’s nature should have come to an end. But we are talking about theologians here! While Arianism was officially condemned, and while Athanasius had won theologically and politically, not everyone was convinced of the orthodox position.
The struggle after 325 surrounds not men, but words. The controversy was between those who held to homoousios and those who proclaimed a new word: homoiousios. If you are reading this for the first time, the different spelling may not even have been noticed. An “i” is inserted in the second word.
Is a little “i” so important? If I evaluate a student’s outstanding paper and intend to give an “A” grade, but forget one little line, there is a big difference in meaning. That “A” would become an “F” on the class records. Theology students can become very concerned over one little line! They can also become concerned about a little “i.” While homoousios means of the “same substance,” homoiousios means that Jesus is of a “like substance.”
However, when we are talking about the very “substance” or “essence” of something, it is either completely of that substance, or it is not. For example, one “apple” can be “like” another “apple.” There could be differences of color or taste, but both would be “apples.” There is room for some differences in details: more sweet or less sweet, red or green in color. But an “apple” cannot taste like a ham sandwich and look like an elephant and still be an “apple”! It has to have all of the qualities of “apple-ness.” It has to be either “apple” in its substance — or it is something else.
After considerable debate, the theologians agreed. When it comes to the substance of divinity or humanity, there is no “almost” divine or “partly” human. God has to be fully God, and a man has to be a man. Homoiousios (with the “i” — “like,” or “similar” substance) was rejected by all, and most gave up their position that Jesus could be “like” God in substance, thus confirming orthodoxy.
But there were still some unconvinced troublemakers. They would not bow their knees to the notion of a full incarnation of the eternally divine Son of God. They pushed the envelope further and said that Jesus was “unlike” the Father in His substance.
This was an extreme position — and everyone now saw that it had to be rejected. Even the homoiousios pushers stood side by side with their former opponents (homoousios) to fight against the new enemy, “unlike.” To finish the controversy, yet another council was called, this time to convene at the city of Constantinople in 381. There a full creed was affirmed, the one that we term the “Nicene Creed.” It is properly called the “Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.”
The Chalcedonian Creed (451) wisely does not attempt to explain comprehensively the mystery of how Christ can be fully God and man. It does establish that we can reflect theologically between two boundaries, that His divine nature must be full, and that His human nature must be complete. It also warns against a false relationship between the two natures.
There are two natures in Christ’s one unified person. Yet, He had one undivided self-consciousness. The Chalcedonian Creed affirmed that even after the incarnation, and through all eternity, the distinction between the two natures continues. While they are distinct, without confusion or conversion, yet they are also without separation or division. In terms of Christ’s will, the divine will remains divine, and the human will remains human. In Christ, the God-man, the two have one common life and interpenetrate each other. This is also similar to the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.
One final note as it relates to the glorious doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ, we would be impoverished were it not for the arduous labors of the theologians of the fourth century.