“Who do you say that I am?”
by R.C. Sproul
“In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The introductory segment of the prologue of the gospel of John was the most carefully examined text of the New Testament for the first three centuries of Christian history. Of all the theological issues and questions facing the early church, none was more acute than the church’s understanding of the person of Jesus Christ.
The New Testament devotes plentiful attention to the person and work of Jesus — what He said, what He did, where He came from, and where He went. But nothing captivated the minds of the intellectual leaders of the early church as much as the question, “Who was He?”
The question “Who was Jesus?” forced attention on the Johannine concept of the logos. This Greek term, simply translated “word,” was the deepest idea about Jesus introduced in the New Testament.
We note the distinction John makes when he writes: “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” At worst, John falls into a ghastly contradiction between two assertions made about the Logos with barely a breath taken between them. When we say someone or something is with another that normally indicates a distinction between them. We note an obvious difference between distinction and identity. When we assert that two things are identical we usually mean there is no difference or distinction between them. Yet, here John does two things: On the one hand he distinguishes between the Logos and God, while on the other hand he identifies the Logos with God.
Contradiction? Not necessarily, though we live in an era in which theologians, both liberal and conservative, are not only content with, but take delight in contradictions. However, if we are to retain theological sanity, we must reject the idea that these assertions are in fact contradictory. Nor do we wish to succumb to the popular but deadly notion now popular in formerly Reformed circles, that real contradictions can be resolved in the mind of God. This new irrationalism gives us an irrational God with an irrational Bible and an irrational theology; all defended by an irrational apologetics. This movement rests on the false premise that the only alternative to irrationalism is rationalism. But one need not be a rationalist in order to be rational. Flights into the absurd may delight existential philosophers, but they slander the Holy Spirit of truth.
Nor can we solve the tension in John by appealing to the absence of the definite article (as do the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and render the text: “And the Word was a God.” This feeble attempt at resolution yields only polytheism.
It was this type of question that impelled the church to examine and test Christological formulations for three centuries. The watershed confession of the fourth-century Nicene Creed did not leap suddenly on the scene like Athena out of the head of Zeus. The formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity was codified in the fourth century but was by no means born at that time. Tri-unity in the Godhead had its roots in the fertile soil of the first-century biblical text.
At issue from the beginning was the question of monotheism. It was discussed in terms of the idea of monarchianism. We are familiar with the words monarch or monarchy in normal conversation, as we use them with respect to butterflies and rulers. In Greek, the term has a prefix and a root.
Ironically, the root of monarch — “arch” — appears in John 1. The apostle writes, “In the beginning …,” and the word translated “beginning” is archè. This word also means “chief” or “ruler.” In English we speak of archangels, arch-enemies, architects (chief builders), arch-bishops, etc. In all of these words, archè means “chief” or “ruler.” Thus, when we add the prefix “mono” to the root archè, we get the idea of “one ruler.” A monarch, then, is a single ruler over any given realm (usually a king or a queen).
In the early centuries, the church had to maintain the clearly taught notion of monotheism, with the equally clear affirmation of the deity of Christ. How monotheism could be maintained while affirming the deity of Christ reached crisis proportions in the third century and on into the fourth.
The third century witnessed the strong assault against Christianity by various forms of Gnosticism, which bred a kind of Monarchianism called “Modalistic Monarchianism.” To understand this we must grasp something of the meaning of the term “mode.” A mode was a particular “level” or “manifestation” of a given reality. The popular idea among Gnostics was that God is the ultimate reality. His Being radiates, or emanates, from the core of His Being. Each radiation or emanation represents a tier or level of His being. The further that emanation, or tier, is from the core of the divine Being, the less “pure” is its divine Being.
The heretic Sabellius taught such a concept. He compared the relationship of the Logos to God as being analogous, as a sunbeam is to the sun. The sunbeam is of the same essence or being of the sun, yet can be distinguished from the sun. In modern terms we say that the sun is ninety-three million miles away from us, yet we are warmed by its rays that are near at hand. Sabellius argued that Jesus was of the “same essence” (Greek, homo-ousios) as God but was less than God. Sabellius and his Modalistic Monarchianism was condemned as heresy in Antioch in 267, and the church used the expression “like essence” (homoi-ousios) to refer to the Logos. Here the idea was that the Logos, though distinguished from the Father, shared fully “in like manner” with the Father in His divine Being.
Soon after the defeat of Sabellius and Modalistic Monarchianism, a new and more virulent form of monarchianism arose. Ironically its cradle was Antioch, the very place where Sabellius was condemned. The new heresy has been called “Dynamic Monarchianism,” and sometimes, “Adoptionism.” The Antioch school of Lucien, Paul of Samosata, and others produced their most formidable representative — Arius. It was the teaching of Arius and his followers that provoked the critical Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed in 325.
Since this will be discussed further in this issue of Tabletalk, I will restrict my comments here to indicate that Arius clearly denied the eternal deity of the Logos. He defended himself, ironically, by appealing to the orthodox phrase “like essence” (homoi-ousios). The Logos is only “like” God; He is not God Himself. Most heretics like Arius tried to mask their heresy by using orthodox language to convey it. The Arian threat was so great that the church reversed her choice of terms for defining the relationship of the Logos to the Father. The term the church had previously rejected in the third-century dispute with Sabellius, homoousios (“same essence”) was elevated to orthodoxy. Now the term, of course, was not used to revert to Sabellius’ modalism; rather, it was used to assert that the Logos is of the same divine essence as God — co-eternal, co-essential, not created.
The importance of this word choice underlines in red how seriously the church took the threat of Arianism and how resolute the church was to maintain her confession of the full deity of Christ. This was the defining moment of fourth-century Christianity.