faith of our fathers (4)

Summary of first four lectures:

1. Introduction: What is the ‘Church Fathers’?

2. What were the impetus that saw the growth of the church? The Apostolic Fathers and martyrdom (late 1st c to mid 2nd c)

3. How did the early church defend itself from erroneous teachings? The Apologists and the Ante-Nicene Fathers (mid 2nd c to late 3rd c)

4. How did the early church develop its creeds? Council of Nicaea and Athanasius (Nicene Fathers I) (early to mid 4th c)

Yesterday we learnt about the council of Nicaea and one particular Nicene Father, i.e., Athanasius of Alexandria. Next week we are going to learn about three other Nicene Fathers, usually called the Cappadocian Fathers, since the three of them ministered around Cappadocia (central Turkey today): Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzen. First, we learnt about what triggered the council of Nicaea, that is, the Arian controversy. Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria and he had this idea that since the Son is begotten of the Father, it means that the Son is less than the Father, the Son was created, and ‘there was when he was not.’ The teaching soon became popular in Alexandria, and Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, banished Arius from Alexandria. He went to Caesarea, and similar things happened. He was popular also over there. Then it was realized that this was not a simple problem. Thus Constantine decided to convene a council to address the issue (Arian controversy doesn’t mean that all problems start with the presbyters!). At the beginning it was planned to hold the council in Ancyra (present day Ankara), but at the end the council was held in Nicaea (near Constantinople/Istanbul).

Nevertheless, Arian controversy was not the only issue to be discussed at the council. There were other issues as well: date of Easter, lapsed Christians, and clerical marriages. A few words about these issues. The issue of lapsed Christians had plagued the church from the second century. The underlying question is, ‘What are we going to do with those Christians who recanted their faith during the Roman persecution? Should we simply accept them back into the church?’ On the date of Easter, the Eastern church insisted to celebrate Easter on Nisan 14 (Nisan, a month in Hebrew calendar, is around March/April), while the Western church didnt really care about the exact date when Jesus was raised, they insisted to celebrate Easter on Sunday. So the difference is whether you want to celebrate it on the exact date or on the exact day. On clerical marriages, the Eastern church didn’t want to apply celibacy for all clergies, unlike the Western church.

But then the major issue is still the Arian controversy. The whole council took four months from May to August 325. There were around 300 bishops attending the council, and the (large) majority of them were the Eastern bishops (Greek, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Egypt). Only a few came from the West (Italy, Spain). And, since only the bishops can attend the council, Arius was represented by Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia. In the end, the council adopted a baptismal creed (from Caesarea? Jerusalem?) as a creed which we know now as the Nicene creed and condemned Arian teachings as heresy (there were only a few dissenting votes). The anathematizing portion came at the end of the creed:

“But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and
‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or
‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or
‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’
—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

And it explains why there seems to be a lot of ‘redundancy’ in the Nicene creed: God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. And also, ‘begotten, not made.’ And finally it was sealed by the word ‘being of one substance’, homoousion, with the Father. Basically it wanted to say that Jesus Christ is really really God and debunk this whole idea of Arius.

Nevertheless, Arian teachings didn’t really die. In fact, it had a resurgence a few years after the council. Although in the end, it was condemned again in the council of Constantinople in 381, and Arianism needed to go. And they went northwards and converted a lot of barbarians in western Europe (Germany, etc.). Present day Arians would be the Jehovah Witnesses.

A major figure in this controversy was Athanasius. At the council of Nicaea, he was a secretary of Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. At 328, Athanasius replaced Alexander as the bishop of Alexandria, and he defended the Nicene orthodoxy for whole his life. He was exiled five times during his bishopric in Alexandria, but he persisted. And that’s why he is called ‘the Father of Orthodoxy.’


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