That way we can jump right in without intro.
Yesterday (March 10, 2009) I read:
Most historians of the Council of Nicaea begin their story with the fiery exchange of words between Arius and Alexander. But the discussion of the nature of Christ has a much longer history in the church. (Debating Jesus' Divinity: Did You Know? by Steven Gertz, D.H. Williams, and John Anthony McGuckin; from http://www.christianhistory.net)
Okay, that's true. The discussion of the nature of Christ goes back further in the Church than A.D. 318 and the "fiery exchange" between Alexander and Arius.
Cathedral of St. Andrew
But that does not mean the Council of Nicaea's story begins then. Yes, the Church discussed and argued the nature of Christ before Nicaea. Shoot, even the gnostics discussed the nature of Christ in the Church. They said he never took human flesh. But what does that have to do with Nicaea?
The story of the Council of Nicaea does begin with the fiery exchange of words between Arius and Alexander. Arius was the first Church leader to promote a reasonable alternative doctrine in the Church.
Modalism, the other challenger to orthodoxy prior to Nicea, was very different than the one God with one divine Son taught by the apostles and in the early Church. Arianism, teaching a divine Son with a different essence than the Father, was very similar to orthodoxy. As a result, even though Arius' bishop and church rejected his doctrine, others accepted it!
They go on:
The great third-century theologian Origen, for example, pressed a bishop named Heraclides to define the relationship of Christ to God the Father.
After much careful questioning, Heraclides admitted to believing in two Gods but clarified that "the power is one." Origen reminded Heraclides that some Christians would take offense at the statement that there are two Gods.
We must express the doctrine carefully to show in what sense they are two, and in what sense the two are one God." (ibid.)
The clear implication in these statements is that Arius and Alexander didn't really start the debate over the Trinity that led to Nicaea. That debate had been going on for at least a century.
The early Christians did talk about more than one God. Because of the way the early Church believed in the Trinity, it was common for even completely "orthodox" early Christian writers to speak almost as though there were though there were two or three Gods.
For example, Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 150) was asked by a Jew to "show that there is another God besides the Maker of all things, and then you will show that he submitted to born of the virgin" (Dialogue with Trypho 50). He was not surprised by this request at all. He simply asked for time to prepare: "Give me permission first of all to quote certain passages from the prophecy of Isaiah, which refer to … John the Baptist" (ibid.).
Justin then goes on to say:
I shall try to persuade you that he who is said to have appeared to Abraham … and who is called God is distinct from him who made all things. (ibid. 56)
So, not only does Heraclides admit to believing in more than one God, Justin Martyr appears to as well!
There is a reason that the issue of two Gods came up in the early church, and it had nothing to do with Arius or his view of the Trinity.
Let's let Tertullian (c. A.D. 200) explain:
Since they are unwilling to allow that the Son is a distinct Person, second from the Father, lest, being thus second, he should cause two Gods to be spoken of … (Against Praxeas 19)
"They" in this passage are the modalists. The modalists are those who agreed with Praxeas (against whom Tertullian is writing) that there is no Trinity, but God is just one person. The modalists accused orthodox believers of believing in two or three Gods.
Origen's reference to his student Heraclides believing in two Gods is a reference to a confused and young but orthodox believer.
There are important differences between Heraclides and Arius.
Tertullian recognized how difficult it was to understand the Trinity—even the orthodox view of the Trinity. He wrote, "The simple … who always constitute the majority of believers are startled at the dispensation [of the three in one]" (ibid. 3, brackets added by translators of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. III).
He had to work to defend it himself. He writes:
Although I must everywhere hold one only substance in three coherent and inseparable [Persons], yet I am bound to acknowledge … that he [i.e., God the Father] is different from he [i.e., the Son] who executes it… . He would not have intended to command himself if he were only one. (ibid. 12)
On the other hand, he is very clear that he will never say there are multiple Gods:
That there are … two Gods or two Lords is a statement which at no time comes out of our mouths. (ibid. 13)
This last passage, just quoted, answers the objections of our historians above …
The point is that even an orthodox believer like Tertullian had to work to explain why he would never say there is more than one God.
Heraclides, based on the very arguments that we see Tertullian giving in Against Praxeas, didn't know he should never say there is more than one God.
So Origen corrected him.
This bears no relation to Arius whatsoever.
Thus the story of the Council of Nicaea does begin with the fiery exchange between Arius, the hard-hearted divider of the church, and Alexander.
Would you like to be kept abreast as I run across issues like these?
Subscribe to the monthly Early Church for Everyman Newsletter. There you'll become familiar with the early Christian writers, the apostles churches, and be kept abreast of updates on this site.