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The Trinity: Is the Nicene Creed Heretical?

If you read and understood the last section of the early Church definition of the Trinity, you are now an extremely rare person. You actually understand the Apostles Creed! It's very likely you're the only one in your church who does!


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The study I put into these articles has resulted in a book called Decoding Nicea. Often reviewed as "interesting," it tells the story of Nicea in more detail than is possible here. Available wherever books are sold. See Amazon reviews.

But now you've got a problem. The Nicene Creed's version of the Trinity is considered heresy in some places.

What happened is simple to explain.

Heresy and Heresies

At the time of the Council of Nicea, the word "heresy" meant division more than a false opinion.

The Athanasian Creed

The controversy over the Trinity did not die down after Nicea. For the next 50 to 60 years there were Arian bishops and Arian sects within the Church.

Constantius, emperor of Rome after his father Constantine, was as involved in the affairs of the Church as his father had been. Constantius, however, leaned toward the Arian view, and Arian bishops and churches thrived under his reign.

In order to overcome the Arian opposition the Nicene bishops allied with a third viewpoint in the Church, the modalists. Modalism had been around since the 2nd century. Modalists not only believed that the Son was of the same substance as the Father, they believed the Son was the Father. They did not believe in the Trinity.

In opposition to the Arians these two points of view united and gradually became one. This new point of view took the idea from the modalists that the Father and the Son were exactly the same, but it also took from the Nicene view of the Trinity that they are separate persons.

That view is summed up in a creed from A.D. 361 (36 years after Nicea) called the Athanasian Creed.

Athanasius, who could not attend the Council of Nicea because he was not yet a bishop, headed up the battle for the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity against Eusebius of Nicomedia and Arius after the Council of Nicea. It is highly unlikely that he wrote the Athanasian Creed, but it was named after him.

The Athanasian Creed reads:

We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.

So far, so good. This is definitely the Trinity of Nicea. However, it then continues:

So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; and yet there are not three Lords but one Lord.

Perhaps you can tell the difference between that wording—for which no Scripture can be found—and this from the Nicene Creed, almost directly quoted from 1 Corinthians 8:6:

We believe in one God, the Father … and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God …

1 Corinthians 8:6 and the Nicene Creed say that the one God is the Father, as we saw in The Definition of the Trinity (part I of this series of pages). They also say that Jesus Christ is the one Lord.

The Athanasian Creed, on the other hand, says all three persons of the Godhead are the one God and all three are the one Lord. This is the "mystery" of the modern view, but the modern view did not exist until the 4th century! In its place, the early churches—and, according to them, the apostles as well—had a clear explanation of the Trinity. It is true that the explanation is difficult, but it is clear.

The problem is, the Nicene Creed has been interpreted as though it's the Athanasian Creed since the 4th century. If you understand homoousios and the Nicene Creed, then you're almost 17 centuries out of date! Ouch!

Quote Mining and the Jehovah's Witnesses

"Quote mining" is the practice of finding quotes to support your viewpoint, pulled from works that don't support it.

The most well-known example of quote mining is a common joke. The Bible says "Judas went out and hung himself" (Matt. 27:5). It also says, "Go, and do likewise" (Luke 10:37). Obviously, these quotes do not go together, and the Bible does not teach that you should hang yourself.

The Jehovah's Witnesses circulate a tract that quotemines the early Christians in much the same way, quoting Tertullian (without saying where) as saying, "There was a time when the Son was not … Before all things, God was alone."

Was Tertullian a pre-Arius Arian? This is Arian terminology for sure.

What the Watchtower does not tell you is that those two quotes are from completely separate works. It is dishonest to put two quotes from separate writings together like that.

They also do not tell you that after "God was alone," Tertullian went on to add, "Yet even then he was not alone." Only two sentences later!

Tertullian is very clear that while in eternity past the Logos was not yet the Son, he did exist inside of God. After God begat him, only then was called the Son and God called the Father. (This is explained fully on this page.)

That is quote mining. Neither Tertullian nor any other early Christian writer supported the Watchtower's view of the Trinity.

The differences between the Trinity in the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds are a lot less than the differences between the Nicene Creed and the Arian heresy. It's important to address them nonetheless … 

 … for these reasons:

  • It's simply worth understanding what the apostles taught about the Trinity; or at least what the early churches said they taught.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses love to "quote mine" the early Christians to support their view of the Trinity, which is simply revived Arianism.

When the Jehovah's Witnesses quote the Ante-Nicene fathers, they aren't making up the quotes; they're just leaving out the ones they don't like. If you don't understand the early Christian view, you'll be confused by the quotes they use.

Proverbs 8:22 and Psalm 45:1

In almost every case, anything an early Christian writer says, he backs up with Scripture. These men—who didn't have a Bible, but sets of scrolls they had to reference—were masters of the Word. Tertullian, our guide in all this, was no exception.

After explaining the idea of the Word being begotten by God in eternity past, Tertullian produces Scripture to back this up. Two of those Scriptures were commonly quoted in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

But they're almost unknown to us.

Proverbs 8:22

Tertullian applies Proverbs 8:22 to the Trinity (specifically to the Son). Remember, "the Word" is the Logos that was inside God before all things, but which God "made second to himself by agitating it within himself" (Against Praxeas. ch. 5.)

What can be better entitled to the name of Wisdom than the Reason or Word of God?

   Listen therefore to Wisdom herself, constituted in the character of a second Person. "At first the Lord created me as the beginning of his ways, with a view to his own works. Before he made the earth, before the mountains were settled, moreover, before all the hills did he beget me."

That is to say, he created and generated his own intelligence. (ibid. 6)

The early Christians almost exclusively used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). This translation is also used regularly by New Testament writers, which accounts for differences you see between Old Testament verses and their quotes in the New Testament.

Isn't Wisdom a Woman in Proverbs?

Unlike English, most other languages assign gender to nouns, even inanimate objects. For example, in German a cup is called "her," while the coffee in it is called "him."

He, she, and it don't have the same meaning in German that they do in English.

The same is true of Hebrew. The word sophia is feminine, just as the equivalent Weisheit in German is feminine.

It is for this reason that Wisdom is a woman in Proverbs. It's simply grammar.

The early Christians, Greek-speakers, knew this, and they didn't hesitate to believe that the Logos of God was also the Sophia of God.

So Proverbs 8:22 as quoted by Tertullian—and the other early Christian writers who address the Trinity—is a little different than what you read in your Bible.

At least Proverbs 8:22 seems similar to our translations. Psalm 45:1, the second verse, will be almost unrecognizable to you.

Psalm 45:1

The King James Version has Psalm 45:1 as: "My heart is inditing a good matter."

You probably don't even know what that could possibly mean. I know I didn't. The Holman Christian Standard Bible has: "My heart is moved by a noble theme."

That's not close to the LXX rendering. Tertullian gives it as "My heart has emitted my most excellent Word."

The early church loved that verse. To them it was a clear reference to the begetting of the Son in eternity past. Here's Tertullian's explanation of it:

By proceeding from [God] he became his first-begotten Son, because he was begotten before all things. He also became his only-begotten because he alone was begotten of God, in a way unique to himself, from the womb of his own heart. The Father himself testifies: "My heart … has emitted my most excellent Word." (Against Marcion II:4)

This sort of teaching about the Trinity is common throughout the writings of the Pre-Nicene Church. It is what is affirmed by the Nicene Creed when it says, "begotten, not made."

I couldn't resist adding this an ironic side note on who's heretical and who's not. If you're interested, it will open in a new window. (I suppose even if you're not interested it will still open in a new window when you click on it)

One God, the Father, and One Lord, Jesus Christ

We've covered this in The Definition of the Trinity. We now need to address the conflict between this terminology and that of our modern view.

The Nicene Creed reads, "We believe in one God, the Father … and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father."

To the early Church, the one God was the Father. Since the time of the Athanasian Creed, not long after Nicea, the one God is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This is more about terminology than it is about the actual substance of our faith in the Trinity of God. The early Church believed that there was one divine essence, and the Son and the Holy Spirit were both of that one divine essence. Thus the one God, and his divine essence, includes the Son and Holy Spirit.

However, their terminology (and Biblical terminology) is that the one God is the Father. This is the reason that Paul writes, "For us there is but one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 8:6). It is also the reason that when Jesus prayed, he prayed, "This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3).

The reason we give for not using this terminology in modern Christianity is that the Son is regularly called God in the Scriptures (e.g., John 1:1; Tit. 2:13; there are many others). If the Son is called God, and that repeatedly, how can the Father be called the one God, both in Scripture and in the Nicene Creed?

Fortunately, Tertullian did not leave us without an explanation on this matter. He addressed it directly:

I shall follow the apostle [Paul], so that if the Father and the Son are alike to be invoked, I shall call the Father "God" and invoke Jesus Christ as "Lord."

   But when Christ alone [is invoked], I shall be able to call him "God." As the same apostle says, "Of whom is Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever" [Rom. 9:5].

   For I should give the name of "sun" even to a sunbeam, considered by itself. But if I were mentioning the sun from which the ray emanates, I would certainly withdraw the name of sun from the mere beam. For although I do not make two suns, still I shall reckon both the sun and its ray to be as much two things—and two forms of one undivided substance—as God and his Word, as the Father and the Son. (ibid. 13).

When the Son is mentioned alone, Tertullian says, we can call him God because he is of the substance of the Father. When mentioned together, the Father is to be called God, and the Son is to be referred to as Lord.

This not only answers the question of why the Father is called the one God in Scripture, it also shows that the idea of homoousios was not new at the Council of Nicea. It was in common use even in the 2nd century (or, in Tertullian's case, the early 3rd century).

Are God and the Word Equal?

Jesus said in John 14:28, "The Father is greater than I."

Here we find another difference between the Nicene Trinity and the modern view. We modern Christians understand Jesus to be referring to himself only during his time on earth. He was living in a body as a man and submitted to the Father. It is for this reason only that the Father was greater than he.

Before and after his time on earth, however, we believe he was in all ways equal to the Father.

The Athanasian Creed agrees, asserting, "In this Trinity none is before or after another, none is greater or less than another… . the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is … equal to the Father as touching his divinity, and inferior to the Father as touching his manhood."

The Council of Nicea, however, would not agree.

Up to and including the Council of Nicea, the church believed that God was inherently greater than his Word. The Father is greater than the Son, and that's an eternal thing. God is always going to be greater than his Word, which is just part of God.

Tertullian writes:

The Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as he himself acknowledges: "My Father is greater than I" [John 14:28] ... Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, inasmuch as he who begets is one, and he who is begotten is another." (ibid. 9)

This is a delicate issue to broach, so let's not leave it to Tertullian alone.

  • A.D. 150: We reasonably worship him, having learned that he is the Son of the true God himself, and holding him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 13)
  • A.D. 185: For if anyone should ask the reason why the Father, who has fellowship with the Son in all things, has been declared by the Lord alone to know the hour and the day, he will find at present no more suitable, becoming, or safe reason than this: … For "the Father," says he, "is greater than I." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies II:28:8)
  • A.D. 225: Grant that there may be some individuals among the multitude of believers who are not in entire agreement with us and who incautiously assert that the Savior is the Most High God. However, we do not hold with them but rather believe him when he says, "The Father who sent me is greater than I." We would not make him whom we call Father inferior—as Celsus accuses us of doing—to the Son of God. (Origen, Against Celsus VIII:14)
  • A.D. 250: Who does not acknowledge that the person of the Son is second after the Father … when he finds it written: "Because he who sends me is greater than I"? (A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity 26)
  • A.D. 300: For it was fitting that he who was greater than all things after the Father should have the Father, who alone is greater than himself, as his witness. (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins: Discourse VII: Procilla ch. 1)
  • A.D. 320: The apostolic church believes in one Father unbegotten … who is unchangeable and immutable, who is always the same … and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God… . That he is equally with the Father unchangeable and immutable, lacking in nothing, and the perfect Son, and like to the Father, we have learned. In this alone is he inferior to the Father, that he is not unbegotten … as the Lord himself has taught us when he says, "My Father is greater than I." (Alexander of Alexandria, Letter to Alexander, Bishop of the City of Constantinople, par. 12)

It is clear from these quotes, and from the consistency we see in other the early Christian writings about the Trinity, that the idea that the Father is greater than the Son is an eternal idea, not temporary while he was on earth.

The idea is unfamiliar to us, but it is not that hard to grasp. The Father is the one God, and the Son is the Word of that one God, begotten by him in eternity past. The Word of God, being in some sense "part" of God, says that the Father is greater than he is.

Otherwise he is exactly like God, in that he is of the substance and essence of God, being his Logos.

In fact, even while quoting Jesus as saying that the Father is greater, Tertullian refers to the Son as equal to the Father. Immediately after quoting Prov. 8:22, he writes:

Thus does he make him equal to him; for by proceeding from himself he became his first-begotten Son, because begotten before all things. (ibid. 7)

I don't know how palatable any of that is to you, but it is history.

For more quotes and a more thorough discussion of this issue, see my book, Decoding Nicea (link to the right). I have put the chapters on the Trinity online. You can read those for free.

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