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Yesterday (March 10, 2009) I read:
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.
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 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:
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:
"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:
On the other hand, he is very clear that he will never say there are multiple Gods:
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.
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