Christians Might Be Surprised to Find That Not God, But Men, Decided What They Would Believe

The First Council of Nicea, 325 CE
The First Council of Nicea, 325 CE
Anyone paying attention to the rhetoric coming out of the Religious Right will be aware that the theocrats position themselves as the defenders of truth and tradition. Change, they say, is bad, and not only bad, but evil and that the people motivating this change, from Barack Obama on down, are moved by demons and even by Satan himself.

It is this determination to cling to the old that drives the debate over women priests and bishops. In the Anglican Church everything comes down to the meaning of one word – trust. Anglican Mainstream reports that, “Hopes of an end to the Church of England’s 40-year battle over women bishops could face a last-minute challenge this week amid wrangling over ordination services and an argument about the definition of a single word.”

If this all seems trivial and rather silly, consider the history of Christian dogma. Christianity did not spring full grown from the mouth of Jesus. It was voted upon. By men. It is not God who told future Christians what they would be required to believe, but angry, sometimes violent, men. Many are familiar with the Council of Nicaea in 325 – after all, it gave us the Nicene Creed, which would determine Christian belief for many centuries. Most are unaware of all the other, less well-known councils that determined the minutiae of Christian belief.

Historian Ramsay MacMullen offered what is but a sampling of these issues in his book Voting About God (2006), positions that, as he put it, were “seriously argued by someone of influence at some point in time” during the first Christian centuries at various church councils. If you peruse this list, you will see that after arguing about whether “like” means “identical,” arguing over the meaning of the word “trust” is hardly a stretch:

Did Christ exist before his incarnation?
Is Christ begotten the equal of God unbegotten?
Did Christ collaborate with the Father in the Creation?
Is God the Father before the Son’s existence?
Was the coming into being of the Son the same process as the Creation?
Is Christ’s divinity or humanity merely notional, an external seeming?
Was Christ man in flesh alone?
Is Christ’s human nature only in the flesh?
Is Christ’s likeness to the Father the same after incarnation?
Is Christ anointed as man or as God?
Is Christ begotten as other men, or made?
Is Christ begotten of the Father or of the Pneuma-Spirit?
If Christ is begotten of the Father, then by the Father’s will?
Is God one or two unbegotten beings?
Is Christ a copy of the Father or an image?
Is Christ a perfect copy of the Father?
Is Christ the Logos?
Was Christ created or born?
Is Christ, as God, God of his substance, or only made of his substance?
Is God’s substance increased or divided in begetting?
Is Christ of one will with the Father, or separate?
Is Christ of one substance with the Father?
Was Christ begotten once or twice?
Was Christ a man indwelt by God?
Is Christ one nature from two? Or one nature in tow, united?
Is Christ’s human nature separate from the nature of the Logos?
Is the Pneuma-Spirit the equal of Father and Son?
Is the Pneuma-Spirit of the same nature?
Did the Pneuma-Spirit take the place of a soul in Christ?
Is Christ’s soul/mind (psyche/nous) human and impure?
Is Christ one in properties, names, and operations, when incarnated?
Did/can Christ’s mind suffer? Or only his body?
Did the Father suffer on the cross?
Is there any separation in Christ between his self and his flesh?
In Christ are two natures resident in touch with each other, or fused?
Does “like” mean “identical”?
Is Christ who suffered the same Christ who performed miracles?
Is Mary the mother of God, or of Christ, or of Jesus?
Is Mary’s nature divine in any aspect?
Did Christ’s existence begin in the womb or at birth?
Was Mary of the same substance as human beings?
Must all theological understanding be supported by terms in Scripture?[1]

These were the questions asked over a period of three centuries at Christian councils. MacMullen traced 255 of these councils over the two and a quarter centuries post-325 but there were earlier councils too, about twenty of them from the year 253 to 325. But to illustrate the true scope of the process of arriving at a consensus of belief, MacMullen pointed out that we can identify only about 250 councils out of some 15,000 that must have been held in that two and a quarter centuries between 325 and 553 – that “must more of the record has been lost than preserved.”[2]

Even something as commonplace as the trinity, something Christians today take for granted, was a matter for debate in the ancient world – when anybody was thinking about it at all. Neither Paul nor Jesus knew anything about any sort of “trinity.” For instance, when Paul mentions baptism, it is not through the “father, son and the holy ghost” but “into Christ” (Rom. 6.3, Gal. 3.27) and in Acts, baptism is “into” or “in the name of” Jesus (Acts 2.38, 8.16, 10.48, 19.5) without any mention of the Holy Spirit.

The word “trinity,” in fact, does not even make so much as a single appearance in the New Testament and where the word “God” appears in the New Testament it refers invariably to YHWH, the Midianite become Jewish God that Jesus and his disciples all worshipped as Jews. Mention of “the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in Matt. 28.18-20 is not original to the Gospel but a later addition to the text by Gentile Christians.[3]

We do not hear about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit until the time the Didache was written, which was the first half of the second century CE, and this may allow us to pinpoint the time of the formula’s interpolation into Matthew. And the word “trinity” (from a Latin abstract noun which most literally means “three-ness” or “the property of occurring three at once,” did not make an appearance until 200 C.E. when Tertullian, who also brought us the idea of an “Old” and a “New” testament, coined it as the Latin trinitas (and also probably the formula Three Persons, One Substance as the Latin tres Personae, una Substantia itself roughly derived from the Greek treis Prosoponoi, Homoousios). Yet by the time of the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.) the trinity is a central tenet of belief and people are being exiled and even killed over it.

So when your conservative Christian friends beat you over the head with the old line, “it’s always been this way” or “it has always worked” or “this is how God wanted it,” feel free to hit them over the head with some facts. They won’t care, but it might make you feel better. And there are always a few who listen when confronted by facts. I married one of them. So don’t give up hope. Facts do matter: on Sunday more than any other day.


[1] Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils (Yale University Press, 2006), 30-31.
[2] MacMullen (2006), 2-7.
[3] see Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 333-334.

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