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    September 13, 1897

    “How the Catholic Creed Was Made. The Great Trinitarian Controversy” The Bible Echo 12, 37, pp. 291-293.



    THE Donatist dispute had developed the decision, and established the fact, that it was “the Catholic Church of the Christians” in which was embodied the “Christianity” which was to be recognized as the imperial religion. Constantine had allied himself with the church only for political advantage. The only use he had for the church was in a political way. Its value for this purpose lay entirely in its unity. If the church should be all broken up and divided into separate bodies, its value as a political factor would be gone.BEST September 13, 1897, page 291.1

    The Catholic Church, on her part, had long asserted the necessity of unity with the bishopric, a unity in which the bishopric should be possessed of authority to prohibit, as well as power to prevent, heresy. The church had supported and aided Constantine in the overthrown of Maxentius and the conquest of Rome. She again supported, and materially aided, him in the overthrow of Licinius and the complete conquest of the whole empire. She had received a rich reward for her assistance in the first political move; and she now, in the second and final one.BEST September 13, 1897, page 291.2

    The Catholic Church demanded assistance in her ambitious aim to make her power and authority absolute over all; and for Constantine’s purposes it was essential that the church should be a unit. These two considerations combined to produce results, both immediate and remote, that proved a curse to the time then present and to ages to follow. The immediate result was that Constantine had no sooner compassed the destruction of Licinius in A.D. 323, than he issued an edict against the Novatians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Paulians, Cataphrygians, and “all who devised and supported heresies by means of private assemblies,” denouncing them and their heresies, and commanding them all to enter the Catholic Church. The edict runs as follows:—BEST September 13, 1897, page 291.3

    “Let those of you, therefore, who are desirous of embracing the true and pure religion, take far better course of entering the Catholic Church, and uniting with it in holy fellowship, whereby you will be enabled to arrive at the knowledge of the truth. In any case the delusions of your perverted understandings must entirely cease to mingle with, and mar the felicity of, our present times.... And in order that this remedy may be applied with effectual power, we have commanded (as before said) that you be positively deprived of every gathering point for your superstitious meetings; I mean all the houses of prayer (if such be worthy of the name) which belong to heretics, and that these be made over without delay to the Catholic Church; that any other places be confiscated to the public service, and no facility whatever be left for any future gathering, in order that from this day forward none of your unlawful assemblies may presume to appear in any public or private place. Let this edict be made public.”BEST September 13, 1897, page 291.4

    Some of the penal regulations of this edict “were copied from the edicts of Diocletian: and this method of conversion was applauded by the same bishops who had felt the hand of oppression, and had pleaded for the rights of humanity.”BEST September 13, 1897, page 291.5

    The Donatist dispute had resulted in the establishment of the Catholic Church. Yet that dispute involved no question of doctrine, but of discipline only. Just at this time, however, there sprang into prominence the famous Trinitarian Controversy, which involved, and under the circumstances demanded, an imperial decision as to what was the Catholic Church in point of doctrine—what was the Catholic Church in deed and in truth, and which plunged the empire into a sea of tumult and violence that continued as long as the empire itself continued, and afflicted other nations after the empire had perished.BEST September 13, 1897, page 291.6


    A CERTAIN Alexander was bishop of Alexandria. Arius was a presbyter in charge of a parish church in the same city. Alexander attempted to explain “the unity of the Holy Trinity.” Arius dissented from the views set forth by Alexander. A sort of synod of the presbyters of the city was called, and the question was discussed. Both sides claimed the victory, and the controversy spread. Then Alexander convened a council of a hundred bishops, by the majority of which the views of Alexander were endorsed. Upon this, Arius was commanded to abandon his own opinions, and adopt Alexander’s. Arius refused; and Alexander excommunicated him and all who held with him in opinion, of whom there were a considerable number of bishops and other clergy, and many of the people.BEST September 13, 1897, page 291.7

    The partisans of Arius wrote to many bishops a statement of their views, with a request that if those views were considered correct, they would use their influence to have Alexander receive them to communion again, but that if they thought the views to be wrong in any particular, they would signify it, and show them what were the correct opinions on the question. Arius for himself wrote a book entitled “Thalia,“—Song of Joy,—a collection of songs in which he set forth his views. This expedient took well, for in the excited state of the parties, his doctrinal songs were hummed everywhere. Alexander on his part, likewise, sent circular letters to the principal bishops round about. The controversy spread everywhere, and as it spread, it deepened.BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.1

    One of the chief reasons for the rapid and wide-spread interest in the controversy was that nobody could comprehend or understand the question at issue. “It was the excess of dogmatism founded on the most abstract words in the most abstract region of human thought.” (Stanley’s “Eastern Church”). There was no dispute about the fact of there being a Trinity, it was about the nature of the Trinity. Both parties believed in precisely the same Trinity; but they differed upon the precise relationship which the Son bears to the Father.BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.2

    With the exception of a single point, the two views were identical, only being stated in different ways. Alexander held that the Son was begotten of the very essence of the Father, and is therefore of the same substance with the Father; while Arius held that the Son was begotten by the Father, not from His own essence, but from nothing; but that when He was thus begotten, He was, and is, of precisely the like substance with the Father.BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.3

    Whether the Son of God, therefore, is of the same substance, or only of like substance, with the Father, was the question in dispute. The controversy was carried on in Greek, and as expressed in Greek the whole question turned upon a single letter. The word which expressed Alexander’s belief, is Homoousion. The word which expressed the belief of Arius, is Homoiousion. One of the words has two “i’s” in it, and the other has but one; but why the word should not have that additional “i,” neither party could ever exactly determine. Even Athanasius himself, who succeeded Alexander in the bishopric of Alexandria, and transcended him in every other quality, “has candidly confessed that whenever he forced his understanding to meditate upon the divinity of the Logos, his toilsome and unavailing efforts recoiled on themselves; that the more he thought, the less he comprehended; and the more he wrote, the less capable was he of expressing his thoughts.” (Gibbon.)BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.4


    IT could not possibly be otherwise, because it was an attempt of the finite to measure, to analyse, and even to dissect, the Infinite. It was an attempt to make the human superior to the Divine. God is infinite. No finite mind can comprehend Him as He actually is. Christ is the Word—the expression of the thought—of God; and none but He knows the depth of the meaning of that Word. “He had a name written, that no man knew but He himself; ... and His name is called the Word of God.” Revelation 19:12, 13.BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.5

    Neither the nature, nor the relationship, of the Father and Son can ever be measured by the mind of man. “No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him.” Matthew 11:27. This revelation of the Father by the Son can not be complete in this world. It will require the eternal ages for man to understand “the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:7.BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.6

    Therefore, no man’s conception of God can ever be fixed as the true conception of God. God will still be infinitely beyond the broadest comprehension that the mind of man can measure. The true conception of God can be attained only through “the Spirit of revelation in the knowledge of Him.” Ephesians 1:17. Therefore the only thing for men to do to find out the Almighty to perfection, is, by true faith in Jesus Christ, to receive the abiding presence of this Spirit of revelation, and then quietly and joyfully wait for the eternal ages to reveal “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God.”BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.7

    An ecclesiastical historian who lived near the time, and was well acquainted with the whole matter, Socrates, has well remarked that the discussion—BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.8

    “seemed not unlike a contest in the dark; for neither party appeared to understand distinctly the grounds on which they calumniated one another.... In consequence of these misunderstandings, each of them wrote volumes, as if contending against adversaries; and although it was admitted on both sides that the Son of God has a distinct person and existence, and all acknowledged that there is one God in a Trinity of persons, yet, from what cause I am unable to divine, they could not agree among themselves, and therefore were never at peace.”BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.9

    That which puzzled Socrates need not puzzle us. Although he could not divine why they should not agree when they believed the same thing, we may very readily do so, with no fear of mistake. The difficulty was that each disputant required that all the others should not only believe what he believed, but they should believe this precisely as he believed it, whereas just how he believed it, he himself could not define. And that which made them so determined in this respect was that the strife was not merely for a doctrinal statement, but for supremacy and for political power.BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.10


    THE controversy spread farther and farther, and raged more fiercely as it spread. “All classes took part in it, and almost all took part with equal energy.... So violent were the discussions that they were parodied in the pagan theatres; and the emperor’s statues were broken in the public squares in the conflicts that took place.... Sailors, millers, and travellers sang the disputed doctrines at their occupations or on their journeys. Every corner, every alley of the city [this was said afterward of Constantinople, but must have been still more true of Alexandria] was full of these discussions—the streets, the market places, the drapers, the money-changers, the victuallers. Ask a man ‘how many oboli?’ he answers by dogmatising on generated and ungenerated being. Inquire the price of bread, and you are told, ‘The Son is subordinate to the Father.’ Ask if the bath is ready, and you are told, ‘The Son arose out of nothing.’” (Stanley.)BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.11

    Constantine’s golden dream of a united Christendom was again grievously disturbed. The bow of promise—of the bishops—which had so brilliantly irradiated all the political prospect when his alliance was formed with the church party, was rudely dissipated by the dark cloud of ecclesiastical ambition, and the angry storm of sectarian strife. He wrote a letter to Alexander and Arius, stating to them his mission of uniting the world under one head, and his anxious desire that there should be unity among all, and exhorted them to lay aside their contentions, forgive one another, use their efforts for the restoration of peace, and so give back to him his quiet days and tranquil nights.BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.12

    This letter he sent by the hand of Hosius, whom he made his ambassador to reconcile the disputants. But both the letter and the mission of Hosius were in vain; and yet the more so by the very fact that the parties were now assured that the controversy had attracted the interested attention of the imperial authority. As imperial favour, imperial patronage, and imperial power were the chief objects of the contest, and as this effort of the emperor showed that the reward was almost within the grasp of whichever party might prove successful, the contention was deepened rather than abated.BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.13

    It had already been decided that the imperial favor and patronage were for the Catholic Church. Each of these parties claimed to be the orthodox and only Catholic Church. The case of the Donatists had been referred to a council of bishops for adjudication. It was but natural that this question should be treated in the same way. But whereas the case of the Donatists affected only a very small portion of the empire, this question directly involved the whole East, and greatly concerned much of the West. More than this, the Catholic religion was now the religion of the empire. This dispute was upon the question as to what is the truth of the Catholic religion. Therefore if the question was to be settled, it must be settled for the whole empire. These considerations demanded a general council. Therefore a general council was called, A.D. 325, which met at the city of Nice, the latter part of May or the first part of June, in that year.BEST September 13, 1897, page 292.14

    A. T. JONES.

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