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Monday, August 1, 2016

Early Church Councils

A knowledge of church history is more important than most 21st century Christians realize. The various doctrines we adhere to today regarding God, Jesus, the Holy Trinity, the scriptures, salvation, etc., did not occur in a vacuum. They are the result of 2000 years of theological discussion – the foundations of which were laid in the first several centuries of Christian history. Knowledge of our history can guide us into a more thorough understanding of our Christian doctrines.

The importance of church councils dates back to the 15th chapter of the book of Acts. Remember, the early church grew, and in many ways was nurtured, from its Jewish roots – and a fundamental element of those roots was the practice of circumcision. God established His covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17) and commanded him to circumcise all the male children in his family, including his servants. A male who was not circumcised would be cut off from the nation and excluded from God’s promises to the nation (Genesis 17). Later, God commanded Moses to pass on this practice to the Jewish nation as part of His continuing covenant with them. (Exodus 12). In fact, God nearly killed Moses because he had not circumcised his two sons. (Exodus 4)  

Fast forward now to the New Testament. Many Jews, including Jewish priests and theologians (Pharisees and scribes), confessed Jesus as Messiah, and were being baptized into the Church. But as they entered, many brought with them their Old Testament theological understanding about God’s covenant of circumcision which is why they taught that unless Gentiles coming into the Church were circumcised, they could not be saved (Acts 15:1-5).

That teaching caused quite a stir of confusion in the early church, and so the apostles and elders – including Peter, James, Paul, and Barnabas – gathered in Jerusalem to consider the matter and render their decision.

It is important to note that the apostles and elders did not render simply an opinion. They rendered an official and authoritative decision that would resonate throughout the early church regarding circumcision as it related to salvation. 

From that point forward, the teaching of circumcision as necessary for salvation was known as a heresy.

Simply defined, a heresy is a departure from accepted religious truth, a departure that could lead its adherents away from God.
Unfortunately, those who believed circumcision was directly tied to salvation did not go away, despite the authoritative decision of the Jerusalem council. Their teaching continued to spread – which necessitated the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia in which he roundly denounced the false teaching and warned its adherents, “You have fallen from grace, you who are seeking to be justified” by following the Old Testament law of circumcision. (Galatians 5).

As Christian faith developed in the early centuries after the death of the last apostle (John, around 95 AD), questions arose over the person of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and their relationship with each other and with the Father. Some of the proposed doctrines contradicted already established Christian beliefs. The Apostles’ Creed was one of the first ‘official’ statements of bona fide Christian doctrine.

It is not my purpose here to discuss in any detail the various heresies that assaulted the early church, such as Gnosticism, Docetism, Apollinarianism, or Nestorianism. A simple internet search for key words such as: “early church heresies” or “early Christian heresies” will pull up sufficient historical data.  Here is only one link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_seven_Ecumenical_Councils 

What I would like to do at this point is focus on one particular doctrine that gained a lot of support in the early fourth century. Arianism, named after the bishop Arius who proposed it. One of the central tenets of Arianism promulgated the doctrine that Jesus Christ was a created being, and not eternal as God was. This meant that Christ was less than fully divine. 

Arianism gained a lot of followers in the early fourth century (and even to the 21st century), and the Body of Christ faced its most powerful challenge since the Gnostic heresies of the first century. So in 325 AD the Church gathered its elders, bishops and theologians to a ‘council’ meeting in the city of Nicea (today in modern Turkey) to discuss the matter.

It should be needless to say, the members of the council were quite familiar with the Greek New Testament gospels and epistles. They knew of passages such as: John 14:28; John 20:27, 1 Corinthians 11:3, and other texts.  But they were also familiar with John 10:30; John 17:21-26; Hebrews 1:3; Philippians 2:6-8; and Revelation1:8 with 22:13, and others.

After much deliberation and study of the Scriptures, the council came to an official and authoritative decision. They determined the weight of the Scriptural evidence from both Old and New Testaments demonstrated the Father and the Son are one ‘essence’. In other words, they cannot be considered separately. When you see one, you see the other. 

(The council reconvened in Constantinople in 381 to both reaffirm to decision of the Nicean council, and to also settle the questions of the deity of the Holy Spirit and of the full humanity of Jesus, while He is at the same time fully divine).

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed established for the Christian Church authoritative and ‘official’ Christian faith, just as the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 established for that early time true Christian faith.

Proverbs 22:28 reads this way: “Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set.”

God raised up men of faith and church councils to protect those ancient boundaries. He did so to protect His flock from heresies promoted by the angels of light St. Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians 11:14-15

Here is a link to the Nicene-ConstantinopolitanCreed. Notice the emphasis placed on the Person of Jesus. 


Barb Schoeneberger said...

It is interesting that we recite the Nicene Creed on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation as well as special feasts, and that it occurs right at the pivot point in the Mass when we transition from the Mass of the Catechumens to the Mass of the Faithful in the Extraordinary form, and the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form. The truth of Christ is the center of everything in our sacred worship.

Rich Maffeo said...

In fact, I realize once again how LITTLE Christians know of the history of Christian faith. I posted this essay to my blog without also posting the information on my FB and G+ accounts. I need to correct that.