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.
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)
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
22:28 reads this way: “Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have
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
Here is a
link to the Nicene-ConstantinopolitanCreed.
the emphasis placed on the Person of Jesus.