Extracts from History of Christian Theology—The Nicene Creed

The Platonist Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, emphasized an allegoric approach to interpret scripture. This method was adopted by many early Christian fathers. Indeed, Augustine was converted to Christianity when Ambrose introduced him to this technique to help Augustine overcome his objections to many Old Testament stories and rituals. The Alexandrian school became the center for this Platonist perspective in Christianity, which emphasized the spiritual and downplayed the empirical. They liked to quote Paul: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor 3:6). They accused their opponents in Antioch, who read the scriptures literally, of killing the true gospel message.


The Arian Controversy

Arius simply took the doctrine of subordination to its logical conclusion based on the accepted reasoning of his time. If the Son originated from the Father, then there was a time when the Son did not exist. Based on the accepted Platonist and Aristotelian assumption that everything divine is eternal and not created, then Christ is not wholly divine. Consequently, he is a created being, a creature of God, who is independent from and subordinate to the Father. Arius quoted numerous scriptures to support his proposition, such as:

“for my Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28)

“The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” (John 5:19)

“But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” (Mark 13:32)

“Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” (Luke 2:52)

“this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3)

“Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.” (Mark 10:18)

“O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matthew 26:39)

“a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” (Matthew 17:5)

“God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9)

To combat their opponents claim that the Father and Son are one, they quoted John 17:21-22, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us… And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one.” Jesus prayed that his followers will become united with the Father in the same way that the Son and the Father are unified. So, the Son is a distinct being from the Father just like humans are, and their unity does not rise to the level of being the same personessence or substance.

Meanwhile, Athanasius insisted on the oneness and immateriality of God as understood by the Platonist philosophy taught in the Alexandrian school of theology. He and his followers quoted scriptures to support their position, such as:

“I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30)

“the Father is in me, and I in him.” (John 10:38)

“he that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

“there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:6)