Johannine Themes in the Early Church Councils
by David Arias

The Eternal Logos and the Divinity of Christ


One of the chief concerns of the early Ecumenical Councils was to define dogmatically the orthodox Christology of the Church. We see this clearly in the case of the first of the Ecumenical Councils, the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), which was convened for the specific purpose of stamping out the Arian heresy. The Arian heresy taught that Christ was not indeed divine, but rather was the highest and most perfect of all of God the Father's creatures. This heresy, however, which had become prominent even among bishops, by the early 320's, contradicted the constant Christological teachings of the Church up to that point.

We find that the early Church Fathers, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, clearly taught that Christ is divine. For example, St. Ignatius writes, in his letter to the Ephesians (ca. 107 AD), the following: "There is only one physician - of flesh yet spiritual, born yet uncreated, God incarnate, genuine life in the midst of death, sprung from Mary as well as from God, passable yet impassable - Jesus Christ our Lord" (7:2). Similarly, in his letter to St. Polycarp, St. Ignatius writes: "Be on the alert for Him who is above time, the Eternal, the Unseen, the One who became visible for our sakes, who was beyond touch and passion, yet who for our sakes became subject to suffering , and endured everything for us" (3:2). In these passages and in many others, St. Ignatius, like other early Church Fathers, clearly teaches the divinity of Christ. It is also interesting to note that St. Ignatius of Antioch is said, in various early Church documents, to be a disciple of, and bishop who was ordained by, St. John the Evangelist.

Conciliar Teaching of Christ's Divinity:

Since the Council of Nicaea was the most concerned, out the first seven Ecumenical Councils, with dogmatically defining Christ's divinity, we will turn to the teachings of this Council and investigate the Johannine themes which are latent therein.

The dogmatic Christological teachings of the Council of Nicaea are found in the Nicene Creed. This creed is as follows:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible. And in our one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Only-Begotten of the Father, that is of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, born, not made, of one substance with the Father (which they call in Greek "homoousion"), by whom all things were made, which are in heaven and earth, who for our salvation came down, and became incarnate and was made man, and suffered, and arose again on the third day, and ascended into heaven, and will come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.   But those who say, "There was [a time] when he was not," and, "Before he was born, he was not," and "Because he was made from non-existing matter, he is either of another substance or essence," and those who call "God the Son of God changeable and mutable," these the Catholic Church anathematizes (DS, 54). In this Nicene Creed the essential Christological statement is that the God the Son is "of one substance with the Father." This phrase in Greek (homoousion to patri) indicates that the substance, which is possessed by God the Father and God the Son, is numerically one. The theological implication of this statement is that God the Son is God in the same sense that God the Father is God since each Divine Person possesses the one (numerical) divine nature. In case the meaning of this Christological statement is not totally clear to the reader of the Nicene Creed, the Council Fathers elected to attach the second paragraph which anathematizes various propositions which are wholly incompatible with the Christological teachings in the first paragraph of the creed. Since being a created being and having the attribute of mutability are incompatible with the divine nature, and since God the Son possesses the divine nature in the same sense as does God the Father, it follows that to say that God the Son is created or mutable is inconsistent with the proposition which teaches that God the Son is "of one substance with God the Father." It is with this rationale that the Council Fathers can condemn as unorthodox the theological statements made in the second paragraph of the above quote.

St. Athanasius's Theological Commentary:

In order to help unpack some of the Johannine themes latent is this conciliar teaching let us turn to St. Athanasius's Oration Against the Arians (ca. 355 AD). This text is helpful in discovering Johannine themes in the Nicene Creed since it was written by St. Athanasius (who, incidentally was one of the chief defenders of Nicene Christology in the fourth century) in an attempt to show the Arians that the Nicene Faith is indeed biblical and orthodox. In the process of his argumentation, St. Athanasius often appeals to St. John's Gospel in order to show that the Nicene Creed presupposes and is consistent with St. John's Christology.

In Book III of his Orations Against the Arians, St. Athanasius is concerned with demonstrating to the Arians that the Nicene Faith is true since it is clearly scriptural. More specifically, St. Athanasius is attempting to show the Arians that the Son of God is consubstantial with the Father, and as such, is eternal and uncreated. Moreover, St. Athanasius maintains that Jesus Christ, Who is the Incarnate Logos, is true God and true man. He is true God insofar as He is consubstantial with God the Father, and He is true man insofar as He, as a Divine Person, has assumed a complete human nature to Himself.

The first chief Johannine text to which St. Athanasius appeals, in his argumentation, is the Prologue (1:1-18). He says:

Lest I write too much, however, by pulling together all the relevant texts, let me content myself with mention of John as representative. He says, "In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through Him, and apart from Him not one thing came to be" (John 1:1-3). He goes on, "And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory - glory as of one uniquely born from the Father" (John 1:14) (29). In commenting on this passage St. Athanasius asks, "What is the basic meaning and purport of Scripture? It contains, as we have often said, a double account of the Savior" (29). This "double account of the Savior" is that, on the one hand, He is consubstantial with God the Father, and, on the other hand, that "He became a human being, He took flesh for our sakes from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos" (29). From this we can see that St. Athanasius is arguing that the Nicene Christology is clearly attested to in Sacred Scripture. As a result, Arianism must be false insofar as it contradicts God's Word.

In addition to this, St. Athanasius also cites several other Johannine texts which he interprets as being presupposed by and perfectly consistent with the Nicene Faith. He writes:

Consider these texts: "The Father loves the Son and has given everything into His hand" (John 3:35);... "I can do no deed of myself, but I judge what I hear" (John 5:30). As many such passages as there are, they do not demonstrate that there was a time when the Son did not possess these privileges. How can it be the case that the One Who is the sole essential Logos and Wisdom of the Father should fail to possess eternally what the Father possesses, especially when He also says, "Whatever things the Father possesses are mine" (John 16:15) and "The things which are mine belong to the Father" (John 17:10)? If the things which belong to the Father belong to the Son, while the Father possesses them eternally, it is plain that whatever the Son possesses, since it belongs to the Father, is in Him eternally. Therefore, He did not make these statements because there was a time when these privileges were not His; He made them because even though the Son possesses eternally what He possesses, He nevertheless possesses them from the Father (35). In this text St. Athanasius begins by clarifying certain Arian misinterpretations of particular Johannine texts. On first glance it might seems that particular Johannine texts such as John 3:35 and 5:30 imply that the Son is a created and mutable being. However, when these texts are read in light of the rest of St. John's Gospel, St. Athanasius maintains that the only logically coherent interpretation of these texts is to say that they indicate the fact that "even though the Son possesses eternally what He possesses, He nevertheless possesses them from the Father." Or to put this same thought in Nicene language, St. Athanasius seems to be saying (1) that God the Son is consubstantial with God the Father (and thus He possesses eternally what He possesses) and (2) that God the Son is begotten of God the Father (i.e., the Son proceeds from the Father by an eternal act of generation whereby God the Father communicates, in one eternal act, the divine nature to God the Son) and, thus, (3) God the Son possesses all that He possesses from God the Father.

From our brief consideration of these texts from St. Athanasius's Orations Against the Arians we see that a fourth century Father of the Church both believed and publicly defended the notion that the Nicene Faith has some profound Johannine themes latent within it. More particularly, St. Athanasius has argued that the essence of the Nicene Christology is found in the Gospel of St. John. This is helpful for modern Catholics to see that both St. John's Gospel and the Council of Nicaea bear a common witness to the true identity of the Person and natures of Jesus Christ.

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