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
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)
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.
The text for the Nicene Creed used here is from Henry
Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma, #54.
Quotations from St. Athanasius's Oration Against the Arians are
from Richard A. Norris, Jr.,