Article 2 (cont’d)
In our previous article we saw that the early church confessed in Article 2 of the Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God. This biblical expression alone should have established the fact that Jesus is truly God, co-eternal, co-essential and co-equal with the Father. However, there were many in the church that would not confess this truth. They either denied the personal distinction between the Father and the Son, or they denied that the Son is truly God with the Father. Hence, the church felt compelled in this second article of her creed to add that Jesus Christ is “begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
One group that denied the true divinity of Jesus Christ in the early church was the monarchians. This term is the same as our word “monarchy,” which means a rule by one. This term was applied by the church father Tertullian to a group in the church who maintained that God is one in person as well as in being, thus denying the Trinity. Wrote Tertullian, “They are constantly throwing out the accusation that we preach two gods and three gods. . . . ‘We hold,’ they say, ‘the monarchy.'” Hence the term monarchian was applied.
The monarchians were of two different classes. There was first the dynamic monarchians. They taught that the Father is God alone. The Word, or Logos, of which we read in the Scriptures (cf. John 1:1), as well as the term “Son of God,” refers not to a person but to a power of God the Father. The same is true of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not a distinct person but simply an impersonal power. Hence, God is one person, the Father. They taught further that the divine power of the Logos had filled Moses and the prophets of the Old Testament so that they were inspired to prophesy God’s Word. This divine Logos also filled Jesus. Although Jesus was born of the virgin, he was nevertheless from birth only a man. At His baptism however He was endowed with the divine Logos. This Logos Jesus possessed in a higher degree than did the prophets of the Old Testament. The result was that Jesus attained a certain divinity. He was not made equal with the Father. His divinity was a delegated divinity and therefore an inferior one. He was not made one in substance with the Father. But He was made morally one with the Father. This view was championed especially by Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch from A.D. 260 to 272.
Perhaps more popular was the view of the modalistic monarchians. In the main they taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three distinct persons but three different modes or forms of revelation of the one God. Already around A.D. 180 Noetus of Smyrna in Asia Minor taught that “Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born and suffered and died.” This view was also brought to Rome by Praxeas, a follower of Noetus. Over against the teaching of Praxeas, the church father Tertullian wrote, “He put to flight the Holy Spirit and crucified the Father.” These views of Noetus and Praxeas were further developed by Sabellius, who taught in Rome about A.D. 215. According to Sabellius, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply different manifestations of the one God. The Father is God as He originally revealed Himself (in history) as Creator. The Son is the same person Who later revealed Himself as Redeemer. And the Holy Spirit is again the same as the Father and the Son, only now after Pentecost revealed to us as our Sanctifier.
It was evidently to combat the errors of both the dynamic monarchians and the modalistic monarchians that the early church confessed in the second article of the Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, is “begotten of the Father before all worlds.”
It is characteristic of all heretics that they use the terminology of the Scriptures but alter the true meaning of those terms to fit their erroneous views. This they are forced to do if they will gain a hearing in the church. Certainly no one in the church will pay them any heed if they do not use the language of the Bible. And so every heretic that has arisen in the church has come quoting the Bible. But this presents no problem to those who would mislead God’s people. They simply make of the Bible what they want. They take the beautiful terminology of the Bible and pour into these terms anything they want.
This is what the monarchians did too. With the church, they too acknowledged that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God. They had to. The Bible taught it in no uncertain terms. However, contrary to the Scriptures, they interpreted this term to fit their own unique heresy. The dynamic monarchians claimed that the term “son of God” simply referred to a divine power which was granted to the prophets and to Jesus Christ. That Jesus is called the one begotten Son of God simply emphasizes that this divine power was especially strong in him so that he attained a sort of delegated, inferior divinity. And the modalistic monarchians also spoke of the fact that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God. To them this term simply expresses the idea that Jesus was a unique and distinct manifestation of the one true God.
In light of all this it became necessary for the early church in her creed further to define her confession that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God. She had to rule out the interpretation given to this term by the monarchians. Over against their view she had to set forth the true meaning of the term “only begotten Son of God.” This she did by adding to her creed the statement that Jesus Christ is “begotten of the Father before all worlds.”
First, there is the confession that Jesus is “begotten of the Father.” At first glance, this expression appears to add very little to the church’s confession. How can this possibly be a further definition of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God? How can this possibly refute the errors of monarchianism? The key is the word “Father.” If Jesus is begotten of the Father, then He is personally distinct from the Father. The Son can not be begotten or brought forth of the Father if the Son and the Father are one and the same person, as the modalistic monarchians claimed. That the Son is begotten of the Father means that the Father is one person and the Son is another person distinct from the Father. That certainly is the way we find it among mankind. Father and son are two distinct persons. So also is it with God, Who created the father-son relationship among us to mirror the Father-Son relationship as it is eternally in Him. That Jesus Christ is begotten of the Father, therefore, was inserted into the Nicene Creed to contradict the error of the modalistic monarchians.
And that Jesus Christ is begotten of the Father is certainly the testimony of Scripture. We have seen before that several times in the Scripture Jesus is called the only begotten Son of God. In John 1:14, however, He is called the only begotten of the Father. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”
To contradict the error of the dynamic monarchians the early church added to this that Jesus Christ is begotten of the Father “before all worlds.” As already indicated, the dynamic monarchians taught that Jesus is not the Son of God eternally. The term “Son of God” simply refers to a divine power of God given to Jesus at His baptism. Hence, there was a time when Jesus Christ was not the Son of God. In fact, there was a time when Jesus was not. For until He was born of the virgin Mary He did not exist at all except in the counsel of God. Jesus therefore has a beginning as any other creature. And that beginning is found in history. To contradict this error the early church at this juncture in the Nicene Creed proclaimed that Jesus Christ is begotten of the Father “before all worlds (literally, ages).” In this way she confessed that Jesus is eternally the Son of God. Even before the worlds or ages were brought forth, God the Father had brought forth His Son. The church of Christ confesses an eternal Son of God.
Although the expression “before all worlds” is not found as such in the Bible, the idea or truth conveyed in this expression certainly is. There are especially two passages in John 17 which definitely convey this truth. The first is verse 5, “And now, O Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine Own self with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was.” Notice that Jesus not only addresses God as His Father but also speaks of the fact that He was with God His Father before the world was. We find the same idea expressed in verse 24 of this same chapter, “Father, I will that they also whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am; that they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me: for Thou lovedst Me before the foundation of the world.”
In our next article we shall consider the other group in the early church that denied the true deity of Jesus Christ. These were the Arians. Against them the rest of the expression found in Article 2 of this creed was written.