The more formal development and decree of the dogma of the Trinity we see in use in most Christian groups today is directly the result of the Arian heresy. This heresy erupted within Christendom in the early fourth century. Arius was an eastern priest who began to teach that Christ as the son of God did not always exist, but was the Father’s first creation. According to Arius, Christ was distinct from the Father not only in personhood but in substance, and was not equal to God the Father.
There are some estimates that almost 80% of the Christian world was Arian at one time to include the majority of the bishops.
It was only in the year 313 that the Emperor Constantine had issued the Edict of Milan that allowed for religious tolerance of Christians in the Roman Empire. Now, in 325 the internal conflict caused by the Arian heresy resulted in such disruption he wanted it resolved, and called for a church council to meet to bring the debate to a close.
Thus, we see the first ecumenical church council since the book of Acts when the apostles gathered in Jerusalem to resolve the issue of whether Gentile converts to Christianity were obligated to follow the Jewish law. Following this Biblical pattern to resolve conflicts in the Church, in 325 the first Council of Niceae was convened.
There has been much written about the history of this council, the politics involved and the internal strife within the Church. One of the lessons for me is the recognition that there has always been conflict within the Church, going back to the book of Acts and the disagreement over circumcision, or the conflict that led Paul and Barnabas to part ways. This is nothing new, and we should never lose heart, because we know that Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead the Church into all truth (John 16:13).
Going into the council, I think anyone at the time would have placed their money on Arius and his views to prevail. But that’s not what happened. And as a result of the council, we have the first part of the Nicene creed we recite at Mass today – that Jesus is “the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.”
I don’t know about you, but it’s always a special moment for me at Mass when we stand and recite the creed together. It is our communal statement of faith, and each Sunday we are connected to those early Christians who endured that conflict as we profess what we believe to be true about God. It also unites us to those Christians across time who have been willing to put their lives at risk because they have dared to gather to have the privilege to stand and profess with one voice, “I believe in one God…”
At the first council of Constantinople in 381, the statement about the Holy Spirit was added to the creed – “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” This is known as the second ecumenical council of the Church.
You may notice a slight difference in what we say today – in the original statement from this council it was expressed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” Today we pray that He “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The “and the Son” is a statement known as the “filioque.” While Scripture does indeed say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, is it also clear He is sent by Jesus. In John 15:26 Jesus says “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.”
The filioque gradually comes into use by local synods to reflect the role of the Son in sending the Holy Spirit, and in 1014 the Pope accepted its use in the creed in the Latin rite of the church. This becomes a great sticking point with the eastern church and is a contributor to the Great Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox church in 1054. The real root of this schism however is not the filioque, but papal authority.
It was almost 100 years before the Arian heresy was eliminated from the Church. It by far was the most significant conflict in the Church until the Great Schism in 1054 and then in the sixteenth century with the advent of Protestantism.