An accurate response to this question has to reconcile the importance of truth with the simplicity of faith. According to Jesus Christ, faith doesn’t require intellectual sophistication. He didn’t say that one must become a philosopher or a rabbi to enter the kingdom of God. He said that one must become like a child (Mark 10:15). He also compared His followers to sheep (John 10:3-4,16,27). Sheep aren’t known for their intelligence, but they survive by knowing their shepherd and following him. Similarly, saving faith can’t be based as much on theological abstractions as on the simple recognition that Jesus is the Shepherd-Savior and we must follow Him.
The implications of Jesus Christ’s deity weren’t defined until the counsels of Nicaea (ad 325), Constantinople (381), and Chalcedon (451), but millions of Christians had already declared their allegiance to Jesus Christ, and thousands had died as martyrs as testimony to their faith in Him.
What did Christians who lived before these great church councils know about the Trinity or Jesus Christ’s deity? The very earliest followers of Jesus Christ knew Him personally, saw His miracles, heard His teaching, and had either seen Him following His resurrection or heard about His resurrection from sources they considered utterly reliable. The next generation of Christians had the firsthand teaching of the witnesses to His life, death, and resurrection. Later generations had the canon of New Testament Scriptures, which had by then been assembled. All of these generations believed in His sinless life, His works of supernatural power, the supernatural authority of His teaching, and His supernatural resurrection from the dead. Nearly all of them would have had extensive access to either the verbal or written records of what Jesus had taught, including the way He described Himself as the “Son of Man” and the “Son of God,” and the things He spoke (and which were recorded by the Gospel writers) about His own authority and His relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit.
The first verses of the gospel of John declared, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3). When face-to-face with the risen Christ, the apostle Thomas said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). The apostle Paul clearly affirmed Jesus Christ’s divine power and authority when he wrote concerning Him:
“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:17-20).
The early Christians knew these things, accepted these things, and staked their lives and futures on these things, but they hadn’t yet worked out all of their theoretical implications.
Christian missionaries traveled far into the barbarian lands with the gospel at great risk. While they believed all the things about Jesus that are described in the paragraph above, the majority of them couldn’t explain exactly the philosophical and theological implications of biblical references to Jesus as the Son of Man (Matthew 9:6; 12:8,40), the Son of God (Matthew 4:6; 8:29; 14:33; 26:63), one with the Father (John 10:30), the Creator (John 1:14), and Lord (Matthew 7:21-22; 8:8; 12:8; John 20:28; Acts 7:59). In fact, the Germanic peoples to the north of the Roman Empire were evangelized by Arian missionaries who held a view of Christ’s deity that differed from the one established by the Council of Nicaea. 1 Tragically, long before the church could reach a peaceful consensus about these things, Constantine granted it government protection and patronage. Because he wanted a unified church to support a politically unified empire, he put pressure on the church leaders to resolve their differences quickly. Great church buildings were built with state funds, church leaders were subsidized by the government, and wealth flowed into church coffers. Theological differences became complicated by rivalry over worldly power and real estate. Riots, small-scale battles, kidnappings, and murders were spawned by the conflict between Arians and Catholics.2
Ironically, after the orthodox Catholic (Nicaean) perspective on the deity of Christ was generally adopted within the Roman Empire—largely due to the support of secular leaders—the empire was overthrown by the same Germanic tribes (Visigoths and Ostrogoths) that had already been converted to Christianity by Arian missionaries! Historian David L. Edwards notes in Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years:
“Church life seems to have been much the same under the two creeds and probably few on either side were seriously interested in the theological arguments. . . . However, just as those who lost in civil wars lost their lives or at least their eyesight, so bishops and other teachers defeated in theological battles should expect no mercy. When they had the opportunity, Arians could be as merciless as the Catholics who in the end prevailed.”
In fact, one of the tragic effects of the violent, politically motivated division within the church over the Arian controversy and other theological issues may have been the loss of heart that led to a generally passive acceptance of the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries.
This historical example illustrates the danger of seeing a direct correlation between salvation and the ability to give an accurate theological exposition of the deity of Christ and the Trinity.
Probably no more Christians today, on an average, are able to give a coherent explanation of the doctrines of the Trinity and Christ’s deity than could have done so at the beginning of the fourth century. If they can’t, is their faith less genuine than that of those who can theologically defend what they believe? Is mere verbal assent to something one doesn’t understand more important than childlike faith in the gospel and the authority of the Gospels? To say that there is a direct relationship between doctrinal accuracy and salvation would make salvation more dependent on intellect and IQ than the heart.
Today, theologically trained Christians know that the doctrine of Christ’s deity explains the basis for salvation. Athanasius’s insight is widely accepted: If Jesus were not God in the fullest sense, He could not be our Savior. Only God’s own sacrifice could atone our sins.3 But even though this is an essential doctrine, it took centuries for the best thinkers of the church to define it accurately.
Childlike faith in Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd of our souls must be considered sufficient to save us. While theological understanding will grow with the maturation of faith, the depth of any particular person’s faith may not be expressed in the ability to articulate theological truths.
- Both Arians (who were the majority in the Greek-speaking church) and Catholics (who dominated only the Latin-speaking West) had powerful philosophical and biblical arguments in support of their positions. Both Arians and Catholics agreed that the Son was the eternal logos (Word) become flesh. Catholics taught that the Father and Son were of the “same essence” (homo-ousios). The Arians were uneasy, however, about considering the Son to be of the exact same essence as the Father, because they feared such a belief could lead to a denial of any real difference between the Father and Son (Sabellianism). They insisted that the fact that the Son was “begotten” and the Father “unbegotten” implied that the Son was either “begotten” or “created” by the Father before the creation of the universe, Subsequently, according to this view, the Son (as logos) created the universe. They preferred to refer to the Father and Son as being of “different essence” or “similar essence” (hetero-ousios,homoi-ousios).
Eventually, the Catholic position, as defined at Nicaea and further defined and confirmed at Chalcedon, was accepted by the whole Catholic Church. Kenneth Scott Latourette summarizes why the Catholic position came to be accepted:
“As in the Apostles’ Creed, so in the Nicene Creed, painfully, slowly, and through controversies in which there was often lacking the love which is the major Christian virtue, Christians were working their way through to a clarification of what was presented to the world by the tremendous historical fact of Christ. At Nicaea it was more and more becoming apparent to them that the high God must also be the Redeemer and yet, by a seeming paradox, the Redeemer must also be man. The astounding central and distinguishing affirmation of Christianity, so they increasingly saw, and what made Christianity unique and compelling, was that Jesus Christ was ‘true God from true God,’ or, to put it in language more familiar to English readers, ‘very God of very God,’ who ‘was made man.’ Thus men could be reborn and become sons of God, but without losing their individual identity” (A History of Christianity, p. 156). Back To Article
- Historian Will Durant wrote that more Christians were killed by fellow Christians in strife between Catholics and Arians than were killed in the pagan persecutions of Christianity during the three previous centuries. Back To Article
- In his book, A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology, William Hordern offered a brilliantly simple explanation for the importance of the Nicene definition of the Trinity:
“The problem of the Trinity arises from the Christian belief that God was acting in and through Jesus Christ. In the fourth century Arius put forward the theory that Christ was a lesser god created by God. This lesser god came to earth in the man Jesus who was not really a man at all, but a divine being freed from the normal limitations of humanity. If the Arian party could have got their iota into the creed, their point of view would have become orthodox Christianity. It would have meant that Christianity had degenerated to the polytheistic stage of paganism. It would have had two gods and a Jesus who was neither God nor man. It would have meant that God himself was unapproachable and apart from man. The result would have been to make of Christianity another pagan mystery religion” (p. 6). Back To Article