The three major creeds of the church are all misnamed. The Apostles’ Creed was not written by the apostles. What is called the Nicene Creed is not the creed that was produced at the Council of Nicea but a later creed. The Athanasian Creed has nothing to do with Athanasius and many have argued that it is not even a creed.

In the Nicene Creed, the key word used to describe Christ’s relation to God—homoousion, meaning, “of the same substance”—had been considered heretical a century earlier. Some earlier orthodox theologians argued that the term was not found in the Bible and that it blurred the distinctions between the Father and the Son.

Though the debate about Christ’s deity extended over centuries, the debate about the Holy Spirit’s divine nature lasted only about twenty years.

Some the greatest of early theologians were confused about Christ’s nature. Clement of Alexandria, for example, masterfully refuted the Gnostic heresy that said Christ did not have a real human body and therefore did not eat and drink. Clement held that Jesus did indeed eat and drink but not because he needed food and drink to stay alive—Jesus, Clement argued, only wished to keep his disciples from heretical beliefs about him.

Not all defenders of orthodoxy stayed orthodox themselves. Tertullian and Novatian, for example, two major anti-Gnostic theologians of the 200s, each fell out of favor with the church: Tertullian, because of his conversion to the Montanist heresy; Novatian, because of his unforgiving stance against those who had denied Christ under persecution.

For a time at Antioch, rival groups differed about the deity of the Holy Spirit. One group prayed, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,” and the other one, “Glory ...

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