At the Christmas season, millions of Christians will confess their faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. To some evangelicals, this smacks of a “dead liturgy” not too far removed from heathen prayer wheels. No doubt these words of Nicea have lost their meaning for some, and their repetition has become merely a mechanical ritual.

But it need not be so. Once men died over these words. And in our twentieth century, there are still those who have gladly laid down their lives for the truths for which these ancient words stand. In Western Christendom, alas, these words have lost their power. We have forgotten what they mean—if we ever knew. But the words of Nicea spell out the heart of Christian faith.

Refinement Under Fire

The Nicene Creed, first formed at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 324, comes down to us as reshaped at Constantinople in the year 381. The main difference between the original form and the one associated with the Council of Constantinople is the article on the Holy Spirit including the references to Scripture as the source of divine authority (“according to the Scripture” and “Who spoke by the Prophets”). Still later the Western churches changed the original “we believe” to the more personal “I believe,” and then, long after, at a provincial synod in Toledo, Spain, added the famous “filioque” (and the Son) to the statement that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Most evangelicals now agree that whatever may be right about the additional phrase, it ought not to have divided the church in A.D. 1064. In any case, churches of both East and West, Catholic and Protestant, have adopted this 1,600-year-old statement from Constantinople as a standard second in importance only to the Apostles’ Creed.

Hundreds of millions of devout and not so devout have repeated the familiar words throughout the churches of Christendom:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

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And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets: And I believe in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church: I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins: And I look for the Resurrection of the dead: And the Life of the world to come. Amen.

In the ancient imperial city of Constantinople, we are told, the barber in his shop and the merchant in his stall argued with customers over the issues at stake. Was Christ homoousion (of the same identical substance) or only homoision (of similar substance) with the Father? Was Athanasius or Arius right?

The very same battle rages in the church today, only the controversy is carried on in very low visibility, unfortunately, because even evangelical leaders don’t know the difference between the orthodox and the Arian or Jehovah’s Witness view of Christ.

Tripping Over The Doctrine Of The Trinity

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 (commonly called just the “Nicene Creed”) spelled out the Christian doctrine of the Trinity for the ancient church—yes, and for the church of today, too. Then, as now, it was not accepted without strong, even bitter, opposition. Across the years opponents have voiced two basic complaints about the doctrine of the Trinity.

First, the doctrine of the Trinity is a flat contradiction. God may be one or three, but he is not both. Because it is a contradiction of terms, only an insane person or a religious fanatic who has closed his mind to rational thought can believe in the Trinity.

To this, Christians reply that it is no contradiction at all to hold that something is both one and three—so long as a person does not say it is one and three in the same sense at the same time. No Christian asserts such nonsense about God. We do not say God is one and three in the same sense. We say there is one God and only one—not three. God is one in his being. This one God, however, exists as three persons. God’s psychology is more complex than that of man: in him there are three I-thou personal centers or personal relationships. So God is not one and three in the same sense, but one in one sense and three in quite a different sense.

Second, it is further objected, contradictory or not, that the doctrine of the Trinity is certainly not found in the Bible. It is true that the word “trinity” is not in the Bible and that there is no formal definition of the Trinity to be found anywhere in the Bible. The nearest thing in the Bible to an explicit doctrine of the Trinity is found in 1 John 5:7: “For there are three that bear record in heaven—the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”

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But the textual problem regarding this verse is so severe that even many devout evangelical scholars do not believe it was a part of the original epistle. If their conclusions are valid, the only verse in the Bible clearly teaching the Trinity is not really part of the Bible.

Thus, far from being biblical, it is widely argued, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity really represents a philosophic elaboration of the Greek church—a sort of accommodation to pagan polytheism. The original simple gospel of Jesus Christ was taken over by Greek intellectuals recently converted from paganism and blown up into our doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity, therefore, represents the Christianity of the Greek creeds of the fourth or fifth centuries A.D., but not of the Bible.

No Christian claims that the Bible sets forth in its pages an explicit statement of the doctrine of the Trinity, but he does claim that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a true description of what the Bible teaches God is like. The creeds are not philosophical elaborations of biblical truth; they are not philosophical statements at all and were never intended to be. They are statements of what their authors conceived to be certain basic facts. They may occasionally employ philosophical terms, but essentially they are simple confessions of facts the writers wished to state unambiguously and clearly enough that they could be distinguished from other alternative statements which, so the writers of the creeds believed, denied these basic facts.

We have a contemporary example of how an idea needs to be protected against debasement. We believe in “democracy.” Unfortunately, today Communists say “me too.” But we think that while they hold to the term, they don’t have the real thing. To make this plain, we find it necessary to define democracy. These detailed distinctions of just what kind of “democracy” we believe in are boring to some and repulsive to others. To us they are simply words used to guard the truth with which we began. We really do believe in democracy.

So the early church had to define and redefine against recurring heresies what it meant when it said that Jesus Christ is really God as well as man. If we wish to communicate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in our day and to distinguish it from false views, we shall have to do the same. The basic facts indicated by the Trinity are to be found in the Bible and are very clearly and simply set forth. Throughout church history, Christians have found it necessary to elaborate this simple faith with 70,000 footnotes in order to safeguard the simple and elementary facts of the Bible. But the basic doctrine lies on the very surface of the biblical teaching.

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The Saving Sense Of Mystery

The Christian has no desire to reduce God to human size. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, and his thoughts are much higher than man’s. We insist that the reverent believer in the doctrine of the Trinity must learn to reckon with the mystery of the infinite God.

Nevertheless, we must bear witness to what we believe. By the word trinity we seek to communicate ever so feebly what we believe God is like. If we can’t say what we mean by the words we use about God, then there is no way to bear verbal witness to the truth of our faith. We could not obey the biblical commandment to preach the gospel. No doubt there is much that we do not know about God. But some things we do know. We know that God is not a stick or a stone. We know that our triune God is not 100 million gods of popular Hinduism. And we know that the doctrine of the Trinity is not nonsense.

The Christian has a guide for his thinking in the biblical record that tells us not only of the acts of God by which he sought to reveal himself, but also the interpretation or meaning of those acts set before us in the Bible. We dare not go beyond what God’s Word says, but we should be ungrateful and disobedient to say less than it says.

Trinity On The Other Side Of Mystery

The biblical teaching about the triune God may be summed up very simply. There are three who are called God and who are treated as God in the Bible. (1) The Father is called God, and we are to worship him and to reckon with him as God. (2) The Son is called God, and we are to worship him and to respond to him in ways appropriate only to God. (3) Likewise, the Holy Spirit is called God, and we must respond to him accordingly. (4) In the Bible, each of these is not the other but is distinct from the other in personal ways. The Father gave his Son and sends his Holy Spirit. The Son prays to the Father and likewise sends the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit witnesses to the Father and to the Son. (5) Yet there is just one being who is God. We do not worship three gods; we are monotheists.

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All of this, no doubt, is mysterious. In the one God are three interpersonal relationships, and no Christian claims to understand this mystery. But it is not a contradiction. And it is not nonsense. All we are really saying is that God’s psychology is more complex than our own human psychology. This ought not to surprise us or prove too troublesome to handle. We do not yet even understand our own finite human psychology. Why should we not expect the psychology of the infinite God to be more complex and mysterious than ours? Why should we insist that we must understand the divine psychology fully before we are willing to receive what God reveals to be true about his own nature?

This Side Of Mystery

Many subbiblical views have crept into the church through the centuries. Each one presents slight variations from every other one, but essentially all are very similar and tend to fall into one or the other of two patterns. That there is nothing new under the sun is certainly true of heretical views of the Trinity.

The error most frequently made in popular statements of the doctrine of the Trinity is Modalism. The so-called Modal view of the Trinity agrees that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, but it argues that the triune God, Christ included, is all one single person who simply appears or reveals himself in three different ways that the church (misleadingly) calls three persons.

All modalistic views of the Trinity founder on the person of Christ. The New Testament makes an obvious distinction between Jesus Christ and the Father, and this distinction is precisely that of a personal nature. In his incarnation Jesus Christ was a self, with a personal life and a personal-like relationship with God the Father. On New Testament grounds, therefore, Jesus Christ and the Father God must be personally differentiated.

The real question is: Was Jesus Christ God or not? If he is God, then there must be some sort of personal distinction in the Godhead and Modalism is ruled out. A biblical view of the deity of Jesus Christ, therefore, clearly eliminates a modalistic view of the Trinity as inconsistent with the biblical data.

A second type of error in the history of the church is best illustrated on the modern scene by some Unitarians, and especially by Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the ancient church, this error was associated most frequently with the heretic Arius. All Arian-like views begin with a whole-hearted acceptance of the distinction between the person of the Son and the person of the Father. Jesus Christ definitely was not the Father, but had a distinctly different self-center and self-life. Since this is true, they argue, he may well be divine in some sense; but he is not truly a second God, for this would make for polytheism. He certainly cannot be God in the same sense in which the Father is God. Of course, in some lesser sense, he may be a god, but he is not “the Mighty God.”

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Arians, Unitarians, and contemporary Jehovah’s Witnesses, too, all founder on the person of Jesus Christ. The question must again be put: Is he truly divine according to the biblical revelation or is he not? If anyone says he is not divine, then he must reckon with what the New Testament teaches about Christ when it says that he is divine (John 1:1), calls him “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), when it requires an ultimate commitment to him appropriate only to God, when it ascribes to him the attributes of God and the right to be worshiped. In short, in some unique sense the New Testament unequivocally places Jesus Christ on the side of the divine. This cannot be escaped except by the rejection of the whole biblical witness to Christ.

But here the problem is presented in its sharpest form. Are we polytheists and idolators? If we say that Jesus is a second divine being in addition to the Father, then we are essentially polytheistic. On the contrary, if we admit that all of these things are rightly to be ascribed to Jesus, but he is after all not really God, on biblical terms we are clearly idolators.

The only solution that makes any sense is the biblical solution itself—that Jesus Christ is the only true God along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, that he has a personal center distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit and, therefore, the one true God is one divine being and at the same time exists with three different personal centers in Jesus Christ, his heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit.

This, in short, is biblical trinitarianism. There is no other way to preserve biblical statements from teaching blasphemy according to the Bible’s own standards.

The church today is faced with a crisis on the Holy Spirit similar to the one answered at Constantinople in A.D. 381.

Simply put, the problem then and now is: Who is the Holy Spirit and where in the world does he legitimately work? If Christendom had bothered to celebrate Constantinople, such questions would have been addressed.

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Constantinople leaves no doubt that the Spirit speaks through the prophets; that is, the Old Testament spokesmen of God specifically, and all the biblical writers generally. This church council was addressing the question of scriptural authority as it added as an appendage to the Second Article the phrase “according to the Scriptures” to “And the third day he rose again.”

The prophetic Scriptures of the Old Testament were God’s Word, or more specifically, the words of the Holy Spirit. He was the one really speaking through the prophets. These words of the Spirit constitute the messianic plan that Jesus understands as applying to himself. The Scriptures contain God’s moral directives for living, but their chief and ultimate purpose is Christological.

Right here we are brought face to face with a current problem. Protestants have always denied the pope’s claim as a special spokesman for the Holy Spirit as the sole interpreter of the Holy Scriptures. But any “Spirit movement” claiming for anyone alive today a direct speaking of the Holy Spirit in the church outside of the Scriptures flies right in the face of Constantinople with its clear “Who spake by the Prophets.” As Luther adds an “only” to salvation with his sola fide, a sole is needed in this phrase.

The problem also appears in an entirely different disguise when the Scriptures are viewed as just another human literary production with only a casual influence of the Holy Spirit at best. This, of course, is the exegetical tradition coming from the eighteenth-century rationalism that did not and could not distinguish the Bible from other religious works from any number of different religious communities. These men held either that the Spirit does not speak through the Scriptures or that he also speaks through any number of religious writings. Whether they reduced the Bible to the level of other literature by secularizing it or raised all other religious writings to the level of the Bible, the effect was equally disastrous.

A somewhat more subtle and not so easily recognizable problem is the application of Scriptures apart from a Christological purpose. Constantinople attested to the Scriptures’ Christological purpose in saying that Christ rose “according to the Scriptures.” The phrase was taken from 1 Cor. 15:3–4. Paul cites no one specific Old Testament reference as he sees Christ’s salvific work as the Old Testament’s entire message. If the Scriptures are used outside of their Christological purpose, the full effect of what the Spirit intends to accomplish is lost.

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Constantinople was specifically directed against those who refused to acknowledge the person of the Holy Spirit. Again, for much of Protestantism today, the Spirit’s individuality within God is reckoned unimportant. Any Trinitarian discussion is foreign. He is understood merely as God’s power or force, but not as that Person who has eternal existence with the Father and the Son and who for them accomplishes salvation in the world. What the Holy Spirit can do for the individual believer frequently has received more attention than who he is. The current “Spirit movements” of the mid-and late-twentieth century are so functional in stressing what can happen in the life of the believer if he “surrenders” himself, that the Person of the Spirit as he is eternally related to the Father and the Son becomes an outdated question, quite useless for real Christian life. The 1,600-year-old answer of Constantinople has lost none of its efficacy in addressing this problem.

The line of Christian theology stemming from Schleiermacher saw no practical purpose for any significant attention to the ancient church’s doctrine on the Holy Spirit, and shelved it. Contemporary “Spirit movements,” regardless of their attention to the Spirit, are hardly an improvement. The Spirit serves not himself but Christ, to whose redemptive work he testifies. The Spirit is Christ’s Spirit and not a self-serving force. He accomplishes his real work by creating faith in Christ, gathering into the church the faithful, and granting them a place in his resurrection. The highest honor given the Spirit is for Christians to trust Christ.

Constantinople’s belief that the Spirit is honored within the unity of the Trinity and not as a separate, autonomous power or force must be confessed again today with vigor equal to that with which it was proclaimed 1,600 years ago.

DAVID P. SCAERDr. Scaer is professor of systematic theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.

A scientist once asked author Dorothy Sayers to write a letter to his scientific organization, setting forth her reasons for believing in the Christian faith.

The letter was not at all what the scientist had expected. It said:

“Why do you want a letter from me? Why don’t you take the trouble to find out for yourselves what Christianity is? You take time to learn technical terms about electricity. Why don’t you do as much for theology? Why do you never read the great writings on the subject, but take your information from the secular ‘experts’ who have picked it up as accurately as you? Why don’t you learn the facts in this field as honestly as in your own field? Why do you accept mildewed old heresies as the language of the church, when any handbook of church history will tell you where they came from?

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“Why do you balk at the doctrine of the Trinity—God the Three in One—yet meekly acquiesce when Einstein tells you E = MC2? What makes you suppose that the expression ‘God ordains’ is narrow and bigoted, while your own expression ‘Science demands’ is taken as an objective statement of fact? You would be ashamed to know as little about internal combustion as you know about Christian beliefs.

“I admit,” she continued, “you can practice Christianity without knowing much theology, just as you can drive a car without knowing much about internal combustion. But when something breaks down in the car, you go humbly to the man who understands the works; whereas, if something goes wrong with religion, you merely throw the works away and tell the theologian he is a liar.

“Why do you want a letter from me telling you about God? You will never bother to check on it or find out whether I’m giving you personal opinions or Christian doctrines. Don’t bother with me. Go away and do some work and let me get on with mine.”

Once again it is the end of year, and every Christian organization badgers its constituents for funds to balance the year’s budget. It is hard not to resent such pleas. But President Pearson of Miami Christian College offers us a sobering reminder to be patient:

“The trouble is, you are always asking for money. You are probably right. But let me tell you a personal story.

“I had a little boy; my firstborn. He was a delight to our hearts, but he was always costing me something. He needed clothing, shoes, food, and had special needs that I gladly provided, for he was my son. Then one day he died. It was an experience that I hope you will never have. He does not cost me a dollar now.

“Every need is an unfailing sign of life and growth. Body, mind, and soul have their needs and they must be met continually. A ministry that is constantly in need of funds is alive and growing and going somewhere. A dead ministry has no need, and will not bother you.”

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