Christmas, Councils, and Creeds
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Christmas music is playing, trees are going up, cookies are being baked, and children are expecting to be visited by a heretic-slapping defender of the orthodox faith. Alright, you’ve probably never heard of that last holiday tradition, but St. Nicholas (apart from being the basis of the Santa Claus legend) is a big deal in the history of the church. He helped formulate one of the greatest creeds in Christendom.
The church’s foundation is the gospel. This means that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis on which the church stands. In fact, Paul tells the Corinthians, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). However, it did not take long for the church to lose sight of the cornerstone upon which she was built.
Within the early church, many doctrinal errors began seeping into the lives of local Jesus groups. Gnosticism, legalism, antinomianism, Paganism, Marcionism, and many other false teachings were leading people astray from the one true gospel. One of the primary reasons that many New Testament letters were written to the churches was to correct the false beliefs that the people were holding. Soon thereafter, the church began recognizing these false beliefs as heresy.
As heresy spread, leading people further away from the teachings of Scripture, the church was forced to decide how to deal with the false teachings and the teachers.
The church had successfully warded off several early heresies by the third and fourth century. However, what was about to break during the early 300’s AD would shape the way the church thought of the Godhead, specifically the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Arius, a priest in Alexandria, was a charismatic leader who showed promise and attracted a great following. He stressed the benefits of self-denial and moral living among chief Christian spiritual disciplines. Along with these teachings, Arius also taught that God was strictly one, that Christ was subordinate to the Father, and that Christ was a created being. The church reacted to these teachings with great concern, as they threatened to shake the church down to its very foundation.
Recognizing the magnitude and far-reaching effects that this controversial teacher could have on the church as a whole, the newly Christianized emperor Constantine called a council to discuss Arius and his teachings. In 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea convened. Roughly 300 bishops and delegates were in attendance; among the attendees were Arius, Eusebius, St. Athanasius, and St. Nicholas of Myra.
According to legend, during this three-month conciliatory St. Nicholas became so enraged with Arius that he decked him in the face. That’s right; Santa Claus was so passionate about understanding our God and Savior rightly that he punched Arius right in the nose. Now, this is merely a legend, but I think that it by far tops chimney sliding and sleigh riding. What it does show, though we cannot substantiate the story, is that St. Nicholas was an ardent defender of the Christian faith.
After three months of debate, discussion, and prayer, the members of the council drafted “The Symbol of Nicaea,” which we now know as the “Nicene Creed”. In the writing of this creed, the church affirmed the eternal nature of the Son, stating that Jesus was of the same substance with the Father, and that he was not created or made. In this statement, the church put herself in direct opposition to Arius and his teachings.
It was at Nicaea that the Biblical and historical doctrine of the trinity was defended and solidified as part of the orthodox faith. Among those in attendance, only two refused to sign the Symbol of Nicaea, Arius being one of them. With his refusal to agree to the statement he was declared a heretic, all of his works were destroyed, and he was excommunicated.
“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 the 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 for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit 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 sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe 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.” - The Nicene Creed
So, does the Nicene Creed still matter? And what does it have to do with Christmas?
The Nicene Creed still matters because the incarnation matters. Central to the story and meaning of Christmas is the truth that God became a man. Matthew recounts the prophecy given in Isaiah and links it directly to Jesus, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means God with us)” (Matt. 1:23). If Arius was right, and Jesus was merely a created being, subordinate to the Father, how could he truly be God with us? But, as the Bible teaches and the creed rightly affirms, Jesus Christ is true God of true God. He is of the same substance with the Father, and maker of all things that were made. Because of this, Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. Therefore, we can celebrate God becoming man this Christmas.
The Nicene Creed still matters because our salvation matters. Another central part of the Christmas story is understanding that Jesus came to save his people from their sins. Matthew again tells us of the birth of Jesus, saying, “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). If Jesus was not fully God, then he could not save us, for his death would have meant as much as the death of any mere man. However, because Jesus is fully God and fully man, he can perfectly atone for our sins, living the life that we could not live and died the death we should have died. As the creed says, Jesus came down from heaven for us and for our salvation.
And finally, the Nicene Creed still matters because the second advent matters. We are currently living in a time between Christ’s first coming and his second coming, and we should be eagerly awaiting his return. This is what we celebrate at Christmas time, the coming of Christ. Peter, when speaking about Christ’s second coming, said that we should be “waiting for and hastening the coming day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). Just as God came in the flesh once, he shall come again. Let us wait for this with expectant hope this year.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list as to why the Nicene Creed matters, but it reminds us of some important Christmas realities. Christmas is not about St. Nicholas (though he was a really cool guy), it is not about the creed that he helped to formulate, and it is not about church history. However, I want to encourage you to meditate on the realities that are drawn out here. Celebrate the incarnation, rejoice in your salvation, and place your hope in Christ’s return.