Neal Plantinga once asked us to imagine a world in which theology was a cause for casual conversation, the way people might discuss the most recent developments on Dancing with the Stars.
Imagine, Plantinga suggested, that you are in the barber’s chair. As he begins to snip your hair, the barber asks, “What do you think: is Jesus truly God or not?” Clusters of people gather at the local coffee shop and, as they sip their chai tea and triple mocha lattes, get into heated discussions about this question. Several schools of thought form, and people begin to argue over who is right.
It may sound strange to us, but once upon a time something very close to that really happened.
After the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century, the Christian faith went from a persecuted underground movement to a mainstream one. What had been discussed in whispers was now hashed out in the public square as pastors and theologians from around the Roman Empire compared notes on various doctrines. Once they started to bring their ideas together, they discovered some pretty major disagreements, a main one of which centered on Jesus.
A popular preacher named Arius believed Jesus was a lot like God, but Arius stopped short of saying that Jesus was God. Others, including a theologian named Athanasius, concluded that the witness of the New Testament was clear: the one true God existed as a Trinity of three divine persons, and the second of those persons, the Son, had also become human in the person of Jesus from Nazareth. Jesus, therefore, was not like God but was and is God. Period.
The early Church debated these matters at great length in the fourth and fifth centuries. In the end, Arius did not fare well, as you can now see in the Nicene Creed.
Although similar to the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed allows itself to get a little more technical here and there—nowhere more so than where we state that Jesus Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.”
These days when we recite this creed in public worship, we glide right over “of the same essence.” But for the better part of two centuries, this phrase caused many pastors to lose sleep. They agonized over it. They prayed over it. They, no doubt, wept over it. They simply had to get this right.
In the Greek language, the difference between “of the same essence” and “of similar essence” was just one little vowel. Jesus was either homoousios (the same essence) or he was homoiousios (a similar essence). One vowel made a big difference! Either Jesus was truly God or he was not.
We live in a time when people want to “go along to get along”; we’re willing to let things slide a bit to avoid conflict. “Close is good enough,” we may say.
Thankfully, when it came to the core identity of our precious Savior, the teachers and preachers of the early church did not settle for “close enough.” They fought and prayed over one little vowel because in this case they knew a dear truth: if Jesus is “God from God” and “of the same essence as the Father,” then our salvation is a sure thing because it is the work of God through and through. Nothing will ever stop it or undo it. Period.
So the next time you have the privilege of confessing the words of the Nicene Creed, when you get to that little phrase “of the same essence,” pause long enough to whisper a prayer of thanks for all those who prayed so hard to get it right!
- Why don’t we talk doctrine in the barber/beauty shop anymore these days, as they did in ancient Rome? What has changed? Do we still have such conversations? Are they worthwhile? If so, how might we reverse the trend?
- Are there still Arians today? (Hint: has a group of two shown up at your doorstep recently?) Would you consider Arians to be Christians? How should you treat them?
- What’s at stake in that difference of a single vowel: “homoousious” and “homoiousious”? Is it a big deal? Why or why not?
- Compare and contrast the Nicene Creed with the Apostles’ Creed. What other differences do you find? How important are they? Which creed do you prefer?
- Read John 20:24-29. What do you make of verse 28? Where else in Scripture might you find a similar claim about Jesus?