In the first three centuries, the
church found itself in a hostile environment. On the one hand, it grappled with
the challenge of relating the language of the gospel, developed in a Hebraic and
Jewish-Christian context, to a Graeco-Roman world. On the other hand, it was threatened
not only by persecution, but also by ideas that were in conflict with the biblical
In A.D. 312, Constantine won control of the Roman Empire in
the battle of Milvian Bridge. Attributing his victory to the intervention of Jesus
Christ, he elevated Christianity to favored status in the empire. "One God,
one Lord, one faith, one church, one empire, one emperor" became his motto.
The new emperor soon discovered that "one faith and one church"
were fractured by theological disputes, especially conflicting understandings
of the nature of Christ, long a point of controversy. Arius, a priest of the church
in Alexandria, asserted that the divine Christ, the Word through whom all things
have their existence, was created by God before the beginning of time. Therefore,
the divinity of Christ was similar to the divinity of God, but not of the same
essence. Arius was opposed by the bishop, Alexander, together with his associate
and successor, Athanasius. They affirmed that the divinity of Christ, the Son,
is of the same substance as the divinity of God, the Father. To hold otherwise,
they said, was to open the possibility of polytheism, and to imply that knowledge
of God in Christ was not final knowledge of God.
To counter a widening
rift within the church, Constantine convened a council in Nicaea in A.D. 325.
A creed reflecting the position of Alexander and Athanasius was written and signed
by a majority of the bishops. Nevertheless, the two parties continued to battle
each other. In A.D. 381, a second council met in Constantinople. It adopted a
revised and expanded form of the A.D. 325 creed, now known as the Nicene Creed.
The Nicene Creed is the most ecumenical of creeds. The Presbyterian Church
(U.S.A.) joins with Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and most Protestant churches
in affirming it. Nevertheless, in contrast to Eastern Orthodox churches, the western
churches state that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but from
the Father and the Son (Latin, filioque).
To the eastern churches, saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both Father
and Son threatens the distinctiveness of the person of the Holy Spirit; to the
western churches, the filioque
guards the unity of the triune God. This issue remains unresolved in the ecumenical
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.