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Church History - Defining Theology: Augustine and Councils (300-600) Print E-mail
Church History

I.  Introduction:

 This week we will look at the period of Church history ranging from 300-600 a.d. In the first 250 years of the church’s existence, we have seen the continual theme of persecution – from Nero to Decius to Diocletian. In 313, however, a landmark event occurs with the issuing of the ‘Edict of Milan’ by the Emperor Constantine – who claimed to have become a follower of Christ. In essence, this edict granted religious toleration to all faiths – particularly Christianity. While many have questioned both Constantine’s sincerity and his motives, the fact remains that with this Edict, Christianity began the transition from scapegoat to world power. The Church’s problem in the centuries leading up to this was how to handle the issue of persecution, but now the Church’s problem becomes how to handle the issue of power. God granted great grace to the Church that led them to officially affirm a number of the central truths of the Christian faith. As we examine these councils and debates and creeds, it is important to keep a proper perspective. Yes, we as 21st century Protestant Christians affirm the decisions of certain councils, but we do not affirm those decisions because the council is our final authority – this is the error the Catholic Church would make later. We affirm the decisions of these councils because we agree with the council’s interpretation of Scripture, and Scripture is our final, ultimate authority. With that in mind, we will look at two major theological battles that the Church fought during this time – including the relevant councils – as well as one of the theological champions of the Christian faith.

II. Theological Battles & a Theological Giant

 A. The first major theological battle that we see the Church fighting during this period was over the issue of the nature of Christ. By the early 300’s, there were a number of false teachings spread around about the nature of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The controversy exploded, however, around the teachings of Arius, a priest in North Africa. In short, Arius taught – speaking of Jesus – that “there was a time when he was not.” What he meant by this was that Jesus had actually been created at some point before the world was created, and that He was not of the same essence as the Father – He was not God. His main opponent was Alexander, bishop of Alexandria (although Alexander’s secretary, Athanasius, would eventually be the one who took up the long term battle for the true divinity and humanity of Christ,) and in 325, the controversy became such that Constantine convened the first universal church council in Nicea. Approximately 300 bishops attended this council where both Arius’s view and Alexander’s view were presented. In the end, all but two of the bishops condemned Arius as a heretic and supported the view of Alexander. The creed which they produced – the Nicene Creed – provides us with a wonderfully profound declaration that Christ was indeed fully God and fully man.

 Ideally, the Nicene decision would have settled the issue once and for all. However, the issue dragged on for more than a century. Eventually, Arius became the favored theologian and Athanasius – the new champion of the pro-Nicene group – was banished on several different occasions. Numerous schools and heresies continued to arise seeking to provide a satisfactory explanation of the true nature of Christ. Some examples of this heresy include Apollinarius who claimed that the human part of Jesus Christ was actually replaced by the divine – thus, Christ was not fully human. He was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Another example is Nestorius who, in order to avoid the heresy of Apollinarius, claimed that the two natures of Christ remained distinct from one another – joined only by the will. They did not mix or join together in any way. He was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Eventually, another major council was called to end the problem once and for all. And at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, those present produced what has “singularly remained the most important declaration about Jesus Christ in the history of the church.” 1  The final decision – in accord with the teaching of Scripture – is that Christ was fully God and fully man and that the two natures came together in the one person of Christ without either being diminished or destroyed.

 B. The second major theological battle that the Church dealt with during this period was the issue of the Trinity. How is it that God can be one and yet have three different persons, as seen in numerous Scriptural references? Once again, as with the nature of Christ, there were a number of heresies being thrown out to answer this question. The most common was called modalism. Essentially, this belief holds that God is one and reveals himself at different times in different “modes” – sometimes as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit. The majority of the Church recognized this as unacceptable because it disregarded the fact that the persons of the Trinity are distinct from one another. The champions of orthodoxy that God raised up to defend the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity are known as the Cappadocian Fathers.

 The first of these three men is Basil of Caeserea. Basil taught that, when speaking of the Trinity, the distinction must be made between the terms “essence” and “person.” The first term refers to the attributes of God – omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience – while the second refers to distinctions within that essence. The second of these men, Gregory of Nazianzus went a step further in saying that the difference between the three persons is in the way that they relate to one another. The third of these men was Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, taught much the same thing in saying that all three persons of the Trinity were indeed one God but that the difference in the three is in the way they relate and in their specific functions. Thanks in large part to the labors of these three men, the Church was able to further articulate some of the fine points surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Constantinople in 381. They recognized, as Wayne Grudem explains it, that 1) God is three persons, 2) each person is fully God, 3) there is one God. 2

 C. Having looked at these two major theological battles, we now turn to the theological giant of this period, and perhaps of all of Church history. Augustine (354-430) was born to a pagan father and a devout mother. A brilliant young man, Augustine at first rejected the faith of his mother – despite her earnest prayers and pleadings – and pursued truth through a number of various avenues including Manichaeism and Neoplatonism, without success. He also struggled immensely with lust and fathered an illegitimate child at age 18. He was converted under extraordinary circumstances in 386, and immediately began following Christ and studying his Word profusely. He left behind the lusts of his youth and became a passionate champion of the truths of Jesus Christ.

 The importance of Augustine to all of Church history since his lifetime cannot be overestimated. His major works include “Confessions”, “Treatise on the Holy Trinity”, and “City of God.” “Confessions” is basically his spiritual autobiography – a magnificent work detailing the continuing grace of God in his life, even before his conversion in 386. His “Treatise on the Holy Trinity” is “a magnificent theological masterpiece,” constituting “the capstone of centuries of theological thought on the nature of God.” 3  City of God was written in response to the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, mostly because many people blamed this disaster on the Christians. Augustine sought to show that there is a “city of man” which wrestles against God and his good purposes alongside a “City of God” which is made up of the people of God, the Church, serving the Lord in their lives. In the end, God will destroy the “city of man” and the City of God will live on for eternity. In these works, as well as many others, Augustine’s thought was, and continues to be, of inestimable value to the Church. Augustine thought extensively about the problem of evil, ultimately falling back on the purposes of a good and almighty God. Augustine’s main rival in his lifetime was Pelagius, a British monk who denied that man was utterly sinful and, as a result, taught that salvation was achieved through the power of men within themselves. Augustine battled this thought extensively and, using the teachings of Scripture – particularly Paul – eloquently articulated the doctrines of election and predestination which would greatly influence Luther and Calvin over a millennium in the future.

III. What can we learn from this period?

 A. The first thing that becomes very clear when looking at this period of Church history – particularly the councils – is that God is working to purify the Church. Look at Titus 2:11-14. 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says “For this is the will of God, your sanctification,” and Ephesians 5, in speaking of Christ’s love for the church mentions his work in sanctifying her and making her holy “by the washing of water with the word.” The fact is that the decisions of these councils were guided by the hand of God, for His glory. And, we can be sure that the God who was working toward that end in those early centuries is continuing to work toward that end today, so we must labor with Him toward the same goal, even as he commanded.

 B. The second thing we can learn from this period of church history is very closely related to the first and that is the fact that we, as the church, are indeed part of the same building as the saints of old that we studied this evening such as Athanasius and Augustine. This means that we do not exist in a vacuum of Church history. Those who have gone before have labored hard and spent much of their lives thinking about and studying the great truths of our faith and, in many cases, have exquisitely articulated their thoughts for us as the Church in ages after them to read and study. Look at Ephesians 2:17-22. Here we see clearly that we are not a building in and of ourselves. We are part – and a much later part at that – of a larger “household of God” as Paul says. And many of those who have gone before, such as Augustine and Luther and Calvin were spiritual, intellectual, and theological giants, and we as the modern church would benefit greatly from more study of their great work done through the amazing power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. God, grant us grace and build your Church for your glory. Amen.

James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 34.
2  Taken from Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 226-261.
3  Eckman, 36-37.

~ William Marshall ~ 
Based on a manuscript prepared by Chad Davis, with minor changes.  For the original, look here.

Last Updated ( Monday, 23 July 2007 )

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