The Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon are vitally important subordinate theological standards in the Church. Both have been received and confessed by the historic Reformed churches. Their doctrinal content was affirmed by the early Reformed theologians and embedded in our confessions of faith because they express the teaching of Scripture.
When we open any of the four Gospels, we read of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If we look closely at what we read, one thing that will catch our attention is that Jesus often says and does things that only a human being can say or do, and He also often says and does things that only God can say or do. For example, He ate (Mark 2:15–16). He drank (John 19:30). He grew weary (John 4:6) and slept (Mark 4:38). In other words, He was truly human.
Yet, what else does Jesus say and do? He says things that imply He eternally existed prior to His incarnation (e.g., John 3:13; 6:62; 8:42). He forgives sins (Matt. 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24). He hears and answers prayer (John 14:13–14). He receives worship and praise (Matt. 21:16). In short, He says and does things indicating that He understands Himself to be truly God.
After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the Church found itself having to answer questions about Jesus—questions that came not only from inquirers and skeptics outside the church but also from catechumens and laity within the church. How can we say both kinds of things about Jesus? Is He a human being? Is He a divine being? Is He a third kind of being, some mixture of deity and humanity? Scripture was forcing the Church to ask and answer philosophical questions, specifically, metaphysical questions about being.
The Docetist and Ebionite Heresies
These kinds of questions and others resulted in a large number of wrong answers. These wrong answers are the early Christological heresies. All of them are wrong because they all either fail to take into account everything Scripture says about Jesus or else deliberately reject one part or another of the biblical testimony. Some, for example, attempted to solve the difficulty by rejecting the true humanity of Jesus. These were the Docetists. The Ebionites solved the difficulty in the opposite way by denying the true deity of Christ.
The Adoptionist and Modalist Heresies
Adoptionists argued that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God. Instead He was a human being who was adopted as the Son of God at His baptism. Modalists, such as Noetus and Sabellius, argued that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were different “modes” of the one God. Sometimes this one God wears the Father mask. Sometimes He wears the Son mask. Other times He wears the Holy Spirit mask. All of these views were decisively rejected by the Church as being out of accord with the teaching of Scripture.
The Arian Heresy
The suggested solution offered by Arius ignited the fourth century Trinitarian controversy. In brief, Arius argued that the Son is a creature. He did not exist eternally, so there was a “time” when the Son was not. Various forms of Arianism developed during the fourth century. What they all have in common is a strong subordinationist strain. For example, the Second Creed of Sirmium, written by fourth-century Homoian Arians, states:
There is no uncertainty about the Father being greater: it cannot be doubted by anyone that the Father is greater in honor, in dignity, in glory, in majesty, in the very name of ‘Father.’
This teaching stood in direct contrast to the Nicene Creed which was produced at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Because the controversies did not immediately end after 325, another council, the Council of Constantinople was called in AD 381. The original Nicene Creed was expanded into the form most are familiar with today:
We 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 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 and 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.