03.25.1 The Great Councils Continued, Finishing the Development of Trinitarian Doctrine and Related Issues; Over 500 Years of Debate on the Nature of Christ and the Trinity

This article does not include a comparison to original Christianity in the matters discussed.  It presents what happened in these matters along with occasionally reporting what the writers of these histories deemed important for our understanding.  Remember the point of this website is to see how different doctrines developed over time, and how they compare to original Christianity in order to understand how we got so many divisions and what we must do to restore the church. This article continues to look at how the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, and Mary as the Mother of God became part of Christianity.  Later articles will discuss how these concepts align with the tradition of the apostles in original Christianity.  The goal here is for the reader to be able to review the historical material and start evaluating for themselves whether God ordained each of the decisions and decrees.  One of the questions of this website is where did the seeds for all this division come from?  What patterns of thinking allow for all the division we have in the church?

Remember, that by the time of Nicea I a major shift had occurred where Christianity was now being discussed much more philosophically and intellectually than in New Testament times. (See Philosophy in Christianity – Welcome Addition or Intrusion of Worldly Reasoning?) The previous article on this topic talks about how the previous councils had debated these issues to this point. In the seventh century, the issues of the Deity of Christ and the Trinity were still not totally resolved.

So, accordingly, in the seventh century, a group called the Monothyletists held that Jesus’ will was a single will, a merger of Jesus’ human nature with his divine nature.  However, this was at odds with this more dominant ideology (called Dyothelitism) that Jesus had two wills, both a human will and a divine will that was needed to make sense of the Trinity.  That prevailing ideology eventually won the day and it was declared that Jesus had two wills, a human will, and a divine will.  Constantinople III declared just that. Part of the doctrines of the Deity of Christ and the Trinity is that Jesus had both a human will and a divine will. The sixth Great Council and the final one on the development of Trinitarian doctrine (with some exceptions) was Constantinople III in 680 AD.

The issue is named Monothelitism, a fancy word meaning “one will”.  The question was how many wills did Jesus Christ have? You or I may only have one will but as far as Jesus Christ is concerned there was a great debate.

The Bible doesn’t say much about Jesus’ will except for this verses like these:

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (Joh 6:38 WEB)

That is one reference to Jesus’ will. It talks about one will. So, there is no biblical teaching here that says Jesus had two wills.  Or look at this famous verse:

saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luk 22:42 WEB)

Here we have two wills, but they are not both Jesus’.  This verse contrasts Jesus’ will and the Father’s will.  Look at what happens next:

An angel from heaven appeared to him, strengthening him. Being in agony he prayed more earnestly. His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. (Luk 22:43-44 WEB)

Do you think that it was easy for Jesus to face what he was faced with?  No, Luke writes his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down.  That is some intense trepidation!  An angel was sent to strengthen Jesus to be able to do the will of the Father.

Jesus wanted to always do the will of the Father, but we read here that if he had his preference it would have been done some other way.  In any event, this verse only supports him having one will.

Nevertheless, Ligonier.org says that the Dyothelytism doctrine was simply derived this way.  Jesus had two natures, ergo he must have two wills.[1] Another site writes:

Brilliant theologians of that time understood the great importance to theology that Jesus possesses two wills, one divine and one human, since he is truly God and truly human. All branches of Christianity have embraced this doctrine as important and orthodox theology.[2]

No biblical exegesis there, just a statement that brilliant theologians understood it so it must be so. See the acknowledgment that this doctrine was created purely because it was needed to make the Trinity work.  And there is that claim that this is universally accepted so it must be true. (It may be universally accepted among Trinitarians. Unitarians and Bitarians may differ.)

Basically, what it boils down to is this concerning the Trinity:  If Jesus was God then he had to have the will of God.  Here’s the conundrum: if Jesus only has one will and if Jesus is God and if God cannot be tempted and Jesus was tempted, then there is a contradiction as Jesus had to have the will of God.  So Jesus also had to also have a human will that could be tempted. The website explains, “the two-wills model (Dyothelitism) is more accurate to the biblical and theological evidence for the incarnation.”  So, it comes down to the two wills model is the one that fits with the Trinity even if there is no scriptural support.

As there is no scriptural record of Jesus having two wills and no discussion of his will being any different than other person’s will in scripture this is another extrabiblical element of the Trinity.  It is an example of inductive logic being used to explain scripture in light of the a priori assumption of a Triune God with Jesus being God the Son, and thus explaining how his will must work to fit with what scripture says about him.

Does it fit with good hermeneutics?  It’s questionable. It certainly is different than the way “will” is used in all the other places.  “Will” in the verse is the Greek word thelema (Strong’s G2307) which means choice, decision, will and is derived from G2309, meaning determination. By this doctrine, Jesus having two wills is the only case in the bible of a person having two wills.

As an aside it must be noted that the word “will” is used in English translations many times in the sense of something happening in the future, i. e., will sue, will forgive, will profess but the word is produced in English because it indicates future action (tense).  Those verses do not have the corresponding Greek word.

But, in talking about Jesus’ will, it is only talked in the singular. So, it is unique to the Trinity to have two wills in one person in Scripture

Not that everyone had been in unison on this or any of the issues. Throughout the centuries Popes and bishops were condemned for taking the wrong side. Part of the findings of Constantinople III was the condemnation of a prior pope, Honorius I, for believing Jesus had just one will, the current issue, just as the council at Ephesus condemned Nestorius, the Bishop of Constantinople, and Nicea 1 condemned Arius, Eusebius of Caesarea and many other bishops including Lucian of Antioch and Paul of Samosata over issues that were ruled against them.[3]

According to Belitto in The General Councils Monothelitism was the last great issue that needed to be resolved in order for the church to have an adequate understanding of the nature of Christ, the Trinity, and Mary’s standing as the Mother of God. According to him, it took six Great councils, numerous local synods, and councils, and at least 355 years of councils to develop these doctrines to the true apostolic faith.

So, in review, we’re going to look at what is known as the Chalcedon Definition which encapsulates definitions decreed in the previous general councils concerning these doctrines that are relegated to the highest importance in the church.

“Following, then the holy fathers, we all with one voice teach that it is to be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same God, perfect in divinity, and perfect in humanity, true God and true human, with a rational soul and a body, of one substance with the Father in his divinity, and of one substance with us in his humanity, in every way you like us, with the only exception of sin, begotten of the Father before all time in his divinity, and also begotten in the latter days, in his humanity, of Mary the Virgin bearer of God.

This is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, manifested in two natures without any confusion, change, division, or separation. The union does not destroy the difference of the two natures, but on the contrary, the properties of each are kept, and both are joined in one person and hypostasis. They are not divided into two persons, but belong to the one Only-begotten Son, the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.

All this, as the prophets of old said of him, and he himself has taught us, and as the Creed of the Fathers has passed on to us.

This definition is an amalgamation of decrees ironed out in the councils at Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.

Of course, those are the general councils, and it would be remiss to not mention that between the general councils were numerous synods and smaller councils that were also working on these very issues over these hundreds of years. In the case of Constantinople III, Pope Agatho first called for local synods to address the issue.  Two known local synods were Milan and England. The findings of those synods were discussed in a Roman synod. Then the Pope consulted with Emperor Constantine IV and General Council Constantinople III was convened.[4]

That is a lot of people talking in a lot of meetings over a lot of years to iron out that short statement.

For insight on how some historians view these developments I’m going to quote Justo L Gonzalez. Gonzalez in his book, The Story of Christianity, acknowledges that the goal of these decrees was not purely biblical, rather, in setting the limits for what these doctrines teach they discuss things outside the realm of biblical thinking. First, he writes:

 “It will be readily seen that this Definition does not seek to “define” the union in the sense of explaining how it took place, but rather in the sense of setting the limits beyond which error lies. Thus, it rejected the notion that the union destroyed “the difference of the two natures” and also the view that the Savior is “divided into two persons” – thus rejecting the most extreme Alexandrian and Antiochene positions.”

Gonzalez acknowledges the extrabiblical nature of the decrees.  Extrabiblical refers to things outside the Bible. ApologeticsIndex.org defines extrabiblical as “Information or content outside the Bible. Thus, any form of knowledge or experience which gives us information concerning God, His Work or His Will, which is not directly quoted in scripture.”[5] Gonzalez is clear that this manner of speech, the way things were spelled out by the Councils, was far different from the scriptures.

Gonzalez here, as do others,  acknowledges that these decrees go outside the pure framework of Scripture. The Deity of Christ, the Trinity, and Mary as God’s mother were generated with extra-biblical patterns of thought, mainly philosophy, and were the result of many years of intellectual, theological debate.

“But, given the manner in which the issue was posed, it is difficult to see what else the bishops gathered at Chalcedon could have done in order to safeguard the reality of the incarnation.”[6]

This statement nevertheless defends the methods used to arrive at these decrees as one of necessity. The implication is that these doctrines are too important to be limited by the Bible.  These doctrines, the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Theotokos, are too important to be restricted to biblical thinking only.   In the common vernacular Gonzalez is saying that the end justified the means.

And, at least among the religious elite, these decrees became new scripture.  In fact, Pope Gregory I declared the first four general councils to have the same authority as the four Gospels.[20]

Next, for more context, we are going to look at the development of the doctrines of the Deity of Christ and the Trinity prior to the councils because these issues didn’t just pop up around 325 AD.

Williston Walker in A History of the Christian Church describes the process of resolving the issues of the deity of Christ and the Trinity as one of a long intellectual development and debate among various people and groups starting with Hermas around 140 AD and then Tertullian around 195 AD.  Tertullian first talked about three persons in one Godhead distributing the unity into a Trinity.[7] But, prior to Tertullian, adoptionist Christology (Jesus as an adopted son) was dominant as late as 140 Ad with Hermas.[8]  At that time a Trinity meant three Gods.

About the same time, the Montanists’ embracing of the gospel of John and the doctrine of the Logos as an outpouring of Spirit saw an opposite reaction from the group called Monarchians (rejecting the Logos as God maintaining the One God single personhood of the Father.).

That sprung up two group viewpoints; dynamic Monarchianism and modalistic Monarchianism.  Dynamic Monarchianism was more popular in the East.  Paul of Samosata was a famous representative of this.  He described the Logos as the Son of God, but also an impersonal attribute of the Father.  No Trinity there, in his view.  Eventually, Paul of the Samosata was ex-communicated for his views.

An overall more numerous group than the dynamic Monarchians was the Modalistic Monarchian group.  Their perspective was that with all the pagan gods competing in the religious marketplace it was of primary importance to emphasize the unity of God. Noetus, an example of the Modalistic Monarchians, taught that the Son was actually the Father himself, and it was, in fact, the Father who was born as Jesus, suffered and died on the cross.[9]

A very famous member of this group, Sabellius, taught that the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit were just three names of the same God. Sabellius was pretty much flatly rejected in Rome but found a following in the East.  This belief came to be known as Sabellianism.

Of course, the losing side in these debates was labeled heresy, and their proponents were called heretics, and as a result, they suffered in various forms including removal from their positions.

Justin Martyr around 150 A.D. was one of the first to teach what is called the Logos Christology. In the Logos Christology Jesus Christ always existed, but before his actual birth, he existed in the mind of God. (Jesus was not co-eternal at that time.) Hippolytus, around the beginning of the third century A.D. was a great advocate of the Logos Christology and a great opponent of the Monarchians, both kinds, in this intellectual battle. Justin Martyr is assumed to have died a martyr, and his successor, Kallistos, tried to find a compromise to Justin’s ideas and continue his work. His compromise was to call Father, Son, and Logos all just names of one indivisible God. According to him, the Father is invisible, the Son is visible, while the Father is the Spirit in the Son.[10] A side effect of this stance is that while previously the Logos was considered starting with Jesus’s birth, now the Logos was considered eternal. Here we have the switch from a beginning for the Logos to being co-eternal with no beginning.

Kallistos’ Christology was “a compromise which recognized a preexistent Logos in Christ, even if it identified that Logos with the Father; it insisted on the identity of that which indwelt Jesus with God; and it claimed the human Jesus, raised to divinity by the Father, and made one with him, thus really showing a distinction between the Father and the Son, while denying in words that one exists.” This compromise was taken by Tertullian, further refined, and called the Trinity in his treatise called Against Praxeas.

What we see with all of this is one viewpoint after another trying to exactly understand  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit considering the concepts of John chapter 1 with other verses that talk about Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This debate allowed for extra-biblical content, and the use of philosophy to come to conclusions.  And as we are seeing, there were many competing viewpoints in a heated debate over the centuries.

While Catholic theologians depict the 355 years between Nicea I and Constantinople III as the period of development of the doctrines of the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and Theotokos, what we’re seeing is that the debate actually started almost 2 centuries before Nicea I. The change from Jesus being considered a man, the only begotten son of God with a beginning, to Jesus being considered God the Son, co-eternal with the Father and Holy Spirit with two natures and two wills took about five and a half centuries of debate and decrees. And it was quite a debate.

Along the way it was confounding, it was confusing, and it left a lot of Christians, including bishops and popes, wondering which side to take. For example, let’s look at the period around Hippolytus, circa 200 AD.  Hippolytus was considered the most learned Christian writer in Rome of his day. He was a “commentator, chronicler, calculator of Easter dates, apologists, and opponent of heretics”[11]. Notice the intellectual capacities that are being praised there with no mention of the Spirit. This was an intellectual debate among the finest thinkers in the church. Hippolytus did not agree with either of the Monarchian schools of thought and was at the forefront of a hotly waged battle over these ideas. Bishop Zephyrinus, Pope at the beginning of the third century, according to Walker, “hardly knew what to do, although he leaned toward the Monarchian side”.  So, the Pope around 200 AD hardly knew what to believe.  The leader of the Roman Catholic Church, a learned man, was unable to make a decision on the matter, it was so confusing.

Further developments kept coming for Kallistos’ compromise of Christological concepts. Novation around 240 A.D. wrote the treatise Trinity in Latin but it was little more than Tertullian’s concept although he did present it as the “only normal and legitimate interpretation of the apostles’ Creed.[12] Novation also used the terminology “communion of substance” describing the relationship between the Father. and the Son. So, centuries after Christ’s death we see the introduction of the idea “of the same substance” which played a key role at Nicea.

Gradually over this long period of time, a cohesive opinion among the elite thinkers and church leaders came into being. It’s important to recognize that it was cohesive but not universally accepted, or even in the majority. The majority of Christians at this time were Unitarian, not Trinitarian.[13]   Thus, Walker documents this intellectual debate going on for over a century and a half before Nicea. But, by the time Nicea comes around, there is this cohesive theological compromise with a lot of the details of the Nicene Creed. Jesus is of one substance with the Father.  As the Logos Jesus is coeternal with the Father.  The groundwork had been done for a  doctrine to be named to end the debate despite intense, fiery, intellectual debate going on for nearly two centuries before Nicea I.

Nevertheless, despite what appears to be a dominant pro-Trinity ideology, in reality, Trinitarians were far outnumbered by Unitarians at the start of the third century.  The Unitarians (God as one person) were numbered among mainly two groups, the Adoptionists, and the Modalists.  And people on both sides of the disagreement looked to different philosophies for support.  The Adoptionists used Aristotelian philosophy for support, the Modalists looked to Stoic philosophy while the Trinitarians used Plato’s philosophy. Still, the Unitarians had a large majority.[13]  This is documentation that Greek philosophy was instrumental in the formulation of these doctrines.

Next, we will look at the role of Emperor Constantine in this matter.  You can’t talk about the Council of Nicaea without talking about the man who convened the Council, Constantine the Great, and both his religious and political machinations. The beginning of the fourth century A.D. marks a groundbreaking time in the history of Christianity. In the latter half of the third century the number of Christians had continued to grow and efforts to eradicate the faith through persecutions, while popping up, had proven futile in the Empire.

However. in the year 303 AD the terrible persecution by Emperor Diocletian happened. Terror reigned for Christians. There was imprisonment, torture, and killing. The tombs of martyrs were desecrated. Books were burned. Churches were destroyed. And it wasn’t over shortly. After Diocletian left office in 305, Galerius and his nephew Maximinus continued this reign of terror until 311.

Then Galerius, before his agonizing death, issued an edict of eliminating the requirement for Christians to worship Roman gods. What all this did was remind the Christians that they were just a small group whose legal standing was iffy depending on the emperor.

But that all changed with the appearance of Constantine the Great. A great commander he was able to unify the Empire by winning the Civil War that ensued when Constantius died in 306. Before defeating Maxentius Constantine had a dream to paint the Christian symbol, chi-rho, in one version of the story, and in another version of the story Constantine’s troops saw a great cross in the sky before the battle. From that point on Christians had an advocate who was at the top of the Roman Empire, the actual Emperor, and everything changed.[14]

To some Constantine was an apostle whose efforts to build Christianity Empire-wide were evangelical. He moved Empire funds from pagan religions to Christianity to fund massive programs. He built churches, he provided for the poor, the sick, widows, and orphans. He worked to bring the governmental policies of his empire more in alignment with Christian teachings. He was an advocate of the most powerful kind determined to bring Christianity into prosperity in the Empire.

For example, Eusebius of Caesarea, a contemporary of Constantine, accredited Constantine with God working directly in his life on behalf of Christians. He wrote that Constantine and his subordinate Licinius were led by God to declare war against the evil tyrants and led them to a glorious victory.[15]  Eusebius credited Constantine’s power to win as being God-given. He wrote how Constantine credited God as the author of all his success. Eusebius writes glowing praise of Constantine as an instrument of God to bring peace to Christians in the Empire in the chapter entitled “Constantine And Peace” in his Church History. Eusebius gives Constantine the title “friend of God” and calls him “the emperor beloved of God”.[16]

Others point out that Constantine was not the saint that many proclaimed him as. He could be brutal in enforcing decrees. Some sources say he called for the murder of his wife Fausta and son Crispus in 326.[17]

That was the thinking in calling Nicea I anyway, but as we have said, it took more of that kind of debate for about three and a half centuries to get close to calling it done.  And, even then, challenges to the Trinitarian doctrine reared their head from time to time. Unitarian and Bitarian proponents seem to have always been around despite the church using unscriptural extreme measures including the death penalty to attempt to force compliance. Unitarians and Bitarians exist to this day, even if in the minority.

Gonzales in The Story Of Christianity writes that the conversion of Constantine was critical to resolving all the confusion and myriad debates over issues because it was now possible for the government to intervene and resolve the disputes once and for all.

“The state soon began to use its power to force theological agreement upon Christians.”[18]

But, Constantine and the Roman Empire needed a unified Christianity, not one embroiled in a heated debate about the nature of the Savior.  Thus, Constantine called the Nicea Council to decide it once and for all.  At least, that was the hope.

And lastly, it must be mentioned that while these decrees and all general council decrees, for that matter, are acknowledged as having extra-biblical thought material, they are credited by Catholic and Orthodox theologians as part of the true apostolic faith by the doctrine of apostolic succession. (See Apostolic Succession – Biblical or Not?) Bishops, according to apostolic succession can call a synod where their true faith will prevail in declaring the true doctrine, and also the heretic will be declared.  Anyone not espousing the true doctrine they determine will be anathema (cursed).[19]

It cannot be underestimated how important this doctrine of apostolic succession is.  How authoritative are these Council decrees as compared to Scripture? Yes, Pope Gregory I declared the first four general councils to have the same authority as the four Gospels.[20]  In Catholic theology, just as the authenticity of the New Testament is given by the authorship of those documents by the apostles or their agents, the same authenticity of the council decrees is guaranteed by the doctrine of apostolic succession.  It’s as if the apostles wrote the decrees themselves in the eyes of the Catholic Church and its theologians, and many others.

The first six general councils, Nicea I through Constantinople III developed the doctrine that resolved the disputes over the nature of Christ, the Trinity, and the status of Mary as Mother of God in the eyes of Catholic and Orthodox theologians.  As stated above it is acknowledged that extra-biblical reasoning and centuries of debate among philosophically oriented intellectuals were used to resolve these issues. But, because of its belief in apostolic succession, the Catholic church confidently declared these issues resolved in the true apostolic faith. And again, the decrees of the councils, especially the first four, and even though they include extra-biblical material and reasoning were declared as authoritative as the Gospels.

[1] Does Jesus Have One or Two Wills?, https://www.ligonier.org/blog/does-jesus-have-one-or-two-wills/

[2] https://equip.sbts.edu/publications/journals/journal-of-theology/a-model-of-jesus-christs-two-wills-in-view-of-theology-proper-and-anthropology/

[3] A Chronology of the Arian Controversy (legalhistorysources.com)

[4] The General Councils, A History of the Twenty-One Church Councils from Nicea to Vatican II, Christopher M. Belitto, Paulist Press, New Jersey, 2002, P. 29

[5] Extra-Biblical extrabiblical (apologeticsindex.org)

[6] The Story of Christianity, Justo L Gonzalez, Harper Collins, New York, 2010, p. 301-302

[7] A History Of The Christian Church, Williston Walker, Scribner, New York, 1959, p. 66

[8] Walker, p.67

[9] Walker, P. 69

[10] Walker, P. 70

[11] Walker, P. 70

[12] Walker, P. 71

[13] The Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol.23 :  Internet Archive p.963

[14] The Story Of Christianity, David Bentley Hart, P. 50-53

[15] Eusebius, The Church History, Translation and commentary by Paul L Maier, Kregel,

[16] Eusebius, The Church History, Translation and commentary by Paul L Maier, Kregel, P. 331 – 333

[17] https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0017383500029156#:~:text=Constantine%20did%20kill%20his%20wife,father%20he%20punished%20his%20son.

[18] The Story Of Christianity Justo L Gonzalez, HarperOne, New York, 2010, P. 181

[19] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepursuitofholiness/2020/09/1198-apostolicsuccession/

[20] The General Councils, A History of the Twenty-One Church Councils from Nicea to Vatican II, Christopher M. Belitto, Paulist Press, New Jersey, 2002, P. 27

© copyright 2021-23 Mark William Smith, All rights reserved. Last revised 7/13/23

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