“We believe in one God”
Joel D. Otto
It was the beginning of the fourth century. Arius, a deacon in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, questioned the teaching that Jesus was true God, equal to the Father. In an effort to make the teaching about Jesus seem more rational and appealing to the intellectuals of the day, he claimed that Jesus was the first creature of God. He tried to make the logical statement that the Son has to be less eternal and less powerful than the Father.
The teaching of Arius raised a ruckus in the church. Some—like Athanasius, another deacon in Alexandria—vehemently opposed Arius. They said that Arius’ teaching was heretical because it really created a new “god,” rather than the God revealed in Scripture. And if the teaching of Arius was correct, how could Jesus’ sacrifice be sufficient to take away the sins of the world? But Arius was popular and charismatic. He gained a following. His followers even started sending out missionaries. So there was contention in the church.
In order to settle this doctrinal controversy, the Roman Emperor Constantine called the first churchwide council of bishops to meet in the city of Nicaea (located in modern day Turkey) in a.d. 325. Led by Athanasius, the bishops at Nicaea developed a confession of faith that upheld the teaching of Scripture that the Son is equal to the Father in all respects. After another 55 years of dispute, the second churchwide council met in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) in a.d. 381 to reiterate the confession made at Nicaea and make some additions because other issues had surfaced. Their confession of faith continues to be confessed as the truth in what we know as the Nicene Creed. While it was written in response to some specific false teachings, this creed continues to be what all believers have believed.
We begin by stating, “We believe in one God.” While the church of the fourth century faced a pagan Roman world full of multiple deities, the biggest problem today is that many people believe that each religion is just as legitimate as another, just as reflective of what “god” is like, just as useful for attaining the divine and “heaven.”
What is the result? Muslims worship Allah. Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses worship a “god” that doesn’t include Jesus. Hindus have hundreds, if not thousands, of gods. Various native religions worship the spirits of their ancestors.
Christians claim differently. We always have. “We believe in one God.” After more than four hundred years in slavery in Egypt where the people worshiped multiple gods, the Old Testament believers were taught to confess clearly, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In the first century Roman Empire where there were a myriad of temples to different deities, Paul asserted, “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4). And from the early fourth century to today’s world of religious pluralism, we continue to believe as all believers have: “We believe in one God.”
EXPLORING THE WORD
1. What purpose do written confessions of faith serve?
Written confessions usually flow out of doctrinal controversy. They serve to communicate the truths of Scripture and identify and condemn false teachings that might be threatening the church. Confessions also often allow Christians to succinctly summarize the teachings of Scripture that are critical to our salvation. Confessions can even provide a framework for witnessing because shorter confessions like the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds put the words of Christian truth into the minds and onto the lips of Christians.
2. What statement are we making when we continue to confess the ancient creeds of the church?
When we use the ancient creeds of the church, we are communicating that we are standing among Christians down through the centuries and around the world who continue to confess the basic truths of Christianity. We are part of the long line of believers who confess what the church has always believed using words that the church has used for more than 1,500 years.
3. Why is the fact that there is only one God so important?
There are many different reasons. If there is more than one “god,” how do we know which “god” is the true source of all good things? If there is more than one “god,” how do we know which “god” really deserves our trust and prayers and worship? If there is more than one “god,” there could be more than one way to salvation. How would we know which is the right way? One God means one Creator, one who preserves and protects us, one who has worked out his single plan of salvation, one in whom we trust, one to whom we pray, one who is worthy of our worship. See Ephesians 4:1-6.
4. Read Isaiah 44:6-20. What key point does Isaiah make about “gods” invented by humans?
In Isaiah’s context of idols made of wood and stone, Isaiah points out the foolishness of using half of a tree for firewood and the other half to construct your “god.” What kind of a “god” can this be? While this may not be so prevalent in our American culture today, we still see people try to invent their idea of what “god” should be like. They want a “god” to fit their ideas of right and wrong. They don’t want him to expect too much from them. They want a “god” who will not be too hard to understand or figure out. The result is their “god” isn’t very big, powerful, or loving. Do we sometimes find ourselves trying to impose our thinking and logic on God? Do we sometimes try to cast him into our image? It stresses to us the importance of looking to Scripture alone for God’s revelation of himself and what he is like.
Contributing editor Joel Otto, professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee.
This is the first article in a 13-part series on the Nicene Creed.
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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 101, Number 11
Issue: November 2014
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