Why Does Nicene Orthodoxy Matter?

“And [Jesus] continued by questioning them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ.’” (Mark 8:29)

These words—“Who do you say that I am?”—stand at the center of Mark’s Gospel, but also at the heart of Christianity. While Jesus’ question is directed to his immediate disciples, it is also a challenge and invitation to anyone who reads the Gospel: a challenge to respond correctly (as Peter does), but also an invitation to articulate a deeper understanding of what we mean when we utter those words.

The invitation, of course, is not an easy one. Peter himself famously struggled with the implications of Christ’s identity as the Messiah (Matthew 16:23).  It took the Church the better part of four centuries to arrive at what has come to be known as Nicene orthodoxy (that is, the faith that articulate when we say the words of the Nicene Creed at Mass).

When I teach my high school students about the Christology of the early Church councils, it is usually with a healthy dose of dread. The laughably complex philosophical and theological subtleties of orthodox Christology are infamous. There are plenty of people far more qualified than myself to tease out the finer nuances of the debate. As academics sort out the questions of what the Incarnation looks like, and how it works, I wonder if we neglect a more basic pastoral one: why does it matter?

As a Christian, why does it matter to me that the Son is consubstantial with the Father? As a teacher, why should it matter to my students? More generally, why should it matter to any of us? Like my students, I’ve inherited the legacy of the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus in much the same way that I’ve inherited my brown hair: that is to say, through no particular effort of my own. It is easy to mouth the words of the statements that I’ve heard my whole life— that Jesus is fully God and fully man, that He died on the cross, and that His death somehow set me straight with God. But why does it matter who Jesus is? What’s at stake?

When I talk about the question with my students, I try to focus our attention on three possibilities. There are many other reasons to affirm Nicene orthodoxy, of course, but these three are both fundamental to the Christian experience, and ones that my students are often quick to overlook:

  1. It’s at the heart of our salvation as Christians. In order for His death to be redemptive for mankind, Christ must be both fully God and fully human. To borrow from a popular analogy, the Son is a bridge between God and humanity, and a bridge only works if it extends fully to both sides. To say that Jesus was anything less than God (as Arius did) is to deny that he had any ability to put us right with God. The most popular manifestation of Arianism, of course, appears in the postmodern credo that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not God.
  2. It affects our image of God, and our image of God affects our prayer. Quite simply, if Christ is the imago Dei par excellence, and we have a false notion of who Christ is, then when we pray to Jesus, we are praying to a false God.
  3. The Sacramental life of the Church depends on it.  If we deny either the full divinity or the full humanity of Christ, then the Sacraments have no meaning beyond themselves. If Jesus is not fully God, then they are simply human gestures reaching upwards and dissipating in the infinite gulf between God and man. If Christ is not fully human, then how can we be assured that we receive the grace of an infinite God through finite symbols? As incarnational encounters of God’s grace, the Sacraments are the primary way that we experience the risen Christ, and it is primarily in that encounter that we begin to discover God’s true nature, not as God or as man, but as God-and-man.

Peter’s famous response to Jesus—“You are the Christ”—ought to be the beginning of a conversation in which we are invited to consider the full implications of his statement.  Perhaps it’s time that we, as a Church, begin articulating the question of why this is an important conversation to be having in the first place?

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