Kevin P. Emmert relays the results of a new survey showing that “most American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church.” One example? 22% claim God the Father is “more divine” than Jesus:
No doubt, phrases like “only begotten Son” (John 3:16) and “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) have led others in history to hold these views, too. In the fourth century, a priest from Libya named Arius (c.250–336) announced, “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning. … There was a time when the Son was not.” The idea, known as Arianism, gained wide appeal, even among clergy. But it did not go unopposed. Theologians Alexander and Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt, argued that Arius denied Christ’s true divinity. Christ is not of similar substance to God, they explained, but of the same substance.
Believing the debate could split the Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine convened the first ecumenical church council in Nicaea in A.D. 325. The council, comprising over 300 bishops, rejected Arianism as heresy and maintained that Jesus shares the same eternal substance with the Father. Orthodoxy struggled to gain popular approval, however, and several heresies revolving around Jesus continued to spread. At the second ecumenical council in Constantinople in 381, church leaders reiterated their condemnation of Arianism and enlarged the Nicene Creed to describe Jesus as “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” In other words, the Son is not a created being, nor can he be less divine than the Father.
Matthew Block, commenting on these findings, blames the prevalence of such heresies on the way many Protestants read the Bible:
Too many Christians mistake “Scripture alone” as if it were a license for them to read the Bible alone—to read it apart from other people. You know the idea: “All I need is me and my Bible.” But that’s not what it means. It means that Scripture is alone authoritative, not that your personal (“alone”) interpretation of Scripture is authoritative.
While Scripture itself is clear on matters of salvation, it nevertheless can be (and often is) misinterpreted by sinful people. Jesus Himself faced this danger when the devil suggested to him misinterpretations of the Word of God (Matthew 4:5-6). We fool ourselves if we think we are somehow exempt from this danger. Christ, of course, did not fall for the devil’s suggested misreading. Unsurprisingly, the Word of God made Flesh knows the written Word of God better than does Satan. But we on the other hand can and do fall into such error—be it error suggested by our own sinful minds, the errant teachings of others, or, indeed, by the devil himself.
Personal piety and a desire for truth are not guarantees that we always read Scripture aright. Consequently, we must rely upon our brothers and sisters in the faith to correct and rebuke us when we err, demonstrating our errors by Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). And this reliance on brothers and sisters refers not merely to those Christians who happen to be alive at the same time as us. Instead, it refers to the whole Christian Church, throughout time. We rely on those who have gone before us. They too get a say in the matter. As G. K. Chesterton has wonderfully put it, this sort of tradition is a “democracy of the dead.”