The God of Self-Giving Love

by David F. Watson

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.

The early Christians made a remarkable claim: the God of all the universe–who had called all things into being, chose Israel from among the nations, raised up and brought down judges and kings, and spoke through the prophets–had become one of us. As we read in John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1, 14). Note that John does not say that the Word inhabited flesh, nor does it say that the Word simply appeared to be flesh. Rather, the Word–God’s divine wisdom, creative fire, sustaining power, ordering reason–became flesh and lived among us. A more literal translation of the Greek would be that the Word set up a tent to live among us. The tent, as we know from Exodus, was the place where Moses would go to meet God on behalf of the people. Now that Christ has come, human beings have encountered God in a new way, a more direct way than was ever available before.

The early Christians were monotheists, just as the Jewish people from whom they received so much of their tradition. Yet they also believed that Jesus was the divine Son of God. How is it, then, that if there is only one God, both the Father and Jesus Christ his Son can be divine? Wouldn’t this mean there are two Gods? Or perhaps God the Son is somehow “less than” God the Father, possessing some attributes of the divine but nevertheless not fully God. If these questions make your head hurt, you aren’t alone. It took the Church until 451, through four ecumenical councils, to hammer out well-formed doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation.

One way of understanding the relationship between the Father and Son in the early church came to be known as “adoptionism.” Proponents of this position held that Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism. In other words, rather than claiming that Jesus was and had always been God the Son, these Christians claimed that Jesus was “adopted” by God the Father.

The debate became much sharper and more complex in the fourth century with the emergence of Arianism. The Alexandrian presbyter Arius and his followers believed in both a heavenly Father and a heavenly Son, but they claimed that the Son was not eternal like the Father. Rather, they believed, the Son was created by the Father. The catchphrase of the Arians was, “There was when he was not.” In other words, there was a point at which the Son did not exist, and was brought into being by the Father. The Son, the Arians believed, was a perfect creature of God, but a creature nonetheless.

Arius’s bishop, Alexander, strongly opposed this teaching. He argued that the Father and the Son were both eternal. The Son was not a creature, but, like the Father, was the creator (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:2). The Father and the Son, moreover, were not two distinct beings, but somehow shared one essence. Alexander’s successor in this debate, Athanasius of Alexandria, became one of the most pivotal figures in the tradition that we now call Christian orthodoxy. It took two ecumenical councils to settle this matter and establish what the orthodox position would be moving forward: the First Council of Nicea (325) and the First Council of Constantinople (381).

What we now term the “Arian controversy” gave rise to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (more commonly known simply as the Nicene Creed). The statement specifically about Jesus, which we call the Second Article of the Creed, insists that Jesus is, in fact, God, and not a created being. The Son of God is eternal, not temporal. Jesus was not an angel, a spirit, or a man with special powers. He is God, the incarnate Son who has come forth eternally from the Father. In fact, the Creed specifies that the Son and the Father are of one substance or being (Greek: homoousion). Why does this matter? It matters because, were the Father and the Son not of the same being, then we would have to affirm either (a) that there are two gods, or (b) that the Son is not actually divine in the way that the Father is.

“Well,” one might ask, “what if the Son is not divine in the way the Father is? What if the Son is just a powerful creation of the Father? Why would that matter?” Let’s think through the implications of these questions. Orthodox Christian doctrine holds that God came to us personally, out of love, to teach us how to live and to save us from our sins. God had sent prophets and angels before, but this time God came in person. We believe that God entered into all that it means to be human: birth, the passing of years, joy, love, friendship, betrayal, pain, and death. God knows personally what it means to be human. As we read in Hebrews 4:14, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” When it came to the sacrifice necessary to atone for the sins of humankind, God did not send someone else to suffer. God came in person and suffered for us out of love. That is the character of the God we love and serve. This is a God of self-giving love, expressed most perfectly in the Incarnation of the Son in Jesus Christ.

One last point: as the great fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus put it, “What is not assumed is not redeemed.” Humankind has been deeply affected by sin. It affects our thoughts, our attitudes, our words and deeds. It affects what we want and how we go about getting it. There is no part of our life that is not affected by the power of sin. But in Christ, God took on every aspect of human nature, and therefore redeemed every aspect of human nature. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven. There is no sinful desire or behavior that cannot be overcome. We are redeemed–entirely redeemed–by the atoning work of Jesus Christ, the incarnate God.

The Second Article of the Creed, then, is really about love. It is about how God has come to us in person out of love to give us new life in the present and eternal life in the age to come. Properly understood, the Nicene Creed is an expression of the Church’s conviction that we serve a God of self-giving love, a God who would take on even our flesh, and all that goes with it, for us and for our salvation.

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Dr. David Watson is Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.