I want to punch a heretic for Christmas; only punching a heretic will do. Or, "The legend of St. Nicholas of Myra and the elders meeting that went awry."
Today we're hitching a ride in the way-back machine to be introduced to a theologian who knew that some bad ideas are best handled by raining blows down upon heretics.
“He hasn’t changed one iota.” We might say something like this out of frustration or out of joy, depending on the circumstances. But all we mean is that someone hasn't changed very much at all, if the change is even noticeable. An "iota" is a Greek letter, and it looks like this: ι. You can imagine why this nearly imperceptible symbol became a metaphor for petty amounts of change.
The inverse is also true. What might seem like meager differences can veritably change the entire meaning of a word or idea. One letter can make all the difference by completely changing the meaning of a word.
Homoousis or homoiousis. There was, what some might call, a fervid church business meeting about the iota that changes the meaning of those words. But before we take a peek at history, we need to know why those words are important.
In English, those words translate as "same (homo-) substance" or "similar (homoi-) substance." These two words refer to the Son’s relationship to the Father. Here's the question before us: is Christ of the same substance as the Father or not; IE, is Jesus Christ fully God while taking on humanity in the incarnation? Or...not?
One is orthodox and biblical, and the other was condemned in every generation as heresy since the early church. My, how one letter can make a difference.
In our contemporary culture, determining what's true and good is considered an arbitrary task best left in the hands of elitist experts who are better suited than us plebs to decide what truth is. But as Christians, we believe that entire truths hinge on the correct definitions of words, and those truths are true for everyone because they come from God. It is not bigoted or cruel to unflinchingly adhere to God's truth.
So let's look at the Bible. When you read "only Son," that is actually one word in Greek: monogenes. While it's not as common any more, some English Bibles use the word "begotten" instead of "only."
John 1.14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only (monogenes, begotten) Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 3.16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only (monogenes, begotten) Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
1 John 4.9: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only (monogenes, begotten) Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
But what does Paul mean when he says, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn (protokos) of all creation" (Colossians 1.15)? Is he teaching that Jesus is created, not eternal like the Father and Spirit?
A bishop by the name of Arius (b. 256, d. 336) determined that monogenes, or only or begotten, meant the Son was brought into existence by the Father at a point in time. What they meant was that Jesus must have been created; he is not co-eternal with the Father, which calls into question his divinity, which calls into question his ability to save sinners.
For context, Jehovah's Witnesses are modern-day Arians. They read Revelation 3.14 (...the beginning of God's creation) as a prooftext that beginning is referring to creation at a point in time. However, it cannot mean this since the Father uses the same language about himself in Revelation 1.8 (“I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”) then by Jesus again in Revelation 22.13 (“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”). A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.
Prototokos does literally mean “first-born,” but it is referring to the birthright and status, not order of birth. The meaning in context is that Jesus has the authority and the rights of a firstborn son in respect to creation. The NIV does a little bit more interpretation but conveys the meaning better than a more literal translation: “the firstborn over all creation.”
All of this led to a debate on whether or not Christ was equal to God. And it all came down to single words! Actually, it came down to the difference of a single letter.
This is not a debate where Christians can agree to disagree. One idea is true, and the other is not. If Christ is not God, then Christianity is paganism.
Welcome to the Council of Nicea in AD 325. Arius had been teaching from the passages listed above what the church had already been rejecting, that Christ was a created being (as was the Holy Spirit). Whatever begotten and firstborn might mean in some contexts, it does not mean created in any of them.
If Christ was created, this meant that even though he existed before the universe and therefore is greater than it, he does not share all the qualities of divinity that the Father does. Hence, homoiousis, of similar substance but not identical, needed to be rejected out of hand based on the biblical evidence.
Here are just a few of the implications of this heresy: Christ was not fully God and therefore did not share in God’s attributes. He may have had heightened senses or abilities in a way similar to angels (or Spiderman for that matter), but he was not divine. If he was not divine, he was not perfectly able to bear the weight of God's wrath on the cross. If Jesus is only like the Father, by extension your sins are not paid for and you still bear the full weight of your guilt before God.
Ultimately it’s lazy interpretation. It ignores the context and tries to fit presupposed ideas into prooftexted passages.
Here is the statement of belief that arose from the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, called the Nicene Creed:
I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the virgin Mary.
The same statement was reaffirmed at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. “Before all ages” was added at that time.
So why today? What does this have to do with Christmas?
St. Nicholas was a real person (b. 270, d. 343). He was a bishop in Myra, a Greek city. What follows is more than likely not entirely true, but it's been recorded and passed down for centuries. And I'll be honest, it's a much better story than an anonymous fat man breaking and entering to leave unidentified packages next to your fireplace for your innocent children. The legends of St. Nicholas were not recorded until 1300s, and it changed again later.
At the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, the debate got pretty heated. The Roman emperor Constantine had declared the empire to be Christian (cause that's how it works?), so to deal with those in the minority who were teaching error, he convened a council of bishops to settle the matters. (To be clear, it is not that these things weren't decided until the council and big mean men demonized minority positions. It was because there were church leaders teaching against well-settled doctrines that the councils were convened.) Some of the language and behavior was edging on acrimonious. But hey, when the divinity of Christ is called into question by fellow church leaders, that is not the time to be collegial. You fight like men.
In one of the tellings, Nicholas had had enough. So naturally, he stood up, walked across the room, and slapped Arius right in the face. The council is offended, so they strip his mitre and pallium, symbols and vestments of an archbishop. But they were returned when the council was over.
Later, the story is changed to Nicholas punching Arius, also having his mitre and pallium removed, and he is then thrown in jail. But to vindicate him, Jesus and the blessed virgin Mary visit Nicholas in prison. Jesus asks why he’s there, to which Nicholas replies, “For loving you.” Jesus returns his vestments to him, and the council recognizes their mistake.
For some fun, here are some other fantastic tales of ol' St. Nick.
In his day, dowries were still a thing. There was a man with three daughters, but he could not afford three dowries. Nicholas catches wind of his difficulties, and to save the daughters from each becoming a fille de joie to support themselves, Nicholas throws three bags of money into a window under cover of darkness to ensure their safety through matrimony.
St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of the sea and sailors in Greek Orthodoxy. The chronicle goes that while on a boat traveling across the sea with several other mariners, a storm nearly capsized the vessel. Nicholas prayed, and the ship and its occupants were saved.
Dutch setters in America started the tradition of St. Nicholas helping celebrate the incarnation. Like what often happens to fables, they all coalesce into a single narrative when the wider culture accepts them.
Nicholas of Myra was a bastion of biblical truth. Now he's pictured as a cardiologist's nightmare with unfettered access to everyone's house and questionable taste in winter attire.
Here's the point Nicholas was making by (possibly) punching dissenters: the divinity of Christ is a critical component of biblical theology, and it is not an “agree to disagree” issue. Jesus is God and worthy of worship. The efficacy of the crucifixion and the validity of our redemptions rests on the substitutionary sacrifice being both God and man.