“Begotten not Created” – an important phrase in the Nicene Creed

  • Question from PM, United Kingdom

    What does ‘Begotten not created’ mean?

    To understand this phrase from the Nicene Creed (that also appears in the carol ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’) we have to understand the theological background to the Council of Nicea in AD 325.

    At this time Christianity was the newly established official religion of the Roman Empire and as a result a huge amount of philosophical and other religious ideas were impinging on the Church. One such idea was the exclusive monotheism that became known as Arianism, named after the figurehead leader of the movement Arius.

    Broadly speaking Arianism regarded God the Father as the one God, with Jesus the first created being, created specifically as a means to create the rest of the world. Jesus was given the ‘honorific’ title of ‘Son’ because he was the first created being and ‘through him all things were made’.

    This obviously caused problems because if salvation came through God alone and Jesus was a created being, then Jesus could not have been the means of salvation for the world. Theologians who recognised this and wanted to assert that Jesus was the means that humanity was saved, and therefore that Jesus was in fact God, had to be careful not to seem to be proclaiming a dualist of polytheist viewpoint (that is they somehow had to avoid making it sound like there were two or more Gods).

    The arguments came to a head at the Council of Nicea. Two key themes were included in the creed to specifically counter Arianism. Firstly that the Son was begotten, not created, so Jesus was not a part of the created order and shared the divine nature with his Father. This ‘begetting’ was seen as an eternal process, sot here was never a time when the Father existed alone. Secondly the word ‘homo-ousios’ was used. Literally this means ‘of the same stuff’, i.e. Jesus was, in his eternal nature, no less God than God the Father.

    ‘Begotten not made’ remains a very important part of Christian theology because it gives us an insight into the relational nature of the Godhead. In the first few centuries, while these theological debates raged, ‘homo-ousious’ became the benchmark word. If you accepted the Son was the same stuff as the Father, then you were orthodox. If you did not then you were a heretic.

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