The novel The Da Vinci Code infamously suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t ‘invented’ until the fourth century. One of the characters, Leigh Teabing, claims that no-one considered Jesus to be God until the Council of Nicea in 325AD.
Lots of people have documented how far off the mark this is historically. And contemporary scholars like Richard Bauckham and N. T. Wright (and many others before them) have charted how the New Testament constantly presents Jesus as being and doing what only God could be and do.
At the same time, the New Testament does present Jesus’ relationship with the Father as a genuine relationship between one distinct ‘person’ and another.
What the Council of Nicea did debate — or, rather, what it commended as the solution to the pre-existing debate — was how these two things fitted together: ie. How can we say Jesus is God while at the same time acknowledging that Father and Son are distinct?
In historical terms, it was a key moment in resolving the Arian controversy. Arianism (a not very well organised movement named after its leading figure, a young preacher called Arius) admitted that Jesus was divine — but not in the same way that God the Father was divine.
According to Arius, God had always existed, whereas the Son (or Word) came to exist at some later point. He’s therefore inferior to God. And his role is instrumental — it’s through him that the transcendent God made and relates to everything (without needing to get his hands dirty). So the Word, for Arius, was a sort of half-way house between God and the world.
It’s important to see that this way of putting the pieces together isn’t totally outrageous. For the New Testament doesn’t unambiguously call Jesus God. And it does present him as distinct from the Father, relating to him as an obedient Son and as one through whom God creates and redeems.
What’s more, given some important assumptions people were used to making about God and the world, the Arian view plausibly explained how it was possible for the transcendent and eternal God to interact with a finite and time-bound creation.
It was only by overturning these assumptions that the road was paved for Christians to do justice to both sides of the New Testament presentation of Jesus. As a result, the form in which we now comfortably confess God as Trinity — saying, for example, that the Son is one in being with but personally distinct from the Father (and the Spirit) — bears the historically specific and contingent marks of this controversy…