The fourth-century saw a huge controversy over the nature of Christ. Arius and his followers proposed Him to be a created being. Others believed that He was eternally begotten. After Nicaea in 325, a flurry of councils and creeds followed, all trying to explain who Jesus is. The Fourth Century website lists 17 councils, from the Nicene Creed of 325 to the Constantinople creed of the year 381. Some of these creeds concluded that the Son is equal to the Father. Others, particularly the councils in the eastern part of the empire (Antioch), made Him subordinate to the Father. None of the creeds presents the Son as a created being, as Arius initially proposed.
The Creed of the Long Lines, also called the Macrostichs, is one of those creeds. In response to the Nicene creed of 325, the Greek-speaking bishops at Antioch formulated the creed in the year 344. Their leading scholar was Eusebius of Caesarea; the famous church historian and philosophical grandchild of Origen (185/6–254).
In the next year, the bishops in Antioch presented their creed to the Latin speaking bishops in the western part of the empire. Avoiding, as far as possible, controversial, non-biblical language, the eastern bishops hoped that their creed would be acceptable all around, even to partisans of the 325 creed at Nicaea. This creed is informative as far as the school of thought at Antioch goes.
The Long Lines Creed is discussed here because it contains some very important and valid concepts and also reflects the views generally held in the church before the fourth century. The creed proposes that the Son had a beginning and that He is subordinate to the Father, but still manages to conclude that He was begotten, rather than created, and always existed.
One God the Father Almighty
The creed begins as follows:
We believe in one God the Father Almighty,
the Creator and Maker of all things,
from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.
This is similar to the standard opening of all creeds, including the Nicene and later creeds. A similar formulation is found in the earliest known baptismal creeds of the second century. It a remnant from the past (the centuries before the fourth) when the church generally still believed the Father to be the “the one and only God” (John 5:44). The Trinity theory, in which the monotheistic God of the Bible consists of three equal Persons, was only developed in the fourth century. But even after the Church generally accepted the Trinity doctrine, this opening phrase was retained due to its strong traditional status.
Our Lord Jesus Christ
The creed continues:
And in His Only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ,
who before all ages was begotten from the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
by whom all things were made,
in heaven and on the earth
The phrases in bold are discussed below, using the explanations in the latter part of the creed.
Before all ages
Firstly, the Son was begotten “before all ages:”
Later, in the anathemas, the creed reads:
Those who say, …
that there was a time or age when He was not,
the Catholic and Holy Church regards as aliens. …
Yet we must not consider the Son to be co-unbegun …
we acknowledge that the Father who alone is Unbegun …
and that the Son hath been generated before ages.
The Father “generated” the Son because He was “begotten from the Father.“
The creed states that the Father had no beginning (is “unbegun”). But the Son had a beginning (is not “co-unbegun”).
Arius may have claimed that the Son was created at a specific point in time, and consequently that there was a time when He did not exist (“was not“). This creed rejects that notion, saying that “the Son hath been generated before ages.” In other words, the Son had a beginning, but that beginning was before time. Therefore, there never was “a time or age when He was not,”
The creed later adds that “through Him, both times and ages came to be.” The Bible teaches that the Father created “all things” through the Son. In Eastern thinking “all things” include time, and God created time through the Son.
To add a personal perspective: Concerning time, the Son is like the universe, for the universe had a beginning but always existed, because time was created when the universe came into being (in my view) and because there is no such thing as time before time began. There never was a time when the universe did not exist.
The creed avoids the well-known phrase “eternal generation” with respect to the Son, but the thought is clearly present.
The Nicene Creed was designed to refute the Arian view. The Long Lines Creed objects to the Nicene creed, but its claim that there never was a time when the Son did not exist, shows that it also objects to Arianism.
In summary, the Son had a beginning but always existed, because God created time through Him.
Begotten from the Father
Secondly, the Son was “begotten from the Father:”
The creed denounces “those who say, that the Son was from nothing, or from other subsistence and not from God.” The word “from” appears three times in this sentence. Perhaps the Arians claimed that God created Jesus “from nothing, or from other subsistence.” In contrast, the eastern bishops claim that Jesus is “from God,” which is another way of saying that He was “begotten from the Father.”
Concerning the Father, the creed asserts:
“The divine Word teaches that the Ingenerate and Unbegun, the Father of Christ, is One.”
“We acknowledge that the Father who alone is … Ingenerate, hath generated inconceivably and incomprehensibly to all”
In other words, the Father was not brought into being by any other being (is “ingenerate”). He, therefore, exists without cause. He exists by Himself. Concerning the Son the creed declares as follows:
“We must not consider the Son to be … co-ingenerate with the Father … the Son hath been generated before ages, and in no wise to be ingenerate Himself like the Father, but to have the Father who generated Him as His beginning; for ‘the Head of Christ is God.’
Therefore, in contrast to the Father, the Son has been generated, namely by the Father, when He was “begotten from the Father:”
Later the creed says:
We do not understand Him (the Son) to have been originated like the creatures or works which through Him came to be, for it is irreligious … to compare the Creator with handiworks created by Him … For divine Scripture teaches us really and truly that the Only-begotten Son was uniquely generated.
The Son is here called “the Creator,” but notice the word “through.” The opening phrase of the creed identifies the Father as “the Creator and Maker of all things.” The Bible says that God created all things through the Son (John 1; Hebrews 1; Colossians 1). The Father is the Force and Cause of creation. The Son is the Means or Hand through which God created.
The Son Himself was not created, but was “uniquely generated.” This means that the creed makes a distinction between created and generated, similar to people who create things but beget children.
The Nicene Creed uses the term ousios (substance or essence), claiming that Jesus is “of one substance with the Father,” and therefore that the Son is equal to the Father. Although the Long Lines Creed says that He is “from God,” and “begotten,” it avoids the term ousios. It does not use that term even once, probably because the Bible never says that the Father and Son have the same substance. Since the Long Lines Creed presents the Son as subordinate to the Father, it does not use the ousios argument.
In summary, the Son was not created, but was begotten by the Father.
God From God
Thirdly, the Son is “God from God:”
“His Only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, who before all ages was begotten from the Father, God from God”
The Nicene Creed describes the Son as “true God (the Son) from true God (the Father),” but the Long Lines Creed omits the word “true” in both instances. It refers to Jesus only as “God from God.” This is consistent with John 17:3, which declares the Father to be the only true God.
Only the Father is God
The creed defends itself as follows against an accusation of polytheism:
In confessing three realities and three Persons, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost according to the Scriptures, (we do not) therefore make Gods three; since we acknowledge the Self-complete and Ingenerate and Unbegun and Invisible God to be one only, the God and Father of the Only-begotten, who alone has being from Himself, and alone gives this to all others generously.
In other words, we must not talk of three Gods because only the Father exists by Himself, without beginning or cause, and gives existence to all other things. There cannot be two Ultimate Beings, for an Ultimate Being is the Cause of all else.
The Son is subordinate.
The quote above refers to “Gods three.” The following similar statement in the creed interestingly refers to “two Gods” and to a Triad:
Believing then in the All-perfect Triad, the Most Holy, that is, in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and calling the Father God, and the Son God, yet we confess in them, not two Gods, but one dignity of Godhead, and one exact harmony of dominion, the Father alone being Head over the whole universe wholly, and over the Son Himself, and the Son subordinated to the Father; but, excepting Him, ruling over all things after Him which through Himself have come to be, and granting the grace of the Holy Ghost unsparingly to the saints at the Father’s will.
The Father alone, therefore, is “Head over the whole universe wholly.” The Son is “subordinated to the Father.” Only one monarchy or reign exists. The Son rules over all things, but He is subordinate to the Father. Partisans of the Trinity theory would argue that Jesus is functionally subordinate to the Father, but not ontologically (by nature of being). However, this creed does not make that distinction.
God of the Old Testament
The ancients used the Greek word theos (god) for all gods. Even exalted people are called gods; even in the Bible. See the Meanings of the Word THEOS. The Long Lines Creed explains as follows why it identifies the Son as theos:
In saying that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is one only God, the only Ingenerate, do we (not) therefore deny that Christ also is God before ages … for He it is, to whom the Father said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness’ (Gen 1:26), who also was seen in His own Person by the patriarchs, gave the law, spoke by the prophets, and at last, became man …
The creed, therefore, refers to the Son as God because “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him” (John 2-3). Furthermore, the creed argues, whenever God appeared in the Old Testament, it was the Son who was seen. For that reason, it is proper to refer to the Son as God, but we must not confuse Him with the Uncaused Cause, who is the Father alone.
In this context the translation “Triad” (see above) is appropriate. A translation of “Trinity” would have been anachronistic, for this creed does not present God as three divine Persons of one divine Being. Rather, it thinks of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a hierarchical group of “three realities and three Persons,” where only the Father is the ingenerated Source of all else, who also generated the Son.
Origen, the philosophical father of the bishops in Antioch, once said that he does not hesitate to talk of God in different senses. He said that just like man and his wife are one in flesh, and Christ in His followers are one in spirit, so the Father and Son are one in God. Both are God, but not in the same sense, for only the Father is the uncaused Cause of all else.
This explains how we should understand the statement “God from God.” The easterners probably would have preferred to say “God from true God,” but they attempted to stay as close as possible to the wording of the Nicene Creed, which declared the Son to be of the same substance (homo-ousios) as the Father. The Nicene Creeds used that term to present the Son as equal to the Father. The Long Lines Creed, on the other hand, like many of the other creeds of that era, presents the Son as subordinate to the Father.
The famous statement (“Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness”) is quoted from Genesis 1:26. Some dispute that God was talking to the Son, saying that God spoke to His angels, but others object and say that man was not created in the image of angels, but in the image of God. The Son Himself “existed in the form of God” (Phil. 2:6).
The creed continues:
And we believe in the Holy Ghost, that is, the Paraclete, which, having promised to the Apostles, He sent forth after the ascension into heaven, to teach them and to remind of all things.
This creed has a very scanty treatment of the Holy Spirit. Similar to the Bible, this creed never explicitly refers to the Holy Spirit as God, or as God from God. To the contrary, the phrase “three Gods” in the following implies that the Holy Spirit is not God:
“The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and calling the Father God, and the Son God, yet we confess in them, not two Gods”
The Long Lines Creed anathematizes those who say that Father and Son and Holy Ghost are the same. This is aimed against Modalism, which is the theory that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three modes of God and not three separate Beings.
The creed justifies this view by saying that, if the Three were the same, then the unlimited and impassible (incapable of suffering or feeling pain) Father has become limited and changeable when the Son became a man. Rather, the Father, who sent the Son, remained unchangeable when Christ was incarnated.
The Long Lines Creed anathematizes those who say that the Father had no choice but to beget the Son so that He begat the Son unwillingly. It says that God is absolute and sovereign over Himself and generated the Son voluntarily and freely. In saying this, the creed responded to some other voices from that era:
Those that view Jesus as equal to the Father sometimes propose that it was not the Father’s will to generate the Son, but that the Father ‘always’ was the Father and the Son ‘always’ was the Son. (“Always’ is perhaps not the best term, if in our view God exists outside time.) Perhaps the Long Lines Creed responds to this view and proposed that the Father begat the Son by will to emphasize that Jesus is subordinate to the Father.
Another possibility is that the view, that God made all things through the Son, and that the Son is the God of the Old Testament, may create the impression that the Father is an un-personal Force and not a separate Person with His own will. Perhaps the Long Lines Creed reacted to such a view.
Who is Jesus? This is the question in these creeds. He is the Son of God, is worshiped with God, received from God to have life in Himself and to judge the world, and He identifies Himself as the First and the Last. So, what is His relationship with God? The church had to struggle with this question. The Nicene Creed went to the one extreme by declaring the Son to be of the same substance as the Father. It is not possible to postulate a higher level of unity between Father and Son.
Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea and the bishops in the Antioch—the focal point of Christianity in the eastern part of the empire—recognized the Son as generated by and subordinate to the Father. They also identified the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not as one Being, as in the Trinity theory, but as “three realities and three Persons.” The Long Lines Creed, therefore, does not accept that they are one in substance. In its place, they offered the following:
We do not … separate Him from the Father … For we believe that they are united with each other without mediation or distance, and that they exist inseparable; all the Father embosoming the Son, and all the Son clinging to the Father, and alone resting on the Father’s breast continually.
These words are probably true, and an interpretation of passages such as:
“I and the Father are one” (John 10:29), and
“No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18).
On the other hand, similar to what the Bible consistently does, this creed identifies the Father alone as God, and the Son as subordinate to Him. This is true even of the gospel of John and Paul’s writings, in which we find the highest Christology of the New Testament.
An Attempt at Reconciliation
The Christian church originated in Jerusalem, but in the first century, Antioch soon became the leading gentile church. In the fourth century, however, after Christianity became the official Roman religion, the church in Italy became powerful in influence and authority.
In the closing section of the creed the bishops in Antioch state their purpose as “to clear away all unjust suspicion concerning our opinions, … and that all in the West may know, … the audacity of the slanders.” This implies that the easterners were criticized before the powers in Rome, and through the creed, the bishops in Antioch attempted to reach out and clarify their position. It is for that reason that it has these long-winded explanations and therefore is called the Long Lines Creed.
The Long Lines Creed attempts to remain as close as possible to the position of the bishops in the West, as reproduced in the Nicene Creed, to avoid to be seen as Arian and to be modest and to only use Scriptural language. But the bishops in Italy rejected the creed.
Summary of the view of the Long Lines Creed
The Father had no beginning, while the Son had a beginning. The Son, nevertheless, always existed, for the Father created all things through the Son. Since “all things” include time, God also created time through the Son. There, consequently, never was a time or age when the Son did not exist.
The Father was not brought into being by another being. He alone exists without a cause and gives existence to all other things. The Son, in contrast, exists because of the Father. He was not created but was uniquely begotten from the Father.
The Son is God, for He existed in the form of God. Whenever God appeared in the Old Testament, it actually was the Son who was seen. But the Father is the only true God.
The Son rules over all things, but He is subordinate to the Father. The Father is the ultimate Head over the whole universe.
They are two separate Beings, but the Father and Son exist inseparably. As Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.”
As stated above, at least 17 creeds, with contradicting explanations of who Jesus is, were formulated in the fourth century. Eventually, the Nicene Creed, as adjusted by the 381 creed, became generally accepted. But we should not be persuaded by this consensus:
Firstly, this view of Christ differs from the view that was dominant in the earlier centuries.
Secondly, these creeds were produced after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, after the power base in the Church shifted from Jerusalem and Antioch in the East to Rome in the West, and after the emperor became dominant in the formulation of doctrine by calling and chairing councils. As can be seen in the anathemas that were attached to the fourth-century creeds, and by the aggressive and insulting tone of writings of Athanasius of Alexandria, the chief defender of Trinitarianism at the time, these creeds were produced with an air of dictatorship and intolerance. (Listen to podcasts 169 to 171 on Trinities.) These creeds made an end to religious freedom and shifted persecution from persecution of the church to persecution by the church.
The Apostle Paul lamented that the Corinthians would follow those who abused them and even slapped them in the face (2 Cor. 11:20). Carnal people respond to carnal strength and carnal leadership. By the biblical definition, the church in this era became carnal. Christ Himself demonstrated Christian leadership when He went to the cross. In Revelation 3, He stands outside the door of His own church knocking to see if any will open to Him. He does not force Himself on us. Our only leader must be Christ. When leaders compel Christians to accept a doctrine, they are not leading people to Him. The Truth is a Person.