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St Nicholas and the Divinity of Christ

Today marks the traditional date of the death of St Nicholas. We are all familiar with St Nicholas and how this kindly old bishop of the early Church brought gifts to the poor and needy. Indeed, part of the Santa Claus mystique is rooted in the generosity of St Nicholas. But perhaps not too many of us know that St Nicholas was a fierce defender of the divinity of Christ, an opponent of Arius, and a supporter of the creed of Nicaea.

Arius was a member of the early Church who held some weird theological views. He defended the view that whilst Christ is to be revered, he was not God. Hence, Christ came into existence at some point and is not eternal like God. One typical formula of the Arians, condemned at the Council of Nicaea, was that there was a time when he (Christ) was not, thereby indicating that he came into being.

Arius was opposed by a number of people on this issue, principally by Athanasius of Alexandria. There were several reasons why Arianism had to be rejected. Some of these reasons were because the statement that Christ was merely a creature and not God conflicts with many passages of scripture, chiefly the Prologue to John’s Gospel which not only affirms that the Word is God and with God in the beginning, but that all creatures were made through him, in which case Christ cannot be any of the things that were created.

Not only does Arianism conflict with scripture, it also conflicts with some important claims about Christ and his role in salvation history. This role is such that in becoming incarnate Christ saves human beings from the original sin that besets their nature. Now only God can save man from sin, in which case it was in becoming incarnate that God, i.e. the Word, the second person of the Trinity, saved man from sin. Hence, Christ must have been divine otherwise he could not have effected salvation.

The Arian controversy led to the Council of Nicaea at which it was affirmed that the Son is consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father. This formula safeguarded the divinity of Christ and in turn permitted the condemnation of the Arian outlook.

St Nicholas was known as a fierce defender of this orthodoxy. Along with the gift giving characteristic of St Nicholas it is right and just that at Christmas we also reflect on the reality that urged St Nicholas in his generosity, that is, the birth of him who is both human and divine.

Dr Gaven Kerr