As you might expect from the name, my class on the Early Church and Its Creeds is concerned with the development of the creeds in the first several centuries of Christianity. The two major issues defined by these ecumenical councils (Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon) were the nature of the Trinity and the nature of Christ. The outcomes of these councils are familiar to many Christians—that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from one another but all equally God, and that Christ was fully human and fully divine.
But the history behind those conclusions was anything but simple. People were killed over these controversies. The debates were long and drawn-out, and turned on the most minute of semantic distinctions. Political intrigue played a role, as did regional loyalties.
I'm not going to discuss the details in this post. You can look them up easily... probably on Wikipedia. I wanted to address a broader question, namely—why should anyone care? If we figured it out, why do all those details and all that history matter? I bring up this question because it's a pretty accurate summary of my thoughts going into this class back at the beginning of the semester. I know the doctrine of the trinity and that pertaining to Christ's nature; why do I need to know the arguments and dissention that it took to reach those conclusions?
I think I'm beginning to understand the answers to those questions. The truth is, the basic sense of the trinity and Christ's nature were present among the earliest Christians, and are reflected in the New Testament. For the trinity, the liturgical formula used for baptism "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" contained the essential understanding of the equal importance of all three. As for Christology, the Gospels point over and over to the dual nature of Christ. The reason the debates over these issues were so heated was that there was already a deep-seated understanding which was threatened by various heresies. What was being debated in the councils was how these things could be true; and although the theological arguments are hard to wade through, their basic concern is still important.
While I don't think that everyone needs to know the twists and turns that led up to the ecumenical councils, I do think that it's important to know that they happened and why. These debates were matters not just of life and death, but of salvation; if it was asserted that Christ was not fully human and fully divine, then his saving work would not be effective. For those who are interested, learning about ousia and hypostases can be informative; but what I think is more important is the recognition that this seemingly esoteric theological debate was actually based on concerns for people's well-being. In the same way, we talk a lot in seminary about the specific details of theology or liturgy or Biblical interpretation, but we also always consider the "pastoral concerns," namely—what should be said to someone who needs to hear the assurance of salvation, or needs to know the essential message of the gospel? It is these concerns that ultimately drive our work in the church.