There are memes-a-plenty on the Internet around this time of year, especially as we approach December 6, which is the Feast of St. Nicholas – the day when St. Nicholas is celebrated in many churches. While we have translated St. Nicholas into “Santa Claus” with his trips down the world’s chimneys, leaving of gifts, and eating of sundry snacks left behind by enthusiastic children, the real St. Nicholas did more than give gifts. He helped keep young women from being enslaved to men, for one thing, and he also was an ardent defender of biblical Christianity. This is seen in one key way.
He defended the faith against Arianism, the notion that Jesus is subordinate to the Father. In the early church, when theological issues arose, a council of the church’s greatest leaders was called to debate, discern, and ensure that the church was remaining faithful to the truth as set out in Scripture. Thus, in Nicholas’ time, with Arianism holding sway over the church, the leadership (in the name of Emperor Constantine) called a council, which met in Nicaea, a place in what is now Turkey. It was called the Council of Nicaea, and one of the principal doctrines it tackled was the very idea of whether Jesus was subordinate to the Father, or was equal to the Father.
At issue was one little Greek word: homoousios. Or was it homoiousios? That was the question. The word homoousios means “of the same substance”, while homoiousios means “of a similar substance”. To make a long story short, the church affirmed that the Son was homoousios with the Father – of the same substance. Anyone, like the Arians, who believed that the Son was homoiousios – of a similar substance – was deemed heretical and in need of correction.
That’s why, today, we have the English idiom, when two things are the same, that they differ “not by one iota”. Iota is the Greek letter that we call “i”. The only difference between doctrinal truth and error, on the issue of the substance of the Son of God, is one iota, between homoousios and homoiousios.
It doesn’t take much to be off significantly in doctrine. And while this might seem like ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin’, it actually is a very important issue for the church, because if Jesus were only of similar substance to the Father, he was not technically God, and therefore could not atone for our sins perfectly. If Jesus isn’t God, in other words, we’re still dead in our sins. And that wouldn’t be good news.
It’s amazing what one letter can do.
“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation” (Colossians 1.15, NLT).