Although every Church council is important, the council of Nicaea holds a privileged place since it produced one of the most important summaries (or symbols) of our faith, the Nicene Creed. Catholics are familiar with this creed, as it is recited at Mass.
The contents are easy to understand. “We believe in one God, the Father almighty… (And) in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” But one line describes the Son as, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” What does “light from light” mean? And why did the council fathers use this illustration?
What many Christians don’t realize is that this description is drawn from the Old Testament deuterocanonical book of Wisdom. When we refer to a “deuterocanonical” book, we’re referring to one of seven Old Testament books —Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, 1st and 2nd Maccabees (as well as sections of Esther and Daniel) — that weren’t included in the Jewish text about 60 years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. These books, however, have always been included in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, although most Protestant Bibles today do not include them.
The closest New Testament reference to “light from light” is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Epistle begins by stating how God spoke in partial and various ways through the prophets, but now He has spoken definitively through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). Verse 3 describes the pre-incarnate Son’s relationship to the Father:
“[the Son]… is the refulgence of his [the Father’s] glory, the very imprint of his being.”
“Refulgence,” or “brightness” (Greek, apaugasma), is a very rare Greek word in the Bible. In fact, the Greek Bible only uses it twice, here in Hebrews 1:3 and in Wisdom 7:26. This is no accident. The chapter in Wisdom is a lengthy description of God’s Wisdom and its relationship to God and creation. Wisdom (the Son) is the artificer of all (cf. Hebrews 1:2 and Wisdom 7:22). Wisdom (the Son) holds all things in being (cf. Hebrews 1:3 and Wisdom 4:1). But most importantly, Wisdom’s relationship to God is likened to the splendor of light: “the refulgence of [God’s] eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness” (Wisdom 7:26).
Since the Eternal Son is elsewhere identified as God’s wisdom and power (1 Corinthians 3:24), it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see the author of Hebrews using this illustration from Wisdom to describe the Son’s relationship to the Father.
But what does this tell us about the Father and the Son? Quite a bit. The early Church fathers understood these texts to teach that both the Father and the Son existed eternally; they are co-eternal. Why? Could a flame exist without its refulgence or brightness? No, of course not. The flame and its brightness co-exist. Wisdom 7:26 likens God to an eternal light, a light with no beginning and no end. If God’s Wisdom is the eternal light’s brightness, than God’s Wisdom is eternal as well.
The Father was never without the Son, nor was the Son without the Father. The early fathers repeatedly used this text against a heresy that denied that the Son was co-eternal with the Father. St. Augustine mocked such an idea. After quoting Wisdom 7:26, Augustine wrote, “Are you seeking for a Son without a Father? Give me a light without brightness…” (Sermons on Selected N.T. Lessons, 68, 2).
The precision of this analogy is remarkable. It’s no wonder it found its way into the Nicene creed. So the next time you recite the creed knowing the biblical background of “light from light,” just think of Wisdom.
Gary Michuta is an author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.