Council of Nicea (325 A.D.)
The First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325 A.D.)
The Arian Controversy
In 325 A.D., the Roman emperor, Constantine, called a council in the city of Nicea The council brought together bishops from all over Christendom in order to resolve some divisive issues and ensure the continued unity of the church. By far the most significant of these issues was the Arian controversy, which had become so serious in the eastern half of the empire, and particularly in northeast Africa, that it was threatening the continued unity of the church there.
The Arian controversy takes its name from a man named Arius who lived in North Africa in the late third and early fourth centuries. He was probably born in Libya. Earlier on in his life, Arius had become a deacon in the church, but had been excommunicated by Peter, bishop of Alexandria (300-311), because of his involvement with a sect called the Melitians. The Melitians took their name from an individual called Melitius who had also been excommunicated after a dispute with the bishop at Alexandria concerning the admittance to the church of those who had compromised their faith in times of persecution. Melitius had not been able to accept the church’s position and in order to avoid further trouble, it had become necessary, in the church’s view, for him to be excommunicated. Following his excommunication, he started his own church and built up a sizable following in North Africa. The Melitian problem was also destined to be on the agenda at Nicea, though by the time of the council, it was eclipsed by the much greater schism which had developed around Arius.
The fourth century historian, S.H. Sozomen, writes, "Arius asked forgiveness of [Bishop] Achilles and was restored to his office as deacon, and afterwards elevated to the presbytery. Afterwards, Alexander [who succeeded Achillas in 313] also held him in high repute, since he was a most expert logician" (251). Unfortunately, this rapport with Alexander was not destined to last and Arius would once again be ejected from the church. The cause of the disagreement was Arius’ understanding of the identity of the Son of God. In the writings of the early church fathers, the tension between Christ’s complete oneness with God and his subordination to the Father was never completely resolved. Nevertheless, the orthodox position was trinitarian, i.e. the Son shares fully in the deity of the Father and the Holy Spirit. While the Son might have willingly taken a subordinate role, he was in essence fully divine, and as such was coexistent with the Father from eternity, uncreated, and without beginning or end.
Arius did not accept this trinitarian understanding of the Son. He believed that Jesus’ status as the Son of God implies that he was begotten of God at some point. This implies a special relationship, different from that of other creatures, who are merely created by God. Nevertheless, the Son, as one begotten, is still more creature than creator, and the Arians insisted that there was a time when he did not exist.
In addition, Arius accused Alexander of Monarchianism, the opposite extreme of his own view, which does not see any distinction whatsoever between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three are merely different aspects of one God in whom there is no division. As a result of this conflict, Arius was eventually removed from his post by Alexander. However, using his considerable powers of persuasion, Arius appealed to the people and to the other bishops throughout the eastern church, winning many to his cause, even among the clergy. The people are said to have held demonstrations in support of him. In time, the schism became so big that it threatened to divide the eastern church.
Constantine Fails to Settle the Dispute
The empire was at this time divided, with Licinius ruling in the east and Constantine in the west. As the schism grew in the eastern empire, Constantine was consolidating his power in the west, and waiting for the right moment to extend his power into the east. That opportunity came in 323 A.D. when he found an excuse to do battle with Licinius. Licinius was rapidly defeated and the empire was once again united, with Constantine as emperor. Constantine had been converted to Christianity some years before and for reasons which may have been political as well as religious, he did not wish to see the church divided. As the east came under his control, the Arian controversy came with it. Constantine resolved to settle the issue and with this in mind, he sent his trusted friend and advisor, Bishop Hosius of the Spanish city of Cordova, to Alexandria, for the purpose of arbitrating between Alexander and Arius. To give weight to Hosius’ mission, he was armed with a letter from the emperor himself which exhorted both sides to settle their dispute and restore the internal harmony of the church. Unfortunately, Hosius was not able to bring about an accord between the warring parties and he was forced to return to Rome without any good news for the emperor.
Constantine Calls a Council
Constantine was not ready to give up, however, and he decided to call a council of bishops. He arranged for approximately three hundred bishops to come to Nicea, a town near Constantinople (now Istanbul), all expenses paid, to resolve the issue and standardize doctrine. At the same time, they would take care of other questions which were not as momentous as the Arian dispute, but which needed a consensus to be satisfactorily resolved. Most of the bishops were from the eastern half of the empire, as this was where the dispute was, but there were a handful from the west and from beyond of the borders of the empire.
In Nicea itself, issues of faith became the leading focus of discussion in the days prior to the debate, and several philosophers and followers of pagan religions appeared on the scene to dispute with the Christians. In addition, bishops and priests held discussions among themselves to better prepare themselves for the coming conference. Arius was present at some of these and endeavored to make his views known and understood. Many of the bishops brought personal complaints against other clergy members with them, with the hope that Constantine would give them his consideration. However, he was not willing to deal with such things and merely appealed to the bishops to forgive those who had offended them, and to live in such a way as to be beyond reproach themselves.
The council convened in the late spring of 325 A.D. (the exact day and month are disputed) with Hosius presiding. Early historians vary in their estimates of the number of bishops present, with approximations ranging from two hundred and fifty to three hundred and twenty, although Athanasius on one occasion specifically says three hundred and eighteen. Eusebius of Caesarea, who was present at the council, writes:
- In effect, the most distinguished of God’s ministers from all the churches which abounded in Europe, Libya, and Asia were here assembled. And a single house of prayer, as though divinely enlarged, sufficed to contain at once Syrians and Cilicians, Phoenicians and Arabians, delegates from Palestine, and others from Egypt; Thebans and Libyans, with those who came from the region of Mesopotamia. A Persian bishop too was present at this conference, nor was even a Scythian found wanting to the number. Pontus, Galatia, and Pamphylia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Phrygia, furnished their most distinguished prelates; while those who dwelt in the remotest districts of Thrace and Macedonia, of Achaia and Epirus, were notwithstanding in attendance. Even from Spain itself, one whose fame was widely spread took his seat as an individual in the great assembly. The prelate of the imperial city was prevented from attending by extreme old age; but his presbyters were present, and supplied his place. (Life of Constantine, 521)
It is noteworthy that here, and in other records of the event, no preeminence is given to the bishop of Rome. Eusebius merely observes that “the prelate of the imperial city was prevented from attending by extreme old age; but his presbyters were present, and supplied his place.” The position of authority given to the bishop of Rome later, as pope, did not yet exist. Among the bishops, greater status appears to have been afforded to the bishop of Jerusalem at this point. (See Surviving Documents, below.)
After making a stunning entrance in a purple robe adorned with gold and precious jewels, Constantine personally opened the conference with an appeal for unity and harmony among those in attendance. He presented his opening speech in Latin, with an interpreter translating it into Greek. He then gave those in the members of the council the opportunity to speak and to discuss doctrinal differences. As they did so, at times quite heatedly, he would occasionally interject encouraging or conciliating words in Greek, which although not his first language, was one in which he had some ability to converse.
Alexander was the principle spokesperson for the orthodox view, while Eusebius of Nicomedia, who held to the Arian doctrine, was the chief representative of the dissenting view. Arius himself, not being a bishop, was not invited to attend. At the beginning of the conference, it seems that most of the bishops were not very well-informed on the issue. There were a handful of staunch supporters on both sides, pro-Arian and anti-Arian, but most did not have a strong position one way or the other concerning Arius’ views.
Their neutrality rapidly evaporated when Arius’ views were explained more fully, however. Eusebius of Nicomedia was first to speak. As he proceeded to explain the Arian position to the bishops, they became so angry that they grabbed his notes out of his hands and proceeded to tear them to pieces. On the face of it, this may seem to be a rather extreme, if not comical, reaction. But one must bear in mind that there were many bishops who still bore the scars of persecution from earlier times when the church was less in favor, and therefore had good reason to see this as a personal affront. The fifth century historian, Theodoret, writes:
- Paul, bishop of Neo-Caesarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. Among these was Paphnutius of Egypt. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs. (43)
The Nicene Creed
The bishops decided that an official statement was necessary which would reflect the orthodox view of the church concerning the relationship of the Son to the Father, and which could be used as a doctrinal standard for the church universal. Eusebius of Caesarea introduced a creed to the assembly which impressed those present sufficiently, in particular the emperor, that they decided that with a few small changes it could be a suitable expression of orthodox doctrine on the issue of the Trinity, and appropriate changes were suggested. According to Bishop Athanasius, who was present at the council, Hosius was then given the job of composing the final statement and it was brought before the council for a vote. At first, seventeen Arians refused to support the new statement, but after further discussion, the number was reduced to five. This number was further reduced to two, after the dissenting bishops were threatened with the loss of their positions. The two bishops who refused to agree to the final document were Secundas and Theonas, both of Libya, and these received an official censure along with Arius. All three were declared heretics and exiled.
There probably were some who did not agree with the document, but signed it anyway rather than face the alternative. There may also have been some who, while they were not in complete agreement, were willing to concede for the sake of unity in the church. We know that Eusebius of Nicomedia fell into one of these categories, for even though he signed, he continued to teach Arian theology after the council.
The following is the original creed as it was issued by the council at Nicea. It is decidedly anti-Arian in its wording:
- We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father; God of God, light of light, true God of true God; begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, by whom all things were made, both in heaven and in earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, descended, was incarnate, and was made man, and suffered, and rose again the third day; he ascended into heaven, and shall come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit. But the holy catholic and apostolic Church of God anathematizes those who affirm that there was a time when the Son was not, or that he was not before he was begotten, or that he was made of things not existing; or who say, that the Son of God was of any other substance or essence, or created, or liable to change or conversion. (Boyle 44)
Although the creed specifically mentioned the Father and the Spirit, particular attention was given to the divinity of the Son. While fifteen words are devoted to the Father and five to the Holy Spirit, there are ninety-one concerning the Son. The general thrust of the statement concerning the Son’s relationship to the Father is summed up in the Greek word homoousia, usually translated consubstantial, which means of one substance. This word is believed to have been added at the request of Constantine. The historian, Isaac Boyle, writes:
- The Arians rejected with murmurings and contempt the term consubstantial, complaining that it was not to be found in the Scriptures, and might be taken in a very exceptionable sense... They declared that his resemblance to, and union with, the Father, was not with regard to his substance or nature, but in a conformity of will and counsel. (20)
Following the statement of belief in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there are six “anathemas” in the creed. These condemn specific Arian beliefs concerning the Son, as well as those who hold such beliefs. The anathemas were later deleted at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., probably because by that time, Arianism was no longer a major issue. The council at Constantinople also altered and extended the other parts of the creed. The original form is designated 'N' (for Nicea) by scholars, while the later is designated 'C' (for Constantinople). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says:
- In common parlance, the 'Nicene Creed' more often means the considerably longer formula which bears this title in the Thirty-Nine Articles and is in regular use in the Eucharistic worship of the Church, both in East and West. It is also known as the 'Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed'. (968)
The doctrine of the Trinity espoused in the creed has become a mark of orthodoxy down to the present day.
The second most important item on the agenda at Nicea was the date of Easter. Boyle says:
- It appears that the churches of Syria and Mesopotamia continued to follow the custom of the Jews and celebrated Easter on the fourteenth day of the moon, whether it fell on a Sunday or not. All the other churches observed that solemnity on Sunday only... It was considered indecorous, and as affording occasion of scandal to unbelievers, that while some were engaged in fasting and penitence, others should be indulging in festivity and relaxation. (22)
After discussing the issue, the Syrians and Mesopotamians agreed, for the sake of unity, to conform to the rest of the church on this issue.
The problem with the excommunicated North African bishop, Melitius, and his followers was also discussed. In spite of the objection of some who felt that the ruling was too lenient, it was decided that he would be able to retain his title of bishop, but that he would have no power to ordain people to clerical office. Those who had received ordination from him in the past could seek recognition by the bishop of Alexandria, which would normally be granted, unless they rejected the decrees of the council or were unsuitable for other reasons. The decision did not prove lenient enough for Melitius and his followers, however, for they rejected its terms and continued to exist as a separate church. In spite of the disapproval of the mainstream church, the movement proved to be quite durable, lasting some four hundred years before dwindling away in the eighth century.
If there were any minutes taken at the council, we are unaware of their existence today, so we cannot know the full extent of the discussions. In addition to the records of contemporary authors, however, some documents did survive from the council itself. Apart from the creed, we have a synodal letter and twenty canons. The purpose of the synodal letter was to inform the regional churches of the council’s decisions, particularly those churches under the authority of the bishop of Alexandria, which would have been most strongly affected, but also the churches in general. The twenty canons were intended, not so much to create a new order of discipline, but to reinforce and codify the existing one, which in some cases was being neglected. The canons dealt with such things as the ordination of bishops, respect for the bishop of Jerusalem, the giving of communion to those who are dying, the movement of clergy between cities, and procedures for administering the eucharist among the clergy.
The council was concluded with a huge banquet provided by Constantine. This was a dual celebration, both in honor of the success of the council, and of the twentieth anniversary of the emperor’s reign, which coincided with the meeting. After the celebration, Constantine sent the bishops on their way with lavish gifts and an exhortation to continue in the spirit of unity which had been established at the council.
The Fate of Arius
Arius was banished to Illyricum, a region on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, and all copies of his writings were ordered to be burned. Anyone found guilty of concealing his writings would be put to death. But if these draconian measures were intended to silence him, they were unsuccessful, for he continued to write and teach in exile. Also, Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had officially given his approval to the Nicene Creed, continued in his Arian beliefs regardless. Since Constantine was a regular visitor to Nicomedia, Eusebius had frequent opportunity to talk with him about them. Eusebius eventually succeeded in softening Constantine’s attitude towards the Arian doctrine to the point that Arius was allowed to return from exile. Arius’ health was failing by this time, however, and he was not very active after his return. He died a short time later, in about 335 A.D. Ironically, when Constantine was on his deathbed, he had never been baptized, so at his request, he was baptized by, of all people, Eusebius of Nicomedia.
Arius’ doctrine outlived him in spite of the council, and it continued to be a threat to the unity of the church in the eastern half of the empire for some time after his death. An African bishop named Athanasius, who had been in the council as an assistant to the bishop of Alexandria and in 328 had ascended to the bishopric himself, became the most outspoken critic of Arianism and struggled ceaselessly to eliminate it from the church until the time of his death. Being assisted by dissensions within the Arian movement, he eventually met with considerable success and Arianism was finally put to sleep at the Council of Constantinople in 381, when the bishops unanimously affirmed orthodox trinitarian doctrine as expressed at Nicea. Athanasius did not live to see this triumph, for he died in 373, eight years before the council.
The Significance of Nicea
The Council of Nicea was a landmark in several ways. It is generally thought of as the first ecumenical council, because it was the first council which brought together representatives from throughout Christendom, including those of opposing theological viewpoints. And it is theologically significant in that the doctrine of the Trinity emerged from the council as a mark of orthodoxy which still holds to this day.
But perhaps of even greater significance is that it was the first church council sanctioned by the ruling political entity. The emperor’s role in the council seems to have been nothing but positive, but the council signaled the beginning of an often stormy relationship between church and state which was to dominate the course of western history for over a thousand years until the Reformation in the 16th century. The relationship between church and state has continued to be an important political issue to the present day. Although there were unquestionable benefits to the church-state relationship, such as an end of persecution and freedom to proselytize, there were also some negative aspects. In particular, a potential for doctrinal despotism was created. With the support of the state, the church was able to dictate orthodoxy and to enforce conformity by making it a crime to express anything, publicly or privately, which contradicted the official position. This was to have a chilling effect on freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and would in time lead to rampant corruption. The church which had once been persecuted now became the persecutor. The Reformation, in which millions of believers seceded from the Catholic Church, was the eventual result. But at Nicea, at least, there was cause for celebration for the “army of martyrs” who were in attendance.
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