4th Century Christianity: The Council of Nicaea

This was part of a presentation given on the development of the Doctrine of the Trinity earlier this year. I focuses on the history of it. Here is the portion of the First Ecumenical Council. Personally, St. Nicolas is still a hero of mine.

The 4th Century of Christianity is by far the most exiting. With the end of Roman persecutions, when the Empire, and thus the world, stopped turning on the Christians, they started to do it to themselves. First, of course, was the Council of Nicaea which was brought about by Arius’s disputation that Christ was a creature, begotten of God, higher in rank than all others, but in the end, a mere creature. The Emperor stepped in. At the First Ecumenical Council, a creed was produced which was ambivalent enough for both sides to agree to it (except Arius and two of his generals, one of which would later baptize Constantine on his death bed). While many assume that the intervening years between that council and the council of 381 were quiet, in the end, it simply wasn’t. It saw the great Athanasius accused of murder, exiled, and eventually restore back to his bishopric. It also saw the parting of ways begin which would eventually split Christendom into the East and West. (Even today, the West focuses on the unity of the Godhead while the East focuses on the triunity.)

Originally called by the Emperor to be held in Ancyra
Nicaea was the home of the Imperial Palace
Called to settle several matters
The Arian question regarding the relationship between God the Father and Jesus; i.e. are the Father and Son one in purpose only or also one in being;
The date of celebration of the Paschal/Easter observation
Alexandria was given authority to set the date each year
The Meletian schism
The validity of baptism by heretics;
The status of the lapsed in the persecution under Licinius.
Emperor called all 1800 bishops
250-318 participated
22 were supporters of Arius
All but 2 Bishops signed the statement

My notes (remember, it is just a presentation set of notes meant only to jog the memory a wee bit):

In 324, Constantine united the Empire and attempted to unite the Church. He sought to use Christianity as the new ‘cult’ religion, in gaining favors from the local deity. He sent a letter to both Alexander and Arius asking them to ignore the issue. He wanted the Church united on the ‘essentials and right worship of God.’ He wanted them to immediately bury the issue.

Constantine was as yet unbaptized, but was committed to Christianity. He had tried to settle, upon request, the Donatist Schism in North Africa, the Melitian Schism in Egypt, and the remnants of the Novatian Schism in Rome and the East. Further, he wanted to reconcile the Easter celebrations according to the Roman Tradition.

His letter to both men were delivered by a Spanish bishop, Ossius of Cordoba, who had Arianist sympathies. Neither men budged, and the question evolved. Arius began to question the legitimacy of Alexander’s episcopal rule. The question of over the Godhead became enjoined to a question over church discipline. Who would decided theology?

Ossius returned to Rome, but attended a synod at Antioch which chose a friend of Alexander over that of Eusebius of Caesarea as Bishop. Because of creed developed by this synod, a creed which opposed the Arians, three Bishops of the Eusebian Party, were denied communion when they refused to agree to the Creed.

As a matter of unusual business, the three Bishops would be given a chance to explain themselves at a future, to be held at Ancyra. This was later changed to Nicaea, the imperial summer palace.

The Emperor finances the logistics, deeming it an ecumenical council; however, the Bishop of Rome failed to attend, but sent to representatives. While it was deemed Ecumenical, most of the participants were from the East.

The Council was convened in June, and held in Greek. Although this was incidental at the time, the West used Latin, and had since Tertullian. The Emperor presided and even entered into the negotiations.

During the deliberations, Nicholas of Myra walked up to Arius and slapped him for calling Christ a creature and denying His deity (Arius could only call Christ ‘God’ in an honorary way). Nicholas was stripped of his office and thrown into chains, only later to be restored because of a dream by other Bishops.

Eusebius of Caesarea presented his case and creed, alleging that the Father, Son and Spirit really existed, as according to the realities presented in Matthew 28.19. For Eusebius, each had their own existence, and were not divided in number. The Emperor agreed with the Eusebian Party. The Creed was ambiguous enough for the Emperor, leaving for interpretation that Christ was God’s Logos, but not really and that while Christ is likewise God from God, He was not the one True God.

The Final Creed, the Nicene Creed, outlined that the Father and Son were One Ousia that Christ was True God – both anti-Arian.
However, the ‘one essence’ of the Creed could be translated in two ways –

  • The Monarchians translated it as that the Father and the Son are identical
  • The Eusibians translated it as the Father and Son were equal, but individual and numerically distinct

The final creed was put to a vote – 20 bishops objected. Constantine threatened those Bishops with immediate banishment. Only Arius and two other Libyan bishops refused to sign the document. They were banished from their Egyptian homeland. Eusebius of Nicomedia signed the Creed, but refused to sign the conditions which cursed the Arians. He, as member of royalty himself, was given time for reflection. He was exiled with Arius to Gaul. It was the Arian Visigoths from Gaul which sacked Rome in 410, essentially ending the western Roman Empire.

Constantine is often attributed with ‘unifying’ Christianity and many other conspiratorial deeds, including creating the bible. Many point to this moment and time and say that this was when Constantine literally rewrote the text; however, the many Greek texts which survive predate anything that Constantine could have done.

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