Council of Nicaea

Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea

Christianity in the early fourth century c.e. was a complex spectrum of beliefs, whose adherents were faced with the additional problem that their religion was illegal in the Roman Empire. Constantine the Great recognized Christianity as a legal religion in 313 c.e. in the Western Roman Empire.

With Constantine’s unification of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires in 324, an approach to the growing Christian population and the implications of its theological diversity and disputes became a matter of national interest. At the heart of this Christian diversity was a theological dispute concerning the divinity of the Son of God that had developed in Alexandria.

Bishop Alexander of Alexandria formulated traditional theology in somewhat novel formulas. He emphasized that the Word is eternally generated from the Father and that, if it is correct to call God Father, God always must be the father of a son. Alexander expressed these thoughts in slogans such as "Always God, always the Son".

To some this view endangered monotheism by suggesting, in effect, the existence of a second co-eternal and equal god alongside the one God. Arius, a well-respected senior presbyter and preacher in Alexandria, became the leader of the opposition called Arianism and attacked Alexander’s theology by presenting a radicalized version of a view of God as absolute unity outside of time, boundaries, and definition.

The Word, in contrast, was to be understood as the principle of multiplicity. God the Father, as absolute unity, thus can and did subsist without the Word, a situation for which Arius and his supporters employed the slogan "There was [a time] when He [the Word] was not".

The Word therefore does not have to exist, but rather, as Arius interpreted Proverbs 8:22, the Word, or "Wisdom", was "created ... at the beginning". Still, the Word was not like other creatures, since the Word was in fact the first of all that was created and also functioned in turn as creator of all that subsequently was created.

At a local council of bishops from Egypt and Libya, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria had Arius’s teachings condemned. Arius himself was deposed, but he quickly became the leader and figurehead of the opposition to Alexander’s theology, concentrated in a group of clergy who were students and followers of the exegete and martyr Lucian of Antioch (d. 312 c.e.).

The theological dispute became quickly politicized, as both sides attempted to impose their position through the enlisting of popular sentiment and military and political support. A civil crisis ensued.

In response to this crisis Constantine called a council of all of the bishops of the Roman Empire to convene in Nicaea to decide this theological question and thereby put an end to the civil unrest it engendered. This council was inaugurated on May 20, 325.

At the council the pro-Arian bishops, under the leadership of Eusebius of Nicomedia, presented a formula of faith that expressed the subordination of the Son to the Father and declared that the Son and the Father were of different natures.

Eusebius of Caesarea, whose doctrinal orthodoxy previously had been called into question as pro-Arian, now seized the opportunity to free himself of charges and presented his formula of faith that in the end, with a few modifications, served as a basis for the Nicene Creed.

The creed that was finally adopted was not a new creed but one that reflected the baptismal confession of Jerusalem, with an additional postscript of anathemas (curses) against Arian subordinationism.

The most important aspect of the creed is its explicit mention that the Son is "of the same substance" as the Father, expressed in the term homoousios, translated in the Nicene Creed today as "begotten not made". The insertion of this term was probably motivated by the fact that Arius had rejected it.

Arius had stressed that the Father was the source of all creation in a strict sense, meaning that he was also the creator of the Son. Some bishops had difficulty accepting the philosophical term homoousios because it was an expression found neither in other earlier Christian creeds nor in the Bible.

Therefore, the list of expressions "God from God, light from light, true God from true God" were added before the word homoousios. Immediately following the term homoousios in the creeds is the clarification "that is, of one being with the Father" to emphasize the equal divinity between Father and Son. In addition to attempting to solve the Arian controversy, the Council of Nicaea had other items on its agenda.

The date of the celebration of the feast of Easter was fixed to occur on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring in order to settle the Quartodeciman controversy. The Quartodecimans stipulated that Easter should be celebrated on the 14th of the first month of spring, since this was the historical date of Christ’s resurrection.

A number of questions concerning church hierarchy in the empire were addressed in 20 canons. Most significant of these was the definition of the jurisdictions of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

The decision to place Constantinople, the city called New Rome, and the residence of Emperor Constantine, on a par with Old Rome and over the older see of Alexandria created ecclesiastical tensions that would contribute to the fracturing of the church in the course of the Christological controversies of the fifth century.

The results and effects of the Council of Nicaea included, on the one hand, the first creation of a universal statement of Christian faith, the attempt to organize the church into a coherent administrative structure, and the definition of its rights and responsibilities in reference to the Roman state.

However, the creed that resulted from the council did not eliminate the Arian controversy, nor did it settle the key questions of the relationship between the Father and the Son and between the divinity and humanity of Christ. The creed of Nicaea was not binding on all Christian bishops.

It was modified at the Council of Constantinople (381), which added language to state more clearly the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Only at the Council of Chalcedon (451) did acceptance of the Nicene (Constantinopolitan) Creed become binding.

Nicaea was a step, but only a first step, toward a unified expression of Christian faith and the creation of the church as an integrated and hierarchical administration.