What was the Council of Nicea About?

Perhaps no other council in church history has been as misrepresented as the Council of Nicea. Most people who have a problem with the Bible seem to love the party line: “Your Bible was made up at the Council of Nicea.” New Ager, Shirley MacLaine, in her book, Out on a Limb says: “The theory of reincarnation is recorded in the Bible. But the proper interpretation were struck from it during…the Council of Nicaea.” Jehovah’s Witnesses claim this council “laid the groundwork for later Trinitarian theology.” Dan Brown, in The Davinci Code lurched even higher in his fancies:

Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea…until that moment in history Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal” (p. 233).

It’s often tragic to find otherwise smart people parroting Dan Brown’s remarks mindlessly. Personally, once a person makes such remarks about Nicea, it sets off a tripwire alarm in me to dismiss all their arguments as irrelevant. Nothing damages one’s credibility more than trotting out a patently false and ignorant argument – especially in an age when knowledge is at one’s fingertips. Thus, this piece intends to look at what really happened at the Council of Nicea and the significance it holds in church history.

The Arian Controversy

The Council of Nicea was held between May to July 325 AD, which was about 14 years after the persecution Galerius meted out on the church ended. Many of the bishops had been exiled and tortured and still bore the scars when they attended the council. It was also the first time in church history that an emperor called a council. The council was summoned because of a Christological heresy by an aged presbyter named Arius (250-336 AD). He taught that:

“The Father alone is without a beginning. The Son (or Logos) had a beginning; God created Logos in order that He might create the world” (Harry Bower, A Short History of the Early Church, 1976, 112).

Arius began teaching this heresy in Alexandria (Egypt), saying that Jesus was a created being and not eternal as the Bible says. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria held a Synod in 320 which denounced and excommunicated Arius. After this, he went to the East to popularise his teachings where he gained much support. Alexander wrote letters to the Eastern churches warning them against the Arians. This led to a controversy that almost divided the church. Constantine, the emperor, saw that this could threaten the unity of the empire so he called for the Council of Nicea to deal with the problem.

According to tradition, 318 bishops were in attendance at the council, most of which were from the East. However, they were in 3 parties:

  1. The Arian party consisting of Arius, Theonas, Socundus (bishops from Egypt), and Eusebius of Nicomedia who led them. They held to the view that Jesus was a creature and of a different substance from the Father.
  2. The “orthodox” (or middle) party led by bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. They held to the view that Jesus was of a similar substance (Gr: homoiousios) to the Father. They used this term to avoid stating that Jesus and the Father were one person.
  3. The Alexandrian party which consisted of Athanasius, bishop Ossius and Alexander of Alexandria. They held to the view that Christ is not merely like the Father, but is of the same substance (Gr: homo-ousios) as God the Father. Thus, Jesus has the same essence as God.

The dispute with Arius concerns the use of these two words: homoousios (“of the same nature”) and homoiosios (“of a similar nature”). As a scholar notes, “Arius was happy to say that Christ was a supernatural heavenly being and that he was created by God before the creation of the rest of the universe, and even that he was “similar” to God in his nature. Thus, Arius would agree to the word homoiosios” (Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, Intervasity Press, 1999, 114).

Athanasius however, indicated the desire of the bishops to express their faith Scripturally with the term – homoousios – which would be antithetical to the Arian heresy by emphasizing that Jesus is fully God and at the same time not drift into modalist heresy. Though the council of Nicea condemned Arius and his followers as heretics, it was the council of Constantinople in 381 AD that finally put the “nature” debate to rest by decreeing that Jesus had the same nature (homoousios) as God the Father. The resulting Nicene creed says in part:

“We believe in 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 from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance [homoousion] with the Father, through whom all things came to be, those things that are in heaven and those things that are on earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and was made man…”

The Moody Handbook of Theology points out that the terms “God from God” and “true God from true God” further stressed the deity of Christ. At the same time “begotten, not made” and “came down” stressed His eternality (p. 448).

What Role did Constantine Play?

Many cults who reject the deity of Christ claim that Constantine somehow “enforced” his views on the council to accept that Jesus has the same nature as God. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In their booklet, Should You Believe in the Trinity? the Watchtower Society distorts a quote (on pg. 8) from a source to promote this theory:

“Constantine himself presided, actively guiding the discussions, and personally proposed (no doubt on Ossius’ prompting) the crucial formula expressing the relation of Christ to God in the creed issued by the council, ‘of one substance with the Father’ (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1976, 6:386).

The part in bold was omitted and the volume and page number of the source was not given (so that readers would not discover their slyness). Ossius was the bishop of Cordoba and an ecclesiastical adviser to Constantine. He was the one who prompted him on which steps to take. Constantine was a politician, not a theologian, and was ready to agree with whatever party for peace to reign in his empire. “Constantine had basically no understanding whatsoever of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, 51).

Unfortunately, Dan Brown relied on much private imaginations in his novel:

Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier [Gnostic] gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned” (The Davinci Code, p 234).

There is no evidence that Constantine ordered the burning of any Gnostic gospels. What were burned were Arian papers found by the council to be heretical. It must also be noted that the Nicene council did not address the issue of the Bible canon (only regional councils Hippo, 393, Carthage, 397 did later on). The New Testament canon was already recognized by the church. Other matters discussed at the council “included the consideration of the Melitian schism, the settlement of the controversial date of Easter celebration and the promulgation of 26 disciplinary canons” (Samson Fatokun, History and Doctrine of the Early Church, 1999, 80).

The canon 6 issued at the council also reflects the pattern of church government at the time:

“Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1983, II, XIV:15).

This, with other data of evidence, show us that at this time, the idea of a single universal head exercising jurisdiction over the whole church was unknown. The bishop of Rome had no jurisdiction over the entire church. He was only regarded as the leader of the most influential church in the West. Since the Nicene church did not look up to one individual or a church as their final authority, the idea that the Catholic Church (or Constantine) conspired in the 4th century to “force” the deity of Christ or the Trinity on Christians is a poorly concocted fiction.

Another proof that Constantine had little influence on the decisions taken at Nicea can be seen in how he later succumbed to Arian and semi-Arian heresies:

“The Arian party grew, and years afterwards influenced Constantine, and especially his son the emperor Constantius. The emperors interfered more and more in the church, deposing and exiling whichever bishops did not affirm the doctrine of those who had the emperor’s ear” (John Hunt, Concise Church History, 2008, 128).

Arian heresies gained an upper hand after the Nicene council such that the Council of Jerusalem in 335 AD, cleared Arius of all the charges of heresies previously levied on him. Regional councils met at Sirminum (351), Arelate (353) and Milan (355) and the resulting Arian and semi-Arian creeds were forced on the Western church. Athanasius was condemned as a troublemaker and stripped of his bishopric. All the bishops who resisted them were banished. Even Liberius, the bishop of Rome and Ossius were forced to accept Arianism.

Athanasius however, persisted in standing for the homoousios clause because he believed in the sufficiency of the Scriptures – until it was affirmed by the Council of Constantinople. It must also be noted that the term “homoousios” was not “the invention of the council of Nicea, still less of Constantine, but had previously arisen in theological language, and occurs even in Origen [185-254 AD] and among the Gnostics” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:628).

The Evidence of Scripture and History

Christians today believe in the Deity of Christ, not because a Council or an emperor forced it on us, but because its a clear teaching of the inspired apostles of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-14; Rom. 9:6; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-17; 2 Peter 1:1, Titus 2:13 etc).

The writings of the early church fathers (and early church documents) are also historical evidences that the Deity of Christ had been a well-established doctrine long before Nicea. For example:

I. Ignatius (died c. 108 AD): “There is only one physician, of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, true life in death, Son of Mary and Son of God, first passable and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Ephesians 7, The Apostolic Fathers, J. B. Lightfoot, 1984, 139)

II. Aristides (140 AD): “[Christians] are they who, above every people of the Earth have found the truth, for they acknowledge God, the creator and maker of all things in the only begotten Son and in the Holy Spirit” (Apology, 16).

III. Justin Martyr (150 AD): “The Father of the universe has a Son, who along being the first begotten Word of God is even God” (First Apology, ch. 63).

IV. Tatian the Syrian (170 AD): “We are not playing the fool, you Greeks, nor do we talk nonsense, when we report that God was born in form of a man” (Address to the Greeks, 21).

V. Melito of Sardis (c. 170-180 AD): “But listen, as you tremble in the face of him on whose account the earth trembled. He who hung the earth in place is hanged. He who fixed the heaven in place is fixed in place. He who made all things fast is made fast on the tree. The Master is insulted. God is murdered. The king of Israel is destroyed by an Israelite hand” (A Homily on the Passover Sect, 96-96).

VI. Athenagoras (177 AD): “The Son of God is the Word of the Father in thought and actuality. By him and through him all things were made, the Father and the Son being one” (Plea for the Christians, 10:2-4).

VII. Theophilus of Antioch (180 AD): “In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Trinity; of God, and His Word, and His Wisdom” (Of the Fourth Day, To Autolycus, 2:15).

VIII. Ireneaus (185 AD): “Christ Jesus is our Lord, and God and Saviour and King” (Against Heresies, bk. 1, ch. 10, sec. 1).

IX. Clement of Alexandria (190 AD): “[Jesus is] the Expiator, the Saviour, the Soother, the Divine Word, he that is quite evidently the true God, he that is put on a level with the Lord of the universe because he was his Son” (Exhortation to the Greeks, 10:110).

X. Tertullian (200 AD): “All Scriptures give clear proof of the Trinity. Thus the connotation of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Paraclete, produce three coherent Persons, who are yet distinct One from Another” (Against Praxeas, 24).

The Nicene creed prevailed eventually, not because of the authority of a pope or the council itself, but the authority of Scripture and the evidence of history. Why then, did Arianism hold sway over the people for years inspite of these? “It was instrumental in the ‘conversion’ of many of the barbaric tribes” says a church historian. “It lowered the barriers between Christianity and the dominant Neoplatonist form of paganism, by emphasizing the oneness of God and representing the Son and the Spirit as high creatures. It brought Christianity closer to the normal polytheism that the barbarian tribes were accustomed to” (Concise Church History, 2008, AGM Publishers, 129).

The bold stand of theologians like Athanasius in the face of surging heresies is commendable. The church today still needs men and women who will stand up for the truths of Scripture – no matter how unpopular they may be.

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