The Council of Nicaea

The Council of Nicaea

In 325 CE, on this day, the First Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church began its proceedings in the eastern Roman city of Nicaea, in what today is Turkey.

The Council of Nicaea was the first time that several doctrinal issues relating to the beliefs of the Church were subjected to an attempt tot create a uniformity of opinion under the authority of the ruling Roman Emperor.

Statue of Constantine the Great at York Minster

The Council was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who was first emperor who was in any way a Christian. In 312 CE, he had issued the Edict of Milan, which formally granted tolerance to Christian worship, removed penalties for professing and returned confiscated Christian property.

Although it is clear that Constantine was sympathetic to Christianity (he was baptised as he was dying) and was very closely associated with the faith during his rule, what is not true, but widely believed to be so, is that Constantine made the Roman Empire a Christian one. I shall return to the subject of Constantine at a later date.

Paganism and Christianity co-existed in the Roman Empire for several centuries after the time of Constantine, although the dominance of the Christians grew over time and eventually triumphed over the pagan traditions of the Roman Empire of the past. Classical pagan belief and Hellenistic philosophy were both important factors on the development of the infant Christian Church.

It is commonly thought that the Council of Nicaea was some kind of turning point in the affairs of the Church, where the basic beliefs were upheld, heresies abolished and biblical canon established. It was, in actual fact, nothing of the sort.

The main piece of business was the Christological argument over the nature of Christ, something that had caused considerable debate in the past and, despite the outcome of the Council, was to cause even more dissent, debate and conflict in the future.

Arius

This argument is known as the Arian Controversy or Heresy, after its main proponent Arius, who was presbyter of Baucalis in Alexandria in Egypt. His position was one that was widely supported within the Church, and which, as Peter Brown discussed in his 1971 book, The World of Late Antiquity was entirely consistent with the classically-influenced Christian belief of many educated Romans of the later 3rd century. Arius derived much of his belief from the teachings of Origen, one of the early Church Fathers and probably its most important early theologian. Origen’s teachings were firmly rooted in the classical philosophy of Plato, with his conception of God as a perfect unity, invisible and incorporeal, transcending all things material, and therefore inconceivable and incomprehensible.

Origen had conceived of the Logos, a Platonic idea, as a rational creative principle that permeates the universe, emanating from God, but subordinate although also eternal but distinct from the being and substance of God.

For Arius, it seemed philosophically consistent that Jesus, as the Son of God, should also be of a similar but distinct substance to God and therefore also subordinate and because the Son had proceeded as a separate creation to the father, not eternal.

This view seemed to have a logical consistency, certainly it held an appeal to classically-inclined Platonic philosophers in the burgeoning Christian Church. According to Platonism, the One or “first cause” radiated immaterial and material entities in a hierarchical, categorized way. In this conceptual world view, the Christian God was a Platonic entity with the Father as the “first cause,” the Son and Logos as primary emanations from the One, and the Holy Spirit a further emanation of the Logos. Arianism taught that the Son of God was a being created by the First Person and could not therefore be considered as divine, an option incorporating both classical Greek thought and the scriptural description of the person of Jesus.

However, this view was not shared by all, particularly Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and others around him, including his deacon Athanasius. In Alexander’s view, known as Homoousianism, was that because the Father was eternal, all his attributes were similarly eternal, including the fact of God’s fatherhood of the Son. Ergo, the Father was always a father, and that the Son, therefore, always existed with him.

The two views were irreconcilable but the Council, which was dominated by Eastern Bishops, declared that the Father and the Son were of the same substance and were co-eternal, basing the declaration on the traditional Christian beliefs handed down in the gospels by the Apostles. Arising from the judgment of the Council of Nicaea, this belief was expressed by the formula which would subsequently be known as the Nicene Creed.

This naturally solved nothing. Indeed, of the three sons who succeeded Constantine, one of them, Constantius II, was a supporter of Arianism and all three were embroiled in further occurrences of the Arian Controversy, which would continue to disturb the religious unity of the Church for centuries to come.

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