Church History Primer: The Council of Nicaea 325

Many Christians today try to “get back to the scriptures” as if it were possible to ignore 2000 years of Church history and all of the significant theological developments that took place. Others think that the period between Acts and the Reformation was some terrible, terrible era of darkness in the Church (also not true). My reason for writing a bit more on Church history comes out of a desire to correct those assumptions, but also to relate how understanding the past has the potential to inform many of our particular issues today within the Church.


As the early Church grew, so did her proclamation of salvation. Christians recognized that the man Jesus, was more than met the eye. As his teachings spread, it was not merely his parables and sermons that became significant. Rather, Christians insisted upon the divine character of Jesus’ work, especially with regard to his actions as savior from sin and death. Yet, at the same time, people read the stories about Jesus and noticed that Jesus referred to God, his father, in the second and third person, and that a human being Jesus obliterated all of their conceptions of God in the first place.

The issue of Nicaea was not merely whether or not Jesus was God (or divine). Christians had long recognized the divine character of Jesus’ life and offer of salvation. However, they were not working with the same categories of divinity that we would today. The people of the ancient world were much more capable of asserting multiple divinities with no problem at all. One only needs to quickly look at the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek gods to understand this. They did not have a problem with the divinity of Jesus as well as the divinity of God per say. The real issue was how Christians (monotheists out of the Jewish tradition initially) could maintain the unity of God while still insisting upon a distinction between Jesus and God the Father.

By the 4th century, a plethora of solutions were put forth. Some of the early Christian apologists utilized the Logos theology of Greek philosophy to recognize the pre-existent nature of this divine Christ. Gnostics and Marcionites created multiple deities as a way towards a solution, but people like Irenaeus would have nothing of that. Christians, in time, asserted the unity of the supposed difference between the Old Testament and New Testament God. They argued that redemption could not be accomplished unless Christ were fully divine, on par with the God they had always known. Many other ideas came during this early period of development like Adoptionism and the Monarchians who each had their own ways of solving this dilemma.

Soon Tertullian recognized the linguistic nature of many of these problems and errors, so therefore decided to introduce specific terminology into the discussion like ‘person’, ‘nature’, and ‘trinity’. Origen followed suit by affirming the eternal spiritual ‘generation’ of the divine Son from the Father. Though much ground had been covered, tremendous ambiguity remained, and would continue throughout the earliest Church councils. Nonetheless, the Church eventually settled that ‘nature’ meant that which was common among God and the Son, and ‘person’ that which was threefold (or two-fold at least by this time) within the single divinity. (note: I’m simplifying the issues pre-council so that I can eventually get to the actual council!)

By about 318, all-out controversy would ensue with the beginnings of Arius’ theology, which was similar to a position earlier advanced by Dionysius of Alexandria. Arius rose through the ranks of clergy within the Church at Alexandria as deacon and then presbyter eventually going toe to toe with the bishop, Alexander in the early 320s. Arius’ position came out of a desire to uphold the transcendence and unity of God in the face of other theologies which seemed to divide God into parts (a noble motive to begin with). However, Arius, in opposition to his bishop Alexander in Alexandria, developed his now-infamous catch-phrase: “There was a time when the Son was not.”

Alexander had all along criticized Arius’ position by not recognizing the *full* divinity of Christ on par with the Father. A common misconception is that Arius did not think Christ was “god.” This is technically false, as Arius throughout his extant letters refers to Christ as “theos“, the Greek term for God (remember our discussion in the beginning of my post concerning the ancient’s conception of divinity). Arius wanted to say that Jesus was divine, but wouldn’t give him the same divine status as the God that had been known by the Israelites. Consider again the pagan precedent here in multiplying deities of differing levels. Arius just could not conceive of another way to unite God by proclaiming both the Father and the Son as equally divine.

Once the problem got out of hand, Alexander called a council so that other bishops could decide the fate of Arius’ theology. He was condemned for dividing God into parts (the opposite of his original intentions). Alexander insisted that the Son had always existed (he was never at a time, even before creation, created by God) because the Father has always been the Father. For those of you interested in contemporary theology, Pannenberg takes this idea to new dimensions in his theology, and the Trinitiarian theology of the latter 20th century was marked by a similar concern for inter-Trinitarian relations. Back to the history, Arius complained of the councils decision to other bishops, most notably Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop of wide influence.

However, by 312/325, a new factor emerged. Constantine declared Christianity as a legal religion of the empire following his own conversion. Desiring to bring unity within his empire (what kind of emperor would want a factitious empire?), he commanded Alexander to receive Arius and get on with real life by not speculating on such inconsequential matters of divinity. Soon though, Constantine understood that a solution would not be as simple as he initially had hoped, so he convened a council to be held at Nicaea in 325, writing bishops throughout the empire to attend.

council of nicaeaThe number of bishops at the council seems to have ranged from the mid 200s-300, representing every area of Christianity both within and outside of the Roman Empire. In the first few days, bishops tried to establish consensus using only terms found in scripture in order to explain the relationship between Christ and God. This quickly failed due to the scripture’s imprecision (and diverse voices) and a need for linguistic clarity at this point. The bishops instead modified an earlier creed from the Syria-Palestine region. This became the earliest version of what is now known and recited in Church as the Nicene Creed, though it wouldn’t be finalized for many years to come.

The council condemned Arius’ position in a direct attack towards the various aspects within his system. A myth surrounding the precedings of the council concerns the figure St. Nickolaus (bishop of Myra), one of the early predecessors to our idea of Santa Clause today. They say that he stood up in the middle of Arius defending his position before the other bishops and either punched or slapped Arius across the face. So, the next time you think of Santa Clause, remember the original St. Nick, heretic boxer. Anyways, after deliberations, they favored the full divinity of Christ on par with that of the Father, while positing the unity of this God in the form of the same divine nature. There were not two Gods, and there was not a created divine being and an eternal divine being. Both the Son and the Father were co-eternal. Some contemporary thinkers try to defend Arius as a victim of power-plays in the early Church, but one needs to remember that Arius was given at least two public chances to change his theology, and multiple councils declared that the words he was using were wrong. In the face of all of this, Arius continued to write that the Son at one time came into existence.

So what can we learn from this?

Well, first of all. One could easily comment on the benefits given to Church unity through the political action when Constantine convened the council. In this case. it was the emperor presiding over a council and working towards greater unity (though likely for mostly political reasons rather than theological ones).  But perhaps it is not ALWAYS a bad thing for the Church and state to inform one another as long as it occurs within certain safe boundaries.

creedSecondly, reading basic outlines of Church history are mostly filled with accounts of heretics corresponded with the “orthodox” reaction. Even in this case, one could wonder how theological development is directly tied to the existence of people who push the boundaries of theological thinking (like Arius perhaps?), who in turn force real positive development that form the basis for Christianity today. In short, I’m wondering what role do people normally deemed heretics play in forming Christian doctrine and practice. Sometimes it takes someone getting it wrong, for the rest to recognize the right way to do things or think about things. Maybe this will provide a reason for giving greater charity towards those we disagree with, as our identity is both tied to what we stand for as well as what we don’t stand for.

Third, we should stop to ponder the intellectual nature of these debates. They did not primarily concern one’s feeling, senses, or their actions within a worship setting, but how one thought about God. This council focused on the intellect’s accurate grasp of gospel truth, something everyone thought was worth fighting for. This implicit precedent paved the way for further theological development that continues to this day.

Fourth, the bishops recognized that they needed to go beyond the actual words of scripture in order to solve their problems. In a day in which anyone can point to proof-texts to support any position they want, this concept should not be over-looked. This does not undermine scripture, but uses its intentions and ideas as starting points for further reflection, themselves based upon the ideas found within scripture. Christians quickly realized that their scriptures did not cover everything of importance, and that they had to do theology on their own in order to make progress in their faith.

How about a few fun facts concerning the council and its other decisions?

  1. It did not just concern doctrine, but also matters of church structure and discipline. Bishops, in order to be ordained, must get approval of all other bishops in that particular area. Bishops were not allowed to receive people whom had been excommunicated by other churches. Those who were baptized, had to go through a process of waiting and formation before they could be involved in church leadership.
  2. No clergy member (men) were allowed to have non-family women living in their home.
  3. Those who repented from military service but went back, if they decided to rejoin the Church, they were required to spend 10 years in penance and 3 further years as a “hearer” until they could be completely re-incorporated into the Church as members.
  4. Catechumens (those preparing for baptism) who lapsed in serious sin were required to go through a 3 year waiting period before they could be reconsidered for baptism.
  5. Clergy who charge interest in lending were to be deposed if they continued to do so.

To close, I must recognize the short-lived results of Nicaea 325. Immediately afterwards, pro-Arius bishops refused to assent to the decision of the council. At every point, they tried to undermine those bishops who supported the council. Arians in power began to excommunicate those who adhered to the council. In this way, the pro-Arius groups in the Church regained their power. Until next time, which will be the Council of Constantinople 381 to revisit a solution.


For further reading…

The Seven Ecumenical Councils by Leo Davis. This is literally the only work out there that deals with the councils together in one book. It’s the most indispensable secondary resource for Christians wanting to understand the theology and history behind the ecumenical councils.

The Trinitarian Controversy. This work is an edited volume of primary sources, mostly composed of letters between various bishops that detail the ground-level responses to theological ideas prevalent at the times. Don’t just read others’ characterization of Arius or the council, read Arius and others in their own words.

Lastly, all of the official documents of any Church council, including Nicaea, are available for free online. One can view all of the debates/discussion, the creeds, and canon laws set forth by each council in order to get firsthand knowledge of what really went down. who said what, etc. For those of you wanting an actual book in front of you, this is the best resource available: The Ecumenical Councils. One should know that the exact same text from the book is supplied online for free at ccel’s website.

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