Historical Theology: Church Councils - Nicea 325 A.D.

The Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. is the most well known council for several reasons. The Council at Nicea in 325 A.D. (hereafter Nicea) was the first "ecumenical" council (meaning it was the first council that attempted to represent the leaders and thought of the entire post-apostolic church). Nicea is also very well-known because of its pivotal subject matter (the deity of Christ, the concept of the Trinity, and deity of the Holy Spirit, and the Oneness of God). This subject matter is still pivotal today, and detractors point to Nicea as the time when the mainstream church "invented" these doctrines. (That particular piece of bad history will be examined in further depth later.) This council was also the first instance the government's attempting to influence directly the teaching and practice of the church (using a method other than persecution or an attempt to exterminate). To say that the seeds for what would one day become the Roman Catholic Church were first sown here would not be too much of a stretch either.

The primary issue surrounding Nicea was the doctrine of Arianism. Arianism teaches that Christ is somewhat of a demigod (superior to angels, but a created being inferior to God the Father). This teaching is inferred from the argument that if God is Christ's Father, there must have been a time that God existed when Christ did not. This would mean that God created Christ. Support for this argument is taken from Christ's assertion, "My Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). Another support of this argument is an incorrect interpretation of Proverbs 8:22a: "The Lord made me." The "me" in this passage actually refers to wisdom and not to Christ. Furthermore, the word which was frequently translated "made" should actually be translated "possessed." Unfortunately, prior to the further study done as a result of this controversy, church fathers such as Justin Martyr[1] (Dialogue) and Origen[2] (Against Celsus) taught that this passage referred to Christ.

Arianism is named for Arius, a presbyter (pastor) in Alexandria, who taught and championed his view of Christ as a created being. Around 318 A.D. a council was convened of bishops in the area around Alexandria, and Arius and his followers were excommunicated. Arius continued to hold meetings, was driven out of Alexandria, held meetings elsewhere, and eventually attracted the attention of Emperor Constantine. Constantine attempted to effect a compromise, then called the Council of Nicea when he was unable to do so.

Constantine was not interested in doctrinal purity nor in accurately resolving the disputes amongst the church. In fact, many of the attending bishops (between 250 and 318 bishops attended) presented packets of questions and grievances to the emperor for resolution, but he merely burned the packets (without reading them) and enjoined the bishops to coexist in harmony. Constantine's motivation for calling the Council was merely to assure the political stability of the Empire.: "When I heard of your division, I was convinced that this matter should by no means be neglected.... I shall feel my desire fulfilled only when I see the minds of all united in that peaceful harmony.... Put away all causes of strife, and loose all knots of discord by the laws of peace."[3]

The Council was divided into three parties: The orthodox (those who believed in the apostolic, Trinitarian teaching) were represented by Alexander of Alexandria (the bishop who excommunicated Arius) and Athanasius (an eloquent, learned assistant of Alexander who would lead most of the orthodox discussion at Nicea). The Arians were represented by Eusebius of Nicomedia (close adviser to Constantine-not the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who was of the third party), and the third (and largest) party were the undecided bishops who leaned closer to the orthodox side and would eventually align themselves with that party.

After much deliberation and rejection of creeds put forth by the Arian and undecided parties, the council accepted the Nicene Creed (see below). Two bishops refused to agree to the condemnatory clause (Beginning with "But those who say") and two others refused to sign at all. Those men were banished along with Arius, but all the other bishops present at the Council signed the Creed.

Nicene Creed: "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father[4]; By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. [But those who say: 'There was a time when he was not;' and 'He was not before he was made;' and 'He was made out of nothing,' or 'He is of another substance' or 'essence,' or 'The Son of God is created,' or 'changeable,' or 'alterable'-they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]"

Let's briefly examine the allegation that the Council "invented" the doctrines of the deity of Christ and of Trinitarianism (that God is three distinct Persons unified in one indissoluble Essence). We won't spend much time on the deity of Christ since that teaching is so clearly and explicitly delineated by Scripture[5] that one would have to denigrate scriptural authority in order to argue against Christ's deity. The charge that Nicea invented Trinitarianism is perhaps more interesting (though no more true or less false). While it is true that the word "Trinity" is not found in Scripture, the concept of the Trinity was believed and taught by the apostles and by the church at large up to this point and after this point. The teaching of the Trinity follows logically from the teachings of the Oneness of God, the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the distinctness of God the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. That the early church believed and taught Trinitarian doctrine is made clear by the fact that they baptized (per Christ's command) with the Trinitarian formula: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."[6]

"Does anyone really believe Arianism still today?" you may ask. The modern day theological descendants of Arius are Jehovah's Witnesses. While the teachings are not identical, both systems do teach that Christ is a created being/demigod. Furthermore, the Jehovah's Witnesses claim Arius as one of their spiritual ancestors. See this link for more information on the comparison between Jehovah's Witnesses and Arianism.[7]

Hopefully this article has given you an understanding of the Council of Nicea of 325 A.D. and has shown you the importance that these Councils and the issues discussed in them bear on our lives and beliefs. A big take-home lesson from this Council (and from all the councils) is that theological precision is very important and that a slightly malformed teaching can quickly morph into heresy! There are some problems (inadaquacies rather than inaccuracies) with this creed, and we will see those issues resolved (and the consequences of the inadequate precision used in describing theological beliefs) in our study of the later Councils. For more information about Nicea, click here.

 


[1] Justin Martyr was completely orthodox and simply had an improper interpretation on this point.

[2] Origen's orthodoxy (or lack thereof) has long been a topic of debate. Even those who call him orthodox, however, must admit that his teachings, especially those regarding the subordination of the Son to the Father, are dangerous and inaccurate. Shaff remarks, "Origen... attributed to Christ eternity and other divine attributes which logically lead to the orthodox doctrine of the identity of substance.... But... in his zeal for the personal distinctions in the Godhead, he taught with equal clearness a separateness of essence between the Father and the Son, and the subordination of the Son, as a second or secondary God beneath the Father and thus furnished a starting point for the Arian heresy" (History of the Christian Church, volume 3, 169). Emphasis mine.

[3] Emperor Constantine as quoted in History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, 626.

[4] "Being of one substance with the Father" is the most important phrase in this entire formula. This phrase demands that Christ is not the same "type" as the Father (as a creed rejected by the Council put forth) but that he is of the same substance or being as the Father. Christ and the Father (as well as the Spirit) form an indissoluble union that is the Triune God. Beginning with this creed and the arguments surround it develops a precise theological vocabulary that allows the growing church to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy.

[5] John 1, Colossians 1, Philippians 2:6, John 10:30, John 8:58

[6] This is by no means an adequately thorough explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity. That is for another article. The purpose of this brief explanation was simply to demonstrate that the early church was Trinitarian-contrary to the argument of some.

[7] Note that my linking to this article means neither that I agree with everything in the article nor that I endorse the man who wrote it.

 

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