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CH101 - The Fourth CenturyThe Church Established, 303 - 400 A.D.
The Council of Nicea - 325 AD
+++ Historical Sources +++
Our historical voices for most of our knowledge of this council are Eusebius of Caesarea, Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, Rufinus and Theodoret (other than Eusebius, these man lived and wrote in the fifth century). Eusebius was seen as a friend of Constantine and thus not seen as 100% objective in his reporting. Socrates gives us many details in his own Church History volume; Sozomen, Rufinus and Theodoret rely on Socrates - there is likely to be some exaggeration, but unless there is good evidence to the contrary, it is my position that we should basically trust these historians.
In 324 AD the temporary truce between Licinius and Constantine came to an end. Constantine defeated Licinius in battle and became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Almost immediately Constantine began receiving reports that the bishops and churches in Egypt were in disarray. He had been told about the conflict between Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, and Arius, a presbyter.
On the CreedConstantine insisted that the term homoousias be used in a creedal formula from the council that would definitively state the universal position of the Church. Some have stated that Constantine pushed for this term being influenced by the pro-Origenists. It must be remembered that homoousias had been used some 70 years prior by Dionysius of Alexandria in his trinitarian debate against Dionysius of Rome. It was NOT a new term. The use of the term had been marginalized because it was not found in the NT scriptures. Lietzmann calls this "amateurish theology" on the part of the Emperor, but admits that the term had previously been employed not only by Dionysius, but by Paul of Samosata as well.
I have read on some other web sites that Constantine "demanded" the bishops to draft a creed. This is simply not the case. It was already becoming the tradition at such councils to draft canons (rules, or policy) and a creedal formula. As we will see below, Constantine did get involved in the creed, but only on the single wording to be used for the nature of Jesus - it was a controversial term.
Here is the important thing to remember: the Church was attempting to bring clarity to the issue of exactly how the nature of Jesus was related to the nature of the Father. This had always been simply stated as in John's gospel, "In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God" - Logos theology. The problem was always in the explanation. We have seen at various points how writers of the first few centuries had affirmed these concepts more simply: see the section on Ignatius of Antioch for a good example. When men like Paul of Samosata or Arius espoused anything that did not seem to fit the established understanding, others would argue against them and definitions were pushed further. One might wish that everything could be simple, but in the end the great thinkers of the Church were trying to understand and explain what has always been considered a mystery. How could God take on the form of a man...and die? For some it seems to go against logic.
In the end the teaching of Arius was condemned, a creed was drafted (with perhaps too much attention on the views of Arius), and some 20 canons were passed. Among the more important canons was an agreement of when to celebrate Easter and more regulations on how bishoprics were to operate.
Athanasius of Alexandria
Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria was in attendance and had brought with him a young man named Athanasius who served as his secretary. At this great council Athanasius is seen handling notes and conferring with Alexander. It is thought he was the son of a well-to-do family, but we cannot be sure. What we do know from Sozimus is that he was "well educated...versed in grammar and rhetoric" prior to becoming a bishop. (Soz. II,27) Some have stated that Athanasius was a black man and that some of his detractors referred to him as "The Black Dwarf." I have demonstrated that there is no historical evidence for the nickname "The Black Dwarf."
We will see that Athanasius becomes an important defender of Nicean theology against the Arians. Although he is probably best known for standing against Arianism, his treatise Life of Anthony possibly had the greatest impact on Christianity. In this work Athanasius details the life of Anthony who walked away from all of his earthly possessions to live alone in the desert, devoted to a life of prayer, silence and contemplation. Thousands of young men (and many women) heard the call to the desert through this work and this represents the beginning of monasticism. We will pick up this story later.
The Date of Easter
When to celebrate Easter, the resurrection day of Jesus, had always been somewhat controversial. Eastern churches had always followed the Jewish calendar, celebrating on the Sunday following Passover. The Western churches followed the Roman calendar which could never be matched exactly with the Jewish calendar which added a lunar month every four years or so determined by the Sanhedrin. Thus, the Western church Easter celebration had a different cycle with fixed dates set by regional leadership. The canon from Nicea, pushed by Constantine, made it forbidden to "celebrate with the Jews," pointing to the undercurrent of anti-Jewish sentiment we have seen in earlier centuries.
Canons regarding bishoprics had already been given a good deal of attention. This issue had received attention at the Council of Arles (314 AD) and at almost every early council we have on record. Nicea continued this tradition. Indeed, with Meletius and Donatus appointing their own bishops and other contentious and dubious appointments, the "orthodox" bishops saw this as an important part of governing the growing church. Here is a sample of the Canons from the Council of Nicea in 325 AD:
Canon 4 - a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops of that province...at least three bishops should meet to make this decision.Read all 20 canons from the Council of Nicea 325 AD.
Canon 5 - provinces should honor excommunications pronounced by other bishops in other provinces
Canon 6 - gives the bishop of Alexandria authority over bishops in Libya and other local provinces
Canon 10 - no lapsed believer should be ordained
Canon 15 - ordained leaders shall not move from city to city on their own accord
The Nicean Council Closes
On July 25, 325 AD Constantine called for a fairly festive banquet to close the council. Constantine had already gifted several bishoprics with funds and buildings prior to Nicea, but now he showed more generosity, bestowing funds on many bishops in the great hall. Constantine went around the hall greeting bishops, kissing many on the very wounds that had been caused by Roman persecution. He gently kissed stubbed fingers that had been hacked off; he kissed empty eye sockets where eyes had been gouged out. He asked for bishops to remember him in prayer. He urged the bishops to retain and hold firmly to the peace that had been attained at their great council.
Though the emperor was filled with great optimism, many bishops were not as thrilled. A novice in the faith had pushed for a creed that had contained a key non-scriptural term and had not been well thought-out. It was also clear that the Church now was under a certain amount of governmental control. Where bishops had been excommunicated, the emperor had maneurvered to reverse those decisions, as with Eusebius. And now an excommunicated bishop could be exiled by the government. Mostly, however, bishops were thankful that their time of deadly persecution had come to an end. The theological issues addressed at Nicea were not over. In fact, even the situation with Arius would continue for another 60 years.
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Diocles and the persecution of Diocletian
Lactantius and persecution of Christians
Christians in the Roman Army - Military
Persecution of the Roman Empire
Constantius and Constantine
Constantine and Christian Faith
Constantine and the Sun God
Arius - Arianism the Trinity
Origenist Controversy and the Trinity
Nicea - A Council or a Treaty
Nicean Council and Homoousias
Council of Nicea and the Trinity
Nicean Creed and the Trinity