The Council of Nicea began on July 4, 325 BCE with over 300 Christian Bishops coming together at the command of the Emperor Constantine to discuss a number of conflicts that had emerged in the church (Shelley, 1, 1990). The most divisive of those conflicts was the Arian controversy.
In 319 BCE, a man by the name of Arius, “pastor of the influential Baucalis Church in Alexandria,” crossed theological swords with Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria (Shelley, 2, 1990). According to Robert Payne, it appears as though the issue emerged out of a series of talks that Alexander had given on the “theological mystery of the Holy Trinity” (1, 1996). According to Payne “[t]here is no evidence that Alexander was a profound theologian… and it is possible that Arius was justified in accusing Alexander of Sabellianism…” (1, 1996).
As a result of these talks, in 319 BCE Arius, “…presented a letter to Bishop Alexander arguing that if the Son of God were truly a Son, he must have had a beginning” (Piper, 43, 2006). Payne describes the words of Arius “…there was a time when the Son was not…” as “dynamite [that] split the church in two, and these words, which read in Greek like a line of a song, still echo down [through] the centuries” (2, 1996). This view of Jesus Christ, in the minds of Alexander, his deacon Athansias, and much of the church, was a despicable heresy that undermined not merely the person of Christ, but the entire foundation of the Christian faith. While Arius’ view of the person of Christ was at the center of the debate at Nicea, it was not the sole cause for the council.
The battle between Arius and Alexander may have provided the necessary fuel for a Council, but it was not the cause of the Council. After Arius’ initial blow, the bishops in and around the area began writing letters to deal with the issue. On one occasion, notes Payne, an urgent letter was sent to Arius, urging him to repent from his heresy. This was to no avail (Payne 2, 1996). Ultimately, Alexander resorted to removing Arius and his followers, and declaring their heresy anathema. One of the problems with the letter explaining the heresy, according to Payne, is that it didn’t have the rhythm or rhyme to capture the hearts of the people. “The people wanted something they could sing, and this Arius provided in abundance” (Payne, 3, 1996). With the people going in one direction, and the church leadership going another, the division became more defined, and it was apparent that the church lacked the fortitude to unite its people.
The Emperor, Constantine, in 312 was dramatically converted to Christianity just prior to a battle (Piper, 45, 2006). This event marked a significant transition in the relationship between the Roman authorities and the Christian religion. As the Arian controversy grew, word got back to the Emperor. Payne writes “The quarrel was blazing furiously. ‘In every city,’ wrote a historian, ‘bishop was contending against bishop, and the people were contending against one another, like swarms of gnats fighting in the air’” (4, 1996). For Constantine, unity was the supreme virtue. Quoting Emperor Constantine, Shelley writes, “’Division in the church,… is worse than war’” (1, 1990). Having consulted the Bishop of Cordova, Hosius, Constantine sent a letter to Nicomedia and Alexandria “ordering by imperial rescript an end to the quarrel” (Payne, 3, 1996).
This letter landed on deaf ears. The battle only broiled hotter as Hosius returned to Constantine having to report that things were far from resolved. “There had been bloodshed in the streets; Alexandria and Nicomedia were exchanging defiant taunts. Constantine decided to throw all of his influence into the battle” (Payne, 4, 1996).
The Council and Its Proceedings
The scene at Nicea was, in many ways, a glorious one. To some extent, it served as a culmination of years of Roman persecution against Christians. Those in attendance, over 300 bishops, were not without the scars of that persecution. Yet, there they sat before the Emperor to hash out the intricacies of their faith (Shelly, 1, 1990). Of the 1,800 bishops invited, less than 400 made the trek to Nicea (Payne, 4, 1996) although their way had been paid (Shelly, 2, 1990).
Among them were men like “Paul, Bishop of Mesopotamian Caesarea, with his hands scorched by flames… Paphnutius of Upper Egypt… [who] had his right eye dug out and the sinews of his leg were cut during the Diocletian persecution… Bishop Potammon of Heraclea… also lost an eye” (Payne, 4-5, 1996). Also in attendance, and exercising influence on the final decision of the Council, were Arius of Alexandria, Hosius of Cordova, Eusebius of Caesarea, Alexander of Alexandria and his assistant, and deacon, Athanasius.
The Emperor and The Table
Before the proceedings began, the Bishops waited in a conference hall. Before them was a table on which “…lay an open copy of the Gospel” (Shelley, 1990). Payne describes the intense scene as the Bishops awaited the entrance of the Emperor.
“They waited expectantly. At last they heard the tramp of armed guards… [who] entered the hall to announce that the emperor was on his way… Human majesty in the person of Conantinius Victor Augustus Maximus [entered]… [wearing] high-heeled scarlet buskins, a purple silk robe blazing with jewels and a gold embroidery [with] more jewels embedded in his diadem” (Payne, 6, 1996).
As Constantine opened the Council at Nicea, there was no uncertainty that he wanted unity among these ministers. As a part of his opening remarks, he openly burned the parchments which contained many of the complaints that had been sent to him concerning the issue (Payne, 6, 1996).
Once open, the discourse began. Shelley says that, initially, many of the Bishops were ready to compromise (2, 1990). Payne, on the other hand, tells a slightly different story. He contends that “[a]t once the Arians and the anti-Arians were at one another’s throats. Denunciation and angry accusation flew across the hall… ‘it was like a battle in the dark,’ the historian Socrates said later” (Payne, 7, 1996). According to Payne, as Arius presented his case he broke out into chant and song. This was more of an annoyance, than anything, to most who were present. It was as if “…in the middle of a critical debate… someone interrupted with nonsense rhymes or a series of perplexing and meaningless mathematical equations” (Payne, 7, 1996).
Compromise and Athanasius’ Stand
Again, Shelley and Payne disagree on how the proceedings played out. Shelley describes Athanasius, and his Bishop Alexander, as the ones who called for a creed to be drawn up. “One young deacon from Alexandria… was not [ready to compromise.] Athanasius… insisted that Arius’s doctrine left Christianity without a divine savior. He called for a creed that made clear Jesus Christ’s full deity” (Shelley, 2, 1990). Payne, on the other hand, suggests that it was not Athnasius, but rather Hosius of Cordova, who “…announced that the simplest way of reaching agreement would be to draw up a creed” (Payne, 7, 1996). According to Payne, three separate creeds were suggested. The first was written by 18 Arian bishops and was so offensive that “…bedlam broke loose when it was solemnly presented” (Payne, 8, 1996). The second was presented by Eusebius of Caesarea. This creed seemed acceptable to all, but to some it seemed to not be definitive enough to solve the real problem.
Hosius and Homoousious
The final creed, presented in June of 325 hinged on the use of the Greek word homoousious over against the word homoiousious. “[This] made the issue crystal clear. The Son of God could not have been created, because he did not merely have a similar being to the father, but was of the very being of the Father” (Piper, 47, 2006). “The expression homo ousion, ‘one substance,’ was probably introduced by Bishop Hosius of Cordova” (Shelley, 2, 1990). The difference in the Greek terms made all the difference in the world. One, homousious, argued that Jesus Christ was of the very same “substance” as the Father. The other, homoiousious, argued that Jesus Christ was of a similar “substance” as the Father. This distinction effectively ousted the Arians.
The Final Banquet
As the council came to a close Emperor Constantine showed a remarkable gentleness and graciousness toward those who had participated. Payne describes this beautiful scene: “Constantine, stiff with purple, gold, and precious stones, was in good humor. He complimented Athanasius, [and] gave presents to the bishops he favored… And sometime later, Constantine summoned the saintly Bishop Paphnutius and kissed the empty socket, and pressed his leg and arms into the paralyzed limbs, and he was especially gentle to all the other bishops who had suffered under the persecution” (10, 1996).
Conclusion: The Results of the Council
Although the deliberations lasted seven weeks, and it appeared as though a great victory was won for the anti-Arians, the problem persisted. Athanasius, who was only twenty when the theological war began, would fight his entire life, being exiled on five occasions fighting for this very doctrinal truth (Piper, 50-57, 2006). The Nicene Creed would undergo some polishing at later councils, but its core message would remain the same. Still, forms of Arianism persist even to this day.
So what victory was won at the council of Nicea?
First, it appears a partial victory was won on behalf of the saints who suffered under the fierce persecution of the Roman Empire. To go from severe persecution, to sitting and deliberating before the Emperor of Rome is a glorious change indeed.
Second, while the battle didn’t rid the community of the Arian heresy, it made clear the boundaries of the battle. It laid forth what was at stake in the question of Christ’s deity. This was not a mere splitting of hairs, but a central tenet of the Christian faith. To cross the line that Arian did was not a mere quibbling over cobwebs as Constantine initially described (Payne, 3, 1996), but a wrestling for the very truth of the Gospel.
Finally, the Council of Nicea set the stage for clarity of doctrine in future generations. The candle had been lit on a new era of doctrinal clarity. The idea of authoritative “creeds” and “statements of faith” would find their inception in men like Hosius of Cordova and Athanasius of Alexandria. The first doctrinal boundary, of many boundaries, was drawn boldly, firmly, and clearly at the Council of Nicea.
Payne, Robert. 1996. “A Hammer Struck at Heresy : Council of Nicea.” Christian History 1996 Christian Periodical Index, EBSCOhost (accessed March 27, 2014).
Shelley, Bruce L. 1990. “The first council of Nicea.” Christian History 1990 Christian Periodical Index, EBSCOhost (accessed March 27, 2014).
Piper, John. 2006. Contending for our All. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Jeremy Lundmark is a former pastor and former host of the podcast "After The Sermon." Jeremy has earned his Masters of Ministry from Summit University in Clark's Summit, PA. He is the author of the book, The Fury of God. Jeremy is a husband of thirteen years to Alison G. Lundmark and is the proud father of three children: Alexander, Brionna, and Scarlett. To connect, leave a comment on one of his posts at TheologyMix.com.