The Council of Nicea - 325 AD
There are many erroneous things said and written about the famous Council of Nicea. For example, it was not:
- the beginning of the "Catholic Church"
- when Christianity decided Jesus was divine
- when the New Testament was made official
There was not exactly a vote on the trinity. No vote on the official biblical text. No vote on gnostic gospels. Christianity was not made the official religion.
The goal here is to report what the sources tell us about this historic council.
+++ Historical Sources +++
Constantine's role in the Council of Nicea
Our historical voices for most of our knowledge of this council are Eusebius of Caesarea, Sozomen, Rufinus and Theodoret of the fifth century, each of whom lean heavily on Eusebius. Eusebius was seen as a friend of Constantine and thus not seen as 100% objective in his reporting. Sozomen, Rufinus and Theodoret are writing many years after the event - 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.
Some have referred to this council as a "treaty," as if Constantine came to some kind of formal agreement with the Christian bishops, thus the "Treaty of Nicea." To my knowledge, none of our sources refer to this historic meeting in these terms.
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.
Constantine had begun to see himself as something like Plato's philosopher-King, the emperor who was also the spiritual leader of the Church. He had tried to help solve the Donatist crisis and now he was distressed with the Arian crisis in Egypt. He dispatched Hosius, a bishop from Spain, to try to reconcile Alexander and Arius. In addition, Constantine determined to call a "worldwide" council to bring peace to the Church.
Messengers were sent all around the empire, inviting (or directing) bishops to come to a monumental council. Initially the council was slated to be in Ancyra, but Constantine moved it to his summer retreat in Nicea. Around 220 bishops attended, mostly from the eastern churches. Only around eight officials came from western churches - Rome sent only two presbyters.
The council began with a solemn ceremony in the great hall. The bishops were all seated in rows of chairs lined along the walls. There was a throne at one end of the hall, obviously for emperor, and a small fire pit, like an altar, sitting in the middle of the hall. An attendant entered, then another, then a third. Then one of the attendants gave a sign and all of the bishops stood. Emperor Constantine entered the hall clothed in purple. A very tall man with a huge head, Constantine moved with the ease of an athlete-warrior. He walked with his gaze slightly downcast to the ground which seemed to indicate an imperial air combined with a kind of humility. Once Constantine reached his seat he looked around wanting the bishops to be seated. The bishops motioned for the emperor to sit first, a show of respect. Finally, Constantine seated himself with the bishops following his lead.
A statement was read (perhaps written by emperor) welcoming the bishops and rejoicing that the empire had come to peace. Now it was the intention of the emperor that the Church of the Lord be filled with peace. Rufinus records that Constantine had an attendant bring in an armful of scrolls and letters sent to him from all over the empire. It was announced that these communications were letters of accusations and complaints sent by bishops against other bishops. Constantine then let the bishops know that he had not read any of them and instructed his attendant to burn them on the altar, saying that he wanted all grievances settled during their council.
As the council progressed it became obvious to the bishops that Constantine understood Greek. He nodded as bishops spoke and even interjected comments into the air from time to time. According to Socrates, Constantine chided bishop Acesius for his rigid stance (related to second repentance
), saying "Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone into heaven." It impressed the bishops to see that the emperor was engaged and appeared to follow the various theological and doctrinal discussions.
It is clear in retrospect that Constantine was more concerned with attaining peace and unity in the Church than he was with theology or doctrine. Three men who had been excommunicated in a previous smaller council, including Eusebius of Caesarea, were readmitted with little debate. These men had been disciplined for their views on the relationship of Jesus to the Father - the same issue which had driven Constantine to call the Council of Nicea to decide what to do with the views of Arius. Eusebius was allowed to read a simple baptismal formula for his defense which Constantine urged the bishops to accept without debate.
Despite the urging of emperor for peace, accusations were thrown about and Arius was called upon
to present his views and defend himself. As Arius explained his position on the nature of Jesus some of the bishops actually plugged their ears, unwilling to listen. In the end a vote was taken to decide if Arius was to be allowed to remain in his position - it was a unanimous vote against Arius with two bishops abstaining. The views of Arius were condemned. It is important to realize that this vote was not a vote on the divinity of Jesus, or the trinity, but specifically on the views of Arius and whether or not he would be allowed to stay in his position.
Constantine 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.
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 were an agreement of when to celebrate Easter and more regulations on how bishoprics were to operate.
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 made it forbidden to "celebrate with the Jews," pointing to the undercurrent of anti-Jewish sentiment we have seen in earlier centuries.
Canons on bishoprics had been given a good deal of attention at the Council of Arles and at almost every council we have recorded. Now 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. For example,
Canon 4 - a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops of that province...at least three bishops should meet to make this decision.
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
Read the 20 canons from Nicea
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.