What really happened at the Council of Nicaea

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Introduction

Have you heard the story that at the council of Nicaea Christianity was created, they stomped out all the other groups, created the deity of Jesus and was made the religion of the empire? You have? Well, in the most polite way possible, it’s absolutely rubbish.

Here’s the events around the council

  • In February 24th 303AD the worst persecution of Christians began under Emperor Diocletian (244 – 311 AD) and lasted until Emperor Galerius (260-311AD) issued a general edict of tolerance in 311AD to the Christians
  • In 313 AD was there was the edict of Milan under Emperor Constantine (272 – 337AD) which legalised Christianity. This does not mean however that it became the religion of the empire, just that they couldn’t be stoned or used as fodder for gladiatorial shows.
  • Then in February 27th 380AD, Under Emperor Theodosius I (347 – 395AD), Christianity was the last legal religion left that hadn’t died out

The problem of Arius 

shortly after it was decriminalised to be a Christian, a preacher from Alexandria named Arius started preaching Jesus was not God but a created being. Arius gained a swift following and started open conflict with Alexander of Alexandria.

In 321, a local council was called to declare Arius a heretic (another one of those pre-ecumenical councils). Arius as a result moved to Palestine and again, started proselytizing gaining an even larger following. Because of the scale of this issue, the Emperor Constantine, who’d only just united the Roman Empire, heard of this issue out in the east and not wanting division, demanded a council to sort their differences out. 

This council was called in 325AD. Those who were not present were Gnostics which had mostly died out by this point but a few sects. There were no Ebionites, nor any other small groups. The council was strictly between Christians and Arians as their main focus. 

Of the Bishops invited to attend (1,800) only 300 made it to the council. Many of these figures were fresh out of the Emperor Diocletian’s extreme persecution and had been willing to die for the faith that they professed (And so were unlikely to give it up for an Arian troublemaker who had one belief in a single part of the Christian world). When these hardened Bishops arrived, they confirmed what they already believed and then moved to deal with Arius’ teaching. 

So of these Bishops, there were three camps: Arian, Orthodox and the Eubebian group. In the Arian group, Arius and his few Bishops believing The Father and Jesus were of different substances (Heteroousios). The second group, the Orthodox (a significantly Larger group) was lead by Hosea of Cordova and Alexander of Alexandria with young Athanasius. They held to the belief that Jesus was fully God and had existed eternally with the father, Jesus was of the same substances (Homoousios). The third and final group was the group lead by Eusebius of Caesarea. They were similar to the Orthodox group in almost every way, they only differed on the use of Homoousios. Modalist heresies had used the word in the past to teach the father and Jesus are one person, not coexisting persons. Essentially, the last 2 groups, both large in size and the dominant force of the council, believed the same thing. 

Although Constantine presided over the council, he didn’t push any particular views, he just wanted agreement and unity in the church to not divide, which is what most Roman emperors ideally wanted. 

What happened?

The Orthodox group listened to Arius and they overwhelmingly rejected his views as being new and distant from that of the church. Eusebius tells us Arius was interrogated with scripture but he had reworded any and every scripture he could to suite his Arian view. The Orthodox group then pointed out that his teaching was new and not taught in any church history. In a grand moment, Athanasius rhetorically asked

“How many fathers [early Christians] can you cite for your phases?

Volume 1, Faith of the Early Church Fathers, William A. Jurgens

To make it clear how out of touch Arius was.

The Church Fathers then formed the Niceane creed which is a clear condemnation of Arius’ views and a confirmation of the orthodox view, the view we defend today. All but Arius and 2 Bishops signed the creedal statements, showing there was no major divisions in church theology. As well as this at the council, issues such as when should we celebrate Easter (like in pre-ecumenical councils), the formal denouncing of Gnosticism and other minor sects and the publishing of 20 ‘canon’ laws (Not the New Testament Canon, remember that is separate from this)

What is notable is this council made no issue of the canon of the Bible, they didn’t decide the Biblical books, and if Athanasius and Eusebius are anything to go by, there was a confidence in 27 books in their lifetimes and by the end of the 2nd century, the Muratorian Fragment was confident in the majority of New Testament books with some still under discussion. 

Other issues not discussed at the council were words like the trinity, this wasn’t invented at the council. Tertullian 160-220AD & Origen 185-254AD can be seen using the word trinity early on. No, the council was dealing with the divinity of Christ Arius had tried to call into question. Acceptance of the divine three can be found in many places. If you want a thorough video course on the trinity, see InspiringPhilosophy’s work regarding this for a quick overview. 

What happened in the aftermath of the council?

Well, Constantine wasn’t happy with the results, he expected both sides to compromise since Constantine wasn’t wed to any particular side it appears. Constantine is said to have taken pity on Arius as he fled into exile in Illyrium where his heresy, once again, began to spread. 

Arius’ heresy spread through the Roman Empire worse than before and even the emperor was convinced by the heresy. Following Constantine, there were two Arian Emperors and it wasn’t until 381AD at the council of Constantinople did Christianity reaffirm the Nicene creed with heroes like Athanasius all the while battling this heresy. Arianism self-destructed as it hungered for power and then imploded. After it imploded in the Roman Empire it then spread to the Germanic tribes where, over time, it whittled out to nothing as we do not see it in todays Christianity openly (though, through poor theology, some may hold such a position). 

What can we conclude happened at this council?

  1. The views of Arianism were condemned
  2. The divinity of Jesus was reaffirmed in the face of Arianism
  3. Gnostic sects were formally condemned, although had been condemned for the last 200 years
  4. The Nicene creed was affirmed in writing
  5. The day Easter was celebrated was discussed
  6. 20 laws were passed
  7. Constantine was not happy with the results
  8. The Biblical canon was not discussed
  9. The Trinity was not discussed
  10. Athanasius is badass

Sources


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