The Council of Nicea
On May 20, 2000, it was exactly 1675 years ago that emperor Constantine the Great officially opened the Council of Nicea. This council set a milestone in the history of the Christian church of the 4th century. In this article we will review the historical background of this council, the issues that were being discussed, the course of the council, and the timeliness and significance of this council.
The council of Nicea was a momentous assembly for multiple reasons. It was the first ecumenical council of the Christian churches. The number of delegates was also remarkable. Although the exact number is not known, it is estimated that there were between 250 and 300 participants. Never before had so many bishops been together. The majority of them hailed from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. Only a few, such as bishop Hosius from Cordoba, Spain, came from the West. Those present were also extraordinary in other ways. Many carried the marks of having been persecuted. There were people with scars, mutilated body parts and eyes removed. The fact that these persecuted people were present at an ecclesiastical assembly convened by the emperor made it clear that the period of intense persecutions was definitely something of the past.
Constantine decided to convene a general council on account of a conflict between Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria (Egypt), and one of his priests, named Arius. The latter claimed that Christ could not be God in the same essence as the Father, because the Son had been created by the Father. Because of God’s immutability it would be impossible that the Son would have proceeded from the Father. For that would have implied that the Father would be changeable or compounded. Arius was therefore convinced that the Son — also called to Logos — was the highest creature, a kind of highest angel, through whom God would have created all things. God’s wisdom lived in the Son, in a similar way as it lived in the prophets of the Old Testament, only more richly and more fully. Because the Logos grew more and more in the knowledge and love for God, he began to look more and more like the Father. Because the Father in his omniscience knew that the Logos would consistently do good, he gave him divine dignity in advance, and even called him his Son. According to Arius, Christ does not possess the Sonship by nature, but it has been given him by God on the grounds of his ethical perfection. Arius reasoned that there was a time when the Son was not there.
It is probable that initially the views of Alexander and Arius were not that far apart. Alexander’s view would likely have corresponded with that of Origenes, the great church father of the 2nd and 3rd century. He taught that Christ was indeed God, but that in rank he was below the Father. In this view the Son differed from the Father, yet he was at the same time co-eternal and of the same nature. This view is known as subordinationism, i.e., it asserts that the Son is subordinate to God the Father in nature and being.
Because this subordination was given special emphasis in the Alexandrian tradition, and not as much attention was given to Father and Son both possessing the same divine nature, a conflict with Arius was not immediately obvious. That it did come to a conflict has to do also with Arius’ character. Not only was he a very learned person, he was also rather vain. His intellectual arrogance enticed him to make some radical pronouncements whereby the separation between him and Alexander was reinforced. The controversy with Alexander therefore took on a character of a struggle for prestige. When Arius was excommunicated at a synod of some one hundred bishops, and his teaching was condemned (318-319), he was not of a mind to abide by this ruling.
He therefore approached bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, a former study friend. Eusebius supported him and called together a synod that favoured Arius. In addition, Arius received support of another Eusebius, the well-known historian, who was bishop of Caesarea. He too called a synod together. This synod came to a similar conclusion and gave credence to Arius’ view. It did make a pronouncement that Arius needed to reconcile with Alexander. However such reconciliation was not reached and the matter dragged on.
All of this took place during the reign of Constantine’s predecessor and rival, Licinius. When Constantine conquered the eastern part of the empire in 324 he came into contact with this ecclesiastical struggle.
Constantine was of a firm mind to clear up this discord. This resolution can be explained by the fact that a few years earlier, just before a decisive battle with his opponents, Constantine had a divine vision and a lighted monogram of Christ with the words “in hoc signo vinces” (with this sign you will win). When he was victorious Constantine was persuaded that he was a tool in God’s hands. Since that time he viewed all his victories as proofs of divine homage.
Because he was convinced that disunity in the church would bring the wrath of God, whereby the stability of the empire would be endangered, he saw it as his task to prevent such matters as much as he was able to. This way of thinking was closely connected to the “do ut des” (I give that you may give) philosophy of the Roman state religion. The Romans were of the opinion that the relationship between the gods and the people was based on an exchange whereby the favour of the gods could be bought through sacrifices to them. In order to ensure the favour of the gods the state had to see to it that the worship of these gods did not lapse into disuse. The religious interest was also a matter of political interest. The state’s fortunes depended on it! This “do ut des” thinking is not only typical for Constantine; we find the same idea also with various other church leaders. Authors such as Lactantius and the earlier mentioned Eusebius of Caesarea supported the emperor in this line of thought.
Constantine underestimated the problem. This appears from a letter that he sent to settle the struggle. In his view this was all about an unimportant matter, a frivolous philosophical exercise that was not meant for the ears of the common people. He chose bishop Hosius to bring the issue to a solution. Hosius convened a meeting of bishops in Antioch, where Arius’ beliefs were condemned and a confession was established that closely mirrored the insights of Alexander. At the same time bishop Eusebius of Caesarea was temporarily excommunicated.
It soon became clear to Hosius that the affair with Arius could not be resolved that simply. He informed Constantine of this and the latter decided to convene a universal council. The place chosen for this assembly was Nicea, in present-day northeastern Turkey.
The Course of the Council
Unfortunately we do not have any official acts from the council at Nicea. It is therefore not easy to get a proper insight into the course of the discussions. However it did become clear that there were three groups present. The largest party consisted of the semi-Arians. This group recognized the Son as God, but as subordinate to the Father. On its left was the smaller group of sympathizers with Arius, consisting of approximately 20 bishops. To the right of the middle group were the anti-Arian clerics. This group too was rather small and did not have more than 20 persons.
Already at an early stage of its proceedings the council rejected the views of Arius. It even appears that a confession submitted by the Arians would have been torn up. Eusebius of Caesarea then proposed to accept the confession that was used at the time on the occasion of the baptism of catechumens in his congregation. It may be possible that in this way he wanted to clear himself of any accusation of heresy, of which the earlier synod of Antioch had accused him. If this were the case, he succeeded in his intention for the confession submitted by him was accepted as an orthodox confession. And yet, this baptismal confession would not become the council’s response to the doctrine of Arius. The reason for this may be found in a remarkable initiative of the emperor.
While the bishops were strongly divided among themselves about the question how the relation between the Father and the Son should be described, the emperor suddenly proposed to use the concept of homoousios (=equal in essence) for this relation. This proposal caused quite a commotion. Until that time, this term had not been used in the struggle against Arius. Neither had it been used by the synod of Antioch that had condemned Arius and his doctrine. In the east there was even a pronounced reluctance to this term because they associated it with the heresy of Sabellius. In the west the use of this term had been accepted for some years already. It is probable that Hosius whispered this term in emperor Constantine’s ears. This is the more likely when we consider that at this time the theological knowledge of the emperor had not developed to such a level that he would have understood all the fine nuances of the struggle about Arius’ doctrine.
Although there were great concerns against the use of the term homoousios, the use of it also offered several advantages. For instance, Arius would in no way go along with such a formulation. While the baptismal confession, proposed by Eusebius, gives a first impression of orthodoxy, the formulations were put in such a way that Arius could agree with it. Even the fragment, “God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life, only born of all creation, conceived by the Father before all ages” did not result in objections because with this the unique relation between the Father and the Son was not indicated. That “Christ was conceived by the Father before all ages” he observed as only a temporal indication, not as proof of his existence from eternity. He too had never denied that the Son was God. Only, when Arius spoke of the Son being God, this was never the same as when he would speak about the Godhead of the Father. The use of the term homoousios however forced Arius to show his true colours.
The question can be asked why the council accepted the term homoousios almost unanimously, when only two bishops refused to sign the confession. All the others went along with it. Although two of them objected to the excommunication of Arius, they were both ready to accept the confession. Also Eusebius of Caesarea signed it.
There is no doubt that many signatories would have violated their consciences. When we read a letter sent by Eusebius to his congregation after the council was finished, we cannot get away from the impression that he tied himself in all sorts of knots to justify his actions. Also from the fact that multiple synods after the death of Constantine have attempted to replace the hated term homoousios (equal in essence) with the less offensive term homoiousios (similar in essence) it becomes evident that there was major resistance to the confession of Nicea.
In my opinion, that people yet agreed to this formulation can be explained from the fact that the emperor was present at this council. People did not want to upset him. However, there is also a second reason. Also the empire theology developed by Eusebius forms an explanation for the bishops’ willingness to accept it. According to Eusebius, the thousand-year reign of peace had been initiated with Constantine, and in him the prophecies of the coming age of salvation would be realized. It may be clear that such a theology did not stimulate a critical attitude vis-à-vis the emperor.
Some people doubt the accuracy of this representation. It is seen as much too modern a thought that there would have been a turnabout out of respect for the emperor. Respect for the Holy Spirit, not respect for the emperor, would have caused this change of insight. The Church had spoken under his guidance and direction, and whoever would oppose it would separate himself from the truth. This view has some appeal. The view that ecclesiastical decisions come about under the guidance of the Spirit is fully biblical. This thought also forms the basis of the practice in all the reformed churches to begin its assemblies and sessions with prayer for enlightenment with the Holy Spirit. However, in this case a reference to the Spirit’s guidance falls short. If Eusebius had really been so convinced that the confession of Nicea had been brought about through the direction of the Spirit, he would not have had to defend himself so desperately before his congregation. It would have simply sufficed that he could point to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The years of opposition of the semi-Arian bishops against the confessional formula of Nicea would then also be entirely incomprehensible. The fact that respect for the emperor had made all the difference agrees also with the given that opposition against the formulation only started after the death of Constantine. It is no coincidence that this happened during the reign of the Arian emperor Constantius, who offered his personal support for this opposition.
The confession of Nicea faced significant headwind during Constantine’s successors. In the end this confession was pushed aside and the homoousios was replaced with homomiousios. It is a difference of just one letter, but not without a great deal of meaning. This added “”" presented for Athanasius a life full of hardships and expulsions. For his protest and opposition to this one letter the bishop of Alexandria was banished five times.
It was only at the council of Constantinople (381) that the term homoousios was finally and definitely accepted as an expression of the catholic faith. The existing confession of Nicea was here expanded by a paragraph concerning the Holy Spirit. This is how the Niceano-Constantinopolitan confession came to be, the text of which can be found in our Reformed Church book under the name “the Nicene Creed”.
The Timeliness of Nicea
The struggle for the homoousios is still very valid for today. This was not simply a struggle about words. The doctrine of salvation was at stake. For the matter of man’s salvation depends on the question, “Who is the Christ?” The answer to this question determines our eternal wellbeing. With it we cannot suffice to provide an answer that would satisfy our understanding, or that agrees with what we feel about it. Our answer needs to be in faithful accord to what the Scriptures tell us about Christ.
In his pride Arius went far beyond what was written. To him, Jesus was ultimately not much more than a super-angel, a kind of a demi-god halfway between God and man. For Arius, Christmas was not the feast of the incarnation of God himself, of God-who-became-man. The inexpressible wonder that God’s Son laid aside his heavenly majesty, that he took upon himself the form of a servant, and that he humbled himself to the deepest rejection of hell; all of this Arius did not perceive. Arius’ thinking connects to the thinking of modern man who no longer knows of the gulf of sin, and who merely recognizes in Jesus a good person or a wisdom teacher. A Christ who is positioned in this way, halfway between God and man, as is the case with Arius, is however as incapable of saving man as a Christ who is quite close to God, but is not God himself (as the semi-Arians claimed), as is the case in the philosophy of modernism. All these kinds of constructions arise from man asserting his self-importance, from an unwillingness to bow before the revealed Word of God. It is fitting to point them to Isaiah’s word, “The wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden” (Isa. 29:14).
The history of Nicea is also instructive for another reason. It shows that the truth and therefore also the unity (!) of the church are served, no, not when we start looking for compromising formulas, but exactly in exposing the differences. Without the input of the term homoousios it would not have become as clear that Arius’ teaching was heretical, and in its confession the church would not have spoken in such a rich way, as is the case now.
It is regrettable that Arius did not repent of his heresy. However, we do not lament the fact that the church rejected his ideas as heretical. This repudiation has given more depth to the confession about the Church of Christ and his work of salvation, so that also the praise for God’s great name could resound more richly and with greater profoundness. And is the “soli Deo Gloria” not man’s greatest reason for existence?