The Story Behind the Council of Nicaea

isr_1256This is one in a series on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. To see MRM’s website page on the Trinity to see other resources, please click here.

(Picture at the left was taken outside the palace at Nicaea (modern-day Turkey) where the council was held in AD 325. The videos at the end of this article were shot in 2013 during an Apologetics Bible Tour of the Holy Land, led by Eric Johnson)

By Eric Johnson

Mention the Council of Nicaea in public and you are bound to get a number of responses, including:

  • “This is where the ungodly doctrine of the Trinity was created.”
  • “The emperor Constantine had undue influence on this council, so no doctrines created there should be accepted as Christian.”
  • “The teachings there were created here have been too easily accepted by Christians, even though it is pagan.”

Are skeptics such as these with cause in their doubts about the Council of Nicaea? Or is there more to the story than most critics guess?

The background to the council

If you ask for change, someone philosophizes to you on the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you ask the price of bread, you are told, “The Father is Greater, and the Son inferior.” If you ask, “Is the bath ready” someone answers, “The Son was created from nothing.” –Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit”

From biblical times, doctrines (teachings) have been very important to Christians. For instance, the apostle Paul’s first epistle was to the Galatians, which was written at the end of the 40s. He criticized those who turned the Christian gospel (the word itself means “good news”) into no gospel at all. He wrote:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

These are some pretty serious words! Yet, as Paul explains in his letter, turning the gospel into a legalistic showcase perverts the simple gospel message and creates heresy. In the next chapter, Paul wrote:

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Paul was dealing with a heresy involving soteriology (study of salvation), as propounded by a group of people known as the Judaizers. (See Acts 15 for the historical account of this situation.)   According to many critics, the Council of Nicaea was the impetus to pervert Christian theology and seriously distort the proper view of God. In the early fourth century, a man named Arius was the senior presbyter in charge of one of the twelve “parishes” in Alexandria, Egypt. He was articulate and a very popular speaker.  Arius had been deeply influenced by  Lucian of Antioch (d: 312), whose mentor was another heretic, Paul of Samosata.

Although none of his writings have survived, many modern scholars consider Lucian a root of numerous heresies in the early church. Like many in Antioch he tended to emphasize the humanity of Jesus Christ rather than his deity and tried to find a way to explain the incarnation of God in Christ without making Jesus himself God… (The Story of Christian Theology, p. 142)

In the year AD 318, Arius had a major disagreement with Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, who was over him in authority. Arius used political tactics in attempt to sway his superior and those who lived in that region. When Alexander called a synod of bishops to examine Alexander’s theology,

Arius rallied his Christian followers, and they began marching through the streets of Alexandria past the great church and the bishop’s house carrying placards and chanting slogans such as “There was when the Son was not.” . . . The mob of Arius’s followers were energized by the [popular] songs and slogans as well as by Arius’s personality even if they did not fully understand the theological issues that were at stake. Eventually there was some rioting in the streets of the city when Alexander’s supporters marched against Arius and the two groups met in front of the cathedral.  (The Story of Christian Theology, p. 144-145)

Arius and a dozen other clergy were eventually excommunicated by a council of more than one hundred bishops, under the guidance of Alexander. As historian Harold O.J. Brown wrote,

Arius had numerous influential friends, including Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea, the noted church historian. Arius persuaded some of them that Alexander’s edict of excommunication threatened them as well. (Heresies, p. 112)

What troubled the Christian leaders? Besides teaching that Jesus was not fully God as the Father, Arius believed that Jesus was a creature who was different in nature because he was

  • “begotten” and therefore had a beginning (“there was [a time] when He was not”)
  • Finite
  • Not immortal
  • Not sovereign
  • Without perfect wisdom
  • Without omniscience
  • Without purity
  • Able to sin

As Brown explains,

Arianism developed the idea that the Son is a semidivine being created, not begotten, by the Father and having an origin in time, or at least a definite beginning before the creation of the material world. . . Arianism denied the full deity of Christ, but did so in the context of a way of thought that was no less credulous than orthodoxy. (Heresies, p. 106)

All of Arius’s writings have been lost. However, he was cited by so many of his opponents that scholars have compiled his arguements in written form. Here, for example, is his take on the relationship between the Son and the Father:

And Christ is not true God, but by participation. . . even he was made God. . . . The Son does not know the Father exactly, nor does the Logos see the Father perfectly, and neither does he perceive nor the Logos understand the Father exactly; for he is not the true and only Logos of the Father, but by a name alone he is called Logos and Sophia and by grace is called Son and Power. (The Story of Christian Theology, p. 146)

Church historian J.N.D. Kelly writes,

It might be asked in what sense, according to the Arians, the Son could be called God, or was indeed Son of God. Their answer was that these were in fact courtesy titles. “Even if He is called God,” wrote Arius, “He is not God truly, but by participation in grace . . . . He too is called God in name only. (Early Christian Doctrines, p. 229)

Brown adds,

Arianism came to be perceived as one of the most dangerous and pernicious of errors. For a time, however, it was very successful—so successful that its adherents were elevated to the most important bishoprics and it controlled the major part of the church, at least in the East. In the West it was never successful. (Heresies, p. 105).

Some common biblical passages used to support his case were

Why were Alexander and others so against Arius’s Teachings?

Some have argued that this Christian controversy was the beginning of the end of the Roman empire. “Did this issue really matter?” it has been asked. The answer, according to the theologians of today, is a resounding yes. According to Kelly,

The net result of this teaching was to reduce the Son to a demigod; if He infinitely transcended all other creatures, He Himself was no more than a creature in relation to the Father. (Early Christian Doctrines, p. 230)

Olson wrote that the orthodox leaders such as Alexander

perceived it as threatening salvation itself. Modern Christians tend to separate salvation as forgiveness and a “personal relationship with God” from doctrinal belief. That separation was completely foreign to most Christians throughout the history of the church. What one believed mattered very much. Heresy was belief and teaching about God, Jesus Christ and salvation that threatened to distort the gospel message and the Christian life so severely that it could become “another gospel” and another religion, not the one taught by the apostles.  . . . Alexander was simply shocked to discover that a leading Christian presbyter and teacher right under his own nose was denying any ontological identity (sameness of being) of Jesus Christ with God. . . . For only if Jesus Christ is God are we saved. Alexander knew it intuitively. His young assistant Athanasius would be the one to spell it out and convince the entire church—including emperors and leading bishops—that it was true. Even before there was a New Testament to appeal to as the written authority for Christian faith and practice, the implicit apostolic faith of early Christianity revolved around the scandal of the deity of Christ. The reason Christians helf on to it tenaciously in the face of pagan ridicule and Roman persecution as well as all kinds of attempts to water it down was that it was the linchpin of the gospel. If it were removed in any way, then the hope for eternal participation in God’s own life and for forgiveness and restoration to the image of God would fall apart. The gospel itself would be wrecked. (The Story of Christian Theology, pp. 149-150)

Brown explains the god of Arius:

In order to mediate between himself and the world he purposed to create, God created a new spiritual being, called the Wisdom, Image, or Word of God in scripture. The Son is independent of God and distinct from him; like other rational beings, he could have exercised his free will to disobey God. He is not worthy of divine worship as the Father is, although he is the “perfect creature,” through whom all other things were made. This Word took upon himself a real human body, but no soul, and could suffer. The Holy Spirit is also a created being like the Son, but less important; the Arian concept of the Trinity was vague. (Heresies, p. 114)

Asking “what were Arius’ motives?” Brown explains,

His contemporaries charge him with personal vanity and intellectual pride, factors that have played a role in more than one theological controversy. Theologically he seems to have been tremendously concerned to preserve the monarchy of the Father and to have feared that the orthodox doctrine was making the Son into a second God. This is indeed a legitimate concern. It appears that in Arius it was motivated by an elitist desire for an understanding of God more sophisticated than that of those who simply repeated the orthodox formulas. (Heresies, p. 113)

The Emperor Constantine

The story of Constantine is an interesting one indeed. Olson reports:

Emperor after emperor had tried to eradicate [Christianity] from the empire and especially from the imperial household, court, army and bureaucracies. Around 310 Christianity was strong in spite of persecution . . . . In October 312 a leading general of the Roman army named Constantine attacked Rome to unseat the man who claimed to be emperor—Maxentius—and place himself on the throne of the empire. (The Story of Christian Theology, p. 138).

Before his siege on Rome,

Constantine appealed to any god who could help him defeat his rival and saw a vision of a Christian symbol and the word “In this sign conquer.” He is supposed to have entered into battle the next day with the symbol of Christ emblazoned on his battle banners and shields, and his enemy Maxentius was thrown over the Milvian Bridge just outside Rome and drowned in the Po River. (The Story of Christian Theology, p. 138)

In 324—the first year of his sole emperorship—Constantine

discovered to his dismay that the church he had adopted was in a huge controversy agitating the entire eastern half of his newly pacified empire. It was an uproar of major proportions; Christians and Christian doctrines became the butt of ridicule in the theater. (Heresies, p. 112)

According to Olson,

Unifying the church seemed to be one of his obsessions, and dominating its leadership was his way of attaining that goal. The Christian churches of the empire were severely divided at the time of his accession, and he wanted to use Christianity as the “glue” to reunify the empire. In order to do that he had to stamp out schism, heresy and dissent wherever he found it. (p. 138)

Brown gives a backdrop to the creation of the Council of Nicaea, which ended up lasting a total of two months:

Constantine at first tried to deal with the conflict between Arius and Alexander by using tact and appealing for sympathy, but the conqueror of the Roman world was not the man to wait long for quarreling divines to heed his entreaty. . . . According to tradition, 318 bishops, primarily from the East, assembled at government expense in Nicaea, near the newly established capital at Constantinople. Bishops from the Western half of the empire, where Arius had few followers, were a small minority. . . . Constantine opened the council with a kind of lay sermon. When the bishops’ discussions threatened to degenerate into petty personal squabbles, he silenced them. At first, Constantine seems to have thought that the council would rapidly reach agreement on its own. (Heresies, pp. 116-117)

The Arians came to the council in AD 325 with 28 bishops–there were traditionally 318 bishops of the 500 from the Christian world who attended the event–firmly in their camp, while Bishop Alexander could count just a few Western bishops on his side. Because Arius was not allowed to attend since he was not a bishop, he was represented by Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea. Alexander was aided by his young assistant Athanasius. “The majority of uncommitted bishops were poorly educated” since active persecution had ended just a decade before, so the Arians were confident in their ability to convince these men. However, the Arians

made the great mistake of beginning the council by presenting their own statement of faith, a straightforward document drawn up by Eusebius of Nicomedia. It frankly and flatly denied the deity of Christ, stunning evening the least acute of the uncommitted majority. (Heresies, p. 117)

Olson gives a fascinating account of the scene:

Before Eusebius finished reading it, some of the bishops were holding their hands over their ears and shouting for someone to stop the blasphemies. One bishop near Euebius stepped forward and grabbed the manuscript out of his hands, threw it to the floor and stomped on it. A riot broke out among the bishops and was stopped only by the emperor’s command. Apparently, in spite of circulating letters written by Arius and Alexander before the council, most of the bishops were naïve about how clear-cut the issue really was. They had come to the council hoping to hear something moderate—a mediating positon between these two opposite views. When one of their own expressed the Arian side in such stark terminology, making clear that they considered the Son of God a mere creature, they were convinced that this was heresy, even if Alexander’s strong opposite positon was not the only alternative. After the hubbub died down and the emperor restored order, the council turned its attention to finding a solution. (The Story of Christian Theology, pp. 154-155).

Brown fills in some more details:

Sensing disaster, the Arians sought to rescue the situation by appealing to Eusebius of Caesarea. This second Eusebius, author of the celebrated Ecclesiastical History, was not an Arian, but he found the formulations of Arius easier to accept than those of Alexander, which seems to him to be pure Sabellianism. Eusebius drew up a creed based on Scripture; it became the blueprint for the Nicene Creed as ultimately adopted. The preliminary creed was quite explicit about Jesus Christ, calling him “the Word of God, God of God, light of light, life of life, the only begotten Son, firstborn of all creation, begotten of the Father before all ages, by whom all things were made.” According to Eusebius’ own account, the Emperor spoke in favor of his creed and, at the suggestion of Hosius, proposed the addition of the word homoousios, “constubstantial.” Alexander’s party, now in the ascendant, added a number of anathemas explicating condemning specific Arian positons. (Heresies, p. 117)

There were only two bishops siding with Arius—Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea—who declined to sign the homoousian creed, and they were excommunicated. The presbyter Arius was also deposed and his writings were burned, as ordered by Constantine. As Brown points out,

It was the Emperor, not the orthodox bishops, who ordered the repression of the Arian party, but the orthodox welcomed his action. (Heresies, p. 118)

What was the result of Nicaea?

A conflated word became the answer to the problem. “Homoousios” is made up of the Greek works for “one” and “substance” to describe the relationship (consubstantial) between the Father and the Son. In other words, they are of “one substance” or “one being.” According to Brown:

There is a vast difference between saying that Jesus Christ is God of one substance with the Father (homoousios to patri, the orthodox statement) and saying that he is merely like God, of similar substance (homoiousios, the most moderate Arian formulation, sometimes called semi-Arian). The distinction between homo (“same”) and homoi (“similar”) may seem trivial, but it was not so subtle that most ordinary Christians failed to grasp what is at stake. If Jesus is of the same substance as the Father, then he is truly God, and it is reasonable to think that he is able to “save…to the uttermost” those who come to him (Heb. 7:25). On the other hand, if he is only of similar substance, which was all that even the conservative Arians were willing to concede, then it is not evident that he necessarily possesses the divine power and authority he needs to make an atonement on behalf of the whole human race. . . . if Christ is just another created being, even though he is the firstborn and most exalted of all created beings, then it is more natural to think of him as our teacher and example than as our atoning sacrifice. . . If Christ is God, then he is categorically different from all men, including the Emperor, who is another man just like us. . . The danger Arianism posed for the survival of Christianity lies in the fact that while Christianity is exclusive, Arianism is syncretistic, potentially even polytheistic. By exalting man it threatened to deny that revelation and the church that imparts it are the sole means to access to spiritual truth and there eternal life it brings. (Heresies, p. 119)

Olson reports that

The difference between homoousios and homoiousios is the difference between the divine and the creaturely. One says that the Son is God. The other says that the Son is like God. If a being is God, then saying he is like God is entirely wrong. If a being is only like God, then declaring him to be God would be heresy if not blasphemy. (The Story of Christian Theology, p. 165)

The Nicene Creed

The bishops who attended the council were required by Constantine to sign the newly formed Nicene Creed. (It is fascinating to report that Constantine became a firm believer in Arianism and remained so until his dying day in 336;he never allowed his personal opinion to be forced upon the Christian church, especially since the majority chose the orthodox view.) Arius was labeled a heretic and was temporarily exiled. As Olson explains,

For the first time a Christian heretic was condemned and punished by a secular ruler for nothing more than believing and teaching the wrong doctrine (The Story of Christian Theology, p. 156)

A comparison of the creeds can be seen here:

First Council of Nicea (325) First Council of Constantinople (381)
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; by whom all things were made;
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead. ;
whose kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Ghost. And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.
In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
[But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]

Conclusion

What can we learn about the Council of Nicaea? Several things are important to point out:

  1. The issue of Jesus’s origination had not been seriously questioned until the early fourth century when Arius did so.
  2. Potential heresy has a way of gaining the attention of church leaders, as these early fourth century leaders were determined to determine the orthodox interpretation of the Bible.
  3. The Council of Nicaea was organized by the Roman emperor Constantine in AD 325 and convened for two months; it is considered the first church council  that took place after the first century (most notably, the council in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 15).
  4. When the 318 bishops who had assembled at Nicaea understood that the deity of Jesus was on the line, the outcome ended up being a landslide against the Arian heresy. Only two bishops voted in favor of Arianism and were later considered heretics.
  5. While Constantine certainly ordered the formation of the Council of Nicaea, he did not have undue influence over the council’s outcome. Otherwise, Arianism would have won the day, as Constantine remained a committed Arian for the rest of his life.
  6. The issue of Arianism did not go away after the Council of Nicaea, returning as a topic at the Council of Constantinople in 381. It was here where the Nicene Creed was revised and Monarchianism (subordination of the Holy Spirit) was rejected. In addition, Arianism was once again formally condemned.
  7. Today the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the “Jehovah’s Witnesses”) is most closely alligned with the heretical views of Arius, which continues to be condemned by the majority of the Eastern and Western Christian world.

Resources

Brown, Harold O.J. Brown. Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), 1984.

The History of Christianity: A Lion Handbook (Oxford: Lion Publishing), 1990.

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper), 1978.

Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press), 1999.