“Describe the theological developments that lead up to the Council of Nicaea, and what each faction represented concerning the issues that prompted the calling of a council. Address the political interest that effected the council and its main participants, and determine at what point these issues were resolved.”
March 21, 2004
The world was united by the reign of one emperor. His vision before his epic battle with the army of Maxentius forever changed the course of history, and faith. On October 28, 312 C.E., he advanced his troops under the banner of the cross, and advanced Christianity to a new status. Within the last five years, the emperor Diocletian had openly persecuted Christians. Rome was about to fall due to political upheaval in the form of imperial assassinations, and indecisive actions within its hierarchy. Diocletian seeking to stabilize the empire divided his power amongst three other generals of the empire. One of the generals was to be an Augusti, a separate emperor, like himself. Together they would stabilize the nation by focusing on separate parts. One way to do this was a unifying cause. The persecution of the faith of the masses was a common vehicle that could unify the slowly dying empire. But instead, the common persecution caused more and more upheaval. In 305, C.E. In what seemed to be his plan all along, Diocletian abdicated his throne, and he forced Maximian, his other Augusti to do so as well. However, a new more vicious Augusti arose in Maximian’s place named Galerius. His persecution of the Christians was so strong that he was rumored to have actually started the persecutions. Constantinus Chlorus, the other new Augusti, however, seemed to be against the bloodshed. A conflict of unifying policy arose amongst the emperors.
Despite the constant persecution and all the murder, and pillaging happening, the Roman government could not seem to stamp out the faith of the Christians. So strong was their young faith that it is reported that the Bishop of Carthage removed the right of martyrdom from those who sought out persecution, because so many were openly doing so. This type of bold-faced opposition left such an impression on the Augustus Galerius that he had no choice but to order the toleration of the Christian faith, or watch his entire empire become extinct. When Galerius died, a fight broke out for control over the position of Augusti. In 312 C.E., spring, the son of Constantinus Chlorus fought to take hold of the position against Maxentius. Constantine received a vision stating that he should conquer using the symbol of the cross. These events in history set the framework for a different type of power struggle.
The win of control of the empire led Constantine to a conclusion of mass proportions. The Christian faith was declared superior to the pagan religions of the empire, and Christianity was declared the empire’s national religion. Constantine made changes both political and personal. Ministers were given the same imperial sanctions and protections as pagan priests, Crucifixion was abolished as a form of execution, gladiator battles were halted as punishment for crimes, and Sunday was made into a public holiday. Constantine’s children were brought up as Christians, and he himself was baptized. After his baptism, he refused to wear the imperial robe associated with the emperor, or god hood, and instead wore a white robe to symbolize his spiritual change.
Christianity, which had five years ago been a religion of persecuted individuals, became the religion of the celebrated tradition. Although many in the past had become Christians by choice of life or death, Christianity was now opened up to be a choice of convenience. Instantly, the faith of the weak and the humble was now the faith of the strong, and the popular. The Roman Empire became unified again.
The once practical issues of Christianity defined by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and his baptism and his communion were no longer issues of practicality, but tradition and religion. Under persecution these practices had to be the focus of a Christian life, because there was time for little else; one could be dead just moments after accepting Christ, and in fact all who did accept him did so with the realization that they were in fact signing their own death certificate. Under Constantine, Christianity was allowed to not be looking over its shoulder every moment of every hour. Christianity could relax and take a much-needed break. In fact it was widely perceived that the position and status that Christianity had gained was a fulfillment of Christ setting up an earthly kingdom. Although the entire known world was now Christian, very few knew what it meant.
The religion of martyrs needed to be understood. The Roman’s were a Hellenistic culture, and their society was built upon philosophical views and ideals. Christians up until this time had been mostly concerned with the practical need for salvation from death, and the communion of this need with others. This need was no longer a practical one within society. The Hellenistic mind of the Romans began to seek out an explanation for such a faith. They were not so much interested with God’s involvement in history. To them this was an established fact for all to see, summed up within the whirlwind change in sociological, psychological, and political structure of the last decade. The Hellenistic Christians needed to know why? And in order for them to answer this question, they needed to ask who is Jesus Christ?
The writings of several individuals over the last hundred and fifty years before the council of Nicaea began to grow in popularity, because they answered that very question. Although these writings were mostly forged by the apologists to show the people of Rome the validity and wisdom of following Christ, they would shape the Hellenistic mind of Christianity for a knew generation that was devoid of religious persecution and free to explore itself. The philosophers known as the apologists had several different espousing about the person of Christ, but all of them came from a particular viewpoint on the issue. The believed that Christianity was a superior form of philosophy. Their intention was never to show the presence of God in history, but rather in truth. And they believed that the pursuit of wisdom and truth led to them to the knowledge of Jesus. Therefore they did not simply reiterate the acts that Jesus achieved while on this earth, but instead tried to philosophize about their purpose for humanity. They were attempting to merge the superior faith of the persecuted masses, with the superior intellect of the elite Hellenistic culture, in order to show that Christianity was useful for all people in all walks of life, and not a threat to the empire and its emperor.
At the forefront of these apologists is an amazing list of authors, each one of them shaping and influencing society even fifteen hundred years after their quills touched their paper. This list of philosophers came before the year that Constantine made Christianity legal. But their writings helped to influence the understanding of the people afterward. Justin Martyr was one such philosopher. Justin was the philosopher to point out the relationship between God and truth. He theorizes that mankind is filled with seeds of truth that come from the plant of God who is truth, and therefore all who acknowledge truth, must know God. He believed that Jesus was that truth assuming form, which gave him a distinct persona from the plant of truth that he came from.
Another Theologian was Irenaeus. Irenaeus gave to modern theology the idea of the divine economy. He does not theorize on the process of the Logos taking the form of Christ, but instead assumes it to be so. His gift to theology is this concept of God disclosing his triune nature over history to humanity. He also gives more weight to the Holy Spirit as being equal in the Godhead, even going so far as to place him next to the Christ as being equal in creation. Before Irenaeus, the spirit was a largely unlooked at part of the Godhead by the apologists.
Because of the distinctions within the nature of the Godhead being made by apologists, a theological movement began in order to maintain that God is one God. In order to protect the validity of God’s unity, but also promote the validity of the Logos, and Spirit as being God, Tertullian developed the ideas of “Substance” and “Persona.” He used Irenaeus’ divine economy but theorized that the distinctions within the economy were of the same substance while being of different persona. Therefore God could be three separate persona, while still being one God. Tertullian was the first apologist to use the term “trinity,” Latin for “three in one.”
Although Tertullian was popular in the western churches, Origen was the most influential in the eastern churches. He too ascribed to the idea of homoousious, which is Greek for “same substance.” His thought process often times seemed paradoxical because it was extremely developed. Often times he would refer to the son as a completely created being, and yet as a being not subject to creation. Despite his extreme and often time’s unexplained paradoxes, he helped the eastern part of the Roman Empire to understand the idea of the trinity better.
Due to Constantine, the church enjoyed a time of peace in terms of persecution, but with the emperor’s Edict of Milan, more questions were being asked by Christians of Edict, rather than faith. Although theology was much debated and fairly developed within the last hundred years by the apologist, not one position was openly advocated over another until about 318 C.E., when Arius of Alexandria came into a dispute with his bishop Alexander. Arius was the pastor of the Baucalis Church in the East. The members of this church were very influential and outspoken like their pastor Arius. Seeking to accommodate a form of teaching that would help his pagan converts to understand their new appointed faith, Arius developed and taught the idea that Jesus, or the Logos (word) from the gospel of John, was actually a created being who was less than God. His deity was merely an approximation of godhood, much like the demi-gods of Greek and Roman mythology. This was a simple concept for the Alexandrian pagans to understand and accept because it was essentially no different than the beliefs they were forced to come out of, except in name.
However, this did not please Alexander, playing on his understanding of the Christ within the trinity via the writings of the apologists. In 320 C.E. Alexander called a meeting of Churches to have Arius excommunicated and his pastorship stripped. Arius, however, was friends with the bishop of Nicodemia, Eusebius. Thus a quarrel for power broke out between two very powerful districts of faith. One, led by Alexander was a center of theological and philosophical thought; the other was a center of extreme political power.
This issue was larger than a simple quarrel between religious authorities. It was delicate in a manner that was threefold. Firstly, their was the political interest of the empire in keeping the peace that Constantine had ushered in with his legalization of the faith. Secondly, their was the issue of what is sound doctrine and considered canon. And lastly their was the sovereignty and superiority of the Christian Faith as being something different and greater than the other religions of the world. If Arius were allowed to preach his doctrine openly, the validity of Christianity would be compromised, and Alexander and his followers would revolt. If Alexander were allowed to have his way, a standard for religious persecution could be established although the sovereignty of Christianity would remain intact. That could leave the pagan/Christian converts alienated and seeking to revolt. Either way, Constantine was facing another power struggle, this time disguised as theology. He had to deal with the situation delicately, and immediately.
Arius wasn’t the first person to think of Christianity in terms of levels of Godhood. Probably the most prominent example of this line of thought was found in the Gnostic thought. The Gnostics believed in a line of emanation moving outward from the Creator. They believed that Jesus was a lesser being than God, existing as a result of the first line of emanation. Although Arius wasn’t the first, he was certainly the charismatic leader that the idea needed in order to bring a threat of massive revolt and uprising to the emperor’s attention.
In 325 C.E., The emperor Constantine called for a council of about three hundred of the area’s bishops to be held at Nicaea, just outside Nicodemia in Asia Minor. The stark contrast in reality was apparent to all who had eyes. Less than thirty years prior, these bishops were being persecuted and molested by the emperor’s Galerius, and Diocletian. Now they rode as royalty into the palace of the emperor as his guests of honor. The significance of such an event in Christianity as well as history could not be denied regardless of one’s theological position. Ironically, the council was being held exactly for the reason of giving regard to the varied positions of theology that had developed out of the various apologetical, and pagan teachings of the last hundred years. Constantine intended to do to Christianity what he had done to Rome. Hopefully, the bishops that came into the council separate and disagreeing would leave unified and in agreement as to the issue of the question, “Who is Jesus?”
Constantine did not direct the conversation but instead stepped aside and allowed the bishops to come to a single conclusion. His abdication of his authority was only prefaced with the idea that separation of the church is worse than war. The issue of Arius’ views were easily settled. The main discussion was in how to keep them from surfacing again, and whether Alexander’s Synod that excommunicated Arius was valid.
Various creeds were presented as statements that the entire church could stand behind. But none of them were sufficient to exclude the possibility for Arian controversy in the future, and so the council set out to make its own creed, which was thought to be patterned off another one from out of Palestine.
I 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 only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds. God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; 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; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he 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, and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the prophets. And I believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
This creed was enough to put aside the issue of the Logos, as it applies to infinity, and places the Holy Spirit at equality with both the Father and the Son in regard to his complete deity. Arianism was almost unanimously and fairly instantly deemed as heretical. However, this did not end the effect of Arianism on the empire, but instead forced it underground in order to grow a following and resurface through a series of social/political upheavals. It wasn’t until Alexander’s pupil Athanasius, and his fellow theologians Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa further developed the understanding of the Nicene Creed, that Arianism was able to be finally quenched. This didn’t happen until fifty-six years later at the Council of Constantinople.
Athanasius developed a very complex doctrine of the trinity although he was largely practical as a theologian and leaned more towards theology than philosophy.
Basil took the understanding of the persona within the trinity developing it more. It was his claim that just as every human being has his own distinct personality, and yet represents the whole of humanity universally, the distinction of God in three persons is absolutely necessary. He defined the various personas of the Godhead in terms of their role to mankind; the paternal(Father), the child(the son), and the sanctifying power of love(the Holy Spirit.) These distinctions made by the three Cappadocians were a new way of approaching the problem presented at Nicaea, and of helping to combat the same issues as their contemporary Athanasius. Whereas Athanasius, and those before him dealt with the issue of finding the three separate persona of the Godhead by looking at the unity of God, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, and of Nazianzus did not. These three Cappadocians examined the plurality of the Godhead in order to find its unity. Thus these three emphasized the unity of substance over the rank of persona within the Godhead, and encouraged more attention to the Holy Spirit than had ever been done before. This position was further solidified at the council of Constantinople when it was added to the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit is:
The Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father,
who together with the Father and Son is adored and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.
This idea was added and accepted into the Nicene Creed and was told to be accepted by the Bishops who were present. Thirty-six of the One hundred and eighty six bishops present from the eastern empire denied the doctrine of divinity regarding the Holy Spirit, and they left after it was presented.
This confirmation of acceptable doctrine served to provide the church with a doctrine that it could stand behind as being considered absolute within revelation. As time passed the Nicene Creed, or technically the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed became the universal statement for the Eucharist within Christendom, as well as the baptismal statement of the eastern empire. This single creed born out of socio-political angst and turmoil, as well as religious in-fighting and rivals, birthed by a kingdom of ignorant pagan mothers, and overzealous philosopher turned politician fathers gave birth to theology as we know it.
The purpose of the Nicene Creed was not to achieve a doctrine for all to stand behind, which represented the most absolute truth that could be understood; regardless of how absolute its truth may be. The Nicene Council and Creed were created to be a pacifier to quell the cries of an empire that was spiritually infantile; born into a faith they new nothing about. The creed in its original form did nothing to counter act the fighting within the church but instead brought it to an extreme. The extremity of the insanity was qualified by the constant deposing and electing of bishops who agreed with the current popular view of theology at the time.
Despite the fact that the Catholic Church now had a spiritual pacifier in its infantile mouth, it’s Hellenistic mind would soon become disenfranchised with the simplicity of the creed presented to it because it was too simple. Taking into account all factors of the situation Constantine was presented with, it becomes clear that the Nicene Creed fails to address the one question that it tries so hard to explain; who is God? The Nicene Creed only answers the question of who is God in history, but the Roman Empire already knew the answer to this question. Their upbringing of philosophy in Socratic, platonic, and Aristotelian thought forced them to need more, and so the Nicene Creed became what it tried to avoid. The creed became nothing more than a breeding ground to build upon endless doctrines all seeking to answer that first unanswered question…who is God? In the end, the philosophy of the apologists that gave birth to the theology of politicians killed its very reason for existence, creating more room for dissensions of the truth than there ever could have been before. The council of Nicaea was a point in history that, dealt with correctly, could have been a new age of Christian philosophy, but instead became the herald for a new age of Christian travesties, and Christian ignorance.