Early Christian History

What Didn’t Happen At Nicæa

There are a number of myths floating around about what happened at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Hopefully some of those will be dispelled here. It was a significant event, but not for the reasons most people believe.

Christological Conflict

As noted elsewhere in this site, Christology, or study of the nature of Christ, had given rise to a number of controversies in early Christianity. At first these weren’t significant, even if they raised arguments.

As time went on, though, many Christian scholars, especially in the east, took this issue very seriously & tried to resolve it. Most wound up asserting that Christ was divine, but had only appeared to be a man, & was not actually under the limitations of being fully human. Paul of Samosata, patriarch of Antioch, however, in the late 3rd century, took a different stance. He insisted that, in order for His life as a man — & his death — to have any meaning, Christ must have been fully human, & therefore was different in substance from God. He was, rather, a created Being, separate from God. He may have been divine, in part, but was not fully God.

Initially, this issue remained a largely theological one, however, & as such did not have a great impact on the Church as a whole. Eventually, though, Paul was driven from his post and out of Antioch entirely. But within a couple of decades, another Christian leader, Arius of Alexandria, had taken up his standard, and did so far more eloquently and by building a loyal following.

Gnosticism & the Church

By the start of the 4th century, Gnosticism had become widespread in the east. In fact, some scholars believe there were many more Gnostics than there were Literalist Christians in that region.

Most Gnostics did not believe in the humanity of Christ; since Christ was good, He could not have come in physical form (since physical forms were evil). Further, they generally asserted that He had not died on the cross, but rather, His spirit fled, just prior to what would have been the moment of His death. Thus, His death was largely just a symbolic act, a “living example” of compassion & self-sacrifice.

Gnosticism was prominent among the most educated early Christians, although some of them abandoned their beliefs in intermediate deities, over time, & as such, they were a threat to the new growing faith. In a very real way, Gnosticism siphoned off the “best & brightest” of Christians, leaving Literalism in the lurch, intellectually speaking.

Early on, the young, predominantly-Literalist Church condemned Gnosticism as heresy, & while a few prominent Church figures were Gnostics, there was never any serious, cohesive Gnostic movement in the early Church (Gnostics did not care about organizational matters and were pretty much left out of the Church hierarchy due to lack of interest). This, along with its denial of the humanity & physicality of Christ and their assertion that His death did not have any true metaphysical, salvation effect, relegated Gnosticism to the fringes of Christianity.

The “Theological Battle of Alexandria”

Arius & his followers were in the minority among Literalist Christians of Alexandria. Alexander, patriarch of Alexandria, in 323 & 324 hosted local synods (or councils) of bishops from across northern Africa, which denounced Arius & his doctrine. Arius ultimately fled to Palestine, where he was sheltered by another presbyter who had sided with him. A competing synod in Palestine reinstated Arius & invalidated the decision of the Alexandrian synods.

In the meantime, the streets of Alexandria were home to the occasional riot or two — which typically broke out when followers of Arius began singing the little ditties Arius had written to convey his doctrine in a simple, catchy way. Invariably, a “loyal” clerggyman would hear this and rally followers of Patriarch Alexander against them.

Constantine & the Church

The Roman Emperor Constantine, sometimes surnamed “the Great,” had declared Christianity an acceptable religion, in the Edict of Milan (313). His motives in doing so are a bit uncertain. He claimed to have had a vision of a cross in the heavens, prior to a battle he fought against another imperial contender, & heard a voice telling him to win in the name of the Christian God. As it turned out, he was victorious, & he saw this as a good omen & a sign of his favor with the Christian God. It may have happened this way, however, Constantine likely had less supernatural motives for permitting Christian belief. Christianity was an eastern-urban faith; in spite of three centuries of sporadic persecution, in many of the larger towns & cities (such as Antioch and Alexandria), it was the prevailing religion. By ending persecution of Christians, Constantine hoped to win over the urban populations, & with their support, he could enhance his own prestige & authority as Emperor. This was made all the more important due to a plague which had swept the western Empire during the reign of his predecessor, Emperor Diocletian. Any hope of rebuildign the west depended on the economically-thriving east.

By the early 320’s, Constantine had made himself the sole Emperor, having defeated his last rival, Lucinius. Aware of some of the theological contention in the Church, especially in Alexandria, Constantine was concerned that the Church might fracture, and thus dilute its support for him. Not fully understanding the issues at stake, he invited the bishops & patriarchs to meet at Nicæa, to resolve their differences, suggesting that it was merely a semantic matter, of no real importance.

Constantine couldn’t possibly have been more wrong. The matter was considered gravely important by leading Churchmen; they didn’t consider it just a semantic distinction. What the Emperor had planned as a meeting to set aside differences and create unity, proved to be anything but.

The First Council of Nicæa

Direct records from the First Council of Nicæa haven’t survived, so we don’t know precisely what happened. But it appears that both sides set out their doctrines: Athanasius of Alexandria (a protege of Patriarch Alexander) argued in favor of orthodoxy; Arius argued in favor of the Samosatene doctrine. Efforts were made to reconcile them; in particular, Palestinian churchmen who'd taken Arius in, offered a compromise, which was worded in such a way as to be satisfactory to both sides (the wording was a little vague, & could be interpreted in two ways).

This compromise position, however, while some found it agreeable, was not acceptable to the extremists on either side, so it was turned down. Instead, the majority sided with Athanasius & Alexander, and the Council voted to denounce Arius & his doctrine. In the decades after Nicaea, Athanasius and others devised the notion of the Trinity, in order to explain the apparent differentiation seen in God (as the Father, as the Son, & as the Holy Spirit). These three Beings are separate, yet one. Each is fully divine & unbegotten, but in action, each is distinct. More specifically, Jesus Christ was both fully divine & fully human. (This brief statement about the Trinity probably does it a disservice, and most likely would not pass muster by the standards of most Churches; however, I only have just so much space, & not a lot of theological expertise, so it will have to do, for the purposes of this essay.) In any event, the Trinity could not have been decided at Nicaea, since the Arian controversy was solely christological in nature and did not involve the third person of the Godhead (i.e. the Holy Spirit).

Another action taken during this Council was a formal denunciation of Gnosticism, as well as some other minor heresies which had cropped up here and there. The Council was not as contentious an affair as many now think of it — for the most part, on all issues but the nature of Christ, there was an enormous amount of agreement among those present, and remarkable uniformity of thought.

While the majority of Churchmen were satisfied with the results of the Council of Nicæa, Arius & his followers were angry, and so was the Emperor. He had not wished either party to be denounced; his goal had been to unify, not divide, & the Council had not lived up to this. Constantine tried in vain after the Council to reconcile the two parties.

Following the First Council of Nicæa

In the next few years, strife within the Church grew, rather than waning. Arius fled to Illyria, in the western end of the Balkan peninsula, which at the time was something of a hinterland, perhaps the only place in the Empire he was safe. Many of his followers either joined him there, or abandoned the Arianist heresy, or simply maintained a low profile, not making an issue out of their doctrine. Even so, books & documents supporting Arius were burned, & many who were suspected of being his partisans were persecuted in a variety of ways.

The situation again became problematic, when some Arianists took refuge with Emperor Constantine, & he even accepted a few as advisors. Christians holding to the orthodox view (which later became the Trinity), were horrified. Once again, Constantine appears to have underestimated the issue. Arianists were persecuted more intensely. Arius, already elderly by the time his teachings had become cause for conflict, died, though others carried on his teachings.

After Constantine, Arianism retained imperial favor, under Constantine II and Valens. Neither dealt with this divide successfully; the Church was left to muddle through the controversy on its own. The first truly orthodox (i.e. non-Arian) emperor was Theodosius I, and he went a long way toward encouraging Romans to drop Arianism. Even then, it took another couple centuries to die out in the west, especially since Arianism had favor among the barbarian kingdoms that succeeded Rome, especially among the Visigoths (of modern Spain) and the Vandals (of north-western Africa). Arianism did not die out until those two Germanic kingdoms were finally overwhelmed, centuries later.

What Didn’t Happen At Nicæa

Many people believe that the Church as an organization was founded by Constantine at this Council. That is not true. The Church organization existed prior to the Council. In fact, if not for the existence of a hierachy of bishops and patriarchs, the Council would not even have been possible! (Otherwise, thousands of clerics across the Mediterranean would have to have somehow been assembled — all but impossible at that time.)

Neither did Constantine declare Christianity the “state religion” of Rome, at Nicaea. In fact, he never did so in his life — and for that matter, no other Roman Emperor ever did! The closest any of them came to doing so was when, around 390, Theodosius I outlawed virtually all pagan rites, leaving Christianity the only viable choice of religion for most people.

The concept of the Trinity was not decided at Nicaea. What was decided, was a position which would, eventually, lead to the Trinity doctrine (eventually decided upon at later Councils). The so-called “Nicene Creed” was not authored at Nicaea; it’s only called that because the foundation of some of its contents, was decided there.

Constantine did not make any of the Council’s decisions, nor did he order the assembled bishops to do anything. He could’t have, since its outcome was quite different from what he’d wanted! If Constantine had actually controlled the proceedings, a single unified Christianity would have emerged from it, rather than the fractious arrangement that resulted.

The Biblical canon was not decided at Nicaea. In fact, it was never formally declared until the Council of Trent in the 16th century (following the beginning of the Reformation). Yes, some localized or plenary councils and synods discussed it, such as III Carthage in 397, but Nicaea had nothing whatever to do with the Biblical canon.

The Church was not unified at Nicaea. Quite the opposite — it was split into three distinct camps. Nicaea in fact permanently ended any hope of reconciliation among them; prior to that, accomodations had been possible, but the strict lines of demarcation declared at Nicaea rendered it impossible.

Nicaea did not end theological conflict within the Church. If anything, it deepened and spread it, since it drew distinct battle-lines which had not existed before. The Arian heresy spilled out of the east (it had been restricted mainly to Syria, Palestina, and northern Egypt); even though it was often in the minority, Arianism gained further geographical reach than possibly could have happened without Nicaea.

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