First Council of Nicaea

First Council of Nicaea

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The Messed Up Truth Of The Council Of Nicaea

The First Council of Nicaea is one of the most significant, and as such one of the most famous, events in the history of the Christian church. For the first time, church leaders, assembled by Rome's first Christian emperor after centuries of persecution, gathered together to really, like, hash out the big issues. It was time to really make this thing legit. Time to make a clear and universal statement of faith. The church was in danger, or so the emperor and the bishops believed, and radical and passionate action was needed to save it.

It would be difficult to argue that Christianity isn't still around, so by that measure, the Council of Nicaea was a success. But was it really a success? Did it perhaps . set an extremely dangerous and violent precedent? Maybe! Here's a look at what did — and didn't — happen at the First Council of Nicaea.

325 The First Council of Nicea

JULY 4, 325, WAS A MEMORABLE DAY. About 300 Christian bishops and deacons from the eastern half of the Roman Empire had come to Nicea, a little town near the Bosporus Straits flowing between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

In the conference hall where they waited was a table. On it lay an open copy of the Gospels. The emperor, Constantine the Great, entered the hall in his imperial, jewel-encrusted, multicolored brocades, but out of respect for the Christian leaders, without his customary train of soldiers. Constantine spoke only briefly. He told the churchmen they had to come to some agreement on the crucial questions dividing them. “Division in the church,” he said, “is worse than war.”

A New Day

The bishops and deacons were deeply impressed. After three centuries of periodic persecutions instigated by some Roman emperor, were they actually gathered before one not as enemies but as allies? Some of them carried scars of the imperial lash. One pastor from Egypt was missing an eye another was crippled in both hands as a result of red-hot irons.

But Constantine had dropped the sword of persecution in order to take up the cross. Just before a decisive battle in 312, he had converted to Christianity.

Nicea symbolized a new day for Christianity. The persecuted followers of the Savior dressed in linen had become the respected advisers of emperors robed in purple. The once-despised religion was on its way to becoming the state religion, the spiritual cement of a single society in which public and private life were united under the control of Christian doctrine.

If Christianity were to serve as the cement of the Empire, however, it had to hold one faith. So the emperors called for church councils like Nicea, paid the way for bishops to attend, and pressed church leaders for doctrinal unity. The age of Christian emperors was an age of creeds and creeds were the instruments of conformity.

A Troubling Question

We can see this imperial pressure at work at Nicea, the first general council of the church. The problem that Constantine expected the bishops to solve was the dispute over Arianism.

Arius, pastor of the influential Baucalis Church in Alexandria, Egypt, taught that Christ was more than human but something less than God. He said that God originally lived alone and had no Son. Then he created the Son, who in turn created everything else. The idea persists in some cults today.

Arius made faith in Christ understandable, especially when he put his teaching in witty rhymes set to catchy tunes. Even the dockhands on the wharves at Alexandria could hum the ditties while unloading fish.

Arius’s teaching held a special appeal for many recent converts to Christianity. It was like the pagan religions of their childhood: the one supreme God, who dwells alone, makes a number of lesser gods who do God’s work, passing back and forth from heaven to earth. These former pagans found it hard to understand the Christian belief that Christ, the Divine Word, existed from all eternity, and that he is equal to the Almighty Father. So Arianism spread, creating Constantine’s concern.

The Council of Nicea was summoned by Emperor Constantine and held in the imperial palace under his auspices. Constantine viewed the Arian teachings—that Jesus was a created being subordinate to God— as an “insignificant” theological matter. But he wanted peace in the Empire he had just united through force. When diplomatic letters failed to solve the dispute, he convened around 220 bishops, who met for two months to hammer out a universally acceptable definition of Jesus Christ.

Once the Council of Nicea convened, many of the bishops were ready to compromise. One young deacon from Alexandria, however, was not. Athanasius, with the support of his bishop, Alexander, insisted that Arius’s doctrine left Christianity without a divine Savior. He called for a creed that made clear Jesus Christ’s full deity.

In the course of the debate, the most learned bishop present, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (a friend and admirer of the emperor and a half-hearted supporter of Arius), put forward his own creed— perhaps as evidence of his questioned orthodoxy.

Most of the pastors, however, recognized that something more specific was needed to exclude the possibility of Arian teaching. For this purpose they produced another creed, probably from Palestine. Into it they inserted an extremely important series of phrases: “True God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father. . . . “

The expression homo ousion, “one substance,” was probably introduced by Bishop Hosius of Cordova (in today’s Spain). Since he had great influence with Constantine, the imperial weight was thrown to that side of the scales.

After extended debate, all but two bishops at the council agreed upon a creed that confessed faith “in one Lord Jesus Christ, . . . true God of true God.” Constantine was pleased, thinking the issue was settled.

An Unsettled Issue

As it turned out, however, Nicea alone settled little. For the next century the Nicene and the Arian views of Christ battled for supremacy. First Constantine and then his successors stepped in again and again to banish this churchman or exile that one. Control of church offices too often depended on control of the emperor’s favor.

The lengthy struggle over imperial power and theological language culminated in the mid-fifth century at the Council at Chalcedon in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). There the church fathers concluded that Jesus was completely and fully God. And finally, the council confessed that this total man and this total God was one completely normal person. In other words, Jesus combined two natures, human and divine, in one person.

This classical, orthodox affirmation from Chalcedon made it possible to tell the story of Jesus as good news. Since Jesus was a normal human being, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, he could fulfill every demand of God’s moral law, and he could suffer and die a real death. Since he was truly God, his death was capable of satisfying divine justice. God himself had provided the sacrifice.

The Council of Nicea, then, laid the cornerstone for the orthodox understanding of Jesus Christ. That foundation has stood ever since.

By Bruce L. Shelley

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #28 in 1990]

Dr. Bruce L. Shelley is professor of church history at Denver Seminary and a member of the advisory board of Christian History.

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First Council of Nicaea

(A.D. 325) The First Council of Nicaea (the first ecumenical comes from a Greek word for “worldwide,” and refers to both ancient church councils representing the whole church as well to discussions during th. more council) condemns the teaching of Arius (c. 256-336) Alexandrian presbyter whose teaching on the Trinity was condemned at the Council of Nicaea A.D. 325. (See Arianism and Arian Controversy. more and approves a creed is a Christian confession of faith that has obtained this title from the use of the Latin term credo, “I believe,” at the beginning of such f. more containing the homoousios This is the Greek term invented during the first Nicene Council to describe the relation between the Father and the Son in the Trinity and is the foun. more clause.

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[edit] Agenda and procedure

The agenda of the synod were:

  1. The Arian question
  2. The celebration of Passover
  3. The Meletian schism
  4. The Father and Son one in purpose or in person
  5. The baptism of heretics
  6. The status of the lapsed in the persecution under Licinius.

The council was formally opened May 20, in the central structure of the imperial palace, with preliminary discussions on the Arian question. In these discussions, some dominant figures were Arius, with several adherents. &ldquoSome 22 of the bishops at the council, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia, came as supporters of Arius. But when some of the more shocking passages from his writings were read, they were almost universally seen as blasphemous.&rdquo [4] Bishops Theognis of Nicea and Maris of Chalcedon were among the initial supporters of Arius.

Eusebius of Caesarea called to mind the baptismal creed (symbol) of his own diocese at Caesarea in Palestine, as a form of reconciliation. The majority of the bishops agreed. For some time, scholars thought that the original Nicene Creed was based on this statement of Eusebius. Today, most scholars think that this Creed is derived from the baptismal creed of Jerusalem, as Hans Lietzmann proposed. Another possibility is the Apostle's Creed.

In any case, as the council went on, the orthodox bishops won approval of every one of their proposals. After being in session for an entire month, the council promulgated on June 19 the original Nicene Creed. This profession of faith was adopted by all the bishops &ldquobut two from Libya who had been closely associated with Arius from the beginning.&rdquo [5] No historical record of their dissent actually exists the signatures of these bishops are simply absent from the creed.

To Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia

From The Ecclesiastical History of Theodoret I:4. This letter is to Eusebius of Nicomedia.

To his very dear lord, the man of God, the faithful and orthodox Eusebius.

Arius, unjustly persecuted by Alexander the pope, [38] on account of that all-conquering truth of which you also are a champion, sends greeting in the Lord.

Ammonius, my father, was about to depart for Nicomedia, and I considered myself bound to salute you by him and to inform as well that natural affection which you bear towards the brothers for the sake of God and his Christ, that the bishop [i.e., Alexander of Alexandria] greatly wastes and persecutes us and leaves no stone unturned against us.

He has driven us out of the city as atheists, because we do not concur in what he publicly preaches: "God always, the Son always as the Father so the Son the Son co-exists unbegotten with God he is everlasting neither by thought nor by any interval does God precede the Son always God, always Son he is begotten of the unbegotten the Son is of God himself."

Eusebius, your brother bishop of CÊsarea, Theodotus, Paulinus, Athanasius, Gregorius, Aetius, and all the bishops of the East have been condemned because they say that God had an existence prior to that of his Son. Exceptions are Philogonius, Hellanicus, and Macarius, who are unlearned men, and who have embraced heretical opinions. Some of them say that the Son was belched out, [39] others that he is a production, others that he is also unbegotten. These are impieties to which we cannot listen, even though the heretics threaten us with a thousand deaths.

But we say, believe, have taught, and do teach that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten. We say that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter, but by his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before ages, as perfect God, only-begotten and unchangeable, and that before he was begotten, created, purposed, or established he did not exist. For he was not unbegotten.

We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning. This is the cause of our persecution. Similarly, we are persecuted because we say that he is of the non-existent. And this we say, because he is neither part of God nor of any essential being. For this are we persecuted the rest you know.

I bid thee farewell in the Lord, remembering our afflictions, my fellow-Lucianist [40] and true Eusebius. [41]

Recantation to the Emperor Constantine

From The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen II:27.

Arius and Euzoôus, elders, to Constantine, our most pious emperor and most beloved of God.

Just as your piety, beloved of God, commanded, oh sovereign emperor, we here furnish a written statement of our own faith, and we protest before God that we and all those who are with us believe what is here set forth.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, and in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was begotten from him before all ages God the Word, by whom all things were made, whether things in heaven or things on earth. He came and took upon him flesh, suffered and rose again, and ascended into heaven, from where he will come again to judge the living and the dead. We believe in the Holy Spirit, in the resurrection of the body, in the life to come, in the kingdom of heaven, and in one catholic Church of God, established throughout the earth. [42]

We have received this faith from the holy Gospels, in which the Lord says to his disciples, "Go forth and disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." [43] If we do not so believe this, and if we do not truly receive the doctrines concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as they are taught by the whole catholic Church and by the sacred Scriptures, as we believe in every point, let God be our judge, both now and in the day which is to come.

Therefore we appeal to your piety, oh, our emperor most beloved of God, that, as we are enrolled among the members of the clergy, and as we hold the faith and thought of the Church and of the sacred Scriptures, we may be openly reconciled to our mother, the Church, through your peacemaking and pious piety, so that useless questions and disputes may be cast aside and that we and the Church may dwell together in peace. Then we all in common may offer the customary prayer for your peaceful and pious empire and for your entire family.


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Homoousios, in Christianity, the key term of the Christological doctrine formulated at the first ecumenical council, held at Nicaea in 325, to affirm that God the Son and God the Father are of the same substance. The First Council of Nicaea, presided over by the emperor Constantine, was convened to resolve the controversy within the church over the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. The council condemned Arianism, which taught that Christ was more than human but not fully divine. The use of homoousios (Greek: “of one substance”) in the creed produced at the council was meant to put an end to the controversy, although the influence of Arianism persisted in the church for centuries. In 381 Emperor Theodosius I summoned the second ecumenical council, the First Council of Constantinople, which developed and affirmed the earlier creed. The resulting Nicene Creed also contained the word homoousios and became the definitive statement of orthodox belief.

The Origin of the Council Myth

The source of this idea appears in a late ninth-century Greek manuscript, now called the Synodicon Vetus, which presents itself as an epitome of the decisions of Greek councils up to that time (see pp. 2-4 here). This MS was brought from Morea in the sixteenth century by Andreas Darmasius and was bought, edited, and published by John Pappus in 1601 in Strasburg. I give the English translation of the relevant section from the source, linked above:

The council made manifest the canonical and apocryphal books in the following manner: Placing them by the side of the divine table in the house of God, they prayed, entreating the Lord that the divinely inspired books might be found upon the table, and the spurious ones underneath and it so happened.

According to the source, the church has its canon because of a miracle that occurred at the Council of Nicaea in which the Lord caused the canonical books to stay on the table and the apocryphal or spurious ones to be found underneath it. From Pappus’s edition of the Synodicon Vetus, this quotation circulated and was cited (sometimes even as coming from Pappus himself, not the Greek MS he edited!), and eventually found its way into the work of prominent thinkers such as Voltaire (1694–1778). In volume 3 of his Philosophical Dictionary (English translation here) under Councils (sec. I), he says:

It was by an expedient nearly similar, that the fathers of the same council distinguished the authentic from the apocryphal books of Scripture. Having placed them altogether upon the altar, the apocryphal books fell to the ground of themselves.

And a little later in sec. III, he adds:

We have already said, that in the supplement to the Council of Nice it is related that the fathers, being much perplexed to find out which were the authentic and which the apocryphal books of the Old and the New Testament, laid them all upon an altar, and the books which they were to reject fell to the ground. What a pity that so fine an ordeal has been lost!

Earlier in his article, Voltaire had already mentioned that it was Constantine who convened the council. At the Council of Nicaea, therefore, the fathers distinguished the canonical from the apocryphal books by prayer and a miracle. The publication of Synodicon Vetus by Pappus’s edition in 1601 and the subsequent citing of the miracle at Nicaea, especially by Voltaire in his Dictionary, appears to be the reason why Dan Brown could narrate the events so colorfully and why many others continue to perpetuate this myth.

2. Why Was the Council of Nicaea Instituted?

The Council of Nicaea was convened mainly to settle the dispute over Arianism as well as the controversies surrounding the Passover.

A) Arianism Controversies

Constantine I, the 57th emperor of the Roman Empire

After surveying his new domains as the new emperor of both the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, Constantine found his new territories split by a conflict caused by different beliefs of Jesus. The question that divided the population was to dominate the whole century and beyond: who is Jesus? The church worshipped him as God and the New Testament called him God. How is Jesus and God related?

Arius, the elder of a church in Alexandria, tried to end the confusion and started a theological debate. Using the words of Apostle Paul in Colossians 1:15, Arius founded a new doctrine, claiming that since Jesus is ‘the firstborn over all creation’, he is immeasurably greater, more glorious and more godlike than creation, but a creation nonetheless. “Older than time, he is not as old as God prior to all creation, he is not uncreated,” which simply means that Jesus was a creation of God. Arius still called Jesus God, but it reads like an honorary title.

B) Passover Controversies

Jesus kept the Passover at twilight on the 14th day of the first month by the sacred calendar, died on the cross on the Feast of the Unleavened Bread and was resurrected on Sunday (the day of Firstfruits). So the early Church continued to keep the Passover on the evening of the 14th day of the first month according to the will of Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7 11:23-26) the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Mark 2:19-20) on the 15th day and the Resurrection Day on the following Sunday by breaking bread (Acts 20:6-7 Luke 24:30-31).

After the death of Jesus and all His disciples, the church in Rome—the capital of the world at that time—began to influence all the other churches in the world. They refused to have the Holy Supper on the Passover but had it on Sunday [Resurrection Day] after the Passover. They combined the two feasts—the Passover and the Resurrection Day—which are completely distinct and created a custom of having the Holy Supper on Sunday when Jesus was resurrected. Anicetus and Victor, the Bishops of Rome advocated the abolishment of the Passover but failed.

Fascinating Facts. . .

  • The Arian view that Jesus was created is taught by Jehovah's Witnesses today.
  • Only those councils are called ecumenical which were "worldwide" councils, that is, councils which embraced both the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire.
  • On the first day of the Council of Nicea, Emperor Constantine would not immediately seat himself on the carved wooden throne erected for him. Out of respect for those bishops who had been tortured, he stood silently before it until the bishops compelled him to sit.
  • Constantine had the Council meet at Nicea because of "the excellent temperature of the air, and in order that I might be present as a spectator and participator."
  • The Council opened in June of 325. In the center of the meeting hall on a seat or throne were the four Gospels.
  • Three accounts survive reporting on the council, the most lengthy by ancient church historian Eusebius.

In Their Own Words. From the CREED of NICEA

"We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible. And we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only begotten, that is from the Father's substance, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father. Through him were made all things, both in heaven and on earth. For us and for our salvation he came down, was incarnate and became human. He suffered, rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens and is coming to judge the living and the dead. And we believe in the Holy Spirit. But those who say, 'there was once when he was not' and 'before he was begotten he was not,' and that 'he was made out of nothing,' or who affirm that 'the Son is of a different hypostasis or substance,' or that he is mutable or changeable - these the catholic and apostolic church anathematizes."

NOTE: This creed is not to be confused with what is now known as the Nicene Creed.

Watch the video: The First Council of Nicea - The Ecumenical Councils