Raymond Chapman describes the work and witness of the First Ecumenical Council
The study of history shows that occasions are not to be equated with causes. The Reformation did not begin because Luther posted ninety-five theses on the church door in Wittenberg. The first Council of Nicaea was not called simply because, neither for the first nor the last time, a presbyter was in dispute with his bishop. Things were stirrings in the Christian Church which made it necessary to bring together a large assembly of clergy at a time when travel and accommodation posed problems greater than those of today. The unique basis of the faith, the reality of the Incarnation, was at stake.
A presumptuous presbyter
The presbyter in question was Arius, whose opinion that Christ was not in all respects equal with the Father caused him to be condemned by Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and eventually excommunicated by a synod of the bishops of Egypt and Libya. Little remains of his writing to give us the exact details of what Arius taught, but it is clear enough that he denied the full godhead of Christ, eternally begotten by the Father before all worlds. He tried to confute Alexander with a syllogism to the effect that if the Son was begotten of the Father, that which is begotten has a beginning, so ‘there was a time when the Son was not.’ Christ might be divine, but he was essentially a creature, not equal in being with the Father.
Where the controversy might have led a few decades earlier is a matter for vain conjecture. The position of the Christian Church had been changed by the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312. He did not make Christianity the official religion of the Empire, but he gave it full toleration, and Imperial approval. Free from persecution and the need for secrecy and a low profile, the Church was now able to debate at more leisure its many internal dissensions, of which the heresy of Arius was the most pressing. Unhappily persecution, which had produced many individual acts of heroic sanctity, had not kept the Church at large from a multitude of disputes and divisions. Constantine tried to make peace through the mediation of Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, who arrived in Alexandria to find that Arius had gathered some support and that it seemed impossible to reach a satisfactory agreement.
The Emperor intervenes
Constantine wisely saw that a hasty judgement of the Arian issue would only lead to further trouble, and that a much wider debate was needed. To deal with the question, he convened a Council in 325 at Nicaea. This town on the Black Sea, near Nicomedia, was well situated for access by land or sea, and bishops of many dioceses came together for debate, most of them from the eastern side of the Empire. Constantine’s earlier plan for a council had placed it at Ancyra (modern Ankara), but Nicaea was more suitable for his own attendance. An ecclesiastical gathering called by the Emperor, and with the travelling expenses of the delegates paid by him, was in itself a landmark in the new association between Church and State. His concern was probably as much for stability in the Empire, in which the Church might be a mediating force, as for doctrinal purity. In turn, the Church benefited from the protection and favour of the secular power. This was a symbiotic relationship that would be repeated many times in the centuries to come. Constantine had already called the Council of Aries in 314 to settle the Donatist schism. More important for the faith was this new attempt to reach a consensus of bishops on the orthodox teaching of the Church and to set it down in a formal declaration.
The Council was opened by the Emperor in the late spring or early summer of 325 – the exact date is uncertain. The number of bishops present is also unknown, but the probable total was about 300. Constantine gave an eirenical opening address, speaking in the Imperial Latin language although most of the bishops were from the Greek-speaking part of the Empire. The delegates sat on benches around the walls, placed according to rank and with a number of presbyters and deacons as their aides and advisers. At the centre of the great hall, a copy of the Gospels was laid on a throne, as a token of the presence of Christ.
A creed emerges
What followed did not always honour this divine presence or emulate the measured tone of the Emperor. The course of the debate brought aggressive arguments from both sides, with much citing of scripture. There is no detailed account of the progress of the debate, or even of the exact duration of the Council. The Arian delegates produced a statement of faith as they saw it, which was rejected by the Council – indeed, it is said that the offending document was tom in pieces. As the speeches continued, it became clear that the position of the Arians was untenable against the claims of what was already generally accepted as the true faith, but which needed further definition. Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian of the early Church, proposed a creed which was probably based on the confession of faith as accepted by the Jerusalem Church. It seemed to some to be a satisfactory formula, but it lacked the vital feature which orthodoxy required to exclude the Arian position.
The essential point with regard to the Arian controversy was that Christ was declared to be homousion with the Father: ‘of one substance’. It is hard to find an English word which can perfectly translate the Greek ousia, but the point thus determined was that the Son was a Person of the Holy Trinity, without reservation or distinction in nature or status: ‘without any difference or inequality’ as the proper preface for Trinity Sunday has it. Christ was homousion with the Father, not different in nature, not later in origin, not a created being, however exalted. Constantine himself, probably prompted by Hosius, suggested that the word be added. After a number of other revisions, the Council agreed on a creed which would put any hint of Arianism out of court. It was accepted with only two dissentients. The teaching of Arius was condemned, but more important than the condemnation was the formulation of a creed which would in its later development become the bedrock proclamation of Christian belief. As well as firmly promulgating the co-equal divinity of Christ, it added a number of anathemas against the Arian heresy. The word homousion, and the addition of the words ‘true God from true God’ refuted any attempt at subordinationism – the idea that the divine Son was inferior to the Father. It was a historic moment when the decision was made: the first detailed and precise statement of the what the Christian Church believed, agreed by an overwhelming
majority of her spiritual leaders.
Two other features of the Council itself are worth mentioning. A number of the delegates were Confessors, those who had suffered under the persecutions of the Church. Many of them still bore the physical marks of their firmness in the faith. Their presence was highly valued, their opinion greatly honoured. The Church did not, and never will, rely on words alone but on the witness of her faithful members in every age. Not of their number, but present and probably a speaker, was one of Bishop Alexander’s advisers, a deacon called Athanasius who was to play a decisive part in the next stage of orthodox formation.
The Arian controversy did not go away. After the Council of Nicaea, Constantine became more favourable to Arianism and allowed the Arian bishops to return to their sees. Athanasius, who became Bishop of Alexandria in 328, was exiled for a time and forced to flee to Rome, but in the end he was the most potent voice against Arianism The Nicene judgement finally prevailed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, though various versions and modifications of Arianism continued to be heard. That is matter for another article, but the significance of Nicaea was to proclaim the true faith of the Church and to give it expression in words which would be a test of that faith. It did more: it set the precedent for a General Council of the Church to discuss and decide upon fundamental questions of faith and order. More Councils would follow, as issues arose and need to be settled. Nicaea was the place of the First Ecumenical Council, and consequently a name to be for ever remembered.
It was established that great decisions could not be made by individuals, by dioceses or by provinces, a truth which has not always been respected in the Anglican Communion in recent years. It required a gathering of the chief pastors of the Church, the guardians of orthodoxy and the focus of unity, to declare what the Church should do. The conciliar creed was developed, though exactly by whom is disputed, to become what is known as the familiar Nicene Creed. The We opening which declared the whole mind of the Council was changed in liturgical use to I; modern versions generally revert to the plural form.
The Council of Nicaea did more than pronounce on the Arian controversy. The date of Easter was fixed in accordance with the usage of the churches of the West and some but not all of the East: an issue that would still be causing dispute with the Celtic Church as late as the Synod of Whitby in 664. It promulgated a number of canons, particularly some concerned with greater discipline for individual bishops. Movement from one see to another for personal benefit was forbidden; a new bishop should be consecrated by all the bishops of his province, and certainly by no less than three; the metropolitan bishop of a province was given power of veto – another step in the growing power of the metropolitans. In the more favourable conditions under a Christian Emperor, the Church was finding the time, and realizing the necessity, to tighten its structure, and was looking to the secular Empire for organizational models. The authority of the Emperor in ecclesiastical matters was being recognized. In fact, Christendom with all its strength and all its problems and disputes, was in embryo.
Not a mere diphthong
These were all matters of significance for the time and many of them for the time to come. But the greatest achievement of the Council was the judgement formulated in its creed. Richard Hooker, praising the work of four Ecumenical Councils in refuting heresies, honoured the Council of Nicaea for dealing with the Arians ‘bending themselves against the Deity of Christ’. In spite of Socinian and Unitarian heresies, the orthodox faith has continued to affirm the full divinity of Christ. Arianism sometimes slips in by the back door, to tempt those who regard Christ as essentially a teacher, an example, an inspiration for good works – those, in fact, who separate aspects of his earthly ministry and regard them as his essence. Modem liberal theology, shying away from the ineffable majesty and awe of God, the Three in One, can feel more comfortable with a Christ who somehow does not share these qualities to the full. Although later opponents tried to argue for homoiusion, ‘of like substance’ with the Father, the assertion of full equality prevailed. Edward Gibbon had great sport with this dispute about an iota, but the distinction was vital if the fullness of the Gospel and the assurance of redemption were to be preached. As we defend the unique claims of Christianity and proclaim Christ as the only source of salvation, we should remember to honour the memory of the Fathers of Nicaea.
Raymond Chapman is an Emeritus Professor in the University of London, and a non-stipendiary priest in the Diocese of Southwark.