EarlyChurch.org.uk


H.N. Bate [1871-1941]
History of the Church to 325, 2[nd] edn.
London: Rivingtons, 1924. Hbk. pp.119-125.


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CHAPTER X

The Council of Nicaea


Growing supremacy of Constantine, A.D. 314-324. - The alliance between Constantine and Licinius was soon dissolved by mutual jealousy and suspicion, in 314 it was broken by open war. Constantine was content to prove his superior strength and renew the compact but Licinius, who had never been a friend to toleration, began to persecute the Church once more in 319. Constantine could not allow the unity of the empire to be menaced by a policy so alien from his own; he therefore prepared for a decisive conflict, defeated Licinius in 323, and put him to death in 324.

The rise of Arianism, A.D. 318. - As soon as his supremacy was assured, Constantine found that a doctrinal controversy was dividing the Eastern Church into factions. The Alexandrian presbyter Arius had in 318 accused his bishop Alexander of heresy. Alexander had publicly emphasised, in opposition to Arius, the essential unity and co-equal glory of the Son and the Father. Arius, who had been a disciple of the martyred scholar Lucian of Antioch, was teaching a perilous interpretation of the words ‘Son of God.’ He asserted that a ‘son’ means one who derives his being from a father, but did not exist before his father gave him being. Therefore if the Son of God is a true Son, there must have been a time when He did not exist. The Father must have created Him out of non-existence; and although we worship Him as unique among created beings, yet He is a creature, and not ‘truly God’ in the sense in which the Father is ‘truly God.’

The antecedents of Arianism. —This doctrine, propagated by skilful logic and hacked by the popularity of the dignified ascetic Arius, was not absolutely new. The

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Church had worshipped our Lord as God from the beginning; but as soon as men began to think out their religion and express it in a theology, the question arose, How can belief in the Divinity of Christ be harmonised with belief in the Unity of God? Broadly speaking, there were two main types of answer. On the one hand stood the true inheritors of the theology of S. John, the apologists, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, who asserted that there are essential and eternal distinctions within the Godhead. They believed that the Word was eternally God, at one with the Father, and deriving His Divinity from the Father. These writers use many metaphors to picture the idea of derivation without division. As a ray of light comes from the sun but is not separated from it, or as a stream from a spring, or a branch from a root, so the Son is from the Father and yet at one with Him. Unfortunately some of the apologists, and Origen himself, were not always clear and consistent. They laid such stress upon the fact that the Divinity of the Son is derived from that of the Father, that they sometimes exaggerated the subordination of the Son to the Father.

On the other side, there were thinkers whose theology was far less Scriptural. They believed that the undivided sovereignty of God the Father was to be maintained, even at the risk of denying the true Divinity of the Son. These Monarchians were of two types. The first, represented by Sabellius, taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are only three aspects of the One God. The second, represented by Paul of Samosata, held that the impersonal Reason or Word of God which inspired the prophets had also inspired Jesus Christ, only in a higher measure. He had thus attained such a perfection of holiness that lie was adopted by God, and might be called - what essentially He was not - Son of God. This ‘Adoptionist’ Monarchianism was taken up by Lucian of Antioch, who himself taught Arius.

Now the teaching of Arius, though new in form, drew its main elements from two opposed types of previous thought. His radical principle came from the Adoptionist Monarchians for his idea of God, like theirs,

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was the pagan idea of a being infinitely remote from the created world. But the machinery by which this idea was worked out came from the workshop of Origen. Origen had emphasised the ‘subordination’ of the Eternal Son; Arius used the idea of subordination in order to show that the Son is not eternal. Origen had spoken of the Father as and of the Son as

Arius removed the subtlety of the distinction and denied that the Son is ‘truly God.’

The struggle against Arianism. - Arius soon found considerable support in his opposition to Alexander among theologians, because he posed as their defender against Sabellianism; among common Christians, because his explanation of the term ‘Son’ appealed to common-sense; and among recent converts from paganism, because his conception of Christ as a kind of demi-god was in fact a Christian paganism. Through a doctrinal poem called Thalia and a series of songs, which Arius wrote ‘for sailors, wayfarers, and millers,’ the Arian catchwords found their way into common speech. In A.D. 321 Alexander followed up his personal remonstrances by summoning a synod of Egyptian and Libyan bishops, which deposed Arius and his clerical friends, among whom were Secundus and Theonas, two bishops from Libya. But Arius had other supporters, notably his fellow-pupil Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia; and after his deposition he left Alexandria for Palestine, where Eusebius of Caesarea (the historian) was not without sympathy for his views. While Arius was visiting the two Eusebii, Alexander was sending letters far and wide to warn the Church against him. Eusebius of Nicomedia replied by a similar series, which was backed by a synod held in the imperial city. The Church was now a babel of controversy; and at Alexandria, in A.D. 322, a schism was started by one Colluthus, an anti-Arian presbyter, who thought Alexander’s policy culpably weak. Alexander’s best ally was the young deacon Athanasius, who had already written ‘on the Incarnation of God the Word,’ and now apparently put together a vigorous account of the synod of A.D. 321 for general circulation.

Constantine interferes, A.D. 324. - At the beginning of

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A.D. 324 the emperor thought fit to intervene, prompted by the same motive which had led him to combat the Donatists - the fear lest a divided Church should become a menace to the unity of his empire. Constantine was not a Christian. He had inherited from his father a belief in one god, namely the sun-god Mithras, whose token appeared on his coinage till about A.D. 317. As a monotheist, be could defend, patronise, and enrich the Church; hut neither the creed nor the morality of Christians appealed to him with any convincing force. The man who stamped out the dynasty of Licinius by the murder of the young Licinius, and had his own eldest son Crispus and wife Fausta put to death; who retained the title of Pontifex Maximus, and ordered soothsayers to be consulted when public buildings were struck by lightning, was hardly a Christian by conviction. It is true that he gravitated towards the Church, and that his anti-pagan legislation grew more and more stringent. But his first personal act of adherence to the faith was not made till A.D. 337, when he was baptized as a dying man.

The proposed Church Council. - Naturally enough, Constantine saw nothing in the Arian controversy but a trivial difference about words. His first act was to send Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, to Alexandria to see that peace was restored between disputants who really agreed, as he thought, on all essential points. Hosius returned so strongly anti-Arian that the emperor began to see the magnitude of the dispute. Determined to bring it to an end, he summoned the bishops of the whole Church to meet in council at Nicaea in Bithynia.

The origin of Church Councils. - The institution of episcopal synods was now about a century and a half old. The question of Montanism and the controversy about Easter were the earliest occasions which made a federation of this kind necessary. The need for common action recurred so often that it was soon provided for by a synodal system. Thus Tertullian speaks of synods regularly held in Greece; and in the middle of the third century, Firmilian of Cappadocia says that there they were held every year. The organisation of these local assemblies made it necessary to determine the centre to

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which each bishop should refer his difficulties. At the first this was always settled by local convenience: thus the Paschal question was discussed by the bishops ox Caesarea and Jerusalem with those of Tyre and Ptolemais; and as late as the middle of the third century, we find the bishop of Iconium acting with those of Cappadocia, Galatia, and Cilicia. But a natural tendency soon began to assimilate the ecclesiastical to the civil divisions of the empire; and by the time of the Nicene Council, the civil metropolis of each province was in nearly all cases its ecclesiastical metropolis also.

The disciplinary questions arising out of the persecution had already led to several important councils: the Spanish bishops had met at Elvira in A.D. 305, those of Asia Minor and Syria at Ancyra in A.D. 314 and at Neo-Caesarea a year or two later, and the emperor had summoned a general council of western bishops to Arles in A.D. 314. But the Nicene Council was a new departure: it was intended to represent the whole Church, and although not more than six western sees are known to have been represented, it probably did represent the whole area which the dogmatic dispute had affected. The traditional number of bishops present is 318: there were certainly more than 250.

The Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325. - The council was summoned for June 19, 325. After some preliminary meetings in the cathedral church, the formal session was opened by the emperor in the palace. He appeared in royal splendour, was welcomed by Eusebius of Caesarea in a courtly speech, replied in Latin, and then left the council to its work, probably under the presidency of Eustathius, Bishop of Antioch. The sessions lasted till the 25th of August. The twenty canons which were passed decided some minor points of precedence, discipline, and usage: for instance, the sixth secured to the bishop of Alexandria his traditional jurisdiction over the Churches of Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis, as being parallel to the large Italian jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome. The council also decreed that Easter should always be kept on the Sunday following the next full moon after the 21st of March, and offered a liberal com-

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promise to the followers of one Meletius, an Egyptian bishop who had organised a schism like that of the Donatists. But the main concern of the session was with the Arian controversy; and here a result was reached which few members of the council could have foreseen.

The proposed creed. - The majority of the council were doubtless prepared for a compromise. They were not Arians; and when Eusebius of Nicomedla asked them to accept an Arianising expression of belief, they repulsed him with indignation. Yet they were not of Athanasius’ mind, and they would have preferred to endorse some simple formula by which the Divinity of Christ might be guarded without an express condemnation of Arianism. The leader of this pacific majority, Eusebius of Caesarea, came forward with a formula which seemed likely to accomplish this - the baptismal creed of his own church of Caesarea.

The origin of oreeds. - Baptism had from the earliest age been preceded by a confession of faith. The oral delivery of this creed or ‘password’ to the catechumen, and the recitation by which he owned his belief in it (traditio and redditio syinboli), formed the last stage in his preparation. The varying ‘symbols’ used by different churches were all based on the baptismal formula of S. Matthew xxviii. 19; but from the second century onwards there was a constant tendency to adapt and expand the form of creed so as to guard against heretical misconceptions. Thus the influence of Gnosticism on the old Roman creed (the ancestor of our ‘Apostles’ creed’) was traceable in the phrases ‘one God’ and ‘maker of heaven and earth.’ In the east, the pressure of controversy led to a fuller expansion of disputed clauses.

The creed of Eusebius of Caesarea. - The creed which Eusebius presented to the Nicene Council was of this expanded character, and ran as follows: ‘We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things, both visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God of (from) God, Light of Light, Life of Life, the only-begotten Son, the first-born of all creation, begotten of the Father before all ages; through whom also all things were made; who for our salvation

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was made flesh and lived among men, and suffered, and rose again the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory, to judge the living and dead; and in the Holy Spirit.’

The creed revised. - If this creed had been accepted as it stood, the council would have met in vain: there was no clause in it which all parties could not in some sense accept. Athanasius and his party, convinced that vital questions were at stake, determined that the council should pronounce on a definite issue. They therefore stood out for the acceptance of the creed in a revised form, and the insertion of phrases which the Arians could not evade. The debate turned on the insertion of one famous word, homoousion. An Arian might hold that the Son is of like essence (homoiousios) with the Father: to confess Him of one essence with the Father was to assert that He shares with Him that which no created being, however exalted, could share. Both at the council and in later disputes the word homoousion was keenly opposed, and that chiefly on two grounds: (1) that it was not Scriptural; (2) that a synod of Antioch in A.D. 269 had condemned its use by Paul of Samosata. The defence in later days (for the debate at Nicaea is not recorded) was that it expressed the mind of Scripture, and that Paul of Samosata had used it in an obviously heretical sense. The debate in the end forced the middle party to choose between a virtual acquittal of Arius and the ratification of a creed which they suspected and disliked. They chose the latter alternative: the revised form of the Caesarean creed asserted that the Son of God is ‘only - begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father - ‘begotten, not made, being of one essence (homoousion) with the Father’; and at the end the following abjuration was added: ‘But those who say that "there was once a time when He was not," and "before He was begotten He was not," and "He was made of things that were not," or maintain that the Son of God is of a different essence (from the Father), or is a created being, or liable to (moral) change,—these the Catholic and Apostolic Church declares to be anathema.’

The defeat of Arianism. - Arius’ two friends, Secundus

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and Theonas, refused to sign this creed. Eusebius of Caesarea had grave scruples, as his almost apologetic letter to his people shows; in the end he submitted to explanations, and signed. The emperor’s policy had succeeded so far: the Church had spoken its mind, and Constantine enforced its decision by sending Arius, Secundus, and Theonas into exile. Three causes contributed to the decision of Nicaea: the will of the emperor, who desired a definite result for the sake of peace; the readiness of the moderates to suppress the extreme Arians at any cost; and the strong conviction of Athanasius and his few followers, who knew that the homoousion was the only possible safeguard for the apostolic faith. But Athanasius was ahead of his age, and was destined to suffer persecution and repeated exile for his convictions; for the moderates were soon carried away by a strong Arian reaction, and the emperor was always prepared to oppress what seemed to be the losing side.

The Church and the world. - With the year A.D. 325 our period ends; yet it is in hardly any sense the end of an epoch. The first age of the Church ended with the edict of Milan. Christianity then exchanged the mingled good and evil of persecution for the dangerous privilege of imperial support; and under the new conditions every department of Church life took a new start. The churches which Diocletian had destroyed were restored with new splendour by Constantine, and art in all its forms began to be employed for the enrichment of worship. As the Church came out openly into the world, a natural reaction created the monastic movement; it seemed a ‘counsel of perfection to leave a life in which it was hard to be unworldly. The intellectual life of the Church also underwent a change: doctrinal disputes became more subtle and more technical in themselves, and more closely involved with secular interests. Arianism and the Nicene Council belong wholly to this second period, in which doctrinal development was no longer an entirely spontaneous movement of thought, but was guided by the decisions of Church councils, and complicated by its new relation to imperial politics.


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