In our overview and historical review concerning the doctrinal development of the “universal church,” we’ve arrived at a defining moment in the history of Christendom where all of the concepts and early beliefs coalesce to form the first official statement of universality. As we left off in the last post, the Council of Nicaea was convened by Emperor Constantine, in 325 AD. While the primary aim was to confront the spread of Arianism, a teaching that denied the deity of Christ, the production of the Nicene Creed would be a major step towards defining and defending the universal nature of the church. Recall that latitude and grace must be given to those in the first few centuries after our Lord’s resurrection and ascension for their desire to uphold and maintain unity in the face of persecution and legitimate, widespread heresies. However, as we’ll see and as history teaches, this would have disastrous consequences.
The Council of Nicaea, at its core, was convened by Constantine to champion unity in the face of ever-increasing division, particularly doctrinally, but we must not forget the moral divisions that had and were taking place as well, which were at the root of the Donatist Controversy. Hoping to bring resolution to a far greater and more serious threat involving Arianism, which we defined last time, the the Council, and its subsequent results, are a bit of a mixed bag. As Philip Schaff notes, “the council was divided in the beginning into three parties,” the orthodox party, those who held to the deity of Christ, the Arians, those who denied the deity of Christ, and the majority, who took a middle ground between the two but leaned more towards the orthodox.
As the Council concluded, essentially a series of debates and discussions, Needham writes that Hosius of Cordova, a western bishop and Constantine’s court adviser on church matters, “convinced Constantine that the bishops should accept a statement of faith which clearly taught that the Son was not a created being, but was eternal and divine.” (pg. 204) The first to propose a creed were the Arians, which was rejected and ripped up causing 16 of the 18 signers to abandon the heresy of Arian. Eusebius, the historian, proposed an existing creed, the Palestinian Confession, which had been approved by Constantine and agreed upon by the “Arian minority”, but their agreement caused suspicion among the orthodox party who wanted a creed that the Arians could not substantially agree to sign. Finally, a confession was drafted to establish the deity of Christ which became known as the Nicene Creed. It (in English) is below with the Anti-Arian statements highlighted in bold
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, 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 [both in heaven and on earth];
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
Essentially, this creed stated that the Son was homoousios, or the same essence, as the Father. In other words that they had the same nature and being. Just as the Father was eternal and uncreated, so too was the Son. Attached to this dogma was an anathema aimed towards the Arians, which declared them to be enemies of Christianity and that their books should be burned. The anathema was as follows
“As for those who say, There was a time when He [the Logos] was not; and, He was not before He was created; and, He was created out of nothing, or out of another essense or thing; and, the Son of God is created, or changeable, or can alter – the holy, catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes those who say such things.”
It’s Important to observe that for the first time in history a statement on the unity of the catholic or universal church had been written and agreed to by the representative bishops and the presiding Constantine, giving power and authority to the state to enforce and act against all those who dissented.** All but two of Arius’ supporters (as alluded to earlier) signed the creed leaving Arius himself, Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarica sent into exile by the order of Constantine. As Schaff significantly notes, “This is the first example of the civil punishment of heresy; and it is the beginning of a long succession of civil persecutions for all departures from the Catholic faith. Before the union of church and state ecclesiastical excommunication was the extreme penalty. Now banishment and afterwards even death, because all offences against the church were regarded as at the same time crimes against the state and civil society.” (pg. 630)
As an aside, it’s significant to point out that the original Nicene Creed, cited above, is not what is commonly rehearsed today. Rather, the modern “Nicene Creed” is actually the Creed of Constantinople, which was a product of the ecumenical Council of Constantinople, 381. The two are similar, yet perhaps a significant difference is the addition of the “one, holy, apostolic, catholic, church” added as an article of faith in the latter creed and not simply a statement of authority over anathema.
The Nicene Creed stands alongside the Apostle’s Creed in historical significance. By summarizing the Council of Nicea in promoting the deity of Christ, while rejecting Arianiasm in the form of a creed, the early doctrine of the universal church now, rather than being implied, could instead be enforced. Rather than being a general principle, it is now codified. There is a new standard which must be agreed and adhered to, or one is found to be in opposition of the “universal church,” which by the way was presided over by the emperor. Let’s pause to consider this for just a moment. Is it right and just to summarize the doctrine of Christ’s deity and make it a/the standard of unity? Perhaps, but remember we are at a period in history of moral declension, nominal Christianity, and the rise of Christendom. Adhering to a confession says little about the condition of the heart. It could simply mean that one adheres to the Creed to avoid being killed. In a sense it is a man-made law enforcing the gospel. Does it then follow that the universal church as it was being built upon the episcopate, having become largely nominal, and referring entirely to a visible institution, now convened under the direction and leadership of the Roman emperor, may deem itself to be the unified ‘holy, catholic, apostolic church’ capable of not simply excommunicating heretics and apostates, but wielding the sword exiling and executing all those in opposition? Surely nothing could go wrong with that.
Philip Schaff summarizes the Council of Nicaea as follows
The council of Nicaea is the most important event of the fourth century, and its bloodless intellectual victory over a dangerous error is of far greater consequence to the progress of true civilization, than all the bloody victories of Constantine and his successors. It forms an epoch in the history of doctrine, summing up the results of all previous discussions on the deity of Christ and the incarnation, and at the same time regulating the further development of the Catholic orthodoxy for centuries. (pg. 631)
Upon conclusion of the Nicene Council, one would think that unity had been achieved and the doctrine of Arianism defeated once and for all. However that was not the case. After Nicaea, Arianism was condemned as a heresy, but soon after regained widespread acceptance throughout the empire through the efforts of Eusebius of Nicomedia (not to be confused the historian Eusebius of Caesarea) under the support of Constantius in the East, one of Constantine’s sons among whom the empire was divided (Constans in the West). In 328, just 3 years after the Council and Creed of Nicaea, Eusebius was able to get Constantine to recall Arius from exile, though his influence was now minimal and his life would soon end drastically (336 A.D.). Nevertheless, Eusebius pressed Arianism forward and “started a campaign to have supporters of the Creed of Nicaea deposed and exiled. He achieved his greatest success in 335, when he persuaded Constantine to banish Athanasius for political reasons.” (pg. 211) As Needham notes, this is the first of 5 times that Athanasius, the great champion of the deity of Christ, would be exiled, spending 17 of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile.
Just 3 years after the decision at Nicaea, the “universal church” waffled and fell back into Arianism. Then, just over 10 years later, Arianism was dominating and now had the sword in their hand. This is the kind of inconsistency one could come to expect when
- The empire, or state, is involved in matters of faith and
- When monolithic unity is assumed or even falsely created and
- When representatives make decisions for the whole.
Simply put, the church, if we can even use that term at this point, is not to be unequally yoked, with the state or any other institution. It is always an unholy alliance and always leads to disastrous consequences. Finally, it should give us pause to reconsider what it means to be unified, along with what are visible alliances are based on, and the biblical basis for institutionalized Christianity.
That said, the Arian controversy would continue to deteriorate and divide an already fractured catholic church. At the death of Constantine, in 337, the empire was divided between East and West with Constantius in the former and Constans in the latter. The East was pro-Arian, but still had those who supported Nicaea, as well as those who supported Origen, who believed the Son was not created, but an inferior divine being. This view was summarized as homoiousious, the slight change of one letter (i) and a big change in meaning.
In the midst of this, Julius I, who some historians consider to be the pope, reviewed the exile of Athanasius and the charges against him ruling that it was unjust. As a result, a council was called at Antioch in 341 by Eastern bishops who rejected not only Julius’ ruling, but Rome’s right to rule in the matter, further adding fuel to a unhealed split that would be centuries in the making. It was at this council that they formulated their aforementioned homoiousious doctrine. All of this contributed to a full-scale schism between East and West. Constantine’s two sons attempted to reconcile this brooding division by calling an ecumenical council at Sardica in 343. Needham notes that the council was a complete disaster, “The Western bishops insisted that Athanasius and Marcellus [another Nicene bishop] must be allowed to take part. The Eastern bishops refused. And so the council broke up into two separate councils, Eastern and Western, which hurled curses at each other. The East-West split had become total. ” (pg. 212) Though the situation would calm down some in 346 with the reinstatement of Athanasius, in 350, General Magnentius murdered Constans (West). In 353 Constantius, the Arian sympethizer from the East, defeated Magnentius to unify the Empire and once again reignite the Arian controversy.
In the next post, we’ll wrap up councils and creeds by looking at the Council of Constantinople. We’ll see how a reunification of the catholic or universal church paved the way out of the Patristic Period and into the Middle Ages.
**There is some debate about whether the Apostle’s Creed, which refers to the “holy catholic church” was written prior to the Nicene Creed. While that is debatable, the history of the Nicaea seems more sure.
Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Part One: The Age of the Early Church Fathers. Grace Publications: 2011
Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity A.D. 311-500. Hendrickson: 2006