A Moment in History   4 comments

If you could witness a moment in history, what would it be and why?

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There are literally hundreds of events in history I would love to be able to witness, but I decided to go with the Council of Nicea, probably because it is the one event I’ve had more debates with than any other.

July 4, 325 was a remarkable 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 and Mediterranean seas..

Image result for image of the nicene creedIn the conference hall where they waited was a table with a copy of the Gospels laid open upon it. The Emperor, Constantine, 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.”

After three centuries of periodic persecutions instigated by some Roman emperors, the bishops and deacons were 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. Constantine had dropped the sword of persecution in order to take up the cross, having converted to Christianity in 312.

Nicea symbolized a new day for Christianity. The persecuted followers of Jesus had become the respected advisers of emperors robed in purple as 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 emperor called for the churches council at 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. That imperial pressure was at work at Nicea, the first general council in decades.

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. 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. They preferred a God of their own design. So Arianism spread, creating Constantine’s concern.

Constantine viewed the controversy in the churches over Arian teachings as insignificant. 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 and told them to work it out. There’s little evidence that he cared how they did that.

Once the Council of Nicea convened, many of the bishops were ready to compromise. Athanasius, a young deacon from Alexandria was not prepared to compromise and he had the support of his bishop, Alexander. Together, they 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. Most of the pastors recognized that something more specific was needed to exclude the possibility of Arian teaching. They produced another creed, inserting an extremely important series of phrases: “True God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father. . . .

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.”

Many people believe that the Catholic 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.)

Constantine did not 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 couldn’t have, since its outcome was quite different from what he wanted from the Council! 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. The canon as we know it was alreayd in widespread use by the time of Nicea, but it was not formally declared until the Council of Trent in the 16th century well into the beginning of the Reformation.

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 where it had been restricted mainly to Syria, Palestina, and northern Egypt. Arianism gained further geographical reach than could have happened without Nicaea.

So, I would want to witness that to lay aside some questions and to understand why the council was unable to reconcile the controversy in a way that reduced the heresy rather than increased it. It’s just one of those history buff questions that I would seek to settle.


4 responses to “A Moment in History

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  1. I always learn a lot from your blogs! Thanks for sharing.


  2. I do love research!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s interesting when you learn of the teachings of some of the early Christian sects.


    • It is. Because it was getting too far into the weeds for this post, I left out that Constantine’s cousin was an Arian who baptized Constantine (toward the end of his life) as an Arian. Non-Christians sometimes try to argue that Constantine warped the church away from its early foundations, but he seems to have supported the losing side, so ….

      That’s one reason I’d love to have some sort of tech that would let me see what REALLY happened in history.


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