Theology Thursday - The Council at Antioch Weighs In (325 A.D.)

Bishop Alexander, of Alexandria

On “Theology Thursday,” we feature short excerpts on various areas of systematic theology, from a wide variety of colorful (and drab) characters and institutions. We hope these short readings are a stimulus for personal reflection, a challenge to theological complacency, and an impetus for apologetic zeal “to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” (Jude 3).

About the Council at Antioch (325 A.D.)

The Council at Antioch was a regional synod held in, well … Antioch, probably in the early portion of 325 A.D. It was a local affair, in preparation for the great ecumenical Council of Nicaea which took place later that same year. Astonishingly, this council was completely unknown to history until a scholar discovered records of it in a Syriac codex in 1905. It was written from the President of the Synod to Alexander, of Thessalonica.1

The Letter from the Council to Alexander, of Thessalonica

The catholic church throughout the world resembles the parts of a body, in that it is one body even if it has diversely located places of assembly. It follows naturally that our love for you would lead us to inform you of what I and all our holy brothers with me have done, setting events in motion. This way you may be present with us in a united spirit, and speak together with us as you make rulings according to the common decisions and actions which we have taken according to church law.

When I arrived at the church in Antioch, I saw that it was full of troublesome weeds, sown by the teaching of certain men and their contentious faction. I thought it was important not to try to throw them out and reject them on my own. It seemed necessary for the likeminded fellow-ministers from the surrounding territories to step out of their usual boundaries and help their brothers here in Antioch deal with this most pressing and urgent matter. This included those from Palestine, Arabia, Phoenicia, the Syria, Cilicia, and some from Cappadocia. We met so that, by applying our minds to scrutinizing and reviewing, we would completely establish what was proper for the church. Our city lives in harmony by its many and righteous citizens.

Once God’s grace had brought us all together in Antioch and we were busily engaged in the task of discerning what is common, helpful, and useful for God’s Church, we found that there was great confusion, especially because in many places church law has been neglected or even despised, and the decrees which have been passed by other councils have been completely ignored by some worldly men.

Therefore, since synodical meetings of bishops have been prevented from gathering in these areas, we thought that we should set in order that which surpasses all in importance, which I might rather say is the whole of the mystery of the faith found among us. I am referring of course to our common Savior, the Son of the Living God.

This subject has been most pressing, since our brother and fellow-minister, the dearly beloved Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, has expelled certain priests of Arius’ party because of the blasphemy which they raised against our Savior. Unfortunately, they were able to deceive others with their ungodly teaching and were even received into fellowship by them. So it seemed best to our holy synod to set this matter in order first, so that once we had clarified the chief point of God’s mystery, all the other points could be set in order consecutively.

As we were gathered, and many brothers were present who were quite learned in the church’s faith, which we were taught by the scriptures and received from our fathers, we discussed this matter at length. Alexander of Alexandria’s action against Arius and his party was continually on our minds and in our discussion. We decided that if anyone should appear and make themselves a corruptive influence by teaching contrary to these statements, they should be cast out of the church, so that they could not drag down some of the simpler church members by remaining in our midst.

This faith has been set down by spiritual men; those who ought not be considered as living or reasoning according to the flesh, because they have been trained by the Spirit in the holy Scriptures found in God-breathed books.

Our faith is as follows:

  • To believe in one God, Father, almighty, incomprehensible, unchangeable and unalterable, administrator and governor of all, just, good, maker of heaven and earth, and all that is in them, the Lord of the Law and the Prophets and the New Testament.
  • And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son, begotten not from nothing, but from the Father; not made, but a genuine offspring. He was begotten inexpressibly and unspeakably, because only the Father who begot and the Son who was begotten know it, “for no one knows the Father except the Son, or the Son except the Father” (Mt 11:27).
  • He always exists and never before did he not exist, for we have been taught from the holy Scriptures that he alone is God’s image. He is not unbegotten, for he is clearly begotten of the Father. This status has not been placed upon him; in fact, it would be godless blasphemy to say so.
  • But the scriptures say that he is the real and truly begotten Son, so we believe him to be unchangeable and unalterable. He has not been begotten or come into being merely by the Father’s will, nor has this status been placed upon him, which would make him appear to be from nothing. But he was begotten as was fitting for him, not at all according to the impermissible idea that he resembles, is of similar nature to, or is associated with any of the things that came into existence through him.
  • But, because this transcends all thought, conception, and expression, we simply confess that he has been begotten from the unbegotten Father, God the Word, true Light, righteousness, Jesus Christ, Lord of all and Savior. He is the image not of the will or of anything else except the actual being (hypostasis) of the Father.
  • This one, the Son, God the Word, was also born in the flesh from Mary the Mother of God and was made flesh. After suffering and dying, he rose from the dead and was taken into heaven, and he sits at the right hand of the Majesty of the Most High. He is coming to judge the living and the dead.
  • Just as the holy writings teach us to believe in our Savior, so also they teach us to believe in one Spirit, one catholic church, the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment which will pay back to each man according to what he has done in the flesh, whether good or evil.
  • We anathematize those who say or think or proclaim that the Son of God is a creation (ktisma); has come into being (genētos), or was made (poiētos), or was not truly begotten; or that there was a time when he did not exist (for we believe that he was and that he is Light); still also those who think he is unchangeable only by his free will [i.e., not according to his essence], as with those who think he did not exist before he was begotten and that he is not unchanging by his nature as the Father is. He has been proclaimed as the Father’s image in every respect, especially in this respect, that he does not change.

This faith was put forth, and indeed the entire holy synod consented and confessed that this is the apostolic teaching which alone is able to save. All the fellow-ministers have the same understanding about these issues. Only Theodotus of the Laodicean church, Narcissus of the church in Neronia, and Eusebius from the church in Caesarea of Palestine have appeared together and brought forward ideas contrary to those expressed here, as if they have forgotten the holy Scriptures and the apostolic teachings (though indeed they have attempted to shiftily escape notice and hide their deceptions with false, though persuasive-sounding arguments).

In fact, from what they were asked and what they asked in turn, they clearly were proven to agree completely with Arius’ party, and to hold opinions contrary to what was established by our synod. For this reason, that their hearts are so hardened, and that they have no regard for the holy synod which rejected and disapproved of their ideas in these matters, we all fellow-ministers in the synod have ruled not to practice fellowship with these men, not to consider them worthy of fellowship, since their faith is something other than that of the catholic church.

So that you might know of this, we write to you, so that you too can be on guard against having fellowship with these men, and that you may not write to them or receive letters of fellowship from them. You should also know this, that on account of our great brotherly love, we of the synod have established a place for them to repent and recognize the truth: the magnificent and sacred synod to be held at Ancyra. So encourage all the like minded brothers to spread this message, so that they also will be able to know the facts about these men, how some have been removed from the church and are not in agreement with her.

Greet all the brothers who are with you and in the surrounding area. The brothers here who are with us greet you in the Lord.

Notes

1 This brief explanation was cobbled together from both (1) Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 1:1, and (2) J. Stevenson (ed.), “The Council at Antioch – 325,” in A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to A.D. 337, rev. by W.H.C. Frend (London, UK: SPCK, 1987), 334.

This text of the letter is a translation courtesy of the website Fourth Century Christianity, a ministry of Wisconsin Lutheran College. A translation is also available in Stevenson (New Eusebius, 334-337).  

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TylerR's picture

I had a few thoughts about anachronisms when we read historical documents, like this one.

  • The description of the church as “catholic,” as in “universal,” is heartening.

The idea being that all Christians are part of God’s family; “it is one body even if it has diversely located places of assembly.” It is anachronistic to read the Roman Catholic Church back into this letter (ca. 325 A.D.). However, Cyprian did already lay the groundwork for the eventual Roman Catholic evolution during his dispute with the Novatians about 75 years earlier. It is clear Christians still thought of “the faith” as a catholic entity. Their horizon was beyond their local assemblies, and on the body of Christ as a single unit. The president of the council wrote, “there was great confusion, especially because in many places church law has been neglected or even despised, and the decrees which have been passed by other councils have been completely ignored by some worldly men.”

  • The reference to “church law” seems to refer to the “rule of faith,” not “canon law” in the Roman Catholic sense.
  • The “decrees which have been passed by other councils” are clearly thought to be binding, in the manner of a guardrail for orthodoxy.

The sense seems to be that, from time to time, fellow-ministers gathered together to discuss some particular theological point or controversy, and they expected the believers in their churches to abide by and follow the conclusions of the council.

This makes sense, so far as it goes. However, already here you can see the seeds of, for lack of a better term, the “imperialism” which would later characterize the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. “the church says!”).

The letter went on:

As we were gathered, and many brothers were present who were quite learned in the church’s faith, which we were taught by the scriptures and received from our fathers, we discussed this matter at length

There is nothing inherently wrong with giving place to what "we were taught from our fathers.” We do it all the time today, with our statements of faith, our creeds, confessions, systematic theology texts, and our theological education. We stand on, review, critique and evaluate the work of the giants of the faith who have come before us. We can’t even use theological terms without implicitly tipping our hat to those who have gone before us.

Properly understood, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with this kind of statement at all. Of course, eventually, the Roman Catholic Church would emerge and claim tradition (i.e. “what were taught by the fathers”) has an equal position with the Scriptures. I don’t think that is the way it is meant here, in this letter.

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

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