Theology Thursday - The Story of Nicaea

Emperor Constantine and the Bishops

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).

Constantine Summons the Council of Nicaea1

That here is nothing more honorable in my sight than the fear of God is, I believe, manifest to every man. Now because it was agreed formerly that the synod of bishops should meet at Ancyra of Galatia, it hath seemed to us on many accounts that it would be well for a synod to assemble at Nicaea, a city of Bithynia, both because the bishops from Italy and the rest of the countries of Europe are coming, and because of thee excellent temperature of the air, and in order that I may be present as a spectator and participator in those things which will be done.

Wherefore I signify to you, my beloved brethren, that all of you promptly assemble at the said city, that is at Nicaea. Let every one of you therefore, regarding that which is best, as I before said, be diligent, without delay in anything, speedily to come, that he may be in his own person present as a spectator of those things which will be done by the same.

Constantine the Politician Forges Consensus2

As soon as the emperor had spoken these words in the Latin tongue, which another interpreted, he gave permission to those who presided in the council to deliver their opinions.

On this some began to accuse their neighbors, who defended themselves, and recriminated in their turn. In this manner numberless assertions were put forth by each party, and a violent controversy arose at the very commencement.

Notwithstanding this, the emperor gave patient audience to all alike, and received every proposition with steadfast attention, and by occasionally assisting the argument of each party in turn, he gradually disposed even the most vehement disputants to a reconciliation. At the same time, by the affability of his address to all, and his use of the Greek language, with which he was not altogether unacquainted, he appeared in a truly attractive and amiable light, persuading some, convincing others by his reasonings, praising those who spoke well, and urging all to unity of sentiment, until at last he succeeded in bringing them to one mind and judgment respecting every disputed question.

The Decision of the Council3

As in our first catechetical instruction, and at the time of our baptism, we received from the bishops who were before us and as we have learnt from the Holy Scriptures, and, alike as presbyters, and as bishops, were wont to believe and teach; so we now believe and thus declare our faith. It is as follows:

  • We believe in one God, Father Almighty, the Maker of all things, visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life, Only-begotten Son, First-born of every creature, begotten of the Father before all worlds; by Whom all things were made; Who for our salvation was incarnate, and lived among men. He suffered and rose again the third day, and ascended to the Father; and He will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead. We also believe in one Holy Ghost.

We believe in the being and continual existence of each of these; that the Father is in truth the Father; the Son in truth the Son; the Holy Ghost in truth the Holy Ghost; as our Lord, when sending out His disciples to preach the Gospel, said, ‘Go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

We positively affirm that we hold this faith, that we have always held it, and that we adhere to it even unto death, condemning all ungodly heresy. We testify, as before God the Almighty and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we have thought thus from the heart, and from the soul, ever since we have known ourselves; and we have the means of showing, and, indeed, of convincing you, that we have always during the past thus believed and preached.

When this formulary had been set forth by us, there was no room to gainsay it; but our beloved emperor himself was the first to testify that it was most orthodox, and that he coincided in opinion with it; and he exhorted the others to sign it, and to receive all the doctrine it contained, with the single addition of the one word—‘consubstantial.’

He explained that this term implied no bodily condition or change, for that the Son did not derive His existence from the Father either by means of division or of abscission, since an immaterial, intellectual, and incorporeal nature could not be subject to any bodily condition or change. These things must be understood as bearing a divine and mysterious signification. Thus reasoned our wisest and most religious emperor.

The Council Writes to Alexandria4

To the holy, by the grace of God, and great church of the Alexandrians, and to our beloved; brethren throughout Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis, the bishops assembled at Nicæa, constituting the great and holy Synod, send greeting in the Lord.

Since, by the grace of God, a great and holy Synod has been convened at Nicæa, our most pious sovereign Constantine having summoned us out of various cities and provinces for that purpose, it appeared to us indispensably necessary that a letter should be written to you on the part of the sacred Synod; in order that ye may know what subjects were brought under consideration and examined, and what was eventually determined on and decreed.

In the first place, then, the impiety and guilt of Arius and his adherents were examined into, in the presence of our most religious emperor Constantine: and it was unanimously decided that his impious opinion should be anathematized, with all the blasphemous expressions he has uttered, in affirming that ‘the Son of God sprang from nothing,’ and that ‘there was a time when he was not’; saying moreover that ‘the Son of God, because possessed of free will, was capable either of vice or virtue; and calling him a creature and a work.

All these sentiments the holy Synod has anathematized, having scarcely patience to endure the hearing of such an impious opinion, or, rather, madness, and such blasphemous words.

Not Good Enough?

“In summary, one may affirm that there was a great ambiguity in the Nicene formula. He creed, whose main purpose was to affirm the divinity of the Son, could also be interpreted as an affirmation of the divine unity. Thus, coupled with the fact that the formula of Nicaea remained silent regarding the distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, soon made it suspect as a concession to Sabellanism. This is why, in spite of the condemnation of Arianism at Nicaea, that condemnation did not prove sufficient to expel it from the church, and for more than fifty years the controversy raged before the church finally and definitively rejected Arianism.”5

Notes

1 J. Stevenson (ed.), “Constantine Summons the Council of Nicaea,” in A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337, revised by W.H.C. Frend (London, UK: SPCK, 1987), 338.  

2 Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine (3.13),” in Church History, NPNF2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Ernest Cushing Richardson (New York, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 3:523.

3 Theodoret of Cyrus, Church History (1.11), in NPNF2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Blomfield Jackson (New York, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 3:49.

4 Socrates Scholasticus, “Church History (1.9)” in NPNF2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. A. C. Zenos (New York, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 2:12.

5 Justo Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1, 2nd ed.  (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1987), 271.

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TylerR's picture

Editor

I am shocked - shocked! - to find no reference to the council of Nicaea determining the canonical books of the NT. The learned historian Dan Brown wrote all about this event. There must be a conspiracy to suppress the truth. No doubt, the Russians are to blame. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

Tyler I am training a man at work right now who was raised Plymouth Bretheren and still considers himself a Christian but  does not accept the canon. He used that very argument to cast doubt on the Protestant canon. First time I have run into that one although I hear James White talk about it s lot. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

Josh:

I know next to nothing about Plymouth Brethren. I didn't know they had objections to the Protestant canon. You could direct him to Michael Kruger's book Canon Revisited, or search YouTube for a some sort of lecture Kruger has given on this topic. You'll surely find one. I think Kruger is the best resource out there on the canon - better than Metzger or Bruce were.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

See Wiki on this.  Don't know why you guys are so down on Dan Brown--he was a great asset at Central/4th, and I presume the same for him now that he's at Faith.  I almost got him to sign copies of the "fake" Dan Brown's books my dad gave me.  :^)

Back to the subject, it's striking how Arius' heresy is flat out indefensible vis-a-vis the Scriptures--he's basically arguing creatio ex nihilo (thanks Ken Ham!) while the Scriptures say "begotten."   Then, as now, it seems that there isn't much in Scripture that is so obvious that somebody won't try to artfully talk around it.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I depends what you think "begotten" means! In the next installment, I may try to dig around for something very specific from Arius, where he argues from Scripture from his heresy. I had the reference a few years ago, but I have to search for it now.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

Tyler, I believe there is a large variety in Plymouth Bretheren circles. I do read Kruger's blog but have not read his book yet. Thanks

G. N. Barkman's picture

I've known quite a few Plymouth Brethren pastors and people in both USA and Great Britain.  I've never met one who questioned the traditional protestant canon.  I suspect the man referenced above does not question the canon because of his Plymouth Brethren background, but because of his unbelief, which needs something to justify itself.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

I wonder if what Josh is dealing with is not an entire denomination questioning the canon of Scripture, but rather an individual doing the same who happens to be either in, or from, that denomination.  I am guessing the latter, and that he's currently "from it" without being currently "in it".  Either that, or he's "in it", but his particular pastor has not made it uncomfortable for him to be rejecting Scripture out of hand.  The Plymouth Brethren churches appear to be pretty much orthodox in their Bibliology as far as I can tell. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Very true, but this statement will offend every person who identifies himself with the Plymouth Brethren.  One of their strongest proclaimed distinctives is that they are not a denomination.  In truth, they prefer not to be called "Plymouth Brethren"  (that's what others call them).  They are simply "the assemblies."  Furthermore, none of them is likely to have "his particular pastor," since they champion a plurality of elders, none of whom is usually referred to as "the pastor."  Their elders are usually "lay" elders, but they would not want to use that term either.  They maintain a strong commitment to a weekly observance of the Lord's table, and will often chide those who observe it less frequently.  Other than these peculiarities, I find them to be usually warm hearted, committed believers who take their Bibles very seriously, and are eager students of God's Word.

G. N. Barkman

josh p's picture

I have known several Plymouth Brethren and they have all been orthodox. My comment "...he was raised Plymouth Brethren and still considers himself a Christian" was meant to imply that, while he was raised in a generally orthodox circle, he himself has departed. Sorry for the confusion. 

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