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
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.