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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 5/13/13

The Council of Nicea



Constantine and Arianism

arius

The newly-converted Emperor Constantine had hoped Christianity would be the uniting force of his empire. He was thus distressed to hear of the dispute over Arianism, which held that Jesus Christ was greater than man but inferior to God. In 325, Constantine called the Council of Nicea with full confidence that the bishops could work out their differences.

The gathering must have been a moving sight to behold. After centuries of persecution, Christian bishops from across the Empire journeyed to Nicea under state protection to discuss theological problems with the help of the Emperor. Official persecution had been so recent that many of the bishops still bore its scars; Constantine himself is said to have kissed the eyeless cheek of one attendee.

The Council of Nicea condemned the teachings of Arius (pictured right) and adopted a creed outlining correct belief about the Son's relationship to the Father. The council was the first to include bishops from several different regions, and is thus considered the first "ecumenical council" of the church.

Although many other local synods were held, seven important councils were attended by representatives of churches throughout the empire, and were therefore "ecumenical." All three main branches of Christianity - Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant - consider the decisions of these seven councils to be authoritative. Roman Catholics recognize several more.


Arius' Views

This question of the exact relationship between the Father and the Son, a part of Christology, had been raised some 50 years before Arius, when Paul of Samosata was deposed in AD 269 for his agreement with those who had used the word omoousios to express the relation of the Father and the Son.

The expression was at that time thought to have a Sabellian tendency, though, as events showed, this was on account of its scope not having been satisfactorily defined. In the discussion which followed, Dionysius, Patriarch of Alexandria, had used much the same language as Arius did later, and correspondence survives in which Pope Dionysius blames his brother of Alexandria for using such language.

Dionysius of Alexandria responded with an explanation, which posterity has been inclined to interpret as vacillating. So far as the earlier controversy could be said to have been decided, it was decided in favor of the opinions later championed by Arius. But this settlement was so unsatisfactory that the question would have been reopened sooner or later, especially in an atmosphere so intellectual as that of Alexandria. For the synod of Antioch which condemned Paul of Samosata had expressed its disapproval of the word omoousios in one sense, and Patriarch Alexander undertook its defence in another.

Arius formulated the following doctrines about Jesus:

  1. that the Logos and the Father were not of the same essence (ousia);
  2. that the Son was a created being (ktisma or poiema); and
  3. that though He was the creator of the worlds, and must therefore have existed before them and before all time, there was - Arius refused to use such terms as cronos or aion - when He did not exist.

The subsequent controversy shows that the absence of the words chronos or aion was mere evasion, and that when defending himself he argued in just the same manner as though he had used those words. Moreover, he asserted that the Logos had a beginning; yet not only Athanasius, but Origen before him, had taught that the relation of the Son to the Father had no beginning, and that, to use Dorner's words (Person of Christ, ii. 115), "the generation of the Son is an eternally completed, and yet an eternally continued, act" - or in other words, the Father has, from all eternity, been communicating His Being to the Son, and is doing so still.

Arius was obviously perplexed by this doctrine, for he complains of it in his letter to the Nicomedian Eusebius, who, like himself, had studied under Lucian. It is to be regretted that so much stress should have been laid in the controversy on words which, when used in metaphysical discussions, had a tendency to confuse the eternal generation of the Son with the purely physical process of the generation of men and animals. Had the defenders of the Nicene doctrine made more general use of the term "communication of Being", or "of Essence", they would have made it clearer that they were referring to a continual and unchangeable relation between the First and Second Persons in the Trinity, which bore a very slight analogy to the process which engenders physical creatures into existence.

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References
  1. "Christianity." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
  2. Justo Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol 1.
  3. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol 1.