The Council of Nicea (325 CE) was an important meeting of about 300 bishops from across the Roman Empire who met to discuss theological and administrative issues. It is best known for resulting in the Nicene Creed, which is still used by most Christian denominations today as a statement of faith.
Documents and Evidence on the Council of Nicea
As the Council of Nicea was of such importance to the early church, quite a bit of information survives in ancient documents. Several church historians who lived during or shortly after the Council of Nicea documented the events of the council. In addition, writers such as Athanasius (the main defender of Nicene orthodoxy) referred to it in their letters. Following are links to English translations of these ancient sources on Nicea.
- Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3.4-23 (eyewitness account of a bishop at the council)
- Athanasius, Letter to Bishops of Africa (eyewitness account)
- Athanasius, Defense of the Nicene Definition (eyewitness, mainly on theology)
- Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 1.7 (early 400s AD)
- Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History 1.7-9 (early 400s AD)
- Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 1.15-17 (early 400s AD)
Constantine and Arianism
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.
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:
- that the Logos and the Father were not of the same essence (ousia);
- that the Son was a created being (ktisma or poiema); and
- 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.
The Nicene Creed
The most famous result of the council is the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith issued by the Council of Nicea. It reflects its decision (by overwhelming majority) that Jesus was divine in the same sense as God the Father, and not in the sense of a created divine being.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homousion) with the Father, by whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion—all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them. The second part, which condemns certain views as heretical, makes it clear that the question was not whether Jesus was divine, but in what way he was divine. The "heretical" view, taught by Arius and his followers, was not that Jesus was just a mortal prophet but that he was inferior to God the Father and created by the Father.
This creed is documented in several contemporary sources, including the Acts of the Ecumenical Councils of Ephesus and Acts of Chalcedon, in the Epistle of Eusebius of Cæsarea to his own Church, in the the Ecclesiastical Histories of Theodoret and Socrates, and elsewhere.
The Canons of Nicea
In addition to the creed, the bishops at the Council of Nicea issued 20 canons, or determinations, after the conclusion of the council. Most of them are fairly mundane and deal with administrative matters. The text of each canon is online here.
The Council of Nicea and The Da Vinci Code
The Da Vinci Code makes dramatic claims about what happened at the Council of Nicea, most of which are historically inaccurate. In Chapter 55, Sir Leigh Teabing explains to Sophie Neveu how the early Church consolidated its power by destroying the sacred feminine and making the mortal prophet Jesus into a divine being. But despite his revered status as "Royal Historian," Teabing doesn't know his history all that well.
Bart Ehrman, a scholar of early Christianity, writes in Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code*:
Scholars who study the history of Christian theology will find it bizarre, at best, to hear Teabing claim that Christians before the Council of Nicea did not consider Jesus to be divine. Our earliest surviving Christian author in the apostle Paul... Paul was producing his letter about 20 or 30 years after Jesus' death (250 years before the Council of Nicea) and in them it becomes abundantly clear that Paul understands that Jesus was in some sense divine.... Constantine, wanting unity in the church because he wanted unity in his empire, called a council to decide the issue raised most poignantly by Arius, whether christ was a divine creation of the Father or was himself co-eternal and equal with God. The Council of Nicea met in 325 CE to decide the issue. Contrary to what Leigh Teabing asserts, it was not a particularly close "vote." The vast majority of the 200 or 250 bishops present sided with the view of Athanasius against Arius, which was eventually to become the view of Christianity at large.... And more imporant, contrary to Teabing, it was not a vote on Jesus' divinity. Christians for 250 years had agreed Jesus was divine. The only question was how he was divine, and that was what the Council of Nicea was called to resolve. As we have seen, Leigh Teabing was right to insist that 'the Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven.' ...Teabing is wrong to think, however, that Constantine had anything to do with the matter.... The formation of the canon started centuries before Constantine, and the establishment of the four-fold Gospel canon of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was virtually in place 150 years before his day. On the other hand, it is equally striking that even during Constantine's day the matter was not brough to final resolution - not by him and not by the Council of Nicea, which he called (and which in fact did not deal with the matter of canon). (Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, pp. 15-16, 23, 93)
Michael Haag and Veronica Haag (non-experts) note in their Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code:
The divine nature of Christ was argued from both the Arian and Athanasian points of view, and when the bishops voted on the issue, it was decided in favour of Athanasius by 218 votes to two - not the "relatively close vote" claimed in The Da Vinci Code. (p. 85)
Writing for Christianity Today magazine, Collin Hansen remarks:
Brown is right about one thing (and not much more). In the course of Christian history, few events loom larger than the Council of Nicea in 325. When the newly converted Roman Emperor Constantine called bishops from around the world to present-day Turkey, the church had reached a theological crossroads. In The Da Vinci Code, Brown apparently adopts Arius as his representative for all pre-Nicene Christianity. Referring to the Council of Nicea, Brown claims that "until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless." In reality, early Christians overwhelmingly worshipped Jesus Christ as their risen Savior and Lord. Before the church adopted comprehensive doctrinal creeds, early Christian leaders developed a set of instructional summaries of belief, termed the "Rule" or "Canon" of Faith, which affirmed this truth. ("Breaking the Da Vinci Code")
- "Christianity." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
- Justo Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol 1.
- Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol 1.
- Philip Schaff, ed., "The Canons of the 318 Holy Fathers Assembled in the City of Nicea" in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series 2
- Christian History & Biography Issue 85: Debating Jesus' Divinity - on the Council of Nicea