After Nicaea

A Classic Heretic

Our personal faith is also the communal faith.

How to speak accurately about what we as a Church believe to be true has been formulated over centuries, sometimes with much debate, struggle, and effort in order to flush out (and give birth to) accurate expressions describing what we already believe.  This is one way that the Holy Spirit operates in the Church.  Historical circumstances have many times backed the Church into a corner that caused it to think, reflect, struggle, debate, and finally articulate in a clearer way our beliefs, or “the Faith”.  This implies that there is a body of content to “the Faith”, and this body of content clarifies what we believe.  Faith, a gift from God, includes a personal response to God, a group response to God, and an acceptance of truths that many times have been difficult to express.

After Nicaea

Every Council has its reasons for being called into session, and not everyone usually agrees with the outcome. Sometimes the decisions are challenged, and movements created to reverse the decisions of a particular council, and sometimes the movements succeed temporarily or the groups promoting them end up separating themselves from the Church.  But first, these movements try to make their position the orthodox one.  Such is the case after Nicaea.

A classic heretic is a person who never admits to being in error regarding a theological point of view.  Everyone else is wrong.  The rest of the Church is wrong.  This describes the attitude of Arius.  Many Church historians have given Arius a sort of back-handed compliment by naming him as Christianity’s greatest heretic.  It is an honor that would have probably insulted Arius because he never admitted what he taught was heresy.

The Council of Nicaea in 325 a.d. decided Arius was a heretic and that Jesus and the Father were of one substance (homoousios), consubstantial, co-eternal, but not the same person.  Arius did not agree with the “consubstantial”, “co-eternal” part.   He was exiled along with two other bishops, some scholars say six bishops, who were also deposed from their dioceses by the Emperor Constantine for not signing the Creed of the Council.

Eleven other bishops signed the Creed, but not with their hearts.  They did what the Emperor required, but did not hold a personal conviction to the document.  They left the Council still in agreement with Arius.  The most influential of these was Eusebius of Nicomedia.

The Undoing of Nicaea

As soon as he returned home Eusebius of Nicomedia revoked his support of Nicaea.  Constantine was furious and promptly sent him into exile.  But, within three years Eusebius had convinced Constantine that Arius’ position was really not in conflict with the results of Nicaea.  Constantine’s opinion was changed, probably also influenced by his sister who was a supporter of the exiled bishop,  and he brought Eusebius back and reinstalled him as Bishop of Nicomedia.

The main goal of Eusebius was to undo the achievement of Nicaea.  After all, he was a dedicated Arian, and he was jealous of the prestige the diocese of Alexandria gained after Nicaea.  So, being reinstated as bishop of Nicomedia gave him the opportunity to put his plan of undoing Nicaea into action.

Instead of attacking the Nicene Creed (which would have infuriated Constantine again) Eusebius began a program of character assassination against the leading Nicene bishops. They were Eustathius of Antioch [the Bishop of Antioch selected at the Council of Antioch in 325 a.d.], Marcellus of Ancyra, and Athanasius of Alexandria, who though not a bishop during the Council of Nicaea was influential as the adviser to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, the chief opponent of Eusebius and Arius.  The first step in Eusebius’s plan was to destroy the credibility of these bishops and, thus, the influential position they took against Arius at the Council.

Rumor, Slander, and Gossip

Against Eustathius of Antioch, Eusebius spread a “whispering campaign” accusing him of alleged moral vices and of public disrespect to the Emperor’s mother (St. Helena).  Constantine called a synod of bishops to investigate the charges, and the synod deposed Eustathius.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius had reluctantly succeeded Alexander as bishop in 328 a.d. at the age of thirty-three.  But, he was accused of using bribery to aid his selection as Patriarch (Bishop) of Alexandria at his young age, although in terms of Church law his age was allowed.  Athanasius was also charged with murdering a bishop by the name of Arsenius and cutting off his hand and using it for magical purposes.  Athanasius went to the Emperor and appealed his cause and the Emperor did have the charges against him dropped, particularly since Bishop Arsenius was found alive and well hiding in Tyre.

But Constantine became alarmed when the enemies of Athanasius said that he was planning to withhold grain shipments out of Egypt, another trumped up charge.  Nevertheless, Constantine was persuaded to call another synod to investigate Athanasius, which he did in 335  a.d.  This was the Synod of Tyre in Lebanon.  The deck was stacked against Athanasius.  None of his supporters were allowed to have a voice despite their protests.  Athanasius was not allowed to speak in his own defense.

Arius To Be Restored

Meanwhile, supporters of Arius convinced Constantine into ending Arius’s exile, which he agreed to do on the condition that Arius sign the Nicene Creed.  With a few clever additions to the Nicene Creed that reflected his point of view but which were written so Constantine would not understand them, (and which did not include the word “homoousios”), Arius signed the Nicene Creed!  The emperor then ordered Athanasius not only to restore the heretic Arius to the community in Alexandria, he also ordered him to restore his priesthood.  Athanasius refused to do so.

Athanasius Exiled

Though he appealed to the Emperor the verdict of the Synod of Tyre was upheld and Athanasius was deposed as Patriarch of Alexandria and exiled to Trier, now a German city near Luxembourg. This was the first of five exiles Athanasius would endure defending the Council of Nicaea.

For his part, Arius never was officially restored to communion with the Church.  The day before he was to be welcomed back into the Church he apparently collapsed and died on the streets of Constantinople.

Death of Constantine

Constantine himself died in 337 a.d. (May 22), having been baptized on his deathbed by Eusebius of Nicomedia.  His three sons (Constantine II age 21, Constans age 17, and Constantius II age 19) lined up to be emperor.  Constantine II died almost immediately after his father, Constans, a follower of Nicaea, became emperor in the West, whereas Constantius II, a dedicated Arian, became emperor in the East.

After the Emperor Constantine’s death Athanasius quickly came out of exile to resume leadership in Alexandria.  But, Constantius II gained power and quickly appointed a different bishop who was an Arian believer (Gregory of Cappadocia).

Athanasius was sent back into exile, this time by force of armed guard.  The people of Alexandria were not happy about it. One reason for their displeasure was that Bishop Athanasius was very popular.  But also because in those days the people usually elected their own bishop.  Well, when Gregory died in 345 a.d. Constantius allowed Athanasius back to his own see, whereupon he received a hero’s welcome.

Another Campaign Against Athanasius

Constans, Emperor of the West, died in 350a.d. and Constantius II became sole emperor of East and West.  The Arian bishops then began a fanatical campaign against Athanasius.  The emperor Constantius II called a Synod at Arles (France) in 353a.d..  The only item on the agenda was a decree condemning Athanasius, and all but two bishops were coerced into signing.  The feeling was that if Athanasius could be gotten rid of then there would be no roadblocks left for Arian Theology. That feeling was accurate.

With the support of the bishops who signed the decree Constantius moved against Athanasius.  He sent a troop of soldiers to Alexandria that entered a church where Athanasius was assisting at a liturgical function.  They interrupted the service to get Athanasius but his supporters fought the soldiers (some to the death) so Athanasius could escape.  He fled to the Egyptian desert in 356 a.d.

The Arian Bishops’ Victory

With Athanasius out of the way the Arian bishops convinced the emperor to call a new council to revoke Nicaea.  Constantius knew that Athanasius had great support from the Western bishops, even though many had been forced to sign the decree to depose Athanasius.  So, he agreed to call a new council only if the Eastern and Western bishops would meet in different places.  So, the Western bishops met in the Northern Italian town of Rimini, and the Eastern bishops met in Seleucia (Southeastern Turkey today).

Nearly 400 bishops of the West and 150 of the East gave their consent to a new Arian Creed (after much intrigue by the Arian bishops and ruthless coercion by Constantius).  This creed was formally adopted by the Council of Constantinople in 360 a.d.  It was a creed, influenced by a group today known as the Semi-Arians that used the word “oisios” (of like substance) rather than the word “ousios” (substance).  In this version the Son was of “like substance” with the Father, just “like the Father”.   He was not of one substance with the Father.  The Semi-Arians’ word “ηομοιουσιος”  (homoiousios);  the Nicene word “ηομοουσιος”  (homoousios). There was only one iota of difference, but there was a difference.

The Arian Creed of Constantinople 360 a.d.

We believe in one God, the Father, almighty, from Whom are all things; and in the only begotten Son of God, Who was begotten from God before all ages and before all beginning, through Whom all things came into existence, visible and invisible, begotten only-begotten, alone from the Father alone, God from God, like the Father who begot Him according to the Scriptures, whose generation no one knows save alone the Father who begot Him.

But as for the name “substance,,” which was adopted simply by the fathers, but being unknown to the people, occasioned offense, because the Scriptures themselves do not contain it, it has pleased us that it should be abolished and that no mention at all should be made of it henceforth, since indeed the divine Scriptures nowhere have made mention of the substance of Father and Son.  Nor indeed should the term “’hypostasis” be used of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  But we say the Son is like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach.  But let all the heresies which have either been condemned previously, or have come about more recently and are in opposition to this creed, be anathema.

The purpose of the Nicene Creed had been to formulate a universal doctrine on the Incarnation and the Trinity. This creed was done to humiliate the Nicene bishops and establish the Arian Creed as supreme.  No one knew what “like the Father” in this creed meant.  It was just different than Nicaea.

Athanasius sent a circular letter to all the bishops of Egypt urging them not to accept or sign the Arian Creed.  The Egyptian bishops did not do so, but many of the rest did.  The Church became officially Arian in teaching.

The Church Dominated by the Arian Faction

From this point on, the field of Church doctrine became dominated by the Arian party in the East, but not the West.  The Arian bishops were very aggressive, and, in fact, they managed to be the first to convert many of the Germanic tribes that eventually migrated into the Roman Empire.


Some things we take away from this:

  • it made sense to many in this era of the Church to still think in terms of polytheism
  • not everyone agreed with the decision of the Council (no matter what Constantine said)

Next:  Athanasius works tirelessly to convince everyone that the word “homoousios” was absolutely essential!


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