The Council of Nicaea 325 a.d.

The Council of Nicaea 325 a.d.

The Struggle For Right Teaching

It is true that for many years the Church had struggled with how to best explain what it believed about the unique identity of Jesus.  Surely he was the “Logos” of the Gospel of John, the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14).  With Christians multiplying in number and with churches and dioceses emerging all across the Roman Empire it became important to make sure the teaching and belief of the Apostles was correctly proclaimed.

There were quite a few theories about the identity of Jesus being promoted. Here are a few.

Subordinationism was any teaching that made Jesus out to be a lesser and, therefore, a subordinate god.  Certainly Arius’ teaching promoted this to such an extreme that he created three gods, or demi-gods in the Trinity, with the Father being clearly superior.

Modalism, also known as Sabellianism, was promoted by a priest named Sabellius who was condemned as a heretic by Pope Callistus I in 220 a.d., by Tertullian, by Hippolytus (who became the first antipope), by Pope Damasus I in 382 at the Council of Rome, and by the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.  Modalists taught that Christ in the New Testament is identical in person to the God of the Old Testament.  It promoted the belief that there is only one God who is manifested in three forms (or modes), as the Father in the Old Testament, as Christ in the New, and as the Holy Spirit in the age of the Church.  But it is the same person, not three.

Docetism was a form of Gnosticism that denied the humanity of Christ. It was rooted in philosophical dualism stemming from the gnostic view that physical matter was evil and the source of evil.  The word “docetism” comes from the Greek word “dokeo”, to seem.  It’s tenet was that Christ only appeared to be (seemed) human, he was actually spirit and did not have a real human body.  The Incarnation was merely an illusion. Jesus, according to docetic teaching was either an apparition or simply using human flesh as a vehicle of expression.  He was not in real union with human flesh.

Monarchianism taught that Jesus was empowered by the Christ Spirit at his baptism.  This Christ Spirit left the man Jesus at the cross, so the one who died on the cross was merely the man Jesus and not the Son of God.

Adoptionism taught that the man Jesus was “adopted” by God either at his baptism or his resurrection.  It teaches that man became God, not God became man.  Although it is not wrong to think of man becoming God in terms of Christian spirituality, that became possible because God became Man, the Incarnation.

Other important attempts to reconcile the mystery of Christ’s person such as Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Euthchianism (Monophysitism) will be promoted after Nicaea when the debate turns to Christology.

This issue of Jesus and His identity caused no little discussion.  Some taught Jesus was fully human, others taught he was fully divine.  It was clear that an agreed upon definition of Christ’s person was needed.  This became particularly clear with the controversy sparked by Arius.

Then there was Arius….

The Council of Antioch in early 325 a.d.

The Council of Antioch was probably called in early 325 a.d. to select a new bishop, since Bishop Philgonius is believed to have died in December of 324 a.d.  The new bishop, Eustathius, was elected early in 325 a.d.  He would become an influential Bishop at the Council of Nicaea later in the year and one of the major targets of Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia when the Council was over.

Hosius of Cordova, theological adviser to Constantine, on his way to report to the Emperor after trying and failing to find reconciliation for Alexander and Arius in Alexandria as the Emperor had wished, stopped into the council at Antioch to make sure it dealt with the Arian controversy.  It did.  The Council excommunicated Theodotus of Laodicea, Narcissus of Neronias, and Eusebius of Caesarea (the eventual first Church historian) who each supported Arius.  The council also reaffirmed the condemnation of Arius.  Moreover, it published an anti-Arian creed.

The Emperor Constantine, being relatively new to Christianity, probably did not fully understand what the Arian controversy was all about, and probably did not care about the theology. What he really wanted was unity in Christianity and unity in the Empire.  After all, Hosius went to Alexandria because Constantine had suggested to the bishops of Alexandria and Nicomedia that they should come to terms with their disagreement over what he called “trivial matters” so that unity could be restored to the empire.

Calling For A Council

After failing in Alexandria Hosius advised Constantine that only a council could achieve desired results.  The issue had grown too big, and, in fact it was one of the early Church’s most intense theological issues.  Thus, in 325 a.d. Constantine called all the bishops in the Empire to Nicaea for a council.

Every Bishop Invited

Constantine wanted as many bishops as possible to attend, even offering to pay the transportation costs for bishops who found it difficult to travel to Nicaea. There were over fifteen-hundred bishops in the Empire, and every bishop in the Empire was invited.  But St. Athanasius, the archdeacon of Alexandria, claimed that there were 318 bishops in attendance, and that has been the traditionally accepted number, even though a some other attendees reported less.

Mostly Eastern Bishops In Attendance

Only five bishops from the West attended, one being the Archbishop of Carthage, Caecilian, who Constantine had upheld as the legitimate bishop of Carthage twelve years earlier.  Although considered an “ecumenical” (world-wide) council, it was mostly a council that was decided by Eastern bishops.

Constantine entered the first session of the Council after the bishops had taken their seats.  He kissed the gouged-out eye of one of the confessors which he often did.  He was wearing all gold. It was May in 325 a.d.  He addressed the bishops saying that there would be free debate at the Council.  Everyone would be able to speak his mind freely.  But, that at the end there would be an agreement that everyone would hold to under threat of being deposed and exiled.

On page 304 of his book Conceptions of “Gospel” and Legitimacy in Early Christianity James a. Kelhoffer tells us that Theodoret of Cyrus, a theologian from Antioch, claimed confessors held great honor at Nicaea.

“Prestige did not depend mainly on a bishop’s diocese nor on his subtlety in debate.  Confessors, especially those whose missing eyes and maimed ankles manifested proof of their steadfastness during persecution enjoyed enormous authority.”

In Book 10 of his Church History, Rufinus of Aquileia tells us

“There was also at the council the man of God Bishop Paphnutius from Egypt, one of the confessors whom Maximian, after gouging out their right eyes and severing their left hams, had condemned to the mines.  Constantine regarded him with such veneration and love that many times he called him into the palace, embraced him, and bestowed fervent kisses on the eye which had been gouged out in his confession of faith.”  

The council met each day, and Arius was often summoned to the council.  His ideas were discussed in detail, and the most careful reflection was given to the question of what position to take against them.  It was emotional.  In fact, a story from the proceedings has Nicholas of Myra (St. Nicholas) getting so upset with what Arius was saying about the Trinity that he actually slapped Arius across the face!!!

The Ancient Roman Symbol

Every diocese at the time had short “creed-like” documents that were mostly used as questions posed to candidates for Baptism.  They were called “Symbols”.  The ancient Roman Symbol, or “R” as it was called, resembles both the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.  It was this:

(the “Ancient Roman Symbol” — Creed—)

Do you believe in God the Father almighty?

Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God,

Who was born by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary,

Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died,

and rose again on the third day living from the dead,

and ascended into the heavens,

and sat down on the right hand of the Father,

and will come to judge the living and the dead?

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit,

in the holy Church?

This should sound familiar.  Again, like many ancient rules of faith, R was originally phrased as a set of questions asked to baptismal candidates. But, the important thing for us is that well before Nicaea the early Church had already decided that a “rule of faith” existing separate and apart from Scripture was an essential means of defining normative Christianity.  This was especially useful because the teaching of the Apostles was not clear in all places and there was no completely developed canon of the New Testament in the time before the Council of Nicaea.

Christians could differ over interpretation of Scripture, bishops could disagree over elements of the faith, but the only unfaltering criterion of normative Christianity became the “rules of faith” and their descendants, the great Creeds.  Two examples today are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

No orthodox thinker, no matter how great an intellect he possessed, desired to depart from the basic Christian beliefs contained in these rules of faith.

The First Proposed Creed of Nicaea

After some debate Eusebius of Caesarea (future Church historian but one who was excommunicated by the Council of Antioch earlier in 325 a.d.) presented the Rule of Faith of his diocese as the one to be officially adopted by the Council, and a number of bishops agreed.

This was it.

  • We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, God from God, light from light, life from life, Son only begotten, first-begotten of all creation, begotten before all ages from the Father, through Whom all things came into being; Who because of our salvation was incarnate, and dwelt among men, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and will come again in glory to judge the living and dead; We believe also in one Holy Spirit.

It looked good, but some bishops see a “red herring” in the middle of it…. “first begotten of all creation”…. This “Rule of Faith” was rejected by the Council because it was promoting the teaching of Arius.

The Signed Nicene Creed

  • 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, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father,  through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, will come to judge the living and the dead; And in the Holy Spirit.                                        But as for those who say, there was when He was not, and, before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or is subject to alteration or change…these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.

Notice the statement at the end of this version of the creed against the teaching of Arius.


This was the Nicene Creed that was signed by the Council Fathers.  There was one big difficulty in crafting it.  To solve the issue of the relationship of the Father and the Son, St. Athanasius proposed to Bishop Alexander that the Greek word “homoousios” was needed to describe this relationship.  This word means “of one substance”, or “one in being”.

The Western Church, in translating homoousios into Latin used the word “consubstantialem”, or, in modern English, “consubstantial”.  Although the Nicene Creed went through some modifications at the Council of Constantinople in 381 a.d. the word “consubstantial” is the word we use at Sunday Mass today.

Many bishops at the Council had to be convinced that it was necessary to use the word homoousios because it is not a word that can be found in the New Testament.  Many bishops were also uncomfortable using it, particularly many Eastern bishops, because of the way it was used by another Eastern bishop in the late in the third century.  His name was Paul of Samosata.  He was a proponent of Modalism (see the beginning of this post) and used the word “homoousios” not to affirm the personhood of each member of the Trinity but to deny it.

A council in Antioch in 268 a.d. “condemned” Modalism, Paul of Samosata, and the word “homoousios”.  The memory of that controversy lingered in the minds of many Eastern bishops, thus they were reluctant to use it even though the Western Church defined it differently.   This is when the word “homoiousios” was proposed as a compromise by a group called the Semi-Arians.

This term, meaning “of like substance” was rejected by Nicaea. Finally after long and detailed discussion it was decided by all, and decreed as though by the mouth and heart of all, that the word homoousios should be written, that is that the Son should be acknowledged to be of the same substance as the Father, and this was most firmly declared by the vote of them all.  The Emperor had his unity, or so it seemed.


The decision of the bishops was conveyed to Constantine, who revered it as though it had been pronounced by God and declared that anyone who should try to oppose it he would banish as transgressing divine decrees.  The weight of the Emperor was thus put behind this creed in support of it.

Most scholars suggest that 316 of the 318 Council Bishops signed the Creed, with Bishops Theonas and Secundus being the only two who refused to sign and who were promptly deposed from their diocese and exiled.  (The first time an imperial and secular penalty was imposed for a Church offense of heresy.)

Yet, some other scholars say there were seventeen dissenters, with six only who suffered themselves to be expelled with Arius, while the other eleven, after taking counsel together, agreed to subscribe with hand only, not heart.  The chief designer of this ruse was Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, Constantine’s family friend and pastor.  In other words there were at least eleven bishops who signed the document with their “fingers crossed”.  These bishops will wreak havoc in the years after the Council.

The Language of the Nicene Creed

The words of the Nicene Creed were crafted not only to make a statement against Arius, but also against other heretical positions as well, for example…

We believe in one God, is also against Marcion, an early second century gnostic who taught that the god who sent Jesus into the world was a god much higher than the god of the Old Testament, the “Father”.  It is a statement against all other gnostics including modern ones.

“Eternally begotten of the Father”,  a position taken against Arius, and taken against adoptionism, which taught the man Jesus was “adopted” by God either at his baptism or his resurrection, effectively teaching that Man became God, not God became Man.

“Was Incarnate… suffered and died…”,  against docetism that taught Jesus really was not human, that the Incarnation was an illusion, and that Jesus really did not die on the cross, or anywhere.

Every word and phrase was chosen to fight the Gnostic and other heretical groups.

The Date For Celebrating Easter

All total there were twenty canons issued by the first Council of Nicaea.  One of the canons settled the dispute over the date for when Easter was to be celebrated.  That date was set as being the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring, a date that does not necessarily coincide with the Jewish feast of Passover the time when some parts of the early Church were accustomed to celebrating Easter.  The date Nicaea set for Easter is how the feast is determined today.

Other Canons

Since it had only been since 313 a.d. that the Christian bishops could emerge publicly and discuss some other Church issues, Nicaea dealt with some others in addition to opposing Arius, defending the Christian concept of God, and the date for Easter.

Rejecting castration among the clergy as a spiritual discipline, forbidding the ordination to the priesthood of newly baptized, allowing only a mother, sister, aunt, or someone beyond all suspicion from living with a member of the clergy.  It set priesthood ordination requirements, gave the Bishop of Jerusalem special status, and gave directives for readmission to the Church of those who had fallen from the faith, and other items.

It was the first of twenty-one Ecumenical Councils (thus far), and the matter concerning Arius was its primary concern, although that was not the immediate concern of the emperor. Constantine, mostly interested in achieving unity in the Empire, ended up putting into motion events that eventually steered the Church to a final resolution to the issue of the mysterious identity of Christ both as God and as Man. But it would take another one hundred twenty-five years and three more Councils before this was finally settled.

Next: the events after Nicaea.


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