The council of Nicsa

Then the Emperor Constantine stepped in. He had recently come over to the side of the Christians and, after a long, hard struggle had united the Empire politically under his rule. The dispute over Arius threatened the disruption of what, along with the Empire, was the strongest institution in the Mediterranean world, the Catholic Church. Constantine had already intervened in the affairs of the Church over the Donatist controversy. He now felt impelled to act in this much more serious division. To that end he first wrote to Alexander and Arius, sending the letter by his adviser in church matters, Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, calling on them to compose their differences and forgive each other. When this appeal did not succeed, Constantine had recourse to a council of the entire Catholic Church. He took the initiative, had the state pay the travel expenses of the bishops to the gathering, and, although only a catechumen, presided over its opening session, and was active in its deliberations.

Whether Constantine appreciated the niceties of the questions at issue is highly doubtful, for he was a layman, a warrior and administrator, not a philosopher or an expert theologian. In his letter to Alexander and Arius he said that having made "careful inquiry into the origin and foundation of these differences" he found "the cause to be of a truly insignificant character and quite unworthy of such fierce contention," and that the discus sions should be "intended merely as an intellectual exercise . . . and not hastily produced in the popular assemblies, nor unadvisedly entrusted to the general ear." Constantine's words probably reflected the attitude of the average Christian layman. We read that one of these who had suffered for his faith in the persecutions which were of recent memory and who, hearing the pre-council disputes before the gathering at Nic^a, bluntly told the debaters that Christ did not "teach us dialectics, art, or vain subtilties, but simple-mindedness, which is preserved by faith and good works."

Constantine's action established a significant precedent for what were called ecumenical or general councils of the Catholic Church and for the frequent leadership of the civil power in them. Local and regional synods or councils were, as we have seen, not new. They may well have provided a conscious precedent for the council of the entire Catholic Church. Certainly the general or ecumenical council was to become an accepted method for seeking accord on major divisive issues and other urgent problems which concerned the whole Church.

The council met at Nic^a, in Asia Minor, in the year 325. To it came about three hundred bishops. Most of them were from the eastern part of the Empire. Because of his age the Bishop of Rome was unable to attend, but he was represented by two presbyters. While the overwhelming majority of the bishops were from within the Empire, there are said to have been one from Persia and perhaps one from among the Goths. Hundreds of lesser clergy and lay folk also came. After the formal opening of the council by an address by Constantine, and when the latter had given permission for the disputants to present their views, violent controversy broke out. The large majority had not yet taken a position, but Arius was supported by a small and vocal minority of whom the most prominent was Eusebius of Nicomedia, and another, equally determined minority upheld Alexander. With Alexander was one of his deacons, the able young Athanasius. Born not far from the year 300 of upper class parentage, from childhood Athanasius had shown a deep interest in the Church and, having come to the favourable notice of Alexander, had early been brought into the latter's official family. Athanasius was to succeed Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria and to become one of the outstanding figures in the entire history of Christianity.

The Arians presented a statement of their position, but this aroused violent opposition. Eusebius of C^sarea, who took a middle position but was against any leaning towards Sabellianism and hence was inclined to favour the Arians, suggested as a statement to which all might agree the creed which was in use in his own see and which he said had come down from his predecessors in the Cesarean episcopate and was taught catechumens and to which, presumably, assent was required at baptism. This seemed to win general assent, including the endorsement of the Emperor. It became, therefore, the basis of what has since been known as the Nicene Creed. The main body of the creed of Nic^a read:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ the word [Logos] of God, God from God, light from light, life from life, the only-begotten Son, first-born of all creatures, begotten of the Father before all ages, by whom also all things were made; who for our salvation was made flesh and dwelt among men; and who suffered and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father and shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We believe also in one Holy Spirit.

To this creed was added, with the approval of the Emperor and perhaps at his suggestion, the word homoousion, applied to Christ. The term was adopted by the council and the creed proposed by Eusebius was altered to conform with it so that it was as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of alt things visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ousias] of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance [homoousion] with the Father, through whom all things came to be, those things that are in heaven and those things that are on earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and was made man, suffered, rose the third day, ascended into the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.

Even a cursory comparison of the two creeds will show the nature of the changes. For Logos, which the Arians could use, was substituted the word "Son," and that term was emphasized by keeping the word "only-begotten," that is, begotten in a way different from the sons of God who are adopted, and also by adding that the Son is of the substance of the Father. In place of "life from life," which might be interpreted in various ways, the phrase "true God from true God" was used to make more explicit "God from God." Homoousion was inserted. This was of central significance, for it stated emphatically a position which was the storm centre between the two extremes and was rapidly to become the crux of the difference between them. "Came down," another addition, implied that Christ had been with God and was not subordinate to Him, possibly the reason back of the substitution of "ascended into the heavens" for "ascended to the Father." "Was made man" was also inserted, perhaps to emphasize the belief that Jesus Christ was not only "true God" but also not merely "flesh," but true "man." This would serve to make clear that through the incarnation of the Son in Jesus Christ men could share in his sonship.

As in the Apostles' Creed, so in the Nicene Creed, painfully, slowly, and through controversies in which there was often lacking the love which is the major Christian virtue, Christians were working their way through to a clarification of what was presented to the world by the tremendous historical fact of Christ. At Nicsa it was more and more becoming apparent to them that the high God must also be the Redeemer and yet, by a seeming paradox, the Redeemer must also be man. The astounding central and distinguishing affirmation of Christianity, so they increasingly saw, and what made Christianity unique and compelling, was that Jesus Christ was "true God from true God," or, to put it in language more familiar to English readers, "very God of very God," who "was made man." Thus men could be reborn and become sons of God, but without losing their individual identity.

The words were not always wisely chosen, perhaps because words could not he found which would exactly stand for the reality. For instance, ousia had several different connotations in Greek philosophical usage and, although substantia was used in translation into Latin, and for one sense of ousia, accurately, the latter term had no precise Latin equivalent. Existing terminology was chosen which would come as nearly as possible to the fact and then would gradually be given the connotation which would convey what Christians meant by it.

To make the position of the council towards Arius unmistakable, it was declared that the Catholic Church anathematized, namely, cursed, those who say "there was a time when he [the Son of God] was not," or "that he did not exist before he was begotten," or "that he was made of nothing," or that "he is of other substance or essence from the Father," or that he was created, or mutable, or susceptible to change.

It will be noted that the creed which today bears the name of Nicene is a further development from the one which was adopted at Nicsa. Yet the latter's essential features were preserved.

The Council of Nicsa embraced the opportunity to settle some other issues which were troubling the Catholic Church. The time for the observance of Easter was agreed upon and made uniform, thus attempting to ensure accord on what had been a subject of controversy. Here, it may be remarked, the council was not entirely successful. Steps were also taken to end the Meletian schism which we mentioned earlier, but in vain, for the Meletians persisted for at least a century longer. Several canons, or rules, were adopted for the administration and discipline of the Church, among them one which required at least three bishops for the laying on of hands, namely, the consecration of a bishop, regulations for the treatment of those who had fallen away during the recent persecutions, for a uniform handling of the excommunicated, and for improving the morals of the clergy and the bishops by more care in admission to these orders, by prohibiting the clergy from exacting usury, and by keeping other women than near relatives from their homes. These canons shed much light on the quality of the lives of Christians in the fore part of the fourth century and on the means which were taken to maintain high moral standards and orderly procedures.

To enforce the decisions of the Council of Nicsa, Constantine commanded, with the death penalty for disobedience, the burning of all books composed by Arius, banished Arius and his closest supporters, and deposed from their sees Eusebius of Nicomedia and another bishop who had been active in the support of Arius.

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