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For the Intersection of the Everyday and the Sacred

Church History Minute: First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea

Early Icon of the First Council of Nicaea

What was it? The First Ecumenical (all the churches) Council, convened by many Bishops at the Request of Constantine, the newly Christianized emperor, in 325. It dealt with the problem of Arius, who had been condemned by local councils, and Arianism. Arianism (not to be confused with its homonym Aryanism, a racist position) is the belief that Christ was not equal with God, and instead was his first Creation. Thus he was near God, but not on the same level of God. This was rejected in favor of a Christology that saw God as the same as Father and Son who were “co-eternal.” Thus the Son was not “begotten” in time, but “eternally begotten of the Father” meaning the “begotten-ness” is the characteristic of their relationship, not a temporal event.

Who was involved? Between 300-400 Bishops attended, together with the priests they brought with them, some counts exceed 1200. Although many important people were there, probably the most influential was Athanasius.

Where might I have heard of it? Pop culture, especially pseudo-historical fiction such as Dan Brown, likes to mention it, since it was the first council, and claim it said odd things. In fact it said little about the Trinity, nothing about the canon of Scripture, and nothing about the role of the Roman Emperor.

Fun Fact: It also established the dating of Resurrection Sunday, relative as it is now to the Jewish lunar calendar.

Why it was important? Well it was the first council, which makes it pretty important in that it was a cooperative effort. Essentially, it formally acknowledged what Christianity was going to be. The Nicaean/Arian controversy would dominate the early church for decades, also establishing the agenda for other important historical moves. Also, it recognized that in Jesus, God himself came to meet us, and did not send a proxy. Thus Jesus is rightly praised and we are rightly humbled by his action. It also gave us the Nicene Creed, which many churches recite from time to time.

How’d I do? Any topics you’d like to see compressed down? Longer discussion allowed in the comment

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10 thoughts on “Church History Minute: First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea

  1. My issue with this council is that it was only “ecumenical” in the sense that the Romans used it. It set the stagefor the imperialization of Christianity and the power struggles between Athanasius, Coptic Christians, and the emperors.

    That may be more controversial, or simply more information, than you wanted to include in the minute, but I do think it is worth noting.

    • Well yes it is controversial, but it is also debatable. While may have been the case that it set such a stage for later imperialization of Christianity, considering the general direction of the Roman Empire, this seemed inevitable anyway. I would also argue that the council was truly ecumenical in that numerous bishops or church fathers were included, most from the Eastern end of the empire. It is true that Christians outside the Roman Empire (such as in India) were not included in the council, but that might have been for logisitical reasons, especially considering that there seems to have been later contact between these Churches and those in the council.

      Also I think we need to look at motivations here, which are also highly speculative. It seems to me that the genuine concern was the Christ presented in history, of which many then (and today, including myself) believe that scripture bears witness to. I should clarify this slightly in that the canon had yet to be solidified, yet it seems that the four gospels were already achieving authoritative status as were some of Paul’s letters. From these (the later being a reflection on the history of the person Christ) one can infer Nicene Chrisianity, though certainly not as formalized, as opposed to Arianism.

      It is entirely possible (if not likely) that preserving this, over what was seen as a belligerent refusal to change teaching by followers of Arius, is what motivated the council. This did lead to something of a power struggle, but seems that Athanasius was more victim than perpetrator in the resulting power struggle. The power struggle between emperors and others was inevitable, and it is debatable whether the Nicene vein was a larger contingency than the non-Nicene Coptics who attacked Athanasius.

      Regardless, I do personally affirm Nicaea and so I think it is little surprise this is my perspective. I am fairly conservative in my theology, but I think that Nicaea affirms the reality that was present in the historical person Jesus Christ. But yes, because it is both controversial and highly speculative/debatable, I did not include it here.

      • I would agree that I affirm Nicaea as well—at least in theology though not politics. Truthfully, given the scope of its historical influence, it’s probably impossible to conceive of a western and perhaps many eastern forms of Christianity without Nicaea. And quite frankly, I think Nicaea is an excellent interpretation of the biblical revelation (of course, it also influenced strongly what would count as the New Testament canon as it was in the final stages of formation). Theologically, I don’t find Arius convincing.

        But where I want to push is to say that, yes, understanding what happened is speculative, but no more so than any other historical investigation of the time period. In fact, in my opinion, the case for the political side of Nicaea is very strong. The struggle is that there are denominations and identities that have a longstanding, vested interest in a particular interpretation of the events. I do not want to dismantle the theology of those groups or individuals, but I do think it needs reformation as we come to understand what was at play in the time period.

        Athanasius, for example, who wrote the magisterial ‘On the Incarnation’ that continues to define western Christianity and is one of the most complete interpretations of the Nicene council. However, Athanasius was a notorious power broker in Alexandria—using such theological statements as a rungs in the church’s power structure, arresting and torturing Christians who objected his ascent to the bishopric (in their view an illegitimate ascent), using his power over the city’s ports in an attempt to leverage against the emperor, and many other deeds that fall far short of his influence and theology.

        I don’t bring him up simply to say it is all invalid. Instead, I would hope that Christians can recognize and address many of the darker sides of our history, affirm that much good can still come out of much bad, and look for healing and forgiveness rather than covering over the issues altogether. Joerg Rieger, a UMC theologian at Perkins, is an excellent example of someone who is working to construct a critical theology that affirms what is best while addressing the problem of Empire—especially as it reverberates from Constantine to postcolonialism today.

      • Also, I forgot to say that I do like this concept that you’ve got going. It’s a great format.

  2. Deborah on said:

    Trey this was just right and so helpful. I love the idea of these theological bites..just right for me to think about and incorporate into my knowledge base. The information broadens my understanding of the historical richness of my faith and why I may or may not believe what I do. It challenges me to rethink positions and connects me to the “faith of my fatherse”. Thanks so much.

  3. Hey, I’ve become a big fan of your work. As a layman, I find your brief works stimulating and edifying.

    As a hobby and outlet for our own interests, a friend and I have a web-based magazine, “Weekly Southern Arts.” I wrote an article about Pelagius and Augustine awhile back and then discovered your site. I amended the article to encourage people to check out your article on the recent Southern Baptist “Statement of Faith.” If interested, you can find my article at: http://www.weeklysouthernarts.com/king-arthur-pelagius-and-original-sin.html

    Whether you choose to read it or not, please know how much I appreciate your efforts on this site.

    Thanks, and God bless you.

  4. I love Church History. Thanks for making it a topic in your posts.

  5. onetenthblog on said:

    Reblogged this on One Tenth Blog.

  6. Pingback: The Nicene Creed « One Tenth Blog

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