Separated by more than seventeen hundred years and vastly different cultures, we sometimes struggle to understand the vehemence that divided the young church over theological issues. Last week, we saw what seemed like the final word between Arianism and orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Arianism, Arius’s belief that God the Father created the Son, making the Son subordinate to the Father, was condemned as heretical by the council of more than three hundred bishops. But Arianism didn’t disappear. Its adherents regrouped, gaining new followers. They formed powerful alliances with many of the emperors and eventually gained dominance. They called for the Nicaean Creed to be thrown out.
Grey-haired bishops weren’t the only ones involved in the debate. Everyday Christians understood how this division threatened to tear the church apart. As Gregory of Nazianzus later noted, you couldn’t get your shoes repaired without getting into a theological debate.
While the Arians gained support, the orthodox continued to argue that Christ was fully God, equal with God the Father. If Christ was not fully God, He could not have brought salvation. Nothing less was at stake than the question, “Could Christ save us?” The outcome would affect every aspect of Christian life for centuries to come.
church and state
In addition to these concerns, the church found herself in a new relationship with the state. The connection can seem abstract to us, but in their time, both sides saw a distinct correlation between the relationship of the Father and the Son and the relationship between the church and the state. They saw the Son’s kingdom as the church and God the Father’s kingdom as the empire. The Arians argued the church should be subordinate to the state because they saw Christ as subordinate to the Father. The orthodox argued that the Son is equal with God the Father and therefore, the church is equal to the state in power and authority.
As one writer puts it, “Ultimately, the issue was, can God truly be present in a carpenter executed by the empire as a criminal, or is God more like the emperor on his throne?” In light of this, it’s no surprise that many emperors favored the Arian view. Not only did it make them appear more like Christ, but it gave them political power over the church as well.
a change in tide
Emperor Theodosius, unlike many of his predecessors, firmly held to the Nicene Creed but struggled with the answer to this new relationship. Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, counseled him, “The Emperor is in the church, not above it.” Theodosius seems to have come to the same belief.
One year after declaring Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Theodosius turned his attention to uniting the church. In 381, he called for a council to meet in the capital, the city of Constantinople. By that time, the city was completely Arian, without a single church teaching the orthodox view. When Gregory of Nanzianzus came to the city, he began leading an orthodox service. Word spread and a mob attacked Gregory in the street. Arian monks repeatedly broke into his service, destroying the altar.
Ultimately, the council upheld the orthodox view and condemned Arianism for a second time. They expanded the Nicene Creed to clarify the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. For the first time, the Church had a fully trinitarian creed.
The restoration of Nicene orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople was due largely to the faithful work of three men: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. We know them as the Cappadocian Fathers and will look at each of their fascinating stories tomorrow.
What was at stake for the church at the Council of Constantinople?
Sign Up for Anno Domini Vol. 1 Emails
get the daily devotionals delivered to your email every morning