In the midst of the debate surrounding the teachings of Arius, Constantine, who was deeply concerned about the effects of a divided church on his empire, brought church bishops together to settle the disputes. On May 20, AD 325, the bishops convened at Nicaea for the first ecumenical, or church-wide, council. Constantine not only called the council but also presided over it. Again, we see an interesting, complicated mix of the affairs of church and state. Why did Constantine have such a vested interest in this theological debate? For him, Christianity was a unifying force in the empire. To allow such divisions and controversies to continue could undermine his careful work of bringing the empire together.
Leading the charge against Arianism was the bishop of Alexandria, Alexander. Also at the council was a deacon from Alexandria, Athanasius. Athanasius would play a key role in the debate surrounding Arianism and the fight for biblical, orthodox belief concerning the divine nature of Christ.
After hearing Arian supporters defend their doctrine, the council vehemently rejected the teachings of Arius. They recognized that to say Christ was anything less than fully God was heretical. A term was used to describe this relationship between God the Father and God the Son: homoousios, which means “of the same substance.” Christ is of the same substance as God the Father. This term was controversial because it is not found in Scripture, and debate would resurface around its use.
To clearly articulate the orthodox belief and condemn Arianism, the council decided that a creed needed to be written. This creed was later revised at the Council of Constantinople and, in its revised form, it is the creed we know today as the Nicene Creed. At Nicaea, part of the creed stated, “We believe in one God . . . and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father.”
In what ways do you see this creed addressing the teachings of Arius?
The Council exiled Arius, and removed bishops who supported his teaching and refused to accept the creed. As we will see, the controversy surrounding the teachings of Arius was far from over. The doctrinal issues of the church became concerns of the state. The growing practice was for rulers of the empire to not hesitate to intervene in church matters. This would later prove to be problematic. Constantine would later bring Arius back from exile, and eventually he would exile Athanasius, who was in turn brought back by one of Constantine’s sons, and then later exiled again by another one of Constantine’s sons.
Want to hear more of today’s conversation? https://vimeo.com/189850437