What Are the Sources for the First Council of Nicaea?
When the name “Nicaea” is heard, an array of diverse, conflicting, even contradicting notions come to mind. In recent years the Fist Council of Nicaea has become the subject of intense interest, particularly thanks to the efforts of pop-entertainment and ill-informed apologists. It is not difficult to find a number of articles confidently asserting what did and did not take place at that council, but ultimately, the best way to determine what is true and what is false – or what can be known and what is pure fiction – is to consult the historical sources.
What are the Sources for the First Council of Nicaea
When studying events in history, it is necessary to rely on at least two kinds of sources – primary and secondary. A primary source is a document written or dictated by an individual who was directly involved or witness to the events in question. Naturally, although the natural bias of the source(s) must be taken into account, primary sources are of prime importance when determining what took place. Secondary sources are those sources which gathered their information from primary sources, but had no direct involvement in the events relayed. Often times, it is only through secondary sources that we are able to have access to primary sources which may be quoted or excerpted in these secondary texts.
Broadly speaking, there are three primary sources for the First Council of Nicaea and as many as six secondary, although two of these later sources might rather be considered tertiary. Other sources, including such vital ones as a letter from Nicaea itself are known, but they offer few if any details as to what took place.
The primary sources are the accounts of Athanasius, Eusebius, and Eustathius (though this final source only comes to us via Theodoret’s ecclesiastical history). The secondary sources are the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomenus (Sozomen), Theodoret, and Rufinius, as well as excerpts and references to Sabinus’ “Acts of the Synods,” and an “Epitome” (summary) of an ecclesiastical history by Philostorgius.
Of the three primary sources for the First Council of Nicaea, Eusebius Pamphilus of Caesarea is perhaps the best known. Eusebius was the Bishop of Caesarea and was a prominent figure at the Council of Nicaea itself. He further earns distinction as an excellent source for the fact that he was neither an advocate of the Arian cause nor of what would become known as “Nicene Orthodoxy.” Indeed, Eusebius remained somewhat of a moderate voice, even long after he willingly signed his name to the Orthodox Creed at Nicaea – so much so that many still question whether he ought to be considered Arian or Orthodox.
Eusebius is considered the “Father of Church History” for his ecclesiastical history which was completed in 324 A.D. – a year before Nicaea. But this was not his only work and obviously cannot be a source for the council in question. Eusebius later composed “The Life of Constantine1,” which was somewhat of a continuation of his previous work and which holds a detailed description of the Council of Nicaea. Additionally, we possess copies of a letter Eusebius composed to his church in Caesaria2, which is the only document containing details of the First Nicaean Council written the same year as the council itself.
Athanasius of Alexandria
Although Athanasius’ name would later become synonymous with Nicaean Orthodoxy, at the time of the Council of Nicaea he was only a deacon and unable to speak at the council. But according to Rufinius, Athanasius was indeed present, assisting his aging Bishop Alexander as the proceedings unfolded3. As such, Athanasius represents another witness to the council.
Athanasius was a simple man and never undertook such a grand history as that put forward by Eusebius of Caesarea, but he was a passionate defender of orthodoxy and wrote a number of letters and treatises among which are a “Defense of the Nicene Definition4” and a Letter to the Bishops of Africa5. In these letters, Athanasius recalls the events at Nicaea to defend the orthodox faith both as an encouragement to those standing in the face of a then powerful Arian Imperial Church and to urge those swayed toward the Arian cause to return to orthodoxy.
Eustathius was the Bishop of Antioch at the time of the Council of Nicaea and may have given an address to his fellow bishops there. Although his account of the council does not come to us directly in an independent work, an excerpt still exists in Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History6.
The most important of the secondary sources are the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates Scholasticus7, Theodoret8, Rufinius9, and Sozomen10, all of which contain a detailed account of the council of Nicaea. Although each of these rely heavily on Eusebius and Athanasius, they include details and accounts from other sources which might not otherwise have been available.
Beside these, two other sources deserve some mention, though their value is limited to presenting some reference to the Council of Nicaea from voices which oppose Nicaean Orthodoxy. These works are the “Acts of the Synods” by Sabinus, and the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius which remains only in a condensed summary by Photius the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Unfortunately, Sabinus’ work only comes to us by citations from other writers, in particular Socrates Scholasticus. Sabinus was a follower of the Macedonian sect (adherents to the teachings of Macedonius), and had no love for the Nicene Creed nor those who espoused it. It is notable that his primary citer – Socrates – much like Eusebius before him has been questioned in regards to where he fell on the issue of Orthodoxy. Socrates presents a very balanced view, though never affirming the Arian position, even so, he cautioned that not too much confidence should be put in Sabinus’ assertions11. Sabinus’ account (at least as cited) does not conflict with the fundamental facts of the Council at Nicaea presented by the other writers, although he does accuse the majority of bishops at Nicaea as being ignoramuses and simpletons11!
Photius’ summary of the ecclesiastical history by Philostorgius also agrees with other accounts in its sparse details of the Council of Nicaea itself12, although the circumstances surrounding and following the council certainly reflect Philostorgius’ Arian theology. As Photius’ summary of each chapter is brief and his own orthodox views are made clear, this work is never the less valuable as a somewhat more cohesive overview of an Arian history of the First Council of Nicaea.
A List of Sources on the Council of Nicaea
- Life of Constantine
- Epistle of Eusebius (Socrates, Book 1, chapter 8. Athanasius, Defense of the Nicene Definition)
- Defense of the Nicene Definition
- Synodal Letter to the Bishops in Africa
- Excerpt in Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 7
- Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 8
- Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapters 6-11
- Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapters 1-6
- Ecclesiastical History, Book 1 chapters 17-25
- Photius’ Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, book 1 chapters 9-10
1. Eusebius, Life of Constantine
2. Eusebius, Epistle of Eusebius (Socrates, Book 1, chapter 8. Athanasius, Defense of the Nicene Definition)
3. Rufinius, Book 10, chapter 5
4. Athanasius, Defense of the Nicene Definition
5. Athanasius, Synodal Letter to the Bishops in Africa
6. Theodoret, Book 1 chapter 7
7. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 8
8. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapters 6-11
9.Rufinius of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapters 1-6
10. Sozomenus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1 chapters 17-25
11. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, chapter 8
12. Photius, Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, book 1 chapters 9-10