Why Was The First Council of Nicaea Important?
Few events in the history of the church are so widely recognized and yet little understood as the First Council of Nicaea held in A.D. 325. Many misunderstand the reasons for which it was called, and for many the synod’s true significance has been overshadowed by an ever evolving mythology surrounding the council. Why was the First Nicaean Council important? And what impact did it have on the future of Christianity?
To better understand the first Nicaean Council’s significance, it is important that we first briefly summarize the events leading up to, and immediately following the great synod.
An Overview of the First Council of Nicaea
The council was convened primarily to address two controversies* – the proper date for the celebration of Easter and “The Arian Controversy.” Of these two, the latter was the most significant. The dispute over whether Easter should be celebrated at Passover according to the Jewish calendar (as was practiced in the east) or on the day of Christ’s resurrection according to the Roman calendar (as was the Western custom) had been a point of contention since at least the second century, but Eastern and Western bishops had been able to set aside this difference1. The Arian Controversy, however, seemed to many to strike at the very heart of the Christian faith.
The controversy erupted when an Alexandrian presbyter – Arius – began teaching that Jesus Christ – while still divine – was not “of one substance” with The Father and was not intrinsically eternal, as he had in fact come into existence before time began. This was not a dispute over the divinity of Christ, as the first Arians fully held that Jesus Christ was Truly God2,^ it was a dispute over the nature of the Son’s relation to the Father.
This dispute concerning the central figure of the Christian faith quickly enveloped the whole church. Bishop Alexander convened a regional Synod which condemned Arius and cast him from communion with the church, but Arius’ views were shared by others, including such influential figures as the bishop of Nicomedia – Eusebius (not to be confused with Eusebius Pamphilus). The controversy spread beyond Alexandria, and the admonitions of Bishops and even Emperor Constantine could not reconcile Alexander and Arius. Finally, with no apparent alternative, Emperor Constantine called for a council of bishops to be held at Nicaea in order to settle the matter.
Between 250 and 318** bishops from all across the Empire – and even outside its borders – gathered3. After hearing the cause of the Arians, championed primarily by Eusebius of Nicomedia, the council decided almost unanimously on the side of Alexander4. Arius and all who supported him were condemned as heretics, and Constantine imposed a penalty of exile on any who would not agree to the faith as espoused in a creed drafted by the bishops at Nicaea – the Nicaean Creed. Arius, and a small number of bishops were deposed and sent into exile when they would not recant.
After the Council of Nicaea
This victory for the cause of Nicene Orthodoxy was short lived, however. Shortly after the First Council of Nicaea, Arius and the Arian bishops were recalled from their exile. Eusebius of Nicomedia found his way once again into the Emperor’s favor to the point that the Emperor was baptized by the Arian bishop when on his deathbed. Constantine’s successors favored the Arians who quickly gained control of the most influential stations, and successive Imperial edicts turned the weight of Imperial force against those who espoused the orthodox faith. Bishop Alexander’s successor, Athanasius, was exiled five times because he would not recant his Nicene orthodoxy, and a number of Arian councils were called in support of the Arian faith over and against that of the Nicene Creed. It was some time before the Nicene church was able to again reestablish its dominance over the Imperial Church.
The Significance of the First Council of Nicaea
The First Council of Nicaea presents two landmarks in the development of the church and Western history. It represents the first “ecumenical” council – a council represented by representatives from across the vast majority of the Christian world, and secondly it marks the first time when a civil penalty was used to enforce Christian orthodoxy.
The Council of Nicaea was not the first church council by any stretch of the imagination. The Acts of the Apostle records the first council of the church taking place in Jerusalem very early on after the establishment of the church itself5 and a number of other, localized councils are recorded from the second and third centuries such as those that condemned Paul of Somosata in the mid third century for his claim that Christ was merely a man. As noted before, an Alexandrian council was convened in the early fourth century which condemned Arius’ teachings shortly before the council of Nicaea was called. What was unique about the first Council of Nicaea is that it was the first time when representatives from virtually every corner of Christendom were able to come together under the same roof to share their faith and their traditions.
Although the First Council of Nicaea is noted for the controversies that necessitated its being called, when we considering how diverse a crowd of bishops gathered at Nicaea, some even coming from Persia and Scythia3 – beyond the borders of Rome – it is almost astounding how quickly and relatively easily they united under a single creed. Even lesser points of contention, such as the celebration of Easter, were satisfactorily agreed upon by the whole. Although the Eastern Bishops had always celebrated according to the Jewish calendar, they agreed to celebrate from then on according to the Western custom.
In this sense the First Council of Nicaea should represent a high point of church history – a moment when the whole Christian world was able to unite, if only for a time, under a single roof, and profess a single, orthodox creed which was held from Britannia to Persia and beyond. But the second significant feature of the council presents a far more sobering landmark in the history of the church.
The bishops at Nicaea were nearly unanimous in their profession of the Nicene Creed against Arius and his views, but the events that followed virtually nullified the council’s decision. The church as an imperial institution+ quickly abandoned and condemned the Nicene Creed as it related to the nature of Jesus Christ, but what remained in place was the penalty for not adhering to the recognized orthodox view.
When Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia would not recant their claim that “there was a time when (Jesus) was not,” they were deposed and exiled along with several other bishops who likewise would not agree to the Nicene profession. This was the first moment in history where Christian Orthodoxy could be enforced by civil law. Prior to this time the church had suffered the persecution of Pagan Rome, but now Christianity had become the dominant religion and wielded the sword of authority. For a fleeting moment the church seemed content to live by that sword, but just as quickly it was put beneath its blade once again. Christians were no longer persecuted for professing their faith, it was how that faith was professed that would determine whether they would live in peace or die.
Even after the period of “Arian Christianity” had passed, indeed, even after the whole of the Western Empire had collapsed, this legacy of enforcing a state-defined orthodoxy would continue to bear its bitter fruit, culminating in notorious inquisitions and the Protestant Reformation – stained as it was with the blood of martyrs and that of warriors in the brutal wars that followed in its wake.
^ Although the use of the term "truly God" may be somewhat misleading. Although Arius' letters seem to indicate an acknowledgement of the divinity of Christ, Athanasius' examination of one of Arius works "Thalia" suggests that Arius taught that "God" was a conferred title, rather than an intrinsic one. (See Athanasius' Against The Arians). This version of Arianism described by Athanasius does not seem to have been understood by many more moderate voices, and some (such as Eusebius of Nicomedia) claim that Arius was misrepresented.
* Additionally, a lesser schism in Egypt helped to prompt the synod. Once convened, a number of other matters were brought to the attention of the council. The decisions concerning these are detailed in Rufinius’ Ecclesiastical History – book 10, chapter 6.
** Rufinius, book 10, chapter 1
+ Imperial institution in terms of it being accepted and supported. Christianity did not become the state religion until the Edict of Theodosius in 380A.D.
1. Fragment of Irenaeus, Eusebius, Book 5, chap24
2. CF. Arius’ letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia.
Eusebius of Nicomedia’s letter to Paulinus of Tyre
3. Life of Constantine, Book 3, chapter 7
4. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book 1
5. Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15