Why Was The First Council of Nicaea Important?

Updated on April 6, 2018

Introduction

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.

A damaged depiction of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria
A damaged depiction of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria

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.

Imperial Christianity

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.


Footnotes:

^ 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

Comments

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    • Peopleofthebook profile imageAUTHOR

      B A Johnson 

      5 months ago

      Tony Muse,

      Thank you for commenting!

      Easter (as a simple celebration of the anniversary of Christ's resurrection) certainly goes back to the earliest days of the church, but you are right in noting this was never intended to be a dogmatic observance required of Christians. It is sad that such a joyful celebration should have caused so much division!

    • Tony Muse profile image

      Tony Muse 

      5 months ago from Texas, USA

      It is interesting that issue of Easter was of such high importance. The Passover was but a shadow of Christ and it was fulfilled in Christ. Nothing is mentioned in the New Testament of the need to continue celebrating Passover or the anniversary of the resurrection. It is my belief that Easter is nothing more than an amalgamation of Ishtar with Christianity, but that sort of activity is nothing new.

      As far as the nature of Christ? I believe that John 1:1 and the fact that Jesus stated "before Abraham was, I Am" says enough.

      Peace!

    • Peopleofthebook profile imageAUTHOR

      B A Johnson 

      5 months ago

      Charlie,

      Perhaps our disagreement is merely a matter of semantics, I don't claim that what the role of "Bishop" (which is synonymous with "Elder") became in the Constantinian era of the church is what the apostles intended when they appointed elders in the churches. I agree, the elder is a servant of the body of Christ, not a master - but that does not mean an elder was not intended to govern those put under his authority.

      After all, Paul acknowledged that the Elder who provided sound leadership was worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17), and considered leadership a gift of the spirit (1 Corinthians 12:28).

      "Elder" and "deacon," are titles which carry with them specific job descriptions. Using a title in and of itself is not wrong unless it is used in a way that is expressly denounced (the use of the term "father" for clergy of the Roman church for instance.) If you prefer to use the terms "Elder" as opposed to "bishop" (or more commonly now "pastor") then by all means, that is your choice, but don't make the mistake of thinking Paul and Barnabas did not appoint Elders to be leaders of the church as well as servants.

    • Peopleofthebook profile imageAUTHOR

      B A Johnson 

      5 months ago

      John Harper,

      Thank you for your comment,

      While Constantine certainly wrote concerning the decisions of the council, he was not particularly involved in any decisions made there, so his character is not particularly significant in this regard.

      Additionally, while his sentiments toward the Jews were certainly not favorable, I think the reasons he expressed against them were more religious in nature, "anti-Semitic" implies a racial component I'm not sure you could demonstrate (cf Life of Constantine, book 3, chap 18)

      As for the formation of the Roman Catholic Church, that was a long evolution not particularly affected by the First Council of Nicaea. Please see the article below for a treatment of the formation of the Papacy:

      https://owlcation.com/humanities/How-Did-The-Roman...

    • aguasilver profile image

      John Harper 

      5 months ago from Malaga, Spain

      It was important because it showed that Constantine was a antisemitic, and as God is NOT antisemitic, hence he was not speaking Gods truth.

      From that deception the RCC was formed, and the Protestants continued the error.

      The age of the Gentiles has now finished, and a new period is starting, as Gods Kingdom Government is applied.

      God wants a personal relationship with Him.

      Churches want their members to have their relationship through them.

      God has decided to stop that, so exciting times ahead!

      https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/const1-east...

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 

      5 months ago from From Kingdom of God living on Planet earth in between the oceans

      The reason for these scriptures is clear, they are also warnings like the ones that say “do not be deceived”. They show the qualities of the men that God has supplied to serve them so they do not do as the modern church system does, follow apostate men that have not the Spirit. The men that meet these qualification fully can be trusted because they have NO personal ambition, NO desire for anyone to follow them, NO desire to build their own kingdom and they will lead ONLY TO CHRIST and show how to follow HIM by word and example, while teaching them not to follow any man.

      Scripture is clear in many place it states, there are to be NO worldly type leaders in the true church of Christ. Paul makes it clear and sets the example of a true God anointed man and his place in this age . He says we are to be bondservants. A bondservant is one who is free to do whatever he desires BUT decides his master can better guide him than his own spirit. Only those that actually turn their life over to the Holy Spirit of the living God can be anointed by God. He has to be more than our Lord by mouth he must be our master. No man anointed by God has need of a title.

      Matt 20:25-28

      25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave — 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

      Mark 10:42-45

      But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. 44 And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

      The only valid title I can find in scripture is brother or sister. All the titles men give themselves are not of God, they make the things that man are to do (ministry functions)into title and assume positions that are not there.

      2 Cor 11:12-15 But what I do, I will also continue to do, that I may cut off the opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the things of which they boast. 13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, TRANSFORMING THEMSELVES INTO APOSTLES OF CHRIST14 And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.

      Look at the original apostles they knew there are no titles in the church of Jesus Christ and they also understood that they (and we who are) the real disciples of Christ are the only ones commissioned by Christ to make disciples for him.

      1 Tim 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the commandment of God our Savior and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope,

      Titus 1:1-2 Paul, a bondservant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God's elect and the acknowledgment of the truth which accords with godliness,

      Phil 1:1 Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ,

      1 Cor 1:12-13 Now I say this, that each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or "I am of Christ." 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

      We are the Royal priesthood of God and as Ephesians says we are to DO the work of the ministry.

      1 Peter 2:9-10 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.

      Elder and deacon are things that men do and are not titles. They are available when the people come together (church whenever and wherever they are, not a building to go to) to keep order and see that the ONLY doctrines are those of Christ. And of course scripture shows other things they do but never are they given a title. They know that they are to SERVE ALL the brethren and that there is one Leader in this age, Jesus Christ the firstborn son of God.. He Alone is the head of man and any man saying he is a leader (head of any man) in this age is a LIAR and usurping the place of Christ.

    • Peopleofthebook profile imageAUTHOR

      B A Johnson 

      5 months ago

      Charlie, you have yet to answer on the numerous scriptures that expressly lay out the qualifications for elders and deacons in the church. Why should such passages exist if there is no clergy?

    • Peopleofthebook profile imageAUTHOR

      B A Johnson 

      5 months ago

      Thank you Louise, I am very glad you enjoyed it!

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      5 months ago from Norfolk, England

      This was really interesting to read. I've not heard of The Council of Nicaea before.

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 

      5 months ago from From Kingdom of God living on Planet earth in between the oceans

      The very makeup of the council is against the new testament scriptures that control this age,

      The only thing good about this council of nicaea is it shows proof that the church of Jesus Christ had already been taken over by apostate man before 325 AD. In other words the words of Christ “do not be deceived” had been totally ignored after the original apostles were gone, and the evil men who had appointed themselves as to non existent positions in what had begun as the church of Christ as He warned.

      2 Cor 11:12-15 But what I do, I will also continue to do, that I may cut off the opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the things of which they boast. 13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.

      1 Tim 4:1-3

      4 Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, 3

      The church of Jesus Christ has NO CLERGY, ALL disciples of Christ and only they are the Christ authorized ministry in this age.

      1 Peter 2:9-10

      9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.

      Rom 16:17-19

      17 Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. 18 For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus* Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. 1

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