The Council Of Nicea
By David K Bernard
In The Early Fourth Century a great controversy erupted in Alexandria, Egypt, between Arius, a presbyter (local minister), and Alexander, his bishop, over the deity of Jesus Christ. Alexandria was a major center of Greek culture and philosophy, which heavily influenced both sides of the debate. The controversy spread rapidly and threatened the unity of the institutional church. Although Alexander excommunicated Arius, Arius received support from some influential people, including Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia.
When Constantine succeeded in becoming sole emperor of Rome in A.D. 324, he publicly embraced Christianity. Politically, he saw Christianity as an effective tool of unifying his domain and therefore viewed the Arian controversy as a significant threat to his goal. To solve the problem, in 325 he convened the first ecumenical council of Christendom since Bible days, paying for the delegates to come to the town of Nicea, near the imperial residence.
The central issue at the Council of Nicea was the identity of Jesus Christ in relation to the Godhead. The main questions were, Is Jesus truly God? and Are the Father and the Son of the same essence? The council was not strictly a debate over modalism (a form of Oneness belief) versus trinitarianism, although modalism was a factor. As things turned out historically, it was more of a debate as to how to define the second person of the trinity.
Some of the participants were basically modalistic or Oneness in their thinking. In fact, one prominent member of the victorious party, Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra, vigorously promoted a form of modalism after the council, and another, Eustathius, bishop of Antioch, was later condemned for modalism. Moreover, many of the average participants, who may not have really understood the theological dispute, could have had predominantly Oneness concepts.
The catalyst for the controversy, however, was the doctrine of Arius. Essentially, he took to an extreme position of the subordinationism doctrine taught by the Greek Apologists (second-century writers who defended Christianity) and the early trinitarians (third century). They held that Jesus was a second divine person subordinate to the Father. For support, the Arians particularly appealed to the early
trinitarian writer Origen.
Arius said there is one God, not a trinity, and that Jesus is not truly God but, in effect, a demigod. He is a created being of greater rank than humans but not equal to the Father. The Arian position is equivalent to that of Jehovah’s Witnesses today.
At the Council of Nicea the leading spokesman against Arius was Athanasius, a young archdeacon from Alexandria who later succeeded Alexander as bishop. He taught that there are three persons in one God and that these three persons are coequal, coeternal, and coessential (or consubstantial, of the same substance). The debate centered on the Father and the Son; neither side spoke definitively about the Holy Spirit. Primarily, the Arians attacked the deity of Jesus while Athanasius defended it, saying that Jesus is equal to the Father in every way yet a second person.
Three factions developed at the council: a minority of Arians, a minority of Athanasians, and a majority who did not fully understand the issues involved but who wanted peace. In general, this third group took an intermediate position, but it is difficult to characterize them as a whole. Historians sometimes call many in this group Origenists or Semi-Arians. The majority did not necessarily embrace the complete trinitarian doctrine of Athanasius, but they eventually voted with him in defense of Christ’s deity and against the Arian view.
Athanasius considered all who opposed Arianism to be on his side, and some of his strongest supporters at this time were, or turned out to be, modalists. The creed that the Council of Nicea passed clearly rejected Arianism, but it did not definitely establish trinitarianism or reject modalism.
Athanasius used four lines of reasoning to uphold the deity of Christ:
(1) The Scriptures teach it.
(2) The church has always worshipped Jesus.
(3) To be our Savior, Jesus has to be God.
(4) He is the Logos (Word), and based on philosophical considerations,
the Logos has to be God. He argued that Jesus is of the same essence
as the Father.
It is easy to see how Athanasius’ position could appeal to a Oneness believer. Faced with a choice between Arius and Athanasius on the deity of Jesus Christ, Oneness believers would choose the latter. In fact, the Arians objected that the doctrine of Athanasius sounded too much like that of Sabellius, a prominent modalist of the third century.
When the council convened, Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia offered an Arian creed, which the assembled bishops immediately rejected. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea proposed a compromise creed that satisfied almost everyone, but Athanasius and his group objected because it was ambiguous and did not resolve the issue. Wanting the widest agreement possible, Constantine pressed for inclusion of the word homoousios (“same essence”) to describe the Father and the Son. His personal
advisor, Bishop Hosius of Cordova, probably gave him this suggestion.
In the end, persuaded by the oratory of Athanasius and heeding the bidding of the emperor, the council agreed to use the word homoousios, affirming that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father. The emperor pronounced the resulting creed to be divinely inspired, promulgated it as the law of the land, and insisted that every bishop at the council sign it or be deposed and exiled. Only Arius and two bishops refused to sign the creed, and they were exiled. Eusebius of Nicomedia and two other bishops did not sign the attached condemnatory clause and were removed from office. Some of the signers had strong reservations, however, and some, such as Eusebius of Caesarea, promptly began interpreting it contrary to its intent.
The creed formulated by the Council of Nicea, which is not the so-called Nicene Creed used today, affirmed belief in “one God, the Father almighty… and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only begotten; that is, of the essence [ousia of the Father, God of God, light of light, very [true] God of very [true] God, begotten not made, being of one substance [homoousiosl with the Father … and in the Holy Ghost.”
This terminology is compatible with both Oneness and trinitarian thinking, although the clause “God of God” may erroneously imply a distinction of persons. Athanasius believed one divine person was begotten from another divine person, but a Oneness believer could use the same words to mean the one God came in flesh and therefore God who dwelt in Jesus is the same as God before the Incarnation.
The original creed directly refutes Arianism by saying that Jesus is of one substance with the Father. To the creed itself was appended a clause pronouncing an anathema (curse) upon various Arian statements. One of these can be seen as incompatible with modern Oneness terminology, for it denounces the view that there was a time when the Son was not, and Oneness theology says the role of the Son began with the Incarnation. The purpose of the clause was not to refute modalism, however, but the Arian idea that the divine nature of Christ had a
Ironically, another portion of the anathema clause contradicts modern trinitarianism terminology, as well as that of Origen, for it denounces
the view that the Father and Son are of a different hypostasis. As used here and in Hebrews 1:3, hypostasis basically means “substance,” but trinitarians later began using it to mean “person” and affirming that indeed the Son was a different hypostasis from the Father.
In summary, the Nicene Council was a clear rejection of Arianism but not a clear rejection of modalism. From a historical perspective, it was the first official step in the establishment of trinitarianism, but at the time that was by no means clear. From the trinitarian perspective of Athanasius, it vindicated the coequality and coessence of two divine persons, the Father and the Son, but some of his most vocal supporters did not accept the distinction of persons and some of his most vocal critics saw it as an endorsement of Sabellianism.
To put the Council of Nicea in historical perspective, briefly here are the major steps in the development of trinitarianism.
About 150 the Greek Apologists, beginning with Justin, defined the Word to be the Son, described the Word/Son as a second divine being begotten by God the Father at a point in time before creation, and said that the Word was subordinate to God. A threefold baptismal formula was introduced, along with some vague notions of threeness in relation to God.
About 210 Tertullian introduced the term trinity and formulated the concept of one God in three persons. In his trinity, the Father alone is eternal, and He is superior to the other two persons.About 215-30 Origen likewise promoted trinitarianism, contributing the key doctrines of the eternal Son and the eternal generation of the Son. He thereby prepared the way to elevate the status of the second person, although he himself still taught that the Father was superior to the
other two persons.
Under the influence of Athanasius, the Council of Nicea in 325 rejected Arianism. It declared that the Father and the Son are of the same substance, making them equal.
The Council of Constantinople in 381 followed the doctrine of Athanasius and the three theologians of Cappadocia. It clarified the status of the Holy Spirit and placed all three persons on an equal footing. The Nicene Creed used today reflects the theology established here.
Based in part on the theology of Augustine and produced sometime in the fifth to eighth centuries, the Athanasian Creed put in definitive form the doctrine of the victors of Nicea and Constantinople. It declared the coequality, coeternity, and consubstantiality of the three persons.
Over two hundred years passed from the first teaching of a plurality of divine persons (two) (c. 150) to the full acceptance of the doctrine of the trinity (381). About one hundred years passed from the introduction of trinitarianism (c. 200) to the time it became dominant (e. 300), and almost another century before it reached its definitive form and received official acceptance (381). Yet a third century passed before all significant political threats to it ended with the conversion of the victorious barbarians from Arianism to trinitarianism (496).
Brother Bernard is the associate editor in the Editorial Division and pastor of New Life United Pentecostal Church in Austin, Texas. This article was excerpted and adapted from his book A History of Christian Doctrine, Volume 1, published by Word Aflame Press.
This article is from The FORWARD magazine, January – March 1996, volume 28, No. 1. pages 2,3, & 10. This material is copyrighted and may be used for research and study purposes only.
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