Church History, Lesson 16: The Council of Nicaea and an Imperial Christianity

Council of Nicaea2Recap and Intro

In 318 AD, Arius, a Libyan-born pastor influenced by Origen, began teaching that Jesus was a creation of God who, at one time, did not exist.  A deacon in Alexandria, Athanasius, became his primary opponent.  Soon, the Greek-speaking Christian world became engulfed in this quarrel.

This disunity disturbed Constantine.  So, he convened what would later be called “The First Ecumenical Council” at Nicaea in 325 AD.  The exact number of participants is unknown.  The meeting included an overwhelming participation of Eastern bishops, with only six delegates from the West.




The Council Forms

By the end of 324 AD, Constantine decided the following year to celebrate his 20th anniversary of his troops acclaiming him as Emperor in York in 305.  He chose to invite Christian bishops to resolve their differences, hoping to make the peaceful resolution at Nicaea a part of his official celebrations.

So, he invited the bishops in the Empire to attend and take part in a council.  Since the debate was over Greek words and their meanings, the response from the Western bishops, who used Latin, was negligible.  The Bishop of Rome excused himself because of age and ill-health, sending two deacons to represent him.  The only Italian bishop to attend was Marcus of Calabria.  One bishop from Gaul and one from Illyria came, but none from Britain or Spain.  However, the Emperor’s ecclesiastical adviser, Hosius of Cordoba (in Spain), attended and acted as Constantine’s liaison.

From outside the Empire, two bishops came from the Crimea, two from Armenia, and one from Persia.

Dressed in royal robes of purple and decked with gold and precious stones, Constantine entered the Great Hall of his imperial palace and began the Council.  He told the bishops attending that they must resolve the issue, stressing how division in the Church was worse than war because it involved eternal souls.  He then asked the bishops to admit him to their debates, explaining his request.

From the moment when those two beings, created at the beginning, failed to observe the holy and divine decree, the weed [of ignorance about God] was born.  It has thrived and multiplied since God expelled [Adam and Eve] from the Garden….

In the passing days and years, many masses have been reduced to slavery.  But God has freed them from this burden through me, His servant, and will lead them into the total brilliance of eternal light.  So, my dear brothers, I believe with the purest confidence in God that I am set apart by a specific decision of Providence and by the brilliant benevolence of our eternal God.

  • What role does Constantine see himself fulfilling?


The Council opened at Nicaea on June 19, 325 AD.  Because of distance and travel time, before the official council, discussions took place over several weeks.  The various speakers made presentations, all setting out the specific claims of their different parties.


The Council Deliberates

The bishops assembled at Nicaea, seated on benches which ran down the length of the Great Hall on either side.  Church historian, Eusebius, reports over 250 attended.  The attending Bishop from Antioch, Eustathius, estimated about 270.

The first day, Constantine accepted scrolls, which were petitions for favors or redress.  Most of the appeals from the bishops dealt with another bishop, one claiming the other was heretical.  The next day, Constantine burned the entire set of scrolls before the Council, showing that he would offer no favoritism.  The debate will run its course, the truth is to win, and only after, will judgments be rendered.  At the Council, orthodox and heretic alike will receive equal voice.

Though theological, Constantine still presided over the debates, though he abstained from voting.  The rules of procedure were the same as those in the Roman Senate and town councils.  Constantine had a more involved role than a chairman of a meeting does today.  He posed the issue, asked participants for opinions, intervened himself in the debate, supporting or opposing various views, and selected which motions for the Council to consider.

Homoousios, a Disliked but Needed Term

Athanasius was not allowed to sit in the Council since he was a deacon.  So, he worked behind the scenes, passing information back and forth, influencing those who were willing to listen to him.  Arius, a presbyter, was in the thick of the proceedings.

Athanasius offered a threefold argument against Arianism.

  1. It undermined the doctrine of God, assuming the Trinity is not eternal.
  2. It made baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit irrational since all three were not God.
  3. It undermined the idea of Christ’s redemption for a fallen humanity, for only a divine Mediator could reestablish fellowship with God.

Everything boiled down to this.  Was Jesus “homoousios,” of the same substance, essence, and being as God the Father?  Or was Jesus “homoiousios,” of like or similar being to the Father.  How will this be resolved?  Most of the Arians were willing to accept an ambiguous formula, which would allow their beliefs without imposing them on others.

  • Do we find this “diversity in unity” in the Church today? In what ways?


In the debate, Eusebius rose and read the baptismal Creed used in Caesarea.  Here, we can see the beginnings of what will become the Nicene Creed.

Baptismal Creed of Caesarea Nicene Creed

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God from God, Light from Light, Life from Life, only-begotten Son, Firstborn of all creation, begotten of the Father before all the ages …



And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten from the being [ousia] of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same substance [homoousios] as the Father …



  • Though similar, what was added to the Nicene Creed?


All in the Council loved the Creed, but the Arians could still accept it.  For them, “God from God” expressed nothing offensive between the Son and the Father.  For, according to the Scriptures, all things are from God.

Every proposal to follow, the Arians could likewise accept.  We find these considered inclusions to the Creed recorded about Jesus:

  • The true Power and Image of the Father
  • In all things, exactly like the Father
  • Unalterable, as God without division
  • Living Wisdom, true Light, Way, Truth, unchanging and unaltering, the exact image of the Godhead and the substance, will, power, and glory of the Father

The Arians asserted, “Man is the image and glory of God,” so why not the Son.  As for “power,” Scripture alludes to the caterpillar and the locust as the power of the Lord (Joel 2:25).

Perhaps, following Hosius’ advice, Constantine suggested the term “homoousios,” of the same essence, to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son.

Homoousios, however, was earlier condemned in 268 AD.  Then the Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, used it to describe God the Father and His Word as being one without differentiating between the Son and the Father.  For Paul, to affirm the pre-existence of the Son was to profess in two Sons, two Christs.  Such was the baggage that came with homoousios, implying (at best) or teaching (at worst) the Son was an “extension” of the Father’s being, not a separate Person.

  • If Hosius did recommend homoousios to Constantine, why could he have done so without fully realizing the “baggage” associated with that word?


Though disliked for the possibility of allowing each Person of the Trinity to lose His distinctiveness, the council adopted this term because it was the only one the Arians would not accept.

Basil of Caesarea argued that Christians needed to understand the relation between the Father and Son as something different from that of the Creator and creature.  For him, the best way to safeguard the distinction was to speak of the likeness between the Father and the Son.  Since homoousios was a word used in the classification of animals, many disliked the term since Jesus was divine, not a creature.

Basil later wrote:

If I may express my own opinion, I would be prepared to accept the phrase [the Logos is] “like in substance” [homoiousios], provided that one adds to it the qualifier “without any difference.”  Then I would accept this as being the same as “of one substance” [homoousios], according to the sound understanding of that term.  This was the opinion of the fathers at Nicaea when they gave the Only Begotten such titles as “Light from Light” and “true God from true God” and then added, “of one substance” as a further clarification. [Epistle 9.3]

The Council shut down any thinking that Jesus was less than the Father in His divine Being.  So, the final form of the Nicene Creed contained, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”  Also added was the specific statement that the Son was “begotten, not made.”  This was to refute Arian statements such as, “He was created out of nothing” and “before Jesus was begotten, he did not exist.”

The Council declared the Son was not homoiousios, of similar substance, with the Father, but did not explain what homoousios, being of one substance, meant.  This ambiguity allowed some to think homoousios referred to a personal identity.  For others, it meant something much broader and generic.  This element of the individual’s interpretation enabled the Emperor to secure the assent of everyone except the Arians.  The meaning and clarification of homoousios will take place later in the Church.

The original Nicene Creed is as follows, in a more literal form.

We believe in one God, the Father, All-Powerful Creator of things, visible and invisible.

And in One Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten from the being [ousia] of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same substance [homoousios] as the Father, through whom all things came into being, things in Heaven and things on earth.  For us humans and for our salvation, He came down and was incarnated.  Being made man, He suffered, and on the third day, He rose up, and he ascended into heaven.  He is coming to judge both the living and the dead.

And in one Holy Spirit.

Three Libyan leaders, all from the birthplace of Arianism, were condemned.  One, of course, was the priest Arius.  The other two were Bishop Secundus of Ptolemais and Bishop Theonas of Marmarica.  Arius was exiled to Illyricum (Serbia).


Constantine’s Death

Two years before his death, Constantine told his bishops that his victories had been so shattering that peace now reigned everywhere.  He understood this as God’s providence working through him, which to him was apparent because the Barbarians were now converting to Christianity. (Athanasius Apology 2.86, 97).

Still influenced by Tertullian’s teaching to delay baptism because some sins were not forgivable, Constantine was not baptized until he lay dying in 337 AD.

Beginning with Constantine, emperors preferred Christian officials, though they did not systematically discriminate against pagan officials and soldiers in their careers.  However, in 416 AD, pagans were banned from assuming public functions.


The Nicene Creed Struggles

The Nicene Creed was the Creed, though not unchallenged, until Constantine’s death in 337.  The government of the empire was then divided among his three sons, Constantinus, Constans, and Constantius.  Constantius liked the Arians more than the Orthodox.  So, he held a succession of councils in 341, 351, 359, and 360 AD.  In them, the Church drafted creeds, which leaned away from the Nicene Creed toward Arianism.  Much of this stemmed from the distaste for homoousios.

Later, Emperor Theodosius I (ruled 379-95) affirmed the doctrinal formulations of Nicaea.  In 380 AD, he issued decrees calling all to accept the Nicene Creed.  In the following year, Arian churches were confiscated and handed over to the Catholics, and meetings of the heretics were banned.

In 381 AD, in Constantinople, the Church adopted a revised Nicene Creed.  It further expanded the section on the Holy Spirit.  It also shortened “begotten from the being [ousia] of the Father” to “begotten of His Father.”  The extra ousia was considered unnecessary since the Creed still retained homoousios, “of the same substance [homoousios] as the Father.”  This is the Creed we use today (excepting the later addition “and Son” referring to the Holy Spirit’s procession).


The Church Fathers Reflect on the Changing Church

To learn how those in the Church understood the change taking place under Constantine, we look at three Church Fathers.  They all endured persecution, interacted with Constantine during some of their life, and experienced the turn from persecution to privilege.

Lactantius (250 – 325 AD) was born in Africa.  The Emperor Diocletian hired him to serve as a professor of Latin Literature and Rhetoric.  He lost his job during Diocletian’s persecution and disappeared from public life.

Eusebius (263 – 339 AD) was born in Palestine and became the Bishop of Caesarea.  He spent nearly all his life in Palestine, except a short period of imprisonment in Egypt in the waning days of Christian persecution (311-313).

Athanasius (297-373 AD) we know.


To Greek philosophers, God was above all emotions and human passions, which they saw disturbed level-headed thinking and action.  To counteract this, Lactantius turned to the image of God as the father of a family.  A good father needs to discipline his children at times.

In his On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Lactantius saw Constantine’s actions against former persecutors of the Church as “a triumphant demonstration of the way in which recent events have illuminated the operation of God’s judgment in human history.”  Though we find this thinking in Romans 13, what we don’t see is linking the Church’s mission with the fortunes of the Empire, which is where Lactantius went.  He explained God’s way of ruling using the Roman father of the family as an example, who can be both angry and compassionate.


Eusebius understood history as progressive.  He celebrated God, the incarnation of the Logos [Word], altering human society and life forever, both individually and also at the community and social level.  Since Jesus entered human time, changing it, Eusebius saw human history as progressing higher toward a total communion with God.

So, Eusebius praised the “emperor for understanding very well the fact that Christ is the origin of his emperorship,” calling him “the friend of the Logos-Savior” (Tricennial Oration I, 3. II, 1).  Nothing strange here in that Christians understand their places of service as “callings” from God.  Where Eusebius goes over the top is to assert Constantine is “the one sovereign out of One, the image of the One Sovereign of all” (Tricennial Oration VII, 12).  The sole monarch, Constantine, reflects the one heavenly Monarch, God.  Like Lactantius, Eusebius links the Church’s mission with the fortunes of the Empire.


Athanasius held a similar view of a Christian Empire as Eusebius did but with a notable difference.  Unlike Eusebius’ enthusiastic triumphalism, Athanasius makes sure to credit Constantine’s triumph to Christ, to the point where he does not even mention the Emperor.

Moreover, a king, being human, does not permit the lands established under him to pass to and serve others, nor does he abandon them to others … How much more will God allow his creatures not to be led astray from him and serve things that do not exist? …  [On the Incarnation 13]

Even after Constantine’s conversion, Athanasius focused on the incarnate Word as the One who defeated idolatry, overturned death, and stabilized humanity.  His On the Incarnation presents a “triumphalist” Christology, not pointing to earthly authorities but the cross, which enables people not to fear death.  The Christian puts “on the incorporeal Word of God, and thus no longer fears death or corruption, having life as a garment, with corruption being destroyed in it” (On the Incarnation 44).

Athanasius’ proof of the power of the cross is the martyr Church.  This could be his implicit critique of an imperial ideology.

  • How do all three Church fathers show how we are influenced by our events and times more than we realize?


  • Discuss: Among the three, is one Church Father’s thinking about the empire more reasonable than the others? If so, why?


Link to the last Lesson in this series.