The Nicene Council

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity


I'd like to have some good unbiased information about the Nicene Council that took place around 300 AD. What were the two opposing views, why the controversy, and what was the result?

There is a lot on the internet about the Nicene Creed, and it seems to be very doctrinal. Just good straight information would be super. It came up in my Sunday School class and as the teacher, I had to give them only a vague answer. I said I'd do some research and get back with more definite information.

I know healing was lost as a result, that the Trinity was established as creed, and that Jesus was part of that trinity claiming him as God or divine. I'd like to know more details and political views surrounding the historical establishment of the Christian Church.

Thank you for this great site. I'm loving it!
Carrie Curlee


The Nicene Council

Called by Constantine I at Nicaea (NW part of Asia Minor) on June 19, 325CE, the Council of Nicaea was the first (but hardly the last) attempt to gather a body of bishops to make authoritative decisions on common teachings. At issue was the controversy raised by Arius, a Christian priest who was preaching (quite successfully) in Alexandria. His exact views are forever lost to us, because all that is left of his teachings are hostile misrepresentations. Nonetheless, a complaint against Arius had been lodged with the bishop, Alexander, of Alexandria. Arius defended himself, saying his views were within the norm of traditional teachings. During the Council of Nicaea, however, approximately 118 bishops disavowed his teachings and excommunicated not only Arius, but also all those who shared his views.

What led to this decision can only be pieced together by reading through the lines of various documents. Alexandria, it seems, was a hot bed for new ideas. It is thought that by the beginning of the fourth century perhaps half of the Egyptians were Christians. But it is also safe to say there was considerable diversity of beliefs and practices among the various Christian groups. Christianity itself was still developing its own self-definition. Different factions had different ideas and opinions. Oftentimes they ascribed different meanings to the same theological terms!

No point was as divisive as the issue of Jesus' divinity. Arius had been preaching that the Son was not co-eternal to the Father because he had been created. He had a beginning and was therefore not begotten. That made the Son an intermediary between the Father and the world. At best, he was a lesser deity. Needless to say, this caused a major theological crisis, hence the calling of the Nicene Council.

Condemning Arius was the easy part; the hard part was coming up with a definitive word to describe the Son's relationship to the Father. The key word here was ousia, meaning "being" or "substance." The Church Fathers could agree that there was one ousia, or divine "being," but since this is a technical philosophical term (and the Church Fathers were not trained philosophical thinkers), it didn't really explain the relationship of the Father and the Son. They tried to clarify things by using the word hypostasis. Unfortunately that made things a lot worse, because this word has many meanings. It could mean "either a thing's underlying reality, which it will probably share with other things -- such as the common metal which coins share -- or the emergent, perceptible reality, mainly seen as individual."1

Some made the argument that there was one ousia and three hypostaseis, the Father, Son, and Spirit as three distinct individual beings, three individual realities. Others argued for one ousia and one hypostasis, which might have meant only one of the three was divine, or that the Son and Spirit were modes of the Father. Because the term was in the "public" domain, it was being used to argue various points. In an effort to clear things up, supporters of the first theory used the word homoiousios, which means "of like substance." Supporters of the latter theory used the word homoousios, which means "of the same substance." A careful look at both words reveals their only difference to be the letter "i" in the middle of the word. (Some have said that one tiny Greek letter determined the divinity of the Son!) Interestingly, proponents of each word were united in their condemnation of Arius per se, -- the former group pushed adoption of its word hoping to strike a compromise acceptable to all sides; the latter was slightly more conservative and wanted its word.

The final vote of the Council chose the latter term, homoousios, thinking it was broad enough to end the controversy and the confusion over using hypostasis. But if the intent was to settle the matter once and for all, it failed miserably and not solely on the basis of theology. Politics also played a major role. Shortly after this council, a young priest by the name of Athanasius was made bishop of Alexandria (perhaps because he had taken a strong stand against Arius at the Council). But he was not a popular choice, and even he wasn't all that happy with homoousios. It seemed to go against the Biblical claim that "the Word was the agent of creation, through whom one might know God, and so was in some sense separate from the Father." 2 Hence, he avoided using this term altogether (it only appears once in all of his writings). Nonetheless, he was determined to do whatever he could to stop Arius in his tracks.

As the years passed, however, the political climate softened a bit. Some of the hardliners were deposed, and several pro-Arian bishops pushed for reinstating him. In 332, Arius signed a confession of faith (although he avoided using the term homoousios). Constantine then instructed Athanasius to readmit him to communion. Athanasius wouldn't have it. His uncompromising attitude angered not only Arius' supporters, but also followers of Melitus -- another group that had been arguing for leniency in readmitting those who had lapsed from their faith for one reason or another. (Persecutions were still an issue at this time.) Athanasius wanted to hold a strong line against them, too.

The result was that Constantine had him exiled. This happened off and on throughout Athanasius' career of almost 50 years. At one point, the emperor even declared him to be an "outlaw" of the state. It is believed that during these times of exile, Athanasius spent serious time with the monks running a clandestine organization throughout his diocese. He also used this time to write various treatises, which became important dogmatic and apologetic works. He also worked to solidify his relationships with pro-Nicene, anti-Arian parties. Upon his death in 373, it would be the monks, most notably the Cappadocian fathers, who would carry his work forward.

The situation remained so fluid, however, that a second council was called in 381. This was the Council of Constantinople, and its purpose was to revise and ratify the Nicene Creed. The relation of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son was also determined at this time. Then in 531, another council was convened for the purpose of determining the appropriate title for Jesus' mother. (She could be called the Mother of God). The church's clearest articulation of the person of Christ came in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon (Christ has two natures), but it just led to more controversy. That led to another Council in 553, etc, etc. And so it goes………..

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