Council of Nicaea, Nicea (325)

General Information

The two councils of Nicaea were ecumenical councils of the Christian church held in 325 and 787, respectively. The First Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council held by the church, is best known for its formulation of the Nicene Creed, the earliest dogmatic statement of Christian orthodoxy. The council was convened in 325 by the Roman emperor Constantine I in an attempt to settle the controversy raised by Arianism over the nature of the Trinity. Nearly all those who attended came from the eastern Mediterranean region.

It was the decision of the council, formalized in the Nicene Creed, that God the Father and God the Son were consubstantial and coeternal and that the Arian belief in a Christ created by and thus inferior to the Father was heretical. Arius himself was excommunicated and banished. The council was also important for its disciplinary decisions concerning the status and jurisdiction of the clergy in the early church and for establishing the date on which Easter is celebrated.

The Second Council of Nicaea, the seventh ecumenical council of the Christian church, was convoked by the Byzantine empress Irene in 787 to rule on the use of saints' images and icons in religious devotion. At that time a strong movement known as Iconoclasm, which opposed the pictorial representation of saints or of the Trinity, existed in the Greek church. At the prompting of Irene, the council declared that whereas the veneration of images was legitimate and the intercession of saints efficacious, their veneration must be carefully distinguished from the worship due God alone.

T Tackett

A E Burn, The Council of Nicaea (1925); G Forell, Understanding the Nicene Creed (1965); E J Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy (1930).


Council of Nicaea (325)

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The first ecumenical council in the history of the church was convened by the emperor Constantine at Nicaea in Bithynia (now Isnik, Turkey). The main purpose of the council was to attempt to heal the schism in the church provoked by Arianism. This it proceeded to do theologically and politically by the almost unanimous production of a theological confession (the Nicene Creed) by over three hundred bishops representing almost all the eastern provinces of the empire (where the heresy was chiefly centered) and by a token representation from the West. The creed thus produced was the first that could legally claim universal authority as it was sent throughout the empire to receive the agreement of the churches (with the alternative consequences of excommunication and imperial banishment).

The issue which culminated at Nicaea arose out of an unresolved tension within the theological legacy of Origen concerning the relation of the Son to the Father. On the one hand there was the attribution of deity to the Son in a relationship with the Father described as eternal generation. On the other hand there was clear subordinationism. Almost appropriately, the dispute erupted at Alexandria about 318, with Arius, a popular presbyter of the church district of Baucalis, developing the latter strain of Origenism against Bishop Alexander, who advocated the former line of thinking. Arius was a quite capable logician who attacked Alexander (with motives not entirely scholarly) on the charge of Sabellianism. After a local synod heard his own views and dismissed them and him as unsound, Arius demonstrated his popularizing literary and political talents, gathering support beyond Alexandria.

His theological views appealed to left - wing Origenists, including the respected Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea. His closest and most helpful ally was his former fellow student in the school of Lucian, Eusebius, bishop at the imperial residence of Nicomedia. After Constantine's personal envoy, Hosius of Cordova, failed to effect a reconciliation in 322 between the two parties in Alexandria, the emperor decided to convene an ecumenical council.

The teaching of Arianism is well documented. The central controlling idea is the unique, incommunicable, indivisible, transcendent nature of the singular divine being. This is what the Arians referred to as the Father. Logically pressing this definition of the Father and making use of certain biblical language, the Arians argued that if the error of Sabellius was to be avoided (and everyone was anxious to avoid it), then certain conclusions about the Son were inescapable. And it is this view of the Son which is the central significance of Arianism. He cannot be of the Father's being or essence (otherwise that essence would be divisible or communicable or in some way not unique or simple, which is impossible by definition). He therefore exists only by the Father's will, as do all other creatures and things. The biblical description of his being begotten does imply a special relationship between the Father and the Word or Son, but it cannot be an ontological relationship.

"Begotten" is to be taken in the sense of "made," so that the Son is a ktisma or poiema, a creature. Being begotten or made, he must have had a beginning, and this leads to the famous Arian phrase, "there was when he was not." Since he was not generated out of the Father's being and he was, as they accorded him, the first of God's creation, then he must have been created out of nothing. Not being of perfect or immutable substance, he was subject to moral change. And because of the extreme transcendence of God, in the final respect the Son has no real communion or knowledge of the Father at all. The ascription of theos to Christ in Scripture was deemed merely functional.

The council of Nicaea opened June 19, 325, with Hosius of Cordova presiding and the emperor in attendance. Despite the absence of official minutes a sketch of the proceedings can be reconstructed. Following an opening address by the emperor in which the need for unity was stressed, Eusebius of Nicomedia, leading the Arian party, presented a formula of faith which candidly marked a radical departure from traditional formularies. The disapproval was so strong that most of the Arian party abandoned their support of the document and it was torn to shreds before the eyes of everyone present. Soon thereafter Eusebius of Caesarea, anxious to clear his name, read a lengthy statement of faith that included what was probably a baptismal creed of the church of Caesarea. Eusebius had been provisionally excommunicated earlier in the year by a synod in Antioch for refusing to sign an anti - Arian creed. The emperor himself pronounced him orthodox with only the suggestion that he adopt the word homoousios.

For a long time the confession of Eusebius was believed to have formed the basis of the Nicene Creed, which was then modified by the council. However, it seems clear that such was not the case, the structure and content of the latter being significantly different from the former. Most likely a creed was introduced under the direction of Hosius, discussed (especially the term homoousia), and drafted in its final form requiring the signatures of the bishops. All those present (including Eusebius of Nicomedia) signed except two who were subsequently exiled.

It should be noted that this creed is not that which is recited in churches today as the Nicene Creed. Although similar in many respects, the latter is significantly longer than the former and is missing some key Nicene phrases.

The theology expressed in the Nicene Creed is decisively anti-Arian. At the beginning the unity of God is affirmed. But the Son is said to be "true God from true God." Although confessing that the Son is begotten, the creed adds the words, "from the Father" and "not made." It is positively asserted that he is "from the being (ousia) of the Father" and "of one substance (homoousia) with the Father." A list of Arian phrases, including "there was when he was not" and assertions that the Son is a creature or out of nothing, are expressly anathematized. Thus an ontological rather than merely functional deity of the Son was upheld at Nicaea. The only thing confessed the Spirit, however, is faith in him.

Among other things achieved at Nicaea were the agreement on a date to celebrate Easter and a ruling on the Melitian Schism in Egypt. Arius and his most resolute followers were banished, but only for a short time. In the majority at Nicaea was Athanasius, then a young deacon, soon to succeed Alexander as bishop and carry on what would become a minority challenge to a resurgent Arianism in the East. However, the orthodoxy of Nicaea would eventually and decisively be reaffirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

C A Blaising

Athanasius, Defense of the Nicene Council; Eusebius, The Life of Constantine; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History; Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History; A E Burn, The Council of Nicea; J Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, I; H M Gwatkin, Studies of Arianism; R C Gregg and D E Groh, Early Arianism; A Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition; J N D Kelly, Early Christian Creeds and Early Christian Doctrines; C Luibheid, Eusebius of Caesarea and the Arian Crisis.

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