Constantine ensured that Nicaea concluded what he thought best.

PURPOSE: At the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy, the church adopted the Trinity doctrine. However, over the past century, scholars have uncovered that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted the Trinity doctrine is grossly inaccurate, casting doubt on its legitimacy. In this series, different articles discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The present article shows that the so-called first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 was actually the emperor’s meeting. He called and controlled it to achieve his own purpose.

Emperor standing before the bishops

“The Council of Nicaea met from May to the end of July 325.” (Hanson, p. 152) “The Nicene Creed is the most famous and influential creed in the history of the church.” (Justin Holcomb) For most Christian churches, it represents official doctrine.

The purpose of this article is to describe the influence that Emperor Constantine had at the Council of Nicaea, and on the Nicene Creed.

SUMMARY

Legalized Christianity – Religious freedom did not exist in the Roman Empire. The emperors decided which religions were allowed. After three centuries of persecution by the Roman authorities, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the year 313.

Wrote to Alexander and Arius – Even before Constantine understood the matter, he wrote to Alexander and Arius to stop their quarreling. This shows that he did not get involved because of a desire for right doctrine, but because he could not afford, for political reasons, a split in the church.

Approved the Council at Antioch – A few months before the Council of Nicaea, an “anti-Arian Council” was held in Antioch, consisting mainly of people who sympathized with Alexander. (Hanson, p. 130-1, 147, 149) It provisionally excommunicated Eusebius of Caesarea, one of Arius’ main supporters, but also the most respected theologian of that time. Since Constantine’s religious advisor (Ossius) chaired this meeting, that meeting was approved by Constantine. In other words, even before Nicaea, Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.

Called the Nicene Council – Constantine called the Nicene Council. Nobody asked him to do it. He did it on his own initiative for his own purposes. It was Constantine’s meeting in his capacity as emperor.

Invented the General Council – In fact, Constantine invented the concept of a general council for the church. The church had never before such a meeting of representatives from all parts of the empire. Neither did it have the ability to call such a council. Only the emperor was able to call such a meeting.

Assigned the chairperson – To ensure that the Nicene Council remains under his control, the emperor appointed his religious advisor (Ossius) as chairperson. Ossius acted as Constantine’s agent.

Sided with Alexander – It is often correctly stated that Arius had considerable support. Why then was the Nicene Creed, which was constructed as a deliberately anti-Arian document, rejected by only 2 of the 250-300 bishops? The reason was that Arius’ support was not support for him but support AGAINST Alexander. However, Alexander was victorious at Nicaea because the emperor had taken his part. If Constantine had not taken Alexander’s part, the meeting would have condemned Alexander; not Arius.

Enforced the term homoousios – At the time, the term homoousios (same substance) seemed especially objectionable to many people. It is not a Biblical term, was not part of the standard Christian language, but was borrowed from pagan philosophy and associated with Sabellianism. Therefore, Constantine’s domination of the Nicene Council is particularly revealed by the fact that he was able to force the inclusion of the term. He personally proposed, explained, and enforced the term.

Exile – The emperor was the only person who could exile a bishop and who could restore a bishop to his see. The emperor functioned as the real head of the church. The bishops knew the emperor would exile them to a different part of the empire if they did not accept the Creed. How many bishops would have voted against the Nicene Creed if exile was not hanging over their heads?

Enforced the Council’s decisions – After Nicaea, Constantine issued several letters attempting to enforce the Council’s decisions.

To Reconcile – Although Constantine took Alexander’s part and insisted on the term homoousios, his ultimate goal was to reconcile the quarreling parties.

To protect the Empire – As his letter to Arius and Alexander shows, Constantine did not call the Nicene Council because of a concern about right doctrine. He called the Council because a split in the church could also split the empire. His ultimate goal was also NOT to reconcile the schism in the church but to protect his empire. Constantine, therefore, invented and called the general council as a means of governing the church in the interest of the empire.

Conclusion – “Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (Hanson, p. 850) The Emperor was in fact the head of the church.

– END OF SUMMARY –


AUTHORS QUOTED

The conclusions in this article might appear unorthodox; however, drawing on discoveries of ancient documents and research over the past 100 years, leading scholars concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. These books reflect the revised account of that Controversy.

The main authors quoted in this article are:

Ayres – Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Hanson – Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

Williams – Archbishop Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

CONSTANTINE

Legalized Christianity.

Religious freedom did not exist in the Roman Empire. The emperors decided which religions were allowed. After three centuries of persecution by the Roman authorities, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the year 313. 

During the first three centuries, the Roman authorities persecuted Christianity. The Diocletianic Persecution of 303-313 was the most severe persecution of Christians up to that point in history. Diocletian’s first edict commanded churches and holy sites razed to the ground, sacred articles burned, and believers jailed.

However, in 313, the Western Roman Emperor Constantine (306–337) legalized Christianity through the Edict of Milan. He granted Christians “the right of open and free observance of their worship.” 1Ehler, Sidney Zdeneck; Morrall, John B (1967). Church and State Through the Centuries: A Collection of Historic Documents with Commentaries. p. 6-7.

Wrote to Arius and Alexander.

Even before Constantine understood the matter, he wrote to Alexander and Arius to stop their quarreling. This shows that he did not get involved because of a desire for right doctrine, but because he could not afford, for political reasons, a split in the church.

However, only a few years after Christianity was legalized, a disagreement broke out in Alexandria of Egypt between Arius (c. 250–336), a minister (presbyter or priest), and his bishop Alexander, about the nature of Christ. This was centuries before the rise of Islam, and Alexandria was one of the main centers of Christianity. 

Alexander removed Arius from office, and in 321 a synod at Alexandria denounced Arius. But that did not end the Controversy. Consequently, before the Council of Nicaea, the emperor attempted to intervene:

“In 324 the Emperor Constantine … (who recently) assumed control of the whole empire, took an interest in the dispute. Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius telling them to stop quarrelling about what seemed to him to be such a small matter.” (Ayres, p. 17-18) 2“At the end of 324,” “Constantine sent a letter to both Arius’ and Alexander dismissing the controversy as trivial and commanding them to be reconciled.” (Hanson, p. 130, 137) 3Constantine dismissed the theological question of the relationship of Father and Son as “intrinsically trifling and of little moment” (Drake, 4. Constantine and Consensus) 4Constantine wrote: “For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions, I believe it indeed to be not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that so large a portion of God’s people which belong to your jurisdiction should be thus divided.” (Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55)

Therefore, Constantine attempted to intervene even before he understood this dispute. “It initially took the efforts of bishops like Ossius and Alexander of Alexandria to persuade him that anything significant was at issue in Alexandria.” (Ayres, p. 87-88) 5“Constantine had basically no understanding whatsoever of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology.” (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)

This shows that he got involved in this dispute because a split in the church could also split the empire; not because of a concern for right doctrine.

Approved the Council at Antioch.

A few months before the Council of Nicaea, an “anti-Arian Council” was held in Antioch, consisting mainly of people who sympathized with Alexander. (Hanson, p. 130-1, 147, 149) It provisionally excommunicated Eusebius of Caesarea, one of Arius’ main supporters, but also the most respected theologian of that time. Since Constantine’s religious advisor (Ossius) chaired this meeting, that meeting was approved by Constantine. In other words, even before Nicaea, Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.

That meeting drafted a Statement of Faith. “That this Statement is anti-Arian is overwhelmingly clear. But it is equally clear that it represents the theology of Alexander of Alexandria.” (Hanson, p. 150)

At the meeting, “Eusebius of Palestinian Caesarea,” the most respected theologian at the time but a supporter of Arius, was provisionally “excommunicated.” (Hanson, p. 146) Eusebius was not a follower of Arius. He supported Arius because he “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (Williams, p. 173)

This Eusebius previously “acquitted the accused Arians [including Arius] of heresy” and “wrote to Alexander protesting at the way in which Arius had been treated.” (Hanson, p. 130, 135) Now Alexander’s party hits back by excommunicating the leader of the Eusebian party.

“In normal circumstances the Metropolitan of the area in which the Council met would have presided … But Constantine’s representative, Ossius, took precedence … over Eustathius.” (Hanson, p. 155) This implies that the meeting took place with the approval of the emperor, which means that, even before Nicaea, Constantine had taken Alexander’s part in his dispute with Arius.

It is important to notice that the statement of faith from this council does not mention the term homoousios or the ousia of God. (Hanson, p. 146) This shows that this was not a word which Alexander regarded as important. For a further discussion of this council, see – here.

Called the Nicene Council.

Constantine called the Nicene Council. Nobody asked him to do it. He did it on his own initiative for his own purposes. It was Constantine’s meeting in his capacity as emperor.

Constantine’s letter failed to unite the warring factions. Consequently. In the year 325, “Constantine himself summoned the bishops” (Ayres, p. 18) to end this dispute. The council was not called by a church official and nobody asked Constantine to call it. It was his initiative.

“It was then certainly Constantine who convoked the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 153-4)

“Religious partisanship has in the past led some scholars to suggest that Silvester, bishop of Rome, convoked the Council of Nicaea, but modern Roman Catholic scholars honourably dismiss this idea.” (Hanson, p. 154)

It was, therefore, the emperor’s meeting in his capacity as emperor. It was a meeting of bishops, but Constantine called the meeting to serve his own purposes.

Invented the General Council.

In fact, Constantine invented the concept of a general council for the church. The church had never before such a meeting of representatives from all parts of the empire. Neither did it have the ability to call such a council. Only the emperor was able to call such a meeting.

A ‘general’ or ‘ecumenical’ council, in theory, is a meeting of representatives from all of Christendom. However, “by the time Nicaea met Church leaders … had no precedent for the idea of a council that would legislate for the Church as a whole.” (Ayres, p. 87)

Nicaea “was the first time that any attempt had been made to summon a general council of the whole church at which, at least in theory, the church in every part of the Roman Empire should be represented.” (Hanson, p. 152)

It is, therefore, not valid to say that the emperors became involved in the general church councils. The reality is that Constantine invented the concept of a general council.

“The procedures of a council modelled on methods of Roman governance would have been familiar to Constantine, and we can assume that he saw it as the natural means to achieve consensus within the Church.” (Ayres, p. 87)

Furthermore, without the assistance of the emperor, the church was unable to call a general council. Only the emperor could call a general council:

“Even Damasus [a later bishop of Rome] would have admitted that he could not call a general council on his own authority.” (Hanson, p. 855)

“Everybody recognised the right of an Emperor to call a council, or even to veto or quash its being called.” (Hanson, p. 849-50)

Assigned the chairperson.

To ensure that the Nicene Council remains under his control, the emperor appointed his religious advisor (Ossius) as chairperson. Ossius acted as Constantine’s agent.

“The evidence weighs strongly in favour of the view that Ossius … presided at Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 154) 6“Ossius of Cordoba probably chaired the meeting.” (Ayres, p. 89)

But Ossius was the bishop of the “obscure” see of Cordova (Hanson, p. 155). His inferior position in the church would not have allowed him to chair.

“In normal circumstances the Metropolitan of the area in which the Council met would have presided, and in this case it would have been Eusebius of Nicomedia.” (Hanson, p. 155)

Ossius presided “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and as Constantine’s “agent.” (Hanson, p. 190) “Ossius … represented the policy of Constantine” (Hanson, p. 170) He was “Constantine’s chief adviser and agent in matters concerning the Christian church.” (Hanson, p. 130, 137) 7“Ossius the bishop of Cordoba in Spain … apparently acted in some sort of advisory capacity to Constantine, and perhaps also served as his representative in these events.” (Ayres, p. 18) 8“He had recently presided in a similar capacity over the Council of Antioch.” (Hanson, p. 154)

Similarly, in the 381 Council of Constantinople, Emperor Theodosius assigned one of his unbaptized civil servants as chairperson and as bishop of Constantinople.9“It is even possible to contrast Constantius’ relative mildness with the ferocious coercion more than twenty years later of the Emperor Theodosius, and not least with his part in choosing an unbaptised layman, Nectarius, as bishop of Constantinople.” (Hanson, p. 322) That was one of the ways in which the emperors managed the meetings to ensure the ‘right’ outcome.

Sided with Alexander.

It is often correctly stated that Arius had considerable support. Why then was the Nicene Creed, which was constructed as a deliberately anti-Arian document, rejected by only 2 of the 250-300 bishops? The reason was that Arius’ support was not support for him but support AGAINST Alexander. However, Alexander was victorious at Nicaea because the emperor had taken his part. If Constantine had not taken Alexander’s part, the meeting would have condemned Alexander; not Arius.

Why was Arius defeated so easily?

“It became evident very early on that the condemnation of Arius was practically inevitable” (Williams, p. 68). The Nicene Creed “was constructed as a deliberately anti-Arian document.” (Hanson, p. 164) “All the more obnoxious doctrines of Arius and his followers are struck at in N in the most impressive way.” (Hanson, p. 165)

But if Arius had so much support as is often claimed, why was “the Nicene creed … agreed with little dissent?” (Ayres, p. 88). Why did only two of the nearly 300 bishops reject the creed? 10Only Arius and two of his friends refused to sign, for which they were excommunicated.” Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53 (cf. RW, 70; 71) 11“Two bishops who refused to sign the Creed … were deposed by the Council and exiled by the Emperor. Arius himself was exiled.” (Hanson, p. 162-3) “In older narratives of the fourth century it was reasonably easy to understand why the Nicene creed was agreed with little dissent: only the few ‘heretics’ would refuse such a clear acknowledgement of the Church’s constant faith. Without this older narrative, matters are more complex.” (Ayres, p. 88)

Arius was defeated so totally for two reasons:

    • He did not have many supporters, and
    • The Emperor sided with Alexander.

Arius had few followers.

The reality is that Arius had only a limited number of true followers. Another article argues that there were two broad camps in the fourth-century Controversy:

One-hypostasis theologians believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis (one single Person with one single Mind). This includes the Sabellians but another article shows that Alexander and Athanasius believed something similar. However, Sabellianism was already declared as heresy in the third century.

Three-hypostases theologians regarded the Father, Son, and Spirit to be three distinct Persons with three distinct Minds, united in agreement. See here for a discussion. 

Within these two broad camps, there were several sub-categories. The three-hypostasis theologians supported Arius because he also believed in three hypostases. They did not agree with Arius’ more extreme views but supported him AGAINST Alexander’s one-hypostasis theology. Arius’ followers were limited. See here for more details.

Constantine sided with Alexander.

But the main reason that Arius was rejected so completely at Nicaea is that the emperor took Alexander’s part in the dispute. For example:

“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part and by events at the council of Antioch only a few months before.” (Ayres, p. 89)

“This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force.” (Ayres, p. 89) 12“We can certainly see that Eusebians … were under pressure and seem to have been on the defensive. … the direction of the council was very clearly in the hands of others.” (Ayres, p. 88-89)

It was the support of the emperor that enabled a minority party (Alexander’s party) to dominate the council and compelled the vast majority of the delegates to accept Arius’ rejection. 13“The decisions of the Council of Nicaea were really the work of a minority, and they were misunderstood and disliked by many who were not adherents of Arius. In particular, the terms aroused opposition, on the grounds that they were unscriptural, novel and tending to Sabellianism.” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)

If Constantine had not taken Alexander’s part, the meeting might have condemned Alexander’s theology; not Arius’.

Enforced the term homoousios.

At the time, the term homoousios (same substance) seemed especially objectionable to many people. It is not a Biblical term, was not part of the standard Christian language, but was borrowed from pagan philosophy and associated with Sabellianism. Therefore, Constantine’s domination of the Nicene Council is particularly revealed by the fact that he was able to force the inclusion of the term. He personally proposed, explained, and enforced the term.

A Surprising Inclusion – Homoousios (same substance) was a surprising innovation in the Nicene Creed. Most delegates at the Council had considerable concerns about the term because it was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, is not a Biblical term but was borrowed from Greek philosophy, and was associated with the heresy of Sabellianism. (See here.)

“’Homoousios’ and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were added to the creed by Constantine himself, bearing witness to the extent of his influence at the council.” 14(Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.) See here for more detail.

Explained – Constantine’s domination of that council is also revealed by the fact that the council allowed him to explain the term’s meaning and that they accepted his explanation. A major concern was that it implies that God has a body and that the Son was begotten through a material process. Constantine insisted that the term has no material connotations. (See – here)

Enforced – Emperor Constantine not only proposed but used his influence to enforce the inclusion of the term. He “pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211) (See – here)

Conclusion – That Constantine was able to convince the meeting to accept this highly suspicious term reflects his dominant role:

“Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination.” 15Britannica, 1971 edition, Vol. 6, “Constantine,” p. 386

Exiled those who refused to sign.

The emperor was the only person who could exile a bishop and who could restore a bishop to his see. The emperor functioned as the real head of the church. The bishops knew the emperor would exile them to a different part of the empire if they did not accept the Creed. How many bishops would have voted against the Nicene Creed if exile was not hanging over their heads?

That only two bishops refused to accept the Nicene Creed is often mentioned as a great victory for Nicene Christology, but few mention that the bishops knew that they would lose their jobs and be exiled if they did not accept the Creed. The question is, how many bishops would have voted against the Nicene Creed if exile were not hanging over their heads and if the emperor did not employ his considerable position and interpersonal skills to bring the meeting to unanimity?

In the Roman Empire, the standard penalty for bishops for deviant teachings was exile but only the emperor was able to exile the bishops. For example:

“Two bishops who refused to sign the Creed … were deposed by the Council and exiled by the Emperor. Arius himself was exiled.” (Hanson, p. 162-3)

“Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarike, both Libyan sees, refused to sign N, were deposed by the Council and exiled by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 172) 16“Arius too was banished by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 173) 17“Constantine exiled Arius along with two Libyan bishops … The Emperor also exiled Eusebius of Nicomedia.” (Ayres, p. 19) 18“Shortly after the Council … Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea were also banished by Constantine. … Constantine … declares that their fault was to have received and communicated with some Arian presbyters in Nicomedia.” (Hanson, p. 173)

Since the emperor was the only person who could exile a bishop, the emperor was also the only person who could restore a bishop to his see. For example, the bishops asked Constantine – not the church – to restore them:

“The third letter of Arius is … sent to the Emperor Constantine by Arius and Euzoius who are in exile and are in this letter pleading for a return from exile and a re-admission to the Church (which they presumably imagine that Constantine can effect).” (Hanson, p. 8) 19“Arius and Euzoius returned from exile and presented a rather non-committal creed to the emperor.” “It satisfied Constantine, who wrote to Alexander, pressing him to accept Arius and Euzoius back in Alexandria.” Thereafter, “the local Bithynian synod … readmitted Arius to communion.” (Williams, p. 75) 20“There is also extant a letter of Arius and Euzoius from exile to Constantine petitioning for their return” (Hanson, p. 176)

In a letter, “Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea” asked “some unnamed bishops … to petition Constantine for their recall.” (Hanson, p. 175)

“Within two or three years, however, Arius and the others exiled by Constantine were recalled, it seems at the behest of the Emperor.” (Ayres, p. 19) 21The two bishops whom Constantine exiled after Nicaea “were both restored to their sees by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 172)

Since it was the emperor who had the right to decide who should be exiled and who should be restored, the emperor, in this regard, functioned as the real head of the church.

Enforced the council’s decisions.

After Nicaea, Constantine issued several letters attempting to enforce the Council’s decisions.

After Nicaea, “Constantine … issued a number of letters attempting to enforce its decisions.” (Ayres, p. 88) “Constantine in other respects behaved despotically towards the church when he thought it necessary. He writes to the churches after Nicaea like a mediaeval Pope.” (Hanson, p. 850)

CONSTANTINE’S PURPOSE

To reconcile the opposing parties.

Although Constantine took Alexander’s part and insisted on the term homoousios, his ultimate goal was to reconcile the quarreling parties.

“The Emperor, rightly or wrongly, thought himself called to foster and protect the Church, and therefore to prevent as far as he could the damage that was caused by controversy and schism.” (Hanson, p. 153)

We see evidence of the emperor’s desire for reconciliation in a number of ways. For example:

Eusebius of Caesarea “was the most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” (Hanson, p. 159) but he had recently been provisionally excommunicated by the “anti-Arian Council” in Antioch (Hanson, p. 131). “The excommunication of a man so universally respected for his scholarship as Eusebius of Caesarea must have given him (the emperor) a shock. He wanted to be in a position to see that the anti-Arian party at the Council did not do anything that would further exasperate the division already existing in the Church … but rather heal it.” (Hanson, p. 153) Therefore, after Eusebius had read his creed, the “Emperor himself was the first to witness that it was entirely orthodox.” (Hanson, p. 160)

Eustathius mentioned that his radical anti-Arius party, after an Arian document was read, was reduced to silence “using the cause of reconciliation as a pretext.” (Hanson, p. 160) In other words, although the emperor sided with Alexander, he did not allow Alexander’s party unlimited power.

As discussed, Constantine did his best to explain homoousios in such a way that even the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) could accept the term.

He paid all expenses and surrounded the delegates with honor. This includes the honor of the personal presence of the emperor of the entire empire.

Eusebius of Caesarea described the emperor as genuinely seeking for reconciliation:

“He surrounded the Fathers (of the Council), or rather the prophets of God, with every honour and called them a second time and again acted patiently as a mediator to the same people and again distinguished them by gifts, and he offered board and lodging in a letter and confirmed and put his seal to the decisions of the synod.” (Hanson, p. 175)

To protect the Empire.

As his letter to Arius and Alexander shows, Constantine did not call the Nicene Council because of a concern about right doctrine. He called the Council because a split in the church could also split the empire. His ultimate goal was also NOT to reconcile the schism in the church but to protect his empire. Constantine, therefore, invented and called the general council as a means of governing the church in the interest of the empire.

The Roman Empire was very large and consisted of many different and diverse nations. The main task of the emperors was to keep the empire united. In this regard, religion was a powerful force. Religion had a strong power over the people. Religious diversity could split the empire apart. State-supported religious uniformity, on the other hand, could help to unite the empire. The Roman emperors, therefore, used religion to help them to keep the empire united.

For example, as already mentioned, the emperors decided which religions were allowed.

As another example, in 380, Emperor Theodosius commanded ALL Roman citizens to believe in the Trinity. He made Trinitarian Christianity the State Religion of the Roman Empire.

That was why, before Christianity was legalized, the empire persecuted Christians and why, after Trinitarian Christianity was made the State Religion, the persecution of Christians resumed.

For the same reason, the emperors could not afford disunity in the authorized religion. Therefore, after Christianity was legalized in 313, the Christian emperors controlled it. By maintaining control over the church, the emperors maintained control over the people.

“Constantine’s attitude reflects deeply embedded Roman attitudes about the social function of religion.” (Ayres, p. 88)

Constantine, therefore, called the council because he was concerned that the controversy in the church may threaten the unity of the empire. He invented and called the general council as a means of managing the church:

“The Council of Nicea was first and foremost an attempt by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great to keep his empire from splitting.” (Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 3). Kindle Edition.) 22“Constantine himself of course neither knew nor cared anything about the matter in dispute.” (McGiffert A.C. A History of Christian Thought, 1954, Vol. 1, p. 258)

“Constantine himself had become sole emperor only in 324 (after having ruled the western half since 310–12), and he seems to have promoted Christianity as a unifying religion for the empire.” (Ayres, p. 87)

“The same desire to preserve unity within the church, rather than the protection of any creed or interpretation of Christian doctrine, led Constantine to intercede for the settlement of the Arian controversy. … Believing ‘disunity in the church’ a danger to the state ‘more grievous than any kind of war’.” (Boyd, p37 or The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code, p37)

“Since Constantine desired that the church should contribute to the social and moral strength of the empire, religious dissension was a menace to the public welfare.” (Boyd, p34). 23(The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code)

CONCLUSIONS

“Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (Hanson, p. 850) The Emperor was in fact the head of the church.

Constantine sided with the Alexander-faction, called the Council on his own initiative, strategically positioned the council at Nicaea so he could participate, 24(Drake, H. A. “The Impact of Constantine on Christianity.” Cambridge University Press, 2005. 111) paid all expenses, 25“The bishops were allowed to travel by the imperial postal service … and were entertained in Nicaea at the emperor’s expense.” (Williams, p. 67) 26“The Emperor Constantine … he had summoned the Council, had paid all its expenses.” (Hanson, p. 157) appointed his religious advisor as chairperson, welcomed the delegates, surrounded them with every honour, opened the Council with an address, actively guided the discussions, proposed and enforced the key word Homoousios despite great resistance, actively sought reconciliation between the factions, warned them that those who do not accept the Creed will be exiled, exiled those who refused the Creed, and enforced the Council’s decisions.

Consequently, the Nicene Creed, particularly its more controversial aspects, does not reflect the view of the church majority at the time but specifically what the emperor thought best:

“Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (Hanson, p. 850)

This established the pattern for the rest of the century. The church made and implemented its ‘ecumenical’ decisions through the civil government of the Roman Empire, represented by the emperors:

“Before Constantine, the Church was simply not in a position to make universally binding and enforceable decisions. From Nicaea onwards the Church decided, and communicated its decisions, through the official network of the empire.” (Williams, p. 90)

In that respect, church and state were united. “Simonetti remarks that the Emperor was in fact the head of the church” (Hanson, p. 849).


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
  • 2
    “At the end of 324,” “Constantine sent a letter to both Arius’ and Alexander dismissing the controversy as trivial and commanding them to be reconciled.” (Hanson, p. 130, 137)
  • 3
    Constantine dismissed the theological question of the relationship of Father and Son as “intrinsically trifling and of little moment” (Drake, 4. Constantine and Consensus)
  • 4
    Constantine wrote: “For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions, I believe it indeed to be not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that so large a portion of God’s people which belong to your jurisdiction should be thus divided.” (Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55)
  • 5
    “Constantine had basically no understanding whatsoever of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology.” (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)
  • 6
    “Ossius of Cordoba probably chaired the meeting.” (Ayres, p. 89)
  • 7
    “Ossius the bishop of Cordoba in Spain … apparently acted in some sort of advisory capacity to Constantine, and perhaps also served as his representative in these events.” (Ayres, p. 18)
  • 8
    “He had recently presided in a similar capacity over the Council of Antioch.” (Hanson, p. 154)
  • 9
    “It is even possible to contrast Constantius’ relative mildness with the ferocious coercion more than twenty years later of the Emperor Theodosius, and not least with his part in choosing an unbaptised layman, Nectarius, as bishop of Constantinople.” (Hanson, p. 322)
  • 10
    Only Arius and two of his friends refused to sign, for which they were excommunicated.” Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53 (cf. RW, 70; 71)
  • 11
    “Two bishops who refused to sign the Creed … were deposed by the Council and exiled by the Emperor. Arius himself was exiled.” (Hanson, p. 162-3)
  • 12
    “We can certainly see that Eusebians … were under pressure and seem to have been on the defensive. … the direction of the council was very clearly in the hands of others.” (Ayres, p. 88-89)
  • 13
    “The decisions of the Council of Nicaea were really the work of a minority, and they were misunderstood and disliked by many who were not adherents of Arius. In particular, the terms aroused opposition, on the grounds that they were unscriptural, novel and tending to Sabellianism.” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)
  • 14
    (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)
  • 15
    Britannica, 1971 edition, Vol. 6, “Constantine,” p. 386
  • 16
    “Arius too was banished by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 173)
  • 17
    “Constantine exiled Arius along with two Libyan bishops … The Emperor also exiled Eusebius of Nicomedia.” (Ayres, p. 19)
  • 18
    “Shortly after the Council … Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea were also banished by Constantine. … Constantine … declares that their fault was to have received and communicated with some Arian presbyters in Nicomedia.” (Hanson, p. 173)
  • 19
    “Arius and Euzoius returned from exile and presented a rather non-committal creed to the emperor.” “It satisfied Constantine, who wrote to Alexander, pressing him to accept Arius and Euzoius back in Alexandria.” Thereafter, “the local Bithynian synod … readmitted Arius to communion.” (Williams, p. 75)
  • 20
    “There is also extant a letter of Arius and Euzoius from exile to Constantine petitioning for their return” (Hanson, p. 176)
  • 21
    The two bishops whom Constantine exiled after Nicaea “were both restored to their sees by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 172)
  • 22
    “Constantine himself of course neither knew nor cared anything about the matter in dispute.” (McGiffert A.C. A History of Christian Thought, 1954, Vol. 1, p. 258)
  • 23
    (The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code)
  • 24
    (Drake, H. A. “The Impact of Constantine on Christianity.” Cambridge University Press, 2005. 111)
  • 25
    “The bishops were allowed to travel by the imperial postal service … and were entertained in Nicaea at the emperor’s expense.” (Williams, p. 67)
  • 26
    “The Emperor Constantine … he had summoned the Council, had paid all its expenses.” (Hanson, p. 157)

After Nicaea, the church restored proper balance in its doctrine.

INTRODUCTION

The True Origin of the Trinity Doctrine

The Trinity doctrine originated in the fourth-century Arian Controversy. However, based on new discoveries of ancient documents and progress in research over the past century, historians now say that the traditional account of that controversy presents history from the perspective of the winner and is a complete travesty.. This is one of the articles that explains the true origin of the Trinity doctrine. (See the list below.) Each article explains a different aspect of that ‘travesty’. This article describes the ten years after the Council of Nicaea.

These articles may seem complex and even unimportant but they are important for understanding the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.

‘Eusebians’ is a better name for the ‘Arians’.

This article sometimes refers to the ‘Eusebians’. This refers to the followers of the two Eusebii of the early fourth century; Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia. They were Athanasius’ opponents and he intended to insult them by falsely naming them ‘Arians’, meaning followers of Arius, which they were not. See – Athanasius invented Arianism.

Authors quoted

Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004

Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2002

These are three of the most important books recent books on the Arian Controversy.

AFTER NICAEA

Arians were reinstated.

In the years after Nicaea, the ‘Arians’ who were exiled after Nicaea, were all reinstated. 1“Arius and most of his supporters were, at Constantine’s request, readmitted to communion within two or three years of the council.” (Ayres, p. 100) 2“Eusebius of Nicomedia quickly rose again to a position of importance, baptizing Constantine on his death-bed in 337 and becoming bishop of Constantinople.” (Ayres, p. 100)

Pro-Nicenes were deposed.

Alexander was the leader of the pro-Nicenes at Nicaea but died soon after Nicaea (in 328). With respect to the other leading pro-Nicenes, “within ten years of the Council of Nicaea all the leading supporters of the creed of that Council had been deposed or disgraced or exiled – Athanasius, Eustathius and Marcellus, and with them a large number of other bishops who are presumed to have belonged to the same school of thought.” Hanson provides a list of such people. (Hanson, p. 274)

THE TRADITIONAL ACCOUNT

It was an evil Arian Conspiracy.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, this was the result of a wicked ‘Arian Conspiracy’, namely, some followers of Arius who secretly conspired to manipulate church councils, aiming to depose all supporters of the Nicene Creed to counter the influence of the Nicene Creed:

“The usual explanation (of the resistance to the Nicene Creed after Nicaea) … describes the favourers of Arianism as setting themselves with deliberate craft and malignant intrigue to depose and replace every and any bishop who was known to be particularly favourable to N.” (Hanson, p. 274)

HOWEVER, IN REALITY

After Nicaea, Arius was irrelevant.

Conceptually, the Nicene Creed may be divided into three parts:

      1. The traditional statements that were also found in previous creeds,
      2. The negations or condemnations of aspects of Arius’ theology, 
      3. The new affirmations, namely that:
        1. The Son is from the substance (ousia) of the Father,
        2. The Son is of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father, and
        3. The Son is the same hypostasis (Person) as the Father (in the anathemas).

After Nicaea, the first two parts (the traditional affirmations and the condemnations of Arius) remained generally accepted and were not disputed. The conflict during the decade after Nicaea after Nicaea was specifically about the new affirmations. Arius was no longer an issue:

“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (Ayres, p. 56-57)

“Arius evidently made converts to his views … but he left no school of disciples.” (Williams, p. 233) 3“Late in 335 or early in 336, Arius died … The death of Arius marks, however, no significant turning point in the story of these years. By this time the focus was elsewhere.” (Ayres, p. 103)

For a discussion, see – After Nicaea, Arius was irrelevant.

The ‘conspirators’ were not Arian.

In the year 341, the anti-Nicenes of the Eastern Church (the Eusebians or ‘Arians’) formulated the Dedication Creed which explicitly condemns aspects of Arius’ theology. The so-called Conspirators, therefore, were not followers of Arius:

“Nor must we assume that what Eusebius and his party were aiming at was to substitute for the Creed of Nicaea a nakedly Arian formula. What precisely they wanted to establish as doctrine became quite clear when they showed their hand at the Council of Antioch in 341.” (Hanson, p. 284)

There is no evidence of a conspiracy.

After a discussion of several specific individuals, Hanson concludes that we do not see “a systematic campaign by the Eusebian party against known opponents of Arianism. … All that we can say is that a number of bishops were deposed between 328 and 336 for various reasons.” (Hanson, p. 279) 4“It should be noted that none of the evidence so far considered presents a reliable picture of a systematic campaign by the Eusebian party against known opponents of Arianism. … All that we can say is that a number of bishops were deposed between 328 and 336 for various reasons, and that Eusebius of Nicomedia or some of his party had a hand in most, or all, of these depositions. They were perhaps controlling events, but not controlling them in the interests of forwarding Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 279)

Eusebius did not engineer all exiles.

“It is usually asserted that the leader of this remarkably successful conspiracy was Eusebius of Nicomedia (later of Constantinople). That Eusebius was the leader of a party, and that he was recognized as such by his contemporaries, there can be no doubt at all. ‘The party of Eusebius’, is an expression used by Eustathius, by Julius and by Athanasius. But to see his hand active in every case of a bishop being deposed … is more than the evidence warrants.” Hanson, p. 275) “We cannot lay all depositions of all bishops between 328 and 431 at his door.” (Hanson, p. 284)

Athanasius was not exiled for anti-Arianism.

Athanasius could not have been exiled by an ‘Arian Conspiracy because he was not an obvious target for ‘Arians’. He was not a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea 5“He could not possibly have been, as he was later erroneously represented to have been, a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275) and only began his zealous support of the Nicene Creed after he had been exiled in 335. 6“There was … no reason to regard Athanasius as a zealous supporter of the doctrine of Nicaea until at earliest his second exile (339-346).” He had no love for the Arians but “he was not until much later in his career an obvious target for those who were anxious either to limit or to undo the achievement of the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)

Athanasius was deposed for violence against Melitians in his see. “He was finally deposed at Tyre for reasons which had nothing to do with Arianism, nor with any doctrinal issue, but for misbehaviour in his see, disgraceful and undeniable, and that against Melitians rather than Arians.” (Hanson, p. 275) See – Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against the Melitians.

The target was specifically the Sabellians.

Origen taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three ‘Persons’ with three distinct minds). In opposition to him, ‘one hypostasis’ theologians taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis (one single Person with one single Mind). In other words, in ‘one hypostasis’ theology, the Son does not have real distinct existence. There were variations of that theory:

      • The Monarchians and Modalists said that the Father, Son, and Spirit are the three faces of the one God. See – The Monarchians.
      • The Sabellians taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three parts of the one hypostasis (Person). See – Sabellius.
      • Alexander and Athanasius held that the Son and the Spirit are parts of the Father, but there still is only one hypostasis. See – Athanasius.

Apart from Athanasius, the other two important theologians who were deposed more or less at the same time as him were Eustathius and Marcellus. Both of them were strong supporters of the Nicene Creed but both of them were Sabellianism:

“We can be sure that both of these men had been strong supporters of the homoousian line at Nicaea. But both also had put forward views which were open to the charge of Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 276) 7The theology of “Marcellus and Eustathius” “was able to provoke a strong and sustained reaction from the Eusebians, and one that seems to have gained wide support throughout the east.” (Ayres, p. 102) 8“Marcellus of Ancyra was certainly deposed for unorthodoxy in 336.” “The new synod met in the summer of 336 and deposed Marcellus for holding the heresy of Paul of Samosata.” (Williams, p. 80) (This Paul was a well-known Sabellian of the third century.) “Eustathius of Antioch was deposed in all probability for similar reasons earlier.” (Hanson, p. 276)

So, the conflict after Nicaea was not specifically a pro-Arius initiative but anti-Sabellian. Sabellians were targeted and removed from their positions.

The dispute was about homoousios.

The conflict was specifically about the meaning of the term homoousios. For example:

“The fifth-century ecclesiastical historian Sozomen reports a dispute immediately after the council, focused not on Arius, but … concerning the precise meaning of the term homoousios. Some thought this term … implied the non-existence of the Son of God; and that it involved the error of Montanus and Sabellius. … Eustathius accused Eusebius [of Caesarea] of altering the doctrines ratified by the council of Nicaea, while the latter declared that he approved of all the Nicaean doctrines, and reproached Eustathius for cleaving to the heresy of Sabellius.” (Ayres, p. 101)

“This event was only one part of the conflict that now began.” (Ayres, p. 101) It occurred “probably in 326 or 327” (Ayres, p. 101)

In other words, the Eusebians understood the Sabellians as teaching that homoousios means that Father and Son are one single hypostasis so that the Son does not have a real distinct existence. Eusebius of Caesarea has signed the Nicene Creed but with the understanding that homoousios means that Father and Son are two distinct Beings of the same class. See – The Meaning of Homoousios in the Nicene Creed.

The rest of this article explains why the Sabellians specifically were targeted after Nicaea.

WHY SABELLIANS WERE TARGETED

‘One hypostasis’ dominated at Nicaea.

The ‘one hypostasis’ theologians had the upper hand in the Nicene Council because “(emperor) Constantine had taken Alexander’s part” in his quarrel with Arius (Ayres, p. 89) and because Alexander, who also had a ‘one hypostasis’ theology, allied with the Sabellians. 9“This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force” (Ayres, p. 89).

“Alexander … accepted virtual Sabellianism in order to ensure the defeat of Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 171)

Ayres implies that “Eustathius, Athanasius, and Marcellus” were “the architects of Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 105)

The Nicene Creed implies one hypostasis.

Since ‘one hypostasis’ theologians dominated at Nicaea, the Creed implies that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (one ‘Person’ with one single mind):

“Simonetti estimates the Nicene Council as a temporary alliance for the defeat of Arianism between the tradition of Alexandria led by Alexander and ‘Asiatic’ circles (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) … The ‘Asiatics’ were rootedly opposed to the thought of Origen, and were able to include in N a hint of opposition to the three hypostases theory.” (Hanson, p. 171)

“The production of N … must have been deeply disturbing for many who could not seriously be described as Arian in sympathy but could not believe that God had only one hypostasis, as the creed apparently professed.” (Hanson, p. 274)

“We can readily imagine that people such as Eusebius of Caesarea who were not whole-hearted supporters of the doctrines of Arius but who saw in N, if it were pushed to its logical conclusions, a serious threat to the proper distinction of Persons within the Trinity, would think it right to impugn (question) the orthodoxy and reduce the influence of Eustathius and Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. 276) 10“In the controversies which erupted over Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus after Nicaea, both thought their theologies faithful to Nicaea—and they had good grounds for so assuming. Both were influential at the council, and Nicaea’s lapidary formulations were never intended to rule out their theological idiosyncrasies.” (Ayres, p. 99) 11“Marcellus and Eustathius presented their theologies as the natural context for Nicaea’s creed.” (Ayres, p. 105)

The Sabellians claimed Nicaea as support.

After Nicaea, with the extremities of Arius’ theology formally rejected, a new and perhaps much greater problem faced the church, namely, the claim that the wording of the Creed, particularly the term homoousios, means that the church has adopted a Sabellian ‘one hypostasis’ theology. It was to root out this ‘evil’ that the Sabellians were targeted. 

CONCLUSION

It was a campaign against Sabellianism.

After Nicaea, ‘Arians’ were reinstated and Pro-Nicenes deposed. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, this was the work of a wicked ‘Arian Conspiracy’ against the Nicene Creed. However, what happened in the decade after Nicaea was not the work of an evil ‘Arian Conspiracy’ but a campaign against Sabellians who explained the term homoousios as meaning that Father and Son are one single hypostasis and that Sabellianism, therefore, is now the church’s official theology.

Since ‘one hypostasis’ theology was already rejected by the church during the third century in church councils that condemned Sabellius and Paul of Somasata, the Eusebians, in targeting these Sabellians, were resisting a known error. Hanson concludes:

“They would have said that they were not conducting a persecution in the interests of Arianism but trying to restore proper balance to the Church’s understanding of its doctrine of God.” (Hanson, p. 276)

This website refers to the events of the decade after Nicaea as the Post-Nicaea Correction. After the Sabellians were removed from their positions, the term homoousios was not mentioned for about 20 years. It was only brought back into the Controversy in the mid-350s.

Athanasius was not exiled for his theology but for violence against the Melitians.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “Arius and most of his supporters were, at Constantine’s request, readmitted to communion within two or three years of the council.” (Ayres, p. 100)
  • 2
    “Eusebius of Nicomedia quickly rose again to a position of importance, baptizing Constantine on his death-bed in 337 and becoming bishop of Constantinople.” (Ayres, p. 100)
  • 3
    “Late in 335 or early in 336, Arius died … The death of Arius marks, however, no significant turning point in the story of these years. By this time the focus was elsewhere.” (Ayres, p. 103)
  • 4
    “It should be noted that none of the evidence so far considered presents a reliable picture of a systematic campaign by the Eusebian party against known opponents of Arianism. … All that we can say is that a number of bishops were deposed between 328 and 336 for various reasons, and that Eusebius of Nicomedia or some of his party had a hand in most, or all, of these depositions. They were perhaps controlling events, but not controlling them in the interests of forwarding Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 279)
  • 5
    “He could not possibly have been, as he was later erroneously represented to have been, a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)
  • 6
    “There was … no reason to regard Athanasius as a zealous supporter of the doctrine of Nicaea until at earliest his second exile (339-346).”
  • 7
    The theology of “Marcellus and Eustathius” “was able to provoke a strong and sustained reaction from the Eusebians, and one that seems to have gained wide support throughout the east.” (Ayres, p. 102)
  • 8
    “Marcellus of Ancyra was certainly deposed for unorthodoxy in 336.” “The new synod met in the summer of 336 and deposed Marcellus for holding the heresy of Paul of Samosata.” (Williams, p. 80) (This Paul was a well-known Sabellian of the third century.)
  • 9
    “This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force” (Ayres, p. 89).
  • 10
    “In the controversies which erupted over Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus after Nicaea, both thought their theologies faithful to Nicaea—and they had good grounds for so assuming. Both were influential at the council, and Nicaea’s lapidary formulations were never intended to rule out their theological idiosyncrasies.” (Ayres, p. 99)
  • 11
    “Marcellus and Eustathius presented their theologies as the natural context for Nicaea’s creed.” (Ayres, p. 105)
  • 12
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy
TABLE OF CONTENTS