This article is one of a series that explains the historical development of the Trinity doctrine during the fourth and later centuries. One main purpose of this series is to show that the Roman Emperors controlled the decisions of the church councils. Consequently, the Roman emperors played a huge role in the decisions of the councils to accept the Trinity doctrine, as opposed to Arianism.
The purpose of the current article is to show, in particular, the influence which the first Christian emperor (Constantine) exerted over the Council of Nicaea in the year 325.
Union of Church and State
In the fourth century, when Nicene Christology became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church existed effectively as part of the state and, in practice, the emperor was the head of the church. Boyd wrote (link):
In the later Roman Empire, civil and ecclesiastical authority blended. One example of this blending is the ecclesiastical edicts of Constantine and his successors.
“Constantine established the precedent for imperial intervention in ecclesiastical affairs … while Gratian and Theodosius finally and decisively fixed the alliance of the state with ecclesial creed and persecution.”
“The place given him (the bishop) in the system of justice was similar to that of the judges of the public law courts.” “Moreover, the conception of his office as arbitrator was that of an authority transcending (exceeding) the regular civil courts.”
“The political and social power acquired by bishops … made their election in the days of the later Roman Empire … a matter of public importance.” “The emperors, through their relation to the synods, which they often convened and attended, might exercise a direct influence on elections.“
In the year 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christianity. This was the beginning of the transition of Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the year 380.
But soon a disagreement arose in the church with respect Christology—the study of the nature of Christ—between Arius, a minister in Alexandria of Egypt, and the head (bishop) of the church in that city. Arius’ views spread, causing controversy within the wider church.
In the year 325, Emperor Constantine called an assembly of bishops – the First Council of Nicaea – to formulate a single statement of belief with respect to the nature of Jesus Christ. Nicaea condemned Arius’ doctrine and provided a definition of the relationship between the Father and the Son that is still accepted by most Christians today.
Why Constantine called the Council
Some think that Constantine was not really a Christian, but he probably was just like us; a sinner.
At least at the beginning, Constantine did not understand the arguments in the dispute. He wrote to Alexander and Arius to stop their quarrel over these “these small and very insignificant questions.”1Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55
Constantine did not call the Council of Nicaea because he was concerned about the church teaching correct doctrine but because he was concerned that the controversy may cause a division of the empire. The Roman Empire was very large and consisted of many different and diverse nations. To maintain unity was a continual struggle, and religion had the potential to unite or divide.
Constantine controlled the council.
In the fourth century, the prestige of the church spiraled upwards. Constantine’s conversion encouraged many other Roman citizens to become Christians but the church became part of the state and the emperor became the real head of the church.
Constantine did control the Council of Nicaea. He called the council, presided over it, actively guided the discussions, proposed the key word Homoousios, stepped in to enforce the formula that his advisor Hosius had agreed on with Alexander of Alexandria, exiled all bishops that were not willing to sign the creed and ordered all copies of Arius’ book to be burned, warning to execute those who refused to surrender the Arian’s writings. “Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination” (Britannica). In this way Constantine played a huge role in the formulation and acceptance of the creed, and consequently, in the eventual development of the Trinity doctrine.
The majority bishops opposed the creed. The great majority of the Eastern bishops were disciples of Origen. They were uncomfortable with the wording of the creed, particularly the concept put into the creed by Constantine himself; Homoousios. There was suspicion of this word because of its earlier association with Gnosticism. The decisions the Council of Nicaea were really the work of a minority, but the support of the emperor ensured that their view was formally adopted.
This supports the main thesis of this series of articles, namely that the decision, whether the church should adopt Nicene Christology or Arianism, was dictated by the emperors.
– END OF SUMMARY –
Events leading up to Nicaea
The First 300 Years
An apologist is a person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial. The Church Fathers of the first three centuries are called apologists because the church was a persecuted minority, and these theologians had to defend their faith before the Roman authorities. Many of them died for their faith.
These church fathers, during the first 300 years of the church’s existence, did not believe that the Son existed as a separate Person from all eternity. Many of them viewed the existence the Logos (the Word – Christ, before He became a human being) as consisting of two stages, namely, that the Logos existed from all eternity as an attribute of God and then as a Person alongside God from a specific point in time. That point in time must have been before or at the time of creation, for God created the cosmos through Him.
Origen of Alexandria (c. 184 – c. 253) was a Christian scholar and theologian who was born and spent the first half of his career in Alexandria. He was a prolific writer. He wrote roughly 2,000 treatises in multiple branches of theology. He was one of the most influential figures in early Christian theology and has been described as “the greatest genius the early church ever produced.” As explained below, one of the three parties at Nicaea represented his view.
Origen rejected the two-stage theory and maintained the eternal generation of the Son, which means that the Son existed at all times. However, to remain strictly monotheistic, he explained the Son and the Holy Spirit as subordinate to the Father, who alone was true god; God in the strict sense.
The Diocletianic Persecution of 303-313 was the most severe persecution of Christians up to that point in history. The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (reigned AD 306–337) legalized Christianity in 313 with the Edict of Milan. He granted to Christians “the right of open and free observance of their worship.” This was a turning point for Christianity. During Constantine’s reign, Christianity began to transition to become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the year 380 (see Constantine).
But soon a disagreement arose with respect Christology—the study of the nature of Christ—between Arius (c. 250–336), a minister (presbyter or priest) in Alexandria of Egypt, and the head (bishop) of the church in that city. This was centuries before the rise of Islam, and Alexandria was one of the leading centers of Christian thinking.
Around the year 318, his bishop removed Arius from office and in 321 a synod at Alexandria denounced Arius for teaching a heterodox view of Jesus Christ. But Arius had influence in the schools of Alexandria as well in the wider eastern Empire. He began to write letters and to teach in other ways. His views spread, resulting in a controversy within the wider church, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, which is where Christianity originated, with Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria as main centers.
Although the words Arian and Arianism are derived from Arius’ name, Arius was not the first Arian. As discussed in the article on Arianism, the main difference between Arianism and the Trinity doctrine (Nicene Christology) is that, in the Trinity Doctrine, Jesus is equal with the Father, while, in Arianism, Jesus is subordinate to the Father. With this simplified definition of Arianism, all main theologians of the first three centuries were Arians (See Christology of the church fathers).
Council of Nicaea
Emperor Constantine called an assembly of bishops; the First Council of Nicaea (Wikipedia; Britannica – Council of Nicaea) in the year 325 to formulate a single statement of belief with respect to the nature of Jesus Christ. More than 300 bishops (traditionally 318) attended from all over the Roman Empire. Since the meeting took place only 12 years after the persecutions ended, many of the bishops had previously been exiled or tortured.
The Council of Nicaea condemned Arius’ doctrine and provided the definition of the relationship between the Father and the Son that is still accepted by most Christians today. For a discussion of the contents of the creed, see Nicene Creed.
Why Constantine called the Council
BIBLE.CA contends that anti-Trinitarians falsely claim that Constantine was a pagan sun-worshipper who had no faith in Christ and had no understanding of Christian doctrine.
Was Constantine a Christian?
The following are some of the evidence which BIBLE.CA offers to prove that Constantine was a Christian:
The reasons for Constantine’s conversion to Christianity have been much debated. Some believe that it was designed to win the support of the Christians, or a wise act of statesmanship aimed at buttressing the decaying empire. Neither view is very likely (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, Constantine, Vol. 6, p. 386).
In building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 325 on the site where Hadrian had built a temple to Venus, Constantine destroyed and removed every trace of this pagan idolatry. He even removed the soil on the site and dumped it far away (Eusebius, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, book 3, ch 27).
Constantine showed marked favor to Christians, thereby causing a flood of conversions. At the same time, his attitude to his pagan subjects became more severe. He destroyed three famous temples in 331 (Britannica).
Throughout his life, Constantine ascribed his success to his conversion to Christianity and the support of the Christian God.2Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Constantine the Great, Vol. 5, p.71
In the year after the Council of Nicaea, Constantine had both his wife and son murdered (Britannica) which puts a huge question mark behind Constantine’s Christianity. BIBLE.CA does its utmost to justify those murders.
Conclusion: Constantine probably was just like us. None of us are without sin and all Christians are supposed to grow to maturity over time. The point in this article is not that Constantine was a pagan, but that he manipulated the Nicene Council to achieve a predetermined result.
Did Constantine understand the dispute?
BIBLE.CA concedes that Constantine had not grappled with the concepts of the Trinity discussion. The following is further proof of this:
The Arian heresy, couched in difficult Greek … was remote from Constantine’s educational background. The Council of Nicaea had already been preceded by a letter to Arius of Alexandria, in which Constantine stated that THE POINT AT ISSUE WAS TRIVIAL … (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Constantine the Great, Vol. 5, p.71)
NOT UNDERSTANDING the theological points at issue, Constantine first sent a letter to the two parties rebuking them for quarreling about minute distinctions (Britannica).
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)
TO PREVENT A SPLIT OF THE EMPIRE
Constantine called the council TO PREVENT A SPLIT IN HIS EMPIRE. This may be explained as follows:
The Roman Empire was very large and consisted of many different and diverse nations. To maintain unity was a continual struggle. The emperors recognized the potential of religion to either unite or divide the empire. Before Christianity was legalized, emperors persecuted Christianity and required the pagan ceremonies of showing respect for the gods and for the emperor AS A MEANS TO MAINTAIN UNITY.
Christianity is different from other religions, for it is based on a large book (the Bible), written by many people over thousands of years. This book determines Christian doctrine; not human authority; at least in Protestant thinking. However, this large book leaves much scope for different interpretations. These differences always existed, for example, the Pharisees and Sadducees. However, after Christianity was legalized, the emperors saw these rifts as threats to the unity in the empire. Arthur Cushman McGiffert wrote:
“In the hope of securing for his throne the SUPPORT of the growing body of Christians he had shown them considerable favor and it was to his interest to have the church vigorous and united. The Arian controversy was threatening its unity … He therefore undertook to put an end to the trouble. … Constantine himself of course neither knew nor cared anything about the matter in dispute …” (A History of Christian Thought, 1954, Vol. 1, p. 258).
EMPERORS DICTATED CHURCH DOCTRINE.
In the fourth century, the prestige of the church spiraled upwards. Constantine’s conversion encouraged many other Roman citizens to become Christians, including those who converted only with the hope of advancing their careers. But this also commenced a period of state interference in church affairs (Britannica). The church became part of the state, and the emperor became the real head of the church.
EMPEROR MANIPULATED THE NICENE COUNCIL
BIBLE.CA states that anti-Trinitarians falsely claim that Constantine “ran” the Nicene Council. However, it is true that Constantine manipulated the council. He called the Council of Nicaea, presided over it, proposed the key word Homoousios (Latin – consubstantial), forced the council to accept this term and exiled all bishops that were not willing to sign the creed. Constantine, therefore, played a huge role in the formulation and acceptance of the creed, and consequently, in the eventual development of the Trinity doctrine:
The church was faced by a new form of governmental interference when Constantine the Great both CALLED and CHAIRED the Council of Nicaea (Britannica).
“In 325 a Council was CONVOKED by Constantine the emperor” (The Triune God, Edmund J. Fortman, p 66-70)
The Council of Nicaea OPENED with an address by the Emperor (BIBLE.CA).
“Constantine himself PRESIDED, actively GUIDING the discussions, and PERSONALLY PROPOSED . . . the crucial formula expressing the relation of Christ to God in the creed issued by the council . . . OVERAWED by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination” (Britannica, 1971 edition, Vol. 6, “Constantine,” p. 386).
The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely Homoousios, COMES FROM no less a person than the emperor himself. To the present day, no one has cleared up the problem of where the emperor got the term (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53).
Dale Tuggy’s podcast 247 confirms that Constantine himself suggested the term homoousios.
The emperor at first gave the council a free hand but was prepared to step in if necessary to enforce the formula that his advisor Hosius had agreed on with Alexander of Alexandria. (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)
CONSTANTINE EXILED BISHOPS WITH OTHER VIEWS
Of the roughly three hundred bishops in attendance at the Council of Nicaea, only two refused to sign the creed. This is often mentioned as a great victory for Nicene Christology, but few mention that the emperor exiled all bishops who were not willing to sign the creed. In other words, the bishops were forced to sign. Religious liberty is a modern invention. If they refused to sign, they lost their jobs and were exiled to a remote part of the empire:
“Two bishops who refused to sign the Creed, the Libyan bishops Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarike, were deposed by the Council and exiled by the Emperor” (pp. 162–163, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318–381. 2005).
Constantine exiled Arius himself and the deacon Euzoios; and also all bishops who signed the creed but REFUSED TO JOIN IN CONDEMNATION of Arius, namely Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea. (See Nicaea and Hanson 2005)
This was not the first time that the emperor took sides in religious matters and forced his will through the strong arm of the empire. One of the first such controversies was with respect to a group in North Africa, later called Donatists. Synods in 313 and 314 ruled that the Donatist faith was heresy. When the Donatists refused to recant, the Roman Emperor Constantine launched the first campaign of persecution by Christians against Christians.
The question remains, how many bishops would have voted against the Nicene Creed if this vote was anonymous? Would they have been willing to sign if the emperor did not intimidate them with the power of the state?
THE MAJORITY BISHOPS OPPOSED THE CREED
BIBLE.CA also states that anti-Trinitarians falsely claim that the majority opposed the Nicene Creed. However, that website also states as follows:
When Frend says “The great majority of the Eastern bishops found themselves in a false position,” he tells us what that position is: “The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of Origen. Future generations have tended to dub them “Semi-Arian.” In fact, they were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church”
This requires some further elucidation:
TRADITIONAL LOGOS THEOLOGY
The “traditional Logos-theology” is what many in the church believed in the first 300 years, namely that the Son is the pre-existent “Word” (Logos) that created all things, and became the human being Jesus, the Christ. In this theology, the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father. The large number of Origenists at the council must have been uneasy about the Nicene Creed, which made the Son equal to the Father. It is interesting that the Nicene Creed does not use the term Logos for Christ but the Son. This is perhaps an indication that the creed is a move away from the traditional Logos-theology.
The “Semi Arians” were one of the factions of Arianism that existed during the fifty years after the Nicene Council when the Nicene Creed was rejected and Arianism dominated the Church. The Semi-Arians accepted the equality and co-eternality of the persons of the Trinity, but rejected the Nicene term homoousios. They preferred the term homoiousios (similar substance).
THE WORK OF A MINORITY
The following is further evidence that the majority of the council did not agree with the Creed, but only accepted it due to the pressure exerted by the emperor:
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. (Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)
Even most of Arius’s allies abandoned him, and as Pelikan says, “saluted the emperor, signed the formula, and went right on teaching as they always had.” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)
Most of the bishops who were present at the council signed this creed. Among the signers were those who, judging by their theological presuppositions, could not do so, such as Eusebius of Caesarea. What seemed especially objectionable to many bishops was the concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios. (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)
HOMOOUSIOS COMES FROM PAGAN SOURCES
The website BIBLE.CA states that anti-Trinitarians falsely claims that Constantine introduced the Trinity doctrine from pagan sources. However:
Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85) states (summarized): There was some suspicion of the word homoousios on the part of the orthodox because of its earlier association with Gnosticism and even Manicheism. Even its defenders experienced some embarrassment about this term because of its identification with the condemned ideas of Paul of Samosata.
Kegan Chandler discusses the theories of the origin of the word Homoousios and concludes Constantine obtained it from Egyptian Hermetic sources.
It is, therefore, very likely that Constantine obtained this term from his previous pagan sources.
THE EMPEROR SUPPORTED THE MINORITY
Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85) explains the pressure applied by the emperor as follows (summarized):
Among those present, three “parties” were discernible:
– Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
– The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and
– Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.
The Lucianists … put forth a rather blunt statement of their beliefs. To their considerable surprise, this was summarily rejected. It was then their hope that the Origenists’ position, which was something of a midpoint between the Arian and the Alexandrian parties, would prevail.
Indeed, the Origenists put forth a creed, which was unanimously pronounced to be orthodox by those present.
Those of the party of Alexander, however, were not fully satisfied. They were FAVORED BY THE EMPEROR and followed the strategy of accepting the Creed of Caesarea while demanding a more precise definition of some of its key terms. THE EMPEROR FAVORED the inclusion of the word homoousios. The Alexandrian party then presented a carefully worked out statement, which they said was a revised form of the Creed of the Origenists, with certain steps taken to close loopholes that could be interpreted in Arian fashion.
The Origenists had considerable reservation about some elements of the creed, fearing that phrases such as “out of the Father’s substance” and “of the same substance as the Father” could be interpreted in a material sense, could be understood as Sabellian, and were not of biblical origin.
The emperor exerted considerable influence. Consequently, the statement was approved by all except three members of the council.
This supports the main thesis of this series of articles, namely that the decision, whether the church should adopt Nicene Christology or Arianism, was dictated by the emperors. Further articles will show how the emperors determined the further development of the Trinity doctrine. Later emperors did not participate in the formulation of creeds, as Constantine did, but they decided which formulation will be accepted; often against the majority view in the church.
EMPEROR DESTROYED ARIUS’ WRITINGS
After the Nicene Council, the Emperor ordered all copies of the Thalia, the book in which Arius had expressed his teachings, to be burned, and commanded the death penalty for those who refused to surrender the Arian’s writings:
If any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. … “Emperor Constantine’s Edict against the Arians”. fourthcentury.com. 23 January 2010.
Constantine burning Arian books, illustration from a compendium of canon law, c. 825.
- 1Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55
- 2Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Constantine the Great, Vol. 5, p.71