The Council of Constantinople in AD 381 was not ecumenical.

“The Council of Constantinople met during May, June and July 381.” (RH, 805)

Authors quoted

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

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

Due to discoveries of ancient documents and significant progress, the scholarship of the past hundred years has concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy presents history from the perspective of the winner and is a complete travesty. These books reflect the revised account of that Controversy.

It was not an ecumenical council.

It is known as the Second Ecumenical Council. ‘Ecumenical’ that it represents all churches and perspectives. However, that council was far from ecumenical. It was a regional council of Antioch. For example, the Western church did not attend. 1Hanson refers to the “tenuous contact which the council might have been thought to have with the see of Rome.” (RH, 807)

Furthermore, already in the previous year, the emperor Theodosius had made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, exiled the Homoian bishop of the Capital, and outlawed all forms of non-Trinitarian Christianity, with threats of punishment. Consequently, no ‘Arian’ was allowed into the Council. It was attended only by pro-Nicenes:

“When Theodosius had entered Constantinople in November 380,” (the year before the council) he immediately exiled the Homoian bishop Demophilus and “accepted Gregory Nazianzen as de facto bishop.” (LA, 253) 

“Only about 150 bishops attended and they appear to have been carefully chosen from areas which would be friendly to Meletius, who was its president, that is areas under the influence of the see of Antioch.” (RH, 806) 2“Meletius was the initial president of the council.” (LA, 253) 3“It seems unlikely that this meeting was intended as a universal council to rival Seleucia/Ariminum or Nicaea itself. … Those present at the council initially came from a fairly restricted area and the majority from areas known to be favourable to Meletius.” (LA, 253)

“Negotiations with the Macedonians … were undertaken but no agreement could be reached and the Macedonian bishops, about 30 in number, left the council.” (RH, 807)

“The details … of this council indicate the problems with later presentation of the meeting as an ‘ecumenical’ reaffirmation of Nicaea.” (LA, 255)

The emperor controlled the meeting.

The emperor summoned the council; not the church. (LA, 253)

“Theodosius welcomed the participants in his magnificent throne-room in the Imperial palace, but the Council did not meet there. … After receiving the bishops, Theodosius did not appear at any session of the Council, but remained in the wings, as it were, holding a watching brief.” (RH, 806)

“The first act of the Council was to affirm that Gregory of Nazianzus was the Catholic and legitimate bishop of Constantinople.” (RH, 806; cf. LA, 253-4) Gregory was the person whom the emperor in the previous year unilaterally appointed as bishop of the Capital after he had exiled the incumbent Arian bishop.

The chairperson was the emperor’s agent:

The first chairperson was Meletius, but he died soon and was replaced as chairperson by Gregory Nazianzen – the person whom the emperor appointed as bishop of Constantinople. 4“During the council Meletius suddenly died, and Gregory of Constantinople was chosen to succeed him as president of the council.” (RH, 807; cf. LA, 254) 

But Gregory resigned5“In the council itself Gregory seems to have quickly made himself unpopular.” (LA, 254) “At some point he seems also to have lost the support of Theodosius. Gregory offered his resignation … and it was accepted.” (LA, 255) and was replaced by a person (Nectarius) who was the equivalent to the mayor of the city (“praetor urbanus in Constantinople” (RH, 811)), but who was a mere lay-person in the church. “It was as if today the cardinals had chosen as Pope … the mayor of Rome.” (RH, 811) 6In the place of Gregory, “the bishops of the council chose an unbaptised catechumen, an imperial civil servant, Nectarius, who then became the presiding officer.” (RH, 807) 7Nectarius was “an unbaptized civil official in Constantinople.” (LA, 255) Now the chairperson was fully under the emperor’s control.

Nectarius was also elected as bishop of Constantinople:

“The Council found itself in a quandary over the choice of a new bishop of the capital city. … They finally picked … an unbaptised layman, Nectarius, who had been praetor urbanus in Constantinople. … The bishop-elect was hastily baptised and ordained.” (RH, 811) 8“The Egyptians and Westerners could not object because they had acquiesced seven years ago at the choice for the important see of Milan of an unbaptised officer in the imperial service, Ambrose.” (RH, 811)

That the Council elected a civil servant as chairperson and as bishop of the Capital reveals the unity of church and state. The same person now managed both the city and the church. It also shows the control which the emperor had over the council.

It concluded the Meletian Schism.

As stated, Meletius, the bishop of Antioch and the first chairperson of the council, suddenly died. The meeting then discussed a replacement for Meletius as bishop of Antioch. The Meletian Schism is named after Meletius. It was a schism within the pro-Nicene camp, particularly over the rightful bishop of Antioch:

On the one side of that schism were the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (Athanasius, and his successor Peter, and Damasus, the bishop of Rome). They supported Paulinus as bishop of Antioch. All of them believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Rational Faculty (one hypostasis).

In the third main center of the Empire, Constantinople, the bishop was a Homoian until the emperor exiled him. But the most important pro-Nicenes in the East were the Cappadocians and they, like the Homoians, taught three Rational Faculties (three hypostases). In this camp, Basil of Caesarea supported his friend Meletius as bishop of Antioch.

This tension continued in the council. For example:

Paulinus had been for years steadily supported by Damasus and Peter against Meletius, the leader of the party of the Easterners at the council. Considerable antagonism between him and the followers of Meletius must have been aroused.” (RH, 810)

“It is wholly improbable that the bishop of Alexandria would have attended the council as long as Meletius was presiding over it, and if the bishop of Thessalonica regarded himself as in any sense representing the bishop of Rome (and he may have done so), it is not likely that he would have been content to attend a council with Meletius at the head of it either.” (RH, 808-9)

The selection of the bishop of Antioch intensified this conflict. Gregory proposed Paulinus but the meeting elected Flavian:

“Gregory wanted the council to elect Paulinus in place of Meletius as bishop of Antioch, but it preferred to choose Flavian.” (RH, 807)

Flavian was “a prominent presbyter of the party of Paulinus.” (RH, 810) So, he was on the same side as Paulinus.

Nectarius, the praetor urbanus in Constantinople, who was elected as bishop of the Capital (Constantinople), supported “the Eustathian cause in Antioch.” (RH, 811) Eustathius was the leading Sabellian when the Arian Controversy began. Like the bishops of Rome and Alexandria, the Sabellians taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Rational Faculty (hypostasis). Nectarius, therefore, was also in the ‘one-hypostasis camp’.

It is interesting that Gregory proposed Paulinus because Gregory, presumably, since he was one of the Cappadocians, supported Basil in this dispute. Perhaps the emperor instructed Gregory to propose Paulinus. The emperor’s Edict of Thessalonica of the previous year also took the one hypostasis side of that schism. It explicitly mentions Peter and Damasus in that edict as role models for the Trinity doctrine.

In conclusion, the delegates “have been carefully chosen from areas which would be friendly to Meletius.” (RH, 806) But the meeting ends with Meletius dead and his opponents in the Meletian Schism appointed as Bishops of Antioch and Constantinople, and as chairperson of the council. One wonders whether the emperor contributed more than his prayers to Meletius’ death. It seems as if the emperor fully hijacked Meletius’ meeting.

Other Decisions

“The council re-affirmed N but also produced the creed C. … All this lasted three months from May to July 381.” (RH, 807) See – Was the creed of AD 381 an update of the Nicene Creed of 325?

The council agreed that “the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy precedence in honour next after the bishop of Rome because it is the New Rome’. It is very likely that this was intended to reduce the pretensions of the archbishop of Alexandria.” (RH, 808)


OTHER ARTICLES

Origin of the Trinity Doctrine

CHURCH FATHERS

ARIAN CONTROVERSY

ARIUS

THE NICENE CREED

ARIANISM

    • The Dedication Creed 28This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 29The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 30‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 31In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 32This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 33Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

THE PRO-NICENES

EMPEROR THEODOSIUS

AUTHORS 

Extracts and summaries from the writings of scholars who have studied the ancient documents themselves:

LATER

TRINITY DOCTRINE – GENERAL

    • Elohim 42Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 43The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

Other Articles

All articles on this Site

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Hanson refers to the “tenuous contact which the council might have been thought to have with the see of Rome.” (RH, 807)
  • 2
    “Meletius was the initial president of the council.” (LA, 253)
  • 3
    “It seems unlikely that this meeting was intended as a universal council to rival Seleucia/Ariminum or Nicaea itself. … Those present at the council initially came from a fairly restricted area and the majority from areas known to be favourable to Meletius.” (LA, 253)
  • 4
    “During the council Meletius suddenly died, and Gregory of Constantinople was chosen to succeed him as president of the council.” (RH, 807; cf. LA, 254)
  • 5
    “In the council itself Gregory seems to have quickly made himself unpopular.” (LA, 254) “At some point he seems also to have lost the support of Theodosius. Gregory offered his resignation … and it was accepted.” (LA, 255)
  • 6
    In the place of Gregory, “the bishops of the council chose an unbaptised catechumen, an imperial civil servant, Nectarius, who then became the presiding officer.” (RH, 807)
  • 7
    Nectarius was “an unbaptized civil official in Constantinople.” (LA, 255)
  • 8
    “The Egyptians and Westerners could not object because they had acquiesced seven years ago at the choice for the important see of Milan of an unbaptised officer in the imperial service, Ambrose.” (RH, 811)
  • 9
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 10
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 11
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 12
    The Controversy gave us the Trinity doctrine but the traditional account of the Controversy is a complete traversy.
  • 13
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 14
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 15
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 16
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 17
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 18
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 19
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 20
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.
  • 21
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 22
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 23
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 24
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 25
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 26
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 27
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 28
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 29
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 30
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 31
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 32
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 33
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 34
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 35
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 36
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 37
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 38
    It was a regional synod of Antioch and attended only by bishops who were friendly to the bishop of Antioch. But the emperor hijacked it.
  • 39
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 40
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 41
    In the fifth century, Arian ‘barbarians’ dominated the Western Empire, but they tolerated and even respected the Trinitarian Roman Church.
  • 42
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 43
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.