Homoousios was not regarded as important at Nicaea.

PURPOSE

The church adopted the Trinity doctrine at the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, discoveries of ancient documents and research over the past century have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate, casting doubt on its legitimacy. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The present article challenges the common belief that ‘homoousios’ was the key term in the Nicene Creed of 325. It shows that the term was not mentioned by anybody for about 25 years after the Nicene Council. It wasn’t until the 350s, some 30 years later, that it again became part of the controversy. This article explains why a term, that was regarded as unimportant, was accepted at Nicaea, and how and why it became part of the Controversy 30 years later.

SUMMARY

Why was the term included?

The Nicene Creed of AD 325 says that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance as / consubstantial with) the Father. It was inserted in the Creed, not because it was regarded as an important term but, because Arius had already rejected it, it was included merely to force Arius and his supporters to reject the Creed so that the emperor could exile them.

But it was not the entire council that agreed to the term. The majority at Nicaea strongly objected to it because it is not Biblical, was borrowed from pagan philosophy, was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, and was already condemned by an important church council as associated with the heresy of Sabellianism. Furthermore, ‘same substance’ implies that God has a body. However, a minority-dominated the Council of Nicaea because Constantine had taken Alexander’s part. Following this minority, Constantine insisted on the inclusion of the term.

Given the modern culture of religious freedom, the reader might find it strange that an emperor could insist on including a keyword in a church creed. However, the Roman Empire was not a democracy and religious freedom did not exist. The empire was ruled by the general who commanded the strongest army. Consequently, the emperors decided which religions were allowed. Furthermore, in the Christian Roman Empire, the emperors were the final judge in religious disputes.

How was homoousios revived?

As stated above, the term homoousios was re-introduced into the Controversy in the 350s; about 30 years after Nicaea. This section explains the history chronologically.

At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. For example, the Westerners at the Nicene Council represented a tiny minority.

The term homoousios caused an intense struggle during the years immediately after Nicaea. Sabellians claimed homoousios as a victory for their side. However, that struggle resulted in the exile of all leading Sabellians. After that, homoousios disappears from the debate.

After he was exiled for violence against the Melitians in 335, ten years after Nicaea, Athanasius developed a masterful polemical strategy to explain why he was exiled. He claimed that Arius developed a novel heresy, that he (Athanasius) represents scriptural orthodoxy and really was exiled for his opposition to Arianism, and that his opponents, the Eastern bishops, are ‘Arians’, meaning followers of Arius’ already condemned theology. None of these points are true but the important point is that homoousios was not yet part of his polemical strategy.

Using this strategy, Athanasius appealed to the bishop of Rome. The bishop accepted Athanasius’ version of reality, called a council in Rome in 340, and declared both Athanasius and Marcellus orthodox, causing division between the Eastern and Western churches.

In the 340s, while the empire remained divided East and West, the division between the church in the East and West also remained. However, after Constantius became emperor of the entire empire in the early 350s, he sought unity in the church. For this purpose, he attempted to get the Western church to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.

Since Athanasius was Constantius’ greatest enemy, his primary goal was to isolate Athanasius. In response to the emperor’s attack on him, Athanasius incorporated homoousios into his polemical strategy. Athanasius was very influential in the Western church. Therefore, the church in the West also slowly came to accept the term. In this way, beginning in the mid-350s, homoousios became part of the dispute.

As a result of the introduction of homoousios into the Controversy, the church divided into various factions. Those who accepted homoousios were divided between one-hypostasis and three-hypostases views. Those who rejected homoousios were divided between those who rejected all ousia (substance) language (the Homoians) and those who did use the term in their theologies (the Heterousians and the Homoiousians).

INTRODUCTION

Recommended Prior Reading

Two articles should be read before this one:

Since this is a highly controversial subject, these articles quote extensively from leading scholars. Therefore, the green blocks have been designed to sufficiently summarize the concepts in this article without the need to read all these quotes.

Thought to be the Key Word

The Nicene Creed of AD 325 says that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance as / consubstantial with) the Father. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, this term is the key word of the Creed:

In the “centuries-old account of the Council of Nicaea,” “the whole power of the mysterious dogma is at once established by the one word homoousios;” “with one pronouncement the Church identified a term that secured its … beliefs against heresy.” (Ayres, p. 11) 1“The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios …” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)

But was not mentioned for 25 years.

The view that homoousios was of fundamental importance is deeply mistaken. For about 25 years after Nicaea, nobody mentioned the term, not even those who defended the term at Nicaea, nor Athanasius, the main defender of the term, nor the Western church, which is often described as the stalwart defender of Nicaea throughout the fourth century.

Referring specifically to the view that homoousios was of fundamental importance, Ayres says that “such older accounts are deeply mistaken.” (Ayres, p. 11) For about 25 years after Nicaea, nobody mentions homoousios:

“What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.” (Hanson Lecture)

“During the years 326–50 the term homoousios is rarely if ever mentioned.” (Ayres, p. 431)

Not even Athanasius, who is traditionally regarded as the great hero of the Arian Controversy and defender of the Nicene Creed, mentioned the term:

“Even Athanasius for about twenty years after Nicaea is strangely silent about this adjective (homoousios) which had been formally adopted into the creed of the Church in 325.” (Hanson, p. 58-59)

“In most older presentations, ‘western’ bishops were taken to be natural and stalwart defenders of Nicaea throughout the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 135) However:

“Even the Western bishops at Serdica in 343 did not mention the word.” (Hanson, p. 436) That council, 18 years after Nicaea, “opted clearly for Una substantia meaning one hypostasis, (rather than consubstantial).” (Hanson, p. 201)

The events of the Council of Serdica in AD 343 show that the main drivers of the Nicene Creed, “such as Ossius, Athanasius, and Marcellus” were “willing to turn to an alternative statement of faith.” (Ayres, p. 126)

The word homoousios “has left no traces at all in the works of … the leaders of the anti-Arian party such as Alexander of Alexandria, Ossius of Cordova, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Eustathius of Antioch, who are usually considered Constantine’s theological advisers and the strongest supporters of the council.” (P.F. Beatrice) For example, the draft creed formulated at the Council of Antioch just a few months before Nicaea, which was an anti-Arian, pro-Alexander council, does not mention the term. (See here.)

It only became important in the 350s.

Athanasius re-introduced the term into the debate in the 350s, some 30 years after Nicaea, but it took some time before the Western church adopted it.

“It is not until he (Athanasius) writes the De Decretis (356 or 357) that Athanasius again mentions the word and begins to defend it.” (Hanson, p. 436)

“Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (Ayres, p. 144)

“The 350s show how Nicaea only slowly came to be of importance in the west.” (Ayres, p. 135) (For more detail, see here.)

Since homoousios was first defended in the 350s, we see attacks on it only in the 350s:

“Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Authors Quoted

Based on discoveries and research over the past century, leading scholars explain the fourth-century Arian Controversy very differently from scholars in preceding centuries.

The main authors quoted in this article are:

Ayres, Lewis, 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., The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

Beatrice – Pier Franco, Professor of Early Christian Literature at the University of Padua, Italy.

WHY NOT MENTIONED

It was not important.

This absence of the term homoousios in the 20 or more years after Nicaea means that it was not regarded as important.

“For nearly twenty years after Nicaea nobody mentions homoousios, not even Athanasius. This may be because it was much less significant than either later historians of the ancient Church or modern scholars thought that it was.” (Hanson, p. 170)

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. … It was not seen as that useful or important.” (Ayres, p. 96)

“It is … likely … that the word homoousios when it was inserted in N did not have the crucial importance in the eyes of people of that time which it was later supposed to have.” (Hanson, p. 437)

The term was a problem even for anti-Arians:

“Homoousios was in fact a foreign body or stumbling block for all the people attending the council, without distinction, Arians and anti-Arians, and for this very reason it soon disappeared in the following debates.” (P.F. Beatrice)

It was simply used to oust Arius.

The term homoousion was inserted in the Creed, not because it was an important concept, but merely to force Arius and his supporters to reject the Creed so that the emperor could exile them.

“The choice of the term homoousios seems to have been motivated in large part because Arius was known to reject it. Athanasius … tells us that those running the council originally proposed describing the Son as ‘like’ the Father or ‘exactly like the Father in all things’ and as being ‘from God’. But these terms would not serve because everyone could agree to them. … Hence, homoousios and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were chosen specifically to exclude Arius’ supporters.” (Ayres, p. 90) 2Arius and his supporters had already rejected the word before the Nicene Council (Hanson, p. 10).

Hanson concludes similarly that “the most satisfactory explanation of why it was put there is that it was certainly a word … which serious and wholehearted Arians could not stomach.” (Hanson, p. 167; cf. Hanson, p. 172)

Ayres agrees with Hanson that “the homoousion was probably not a flag to be nailed to the masthead, a word around which self-conscious schools of theology could rally. But it was an atropopaic formula for resisting Arianism.” (Ayres, p. 92) (Atropopaic means to avert evil influences.)

The meeting knew that the emperor would exile all who refused to sign the Creed and “desired to secure the condemnation of Arius.” (Ayres, p. 91)

The majority opposed homoousios.

Even though homoousios was inserted in the Creed to get Arius exiled, most delegates strongly objected to the concept. As discussed here, the Eusebians opposed the term because it is not Biblical, was borrowed from pagan philosophy, was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, and was already condemned as associated with the heresy of Sabellianism. Furthermore, ‘same substance’ implies that God has a body. The Dedication Creed of 341 shows what the majority at Nicaea really believed, when not compelled by an emperor. They opposed both Arius and the term homoousios. The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.

More or less the same people who attended Nicaea, 16 years later formulated the Dedication Creed:

The delegates to the Nicene Council of 325 were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (Ayres, p. 19), and the Dedication Creed of 341 “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

They opposed both Arius and also the term homoousios:

“Loofs comes nearest to the truth when he says that it (the Dedication Creed) is both anti-Marcellan and anti-homoousian.” (Hanson, p. 287-8)

The Dedication Creed also “deliberately excludes the kind of Arianism professed by Arius.” (Hanson, p. 290)

So, the Nicene Creed did not reflect die views of the majority:

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)

“We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. … The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!” (bible.ca)

Constantine insisted on homoousios.

A minority dominated at Nicaea because Constantine had taken Alexander’s part. Therefore, Constantine insisted on the inclusion of the term.

“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (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)

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians (extreme anti-Arians) were in favour of it [the term homoousios], and that, when he had insisted that it did not have the objectionable meaning which Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia had attached to it, the favourers of Arius in the Council could accept it, he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 202)

Did Ossius propose the term?

If Ossius, the chairperson, proposed the term, as some think, then it was on instruction of the emperor, for he was the emperor’s agent.

“According to the Arians … the Nicene Creed was presented by Ossius of Cordova in his capacity as president of the assembly.” (P.F. Beatrice) However, Ossius did not preside because of his position in the church. He was the bishop of the “obscure” see of Cordova (Hanson, p. 155). He presided in his capacity “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and represented “the Emperor’s interest.” (Hanson, p. 156) 

The emperor was the final authority.

Given the modern culture of religious freedom, the reader might find it strange that an emperor was able to insist on the inclusion of a keyword in a church creed. However, the Roman Empire was not a democracy and religious freedom did not exist. The empire was ruled by the general who commanded the strongest army. Consequently, the emperors decided which religions were allowed and also acted as the final judge in religious disputes.

“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine (during the Arian Controversy), there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)

The so-called ‘ecumenical’ church councils of the fourth century were “the very invention and creation of the Emperor” (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). “The Emperor was expected to dominate and control them” (Hanson, p. 855).

Conclusion

The term was not mentioned for some decades after Nicaea because the Nicene Creed was the work of a minority under the protection of the emperor, while the majority was most uncomfortable with this term.

Nicaea was not regarded as binding.

Furthermore, at the time, the Nicene Creed was not regarded as binding. It was a temporary solution to an immediate problem. 

“Many modern readers assume that the Nicene creed was intended at its promulgation to stand as a binding and universal formula of Christian faith.” (Ayres, p. 85) 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) “Councils were not expected to produce precise statements of belief.” (Ayres, p. 87)

“All the bishops at Nicaea would have understood their local ‘baptismal’ creed to be a sufficient definition of Christian belief.” (Ayres, p. 85)

For a further discussion of this point, see Ayres – 4.1 The Nicene Creed as a Standard of Faith.

HOW WAS HOMOOUSIOS REVIVED?

As stated above, the term homoousios was re-introduced into the Controversy in the 350s; about 30 years after Nicaea. This section explains the history chronologically.

The West was not at Nicaea.

At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. For example, the Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.

At Nicaea in 325, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)

“The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” “The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church.” (Hanson, p. 170)

Post-Nicaea Correction

The inclusion of the term homoousios caused an intense struggle during the years immediately after Nicaea. Sabellians claimed the homoousios in the Creed as a victory for their side but that struggle resulted in the exile of all leading Sabellians. After that, homoousios disappears from the debate. (See here.)

Period of no Controversy

As already mentioned, after the post-Nicaea Correction, the Nicene Creed and Homoousios were not part of the Controversy for more than 25 years. In fact, there was no controversy.

“At some times there was almost no controversy at all. If there was any controversy from 330 to 341, it was a controversy about the behaviour of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria.” (Hanson, p. xviii)

“There was a long period of confusion and uncertainty from 341 to 357 when it was far from clear what the controversy was about, if there was a controversy.” (Hanson, p. xviii)

In other words, the Council of Nicaea brought the dispute between Arius and his bishop Alexander to an end. The Real Controversy began only decades later:

Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy

After he was exiled in 335, Athanasius developed a masterful polemical strategy to explain why he was exiled. He claimed that:

      • Arius developed a novel heresy.
      • He (Athanasius) represents scriptural orthodoxy.
      • He was exiled for his opposition to Arianism.
      • An Arian Conspiracy manipulated the council of Tyre to exile him for violence, of which he was innocent.
      • His opponents are ‘Arians’, meaning followers of Arius’ condemned theology.

None of these points are true but the important point for the current article is that homoousios was not yet part of his polemical strategy.

During those decades after Nicaea, while nobody thinks about homoousios, Athanasius and Marcellus were both exiled from the East and sent to the West (Rome). There they met and joined forces against the East:

“Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (Ayres, p. 106)

In Rome, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy:

“Athanasius’ engagement with Marcellus in Rome seems to have encouraged Athanasius towards the development of” “an increasingly sophisticated account of his enemies;” “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years;” “a masterpiece of the rhetorical art.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

What was his polemical strategy?

“Athanasius’ account begins by presenting Arius as the originator of a new heresy.” (Ayres, p. 107) In contrast, “Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (Ayres, p. 107)

Athanasius described “his enemies as ‘Arians’ seeking to perpetuate a theology stemming from Arius.” (Ayres, p. 106) “To this end Athanasius quotes extensively from Arius’ Thalia.” (Ayres, p. 107) See also – Athanasius invented Arianism.

This polemical strategy is discussed further in – The Creation of ‘Arianism’. It presents a misleading picture of that Controversy:

“If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis.” (Williams, p. 234)

“Once we begin to grasp the problems with Athanasius’ rhetorical unmasking of ‘Arians’ then we need to look beyond the Athanasian terminology of an ‘Arian’ conspiracy to get a more accurate sense of how to understand non-Marcellan and non-Athanasian eastern theologies during this period.” (Ayres, p. 432)

Rome accepted Athanasius.

Using his polemical strategy, Athanasius appealed to the bishop of Rome. The bishop accepted his version of reality, called a council, and vindicated both him and Marcellus.

The subsequent events are described in more detail here. In brief:

“Athanasius appealed to Julius of Rome in 339–40 by using his strategy of narrating a theological conspiracy of ‘Arians’. His success had a profound impact on the next few years of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 108)

Julius of Rome held a council in Rome which “quickly vindicated Marcellus and Athanasius.” (Ayres, p. 109)

“Julius wrote to the east in 341 in a letter which shows the strong influence of the emerging Athanasian account of ‘Arianism’.” (Ayres, p. 109)

Caused division between East and West

It is traditionally thought that the West had always supported Nicaea. In reality, similar to the East, most in the West believed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Beings. However, after the West had declared Athanasius and Marcellus orthodox, cracks in that unity began to appear. That was the real beginning of the ‘Arian’ Controversy.

In Ayres’ discussion of the Western (Latin) Theologists at the time of Nicaea, he concludes that they believed more or less the same as the theologians in the East:

“These Latin theologians have as far to travel towards later pro-Nicene theology as the eastern trajectories.” (Ayres, p. 75)

“Ironically, an anti-monarchian, anti-‘modalist’ polemic fundamentally shapes these early Latin theologians, and that is taken so often to be determining the future course of a unitary western theology!” (Ayres, p. 74)

This last quote says that the West opposed the idea that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one Being.

So, around the time of Nicaea, there was harmony between East and West. It was the West’s acceptance of Athanasius’ polemical strategy that first caused division between East and West:

“Once Julius had acted we begin to see divisions between the Church in the eastern and western halves of the empire emerging.” (Ayres, p. 109)

This, in the early 340s, was the real beginning of the ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, the bishop of Rome’s acceptance of Athanasius’ strategy did not mean that the entire West accepted it.

“We should … be cautious in our reading of these divisions. The divisions we initially observe are between one group of eastern bishops taking their lead from Eusebius of Nicomedia and Julius and his immediate associates. We must be wary of reading this as reflecting a simple division between eastern and western theology. Even when just such a division appears to come clearly into the open at the Council of Serdica in 343, even there the participants cannot usefully be divided in purely geographic terms.” (Ayres, p. 109-110)

Constantius strived for unity.

In the 340s, while the empire remained divided East and West, the division between the church in the East and West remained. However, after Constantius became emperor of the entire empire in the early 350s, he attempted to get the Western church to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.

In the same year that Julius wrote his letter to the East (AD 341), the East formulated the Dedication Creed which says that the Father, Son, and Spirit “are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.” Two years later, in 343, the West formulated a Manifesto at Serdica which “opted clearly for Una substantia meaning one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 201) There-after. the Western and Eastern churches continued to oppose one another. Since they were ruled by different emperors, there was little incentive to reconcile these opposing views.

However, in the early 350s, Constantius became emperor of the entire Roman Empire:

“Over the period AD 351–3, and after a complex civil war, the eastern Emperor Constantius achieved complete control of the whole empire.” (Ayres, p. 133)

“At this point Constantius found himself sole ruler of the Roman world and with the ability to push for a unified religious policy throughout his domains in a way no emperor had been able to do since the death of his father in 337.” (Ayres, p. 133)

He attempted to get the Western church to agree to the eastern Creeds:

“As his control over the west grew Constantius increased his attempts to get bishops to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.” (Ayres, p. 135)

“Through the 350s … we seem to see a growing opposition to Constantius’ attempts to force western councils to agree to the decrees of Sirmium 351.” (Ayres, p. 136)

He attempted to isolate Athanasius.

Since Constantius’ greatest enemy, both politically and in the church, was Athanasius, his primary goal was to isolate Athanasius.

“Athanasius had a desire for power; he suppressed ruthlessly whenever he could any opposition to him within his diocese … towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421)

Therefore, the emperor “attempted to get the condemnation of Athanasius and probably some sort of theological statement accepted throughout the west.” (Ayres, p. 135) With that double goal in mind, “the council of Sirmium in 351 set the trend for a series of councils.” (Ayres, p. 135) For here for a discussion of the Creed of 351.

Athanasius re-introduced Homoousios.

In response to the emperor’s attack on him, Athanasius incorporated homoousios into his polemical strategy, which was the basis for the schism between the East and West. Therefore, homoousios became part of the dispute. As argued above, that was in the mid-350s.

“He began to use it [homoousios] first in the De Deeretis and thereafter regularly in his theological works, defending it fiercely against all criticism of it. If we place De Deeretis in 356 or 357, we can perhaps see the reason for this change of policy. By then it had become abundantly clear not only that Constantius was everywhere trying to isolate Athanasius himself from ecclesiastical support both in the East and the West … Athanasius decided that he must begin a policy of defending the very words of N as a slogan or banner round which to gather.” (Hanson, p. 438)

It was a turn to Nicaea.

Athanasius and the West did not oppose Constantius because they defended Nicaea. Rather, they turned to Nicaea to strengthen their resistance to the emperor’s efforts.

“It seems unlikely that previous adherence to Nicaea motivated their (the West’s) growing opposition (to Constantius’ efforts): it is much more likely that events in the second half of the decade prompted a turn to Nicaea as a focus for their already strong opposition.” (Ayres, p. 136)

In the ‘West’ there were, already before 357, “the beginnings of attempts on the part of a few to turn to Nicaea as a standard against the direction of Constantius’ policies.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Anti-Nicene Accounts Emerged.

As stated above, anti-Nicene theologies, particularly Homoianism, emerged in the late 350s; only after Athanasius introduced homoousios into his polemical strategy.

For example, Homoian theology is specifically anti-Nicene. Particularly, it opposes ousia-language. For example, they were “refusing to allow ousia-terms of any kind into professions of faith.” (Williams, p. 234) It appeared only in the 350s:

“Though Homoian Arianism derived from the thought both of Eusebius of Caesarea and of Arius, we cannot with confidence detect it before the year 357, when it appears in the Second Sirmian Creed.” (Hanson, p. 558)

“Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Homoousios divided the church.

As a result of the introduction of homoousios into the Controversy, the church divided into various factions. Those who accepted homoousios were divided between one-hypostasis and three-hypostases views. Those who rejected homoousios were divided between those who rejected all ousia (substance) language and those who did use the term in their theologies.

One-hypostasis Homo-ousians (Sabellians), such as Athanasius and Marcellus, interpreted homoousios as “one substance,” namely, as saying that Father and Son are one Being. See above the Council of Serdica in 343, where the Western delegates asserted ‘one hypostasis’.

Three-hypostases Homo-ousians, such as Basil of Caesarea and Meletius of Antioch, interpreted homoousios as “same substance,” namely, that Father and Son are two beings with the same type of substance. (See – Basil.)

The Homoi-ousians (from ὅμοιος, hómoios, “similar”) maintained that the Son’s substance is like the Father’s, but not the same.

The Heter-ousians said that the Son is like the Father but His substance is unlike the Father’s.

The Homo-ians, who remained the dominant emperor-supported faction, rejected all use of ousia-terms. They held that Jesus Christ is like the Father, without referencing ousia (essence or substance).


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios …” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)
  • 2
    Arius and his supporters had already rejected the word before the Nicene Council (Hanson, p. 10).

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)