Constantine The Great And The Nicaean Council

The Council of Nicaea formulated mainstrean christian thought for the next 1700 years. What rile did the unbaptized, opportunistic Emperor Constantine play?

By 325 C.E. the Christian church had deteriorated into a number of groups, each holding differing views. One of the main areas of contention was with regard to the nature of Jesus Christ. Was Jesus really God or was he the son of God? To try to solve the problem Roman Emperor Constantine summoned all of the bishops in the Empire to a great Council to be held at Nicaea. About 300 of them showed up. This was a small fraction of those invited.

Constantine was not a Christian. He was only baptised as one as he lay on his death bed. Like his father before him, Constantine was a worshipper of the Unconquered Sun. His acceptance of Christianity and it's promotion as the state religion was primarily a matter of military pragmatism. He had earlier won a stunning victory against his opponent Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge outside Rome with the aid, or so he believed, of the Christian Cross. From then on he became convinced that the religion of the Christ could bring him victory. His comprehension of Christian doctrine, however, was never developed.

Despite his lack of understanding of Christian matters, however, Emperor Constantine presided over the Nicaean Council. He actively involved himself in the discussions, guiding the conclusions. The bishops were naturally overawed at having their Emperor in their midst, and were unable to engage in a free and impartial debate. However, the bishops were unable to reach much consensus. After two months of logger heads over the nature of Jesus Christ, Constantine , who had basically no understanding of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology, decided the issue of Christ's deity in favor of those who claimed that Jesus was, in fact, God. What was Constantine's motivation in this? He was acutely aware that religious division was a real and serious threat to the established order of the Empire and was determined not to let this take place. His coming down in favor of those who saw Jesus as God was, then, a matter of Political expediency rather than theological reasoning.

The Council of Nicaea was to produce a document which was to become a basic doctrine of Christendom. It was called the Nicaean Creed and it spelled out the relationship of God to Christ as decided upon at that Council. A comment with regard to it in the fourth Century "╦ťHistory of the Greek Nation' gives an interesting perspective on the value of the Nicaean Creed. It states, " It ( the Nicaean Creed) shows Constantine's indifference to doctrinal matters . . . his stubborn insistence in trying to restore unity within the church at any cost, and finally his conviction that as bishop of those outside the church he had the final say about any religious matter.'

The debates about the nature of Jesus continued long after the Nicaean Council. Those in the Church who did not uphold Christ's Godship were even back in favor for a time. In 381 C.E. a second council was held, this time in Constantinople. Under the headship of Emperor Theodosius it confirmed the Nicaean Creed.

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