The First Council Of Nicaea (325 A.D.)

The First Council of Nicaea was convened by the Emperor Constantine in 325 a.d. to heal the schism caused by the Arian heresy.

The First Council of Nicaea was the first of two ecumenical councils of the early Christian church, held at Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey), in Asia Minor. (The Second Council of Nicaea was in 787.) The Council of 325 a.d. was convened by the Roman emperor Constantine for the purpose of settling the dispute over Arianism, a heresy that denied the full divinity of Christ. Arius, the doctrine's author, had been trained at the theological school of Lucian at Antioch. Many other supporters of Arianism had also studied there, which suggests that Arius was actually distilling ideas commonly held at Antioch. He was ordained as a priest in Alexandria, but there became involved in a controversy with his bishop (Bishop Alexander) over the relation between Jesus, the "Son" of God, and God himself, the "Father."

Arius believed that the Son could not be God in the same sense that God the Father was, and that the Son was not generated from the divine, eternal substance of the Father, but rather was created out of nothing as were all of God's other creatures. Those who leaned toward the view of Christ as existing only by the will of God felt that recognition of God's transcendence would be undermined by the theological view that Christ was consubstantial with God the Father.

But by the fourth century, the Christian church was already fairly well organized and distinctly intolerant of any "incorrect" practice of Christianity. Although there was as yet no empire-wide church government, there was an approximate unity among the districts on matters of teaching and ritual practice.

In 324 a.d., Constantine defeated and eliminated his eastern co-emperor, emerging as the sole emperor of Rome. He had already extended his patronage to Christianity within his own part of the empire, and he viewed the schism over the Arian heresy as a threat not only to the church itself, but also to the civil and political unity of the empire.

Bishop Alexander had excommunicated Arius over their theological dispute, but many bishops continued to support him. In order to heal the schism, Constantine summoned all the bishops of the church to a council at Nicaea in 325. Of the 1800 bishops in the Roman Empire, about 300 showed up. (The number is traditionally given as 319, but there is some doubt as to the authenticity of that count.)

The First Council of Nicaea opened with Constantine's plea for peace, followed by an opening address given by Eusebius of Caesarea, one of Constantine's most influential ecclesiastical advisors. Eusebius was himself suspected of sympathizing with the Arian heresy, and in later years Constantine, under the influence of a number of pro-Arian advisors, would call other councils to readmit Arius, who was excommunicated by the First Council and exiled to Illyria, and to condemn Athanasius, Alexander's successor as Bishop of Alexandria.

The council was held at Nicaea because Constantine had moved the seat of civil government from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. Constantine provided transportation and housing for the attending bishops, and despite evidence that he might have harbored Arian sympathies himself, he implemented the Council's decisions, including the exile of Arius.

In settling the dispute over Arianism, the First Council also adopted a creed--a confession of orthodox faith--that all Christians would be required to assent to. This Nicene Creed was enforced by the state as well by the church. In addition to banishing Arius, the Council also banished the only two bishops who refused to sign this creed.

The Nicene Creed, which with some minor modifications is still recited in Catholic and Anglican (Church of England) worship services, is as follows:

"I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ His Son, the only begotten of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, being of the same substance with the Father, through whom all things were made both in Heaven and on Earth; who for us men and our salvation descended from Heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us, under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and on the third day he rose again according to the Scripture, and ascended into Heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose Kingdom there shall be no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is to be glorified also, who spoke by the Prophets. And in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen."

Among other major issues addressed by the First Council was the so-called "Paschal controversy": The Council attempted but failed to establish a uniform date for the observance of Easter, although observance was tentatively set for the Sunday following the Jewish Passover. The bishops also issued decrees on a number of other matters, such as the defining the proper method for consecrating bishops, condemning usury (lending money at interest) among clerics, and establishing the primacy of Alexandria and Jerusalem over other sees in their respective areas. Alexandria, in fact, was established as second only to Rome among the Patriarchates.

But the main purpose and effect of the First Council of Nicaea was to establish unity of doctrine in the early Christian church and to heal the schism caused by the Arian heresy. That healing was only temporary, however. The Arian and othodoz (Catholic) factions continued to contend with each other for power and influence, and for awhile the Arians were in the ascendancy. But the Catholics did not withdraw from the contest, and schism between Arians and Catholics continued to plague the church until Arianism was outlawed by Theodosius I, after he became emperor in 379.

© High Speed Ventures 2011