There’s a lot of confusion around what is known of the Council of Nicea and I’d like to set the record straight.
First, it was the first official council to call bishops from all over the Roman empire. It was called as the Roman Emperor Constantine saw division within Christianity and he desired unification to prevent splits in his empire. In other words, he was concerned of the political implications if Christians continued to disagree in his empire. He didn’t really care what the outcome was so long as Christians were unified.
So what was this really all about?
Various groups will try to rewrite history and tell you their own version. However, these just aren’t true.
The Council of Nicea was over what became known as the Arian controversy or, more appropriately, the Arian heresy. Nothing more.
The history goes like this:
Before the council met in Nicea in 325 AD, Christianity had become an accepted religion in the empire but many Christians still carried the scars of their past persecutions under the previous emperors. Bishops headed up their respective churches in their regions with priests who served under them. There was no one bishop above the other (in other words, this is before the Pope came into being).
In Alexandria (northern Egypt), Bishop Alexander presided over the church there. This is where Arius, the source of the controversy, comes from. Arius began to teach contrary to the church a different Christ. Arius was a priest in the Alexandria church. His teachings can be summed up as follows:
- The Father & Son are not of the same essence. (so they are thus distinct and different from each other)
- The Son of God was a created being.
- There was a time that the Son did not exist; however, this was some time before creation (before time as we know it)
These points change the nature of God and of the Son entirely and would effectively make salvation useless – aka, we would still be lost in our sins and Christ’s death would have done nothing to cover them (Arius tried to argue otherwise). Alexander and Athanasius, Alexander’s assistant and one day replacement, stood against him. They stood on the authority of the Scriptures.
Now, it is important to note that the Scriptures were not yet contained in one book at this time. They were recognized as the Word of God but were still being circulated as individuals letters/books.
Arius was called before Alexander to discuss Arius’s positions and their implications. Despite trying to reason with Arius, Arius stood stubbornly – unwilling to move from his alternative Christ. This brought about a council in Egypt made up of roughly 100 bishops from the greater Egyptian area. After discussing where Arius stood & what he was refusing to stop teaching, the council decided to excommunicate him, banishing him from the Egyptian church.
Arius refused to stop even then. He found some bishops who sympathized with his views and moved to spread his heresy wherever he could. This became the division Constantine became aware of and that prompted him to call the Council of Nicea.
At the council, some 318 bishops attended from across Christendom (though most were Eastern bishops). Alexander and Athanasius were in attendance and so was Arius (despite not being a bishop). Alexander provided argumentation from the Scriptures and from there the council moved to the creation of the first church creed – the Nicean Creed. This summed up the core beliefs of the faith and all but 2 bishops signed it in agreement.
After this, Alexander returned to Egypt and Athanasius succeeded Alexander when he passed.
As most of us have seen historically, the Council of Nicea didn’t end the controversy. Even after the council’s decision, Arius refused to quit and continued to bend the ear of bishops and, through others, even the ear of Constantine. In other words, the division Constantine wished to prevent/repair failed. Because of Arius, Athanasius ended up spending much of his life defending against the Arian heresy.
Now, this is just an overview. I personally had a hard time keeping myself from going into greater detail on some of the points but I do want to some up some key points related to this council.
- The Council of Nicea was over the Arian heresy and nothing else.
- The Council of Nicea produced 1 item – the Nicean Creed.
- The Scriptures were already recognized as true word from God at this time despite them not being all in one book just yet. The Council of Nicea used the Scriptures but made no decisions in regards to what was in the Scriptures we call the Bible today.
- There was no Pope at this time. However, there was a bishop of Rome and the Roman bishop did have prominence – he just didn’t have any sort of universal claim to headship that was recognized outside – this came later. This can be a sticking point for some as they will argue the earlier bishops of Rome would also be conferred the title of Pope. Regardless, the Council of Nicea was mostly made up of Eastern bishops who did not recognize the bishop of Rome as a central figure called Pope and did not submit to him. As such, no Pope called for the council.
- Constantine called the council but did not force a decision. As I said earlier, he didn’t really seem to care what the doctrinal outcome was; he just wanted unity.
If you’d like to do some further reading, here are some resources I used as well as others that will help you get started.