We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the onlybegotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and on the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. But those who say: “There was a time when he was not;” and “He was not before he was made;” and “He was made out of nothing,” or “He is of another substance” or “essence,” or “The Son of God is created,” or “changeable,” or “alterable”— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
- The Nicene Creed as adopted in 325 AD, translated by Philip Schaff -
The tall figure rises to address his supporters in the city’s great square. His demeanor is calm, his voice soothing, his words clear and stirring the hearts of all who hear him. He speaks of the power of God, of His divine grace and mercy in sending a man to save all men from their sins. The audience is enthralled at his message, and the crowd swells as he speaks. One figure at the fringe of the throng of people, a young priest, shakes his head in disgust. The speaker is a presbyter from Cyrenaica called Arius, and the young priest is an assistant to the bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius. The two men had little in common. Arius came from a common family with little influence; he was educated far from home in Antioch, and he was often in conflict with his teachers and colleagues. Athanasius descended from wealth and went to school in Alexandria, his home town, where he distinguished himself academically and for his piety.
Both men believed in one true God, but that was the extent of their agreement. Soon, even this came to an end as Athanasius listened to the older presbyter from Libya. Arius’ teachings, and the flowery rhetoric he used to enthrall emperors and commoners alike, would soon not just divide two men from one another. They would divide an empire.
The Arian Controversy
Orthodox Christianity believed Jesus’ words that he was the Son of God and that He is the equal of both God the Father and the Holy Spirit—the three making up the Trinity. However, in the three centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion, many Christians struggled to reconcile His claim to be God with His evident humanity. They wondered how someone could be both fully God and fully man. Church leaders wrestled with heterodox teachings like Docetism (that Jesus’ physical body was an illusion and that He was, in fact, pure spirit) and Monophysitism (that Christ’s divinity overwhelmed his humanity, making him fully God but not fully man). The Church labeled these sects as heretics and trying to suppress them. Arius’ teachings, however, were something quite different and posed a much greater threat to the Church in the minds of its leaders.
Arius blended a deep knowledge of the Scriptures with a powerful grasp of neo-Platonic logic that sat at the core of the Greco-Roman worldview, as well as a gift of speaking to his followers in both beautiful rhetoric and plain language that, some believed, had not been seen since Jesus had walked the earth. Arius taught that Jesus Christ was a created being, the “firstborn of all creation,” but that he was not coequal with God the Father. The Trinity, Arius taught, was a misconception spread by Church fathers who believed in the resurrection (which Arius denied).
For many people who listened to his arguments, Arius’ words rang true. They believed Jesus’ teachings about love and forgiveness would be unchanged if he had been a man, and their minds were put at ease because the “impossible puzzle” of his divinity and humanity had been solved. As Arius’ followers grew in number, the Patriarch of Alexandria saw the threat growing within the Church. His protege Athanasius became Arius’ chief opponent, speaking out against the heretic as often as possible and insisting that while it was impossible to understand logically, the truth of Christ’s claims of divinity had to be believed; otherwise, His sacrifice on the cross could not save anyone. The Christian world became evermore divided as Arius traveled across the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Church leaders continued to denounce him, but his influence spread—even as far away as modern-day France and Spain. By 325 AD, the five patriarchs who led the Church realized that they could not contain Arius alone. They needed an outside authority to make the final word on the divinity or mortality of Jesus Christ once and for all.
The Council of Nicaea
Twelve years before the Arian Controversy reached its boiling point, Emperor Constantine I had issued the Edict of Milan, ending a century of persecution for Christians and legalizing Christianity everywhere in the Roman Empire. Constantine (whose religious beliefs are still debated by historians) was thus respected by all Christians and the one man who could help settle the Arian Controversy. At the behest of the five patriarchs, the emperor sent invitations to all eighteen hundred bishops to attend a synod in the city of Nicaea, south of Constantinople. About three hundred attended, including the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, representatives of the Bishop of Rome, and bishops from every corner of the empire except Roman Britain. Constantine did not attend the opening of the Council of Nicaea in May 325 but arrived a month later. He entered the council chamber attired in brilliant robes appearing, as the first Church historian Eusebius described, “like some heavenly messenger from God.” The emperor sat beneath the bishops at the head of the chamber to show his respect. He acted as an overseer and did not speak or vote during the deliberations; he merely lent the council his imperial authority.
The bishops addressed the Arian Controversy first, debating the issue for a month. Arius was present but forbidden to speak—he was not permitted to enter the council chamber and had to pass notes answering attacks on his teachings to supporters in the room. Athanasius led the attacks on Arianism, giving definitions of hitherto-unclear words used in Scripture like “begotten,” “essence,” and “substance” when referring to the nature of Jesus Christ. He drew upon earlier condemnations of the Gnostic heretics who had tried to claim that the Son and the Father were of different essence (the Greek word ousia) and insisted that the two were homoousia, “one essence.” In the end, the Council sided with Athanasius over Arius. It then moved on to lesser matters like the date for Easter and procedures for church discipline.
In August 325, the council promulgated the Nicene Creed (which quoted in its entirety at the start of this podcast). The creed was the first doctrinal statement of its kind that defined the revealed truth of the Bible in strict terms. Jesus Christ was declared to be “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made.” Arius, his followers, and anyone who denied the divinity of Christ or claimed He was a created being from then until the end of time was condemned as a heretic. The Nicene Creed defined what it meant to be a Christian for the first time in Church history. While Arius and his followers continued to preach their heterodox beliefs, their influence eventually faded in the light of a decree from church and state authorities united in their condemnation of Arianism. The Council of Nicaea, and the creed it produced, also set a precedent for future ecumenical councils to resolve doctrinal disputes by issuing edicts from church leaders authorizing certain beliefs and condemning others.
Arius was exiled from the empire after the Council of Nicaea ended, but Constantine reversed his sentence eight years later and he settled in modern-day Israel eight years later. Arianism continued to spread even after its founder died in 336 AD. Arius was probably poisoned by his opponents, and his enemy Socrates Scholasticus recorded his death as follows: “He paraded proudly through the city, attracting the notice of all the people. As he approached the place called Constantine’s Forum...a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels...Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died.” Arianism endured, largely through its support by several emperors after Constantine’s death, and though it eventually disappeared in the East it would remain present in the West even after the two churches split in 1054 AD.
Athanasius became one of the most popular leaders in the Church following his defense of the Trinity at Nicaea. When his patron died five months after the council adjourned, Athanasius became the new bishop and Patriarch of Alexandria, one of the five supreme leaders of the Church. He continued his quest to extirpate Arianism from the Church for the next 48 years, which earned him the enmity of no less than four emperors who sent him into exile from Alexandria for a total of seventeen years. Nevertheless, he continued to teach and traveled across his patriarchate, establishing churches across eastern North Africa. He returned to Alexandria in 366 AD and spent the last seven years of his life rebuilding the unity of the church which had been so badly damaged by the doctrinal disputes of Arianism.
Turning Point: Unity versus Uniformity
For Orthodox Christians, the Nicene Creed was an unquestioned victory for the truth of Scripture. Arianism had been condemned as a heresy, and the doctrine of the Trinity had been affirmed and Christianity saved from a dangerous belief that would have led millions to hell. Beyond the immediate impact of the Council of Nicaea on Church doctrine, the events of 325 AD had four serious effects on subsequent history that must be examined. It elevated the power of the state in religious matters, caused many Christians to look to the Church for guidance on doctrinal matters rather than relying on Scripture or the Holy Spirit, introduced a legalistic element into the faith, and turned the entire course of church history in a dramatic manner.
The Bible does not prescribe a certain political agenda or system of government (much to the consternation of modern politicians and commentators). Christians are not commanded to vote in a certain manner or to erect monarchies or democracies in their lands. Rather, they are commanded to submit themselves to the governing authorities set up by God and to pray for their leaders. Of course, this has rarely been the extent of Christian involvement in government, and this can be traced back to the Council of Nicaea. By allowing the Emperor of Rome to call the council in 325 AD rather than settling the Arian Controversy on its own, the Church gave politicians an entry point into spiritual matters. Much of the subsequent history of Europe is one in which the separation of church and state virtually disappeared. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, the Church replaced the Empire at the center of European political life. For the next thousand years, to one degree or another, popes and bishops forced their wills on kings and princes, often calling back on the Nicene precedent to support their actions. To cite just one example, when Pope Innocent III declared in 1198 that he was “lower than God but higher than man, judging all and judged by no one,” he cited Constantine’s role in drafting the Nicene Creed and claimed that the papal throne had replaced that of the empire in political matters. The defining characteristic of what historians call the “Dark Ages” is the Church’s interference in political matters, and it all began at Nicaea in 325 AD.
Holy Scripture is very specific on certain doctrines which are central to the Christian faith—the divinity of Christ being one of them. However, the Bible gives considerable freedom of conscience in many peripheral areas of life; the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians that “everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial” with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and one’s conscience (though the latter has been corrupted by sin and cannot be our absolute standard for behavior). For much of early Christian history, doctrinal differences were embraced as long as groups agreed on the central tenets of the faith like salvation through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Of course, there is a great deal of debate on the limits of Paul’s “everything is permissible” statement, and a history podcast is not the place to address these differences. It is sufficient for our purposes to say that this idea of toleration of different views was damaged greatly by the decision at Nicaea. Most Christians would say that the decision was correct in that instance, but future ecumenical council would decide on other theological or doctrinal issues that, some argue, are less than central to the Christian faith. The Nicene precedent of church edicts replacing the conscience and the Holy Spirit has led to many divisions within the church.
Similarly, Christians are called in Scripture to specific daily actions to demonstrate their faith. These are known as sacraments, and while many churches define this word differently, all agree that Christians are required to behave in certain ways at certain times. However, using the Nicene precedent and by issuing more creeds, ecumenical councils and edicts from church leaders have increased the number of sacraments dramatically beyond the boundaries set by Scripture. Each of these three long-term effects of the Nicene council contribute to the largest of them all—the radical change in the direction of Church history. Individual Christians could no longer follow the Holy Spirit in matters of faith and ceremonies; they had to conform to what their Church leaders told them to do.
Churches began to declare those who disagreed on matters beyond central doctrine to be heretics or anathema, leading to many great divisions within the body of Christ. The two best examples of this are the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation. In 1054 AD, the Bishop of Rome excommunicated all those who followed the four Eastern patriarchs, condemning them to hell for refusing to recognize his supreme apostolic authority over the entire Church. This created the modern division between the western Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Five centuries later, the Council of Trent excommunicated all those who followed Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin or Ulrich Zwingli over disagreements on matters peripheral to central doctrine. Again, there is far more in these two great schisms—which we will cover in the discussion portion of this podcast. Even the Protestant churches that emerged from the Reformation follow the Nicene precedent. While the Church ought naturally to remain united on issues of foundational doctrine like the Trinity, modern churches have begun to divide over issues like music, church discipline, baptism, dress codes, etc. Each of these strikes at the unity of the Christian church which Jesus prayed for in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This podcast has delved deep into matters of theology and doctrine far more than any in the past. It is necessary to discuss the religious background of the Christian Church and the origins of the many divisions within that faith in order to better understand the next few topics this season. Whether or not one is a Christian, it is important to see how that faith has shaped the history of our world and the many turning points that have created the modern world.