During the third century, the churches had evolved organizational structures parallel in many respects to those of the Roman empire. Episcopal authority over congregations paralleled in some ways imperial authority; episcopal courts adjudicated for Christians the same matters as courts did; city councils and provincial governments provided models for ecclesiastical organization. The synod represented a familiar political process for resolving disputes on matters of doctrine and church order with its prototype in the Roman senate and city councils of the empire. The fact that the church had evolved an ecclesiastical organization that borrowed heavily from Roman political organization prepared the way for an effective integration of church and empire, of which the Council of Nicaea is the first and most sterling example. On the other hand, the effective ecclesiastical organization of the churches made the bishops potentially powerful figures in imperial politics, which the failure of the Council of Nicaea in the succeeding decades demonstrates.

The controversy that led to the convening of the Council of Nicaea began in Egypt in 318. In its early stages it was a contest between episcopal authority and the authority of the intellectuals, that is, the authority of the theological schools. ARIUS preached in his congregation at Baucalis a theological understanding of the relationship between the Logos and the Father that he shared with others trained under LUCIAN OF ANTIOCH at the school in Antioch. A number of the Egyptian clergy, consecrated virgins, and the laity espoused Arius’ views. Patriarch ALEXANDER I of Alexandria (312-326), whose episcopal jurisdiction extended throughout the entire province of Egypt, called for a theological discussion between Arius and those who opposed him and eventually ordered Arius not to expound his views. When Arius refused to comply, Alexander excommunicated him and his supporters.

It was Arius who carried the controversy beyond the boundaries of Egypt. Refusing the theological authority of Alexander of Alexandria, he wrote to and gained the support of Eusebius of Nicomedia, a fellow student of Lucian of Antioch. In response Alexander buttressed his authority by convening a synod of Egyptian bishops in 319 who collectively excommunicated Arius and his companions. Alexander then communicated the deliberations and actions of this synod to all bishops in the form of an encyclical. In support of Arius a Bithynian synod was convened in 320, which issued an encyclical calling for Alexander to restore the excommunicated Arians.

Alexander extended the controversy yet further by writing over seventy letters in which he solicited and gained the support of bishops in Thessalonica, Asia Minor, Greece, the Balkan peninsula, and Rome. By 324, most of had been drawn into the controversy, which was debated among the theologians and clergy by letter and treatise, and among the laity by song and verse. The inner conflict had become so widespread that it was parodied in the theater.

The theological point at issue was both subtle and abstract. It had to do with a critique of Alexandrian theology. ORIGEN, the most influential of the Alexandrian theologians, conceived of the Logos of God—God’s mind or reason—as a distinct hypostasis (essence). In Arius’ view this led to the equivalent of two first principles. Arius, following the Antiochene school, rejected this view as positing two Gods and therefore tending toward polytheism. God alone can be ungenerated (agenetos) and without beginning (anarchos), eternal and unchanging. The divine substance of the hypostasis of the Father is utterly simple and cannot be divided and thereby changed, so the Son cannot be the same substance as the Father. To affirm that the Son is of the same substance as the Father would imply that God was changeable.

According to Arius, the Son belonged to the realm of the created because the Son had a beginning and was generated through an act of the Father’s will, out of nothing. Arius did, however, grant the pre-existence of the Son before the creation of the world; in this sense the priority of the Father over the Son was really a logical rather than a temporal priority. The Son was called Logos in a derivative sense because in Arius’ understanding God’s Logos or mind remains immanent with Him and is not a separate hypostasis.

The involvement of the emperor CONSTANTINE I in this controversy derived from the Roman tradition that the emperor is pontifex maximus (chief priest), responsible for the religious activities of the state, which secured the benevolence of the gods and thus the welfare of the empire. As emperor of the Western empire Constantine had already convened two councils in an attempt to resolve the Donatist controversy. He had also experimented with and confiscation in an attempt to impose unity. During this period Constantine had selected Ossius of Cordova as his adviser in religious affairs.

Constantine’s first attempt to resolve the controversy involved sending Ossius to Alexandria to meet with the two parties that had precipitated the conflict. This effort failed since the controversy had long since left the confines of northern Egypt. In 325, in connection with the planned lavish celebration of the twentieth year of his reign, Constantine convened a council of bishops.

The site of the ecumenical council, originally planned for Ancyra, was changed to Nicaea in order to allow the emperor, whose residence was in nearby Nicomedia, to participate in the sessions. Constantine’s political objective was a religious unity that would ensure the of the state. His concept of how that religious unity should be obtained was the creation of a compromise document that would be signed by all the bishops. His objective was not the resolution of theological problems but the reconciliation of opposing parties.

The emperor opened the council with a solemn speech and a symbolic act. He delivered in Latin, the language of imperial affairs, a passionate exhortation to unity. By burning in a brazier the petitions of the bishops accusing one another of personal scandal and political disloyalty, he demonstrated his commitment to nonpartisanship.

In the absence of acts of the council we are dependent on historians of the next generation for the highlights of the proceedings. The Arian party seized the initiative by presenting a creed that articulated their understanding. The Arian creed was signed by some bishops. At the same time the assembly was introduced to the catchy tunes of Arius’ Thaleia. An uproar ensued and anti-Arian bishops expressed their disapproval by tearing up the document. EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA, an Arian moderate and court chaplain, a favorite of the emperor, presented as a compromise creed the baptismal creed of Caesarea.

In the ensuing debate it became clear that the anti-Arian party felt that existing baptismal creeds were not formulated sharply enough to exclude Arian Christology. “Begotten not made” was added to the baptismal formula, “Begotten of the father.” “Only begotten from the Father” was sharpened with the phrase “that is, from the substance of the Father,” which included the term HOMOOUSION.

The anti-Arian party pressed for the acceptance of the term homoousios to describe the relationship of the Father and the Son. It was a term without a clear history of meaning and made several parties uneasy. The Arian objection to the term was that it was unscriptural and materialistic (as if Father and Son were of the same substance or material). To others, to say that the Son was homoousios with the Father seemed to deny the Son’s separate existence. In its brief theological history, the term had not acquired a stable set of meanings. The political spectrum ranged from the extreme of the Bithynian bishops, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Meris, to the extreme anti-Arian position of Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Syria, MARCELLUS of Ancyra, and Macarius of Jerusalem. The moderate Arians were represented by Eusebius of Caesarea and Paulinus of Tyre. The moderate anti-Arian party was represented by the Westerners under Ossius of Cordova.

When the creed, after much debate, received its final formulation, Constantine pressed all the bishops to sign it. Anti- Arian anathemas were appended to the end of the creed. The appendix read, “Whoever says “there was a time when he was not,’ “he was created out of nothing,’ “the Son of God is another substance or another being,'” were anathematized. Only three of the Arian party refused to sign under penalty of exile: Arius, Secundus, and Theonas. (Constantine himself provided an of homoousion that was intended to ease the Arians’ conscience, that homoousios did not mean the same substance in a material sense.)

Constantine’s concern for unity included not only doctrine but also ritual. By the time of the Nicene council, the Quartodeciman controversy was over a century old. The Eastern churches celebrated the Christian Passover (Easter) on the same day as the Passover. The churches of the West, Egypt, Greece, Palestine, and Pontus, celebrated the Passover on the Sunday following the Jewish Passover. The council ratified the practice that was dominant in the West and imposed this uniformity. About twenty years after the council, the Sunday observance of the Christian Passover was nearly universal. The council assigned the astronomical and mathematical task of determining the date of the Christian Passover for each year to the Alexandrian bishop in recognition of Alexandria’s prominence as an intellectual center.

Another Egyptian controversy was settled by the council, that of the MELITIAN SCHISM. MELITIUS, bishop of Lycopolis, broke with Peter, bishop of Alexandria, over the treatment of the lapsed, Melitius taking the stricter view. The outcome was that Melitius set up his own church and succession of bishops. The council allowed Melitius to retain his see and required that all bishops and clergy ordained by him be restored to the church through the imposition of hands. The bishop of Alexandria was given right of consent for all appointments to Egyptian sees.

The council also passed twenty canons on matters of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Canon 18 preserves episcopal power against the encroachment of deacons; canons 4 and 6 establish the rights of the metropolitans to approve the appointment of bishops in their provinces. The right of jurisdiction of Alexandria is mentioned in this canon. Canons 1, 2, 3, and 17 regulate the morality of the clergy; canons 1, 2, and 3 are concerned specifically with sexual morality.

In the decade that followed the Council of Nicaea, the exiled bishops, Eusebius and Theogonis, were returned and Eusebius of Nicomedia supplanted Ossius as adviser on religious policy. The anti-Arian bishops, Eustathius and Athanasius, were deposed. In 334, the Synod of reinstated Arius. When Constantine’s sons succeeded him, imperial policy changed once again. Under Constans, the anti-Arian ATHANASIUS (bishop of Alexandria, 326-373) was returned from exile and reinstated. But Constantius, the Eastern emperor, supported the Arian bishops. The political power and diplomatic skills of the Arian bishops succeeded in persuading Constantius to allow the exiled bishops to return. The relative fortunes of both the Arian and the anti-Arian parties waxed and waned with imperial politics, depending on whether or not imperial politics and episcopal politics converged.


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