What Really Happened at Nicea?

For many years, the council of Nicea has been the subject of much confusion among laypeople. The misapprehensions which have come to be associated with the council of Nicea have, in part, been fuelled by popular fictional novels such as Dan Brown’s notorious The Da vinci Code. No matter what group you are dealing with in your apologetic exploits (including atheists, Muslims, Jehovah’s witnesses and unitarians), you are almost guaranteed to encounter some of these misconcepts. For this reason, it is important for Christians to study and learn church history, so that they might correct common myths and falsehoods.

The council of Nicea was famously convened on May 20, 325 AD, at the request of Emperor Constantine. What did the council of bishops meet to discuss? Contrary to common misconception (popularised particularly in Muslim circles) that has been widely circulated via the internet, the council of Nicea did not meet to discuss the canon of Scripture — that is, the decision about which books should make up the New Testament. In fact, there is not a shred of evidence that the canon of Scripture was even brought up at Nicea. Another misconception is that the council of Nicea, at the encouraging of Constantine, “invented” the deity of Christ or, at the very least, that the bishops in attendance at Nicea were significantly divided on the issue, the matter being decided with a vote. This too, however, is completely inaccurate. In 325 AD, when the bishops convened at Nicea, the deity of Christ had been affirmed almost unanimously by the Christian movement for close to three hundred years!

The bishops who met at Nicea had just come out of an extremely challenging time of intense persecution by the Romans, having lived through the cruelty of the Emperors Diocletian (ruling 284-305) and Maximian (ruling 286-305). One of the bishops present at Nicea, Paphnutius, had even lost his right eye and been given a limp in his left leg as a consequence of his profession of faith. According to one ancient writer, Theodoret (393-457),

“Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. Among these was Paphnutius of Egypt. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.”

It strikes me as odd, therefore, that one would suppose that the early Christian movement, having come out of such difficult times as those, would capitulate so easily to the emperor Constantine’s demands with respect to defining the very fundamentals of their faith!

The story of the Nicean council begins in Alexandria in northwest Egypt. The archbishop of Alexandria was a man by the name of Alexander. A member of his senior clergy, called Arius, took issue with Alexander’s view of Jesus’s divine nature, insisting that the Son is, in fact, himself a created being. In similar fashion to modern Jehovah’s Witnesses, Arius maintained that Jesus was like the Father inasmuch as they both existed before creation, played a role in creation and were exalted above it. But the Son, according to the theology of Arius, was the first of God’s creations and was commissioned by the Father to create the world.

On this point, Alexander strongly disagreed, and publically challenged Arius’s heretical teachings. In 318 AD, Alexander called together a hundred or so bishops to talk over the matter and to defrock Arius. Arius, however, went to Nicomedia in Asia Minor and rallied his supporters, including Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was a relative by marriage to Constantine the emperor, and a theologian in the imperial court. Eusebius and Arius wrote to many bishops who had not been involved in the defrocking of Arius. The effect was the creation of divisions among the bishops. Embarassed by such bickering, the emperor Constantine convened the ecumenical council of Nicea in 325.

Constantine’s primary concern was imperial unity rather than theological accuracy, and he desired a decision that would be supported by the greatest number of bishops, regardless of what conclusion was reached. His theological advisor, Hosius, served to get the emperor up to speed before the arrival of the bishops. Since Arius was not a bishop, he was not invited to sit on the council. However, his supporter Eusebius of Nicomedia acted on Arius’s behalf and presented his point of view.

Arius’s position regarding the finite nature of the Son was not popular with the bishops. It became clear, however, that a formal statement concerning the nature of the Son and his relationship to the Father was needed. The real issue at the council of Nicea was thus how, and not if, Jesus was divine.

A formal statement was eventually put together and signed by the bishops. Those who declined to sign the statement were stripped of their rank of bishop. The few who supported Arius insisted that only language found in Scripture should feature in the statement, whereas Arius’s critics insisted that only non-Biblical language was adequate to fully unpack the implications of the language found in the Bible. It was Constantine who eventually suggested that the Father and Son be said to be of the “same substance” (homoousios in Greek). Although Constantine hoped that this statement would keep all parties happy (implying the complete deity of Jesus without going much further), the supporters of Arius insisted that this language suggested that the Father and Son were equal but didn’t explain how this was compatible with the central tenet of monotheism (i.e. the belief in only one deity).

Nonetheless, the Nicean creed did indeed incorporate this language. It stated,

“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 from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead; And in the Holy Spirit. But as for those who say, ‘There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is from a different hypostasis or substance, or is created, ir is subject to alteration or change — these the Catholic Church anathematizes.”

With the exception of two (Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarcia), the creed was signed by all the bishops, numbering more than 300. Arius’s supporters had been overwhelmingly defeated.

Arius’s supporters, however, managed to find some wiggle room. A single letter iota changes the meaning of homo (“same”) to “like” (homoi). The latter could be exploited by Arius and his followers to describe a created Christ. Moreover, it was argued, the creed could be interpreted as supporting Sabellianism, an ancient heresy which fails to discriminate between persons of the godhead. It was this in-house squabbling between bishops that ultimately led to the council of Constantinople in 381.

A company of bishops started to campaign for the formal re-instatement of Arius as a presbyter in Alexandria. Constantine yielded to their petition and, in 332, re-instated Arius as a presbyter. Athenasius, who had recently succeeded his mentor Alexander as bishop of Alexandria, was instructed to accept Arius into the church once again. Needless to say, Athenasius did not comply with this order. The consequence was exile. Constantine had little interest in the precision of his theology — rather, it was the struggle for imperial unity that was his motivation.

In conclusion, although popular misconceptions about the council of Nicea are rampant, the idea that the council of Nicea determined which books comprised the new testament or that it invented the deity of Christ to comply with the demands of Constantine are myths. Indeed, correct theology was of little concern to Constantine, who cared much more about imperial unity. Christians must make a serious effort to study and learn church history, so that when we encounter such claims in the media and in our personal evangelism, we may know how to present an accurate account of our history.

8 replies
  1. Frank Turek says:

    Good article Jonathan. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, it’s not the issues that are debated that are the problem, it’s those that are assumed settled that are the problem. Many blindly assume the Council of Nicea was about something it wasn’t, just as many non-Christians blindly assume Christianity is something it isn’t.

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  2. Frank Kovach says:

    I have a question related to this article. In a conversation with my cousin’s husband, who is a very well read catholic, we have recently turned a little towards arguing over the Protestant Bible vs the Catholic Bible. My question is more related towards church history, however. In this article we are using the term bishops, and I’m wondering when the organization of the Christian church started, and when did that get formalized into the Roman Catholic Church. How did the Roman Catholic Church end up with the Bible they have now while everyone else uses a different one? I understand the differences, just not the origination of the difference. I have seen two different claims about this, namely that: 1) the Catholic Church didn’t use the Septuagint as their Old Testament until the Reformation, and that 2) the Catholic Church at the Reformation simply reconfirmed their use of the Septuagint as their Old Testament, while Martin Luther dropped the disputed Septuagint books in favor of the Hebrew language version (which we Protestants use today).

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    • Tim says:

      I’m not sure of all the details, but the apocrypha is made up of OT (Hebrew scriptures) that there is no Hebrew writings of. They are only written in Greek. I don’t believe they were ever understood to be part of the Jewish scriptures, but were often included with the scriptures as being interesting reading about Jewish history when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek. This meant that some began to consider that they were part of the scriptures. I’d also like to know more about this.

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      • Paul Sulkowski says:

        I am a Catholic. By what I’ve always been told. The ultimate origins are political. Supposedly, there was a Greek-speaking Jewish community in Alexandria who did not have Scriptures for their worship. The Jewish temple authorized a translation into Greek. This became the Septuagint. The Catholic Church always accepted them as canon. Also the Catholic Church views the events at Pentecost in the NT as the birth of the Catholic Church. Interestingly, internal evidence in the New Testament supports a theory that the NT writers referenced the Septuagint as the Scripture.

        After the fall of the Temple in 70AD, there supposedly was the Council of Jamnia called by Jewish leaders (many scholars question the if this council even existed). It was here that some books were removed from their canon because they were pro-Roman. However, the Jews in Alexandria never “got the memo” of the decisions of this Council. The modified Temple canon continued as the official Jewish catalogue while the Septuagint was Christian. Then, Martin Luther opted for the Jewish roster.

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  3. Jason says:

    Great article. I have often wondered about the Cannon, and the fact of the Catholic Church having the bible as we know it for 1000 years before Martin Luther came along.
    Some refer to this time as the dark ages.
    I wonder how much of that history is hidden in the Vatican?
    One thing for me holds true. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that we have the Word of God today. God in all of His wisdom has a plan. That plan includes preserving His Word. The more I study the Bible and ask God for clarity, He makes it more clear.
    I encourage you to do the same. Study with a humble heart, tell yourself the Truth, stop lying to yourself, that inner voice you hear or choose to ignore, Is God speaking to you.
    Listen to Him.
    I hooe this helps you that are readying this.

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  4. James Archbold says:

    The reluctance of church leaders today in teaching church history may stem from the fact that the origins of how the NT cannon came into being would surprise many at the brutal pragmatism employed by those who took it on themselves to frame the early church and its choice of approved practice and doctrine. It was no coincidence that those who had the power got to choose what went into what we now call the bible…

    So my questions are ,Why do we say that the bible is the indisputable inerrant word of god given that christians do not ever claim a ‘burning bush’ decree from on high to do so ? And by what authority did the early church fathers invoke their right to claim they were the sole arbiters in the dissemination of gods will ?

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  5. Jerie says:

    By the ordination of church leaders by the Holy Spirit..
    The more you study the word, the more it is apparent it is divinely inspired. Doctrines confirmed by the word over 1600 years of scripture confirming itself by itself. It also becomes apparent what is false doctrine and not divinely inspired. Still many Scriptutes are good for wisdom and historical context written by holy men but not inspired by God. Such as if I wrote documents or odes about my faith from my understanding vs inspired perfect word that doesnt contradict and is prophetically confirmed by other books. Alive words quickened by the spirit. The source, the history, the continuity with known scripture and revelation of Christ God in the flesh and fulfilment of prophecy.

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  6. Nellis Cox says:

    I’m not Catholic nor a Theologian and don’t know a much, but I understand the convening of the Nicene council was by many reports about emperor Constantine and the Catholic church and the conflict within.
    The small studies I’ve done all point to the fact or at least portray that the true church had gone under ground.
    Around 325 AD is about the same time as the Trinitarian foundation was introduced and accepted by the same Council.
    I told you I don’t know much…
    My Question is: Was there or is there another Christian Church that was present but not included in the Nicene Council in that time period?

    Reply

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