The Gospel According to Constantine

The Gospel According to Constantine

Author: Steve Elwart

The First Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church was held in Nicaea, Bithynia, in Asia Minor in 325, convoked by Emperor Constantine to settle the Arian heresy. Of the attending bishops, about 225 in number, almost all were from the East and only four or five bishops represented the Western Church. One of the Western bishops, Hosius of Cordoba, presided over the council. To condemn Arianism, the bishops sought a formula to define orthodoxy (right “opinion” in matters of doctrine and faith.) The result was the creed of Nicaea. The creed was signed by almost all the bishops. Arius and his friends were thereupon anathematized and banished along with two bishops who refused to sign the creed. The council also dealt with the Melitian Schism and the date of Easter.

Council of Nicaea

The council met at Nicæa in Bithynia. It comprised three hundred and eighteen bishops (about one-sixth of all the bishops of the Greco-Roman Empire), resulted in the formal condemnation of Arius, and the adoption of the “Nicene Creed,” which affirms in unequivocal terms the doctrine of the eternal deity of Christ in these words:

[We believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate, and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven; from thence he cometh to judge the quick and the dead. To the original Nicene Creed is added the following anathema: “And those who say there was a time when he [the Son] was not; and he was made out of nothing, or out of another substance or thing, or the Son of God is created, or changeable, or alterable; —they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

(Note: This last anathema was omitted in that form of the Nicene Creed which is usually, though incorrectly, traced to the Constantinopolitan Synod of 381, and which after the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, entirely superseded the Nicene Creed of 325, in its primitive form.)

The occasion of this first ecumenical council was a doctrinal dispute from about 319 between the Roman Pontiff Alexander of Alexandria (bishop 312–28) and his theologically and philosophically highly trained presbyterArius regarding the relation of the deity of the Father and the Son to all creation (Trinity). Alexander excommunicated Arius and explained his action in a dogmatic statement. The dispute centered on the exposition of Proverbs 8:22:

The LORD made me as he began his planning, before his ancient activity commenced. From eternity I was appointed, from the beginning, from before there was land. When there were no ocean depths, I brought them to birth at a time when there were no springs.

Proverbs 8:22–24, ISV

The council opened on June 19 (or May 20, the traditional opening date), 325. In his “Life of Constantine” Eusebius of Caesarea vividly portrayed the emperor’s entry without weapons or bodyguard. The best account of the dogmatic part of the proceedings is in a letter that Eusebius sent back to his diocese and that Athanasius (ca. 297–373) handed down to posterity. From this letter we learn that Constantine and Eusebius were the main participants.

We can hardly overestimate the impact of this council on the history of both church and empire. With Nicaea a new instrument of government—the council—was created that profoundly changed the constitution of both the one and the other.

The law set forth in the canons of Nicaea would have legal force in the empire and to the rights of such ancient churches as Alexandria, Rome, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The creed itself, at the instigation of Eusebius and Constantine, went far beyond the original dispute and became a confession of the identity of God in the consubstantiality of Father and Son ( “God from God, light from light, true God from true God”). It became a document of primary importance not merely in church history and the history of doctrine but in religious history as a whole, for it planned a Christology-defined monotheism that in principle replaced all special ethnic and local cults.

One unfortunate consequence was the exclusion and rejection of Judaism as a rival form of monotheism. The rule for fixing the date of Easter (in principle still valid today) on the first Sunday after the vernal full moon was also designed to make a break with the Jewish Passover (Church Year).

Andy Kratzert, a member of the Koinonia Institute has put together a presentation on the Council of Nicaea as part of his coursework in the Institute. Andy is looking at the Council in terms of:

  • It’s history as the first official meeting of the Western Christian Church.
  • Whether or not the Council changed some of the texts in the Bible which would cast doubt on its reliability;
  • It’s view on the identity of Christ.

You can click on this link, to hear Andy’s presentation.

Related Reading

How We Got Our Bible
– Koinonia House

What occurred at the Council of Nicea?
– Got Questions

The Council of Nicaea and the Bible
– The Tertullian Project

What Really Happened at Nicea?

– FROM: KHouse.Org


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