The Council Nicaea
For more than two centuries, the Christian church suffered persecution under the Roman Empire particularly those in Rome. With the rise of Constantine the Great to the throne, the persecution stopped as he was sympathetic with Christianity in view of his famous Christian vision just before the battle at Melvian Bridge against Maxentius in 312 BCE whom he emerged victorious. From then on he legalized Christian worship. The religious freedom gained by Christians as a result of Constantine’s vision was further enhanced by the famous “Edict of Milan” which calls for the toleration of Christian worship and for restoration of all things and properties that belong to the Christian Church.
Along with the religious freedom enjoyed by the Christian church during this period were doctrinal issues that were affecting the teachings of Christianity. Foremost of these issues was the conflict that arose when a local church priest by the name of Arius who according to McGonigle, and Quigley (1988) “vigorously attacked the bishop’s theology because it did not seem to uphold sufficiently the distinctions within the Godhead” (p. 97). The issues that were raised were about the great mystery of the Trinity in Unity as well as the question of the deity of Christ. McGonigle and Quigley pointed out that Arius proposed that Christ divinity was simply attributed to him simply “as a way of describing his goodness” (p. 97). Arius argued that Christ the son was also a creature like us but he was the greatest and “the most perfect of all god’s creatures, but he was not co-equal, co-eternal or the same divine substance as the Father” (McGonigle & Quigley 1988, p. 97).
Because of this teaching, Arius was condemned as heretic, but his teaching has gained popularity because “it was simply an easier way to understand the mysterious reality of God” (McGonigle & Quigley, p. 97). This theological issue has led to a broader crisis which threatened Constantine’s vision of Christianity as an instrument for bringing unity to the empire. This theological dispute became the most important issue that was tried in the council of Nicea which was the first economical meeting attended by more than three hundred bishops in the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor in 325 that was presided by Emperor Constantine.
Arius’ ideas were rejected by the council of Nicaea and was condemned as heretical because it deviated from the established doctrine of the Christian church. However, Arius’ ideas was condemned by the council in the light of another famous ideas presented by a famous young bishop named Athanasius. According to Athanasius, Christ was “of the same divine essence or substance as the Father although of distinct personality” (McGonigle and Quigley, p. 98). Athanasius argued that if Christ were less than the Father, he could not have been the savior of the human race. Athanasius idea is that the Christ had existed from all eternity with the Father as co-equal, and consubstantial, that is, Christ was truly God.
In this two religious ideas presented at the council of Nicaea, Athanasius ideas was more acceptable in the sense that it more logical and more theological. It is quite logical to think that if Christ was indeed a human being just like anyone, he should have also possessed the same weaknesses that anyone has. That the Christ may have also sinned because according to the Bible, “all have sinned and have fallen short to the glory of God (Romans 3: 23). The logical idea behind this is that if Christ was also a human and that his divinity was merely virtues of goodness, then the Christ also needs a savior or the Bible was wrong in its assertions that every human being have sinned and that they deserved God’s punishment. Furthermore, given that the Christ was also a creature but of highest form, that he also have sinned, then he also deserved God’s punishment.
The idea that Christ was of the same essence with God presents a more convincing theological argument than the idea that the Christ was purely of human nature. Although admittedly, it was really quite difficult to reconcile Christ deity and divinity with his humanity, Athanasius holds that the knowledge of God must come through Christ. Referring to Athanasius idea, Barnes (2001) stated, “He concentrates on the doctrine of the redemption and its presupposition that the Christ is both truly God and truly man. Nevertheless, even this idea is more logical than the idea that Christ was only a divine person. Logical in a sense that it provides a deeper link between God’s plan of salvation and the way it was fulfilled by God. The Apostle Paul made this clear in his letter to the Philippians (Chap. 2: 6-11), Christ humiliated himself by taking the human form to die on the cross so that anyone who repent and believes him, will be forgiven of their sins and be save from the eternal punishment of God.
Argument against the six other ideas
Barnes pointed out that the council of Nicaea in 325 “tackled a large agenda, from voluntary castration to the jurisdiction of metropolitan bishops and the date of Easter” (Barnes, p. 14). However, compared with all other ideas which were mostly Christological, ecclesiological, and theological arguments presented at the council of Nicaea, the most important was the idea that was formulated out of the theological arguments between the Libyan priest Arius, and Alexandrian bishop Athanasius. The Council of Nicaea formulated the so called “Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed in order to clearly summarized the Christian doctrine against heretical teachings of Arius.
Nonetheless, citing the work of Williams, 2000: 5, Hauerwas (2007) argued that while William patiently guides readers towards understanding the issues being debated, Arius was not given due process. Hauerwas stated, “What is striking, however, is that Arius received nothing like patients consideration at the hands of his opponent Athanasius. His arguments were misrepresented, oversimplified, and distorted. And on the basis of this, he was pronounced a heretic. Williams suggest that Arius have been argued against, but instead he was brutally expelled” (p. 217). Thus the ideas presented in the council of Nicaea regarding the Trinitarian debate about Christology dominates all other ideas presented during this historic meeting of more than three hundred bishops in the city of Nicaea. Indeed, almost every literature dealing with the council of Nicaea highlighted only the debates between Arius and Athanasius.
However, William’s view of the debate was unacceptable because every literature on church history spends a great deal of space that explains Arius theological ideas. It suggests that his ideas was taken seriously only that his theological proposition was directly against the existing dogmas of the Christian church.
On the idea of pneumatology, another ideas presented at the council of Nicaea was an upshot of the debate concerning Arius proposition that the Jesus Christ was a creation of God and therefore subordinate to the Father. Although the idea was not as controversial as that of Arius Christology, the Nicaea Council accepted the idea of the deity Holy Spirit. McDonnell (2003) remarked “Nicaea’s inclusion of the Holy Spirit was no innovation. Historically the Spirit had been consistently, though not always, placed on the divine side of God (p. 124). The main idea however of the inclusion of the Holy Spirit in the Nicaea agenda was it’s relation with the Father and with the Son. In Arius theological ideas, God the Father was supreme, Jesus Christ was subordinate with him and the Holy Spirit is subordinate to Christ and the Father. Whereas, in Athanasius’ idea, both the Son and the Holy Spirit was co-equal with the Father, and they are called persons of God forming the mystery of the Triune God. The Nicaea council’s decision to accept Athanasius ideas on the one hand and to reject Arius on the other hand, was a well deliberated decision on the issues because it was obviously based on the clear teachings of the Christian church. There are many biblical passages indicating Christ’s relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit claiming equality among the three. Jesus Christ at some portion of the Bible claimed that “He and the Father are one.” Even the distinguished apostle Paul claimed that Jesus was equal with God, but in his great intention to save humanity from the consequence of their sins, “he emptied himself and took on human likeness” (Philippians 2). John says “he dwelt and lived among us.” Arius idea therefore was rightly judged by the Council of Nicaea as heretical idea.
The idea of Jesus as the Son of God however, presents a theological problem. If Jesus Christ was both God and man, was Mary also the mother of God since in the Apostle creed, or the verdict of the Council on Arian-Athanasian controversy recognizes that Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ? However, the issue of Christ conception was clearly addressed by the Council that Christ was “Conceived by the Holy Ghost” (Apostle’s Creed). The idea therefore of Christ’s deity and equality with the Father was biblical and was affirmed by the Council.
The Council of Nicaea was convened primarily to resolve the theological dispute between Arius and Athanasius on the issue of Christ divinity. Its most famous achievement was the formulation of the Apostle’s creed which was in response to the growing crises regarding the teachings of the Christian Church. Although there may have been other ideas that were deliberated by the bishops during that historic gathering yet the dominating ideas were the issues raised by Arius. Many things has been said and done on these issues but what has been very significant was that, that meeting solidifies the Christian doctrine against heretical teachings that were abounding during the succeeding centuries in the life of the church. The Nicaea Council has indeed achieved a very important decision for the church.
Barnes, T. (2001) Athanasius and Constantius USA: Harvard University Press.
Hauerwas, S. (2007) The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics USA: Blackwell Publishing.
McDonnell, K. (2003). The Other Hand of God: The Holy Spirit as the Universal Touch and
Goal. USA: Liturgical Press.
McGonigle, T.D. & Quigley, J. F. (1988) A History of the Christian Tradition: From its Jewish
Origins to the Reformation USA: Paulist Press