The Council of Nicaea

By Elizabeth McNamer
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Rocky Mountain College
Billings, Montana
March 2018

The religions of Jesus started in Jerusalem right after Pentecost when the apostles went out to preach and convert. We read in the Acts of the Apostles:

“Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts:2; 37-38)

Its first members were all Jewish. In the Roman Empire, all had to adhere to some religion. Atheism was not an option. Most people worshiped the Roman gods, others adhered to Greek or Egyptian religions. Romans accepted Judaism since it was well established.

For Jews, the sign of the covenant was circumcision. Followers of “the way” of Jesus were circumcised but also baptized. They were a sect within Judaism and thus protected by Roman Law.

But “the way” soon began to spread particularly after the persecution of the apostles in Jerusalem. It spread to Antioch in Pesidia. (It was at Antioch that they were first called Christians). Paul carried the good news to the Gentile world where the question arose as to whether gentiles needed to be circumcised to embrace the new religion. The Council of Jerusalem was called in 49 a.d. to answer this question. It was decided that circumcision was not necessary.

As the church continued to spread there were various disputes (called heresies) that called for decisions to be made. Local councils were called to resolve the questions. Gnostics were one such heretical group. We know quite a bit about them since their writings (54 texts) were unearthed in 1947 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. They claimed to have secret revelations that something had gone wrong at the beginning of the world and that matter was evil and only spiritual things were good. Thus they advocated celibacy since sexual intercourse produced more matter. The Council of Gangara was called by Irenaus because many women were refusing to sleep with their husbands. The Gnostics attested that Jesus only seemed to have a real body (his body was just an illusion “docetic” from the Greek word “to appear”. This contradicted the emerging doctrines of the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Jesus (without a body he was not born, died, resurrected). Another heretical group were the Adoptionists.

They were a group who held that Jesus was adopted as Son of God at his baptism. It contradicted the doctrine of the Trinity. It was rejected by the Council of Antioch. Marcionists heretics believed that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the actions of the God of the Old Testament and wanted to disassociate with the Old Testament. They also denied much of the NewTestament. This problem was addressed by the bishop of Carthage, Tertullian, in 208. A council was called at Elvira because some of the clergy were lending money at exorbitant rates of interest. Councils were called to see whether those who had apostatized should be accepted back into the church. Novatians did not want to forgive apostates even on their death beds. Others wanted sinners to stand at the back of the church. The date of Easter was being celebrated at different times. Some communities were celebrating according to the Jewish feasts. Christianity had separated itself from Judaism by the beginning of the second century and was since then was regarded as an illegal religion. There were periodic persecutions. This period is known as the “age of martyrs”. Tertullian, wrote that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church"

A crisis situation arose with the emergence of Arianism. This teaching was promulgated by a priest called Arius from Alexandria in Egypt. Arianism opposed the doctrine of the Trinity that there are three person in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit all equal and existing from all time. Arius asserted that Jesus did not exist from the beginning but was begotten by God the Father at a certain point. He was therefore subordinate to the Father and not fully divine. His Bishop disagreed. Athanasius of Alexandria defended the Bishop. But the idea was popular among some of the clergy.

Christianity continued to grow. But what was Christianity? There were many factions and groups in the church. Most people did not know what to believe.

The mother of Emperor Constantine, Helena, became Christian at the beginning of the fourth century. Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 316 a.d. which proclaimed Christianity a legal religion within the Roman Empire.

Emperor Constantine called for an ecumenical council (the whole church) to put an end controversy and state what it was that Christians believed. His aim was political rather than religious. He himself presided and declared "What I want must be the rule"

Nicaea was the retreat place of the Emperor. It was 126 miles from Constantinople which was about a six days journey. Nonetheless, three hundred and twenty-five bishops attended. They were locked up together in one hall for sixty days. Much fist fighting and hair pulling ensued. There was great division among them about several mattes, particularly about Arianism. At one-point Athanasius went and slapped the face of Arius! However, the bishops resolved many issues, among them being the setting of a date for Easter. It was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

A embryonic creed was hammered out. It would take four other councils in the next two centuries before it was fully formed. We call it the Nicene creed;

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered, died, and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in fulfillment of the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Council of Nicaea did not end all debates within the Church. However, it was essential in the growth of Christianity. Not only did many of the leaders of the nascent Church convene for the first time and agree on many of the doctrines of the Church, but also on the essence of Jesus. Nicaea became the model for the councils in the future. Furthermore, Constantine played a defining role in organizing the conference and commissioning the power of the empire in validating the Council's results.

Comments (2)

There is not catholic (universal) agreement on the changes made after The First Council of Nicea such as the clause "father and the son" you have included added at the First Council of Constantinople. There is also the lack of unity on the date of Easter in that the "East" still observes the Julian Calendar while the "West" follows the Gregorian.

#1 - T. Tim Solon - 03/16/2018 - 07:55

I have never heard of ‘the father and the son’ as a formula of Constantinople 1. The whole ‘Filioque controversy turns on the fact that it wasn’t. I agree that this presentation of Nicaea is a bit too rosy. In a sense there was never again a united church. The risk to societies of being torn apart by religious factionalism rose sharply and has almost ever since remained high.

#2 - Martin Hughes - 03/16/2018 - 18:06

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.