EARLY CHRISTIAN HISTORY
Christianity From 100 to 400 AD
Council of Nicaea
We have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God. Let us with confidence draw near to His throne of grace, that we may receive mercy to help us in the time of need.
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7)
What happened at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325?
In the early fourth century AD, Christian bishops in the Roman Empire traveled to the ancient town of Nicaea at the direction of Emperior Constantine the Great for the first time as an ecumenical council.
Many of the bishops had walked in suffering for their faith during times of persecution, but now they rode in comfort to Nicaea with numerous priests and deacons--all traveling at the emperor's expense. Among the notable bishops was Eusebius of Caesarea, later to be called the 'father of church history'.
Nicaea is now called Iznik, in modern-day Turkey, and is located in a fertile basin at the eastern edge of Lake Ascanius and surrounded by hills.
Some historians and others have claimed that Constantine's purpose was to control religion in his empire and determine the contents of the New Testament (the canon), but this is not the case at all. The emperor called the council in AD 325 to deal with two issues: the heresy of Arianism and the date of Easter.
Constantine called bishops together to unify the 4th century church in the face of
growing theological disputes over the divinity of Christ.
Some 300 bishops gathered in the emperor's grand lakeside palace. In the center of the chamber, on a throne, lay the four gospels. Constantine was dressed in a purple gown and wore a silver diadem. He opened the Council of Nicaea by saying, "I rejoice to see you here, yet I should be more pleased to see unity and affection among you."
Christ co-existed eternally with God.
Constantine told the delegates assembled in the Senatus Palace in Nicaea to resolve their differences. Many bishops argued that God the Father created Christ the Son before the beginning of time, while others asserted that Christ had the same divine essence as God the Father.
If Christ is not God, how can he overcome the infinite gap between God and man?
The bishops finally voted and approved the first Nicene Creed in 325 AD. But disagreement over the meaning of Scripture on the deity of Christ continued for more than fifty years. Another council of bishops met in Constantinople in 381 AD and adopted an expanded form of the earlier creed.
The creed affirms the doctrine of the Trinity: that God is three "persons" (Father, Son, and Spirit) in one nature or essence. Each person is fully divine, yet each is distinct.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty!
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
"Christians themselves are hard pressed to explain what they mean when they sing of the blessed Trinity. Most are content to treat the doctrine as a piece of sublime mystery. It wasn't so in the early church. Fourth-century Christians felt a nagging restlessness about the doctrine, like scholars who have a piece of unfinished research. Three in One and One in Three, each identical and yet different? With such mysteries to disagree upon, it wasn't long before everyone was calling somebody else a heretic."
-- Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language
People who reject the doctrine of the Trinity argue today that it was neither taught by Jesus nor part of the early church, but rather was imposed by Constantine on the bishops who gathered at Nicaea.
But this was not the case.
The doctrine is at the heart of Christ's Great Commission in the New Testament, which tells believers to ". . . go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.." The doctrine was a widely held belief before the council met. Among the leading church fathers who defended the doctrine were Polycarp, Justin, Martyr, Ignatius, Tertullian, and Origen.
The Nicene Creed is the most widely accepted and used brief statement of the Christian Faith. In Liturgical Churches, it is said every Sunday as part of the Liturgy. It is Common Ground to East Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, and other Christian denominations. Many Christians who do not have a tradition of using it in their services nevertheless are committed to the doctrines it teaches.
Old Traditional Wording of the Nicene Creed
To us in the 21st century, the first Council of Nicaea is like a mountain in the landscape of the early church. For the protagonists themselves, though, it was more of an emergency meeting forced on the parties by Roman imperial power to stop an internal religious squabble.
The bishops found themselves in a swamp of controversy that, at times, seemed to threaten the very life of the early Christian church.
To understand the council's significance, we need to enter the minds of the two sides of the dispute and ask why the question of Jesus' divinity caused so much bitterness and confusion. The answer: like other "simple" questions, this was in fact a highly complex and provocative theological issue.
Who came to the gathering of bishops? Of the roughly three hundred clerics, most were from Eastern churches, with only six or seven recorded as having come from Western churches. Among them were Ossius of Cordoba, Caecilianus of Carthage, and two representatives from the church of Rome. "The small number from the West reflected the general ignorance among churches of those theological issues that had embroiled the East," according to D.H. Williams, professor of patristics and historical theology.
Empire of Nicaea after sack of Constantinople during Fourth Crusade in 1204
Why do we need the Nicene Creed?
You begin with the simple and inescapable fact that the Scriptures must be interpreted. The Bible is not a doctrinal treatise. It's not a catechism. It's not a set of well-defined teachings. It's basically a narrative, a story about what God has done in the coming of Christ.
From the beginning, how to understand the various parts of the Scriptures in relation one to another was an enormous challenge for Christians.
The conviction of the early church was that the Bible was one book. So you had to try to find a way to bring what was read in Paul's letter, for instance, into relation to what was read in Mark.
There were honest differences of opinion as to who they were to be understood.
The basic problem was early Christianity began with the belief that God was one. On the basis of his teachings and miracles, the kind of person Jesus was, and because he rose from the dead, Christians said, "This man is not like any other man"--he is also divine, or God.
But how do you say that God is one when you've got two identifiable realities--God the Father and God the Son--and claim they're God? It's not an easy problem to solve.
The church attracted well-educated people, and they began to think about what they confessed, what they believed, and to say, "Well, what does this mean?" or "How can this be, in light of what is said elsewhere in Scripture?"
And eventually the problem emerged, namely, "How can we believe in one God and claim that Jesus, a human being, is also God?" That led to the controversy.
The Nicene Creed tries to use more precise language for the church's faith. It even introduces a word that is not in the Bible (homoousios) of one substance or being. The bishops felt that it helped explain how God could be one yet two-fold (the debate about the Holy Spirit followed two generations later).
With that term the council fathers wished to say that in whatever way God is God, Christ also is God and comes into being eternally from the Father--and not made like human beings.
(Adapted in part from a longer interview with Robert Louis Wilken, the William Kenan Professor of Early Christian History at the University of Virginia, with Christian History & Biography, 2005)
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