It was the year 325 AD. 318 bishops, from around the Roman Empire, begun to arrive on horseback at Nicaea- a small town in modern iznik, 2 hours from Istanbul, Turkey. Their travel expenses were covered by the Emperor Constantine. This was the first official council met since the persecution ended. Most of the Bishops present at the council had a visible mark on their bodies- the mark of suffering for Christ. It was a result of years of abuse and torture because they believe in the Name of Christ. Now the Lord of history, their Lord whom they confess, turned the tables around. These bishops were now received such honor to meet the emperor Constantine in order to discuss the nature of Christ and matters of the faith. Jesus is Lord of all!
Today, we take it for granted and pay almost no attention to that the simple Trinitarian confession that costed the church all her energy:
There were several agendas on the table to discuss. Ironically, one of the least of these was the Arian controversy that Bishop Alexander of Alexandria (in Egypt) had brought before the council. There at the council was a young secretary who traveled along with Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and nick-named as “The Black Dwarf” a very short in stature and dark in complexion. He was too young to be at the council. His name? Athanasius! Athanasius would grow to be a great man of God, exiled five times for his faith and he would be remembered in history as the one who brought down this Arian heresy that denied the full divinity of the Son of God to its grave- with his soon to be friends who went by the name ‘the Cappadocian Fathers’ (leading up to 381 AD where we get the final creedal confession as we know it now.)
Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria, the same city with Bishop Alexander. That means he didn’t have much authority. He nonetheless was a masterful musician and amazing communicator. Because of these two qualities, his deadly errors begun to spread like cancer. By the time this council met, his heretical teaching about the person of Christ had swept much of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire to a point it caught the Emperor’s attention. He convinced several Bishops, 18 of whom were present at this council at Nicaea. Arius himself could not attend this council because he was only a presbyter. Therefore a bishop by the name Eusebius of Nicomedia and others had to read his position about the divinity of Jesus to this council.
The other bishops, especial those who came from the west/Rome, didn’t concern themselves much with the Arian controversy. Little they know! Rather, the council occupied themselves for several days with regards to those who lapsed during the last persecution. What happened was Emperor Decius, one of the three emperors who by far persecuted the church the most (Domitian, Decius, Diocletian) issued an imperial edict demanding that those who allegedly accused of being Christians to have a proof of certification lest they risked torture and execution. This certification could be obtained at the local imperial temple, where they would burn incense for the emperor’s god. In reaction to this policy, some Christians chose to be imprisoned for the name of Christ. Some chose to burn a copy of the scriptures to show their allegiance to the Emperor’s policy. But another group of Christians thought that they were clever and brought forged certification. Therefore, much of the debate at the council was what to do with those who lapsed by burning scriptures and by bringing forged certificates to avoid suffering. After few days passed and the council then reached decisions, and it was now time to hear the Arian controversy.
The Arian Heresy: ‘There was time when the son was not”
Basically the false teachings that were circulating at the time, about the Trinity and the status of Christ as fully divine, were something that never had an official resolution. That’s because the church underwent several persecutions and could not afford to come together. The issue at hand was monotheism, a belief in one God (Duet. 6:4). How can we affirm the God of Israel who is nothing but one and at the same time Jesus Christ to be fully divine/God? Some believe that the affirmation of Jesus as fully divine denies the existence of One God. In the west, the solution to this dilemma was represented in a view known as “Modalism” (or Patripassianism or known in the East as Sabellianism named after Sabellius who taught it). Several bishops had to be deposed because they held to this view. This view of the Trinity blurs the distinctions that exist between the Persons of the godhead. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are nothing more than modes/manifestations of the one God. It was the Father who died on the cross as the Son. This view would be a modified version of what we find in the only Jesus followers today. In the East, we find completely the opposite error. Adoptionism was a view condemned in year 268 AD that did teach that Jesus was adopted as God’s Son at his baptism, his resurrection, or his ascension. This fully denies His eternal divinity. Another alternative view which would be condemned at this council as Arian subordinationism, did affirm that Jesus was a subordinate god, a second god as it were or to be precise a creature of the highest order. The Jehovah witness would hold to a modified version of this. In Arius’ writings I found a repeated expression such as “…there was time when he [the son of God] was not…he came to existence before time out of nothing…” and having read his own writing trying to convince several bishops, I found Arius to be more subtle than that. He could say for instance “I believe that Jesus is divine” but he meant it entirely different. As a matter of fact, he and his followers said that they could affirm everything the council had decided about the godhead. That is why another council had to meet at Constantinople in 381AD clarifying these terminologies such as Jesus being one-substance with the Father – ‘homoousios/ and not a similar substance with the father homioousios in such a way that Arius could not affirm without confessing the eternal full divinity of the Lord Jesus.
A Riot of the Bishops: A what?
I close with this scene at the council noted by a church historian Justo González he writes:
However when they finally get to hear Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, a friend of Arius, stood and read a description of the Arius’ views: a clear and blatant denial of the deity of the Son, emphasizing that he is a creature and not equal with the Father, Roger Olson writes:
Then after several conversations, the council issued the following statement:
The Nicene-Constantinople Creed (A.D. 325-381)
I shall discuss the major points of this creed on our upcoming posts.
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