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“From the perspective of our own time, it may seem strange to think of Arian “heretics” as conservatives, but emphasizing Jesus’ humanity and God’s transcendent otherness had never seemed heretical in the East.”7

–Richard Rubenstein

In a.d. 313, Alexander (the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt) fired and excommunicated Arius (one of his presbyters) because he challenged Alexander’s claim that Jesus never had a beginning. If Arius had been an outsider, an impetuous youth, or a radical theologian, the decision of the powerful bishop may have stuck. However, Arius was none of those things; he was a tried and true churchman, a wise and disciplined elder, and a conservative thinker. As a result, the controversy Alexander initiated spread to other provinces as Arius and the other eighty-nine church members who left with him reached out for help from other bishops. Before long, other bishops held new councils that vindicated Arius and pressed Alexander to reverse his irascible decision. Alexander responded by writing a circular letter lambasting and slandering Arius for his divisive and debauched “heresy.” Christianity, at least in the eastern provinces, found itself heading towards a serious rift when Constantine, the emperor who ended the great persecution, intervened.

Constantine was a ruthless man, a competent military strategist, and a gifted administrator. He reversed his predecessor’s old governing apparatus (four rulers sharing power) and defeated all his rivals to establish an autocratic reign that lasted thirty years. During this time, he constantly strove to seize more power and to secure his position by eliminating any threats that came along. Over the course of his reign, Constantine killed his father-in-law, three brothers-in-law, one nephew, his first-born son, and his wife. He was a man of reform who audaciously founded “New Rome”—a new capital for the empire—which he named after himself: Constantinople (literally “Constantine’s city”). He successfully defended the borders and instigated major social reforms as well. However, he is best known for his patronage of the undignified and fledgling religion called Christianity.

Constantine believed the Christian God had helped him in his conquest for exclusive power, so he genuinely endeavored to benefit Christians however he could. In a.d. 313, he and his co-emperor Licinius signed the Edict of Milan, granting legal protection to Christians and requiring stolen property to be returned. He also used imperial funds to rebuild many churches as well as founding new ones. He may have thought Christianity could serve as a kind of ideological glue to unite and solidify his empire, though he was not so extreme as to outlaw or persecute adherents to the old pagan faith (most Romans). Constantine favored Christianity and supported it but knew full well that following Christ was quite incompatible with ruling the Roman Empire. (He did not submit to baptism until his deathbed.)

When he first heard about the controversy over Christ, he wrote a letter to Alexander and Arius rebuking them for divisiveness and exhorting them to overlook insignificant theological quibbles. Ossius of Cordova, a Spanish bishop and advisor to Constantine, carried the letter to Alexandria and promptly presented it to Alexander. Arius was probably in hiding and not accessible for consultation. Alexander convinced Ossius that the issue was not some trifling matter but something of paramount importance. In response, Ossius decided to call a council to address the matter in Antioch. Details are sketchy for this council, but we know Ossius presided and it condemned the subordinationist1 view of Arius. The eminent church historian and adamant supporter of Constantine, Eusebius of Caesarea, attended and wound up excommunicated by the end of it for not believing the Son was eternal. This must have shocked not only Bishop Eusebius, a famous learned man and one who had written more books than anyone else, but also everyone else since he was one of Constantine’s advisers. The council of Antioch produced a list of anathemas or curses on those who refused to agree—the first of its kind. In many ways, it prefigured the next council to be held later that year.

“He [Constantine] convened and chaired the council, he proposed a doctrinal formulation that the council felt obliged to accept, and he authorized civil penalties for parties deemed heretical, banishing Arius and his unreformed partisans.”8

–Howard Kee

Although calling councils to figure out theological issues goes all the way back to the first century when the apostles debated about and decided on whether or not Gentiles needed to keep the Law of Moses, never had the Roman government participated in them or enforced their decisions. Thus, with the council of Nicea, we witness a new development in the history of Christianity. It is not as though Constantine merely attended as an interested spectator, he was the one who called the council, set the location, and provided transportation at state expense. He chose Nicea because the imperial palace was both sufficient to house hundreds of bishops and because it was near the emperor’s base of operations at Nicomedia (Constantinople was not yet finished).

The council was not so much called to figure out the correct biblical position on the question of Jesus’ status so much as to find a way to end the division that was festering. Expediency was the order of the day, not truth. Ossius, who presided over the meeting, already knew the result before the council began. By May of a.d. 325, all the preparations were ready, and bishops from all over began to arrive.

What a sight it must have been to see the bishops who had just endured ten years of state-sponsored persecution suddenly arrive at an imperial lake resort at the bequest of the emperor. Many of them bore the marks of their suffering on their bodies. Richard Rubenstein writes, “A good many of them bore the scars of past persecutions: eye patches covering lost eyes, limps produced by severed hamstrings or Achilles tendons, backs deformed by hard labor in Phoenician mines.”2 Altogether about 250 bishops arrived by early June, almost all from the eastern provinces of the empire. Sylvester, the bishop of Rome, did not even come, though he was represented by two of his presbyters. Alexander was there along with his deacon, Athanasius, about whom we will have much to say in the next section.

They met from May to July, and the first topic of address was the controversy swirling around Alexander’s steadfast excommunication of Arius. Once everyone was seated, Constantine entered the room dressed in his imperial regalia, complete with purple robe and diamond encrusted diadem. Everyone stood until he sat. Then to begin the proceedings, Eusebius of Caesarea (who did not believe Jesus was eternal) opened the council by extending an official welcome to the emperor, overflowing with praise for what Constantine had done in delivering Christianity from the clutches of his depraved predecessors. Although Ossius and the council of Antioch had excommunicated Eusebius, his role as one of Constantine’s advisers was sufficient to postpone the little council’s decision, at least until the present one ended. Next Constantine addressed the assembly in Latin since he was not comfortable speaking publicly in Greek.

Details about the council are meager, but we know that both Eusebii had opportunity to speak or at least have something they composed read aloud to the assembly. At some time, Eusebius of Caesarea produced a modified version of the baptismal statement of faith his church used. His goal was clearly to make himself appear as mainstream as possible. Since he had no intention of suffering the ignominy of exile, he aimed at conciliation, not controversy. His creed read as follows:

We believe in one God, Father, Almighty, maker of all things seen and unseen; and in one Lord Jesus Christ the Word of God, God from God, Light from Light, Life from Life, only-begotten Son, first-born of all creation, begotten from the Father before all ages, through whom all things have come into being, who was incarnate for our salvation; and spent his life among men, and suffered and rose the third day and went up to the Father and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and we believe in one Holy Spirit…3

“Constantine participated in the proceedings…[he] suggested that the Greek term homoousios (“of the same substance”) could describe the relationship of the Father and the Son. Some bishops thought that it was a bad precedent to use the word homoousios, which was not in the scriptures, to describe something as crucial as the relation of Son and Father. Some bishops objected that homoousios opened the way to a view of divine oneness with which Sabellius could have agreed. But they did not prevail.”9

–Joseph Lynch

Without waiting for the bishops to weigh in, Constantine responded favorably and declared that this statement was orthodox and that it accurately summed up his own belief. Eusebius had wisely avoided all of the controversial questions and presented his own faith in a way that closely resembled what Ossius and Alexander believed. In fact, the creed that the Church adopted at Nicea followed the same pattern as Eusebius’ statement with a few major differences.

According to Eusebius, Constantine himself was the one who suggested including the word homoousios, which means “same substance” or “same essence” or “same being.” Two other significant additions included adding the phrase “true God from true God” instead of just keeping “God from God” and the anathemas appended to the end of the creed. The result was the (in)famous Nicene Creed of a.d. 325:

We believe in one God, the Father, almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God, from true God, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, who because of us humans and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose on the third day, ascended to the heavens, will come to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Spirit.

But as for those who say, “There was when he was not” and “Before being born he was not” and that “He came into existence out of nothing” or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance or is subject to alteration and change—these the catholic and apostolic church anathematizes.

From reading this short statement of faith, one is easily able to infer the purpose of the document. It was designed to exclude those who did not believe Jesus was the eternal true God. The slogans of Arius that had become so popular were now anathemas or curses. Just saying that Jesus did not exist before he was begotten could now get someone kicked out of the Church for good. If the goal was to produce unity among Christianity, this document surely took an unusual strategy. The creed polarized Christians and forced everyone to pick a side.

According to ancient historian Theodoret, at some time, a letter by Eusebius of Nicomedia was read aloud. The response was catastrophic. People began condemning it, and someone even tore it to pieces. It is not clear exactly how this occurred. Were some of Alexander’s more militant supporters causing the uproar, or did the majority genuinely find the statements repulsive? Did the reader finish the letter, or was he cut off? Theodoret’s description is so full of bias and vitriol that it is hard to know how far we can trust him. Furthermore, as we will see, for the next sixty years, bishops disagreed about this very issue, indicating that a number of bishops either already agreed with the subordinationists or they changed their minds afterwards. Sadly, as so often happens, the victors write the history.

Although we may never know for sure, the council of Nicea does not seem to have been a time of calm, level-headed investigation into the nature of Christ. Ossius did not permit Arius to speak because he was only a presbyter and not a bishop. It would appear that the council never adequately heard a solid subordinationist presentation without the absurd booing and closed-mindedness of Alexander’s cronies.

In order to force everyone to unify around the new creed, everyone had to sign it. Although at least seventeen bishops (according to Rufinus4) did not approve of the word homoousios, all but two eventually signed it for the sake of unity, including both Eusebii. The vast majority of bishops probably did not have any strong convictions on this rather obscure theological question. Constantine exiled Secundus of Ptolemais, Theonas of Marmarike, and Arius of Alexandria for refusing to sign it. The council spent the rest of their time together deciding on a wide range of practical issues. They drew up twenty canons or rules to ensure greater unanimity among the churches. Within three months of the council, Constantine banished Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicea because, though they had signed the Nicene Creed, they provided hospitality to subordinationist presbyters from Alexandria after it.

“Henceforth emperors claimed the right to call ecumenical [universal] councils of bishops empowered to dictate theology and practice for all Christians”10

–Bart Ehrman

Following the council, Constantine drafted several letters, one of which suppressed the writings of Arius. He wrote, “This therefore I decree, that if any one shall be detected in concealing a book compiled by Arius, and shall not instantly bring it forward and burn it, the penalty for this offense shall be death.”5 Now that the government was endorsing one theological position, those who disagreed found themselves not only facing banishment from churches but also from the empire and potentially even death! But, what if the theology of the Nicene Creed was wrong? What if cultural bias prevailed over biblical exegesis?6 Henceforth the only way to accomplish significant theological reform was to convince the emperor to change his mind.

The subordinationists did not waste much time languishing in exile; they began writing letters and galvanizing support in hopes of returning. Although the situation may have seemed bleak for non-Trinitarians immediately following the council of Nicea, everything was soon to change. Within three years, Constantine recalled the exiled Arians and reinstated them and even wrote to Alexander requiring him to readmit Arius. As we will see, Nicea, far from concluding the controversy, was really just the beginning.

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1A subordinationist is someone who believes the Father is greater than the Son and that the Son is not eternal.

2Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc 1999), p. 72.

3Eusebius of Caesarea, Letter of Eusebius of Caesarea to the People of His Own Diocese 3, trans. R.P.C. Hanson in The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2005), p. 159.

4Rufinus, Ecclesiastical History 10.5

5Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 1.9

6Exegesis is the practice whereby one reads truth out from Scripture rather than reading their own theology into it.

7Rubenstein, p. 74.

8Howard C. Kee, Emily Albu, Carter Lindberg, J. William Frost, and Dana L. Robert, Christianity: A Social and Cultural History (Second Edition), (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Princeton-Hall Inc. 1998), p. 118.

9Joseph Lynch, Early Christianity: A Brief History (New York: Oxford University Press 2010), p. 164.

10Bart D. Ehrman and Andrew S. Jacobs, Christianity in Late Antiquity: 300-450 c.e. (New York: Oxford University Press 2004), p. 243.

8 Responses to “Trinity Controversy 3: Council of Nicea”

  1. on 22 Nov 2012 at 6:55 pmDoubting Thomas

    Good article Sean,
    I especially agree with the concluding statement. “Within three years, Constantine recalled the exiled Arians and reinstated them and even wrote to Alexander requiring him to readmit Arius. As we will see, Nicea, far from concluding the controversy, was really just the beginning.”

    BTW – I hope that you and all my other American friends had a great Thanksgiving holiday… 🙂

  2. on 22 Nov 2012 at 8:57 pmSheryl

    Thank you, DT. We are just winding down at my place…nothing like having your friends over to cut up and have fun. Oh, did I mention? These friends are also my family!

    But I want to pause and express my gratitude for this blog site which has been so very helpful these past few months. It’s like joining fellow travelers on the straight and narrow path to the “promised land.”

  3. on 22 Nov 2012 at 10:05 pmDoubting Thomas

    I feel the same way about this blog Sheryl… 🙂

  4. on 21 Dec 2014 at 12:23 pmRay

    I believe Jesus existed with God in the beginning, before the world was made, but I know of no verse of scripture that commands Christians everywhere to celebrate a Triune nature of God.

  5. on 21 Dec 2014 at 7:15 pmRay

    Surely we should conclude that if the Bible were to require all men everywhere to worship God as triune, it would have commanded it.
    Who are those who go out on their own, saying certain things are essential, when no scripture says so? I wonder who they think they are.

  6. on 22 Dec 2014 at 12:18 amTimoteo


    Perhaps, “who are those” who read but do not comprehend:

    Jeremiah 2: (kjv)
    13 For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

    Hosea 4: (kjv)
    6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge:……

    1 Timothy 2: (kjv)
    5 For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;

  7. on 22 Dec 2014 at 9:27 amRay

    Yet it seems that if a man must have a triune God, that Jesus can be that too. I say this because of all the liberty there is in Christ.

  8. on 22 Dec 2014 at 5:07 pmRay

    There are so many verses I may read that do so much good, in such simplicity, when I read them with no interest whatsoever of interpreting them though any Trinitarian formula or use of words, or in terms of that particular nature.

    Hebrews 2:11 is one example. Does it really need to be interpreted in any Trinitarian way? Would a Trinitarian formula shed any particular light upon it that the reader might gain better insight by it? I don’t think so.

    And what might Hebrews 2:11 look like if it were put into a Trinitarian way, or said by Trinitarian semantics?

    It would be nothing that would add anything to my understanding it seems to me. Dare I say that I really find no practical use for Trinitarian expository methods when I read the scripture?

    Am I so strange then if I find so little practical good in it? I know I am not alone in this. I’m not the only one who finds little practical use of Trinitarian doctrine or terms often heard, it seems to me.


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