Window on the Past The Council of Nicea Ph.D Student at Westminster Theological Seminary, and Pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, Nashville, TN

Article by   October 2006

Books, they say, are a preacher's whiskey. Like many students of theology and Church History, my study walls are encrusted with volume after volume beckoning me to, as C.S. Lewis once said in his essay, On the Reading of Old Books, "work my way through a bit of tough theology with a pipe in my teeth and a pencil in my hand." One of the first things one sees rounding the corner into my study is a rather large set of books containing the writings of the Early Church Fathers. They sit there, inviting me to come with them to times when doctrine was fiercely contended for and the life of the Church rested upon fine points of debate in theology. Long, about the middle of this big set of books, is one tome - just one amidst thirty-seven others in this series, by one man - a small man, we are told. His name is Athanasius.

God delights, at times, in using small things (cf., Mic 5:2). Athanasius (c.298-373), a small-statured, dark-skinned Egyptian was dubbed by his enemies, "the black dwarf." He was, nevertheless, something much larger. This is attested by the traditional Latin ascription: Athanasius contra mundum - "Athanasius against the world." As we shall see, though only one volume in that big set of Early Church Fathers (38 in all) contains his writings, there is a sense in which this smallish figure casts a mighty shadow over the whole set, and hence, the life, thought, and practice of the Early Church.

Indeed, God delights in using small things. In the summer of 325AD, some three-hundred-plus bishops of Christendom, some of whom could still tell the horrors of the persecution of Christians in the not-too-distant past, descended upon the relatively small city of Nicea, at the eastern tip of Lake Iznik in modern-day northwestern Turkey. Here, the two councils of Nicea were held. The first, in 325, was the First Ecumenical Council of the Church. The second, in 787, was the Seventh Ecumenical Council.[1]

It is the First Ecumenical Council to which historians and theologians typically refer, when they speak of "Nicea." Indeed, it was watershed. So much so, that that big set of books I told you about are all gathered around the categories of Ante-Nicene, Nicence, and Post-Nicence Church Fathers - in other words, the writing theologians before, during, and after that summer gathering of 325AD. Many of us interested in Reformed theology today, naturally tend toward a study of writers and issues related to Reformation and Post-reformation period. Yet, the debt many of our Reformed forebears paid to Nicea and the pronouncement she made, are readily seen, as Luther called Nicea "the most sacred of all councils," or in the writings of Calvin, as he engaged Servetus in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, or even the debates between Trinitarians of 17th century England, such as Westminster Assmebly Divine, Francis Cheynell, and anti-trinitarians of the same period, such as Paul Best and John Biddle.

At Nicea, as during the days of the Reformers, and especially today, as cults and sects abound, the precise nature of the Godhead and the relationship between the Father and Son matter so greatly. Nicea is an old path to a clearer understanding of basic Christian identity. So, let's follow those dusty roads to an earlier time and place on the tip of that lake in what is today the modern city of Iznik, as the fight for the biblical doctrine of the Son was staged.

Backstage - Enter Alexander & Arius

Before Athanasius' appointment as Bishop of Alexandria at age thirty-three, there served the great and godly Bishop Alexander (c.313-28). It was he who would eventually ordain Athanasius a deacon in the Church. Little, perhaps, did either of them know that he was ordaining Athanasius to the fight of his life. Alexander taught that Jesus was eternally generated by the Father, and, as Son of God, was truly God. For him, the eternal Fatherhood of the Father, explicates the eternal generation of the Son. And, he was bent on keeping opposing doctrine and doctrinaires out of Alexandria.

An articulate and persuasive presbyter in Alexandria, Arius (c.250-336), took issue with the Bishop, and took it upon himself to counter what he considered his unbiblical and illogical teaching on the eternality and equal deity of the Son. In what Arius opposed, we see what Alexander thought fundamental:

We do not agree with him [Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria] when hesays publicly, "Always Father, always Son," "Father and Son together," "The Son exists unbegottenly with god," "The eternal begotten," "Unbegotten-only-one," Neither in thought nor by a single instant s God before the Son," "Always God, always Son," "The Son is God himself."[2]

For Arius, Jesus was, while an exalted god, created and subordinate to the Father. Far from remaining an odd boutique belief, these very sentiments would echo in the writings of the Sabellian-esque Michael Servetus in the time of Calvin, or, as mentioned above, proto-Socinians and Socianians, such as John Biddle and Paul Best, during the days of the Puritans in England.

At what may be considered a precursor to Nicea, a small council of around 100 bishops from Egypt and Lybia, Arius heard the anathema against him by Bishop Alexander. The latter found Arius' subordinationist Christology similar to one Paul of Samosata. Thus began several years of strife and hot debate, as Arius left for Palestine, gathered his followers and disseminated his views.

Backstage - Enter Emperor Constantine

Persecution had become a recently decreasing echo for the Church. In fact, with Constantine's (c.274/280-337) rise as the first Christian emperor of Rome, the beginnings of Christendom took shape. And, whatever one may think of the sincerity of his Christian profession, no one denies his desire to keep unity in the empire, a unity which was threatened by what appeared to him too much made of words, such as ousios. Despite attempts to bring the warring parties into closer agreement, he found the threat to unity so significant, that all the Church must act. The nature of the Son directly impacted the nature of salvation and particulars of worship. Again, these would be some of the very same practical issues raised by Westminster Divine, Francis Cheynell, in his anti-Socinian treatise, The Divine Triunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in 1650.

Setting the Stage - A Brief Survey of Participants

Lest schism utterly rend the Church and empire, Constantine ordered the gathering of just over 300 bishops from the East (the overwhelming majority) and the West. On one side of the table sat Arius and his small band of followers, including his earlier-attempted advocate with Alexander, Eusebius of Nicomedia. Across from him, Bishop Alexander and the orthodox party. Among these was Hosius, Bishop of Cordova (c.256-357), one of the very few from the Western Church, who had recently tried, at the behest of Constantine, to settle the dispute between Alexander and Arius in Alexandria. Historians believe it possible that Hosius' advice to the Emperor following his failed attempt to unite Arius and Alexander had much to do with the calling of Nicea. Sitting in the middle of the table, as it were, was Eusebius of Caesarea and his party. And, while there were other, relatively less notable, matters with which the Council occupied itself, such as the day upon which the resurrection would be dated and celebrated, as well as, the Meletian Schism, the stage was set for, perhaps, the most significant debate in the history of the Church.

Sidestage - Enter Athanasius

This smallish giant, while traveling to Nicea with the Alexandrian party, serving as a secretary to his mentor and Bishop, was not a direct voting participant at the Council, as he was a deacon, not a Bishop at this point in his life. Nonetheless, he is there, in a sense, learning his lines in the wings of the stage. With that said, while technically silent in the proceedings, his 318 De incarnatione (On the Incarnation), a treatment of the relationship between the Word and the world, evidences a potential within him, which would later come to polemical and apologetic fruition, as the mantle of contending with Arianism would fall to him. During this time of secretarial service to Alexander, he penned other polemic material, such as Contra Gentes (Against the Heathen/Pagan), and drank deeply of the heated debate between the Bishop and Arius, both in the years prior to Nicea, as well as, that momentous council, itself. All this prepared him for penning his masterful later treatise, Apologia Contra Arianos (Four Discourses Against the Arians), about which a bit more will be said below.

Centerstage - ousios, heteroousios homoousios, homoiousios

Athanaius would later comment that orthodox bishops at Nicea wanted to explicate things in specifically biblical terms. However, when they did, Arius would interpret those terms to support his view that Jesus was of a different substance than the Father, hence the first created being. Thus, the necessity of non-biblical nomenclature to express biblical concepts became a contested issue during Reformation and Post-reformation periods, as the nature of the Trinity and the equal deity of the three members of the Godhead was debated. Anti-trinitarian, Michael Servetus, attempted to thwart Calvin by insisting upon the exclusive use of biblical terminology when speaking of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Calvin defended the use of terms outside of Scripture to elucidate doctrine in Institutes I.XIII.2-6. Westminster Divine, Francis Cheynell, in his anti-Socinian writings, appealed to Augustine, who held that, out of those things we read in Scripture, we may gather things we do not read in Scripture, meaning we may use non-biblical terms and phrases to help describe and define the doctrines and concepts we find on he pages of Holy Writ.

Up to Nicea, the debate had centered upon ouisos - of what substance was Jesus? Was he, as Alexander had been teaching, actually God, or was he, as Arius held, something less. The bishops found in the word 'homoousios' a workable solution, as it meant that Jesus was of the same substance with the Father. However, the group in the middle of the table, so to speak, feared that the very use of 'one substance' could play into the hands of the Sabellians in the East, who may use it to support their doctrine that the Father and Son are actually one person. The Eusebians suggested the term homoiousios, (similar substance). They saw this as a proper middle ground between the Alexandrian party and Arius. The latter's thoroughgoing rationalism left no room for an immutable, unknowable God to communicate his substance. Therefore, Christ has to be created of a heteroousios (different substance). Like Servetus after him, Arius held that the Logos was the firstborn of God, but not the ineffable God, himself.

The party of Alexander prevailed with homoousios,[3] and they assured the Eusebians that this term did not deny the distinct, individual personhood of the Father and Son, but rather clarified and defended the deity of the Father and Son - two persons of the same substance. With the signing of what we may call the 325 Creed of Nicea by all present, with the exception of Arius and a tiny minority of bishops with him, the course for history was set. This relatively short statement, along with its set of anathemas of key Arian teachings, reads:

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 of the Father
[the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God[,
Light of Light, very God of very God,
Begotten, not made,
Being of one substance (oJmoouvsion) with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];
Who for us men, and for our salvation,
Came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again,
Ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.

[But those who say: 'There was a time when he was not;' and 'He was not before he was made;' and 'He was made out of nothing,' or 'He is of another substance' or 'essence' or 'The Son of God is created,' or 'changeable,' or 'alterable' - they are condemned by the holy catholic ad apostolic Church.]

As Scottish theologian, William Cunningham, wrote in 1882 in his Historical Theology, "These declarations explicitly assert the doctrines which have since been generally known under the names of co-eternity and consubstantiality of the Son, and His eternal generation by the Father out of His own substance, - doctrines which have been held ever since by the great body of professing Christians..."

The Show Must Go On

Obviously, the anathema section of the 325 pronouncement was aimed directly at Arius and his followers, using his very language. However, the conclusion of the Council of Nicea was far from the conclusion of the matter. Arius essentially goes underground after his indisputable loss at Nicea for a period. What followed were years of turmoil and battle over the symbole of Nicea. While victorious that summer of 325, the orthodox party would witness compromise by Constantine, himself (after all, his goal was unity in the empire), repeated attempts to vindicate Arius by political powers, Constantine's son later erecting an Arian court, various synods rejecting the Nicene Symbole. Even Athanasius found himself ejected from his eventual see as Bishop of Alexandria five times!

So, Athanasius Contra Mundum has real meaning. As vital as Nicea was, yet it was this little man's Herculean efforts to counter the Arian menace through deft exegsis and theologizing, grounding his defence of Nicene Christology in soteriology, insisting that only One, who was very God incarnate could actually redeem fallen man. In Apologia Contra Arianos (Four Discourses Against the Arians, written between 356-60) II.69, he says:

69. Again, if the Son were a creature, man had remained mortal as before, not being joined to God; for a creature had not joined creatures to God, as seeking itself one to join it; nor would a portion of the creation have been the creation's salvation, as needing salvation itself. To provide against this also, He sends His own Son, and He becomes Son of Man, by taking created flesh; that, since all were under sentence of death, He, being other than them all, might Himself for all offer to death His own body; and that henceforth, as if all land died through Him, the word of that sentence might be accomplished (for 'all died' in Christ), and all through Him might thereupon become free from sin and from the curse which came upon it, and might truly abide for ever, risen from the dead and clothed in immortality and incorruption. For the Word being clothed in the flesh, as has many times been explained, every bite of the serpent began to be utterly staunched from out it; and whatever evil sprung from the motions of the flesh, to be cut away, and with these death also was abolished, the companion of sin, as the Lord Himself says, 'The prince of this world cometh, and findeth nothing in Me;' and 'For this end was He manifested,' as John has written, 'that He might destroy the works of the devil.' And these being destroyed from the flesh, we all were thus liberated by the kinship of the flesh, and for the future were joined, even we, to the Word. And being joined to God, no longer do we abide upon earth; but, as He Himself has said, where He is, there shall we be also; and henceforward we shall fear no longer the serpent, for he was brought to nought when he was assailed by the Saviour in the flesh, and heard Him say, 'Get thee behind Me, Satan,' and thus he is cast out of paradise into the eternal fire. Nor shall we have to watch against woman beguiling us, for 'in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the Angels;' and in Christ Jesus it shall be 'a new creation,' and 'neither male nor female, but all and in all Christ;' and where Christ is, what fear, what danger can still happen?

In true Athanasian form, Calvin would gloriously write some twelve hundred years later in Institutes II.XII.3:

Accordingly, our Lord came forth as true man and took the person and the name of Adam in order to take Adam's place in obeying the Father, to present our flesh as the price of satisfaction to God's righteous judgment, and, in the same flesh, to pay the penalty that we had deserved. In short, since neither as God alone could he feel death, nor as man alone could he overcome it, he coupled human nature with divine that to atone for sin he might submit the weakness of the one to death; and that, wrestling with death by the power of the other nature, he might win victory for us. Those who despoil Christ of either his divinity or his humanity diminish his majesty and glory, or obscure his goodness. On the other hand, they do just as much wrong to men whose faith they thus weaken and overthrow, because it cannot stand unless it rests upon this foundation.

All the World's Indeed a Stage

In a certain sense, all history is redemptive history, not in the same way this phrase is used of a Biblical-Theological approach to Redemptive History recorded in Scripture, but in the sense that, under God's providence, history is going somewhere! It heads toward the manifestation of the triune God's glory, as he redeems a people unto himself, and calls all history to extol the majesty of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ - very God of very God.

Whether a child is memorizing, line upon line, the text of what we have come to know as the Nicene Creed,[4] or saints from all four corners of the world are reciting a common faith with the words, "very God of very God; begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father," or a committed Christian is reaching out to their Unitarian or Kingdom Hall neighbor, the Church today continues to proclaim the essential truth of Scripture's teaching on the Trinity, as she keeps lit the fire of Nicea, and stands contra mundum with Athanasius, who has taught us all:

... for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture (De Synodis, in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, IV.453).

Well, if ever you are in my neck of the woods in Nashville, come to my study, and we can work through a bit of theology together. Until then, dear Christian, continue to take the stage, play your part - learn, love, and live in the grace of the Triune God for the glory of Jesus Christ - the Seed who crushed the serpent's head and the Alpha and Omega.

Select Bibliography

The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV - Athanasius: Select Works & Letters

Early Christian Doctrines by J.N.D. Kelly

The History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3 by Philip Schaff

The Creed of Christendom, Vols. 1&2 by Phillip Schaff

Historical Theology, Vol. 1 by William Cunningham

The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1 by Jaroslav Pelikan

Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin

The Divine Triunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by Francis Cheynell (I owe some of my insights of this period to a Ph.D course I am currently taking on The Rise of Anti-trinitarianism in 17th Century England with Dr. Paul Lim).

Nice and Hot Disputes: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventeenth Century by Philip Dixon

The Forgotten Trinity by James White

Evangelical Dictionary of Theology ed. by Walter A. Elwell

New Dictionary of Theology ed. by Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J.I. Packer


[1] The Second Council of Nicea in 787 primarily addresses Iconoclasm in the Early Church.

[2] Arius, The Letter of Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia, in Hardy, Edward R., Christology of the Later Fathers, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 329-30, cited in Hall, Christopher A., Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 35.

[3] Some have charged that Constantine abused his authority at Nicea and foisted the official use of this term upon the proceedings. However, as Philip Schaff observes in his History of the Christian Church:

Athaniasius himself, however laid little stress on the term, and rarely used it in his theological expositions; he cared more for the thing than the name. The word oJmoouvsios, from oJmovV and oujsiva, was not an invention of the council of Nice, still less of Constantine, but had previously arisen in theological language, and occurs even in Origen and among the Gnostics, thought of course it is no more to be found in the Bible than the word trinity (III.628).

[4] The Nicene Creed has been revised throughout early Church history. At the Council of Constantinople in 381, material on the Holy Spirit was added in effort to combat the Macedonian or Pneumatomachian heresy, which denied the divinity of the Spirit. The Protestant Church, reaches back into the best of Western tradition of Christianity and its explication of the Bible, and asserts that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the "Father and the Son." This phrase contributed largely to the split between Eastern and Western Christianity. The insertion of the Latin Filioque (and the Son) by the Western Church at the Council of Toledo (Spain, not Ohio) in A.D. 586, was more than the Eastern Church could allow. This, however, is probably better left for a subsequent edition of Window on the Past.

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