The Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea

Icon of the First Council of Nicea
Icon of the First Council of Nicea. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The first council of Nicea (Nicaea) ended in July (or August) 25, 325 A.D. Participants designated it the first oecumenical council.

Lasting two months (perhaps having begun on May 20), and held in Nicea, Bithynia* (in Anatolia, modern Turkey), 318 bishops attended it, according to Athanasius (bishop from 328-273). Three-hundred-eighteen is a symbolic number providing one participant for every member of the Biblical Abraham's household [Edwards].

Athanasius was an important fourth-century Christian theologian and one of the eight great Doctors of the Church. He was also the major, albeit polemical and biased, contemporary source we have on the beliefs of Arius and his followers. Athanasius' interpretation was followed by later Church historians Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret.

Socrates says the council was called to resolve three issues [Edwards]:

  1. The Melitian controversy - which was over the readmission to the Church of lapsed Christians,
  2. to establish the date of Easter, and
  3. to settle matters stirred up by Arius, the presbyter at Alexandria.

Note that these Arians were not a formal grouping with a separate church.

* See Map of the Development of Christianity: section e-f/L-M.
  • "The First Council of Nicea," by Mark Edwards; Origins to Constantine. Eds. Margaret M. Mitchell, Frances M. Young, and K. Scott Bowie. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Church Councils

When Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire, the doctrine had yet to be fixed. A council is an assembly of theologians and church dignitaries called together to discuss the doctrine of the church. There have been 21 councils of what became the Catholic Church (17 before 1453).

Problems of interpretation (part of the doctrinal issues), emerged when theologians tried to rationally explain the simultaneously divine and humans aspects of Christ. This was especially hard to do without resorting to pagan concepts.

Once the councils had determined such aspects of doctrine and heresy, as they did in the early councils, they moved on to church hierarchy and behavior.

We should avoid calling the Arians opponents of the orthodox position because orthodoxy had yet to be defined.

  • Church Councils
  • "Archaeology and the 'Arian Controversy' in the Fourth Century," by David M. Gwynn, Religious diversity in late antiquity, edited by Gwynn, David M., 1975-; Bangert, Susanne.; Lavan, Luke.; Brill Academic Publishers Leiden; Boston 2010
  • Allen, Pauline. "The definition and enforcement of orthodoxy." Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, A.D. 425-600. Eds. Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Opposing Images of God: Trinitarian vs Monarchian and Arian

A Libyan Sabellius had taught that the Father and the Son are a single entity (prosōpon). Trinitarian Church fathers, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his deacon, Athanasius, believed there were three persons in one god. The Trinitarians were pitted against the Monarchianists, who believed in only one indivisible being. These included Arius, who was presbyter in Alexandria, under the Trinitarian bishop, and Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia (the man who coined the term "oecumenical council" and who had estimated participation at a substantially lower and more realistic attendance of 250 bishops). Arius accused Alexander of Sabellian tendencies when Alexander accused Arius of denying the second and third person of the Godhead.

Homo Ousion (same substance) vs. Homoi Ousion (like substance)

The sticking point at the Nicene Council was a concept found nowhere in the Bible: homoousion. According to the concept of homo + ousion, Christ the Son was con + substantial (the Roman translation from the Greek, meaning 'sharing the same substance') with the Father.

Arius and Eusebius disagreed. Arius thought the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were materially separate from each other, and that the Father created the Son.

Here is a passage from a letter Arian wrote to Eusebius:

" (4.) We are not able to listen to these kinds of impieties, even if the heretics threaten us with ten thousand deaths. But what do we say and think and what have we previously taught and do we presently teach? — that the Son is not unbegotten, nor a part of an unbegotten entity in any way, nor from anything in existence, but that he is subsisting in will and intention before time and before the ages, full God, the only-begotten, unchangeable. (5.) Before he was begotten, or created, or defined, or established, he did not exist. For he was not unbegotten. But we are persecuted because we have said the Son has a beginning but God has no beginning. We are persecuted because of that and for saying he came from non-being. But we said this since he is not a portion of God nor of anything in existence. That is why we are persecuted; you know the rest."

Arius and his followers, the Arians (not to be confused with the Indo-Europeans known as Aryans), believed if the Son were equal to the Father, there would be more than one God.

Opposing Trinitarians believed it diminished the importance of the Son to make him subordinate to the Father.

Debate continued into the fifth century and beyond, with:

" ... confrontation between the Alexandrian school, with its allegorical interpretation of scripture and its emphasis on the one nature of the divine Logos made flesh, and the Antiochene school, which favoured a more literal reading of scripture and stressed the two natures in Christ after the union."
Allen "The definition and enforcement of orthodoxy."

Wavering Decision of Constantine

The Trinitarian bishops prevailed. Emperor Constantine may have been a Christian at the time (although this is a matter of dispute: Constantine was baptized shortly before he died). Despite this, (it can be argued that*) he had recently made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. This made heresy akin to revolt, so Constantine exiled the excommunicated Arius to Illyria (modern Albania).

  • "Constantine and the Ancient Cults of Rome: The Legal Evidence," by John Curran; Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Apr., 1996), pp. 68-80.
  • "Constantine and the Christians of Persia," by T. D. Barnes; The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 75 (1985), pp. 126-136.
  • "Constantine's Prohibition of Pagan Sacrifice Author(s): T. D. Barnes; The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 105, No. 1 (Spring, 1984), pp. 69-72.

Constantine's friend and Arian-sympathizer Eusebius, who eventually withdrew his objection, but still wouldn't sign the statement of faith, and a neighboring bishop, Theognis, were also exiled -- to Gaul (modern France).

Constantine reversed his opinion about the Arian heresy and had both exiled bishops reinstated three years later (in 328). At the same time, Arius was recalled from exile.

Constantine's sister and Eusebius worked on the emperor to obtain reinstatement for Arius, and they would have succeeded, if Arius hadn't suddenly died - by poisoning, probably, or, as some prefer to believe, by divine intervention.

Arianism regained momentum and evolved (becoming popular with some of the tribes that were invading the Roman Empire, like the Visigoths) and survived in some form until the reigns of Gratian and Theodosius, at which time, St. Ambrose set to work stamping it out.

St. Athanasius - 4 Discourses Against the Arians

'The essences of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, are separate in nature, and estranged, and disconnected, and alien(6), and without the participation of each other(7)....'

Anniversary of the Nicene Creed

August 25, 2012, marked the 1687th anniversary of the creation of the upshot of the Council of Nicea, an initially controversial document cataloging the basic beliefs of Christians -- the Nicene Creed.

"Religion and Politics at the Council at Nicaea," by Robert M. Grant. The Journal of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 1-12.
"Nicaea and the West,"by Jörg Ulrich. Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 10-24.