The Council of Nicaea
by Herschel Baker

Although the significance of the Council of Nicaea was not lost on its delegates, it is unlikely that they comprehended the magnitude of their achievement. A man would have needed a keen sense of history to realize the importance of the principles there laid down. And yet, with the comfortable perspective of fifteen centuries we can now see that the decisions made there have determined the course of Christian theology to our own day. If one finds solace in sharp lines and clear contours, he could find a no more convenient event than the Council of Nicaea for the close of pagan antiquity and the opening of the Middle Ages: the dogma there promulgated not only determined the question that had been harassing the Church for centuries, it also determined the intellectual and emotional frame of reference with which medieval man was to function.

The occasion for Constantine's calling together, in A.D. 325, some 318 bishops at Nicaea, in what is now northern Asia Minor, was a dramatic flaring of the dispute that had been smoldering almost since the crucifixion. Some seven years earlier a certain Arius, a priest of Baucalis in Egypt, had made bold to declare that it was blasphemous to consider Christ, the Logos, as coequal with God. For one thing, since he was begotten by the Father, it was patently absurd to think of them as coeternal, and for another, if he was created (as God was not) it must have been from nothing and not from the divine substance of God. Further, the Holy Ghost, generated by the Logos, was similarly inferior to the Logos, as the Logos was to God. As conceived by his implacable enemy Athanasius, Arius' position was clearly heretical:

God was not always a Father, but there was a time when God was not a Father. The Word of God [i.e., the Logos] was not always, but originally from things that were not; for God that is, has made him that was not, of that which was not; wherefore there was a time when He was not; for the Son is a creature and a work. Neither is He like in essence to the Father; neither is He the true and natural Word of the Father; neither is He His true Wisdom. ... Wherefore He is by nature subject to change and variation, as are all rational creatures.

In short, by denying the divinity of Christ Arius had cut the Gordion knot of accommodating more than one God in a monotheistic religion.

This was an open attack — the last and greatest, as it happened — on the old question: what is the nature of God, and what is His relationship to the world? It was the last significant effort in the western Church to establish a complete monotheism with an ineffable and transcendent God acting on the realm of matter only through a subordinate and mediating Logos. And although it preserved God as a veritable Platonic absolute, it reduced Christ to the level of temporality and change.

These wicked views of Arius were shocking enough for his bishop, Alexander, to rebuke him sharply. But when Arius persisted in his blasphemy, and even gained converts among the clergy, Alexander called a council of Egyptian bishops which promptly outlawed the rebels. The question was too grave to be thus dismissed, however. Arius continued to expound his theology and, worse, to draw followers, until presently the whole eastern Mediterranean was in turmoil. To those comfortably accustomed to the traditional view of a divine Christ, the Arians were condemned as "lawless men, enemies of Christ, teaching an apostasy which one may justly suspect and designate as a forerunner of the Antichrist." Many others, however, both laymen and clergy, were drawn to support Arius' doctrine. Presently it became clear to Constantine — sole emperor, now that Licinius was disposed of — that the dispute might throw into religious chaos an empire that he had just succeeded in restoring to political tranquillity.

Therefore he called the famous council, making it very plain in his letter to both Alexander and Arius that he wished a speedy compromise of what was at best a trivial question. "For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions" — and this indicates the profundity of Constantine's interest in Christianity — "it is not fitting that so large a portion of God's people should be under the direction of your judgment." To "wrangle together" over trifles, he went on like a man whose patience was sorely tested, "is vulgar, and rather characteristic of childish ignorance, than consistent with the wisdom of priests and men of sense." When the delegates — mainly from the East but a few from the West — assembled in the hall of an imperial palace, the meetings were opened by the emperor himself, the better to "restore to health the system of the world" which Constantine feared was about to shatter on a negligible point of theology.

As the acrimonious debates showed during the three months the council was sitting, however, the issue was not negligible. To determine the "consubstantiality" (homoousia) as opposed to the mere "similarity" (homoiousia) of Christ to the Father was the problem, and if Arius prevailed in declaring that Christ was not God the very foundation of the Church might crack and its fall destroy the Empire. Never before or since, probably, has so much depended on construing a single letter in a single word. Arius, lean, austere, and melancholy, defended his views with a vehemence that was excelled only by Athanasius, the archdeacon whom Alexander had prudently brought along to conduct the persecution. If we may believe Socrates, the fifth-century church historian, the merits of the case were quickly apparent, and the council, "having scarcely the patience to endure the hearing" of Arius' "abominable blasphemies," cast its vote against him. When the delegates prepared to formulate their conclusions dogmatically, only the two bishops of Marmorica Ptolemais found, with Arius, that it was impossible to subscribe to a Trinitarian theology. For such intransigence the council anathemized them and Arius, and Constantine, the secular arm, obligingly exiled them to Illyria. Further, Constantine, hoping at last for peace, ordered all the works of Arius burnt, and all persons found possessing them executed. The Nicene Creed then promulgated, the delegates were entertained lavishly by the emperor with a banquet and went their ways rejoicing. And why not? asks Athanasius, whose side had won. "For what does that council lack, that anyone should seek to innovate? It is full of piety, beloved; and has filled the whole world with it. Indians have acknowledged it, and all Christians of other barbarous nations."

This is a pardonable exaggeration for, as Athanasius' own frantic exertions following the council show, the Nicene Creed did not end all controversy. But it did provide a core of dogma around which a unified Church might be erected. Although Gibbon, with typical cynicism, names as a by-product of the council the "spirit of discord and inconstancy, which in the course of a few years, erected eighteen different models of religion," the Nicene Creed was the most significant formulation of dogma of the early Church. For the western Church it prescribed faith in one God the Father as the absolute sum of all perfections, thus preserving the divine essence as a metaphysical absolute with no defilement. Furthermore, it confirmed the divinity of one Lord Jesus Christ — a Neoplatonic emanation of the Absolute but nonetheless His coequal in divinity: "Filium Dei unigenitum, et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula, Lumen de Lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero, genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri." Through Christ as Logos all things were made, and by Christ as mediator, who became man without ceasing to be God, the divine atonement was wrought for the whole human race. Finally the third member of the Trinity was declared to be the Holy Ghost, the giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son but is properly worshipped and glorified together with them (simul adoratur et conglorificatur). Having thus stated the nature and functions of the triune God, the Creed quickly summarized the remaining articles of faith:

[Credo in] et unum, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam. Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum; et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.

Thus, three centuries after the crucifixion, the main lines of Christian doctrine were officially laid down. The deification of Christ was now complete, and the mystery elements preached by Paul were now codified into dogma. By the early fourth century, the unpretentious morality of the Sermon on the Mount was hopelessly outmoded. After Nicaea, a Christian was a devotee of a trinitarian mystery religion who had declared his faith in the annunciation, the passion of Christ, the resurrection, and the last judgment. He had undergone such initiatory rites as baptism and communion, and he looked forward to an eternity of bliss as the reward of his Christian life. "When Christianity came to be defined in these terms," Lewis Mumford has said, "it should have been apparent that Jesus of Nazareth was the first heretic."

Indeed, even in the fourth century there were those who had to swallow their objections. Basil, for instance, admitted that the Trinitarian dogma was both incomprehensible and a contradiction in terms — but only in human terms, he adds quickly, "yet not therefore a contradiction in fact; unless indeed anyone will say that human words can express in one formula, or human thought express in one idea, the unknown and infinite God." Athanasius, who knew what miracles uniformity of faith might achieve in an expanding Church, never faltered in his defense of the Creed. Forty years after the Council of Nicaea he was still urging its advantages:

In this faith, O Augustus, it is necessary that all should abide, since it is divine and apostolic, and that no one should disturb it by subtleties and logomachies, as the Arian fanatics have done, who say that the Son of God is from nothing, and that once He was not, and that He is created, and made, and changeable.

Doctrinal considerations apart, the Council of Nicaea marks a significant moment in the intellectual history of Europe. It rang down the curtain with a certain theatrical flourish on a concept of nature and knowledge that had dominated pagan antiquity for nearly a thousand years. After Nicaea it was no longer possible for Christian Europe to maintain, as the Greeks had generally maintained, the existence of two radically different kinds of reality and two kinds of knowledge available to man about them. At Nicaea there perished the Platonic notion that the realm of intelligibles (or ideas, absolutes, Forms) constituted the attainable object of rational knowledge, while the realm of sensibles constituted the object of subjective opinion. No longer was it possible to believe as a Christian that rational knowledge of the highest reality was available to man through his innate rational faculty. By the doctrine of a trinitarian deity — God as the absolute, the Son as the ratio and mediator who links the absolute to the sensible, the Holy Ghost as the principle of divine energy and movement through which the Logos manipulates the realm of sensibles — the Church in effect abolished the dualism of two kinds of being. It legislated out of existence the concept of a rational reality discernible to reason, and substituted the single receptacle of faith. By the supreme paradox of three gods in one, of a Christ that was begotten by the Father and yet had always existed, of a God who was also man without ceasing to be God, the Nicene Creed put all experience beyond the scope of man's comprehension. Before the mystery of the Trinity, as even Aquinas was to confess, man's reason fluttered and failed.

By definition, Christ the God-man annihilated man's proudest possession, his capacity for rational knowledge. Christ as mediator relieved man of responsibility for his conduct. The Socratic dictum was overturned, and virtue was made faith. Through the Logos, God contrives salvation for sinful man, and man's only part in the transaction is to pay the debt of faith to a deity whose workings he could never understand. If you cannot understand, Augustine was to say a century later, believe in order that you may understand. For man and nature lay prostrate before an inscrutable God. As the Nicene Creed states unequivocally, from the workings of the deity are derived the structure and the operation of the sensible world: the unus Deus is the creator coeli et terrae, visibilium et invisibilium. To understand either himself or the world around him man must presume to understand a God who transcends human comprehension. And thus, as Cochrane has said, the Nicene Creed substituted for the classical approach to God through nature the Christian approach to nature through God. Both the exultation of God and the subordination of man were achieved at the Council of Nicaea. Although it took Christendom a couple of generations to produce Augustine, who would mercilessly exploit the degradation of man for which the Nicene Creed provided the theoretical basis, the council inaugurated the theocratic Middle Ages. The era of a thousand years of faith began.

This is the section entitled "The Council of Nicaea", pages 152-158 of Chapter X, "The Winds of Doctrine", in Herschel Baker's The Image of Man: A study of the idea of human dignity in Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, Harper Torchbooks, 1961.

Copyright 1947 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

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