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The Council of Nicaea

53The Review of Religions – May 2006 Constantine Becomes Emperor By 312 AD, Constantine had been at war with Maxentius for six years and was eager for something to lend his cause extra support. Lactantius, a Christian observer who produced accounts of the event a few years later in his book On the death of the Persecutors claimed that Constantine saw a Chi-Rho monogram in a vision on the eve of the battle of the Milvian bridge, accompanied by the words: ‘Hoc signo victor eris!’ [By this sign, you shall be the victor] Whether this vision was actual or dictated by anxiety remains questionable. In any case, he had crosses painted on his army’s shields and won the battle, becoming the Emperor of Rome. This inspired his conversion to Christianity though he was not baptised then. In Milan 313 AD, he issued an Edict of Toleration to all religions. But believing his battleground success to be won with Divine providence, he The Council of Nicaea The Council of Nicaea summoned by the Emperor Constantine, the Great in 325 AD,, was the first ecumenical council to be assembled primarily to the deal with the Arian controversy which threatened the unity of the Church. A study of this event shows how, with the accession of Constantine to power, in addition to gaining resources and freedom to propagate their religion, the early Christians compromised some of the most basic tenets of their faith, many of which served to alienate Christianity from its Jewish origins. In what follows, we examine the emergence of Constantine through to the Council of Nicaea and its ramifications, so that in our review of events we may take in our stride the radical effects the faith enunciated at Nicaea had on the future development of the Church. By Bockarie Tommy Kallon – UK (first published in The Reviewof Religions, May 1994) 54 The Review of Religions – May 2006 sympathised more with the Christians, who hitherto had suffered sporadic persecution. The Emperor lavished huge sums of money to build Basilicas and other Churches for them, coupled with preferential treatments of Christian candidates for administrative posts. In this way, Constantine closed one era and opened another. Constantine’s motives are beyond reconstruction but it is clear he still needed to bind the Empire – East and West – together and exercise influence over the whole of the Mediterranean. His conversion had not divorced him from his pagan past. The Emperor was happy with the collection of heavenly patrons. He believed reverence for deity to be indispensable for the tranquillity of the commonwealth and may well have regarded the Christian God as just another heavenly patron, not incompatible with others although perhaps more powerful. He maintained ties with the Sol Invictus cult even after his conversion. It was not until he was on his death bed that he was finally baptised, just in case. The Sol Invictus cult worshipped the Sun god but was also acceptable to the followers of Orpheus, the priest of the Sun, Mithras, or the Sun god, Apollo. The response was for Christians to begin representing Jesus(as) in the guise of Apollo to maintain favour while the Jews rejected the fashioning of the Divine through cultus images, thereby sowing the seeds of division between Christians and Jews. The Arian Controversy In the Christian world at the time, there was doctrinal pluralism vis-a-vis the nature and role of Jesus(as). In particular, there were strong views on either side of the Arian controversy, which was splitting the Church and threatened the unity of the Empire. Arianism was originated by Arius who had been a student of the celebrated Christian philosopher, Lucian of Antioch. Arius put forward a theory which negated the eternity and full divinity of Jesus(as), just as the Jewish-Christian groups such as THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA 55The Review of Religions – May 2006 the Ebionites had stated. He was prepared to say that ‘the Son had a beginning’, that ‘prior to his generation he did not exist’ and that ‘there was when he was not’, so that consequently ‘he is called God in name only.’1 On the other side of the controversy scholars such as Athanasius of Alexandria felt that Jesus(as) would have been too divine to need to eat, drink or require any other bodily function. Arius was excommu- nicated from the Church for his views but there was growing support for Arianism which culminated in the Council of Nicaea 325 AD. The Council The Council was to have taken place at Ancyra but on the orders of Constantine who had his residence at Nicaea the venue was changed so that he could personally control the pro- ceedings. The Synod took place between June 19th and August 25th2. The Emperor summoned all Church leaders with the aim of reaching a consensus over the status of Jesus(as). The number of bishops who attended is not known. The traditional figure is 318, which goes back to the late writings of Athanasius of Alexandria; possibly a symbolic figure based on the number of Abraham’s servants [Genesis 14:14]. The correct figure is still probably around 300. In the version of events presented in the New Catholic Encyclopaedia3, almost all were from the Eastern half of the Empire; more than 100 from Asia Minor, about 30 from Syria- Phoenecia and less than 20 from Palestine and Egypt. Constantine regarded the religious question exclusively from the angle of political expedience. His interest was to secure peace rather than any THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA Constantine regarded the religious question exclusively from the angle of political expedience. ‘ ’ 56 The Review of Religions – May 2006 theological verdict. He had already adopted the Sol Invictus as the state deity, so if Jesus(as) could somehow be deified he would be more easily compatible with the Sol Invictus. As the parties were in conflict, the task of deciding the fate of Jesus(as) was deferred to Constantine who was theologically incompetent and was inclined to making decisions on inadequate grounds. To him the deification of a man would not have seemed important. He had his father Constantius deified on his death and expected to be granted the same honour on his demise. He ruled in favour of Jesus’(as) deification and demanded that the delegates should sign acceptance to what became known as the Nicene Creed. This Creed is the first dogmatic definition of the Church and has served as a tessera of Christian orthodoxy through the ages. It defined the relations of Jesus(as) to the Father within the Godhead as homoousion tot patri (of one substance with the Father) designed specifically to exclude Arianism. Eusebius of Caesarea writing later is explicit that the Emperor himself proposed this term. The delegates that gave assent to the Creedal statement were to be invited to stay on at Nicaea as Constantine’s guests for his 20th anniversary celebrations, while those who rejected the Creed would be banished. Now here was an opportunity for Christians, some of whom still bore the marks of persecution, who could still vividly recall the days of suffering, to be conducted into the imperial chambers and be showered with THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA The delegates that gave assent to the Creedal statement were to be invited to stay on at Nicaea as Constantine’s guests for his 20th anniversary celebrations, while those who rejected the Creed would be banished. ‘ ’ 57The Review of Religions – May 2006 gifts and dine with the Emperor in the same palace from whence were issued decrees of persecution. Little wonder then that all but two (Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais) of the staunchest supporters of Arianism signed the new Creed. The two ‘dissidents’ were exiled to Illyricum. Little did those who signed the Creed know that their actions were to put the Church in chains, albeit in chains of gold. Some scholars have argued that the crucial terms of the Creed were not commonly understood by all signatories. ‘Of one substance’ (homousious) was ambiguous, in that to some it meant a personal identity, while to others it meant a much wider generic identity. Whether or not this was a fortuity enabling Constantine to secure the signature of almost every bishop, it is clear that many of the delegates were uneasy about the decision they had made. They had signed the Creed under pressure from Constantine and from fear of being banished. Eusebius of Caesarea, was previously one of the most die- hard Arians, but strangely, following the Council session, he was willing to accept the Creed. In a letter home, however, he indicated the extent of the compromise that had taken place against the fundamental principles of his knowledge of Jesus(as). Relating this A.H.M. Jones4 writes: ‘How profoundly distressing these changes were to Eusebius of Caesarea can be seen from a letter which he hastened to write to his Church. It is a pathetic document, equivocal up to the point of dishonesty.’ Some of the other delegates such as Maris of Chalcedron, Theogonis of Nicaea and Eusebius of Nicomedia were deeply unhappy about the outcome. They wrote to the Emperor5 saying: ‘We committed an impious THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA 58 The Review of Religions – May 2006 act, O Prince, by subscribing to a blasphemy from fear of you.” Eusebius of Caesarea became a friend of Constantine and was keen to make good use of his patronage. He later wrote the Life of Constantine in which he greatly flattered the Emperor. In his own book, The History of the Church, he built up the line from the Apostolic fathers to the 4th century and devoted an entire chapter (one of ten in the book) to the deliverance of Christianity from persecution by the Christian Emperor. In his book on Constantine, he gave expression to a theology of the place of the Emperor in the Christian Empire which, according to some modern historians, seemed rather a betrayal of the essential nature of the Gospel. Commenting on the role of Constantine, A.N. Whitehead6 wrote: ‘When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of western theology was edited by his lawyers… In the official formulation of the religion, it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews and that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah but the deeper idolatry, of fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God, the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.’ This was to have profound implications on the future philosophy of the Church. Ian Wilson5 summarises the situation by suggesting that, ‘not a few people felt that something of the original Jesus and the spirit of his teaching had been fatally compromised.’ After Shocks The repercussions of the Nicene creed are immeasurable as Ian Wilson writes: ‘Merely to enumerate the THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA 59The Review of Religions – May 2006 ways in which the original concepts of Jesus and his teachings were adulterated as result of Constantine’s actions and the consequences of the Council of Nicaea would take a book in itself.’’ Rome became the official centre of Christian orthodoxy, Trinity the accepted doctrine and deviation from this view was now considered not as a different opinion, but as punishable heresy. Next came the deification of Mary. Even though, in Mark 6:3, mention is made of Jesus’(as) brothers and sisters, Hilary of Poitiers and Didymus the Blind of Alexandria bestowed the title of ‘Ever Virgin’ upon Mary. The logical consequence of this was the Council of Ephesus in Asia Minor in summer of 431 AD which became known as the third ecumenical council, where, in spite of resistance from Nestorious, then Bishop of Constantinople, a formula of faith was agreed which acknowledged Mary as the Theotokos (Mother of God). In 1854, Pope Pius IX made it a Catholic article of faith to proclaim Mary as incapable of sin. After Nicaea, the fate of the Jews took a distinct turn for the worse. Following the deification of Jesus(as), they were considered as having murdered God! Constantine’s tolerance no longer extended to the Jews who were stripped of many of their rights as Roman citizens. With astonishing rapidity, Christians forgot the days of penury and persecution. The Church greeted Constantine’s orders not only as permissible but praiseworthy. Meanwhile Christians, such as agnostics, with slightly unortho- dox views, were also denied the freedom that was granted to pagans. They had their literature burnt, property confiscated and turned over to Christians, and were terrorised by the Church. Within a generation, hardly a trace of their existence remained. Some agnostics managed to conceal documents and hence the discovery intact of the Nag THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA 60 The Review of Religions – May 2006 Hammadi haul of scrolls in modern times. This, however, provides only a partial picture of the theological thought of the time. The memory of the Jewish prophet whose name the new religion had taken was to be lost forever and with it the very context in which the message was intended. There had been earlier instances of compromise. After Constantine’s edict of tolerance, Christians, with their newfound freedom and scope and association with Constantine, were willing to compromise themselves to maintain that position. In 321 AD, Constantine, in honour of the Sun god, enacted that on ‘the venerable day of the Sun’, the law courts and all workshops were to be closed, so Christianity, which had previously observed the Sabbath on Saturday, took on Sunday as its day of rest. Similarly, Jesus’ birthday used to be observed on January 6th, as it still is in parts of Eastern Europe. However, for both Sol Invictus and Mithraism, the religious day or Natalis Invictus was celebrated on the midwinter solstice, December 25th, so the Western Church adopted this day also. The aureole of light crowning the Sun god’s head also became the Christian halo. With so much of the original faith given away, Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln7 write: ‘Christian doctrine as promulgated by Rome at the time, had much in common with the cult of Sol Invictus anyway; and thus it was able to flourish unmolested under the sun cult’s umbrella of tolerance. Christianity, as we know it, is in many respects actually closer to those pagan THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA The memory of the Jewish prophet whose name the new religion had taken was to be lost forever and with it the very context in which the message was intended. ‘ ’ 61The Review of Religions – May 2006 systems of belief than it is to its own Judean origin.’ The distorted formula of faith promulgated at Nicaea laid the ground work for the classical development of Christian Trinitarian theology, dissem- inating far and wide the seeds of ignorance and error. References 1. The Early Christian Church. P.G. Davis, p.176. 2. The Encyclopedia of Religion. (Macmillan 1987); vol. 4 p.125. 3. New Catholic Encyclopedia. (Mc-Graw Hill 1979); vol. 10, pp.432-433. 4. Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. Penguin Books, A.H.M. Jones; p.137. 5. Jesus: The Evidence. (Pan Books), Ian Wilson. 6. Process and Reality. (Cambs., 1929), A.N. Whitehead. 7. The Messianic Legacy. (Corgi 1986), M. Baigent, R. Leigh & H. Lincoln. THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA