This article is continued from “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ word: An edifying tale, part I,“ “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ Word part II: How to spot a heresy, and “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ Word part III: What was the beef at Nicea?“
This was the sort of problem that was on the minds of bishops all over the empire when Constantine stepped in and invited them to his summer palace in Nicea for this major meeting. At least 200 bishops attended, mostly from the Eastern part of the empire, but some from Italy, North Africa, and other Western places. Counting all the bishops’ fellow presbyters and deacons, scholars believe there were close to a thousand people at that meeting. The sheer size of this assembly had no precedent in church history.
If you think about it, this must have been just an awe-inspiring gathering for those simple pastors. Most stunning was that just over a dozen years before the council, the largest persecution in the history of the early church had been raging. In fact, some of the bishops at Nicea had been tortured during that persecution. Some bore horrible scars; some were even missing eyes. And here they were, summoned by the emperor, with all their expenses paid, laden with the traditional gifts that followed an invitation to the imperial court. Some, legend has it, received the kiss of peace from Constantine himself. It must have been just a breathtaking moment for those who had remained faithful through the recent persecution and now saw God working in this amazing way.
Now, what exactly happened at that council?
First, though the Arian heresy was the big agenda item on the table, it was not the only thing decided. The bishops discussed and legislated on a whole long list of items related to worship, church government, and other matters.
Second, it was not one big, happy camp-meeting. I started by reminding us that we’re in election season, and that the church’s traditions were forged in the midst of a political process, too. As the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark once said, “People who enjoy eating sausage and obeying the law should not watch either being made.” This is just as true of church laws and doctrines. The process is always messy. And there’s always blood on the floor afterwards. Consider how the Council of Nicea started:
The council opened on June 19. Constantine took his place on the imperial throne and greeted his guests. He spent the opening session accepting scrolls from the bishops, which were secret petitions asking the emperor for his favorable judgment in local disputes. Then, the next day, Constantine startled them all by bringing in a large brazier—a kind of giant Weber grill—and burning the whole pile of scrolls before them. By this symbolic action, the emperor was saying that the debts of all had been cancelled. Or to be blunt, he was implying that most of the petitions from the bishops had been aimed at one another, and rather than put many on trial, he had given a blanket amnesty.
You can see that these are real people, with real quarrels between them. And indeed as the council proceeded, it was as much a matter of political maneuvering as any such large organizational gathering. The minority favored Arius. The majority favored Alexander of Alexandria, against Arius. So the majority party suggested that a certain baptismal creed—that is, a statement of faith repeated by those coming for baptism—long used at Jerusalem be adopted and signed as the authoritative statement of basic Christian belief.
All the bishops recognized how true this statement of faith was to the apostolic writings, but the Jerusalem creed did not really resolve the precise issue under consideration; that is, how the Son of God related to the divine Father. So the bishops decided that extra clauses had to be inserted into the old creed as ‘commentary’—phrases like “God from God, Light from Light,” and so forth—in order to amplify the bare statements about the mission of Christ and show how Jesus could be confessed as God.
It was Alexander’s party who suggested these phrases; but they still wouldn’t quite do the trick of putting an end to the Arian heresy. Why? Because it had become clear in years of wrangling that even the Arians could accept Christ’s title as “god from God.” They just reinterpreted it as meaning an inferior deity coming from the superior, absolute deity. So the Alexandrians still sought a firmer test of faith.
It was possibly a man named Ossius, the theological advisor of the emperor, who suggested that the magic word to nail the Arian party would be homoousios. The term meant “of the same substance as,” and when applied to the Son it proclaimed that the Son was divine in the same way as God the Father was divine. In short, if the Son was of the same substance as the Father, then he was truly God alongside the Father. The word pleased Constantine, who seems to have seen it as an ideal way to bring all the bishops back on board for a common vote. It was broad enough to suggest a vote for the traditional Christian belief that Christ was divine, it was vague enough to mean that Christ was of the “same stuff” as God (no further debate necessary), and it was bland enough to be a reasonable basis for a majority vote.
It had everything going for it as far as the politically savvy Constantine was concerned, but for the die-hard Arian party, it was an unacceptable word. They saw that it gave the Son equality with the Father without explaining how this relationship worked. (In fact, it would be another 50-plus years before the bishops clarified that and solidified the final, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.) Therefore they attacked it for undermining the biblical sense of the Son’s obedient mission. The intellectuals among the group also attacked it because it attributed “substance” (or material stuff) to God, who was beyond all materiality. Moreover, and I want you to get this, the Arians argued that the term (that is, homoousios) was unsuitable because it was “not found in the Holy Scriptures.” And indeed, this did disturb many of the assembled bishops.
The great majority of bishops still endorsed the idea, however, and so with Constantine pressing for a consensus vote, the word entered into the creed they published. It was not, by the way, that the bishops at Nicaea were themselves simply looking for a convenient consensus in the synod’s vote. In their smaller, regional councils, bishops had mostly worked for unanimity. They believed that as the guardians of the tradition, they were the direct heirs of the apostles’ first gathering at Jerusalem, when the Holy Spirit led all the apostles to the realization of the gospel truth.
Because of this, when a few bishops dissented and refused their vote, the remaining bishops excommunicated and deposed them, accusing them of having refused to be part of the family of faith. All of the deposed bishops received harsh sentences from the emperor (although a few, who had special relationships with Constantine, later wiggled out of this disgrace).
Again, it was through all this discussion and argument and maneuvering that the “sausage was made,” so to speak, and what would become the definitive statement of the Trinity resulted. This statement of faith, which was reaffirmed with small edits at a council at Constantinople in 381, is what we know today as the Nicene Creed. I’m going to read it now—it’s quite brief—and then conclude with a few final thoughts. As you listen, think about how the language used here about Jesus is intentionally framed to prevent anyone from teaching that Jesus is less than fully divine:
“We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father [there’s that word, homoousios] by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
“And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
This article is continued in “Debunking the Protestant “T” word part V (conclusion): Learning to love tradition.”