The Council of Nicaea

From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol., 4 St Athanasius Select Works and Letters p. xvii, 1892

An ecumenical council was a new experiment. Local councils had long since grown to be a recognised organ of the church both for legislation and for judicial proceedings. But no precedent as yet prescribed, no ecclesiastical law or theological principle had as yet enthroned, the ‘General Council’ as the supreme expression of the Church’s mind. Constantine had already referred the case of the Donatists first to a select council at Rome under Bishop Miltiades, then to what Augustine (Ep. 43) has been understood to call a ‘plenarium ecclesiae universae concilum‘ at Arles in 314. This remedy for schism was not to be tried on a grander scale. That the heads of all the Churches of Christendom should meet in free and brotherly deliberation, and should testify to all the world their agreement in the Faith handed down independently but harmoniously from the earliest times in Churches widely remote in situation, and separated by differences in language race and civilisation, is a grand and impressive idea, an idea approximately realised at Nicaea as in no other assembly that has ever met. The testimony of such an assembly carries the strongest evidential weight; and the almost unanimous horror of the Nicene Bishops at the novelty and profaneness of Arianism condemns it irrevocably as alien to the immemorial belief of the Churches. But it was one thing to perceive this, another to formulate the positive belief of the Church in such a way as to exclude the heresy; one thing to agree in condemning Arian formulae, another to agree upon an adequate test of orthodoxy. This was the problem which lay before the council, and with which only its more clearsighted members tenaciously grappled: this is the explanation of the reaction which followed, and which for more than a generation, for well night half a century after, placed its results in jeopardy. The number of Bishops who met was over 250 (Athanasius in Ad Afros 2 gives the figure at 318). They represented many nationalities (Euseb. ubi supra), but only a handful came from the West, the chief being Hosius, Caecilian of Carthage, and the presbyters sent by Sylvester of Rome, whose age prevented his presence in person. the council lasted from the end of May till Aug 25 (see DCA 1389). With many picturesque stories told of its incidents we have nothing to do. (Stanley’s Eastern Church, Socr. 1.10-12, Soz. 1.17,18, Rufin. H. E. 1.3-5). But it may be well to note the division of the parties.

  1. Of thoroughgoing partisans of Arius, Secundus and Theonas alone scorned all compromise. But Eusebius of Nicodemia, Theognis, Bishop of Nicaea itself, and Maris of Chalcedon, also belonged to the inner circle of Arians by conviction (Socr. 1.8; Soz 1.21 makes up the same number, but wrongly). The last-named were pupils of Lucian (Philost. 2.15). Some twelve others (the chief names are Athanasius of Anazarbus and Narcissus of Neronias in Clicia; Patrophilus of Scythopolis, Aeitius of Lydda, Paulinus of Tyre, Theodotus of Laodicea, Gregory of Berytus, in Syria and Palestine; Menophantus of Ephesus) completed the strength of the Arian party proper.
  2. On the other hand a clearly formulated doctrinal position in contrast to Arianism was taken up by a minority only, although this minority carried the day. Alexander of Alexandria of course was the rallying point of this wing, but the choice of formula proceeded from other minds Ὑπόστασις and ούσία are one in the Nicene formula: Alexandria in 323 writes τρεὶς ὑποστάσεις. The test formula of Nicaea was the work of two concurrent influences, that of the anti-Origenists of the East, especially Marcellus of Ancrya, Eustathius of Antioch, supported by Macarius of ‘AElia,’ Hellanicus of Tripolis, and Asclepas of Gaza, and that of the Western Bishops, especially Hosius of Cordova. The latter fact explains the energetic intervention of Constantine at the critical moment on behalf of the test; the word was commended to the Fathers by Constantine, but Constantine was ‘prompted’ by Hosius; οὗτος τὴν ἐν Νικαία πίστιν ἐξέθετο. Alexander (the Origenist)has been prepared for this by Hosius beforehand (Soc. 3.7; Philost. 1.7). Least of all was Athanasius the author of the ὁμοούσιον; his whole attitude toward the famous test is that of loyal acceptance and assimilation rather than of native inward infinity. He was moulded by the Nicene Creed, did not mould it himself’ (Loofs, p. 134). The theological keynote of the council was struck by a small minority; Eustathius, Marcellus, perhaps Macarius, and the Westerns, above all Hosius; the numbers were doubtless contributed by the Egyptian bishops who had condemned Arius in 321. The signatures which seem partly incorrect, preserve a list of about 20. The party then which rallied round Alexander in formal opposition to the Arians may be put down at over thirty. ‘The men who best understood Arianism were most decided on the necessity of its formal condemnation (Gwatkin). To this compact and determined group the result of the council was due, and in their struggle owed much—how much it is hard to determine—to the energy and eloquence of the deacon Athanasius, who had accompanied his bishop to the council as an indispensable companion.
  3. Between the convinced Arians and their reasoned opponents lay the great mass of the bishops, 200 and more, nearly all from Syria and Asia Minor, who wished for nothing more than that they might hand on to those who came after them the faith they had received at baptism, and had learned from their predecessors. These were the ‘conservatives’ or middle party, composed of all of those who were more interested in their libelli than in the magnitude of the doctrinal issue; theologians, a numerous class, ‘who on the basis of half-understood Origenist ideas were prepared to recognise in Christ only the Mediator appointed (no doubt before all ages) between God and the World’ (Zahn Marc. p. 30); men who in the best of faith yet failed from lack of intellectual clear-sightedness to grasp the question for themselves; a few, possibly, who were inclined to think that Arius was hardly used and might be right after all; such were the main elements which made up the mass of the council, and upon who indefiniteness, sympathy, or unwillingness to impose any effective test, the Arian party based their hopes at any rate of age, Eusebius of Caesarea. A devoted admirer of Origen, but independent of the school of Lucian, he had, during the early stages of the controversy, thrown his weight on the side of toleration for Arius. He had himself used compromising language, and in his letter to the Caesarean church does so again. But equally strong language can be cited from him on the other side, and most belonging as he does properly to the pre-Nicene age, it is highly invidious to make the most of his Arianising passages, and, ignoring or explaining away those on the other side, and depreciating his splendid and lasting services to Christian learning, to class him summarily with his namesake of Nicodemia. The fact however remains, that Eusebius gave something more than moral support to the Arians. He was ‘neither a great man nor a clear thinker’ (Gwatkin); his own theology was hazy and involved; as an Origenist, his main dread was Monarchianism, and his policy in the council was to stave off at least such a condemnation of Arianism as should open the door to ‘confounding the Persons.’ Eusebius apparently represents the ‘left wing’ or the last mentioned, of the ‘conservative’ elements in the council; but his learning, age, position, and the ascendency of Origenist Theology in the East, marked him out as a leader of the whole

But the conservatism of the great mass of bishops rejected Arianism more promptly than had been expected by its adherents or patron.

The real work of the council did not begin at once. The way was blocked by innumerable applications to the Christian Emperor from bishops and clergy, mainly for the redress of personal grievances. Commonplace men often failed to see the proportion of things, and to rise to the magnitude of the events in which they play their part. At last Constantine appointed a day for the formal and final reception of all personal complaints, and burnt the ‘libelli’ in the presence of the assembled fathers. He then named a day by which the bishops were to be ready for a formal decision of the matters in dispute. The way was now open for the leaders to set to work. Quasi-formal meetings were held, Arius and his supporters met the bishops, and the situation began to clear (Soc. 1.17). To their dismay (De decr. 3) the Arian leaders realised that they could only count on some seventeen supporters of the entire body of bishops. They would seem to have seriously and honestly underrated the novelty of their own teaching (cf. the letter of Arius in Thdt. 1.5), and to have come to the council with the expectation of victory over the party of Alexander. But they discovered their mistake:—

‘Sectamur ultro, quos opimus

Fallere et effugere est triumphus’

‘Fallere et effugere’ was in fact the problem which now confronted them. Its seems to have agreed at an early stage, perhaps it was understood from the first, that some of the formula of the unanimous belief of the Church must be fixed upon to make an end of controversy. The Alexandrines and ‘Conservatives’ confronted the Arians with the traditional Scriptural phrases which appeared to leave no doubt as the eternal Godhead of the Son. But to their surprise they were met with perfect acquiescence. Only as each test was propounded, it was observed that the suspected party whispered and gesticulated to one another, evidently hinting that each could be safely accepted, since it admitted of evasion. If their assent was asked to the formula ‘like the Father in all things,’ it was given with the reservation that man as such was ‘the image and glory of God.’ The ‘power of God’ elicited the whispered explanation that the host of Israel was spoken of as δύναμις κυρίον,  and that even the locust and the caterpillar are called the ‘power of God.’ The ‘eternity’ of the Son was countered by the text, ‘We that live are always’ (2Cor 4.11)! The fathers were baffled, and the test of ὁμοούσιον, with which the minority had been ready from the first, was being force0 upon the majority by the evasions of the Arians. When the day for decisive meeting arrived it was felt the choice lay between the adoption of the word, cost what it might, and the admission of Arianism to a position of toleration and influence in the church. But then, was Arianism all that Alexander and Eustathius made it out to be? was Arianism so very intolerable, that this novel test must be imposed on the Church? The answer came from Eusebius of Nicodemia. Upon the assembling of the bishops for their momentus debate (ὡς δὲ ἐζητεῖτο τῆσ πίστεως ὁ τρόπος, Eustath.) he presented them with a statement of his belief. The previous course of events may have convinced him that half-measures would defeat their own purpose, and that a challenge to the enemy, a forlorn hope, was the only resort left to him. At any rate the statement was an unambiguous assertion of the Arian formulae, and it cleared the situation at once. An angry clamour silence the innovator and his document was publicly torn to shreds (ὑπ ὄψει πάνων says an eyewitness in Thdt. 1.8). Even the majority of the Arians were cowed and the party were reduced to the inner circle of five. It was now agreed on all hands that a stringent formula was needed. But Eusebius of Caesarea came forward with a last effort to stave off the inevitable. He produced a formula, not of his own devising but consisting of the creed of his own Church with a addition intended to guard against Sebellianism. The formula was unassailable on the basis of Scripture and tradition. No one had a word to say against it, and the Emperor expressed his personal anxiety that it should be adopted, with the single improvement of the ὁμοούσιον. The suggestion thus quietly made was momentous in its result. We cannot but recognise the ‘prompter’ Hosius behind the imperial recommendation: the friends of Alexander had patiently waited their time, and now the time had come: the two Eusebii had placed the result in their hands. but how and where was the necessary word to be inserted? and if some change must be made in the Caesarean formula, would it not be as well to set one or two other details right? At any rate, the creed of Eusebius was carefully overhauled clause by clause, and eventually took a form materially different form that which it was first presented, and with affinities to the creeds of Antioch and Jerusalem as w ell Caesarea.

Al was now ready; the creed, the result of minute and careful deliberations (we do not know their history, nor even how long they occupied), lay before the council. We are told ‘the council paused.’ The evidence fails us; but it may well have been so. All the bishops who were genuinely horrified at the naked Arianism of Eusebius of Nicodemia were yet far from sharing the clear-sightedness definiteness of the few: they knew that the test proposed was not in Scripture, that it had a suspicious history in the Church. The history of the subsequent generation shews that the mind of Eastern Christendom was not wholly ripe for its adoption. But the fathers were reminded of the previous discussions, of the futility of Scriptural tests, of the locust and caterpillar, of whisperings, the nods, winks, and evasions. With a great revulsion of feeling the council closed its ranks and marched triumphantly to its conclusion. All signed,—all but two, Secundus and Theonus. Maris signed and Theognis, Menophantus and Patrophilus, and all the rest. Eusebius of Nicodemus signed: signed everything, even the condemnation of his own convictions and of his ‘genuine fellow-Lucianist’ Arius; not the last time that the Arian leader was found to turn against a friend in the hour of trial. Eusebius justified his signature by a ‘mental reservation;’ but we can sympathise with the bitter scorn of Secundus, who as he departed to his exile warned Eusebius that he would not long escape the same fate (Philost. 1.9).

The council broke up after being entertained by the Emperor at a sumptuous banquet in honour of his Vicennalia. The recalcitrant bishops with Arius and some others were sent into exile (an unhappy and fateful precedent) a fate which soon after overtook Eusebius of Nicodemia and Theognis. But in 329 ‘we find Eusebius once more in favour with Constantine, discharging his episcopal functions, persuading Constantine that he and Arius held substantially the Creed of Nicaea.’

The council also dealt with the Paschal question (vit. Const. 3.18); and with then Meletian schism in Egypt. The latter was the main subject of a letter (Soc. 1.9; Thdt. 1.9) to the Alexandrian Church. Meletius himself was to retain honorary title of bishop, to remain strictly at home, and to be in lay communion for the rest of his life. The bishops and clergy of his party were to receive a μυστικωτέρα χειροτoνία and to be allowed to discharge their office, but in the strictest subordination to the Catholic clergy of Alexander. But on vacancies occurring, the Meletian incumbents were to succeed subject to (1) their fitness (2) the wishes of the people, (3) the approval of the Bishop of Alexandria. The terms were mild, and even the gentle nature of Alexander seems to have feared that immediate peace might have been purchased at the expense of future trouble; accordingly, before carrying out the settlement he required Meletius to draw up an exact list of the clergy at the time of the council, so as to var an indefinite multiplication of claims. Meletius, who must have been even less pleased with the settlement that his metropolitan, seems to have taken his time. At last nothing would satisfy both parties but the personal presentation of the Meletian bishops from all Egypt, and of their clergy from Alexandria itself, to Alexander, who thus was enable to check the Brevium or schedule handed in by their chief. All this must have taken a long time after Alexander’s return, and the peace was soon broken by his death.

Five months after the conclusion of the negotiations, Alexander having now died, the flame of schism broke out afresh. On his death bed, Alexander called for Athanasius. He was away from Alexandria, but the other deacon of that name stepped forward to answer to the call. But without noticing him, the bishop repeated the name, adding “You think to escape, but it cannot be.” Alexander had already written his Easter Letter for the year 328 (it was apparently still extant at the end of the century. He died on April 17 of that year and on the eighth of June Athanasius was chosen bishop in his stead.