Council of Nicaea - Encyclopedia




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COUNCIL OF. NICAEA The Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) is an event of the highest importance in the history of Christianity. Its convocation and its course illustrate the radical revolution which the position of this religion, within the confines of the Roman empire, had undergone in consequence of the Edict of Milan. Further, it was the first oecumenical council, and this fact invested it with a peculiar halo in the eyes of subsequent ages; while among its resolutions may be found. a series of decisions which acquired a lasting significance for the Christian. Church.


This applies more especially to the reception of the doctrine of the Trinity; for though, immediately after the close of the synod, it was exposed to a powerful opposition, it gained the day, and, in the form which it received at Nicaea and at the council of Constantinople (381), still enjoys official validity in the principal churches of Christendom. Finally, the council marks an epoch in the history of the conception of the Christian religion, in that it was the first attempt to fix the criteria of Christian orthodoxy by means of definitely formulated pronouncements on the content of Christian belief - the acceptance of these criteria being made a sine qua non of membership of the Church.


Moreover, it admitted the principle that the state might employ the secular arm to bring the Christian subjects of the Roman world-empire under the newly codified faith. Thus the Nicene Council is an important stage in the development of the state-church, though the completion of that edifice was delayed till the reign of Theodosius the Great. The relation of the emperor Constantine to the assembly was in itself a step in the direction of that independent treatment of ecclesiastical affairs, which, in the following centuries, created the peculiar type of the Byzantine state-church.

From his accession Constantine had shown himself the friend of the Christians; and, when his victory over Licinius (A.D. 323) gave him undisputed possession of the crown, he adhered to this religious policy, distinguishing and fortifying the Christian cause by gratuities and grants of privilege. This propitiatory attitude originated in the fact that he recognized Christianity - which had successfully braved so many persecutions - as the most vital and vigorous of religions, and as the power of the future.


Consequently he directed his energies toward the establishment of a positive relationship between it and the Roman state. But the Church could only maintain its great value for the politician by remaining the same compact organism which it had proved itself to be under the stormy reign of Diocletian. Scarcely, however, did it find itself in the enjoyment of external peace, when violent feuds broke out in its midst, whose extent, and the virulence with which they were waged, threatened to dismember the whole religious body. Donatism in the West was followed by the Arian struggle in the East. The former movement had been successfully arrested, though it survived in North Africa till the 5th century.


The conflict kindled by the Alexandrian presbyter Arius assumed greater dimensions and a more formidable character. Constantine at first attempted to restore quiet in Alexandria by transmission of an epistle by Bishop Hosius of Cordova, but his admonitions were fruitless. Accordingly, since other debatable points were at issue, he had recourse to an institution previously evolved by the Christian Church - the convocation of a synod to pronounce on burning questions - qualifying it, however, to correspond with the altered circumstances. He convened a council, designed to represent the whole Church of the empire, at Nicaea in Bithynia, a town situated no great way from the imperial summer-residence of Nicomedia and within easy reach by sea of the Oriental bishops.


Among the various estimates of the number of delegates, the statement of Athanasius, who speaks of 318 members, has dominated the tradition. In consequence of the vast distances, the West was but weakly represented. From Spain, Hosius - the above-mentioned bishop of Cordova - made his appearance; from Gaul, Nicasius of Dijon; from Dalmatia, Domnus of Stridon; from Italy, Marcus of Calabria with two presbyters as deputies of the Roman bishop Silvester; and from North Africa, Caecilian of Carthage. Thus an immense majority of the synod hailed from the East. The bishops of the three most important metropolises were present - Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch and Macarius of Jerusalem - while a. prominent role was also played by Eusebius, bishop of the imperial city Nicomedia, and his erudite namesake, Eusebius of Caesarea.


Of the other prelates not a few had distinguished themselves as confessors in the later persecution, and still bore the honourable traces of their sufferings. Since the bishops were accompanied by priests, Nicaea witnessed an array of clerics such as had never before been mustered in a single place. Among the attendant clergy, the still youthful deacon Athanasius, destined to succeed Alexander in the see of Alexandria, was prominent as the most powerful antagonist of Arianism (see Athanasius).


The synod met in the imperial palace from the 20th of May to the 25th of July. What order of procedure obtained, and in whom the presidency was vested, are problems which admit of no certain solution: the one indisputable fact is that Constantine - who, at his appearance, was accorded a ceremonious reception, and himself delivered an address on the occasion - exercised a decided influence on the discussions.


The deliberations on the Arian question passed through several distinct stages before the final condemnation of Arius and his doctrines was reached. A clearly defined standpoint with regard to this problem - the relationship of Christ to God - was held only by the attenuated group of Arians and a far from numerous section of delegates, who adhered with unshaken conviction to the Alexandrian view. The bulk of the members occupied a position between these two extremes. They rejected the formulae of Arius, and declined to accept those of his opponents; that is to say, they were merely competent to establish negations, but lacked the capacity, as yet, to give their attitude of compromise a positive expression. In the main they perpetuated the line of Origen.


That the majority of the council should have adopted this neutral tendency is easily intelligible when we consider the state of theology at that period. True, at Nicaea this majority eventually acquiesced in the ruling of the Alexandrians; yet this result was due, not to internal conviction, but partly to indifference, partly to the pressure of the imperial will - a fact which is mainly demonstrated by the subsequent history of the Arian conflicts.


For if the Nicaean synod had arrived at its final decision by the conscientious agreement of all. non-Arians, then the confession of faith there formulated might indeed have evoked the continued antagonism of the Arians, but must necessarily have been championed by all else. This, however, was not the case; in fact, the creed was assailed by those very bodies which had composed the laissez-faire centre at Nicaea; and we are compelled to the conclusion that, in this point, the voting was no criterion of the inward convictions of the council.


In the synod, an Arian confession of faith was first brought forward and read; but it aroused such a storm of indignation that obviously, in the interests of a restoration of ecclesiastical peace, there could be no question of its acceptance. On this, Eusebius of Caesarea submitted the baptismal creed of his community; and this met with the imperial approval. Since the creed dated from a period anterior to the outbreak of the Arian struggle, its reception would have been equivalent to a declaration on the part of the council that it declined to define its position with reference to the controversy of the hour.


That the greater number of delegates were not disinclined to adopt this subterfuge, so congenial to their standpoint, and to shelve the actual solution of the whole problems by recognition of this or some similar neutral formula, is extremely probable. But the emperor manifestly saw that, if the difficulties were eluded in any such mode, it was inevitable from the very nature of the case, that they should rise again in an accentuated form, and that consequently no pacification could be expected from this policy. Since the Eastern Church subscribed to the Alexandrian solution of the question, he drew the natural deduction and concluded that he had here a genuine presentment of the feeling of the Church, which, if it received official sanction, might be justly expected to restore peace to the Christian community.


But, in pronouncing for this view, he was careful to dissociate himself from the formulation of a new confession: for it was imperative to avoid even an apparent innovation in the articles of faith. Accordingly he proposed that the Caesarean creed should be modified by the insertion of the Alexandrian passwords - as if for the purpose of more accurate definition - and by the deletion of certain portions. That he appreciated the import of these alterations, or realized that this revision was virtually the proclamation of a new doctrine, is scarcely probable.


The creed thus evolved - the expression oµoounLos is of Western origin - was finally signed by all the deputies with the exception of the bishops Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais: even the Arians had submitted. The two recalcitrant prelates, with the presbyter Arius, were banished to Illyria; Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea were also driven into exile, and at the same time the works of Arius were condemned to be burned under pain of death.

But this artificial unity was no ratification of peace: in fact, it paved the way for a struggle which convulsed the whole empire. For it was the proclamation of the Nicene Creed that first opened the eyes of many bishops to the significance of the problem there treated; and its explanation led the Church to force herself, by the arduous path of theological work, into compliance with those principles, enunciated at Nicaea, to which, in the year 325, she had pledged herself without genuine assent.

In addition to the Arian impasse, there was the schism of Bishop Meletius of Lycopolis in the Thebaid, whose settlement Constantine had added to the programme of the council. He and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, had come into conflict over the treatment of the "backsliders" (lapsi) in the Diocletian persecution; and their strife acquired additional bitterness from the fact that it was extended to cover the prerogatives of the Alexandrian bishopric. Peter had composed a treatise advocating moderate principles and censuring the courtship of martyrdom for its own sake, then gone so far as to save himself by flight. Meletius, on the other hand, represented the most rigorous school, and allowed himself high-handed infringements of the law. When this had resulted in his deposition by a synod, a faction still adhered to him, and the Meletians became a schismatic community; and such they remained even after the death of Peter (3n), who demonstrated by his martyrdom that his counsels of moderation were not prompted by cowardice.


This Meletian schism made for disorder in the ecclesiastical life of Egypt all the more because its followers sided with Arius. The Nicene Council broke the strength of the movement by great concessions to the Meletian bishops, and, at the same time, expressly recognized the supreme rights of the Alexandrian see over Egypt, Libya and the Pentapolis. Since, in the resolution dealing with this point (canon vi.), reference was made to the analogous and undisputed suzerainty of the Roman see - over xIx. 2 I the ten suburbican provinces, attached to the diocese of Rome and including middle and lower Italy, with the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia - this decision enshrines an important piece of evidence for the history of the papacy.


On this opportunity, his ancient privileges were restored to the bishop of Jerusalem, who, in consequence of the political history of the Holy Land, had been subordinated to the metropolitan of Caesarea (canon vii.). The path was smoothed for the readmittance of the Novatians (Cathari) into the church, by recognizing, in this case, their clergy, with the bare stipulation that the laying-on of hands should follow their written promise to be faithful to the doctrine of the Catholic Church (canon viii.). -, With regard to the much-debated question as to the termination of the Easter festival, the synod committed itself so far as to pronounce in favour of the Alexandrian cycle - a settlement which entailed such important results in practical life that it was communicated to the Christian churches by Constantine in a circular letter.


The problem, whether a baptism, performed by heretics in the name of Christ or the Trinity, should rank as a baptism or. not, had given rise to an animated controversy between the Roman bishop Stephen, who answered in the affirmative, and Cyprian of Carthage, who gave an equally decided negative. The council followed the Roman practice, merely declaring the nullity of baptisms imparted by the adherents of Paul of Samosata (canon xix.). An important provision, in point of ecclesiastical law, was that the chirotony of a bishop required the presence of at least three other bishops of his province, while the confirmation of the choice remained at the disposal of the metropolitan (canon iv.).


A further regulation was that two provincial synods should be held annually (canon v.); but a law enacting the celibacy of the clergy was rejected, at Nicaea, since Paphnutius, an aged bishop of Egypt who had been tested in persecution, warned his colleagues against the danger of imposing too arduous a yoke upon the priesthood, and defended the sanctity of marriage.


As Constantine had convened the synod, so he determined its conclusion. A brilliant banquet in the imperial palace - of which Eusebius of Caesarea gives an enthusiastic account - marked its close, after which the bishops were granted their return. The admonitions to peace with which he dismissed them proved unavailing for the reasons indicated above: but the reputation of the first oecumenical council suffered no abatement in consequence.


See F. v. Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, i. (ed. 2, Freiburg, 1873), pp. 282 -443. A catalogue of the special literature will be found in Loofs's article "Arianismus" in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopeidie f. protestantische Theologie, i. (ed. 3, Leipzig, 1897); also Bernoulli, "Nicaenisches Konzil," ib., vol. xiv. (1904), pp. 9 sqq. (C. M.)

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