The Council of Nicaea and Arianism

May 5, 2017

One of the controversies that led to Constantine calling for the Council of Nicaea was the issue about Arius and his doctrine regarding the divinity of Jesus, namely Arianism.1)

So what is Arianism, and how did it change the history of Christianity?

The Divinity of Christ—Was Jesus a Man or God?

By surveying his new domains as the new emperor of both the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, Constantine was appalled to find his new territories split by its own conflict—a ‘theological trifle’.2) The question that divided them was to dominate the whole century and beyond: who is Jesus? The church worshipped him as God, the New Testament called him God; and yet if the scriptures are clear about anything, it was that there was one God, and that worshiping anyone else was blasphemous idolatry. Then how does it add up? How are the two, one?

Teaching the Trinity came to become a tricky balance. So Arius, the elder of a church in Baucalis in Alexandria, Egypt, tried to end the confusion and started a theological world war. He founded a new doctrine in A.D. 319, that contradicted orthodox beliefs about what was to become defined as the Trinity: the relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Arius’ Insistence—Christ is not Equal to God

God is always, the Son in always, The Father and the Son are co-existent. The Son, unbegotten, co-exists with God, and is always begotten: without being begotten, he is begotten: nor does God precede the Son in thought, nor by a single moment.

Figure 1. Letter of Arius to Eusebius, recorded in “Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History”, showing Arius’ view on the relationship between the Father and the Son.3)

Using the words of Apostle Paul in Colossians 1:15, he claimed that since Jesus is ‘the firstborn over all creation’, he is immeasurably greater, more glorious and more godlike than creation as the creator of the rest of the creation, but a creature of God the Father nonetheless. Older than time, he is not as old as God. Furthermore, He did not possess by nature or right any of the divine qualities of immortality, sovereignty, perfect wisdom, goodness and purity, but received enough wisdom and light from the Father to enable him to reveal the Father to mankind. Arius still calls him God, but it reads like an honorary title.

Arius was a skilled propagandist, and he used his power of persuasion to effectively present his teachings in songs and pithy sayings that people could easily remember and relate to. In this way, his teachings spread widely and were sung even by common people like fishermen.

Arius has also been invited to atten and, in the middle of his explanation of his beliefs, he broke into a chant of his teachings that was sung by his followers. It included thr phrase, “The Son is not equal to the Father”, causing consternation and fury among the bishops present.

Figure 2. Arianism’s swift spreading caused great opposition among the bishops. “The Story of Christianity—2000 Years of Faith”.4)

Oppositions Against Arianism

Alexander of Alexandria

Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, convened a council that condemned and exiled Arius. Expelled from Alexandria, Arius travelled to Palestine, canvassing support from other Eastern bishops. At that time, a number of Christian leaders and bishops were convinced by Arius.

Athanasius of Alexandria

Alexander had a young deacon in Alexandria—Athanasius, an arch enemy of Arius. He insisted that Christ is equal to God. Who could recreate humanity but its creator? Who could restore the image of God in us but God? He became what we are in order that we might become what He is.6)

Athanasius discerned the true greatness of the issue, in regard to Christianity – and to Christ. He knew that while Arianism promised much to various minds … yet in fact it was radically incoherent, offered no permanent standing-ground, conceded either too much or too little as to the position of the Saviour, showed an apparent tendency to Ditheism, and therefore an affinity to Paganism, sought to measure the Infinite by human formulas, … He saw therefore, that what was really involved was the belief in a really Divine Redeemer; and that Arianism was working in the interests of non-Christian thought, and of heresy such as of old had been stigmatized as ‘God denying.’

Figure 3. Athanasius had strong disagreements against Arius’ doctrine. “The orations of St. Athanasius against the Arians: according to the Benedictine text; with an account of his life”.7)

Arianism Posing a Worldwide Problem

Arius was rapidly gaining followers, and the traditional belief in the divinity of Christ, which had been handed down from the Apostolic Age, began to be challenged. Thus, Arius’ supporters and those of orthodoxy became fierce opponents. In fact, contemporary reports recorded that blood was frequently spilt. Christianity was sowing the seeds of violent division while Arianism became a widespread problem

While Athanasius denounced the Arians for lowering Christ to the point that his majesty and saving power would be lost, the Arians accused Athanasiud and Marcellus of raising him to the point that his love (and God’s majesty) would be lost. These fears may, indeed, have been one key to the violent mobilizations of the era, since each side perceived the other as a threat to fulfillment of its most deep-rooted and imperative needs..

Figure 4. Disagreements between Arius’ supporters and Christians holding traditional doctrine triggered frequent violence.”When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome”.8)

Call For the Council of Nicaea

When in A.D. 325, the Emperor Constantine ultimately convened the Council of Nicaea in modern day Turkey to settle the issue about Arianism. Over 300 bishops from all over the world congregated to attend the first-ever ecumenical council.

It was a spectacular occasion. Over 300 bishops gathered from across the world from Gual to Persia (though only a handful came from the west), along with countless lesser clergy and laypeople. Many proudly bore disfigurements and injuries from the great persecution, coming to fight for the faith they had suffered for.

Figure 5. Council of Nicaea, depicted in the book “A Short History of Christianity”.9)

In order to dispose of Arius, Constantine commanded the 300 bishops who were present at the council to create an anti-Arian “creed” doctrine to kill off the heresy, such that all of Christianity would follow and obey. This doctrine came to be called the “Creed of Nicaea”, which declared that God and Jesus Christ are of the same substance.

‘Consubstantial’ (homoousios) had been introduced to Christian theology by Gnostics who believed that the heavenly powers shares in the divine fullness. Similarly Origen probably applied it to the Son as a true offspring of the Father, but later bishops had been unhappy about its implications. For many at Nicaea it probably implied that the Son was no less divine that the Father; that the two were equally divine, as an earthly father and son are equally human.

Figure 6. The Creed of Nicaea, recorded in the book “A Lion Handbook—The History of Christianity”.10)

Constantine even threw in a phrase of his own: the Son is consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, or ‘of the same substance’. So, what precisely does that mean? The moderate majority felt uneasy and eventually settled on an ambiguously pleasing term.

But some bishops hesitated at the Council, and many more reached in alarm afterwards, from fear that the Greek word homoousios split the Godhead into two as if it were a material substance.

Figure 7. The Creed of Nicaea, recorded in the book “A Lion Handbook—The History of Christianity”.11)

Constantine ordered all the bishops to sign the creed and threatened to exile anyone who would not sign it, convicting him of heresy. As a result, the Council of Nicaea condemned Arianism and exiled Arius to Illyricum, along with two bishops from Lybia—Theonas and Secundus—who refused to sign the creed.

The Effects of the Creed of Nicaea

Subsequently, the Council accepted the Creed of Nicaea as legitimate. This Nicene “Trinitarianism” was adopted as a basic formula of belief by many denominations of Christianity, this includes those that appeared after the Protestant Reformation. However, there are still some Christian groups that deny the divinity of Christ, insisting that God the Father and God the Son are not of the same essence. They can be called “modern-day Arians”.12)

The Limitations of the Creed of Nicaea

It is hard to say that the Creed of Nicaea is a teaching evoked by the Holy Spirit since it was agreed upon on the basis of coercing by Emperor Constantine. In addition, the creed does not address the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, but only the Father and the Son.

Without knowing exactly the identity of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, there had been many deviations of viewpoint regarding Christ’s divinity. Consequently, this has resulted in causing people to denounce the deity of Christ by interpreting the Bible in their own ways.