Monday, March 07, 2005

Lesson 17: The Council at Nicaea

Last time we saw that Constantine’s intrusion into the Donatist controversy was not successful. Today we look at an even more important debate, the Arian heresy. To set the stage, we must review the third century debates on the trinity.

Monarchianism and Sabellianism/Modalism

According to this school, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three roles played by God. The Sabellianists do not deny, for example, the Apostle’s creed, for it describes the three manifestations of God while saying nothing of His inner being. One of the leading Monarchianists was the scandalous Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata.

Tertullian, Novatian, and Origen had a more accurate view of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Nevertheless, there had been no definitive ruling by the Church. Various baptismal creeds, which gave perfectly acceptable descriptions of the Trinity, were accepted, but the different churches disagreed on their interpretation.

Alexander and Arius

In 318, a debate arose between Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, and Arius, one of his presbyters. Arius had been instructed at Antioch by the scholar Lucian, who was martyred in 312. Lucian himself had been a disciple of Paul of Samosata.

The Antioch and Alexandrian schools of theology were often at odds, and suspected one another of heretical tendencies.

Arius accused (probably with merit) his bishop, Alexander, of Sabellianism, that is of “confounding the persons” through his insistence on a strict unity of the Godhead. Arius erred in the other direction, by “dividing the substance”, which is to say that he insisted on a real difference in the essence of the deity of the Father and the Son.

Now there is a bit of a surprise here: Arius is linked, educationally, to Paul of Samosata. And Alexander is bishop of Northern Africa, home of Tertullian, so you might expect their positions to be the reverse of what they actually were.

The real defect in Arius’s teaching stems from his adoption of the Greek, Gnostic-like notion that God the Father is too remote, too removed from men, and too “wholly other” to come into direct relation with them. Arius taught that Christ, the Mediator, was neither God nor man, but something in between. This is, of course, in direct conflict with the orthodox view that Christ is fully God and fully man. It is, perhaps, our general relegation to the category of “a nice curiosity” the doctrine of man created in God’s image that opens the doors to this way of thinking. A full appreciation that man was created in God’s image should make the idea that Christ is fully God and fully man easier to accept.

Arius went further, teaching that Christ was a created being, in the literal sense (unlike Origen who used the idea that Christ was created as more of an analogy.) Christ, according to Arius, was the first creation and he expressed this view in his statement: “There was a (time) when He was not.” His ideas were spread through effective marketing: verses expressing his views, written to be sung to the tune of the day’s pop music, were all the rage among the rank and file believers of Alexandria. It should be noted that Arians were in every way devoted Christians and were especially noted for their evangelical zeal. (In so many ways, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.) But still, it has to be remembered that Arianism is dangerous, and had it taken over Christendom it would have rendered Christianity a short-lived phenomenon, for a Christ who is not fully God would not, in the long term, have sustained the belief in His power to redeem and save.

Bishop Alexander convened a local council in Alexandria in 321. At that council, Arian was removed from the office of presbyter. Arius, however, had a great deal of support. The dispute spread beyond the confines of Egypt and it looked as if Christianity in the eastern empire would suffer a major schism.

In 324, after victory in two major land battles and one naval battle over Licinius, the eastern Augustus, Constantine gained control of the entire empire. Constantine was concerned about the possibility of schism in the east. He sent letters to Alexander and Arius offering himself and his good offices as mediators in the dispute. He had not yet learned his lesson that it was hopeless for well-intentioned laymen to settle theological disputes. When these first efforts proved fruitless, Constantine convened a major council of all Christendom.

The council opened at Nicaea (in northwest Asia Minor) on May 20, 325. Constantine urged the bishops to achieve unity and peace. This was the first ecumenical council of the church—meaning that representatives were invited from the entire Christian world. Over two hundred bishops attended, even some from Persia and Scythia, which were outside the empire. The western part of the empire, however, was underrepresented. The bishop of Rome, Silvester, did not attend (instead he was represented by two presbyters.) Only one bishop came from Gaul. Carthage sent Caecilian, the enemy of the Donatists, and Hosius, Constantine’s spiritual advisor was sent to represent Cordova (Spain).

Leaders of the Arian side included Arius himself, as well as the bishop of Nicomedia (which is close to Nicaea) who was Arius’s student. Alexander was represented by his fellow bishops and especially by his talented deacon Athanasius.

The Historian Eusebius, of whom we have often referred, was also present. He attended in his capacity of bishop of Caesarea. He tried to perform the role as peacemaker. To this end, his put forward the baptismal creed of his own church as a basis of agreement:
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, the Maker of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life, Son only-begotten, Firstborn of all creation, begotten of God the Father before all the ages, through whom also all things were made; who became flesh for our salvation and lived among men, who suffered and rose again the third day, and ascended to the Father, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead;
We also believe in one Holy Spirit.

The repetition of the word “one” preceding the description of each person of the Trinity is probably due to the influence of two passages:
yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. (1 Cor 8:6)

4There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4-6)

Eusebius’s confession, perfectly orthodox, was also perfectly useless. For it gave no answer to the question the council was addressing, namely the similarity or difference in the essence of the Father and the Son. The council did not adopt it. Instead, they formulated a much more anti-Arian confession:
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is to say of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of the same essence of the Father: through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on earth: who, for us men and for our salvation, came down and became flesh and lived among men who suffered and on the third day rose again, ascended into heaven, is coming to judge the living and the dead;
We also believe in one Holy Spirit.
But those who say, “There was a time when He was not,” and “Before He was Begotten He did not exists,” and “He came into being from that which was nonexistent,” or those who maintain that the Son of God is “of another substance or essence,” or “created,”, or “capable of change,” or “subject to alteration,”—those the holy catholic and apostolic Church pronounces accursed. (Let them be anathema.)

The italicized words were those intended to make the creed explicitly anti-Arian. The regrettable practice of adding anathemas to the creeds began here.

It is perhaps worth noting here that the creed given above, which was the product of the council of Nicaea, differs from what we today call the Nicene Creed, although it is substantively similar. The so-called Nicene Creed was sanctioned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Unlike previous creeds, the Creed of Nicaea was doctrinal, not baptismal.

This is the first of many councils where what is true of drawn-up agreements between conflicting secular parties is true for theological agreements as well: both sides can agree, but by applying their own spin they depart just as divided as ever. Many who were sympathetic to Arius accepted the creed, confident that it provided enough wiggle-room for them to continue teaching as they always had. Of the more than two-hundred bishops in attendance, only two refused to sign their agreement. They, along with Arius, were excommunicated.

The phrase “of the same essence” was a difficult one for many to accept, although in the end the overwhelming majority agreed. There were two problems with this phrase. First, it appears nowhere in the Bible. And second, as you may recall from a previous lesson, it was coined (in the preceding century) by the heretical bishop Paul of Samosata to explain his teaching of Christ as an “emanation” from God—like a ray from the sun. Many questioned inclusion of the controversial phrase, but (according to Eusebius) it was suggested by none other than Constantine. The Arians immediately took exception, whereupon the anti-Arians seized upon it as indispensable (easily grasping the political advantage) since no other term is quite as inherently and perfectly anti-Arian.

Other Council Business

In addition to the Arian dispute, the council addressed some other issues, including bringing Syria in line with Alexandria and Rome in calculating the date of Easter. It also attempted to deal with another localized schism—similar to that of the Donatist. This took place in Egypt, and once again the issue was who did or did not maintain fidelity to the faith in the face of persecution. Here the issue was not about who turned over scripture for destruction but on those who succumbed to the edict (304) forbidding the gathering for worship. Bishop Peter of Alexandria fled the country, and when Melitius of Lycolpolis arrived in Alexandria he was scandalized by the absence of worship and pastoral care. Melitius named two new bishops (one of which may have been Arius) and when Peter returned, the minor schism was evident. The council failed to resolve the dispute, and the schism continued for some time.

Other matters that the council addressed included church discipline, the procedure for regional councils, and the consecration and ranking of bishops. Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch were acknowledged as the most important sees, and their bishops were afforded the ancient title “patriarch.” Ten years later, when the capital of the empire was moved to Constantinople, that city’s bishop was afforded the rank of patriarch and eventually took precedence over Alexandria and Antioch. The bishop of Jerusalem was granted the same rank a hundred years later, in 451. (Much mischief would from the introduction of this new, lofty rank.)

As for the date of Easter, the Alexandrian bishop was charged with the responsibility of fixing the date (based on the lunar calendar) each year and then informing the rest of Christendom. So each year the bishop of Alexandria would send a “Festal Letter” to the other bishops announcing that year’s date for Easter. While Athanasius was bishop (he succeeded Alexander in 328 and, apart for numerous banishments, held the position for forty-five years) he used the Festal Letters to discuss other important matters.

In his Festal Letter of 367 he dealt with the canon of scripture. For the Old Testament, he listed twenty-two books. Still, it corresponds almost perfectly with the thirty-nine of the Protestant bible, missing only the book Esther and deviating by appending Lamentations to Jeremiah as well as Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah. The remaining inconsistencies came from counting double books (e.g. Chronicles) as one and in combining all the books of the minor prophets. Athanasius adds that there our other useful but non-canonical books handed down by the fathers, including The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Esther, Judith and Tobais. Of theses, Esther is in the Protestant Bible; all (and Baruch) are in the Roman Catholic Bible.

What is truly noteworthy, however, is that it was the first known enumeration of precisely the twenty-seven books of New Testament that we now accept as canonical.

The Second Ecumenical Council: Constantinople

The Arian controversy was not put to rest by the Council of Nicaea. Although, under the watchful eye of Constantine, the council condemned Arianism, emperors from that point on would differ in there patronage: some anti-Arian, some Arian, and some ambivalent.

In fact, Arius himself was reconciled with Constantine a scant two years after the council excommunicated him, after convincing the Emperor that he accepted the orthodox faith.

However, Athanasius, who (in 328) succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria, was never convinced of Arius’s orthodoxy, and would not permit Arius to return to Alexandria. Constantine would alternate between blaming Athanasius and Arius for the stand-off, but ultimately became exasperated at Athanasius’s steadfastness. As F. F. Bruce put it: “Athanasius stood for principle at any price; Constantine for concord at any price.”

Athanasius had many enemies (and Arius, many friends) an so Athanasius found himself charged with any number of crimes, including illegal consecration, venality, rapacity, sacrilege, assault, and murder! These did not withstand investigation. Still, Constantine concluded that unity was impossible with Athanasius in power (especially after it was reported to Constantine that Athanasius threatened to halt the supply of grain from Egypt to Constantinople.) So in 335 Constantine exiled Athanasius to Germany. However, the bishops who took over Athanasius’s duties also refused communion to Arius. Arius returned to Constantinople and died shortly thereafter. Two years later, in 337, Constantine was baptized and soon died, after which Athanasius returned to Alexandria.

After Constantine, his son Constantius (337-361) was emperor. He tried, without success, to foster unity by adopting an intermediate position. The next emperor was Julian the Apostate (361-363) who tried to exacerbate the dispute as a way of weakening Christianity. Athanasius, for his part, was exiled four more times following his return after the death of Constantine. He essentially spent his entire life battling in favor of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity as expressed by the creed of Nicaea..

At the second ecumenical council, the Council of Constantinople, held in 381, the creed of Nicaea was declared to encapsulate the sole legal religion of the empire. You will recall that Constantine, for all his faults, had even more virtues, among which was a reluctance to commit violence in the name of orthodoxy. (Recall that even the Donatists maintained an episcopate in Rome.) Theodosius, who was eastern emperor at the time of the council at Constantinople was not so tolerant, and those who did not accept the creed of Nicaea found themselves in trouble with the secular authorities as well as the ecclesiastical. This is exactly how imperial patronage can ruin the goodwill of the populace toward the church.

The council at Constantinople condemned (as had several provisional councils) the doctrine of Appolinarianism. Unlike Arianism, which dealt with the relationship between the Father and the Son, Appolinarianism concerned itself with the two natures of Christ. Appollinarius, bishop of Laodicia (and friend of Athanasius), upon reading
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

concluded that the Divine Word took the place in the man Jesus that which is usually occupied by the human mind and/or spirit. So while Arius placed Christ above man and below the Father, Appollinarius accepted that Christ was fully God but that he was not fully human. In other words, Arius denied the divinity of Christ, and Appollinarius denied the incarnation, agreeing only that Christ was “like a man.”

The Council at Constantinople also examined the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It declared Him to be a person, equal in the unity of the Godhead to the Father and the Son, and “proceeding from the Father.”
"When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, (John 15:26)

If the Council of Nicaea is known for affirming the deity of Christ, then the Council of Constantinople plays a similar role for the Holy Spirit ad so, in effect, finalizes the doctrine of the Trinity.

Following the death of Athanasius, the mantle of orthodoxy was passed to “the three great Cappadocians” (Cappadocia being a province in Asia Minor.) They were Basil of Caesarea, his younger brother Gregory of Nazianzus, and his namesake of Gregory of Nyssa. We all are indebted to the diligence of Athanasius and the three Cappadocians.

The Third Ecumenical Council: Ephesus

Fifty years after the Council at Constantinople came the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council at Ephesus in 431. Two heresies were addressed at this council: Pelagianism and Nestorism. We will deal with Pelagianism, which is a heresy not about the doctrine of God but the doctrine of man, and length in a future lesson (no, we haven’t forgotten about Augustine.) For now we confine our remarks to the heresy of Nestorius, who became bishop of Constantinople in 428.

As with many heresies, we find Nestorianism rooted in good intentions “run amok.” Appollinarius before him has erred by denying Christ’s human nature. Nestorius stressed Christ’s manhood to the extent that there were two distinct personalities—one divine and one human—within the same living consciousness. The litmus test of Nestorianism was an interesting one: whether or not you were willing to grant Mary the title theotokos, or “she who gave birth to the child who is God,” or more informally, “Mary, Mother of God.” Nestorius and his followers were unwilling to grant Mary that title, arguing that she bore only the human half of the duality. Now of course (and for no real good reason) many Protestants are loath to use the phrase “Mary mother of God,” because of its association with Roman Catholicism

Nestor was opposed by Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, and the bishop of Rome, Caelestine. Cyril’s opposition was more political than theological: any discredit befalling the “metropolitan” bishop of Constantinople would serve to enhance the importance of his own see. (A metropolitan bishop was the bishop of the capital city of a province and is roughly equivalent to an archbishop.) Cyril may have been alarmed and angered by the fact that Nestorius had been appointed to investigate complaints against Cyril alleging that he treated the faithful harshly.

As is also common, the heretical are highly evangelical, and it was the Nestorians who went east in their zeal, through central Asia and into, by the middle ages, western China.

Nestorius believed he would prevail at Ephesus, confident that those who disagreed with him would show themselves to be Appolinarianists. He underestimated both the influence of Cyril and the emotional response to his derogatory “Mother of God” statements. Nestorius seemed to have a way with words. In arguing his position that the divine and human natures of Christ were separate, he stated that “God was never a two month old baby.” Although the council was not a total victory for Cyril, Nestorianism was condemned, but the price was high, for there resulted great division within the church as a result of the heavy-handiness used by Cyril. One example: Cyril had fostered the incorrect rumor that Nestor did not believe that Mary was the mother of God because he did not believe that Jesus was God.

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