Debating Jesus’ Divinity: Did You Know?

All Aboard?

The Council of Nicaea lives on in the imagination of the Church, both East and West. In this photograph taken in 1925, Russian Orthodox patriarchs prepare to board a train for St. David’s, Wales, to celebrate Nicaea’s 16th centenary. In Rome that same year, Pope Pius XI planned a party of his own in the Vatican basilica, declaring Nicaea a formative event for the Catholic understanding of the nature of Christ.

Protestants too have honored Nicaea in their own way. Anglicans, among others, recite the Nicene Creed in church every Sunday, and many Protestants (perhaps unknowingly) celebrate Nicaea in their hymns. One of the most beloved is Reginald Heber’s “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” which ends with a rousing “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.” Written for Trinity Sunday, the hymn was set to music by John B. Dykes, who named the tune “Nicaea.”

Wipe Out Those Arian Barbarians

Theodosius the Great may have dealt a death blow to Arians in the Roman Empire at the Council of Constantinople (381), but the heresy got a new lease on life among the barbarian Goths. Particularly influential was Theodoric the Great (d. 526), a ruthless military tactician (he murdered his rival) who adopted Arianism as his religion and built numerous Arian churches in Raverina, Italy. When the Byzantine Emperor Justinian recovered Ravenna in 535, he resolved to erase any Arian influence from the city. One example is a mosaic in the Basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo, formerly Theodoric’s palace church, that has obviously been altered—the mosaic likely originally displayed Theodoric with his family or members of his court. Look closely, and you can still see in the far left column a hand that Justinian’s artists apparently missed.

It Didn’t Start with Alexander and Arius

Most historians of the Council of Nicaea begin their story with the fiery exchange of words between Arius and Alexander. But the discussion of the nature of Christ has a much longer history in the church. The great third-century theologian Origen, for example, pressed a bishop named Heraclides to define the relationship of Christ to God the Father. After much careful questioning, Heraclides admitted to believing in two Gods but clarified that “the power is one.” Origen reminded Heraclides that some Christians would “take offense at the statement that there are two Gods. We must express the doctrine carefully to show in what sense they are two, and in what sense the two are one God.”

I Baptize You with the “Creed”

The earliest form of what later became creeds was a set of questions based on Jesus command to baptize disciples in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). As in the following example from the third-century Roman presbyter Hippolytus, the early church asked candidates for baptism three questions following a Trinitarian pattern:

Do you believe in God the Father Almighty? 
Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, 
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, 

Who was crucfied in the days of Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose the third day living from the dead and ascended into the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? 
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?

Take each of these questions and turn them into ‘I believe” statements, and you have what is often called the Old Roman Creed, a text very similar to the later fifth-century Apostles Creed. These early baptismal “creeds” focused on the work of Christ. The Nicene Creed added an emphasis on the person of Christ.

The Nicene Creed Isn’t What You Think It Is

The creed you may recite in church each Sunday is not the original creed as crafted by the Council of Nicaea in 325. It is, in fact, a more developed version of the creed as issued by the Council of Constantinople in 381. The original Nicene creed had fewer clauses and a much simpler theology of the Holy Spirit. It also had an “anathema” or legal condemnation that directly attacked the Arian position. The later council dropped this to make the creed more universally applicable. To compare the two side—by- side, see Which Creed Is Which?.

It’s Not All About Doctrine

The bishops who met at Nicaea discussed other mat ter besides theological ones. They needed to decide on a universal date for Easter, as well as resolving such prob lem as what to do with Christians who had renounced their faith during the persecutions and what sort of mar riag restrictions to place on clergy [see Taking Care of (Church) Business].

It Could Have Been the Ancyran Creed

The Council of Nicaea had been originally planned to meet in the city of Ancyra (modem Ankara in central Turkey), but Constantine moved the location to Nicaea only two or three months before the council’s opening meeting.

No Hometown Referee

The bishop of Nicaea, Theognis, was not a supporter of the creed that the council produced, even though he signed it. He argued that Arius’s views had been misrepresented and rejected the anathema attached to the creed. For this reason, he, along with Eusebius of Nicomedia [see Saints and Heretics], was briefly exiled.

Did Someone Forget to Get a Count?

How many bishops attended the Council of Nicaea? Unfortunately, no original, authoritative list from the council survives. Eusebius of Caesarea says “more than 250” were in attendance, whereas Athanasius claims there were “300 of them, more or less.” Ambrose of Milan would later peg the number at 318, but that number was erroneously inspired by a story in Genesis in which Abraham and his household of 318 rout the forces of four wicked kings (in the same way, the Council exposed the evil errors of Arius).

More reliable are multiple medieval lists in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, and Armenian that reflect the names of that original list with varying accuracy. The earliest manuscripts list between 194 and 220 names, though the more probable figure is closer to 200.

We also know that most bishops were accompanied by fellow clergy, presbyters, and deacons—placing the total number of attendees close to a thousand or more. The sheer size of the assembly had no precedent in church history.

Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Council

Since we have no historical records of the council, a host of apocryphal stories about it have grown unchecked. In one of these, Saint Nicholas of Myra (the original Santa Claus) shows up at the council and becomes so angry with Arius that he stands up, walks across the chamber, and punches him. Another tale has Nicholas proving the doctrine of the Triune God at the council through a miracle—he changes brick into earth, fire, and water before the eyes of the astonished emperor.

The Ceramics Plant Next Door

On their way to the council, visitors to Nicaea would have encountered various businesses either producing or selling pottery. In the 16th century, under the influence of Ottomon Turks, the citizens of Nicaea began to specialize in making elaborate ceramic tiles. Today the town of Iznik (formerly Nicaea) has an international reputation for its square tiles with underglaze designs. CH

By Steven Gertz, D. H. Williams, and John Anthony McGuckin

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #85 in 2005]

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