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Catholic Ecumenical Councils
Lateran I •
Constance • Basel •
- Council name - First Council of Nicaea
- Council date - AD 325
- Accepted by - Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Assyrian Church of the East, Anglicanism, Lutheranism
- Previous - none
- Next - First Council of Constantinople
- Convoked by - Emperor Constantine I
- Presided by - Bishop Alexander of Alexandria
- Attendance - 250-318 (only 5 from Western Church)
- Topics - Arianism, celebration of Passover, now called Easter, Miletian schism, validity of baptism by heretics, lapsed Christians
- Documents - Original Nicene Creed and about 20 decrees
The purpose of the council (also called a synod) was to resolve disagreements in the Church of Alexandria over the nature of Jesus in relationship to the Father: in particular whether Jesus was of the same or of similar substance as God the Father. St. Alexander of Alexandria took the first position; the popular presbyter Arius, from whom the term Arian controversy comes, took the second. The council decided against the Arians. Another result of the council was an agreement on the date of the Christian Passover, now called Easter, the most important feast of the Church's life. The council decided in favour of celebrating Passover on the first Sunday after the spring equinox, independently of the Bible's Hebrew Calendar (see also Quartodecimanism), and authorized the Bishop of Alexandria (presumably using the Alexandrian calendar) to announce annually the exact date to his fellow bishops.
The Council of Nicaea was historically significant because it was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. "It was the first occasion for the development of technical Christology". Further, "Constantine in convoking and presiding over the council signaled a measure of imperial control over the church." With the creation of the Nicene Creed, a precedent was established for subsequent general councils to create a statement of belief and canons which was intended to become orthodox for all Christians. It would serve to unify the Church and provide a clear guideline over disputed matters on what it meant to be a practicing Christian, a momentous event in the history of the Church and subsequent history of Europe.
The first Council of Nicaea was the first general gathering of bishops from the whole Church, to resolve differences of faith that had arisen and to define clearly the faith received from the apostles. In this council, Church and State acted together. Earlier councils, such as the Council of Jerusalem, had resolved important questions, to be sure. Now, the Council of Nicaea formulated a definitive statement against a growing heresy, a profession of faith intended to clarify and defend the heritage of true belief. This council had a worldwide effect, for the whole Church.
In Arianism lay a great obstacle to concord of the Church and the unity of the Byzantine Empire. Accordingly, for the summer of AD 325, the bishops of all provinces were summoned to Nicaea in Bithynia, a place easily accessible to the majority of the bishops, especially those of Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and Thrace.
Constantine had invited all 1800 bishops of the Christian church (about 1000 in the east and 800 in the west).
The number of participating bishops cannot be accurately stated: Eusebius of Caesarea (Life of Constantine 3.8) counted 250, Athanasius of Alexandria (Ad Afros Epistola Synodica 2) counted 318, Eustathius of Antioch (Theodoret H.E. 1.7) counted 270, all three were present at the council. Later, Socrates Scholasticus (H.E. 1.8) recorded more than 300, Evagrius (H.E. 3.31), Hilarius (Contra Constantium), Jerome (Chronicon) and Rufinus recorded 318.
The participating bishops were given free travel to and from their episcopal sees to the council, as well as lodging. These bishops did not travel alone; each one had permission to bring with him two presbyters and three deacons, so the total number of attendees would have been above 1500. Eusebius speaks of an almost innumerable host of accompanying priests, deacons, and acolytes.
A special prominence was also attached to this council because the persecution of Christians had just ended with the February 313 Edict of Milan by Constantine and Licinius.
As a matter of record, the Eastern bishops formed the great majority. Of these, the first rank was held by the three archbishops: Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch, and Macarius of Jerusalem. Many of the assembled fathers, e.g,. Paphnutius of Thebes, Potamon of Heraclea and Paul of Neocaesarea, had stood forth as witnesses of the faith, and came to the council with the marks of persecution on their faces. Other remarkable attendees were Eusebius of Nicomedia, Eusebius of Caesarea, Nicholas of Myra, Aristakes of Armenia, Jacob of Nisibis, a former hermit and Spyridion of Trimythous who even while a bishop made his living as a shepherd. From foreign places there came a Persian bishop John, a Gothic bishop Theophilus and Stratophilus, bishop of Pitiunt in Egrisi (located at the border of modern-day Russia and Abkhazia outside of the Byzantine empire).
The Latin-speaking provinces sent at least five representatives: Marcus of Calabria from Italy, Cecilian of Carthage from Africa, Hosius of Córdoba from Hispania, Nicasius of Dijon from Gaul, and Domnus of Stridon from the province of the Danube.
Among the assistants were Athanasius of Alexandria, a young deacon and companion of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, who distinguished himself as the "most vigorous fighter against the Arians," and similarly Alexander of Constantinople, then a presbyter, as representative of his aged bishop.
Agenda and procedure
The agenda of the synod were:
- The Arian question,
- The celebration of Passover, Now Called Easter,
- The Meletian schism,
- The Father and Son one in purpose or in person
- The baptism of heretics, and
- The status of the lapsed in the persecution under Licinius.
The council was formally opened May 20, in the central structure of the imperial palace, with preliminary discussions on the Arian question. In these discussions, some dominant figures were Arius, with some adherents, especially Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, Bishop Theognis of Nice, and Bishop Maris of Chalcedon. Hosius of Cordova may well have been the chairman of the deliberations. After being in session for an entire month, the council promulgated on June 19 the original Nicene Creed. This profession of faith was adopted by the overwhelming majority of bishops present. The emperor Constantine was present as an observer.
From the beginning of the gathering, the Arians and the orthodox were vocal in their opposition. The Arians were led by Eusebius of Nicomedia.
Eusebius of Caesarea called to mind the baptismal creed (symbol) of his own diocese at Caesarea in Palestine, as a form of reconciliation. The majority of the bishops agreed with him. For some time, scholars thought that the original Nicene Creed was based on this statement of Eusebius. Today, most scholars think that this Creed is derived from the baptismal creed of Jerusalem, as Hans Lietzmann proposed. Another possibility is the Apostle's Creed.
In any case, as the council went on, the orthodox bishops won approval of every one of their proposals. It is evident that the convinced Arians were very much a minority. It is also evident that the bishops expressed a firm dogmatic consensus, in direct opposition to the central tenets of Arianism.
The Nicene Creed (symbol)
By and large, many creeds were acceptable to the members of the council. From his perspective, even Arius could cite such a creed.
For Bishop Alexander and others, however, greater clarity was required. Some distinctive elements in the Nicene Creed, perhaps from the hand of Hosius of Cordova, were added.
- Jesus Christ is described as "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God."
- Jesus Christ is said to be "begotten, not made."
- Finally, he is said to be "from the substance of the Father." No follower of Arius could say these words as a profession of faith.
Of the third article only the words "and in the Holy Spirit" were left; the original Nicene Creed ended with these words. Then followed immediately the canons of the council. So, instead of a more neutral baptismal creed, as proposed by Eusebius, the council promulgated the uncompromising anti-Arian Nicene Creed. From earliest times, various creeds served as a means of identification for Christians, as a means of inclusion and recognition, especially at baptism. In Rome, for example, the Apostles' Creed was popular, especially for use in Lent and the Easter season. Now, one specific creed was used to define the Church's faith clearly, to include those who professed it, and to exclude those who did not.
The text of this profession of faith is preserved in a letter of Eusebius to his congregation, in Athanasius, and elsewhere. Although the most vocal anti-Arians, the Homoousians (from the Koine Greek word translated as "of same substance" which was condemned at the Council of Antioch in 264-268), were in the minority, the Creed was accepted by the council as an expression of the bishops' common faith and the ancient faith of the whole Church.
Bishop Hosius of Cordova, one of the firm Homoousians, may well have helped bring the council to consensus. At the time of the council, he was the confidant of the emperor in all Church matters. Hosius stands at the head of the lists of bishops, and Athanasius ascribes to him the actual formulation of the creed. Great leaders such as Eustathius of Antioch, Alexander of Alexandria, Athanasius, and Marcellus of Ancyra all belonged to the anti-Arian party. So, the Homoousians gained the final victory.
In spite of his sympathy for Arius, Eusebius of Caesarea accepted the decisions of the council, accepting the entire creed. The number of bishops in opposition was small. After a month of discussion, there were only two adherents of Arius who remained steadfast, Theonas of Marmarica in Libya, and Secundus of Ptolemais. Of three others on whom Arius might have counted, Maris of Chalcedon finally agreed to the whole creed. Similarly, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nice also agreed, except for the explicitly anti-Arian statements.
Now, the emperor actually carried out his previous threat; everybody who refused to endorse the Creed had to face exile from the empire. Arius, Theonas, Secundus, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Theognis were excommunicated. The works of Arius were ordered to be confiscated and consigned to the flames, although there is no evidence that this occurred. Nevertheless, the controversy, already festering, continued, in various parts of the empire.
Passover (Easter) controversy
After the June 19 settlement of the most important topic, the question of the date of the Christian Passover, now called Easter, was brought up. This feast is linked to the Jewish Passover, as crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus occurred during that festival. By the year 300, most Churches had adopted the Western style of celebrating the feast on the Sunday after the Passover, placing the emphasis on the resurrection, which occurred on a Sunday. Others however celebrated the feast on the 14th of the Jewish month Nisan, the date of the crucifixion according to the Bible's Hebrew calendar. Hence this group was called Quartodecimans. The Eastern Churches of Syria, Cilicia, and Mesopotamia determined the date of Christian Passover in relation to the 14th day of Nisan, in the Bible's Hebrew calendar. Alexandria and Rome, however, followed a different calculation, attributed to Pope Soter, so that Christian Passover would never coincide with the Jewish observance and decided in favour of celebrating on the first Sunday after the spring equinox, independently of the Bible's Hebrew calendar.
According to Duchesne (Revue des questions historiques, xxviii. 37), who founds his conclusions:
- on the conciliar letter to the Alexandrians preserved in Theodoret, Hist. eccl., I., ix. 12; Socrates, Hist. eccl., I., ix. 12;
- on the circular letter of Constantine to the bishops after the council, Eusebius, Vita Constantine, III., xviii. 19; Theodoret, Hist. eccl., I., x. 3 sqq.;
- on Athanasius, De Synodo, v.; Epist. ad Afros, ii.;
Epiphanius of Salamis wrote in the mid-4th Century, "...the emperor...convened a council of 318 bishops...in the city of Nicea...They passed certain ecclesiastical canons at the council besides, and at the same time decreed in regard to the Passover that there must be one unanimous concord on the celebration of God's holy and supremely excellent day. For it was variously observed by people..." (Epiphanius. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Books II and III (Sects 47-80), De Fide). Section VI, Verses 1,1 and 1,3. Translated by Frank Williams. EJ Brill, New York, 1994, pp.471-472).
The council assumed the task of regulating these differences, in part because some dioceses were determined not to have Christian Passover correspond with the Jewish calendar. Schaff's History of the Christian Church 3.79 states: "The feast of the resurrection was thenceforth required to be celebrated everywhere on a Sunday, and never on the day of the Jewish passover, but always after the fourteenth of Nisan, on the Sunday after the first vernal full moon. The leading motive for this regulation was opposition to Judaism, which had dishonored the passover by the crucifixion of the Lord." Eusebius' Life of Constantine, Book 3 chapter 18 records Constantine as writing: "... it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul. ... Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way." Theodoret's Ecclesiastical History 1.9 records The Epistle of the Emperor Constantine, concerning the matters transacted at the Council, addressed to those Bishops who were not present: "It was, in the first place, declared improper to follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this holy festival, because, their hands having been stained with crime, the minds of these wretched men are necessarily blinded. ... Let us, then, have nothing in common with the Jews, who are our adversaries. ... avoiding all contact with that evil way. ... who, after having compassed the death of the Lord, being out of their minds, are guided not by sound reason, but by an unrestrained passion, wherever their innate madness carries them. ... a people so utterly depraved. ... Therefore, this irregularity must be corrected, in order that we may no more have any thing in common with those parricides and the murderers of our Lord. ... no single point in common with the perjury of the Jews."
The Council of Nicaea, however, did not declare the Alexandrian or Roman calculations as normative. Instead, the council gave the Bishop of Alexandria the privilege of announcing annually the date of Christian Passover to the Roman curia. Although the synod undertook the regulation of the dating of Christian Passover, it contented itself with communicating its decision to the different dioceses, instead of establishing a canon. In the future, there would be conflict over this very matter. See also Computus.
Then the bishops began proceedings against the Meletian schism. Its founder was suspended from his office but not degraded or exiled.
Finally, the council promulgated twenty new church laws, called canons, (though the exact number is subject to debate, see ), that is, unchanging rules of discipline. The twenty as listed in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers are as follows:
- 1. prohibition of self-castration; (see Origen)
- 2. establishment of a minimum term for catechism;
- 3. prohibition of the presence in the house of a cleric of a younger woman who might bring him under suspicion;
- 4. ordination of a bishop in the presence of at least three provincial bishops and confirmation by the metropolitan;
- 5. provision for two provincial synods to be held annually;
- 6. exceptional authority acknowledged for the bishops of Alexandria and Rome, for their respective regions;
- 7. recognition of the honorary rights of the see of Jerusalem;
- 8. provision for agreement with the Novatians;
- 9–14. provision for mild procedure against the lapsed during the persecution under Licinius;
- 15–16. prohibition of the removal of priests;
- 17. prohibition of usury among the clergy;
- 18. precedence of bishops and presbyters before deacons in receiving Holy Communion, the Eucharist;
- 19. declaration of the invalidity of baptism by heretics;
- 20. prohibition of kneeling during the liturgy, on Sundays and in the fifty days of Eastertide ["the pentecost"]. Standing was the normative posture for prayer at this time, as it still is among the Eastern Orthodox. (In time, Western Christianity adopted the term Pentecost to refer to the last Sunday of Eastertide, the fiftieth day.) For the exact text of the prohibition of kneeling, in Greek and in English translation, see canon 20 of the acts of the council.
On July 25, 325, in conclusion, the fathers of the council celebrated the emperor's twentieth anniversary. In his valedictory address, Constantine again informed his hearers how averse he was to dogmatic controversy; he wanted the Church to live in harmony and peace. In a circular letter, he announced the accomplished unity of practice by the whole Church in the date of the celebration of Christian Passover (now called Easter).
The synod was not decisive, however. Arius as well as the friends punished with him and the Meletians regained nearly all rights they had lost, moreover Arianism continued to spread and to cause division in the Church, during the remainder of the fourth century.
- Richard Kieckhefer (1989). "Papacy". Dictionary of the Middle Ages. ISBN 0684182750
- ecumenical, from Koine Greek oikoumenikos, literally meaning worldwide but generally assumed to be limited to the Roman Empire as in Augustus' claim to be ruler of the oikoumene/world; the earliest extant uses of the term for a council are Eusebius' Life of Constantine 3.6 around 338 "σύνοδον οἰκουμενικὴν συνεκρότει" (he convoked an Ecumenical council), Athanasius' Ad Afros Epistola Synodica in 369, and the Letter in 382 to Pope Damasus I and the Latin bishops from the First Council of Constantinople
- Ecumenical council
- First Council of Constantinople
- Second Council of Nicaea
- Constantinian shift
- Nicene Creed
- Primary sources:
- Eusebius of Caesarea, Letter of Eusebius of Cæsarea to the people of his Diocese Account of the Council of Nicea; The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine Book 3, Chapters VI-XXI treat the First Council of Nicaea.
- Athanasius of Alexandria, Defence of the Nicene Definition; Ad Afros Epistola Synodica
- Eustathius of Antioch, Letter recorded in Theodoret H.E. 1.7
- Secondary sources:
- Socrates, Of the Synod which was held at Nicæa in Bithynia, and the Creed there put forth Book 1 Chapter 8 of his Ecclesiastical History, 5th century source.
- Sozomen, Of the Council convened at Nicæa on Account of Arius Book 1 Chapter 17 of his Ecclesiastical History, a 5th century source.
- Theodoret, General Council of Nicæa Book 1 Chapter 6 of his Ecclesiastical History; The Epistle of the Emperor Constantine, concerning the matters transacted at the Council, addressed to those Bishops who were not present Book 1 Chapter 9 of his Ecclesiastical History, a 5th century source;
- Schaff, Philip The first ecumenical council includes creed and canons of the council.
- Rusch, William G. "The Trinitarian Controversy", Sources of Christian Thought Series, ISBN 0800614100
- Kelly, J.N.D., The Nicene Crisis in Early Christian Doctrines, 1978, ISBN 006064334X
- Kelly, J.N.D., The Creed of Nicea in Early Christian Creeds, 1982, ISBN 058249219X
- John Henry Newman. The Ecumenical Council of Nicæa in the Reign of Constantine from Arians of the Fourth Century, 1871
- Tanner S.J., Norman P., "The Councils of the Church: A Short History", 2001, ISBN 0-8245-1904-3
- Catholic Encyclopedia: First Council of Nicaea
- The Road to Nicaea a descriptive overview of the events of the Council, by John Anthony McGuckin.
- The Council of Nicaea and the Bible. This article deals with the legend that the canon of the bible was discussed at the council.
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