Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


In the last article, when we began to discuss Arius and the heresy he attempted to introduce into the church, we brought the story up to the Council of Nicea.

You will remember that Arianism was a denial of the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Arius claimed that, although Christ was in a certain sense divine and existed before the worlds were formed, yet He was created and, as he said, “there was a time when he was not.”

The issue, while concentrating on the divinity of our Lord, involved the entire doctrine of the holy Trinity: Was Christ divine? Was the Holy Spirit divine? How could three persons be divine and yet God be one? What was the relationship between the three persons?

The battle was long and furious and threatened to tear the church to pieces.

The doctrines were fundamental to the Christian faith, for the doctrines of God and Christ are the foundations on which is built the whole body of Christian truth. These doctrines the devil sought first to destroy through the heresy of Arius; these doctrines, even through the scurrilous attacks of Satan, were the first to be established officially in the New Testament church.

The Calling of the Council of Nicea

Constantine became ruler in the West in 312, and over the entire empire in 323. He saw in Christianity a hope for an empire which was old and worn out, on the verge of collapse. But the unity of Christianity was the key to his use of Christianity for his own political purposes. And now Christianity itself was torn apart. What a disappointment these squabbling Christians were to the emperor!

He saw a ray of hope in calling a council of the entire church to discuss and settle an issue which seemed to him to be much ado about nothing, or as Constantine himself put it, a debate over unanswerable and unsolvable riddles.

He summoned the bishops of the church together to a small town called Nicea, in the northwest part of Asia Minor, about 20 miles from Nicomedia, the imperial seat. The bishops were instructed each to take two presbyters along and three servants. The expenses were all to be paid for out of the imperial treasury, and transportation would be provided by the emperor himself, so that the bishops could come from every part of the Mediterranean world.

Three hundred and eighteen bishops in all came together—which was about one-third of the total number of bishops in the church. If one would count all the officebearers, the total of delegates was between 1500 and 2000. Most of them were from the Eastern or Greek Church. The Western or Latin Church sent only seven delegates—although their influence was far greater than their number.

The council met from around June 14 to July 25, 325.

Many bishops took the opportunity to bring to the emperor’s attention their own personal grievances and problems, but the emperor was not interested. He burned all their papers in one huge bonfire, and exhorted them instead to unity. The attention of the bishops was then concentrated on the matter at hand.

The Council Meeting

One delegate described the opening ceremonies in this way:

After all the bishops had entered the central building of the royal palace, on the sides of which very many seats were prepared, each took his place with becoming modesty, and silently awaited the arrival of the emperor. The court officers entered one after another, though only such as professed faith in Christ. The moment the approach of the emperor was announced by a given signal, they all rose from their seats, and the emperor appeared like a heavenly messenger of God, covered with gold and gems, a glorious presence, very tall and slender, full of beauty, strength, and majesty. With this external adornment he united the spiritual ornament of the fear of God, modesty, and humility, which could be seen in his downcast eyes, his blushing face, the motion of his body, and his walk. When he reached the golden throne prepared for him, he stopped, and sat not down till the bishops gave him the sign. And after him they all resumed their seats.

Among the many delegates were some worthy enough to have our attention called to them. Perhaps the most notable of all, apart from the emperor, was Alexander from Alexandria, the bishop who had first opposed Arius. And with him came his deacon, a man by the name of Athanasius. Although at this time only a deacon and a young man, his careful arguments on the floor of the council had more influence on the formation of the creed than any other present. Athanasius, in the years following the council, became the man whose name was synonymous with Nicean orthodoxy.

Some delegates present still bore in their bodies the marks of the cruel persecution which the church endured under Diocletian. Polamon had had his right eye dug out. Paul of Neo-Caesarea had been tortured with red hot irons and had been crippled in both hands.

Some were ascetics. Jacob of Nisibis had spent years and years living in forests and caves, eating roots and leaves like a wild animal. Spyridion, though ordained as a bishop, had never abandoned the life of a simple shepherd — even while attending to preaching and the needs of his congregation.

At the outset of the council, the delegates were divided into three groups. The orthodox group, led by Alexander and Athanasius, though numbering less than a dozen was undoubtedly the most able. The Arians, who were devoted to their leader and led by him at the council, numbered only about twenty. The largest party was the middle party, itself split into numerous factions, but which was finally persuaded to support the orthodox position.

After preliminary maneuverings, a creed was presented for consideration which represented the Arian position and was designed to get the assembly to approve the heresy of Arius. This creed was rejected with raucous shouts and torn to pieces. (Assemblies were somewhat more volatile in those days than they are now.)

This paved the way for the presentation of another creed, which was in all respects sound and which most of the delegates were willing to sign. The difficulty with it was that it lacked one word which the orthodox wanted incorporated. The word, transliterated from the Greek, is homo-ousion, and means “of the same essence.” It was an important word and it became yet more important in the years after Nicea. It expresses the idea that the Lord Jesus Christ is “of the same essence” as the Father; that is, that He and the Father are one in essence.

The word might have been excluded from the creed altogether if it had not been for the fact that Arius expressed himself as willing to sign the creed without the word. This readiness of Arius to sign the creed made the orthodox suspicious and they fought long and hard to get it included in the creed. They finally succeeded.

And so we have our beloved Nicean Creed.

The pertinent part reads (the entire creed can be found in many different places, including the back of the Psalter used in the PRC):

I believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homo-ousion) with the Father….

Almost all present signed the creed, especially when the emperor announced that any who refused to sign it would be banished. Finally only two Egyptian bishops plus Arius himself refused to sign. They were banished to Illyria and the books of Arius were burned. This was by direct order of the emperor, who now had set a precedent for imperial involvement in all matters of the church.

The History After Nicea

If the emperor or anyone else thought that the decisions of the Council of Nicea would settle the matter, they were sadly mistaken. The controversy continued with renewed bitterness shortly after the bishops returned to their churches, and bitter fighting continued without letup.

The issues became more complicated, and we need not go into them in detail here. But they revolved chiefly around the one word the council had insisted on: homo-ousion.

The strict Arians had insisted on the word hetero-ousion, which means “of a different essence”; but their numbers were almost zero after the council. But a new party arose which wanted to use another word than Nicea had used, although not the hetero-ousion of the Arians. It was the word homoi-ousion. You will notice that the only difference is a small “i” in it. It is not very much of an exaggeration to say that over 50 years of terrible struggle which followed were over the question of an “i.” And many might be inclined to say, as Constantine himself often said, “This is evil wrangling over unimportant differences.” But it was not. The “i” made all the difference in the world. The word homoi-ousion, with the “i,” meant that Christ was only “like” the Father in essence—”similar to,” but not “the same as.” On that “i” hung the whole truth.

The reasons why the controversy continued were many, and we cannot recount them all. Many who signed the Nicean Creed had done so because they feared banishment. They were not convinced of its truth. Many of the issues which Nicea had attempted to settle were not yet clearly defined in the minds of many bishops. Many enemies of the truth were still roaming the sheepfold of Christ as ravening wolves. And Constantine himself, unable to understand the issues, was not a firm and dauntless defender of Nicea as he should have been.

Constantine’s own ambivalence paved the way for Arius to return from exile. He was recalled because he had presented a creed to the emperor which the emperor approved. In fact, Arius even signed the Nicene Creed, most probably with some sort of mental reservations, or, perhaps, while giving in his own mind a meaning to the creed acceptable to him, but which the creed itself would not bear.

At any rate, the emperor forced the churches to receive him. Athanasius, now bishop because of the death of Alexander, flatly refused on the grounds that another synod was the only power able to lift the ban imposed on Arius. It was, said Athanasius, an ecclesiastical matter, not an imperial decision. The bishop of Constantinople was forced to admit Arius to the table of the Lord against his better judgment. But the Lord saved the table from being profaned when Arius died in 336, one day before the Lord’s Supper was to be administered.

So bitter was the battle, that even the lowliest fishmonger in the market place and the chimney sweep in his sooty clothing could discuss intelligently the issues involved.

Athanasius, for his strong defense of Nicea, was banished from his church no fewer than five different times and he suffered much for the cause of the truth. In fact, it seemed at times as if Arianism was sure to gain the victory after all. “The whole world,” said Athanasius, “has gone Arian”; and he was not far from wrong. In fact, his remark has been the occasion for Athanasius to bear in history the (honorable) name: “Athanasius contra mundum”: Athanasius against the world.

But orthodoxy did finally win. God often works that way. When the night is the darkest, then the dawn is about to break. God must show that the preservation of His church is His work, not man’s. And God saves His church when from a human point of view all is hopeless. So it was in the second half of the 4th century.

A new generation of theologians arose in the East—able men, committed thoroughly to Nicean orthodoxy. They defined the issues with clarity and biblical discretion. The West, always orthodox on this issue, began to exert more influence on the East, especially through such men as Augustine. The horrible notions of Arianism had reached their high tide and were beginning to wane.

Another council met, the second great ecumenical council. This one met in 381 in the Eastern capital of the empire: Constantinople. It reaffirmed Nicean orthodoxy and made some changes in the Nicean Creed, not significant, but which particularly affirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Nicean Creed had, in connection with the Holy Spirit, said only: “We believe in the Holy Ghost.” Constantinople added: “And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.” (Only later [589], at a synod in Toledo, Spain, were the words, “and the Son” added after “proceedeth from the Father.”)


And so the truth of the absolute divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the holy Trinity was established as the foundation of all the confession of the church.

One striking and extremely important aspect of the controversy is the fact that Athanasius, in his defense of the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicea, consistently argued his point on the grounds that the question involved our salvation. That is, Athanasius never permitted himself or the council to discuss the question as abstract theology, but insisted that it had to do with the salvation of the church.

His argument, in brief, was this. Our lost condition makes salvation impossible for us to accomplish. Only God can save. And, because salvation comes to us through Jesus Christ, Christ must be very God Himself.

That insistence of Athanasius on looking at the problem of the divinity of Christ as related to our salvation is reflected in the Nicene Creed, which in this connection reads:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ . . . who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

How utterly important this is.

It is the biblical approach, for the divinity of Christ is connected directly with our salvation, something already evident in Christ’s name given Him by the angel. He shall be called Jesus (Jehovah saves), for He shall save His people from their sins.

When the Eastern Church, some years down the road, failed to follow the example of Athanasius and argued over the questions of Christ’s divinity apart from the question of salvation, it fell into barren and fruitless speculative argumentation and spawned every heresy under the face of the heavens. For that sin the judgment of God came upon the Eastern Church, a judgment which all but destroyed it—in the Mohammedan conquests.

Christ Himself had affirmed that He would build His church on the foundation of the confession that He “is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Thus only is salvation as a work of God alone maintained.

Arminianism makes salvation partly the work of man. Let it never be forgotten that Arminianism is incipient Modernism, for Arminianism, denying that salvation is of God alone, will ultimately deny that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, very God of very God. Arminianism leads the church back to Arianism.

And so John warns us to beware those spirits which confess not that Jesus Christ has come into the flesh (that is, that Jesus Christ, who is very God of very God, has come [that is His divinity] into the flesh) is of antichrist, not of Christ (I John 4:1-3).

Salvation is of God!