In His incarnation, the eternal Son of God took to Himself our human nature. The incarnation of Jesus Christ assumes that He is truly God and, therefore, is eternal.
Early in the fourth century, Arius, a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, denied that the Son of God was truly God and eternal. Arius taught that God created Christ as the first creature. God did so in eternity, in order that God might create everything else in time by Christ, the Word. Still, even though Christ was created before time, He was a creature and not God, nor eternal. In Arius’ words, “There was when he was not.” Arius claimed that to teach that Christ is God was to speak of two Gods. However, Arius was wrong, in part because he ignored the clear indication of Christ’s deity in the Scriptures, and in part because he tried to explain scriptural truths by using distinctions that Greek philosophers (Platonists) used.
As the bishop of Alexandria, Alexander was Arius’ superior in the church. He disagreed with Arius, and called a synod of bishops in Egypt and Libya. In 320 this synod condemned Arius’ views, dismissed Arius from the priesthood, and exiled him. Although theologically this synod came down on the right side of the issue, it could speak only for a small number of African churches, not for all of Christianity.
Yet the issue affected all of Christianity! As the church father Athanasius would argue, if Christ is not God, He cannot be our Savior. Christianity is a religion based on the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ, and Christians in every region must confess that He is God! So God sovereignly directed the affairs of history so that the entire Christian world spoke to the matter.
God did so, first, by directing Arius to travel to Caesarea and to Asia Minor, teaching his views and gathering a following. Christians in other areas than Egypt were being troubled by Arius’ false teaching.
Second, in 312 God had raised up Constantine to be the Roman Emperor, and in 313 had caused Constantine to legalize and favor the Christian religion. In this God showed that He always works in history to meet a need that the church would face, before the church realizes it! For Constantine not only favored Christianity, but thought that the way to unite his empire (currently divided between East and West) was to promote the Christian religion. But the divide was not only geographical, it was also theological: the idea that Christ was not God and not eternal threatened the unity of the empire. So Constantine called the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea, which met in 325. Yet Constantine was also a tool in God’s hand; as always, “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord” (Prov. 21:1). Constantine’s purpose was to unite his empire; God’s purpose was to give representatives of all of Christendom the opportunity to speak to the fundamental theological issue of Christ’s divinity.
Next time we will examine the council itself.