The first ecumenical council met in Nicea in AD 325 to respond to Arianism, which taught that Christ was not eternal and therefore not God. The Council declared that Christ is indeed God, of the same essence (being) as God. It expressed this position in the Nicene Creed— that is, in the first version of the Nicene Creed. (The Nicene Creed as we have it today is the version that was revised at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381.)
Pause a moment: a creed was revised. Creedal revisions may not happen lightly or at whim. No mere individual may revise a creed, nor may the church revise a creed if the revision weakens or compromises the creed’s summary of the teachings of Scripture. But a creed may be revised for weighty reasons and in the proper way. The Nicene Creed was revised for a weighty reason: the churches desired to express more fully the doctrine of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. This revision was a strengthening, not a weakening, of the church’s expression of true doctrine. And it was revised in the proper way: an ecumenical council had adopted the Nicene Creed, and an ecumenical council revised it.
So what happened between 325 and 381 that made necessary the calling of the Council of Constantinople? At least three things. First, the question arose regarding the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son. Second, other questions arose regarding how Christ could be both divine and human. Future articles will examine these questions. Third, some in the church openly disagreed with the decisions of Nicea. To this we turn our attention now.
“Ratifying the faith of the Nicene Fathers”
The Council of Constantinople indicated that it was defending the doctrine and creed of the Council of Nicea. The first “canon” (pronouncement) of the Council of Constantinople states: “That the faith of the 318 Fathers who assembled at Nicaea in Bithynia, is not to be made void, but shall continue established; and that every heresy shall be anathematized, and especially that of the Eunomians…and that of the Arians…and that of the Semiarians.”1 The statement mentions other heresies too, but the Arian and semi-Arian heresies attack and minimize the doctrine of Christ’s divinity.
The Council’s letter to Emperor Theodosius I, summarizing the work it had done, also indicated that the Council was defending the doctrine and creed of Nicea: “Having then assembled at Constantinople…we…pronounced some short definitions, ratifying the faith of the Nicene Fathers, and anathematizing the heresies which have sprung up contrary to it.”2
The Arian response to Nicea
This ratification was necessary because the Arians, whose position was condemned at Nicea, did not submit to the outcome of the Council of Nicea. Whereas Nicea insisted that Christ was “of one essence with the Father,” the Arians said that Christ and the Father were two different beings, and that Christ was not God. In 335, at a council in Tyre attended only by Arian sympathizers, they condemned Athanasius, the great defender of the orthodox view that Christ is truly God. Another council permitted Arius to be received into the fellowship of the churches again.
The Arian supporters also drew up their own creeds, including The Dedication Creed (341) and The ‘Dated’ Creed (359).3 These creeds say many right things, even acknowledging that Christ was the only begotten of the Father before the world was created. The Dedication Creed even says that Christ is the “image of the deity” and the “essence of the Father.” The believing Christian who reads them might not quickly notice anything wrong with them. But one thing they did not say: Christ Himself was divine. That Christ is of the essence of the Father did not mean, in the minds of those who signed this creed, that He was truly God.
One significant clue that these creeds did not fully express the truth about Christ is that the Arians readily signed them. Suppose that Reformed people drew up a creed about justification, which Roman Catholics readily signed; or regarding infant baptism, and Baptists could pen their names to it. Such a creed either denies the truth (probably subtly, maybe with only one word) or does not state the truth as precisely and oppose error as specifically as it ought. So it was with these Arian creeds.
So, whose position was correct, that of the Arians, or the defenders of Nicea? In the eastern half of the empire (with Constantinople as its center) the Arian position developed, while the western half (with Rome as its center) remained committed to Nicean orthodoxy. In other words, the division was both theological and geographical. In both respects, it threatened the unity of the empire. A council was needed to address the growing division.
The rise of semi-Arianism
Three parties were at the Council of Nicea: the Arians who denied that Christ is God; the orthodox who insisted that Christ is God; and a middle group that said Christ is similar to God. Those in the middle group were reluctant to say that Christ was of the same being as God, because they could not reconcile this with the doctrine that God is one. Yet they did not agree with Arius, which is why they finally signed the Nicene Creed. But they remained convinced that Christ was like God and similar to God, and they thought that the Nicene Creed could be interpreted according to their view.
These semi-Arians continued to promote their view after the Council of Nicea closed.
In promoting their view, they found that the Arians would not compromise with them: the Arians were committed to their position. At the same time, some of them began to see a distinction between God’s being and His persons, and began to realize that Christ could share God’s essence but be a distinct person. Nicea had not considered this distinction between God’s being and persons. As the church continued to develop the distinction between God’s being and persons, it became clear that a council would be necessary to state this truth officially.
This is not the whole story. As noted in the introduction, other theological issues were being discussed. In addition, this article has not treated the role of the emperors in the theological debate. Constantine’s death in AD 337 marked the end of a politically stable era, and succeeding emperors took different positions on the theological issue. This allowed the Arian party to advance at one time, the semi-Arian at another, and the Nicene position to rise and fall in the emperor’s favor.
1 “Canons of Constantinople, 381” in Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church AD 337-461, ed. J. Stevenson, Rev. W. H. C. Frend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 135.
2 “Canons of Constantinople, 381,” 134.
3 These can be found in Henry Battenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), 41-44.