The last article stated that Arius had asserted that Christ was not eternal and, therefore, not God. Alexander insisted He was. In 324, Emperor Constantine, not understanding the theological issue, chided these men for discussing such subtle and unprofitable questions, and asked them to forgive each other.1 When this plea did not have its desired effect, Constantine called the Council of Nicea. Perhaps his motivation was political: he desired a unified empire, and thought that a unified church would promote a unified empire.
So in 325, from late May to late July, about 300 bishops met in Nicea. Most of the bishops were from the eastern part of the empire; only seven were from Italy or west of Italy. Each bishop took several elders and deacons with him. Constantine had summoned them all and paid for their expenses.
To open the council, the emperor entered in a stately procession, sat on a golden throne, and gave a lofty speech. Then Constantine—an unbaptized man (converted from paganism twelve years earlier by what he thought was a sign from God in the sky) and political head of the civilized world—presided at the first ecumenical Christian council. When the civil government stopped persecuting the church (Constantine had put an end to that over a decade earlier), it began controlling the church.
Initially, the council was divided into three factions: those siding with Arius, those siding with Alexander, and a middle group. The Arians first proposed a creed defending their view. The council quickly rejected this proposal.
Next, the middle group proposed a creed that taught that Christ had a divine nature but did not say that Christ was of the same essence with the Father. That the Arians were ready to sign this creed indicated to the Alexandrian group that the creed was not specific enough, and that adopting it would not help end the controversy. The Alexandrians insisted on the inclusion of the word homoousian, meaning “of the same essence.” Even homoiousian, with only one added letter, would not suffice, for it meant “of a similar essence.” One letter can make the difference between truth and falsehood. Constantine agreed with the Alexandrians.
In the end, the council adopted the Nicene Creed—a first version of, but not exactly identical to, what we today know as the Nicene Creed. The creed included the assertion that Jesus Christ is “God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father.” Although it asserted faith in the Holy Spirit, it said nothing more about the person or work of the Spirit. And it concluded with these words:
And those that say, ‘there was when he was not,’
and ‘before he was begotten he was not,’
and that ‘He came into being from what-is-not,’
Or those who allege, that the son of God is
‘Of another substance or essence’
these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.2
This was the first ecumenical creed of the Christian church. The delegates signed it, and those who refused to sign it were banished. The church, with the help of the emperor, had pronounced Arianism a heresy, and defended the deity of Christ.
The controversy was not entirely over; the creed itself would be revised several decades later. The next article, however, will not continue this history yet; rather, it will note other decisions of the Council of Nicea.
1 A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337, ed. J. Stevenson, 2nd revised ed. (London: SPCK, 1987), 332–34.
2 All quotes from the original version of the Nicene Creed are from Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettensen and Chris Maunder, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 27–28.