June 13, 2021

The First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (Fr. George Florovsky)


By Fr. George Florovsky 

The city of Nicaea was selected as the city to host the First Ecumenical Council. Constantinople was to be officially inaugurated only in 330 and hence at the time of the convening of the Council of Nicaea the imperial residence was in Nicomedia, very close to Nicaea. Nicaea — its name comes from the Greek for "victory" — was easily accessible by sea and land from all parts of the empire. The imperial letter convening the council is no longer extant. Eusebius informs us that the emperor sent letters of invitation to the bishops of all countries and instructed them to come quickly — σπευδειν άπανταχόθεν τους επισκόπους γπάμμασι τιμητικοίς πpoκaλoυμevoς. All expenses were to be paid from the imperial treasury. The number of bishops present has come down to us as 318 — so states Athanasius, Socrates, and Theodoret. An element of mystical symbolism became attached to this number of 318, some seeing in the Greek abbreviation a reference to the cross and a reference to the "holy name of Jesus." St. Ambrose in his De fide (i, 18) connected the number of 318 with the number of servants of Abraham in Genesis 14:14. The number differs in other accounts. For example, Eusebius gives the number as two-hundred and fifty — πεντηκοντα και διακοσίων αριθμόν. But Eusebius does not include the number of priests and deacons. Arabic accounts from a later period give the number of more than two-thousand bishops. The extant Latin lists of signatures contain no more than two-hundred and twenty-four bishops. There appears to be no reason why the number of 318 is not in fact accurate. If one includes the number of priests, deacons, and others, then the number may have reached two thousand.
The Eastern provinces were heavily represented. The Latin West, however, had only seven delegates, one of whom exercised considerable influence — Hosius of Cordova, Spain (c. 257-357), who was an ecclesiastical adviser to Constantine. In addition to Hosius, the Latin West was represented by Nicasius of Dijon, Caecilian of Carthage, Domnus of Pannonia, Eustorgius of Milan, Marcus of Calabria, and the two presbyters from Rome, Victor or Vitus and Vincentius, who represented the bishop of Rome, St. Sylvester (bishop from 314 to 335). A Persian bishop by the name of John was present and a Gothic bishop, Theophilus, who was apparently the teacher of Ulfilas (c. 311-383), the Arian translator of the Bible into Gothic — the influence of Ulfilas upon subsequent history, especially in the West, was great; known as the "Apostle to the Goths," Ulfilas, according to Philostorgius, translated the entire Bible except the books of Kings; in translating the Bible into Gothic and in converting the Goths to Arian Christianity, Ulfilas’ casts his shadow over the West for centuries to come.
The official opening of the Council of Nicaea took place with the arrival of Constantine, probably on the fourteenth of June. Eusebius describes in his usual style the entrance of the emperor: "When all the bishops had entered the main building of the imperial palace each took his place and in silence awaited the arrival of the emperor. The court officers entered one after another, though only those who professed faith in Christ. The moment the approach of the emperor was announced all the bishops rose from their seats and the emperor appeared like a heavenly messenger of God — οια Θeoυ τις ουράνιος άγγελος — 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 he did not sit down until the bishops so indicated. After he sat, the bishops resumed their seats."
After a brief address from "the bishop on the right of the emperor," Constantine delivered "with a gentle voice" in the official Latin language the opening address, which was immediately translated into Greek. Although the accounts of this speech differ slightly in Eusebius, Sozomen, Socrates, and Rufinus, they agree on the essentials. "It was my greatest desire, my friends that I might be permitted to enjoy your assembly. I must thank God that, in addition to all other blessings, he has shown me this highest one of all: to see you all gathered here in harmony and with one mind. May no malicious enemy rob us of this fortunateness Discord in the Church I consider more fearful and painful than any other war. As soon as I, with God’s help, had overcome my enemies, I believed that nothing more was now necessary than to give thanks to God in common joy with those whom I had liberated. But when I heard of your division, I was convinced that this matter should by no means be neglected. And in the desire to assist by my service, I have summoned you without delay. I shall, however, feel my desire fulfilled only when I see the minds of all united in that peaceful harmony, which you, as the anointed of God, must preach to others. Do not delay, therefore, my friends. Do not delay, servants of God. Put away all causes of strife and loose all knots of discord by the laws of peace. Thus, shall you accomplish the work most pleasing to God and confer upon me, your fellow servant — τω ύμετέρω συνθεραποντι — an exceeding great joy."
After this opening speech, according to Eusebius, the emperor turned the council over to the bishops — παρεδιδου τον λόγον τοις συνόδου πρόεδροις. The bishops began their work but the emperor continued to take an active part in the proceedings.
According to Socrates’ history (I, 8) Sabinus of Heraclea asserted that the majority of the bishops present at the Council of Nicaea were uneducated. Harnack writes that this "is confirmed by the astonishing results. The general acceptance of the resolution come to by the Council is intelligible only if we presuppose that the question in dispute was above most of the bishops." In general, this may be the case. But the fact cannot be overlooked that there were competent theologians present and quantity does not ensure the deliberation of truth. St. Athanasius, even though a deacon, was present with Alexander of Alexandria. Hosius, to whom St. Athanasius refers as "the Great" — ό μέγας, was apparently not a mediocrity. The most learned bishop was probably Eusebius of Caesarea. Others present, although they cannot be considered theologians in the strict sense of the word, are noteworthy for their lives as confessors and for their spirituality. Paphnutius of the Upper Thebaid was in attendance. Potamon of Heraclea, whose right eye had been blinded, was present. Paul of Neocaesarea had been tortured under Licinius — both hands had been crippled and he had been tortured with red hot iron. Jacob of Nisibis, the hermit, and Spiridon of Cyprus, the patron saint of the Ionian Islands, were present.
Traditionally the Council of Nicaea is looked upon as having had two opposing theological parties. But closer analysis indicates that there were three parties. This becomes clear from the position of Eusebius of Caesarea, from the nature of his confession, and from the subsequent history of the controversy. St. Athanasius simply mixed the two opposing parties as one opposition. The "orthodox" party, at first a minority, was represented by Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch, Macarius of Jerusalem, Marcellus of Ancyra, Hosius of Cordova, and by the deacon, St Athanasius.
The Arians came to the Council of Nicaea apparently confident of victory, for the bishop of Nicaea was their supporter and the Arians had substantial influence with the imperial court. The Arians — or the Eusebians, as they were called — numbered approximately twenty bishops, headed by the influential bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. The presbyter Arius was present and was called upon frequently to put forth and explain his views — "evocabatur frequenter Arius in concilium" as Rufinus puts it. Others in support of Arianism were Theognis of Nicaea, Mans of Chalcedon, and Menophantus of Ephesus.
The middle group, which represented the majority, was headed by Eusebius of Caesarea. This moderate Eusebian party was composed of a variety of groups and hence could be swayed in various directions.
It was the Arians who produced the first confession of faith at the Council of Nicaea. This was a logistical error on their part The creed they produced was conveyed to the council by their spokesman, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and it was a creed that made their theological position clear and unambiguous. Their creed met with manifest disapproval and was, reportedly, torn to pieces. Those who signed this confession of faith, with the exception of the Egyptians Theonas and Secundus who remained steadfast, regrouped in the hopes of presenting at least something that might be accepted. In essence, they had abandoned the cause of Arius.
The focus then turned to Eusebius of Caesarea and the moderates. Eusebius of Caesarea proposed an ancient Palestinian creed, which was in general terms similar to the Nicene. It acknowledged the divine nature of Christ but avoided the term ομοούσιος; consubstantialis of the same essence. It appears that Constantine had seen this creed and had approved it. Eusebius — for safe measure — added to this an anti-Sabellian section explicitly emphasizing that the Father is truly the Father, the Son truly the Son, and the Holy Spirit truly the Holy Spirit. According to Eusebius this confession of faith was unanimously proclaimed "orthodox."
The problem arose because of the suspicion of the "orthodox" party — it appears that the Arian minority was willing to accept this confession of faith; if so, then something was wrong with it. The "orthodox" party insisted on a confession of faith to which no Arian could honestly subscribe. They insisted on inserting the homoousios, a term hated by the Arians, a term they considered unscriptural, Sabellian, and materialistic. We know from Eusebius that the emperor sided with those demanding the homoousios and that Hosius was the one who suggested this to Constantine. Yet the insertion of the word homoousios did not settle the matter. It was thought that the Creed of Caesarea contained expressions, which could be interpreted in an Arian sense.
Hosius of Cordova stepped forth to announce that a confession of faith would be read by Hermogenes of Caesarea, at that time a deacon but later a bishop, who was the secretary of the council. It was a very carefully constructed doctrinal formula, which claimed to be a revision of the Creed of Caesarea. The input of the Alexandrians can be seen here, as well as that of Eustathius of Antioch and Macarius of Jerusalem. But the main person of influence was Hosius — it is St. Athanasius who writes of Hosius: ουτος εν νικαία πίστιν εξεθετο. The first alteration was replacing απάντων ορατών (“of all seen things whatsoever”) by πάντων ορατών (“of all seen things”). The reason for this was to exclude the creation of the Son and Spirit. The second change was to substitute the word "Son" for "Logos" at the beginning of the second section so that everything that followed referred to the Son. The word "Logos" is completely absent from the Nicene Creed, and nor St. Athanasius neither the Arians objected to its exclusion. The third change was the extension of θεόν εκ θεον (“God of God”) to γεννηθέντα εκ τον πατρός μονογενή θεόν εκ θεού (“begotten of the Father, only begotten God of God”). It appears that in the final discussions the words τουτ εστίν εκ της ουσίας του πατρός (“that is of the essence of the Father”) were inserted between μονογενή and θεον to exclude any Arian interpretation. The fourth change addressed several expressions, which were considered unsatisfactory, ambiguous, and prone to misinterpretation. The expressions: ζωήν εκ ζωής· (“life of life”), πρωτότοκον πάσης· κτίσεως· (“the first-born of every creature”), προ πάντων αιώνων εκ τον πατρός γεγεννημένον (“begotten of the Father before all ages”) were deleted. In their place was inserted: θεόν άληθινόν εκ θεον άληθινόυ, γεννηθέντα, ου ποιηθέντα, δι οΰ τα πάντα έγένετο (“true God of true God, begotten, not made, but by whom all things became"). Here, however, another insertion was deemed necessary as the discussions continued — after ποιηθέντα (“made”) the words όμοούσιον τω πατρί (“of the same essence with the Father”) were added, again because without the addition the text could be interpreted in an Arian sense. The fifth change was to replace the evasive and indefinite εν άνθρώποις πολιτενσά μενον (“having lived among men") with the definite ένανθρωπήσαντα (“having become incarnate”). Finally, anything, which approached an Arian sense was condemned and excluded from the final creed.
The opposition parties did not simply die; they debated. The debates became so intensive that the emperor felt it necessary to participate — ερωτήσεις τοιγαρουν και αποκρίσεις έντευθεν άνεκινουντο, έβασανίζετο ό λόγος της διανοίας των είρημένων, according to Eusebius in Theodoret’s history (I, 11). From the accounts of St. Athanasius it appears that the Eusebians continued to make proposals of a conciliatory nature and to attempt to include certain expressions that could be interpreted in an Arian sense. But the expressions εκ της ουσίας (“of the essence”) and ομοούσιος (“of the same essence") prevailed in the Nicene Creed.
For the first time a new type of document enters into the history of the Church — the signatures of the bishops to the Acts and decisions of an Ecumenical Council. The State, the Empire, only a short time before so hostile to the Church, now supports the Church, now elevates the doctrinal decisions of the Church to the status of imperial law. Almost all the bishops signed. It is significant that the name heading the list is Hosius of Cordova. Next to his signature is that of the two Roman presbyters, signing in the name of their bishop, the bishop of Rome. After a day’s reflection Eusebius of Caesarea signed. Only the two Egyptian bishops, Theonas and Secundus, refused to sign. They along with Arms were banished to Illyria.
The bishops had deliberated. The emperor had interacted and participated. But it is clear that the theological decisions came from within the Church. Now with the signatures of the bishops the Acts of the First Ecumenical Council become imperial law. Now the power of the State is to be felt. The emperor ordered the books of Arius to be burned. In his history Socrates relates that anyone found with Arian books was to be punished by death (I, 9). Moreover, the emperor declared that henceforth those adhering to Arianism were to be called "Porphyrians" — that is, they were to be considered on the same level as the worst enemies of Christ In his letter to the Alexandrian Church the emperor is convinced that the results of the council were the work of the Holy Spirit — ο τοις τριακόσιοις ήρεσεν επίσκοποις ουδέν εστίν έτερον ή τον θεού γνώμη, μάλιστα γe οπου το άγιον πνεύμα τοιούτων και τηλικούτων ανδρών ταις διανοίαις έγκειμενον την θείαν βούλησιν έξεφωτισεν. Yet another form of persecution began the persecution of those unwilling to subscribe to or accept the decisions of Ecumenical Councils. This is the first example of civil punishment of heresy. Before the conversion of the Empire the ultimate penalty for heresy was excommunication. Now exile and death were added, for any disobedience to the Church was regarded simultaneously as a crime against the State.
The Age of Constantine is a turning point in Christian history. But precisely what was the Church’s view of the Empire before the Empire was christened? Once christened, what was the gain and what the loss for the Church? What, in essence, was the "Byzantinization" of the Church?
Among the early Christians there was nothing anarchical in the attitude toward the Roman Empire. The "divine" origin of the State and of its authority was formally acknowledged already by St. Paul, and he himself had no difficulty in appealing to the protection of Roman magistrates and of Roman law. The positive value and function of the State were commonly admitted in the Christian circles. Even the violent invective in the book of Revelation was no exception. What was denounced there was iniquity and injustice of the actual Rome but not the principle of political order. Christians could, in full sincerity and in good faith, protest their political innocence in the Roman courts and plead their loyalty to the Empire. In fact, early Christians were devoutly praying for the State, for peace and order, and even for Caesars themselves. One finds a high appraisal of the Roman Empire even in those Christian writers of that time who were notorious for their resistance, as Origen and Tertullian. The theological "justification" of the Empire originated already in the period of persecutions. Yet Christian loyalty was, of necessity, a restricted loyalty. Of course, Christianity was in no sense a seditious plot, and Christians never intended to overthrow the existing order, although they did believe that it had ultimately to wither away.
From the Roman point of view, however, Christians could not fail to appear seditious, not because they were in any sense mixed in politics, but precisely because they were not. Their political "indifference" was irritating to the Romans. They kept themselves away from the concerns of the "commonwealth" at a critical time of its struggle for existence. Not only did they claim "religious freedom" for themselves. They also claimed supreme authority for the Church. Although the Kingdom of God was emphatically "not of this world," it seemed to be a threat to the omni-competent Kingdom of Man. The Church was, in a sense, a kind of "resistance movement" in the Empire. And Christians were "conscientious objectors." They were bound to resist any attempt at their "integration" into the fabric of the Empire. As Christopher Dawson has aptly said, "Christianity was the only remaining power in the world, which could not be absorbed in the gigantic mechanism of the new servile state." Christians were not a political faction. Yet their religious allegiance had an immediate "political" connotation. It has been well observed that monotheism itself was a "political problem" in the ancient world (Eric Peterson). Christians were bound to claim "autonomy" for themselves and for the Church. And this was precisely what the Empire could neither concede nor even understand. Thus, the clash was inevitable, although it could be delayed. The Church was a challenge to the Empire, and the Empire was a stumbling block for the Christians.
After a protracted struggle with the Church, the Roman Empire at last Capitulated. Constantine, the Caesar, converted and humbly applied for admission into the Church. The Christian response was a response that was by no means unanimous. There were many among Christian leaders who were quite prepared to welcome unreservedly the conversion of the Emperor, the Caesar, and the prospective conversion of the Empire. But there were not a few who were apprehensive of the imperial move. To be sure, one could but rejoice in the cessation of hostilities and in that freedom of public worship, which now will be legally secured. But the major problem is not yet solved, and it is a problem of extreme complexity. Indeed, it was a highly paradoxical problem.
Already Tertullian had raised certain awkward questions, although in his own time they were no more than rhetorical questions. Could Caesars accept Christ and believe in Him? Caesars obviously belonged to "the world." They were an integral part of the "secular" fabric, necessarii saeculo. Could then a Christian be Caesar? Could then a Christian belong at once to two conflicting orders, the Church and the World? (Apologeticum 21, 24). In the time of Constantine this concept of the "Christian Caesar" was still a riddle and a puzzle, despite the eloquent effort of Eusebius of Caesarea to elaborate the idea of the "Christian Empire." For many Christians there was an inner contradiction in the concept itself. Caesars were necessarily committed to the cause of "this world." But the Church was not of this world. The office of Caesars was intrinsically "secular." Was there really any room for Emperors, as Emperors, in the structure of the Christian community? It has been recently suggested that probably Constantine himself was rather uneasy and uncertain precisely at this very point. It seems that one of the reasons for which he was delaying his own baptism was precisely his dim feeling that it was inconvenient to be "Christian" and "Caesar" at the same time. Constantine’s personal conversion constituted no problem. But as Emperor he was committed. He had to carry the burden of his exalted position in the Empire. He was still a "Divine Caesar." As Emperor, he was heavily involved in the traditions of the Empire, as much as he actually endeavoured to disentangle himself. The transfer of the Imperial Residence to a new City, away from the memories of the old pagan Rome, was a spectacular symbol of this noble effort. Yet the Empire itself was still much the same as before, with its autocratic ethos and habits, with all its pagan practices, including the adoration and apotheosis of Caesars. We have good reasons to trust Constantine’s personal sincerity. No doubt, he was deeply convinced that Christianity was the only power, which could quicken the sick body of the Empire and supply a new principle of cohesion in the time of social disintegration. But obviously he was unable to abdicate his sovereign authority or to renounce the world. Indeed, Constantine was firmly convinced that, by Divine Providence, he was entrusted with a high and holy mission that he was chosen to re-establish the Empire, and to re-establish it on a Christian foundation. This conviction, more than any particular political theory, was the decisive factor in his policy, and in his actual mode of ruling.
The situation was intensely ambiguous. Had the Church to accept the Imperial offer and to assume the new task? Was it a welcome opportunity or rather a dangerous compromise? In fact, the experience of close cooperation with the Empire has not been altogether happy and encouraging for Christians, even in the days of Constantine himself. The Empire did not appear to be an easy or comfortable ally and partner for the Church. Under Constantine’s successors all the inconveniences of cooperation became quite evident, even if we ignore the abortive attempt of Julian to reinstate Paganism. The leaders of the Church were compelled, time and again, to challenge the persistent attempts of Caesars to exercise their supreme authority also in religious matters.
And the victory at the Council of Nicaea is to be short-lived — Nicaea in a very real sense was the beginning, not the end, of continuous theological controversy over the nature of the God-Man and hence over the nature of God and the nature of man.
From The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, Ch. 10.