Nicaea I, Council of

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The first general council of the Christian Church, convoked by Emperor constantine i, probably toward the close of 324, and lasted from May 20 or June 19 to c. Aug. 25, 325.

Background. After his victory over Licinius (September 324), Constantine, Emperor of the East, found his provinces seriously disturbed by religious controversy, spearheaded by the Alexandrian priest arius and his bishop, alexander. The dissension apparently began about the year 318, or somewhat later, when Arius was publicly rebuked by Bishop Alexander for teaching that the Word was not coeternal with the Father but had a beginning of existence; otherwise, Arius said, there would be two "unbegotten" principles. If, then, the Word had a beginning, He could not be of the same nature as the Father; He must, like other creatures, have been made from nothing. Nor can He be called the true and natural Son of God; at best He is the adopted Son. It follows that the Word, as a creature, is in fact the first and most perfect of creatures and is subject to change and sin. He did save mankind, but because He was utterly faithful to God's grace. Arius seems to have denied that the Incarnate Word had a human soul. The deep roots of his doctrine are discoverable in his master, lucian of antioch, and it is understandable that Arius's fellow disciples at Antioch, called Collucianists were among the first fervid promoters of arianism.

Unwilling to change his position, Arius had to appear before a synod of almost 100 bishops of Egypt and Libya convoked by Bp. Alexander c. 320. Remaining unmoved, he was excommunicated by the synod, as were his followers, Bps. Secundus of Ptolemaïs and Theonas of Marmarica, and some of the Alexandrian clergy and virgins. As usual, Alexander sent encyclical letters in the synod's name to the more distinguished bishops, explaining and refuting the errors of Arius, notifying them of his excommunication and requesting them to avoid communion with him. These letters affirm, especially on the basis of John ch. 1, that the Word is coeternal with the Father, truly God, God's only begotten Son.

Expelled from Alexandria, Arius went to Coelesyria to fellow disciples, prominent among whom were Paulinus of Tyre and Theonas of Laodicea. eusebius of caesarea gave him a friendly welcome. In Nicomedia, whose bishop, eusebius, lent him unfailing support, he wrote the Thalia (Banquet), a long rhapsody, at least partly in metric form, in which he incorporated his theological ideas. With his growing number of supporters he held a synod, which issued encyclical letters against Alexander. This situation continued during the persecution waged by Licinius against the Christians (321324) and was of serious concern to his conqueror, Constantine.

Captivated by Christianity, Constantine wanted to give it the protection of the state; for, in line with the old Roman idea, he regarded himself as Pontifex Maximus of Christianity, "bishop in matters external" (Vita Const. 4.24). As such, he thought it his task to settle a controversy that was upsetting the politico-religious unity of his Christian empire. Theologically incompetent despite the assistance of his adviser Bishop Hosius of Córdoba, Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius enjoining silence in this nuanced matter, which seemed to him to have no relation to Christian dogma. Hosius, who took the emperor's letter to Alexander, returned unsuccessful. When another synod in Antioch late in 324 failed to effect the desired unity, the emperor decided to settle the controversy by a general synod of the more important bishops of the world. He hoped that such a synod would also solve the paschal controversy concerning the date of easter. There were still quartodecimans who followed Jewish custom; and although most of the bishops celebrated Easter on Sunday in honor of the Resurrection, even some of these, to determine the lunar cycle, consulted the Jews, who did not follow the astronomical computation as did the Christian churches. Constantine wanted to eliminate these differences by establishing the date of Easter independently of the Jews.

The Council. The council opened at Nicaea in Bithynia (modern Iznik, northwestern Turkey in Asia), in Constantine's palace, with an address by the emperor. About 300 bishops were present (the number 318 reported by ambrose of Milan and hilary of poitiers is symbolic: cf. the 318 servants of Abraham, Gn 14.14), and almost all were from the eastern half of the empire; more than 100 came from Asia Minor, about 30 from Syria-Phoenicia, fewer than 20 from Palestine and Egypt. Prominent figures were Hosius of Córdoba (who presided with the delegates of Pope Sylvester, the Roman priests Vitus and Vincentius), Alexander of Alexandria (accompanied by his secretary and future successor, the deacon Athanasius), eustathius of antioch, marcellus of ancyra, Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine, Leontius of Caesarea in Cappadocia, macarius of jerusalem, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Caecilianus of Carthage, and some "confessors" who had suffered in the persecution of Licinius. In the beginning at least, Constantine was honorary president and even intervened to ensure peaceful discussion.

Doctrinal Definition. Doctrinal issues were the council's first concern. Arian-minded bishops proposed a formula of faith (contents not extant) that was indignantly rejected by the vast majority. Then Eusebius of Caesarea proposed the baptismal creed of his own Church, the oldest eastern creed now known. Its orthodoxy gained it general approval, but a majority of the bishops insisted on certain additions that would counter the Arian errors more clearly and explicitly. The first, κ τ[symbol omitted]ς οσίας το[symbol omitted] πατρός, directly contradicted the Arian affirmation that the Son, not genuinely begotten, did not proceed from the very essence, or nature, of the Father, but only by the Father's will, like other creatures. The second addition, γεννηθέντα ο ποιηθένα, confronted Arius's statement that the Son is not so by nature, but is "made" by the Father. The third addition, μοούσιον τ[symbol omitted] πατρί, comprised the most significant word of the creed, the sword of division for decades after the council.

Not a biblical word, μοούσιος appears for the first time in Gnostic literature: they are μοούσιοι who belong to the same category of nature. Since in strict generation the son has the same nature as his father, there is always μοουσία here; this the Arians denied to the Word with understandable logic because they denied His generation. The word "μοουσία" affirms that the Word is God as the Father is God, and this because He is the Father's true Son. And if this affirmation is linked with the first article of the creed, "one God Father," it is clear that the Nicene Creed proclaims numerical identity of the Father's nature and the Son's. The creed does no more than mention the Third Person, for the divinity of the Spirit was not at issue. (see homoousios.)

The Nicene Creed was the first dogmatic definition of the Christian Church and through the ages has served as a tessera of orthodoxy. Almost all the expressions used are scriptural, with the addition of certain words that are philosophical in origin. The meaning of Scripture is made clear in the light of tradition. The Son's divinity in its strict sense is defined.

Easter Question and Canons. As for Easter, the Fathers decreed (1) that all Christians should observe it on the same day, (2) that Jewish customs should not be followed, and (3) that the practice of the West, of Egypt, and of other Churches should remain in force, namely, of celebrating Easter on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Nicaea promulgated 20 disciplinary decrees (cf. Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta 515). In later times certain Syriac and Arabic canons (pseudonicaeni ) were falsely attributed to the council. Canons 15 and 16 forbid bishops, priests, and deacons to involve themselves in the affairs of another diocese or locality. Canon 4 orders that bishops be appointed by all the other bishops of the province, and in case of difficulty, by at least three; the appointment was to be ratified by the metropolitan bishop. Canon 5 declares that provincial synods are to be held twice a year, presumably under the metropolitan, to examine excommunications inflicted by bishops. The famous canons 6 and 7 ratify the traditional prerogatives of Eastern Churches.

The bishop of Alexandria has power over Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis, after the fashion of Rome's quasi-patriarchal authority. Here is the seed of the patriarchate: the patriarch has under him all the metropolitans of the entire region. The age-old privileges of Antioch, Aelia (rebuilt as Jerusalem), and other Churches are ratified, but it is not clear whether the privileges in question are merely honorary.

Some canons have to do with the dignity of the clergy: the ordination of eunuchs (c.1), of those insufficiently tested since baptism or proved unworthy (c.2), of those who have denied the faith in persecution (c.10), and cohabitation of clerics with other than relatives or women beyond suspicion (c.3). Canon 13 confirms the ancient practice of giving Communion to penitents at the hour of death. A twofold criterion is set up for the admission of heretics (c.19): those who have not erred on the doctrine of the Trinity, such as the Novatians, are to be reconciled without repetition of their baptism; the followers of paul of samosata, however, are to be rebaptized, since it is not clear that they confess the Trinity. Deacons are warned (c.18) to give precedence to bishops and priests. On Sundays and the days of Pentecost, the faithful are to stand for the liturgy, not kneel (c.20).

Aftermath. It is not certain how long the council lasted, though it was probably for several weeks, at the close of which Constantine bade the fathers farewell. Only two bishops, Secundus of Ptolemaïs and Theonas of Marmarica, refused to sign the creed and the accompanying anathema. With Arius, they were exiled to Illyricum. Constantine confirmed the decrees of Nicaea, proclaimed them laws of the empire, and wrote a letter to the bishops of Alexandria and other absent bishops expressing his joy that harmony in faith had been achieved. While Constantine lived, none of the friends of Arius who were dissatisfied with the doctrine of Nicaea dared to attack the Symbol directly. The Eusebians (Eusebius of Nicomedia and his supporters) maneuvered rather to remove the more influential representatives of Nicaea from the scene by political strategy; conspicuous proof of their success is discoverable in the exiling of Eustathius of Antioch and Athanasius even under Constantine.

Of the Acts of the council, there are preserved only the Symbol with the added anathema against the Arians, the disciplinary canons, lists of the bishops in attendance (extant in different languages and not always consistent), and the synodal letter notifying the Alexandrian Church of the excommunication of Arius and his followers.

Although Nicaea's judgment on Arianism was clear and conclusive, it was a sign of contradiction and cause of serious division in the East until 381, primarily because of the word "μοουσιος." In their opposition to the council and to the expression, Arians and Semi Arians were in agreement.

The so-called Acta of Nicaea used by Gelasius of Cyzicus (Patrologia Graeca, 85:11911360) and the Coptic Acts edited by E. Revillout, Le concile de Nicée d'après les textes coptes et les diverses collections canoniques (2 v. Paris 1876, 1898), are apparently spurious. The extant documents of Nicaea have been edited by H. G. Opitz, Athanasius Werke 3.1 (Berlin-Leipzig 1934). For the canons, see Histoire des conciles d'après les documents originaux, 1.2:528620, and Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta v. 515; for the list of bishops, H. Gelzer, H. Hilgenfeld, and O. Cuntz, Patrum nicaenorum nomina (Leipzig 1898), and E. Honigmann, "Une liste inédite des Pères de Nicée," Byzantion 20 (1950) 6371; for the decree on Easter, Iuris ecclesiastici graecorum historia et monumenta, 1:435436, and H. Leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, 13.2:1549.

Bibliography: c. j. von hefele, Histoire des conciles d'après les documents originaux, tr. and continued by h. leclercq, 10 v. in 19 (Paris 190738) 1.1:335632. g. bardy, Histoire de l'église depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours, ed. a. fliche and v. martin (Paris 1935) 3:69176. m. goemans, Het algemeen concilie in de vierde eeuw (Nijmegen 1945), ch. 23. i. ortiz de urbina, Nicée et Constantinople (Paris 1963); El símbolo niceno (Madrid 1947). v. c. de clercq, Ossius of Cordova (Washington 1954). j. n. d. kelly, Early Christian Creeds (2d ed. New York 1960) 205230. j. n. d. kelly, "The Nicene Creed: A Turning Point," Scottish Journal of Theology 36 (1983) 2339. c. lubheid, "The Alleged Second Session of the Council of Nicaea," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 34 (1983) 165174; The Council of Nicea (Galway, Ireland 1982). r. gregg, ed., Arianism (Cambridge, Mass. 1985).

[i. ortiz de urbina]