The First Council of Nicaea, which took place during the reign of the emperor Constantine in 325 AD, was the first ecumenical (from Greek oikumene, "worldwide") conference of bishops of the Christian Church.
The participating bishops were given free travel to and from their episcopal sees to the council, as well as lodging.
The council, also called a synod, dealt with the problems raised by the Arian controversy, concerning the nature of Jesus, deciding against the Arians in favor of Trinitarianism. The new heresy of Arianism was causing intense controversy, and Constantine wanted to bring about peace. Essentially, the followers of Arius said that Christ was created by God the Father and that "there was a time when he was not."
Another result of the council was an agreement by all the Churches, through the agreement of their bishops, to celebrate Easter on the same day. As by far the most important feast of the Church's life, it was thought important for all to celebrate the Resurrection together.
Character, membership, and problems
The first Council of Nicaea was the first general gathering of bishops from the whole Church, to resolve differences of faith that had arisen and to define clearly the faith received from the apostles. In this council, Church and State acted together. Earlier synods had resolved important questions, to be sure. Now, the Council of Nicaea formulated a definitive statement against a growing heresy, a profession of faith intended to clarify and defend the heritage of true belief. This council had a worldwide effect, for the whole Church.
In Arian controversy lay a great obstacle to the harmony of the Church and the unity of the Empire. Accordingly, for the summer of 325 AD, the bishops of all provinces were summoned to Nicaea in Bithynia, a place easily accessible to the majority of the bishops, especially those of Asia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and Thrace. At least one bishop came from outside the Empire: Stratofilus , bishop of Pitiunt in Egrisi (located in the western part of modern Georgia). At this time, Greece was considered part of the "West."
The number of participating bishops cannot be accurately stated; Socrates Scholasticus counted 318; Eusebius, only 250. As a matter of record, the Eastern bishops formed the great majority. Of these, the first rank was held by the three archbishops Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch, and Macarius of Jerusalem, and by Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea.
A special prominence attached to this council also because the persecutions had just ended. It was assumed that nearly all of the assembled fathers had stood forth as witnesses of the faith.
The Latin-speaking provinces sent not more than five representatives in equal distribution: Marcus of Calabria from Italy, Cecilian of Carthage from Africa, Hosius of Córdoba from Spain, Nicasius of Dijon from Gaul, and Domnus of Stridon from the province of the Danube. These bishops did not travel alone; each one had plenty of clergy. Eusebius speaks of an almost innumerable host of accompanying priests, deacons, and acolytes.
Among the assistants were Athanasius, a young deacon and companion of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, who distinguished himself as the "most vigorous fighter against the Arians," and similarly the Patriarch Alexander of Constantinople, then a presbyter, as representative of his aged bishop.
The agenda of the synod were:
- The Arian question,
- The celebration of Easter,
- The Meletian schism,
- The baptism of heretics, and
- The status of the lapsed in the persecution under Licinius.
The council was formally opened May 20, in the central structure of the imperial palace, with preliminary discussions on the Arian question. In these discussions, some dominant figures were Arius, with some adherents, especially Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, Bishop Theognis of Nice, and Bishop Maris of Chalcedon. Regular sessions, however, began only on the arrival of the emperor Constantine. After a speech in Latin, he spelled out how he wanted the council to proceed. The emperor entrusted conciliar procedure to a committee he had appointed; Hosius of Cordova may well have been the chairman of the deliberations. After being in session for an entire month, the council promulgated on June 19 the Nicene Creed. This profession of faith was adopted by the overwhelming majority of bishops present.
From the beginning of the gathering, the Arians and the orthodox were vocal in their opposition. The Arians entrusted the representation of their interests to Eusebius of Caesarea. His scholarship and eloquence made a great impression on the emperor. When Eusebius read out an Arian profession of faith, he provoked a storm of resentment. In time, Eusebius intervened as a mediator; he was no longer a spokesman for the Arians. Now, in saying that the chief aim to be pursued should be peace within the Church, Eusebius at the same time reflected the sentiments of the emperor.
Eusebius called to mind the baptismal creed (symbol) of his own diocese at Caesarea in Palestine, as a form of reconciliation. The majority of the bishops agreed with him. For some time, scholars thought that the Nicene Creed was based on this statement of Eusebius. Today, most scholars think that this Creed is derived from the baptismal creed of Jerusalem, as Hans Lietzmann proposed.
In any case, as the council went on, the orthodox bishops won approval of every one of their proposals. It is evident that the convinced Arians were very much a minority. It is also evident that the bishops expressed a firm dogmatic consensus, in direct opposition to the central tenets of Arianism.
The Nicene Creed (symbol)
By and large, many creeds were acceptable to the members of the council. From his perspective, even Arius could cite such a creed.
For Bishop Alexander and others, however, greater clarity was required. Some distinctive elements in the Nicene Creed, perhaps from the hand of Hosius of Cordova, were added.
- Jesus Christ is described as "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God."
- Jesus Christ is said to be "begotten, not made."
- Finally, he is said to be "of one substance with the Father." No follower of Arius could say these words as a profession of faith.
Of the third article only the words "and in the Holy Spirit" were left; the Nicene Creed ended with these words. Then followed immediately the canons of the council. So, instead of a more neutral baptismal creed, as proposed by Eusebius, the council promulgated the uncompromising anti-Arian Nicene Creed. From earliest times, various creeds served as a means of identification for Christians, as a means of inclusion and recognition, especially at baptism. In Rome, for example, the Apostles Creed was popular, especially for use in Lent and the Easter season. Now, one specific creed was used as a means of defining the Church's faith so clearly as to exclude those who did not profess it. It was a means of exclusion.
The text of this profession of faith is preserved in a letter of Eusebius to his congregation, in Athanasius, and elsewhere. Although the most vocal anti-Arians, the Homoousians (from the Greek word translated above as "of one substance"), were in the minority, the Creed was accepted by the council as an expression of the bishops' common faith and the ancient faith of the whole Church.
Bishop Hosius of Cordova, one of the firm Homoousians, may well have helped bring the council to consensus. At the time of the council, he was the confidant of the emperor in all Church matters. Hosius stands at the head of the lists of bishops, and Athanasius ascribes to him the actual formulation of the creed. Great leaders such as Eustathius of Antioch, Alexander of Alexandria, Athanasius, and Marcellus of Ancyra all belonged to the anti-Arian party. So, the Homoousians gained the final victory.
In spite of his sympathy for Arius, Eusebius of Caesarea accepted the decisions of the council, accepting the entire creed. The number of bishops in opposition was small. After a month of discussion, there were only two adherents of Arius who remained steadfast, Theonas of Marmarica in Libya, and Secundus of Ptolemais. Of three others on whom Arius might have counted, Maris of Chalcedon finally agreed to the whole creed. Similarly, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nice also agreed, except for the explicitly anti-Arian statements.
Now, the emperor actually carried out his previous threat; everybody who refused to endorse the Creed had to face exile. Arius, Theonas, Secundus, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Theognis were excommunicated. The works of Arius were confiscated and consigned to the flames. Nevertheless, the controversy, already festering, continued, in various parts of the empire. People became even more adamant and argumentative.
After the June 19 settlement of the most important topic, the question of the date of Easter was brought up. According to Duchesne (Revue des questions historiques, xxviii. 37), who founds his conclusions:
- on the conciliar letter to the Alexandrians preserved in Theodoret, Hist. eccl., I., ix. 12; Socrates, Hist. eccl., I., ix. 12;
- on the circular letter of Constantine to the bishops after the council, Eusebius, Vita Constantine, III., xviii. 19; Theodoret, Hist. eccl., I., x. 3 sqq.;
- on Athanasius, De Synodo, v.; Epist. ad Afros, ii.;
the Eastern Churches of Syria, Cilicia, and Mesopotamia determined the date of Easter in relation to the fourteenth day of Nisan, in the Jewish calendar. Alexandria and Rome, however, followed a different calculation, so that Easter would never coincide with the Jewish observance.
The council assumed the task of regulating these differences, in part because some dioceses were determined not to have Easter correspond with a Jewish calendar. The Council of Nicaea, however, did not declare the Alexandrian calculation as normative. Instead, the council gave the Bishop of Alexandria the privilege of announcing annually the date of Easter to the Roman curia. Although the synod undertook the regulation of the dating of Easter, it contented itself with communicating its decision to the different dioceses, instead of establishing a canon. In the future, there would be conflict over this very matter.
Then the bishops began proceedings against the Meletian schism. Its founder was suspended from his office but not degraded or exiled.
Finally, the council promulgated twenty new laws, called canons, that is, unchanging rules of discipline:
1. prohibition of self-castration;
2. establishment of a minimum term for catechism;
- 3. prohibition of the presence in the house of a cleric of a younger woman who might bring him under suspicion;
4. ordination of a bishop in the presence of at least three provincial bishops and confirmation by the metropolitan;
5. provision for two provincial synods to be held annually;
6. exceptional authority acknowledged for the bishops of Alexandria and Rome, for their respective regions;
- 7. recognition of the honorary rights of the see of Jerusalem;
8. provision for agreement with the Novatians;
9.-14. provision for mild procedure against the lapsed during the persecution under Licinius;
- 15.-16. prohibition of the removal of priests;
17. prohibition of usury among the clergy;
18. precedence of bishops and presbyters before deacons in receiving Holy Communion, the Eucharist;
19. declaration of the invalidity of baptism by heretics;
20. prohibition of kneeling during the liturgy, on Sundays and in the fifty days of Eastertime ["the pentecost"]. Standing, then, during this time was the normative posture for prayer. (In time, the term Pentecost came to refer to the last Sunday of Eastertime, the fiftieth day.) For the exact text of the prohibition of kneeling, in Greek and in English translation, see [canon 20] of the acts of the council.
On July 25, 325 AD, in conclusion, the fathers of the council celebrated the emperor's twentieth anniversary. In his valedictory address, Constantine again informed his hearers how averse he was to dogmatic controversy; he wanted the Church to live in harmony and peace. In a circular letter, he announced the accomplished unity of practice by the whole Church in the date of the celebration of Easter.
In many ways, however, the emperor experienced both disappointment and misfortune. Another synod in 327 questioned every result achieved in 325. Arius as well as the friends punished with him and the Meletians regained nearly all rights they had lost. Worst of all, the Arian "heresy" continued to spread and to cause division in the Church, during the remainder of the fourth century.
- Full text of Eusebius of Caesarea The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine 
- Chapters VI-XXI: First council of Nicaea
- Chapter LXIII-LXVI explain Constantine's decree against Heretics which includes banishment, deprivation of places of worship and destruction of books.
Initial text from Schaff-Herzog Encyc of Religion. Please update as needed.
Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:19:22