Councils of Faith: Nicaea I (325)
Some time before the year 322, a dispute arose in the Church of Alexandria over the preaching of the presbyter Arius, whose account of the relationship between God the Father and the Son had been condemned by his bishop: what particularly attracted censure was the assertion that the Son’s existence was not co-eternal with the Father’s, but that, in the catchphrase which the Council picked out for an anathema, ‘there was a time when he was not’.
Arius appealed for support to bishops all around the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, and soon this controversy had expanded to encompass much of the Eastern Church. It was the Emperor Constantine who, troubled by this state of affairs, called together a council of bishops from all over the Empire to resolve the disputed question in the city of Nicaea, near the imperial residence at Nicomedia.
As well as making various disciplinary dispositions, all but a very few of the Council Fathers subscribed to a creed which roundly condemned the Arian position, affirming that the Son was, like the Father, ‘true God’, not a creature but ‘begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father’. It condemned belief in a beginning of the Son’s existence, which would imply mutability, and thus make him less than God. Most controversially, the Council employed the term homoousion (‘identical in substance/being/existence’), not found in the Scriptures, to describe the relationship of Father and Son.
Constantine’s hope that this great council would put an end to disagreement in the Church proved ill-founded, however: even among those opposed to the teaching of Arius, many were unhappy with the unscriptural language of the definition, arguing that it encouraged the “opposite” heresy of modalism, or treating the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ as describing nothing more than different ‘modes’ of God’s operation. So the debate continued throughout much of the fourth century: indeed, by 360, most bishops in the East, enjoying the support of the Emperor Constantius II, more or less openly rejected the authority and teaching of Nicaea.
It was as this discussion developed, and the logical implications of rejecting the doctrine of Nicaea became clearer, that more bishops within the Church came to appreciate the significance of Nicaea’s teaching and the need to uphold its status as a council of the whole Church, standing above all the various smaller councils being held with great eagerness by different parties throughout this period. Not only, then, is Nicaea significant for its teaching on the Trinity, which is still fundamental to all Christian thinking on the subject, but also for its role in the Church’s developing understanding of herself, and of the place of Councils in her life and teaching.