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Can we trust the Council of Nicaea?

Can we trust the Council of Nicaea?

Examining the Myths about the Council of Nicaea

Mitchell Leach

Community Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

May 31, 2023

It may be surprising to the average churchgoer that, the council that produced one of the most well-known creeds of the early church and solidified the orthodoxy — or theological position — of the trinity, has a bit of controversy surrounding it. Not everyone in academia can look back on this event with the love for the doctrines that came out of it, but with the weariness of the political and governmental influences that surround it. But contemporary Christians shouldn’t worry about this event being tainted by the forces behind its acceptance. Rather Christians should trust and even worship the beauty that was simplified and clarified by the work of the men who formed it.

Main Issue

The council of Nicaea was brought together — by the newly Christian[1] — emperor Constantine in 325 AD.[2]As Constantine came to power in the death of Emperor Galerius, Constantine found himself in a situation where he needed to unify the new republic of Rome. During this time theological divides seemed to be popping up in the newly legalized religion that Constantine allowed. So for the first time in the life of the church, pastors/bishops were welcomed without threat of persecution, to settle the division in the church.[3] The major doctrinal issue that backed by Arian — a talented Baucalis preacher — who challenged the view of the Bishop in Alexandria on his belief in Homoousion (or the doctrine that Jesus was of the same substance as God). Arian believed homoousion was Sabellianism,[4] and instead professed the belief in homoiosion (or the doctrine that Jesus was of a similar substance as God). To the modern outsider, this seems to be a minor bit of doctrine, that nerdy theologians like to debate in their free time. It seems like this is one of those fights that Paul warns against in Romans 16:17-18.[5] But the implications of getting this correct were critical for the church. Worship, and how it understands the God of the Bible, and many other practical parts of the church, hinged on understanding the person of Jesus correctly. In fact, this issue was so theologically important that is was impossible to look past each other’s view. Each side believed that the other’s view was so different that they were — ultimately — worshiping a different God. The implications of this were either — in Arian’s view — that Jesus was created, and that the son was not part of God.[6]

Encouragement for the modern church

During the actual council the view that Jesus was of the same essence as God was overwhelmingly adopted. Of the numerous bishops and clergymen in attendance at the Council of Nicaea (between 250-310), only two dissented. This was a huge victory for the ancient church but is also a huge source of confidence in the modern church. The modern church can look back on this event and find confidence that these men came out with the correct interpretation of scripture.

Why can the church feel this way? Because men cannot create new — correct theology — men can only discover it. Men can invent new heresy, but not orthodoxy. Men and women today and in antiquity can only recognize it. And this is what the modern church should find confidence in. As noted above, the implications of this inform nearly every subsequent theological position the church has taken since.

The council of Nicaea was moved by the Holy Spirit to see the Word of God correctly and identified Jesus as wholly God and wholly man. Whether that was the view of Constantine, or maybe just his wish, is irrelevant. The church can be confident in the beauty of the person of Jesus as stated by the Nicene Creed. If this were mere political pressure by Constantine, bishops would have revolted. They weren’t moved by fear of dissent. Here gathered at Nicaea were men who had been marked with scars from their previous persecution. They were not afraid of a man or the state. They feared God and in near unanimity, affirmed the truth of the Lord and Savior of the universe Jesus.

[1] Or at least newly compassionate toward christian emperor.

[2] Kenneth Scott Latourette, “Christianity Takes Shape in Organization, Doctrine,” in A History of Christianity, 4th ed., vol. 1 (Prince Press, 2007), pp. 154-156.

[3] Bruce Shelley, “Splitting Important Hairs,” in Church History in Plain Language, 5th ed. (S.l.: ZONDERVAN, 2021), pp. 131-136.

[4] Kenneth Scott Latourette, pp. 152.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 16:17–18. I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.

[6] Kenneth Scott Latourette, pp. 154.

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