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The Church Before Nicaea

For the first centuries of its existence, Christianity was an outlawed religion, persecuted by the state. Heroic tales of martyrs dying for the faith quickly became legends (the very word “martyr” is derived from the Greek word for “witness”). These tales of martyrdom were not pious legends; they were only too real.

Nevertheless, during the three hundred years which followed the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, the Catholic Church managed to spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond; but the Church was only tolerated at best. For that reason, if for no other, it tended to be despised by the leaders of society and by most “right-thinking” people.

The great crowds — at the Roman spectacles, for example — were only too happy to join in execrating the Christians, especially during times of persecution by the Roman state. Surely the Christians must have been guilty of terrible things to be persecuted so regularly and savagely! Such has been the judgment of “public opinion” in many times and places, including our own. However mindless such judgments sometimes are, they are made in accordance with the reigning standards of the day, then as now. 

This was the situation faced by the Church while it was spreading through the known civilized world until legal recognition by the state conferred respectability, and public opinion slowly began to shift to the side of the Church.

As Christians grew in numbers and were more and more represented in all walks of life — and as the churches themselves came to own property and impinge more and more on the world around them — toleration of the Church by Roman society increased. Nevertheless, the Roman state periodically mandated persecutions, either to curtail or wipe out Christianity. These persecutions become more systematic, severe, and far-reaching as the Church continued to spread in spite of successive efforts by the government to stop it. 

The last two great persecutions were all-out assaults, total war against the Catholic Church; they aimed to destroy Christianity, root and branch. The first was launched by the Emperor Decius in A.D. 250, and an even greater one was unleashed by the Emperor Diocletian in 303. Both were intended to be empire-wide, and both were carried forward determinedly for the better part of a decade. Holy books were confiscated and destroyed, churches were razed, and Christians were arrested and forced to offer pagan sacrifices on pain of torture and death.

When the Diocletian persecution finally proved to be a costly failure, the stage was set for the great reversal of policy by the Emperor Constantine in 313. 

Constantine, a soldier (like most of the emperors of the day), succeeded his father as ruler of the Western half of the Roman Empire. In 311 Constantine and two of his co-emperors, Licinius and Maximum, revoked the edicts of Diocletian against the Church. 

“In Hoc Signo Vinces”

The next year, marching against a usurper in Italy, Constantine had a dream that convinced him he would conquer in the “heavenly sign” of Jesus Christ (“In hoc signo vinces”). He accordingly had the shields of his soldiers marked with the “labarum,” a monogram of Christ formed from the Greek letters chi and rho; and with “this sign” he did indeed win a resounding victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside the Flaminian Gate of Rome on October 28, 312.

The dream and victory of Constantine did not lead directly to his own conversion to Christianity, however; Constantine was not to be baptized for another twenty-five years, when he was on his deathbed, and even then he would be baptized by a heretical Arian bishop. But the dream of Constantine meant that the emperor had come to believe in the God worshiped by the Christians. This new conviction was to bring about a change in the attitude of the Roman state toward the Catholic Church. Henceforth, Christianity could be freely professed and practiced. It was not yet the official religion of the Empire, but in the new climate the Church could openly carry out its work for souls.

In March 313, Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which declared that “notwithstanding any provisions concerning the Christians in our former instructions, all who choose that religion are to be permitted to continue therein, without any let or hindrance, and are not to be in any way troubled or molested. Note that at the same time all others are to be allowed the free and unrestricted practice of their religions; for it accords with the good order of the realm and the peacefulness of our times that each should have the freedom to worship God after his own choice.”

Although the Roman state thus remained neutral as between Christianity and the old pagan religions, Constantine personally favored the Christian religion from the time he joined in decreeing its liberty within the Empire; and his attitude was to prove decisive, since he was soon (324) to be the sole master of the Roman world.

If the Empire could not succeed in destroying the Church, then the wisest policy was to attempt to enroll this far-flung, well-organized, and highly motivated-even if rather strange-new body as an ally. The Roman commonwealth was increasingly beset with barbarians attacking from beyond the frontiers and was steadily declining from within through the decay of the old Roman virtues. 

Uneasy Allies: Church and State

This was the policy that Constantine and his successor Christian emperors sought to follow. This meant a great opportunity for the Church because it was henceforth free to carry out its divinely-appointed mission of bringing the word and sacraments to everyone prepared “to repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Although it has been estimated that, at the time of the great changeover, Christians constituted no more than ten percent of the total population, the conviction and fervor of the early Christians soon carried all before them in an otherwise decadent Roman Empire.

But the change in government policy also constituted a great danger for the Church. When allied with the state, the Church could only too easily be used by the state for purposes far from its own. When allied with the state, some of the Church’s leaders could too easily be tempted by secular power and prestige; the true religious mission of the Church sometimes became deformed.

In particular, the “Christian emperors” constantly tried to control the Church and bend its life to the purposes of the state as they saw them. In the ensuing decades, and, indeed, centuries, the Church was continually obliged to resist state control-a task at which the Church succeeded in the West, though not in the East. 

The Soul-Saving Business

We should thus never mistake ecclesiastical politics, however disedifying they may seem, for the total life and working of the Church. The Church is not normally a political entity at all; rather, it remains primarily in the soul-saving business, even though its activities also necessarily extend beyond preaching, teaching, and sacramental activities on behalf of its own members.

We should not conclude that the Church’s emergence from the catacombs was a fundamentally wrong turn for the Church; the Church had to emerge from the catacombs if it was ever going to fulfill its mission from Christ to evangelize the world. The fact is that the Church emerged from the catacombs into a world of Roman state absolutism, and therefore the Church had to come to terms with that absolutism and with the state power which enforced it, however uneasy those terms might have turned out to be in practice.

The Church can never renounce the world entirely — not if it is going to sanctify and save the world; it must always strive to be in, but not of, the world. It is always a temptation to imagine that the Church could, or should, have remained a small, pure, unworldly entity; Jesus commanded the apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). To carry out that command, the Church had to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by Constantine and his successors, even if these opportunities sometimes cost it something.

Necessary developments of Church doctrine and life did emerge from some of the Church’s interaction with the Empire. In the century and a quarter that followed the liberation of the Church by Constantine, four great general councils of the Church’s bishops were convened under the patronage of the Christian emperors. These councils were called to deal with pressing Church problems, and all took place under conditions of political turbulence and stress. 

Yet it was in the course of these same four ecumenical (“worldwide”), or general, councils of the Church’s bishops that the Church of Christ arrived at its definitive formulation of its basic teaching: Who is this Jesus Christ upon whom the Catholic Church bases all of its teaching and action? Jesus himself posed the same question when he asked the apostles: “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13). Obviously, the entire Christian faith depends upon the answer to this question.

The New Testament itself, of course, has, since it was first written down, provided for Christians all elements that go into finding the answer to this question. By itself, however, the New Testament does not provide the complete answer, as is proven by the fact that even fervent believers continue to argue about its meaning.

Christians who emerged from the age of persecution engaged in roughly the same arguments, and the Church was obliged to provide answers. Between the Council of Nicaea in 325, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and including the Councils of Constantinople in 381 and the Council of Ephesus in 431, the bishops of the Catholic Church, possessing the authority given by Christ to the apostles, which had been passed on in turn to them, debated, formulated in language impossible to mistake, and then decided for the Church the answer to the question Christ posed to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15; emphasis added).

The teaching authority of the Church residing in its hierarchy-what is today called the Church’s magisterium-decided the final and definitive answer to this question in the course of the first four great councils of the Church. The answer hammered out these councils is one that Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox generally agree upon to this day, in spite of their differences on other questions. 

An Ominous Precedent

The Roman Emperor Constantine had no sooner won his victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312, bearing the “sign” of Jesus Christ, and decreed the freedom of the Church in the following year, than he became embroiled in a raging Church controversy. He intervened as emperor to help restore the rightful bishop to the see of Carthage in North Africa. Ominously for the future, this was the first instance in which the secular arm of the state employed the use of force to back up a Church decision.

In the course of Constantine’s intervention, he became involved in the already established Church practice of calling together bishops in synods or councils to decide important Church questions. The idea of calling a Church council thus served him in good stead when serious trouble broke out in the East around the year 323. Constantine became the patron of the first gathering of all the Catholic bishops of the world, which he scheduled for May, 325. He designated as the site of the council one of his summer palaces in Nicaea, some twenty-five miles away from his then imperial capital, Nicomedia (and about forty miles away from the site of the new imperial capital he would soon establish on the Bosphorus at Byzantium, Constantinople).

More than 300 bishops responded to the emperor’s invitation and attended the Council of Nicaea, the first of the Church’s ecumenical councils; the bishops came from the “whole world,” Greek oikoumene, from which our adjective “ecumenical” comes. 

A New Peril

What trouble in the Church had called forth such an extraordinary response on the part of the Roman emperor? The threat was a novel teaching about Christ, one that, although superficially plausible, was fundamentally erroneous, and, indeed, destructive of any belief in Christ as Savior. This erroneous teaching was spreading with alarming rapidity, especially throughout the Christian East; the very cause of Christ and the future of his Church, which had initially developed amid hostile circumstances, were suddenly placed in jeopardy from an entirely different source, from within.

After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus had instructed the apostles to baptize the disciples they made “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This threefold invocation constituted a summary of the fundamental revelation about God which Jesus had come into the world to deliver-but which only gradually became fully evident to the disciples as they reflected upon the words and actions of Jesus himself, particularly his miracles.

This fundamental revelation was the basic truth of Christianity itself, that the Supreme Being, the “Lord of Hosts” of the Old Testament, the God of heaven and earth, was not fully comprehensible to the human mind, then or now, a Trinity, a being composed of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons, yet still “one God.”

Moreover, Jesus himself was “the Son” in this Trinity of Persons. In other words, Jesus, although unmistakably a Galilean man with whom the disciples had walked and talked and eaten in ancient Palestine, and who had suffered and died on the cross in Jerusalem, was-again, in a sense not fully comprehensible to the human mind-God.

This revelation of himself as God had begun to be evident to the disciples even while Jesus was still among them-but in a mysterious fashion which the disciples had difficulty understanding, according to the Gospel accounts. Nevertheless, the disciples could not help drawing some conclusions about Jesus when they witnessed such miracles as the multiplication of the loaves, the changing of water into wine, the healing of the sick, the raising of people from the dead, or the taming of the very winds and the sea. Also, when Jesus referred to himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:22) or “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), or “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8), or when he assumed God’s exclusive prerogative by asserting that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9:6), even the most obtuse of the disciples could not fail to g.asp that Jesus was claiming to be more than another prophet or just a “good man.” But the disciples only began to realize after the Resurrection who Jesus was: God. As Thomas confessed: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). 

More Believable Today

It would be a mistake to think this revelation was more believable to the ignorant and credulous of ancient times than to us today. Because of the advance of scientific knowledge, this revelation is more believable today — at least for anyone willing to inquire seriously into it and humble himself to pray for the grace to believe it. 

After two thousand years of Christianity, we are used to the idea of a crucified and resurrected God-man. We know today that many generations of our ancestors have believed in this revelation, including some of the most intelligent and saintly among them. We know too that none of the scientific objections to this belief really get to the heart of it.

At the time this revelation was first delivered to the world through Jesus, it constituted an unprecedented revelation; the effect of it, when the truth was borne in upon the disciples of Jesus, must have been staggering. Only the triumphant experience of the risen Christ, accompanied by the superabundant power of the Holy Spirit-whom Jesus had promised the Father would send (John 14:16)-could have enabled the cowardly apostles to launch the Church and Christianity effectively, as history attests that they did.

Tertullian, a Christian writer who died in 220, well expressed the immense paradox inherent in Christianity, paradox which was only too evident to the ancients when they first encountered Christianity: “The Son of God was crucified; I not ashamed-because it is shameful. The Son of God died; it is immediately credible because it is silly. He was buried and rose again; it is certain-because it is impossible” (The Flesh of Christ, 5).

This, then, was at least one aspect of the “good news” which the infant Church was obliged to proclaim in its initial efforts to convert the world to Jesus Christ the Savior. It was not the only.aspect of the Gospel of Christ, of course: In a world increasingly lost in sin and meaninglessness, many proved quite responsive to the startling message that God had become man to save them from their sins and bring them to eternal life. Faith in Christ caught on; the Church began to grow and spread. In spite of obstacles, it continues to grow and spread today for roughly the same reasons as in the beginning.

Yet despite the new hope which Christianity offered to a doomed pagan world, a nagging question remained in the minds of some: How could a man really be God at the same time that he was obviously a man? This question seemed particularly pertinent to the subtle Greek and Oriental minds of ancient times, and, unfortunately, some who pondered it concluded that no mere man could really have been God, in spite of the clear testimony that had been handed down in the Church (e.g., John 14).

According to this way of thinking, our Lord Jesus Christ had to have been a creature, however exalted; he had to have been “the Son of God” in name only, by adoption only. According to this way of thinking, “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) could not have been “in the beginning with God,” as the John plainly asserts (John 1:2). In other words, “there was a time when he was not,” according to this way of thinking.

This was the doctrine of Arianism. It took its name from one of its votaries, Arius, a priest of Alexandria in Egypt. The increasingly widespread preaching of the doctrine of Arius, especially in the churches of the East, provoked the crisis which impelled the Emperor Constantine to summon the Council of Nicaea to settle the question. 

“One in Being with the Father”

The decision of the Church at the Council of Nicaea was that the first-century Galilean carpenter Jesus Christ was indeed “one in being” (Greek homo-ousios) with God the Father. Jesus was, in other words, of the same substance of the Father; that is, Jesus was himself God, as Thomas had testified, as the apostles had preached, as the evangelists had recorded in the Gospels, and as the Church had handed down to the faithful of subsequent generations. 

Just as the original apostles at the Council of Jerusalem had decided on the relationship of the old law to the new revelation of Christ by declaring that “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden” (Acts 15:28), so the fourth-century Catholic bishops at Nicaea unhesitatingly took it upon themselves to decide and declare what the faith of the apostles was, as the Church had preserved and taught it.

A true understanding of the doctrine of Christ admits of no other interpretation than the one arrived at by the Church at Nicaea. Nevertheless the decision taken at Nicaea was not, at the outset, universally accepted throughout the whole Church. Rather, the decision triggered further questions and controversies on the same basic question of who and what Jesus Christ was. These questions were only settled by the Church during three subsequent general councils held over a period of a century and a quarter. Later articles will examine each of these great councils in turn


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