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The Church of Nicaea and Constantinople

The Roman Emperor Constantine convoked the first general (or “ecumenical”) council of the Catholic Church, that of Nicaea. He invited the Catholic bishops of the world to assemble in one of his summer palaces in Asia Minor to decide the questions raised by the Alexandrian priest Arius and his followers, who were preaching about Jesus that “there was a time when he was not.” The Emperor himself delivered an address in Latin to the convocation, urging the restoration of peace in the Church, upset in many places by the preaching of this novel Arian doctrine. Otherwise Constantine took no part in the deliberations of the Council; it was entirely an affair of the Church’s bishops.

Although most of the more than three hundred bishops at the Council of Nicaea were Eastern, the Council was presided over by a Western bishop, Hosius of Cordova, Spain, assisted by two Roman priests, Vitus and Vincentius, whom the aged Pope Sylvester I had sent to represent him.

Among other notable bishops present was the “Father of Church History,” Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine, who later wrote extensively about the gathering. Eusebius recorded that some of the bishops present “bore the stigmata of the Lord Jesus Christ in their bodies” as a result of the still-recent persecutions. Among these was Paul of Neocaesaria on the Euphrates, whose hands had been paralyzed by the application of red-hot irons. Paphnutius of Upper Egypt had lost an eye and had had his knees crushed as well. Another Egyptian bishop, Potamon, also had had an eye torn out. Such had been the state of the Church in the age of persecution.

The contrast could not have been greater between the persecuted Church of only a few years earlier and the bishops now meeting in pomp and splendor under the patronage of the government of the Roman Empire itself. Eusebius was moved to write: “One might have thought that the whole thing was a dream, not solid reality.”

Among other important prelates present was the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, whose name was Alexander and in whose diocese the priest Arius had begun preaching the very heresy which necessitated the Council. Accompanying Alexander was a young deacon, Athanasius, who would eventually succeed Alexander in the See of Alexandria. His unyielding defense, over nearly a half century, of the decision of the Council of Nicaea was to earn him in ancient times the title of “pillar of the Church” and to preserve his fame in later ages as one of the greatest champions of the faith who ever lived. ” Athanasius contra mundum, ” it was said and repeated: “Athanasius against the world.”

The perpetrator of Arianism, the Alexandrian priest Arius, was allowed to appear before the Council to state his case in his own words. Some bishops even championed his cause, most notably the bishop of the territorial capital Nicomedia, another Eusebius by name. The fact that this bishop, who was closest to the Emperor, was, when he was able to be, an open champion of Arianism would help keep this insidious heresy alive long after it was supposed to have been put to death.

But the sentiments of the whole body of bishops at the Council of Nicaea seem never to have been in any real doubt. That Jesus Christ the Savior somehow could not have been fully and truly God was manifestly not the faith that had been handed down in the Church; the faith of the apostles was that Jesus Christ was indeed God. The Council fathers accordingly were obliged to formulate a creed that expressed the true faith of the Church about this.

The creed in question was not something the bishops made up for the occasion. A creed, or profession of faith, had been present in the Church from the beginning. It had to be professed by each convert to Christianity when accepting baptism; it had to be professed for the children of Christian families brought into the Church through infant baptism. In fashioning the original version of what came to be known as the Nicene Creed, the Council took one of the baptismal creeds in common use—probably the one used by the Church of Jerusalem—and added language that would express without ambiguity the true faith of the Church regarding Christ’s nature, as against what Arius and his followers were trying to say it was. The result was the essence of the Nicene Creed still professed on Sundays and holy days in the Catholic Church:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God, begotten not made,
one in being with the Father [Greek homoousion to Patri] . . .

This was the principal work of the Council of Nicaea: the addition to the Church’s traditional profession of faith of a word not found in Scripture that nevertheless proved indispensable to the correct expression of the faith. This word (homoousion) proved necessary to affirm unmistakably the truth, also contained in Scripture, that the man Jesus of Nazareth was God, raised from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father. We do not know who first suggested the word homoousion. Athanasius wrote after the fact that it was Hosius of Cordova. Whoever it was, the word authentically expresses the true faith of the Church: Christ is “one in being” with the Father.

Besides composing the Nicene Creed, the Council also decided a number of other important matters concerning the Church. The gathering proved to be a providential means to enable the bishops to exercise collectively their Christ-given role of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the Church. The Council issued no fewer than twenty directives or canons (from the Greek canon, “rule” or “standard”) on such issues as the computation of the date of Easter, the manner of receiving back into the Church those who had apostatized during the persecutions, the conditions for ordination to the priesthood and elevation to the episcopate, questions concerning the conduct of the Church’s liturgy and official prayer, even usury, the taking of unjust interest.

Just as the apostles at the primitive Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) did not doubt their authority to decide for the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, so the bishops at Nicaea took for granted that they too possessed authority to decide for the whole Church.

They were not innovators. As Athanasius pointed out, “The Fathers of Nicaea, speaking of the Easter feast, say, ‘We have decided as follows.’ But about the faith they do not say, ‘We have decided,’ but: ‘This is what the Catholic Church believes.’ And immediately they proclaim how they believe, in order to declare, not some novelty, but that their belief is apostolic and that what they write down is not something they have discovered, but those very things which the apostles taught” . . . (Epistola de Synodis, 5). 

We should note well the name that Athanasius employs here for the entity for which the Council claimed to be able to speak: the Catholic Church. The Nicene Creed itself, as issued in embryonic form by the Council, originally included this significant additional paragraph which has not been retained in the official version as professed today: “As for those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not’ and ‘before being begotten he was not,’ and who declare that he was made from nothing, or that the Son of God is of a different substance [hupostasis] or being [ousia], that is, created, or subject to change and alteration—such persons the Catholic Church condemns.” This first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church ratified the proper name by which the true Church of Christ already had come to be known.

The second ecumenical council of the Catholic Church was not nearly so dramatic as the first one. Only 150 bishops attended, all from the East. The Council was convoked in 381 by the Emperor Theodosius I to reaffirm the Church’s fidelity to Nicaea after a half-century of turmoil during which the teaching concerning Jesus was called into question, often with support of the sons and successors of Constantine.

The Council of Constantinople was not, in fact, called or planned as an ecumenical council, nor was the bishop of Rome, the pope, even represented at it. Only subsequently, when it received papal approbation, did the Council come to be recognized as ecumenical. Its importance comes from the creed it promulgated, which was essentially the same as one composed in the middle of the fourth century by Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis. The homoousios of Nicaea was incorporated into this “Symbol of Epiphanius,” which also contained an affirmation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit and a listing of the notes or marks of the true Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

In the creed it promulgated, the Council of Constantinople adopted these features and reaffirmed the creed of Nicaea, thus essentially completing the basic creed that is professed to this day in the Catholic Church. The proper name of this creed of the Church is thus the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (or “Symbol”: Symbolum Nicaeno-Constantinopolitanum) , although it is more often referred to simply as the Nicene Creed. Catholics know it by heart, even if they know little or nothing of its history. It represents a classic example of what in modern times has been called the “development of doctrine” in the Church. Since it was promulgated by a general council of the Church, the Creed can never be changed in essentials (although, theoretically, basic truths of the revelation of Jesus could, if necessary, be added to it by the legitimate authority of the Church).

Nevertheless the road that led to the formulation of this seemingly timeless creed was rocky. No sooner had the Council of Nicaea concluded than several bishops in the East revoked their adherence to Nicaea’s homoousion decision. One Arian bishop in particular, Eusebius of Nicomedia, was an astute politician and became influential with the Emperor—so much so that he became the first bishop of Constantinople when Constantine established his new capital there.

Within ten years after Nicaea, Eusebius of Nicomedia and his Arianizing allies had persuaded Constantine to banish Athanasius, the unyielding defender of Nicaea, to Trier in Germany, nearly as far away as he could be sent and still remain within the Roman Empire. It was the first of five exiles for Athanasius in the course of his nearly half century as a Catholic bishop.

Remarkably, Eusebius and his allies also persuaded Constantine to allow Arius to return from his exile. As it happened, the arch-heresiarch died painfully not long after that; his insides ruptured and came out while he was on his way to a church in Constantinople to be reconciled—a death that faithful Catholics were understandably tempted to believe was providential. Nevertheless, the baneful influence of Arius was destined to continue, even after his death.

In 337 Constantine died. The imperial favor shown to the Arianizers continued, especially after his son Constantius became sole emperor in 350; the latter was a convinced Arian as well as an overweening tyrant, and he did not hesitate to use his imperial power to try to force his heretical views upon the bishops. The Roman emperors were generally less interested in truth than in what they called “peace in the Church” (by which, too often, they meant the subservience of the Church to state control).

Athanasius described how Constantius once dealt with a group of recalcitrant bishops at a local council in Milan in 355. The bishops were refusing to sign a condemnation of Athanasius and to “receive the heretics into communion” they “protested against this innovation in Church discipline, crying out that such was not the ecclesiastical rule.” Whereupon the emperor broke in: “My will is canon law! Bishops in Syria make no such objections when I address them. Obey me or . . . exile.”

During the years between the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople more than a half-dozen local councils were convoked in various cities, usually to try to force imperial “compromise” solutions on the bishops on the Arian question. Many bishops gave in under terrific threats and pressures, and sometimes they even underwent torture or were murdered. Such were the passions of the time. Many other bishops, though, especially in the West, where the pressure was generally less great, managed to hold out against forced distortions of the faith. No fewer than nineteen variations on the Nicene formula were at one time or another formally proposed for the Church, but no such formulas ever finally found acceptance.

One of the variant formulations included the Greek term homoiousios, declaring the Son to be similar to the Father but not the same as the Father (homoousios). The difference seemed very small, simply the letter “i,” the Greek iota, being added to the variant formula. It is from this controversy that we derive the expression, ” There is not an iota of difference,” meaning the difference is not significant—but the Church always has understood that the “iota of difference” was literally all important with respect to expressing her timeless doctrine of who and what Jesus Christ is.

Between and after the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople there were competing currents of opinion. The Arians denied the divinity of Christ, and the Semi-Arians—perhaps the majority of the bishops at one time or another—were, in effect, subordinationists. They did not actually deny the divinity of Christ, as the Arians did, but they did not understand that Christ had to be of the same substance as the Father, if indeed Christ himself was God—just as a human child is of exactly the same (human) substance as his father, no more and no less “human.”

The same logic applied to the question of the Holy Spirit if, indeed, as the Council of Constantinople affirmed, the Holy Spirit was also God. This logic was rejected by the followers of Macedonius; who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Then there were the followers of Apollinaris, who held that in the God?man Jesus Christ the divine Logos replaced the human soul (in other words, that Jesus was truly God but not truly man); this heresy, originally known as Apollinarianism, was destined to play a further role in the way in which the two subsequent councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon finally completed the Catholic Church’s work of defining who and what Jesus Christ is.

But it was the Council of Constantinople in 381 that explicitly condemned all the heresies that abounded: Arianism, the various forms of Semi-Arianism, Macedonianism, and Apollinarianism. The Council then promulgated the definitive Creed of the Catholic Church.

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