Some Thoughts on Constantine & the Nicaean Council

After Constantine had gained control over the eastern half of the empire, he quickly journeyed in that direction. Yet, just as quickly as he traveled east, he was also quickly and incredibly disappointed. Indeed, what he found there threatened not only his own Christian faith but also the very political system he had set up. In particular, what Constantine had come across was a widely divided Church. There, amid the fiery schisms and churning controversies, stood two bold and prominent theologians: Arius and Athanasius (an associate of Bishop Alexander’s who would later become a bishop himself).

Displeased with the current state of the Church in the east (and west for that matter), Constantine desired unity and as such, decided to call an ecumenical council. The end result was what is known in history as “the first Council of Nicea.” On one hand, the meeting was highly political in nature and pointed to the fact that the Church had become a major player in politics. On the other hand, the meeting was incredibly theological in nature—even the gathering itself as an ecumenical event made a profound theological statement. However, in the end, no middle ground was found between the disagreeing parties—that was not what Constantine had hoped for. Instead, Arius and his doctrines were shunned while all things Athanasius were accepted.

Though the debate was in essence Trinitarian, it seems that the chief focus or better yet, the starting point of the council was the subject of Christology. More specifically, the issue of greatest prominence was that of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Arius and Athanasius had two competing views which can each be seen in the following table:

As shown in the above table, the disagreement begins at the root of the issue: Did the Father create the Son or has the Son always existed, uncreated but in relation and begotten? While the Nicene Creed espoused the latter and Arius and his views were rejected, the Arians did not go away quietly. As Donald McKim notes, “it went underground and surfaced at numerous points throughout the next half-century…The Arians struck back at the Third Council of Sirmium in 357 and at the synods of Nice in 359 and Constantinople in 360, where they were able to get Arian creeds passed.” However, it would be in the years immediately following the 360 meeting in Constantinople, that Athanasius, along with the Cappadocian fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nasianzus and Gregory of Nyssa), would write and speak vigorously against Arianism and ultimately bring it to the end of its wick. At the tail end of this, as we know, Augustine would add his polishes. Indeed, Church history is an amazing (and often times disturbing) thing! Both God and humans, surely work in mysterious ways.

No comments:

Post a Comment