Common Misconceptions on the Council of Nicaea

In 318 AD, a dispute arose between the Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and one of his presbyters, a young man by the name of Arius. Alexander had been attempting to explain the Trinity, and in doing so explained that the Father and Son were homoousios – that is, “of the same substance.”

Arius, however, feared that Alexander was reintroducing a heresy known as Sabellianism. This teaching (known as “Modalism” today) came from a man named Sabellius, who said that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were different manifestations, or modes, of the one God, rather than three distinct Persons within the one Being of God. Sabellianism had been condemned in 220 AD, but Arius, hearing Alexander speak of the Father and Son being the “same substance,” worried that Alexander was bringing it back. Being heavy on reasoning and philosophy, Arius proposed that the Father and Son were actually heteroousios – that is, “of a different substance.”

“If,” said [Arius], “the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing.” [Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Ch. V]

Alexander eventually condemned Arius and his followers, but the presbyter found support in neighboring churches, and soon a war of words and condemnations erupted within the body of Christ. This eventually caught the notice of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who called the Council of Nicaea to settle the dispute in 325 AD.

This single council has become perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented events in history. The following are some of the most common misconceptions (or downright falsehoods) regarding the Council of Nicaea and the circumstances around it.

Misconception #1: Arius taught that Jesus was just a man.

This is actually untrue – in fact, Arius believed Jesus was divine. What perhaps confuses people was that Arius taught that the Son was a creature – however, not in the sense of complete mortality, but in the sense that he was not co-eternal with the Father and was instead a created being – what one might call a lesser god. Arius believed that Jesus was creator of the world, and acted, in essence, as a “middle creature” between God and man. To give a choice quote that explains the matter:

The Father alone is God; therefore he alone is unbegotten, eternal, wise, good, and unchangeable, and he is separated by an infinite chasm from the world. He cannot create the world directly, but only through an agent, the Logos. The Son of God is pre-existent, before all creatures, and above all creatures, a middle being between God and the world, the creator of the world, the perfect image of the Father, and the executor of his thoughts, and thus capable of being called in a metaphorical sense God, and Logos, and Wisdom. But on the other hand, he himself is a creature, that is to say, the first creation of God, through whom the Father called other creatures into existence; he was created out of nothing (not out of the essence of God) by the will of the Father before all conceivable time; he is therefore not eternal, but had a beginning, and there was a time when he was not. [Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church Vol. III; § 124]

And another quote:

Arius was forced to admit, in his first letter to Eusebius of Nicodemia, that Christ was called God…But he reduced this expression to the idea of a subordinate, secondary, created divinity. [New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. I, pg. 281; source]

The teaching of Arianism is not unlike today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that Christ is not God Himself, but a lesser spiritual being. Arianism itself, logically speaking, leads to a form of henotheism, which believes that there are many gods but only one worthy of worship.

Misconception #2: It was a Roman Catholic council called by the Roman pope.

This misconception is both anachronistic and fallacious. It is anachronistic in the sense that there was no such thing as a “Roman Catholic Church” back then, as the Eastern Orthodox, Coptics, and Church of the East would all contest. What we know today as the Roman Catholic Church is a historical development whose coming into being is worth another, longer blog post, but the point is we shouldn’t read backwards into history and apply labels that wouldn’t have existed. The words “catholic,” “orthodox,” etc., did not have the connotation as they do today with some churches.

This misconception is fallacious in the sense that there is no record of the Roman bishop being consulted regarding the calling of the council. When Constantine first heard of the conflict going on between Alexander and Arius, he initially wrote them a personal letter, asking them to reconcile. When this failed, he sent the Bishop of Corduba, the 70-year old Hosius, to negotiate between the two parties. This likewise failed, and so Constantine called for something entirely new: an “ecumenical” council. Keep in mind that, at this time, the distinction between “local” or “general” and “ecumenical” councils was not established, and the decades that followed would demonstrate few considered there to be any real distinctions.

The role of the pope at the council, in fact, was very minimal. Of the over 300 men who attended the council, only seven came from the Roman church, with two legates representing the pope, who stayed in Rome. Any idea of “secret backdoor deals” between Constantine and Pope Sylvester I at Nicaea is simply pure conspiracy theory and nothing else.

Misconception #3: Nicaea was an all white council.

This one is probably going to catch some people off guard, but it was inspired by a YouTube video I came across. In the video, an African American gentleman made the claim that the Council of Nicaea was an all white person council designed to create a white Jesus to enslave the black man.

I am not making this up!

In all seriousness, however, historical sources say that the participants of the council came from all corners of the Roman Empire. There were Syrians, Arabians, Thebeans, Libyans, Persians, Macedonians, Spaniards, and countless other groups represented. Athanasius, a deacon of Alexandria at the time, and the later champion of the orthodox faith, was nicknamed by his enemies as “the black dwarf.” Clearly, the men at Nicaea were a little more diverse than most people assume.

Misconception #4: This was where the Trinity and Christ’s divinity were invented.

This is likewise not true. Christ’s divinity is plainly taught in scripture (see my posts here and here), as is the Trinity (see my post here). Also, several Church Fathers wrote on both subjects in the years preceding Nicaea. Some examples:

This is the way, beloved, in which we find our Saviour, even Jesus Christ, the High Priest of all our offerings, the defender and helper of our infirmity. By Him we look up to the heights of heaven. By Him we behold, as in a glass, His immaculate and most excellent visage. By Him are the eyes of our hearts opened. By Him our foolish and darkened understanding blossoms up anew towards His marvelous light. By Him the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge, “who, being the brightness of His majesty, is by so much greater than the angels, as He hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” (Heb 1:3-4) For it is thus written, “Who maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire.” (Psa 104:4; Heb 1:7) But concerning His Son the Lord spoke thus: “Thou art my Son, to-day have I begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession.” (Psa 2:7-8; Heb 1:5) And again He saith to Him, “Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool.” (Psalm 110:1; Heb 1:13) But who are His enemies? All the wicked, and those who set themselves to oppose the will of God. [Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 36; Clement of Rome (30-100)]

Since, also, there is but one unbegotten Being, God, even the Father; and one only-begotten Son, God, the Word and man; and one Comforter, the Spirit of truth; and also one preaching, and one faith, and one baptism; (Eph 4:5) and one Church which the holy apostles established from one end of the earth to the other by the blood of Christ, and by their own sweat and toil; it behooves you also, therefore, as “a peculiar people, and a holy nation,” (Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9) to perform all things with harmony in Christ. [Epistle to the Philadelphians, Chapter 4; Ignatius of Antioch (50-117)]

If any one says there is one God, and also confesses Christ Jesus, but thinks the Lord to be a mere man, and not the only-begotten God, and Wisdom, and the Word of God, and deems Him to consist merely of a soul and body, such an one is a serpent, that preaches deceit and error for the destruction of men, And such a man is poor in understanding, even as by name he is an Ebionite. [ibid, Chapter 6; Ignatius of Antioch (50-117)]

“For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;” (1 John 4:3) and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning; “watching unto prayer,” (1 Peter 4:7) and persevering in fasting; beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God “not to lead us into temptation,” (Matt 6:13; 26:41) as the Lord has said: “The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41; Mark 14:38). [Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 7; Polycarp (69-155)]

Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ, “who bore our sins in His own body on the tree,” (1 Pet 2:24) “who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth,” (1 Pet 2:22) but endured all things for us, that we might live in Him. (1 John 4:9) Let us then be imitators of His patience; and if we suffer (Act 5:41; 1 Pet 4:16) for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him. For He has set us this example (1 Pet 2:21) in Himself, and we have believed that such is the case. [ibid, Chapter 8; Polycarp (69-155)]

Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity. But both Him, and the Son (who came forth from Him and taught us these things, and the host of the other good angels who follow and are made like to Him), and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore, knowing them in reason and truth, and declaring without grudging to every one who wishes to learn, as we have been taught. [First Apology, Chapter 6; Justin Martyr (100-165)]

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” (Eph 1:10) and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven” and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess (Phi 2:10-11) to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” (Eph 6:12) and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. [Against Heresies I, 10:1; Irenaeus of Lyons (115-200)]

For, as I said, this was no mere earthly invention which was delivered to them, nor is it a mere human system of opinion, which they judge it right to preserve so carefully, nor has a dispensation of mere human mysteries been committed to them, but truly God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, [Him who is] the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word, and has firmly established Him in their hearts. He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things — by whom He made the heavens — by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds — whose ordinances all the stars faithfully observe — from whom the sun has received the measure of his daily course to be observed — whom the moon obeys, being commanded to shine in the night, and whom the stars also obey, following the moon in her course; by whom all things have been arranged, and placed within their proper limits, and to whom all are subject — the heavens and the things that are therein, the earth and the things that are therein, the sea and the things that are therein — fire, air, and the abyss — the things which are in the heights, the things which are in the depths, and the things which lie between. This [messenger] He sent to them. Was it then, as one might conceive, for the purpose of exercising tyranny, or of inspiring fear and terror? By no means, but under the influence of clemency and meekness. As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Savior He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God. As calling us He sent Him, not as vengefully pursuing us; as loving us He sent Him, not as judging us. [Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 7; Mathetes (circa 130 AD)]

We have been taught that He proceeds forth from God, and in that procession He is generated; so that He is the Son of God, and is called God from unity of substance with God. For God, too, is a Spirit. Even when the ray is shot from the sun, it is still part of the parent mass; the sun will still be in the ray, because it is a ray of the sun — there is no division of substance, but merely an extension. Thus Christ is Spirit of Spirit, and God of God, as light of light is kindled. [Apology, Chapter 21; Tertullian (145-220)]

But lest, from the fact of asserting that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Creator, was manifested in the substance of the true body, we should seem either to have given assent to other heretics, who in this place maintain that He is man only and alone, and therefore desire to prove that He was a man bare and solitary; and lest we should seem to have afforded them any ground for objecting, we do not so express doctrine concerning the substance of His body, as to say that He is only and alone man, but so as to maintain, by the association of the divinity of the Word in that very materiality, that He was also God according to the Scriptures. [Trinity Treatise, Chapter 11; Novatian (210-280)]

Moreover, names are such as these – Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob: these, I say, are names. But the Divine Persons are names indeed: and the names are still the persons; and the persons then signify that which is and subsists – which is the essence of God. The name also of the nature signifies subsistence; as if we should speak of the man. All (the persons) are one nature, one essence, one will, and are called the Holy Trinity; and these also are haines subsistent, one nature in three persons, and one genus. But the person of the Son is composite in its oneness (unita est), being one made up of two, that is, of divinity and humanity together, which two constitute one. Yet the divinity does not consequently receive any increment, but the Trinity remains as it was. Nor does anything new befall the persons even or the names, but these are eternal and without time. No one, however, was sufficient to know these until the Son being made flesh manifested them, saying: “Father, I have manifested Your name to men; glorify me also, that they may know me as Your Son” (John 17:6). And on the mount the Father spoke, and said, “This is my beloved Son” (Matt 3:17). And the same sent His Holy Spirit at the Jordan. And thus it was declared to us that there is an Eternal Trinity in equal honor…

This Word took our substance of the Virgin Mary; and in so far as He is spiritual indeed, He is indivisibly equal with the Father; but in so far as He is corporeal, He is in like manner inseparably equal with us. And, again, in so far as He is spiritual, He supplies in the same equality (aequiparat) the Holy Spirit, inseparably and without limit. Neither were there two natures, but only one nature of the Holy Trinity before the incarnation of the Word, the Son; and the nature of the Trinity remained one also after the incarnation of the Son. But if any one, moreover, believes that any increment has been given to the Trinity by reason of the assumption of humanity by the Word, he is an alien from us, and from the ministry of the Catholic and Apostolic Church. This is the perfect, holy, Apostolic faith of the holy God. Praise to the Holy Trinity for ever through the ages of the ages. Amen. [Gregory Thaumaturgus (213-275)]

The very term used by the orthodox party – homoousios – predates the council as well. One can find it used in regards to the Father and Son in the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others. It is true that at times it was met with trepidation in the eastern churches, but this was due to the fear, similar to Arius’, of reintroducing Sabellianism.

Use of the Persons in the Trinity, in fact, was seen among the Arians. The Arians upheld that the Father was God, and that the Son and the Holy Spirit were lesser gods, or demi-gods. Another group that arose at the council, the Semi-Arians, who upheld that the Father and Son were homoiousios (“of a similar substance”), believed the Father and the Son were co-equal, but that the Holy Spirit was a lesser divine being or demi-god. It was from this group that another heresy of the time arose called Macedonianism (named after its founder, the Bishop Macedonius), which upheld the Holy Spirit was not divine and not worthy of worship.

Misconception #5: It was from Nicaea that we got the books of the Bible.

There is positively, absolutely no evidence for this. The Bible was not even a topic for discussion. Anyone who wants to contest this, I will present the challenge I give to everyone who does: find the documents recording the events of the Council of Nicaea, and point to me the one line that mentions the books of the Bible, let alone declares anything regarding their canonical status.

Misconception #6: Emperor Constantine enforced his will on the council.

Constantine’s role was actually very minimal. His main concern was to have unity, and desired the leaders of Nicaea to come to some resolution to ensure stability in the empire. Whatever agreement the council came to, he would agree with. To quote one church history source:

Finally all the priests agreed with one another and conceded that the Son is consubstantial with the Father. At the commencement of the conference there were but seventeen who praised the opinion of Arius, but eventually the majority of these yielded assent to the general view. To this judgment the emperor likewise deferred… [Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Ch. XX]

There is no evidence that Constantine enforced his will upon the council in any way. His actions after the council, in regards to who he really sided with, were likewise very telling, but we will get to that shortly.

Misconception #7: The council came to a close tie.

This misconception is the most humorous because, even though it’s popular in some circles, it’s completely false. Of the over 300 men there, only two refused to agree.

Only two Egyptian bishops, Theonas and Secundus, persistently refused to sign, and were banished with Arius to Illyria. [Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church Vol. III; § 120]

There is no evidence of there being a close tie or some disagreement that had to be settled through other means.

Misconception #8: After the council, heretics and non-Christians were persecuted.

This is perhaps the biggest – and sadly least contested – misconception about the council. I say “sadly’ because it is probably the most disprovable, and all one would need to do is study a layman’s work on church history to see that. Let’s go over this in two parts:

Firstly, heathenism actually enjoyed a good amount of freedom at this time, and wouldn’t experience any form of persecution until later on. The Edict of Milan in 313 AD merely permitted Christianity to exist, and although Constantine began to show favor towards those who called themselves Christians, he permitted heathens to maintain their offices and government positions, and heathen worship continued to be protected by the state. A relevant source on the matter:

Nevertheless he continued in his later years true upon the whole to the toleration principles of the edict of 313, protected the pagan priests and temples in their privileges, and wisely abstained from all violent measures against heathenism, in the persuasion that it would in time die out. He retained many heathens at court and in public office, although he loved to promote Christians to honorable positions. [Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church Vol. III; § 2]

It wasn’t until his son Constantius came to power in the middle fourth century that we begin to see persecution of non-Christian faiths by the state. What developed over time was a gradual removal of heathen rights by the Roman emperors, leading to the destruction of heathen temples in 435 AD by Emperor Theodosius II. Even then, heathenism (now called paganism by this time) continued to have some presence within the empire, right up until the last major school of pagan thought was shut down by Emperor Justinian I in 529 AD.

Secondly, anyone who makes this claim shows that they are either repeating what someone else said or they are completely ignorant of church history. Why is this? Because they are forgetting something called the “Arian Resurgence”: soon after the council, the Arians returned to power, and obtained so much that, at one point, all the top church positions (Rome included) were run by Arians. Jerome, a Church Father who lived at the tail end of the Arian controversy, wrote regarding the Post-Nicene era: “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian” (Dialogue Against the Luciferians, 19).

This Arian resurgence began when Constantine was persuaded by Semi-Arians to let Arius back into the empire, and Arius was absolved of the charge of heresy by the Council of Jerusalem in 335 AD. Constantine himself began to show favor towards the Arians, and at his death in 337 AD was baptized by a Semi-Arian bishop. The successive emperors (save for Julian the Apostate’s brief pagan rule) continued to persecute those who held to the non-Arian view, and hundreds of pro-Arian church councils were held affirming the Arian belief. This finally came to an end when the Arians and Semi-Arians turned against each other in the middle fourth century, followed by the rise of Emperor Theodosius the Great in 379 AD, banning Arian theology the next year and calling the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD to affirm Nicaea.

Most telling of the Arian power is the story of Athanasius, the lead proponent of the orthodox cause at Nicaea who later became bishop of Alexandria after Alexander’s death. During this time period – up until his own death in 373 AD – Athanasius was removed from his position as bishop five times, either by Arian councils or by pro-Arian emperors. The first time was in 336 AD, after his condemnation by two church councils and at the orders of Emperor Constantine himself. One time, in 356 AD, Athanasius had to literally run out the back door of his church mid-service because Roman soldiers were pouring through the front door. It was from this era that the phrase Athanasius contra mundum (“Athanasius against the world”) came.

Again, as I said before: anyone who wants to try to argue that Nicaea resolved all issues (as some Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox claim), or wants to try to argue that after Nicaea all contrary thought was eliminated (as many non-Christians and skeptics do), simply does not know what they are talking about.

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