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§ 120. The Council of Nicaea, 325.


(1) The twenty Canones, the doctrinal Symbol, and a Decree of the Council of Nicaea, and several Letters of bishop Alexander of Alexandria and the emperor Constantine (all collected in Greek and Latin in Mansi: Collect. sacrorum Conciliorum, tom. ii. fol. 635–704). Official minutes of the transactions themselves were not at that time made; only the decrees as adopted were set down in writing and subscribed by all (comp. Euseb. Vita Const. iii. 14). All later accounts of voluminous acts of the council are sheer fabrications (Comp. Hefele, i. p. 249 sqq.)

(2) Accounts of eye-witnesses, especially Eusebius, Vita Const. iii. 4–24 (superficial, rather Arianizing, and a panegyric of the emperor Constantine). The Church History of Eusebius, which should have closed with the council of Nice, comes down only to the year 324. Athanasius: De decretis Synodi Nic.; Orationes iv contra Arianos; Epist. ad Afros, and other historical and anti-Arian tracts in tom. i. and ii. of his Opera, ed. Bened. and the more important of them also in the first vol. of Thilo’s Bibliotheca Patrum Graec. dogmat. Lips. 1853. (Engl. transl. in the Oxford Library of the Fathers.)

(3) The later accounts of Epiphanius: Haer. 69; Socrates: H. E. i. 8 sqq.; Sozomen: H. E. i. 17 sqq.; Theodoret: H. E. i. 1–13; Rufinus: H. E. i. 1–6 (or lib. x., if his transl. of Eusebius be counted in). Gelasius Cyzicenus (about 476): Commentarius actorum Concilii Nicaeni (Greek and Latin in Mansi, tom. ii. fol. 759 sqq.; it professes to be founded on an old MS., but is filled with imaginary speeches). Comp. also the four Coptic fragments in Pitra: Spicilegium Solesmense, Par. 1852, vol. i. p. 509 sqq., and the Syriac fragments in Analecta Nicaena. Fragments relating to the Council of Nicaea. The Syriac text from am ancient MS. by H. Cowper, Lond. 1857.


Of the historians cited at § 119 must be here especially mentioned Tillemont (R.C.), Walch, Schröckh, Gibbon, Hefele (i. pp. 249–426), A. de Broglie (vol. ii. ch. iv. pp. 3–70), and Stanley. Besides them, Ittig: Historia concilii Nicaeni, Lips. 1712. Is. Boyle: A historical View of the Council of Nice, with a translation of Documents, New York, 1856 (in Crusé’s ed. of Euseb.’s Church History). Comp. also § 65 and 66 above, where this in connection with the other ecumenical councils has already been spoken of.

Nicaea, the very name of which speaks victory, was the second city of Bithynia, only twenty English miles from the imperial residence of Nicomedia, and easily accessible by sea and land from all parts of the empire. It is now a miserable Turkish village, Is-nik,13171317   I.e., Εἰς Νίκαιαν, like Stambul, Is-tam-bul, from εἰς τὴν πόλιν. Isnik now contains only some fifteen hundred inhabitants. where nothing but a rude picture in the solitary church of St. Mary remains to the memory of the event which has given the place a name in the history of the world.

Hither, in the year 325, the twentieth of his reign (therefore the festive vicennalia), the emperor summoned the bishops of the empire by a letter of invitation, putting at their service the public conveyances, and liberally defraying from the public treasury the expenses of their residence in Nicaea and of their return. Each bishop was to bring with him two presbyters and three servants.13181318   The imperial letter of convocation is not extant. Eusebius says, Vita Const. iii. 6, the emperor by very respectful letters invited the bishops of all countries to come with all speed to Nicaea (σπεύδειν ἁπανταχόθεν τοὺς ἐπισκόπους ·γράμμασι τιμητικοῖς προκαλούμενος). Arius also was invited (Rufinus, H. E. i. 1). In an invitation of Constantineto the bishop of Syracuse to attend the council of Arles (as given by Eusebius, H. E. x. c. 5), the emperor directs him to bring with him two priests and three servants, and promises to defray the travelling expenses. The same was no doubt done at the council of Nice. Comp. Eus. V. Const. iii. 6 and 9. They travelled partly in the public post carriages, partly on horses, mules, or asses, partly on foot. Many came to bring their private disputes before the emperor, who caused all their papers, without reading them, to be burned, and exhorted the parties to reconciliation and harmony.

The whole number of bishops assembled was at most three hundred and eighteen;13191319   According to Athanasius (Ad Afros, c. 2, and elsewhere), Socrates (H. E. l. 8), Theodoret (H. E. i. 7), and the usual opinion. The spirit of mystic interpretation gave to the number 318, denoted in Greek by the letters TIH, a reference to the cross (T), and to the holy name Jesus (ἸΗσοῦς). It was also (Ambrose, De fide, i. 18) put in connection with the three hundred and eighteen servants of Abraham, the father of the faithful (Gen. xiv. 14). Eusebius, however, gives only two hundred and fifty bishops (πεντήκοντα καὶ διακοσίων ἀριθμόν), or a few over; but with an indefinite number of attendant priests, deacons, and acolyths (Vit. Const. iii. 8). The later Arabic accounts of more than two thousand bishops probably arose from confounding bishops and clergy in general. Perhaps the number of members increased towards the close, so that Eusebius with his 260, and Athanasius with his 318, may both be right. The extant Latin lists of the subscribers contain the names of no more than two hundred and twenty-four bishops and chorepiscopi, and many of these are mutilated and distorted by the mistakes of transcribers, and varied in the different copies. Comp. the list from an ancient Coptic cloister in Pitra’s Spicilegium Solesmense (Par. 1852.), tom. i. p. 516 sqq.; and Hefele, Conciliengesch. i. 284. that is, about one sixth of all the bishops of the empire, who are estimated as at least eighteen hundred (one thousand for the Greek provinces, eight hundred for the Latin), and only half as many as were at the council of Chalcedon. Including the presbyters and deacons and other attendants the number may, have amounted to between fifteen hundred and two thousand. Most of the Eastern provinces were strongly represented; the Latin church, on the contrary, had only seven delegates: from Spain Hosius of Cordova, from France Nicasius of Dijon, from North Africa Caecilian of Carthage, from Pannonia Domnus of Strido, from Italy Eustorgius of Milan and Marcus of Calabria, from Rome the two presbyters Victor or Vitus and Vincentius as delegates of the aged pope Sylvester I. A Persian bishop John, also, and a Gothic bishop, Theophilus, the forerunner and teacher of the Gothic Bible translator Ulfilas, were present.

The formal sessions began, after preliminary disputations between Catholics, Arians, and philosophers, probably about Pentecost, or at farthest after the arrival of the emperor on the 14th of June. They closed on the 25th of July, the anniversary of the accession of Constantine; though the members did not disperse till the 25th of August.13201320   On the various dates, comp. Hefele, l. c. i. p. 261 sqq. Broglie, ii. 26, puts the arrival of the emperor earlier, on the 4th or 5th of June. They were held, it appears, part of the time in a church or some public building, part of the time in the emperor’s house.

The formal opening of the council was made by the stately entrance of the emperor, which Eusebius in his panegyrical flattery thus describes:13211321   Vita Const. iii. 10. The above translation is somewhat abridged. “After all the bishops had entered the central building of the royal palace, on the sides of which very many seats were prepared, each took his place with becoming modesty, and silently awaited the arrival of the emperor. The court officers entered one after another, though only such as professed faith in Christ. The moment the approach of the emperor was announced by a given signal, they all rose from their seats, and the emperor appeared like a heavenly messenger of God,13221322   Οἷα Θεοῦ τις οὐράνιος · ἄγγελος. covered with gold and gems, a glorious presence, very tall and slender, full of beauty, strength, and majesty. With this external adornment he united the spiritual ornament of the fear of God, modesty, and humility, which could be seen in his downcast eyes, his blushing face, the motion of his body, and his walk. When he reached the golden throne prepared for him, he stopped, and sat not down till the bishops gave him the sign. And after him they all resumed their seats.”

How great the contrast between this position of the church and the time of her persecution but scarcely passed! What a revolution of opinion in bishops who had once feared the Roman emperor as the worst enemy of the church, and who now greeted the same emperor in his half barbarous attire as an angel of God from heaven, and gave him, though not yet even baptized, the honorary presidency of the highest assembly of the church!

After a brief salutatory address from the bishop on the right of the emperor, by which we are most probably to understand Eusebius of Caesarea, the emperor himself delivered with a gentle voice in the official Latin tongue the opening address, which was immediately after translated into Greek, and runs thus:13231323   According to Eusebius, l. c. iii. c. 12. Sozomen, Socrates, and Rufinus also give the emperor’s speech, somewhat differently, but in substantial agreement with this.

“It was my highest wish, my friends, that I might be permitted to enjoy your assembly. I must thank God that, in addition to all other blessings, he has shown me this highest one of all: to see you all gathered here in harmony and with one mind. May no malicious enemy rob us of this happiness, and after the tyranny of the enemy of Christ [Licinius and his army] is conquered by the help of the Redeemer, the wicked demon shall not persecute the divine law with new blasphemies. Discord in the church I consider more fearful and painful than any other war. As soon as I by the help of God had overcome my enemies, I believed that nothing more was now necessary than to give thanks to God in common joy with those whom I had liberated. But when I heard of your division, I was convinced that this matter should by no means be neglected, and in the desire to assist by my service, I have summoned you without delay. I shall, however, feel my desire fulfilled only when I see the minds of all united in that peaceful harmony which you, as the anointed of God, must preach to others. Delay not therefore, my friends, delay not, servants of God; put away all causes of strife, and loose all knots of discord by the laws of peace. Thus shall you accomplish the work most pleasing to God, and confer upon me, your fellow servant,13241324   τῷ ὑμετέρῷ συνθεράποντι. an exceeding great joy.”

After this address he gave way to the (ecclesiastical) presidents of the council13251325   Παρεδίδου τὸνλόγον τοῖς τῆς συνόδου προέδροις, says Euseb. iii. 13. The question of the presidency in the ecumenical councils has already been spoken of in § 65. and the business began. The emperor, however, constantly, took an active part, and exercised a considerable influence.

Among the fathers of the council, besides a great number of obscure mediocrities, there were several distinguished and venerable men. Eusebius of Caesarea was most eminent for learning; the young archdeacon Athanasius, who accompanied the bishop Alexander of Alexandria, for zeal, intellect, and eloquence. Some, as confessors, still bore in their body the marks of Christ from the times of persecution: Paphnutius of the Upper Thebaid, Potamon of Heraklea, whose right eye had been put out, and Paul of Neo-Caesarea, who had been tortured with red hot iron under Licinius, and crippled in both his hands. Others were distinguished for extraordinary ascetic holiness, and even for miraculous works; like Jacob of Nisibis, who had spent years as a hermit in forests and eaves, and lived like a wild beast on roots and leaves, and Spyridion (or St. Spiro) of Cyprus, the patron of the Ionian isles, who even after his ordination remained a simple shepherd. Of the Eastern bishops, Eusebius of Caesarea, and of the Western, Hosius, or Osius, of Cordova,13261326   Athanasius always calls him the Great, ὁ μέγας. had the greatest influence with the emperor. These two probably sat by his side, and presided in the deliberations alternately with the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch.

In reference to the theological question the council was divided in the beginning into three parties.13271327   The ancient and the Roman Catholic historians (and A. de Broglie, l.c. vol. ii. p. 21) generally assume only two parties, an orthodox majority and a heretical minority. But the position of Eusebius of Caesarea, the character of his confession, and the subsequent history of the controversy, prove the existence of a middle, semi-Arian party. Athanasius, too, who usually puts all shades of opponents together, accuses Eusebius of Caesarea and others repeatedly of insincerity in their subscription of the Nicene creed, and yet these were not proper Arians, but semi-Arians.

The orthodox party, which held firmly to the deity of Christ, was at first in the minority, but in talent and influence the more weighty. At the head of it stood the bishop (or “pope”) Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch, Macarius of Jerusalem, Marcellus of Ancyra, Rosins of Cordova (the court bishop), and above all the Alexandrian archdeacon, Athanasius, who, though small and young, and, according to later practice not admissible to a voice or a seat in a council, evinced more zeal and insight than all, and gave promise already of being the future head of the orthodox party.

The Arians or Eusebians numbered perhaps twenty bishops, under the lead of the influential bishop Eusebius of Nicemedia (afterwards of Constantinople), who was allied with the imperial family, and of the presbyter Arius, who attended at the command of the emperor, and was often called upon to set forth his views.13281328   Rufinus, i. 5: “Evocabatur frequenter Arius in concilium.” To these also belonged Theognis of Nicaea, Maris of Chalcedon, and Menophantus of Ephesus; embracing in this remarkable way the bishops of the several seats of the orthodox ecumenical councils.

The majority, whose organ was the renowned historian Eusebius of Caesarea, took middle ground between the right and the left, but bore nearer the right, and finally went over to that side. Many of them had an orthodox instinct, but little discernment; others were disciples of Origen, or preferred simple biblical expression to a scholastic terminology; others had no firm convictions, but only uncertain opinions, and were therefore easily swayed by the arguments of the stronger party or by mere external considerations.

The Arians first proposed a creed, which however was rejected with tumultuous disapproval, and torn to pieces; whereupon all the eighteen signers of it, excepting Theonas and Secundus, both of Egypt, abandoned the cause of Arius.

Then the church historian Eusebius, in the name of the middle party, proposed an ancient Palestinian Confession, which was very similar to the Nicene, and acknowledged the divine nature of Christ in general biblical terms, but avoided the term in question, ὁμοούσιοςconsubstantialis, of the same essence. The emperor had already seen and approved this confession, and even the Arian minority were ready to accept it.

But this last circumstance itself was very suspicious to the extreme right. They wished a creed which no Arian could honestly subscribe, and especially insisted on inserting the expression homo-ousios, which the Arians hated and declared to be unscriptural, Sabellian, and materialistic.13291329   Athanasius himself, however, laid little stress on the term, and rarely used it in his theological expositions; he cared more for the thing than the name. The word ὁμοούσιος, from ὁμοςand οὐσία was not an invention of the council of Nice, still less of Constantine, but had previously arisen in theological language, and occurs even in Origen and among the Gnostics, though of course it is no more to be found in the Bible than the word trinity. The emperor saw clearly that the Eusebian formula would not pass; and, as he had at heart, for the sake of peace, the most nearly unanimous decision which was possible, he gave his voice for the disputed word.

Then Hosius of Cordova appeared and announced that a confession was prepared which would now be read by the deacon (afterwards bishop) Hermogenes of Caesarea, the secretary of the synod. It is in substance the well-known Nicene creed with some additions and omissions of which we are to speak below. It is somewhat abrupt; the council not caring to do more than meet the immediate exigency. The direct concern was only to establish the doctrine of the true deity of the Son. The deity of the Holy Spirit, though inevitably involved, did not then come up as a subject of special discussion, and therefore the synod contented itself on this point with the sentence: “And (we believe) in the Holy Ghost.”13301330   Dr. Shedd, therefore, is plainly incorrect in saying, Hist. of Chr. Doctrine, vol. i. p. 308: “The problem to be solved by the Nicene council was to exhibit the doctrine of the trinity in its completeness; to bring into the creed statement the total data of Scripture upon both the side of unity and trinity.” This was not done till the council of Constantinople in 381, and strictly not till the still later Symbolum Athanasianum. The council of Constantinople enlarged the last article concerning the Holy Ghost. To the positive part of the Nicene confession is added a condemnation of the Arian heresy, which dropped out of the formula afterwards received.

Almost all the bishops subscribed the creed, Hosius at the head, and next him the two Roman presbyters in the name of their bishop. This is the first instance of such signing of a document in the Christian church. Eusebius of Caesarea also signed his name after a day’s deliberation, and vindicated this act in a letter to his diocese. Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea subscribed the creed without the condemnatory formula, and for this they were deposed and for a time banished, but finally consented to all the decrees of the council. The Arian historian Philostorgius, who however deserves little credit,13311331   Even Gibbon (ch. xxi.) places very little dependence on this historian: “The credibility of Philostorgius is lessened, in the eyes of the orthodox, by his Arianism; and in those of rational critics [as if the orthodox were necessarily irrational and uncritical!] by his passion, his prejudice, and his ignorance.” accuses them of insincerity in having substituted, by the advice of the emperor, for ὁμο-ούσιος(of the same essence) the semi-Arian word ὁμοι-ούσιος(of like essence). Only two Egyptian bishops, Theonas and Secundus, persistently refused to sign, and were banished with Arius to Illyria. The books of Arius were burned and his followers branded as enemies of Christianity.13321332   Jerome(Adv. Lucifer, c. 20; Opera, ed. Vallars. tom. ii. p. 192 sqq.) asserts, on the authority of aged witnesses then still living, that Arius and his adherents were pardoned even before the close of the council. Socrates also says (H. E. i. c. 14) that Arius was recalled from banishment before Eusebius and Theognis, but under prohibition of return to Alexandria. This isolated statement, however, cannot well be harmonized with the subsequent recalling, and probably arose from some confusion.

This is the first example of the civil punishment of heresy; and it is the beginning of a long succession of civil persecutions for all departures from the Catholic faith. Before the union of church and state ecclesiastical excommunication was the extreme penalty. Now banishment and afterwards even death were added, because all offences against the church were regarded as at the same time crimes against the state and civil society.

The two other points on which the council of Nicaea decided, the Easter question and the Meletian schism, have been already spoken of in their place. The council issued twenty canons in reference to discipline. The creed and the canons were written in a book, and again signed by the bishops. The council issued a letter to the Egyptian and Libyan bishops as to the decision of the three main points; the emperor also sent several edicts to the churches, in which he ascribed the decrees to divine inspiration, and set them forth as laws of the realm. On the twenty-ninth of July, the twentieth anniversary of his accession, he gave the members of the council a splendid banquet in his palace, which Eusebius (quite too susceptible to worldly splendor) describes as a figure of the reign of Christ on earth; he remunerated the bishops lavishly, and dismissed them with a suitable valedictory, and with letters of commendation to the authorities of all the provinces on their homeward way.

Thus ended the council of Nicaea. It is the first and most venerable of the ecumenical synods, and next to the apostolic council at Jerusalem the most important and the most illustrious of all the councils of Christendom. Athanasius calls it “a true monument and token of victory against every heresy;” Leo the Great, like Constantine, attributes its decrees to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and ascribes even to its canons perpetual validity; the Greek church annually observes (on the Sunday before Pentecost) a special feast in memory of it. There afterwards arose a multitude of apocryphal orations and legends in glorification of it, of which Gelasius of Cyzicus in the fifth century collected a whole volume.13331333   Stanly (sic) interweaves several of these miraculous legends with graphical minuteness into the text of his narrative, thus giving it the interest of romance, at the expense of the dignity of historical statement. The simple Spyridion performed, on his journey to the Council, the amazing feat of restoring in the dark his two mules to life by annexing the white head to the chestnut mule, and the chestnut head to its white companion, and overtook the rival bishops who had cut off the heads of the mules with the intention to prevent the rustic bishop from reaching Nicaea and hurting the cause of orthodoxy by his ignorance! According to another version of this silly legend the decapitation of the mules is ascribed to malicious Arians.

The council of Nicaea is the most important event of the fourth century, and its bloodless intellectual victory over a dangerous error is of far greater consequence to the progress of true civilization, than all the bloody victories of Constantine and his successors. It forms an epoch in the history of doctrine, summing up the results of all previous discussions on the deity of Christ and the incarnation, and at the same time regulating the further development of the Catholic orthodoxy for centuries. The Nicene creed, in the enlarged form which it received after the second ecumenical council, is the only one of all, the symbols of doctrine which, with the exception of the subsequently added filioque, is acknowledged alike by the Greek, the Latin, and the Evangelical churches, and to this, day, after a course of fifteen centuries, is prayed and sung from Sunday to Sunday in all countries of the civilized world. The Apostles’ Creed indeed, is much more generally used in the West, and by its greater simplicity and more popular form is much better adapted to catechetical and liturgical purposes; but it has taken no root in the Eastern church; still less the Athanasian Creed, which exceeds the Nicene in logical precision and completeness. Upon the bed of lava grows the sweet fruit of the vine. The wild passions and the weaknesses of men, which encompassed the Nicene council, are extinguished, but the faith in the eternal deity of Christ has remained, and so long as this faith lives, the council of Nicaea will be named with reverence and with gratitude.

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