Judgment at Nicaea: Constantine and the Arian Heresy
The greatest controversy of the early church was the Arian Heresy, a conception of the Trinity that called into question the accepted Christian ethos that Jesus was homoousion – of one substance, or being, with the Father.1 For preaching this doctrine, Arius was called to answer for his beliefs repeatedly during the Council of Nicaea, to explain what he meant by teaching that “the Word is no true Son of the Father, but is a creature totally different from, and inferior to, Him in nature.”2 This was anathema to the church fathers of the 4th century A.D., whose intent in the profoundly influential proceedings of 325 was to preserve at all costs the doctrine of homoousion to patri. What Arius postulated, and what the bishops and other key figures of the church refused to countenance, was that Christ “is an intermediary being between God and Creation.”3 The great debate over wording of what became known as the Nicene Creed went through many semantic twists and turns. But when the Emperor Constantine threatened to banish any who refused to sign the creed, it was virtually assured that the Homoousians would carry the day.
This was not just a political power play but a deep and emotionally charged fight for the soul of the Christian faith. Had the Arians won, the bishops believed, “(if) the incarnation, and all its implications, were disputed, the whole elaborate Christian edifice – constructed as it was to ensure mankind, saved by Christ’s sacrifice, would be relieved of the guilt of parricide – could
crumble.”4 As such, it was vital to the bishops invited by Constantine to Nicaea that “Christ the Son was not to be deemed inferior.”5 But the threat to the Homoousians from Arius
stemmed from more than sophistry, or religious theory. There were many adherents to Arius’ beliefs, even after he was defeated and denounced. The bishops, led by the bishop of Alexandria, saw Arius as the most lethal threat to the solidarity and sanctity of the church. What is more, the Emperor Constantine, who considered that he had been appointed by God himself to rule the empire and who believed that he had “a grave obligation to promote Christianity,” regarded Arius as enough of a danger that he threatened exile and execution to anyone who was not on the “orthodox” side of the argument.6
Ultimately, the Council of Nicaea fixated on the term homoousion as a response to the Arian challenge specifically because it directly contradicted the Arian belief that Christ was of a different substance, or nature, from God. During the Council of Nicaea there had been attempts to seek an accommodation concerning the creed, but the church fathers and, most significantly, Constantine himself would have none of it. It may well be that Basil of Caesarea, also known as Basil the Great, certified the bishops’ concerns by reconciling the Semi-Arians with the Nicaean formula by showing that the terms homoiousios and homoousios could have similar implications. “The virtual termination of the Arian controversy at the Council of Constantinople in 381/2 shortly after his death is a tribute to (Basil’s) success.”7 Thus, it seems that the church fathers were correct after all about the threat posed by a simple term, and the need to emphasize, and re-emphasize, the primacy of the word homoousion in the Christian church’s most
fundamental expression of belief, its very identity. In volume five of the Catholic Encyclopedia, the word homoousion is referred to as “the touchstone of orthodoxy,” the church’s liturgical lifeblood.8
However one thinks of the similarity, or difference, between the meaning of homoiousion and homoousion, the implications of considering Christ to be of different substance from God are significant. It amounts to nothing less than relegating Jesus to the status of a lesser deity and, thus, of lesser importance. And if this is true, then the fundamental precept of the Christian religion is undermined. That is why the Council of Nicaea ended on such a declamatory note. There had to be solidarity between factions. The Roman Empire as it was constituted in the 4th century depended more and more on Christians to fulfill important administrative positions in the government; of still greater significance was the need to fully enfranchise the empire’s burgeoning Christian population. The sporadic and bloody conflicts that flared up between the Christians and the pagans threatened to undo what Constantine had built.
This was Constantine’s great legacy. In reading Eusebius’ account of Constantine’s life and reign, one has the impression that the emperor believed that the preservation of the Christian faith was his most important achievement. For one thing, it meant virtually the same as preserving the empire – the two went hand-in-hand. In that recognition, he pursued a course of action that would forever marginalize his own pagan background but which would allow the Roman empire to continue. That is why Constantine adopted such a harsh position when it came to certifying the Nicene Creed and his support of the Trinitarian position. Arianism had the
potential to undo the delicate religious, social and political balance that held together Constantine’s tottering, unwieldy empire.
There was a difference between Constantine’s official position and his personal feelings about the Arian ethos. The conflicted emperor had been urged to accept the Arian position by his sister, Constantia, and his friend and biographer, Eusebius. That he was initially well-disposed toward Arius, and willing to exile Eusebius, who refused to sign the statement of faith, is a measure of how strongly Constantine felt about protecting the empire and the church from dissension. Eusebius wrote that it was Constantine himself who proposed the insertion of the word homoousios as an attempt to strike a compromise between the opposing positions. The stubbornness of the Arians and Trinitarians eventually caused Constantine to lose patience and adopt a much harder line, though his decision to back the anti-Arian view was, in all likelihood, motivated by political expediency and by Constantine’s conception of himself as the guiding light behind the church and the direction it had to take. It should be remembered that Constantine saw himself as “a bishop, ordained by God to oversee whatever is external to the church.”9
Constantine the Great was the most significant Roman ruler in the latter history of the empire. He had come to power when the Emperor Diocletian created a diarchy with Maximian, which evolved into the tetrarchy after Diocletian and Maximian both abdicated in 305. Henceforth, the empire would be divided among four co-emperors, with Constantine holding authority from Rome. Perhaps not surprisingly, civil war ensued and in 313 Constantine was
opposed only by Licinius, who ruled in the east. In 324, Constantine emerged victorious after a terrible and bloody trial of strength, reuniting an embittered political Roman entity.
Having risked everything for the empire, the stakes were high for Constantine at Nicaea.
The solidarity of the empire and credibility of his church were in question. Initially, Constantine
regarded the debate over wording to be hair-splitting, as a “trifling” matter hardly worthy of such an august gathering of church officials and a council called to settle a number of other issues, including the exact date of Easter. But the sheer fervor of the debate threatened to overwhelm the entire proceedings, and the most virulent voices on both sides of the issue would not be moved, indeed many would not even listen to opposing arguments. The Arians were no mere splinter group or radical fringe. Outside of Egypt, where the Trinitarian proponent Alexander ruled as bishop, Arius had a large number of followers, which gave his position considerable political weight within the structure of the church. Constantine may have envisioned a productive and harmonious gathering at Nicaea, but the approximately 300 bishops who came at the emperor’s request were part of a charged environment that made it unclear whether the church of Christ would emerge from the 4th century intact. This was an unacceptable state of affairs for Constantine.
That the emperor should have been integrally involved in the proceedings of the council is unsurprising given that the procedural rules of official church gatherings were modeled on those of the Roman senate.10 As such, Constantine’s would have been the dominant voice in the council. Constantine “posed the issue, asked the members severally for their views, intervened himself in the debate, supporting or opposing the views expressed by members, and selected
which of the motionsshould be put to the house.11 The emperor acted as a presiding judge, officiating and guiding the line of debate. Even so, Constantine was no arbitrary or objective
jurist. “He was no metaphysician, and regarded the dispute as unnecessary and irreverent: on the other hand, he had a deep-seated conviction that any division within the church was an offence to
the Supreme Power and might bring down His wrath on the empire and on himself, to whose care the empire had been committed.”12 Reaching some middle way that could assuage dissension, then, was of optimal concern to Constantine. Only then could he be sure that church and empire would emerge from the crisis more or less unified.
position, there was little chance that what he would produce could have had a mollifying effect on the situation. In fact, Eusebius’ version could be characterized as downright provocative. The article of faith that Eusebius put forth, much of which would become the Nicene Creed, ended in the words: “Concerning whom we confidently affirm that so we hold, and so we think, and so we have held long ago, and we maintain this faith unto death, anathematizing every godless heresy.”13 Clearly, Constantine presided over a gathering in which neither side was willing to relent, which meant that the emperor was forced to play a much larger role than judge and arbiter.
An idea can be an extremely powerful thing – it was an idea, after all, that had given birth to Christianity itself. And it was an idea that threatened to tear apart everything that Constantine had risked and fought to build. There has been considerable debate over the steps that
Constantine took to engineer at least the veneer of unanimity at the Council of Nicaea. Given that the emperor was willing to exile his close friend Eusebius, who at least verbally assented to
the final version of the Nicene Creed, it seems reasonable to assume that the emperor was willing to act unilaterally if it meant ensuring the integrity of the empire that he had re-invented.
Abse, Leo. Old Testament Stories With a Freudian Twist. London: Karnac Books, 2011.
Ankerberg, John. “Is it True that Jesus’ Divinity was Invented by Constantine at the Council of
Nicea?” Ankerberg Theological Institute, 2005.
Bainton, Roland H. Christianity. New York: American Heritage Library, 1985.
East, Bill. “Nicaea I, 325 C.E: Arianism.” On-Line Reference Book for Medieval Studies, 1999.
Hogan, M. Dissent From the Creed: Heresies Past and Present. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday
Jones, Arnold H.M. Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. New York: MacMillan, 1948.
Myers, Edward. “Eunomianism.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 5. New York: Robert
Appleton Company, 1909.
Raymond, John Br. “Arianism Versus the Council of Nicaea.” How Did 1 God Become 3?”
Excerpts and Quotes from Catholic Church History, 2012.