Church history: The Road to Nicea, and Beyond

Henry Ford is supposed to have said “History is bunk!” Abraham Lincoln’s insight, “we cannot escape history,” is much closer to the truth. To a certain extent, we are all prisoners of our historical assumptions.

It is not uncommon for some religious groups, especially Sabbatarians, to claim that a massive defection from the truth set in after the apostle John died in the A.D. 90s. The church was supposedly taken over by cunning Hellenistic tricksters. These crafty philosophers scuttled the laws of God. After that, it was a small matter to introduce various false doctrines, such as Sunday observance.

Part of this scenario involves a supposed “lost century” of church history when galloping paganism supposedly drove true Christians to the margins. The climax of this insidious apostasy and conspiracy was reached, goes this thesis, during the reign of the emperor Constantine (306-337). Through connivance with the church in Rome, Constantine imposed Sunday worship as mandatory and persecuted Sabbath-keepers, who supposedly clung to the truth of the primitive faith. The Catholic centuries of persecution and heresy had begun. The Council of Nicea was perceived as the capstone of an insidious process that led to 1260 years of persecution on the true disciples of Christ. Never mind that the Sabbath was not discussed at Nicea.

 Nicene council
Ancient depiction of Constantine presiding over the Nicene Council.

This selective view of early church history is not unique to Sabbatarians. Protestant sectarians who followed the lead of the early Reformers, Luther and Calvin, also taught it. These Protestant attitudes helped elevate anti-Catholicism into a theological worldview. But the real issues are complex. A one-dimensional focus on what was going on from A.D. 95-325 can lead to quick conclusions that might obscure some important realities:

  • For one thing, the Council of Nicea was held in Asia Minor, not anywhere near Rome.
  • The Roman church sent only two delegates to Nicea — Vitus and Vincent, who represented Pope Sylvester.1 It was not a “Roman Catholic show.”
  • The date of “Easter” — or rather, when the church should celebrate Jesus’ resurrection — was a minor issue at Nicea.
  • Constantine himself, historians are now arguing, has had a “bad press” at the hands of Protestant zealots.

Questions, questions

The origins of Nicea were both political and theological. Emperor Constantine had a problem on his hands. He had decided to favor Christianity. Then — to his embarrassment — a smoldering but nasty doctrinal dispute about Jesus Christ’s divinity and relationship to the Father threatened to strain the unity of the empire, especially in the East.

The Greek churches had just become involved in sharp dissension, originating in an abstruse disagreement between bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his presbyter Arius. It had started as a local quarrel. But Arius had invoked weighty support outside Egypt, and now Alexander of Alexandria was being opposed by important bishops…. Constantine…decided to call a vast council of bishops…. The Council of Nicea, soon to be reckoned the first “ecumenical” or world council because of the range of representation there, was attended by about 220 bishops, almost all Greek. (Henry Chadwick, The Early Church [Eerdmans, 1968], 129-30)

In one sense there was nothing new about this controversy. The question of Jesus Christ’s divinity and what this meant for his exact relationship to the Father had never been fully explained by the New Testament writers. They were evangelists first, theologians second. They had simply asserted with force and fervor that Christ was God and Savior. Complex unanswered questions about Jesus Christ as the Word — how he could be fully God and fully man, his preexistence — left the door wide open to misinterpretation and heresy.

Some gnostics, for example, had argued of Jesus: “If he suffered, he was not God; if he was God, he did not suffer.”2 Critics of Christianity claimed to find some inconsistencies in the new faith. Christ’s resurrection looked like a variation on the “dying god” myth that existed in the Ancient Near East. His incarnation reminded some new converts of the legends of Jupiter and Zeus (Acts 14:11-13). The issue of passibility (i.e., Christ’s ability as God to feel or experience suffering) had embroiled some of the young faith’s would-be defenders in some logical and theological trouble.3

These first century Christians did not attempt to make a complete orderly statement of their beliefs about Christ. Here and there, as in the Gospel according to John and in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, something of what they believed to be the place of Christ in the human drama and in the universe is set forth. Yet these early disciples were so carried away with the breathtaking vision of what they believed Christ meant and of what God had done and was doing in him that they could not put it in sober intellectual terms, nor did they attempt to answer all the questions which Christians would inevitably raise as they struggled with the problems presented by this unique and climactic person whom they had come to know. (A History of Christianity: Volume 1 [New York: HarperCollins, 1975], 142)

The New Testament evangelists were earnest proclaimers of the gospel, but the time came when the church had to set forth in sober intellectual terms what it believed and why. The first Christians felt little compunction to work out the details as to how God could be Father and Son and still be one God. But their writings did contain the essentials needed for a systematic approach. Those who had inherited the New Testament writings — especially in the Greek churches — would explain from Scripture how some pressing questions could be resolved. But it meant thinking theologically.

The ticking time bomb

The controversy about activity in the one God continued across the second and third centuries. Perhaps, speculated some, there was one God in three different modes (Modalism). In which case, claimed others, we can say that the Father died as well as the Son on the cross. This was the Patripassian (pater, father; passible, suffering) heresy.

Tertullian of North Africa (c. 160–220) and Origen of Alexandria (c. 185–255) struggled against these distortions. Tertullian’s attacks on Modalism led him to be considered the first truly Trinitarian thinker. A Roman lawyer turned Christian defender, Tertullian introduced the terms person andsubstance in trying to define God as three in one. His colorful analogy of three landlords (persons) sharing a single estate (substance) was helpful and established the basic terminology we are familiar with today. There were still questions, however, about how the concept of three persons could be equated with the one divine essence or ousia. To some, Tertullian’s formulation smacked too much of tritheism.

Origen was a prolific thinker and writer. He suggested the Greek term hypostasis or “efflux of essence” as a way to avoid Tertullian’s implied three-Gods dilemma. Origen also contributed the important term homoousion — “of one substance” — that would later be helpful. Yet even in his most careful statements there could be a door left open for subordinationism — “The existence of the Son derives from the Father, but not in time, nor does it have any beginning, except in the sense that it starts from God himself.”4

Thus, by the year 300, the issue of the relationship of the Word to the Father smoldered like a ticking time bomb. Since the Word was God and he was “with God,” how could God be one? God could have a Son, but would that threaten the unity of the indivisible God? A key was the matter of Christ’s relationship to the Father. Was he inferior or subordinate to the Father?

The only-begotten born of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father; God from God, light from light, true God from true God; begotten, not created, consubstantial with the Father (quoted in Fortman, The Triune God [Westminster Press, 1972], 66, emphasis mine).

“Begotten not created.” This was a shot at Arianism. Though Arius may have meant well — he intended to preserve the monotheistic tradition — he was setting forth a Jesus Christ who was unable to make full atonement. At the Council of Nicea, 218 out of 220 bishops agreed that the Son is, of necessity, consubstantial (i.e., of one substance — homoousion) with the Father.6

We cannot fault Nicea’s main business — the repudiation of Arius and its attempt to more precisely formulate the relationship of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father. The confusion about Jesus Christ’s role as both God and human had been commonplace among the gnostic sects. The gnostics were offending those who looked to the New Testament documents as authoritative — men such as Tertullian (c. 160-220) and Irenaeus (died c. 200), who set out to refute their heresies.

Thus, the road to Nicea and beyond was often a bumpy ride. This was a literate age, a time of widespread education and the rapid exchange of ideas (Acts 2:5; 8:26–28; 17:18–21). Gnosticism was spinning its weird webs. “The basic doctrine of gnosticism was that matter is essentially evil and spirit is essentially good,” writes William Barclay. “Some of the gnostics held that Jesus was one of the emanations which had proceeded from God (since the ‘real’ God could not defile himself with matter)…. Some of the Gnostics held that Jesus had no real body.”7

“The Word became flesh,” countered the orthodox (John 1:18). Some gnostics nevertheless argued that Jesus had “tricked” Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21-2) into dying for him on the cross. Irenaeus argued against a gnostic named Cerinthus who held that the Spirit had descended upon Jesus only at his baptism and departed again before his passion. And indeed, the role and relationships of the Holy Spirit would be the next issue to surface after Nicea.

Unfinished business

Athanasius saw clearly that though Nicea had been effective, unfinished business remained. He saw that the absence of any clear declaration at Nicea on the Holy Spirit might lead to trouble. It did. Macedonius of Constantinople denied any divinity associated with the Holy Spirit. Nicea had merely said, “And we believe in the Holy Spirit” (Chadwick, 146). Macedonius therefore claimed that the Holy Spirit was only a ministering spirit or an exalted angel.

Man becomes Godlike through the work of the Spirit. Renewal would not be a genuine act of salvation if the Holy Spirit were not of God’s own essence. . . . The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all work together. (Hagglund, 83, emphasis mine)

This core belief sustained Athanasius through the anti-Nicene reaction that set in and the political and theological intrigue that followed. Athanasius was banished and exiled five times. He paid his dues, as we say today. But through all the controversies, reasonable people could see that Athanasius had outflanked his foes: the renewal promised through the Holy Spirit would not be genuine redemption unless the Holy Spirit was also divine (Romans 8:9-11).

It fell to three Cappadocian bishops — Basil of Caesarea (d. 379), Gregory of Nyssa (d. circa 395) and Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389) — to formulate how the term hypostasis made it possible to speak of three distinctions within the divine essence or ousia. Their explanation of the three hypostases in the one divine essence avoided the traps of tritheism and Modalism.Another council, at Constantinople in 381, ratified the work of Nicea and defined the issue of the Holy Spirit more clearly. The road to Nicea thus led beyond it to Constantinople.10

Christology — the burning issue

In summary, the issue of Jesus Christ’s divinity had become the important question of early church history. This question then led by circuitous but steady paths to implications that pointed to the deity of the Holy Spirit. The Councils of Nicea and Constantinople were crucial for maintaining the integrity of the word handed down to those who would ultimately collect and preserve the New Testament canon. One reason the book of Revelation would gain admission to the canon was its high view of Jesus Christ, a Christ worthy of worship (Revelation 4:8–14).

Events and challenges of the 100s and 200s climaxed with the claim of Arius. This finally necessitated a definitive formulation at Nicea. Those “early church fathers” — men such as Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius and on to the Cappadocians — these formulators of early Trinitarian thinking were defending Christianity’s claim to being the unique God-given faith through which humans can experience salvation. Salvation was at the heart of the Trinitarian controversy. If Christ were less than divine essence, less than consubstantial with the Father, he could not be our Atonement; if he were only a good man he could not be the Mediator.

Relevance for today?

Trinitarian issues take us near the heart of vital Christianity, then and now. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan settlement was concerned at its core about how we achieve salvation and how we explain it to outsiders. It is more relevant than we might think in a world of New Agers who see God as a diffuse force or radical feminist theologies where God is a higher Wisdom or Sophia. The creeping pantheism evident even among some environmentalists — where God is everywhere but he is not seen as personal, and rarely as Savior — these ideas would be recognized as suspect by Athanasius. The work of Nicea and Constantinople — though easily critiqued as abstruse patchworks of carefully couched phrases — stands as a wall of division against sects and cults that downplay and question Christ’s divinity.

The future may bring more theological debate on the nature of God. Many of us already have Muslim and Hindu neighbors. The Christian concept of a God who is fully personal, was fully human, yet fully divine is not always easy to understand or explain to them. The quest for answers may set us back again on the road to Nicea.

Above all, the Trinitarian issue did not arise out of a vacuum. The intense encounter between Christianity and other religions that is just beginning in the Western world might raise issues familiar to those who have read this far: Is Jesus Christ of equal stature with the Father though he appeared as a man? Was his atonement for our sins in any way compromised by his becoming flesh and dwelling among us? What was the relationship between the Word and God the Father?

Phrases such as “the lost century” and “the two Babylons” have created a negative prism that has handicapped some people’s view of church history. Caution is needed as people construct a historical grid.

The Athanasius who stood firm on the Nicene formula “is the earliest exact witness to the present New Testament canon.”11 That should at least make us stop and think as we set out on our own road to Nicea. The men of Nicea were not angels. They were humans in a human world. But some of them labored long and hard to clarify how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit related to each other as one God. Many of them risked their lives for what they believed to be true.

In the crunch, they were concerned with salvation. We hold this much in common with them. Surely anyone advancing the claim today that Christ the Logos was created — Arianism — would set off a reaction that Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus would have understood. The defenses were raised by those fallible but competent figures who trod the rocky road to Nicea.


1. Edmund J. Fortman, The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 66. This is a very readable and systematic survey of the subject.

2. Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 35.

3. Ignatius had claimed Jesus was “first passible, then impassible.” Justin had caused some controversy by asserting that Christ was “from God.” These statements could be misinterpreted. It showed the necessity for the young church’s theology to become more systematic if it was to make headway in the Hellenistic culture of the times.

4. Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 232.

5. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 39.

6. In spite of Nicea’s political overtones and its associations with Easter in many minds, it is good to remember the implied wisdom of the book of Esther — though God’s name is not mentioned, the Almighty is working skillfully through the political intrigue to bring about his ends. See also Acts 4:25–28. A related principle affects the transmission of the canon — the “solvent of disputation” would help to sort out the inspired writings from the merely helpful.

7. William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume 1, The Daily Bible Study Series (Philadelphia, Westminster, 1956), 12–3.

8. Among the most relevant were 1 Corinthians 12:4–6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 4:4–6; 1 Peter 1:2; Jude 20-21. Galatians 4:6 even mentions “the Spirit of his Son,” a confirmation from other scriptures that Christ and the Spirit are identified as having the closest possible relationship — Romans 8:26–27, 34; 2 Corinthians 3:17.

9. Chadwick, 146; Hagglund, 84.

10. This council is popularly, but erroneously, believed to have refined the original Nicene Creed. That refined version, now a part of the eucharistic service of some churches, is what many Christians today call the Nicene Creed but which scholars call the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (or simply C). However, the records of the Council of Constantinople make no mention of a creed. “The first appearance of C is, in fact, at the Council of Chalcedon” in 451 (G.L. Carey, “Nicene Creed,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, rev. ed., J.D. Douglas, ed. [Zondervan, 1978], 707).

11. “Canon of Scripture,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd. ed., Cross, F.L. and E.A. Livingstone, eds. (Oxford University Press, 1983), 232.

Author: Neil Earle

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