— The Council of Nicea, May-August, A.D. 325
May 20, 325 was a watershed date in the history of the Christian church. The first international Christian council was convoked at Nicea, a city in what is today northwestern Turkey. The council dealt with a number of issues, such as the controversy concerning the date for celebrating Easter. However, the most important reason was to discuss the nature of Jesus Christ. Apostolic writers had not systematically described Jesus Christ’s relationship to the Father in a theological or formal way.
The subject might not even have arisen were it not for the influence of Greek philosophy in the Roman Empire, and even on some Christian thought. To the Greeks, the perfect deity was unchangeable and could have nothing to do with a flawed humanity or our world of matter, which is changing and corruptible. Some Christians began to think of God in the same way as the philosophers, that is, that God was immutable, impassible and fixed in his being.
In the early 300s, a man named Arius was a popular presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt. He taught that the Logos or Word, who became incarnate as Jesus Christ, was a uniquely brought forth and highly exalted being. Arius’ teaching began what was at first a local quarrel in the church at Alexandria between himself and his bishop, Alexander. But bishops outside Egypt soon began to side with Arius against Alexander. In the years 318 to 320 the contest between the two views broke out into the open.
While Arius included the Word in the created order, Alexander placed all of creation on one side and the Father and the eternal Word on the other. While the motto of the Arians regarding the Logos was “there was when he was not,” Alexander taught that the Word existed eternally with the Father.
Emperor Constantine appealed for agreement, but the controversy continued to rage. The emperor sent letters to Christian bishops throughout the empire, urging that they come to Nicea to settle the issue. Among the most prominent at the council were Alexander of Alexandria, the main opponent of Arius’ teachings, and Eusebius of Nicomedia, the chief spokesman for the Arian position. Among the attendees was a young deacon, Athanasius of Alexandria. While he was unable to participate, not being a bishop, the council formed the prelude to his central role in later articulating the Trinitarian confession of the church.
Most of the bishops were repelled by the idea that Jesus Christ could be thought of as what to them amounted to a created being. When they worshiped Christ, they did not worship a creature — they worshiped God. They were saved not by a created being, but by God. The bishops proceeded to craft a creedal statement of faith concerning what they believed about the Son of God. They wanted the statement to absolutely exclude the claims of Arius that the Logos was a product of the will of God rather than of the very essence of God.
The bishops wrote in their statements that Jesus Christ was “God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father.” A key phrase was “of one substance,” which translates the Greek homoousios. This means that what God is in his essence, Jesus Christ the Son of God is also. Eventually all the bishops except for two signed the creedal statement, believing that it contained the ancient faith of the apostolic church and that it was an accurate reflection of the truth of God’s nature to which the New Testament points.
The deity of the Holy Spirit did not come up for discussion at Nicea. The two bishops who opposed the statement were deposed and exiled. Arius and his writings were also anathematized and he was exiled to Illyria. The controversy continued, however, until the council of Constantinople in 381, when the Nicene creed was expanded, and ratified once and for all.
The creedal statement at Nicea regarding Christ’s divinity and co-eternal existence with the Father formed the basis of the Nicene Creed, which after 381 became the most universally accepted statement of the church’s confession about the being and nature of God.