May 20


The Council of Nicaea

Though the very earliest Christian churches had regarded Jesus as divine and the Son of God, it took the Council of Nicaea to define the exact relationship of the Son to the divine Father. In the decade after the legalization of Christianity and imperial favour falling on the Church after centuries of persecution, two major schools of thought emerged on the subject. The first, promulgated by Arius, an Egyptian priest, held that Jesus was a creation of the Father, saying “if 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.” Arius cited Scripture in defence of this position, noting that Jesus had stated that he was inferior to the Father (John 14:28) and that Colossians 1:15 had called Jesus “the first-born of all creation.” The second position was that Jesus was of the same essence as the Father — homoousios in Greek — co-equal and co-eternal. The controversy that this debate generated prompted the emperor Constantine to call a conference of bishops from around the empire to settle the issue. They met at Nicaea in Asia Minor (now the Turkish city of Iznik).

The Christological issue was settled decisively against the views of Arius. He and two supporters were condemned and exiled; it was decreed that “if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offense, he shall be submitted for capital punishment…”

The Council also came to other decisions. A new approach to computing the date of Easter was arrived at and the schism of Melitius was dealt with. (Meletius differed with most of the Church over readmitting Christians who had apostatized under persecution.) A number of canons, or decrees, were issued prohibiting self-castration and usury as well as matters of church administration. The Council of Nicaea set the example for gatherings of clerics to set guidelines for the Church.

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