A Constantine and the Council of Nicaea

Discussion in 'Essays & Journals' started by Taylor, Feb 26, 2012.

  1. Taylor

    Taylor EdChat™ PhD

    Joined:
    Oct 13, 2010
    Messages:
    950
    EdChat Karma:
    196
    Constantine and the Council of Nicaea
    by Taylor V. Smith

    Throughout history, countless great men have influenced the development of Western Christianity and have encouraged its gradual growth from a confined region in the Middle East to virtually the entire globe. From theologians, whose philosophical considerations shaped sound doctrine, to missionaries, whose teachings promulgated the Christian religion throughout the world, many illustrious men have been involved in Christianity’s expansion. Among the most influential of all, however, was a man who was neither a theologian nor a missionary. Nevertheless, according to some, the conversion of this particular man may have been the most implication-laden event in all of Western history.[1] For better or worse, the conversion of Constantine to the Christian religion in 312 marks one of the most substantial periods of growth for Christianity in history. Constantine authored a new era for the Christian faith – an era in which Christianity went from being a violently-persecuted minority in the Roman Empire to being its majority.[2] Surely, Constantine’s contribution was monumental.

    Now, there are those who argue that Constantine’s influence went beyond merely expanding the Christian religion, holding that Constantine usurped the power of the Christian church and introduced gross indoctrinations. One instance in particular often cited by those who maintain this position regards Constantine’s role in the Council of Nicaea in 325A.D. Those who hold this opinion believe that Constantine used his position of authority to manipulate the outcome at the Council. That Constantine was instrumental in the formation of the Council is certain, as it was Emperor Constantine who assembled the Council at Nicaea. However, a more careful look at the Council’s progression seems to invalidate the belief that Constantine utilized any unreasonable control. As this author will argue, the theory that Constantine held excessive clout at the Council of Nicaea is a misapprehension.
    First, it in necessary to consider the proposed purpose of the Council of Nicaea, the significance of the Council’s location at Nicaea, and what was the central issue settled by the Council.

    To begin, the Council of Nicaea was called by Emperor Constantine, who wished to encourage peace and unity within the church. The Council was convened to address divisive issues within the church, in particular the Arian controversy.[3] As Emperor, Constantine felt that he was accountable to a divine mandate to unify the empire’s religion.[4] Placing a Christian spin on the ancient pagan tradition of the pax deorum, Constantine believed that it was his responsibility to ensure that the church worship God purely, in one accord.[5] Some would argue that the Emperor’s sole purpose in assembling the Council was to achieve desirable political ends – namely, the unification of his empire.[6] Yet, it must be responded that Constantine’s desire for a peaceful and unified empire by no means required him to compromise his faith.[7] Although politics were certainly a matter of concern to Constantine, his opposition to Arianism, even before the Council of Nicaea was convened, seems indicate a sincere desire to advocate the purification of the church.[8]

    The Council was originally to be held in Ancyra, but Constantine changed the venue to meet in Nicaea, citing three justifications for the change in location: first, because Nicaea was more centrally located than Ancyra, second, because of the accommodating climate of Nicaea, and finally, so that he could attend the Council personally.[9] These are the three reasons given by Constantine, but his real motive, according to historian T. G. Elliot, was this: “Constantine’s transfer of ‘the great council’ from Ancyra to Nicaea made it easier for him to increase his personal support of Ossius, whose presidency of the Council was Constantine’s doing.”[10] At this point, some would emphasize that Constantine’s arrangement of Ossius’ presidency over the Council allotted the Emperor considerable influence in the way the Council functioned. Indeed, some have gone so far as to say that Constantine, himself, presided over the Council.[11] It is interesting to note that the Council’s doctrinal conclusions were graciously congenial to the West, despite the fact that the vast majority of the bishops sitting on the Council were from the East.[12] Undoubtedly, the Emperor worked closely with Ossius, as he had done in the past.[13] However, the fact remains, the ultimate outcome of the Council reflected the agendas of the apparent alliance between Ossius and Alexander – not the interests of the Emperor.[14]

    As stated previously, Arianism emerged as the central issue of debate among members of the Council. In succinct terms, the teachings of Arius denied the deity of Jesus Christ. Arius details the issues, himself:
    We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning. This is the cause of our persecution, and likewise, because we say that he is of the non-existent. And this we say, because he is neither part of God, nor of any essential being.[15]

    Athanasius, a leading voice among the bishops of the Council, argued that only God could save as it was God who had been offended. He proclaimed, “No creature can be saved by a creature.”[16] Many bishops at the council also attempted to reason with Arius and his followers from the Bible, but they found that the Arians were able to twist any Biblical passage to an unorthodox meaning.[17] Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, reprimanded Arius for his teachings, and required that Arius sign a confession of orthodoxy. When Arius refused, Alexander promptly excommunicated him.[18] At the conclusion of the Council, the accepted Creed of Nicaea included these provisions, specifically aimed at dismissing Arianism:

    We believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten begotten from the Father, this is from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made…and those who say, ‘there once was when he was not’…and that he came to be from things that were not…these the catholic and apostolic church anathematizes [sic].[19]

    Though some might challenge that the resulting Creed was proposed by Constantine, as he opposed Arius’ teachings, there is no evidence to suggest that Constantine was allowed to vote, or that he used any coercive force to secure the outcome that he desired.[20] While Constantine may certainly have made his opinions known to Ossius, there is no record indicating that he was responsible for the acceptance of the Creed.
    Secondly, Constantine’s emphasis on unity must be analyzed in light of his political ambitions.

    Prior to the calling of the Council, Constantine wrote a letter to Alexander and Arius regarding the Arian conflict. In this letter, Constantine stated clearly that he wanted all men to become Christians, united in faith.[21] He also expresses his belief that such unity among Christians would be good for the stability of the empire. Now, many have used portions of Constantine’s remarks in this letter to argue that the Emperor did not understand the nature or importance of the Arian debate.[22] Yet, as Elliot speculates,

    Constantine’s own Speech to the assembly of the saints shows that he did not lack interest in theology, and that he was by no means as incompetent at it as his letter to Alexander and Arius, if sincere, would require us to believe.[23]

    Within the context of this speech, in addition to offering a philosophical defense of Christianity,[24] Constantine urged the bishops to seek peace, reminding them that instruction for good conduct was found in the Bible. Constantine also emphasizes the authority of the Bible, saying:

    For the gospels, the apostolic writings, and the oracles of the ancient prophets, clearly teach us what we ought to believe concerning the divine nature. Let, then, all contentious disputation be discarded; and let us seek in the divinely-inspired word the solution of the question at issue.[25]

    Constantine’s theme, then, appears to be one of peace and unity. This would confirm the account of Eusebius, the first church historian, whose writings presented Constantine’s work at the Council of Nicaea as that of a great reconciler. According to Eusebius, Constantine spent a great deal of time mediating between different parties at the Council, attempting to get them to agree.[26] This would seem to indicate that Constantine did have some influence in the Council, but no power beyond his own persuasion.

    Of course, there are some who purport that Constantine merely desired unity in order to secure political or religious dominance.[27] However, there is no evidence to support the theory that the unity was more important to Constantine than the purity of the doctrine of the catholic faith. Because there is nothing to suggest this, it is very likely that the unity that Constantine is making his appeal to is the same Biblical unity desired by Christ. [28] Furthermore, it is quite clear that Constantine was not the only proponent of peace at the Council. Eustathius’ account of the Council’s proceedings, which is likely more accurate than the account of Eusebius, does not include Constantine’s initiating peacemaking measures. In fact, Eustathius seems to indicate that most peace attempts were propelled by the bishops. Regardless, the theory that Constantine used the Council solely to increase the stability of his empire does not seem likely to be true. Finally, the many objections raised against this author’s position that Constantine’s sway at the Council of Nicaea was less than unprecedented must be responded to.

    Many would object to the theory that Constantine did not use his political sway inappropriately to ensure a particular outcome from the Council. In many cases, this is because these objectors have developed their opinion from studying the writings of Eusebius, in whose book, Life of Constantine, is contained the most extensive account written on the Council. In his portrayal, Eusebius describes Constantine’s role as one of great importance. In this regard, Eusebius’ story is quite unlike the accounts of his colleagues, Athanasius and Eustathius. A closer examination of Eusebius and the circumstances surrounding his attendance at the Council uncovers an inaccurate portrayal of events.

    It must be remembered that Eusebius was sympathetic toward the Arian cause. Shortly before Ossius presided over the Council of Nicaea, he excommunicated Eusebius for his identification with Arius. Indeed, it was for this reason that Eusebius attended the Council: by attending the Council, he was granted “a place of repentance and recognition of the truth.”[29] In fact, all Arians attending the Council were given an escape from “disposition and penance” if they agreed to sign the Creed of Nicaea.[30] Eusebius was so embarrassed by the apparent inconsistency of his earlier teaching with his acceptance of the Creed that he wrote a letter to his church, justifying his conduct. He attempted to argue that the only difference between his teachings and those of the Creed could be attributed to the mistranslation of a single word.[31] It is certain that Eusebius tried to mislead his readers by misrepresenting the circumstances surrounding his repentance from Arianism.[32] It also appears evident that Eusebius may have deliberately passed over parts of the Council in order to deemphasize his theological defeat, while choosing to emphasize the points on which Constantine agreed with him.[33] This would have the ultimate effect of exaggerating Constantine’s influence at the Council of Nicaea, and would be much more consistent with the accounts of Athanasius and Eustathius. While this truth does not discredit all of Eusebius’ writings, it is clear that his reports should be viewed with scrutiny. The best way to review Eusebius’ articles for inconsistencies is to compare his account with the accounts of Athanasius and Eustathius. Upon applying this careful inspection, it appears clear that Eusebius overemphasized Constantine’s importance at the Council of Nicaea.

    In conclusion, Constantine’s impact on Western Christianity is undeniable. However, Constantine’s influence over the affairs of the Council of Nicaea, upon careful examination, seems to be unsubstantial. First, it is undeniable that Constantine, by convening the church’s bishops in Council and moving the Council’s location to Nicaea, was able to secure slightly greater influence over the structure and leadership of the Council. Yet, this verity in no way indicates that Constantine coerced the opinions or ordinations of the Council. Indeed, Constantine’s career generally illustrated great care to consult church bishops.[34] Secondly, although Constantine emphasized peace and unity, this surely does not discredit the sincerity of his desire to perpetuate the purity of the church’s doctrine. Reasonably, Constantine desired that his empire be unified. Yet, Constantine’s strong stance against the Arian heresy demonstrates his commitment to sound theological teaching. Finally, though many dissenters to this author’s position have emphasized Constantine’s unprecedented influence in the inner workings of the Council, their claims are often based on the inaccurate and misleading accounts of Eusebius. Eusebius’ writings, though not wholly fallible, must be read with strict scrutiny. According to the more consistent accounts of Athanasius and Eustathius, Constantine’s role at Nicaea, though noteworthy, was not as significant as Eusebius would purport. Therefore, it is clear upon closer examination that, though Constantine played an important role in the development of the Christian religion in the West, it is fallacious to believe that his role at the Council of Nicaea was of any unprecedented significance.

    Bibliography

    Ankerberg, John and John Weldon. “Is it True that Jesus’ Divinity was Invented by Constantine at the Council of Nicaea?” Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, 2005. http://www.ankerberg.org/Articles/h...esus-Divinity-Invented-in-the-4th-Century.pdf, 5.

    Carroll, James. Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. Boston: Mariner Books, 2001.

    Elliot, T. G. The Christianity of Constantine the Great. Bronx, N.Y.: University of Scranton Press, 1996.

    Global Catholic Network. “The First Council of Nicaea (325).” http://ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/NICAEA1.HTM (accessed October 11, 2005).

    Lane, Anthony N. S. “The Council of Nicaea: Purposes and Themes.” Hyde Park Christian Fellowship, 1997. http://debate.org.uk/topics/theo/council_nicaea.html.

    Penner, Melinda L. “The Interaction of Philosophy and Theology in the Development of the Trinity and Christology at Nicaea and Chalcedon.” Stand to Reason, 2001. http://www.eng.uwaterloo.ca/~jcslee/trinity_rs.pdf


    [HR][/HR][1] James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews (Boston: Mariner Books, 2001), 171.

    [2] Ibid., 176.

    [3] Anthony N. S. Lane, “The Council of Nicaea: Purposes and Themes” (Hyde Park Christian Fellowship, 1997), http://debate.org.uk/topics/theo/council_nicaea.html.

    [4] Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, 187.

    [5] Lane, “The Council of Nicaea.”

    [6] Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, 173.

    [7] T. G. Elliot, The Christianity of Constantine the Great (Bronx, N.Y.: University of Scranton Press, 1996), 209.

    [8] Ibid., 184.

    [9] Lane, “The Council of Nicaea.”

    [10] T. G. Elliot, The Christianity of Constantine, 185.

    [11] Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, 189.

    [12] Lane, “The Council of Nicaea.”

    [13] T. G. Elliot, The Christianity of Constantine, 212.

    [14] Lane, “The Council of Nicaea.”

    [15] A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff , Second Series, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1971), 41, quoted in Ibid.

    [16] Thomas E. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988), 138, quoted in Melinda L. Penner, “The Interaction of Philosophy and Theology in the Development of the Trinity and Christology at Nicaea and Chalcedon” (Stand to Reason, 2001), http://www.eng.uwaterloo.ca/~jcslee/trinity_rs.pdf, 7.

    [17] Lane, “The Council of Nicaea.”

    [18] Ibid.

    [19] Global Catholic Network, “First Council of Nicaea (325),” http://ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/NICAEA1.HTM (accessed October 11, 2005).

    [20] John Ankerberg and John Weldon, “Is it True that Jesus’ Divinity was Invented by Constantine at the Council of Nicaea?” (Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, 2005), http://www.ankerberg.org/Articles/h...esus-Divinity-Invented-in-the-4th-Century.pdf, 5.

    [21] T. G. Elliot, The Christianity of Constantine, 185.

    [22] Ibid., 163.

    [23] Ibid., 181.

    [24] Ibid., 189.

    [25] A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, 44, quoted in Lane, “The Council of Nicaea.”

    [26] T. G. Elliot, The Christianity of Constantine, 209.

    [27] Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, 180-184.

    [28] T. G. Elliot, The Christianity of Constantine, 186.

    [29] J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius (London: SPCK, 1957), 288-298, quoted in Lane, “The Council of Nicaea.”

    [30] T. G. Elliot, The Christianity of Constantine, 209.

    [31] Lane, “The Council of Nicaea.”

    [32] T. G. Elliot, The Christianity of Constantine, 200.

    [33] Ibid., 205.

    [34] Ibid., 208.
     
  2. DoctorWho

    DoctorWho EdChat™ Nomad

    Joined:
    May 22, 2012
    Messages:
    18
    EdChat Karma:
    1
    Very well thought out and written, Taylor! This event has had more influence on Western culture than any other meeting in human history, and yet so many of my more fundamentalist friends have no idea what it was or that it even took place. This meeting was the death knell for the entire Pagan world East of the Urals, and it laid out the blueprint for how the Christian religion was to dominate Europe and most of the Mediterranean for the next millennium.
     
  3. Taylor

    Taylor EdChat™ PhD

    Joined:
    Oct 13, 2010
    Messages:
    950
    EdChat Karma:
    196
    Thank you kindly. I feel pretty sheepish about these older papers of mine. I think I was a sophomore in college when I wrote this, which would have been seven years ago. :)
     
  4. DoctorWho

    DoctorWho EdChat™ Nomad

    Joined:
    May 22, 2012
    Messages:
    18
    EdChat Karma:
    1
    No need to be sheepish, this is a pretty bold subject for an American to tackle. Though it is a set event in human history, there is more conjecture of what took place there in alot of peoples' arguments than facts sometimes. By going over Constantine's political maneuvering leading up to the event, you are illustrating (for me anyway) that this was the more the work of a patriotic Roman than a pious saint.
     
  5. ljepilo

    ljepilo EdChat™ Esquire

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    82
    EdChat Karma:
    4
    This is indeed well written. A lovely essay ! I hope to see more of this from you :). Perhaps you should try publishing this one ?
     
    Taylor likes this.
  6. Taylor

    Taylor EdChat™ PhD

    Joined:
    Oct 13, 2010
    Messages:
    950
    EdChat Karma:
    196
    You're too kind. Eventually I may try to publish some journal articles, but this is difficult to do with a bachelor's degree. Perhaps next year when I finish my higher degree. :)
     
  7. ljepilo

    ljepilo EdChat™ Esquire

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    82
    EdChat Karma:
    4
    You should definitely try :)! I can see when someone has a talent for writing :) ! By the way if you are still into learning the slavic accents, I replied you in the other thread with my skype or msn :p
     

We believe a good thing should be shared