Part III - The Nicene Age: Lesson No. 13 - The Council of Nicea

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I. Introduction

With the accession of Constantine to full and supreme power in the Roman Empire in the early Fourth Century, the Church came under complete imperial favor and influence. Though in one sense the Church had triumphed in that it had adhered to the basic tenets of the gospel despite the fierce persecutions it faced, it was in another sense a long, tragic defeat for her to be so closely aligned with the state. At this time in history the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state were fairly foreign to the minds of men (cp. Matt. 22:21; Acts 18: 12-17). It was not enough that government remain religiously neutral. There had to be a state religion. For many years the pagan religions had found peaceful co-existence with the church to be impossible and had tried to stamp it out through governmental persecution. After the last fierce but unsuccessful effort during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), it was evident that the church could not be squashed. It was left, then, to Constantine (306-337) to legitimize the Church and use it as one of his tools to forge political unity in the Roman Empire. The Empire was one legally, and it would also be one religiously, the Church replacing the defeated pagan religions as the state religion. This was not the announced plan of Constantine, but this is how it developed.

The "Edict of Milan" (313) only granted legal toleration to Christians; their religion was given a status of equality with all the other religions in the Empire. However, as time went on Constantine began to adopt measures which would set the Church above other religions. Christians were only a small fraction of the population at the beginning of Constantine's reign, but they had demonstrated a tenacious strength and a potential for growth which made them an obvious choice for imperial favor. Hence, not long after the Edict of Milan was issued, Constantine also granted the clergy exemption from public obligations and allowed the Church the right to receive legacies. He also forbade pagan sacrifices and working on Sunday in the cities. In other ways Constantine continued to curry the favor of the Church, and the Church began to take advantage of such favor for its own purposes. Thus, the Church and the state became more and more interdependent. This boded nothing but ill for the Church.

II. The Council of Nicea

Constantine soon found that managing the Church was no easy task. The Church was so fraught with doctrinal controversies that its usefulness as a tool for effecting unity in the Empire was greatly threatened. One of the first great problems he faced in this matter was the "Donatist" controversy. The Church in North Africa was divided because some objected to the new bishop whom they said had been invalidly ordained by one involved in mortal sin. Donatus was chosen to take his place. When the Donatists did not share in the imperial gifts made to North African clergymen, they appealed to the Emperor. Constantine summoned a synod to Arles in Gaul (France), which subsequently legitimized ordination at the hands of unworthy clerics, upheld the validity of heretical baptisms, and adopted the Roman date for Easter. The Donatists appealed to the Emperor again but he decided against them. Thus, the precedent was set for the Emperor to be given a decisive role in the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs. (Constantine was not even baptized until shortly before his death.)

Another, more serious, controversy arose in connection with the doctrine of Arius of Alexandria about 320. Arius became involved in a bitter dispute with Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, by asserting that Christ was a created being. Though He was the first-born of creatures and the agent who fashioned the world, He had a beginning and was not one, nor equal, with God. Unlike the West, the East had failed to achieve unanimity in its beliefs regarding the nature of Christ. Some challenged the teachings of Arius and the controversy became so sharp that Constantine felt the need to call the first general council of the Church to Nicea in 325. Bishops traveled to Nicea at government expense. Representation was quite lopsided, with only six of the three hundred bishops being from the West. Since all of the West and a large part of the East rejected the Arian position, Constantine deemed it politically expedient to throw his influence behind those who opposed the Arian position. Hence, the Council adopted a creed which was anti-Arian, and Arius was banished. The Council also issued rules regarding discipline, restoration, and the date of Easter.

Of course, the New Testament is the all-sufficient creed for Christians (II Tim. 3:16,17). Nothing in addition to it is needed, and no group of men has the right to act as representatives of the church in defining its faith. Neither does the New Testament know anything of the general councils of the church that began to convene in the days of Constantine. Some have appealed to the "Jerusalem conference" (Acts 15) for justification of such, but there is no parallel. (1) The Jerusalem conference was not convened by the authority of a civil ruler. (2) This was not a "general conference." Those who gathered were not delegates who formed a representative body of all the churches. Actually, only those of the two churches directly involved - Jerusalem and Antioch - were present. (3) It was altogether appropriate that the matter should be taken by members of the troubled church to the elders of the church from which the trouble-makers had hailed (vs. 24). (4) Most importantly, the decrees issuing from the conference were authoritative only because they were handed down by apostles who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (vs. 28). The general meeting (vss. 12-29) was called for the purpose of revealing and explaining the decision which had already been reached in an apostolic council (Gal. 2:1-10). Hence, without apostles inspired by the Holy Spirit present to participate in, and hand down, decisions, modern-day ecclesiastical councils can find neither precedent nor parallel in the Jerusalem conference.

III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) What crucial changes in the operation of the Church began to occur as it developed into a "state religion?"

(2) What were the Donatist and Arian controversies?

(3) ______________ summoned the first general ____________ of the Church to ___________.

(4) What is wrong with Church councils and the creeds they draw up?

(5) How did the Jerusalem conference differ from general councils of the Church?

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