By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
When it came to the Arian controversy, Constantine himself thought and said that the debate was somewhat ridiculous and exceedingly trivial. He wrote to both Alexander and Arius stating the same. He ordered them to resolve the issue, but they weren’t able to do so. And each of them had large followings of extremely interested supporters.
What Was the Arian Controversy?
The issue involved the question of what it might mean to say that Jesus was the son of God? The controversy began in the large and influential church in Alexandria, Egypt. Initially, it was a disagreement between a bishop, who was coincidentally named Alexander, and one of his clergy underlings, a popular teacher named, Arius, hence the name the Arian controversy.
Constantine didn’t care how the matter was resolved, but he insisted that the church needed to be unified since, after all, that was at least part of the point of him supporting it. Thus, somewhat in desperation, Constantine decided to settle the matter once and for all. And this is what led to the Council of Nicaea.
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The Council of Nicaea
Constantine called together bishops from around the world. Most of them came from the eastern provinces, since that’s where the majority of churches were. They were brought together to debate and decide the matter. Later, tradition says there were 318 bishops in attendance. They met in the city of Nicaea and, therefore, it’s called the Council of Nicaea.
Constantine himself gave the opening address and participated in the discussions. After a series of debates and theological proposals and counter proposals, there was a vote. It wasn’t a close vote. The side for Alexander and against Arius, won with only a few dissenters. In the end, only two of the over 300 participants sided with Arius.
The council devised a creed to embody their decision, a set of theological affirmations that they all agreed on that were to be confessed by Christians everywhere. Because the creed was made at this Council in Nicaea, it later came to be called the Nicene Creed. It is still recited in many churches today, even though it appears that a lot of Christians today don’t understand what is being said.
The Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed proclaims that Christ always existed and is equal with God, the Father. He’s not a subordinate deity of some kind. This is what the creed says:
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages. He is God from God. Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence [or the same substance] as the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven; He became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and He was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried. The third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end.
Historical Significance of the Council of Nicaea
So, Christ is God who comes from God. He was not made, and He is of the same essence as the Father. Interestingly however, like the Donatist controversy, the Arian dispute did not die out right away, but repeatedly raised its ugly head, even long after Constantine’s death. This is an important point. Some 30 or 40 years later, the Arian view had become dominant throughout the empire again, for a time.
But the historical significance of the Council of Nicaea is that now for the first time, a Roman emperor threw himself into the affairs of the Christian Church as was necessary. Constantine may have been a brutal ruler. In fact, he was a brutal ruler. Some of the legislation that he passed during his long reign required horrible torture for ethical impropriety—not exactly that kind of loving forgiveness generally associated with the ethics of Jesus.
Growth of Christianity under Constantine
Nonetheless, no one wants to claim Constantine was perfect, or that the teachings of Jesus were his principle guiding light for his administrative policy. Even so, Constantine was the first Christian emperor and the Christian church thrived under his rule drawing now by leaps and bounds. By legalizing Christianity, he made it perfectly safe to convert to the faith.
By showering special privileges on the church and its leaders, Constantine made it a highly attractive option for the elite aristocrats of the empire. As more and more converted, pagan cults received less and less support and financial assistance. Eventually, they would be starved out of existence.
Common Questions about Constantine and the Council of Nicaea
Constantine called together bishops from around the world. They met in the city of Nicaea and, therefore, it was called the Council of Nicaea.
The council devised a creed to embody their decision, a set of theological affirmations that they all agreed on that were to be confessed by Christians everywhere. Because the creed was made at this Council in Nicaea, it later came to be called the Nicene Creed.
The historical significance of the Council of Nicaea is that for the first time, a Roman emperor threw himself into the affairs of the Christian church as was necessary.