Icon of the Council of Nicea
I mentioned in an early post (see the Place of Authority 2-3) that Christianity came into contact with the Greek culture and even though Christianity attempted to remain true to its Jewish roots, the questions and the terms of the dialogue were set by the Greek culture. The arguments and theology of early church leaders like Justin, Clement of Alexandria and Origen had conducted the debate with the surrounding culture in terms the culture was familiar with. Especially in the Eastern (Greek speaking) half of the church there was an emerging conflict between the philosophical ideas of what God should be like and various readings of Scripture. Remember that almost all of the early Christian leaders read the scriptures allegorically, and just as there are multiple ways of reading scripture today the early church had this struggle with this as well.
In 325 CE Emperor Constantine called the leaders of the early church together at Nicea, a city in modern day Turkey near Constantinople (Istanbul). Many of the issues dealt with were practical, having to do with which leaders and position would carry the greatest authority, how to readmit lapsed Christians, and how to elects individuals to fill the various leadership roles within the church. These were all essential tasks for an organization which had moved from being decentralized and rather small to a much more organized and broad church. It was within this meeting that some of the theological differences present came to the surface and had to be dealt with.
The controversy is named Arianism for a presbyter named Arius who found himself in conflict with the bishop of Alexandria (appropriately named Alexander) over the relation of Jesus and the Father. At the council of Nicea an Alexandrian controversy became a controversy that consumed the first council when a few convinced Arians, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia attempted to have the assembly rebuke Alexander for his condemnation of Arius’ teachings. At stake was whether the person of the Christ was divine with the Father or whether he was a created creature. Originally the assembly wanted to create a confession stringing together biblical texts, but they found it difficult to unmistakably refute Arianism using only scripture, but would eventually create a creed heavily dependent on a mixture of biblical and philosophical language to reject Arianism. This would be the beginning of the Nicene Creed (the Nicene Creed we use today would effectively be finished at the council of Constantinople in 381 CE but the first two paragraphs come from the Council of Nicea). This is the language agreed on in Nicea about Christ:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father, through whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth, who for us humans and for our salvation descended and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.
The controversy was all about the person of Christ, and I find it interesting that the controversy stays there throughout this period and never moves to consider the work or the teaching of Christ. This creed, begun in a council called and presided over by an emperor not yet baptized, would be the one statement of faith that would be agreed upon by the Western and Eastern Church and would at a later point be a part of the controversy that would split the two, but that is a later story.
Even though the canon was not fixed at the Council of Nicea, as many people believe, the canon had taken the decisive shape by this point. Revelation and Hebrews would eventually gain enough acceptance to be viewed by most as a part of the New Testament. Yet the gospels and the letters of the New Testament began to be used more as a tool for theological ideas rather than understood in their own right. Christianity, like its predecessor Judaism, was moving on its own temple and monarchy trajectory-except now the temple was the church and the monarch was the Roman Emperor. Creeds would begin to become more influential than story, councils would become the interpreter of scriptures and although with the translation of the Bible in to Latin by Jerome made it available in the language of the Western half of the empire both illiteracy and the unavailability of copies of the scriptures in either the Greek or Latin would make the authority rest with the educated elite of both the ruling and clerical class.
There is certainly much to criticize about this era of Christianity’s struggle with authority from many people’s standpoints, especially as we find ourselves coming into a post-Christendom era (according to many commentators) but there is also much to admire. This was a time of theological giants: Athanasius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus), John Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose and perhaps the greatest of this group (from a Western Church perspective) Ambrose’s student Augustine of Hippo. The shape of the church in both the West and the East would be shaped for the next 1,000 years during this era. At the beginning of the fifth century the political climate would change as Rome’s loses its position as the sole imperial authority and we enter what is commonly called the Medieval Era. Much will be lost in the coming era, but the church will be the authority that many look to in the midst of the crisis Christianity will continue to spread throughout Europe, although in the Middle East and Africa a new player will emerge on the scene. It is to this era we will turn next.