What Really Happened at Nicaea?Posted by Clark Bates June 10,2016
It's not uncommon for various Christian lecturers and apologists to be faced with the accusation that the canon of Scripture was not derived until the Council of Nicaea. It is believed by many, largely influenced by popular films, that at this council Jesus was given divine status over human status and what we now call the New Testament was derived by purposefully removing any texts that revealed Jesus to be merely mortal. Dan Brown's elderly character Lee Teabing from the best-selling Da Vinci Code famously states, “Jesus' establishment as the 'Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on at the Council of Nicaea. . . . A relatively close vote at that (233).” While it must be remembered that this is a work of fiction, written for popular appeal, the persistence of this accusation, in light of our series on canonical authorship, deserves a response.
Before examining the historical account of what happened at Nicaea, a few practical considerations should be observed regarding this claim. First, if these allegations were true, it would require a nearly impossible feat of subterfuge. Given that the writings of the Christian Church had existed, been copied, and widely distributed for more than 2 centuries up to this point, to remove any texts that might have proven the mortality of Jesus over His divinity would necessitate the confiscation and destruction of every document, and copy, spread across the entire empire. This would have to be done completely and successfully, for if even one document remained, it could be re-circulated and re-copied. Second, to prove the claim that the canon of the New Testament derived from this council, it would need to be demonstrated that multiple “Christian” texts that spoke of Jesus only as human were in circulation prior to this period that held the same level of authority and recognition as those that exist today. Given the extremely high level of implausibility for the first consideration, and the lack of extant evidence for the second, any careful observer should take pause when this accusation is presented.
Getting back to the actual council, however, let's examine what history tells us regarding the Council of Nicaea:
This council occurred in AD 325 in the province of Bithynia, now known as Isnik, Turkey. It holds a substantial place in Christian history for three reasons:
- It was the first “ecumenical” (universal) council in the history of Christendom.
- It served as a symbol of imperial involvement in church affairs (given that it was convened and presided over by the emperor Constantine).
- It marked a crucial development in doctrinal history, by adopting a creed, backed up by anathemas, something heretofore nonexistent.1
To the dismay of many popular conspiracy advocates, the Council of Nicaea was not convened to discuss the canon of Scripture. At no time during the three month adjournment did the bishops address the validity of any biblical text. The main purpose of the council was to attempt to heal the schism being created by a bishop named Arius.2
To better understand what this schism regarded, it is helpful to regress to the time of the church leader, Origen. Greek philosophy had taught that God was impassible (unchanging), and this premise controlled intellectual theology. In an effort to ratify this philosophical tradition with biblical christology, Origen spoke of the incarnate Logos (Son of God) as that of the same Logos of the one true God. It was Origen that popularized the term “begetting” in relating the Son to the Father. Even assuring that the Son was of the same nature as the Father, Origen still posited a subordination of the Son to the Father. Arius, diverging from the teaching of his mentor Alexander, disputed that the Son could not be the same essence of the Father and share eternity without challenging the impassibility of God.
The teaching of what came to be known as Arianism revolved around the central tenet that the divine being is unique, incommunicable, indivisible, and transcendent.3 Because of this, the Son could not be of the Father's being or essence but could only exist by the Father's will. As Arius famously stated, “There was a time when [the Son] was not.” Arianism also taught that the Son was a created being, less than divine, but more of an archangel. This doctrinal stance may sound familiar to some as it has been adopted by pseudo-Christian groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). This teaching began to grow in favor, largely due to Arius' eloquence and skill with a pen, and became the reason for the convening of Nicaea in 325.
So was the council, as Dan Brown said, the moment when Jesus was made divine by a narrow vote? Not quite. While the dispute with Arius did revolve around the divinity of Christ, the debate was not regarding His deity versus His humanity, but rather His divinity versus His angelic nature. Had Arius won the day, it would not have meant that Jesus was believed to be human, only that He was not viewed as equal with the Father. Was there a truly equal disagreement in Christendom relating to the divinity of Christ? Not according to the leading voices of the Christian Church leading up to the council:
Igantius (AD 105) - “God himself was manifested in human form.”4
Clement (AD 150) - “It is fitting that you should think of Jesus Christ as God.”5
Justin Martyr (AD 160) - “The Father of the universe has a Son. And He is . . . . even God.”6
Irenaeus (AD 180) - “He is God, for the name Emmanuel indicates this.”7
Tertullian (AD 200) - “. . . Christ our God.”8
Origen (AD 225) - "No one should be offended that the Savior is also God...”9
Novation (AD 235) - "...He is not only man, but God also..."
Cyprian (AD 250) - "Jesus Christ, our Lord and God."10
Methodius (AD 290) - "...He truly was and is...with God, and being God..."11
Lactantius (AD 304) - "We believe Him to be God."12
Arnobius (AD 305) - "Christ performed all those miracles...the...duty of Divinity."13
Was the divinity of Jesus Christ determined by a narrow vote? No. A unique feature of the Council of Nicaea was the near unanimity of the vote to condemn Arius of heresy and to excommunicate him from the church. All but two bishops voted against Arius and to uphold the Orthodox teaching of the divinity of Christ, maintained for the first three hundred years of the Church's existence. Lastly, was the canon determined at Nicaea? As was mentioned above, no. In fact, as the series on New Testament authorship has shown, the existing New Testament was in circulation by name as early as 200 years prior to the convening of the council. Much to the chagrin of novel writers and those prone to conspiracies, history undermines the popular view. For Christians, the Council of Nicaea can be viewed in various ways, but ultimately it produced a historic creed that became the basis for those used in churches around the world for thousands of years:
We believe in God the Father almighty
maker of all things, visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
The only-begotten of the Father,
that is, begotten of the substance of the Father,
God from God, light from light, true God
from true God,
begotten, not made,
of the same substance as the Father,
through whom all things were made, in
heaven and earth,
who for us humans and our salvation came
down, took flesh, and was made human,
suffered and rose again on the third day,
ascended into heaven,
and will come to judge the living and the dead.
And in the Holy Spirit.
1Everett Ferguson, Church History I: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 196-7.
2Walter Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, “Council of Nicaea” by C. Blaising, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 839.
3Elwell, Theology, 839.
4Ignatius, The Epistle of Ignatius, “Three Celebrated Mysteries” from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.ii.xix.html?highlight=god,himself,was,manifested,in,human,form#highlight
5Clement of Alexandria, The Second Epistle of Clement, Chapter I, from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xii.vi.i.html?highlight=clement,it,is,fitting,that,you,should,think,of,jesus,christ,as,god#highlight
6Philip Schaf, The History of the Christian Church II, “The Divinity of Christ,” from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc2.v.xiv.ix.html?highlight=justin,martyr,the,father,of,universe,has,a,son#highlight
7Alexander Roberts and W.H. Rambaut, The Writings of Irenaeus (Edinburgh, 1868-9) from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.xi.i.ii.html
8Tertullian, Elucidations, from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.v.ix.xxxiii.html?highlight=tertullian,christ,our,god#highlight
10Cyprian, Epistle III, from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iv.iv.iii.html
11Methodius, From the Discourse on the Resurrection, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf06.xi.v.i.html
12Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf07.iii.ii.html
13Arnobius, The Seven Books of Arnobius Against the Heathern, from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf06.xii.iii.i.i.html