I have been discussing the Arian controversy over how to understand the relationship of the Father and the Son – the crucial element in establishing the doctrine of the Trinity. It led to the Council of Nicea. A lot could be, and has been, said about the Council. It is NOT when church Fathers decided which books would be in the New Testament and is NOT when they decided that Jesus was divine (even though that’s what you read in the Da Vinci Code !!). They did not discuss the first issue and everyone at the council already fully believed Christ was God. The question was: in what sense?
Here is what I say about the Council in my book The Triumph of Christianity, in a chapter in which I deal with the emperor Constantine and his involvement with the church after his conversion. I begin by summarizing the two main positions in question – Arius’s view of Christ and his bishop Alexander’s view.
Arius maintained that Christ, the Logos, could not be equal with God the Father. The Father himself is almighty. There cannot be two beings who are both almighty, since then neither of them is “all” mighty. For Arius, only God the Father is almighty. Originally, in eternity past, God existed alone, by himself. He then, prior to the creation of the universe, begot a Son, a second divine being, who, since he was begotten of God, was secondary and subservient to him, as a son is to a father. This was the Logos, through whom the world was made and who much later took on human form and came into the world in order to bring salvation. The Logos then, is a subordinate divinity who was brought into being at some point: he had not always existed. God the Father is superior to God the Son by an “infinity of glories.”
Arius’s bishop Alexander could not disagree more. He took a hard line that Christ was not subservient to God the Father as a subordinate being. Christ himself had said, “I and the Father are One,” and “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 10:30; 14:9). The two are equal. They are not identical, to be sure: the Son is a separate being from the Father. But they are equally omnipotent and have both existed forever. There never was a time that the Logos did not exist.
Those taking Alexander’s side in the debate could point out that, by definition, if something is perfect it can never change. If something changes, necessarily it becomes either better or worse from the change. But if it becomes better, it was not perfect before; and if it becomes worse, it is not perfect after. Since God is perfect, he can never change. That means he could not become the Father by begetting a Son, since this would involve a change in his status from not-Father to Father. Necessarily, then, God had always been the Father. If he was always the Father, then the Son must always have existed.
Thus, Alexander’s side of the debate maintained that the Son was co-eternal with the Father and all-powerful along with him. He was not merely “like” the Father, of a “similar” kind of divine substance. He was “equal” with the Father, of the “same” substance. In the Greek terms used in these debates, the idea of being of the “same substance” is expressed by the word homoousias. By contrast, the word for “similar substance” is homoiousias. As you can see, they are very similar words, different only with the letter “i”, or in Greek, the iota, in the middle. Some observers have noted that the theological controversy threatening to fracture the church was a debate over an iota.
That is certainly what Constantine personally thought. Because the dispute was causing such turbulence, he felt compelled to intervene, and did so first by writing the two principals a letter. In it he clearly states his ultimate concern, which had never been about theological niceties but about unity: “My first concern was that the attitude towards the Divinity of all the provinces should be united in one consistent view.”[i] Constantine did not care which view emerged from the debate. He simply wanted one side to concede to the other and thereby effect unity. Personally, he indicates, he considers the matter “extremely trivial and quite unworthy of so much controversy.” For him, these are “small and utterly unimportant matters,” involving a “very silly question.” He urges Alexander and Arius to settle the matter between themselves.
They were unable to do so. It is not simply that they were at odds with each other. Both sides had numerous supporters who engaged in vitriolic attacks on the theological ignorance of the other. The debate was racking the church. Constantine decided to intervene in a major way by calling for the first world-wide, or ecumenical, council of bishops to meet and resolve the issue. This was the famous Council of Nicaea of 325 CE, named after the city in Asia Minor where the meeting was held. Later records indicate that some 318 bishops from around the world came to participate, most of them from the eastern provinces (as we have seen, the church was not nearly as well established in the west).[ii]
Constantine himself attended the meeting. He gave the opening address and participated in the discussions. At the end the bishops took a vote. Arius lost. The council devised a creed, a statement of faith that expressed its understanding of the nature of both the Father and the Son, and related important theological matters. Included in the creed were a number of “anathemas,” or “curses” on anyone who took a contrary position. That creed ultimately came to form the basis of the Nicene Creed, still recited in many churches today. At the council, only twenty participants ended up on the Arian side. Constantine pressured the nay-sayers to concede the case, and convinced nearly all of them to do so. The only two recalcitrant bishops – along with Arius himself — were sent into exile.
The council called by Constantine did not finally resolve the matter. Arians continued to press their case and made converts to their cause. Emperors after Constantine – including his own offspring – adopted the Arian view and exercised their authority to cement its stature in the church, even though, as we will see, it eventually lost. Our concern here, however, is with Constantine himself and his relation to the Christian faith. By 325 CE he had learned more about the intricacies of Christian theological discourse than he ever expected. He wanted unity, but he was not willing to impose it by sending troops to de-convert the Arians by the sword. When it came to matters of the church, he believed in persuasion.
[i] The letter is cited in Life of Constantine, 1.64-72.
[ii] For a fuller discussion of the Council, the events leading up to it, the theological issues involved, and the eventual outcome, see my book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014), chapter 9.