Commentary on the First Council of Nicaea

Daniel J. Castellano (2006)

An ecumenical council of all the bishops in Christendom did not become politically feasible until Constantine the Great issued his Edict of Toleration of Christianity in 313. Contrary to common misperception, Constantine never illegalized paganism or any other religion, though he did prohibit certain superstitious acts of divination and conjuration, as had several of his pagan predecessors. Constantine's personal convictions are uncertain; it appears that he held some syncretic religious beliefs that would harmonize Christianity with the worship of the sun and traditional pagan practices. He reiterated that pagan priests retained all their traditional privileges, including the offering of public sacrifice, and they were called upon to interpret omens. Constantine retained the title of pontifex maximus and was thus the chief priest of traditional Roman religion even after his conversion to Christianity. This does not vitiate the sincerity of his conversion, as he raised his children as Christians, preferred the company of Christian clerics, and lived according to Christian ethics as closely as was possible for an unbaptized person. In the fourth century, many sincere Christians saw little contradiction with offering worship to the Sol Invictus, which could be seen as a symbol or a surrogate of the Christian God. Still, the emperor's postponement of baptism until he was at the point of death in 337 indicates that Christianity did not have a hold on his soul strong enough to make him relinquish his other cultural commitments.

The historical reality of Christianity under Constantine has been obscured by two classes of black legends. The first, conceived by anti-Catholic apologists who wished to show how the Church went astray, blamed Constantine for making Christianity a state religion invested with the trappings of power, corrupted by the love of pomp and courtly life, and enforcing pseudo-orthodoxy through violent repression. In this view, the Church abandoned the authentic theology and ethics of Christianity, and replaced its communal character with a hierarchical constitution. This line of argument was employed during the Reformation by Protestants who wished to legitimize their apparent break with the historic communion of Christendom. They reasoned that the authentic Church had been suppressed by usurpers since the time of Constantine, only to be liberated once more a thousand years later.

The scenario just described is factually erroneous in all of its major points. Constantine did not establish Christianity as the exclusive religion of the state, but included it among the many cults sponsored by the Roman state, in the hopes of achieving religious unity and harmony. His edict came in the wake of the most terrible persecutions of Christians by his predecessors. Realizing the futility and cruelty of these policies, Constantine instead hoped to end religious dissension in all forms, which is one reason that monotheism probably appealed to him as a unifying principle transcending all cults. His approach was not to establish one cult at the expense of all others, but to sponsor all religions, unifying them under the Sol Invictus. His personal preference of Christianity led him to lavish wealth on the construction of churches, but this only followed a venerable tradition of wealthy patronage dating back to the catacombs. Similarly, the Church's hierarchical constitution was no invention of Constantine, but had existed for centuries, as ample documents attest to the unquestioned authority of bishops and regional councils, as well as elaborate liturgical rules and canons. In other words, all the basic "Catholic" features of the Church already existed before Constantine.

Anti-Christian polemicists employ a second class of black legend that expands on the anti-Catholic myth and attributes the success of Christianity as a religion almost entirely to its state support and the brutal repression of other cults. These arguments misconstrue Constantine's harsh penalties for specific superstitious practices as a blanket suppression of paganism, ignoring his many acts of continued public support for the old religion. Later in the fourth century, there would be Christian riots against pagans in predominantly Christian cities such as Alexandria, but these cannot account for the rise of a Christian majority, as they presume its existence. In Constantine's time, Christianity was a minority religion, accounting for about a third of the empire's population, if not much less (most contemporary scholars claim it was closer to one percent). State sponsorship would not suffice to make an unpopular religion popular, as even the godlike pharaohs of Egypt could not successfully impose a sun cult, nor could the third-century emperor Elagabalus impose oriental religion save in the city of Rome, and this dissipated after his death. The Roman emperor was limited in his cultural influence, especially in the more remote provinces. Unwilling to give Christianity its due at any costs, many secular commentators must exaggerate the power of the emperor well beyond historical reality to account for Christianity's success. This results in the improbable scenario that the Christian population increased by a factor of twenty or more (assuming the low figure, favored by secular scholars, of a 1% Christian population under Constantine) from 313 to 381, when Theodosius made Christianity the state religion. Such a rapid rise cannot be attributed to state action, and if it could, we would be at a loss to understand why the mid-fourth century pagan emperor Julian was unable to reverse this trend.

In truth, Christianity had grown rapidly in its first three centuries, despite periodic persecutions, With the age of persecution brought to an end and the support of state resources, it could continue to grow even more quickly, so that by 381, Emperor Theodosius was able to suppress the last vestiges of paganism through force, a measure that would have been inconceivable when pagans were numerous, regardless of our assessment of its ethics. The rise of Christianity was a gradual, continuous phenomenon of growth, and Constantine's edict was but one development promoting this progress, not a singlehanded reversal of the religion's fortunes.

Beyond ending the persecutions, Constantine's support of the Church created the opportunity for all the bishops of the entire world to come to an agreement on a formulation of beliefs and rules. Christianity was not necessarily more threatened by heresy at this point in time than in previous eras, and the need for a universal council might not have pressed itself on the Christian conscience had not Constantine encouraged it. It is not clear that the emperor valued the theological details nearly as much as the mere act of coming to a common agreement and ending sectarian strife. Unity among religions and within the Christian religion were among his highest ideals, but the exact terms of that unity were left to clerics.

The importance of the state in the convening of the ecumenical council is evidenced by the choice of location at Nicaea, near Constantinople, capital of the empire, rather than Rome, universally acknowledged to the be the see of highest honor. We will see, nonetheless, that Constantine's role appears to have been to pressure the bishops to come to an agreement, rather than determine the content of that agreement. For example, though Constantine favored Arianism or at least toleration of Arianism (as evidenced by his actions after 325), the Council of Nicaea unequivocally condemned Arius. It is completely backwards to argue that Arianism was suppressed at Nicaea because of Constantine, when in fact it was condemned contrary to his wishes, and enjoyed its greatest popularity after the Council of Nicaea, thanks in part to the ambivalent stance of Constantine. The definitive defeat of Arianism did not come until the late fourth and early fifth century, and this came about through non-violent means.

The Donatists were the only sect to be persecuted by state force, and this would not occur until the late fourth century. Ironically, state persecution began when some Donatists clamored for the deposing of a bishop, only to draw attention to the violent antics of some of their more extreme members, who encouraged overt suicide as a form of martyrdom. Persecution consisted of compelling the Donatists to accept the validity of other ordained priests, consistent with the Roman emperors' policy of discouraging sectarian strife. Donatists had no distinctive beliefs save their conviction that those who performed pagan sacrifices during persecution were no longer true priests and their rites were invalid. They were actually more rigorous and intolerant than the mainstream orthodox, making their "persecution" less an act of intolerance than one of compelling tolerance, much as is done today with hate crime legislation. The ethical validity of "compelling tolerance" is another subject entirely.

The Nicene Creed

The first act of the Council was to define a Christian creed, and at least part of this creed was specifically formulated to address the Arian heresy. Arius was a bishop in Egypt who had argued that Christ, though eternal, was not divine in the exact same way as God the Father; they were of “like substance,” but not the “same substance”, that is, they were not one in being. This rather subtle theological point would not even have been considered by earlier Christians, and even in the fourth century and beyond, most ordinary Christians would not understand this distinction. The question arises, then, why did the Church feel obligated to answer this question at all?

Since the development of theological speculation in the third century, there was no universal Church authority to impose norms of orthodoxy on all. Each bishop was responsible for the orthodoxy of his diocese, but doctrine was limited to matters not requiring philosophical erudition. On occasion, churches aligned with Rome, such as Carthage and Alexandria, would ask the successor of Peter to resolve a doctrinal matter, but this was an exceptional occurrence.

Apart from the local authority of bishops, and the famous school of Origen at Caesarea, the task of formal Christian education came to be adopted by monastic schools. Alexandrian Christians were driven into the desert by persecution, and there they developed the monastic lifestyle that would become popularized by the great saints of the fourth century. The monastic life was essentially social, almost never solitary, and involved engagement with laypeople and ordinary labor, including education. One of the earliest monastics was Athanasius, who wrote De Incarnatione Verbum Dei in 318, a year before Arius began preaching his doctrine in Egypt. Athanasius wrote only what he had received from his Alexandrine teachers, giving a sublime description of the Incarnation in an unmistakably Pauline theology.

Arius' doctrine was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 by all but two of the 318 bishops present, including those of all the major churches, not for the mere subtlety of an iota (homoousion, "same substance," versus homoiousion, "like substance"), but because of his stronger claims that there was a time when the Word was not, so that Christ was created by God the Father. Arius plainly contradicted Johannine theology, reducing Christ the Logos (and not just Christ as man) to a mere creature, capable of evil. This was clearly contrary to even the earliest known Christian perceptions of Christ: those of St. Paul, St. John, and the synoptic gospels. The idea that Arius' views are of comparable pedigree to those of Athanasian orthodoxy is utterly devoid of evidence. One would have to conjecture some time in between the 30s and 50s when this primitive Arianism existed, only to disappear utterly from the written record ever since then for three hundred years. The only heresies of the early Christian centuries actually emphasized Christ's divinity to the exclusion of the reality of his humanity. Even Arius himself was not arguing that Christ was merely a man, contrary to modern misrepresentations of his doctrine.

Arius did not deny a supernatural, quasi-divine nature to Christ, but he stopped short of making him equal to God the Father in substance. He acknowledged that the entire universe was created through Christ the Logos, who was not created out of anything, but was nonetheless created. This Logos served as an intermediary by which God could create the universe without directly interacting with matter, in conformity with Gnostic and Neoplatonic tendencies. Arius' formula of “like substance” might have been unobjectionable in itself, but he abused the term to promote a novel doctrine that declared there was a time when Christ the Logos (not just Christ the man) was not, thus he was created and not eternal. This so plainly contradicts the teaching of St. John's Gospel and the Epistle to the Hebrews, that it is unsurprising that it was so universally condemned by the bishops.

Arius' heresy actually helped expose the incompatibility of the "like substance" formulation with the historic Christian faith that the Word existed from the beginning with God, lucidly expressed in the opening of St. John's Gospel. Since the Word was not a creation, yet was nonetheless somehow begotten of the Father, this begetting must be an act distinct from creation, and the substance of the Word must come from the substance of the Father, and not be a new substance. From this reasoning we irresistibly arrive at the formula homoousion or consubstantialem, consistent with St. John's elegantly poetic phrase, "In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum."

The Nicene Creed opens with a thoroughly apostolic understanding of the relation between the Father and the Son, using New Testament terminology in conjunction with more technical philosophical terms. The use of philosophical jargon does not require us to adopt a rigorous system of metaphysics, beyond the intuitive notion that there is such a thing as "substance," namely that which exists. The opening of the Creed uses the titles "God" (theos) for the Father and "Lord" (kyrios for the Son, following the consistent usage of St. Paul in his epistles. The second part of the formula, describing the begetting of the Son from the very substance of the Father, comes from St. John, as we have noted. The formula Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero is designed to explicitly repudiate the Arian error and reaffirm the Johannine conviction that the Word was God, and this same Word became flesh as Jesus Christ. It is the divinity of Christ, not his humanity, that was begotten from the substance of the Father, though the exact relation between Christ's divinity and humanity would not be expounded at this council. Nonetheless, we can anticipate how this clear articulation of the apostolic faith could raise further questions about the dual nature of Christ.

The Church was in unanimous agreement with the Arians that the entire universe was created through Christ. The rest of the first part of the Creed consists of uncontroversial assertions about the Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming of Christ. With a brief mention of the Holy Spirit, this formula articulates the full identity of the divinity that is the object of Christian faith. It is by no means a comprehensive list of the doctrines that were to be held by Christians, nor a definition of the faith, though it would later come to have such a liturgical use. Even before the Council of Nicaea, there were many doctrines that Christians were bound to believe, such as the Virgin Birth of Christ, as well as anything clearly articulated by the Scriptures. It would be a mistake therefore, to view acceptance of the Creed as a sufficient condition for identifying someone as Christian. Christian can only mean a follower of Christ, and orthodoxy cannot be summarized in a few phrases. Nonetheless, the Nicene Creed came to be known as a "Symbol of Faith," as it at least proved that the believer was devoted to the proper object of worship, and not some false god. It defined the Christian Deity as well as human language could aspire, and served to distinguish the orthodox from the Arians, who were then the biggest threat to traditional Christianity.

Following the Creed, the Church explicitly anathematized anyone who asserted there was a time when the Word did not exist, or that He was created out of nothing (as Arius asserted) or out of some other substance. Such assertions would be in contradiction with the divine nature of Christ, since divinity is eternal and not subject to alteration. Arians agreed with this notion of divinity, which is why they argued that Christ, being begotten, could not have been properly divine. Arianism, as we have mentioned, dovetailed with earlier Gnostic and Neoplatonic trends that tried to reconcile the paradox of the Incarnation and the creation of the material world with an immutable God that could not possibly interact directly with matter. These dualistic philosophical tendencies are in clear tension with the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, which mysteriously bridges the gap between the created and the divine. Whatever merits Arianism might have as a rational argument, it is clearly not derivable from anything that could be meaningfully called Christianity. Christianity without the Incarnation would just be a variation of Judaism.

The practice of anathematizing heretics did not originate at Nicaea, but had long been reserved by the bishops of each diocese. Bishops of lesser dioceses were answerable to the metropolitan sees of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria, and canonical norms could be established at regional councils, but Nicaea represented the first effort to impose a universal norm of doctrine and practice on the entire Church. The Council did not explicitly declare its doctrinal statements to be infallible, but simply asserted them as true and as reflecting the constant teaching of the universal Church. As such, it had the authority to declare even a bishop to be a heretic, though this authority had been previously exercised by regional councils and metropolitan bishops, as in the case of the heretic Marcion in the second century. The Council did not explicitly define the nature of its authority, but clearly assumed the authority to define orthodox doctrine and canonical norms for the entire Christian Church, and this authority was accepted by all but two of the bishops assembled. Since the Council does not define the exact basis of its authority, it does not mention the Pope or Emperor, nor does it appeal to their authority in defining its own authority.


The first two canons, or rules, of the Council of Nicaea that have been preserved pertain to the Novatian schismatics, who called themselves Cathari, or pure ones. This sect, like the Donatists and unlike the Arians, was distinguished not by a unique theological doctrine, but by its rigorous stance against the lapsi who renounced Christ and offered pagan sacrifices under threat of persecution. According to Novatian, the third-century priest who originated the schism and declared himself pope, the lapsi could never be restored to communion with the Church, and their clergy were no longer true clergy, so they had no power to ordain new priests. This position was almost universally condemned by bishops throughout Christendom in the third century, but the sect persisted into the fourth century, retaining its own bishops in parallel to the orthodox bishops of the major cities of Christendom. The Novatianist bishop of Constantinople was invited to the Council of Nicaea by the emperor, but he assented only to the doctrinal creed, not to union. The Donatists, who arose in the fourth century following Diocletian's persecution, were based in North Africa, and they also opposed union with the rest of the Church.

The autonomy of the Council in theological matters is proved by its uncompromising stance against Arianism, in contrast with the emperor's later entreaties to admit Arians to the Church, and his opposition to Athanasius. Thus it is thoroughly ignorant to assert that the success of the Athanasian doctrine at Nicaea was the work of Constantine. Similarly, the canons are equally uncompromising toward the schismatics, despite the emperor's wish to paper over these differences in the interest of harmony.

The first canon addresses the schismatic claim that priests who have performed pagan rituals, such as castration, are no longer eligible for the clergy. The Council decides that those who did so under duress are not to be held culpable, while those who did so voluntarily are excluded from the clergy. This principle would apply to other sacrileges committed during persecution.

The second canon addresses two abuses that arose during persecution, perhaps out of need to maintain the numbers of clergy. Catechumens were too quickly allowed baptism, without sufficient preparatory time, and many of these recent converts were promoted to the priesthood and episcopate. The concern is that recent converts may be too confident of their holiness, and thus more easily succumb to temptation. Nonetheless, such converts may remain clerics, unless they are proven to have succumbed to immorality.

The third canon is an early witness to the celibacy of all clergy, including priests and deacons. Marriage after ordination was forbidden, and those who had wives were expected to be continent, as attested by Eusebius and St. Jerome. Since men were trained for the clergy at an early age, even from boyhood, this was a rare concern in the fourth century. The Council's decree, on its face, excludes the possibility of clergy living with wives, evidencing the expectation of continence. We should not be surprised at this austerity, but instead regard it as consistent with the high standards of sanctity then expected of clergy, as evidenced by the common tendency of heretics and schismatics to reject the authority of any marginally "impure" priest.

The fourth canon establishes that dioceses are not autonomous, but have their bishops appointed by fellow bishops in the region, and confirmed by the metropolitan bishop, who enjoys a superior jurisdiction. This system is described as already existing prior to the Council.

The provincial system is further elaborated in the next canon, which acknowledges that individual bishops have the right to excommunicate men in their diocese, but a provincial synod should be held to uphold the excommunication or mitigate the penalty. Provincial synods are granted real authority that can overturn a bishop's ruling, and serve as a safety valve against abuse of the power of excommunication for personal reasons.

In the sixth canon, the Council formalizes the existing tradition of giving the metropolitan bishop highest authority over his "province", including the right to decide who is a bishop. Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch are named as metropolitan sees, though there are others in smaller provinces. The bishop of Aelia has a place of high honor, but lacks the authority of a metropolitan, and so does not have the right to confirm all bishops in the province.

The eighth canon offers amnesty to the Cathars, but on the condition that they accept full communion with those they unjustly consider "impure", such as those Christians who have had a second marriage (some Cathars admitted no exceptions, not even for death of the first spouse), and especially the lapsi who offered pagan sacrifice during persecution. The Church had admitted these lapsi back after a period of penance due to the objective evil of sacrilege, notwithstanding the lack of willing cooperation. Thus the Cathars are wrong to reject communion with these lapsi after they have done penance. Cathar clerics are permitted to retain their rank, except when there is already a Catholic bishop in that jurisdiction, since there can only be one bishop in a city.

The ninth canon invalidates the ordination of men who have confessed to serious sins. Here "confession" does not refer to the sacrament of penance, but to confession in the ordinary sense of admitting to a crime after it has been investigated. The wording of the text seems to indicate two stages of ordination: "promotion" to presbyters (perhaps equivalent to a candidacy or novitiate), followed by imposition of hands (ordination proper). The tenth canon reinforces the principle that uncanonical ordinations are invalid, and speaks again of a "promotion to ordination".

Even those who lapsed during persecution without threat to life or property are offered clemency. Still, the penance is severe by later standards, as these lapsi must wait twelve years before they may fully participate in the liturgy. It is noteworthy that communion with the Church is closely identified with one's ability to participate in the liturgy. Several levels of participation are delineated: "hearers", "prostrators", those who pray with the people, and those who take part in the offering. The "hearers" and "prostrators" are not allowed to say any of the liturgical prayers, and the "hearers" are not even permitted to partake in the liturgical gestures. We note the early evidence of a sophisticated liturgy with rubrics and a hierarchical structure.

Penance is prescribed for those who renounce their military status as a result of their conversion, only to lapse back and become a soldier for hire. The harsh phrase "as a dog returns to its vomit" gives evidence of a strong aversion to the military life as being possibly antithetical to Christianity. Even if this canon does not forbid all Christians to serve as soldiers, but applies only to clergy or those who made a religious vow of pacifism, it still speaks of military service with a severity that is hardly compatible with the idea that this synod was in any way cowed by the Roman emperor.

The thirteenth canon strangely denies future reception of the Eucharist by those who have received the viaticum yet survived. This does not seem to be a punishment, but rather a result of faith that the viaticum suffices for the rest of a person's life. We note that receiving the Eucharist is repeatedly described as receiving "a share in the offering", evidencing a sacrificial understanding of this sacrament.

The fourteenth canon allows lapsed catechumens to return to the catechumenate after three years penance. Ordinary catechumens are in the liturgical category of "those who pray".

Clergy are forbidden to transfer to another city, as this could create conflict of jurisdiction. This apparently was a common problem at the time, as was the problem of bishops "stealing" priests, deacons, and lower clerics from other dioceses.

Clergy are forbidden to lend at interest, but there is no general prohibition of usury for lay Christians.

The subordination of deacons to presbyters (priests) is clearly defined, and the structure of the hierarchy revolves around the Eucharist. Only priests can offer the Eucharist, so they ought to receive it before the deacons, and deacons should not administer the Eucharist to a priest. Deacons are forbidden to even sit with the higher clergy. This respect for order and hierarchy is seen as essential, not incidental, to the Church's organization. Note that the Eucharist is plainly described as the "body of Christ".

The Paulinists were a heretical group following the third-century Antiochene bishop Paul of Samosata, who denied several aspects of orthodox Trinitarian theology, and distinguished Christ from the Divine Logos. Unremarkably, the Council denies the validity of Paulinist baptisms and ordinations, since the formula "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost" has a fundamentally different meaning to them than the Church's belief. Penitent Paulinists may become Catholic clergy at the bishop's discretion.

Deaconesses are included in "the roll" of religious servants, but they receive no imposition of hands, so they are to be counted among the laity.

The last canon establishes a universal norm of standing during liturgical prayer, noting that in some places Christian kneel during the liturgy. This requirement of standing implies that prostration is performed only by those who are not in full communion with the Church, and thus must prostrate themselves before God rather than stand before Him in prayer. Just as those who can only pray are unfit to partake of the Eucharistic offering, so those who prostrate themselves are unfit to offer liturgical prayer. We note also that the early Church saw an inherent desirability in imposing universal liturgical norms.

Synodal Letter to the Egyptians

The Council also issued a letter to the Egyptian church in order to address the Meletian schism. Meletius, the bishop of Lycopolis, had ordained many clergy outside his diocese to replace those who had been incarcerated during persecution, and made these new clergy subordinate to himself. This self-aggrandizement was contrary to ecclesiastical law, but Meletius persisted despite the repeated protests of other bishops. The Council of Nicaea decided that Meletius could remain a bishop in name, though without the power to nominate or ordain clergy. Those who were ordained illicitly by Meletius were to be re-ordained, effectively regarding Meletian ordinations as invalid. In cases where they shared jurisdiction with non-Meletian clergy, they would be subordinate to them.

The letter also clearly indicates that the Council was convoked at Constantine's request, and that the Arian debate was conducted in his presence. Still, the bishops themselves were the driving force of the Council, and the Egyptian bishop Alexander in particular was a "leader as well as a participant in the events."

Lastly, the Council favored the Roman method of determining when to celebrate Easter, rather than following the Jewish Passover. The Roman method was already followed by the Church in Egypt and in much of the East. The letter to the Egyptians ends on the optimistic note that all heresy has been put to an end. The unprecedented nature of an ecumenical council gave hope to establishing universal norms that would be respected. Even before the Council, there was a well-developed ecclesiastical system of provincial synods and metropolitan bishops. The ecumenical synod was a larger scale version of the provincial synod, with universal jurisdiction, and therefore guaranteed the promises of Christ to his Church.

© 2006 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.