By Derek Olsen
The Roman establishment of the Early Empire regarded Christianity with a mix of perplexity and suspicion. On one hand, the Christians seemed largely virtuous and mostly harmless. On the other, they threatened the foundations of the social order in two main ways. First, they were atheists—that is, they denied the reality and power of the Roman state pantheon and refused to acknowledge that the emperor was imbued with divine guidance. Second, Christianity attacked the shape of the Roman family, reconceptualizing it and allowing—even encouraging—women to remain in an unmarried state outside of male control. While Jewish believers were also suspect as atheists, their religion was rooted in their identity as a people; Christians, on the other hand, proselytized and spread quickly unrestrained by bounds of national identity. At times and places the perplexity and suspicion was expressed in a predictable human manner: violence and persecution. Despite our popular conception of Christians keeping Roman lions well-fed from the time of Nero on, persecution tended to be sporadic and local rather than widespread and systematic.
As the third century drew to a close and the fourth century opened, the spread of Christianity became an issue that demanded a formal response. The emperor Decius instituted a systematic empire-wide persecution in 250 escalated by Valerian in 258 to forbid all Christian worship and targeting all bishops and senior clergy for execution. Ended by Valerian’s successor Gallienus in 260, violence flared again in 303 when Diocletian ordered all churches destroyed, all Scriptures burnt, and all clergy imprisoned. The following year, all citizens were required to make sacrifices to the emperor on pain of death—but the western provinces of the empire conveniently ignored the later command. Despite these attempts, their purpose failed and rather proved again the truth of Tertullian’s maxim: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The other plausible option was taken by a Roman general whose troops in Britain proclaimed him emperor and marched on Rome. This general and later emperor—Constantine—did not persecute Christianity but rather embraced it and gave it official support. (He did not, however, proclaim it the state religion—that wouldn’t happen until Theodosius at the end of the fourth century.)
The reign of Constantine and his blessing on the flourishing faith raised a host of issues—some neither easily nor quickly solved. One—the tension between the Roman social structure and the counter-cultural character of Christianity—has remained a live issue to the present day (and will be addressed in a later article). Of the rest, two urgent problems pressed to the fore. The first was political and administrative: how would structures that emerged locally fit themselves into a coherent empire-wide system and where would authority reside? The second was theological and doctrinal: what was the proper way to understand the relationship between Jesus and God? The vacuum of authority created by the first problem exacerbated the second. Constantine saw trouble brewing. The faith that he hoped would help cement the embattled empire was threatening to cause further rifts. Taking matters into his own hands, he called a meeting of bishops to the city of Nicaea in the year 325.
At this point it’s worth clearing up a little bit of confusion about Constantine, his motives, and his personal beliefs. Constantine was probably introduced to Christianity at a young age; his mother was a Christian (her search for the relics of the Holy Cross read like a fourth-century Indiana Jones tale but several versions have deplorable anti-Semitic bits) and some sources relate he had a sister named Anastasia which means “Resurrection”. Despite this, he was not baptized until he was on his deathbed. This was not unusual in the fourth century, though, especially for those who held political office. Theologically the Church of the day had a strong sense of Baptism and the remission of sins connected with that act; they were a little fuzzy on forgiveness of major sins committed after baptism. The realities of political office (presiding over torture and executions and participating in public religious ceremonies to the state gods or the official supreme god, the Unconquered Sun) made committing sins inevitable. Thus, Constantine and others put off their baptism until they had retired from public life and no longer had to participate in these activities. As far as Constantine’s personal beliefs go he served as a proper emperor, honoring the state gods and the Unconquered Sun in his public capacity, but no less authority than the late great Henry Chadwick states that “his letters from 313 onwards leave no doubt that he regarded himself as a Christian whose imperial duty it was to keep a united Church” (The Early Church, p. 127).
Constantine’s council at Nicaea was not novel in its procedure—Christian bishops had been gathering in councils for quite a long time. Where it was different was in its scope. The controversy was (at that point) an Egyptian one and afflicted the Greek-speaking areas of the empire. Thus, Constantine sought to gather as many bishops of the Greek-speaking Church as possible and others beyond it to resolve the problem. Senior bishops and archbishops or their representatives came from all over the known world to participate. The chronicler Eusebius highlights its breadth by comparing the guest list to the account in Acts of the international gathering at the first Pentecost.
The Da Vinci Code crowd and conspiracy theorists of various stripes suggest that at this council Constantine perverted everything by declaring Jesus divine—either implying or stating explicitly that the Church had not held this opinion before him. It’s an interesting theory, it’s just completely contradicted by the evidence. The writings of the first three Christian centuries make it abundantly clear that Christians considered Jesus divine; the question tackled by the council was not if but how Jesus was divine. The problem was that a teacher from Alexandria—Arius—was teaching that Jesus, like some of the heroes and demi-gods who had made it into the Roman pantheon, had been granted divinity and was not eternally divine. The council focused primarily on two assertions of Arius: first, that Jesus was a created being; second that “there was [a time] when he was not”. Now, I could walk you through the arguments and the technical philosophical vocabulary used, but in going through the details we’d miss the real point. So let’s zoom out for a second and talk about how and why this matters.
Trinitarian theology tends to be very complicated because it did not begin as an intellectual exercise: if people had sat down and thought it up, it would make a lot more sense! Instead, this theology proceeds from the realm of Christian experience. Christians knew from their Scriptures and from their Jewish roots that God was unmistakably and unquestionably One. In their religious experience, though, they perceived the working of God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. The problem of Trinitarian theology was how to wrap limited and limiting human language and concepts around the power of God that they had experienced in their lives.
The reason why this became necessary and pressing was because the theological formulations had very practical, pastoral consequences. Understanding the divinity of God the Son was not simply an arcane puzzle for specialists but rather was intimately connected to who God was and how God interacted with creation. In a sense, Arius thought that he had discovered a formulation that would preserve the dignity of God the Father. After all, the great scandal of Christianity to the philosophical minds of the time is why a god who existed as spirit would have anything to do with flesh and matter which was inherently imperfect and corruptible. According to Arius’s formula, God the Father kept himself pure and unsullied but elevated Jesus as the first and greatest of his creatures to divine status. The orthodox party insisted that, no, God’s love was that great and that scandalous that God was willing to become flesh, to live, to love, to suffer and die. Affirming that, they could then affirm that the transformative power of the resurrection and the ascension can happen and has happened to actual human flesh in the person of Jesus! That is, the orthodox could affirm that any pain we feel, any joy we feel, any fear, or longing, or hope of ours, God understands it—because God has felt it in his own flesh. Arius couldn’t say the same of his God. By the end of the council, the gathered bishops agreed that this was the Good News spoken of in the Scriptures and handed down by the apostles, not an untouchable spirit God who had elevated a piece of creation but of a God who loved us enough to become one of us.
Now, this certainly wasn’t the first controversy about the Trinity or about the person of Jesus. Since the days of Irenaeus (in the mid-second century) Christians had defined the church and its teaching around three things: a set canon of Scripture, apostolic succession—a confirmation that the teaching a bishop received was what was handed on by the apostles, and the core teachings—the regula fidei (rule or measure of faith). These core teachings, the regula fidei, were transmitted in the form of baptismal creeds. That is, at baptisms new Christians assented that they knew and understood the heart of the Christian teachings that were to serve as a guide in reading the Scriptures. Our Apostles’ Creed, for instance, is an early (mid-second century or so) Roman baptismal creed that has remained the dominant statement in the West. What the Council of Nicaea did was to take the ancient baptismal creed of Caesarea (which fundamentally agreed with others like the Apostles’ Creed) and to tweak a few phrases—dropping some that could be misinterpreted, adding some that clarified its meaning. In a letter to the clergy of his region (which included Arians), Eusebius of Caesarea described how the gathered bishops took the creed and added a few words and what they intended by it. This creed became known as the Nicene Creed and defined the faith of the gathered bishops who agreed that it encapsulated the teachings that they had received from the apostles the best they knew how. This creed would be tweaked again at the Council of Constantinople (381) to exclude an error that arose later in the fourth century, was confirmed again by the Council of Chalcedon (451) and there achieved the form that we receive in our prayer book.
Thus, AD 325 is a date that every Anglican should know. The Council of Nicaea was the Church’s formal debut party thrown for it by the Roman Empire. Constantine convened it, but the bishops assembled solved the theological dilemma with an appeal to the apostles’ teaching, formalizing in a creedal statement the fact that God loves us enough to literally, physically, become one of us. This was not some new faith invented by Constantine, but a verbal clarification of what had been handed on by Irenaeus, affirmed by countless Christians at their baptisms, recorded by Luke the Evangelist, of the astounding, staggering love that the apostles witnessed in the words and works of Christ himself.
Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.