by Andy Sochor
via Unmasking Sophistry, Vol. 3, No. 2
The first ecumenical council, that occurred in Nicea, was in 325 AD. It was a gathering of church leaders from across the Roman Empire who came together to discuss certain controversial issues and come to a consensus on the church's "official" position on these matters.
Before discussing this, it is important to distinguish this from the meeting in Jerusalem found in Acts 15. Luke recorded that some men came from Judea to Antioch and taught that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas had "great dissension and debate with them" (Acts 15:2). It was determined to send Paul, Barnabas, and some other brethren to Jerusalem to discuss this question. Many who affirm the legitimacy or authority of the Council of Nicea ( and later ones) believe that this meeting in Jerusalem was essentially the same type of gathering. Yet it was not.
The Council of Nicea was a gathering of church leaders throughout the Empire who were called together by Constantine. The meeting in Jerusalem came about when a group of disciples from Antioch traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders of the church in that city (Acts 15:2-4). The brethren from Antioch went to Jerusalem because ( 1) the apostles were there and (2) the ones who were disturbing the church in Antioch with their teaching had come from their "number" (Acts 15:24). A problem had arisen in Antioch, so those who were connected to it in some way met to resolve the issue.
Peace Leads to Controversy
In Early Persecution, we discussed the persecution that had targeted the church through the beginning of the fourth century. This persecution "officially" ended in 313 AD when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration. With this and his alleged conversion, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
It is certainly good for brethren to enjoy peace. Paul said that Christians are to pray for civil authorities "so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Timothy 2:2-4). However, while such peace can help the gospel spread, it can also provide false teachers with more opportunities to spread their errors.
In the most recent article in this series, we discussed the beginning of apostasy. We saw that the seeds were already planted at the end of the first century and started bearing fruit in the second century. Therefore, it should not be surprising to see significant departures from the doctrines and practices found in the New Testament by the fourth century ( the time of Constantine and the Council of Nicea).
Controversies that Arose
Three major controversies that arose following the Edict of Toleration centered around the teachings of Arius (256-336 AD), Apollinaris (310-390 AD), and Pelagius (355-420 AD). The first of these was addressed at the Council of Nicea. The others were dealt with at councils in Constantinople (381 AD) and Carthage (418 AD). Before discussing the Council of Nicea further, let us briefly summarize these controversies.
- Arianism - This controversy concerned the Trinity, particularly the relationship between the Father and the Son. This doctrine - attributed to Arius - held that Jesus was created and, therefore, not equal to the Father.
- Apollinarianism - Apollinaris opposed the doctrine of Arianism and the idea that Jesus was inferior to the Father. Yet his doctrine was seen by many as an overreaction ( or overcorrection) to the teachings of Arius. Apollinarianism is the idea that Jesus could not have had a human spirit because this was inherently sinful.
- Pelagianism - This controversy centered around sin and salvation. Pelagius taught that man had free will and could choose to do good or evil. His teachings were contrary to the popular doctrine of original sin taught by Augustine.
It is important to note that these "heretical" positions have been defined by their opponents. Many or all of their actual writings were destroyed. However, if we were alive back then and did not align with the official "orthodox" position decided upon by these councils, we would have been labeled as heretics as well. This is especially likely with the controversy over Pelagianism since we would affirm that man has the ability to choose to do either right or wrong ( cf. Joshua 24:15) and that God will hold each person accountable for his own sins and not the sins of anyone else (Ezekiel 18:20).
Council of Bishops
The first ecumenical council was called by Emperor Constantine in 325 AD. The chief issue to be addressed was the controversy over Arianism. Constantine presided over 318 bishops who met in Nicea in Bithynia - an area in Asia Minor (modernday Turkey).
This council met to establish the "official" position of the church. In doing this, they formulated a creed - an official statement of faith that was to be accepted by all the churches. Many would argue that such creeds represented the teachings of Scripture. However, in reality, they were human interpretations of Scripture that should not have been held to as authoritative. This becomes more clear as additional and conflicting creeds were created and adopted by others after this point.
As Constantine - the ruler of the Roman Empire - presided over this meeting, it also indicated an official union of church and state [ we will discuss this further in the next lesson].
The Nicene Creed
During the Council of Nicea, the bishops adopted a formal statement of faith - the Nicene Creed - as the "official" position of the church. This was later revised at the first Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. This revision - the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed - is what many today refer to as the Nicene Creed. The revised creed stated the following:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father; by whom all things were made:
Who for us men and for our salvation came
down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;
And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand ofthe Father;
And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets;
And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.
We look for the Resurrection of the dead, And the Life of the age to come. Amen.
For the most part, we probably would not argue with the content of the creed. In some portions, we may question the wording; but it is not far from what we read about in the New Testament. So why does it matter? The problem is that it takes a man-made statement of faith and turns it into an authoritative statement equal to - or maybe even preferred over - the Spirit-inspired word of God. This is the problem with every creed, no matter how close we believe it is to the New Testament.
Since the end of the first century, the apostasy that the apostles warned about continued to slowly build as churches drifted further away from the doctrine of Christ found in the New Testament. However, at the Council of Nicea, an "orthodox" position was adopted for the church as a whole in the form of the Nicene Creed. Christians would now be pressured to accept this because it was the "official" position of "the church." Furthermore, with the new union of church and state, it would become increasingly more difficult - and dangerous- to simply follow the teachings of Christ without the opinions, commandments, and traditions of man.