Who Cares About Nicaea?

Sunday of the Fathers of the Nicene Council

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36

John 17:1-13

Today, we celebrate the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.  Why do we care about that? I mean, it happened nearly 1700 years ago.

Picture yourself living as a Christian in the Roman Empire in 303. Diocletian was Emperor, and the Diocletian Persecution occurred that year. extending to the next.  One edict went so far as requiring public sacrifice to the gods. Refusal to do so would result in execution - on the spot.

Fortunately, this wasn't universally enforced, but, nevertheless, it is known as the worst persecution that occurred under the Empire.  And, it was the last.

About 312, the Emperor Constantine was marching with his troops, and, as the story goes, had a vision of a cross in the sky, with the words, "In Hoc Signo Vinces" - In this sign you will be victorious.  He was instantly converted (although he put off baptism until he was near death), and, the following year, 313, he issued The Edict of Milan, making Christianity legal.  Indeed, although it did not become the state religion until 380, it became quite influential from that point on.

At that time, in the Church of Alexandria, there was a presbyter named Arius, who started preaching about Christ that, "there was a time when he was not".  He began denying the Divinity of Christ!  As time went on, this false teaching became quite a problem in the Eastern Church, causing a great deal of strife, even among the bishops.  Eventually, Constantine realized that, in order for peace to be maintained in the Empire, this disagreement had to be settled. So, in 325, he called a council in Nicea, a town some 90 miles from Constantinople.  About 300 bishops and deacons from the Eastern Empire attended, with a smaller number from the West. Pope Sylvester I was represented by legates.  Among the deacons from the East was a deacon who, after becoming Archbishop of Alexandria, would spend the rest of his life (48 years) fighting against the Arian Heresy.  In fact, he was exiled five times for standing for the truth.  His name?  Athanasius.  

Athanasius had previously written a treatise supporting the truth of Christ's incarnation.  This was just one of many writings through the years against the heresy. They are well worth reading, and can be found online among the Writings of the Church Fathers.

Athanasius wasn't the only hero to be revealed at the council.

St. Nicholas of Myra (yes, that Nicholas) showed the world that he wasn't a jolly old elf. The legend goes that he was so incensed by Arius speaking his profanities that he struck him. He was thrown into jail, but delivered through divine assistance. 

Ultimately, the entire issue hinged on the council choosing one of two words to communicate their understanding.  One word meant “of a similar substance”, the other “of the same substance”. They differed by a single letter, the Greek letter iota - the smallest letter of the alphabet.  The whole future of the Christian Faith relied on a single little letter!

Even though Arius had brought 22 bishops with him to defend his case, the council decided in favor of the doctrine of the Incarnation, that Christ is of the same substance, consubstantial, with the Father.  

But, this was not decided based on scriptural proofs. Why? Because the New Testament, as we know it today, was not yet the official scripture of the Church.  Yes, many, if not most, held to the inspiration of the various books, but the canonization of the New Testament would not come for another 50 years.

No, the decision was made based on the Incarnation having been handed down as part of Holy Tradition since the time of the Apostles.

So, why is this council important for us today?

  • It was the first council of the Church to begin defining what it meant for Christ to be God and Man
  • It was the first Ecumenical Council; it set the stage for the conciliar process which continues to this day, through Vatican II
  • It made a doctrinal definition based on the Church's teaching as a whole, not on individual scriptural interpretation
  • It gave us models for our own Christian lives, especially pertinent in today's world of increasing heresy - Athanasius and Nicholas.
  • The creed produced by the council is the basis for the creed we profess at every Divine Liturgy, subsequently modified by the 2nd Ecumenical Council, in 381.

My Friends, we can rejoice that we hold a faith not based on whim, or some fanciful imagining, but on Holy Tradition, handed down, as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, both by writing and by word of mouth.