Sacred Texts  Christianity  Early Church Fathers  Index  Previous  Next 

§3 (1) The Council of Nicæa.

An ecumenical council was a new experiment. Local councils had long since grown to be a recognised organ of the Church both for legislation and for judicial proceedings. But no precedent as yet prescribed, no ecclesiastical law or theological principle had as yet enthroned, the ‘General Council’ as the supreme expression of the Church’s mind. Constantine had already referred the case of the Donatists first to a select council at Rome under bishop Miltiades, then to what Augustine (Ep. 43) has been understood to call a ‘plenarium ecclesiæ universæ concilium’ at Arles in 314. This remedy for schism was now to be tried on a grander scale. That the heads of all the Churches of Christendom should meet in free and brotherly deliberation, and should testify to all the world their agreement in the Faith handed down independently but harmoniously from the earliest times in Churches widely remote in situation, and separated by differences of language, race, and civilisation, is a grand and impressive idea, an idea approximately realised at Nicæa as in no other assembly that has ever met. The testimony of such an assembly carries the strongest evidential weight; and the almost unanimous horror of the Nicene Bishops at the novelty and profaneness of Arianism condemns it irrevocably as alien to the immemorial belief of the Churches. But it was one thing to perceive this, another to formulate the positive belief of the Church in such a way as to exclude the heresy; one thing to agree in condemning Arian formulæ, another to agree upon an adequate test of orthodoxy. This was the problem which lay before the council, and with which only its more clearsighted members tenaciously grappled: this is the explanation of the reaction which followed, and which for more than a generation, for well nigh half a century after, placed its results in jeopardy. The number of bishops who met at Nicæa was over 250 6 . They represented many nationalities (Euseb. ubi supra.), but only a handful came from the West, the chief being Hosius, Cæcilian of Carthage, and the presbyters sent by Silvester of Rome, whose age prevented his presence in person. The council lasted from the end of May till Aug. 25 (see D.C.A., 1389). With the many picturesque stories told of its incidents we have nothing to do (Stanley’s Eastern Church, Socr. i. 10–12, Soz. i. 17, 18, Rufin. H. E. i. 3–5); but it may be well to note the division of parties. (1) Of thoroughgoing partisans of Arius, Secundus 7 and Theonas alone scorned all compromise. But Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis, Bishop of Nicæa itself, and Maris of Chalcedon, also belonged to the inner circle of Arians by conviction (Socr. i. 8; Soz. i. 21 makes up the same number, but wrongly). The three last-named were pupils of Lucian (Philost. ii. 15). Some twelve others (the chief names are Athanasius of Anazarbus and Narcissus of Neronias, in Cilicia; Patrophilus of Scythopolis, Aetius of Lydda, Paulinus of Tyre, Theodotus of Laodicea, Gregory of Berytus, in Syria and Palestine; Menophantus of Ephesus; for a fuller discussion see Gwatk. p. 31, n. 3) completed the strength of the Arian party proper. (2) On the other hand a clearly formulated doctrinal position in contrast to Arianism was taken up by a minority only, although this minority carried the day. Alexander of Alexandria of course was the rallying point of this wing, but the choice of the formula proceeded from other minds. ‘γπόστασις and οὑσία are one in the Nicene formula: Alexander in 323 writes of τρεὶς ὐποστάσεις.

The test formula of Nicæa was the work of two concurrent influences, that of the anti-Origenists of the East, especially Marcellus of Ancyra, Eustathius of Antioch, supported by Macarius of ‘Ælia,’ Hellanicus of Tripolis, and Asclepas of Gaza, and that of the Western bishops, especially Hosius of Cordova. The latter fact explains the energetic intervention of p. xviii Constantine at the critical moment on behalf of the test (see below, and Ep. Eus. p. 75); the word was commended to the Fathers by Constantine, but Constantine was ‘prompted’ by Hosius (Harnack, Dogmg. ii. 226); οὗτος τὴν ἐν Νικαί& 139· πίοτιν ἐξέθετο (infr. p. 285, §42). Alexander (the Origenist) had been prepared for this by Hosius beforehand (Soc. iii. 7; Philost. i. 7; cf. Zahn Marcell. p. 23, and Harnack’s important note, p. 229). Least of all was Athanasius the author of the μοούσιον; his whole attitude toward the famous test (infr. p. 303) is that of loyal acceptance and assimilation rather than of native inward affinity. ‘He was moulded by the Nicene Creed, did not mould it himself’ (Loofs, p. 134). The theological keynote of the council was struck by a small minority; Eustathius, Marcellus, perhaps Macarius, and the Westerns, above all Hosius; the numbers were doubtless contributed by the Egyptian bishops who had condemned Arius in 321. The signatures, which seem partly incorrect, preserve a list of about 20. The party then which rallied round Alexander in formal opposition to the Arians may be put down at over thirty. ‘The men who best understood Arianism were most decided on the necessity of its formal condemnation.’ (Gwatkin.) To this compact and determined group the result of the council was due, and in their struggle they owed much—how much it is hard to determine—to the energy and eloquence of the deacon Athanasius, who had accompanied his bishop to the council as an indispensable companion (infr. p. 103; Soz. i. 17 fin.). (3) Between the convinced Arians and their reasoned opponents lay the great mass of the bishops, 200 and more, nearly all from Syria and Asia Minor, who wished for nothing more than that they might hand on to those who came after them the faith they had received at baptism, and had learned from their predecessors. These were the ‘conservatives 8 ,’ or middle party, composed of all those who, for whatever reason, while untainted with Arianism, yet either failed to feel its urgent danger to the Church, or else to hold steadily in view the necessity of an adequate test if it was to be banished. Simple shepherds like Spyridion of Cyprus; men of the world who were more interested in their libelli than in the magnitude of the doctrinal issue; theologians, a numerous class, ‘who on the basis of half-understood Origenist ideas were prepared to recognise in Christ only the Mediator appointed (no doubt before all ages) between God and the World’ (Zahn Marc. p. 30); men who in the best of faith yet failed from lack of intellectual clearsightedness to grasp the question for themselves; a few, possibly, who were inclined to think that Arius was hardly used and might be right after all; such were the main elements which made up the mass of the council, and upon whose indefiniteness, sympathy, or unwillingness to impose any effective test, the Arian party based their hopes at any rate of toleration. Spokesman and leader of the middle party was the most learned Churchman of the age, Eusebius of Cæsarea. A devoted admirer of Origen, but independent of the school of Lucian, he had, during the early stages of the controversy, thrown his weight on the side of toleration for Arius. He had himself used compromising language, and in his letter to the Cæsarean Church (infra, p. 76 sq.) does so again. But equally strong language can be cited from him on the other side, and belonging as he does properly to the pre-Nicene age, it is highly invidious to make the most of his Arianising passages, and, ignoring or explaining away those on the other side, and depreciating his splendid and lasting services to Christian learning, to class him summarily with his namesake of Nicomedia 9 . (See Prolegg. to vol. 1 of this series, and above all the article in D.C.B.) The fact however remains, that Eusebius gave something more than moral support to the Arians. He was ‘neither a great man nor a clear thinker’ (Gwatkin); his own theology was hazy and involved; as an Origenist, his main dread was of Monarchianism, and his policy in the council was to stave off at least such a condemnation of Arianism as should open the door to ‘confounding the Persons.’ Eusebius apparently represents, therefore, the ‘left wing,’ or the last mentioned, of the ‘conservative’ elements in the council (supra, and Gwatkin, p. 38); but his learning, age, position, and the ascendency of Origenist Theology in the East, marked him out as the leader of the whole.

But the ‘conservatism’ of the great mass of bishops rejected Arianism more promptly than had been expected by its adherents or patrons.

The real work of the council did not begin at once. The way was blocked by innumerable applications to the Christian Emperor from bishops and clergy, mainly for the redress of personal grievances. Commonplace men often fail to see the proportion of things, and to rise to the magnitude of the events in which they play their p. xix part. At last Constantine appointed a day for the formal and final reception of all personal complaints, and burnt the ‘libelli’ in the presence of the assembled fathers. He then named a day by which the bishops were to be ready for a formal decision of the matters in dispute. The way was now open for the leaders to set to work. Quasi-formal meetings were held, Arius and his supporters met the bishops, and the situation began to clear (Soz. i. 17). To their dismay (de Decr. 3) the Arian leaders realised that they could only count on some seventeen supporters out of the entire body of bishops. They would seem to have seriously and honestly underrated the novelty of their own teaching (cf. the letter of Arius in Thdt. i. 5), and to have come to the council with the expectation of victory over the party of Alexander. But they discovered their mistake:—

‘Sectamur ultro, quos opimus

Fallere et effugere est triumphus.”

‘Fallere et effugere’ was in fact the problem which now confronted them. It seems to have been agreed at an early stage, perhaps it was understood from the first, that some formula of the unanimous belief of the Church must be fixed upon to make an end of controversy. The Alexandrians and ‘Conservatives’ confronted the Arians with the traditional Scriptural phrases (pp. 163, 491) which appeared to leave no doubt as to the eternal Godhead of the Son. But to their surprise they were met with perfect acquiescence. Only as each test was propounded, it was observed that the suspected party whispered and gesticulated to one another, evidently hinting that each could be safely accepted, since it admitted of evasion. If their assent was asked to the formula ‘like to the Father in all things,’ it was given with the reservation that man as such is ‘the image and glory of God.’ The ‘power of God’ elicited the whispered explanation that the host of Israel was spoken of as δύναμις κυρίου, and that even the locust and caterpillar are called the ‘power of God.’ The ‘eternity’ of the Son was countered by the text, ‘We that live are alway (2 Cor. iv. 11)!’ The fathers were baffled, and the test of μοούσιον, with which the minority had been ready from the first, was being forced (p. 172) upon the majority by the evasions of the Arians. When the day for the decisive meeting arrived it was felt that the choice lay between the adoption of the word, cost what it might, and the admission of Arianism to a position of toleration and influence in the Church. But then, was Arianism all that Alexander and Eustathius made it out to be? was Arianism so very intolerable, that this novel test must be imposed on the Church? The answer came (Newman Ar. 4 p. 252) from Eusebius of Nicomedia. Upon the assembling of the bishops for their momentous debate (ς δὲ ἐζητεῖτο τῆς πίστεως ὁ τρόπος, Eustath.) he presented them with a statement of his belief. The previous course of events may have convinced him that half-measures would defeat their own purpose, and that a challenge to the enemy, a forlorn hope, was the only resort left to him 10 . At any rate the statement was an unambiguous assertion of the Arian formulæ, and it cleared the situation at once. An angry clamour silenced the innovator, and his document was publicly torn to shreds (π᾽ ὄψει πάντων, says an eye-witness in Thdt. i. 8). Even the majority of the Arians were cowed, and the party were reduced to the inner circle of five (supra). It was now agreed on all hands that a stringent formula was needed. But Eusebius of Cæsarea came forward with a last effort to stave off the inevitable. He produced a formula, not of his own devising (Kölling, pp. 208 sqq.), but consisting of the creed of his own Church with an addition intended to guard against Sabellianism (Hort, Two Diss. pp. 56, sq. 138). The formula was unassailable on the basis of Scripture and of tradition. No one had a word to say against it, and the Emperor expressed his personal anxiety that it should be adopted, with the single improvement of the μοούσιον. The suggestion thus quietly made was momentous in its result. We cannot but recognise the ‘prompter’ Hosius behind the Imperial recommendation: the friends of Alexander had patiently waited their time, and now their time was come: the two Eusebii had placed the result in their hands. But how and where was the necessary word to be inserted? and if some change must be made in the Cæsarean formula, would it not be as well to set one or two other details right? At any rate, the creed of Eusebius was carefully overhauled clause by clause, and eventually took a form materially different from that in which it was first presented 11 , and with affinities to the creeds of Antioch and Jerusalem as well as Cæsarea.

All was now ready; the creed, the result of minute and careful deliberations (we do not p. xx know their history, nor even how long they occupied 12 ), lay before the council. We are told ‘the council paused.’ The evidence fails us; but it may well have been so. All the bishops who were genuinely horrified at the naked Arianism of Eusebius of Nicomedia were yet far from sharing the clearsighted definiteness of the few: they knew that the test proposed was not in Scripture, that it had a suspicious history in the Church. The history of the subsequent generation shews that the mind of Eastern Christendom was not wholly ripe for its adoption. But the fathers were reminded of the previous discussions, of the futility of the Scriptural tests, of the locust and the caterpillar, of the whisperings, the nods, winks, and evasions. With a great revulsion of feeling the council closed its ranks and marched triumphantly to its conclusion. All signed,—all but two, Secundus and Theonas. Maris signed and Theognis, Menophantus and Patrophilus, and all the rest. Eusebius of Nicomedia signed; signed everything, even the condemnation of his own convictions and of his ‘genuine fellow-Lucianist’ Arius; not the last time that an Arian leader was found to turn against a friend in the hour of trial. Eusebius justified his signature by a ‘mental reservation;’ but we can sympathise with the bitter scorn of Secundus, who as he departed to his exile warned Eusebius that he would not long escape the same fate (Philost. i. 9).

The council broke up after being entertained by the Emperor at a sumptuous banquet in honour of his Vicennalia. The recalcitrant bishops with Arius and some others were sent into exile (an unhappy and fateful precedent), a fate which soon after overtook Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis (see the discussion in D.C.B. ii. 364 sq.). But in 329 ‘we find Eusebius once more in high favour with Constantine, discharging his episcopal functions, persuading Constantine that he and Arius held substantially the Creed of Nicæa.’

The council also dealt with the Paschal question (see Vit. Const. iii. 18; so far as the question bears on Athanasius see below, p. 500), and with the Meletian schism in Egypt. The latter was the main subject of a letter (Soc. i. 9; Thdt. i. 9) to the Alexandrian Church. Meletius himself was to retain the honorary title of bishop, to remain strictly at home, and to be in lay communion for the rest of his life. The bishops and clergy of his party were to receive a μυστικωτέρα χειροτονία (see Bright, Notes on Canons, pp. 25 sqq.; Gore, The Church and the Ministry, ed. 1, p. 192 note), and to be allowed to discharge their office, but in the strictest subordination to the Catholic Clergy of Alexander. But on vacancies occurring, the Meletian incumbents were to succeed subject to (1) their fitness, (2) the wishes of the people, (3) the approval of the Bishop of Alexandria. The terms were mild, and even the gentle nature of Alexander seems to have feared that immediate peace might have been purchased at the expense of future trouble (his successor openly blames the compromise, p. 131, and more strongly p. 137); accordingly, before carrying out the settlement he required Meletius to draw up an exact list of his clergy at the time of the council, so as to bar an indefinite multiplication of claims. Meletius, who must have been even less pleased with the settlement than his metropolitan, seems to have taken his time. At last nothing would satisfy both parties but the personal presentation of the Meletian bishops from all Egypt, and of their clergy p. xxi from Alexandria itself, to Alexander (p. 137, τούτους καὶ παρόντας παρέδωκεν τῷ ᾽Αλεξάνδρῳ), who was thus enabled to check the Brevium or schedule handed in by their chief 13 . All this must have taken a long time after Alexander’s return, and the peace was soon broken by his death.

Five months after the conclusion of the negotiations, Alexander having now died, the flame of schism broke out afresh (infr. p. 131. Montfaucon, in Migne xxv. p. lvii., shews conclusively that the above is the meaning of the μῆνας πέντε.) On his death-bed, Alexander called for Athanasius. He was away from Alexandria, but the other deacon of that name (see signatures p. 71), stepped forward in answer to the call. But without noticing him, the Bishop repeated the name, adding, ‘You think to escape, but it cannot be.’ (Sozom. ii. 17.) Alexander had already written his Easter Letter for the year 328 (it was apparently still extant at the end of the century, p. 503). He died on April 17 of that year (Pharmuthi 22), and on the eighth of June Athanasius was chosen bishop in his stead.



So Eus. Vit. Const. iii. 8—over 270, Eustath. in Thdt. i. 8—in fact more than 300 (de Decr. 3), according to Athanasius, who again, toward the end of his life (ad Afr. 2) acquiesces in the precise figure 318 (Gen. xiv. 14; the Greek numeral τιή combines the Cross with the initial letters of the Sacred Name) which a later generation adopted (it first occurs in the alleged Coptic acts of the Council of Alexandria, 362, then in the Letter of Liberius to the bishops of Asia in 365, infr. §9), on grounds perhaps symbolical rather than historical.


The name of Secundus appears among the subscriptions (cf. Soz. i. 21) but this is contradicted by the primary evidence (Letter of the Council in Soc. i. 9, Thdt. i. 9); cf. Philost. i. 9, 10. But there is evidence that there were two Secundi.


A term first brought into currency in this connection by Mr. Gwatkin (p. 38, note), and since adopted by many writers including Harnack; in spite of the obvious objection to the importations of political terms into the grave questions of this period, the term is too useful to be surrendered, and the ‘conservatives’ of the Post-Nicene reaction were in fact too often political in their methods and spirit. The truly conservative men, here as in other instances, failed to enlist the sympathy of the conservative rank and file.


The identity of name has certainly done Eusebius no good with posterity. But no one with a spark of generosity can fail to be moved by the appeal of Socrates (ii. 21) for common fairness toward the dead.


Or possibly Theodoret, &c., drew a wrong inference from the words of Eustathius (in Thdt. i. 8), and the γράμμα was not submitted by Eusebius, but produced as evidence against him; in this case it must have been, as Fleury observes, his letter to Paulinus of Tyre.


, vol. 2, p. 227. The main alterations were (1) The elimination of the word λόγος and substitution of υἱ& 231·ς in the principal place. This struck at the theology of Eusebius even more directly than at that of Arius. (2) The addition not only of μοούσιον τῷ πατρί, but also of τούτεστιν ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ πατρός between μονογενῆ and θεόν as a further qualification of γεννηθέντα (specially against Euseb. Nicom.: see his letter in Thdt. i. 6). (3) Further explanation of γεννηθέντα by γ. οὐ ποιηθέντα, a glance at a favourite argument of Arius, as well as at Asterius. (4) νανθρωπήσαντα added to explain σαρκωθέντα, and so to exclude the Christology which characterised Arianism from the first. (5) Addition of anathematisms directed against all the leading Arian doctrines.


The events have been related in what seems to be their most likely order, but there is no real certainty in the matter. It is clear that there were at least two public sittings (Soz. i. 17, the language of Eus. V. C. iii. 10, is reconcileable with this) in the emperor’s presence, at the first of which the libelli were burned and the bishops requested to examine the question of faith. This was probably on June 19. The tearing up of the creed of Eus. Nic. seems from the account of Eustathius to have come immediately before the final adoption of a creed. The creed of Eusebius of Cæsarea, which was the basis of that finally adopted, must therefore have been propounded after the failure of his namesake. (Montfaucon and others are clearly wrong in supposing that this was the ‘blasphemy’ which was torn to pieces!) The difficulty is, where to put the dramatic scene of whisperings, nods, winks, and evasions which compelled the bishops to apply a drastic test. I think (with Kölling, &c.) that it must have preceded the proposal of Eusebius, upon which the μοούσιον was quietly insisted on by Constantine; for the latter was the only occasion (πρόφασις) of any modification in the Cæsarean Creed, which in itself does not correspond to the tests described infr. p. 163. But Montfaucon and others, followed by Gwatkin, place the scene in question after the proposal of Eus. Cæs. and the resolution to modify his creed by the insertion of a stringent test,—in fact at the ‘pause’ of the council before its final resolution. This conflicts with the clear statement of Eusebius that the μοούσιον was the ‘thin end of the wedge’ which led to the entire recasting of his creed (see infr. p. 73. The idea of Kölling, p. 208, that the creed of Eusebius was drawn up by him for the occasion, and that the μάθημα of the council was ready beforehand as an alternative document, is refuted by the relation of the two documents; see Hort, pp. 138, 139). It follows, therefore, from the combined accounts of Ath., Euseb. and Eustathius (our only eye-witnesses) that (1) the fathers were practically resolved upon the μοούσιον before the final sitting. (2) That this resolve was clinched by the creed of Eusebius of Nicomedia. (3) That Eusebius of Cæsarea made his proposal when it was too late to think of half-measures. (4) That the creed of Eusebius was modified at the Emperor’s direction (which presupposes the willingness of the Council). (5) That this revision was immediately followed by the signatures and the close of the council. The work of revision, however, shews such signs of attention to detail that we are almost compelled to assume at least one adjournment of the final sitting. When the other business of the council was transacted, including the settlement of the Easter question, the Meletian schism, and the Canons, it is impossible to say. Kölling suo jure puts them at the first public session. The question must be left open, as must that of the presidency of the council. The conduct of the proceedings was evidently in the hands of Constantine, so that the question of presidency reduces itself to that of identifying the bishop on Constantine’s right who delivered the opening address to the Emperor: this was certainly not Hosius (see Vit. C. iii. 11, and vol. 1 of this series, p. 19), but may have been Eusebius of Cæsarea, who probably after a few words from Eustathius (Thdt.) or Alexander (Theod. Mops. and Philost.) was entrusted with so congenial a task. The name of Hosius stands first on the extant list of signatures, and he may have signed first, although the lists are bad witnesses. The words of Athanasius sometimes quoted in this connection (p. 256), ‘over what synod did he not preside?’ must be read in connection with the distinction made by Theodoret in quoting the passage in question (H. E. ii. 15) that Hosius ’was very prominent at the great synod of Nicæa, and presided over those who assembled at Sardica. This is the only evidence we possess to which any weight can be attached.


It is worth noting that the Nicene arrangement was successful in some few cases. See Index to this vol. s.v. Theon (of Nilopolis), &c.

Next: Section 3 (2)