Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ecumenical Council of Nicaea

Commemoration of The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, ad 325
June 12, 2012

The Council of Nicaea in 325 was the first of the seven recognized ecumenical (world-wide) councils conduced by the church. The last of these councils was also held in Nicaea in the year 787. Each of these councils were held before the great East-West split in 1054, placing them in the unique position of speaking about what the Church believes, teaches and confesses at a time when the Church had not broken apart into different “confessions” or “communions” or “denominations.”

This does not mean there were no controversies. Far from it. In fact, the councils were called to settle controversies. What it does mean is that the Church, through the councils, could speak with a united voice concerning the controversial issues.

Currently, in our newsletter, I have begun a series on the Nicene Creed (in the “Digging In” articles.) That means that much of what I might write here, I will be writing in those articles over the coming months, and in greater detail. So this will be just a quick overview.

This council was called by Emperor Constantine I (the Great). (His saint day is May 21.) Though he gave the opening address, he did not interfere with the theological discussions or decisions. (In the future, when emperors did interfere with theological decisions, things typically degraded into power politics.) The emperor invited all 1800 Christian Bishops to attend, promising to pay all expenses for those attending along with their assistants. While the actual number of bishops attending cannot be confirmed with absolute historical certainty, there is no real reason to reject the traditional number of 318 (which is the number reported by two of the people who attended, though others had different counts). Along with their assistants (priests, deacons, etc.), the number in attendance would have been over 2,000. The city of Nicaea was chosen because of its convenient location for most bishops and because it had the facilities to handle the large numbers. Bishops from every part of the Roman Empire attended, except Britain. There were also bishops from outside the Roman Empire, most notably from Persia.

While everyone agrees on the year of the council, the exact dates are harder to determine. The earliest suggested beginning is May 20. The latest possible ending date I’ve found is August 25.

Numerous issues were considered. The biggest was the innovations of the presbyter Arius. He denied the Trinity and the eternal existence of Jesus. The second was the date to celebrate Easter. Some celebrated it on Nisan 14 (according to the Jewish calendar), while others felt the current Jewish calendar was inaccurate and so they calculated the date for Easter differently. A third big issue was how to treat those who had abandoned the Christian Faith during the recent persecutions and now wanted to return to the Church. There were other issues as well.

In response to the teachings of Arius, who attended the council and fully explained his position, the council endorsed the first form of the Nicene Creed. (It would be expanded at the second ecumenical council and this expanded creed is the one confessed by the Church today.) This creed rejected the teachings of the Arians, in part, because they were innovations. When Arius arrived 22 of the bishops supported him. After he spoke, and these bishops finally understood what Arius was teaching, most dropped their support. In fact, at the end of the council, only two bishops continued to support Arius. Arius and the two bishops were banished to Illyria.

One misconception about this council is that they created the teaching of the Trinity and the eternal existence of the Son. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone familiar with the writing of the Anti-Nicean Fathers (that is, the Church Fathers that came before the Council of Nicaea) knows such claims are distortions from the pits of hell. The council affirmed, and clarified, what the Church had taught since Apostolic times.

Concerning Easter, the council decided in favor of the “Christian” Nisan. This is the day normally celebrated as Easter today around the world.

Concerning those who had renounced Christ to avoid persecution and now wanted back into the Church, the council decided on a rather mild reconciliation process.

Another false statement people sometimes make about this council is that it established the canon of the Bible. Such statements spring from ignorance. The council made no statement whatsoever about which books belong in the Bible or did not belong.

This council had a profound long-term impact. This was the first council, since the Jerusalem Council in the book of Acts, when representatives from the entire Church gathered and spoke concerning what we believe, teach, and confess. It affirmed what had been handed down from the Apostles as the orthodox Christian Faith. Though the Arian controversy didn’t go away, those who clung to the truth now had a clear statement, recognized wherever the Church had spread, to express their faith. The pattern of gathering together to establish what the Church believes on specific issues has been repeated time and time again throughout history.

Prayer for the day: Lord God, heavenly Father, at the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea, Your Church boldly confessed that it believed in one Lord Jesus Christ as being of one substance with the Father. Grant us courage to confess this saving faith with Your Church through all the ages, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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