Constantine’s role at the First Ecumenical Council
“The Council of Nicaea met from May to the end of July 325.” (RH, 152) “The Nicene Creed is the most famous and influential creed in the history of the church.” (Justin Holcomb) It is official doctrine for most Christian churches.
The purpose of this article is to describe the pivotal influence that Emperor Constantine had on the Council of Nicaea, and on the Nicene Creed.
Legalized Christianity - Religious freedom did not exist in the Roman Empire. The emperors decided which religions are allowed. After three centuries of persecution by the Roman authorities, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the year 313.
Letter to Alexander and Arius - Even before Constantine understood the dispute, he wrote to Alexander and Arius to stop their fighting. This shows that he got involved in this dispute simply because he did not like schisms; not because of a desire for right doctrine.
Council in Antioch - A few months before the Council of Nicaea, an anti-Arian Council was held in Antioch, consisting mainly of people who sympathized with Alexander. It provisionally excommunicated Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian of that time, who also supported Arius against Alexander. Since Constantine’s religious advisor (Ossius) chaired this meeting, it was approved by Constantine, which means that, even before Nicaea, Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.
Called the Council - Constantine called the Nicene Council. Nobody asked him to do it. He did it on his own initiative for his own purposes. It was Constantine’s meeting in his capacity as emperor.
The General Council - In fact, Constantine invented the concept of a general council for the church. The church never before had a meeting of representatives from all parts of the empire. Neither did it have the ability to call such a council. Only the emperor was able to call such a meeting.
Motive - As his letter to Arius and Alexander shows, Constantine did not call the Nicene Council because of a concern about right doctrine. He called the Council because a split in the church could also split the empire. Constantine, therefore, invented and called the general council as a means of managing the church in the interest of the empire.
Chairperson - To ensure that the Nicene Council remains under his control, the emperor appointed his religious advisor (Ossius) as chairperson. Ossius acted as Constantine’s agent.
Took Alexander’s Part – It is often correctly stated that Arius had considerable support. The Nicene Creed, however, was constructed as a deliberately anti-Arian document and was approved by all of the 250-300 delegates, except 2. Why? Arius’ support was not really support for his theology. It was a vote AGAINST Alexander’s theology. Alexander, however, was victorious at Nicaea because the emperor had taken his part. If Constantine had not taken Alexander’s part, the meeting might have condemned Alexander; not Arius.
Homoousios - At the time, the term homoousios (same substance) seemed especially objectionable to many people because it was associated with Sabellianism, is not a Biblical term, was not part of the standard Christian language, but was borrowed from pagan philosophy. (See - Objections to Homoousios) Constantine’s decisive influence on the Council and on the Creed, therefore, is particularly revealed by the fact that he was able to force the inclusion of the word homoousios. He personally proposed, explained, and enforced the key word homoousios.
Reconcile – Although Constantine took Alexander’s part and insisted on Homoousios, his ultimate goal was to reconcile the fighting parties. For example, he explained homoousios in such a way that even the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) could accept the term. He paid all expenses and surrounded the delegates with honor.
Exile - The bishops knew that, if they do not accept the Creed, they would lose their jobs and be exiled to a different part of the empire. How many bishops would have voted against the Nicene Creed if exile was not hanging over their heads?
Exile and Restore - In the Roman Empire, the standard penalty for bishops for deviant teachings was exile but only the emperor was able to exile and restore bishops.
Enforced Nicaea - After Nicaea, Constantine issued a number of letters attempting to enforce the Council’s decisions.
Conclusion - “Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (RH, 850)
END OF SUMMARY
The main authors quoted in this article are:
LA = Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
RH = Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987
During the first three centuries, the Roman authorities persecuted Christianity. The Diocletianic Persecution of 303-313 was the most severe persecution of Christians up to that point in history. Diocletian's first edict commanded churches and holy sites razed to the ground, sacred articles burned, and believers jailed.
However, in 313, the Western Roman Emperor Constantine (306–337) legalized Christianity through the Edict of Milan. He granted Christians "the right of open and free observance of their worship." [Ehler, Sidney Zdeneck; Morrall, John B (1967). Church and State Through the Centuries: A Collection of Historic Documents with Commentaries. p. 6-7.]
Therefore, the first point that we want to make, with respect to the role of the Roman emperors, is that the emperors decided which religions are allowed. Religious freedom was not part of the Roman system.
Letter to Arius & Alexander
However, only a few years after Christianity was legalized, a disagreement broke out in Alexandria of Egypt between Arius (c. 250–336), a minister (presbyter or priest), and his bishop Alexander, about the nature of Christ. This was centuries before the rise of Islam, and Alexandria was one of the main centers of Christianity.
Alexander removed Arius from office, and in 321 a synod at Alexandria denounced Arius. But that did not end the Controversy. Consequently, before the Council of Nicaea, the emperor attempted to intervene:
“In 324 the Emperor Constantine … (who recently) assumed control of
the whole empire, took an interest in the dispute. Constantine wrote
to Alexander and Arius telling them to stop quarrelling about what
seemed to him to be such a small matter.” (LA, 17-18)
Constantine, therefore, attempted to intervene even before he understood what this dispute was about. “It initially took the efforts of bishops like Ossius and Alexander of Alexandria to persuade him that anything significant was at issue in Alexandria.” (LA, 87-88)
This shows that he got involved in this dispute simply because he did not like schisms; not because of a desire for right doctrine.
Council of Antioch
A few months before the Council of Nicaea, “early in 325,” an “anti-Arian Council” (RH, 131) was held in Antioch (RH, 149, 147), consisting mainly of those who sympathized with Alexander. (RH, 130)
That meeting drafted a Statement of Faith. “That this Statement is anti-Arian is overwhelmingly clear. But it is equally clear that it represents the theology of Alexander of Alexandria.” (RH, 150)
At the meeting, “Eusebius of Palestinian Caesarea,” the most respected theologian at the time and a supporter of Arius, was provisionally “excommunicated.” (RH, 146) Eusebius was not a follower of Arius. He supported Arius because he “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (RW, 173)
This Eusebius previously “acquitted the accused Arians [including Arius] of heresy” and “wrote to Alexander protesting at the way in which Arius had been treated.” (RH, 130, 135) Now Alexander’s party hits back by excommunicating the leader of the Eusebian party.
“In normal circumstances the Metropolitan of the area in which the Council met would have presided … But Constantine's representative, Ossius, took precedence … over Eustathius.” (RH, 155) This implies that the meeting took place with the approval of the emperor, which means that, even before Nicaea, Constantine had taken Alexander’s part in his dispute with Arius.
It is also important to notice that the Statement of Faith from this council does not mention the term homoousios or the ousia of God. (RH, 146) This shows that this was not a word which Alexander regarded as important.
For a further discussion of this council, see – Hanson.
Called the Council.
Constantine’s letter failed to unite the warring factions. Consequently. In the year 325, “Constantine himself summoned the bishops” (LA, 18) to end this dispute. The council was not called by a church official and nobody asked Constantine to call this meeting. It was his initiative.
“It was then certainly Constantine who convoked the Council of
Nicaea.” (RH, 153-4)
“Religious partisanship has in the past led some scholars to suggest
that Silvester, bishop of Rome, convoked the Council of Nicaea, but
modern Roman Catholic scholars honourably dismiss this idea.” (RH,
It was, therefore, the emperor’s meeting in his capacity as emperor. It was a meeting of bishops, but Constantine called the meeting to serve his own purposes.
The General Council.
A ‘general council’, in theory, is a meeting of representatives from all of Christendom. However, “by the time Nicaea met Church leaders … had no precedent for the idea of a council that would legislate for the Church as a whole.” (LA, 87)
Nicaea “was the first time that any attempt had been made to summon a
general council of the whole church at which, at least in theory, the
church in every part of the Roman Empire should be represented.” (RH,
It is, therefore, not valid to say that the emperors became involved in the general church councils. The reality is that Constantine invented the concept of a general council.
“The procedures of a council modelled on methods of Roman governance
would have been familiar to Constantine, and we can assume that he saw
it as the natural means to achieve consensus within the Church.” (LA,
Furthermore, without the assistance of the emperor, the church was unable to call a general council. Only the emperor could call a general council:
“Even Damasus [a later bishop of Rome] would have admitted that he
could not call a general council on his own authority.” (RH, 855)
“Everybody recognised the right of an Emperor to call a council, or
even to veto or quash its being called.” (RH, 849-50)
As his letter to Arius and Alexander shows, Constantine did not call the Nicene Council because he was concerned about right doctrine.
His main goal was also NOT to reconcile the schism in the church. His main goal was to protect his empire. The Roman Empire was very large and consisted of many different and diverse nations. The main task of the emperors was to keep the empire united. In this regard, religion was a powerful force. Religion had a strong power over the people. Religious diversity could split the empire apart. Religious uniformity, on the other hand, particularly with strong links to the state, could help to unite the empire. The Roman emperors, therefore, used religion to help them to keep the empire united.
On the one hand, the emperors determined what the people must believe. For example, as already mentioned, the emperors determined which religions were allowed. As another example, in 380, Emperor Theodosius commanded ALL Roman citizens to believe the Trinity doctrine.
On the other hand, the emperors could not afford disunity in the authorized religion.
That was why, before Christianity was legalized, the empire persecuted Christians and required the pagan ceremonies of showing respect for the gods and the emperor.
For the same reason, the Christian emperors, such as Constantine, controlled Christianity after it was legalized in 313 AD. By maintaining control over the church, the emperors controlled the people.
“Constantine's attitude reflects deeply embedded Roman attitudes about
the social function of religion.” (LA, 88)
Constantine, therefore, called the council because he was concerned that the controversy in the church may threaten the unity of the empire. He invented and called the general council as a means of managing the church:
“The Council of Nicea was first and foremost an attempt by the Roman
emperor Constantine the Great to keep his empire from splitting.”
Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 3). Kindle Edition.
“Constantine himself had become sole emperor only in 324 (after having
ruled the western half since 310–12), and he seems to have promoted
Christianity as a unifying religion for the empire.” (LA, 87)
"The same desire to preserve unity within the church, rather than the protection of any creed or interpretation of Christian doctrine, led Constantine to intercede for the settlement of the Arian controversy. … Believing ‘disunity in the church' a danger to the state 'more grievous than any kind of war'." (Boyd, p37 or The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code, p37)
“The evidence weighs strongly in favour of the view that Ossius …
presided at Nicaea.” (RH, 154)
But Ossius was the bishop of the “obscure” see of Cordova (RH, 155). His inferior position in the church would not have allowed him to chair.
“In normal circumstances the Metropolitan of the area in which the
Council met would have presided, and in this case it would have been
Eusebius of Nicomedia.” (RH, 155)
Ossius presided “as the Emperor's representative” (RH, 154) and as Constantine’s “agent.” (RH, 190) “Ossius … represented the policy of Constantine” (RH, 170) He was “Constantine's chief adviser and agent in matters concerning the Christian church.” (RH, 130, 137)
In the 381-council, Emperor Theodosius similarly assigned one of his civil servants as chairperson. That was one of the ways in which the emperors managed the meetings to ensure the ‘right’ outcome.
Two Main Issues
The controversy at Nicaea may be divided into two main parts. The first has to do with Arius’ theology. The second is the term homoousios. These two issues may be related because indications are that homoousios was inserted particularly to force the Arians to reject the creed so that the council could depose and the emperor could exile them.
Nevertheless, homoousios was not a term that Alexander preferred. It is never found in his writings and does not appear in the pro-Alxander creed that was formulated at Antioch only a few months before Nicaea. It is, therefore, appropriate to distinguish between these two issues.
“It became evident very early on that the condemnation of Arius was
practically inevitable” (RW, 68). The Nicene Creed “was constructed as
a deliberately anti-Arian document.” (RH, 164) “All the more obnoxious
doctrines of Arius and his followers are struck at in N in the most
impressive way.” (RH, 165)
But, the question is, if Arius had so much support as is often claimed, why did only two of the nearly 300 bishops reject the creed?
“In older narratives of the fourth century it was reasonably easy to understand why the Nicene creed was agreed with little dissent: only the few ‘heretics’ would refuse such a clear acknowledgement of the Church's constant faith. Without this older narrative, matters are more complex.” (LA, 88)
A more accurate reflection of the situation is that Arius’ true followers were limited. Most of his supporters supported him because they had the same enemy, namely Sabellianism, and Alexander was a semi-Sabellian. So, they supported Arius in his dispute with Alexander without necessarily accepting Arius’ entire theology. (See - Arius’ Support)
But the question remains, why was Arius rejected so completely at Nicaea? Why did the council not protest against Alexander’s theology? Why was “the Nicene creed … agreed with little dissent?” (LA, 88)
The reason is that the emperor had accepted Alexander’s part in the dispute. For example, at the council of Antioch a few months earlier, the leader of the Eusebians and the most respected theologian of that era was provisionally excommunicated because he supported Arius:
“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that
Constantine had taken Alexander's part and by events at the council of
Antioch only a few months before.” (LA, 89)
“This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in
broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful
force.” (LA, 89)
So, it was the support of the emperor that allowed a minority party (Alexander’s party) to dominate and which compelled the vast majority of the delegates to accept the rejection of Arius.
If Constantine had not taken Alexander’s part, the meeting might have condemned Alexander's theology; not Arius.
A Surprising Inclusion
At the time, the term homoousios (same substance) was the most controversial term in the Nicene Creed. As discussed in the article on the meaning of the term homoousios, most delegates at the Council had considerable reservations about the term because:
- Before Nicaea, that term was only preferred by Sabellians,
- The Bible never says anything about God’s substance (ousia),
- The term was not part of the standard Christian language at the time, and
- It was “borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (RH, 846)
For those reasons, the term homoousios “seemed especially objectionable to many bishops and theologians of the East" [Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53] and “a majority opposed the Nicene creed. The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!” (Bible.ca)
Constantine’s domination of the Nicene Council, therefore, is particularly revealed by the fact that he was able to force the inclusion of the word homoousios:
“’Homoousios’ and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were added to the creed by Constantine himself, bearing witness to the extent of his influence at the council.” [(Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)]
Constantine himself proposed the term:
The Emperor accepted Eusebius’ creed “and he advised all present to
agree to it … with the insertion of the single word ‘consubstantial.'”
(Beatrice) (See also – Eusebius’ letter.)
Constantine’s domination of that council is also revealed by the fact that the council allowed him to explain the term and accepted his explanation:
“Eusebius … writes that Constantine himself spoke, endorsing the term
homoousios, but insisting that it did not imply any material division
in God.” (LA, 90-91)
It is amazing that the council accepted Constantine’s explanation. Before him, the emperor had the most senior members of the church. They have been wrestling with these concepts for years and had developed very strong views about what these terms mean. Their acceptance of his explanation shows the extent of the “imperial pressure.” (LA, 89) Constantine had dominated both the chairperson and the entire meeting.
Furthermore, Emperor Constantine insisted on the inclusion of that term:
“Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it
reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (RH, 850)
Constantine "pressed for its inclusion." (RH, 211)
“The emperor at first gave the council a free hand, but was prepared
to step in if necessary to enforce the formula.” (Millard J. Erickson,
God in Three Persons, p82-85)
Constantine, therefore, played a decisive role in the acceptance of the term homoousios. That Constantine was able to convince the meeting to accept this highly suspicious term reflects his dominant role:
“Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only,
signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination.”
[Britannica, 1971 edition, Vol. 6, “Constantine,” p. 386]
"The emperor incited all to unanimity, until he had rendered them
united in judgment on those points on which they were previously at
variance." [Eusebius, quote in The Ecclesiastical History of
Socrates Scholasticus - Book II]
Although Constantine took Alexander’s part and insisted on Homoousios, his ultimate goal was to heal the division and reconcile the fighting parties.
“The Emperor, rightly or wrongly, thought himself called to foster and
protect the Church, and therefore to prevent as far as he could the
damage that was caused by controversy and schism.” (RH, 153)
We see evidence of the emperor’s desire for reconciliation in a number of ways. For example:
Eusebius of Caesarea “was the most learned and one of the best-known
of the 300-odd bishops present” (RH, 159) but he had recently been
provisionally excommunicated by the “anti-Arian Council” in Antioch
(RH, 131). “The excommunication of a man so universally respected for
his scholarship as Eusebius of Caesarea must have given him (the
emperor) a shock. He wanted to be in a position to see that the
anti-Arian party at the Council did not do anything that would further
exasperate the division already existing in the Church ... but rather
heal it.” (RH, 153) Therefore, after Eusebius had read his creed, the
“Emperor himself was the first to witness that it was entirely
orthodox.” (RH, 160)
Eustathius mentioned that his radical anti-Arius party, after an Arian
document was read, was reduced to silence “using the cause of
reconciliation as a pretext.” (RH, 160) In other words, the emperor
did not allow Alexander’s party unlimited control.
Constantine did his best to explain homoousios in such a way that even
the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) could accept the term.
He paid all expenses and surrounded the delegates with honor. This
includes the honor of the personal presence of the emperor of the
Eusebius of Caesarea described the emperor as genuinely seeking for reconciliation:
“He surrounded the Fathers (of the Council), or rather the prophets of
God, with every honour and called them a second time and again acted
patiently as a mediator to the same people and again distinguished
them by gifts, and he offered board and lodging in a letter and
confirmed and put his seal to the decisions of the synod.” (RH, 175)
The Threat of Exile
That only two bishops refused to accept the Nicene Creed is often mentioned as a great victory for Nicene Christology, but few mention that the bishops knew that, if they do not accept the Creed, they would lose their jobs and be exiled. The question is, how many bishops would have voted against the Nicene Creed if exile were not hanging over their heads and if the emperor did not employ his considerable position and interpersonal skills to bring the meeting to unanimity?
In the Roman Empire, the standard penalty for bishops for deviant teachings was exile but only the emperor was able to exile the bishops. For example:
“Two bishops who refused to sign the Creed … were deposed by the
Council and exiled by the Emperor. Arius himself was exiled.” (RH,
“Shortly after the Council … Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of
Nicaea were also banished by Constantine. … Constantine … declares
that their fault was to have received and communicated with some Arian
presbyters in Nicomedia.” (RH, 173)
Since the emperor was the only person who could exile a bishop, the emperor was also the only person who could restore a bishop to his see. For example, the bishops asked Constantine – not the church - to restore them:
“The third letter of Arius is … sent to the Emperor Constantine by
Arius and Euzoius who are in exile and are in this letter pleading for
a return from exile and a re-admission to the Church (which they
presumably imagine that Constantine can effect).” (RH, 8)
In a letter, “Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea” asked
“some unnamed bishops … to petition Constantine for their recall.”
Constantine also was the one who restored them:
The two bishops whom Constantine exiled after Nicaea “were both
restored to their sees by Constantine at some time impossible to fix
accurately but before 335. (RH, 172)
“Within two or three years, however, Arius and the others exiled by
Constantine were recalled, it seems at the behest of the Emperor.”
Since it was the emperor who had the right to decide who should be exiled and who should be restored, the emperor, in this regard, functioned as the real head of the church.
After Nicaea, “Constantine … issued a number of letters attempting to enforce its decisions.” (LA, 88) “Constantine in other respects behaved despotically towards the church when he thought it necessary. He writes to the churches after Nicaea like a mediaeval Pope.” (RH, 850)
Constantine took the side of the Alexander-faction in its dispute with Arius, called the Council on his own initiative, strategically positioned the council at Nicaea so he could participate, paid all expenses, appointed his religious advisor as chairperson, welcomed the delegates, surrounded them with every honour, opened the Council with an address, actively guided the discussions, proposed and enforced the key word Homoousios despite great resistance, actively sought reconciliation between the factions, warned them that those who do not accept the Creed will be exiled, exiled those who refused the Creed, and enforced the Council’s decisions.
Consequently, the Nicene Creed, particularly its more controversial aspects, does not reflect the view of the church majority at the time but specifically what the emperor thought best:
“Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it
reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (RH, 850)
This established the pattern for the rest of the century. The church made and implemented its ‘ecumenical’ decisions through the civil government of the Roman Empire, represented by the emperors:
“Before Constantine, the Church was simply not in a position to make
universally binding and enforceable decisions. From Nicaea onwards the
Church decided, and communicated its decisions, through the official
network of the empire.” (RW, 90)
In that respect, church and state were united. “Simonetti remarks that the Emperor was in fact the head of the church” (RH, 849).
Due to Stack's space limitations, I omitted the footnotes in this copy. For the full article, see - Constantine' Role at Nicaea.