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In the book Are you Really that Stupid? Observations of a Skeptical Believer, author Joshua Christian makes the claim that the Nicene Creed was accepted under less than ideal (from a theological standpoint) circumstances, involving political maneuvering, blackmail, threats as well as actual instances of violence, in an effort by Constantine to forge a "unified" church, and thus a unified empire.

[Constantine] now began to pressure all bishops to sign. Arians refusing to sign were exiled.

...

The pressure from the emperor was so great and his reactions so feared that attendees justified their signatures thusly; Apuleius wrote "I pass over in silence... those sublime and Platonic doctrines understood by very few of the pious, and absolutely unknown to every one of the profane." "the soul is nothing worse for a little ink."

Abu Al-Hassan Al-Nadwi reported that out of the 2030 attendees, only 318 readily accepted the creed. Only after returning home did other attendees ... summon the courage to express to Constantine in writing how much they regretted having put their signatures to the Nicene formula, "We committed an impious act, O Prince ... by subscribing to blasphemy from fear of you."

(Emphasis mine)

To what extent is this an accurate account of the Council of Nicaea?

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  • This is implicit in your question, but I think do add to this: "And if it was accepted under duress then what implications does that have to the church, and does it invalidate the Creed? Feb 28, 2014 at 21:10
  • 1
    @aceinthehole: I don't think that is implicit. Although I probably will ask that as a followup question once this one has an answer. "God works in mysterious ways." Who is to say the creed couldn't still be valid, by the grace of God, even though it was accepted under duress? Further, asking whether it's valid requires a much larger framework to be a meaningful question here--valid according to whom?
    – Flimzy
    Feb 28, 2014 at 21:26
  • Which writings of Abu Al-Hassan Al-Nadwi are you quoting? I'd love to see references for his claim.
    – Marc
    Dec 20, 2016 at 13:02
  • Wikipedia has sections on both Constantine's role and misconceptions about that role. Among them "While Constantine had sought a unified church after the council, he did not force the Homoousian view of Christ's nature on the council."
    – user3961
    Dec 20, 2016 at 15:45
  • (1). Was the Nicene Creed accepted under duress? - Once the synod agreed on a creed, the emperor took it upon himself to enforce it. Apuleius was a second century pagan philosopher, and Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi a twentieth century Islamic scholar; not entirely sure what any of these two men have to do with the fourth century Christian council. (2). out of the 2030 attendees, only 318 readily accepted the creed - 318 was the total number of bishops, representing their dioceses.
    – user46876
    Sep 13, 2021 at 21:20

4 Answers 4

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+50

The Nicene Creed is a long-standing tradition in Christianity, and "defines the mainstream definition of Christianity for most Christians". It has been independently accepted by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran (pdf link), and plenty of Protestant churches.

Joshua Christian seems to have presented a fanciful (or at least misleading) view of the formation of the Nicene Creed. I could find no other sources that back up his story. Here is the account of the Creed's creation, as I understand it.

Sometime before 325 AD, around 1800 Christian bishops (every bishop Constantine knew existed) were invited to convene in Nicea. We have no way of knowing with 100% certainty how many bishops actually showed up, but the traditional number is 318. Athanasius of Alexandria counted 318; Eustathius of Antioch estimated 270.

Please note, this is only a count of bishops. Each bishop was allowed (and encouraged) to bring deacons, priests, or other traveling companions. Only the bishops had voting rights. Therefore, it is entirely possible that there were 2030 total people in attendance, with only 318 votes cast. Only 318 votes could be cast, because only that number of people had voting authority.

Addressing Constantine's supposed power over the council: I will concede the point that Constantine wanted a Creed to be developed in order to "forge a 'unified' church". That seems likely, by the fact that he arranged for the council to meet. However, I disagree that Constantine cared that this particular Creed pass. At this time, Constantine was not even Christian (he was baptized 12 years later, in 337 AD)! It would make sense for him to go along with whatever Creed naturally came about during this council.

As further proof that Constantine's meddling was not the theological backing of the Nicene Creed, there was a Second Ecumenical Council that met in 381 AD (40+ years after Constantine died) and confirmed the Nicene Creed. It should be noted that the Second Ecumenical Council did not have overlapping members with the First Ecumenical Council, as it was held 56 years later.

Addressing the Arians. Arianism was, indeed, a major topic for the Council of Nicea. The debate centered on whether Jesus co-existed eternally with God the Father and the Holy Spirit (a trinitarian view) or whether Jesus was created by God the Father at some point prior to the creation of the universe (a non-trinitarian view). Arius, a priest in the Alexandrian diocese, claimed that Jesus was "born" and was, therefore, different in essence from God the Father.

Initially, 22 of the 318 bishops came out in support of Arianism. However, after the writings of Arius were read in the council, and after hearing arguments from many of the other bishops, 19 of the 22 Arians came to believe in a trinitarian view of the Godhead. Arguments that swayed toward the trinitarian view included John 10:30, where Jesus says "I and the Father are one" and John 1:1, which says "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Each side of the debate had ample time to make a case: the debate lasted for over two months!

In the end, the majority of the 318 bishops agreed upon the trinitarian view presented in the Nicene Creed. Arius was exiled, along with Theonas and Secundus, to Illyricum. None of those three were bishops, so they did not have voting authority in the council.

Three bishops, Theognis of Nicaea, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Maris of Chalcedon, remained believing the Arian view of the Godhead. They chose to sign the Nicene Creed anyway, out of deference to Constantine.

In the end, all 318 bishops in attendance signed the Nicene Creed. Out of those, only 3 bishops chose to sign without fully believing the Creed themselves. There were only three people exiled (and those, only to another province in Rome).


Joshua Christian misses the forest for the trees. He is correct that there was political and religious pressure. He far overstates that effect on the Creed as a whole.

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  • Neither the book, nor my question, suggest that Constantine cared about the theology of the creed. The book suggests that Constantine simply wanted unity, and that he used coercion to achieve, at least the appearance, of achieving that goal.
    – Flimzy
    Mar 2, 2014 at 16:13
  • That is how I understood this sentence: "[Constantine] now began to pressure all bishops to sign. Arians refusing to sign were exiled." Perhaps the Arians were pressured purely because they were the minority view. Mar 2, 2014 at 16:38
  • I didn't quote the whole chapter for obvious reasons. One part I left out was how the creed was chosen... and it wasn't chosen by Constantine. But once there was an appearance of majority, he (allegedly) began pressuring the dissenters to sign under threat.
    – Flimzy
    Mar 2, 2014 at 16:40
  • Regarding Mr. Christian, "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits ..."
    – user22553
    Aug 25, 2016 at 3:46
  • 2
    Nice answer, but I challenge the notion that acceptance of the Creed from First Nicea at the Council of Second Nicaea is evidence that First Nicea was accepted without coercion. 40 years is plenty of time to stamp out your enemies especially if you have the Roman Empire behind you.
    – user3961
    Dec 20, 2016 at 2:13
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The main purpose of the Nicene Creed was to establish Trinitarianism as Christian doctrine, in opposition to Arianism. If a majority agreement was obtained under duress, few bishops would have been courageous enough to say so; after all, duress implies that you must remain silent about your disagreement with the verdict. Edward Gibbon says, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (D. M. Low abridgement, page 319), that when Emperor Constantine ratified the Nicene Creed, he made a firm declaration that those who resisted the judgement of the synod must prepare themselves for an immediate exile. That is implied evidence that Constantine was aware of the continued discontent. It was Eusebius of Nicomedia who wrote, "We have committed an impious act, O Prince, by subscribing to a blasphemy from fear of you." But his position was probably safer than most others.

Further evidence that the Nicene Creed might not have been accepted as unanimously as churches generally teach is that in spite of Constantine's decree, Arianism refused to go away. In 358 Constantine's son, Constantius, called two separate councils to debate the issue. The Council of Rimini, in Italy, and the Council of Seleucia, in the eastern empire, demonstrated that the church was still deeply split over the issue. A third council, at Constaninople, reaffirmed the Nicene Creed, but it was not until 381 that Emperor Theodosius convoked a general council in Constantinople, which no western bishop attended, that reaffirmed a somewhat reformulated Nicene Creed.

The Nicene Creed as formulated in the fourth century did not include the Filioque clause, which was a western innovation of later centuries.

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  • 1
    Paragraph 1: Trinitarianism was well established long before Niceae. One need look no farther than earlier creeds such as the Apostle's Creed to establish that. Rather it affirmed historical teaching over a new newfangled heresy that had become popular. Paragraph 2: This is an unreasonable argument is so far as it would not be expected for a heresy to go away just because some council said it was bad. That's never happened any other time in history, why should it be expected here? Paragraph 3: This issue is not as cut and dry as this statement, nor is it clear how it relates to duress.
    – Caleb
    Dec 12, 2016 at 14:38
  • 3
    @Caleb Where does my answer say that Trinitarianism originated in the fourth century, versus the quite correct statement that the Nicene Council set out to establish it as Christian doctrine? As for the Apostle's Creed, it may well be much older (christianitytoday.com/biblestudies/articles/…, "The earliest historical evidence of the creed's existence is in a letter written by the Council of Milan in 390 A.D."), but the version I know is far from a statement of Trinitarianism (cf Nicene Creed "being of one substance with the Father") Dec 12, 2016 at 20:47
  • 3
    @Caleb And my second paragraph is a factual history that demonstrates that, for some people at least, the Nicene Creed was accepted under duress. The church was split for the best part of a century, which is evidence of 'duress', as is the fact that Theodosius had to insist that all Christians accept the Creed. Dec 12, 2016 at 20:52
  • I wouldn't say the Nicene Creed spelled out trinitarianism as much as it did the nature of Christ, that is "one substance with the father". The Holy Spirit, the third person, is not even mentioned. Conversely, arianism says that Jesus was a created creature and also does not have anything to do with the Holy Spirit.
    – user3961
    Dec 20, 2016 at 3:45
  • @fredsbend Yes, the Holy Spirit is mentioned both in the 325 version and more fully in the 381 version. What isn't in the Nicene Creed is the use of the term "persons" to describe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That became explicit in the Athanasian Creed. Dec 20, 2016 at 5:44
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Background

There are several key details missing from the existing answers. Despite offering a bounty on this question to see about getting some more complete answers, no additional answers were offered and existing answers were not revised. I therefore awarded the bounty to philipthegreat's well written answer. Because the additional details I was looking for were not added to the answers here, I have elected to add what I believe to be important missing details as a separate answer to this question myself.

Supplementary Details

While it is tempting to believe that Constantine influenced the decision of the council so that it resulted in a claim of Jesus Deity, despite only two dissenters (not including Arius) to the Nicene Creed, the emperor's cousin Eusebius of Nicomedia persuaded the emperor to exile the major proponents of the prevailing view of the council. One could argue that this indicates the Emperor's disfavor with the result of the council and his opposition to the Nicene Creed.

Furthermore, Emperor Valens, one of the emperors after Constantine was a noted Arianist and the persecution of Christianity was resumed under Emperor Julian until Emperor Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the official state religion in the Edict of Thessalonica. All of these instances provided opportunities for the church to change to Arian beliefs or revive discussions should the Nicene Creed have been published disingenuously or under coercion.

Since no doctrinal reversals occurred, it seem unlikely that these doctrines would have persisted if they were arrived at disingenuously with such ample opportunities for reversal and for the "true" beliefs to come to light. Since no such reversals occurred, this leads to the conclusion that Nicene Creed was, in fact, the genuine result of the First Ecumenical Council.

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  • The question wasn't whether trinitarianism was the genuine result of the Council of Nicaea, or whether the doctrine of the Trinity had real staying power in Christianity and would have persisted anyway, but rather whether that result occurred "under less than ideal circumstances," and even under duress, at the Council of Nicaea. It asks about what happened at and around the Council of Nicaea itself, not about what happened subsequently. Though an account of what followed may cast some light on what happened at the council itself, it does not directly answer the question. Dec 19, 2016 at 20:25
  • 2
    Yes, I am aware. This is why I offered a bounty hoping to get a full answer. But you hit the nail on the head that: "an account of what followed may cast some light on what happened at the council itself". These details suggest that it was probably not accepted under duress, or even that despite duress these answers were considered doctrinally sound. ...though if they were doctrinally sound, I'm not sure why you would care if they were accepted under duress or not. I am aware it doesn't directly answer the question which is why I characterized it as "supplementary" from the outset. Dec 19, 2016 at 20:31
  • As I'm sure you are also aware, I do not think that the doctrine of the Trinity is doctrinally sound. But that's irrelevant to the question. Clearly at least some of the bishops at Nicaea thought it was doctrinally sound, or they wouldn't have proposed it, promoted it, and incorporated it into the creed. But clearly also, there was much dissent. The question is about whether dissenters were pushed to accept the Nicene Creed under duress. Dec 19, 2016 at 20:39
  • And that's what my question (and bounty) were intended to address: If there really was dissent, why wasn't the doctrine retracted at the several opportunities I noted - the opportunities for Arianism to make a comeback were ample. Dec 19, 2016 at 20:42
  • I'm not a church historian, but my understanding is that there were various councils and counter-councils in the ensuing decades, some of which affirmed the Trinity and some of which affirmed Arianism. But in the end, the Trinity won out, and became the official doctrine of Christianity. That doesn't necessarily mean it was doctrinally correct. And it certainly doesn't mean there was no dissent. It means that a majority of Christian leaders over time agreed with it and disagreed with Arianism, and were able to get the Trinity established as official church doctrine. Dec 19, 2016 at 20:49
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Constantine’s role at the First Ecumenical Council

Purpose

“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.

Summary

  • 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
    

Authors

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

Legalized Christianity.

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, 154)

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, 152)

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, 87)

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)

Constantine's Purpose

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) 

Chairperson

“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.

Arius’ Theology

“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.

Homoousios

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]

Reconcile

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 entire empire.

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?

Exile/Restore

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, 162-3)

“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.” (RH, 175)

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.” (LA, 19)

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.

Enforced Nicaea

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)

Conclusions

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.

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    I do not see that this actually proves anything. It is an attempt to analyse and make sense of a complex historical situation. But it offers no proof (or otherwise) of the doctrine being enforced. Nor does it touch upon whether it is right to attempt to civilly enforce truth and to civilly punish heresy. Which is another big question.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 9 at 17:23
  • Agreed, in isolation, this does not prove much. But this is not in isolation. What happened at Nicaea was the pattern throughout the fourth century. When the emperor was Nicene, the church was Nicene. And when the emperor was Arian, the church was Arian. It was the emperor Theodosius, in the year 380, before the 381-council, that made the Trinity doctrine the only legal religion, expelled the Homoian bishops, forbid non-Trinitarians to preach or even to have churches, and otherwise brutally destroyed all opposition through the mighty arm of the Imperial Forces.
    – Andries
    Jan 11 at 5:36

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