22

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?

  • 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? – aceinthehole Feb 28 '14 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 '14 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 '16 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." – 3961 Dec 20 '16 at 15:45
19
+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.

  • 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 '14 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. – philipthegreat Mar 2 '14 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 '14 at 16:40
  • Regarding Mr. Christian, "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits ..." – user22553 Aug 25 '16 at 3:46
  • 1
    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. – 3961 Dec 20 '16 at 2:13
7

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.

  • 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. – Lee Woofenden Dec 19 '16 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. – James Shewey Dec 19 '16 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. – Lee Woofenden Dec 19 '16 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. – James Shewey Dec 19 '16 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. – Lee Woofenden Dec 19 '16 at 20:49
4

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.

  • 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 '16 at 14:38
  • 2
    @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") – Dick Harfield Dec 12 '16 at 20:47
  • 2
    @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. – Dick Harfield Dec 12 '16 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. – 3961 Dec 20 '16 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. – Lee Woofenden Dec 20 '16 at 5:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.