The Council of Nica and the Development of
the Doctrine of the Trinity, to 381 A.D.


    When Constantine, who had lately abandoned paganism for Christianity, became in 323 head of the whole Roman Empire, as its first Christian Emperor, he found that the Christians, on whom he relied for support against his pagan enemies, were divided against themselves throughout the whole East. In his newly founded capital of Constantinople their quarrels were the butt of jokes in the very theaters. He at once perceived that if he were to maintain his power it was of supreme importance that the factions in the Church should be brought into harmony with one another. His first attempts to this end failed, as we saw at the end of the previous chapter. He therefore determined to call together the bishops from all parts of the Empire, that they might agree as to what should be received as the true Christian belief. This gathering was the first General (or Ecumenical) Council, and it met in 325 at Nica, a small city in northwestern Asia Minor, some forty-five miles southeast of Constantinople.

    Bishops were summoned by imperial command from every part of the Empire, and they were to travel if need be at the Emperor’s expense, accompanied by two presbyters and three servants each, and to be his guests. They came with all speed from the remotest parts, until there were over three-hundred bishops present, and a total company of some two thousand. The Emperor himself opened the Council with great pomp, and presided in person over its sessions, which lasted through six weeks. Yet though they were to discuss important matters of Christian belief, there was little calm reasoning over the points at issue, and a Christian spirit of patient forbearance was conspicuously absent. Feeling ran so high that the most abusive language was often used in debate, and sometimes, it is said, even physical violence was used by the members against one another.

    The chief purpose of the Council was to settle the bitter controversy as to the true doctrine about Christ, and on this subject there were three distinct views held. A small minority were strict followers of Arius, holding that Christ was in his essential being or nature ("substance") different from God. This party was led in the discussions by Arius himself, who though not a bishop had been especially commanded by the Emperor to appear at the Council. A second party, forming a larger minority, was composed of the opponents of Arius; and these held that Christ was of the same essential being with God. The recognized leader of these was not their aged Bishop Alexander, but a young deacon in his train, barely twenty-five, very small of stature, far from handsome in appearance, but of keen intellect and fiery temper, violent in argument, passionately devoted to his convictions, and hence narrow and intolerant in spirit.1 This was Athanasius, whose very name was to become a synonym for unyielding orthodoxy. But the great majority were of a third party, occupying an intermediate position, and holding that Christ was of an essential being similar to God. The leader of this middle party, who came to be known as Semi-Arians, was Eusebius of Csarea, who stood high in influence with the Emperor, and was understood to represent his views.

    After some discussion, the Arians, confident of victory, proposed a creed for adoption; but this was at once torn in pieces by an angry mob of their opponents, and from that time on the strictly Arian view received little attention. Eusebius then brought forth a creed representing the views of the middle party, approved by the Emperor, and carefully avoiding terms offensive to either the Arians or their opponents. The Arians were willing to accept it, but this very fact made the Athanasians suspicious, and they absolutely refused to make any concession or compromise. The main point was now discussed between the Semi-Arians and the Athanasians, as to whether Christ’s nature was similar to God’s, or the same as God’s; and as it narrowed down practically to a controversy over the two corresponding Greek words, homoi- and homo-, it has been cynically said that the whole Christian Church for half a century, beginning with this Council, fought and was distracted over the smallest letter in the alphabet.

    The Emperor, seeing how unyielding the Athanasian party was, realized that no settlement could be reached on middle ground; so apparently thinking peace and harmony in his Empire of greater importance than this doctrine or that, he threw his weight at length on the side of the Athanasians.  The latter then presented a creed distinctly opposed to Arian views; the majority soon yielded, though not without some reluctance, to what was pressed as the Emperor’s wish; and nearly all of them signed the creed.  The Arians at first stood out, but at last all gave in save two; and these were sent with Arius into exile. Arius’s books were condemned to be burnt, possession of them was made a capital crime, and his followers were declared to be enemies of Christianity.  This was the first instance in Christian history of subscription being required to a creed, and the first of of many tragic instances of the civil government punishing heretics for not accepting the belief of the majority.2

    The creed thus adopted is known as the Nicene Creed, the most important of the three great creeds3 of early Christianity, and the only one ever recognized by the whole Christian Church. It did not establish the doctrine of the Trinity, but it took a long step in that direction by permanently settling the disputed question about the deity of Christ, and declaring that he was of the same "substance" with God. This was henceforth the orthodox doctrine, fortified not only by the vote of the Council as the voice of the whole Church, but also by imperial authority as virtually the law of the Empire. It remains the orthodox doctrine throughout all Christendom to this day; but it is instructive to note how it became so — by a majority vote of persons who really preferred another view, but under strong pressure from the Emperor sanctioned this one for the sake of peace and harmony, and to escape the heavy hand of his displeasure.4 The Creed might of course be true for all that; but had the real convictions of the majority been expressed, the orthodox belief might have been not what it now is, but Arianism, and the one sent into exile, whose books were ordered burnt, and whose followers were declared enemies of Christianity, might have been not Arius, but Athanasius.

    The Council dispersed, and the bishops went their ways; but the great question they had met to decide was settled only in outward appearance. Despite their having signed the Creed to please the Emperor, many of them were "of the same opinion still." Apparently defeated at Nica, Arianism, or something like it, was still popular in most of the churches of the East, and was actively promoted by many persons of influence. The Emperor himself began to feel the force of this influence, and to waver. Persuaded by his Arian sister and Eusebius, he recalled Arius from exile in 335 and had him acquitted of heresy; and Arius was on the point of being solemnly reinstated in the Church at Constantinople in the following year, when he suddenly died.

    Meantime Athanasius who, young as he was, had been chosen Bishop of Alexandria at Alexander’s death in 328, had been carrying things with such a high hand as to rouse the bitterest opposition; so that he himself was banished in 336 as a disturber of the peace of the Church, and out of the forty-six stormy years of his office he spent twenty in exile, being successively banished and recalled no fewer than five times. For the whole question of doctrine was now opened again for discussion. One local council after another met in different parts of the Empire; creed after creed was put forth by one party or the other. After the death of Constantine in 337, political considerations came into the question, and the theology of the churches but reflected the opinions of the Emperor or the court. During most of the time for forty years, Arian emperors were on the throne in the East, and Arians persecuted as intolerantly as ever their opponents had done. The West remained steadily orthodox; but in the East a modified form of Arianism became all but universal under Constantius, Emperor from 337 to 361, and at length he compelled councils in the West virtually to accept that, just as Constantine had forced the Athanasian view upon the Council of Nica. Even two of the Popes of Rome were forced for a time to give it a nominal adherence (though with little effect upon the Western Church); and though the Nicene Creed was never abolished by a General Council, Arianism was for some time the officially supported religion of the whole Empire.

    It was this very completeness of its victory that brought Arianism to its downfall, for the Arians fell to quarreling among themselves. Under the fanatical Arian Emperor Valens (364 – 378) the intolerance of the extreme Arians drove the Semi-Arians to side with the orthodox; and when the Emperor Theodosius came to the throne, having been brought up in the orthodox faith, he determined to put an end to these controversies. Upon his baptism in 380, he issued an edict that all nations in the Empire should adhere to the Catholic (that is, the orthodox) religion, believing in the Trinity as an equal deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All others he branded as heretics, and threatened them with severe punishment. He expelled the Arians from Constantinople, deprived them of their churches, and forbade them to hold public worship.

    The following year, to give his action the sanction of church law, Theodosius called the second General Council, at Constantinople.5 At this Council a new creed was brought forth which completed the statement of the doctrine of the Trinity, by adding an article about the Holy Spirit. This subject had been barely mentioned in the Nicene Creed, but it had now for some time been much discussed, and had come to assume cardinal importance. In the new form of the Creed, therefore, the deity of the Holy Spirit was adopted (not without considerable opposition) as a part of the orthodox doctrine of one God in three persons; and thus the doctrine of the Trinity came to be received as the central doctrine of orthodox Christian belief. It was given further definition in the remarkable document known as the Athanasian Creed.6

    Thus Arianism was finally outlawed in the Roman Empire. Its downfall was rapid. It was suppressed in the West in 388, and thenceforth survived only among the barbarian nations. For the Goths, the Vandals, the Lombards, and the Burgundians had originally been converted to Arian Christianity, and it did not become extinct among them until late in the sixth century. Individuals here and there may still have held Arian views, but as an organized movement it was no more. Unitarians in modern times have often been called Arians, and have sometimes held Arian views; but they have had no historical connection with the Arians of the fourth century. Unitarians, too, have often felt a sentimental sympathy with these earlier heretics, if only because they were opposed to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Yet if we were compelled to choose between the two today, the doctrine of Athanasius should be less objectionable than that of Arius. The latter left too wide a gulf between God and man, and its Christ, being neither God nor man, did nothing to bring the two together. The needs of religion were better served by the view of Athanasius, and it was well for Christianity that that prevailed.

    But whether either doctrine is adapted to our day, when we do not begin as men then did by taking it for granted that an immense chasm separates the Father in heaven from his children on earth — that is another question, though the discussion of it does not properly belong in a history.

    The whole controversy was really one between speculative theologians. The great mass of the people can have had no real understanding of it. They might prefer the doctrine of Athanasius because it seemed to give more honor to Christ than did that of Arius, but the subtle distinctions of the creeds they did not comprehend. The unfortunate result was, and long remained, that Christian doctrines came more and more to be regarded by the people at large as mysteries, not to be understood, nor even inquired into, but simply to be taken on faith, and on the authority of the Church. Men were not supposed to reason about religion. It was this condition of things that in the sixteenth century, when men’s minds were becoming emancipated, led to the rise of Unitarianism with its insistent demand for freedom of thought and the use of reason, in religion. There were, however, yet other questions to be settled before the system of orthodox beliefs should be quite complete; and in order to understand the story that is to follow, we shall have in another chapter to glance also at those.

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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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