Christian History Home > Issue 51 > A Hammer Struck at Heresy
A Hammer Struck at Heresy
What exactly happened at the famous Council of Nicea, when the Roman emperor convened some 250 quarreling Christian bishops?
“It was of great importance in Christian and even in world history,” wrote historian W.H.C. Frend about the first Council of Nicea.
In Christian history, the doctrine of Christ’s divinity—a doctrine essential and unique to Christianity—was formally affirmed for the first time. In world history, never before had the entire church gathered to determine policy and doctrine—let alone at the bidding of the Roman emperor.
The following article, written by the late writer and biographer Robert Payne (d. 1983), is excerpted and adapted from his The Holy Fire: The Story of the Early Centuries of the Christian Churches in the Near East (1957). Forty years of scholarship later, one can rightfully quibble about some historical details (clarifications and some updated findings are in brackets). But no other narrative conveys as well the human dimension of this critical event.
Alexander of Alexandria had called a meeting of the presbyters [priests]. According to the historian Socrates, the aging “pope” [some early senior bishops were called “papa,” that is, “father”] “with perhaps too philosophical minuteness” began to lecture on the theological mystery of the Holy Trinity.
Alexander had been discussing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost for some time when he was interrupted by one of the presbyters called Arius, a native of Libya. There is no evidence that Alexander was a profound theologian. He may have bumbled, and it is possible that Arius was justified in accusing Alexander of Sabellianism, a heresy that involved a belief in the unity of God at the expense of the reality of the Trinity. But in combating Alexander, Arius fell into a new heresy, for he announced, “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not.”
Here, at some time in 319, the cry of the Arians—“There was a time when the Son was not”—was first heard. The words were to have an extraordinary influence on the shaping of the church. They were dynamite and split the church in two, and these words, which read in Greek like a line of a song, still echo down the centuries.
Alexander was appalled by the new heresy and knew that desperate measures would be necessary to combat it. Once it is admitted that “there was a time when the Son was not,” then a bewildering series of further heresies follows. High as he is, the Son is now infinitely lower than the Father. The words are like a wedge, splitting the monotheism of the church. Athanasius [Alexander’s chief deacon assistant] saw the danger clearly, and he seems to have taken over from Alexander the task of refuting Arius.
To the credit of Athanasius, he saw clearly that the most dangerous of existing heresies was precisely the heresy announced by Arius. It was a very simple heresy. All Arius said was that if the Father begat the Son, then the Son must have had a birth, and therefore there was a time when the Son of God did not exist. He had come into existence according to the will of the Heavenly Father, and therefore he was less than the heavenly Father, though greater than man. Christ was no more than a mediator between man and God. No, answered Alexander and Athanasius; Christ is absolute God.
In our own heretical age, the dispute between Athanasius and Arius may appear to be a splitting of hairs, but it was not so at the time. The historian Gibbon was amused by the thought that Christianity almost foundered on the controversy between homoousios and homoiousios, the fate of humankind hanging on a single iota. But the difference between Christ the mediator and Christ the God is a very real one, and whether Christ is of the same substance [homo-ousios] or a like substance [homoi-ousios] to God the Father is a matter of importance to all Christians, not only theologians.
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