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 ...

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