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.

The Issue

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.

Arianism brought Christ down to earth, making him at once inferior to the Father, and more popular. Following Arius, a person could believe that Christ was no more than a great, virtuous, and superbly godlike hero. Against this conception, Alexander and Athanasius rebelled, and they seem to have been perfectly aware that the heresy had the power to destroy the church as they knew it.

Round One

Alexander seems to have behaved with patience; there were long private interviews with Arius; special prayers were offered against the emerging heresy. The clergy of Alexandria were assembled to discuss the matter, and most of them signed an urgent letter to Arius, begging him to acknowledge his heresy. Arius refused.

Alexander had no alternative but to summon a synod of the bishops of Egypt and Libya and depose Arius and his followers. Thereupon Alexander issued an encyclical, stating tersely that the quarrel had gone beyond his powers of healing, and the views of Arius were anathema. The heresy, which was to grow into an immense poisonous flower, was still only a bud, and not all its implications were visible at first. In his encyclical, Alexander explains some of the consequences of the heresy:

“The novelties the Arians have put forward contrary to the Scriptures are these: God was not always a Father … the Word of God was not always … [for] there was a time when he was not … neither is he like in essence to the Father; neither is he the true and natural Word of the Father; neither is he his true wisdom … . And the Father cannot be described by the Son, for the Word does not know the Father perfectly and accurately.”

Alexander’s letter, which shows signs of having been partly written by Athanasius, is a masterly summary of the heresy in its beginnings, but it suffered from one obvious fault. It was close-knit and logical. The people wanted something they could sing, and this Arius provided in abundance. “There was a time when the Son was not” became a catch phrase. There were many other catch phrases, hymns and songs, “to be sung at table and by sailors, millers, and travelers.” The people took up the cause of Arius, who withdrew to Palestine and later to Nicomedia, where he was protected by the bishop. Here in a corner of Asia Minor not far from Byzantium, Arius continued to taunt the pope of Alexandria, secure in the knowledge that the people were with him.

Arius possessed other advantages. Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia, had friends at court and was particularly close to Constantia, the sister of Emperor Constantine. Already the evil that had begun in the church of Alexandria was running through all Egypt, Libya, Upper Thebes, Palestine, and Asia Minor.

The Emperor Steps in

Inevitably it came to the ears of the emperor, who discussed with Hosius, the saintly bishop of Cordova, what should be done to put an end to the quarrels among the sects. Like James I of England, Constantine regarded unity as “the mother of order,” and he was not overmuch concerned with the theological truths at stake: he decided to send Hosius to Nicomedia and Alexandria with a letter written in his own hand, ordering by imperial rescript an end to the quarrel.

The letter—one of the most astonishing letters ever written by an emperor to priests—has come down to us in a version that shows no signs of being edited. It is hot-tempered, querulous, disjointed, and commanding. It is abundantly clear that the emperor is not quite clear in his own mind what the quarrel is about. He observes that “these questions are the idle cobwebs of contention, spun by curious wits,” and he asks, “Who is capable of distinguishing such deep and hidden mysteries?” He recognizes that the contestants are well-armed with arguments, but he can make neither head nor tail of them.

The heathen philosophers did better: they quietly agreed to disagree. But these new philosophers are implacable and determined enemies of his peace. Let them make profession of their ignorance of God’s ultimate purposes.

It was precisely this profession that Arius and Athanasius were unable to make. Almost in despair, Constantine concludes his letter:

“Seeing that our great and gracious God, the preserver of all, has given us the common light of his grace, I entreat you that my endeavors may be brought to a prosperous end, and my people be persuaded to embrace peace and concord. Suffer me to spend my days and nights in quiet, and may I have light and cheerfulness instead of tears and groans.”

If Constantine had seriously hoped to put an end to the quarrel, he had acted too late. The quarrel was blazing furiously. “In every city,” wrote a historian, “bishop was contending against bishop, and the people were contending against one another, like swarms of gnats fighting in the air.”

Another historian outlined the danger even more acidly: “In former times, the church was attacked by enemies and strangers from without. Today those who are natives of the same country, who dwell under one roof and sit down at table together, fight with their tongues as if with spears.”

When Hosius returned from his missions in Nicomedia and Alexandria, he was a defeated man and could only report that he could see no end in sight to the blaze that had begun when an aging pope addressed his presbyters on the subject of the Holy Trinity.

There had been bloodshed in the streets; Alexandria and Nicomedia were exchanging defiant taunts. Constantine decided to throw all his influence into the battle.

Calling the Council

He decided to call a general council, the first of that long series of church councils that ended with the Council of Trent (1545–1563). He chose as the seat of the council the small city of Nicea in Bithynia, a few miles from Nicomedia.

By Constantine’s orders, 1,800 bishops were invited to attend the council. Messengers were sent to all parts of the empire with invitations. Each bishop was allowed to bring two presbyters and three slaves in his retinue; the services of the public post stations were offered free; from all corners of the empire the bishops descended upon Nicea, crowding the public roads.

It was not a good time for traveling. The eastern rivers were flooded with the rains of a late spring, and though the empire, stretching from Britain to the borders of Persia, was nominally at peace, there were marauding soldiers and bandits along the roads. Fewer than 400 bishops answered the imperial summons, but their numbers were swelled by a horde of attendant presbyters, deacons, subdeacons, and laymen.

Most of the ecclesiastics came from the East, for Europe and North Africa had not yet been corrupted by the schism. Six bishops and two presbyters represented the West. They were Hosius of Cordova, Caecilian of Carthage, Nicasius of Dijon, Domnus of Strido in Pannonia, Eustorgius of Milan, and Marcus of Calabria. The two Roman presbyters Victor and Vincentius represented the old and dying Sylvester, bishop of Rome.

From the East came bishops who had suffered persecution. There was Paul, bishop of Mesopotamian Caesarea, with his hands scorched by flames. Paphnutius of Upper Egypt, famous for the austerity of his life, had had his right eye dug out and the sinews of his left leg were cut during the Diocletian persecution. Bishop Potammon of Heraclea, who had known Antony and lived in the deserts of the Nile, had also lost an eye.

There was James, bishop of Nisibis, who wore a coat of camel’s hair, and from the island of Cyprus came Bishop Spyridion, a saintly shepherd who refused to give up tending sheep even when he was elevated to the episcopate, a man who performed miracles to the delight of the Cypriots and to their further delight thundered against virginity, saying that it was right and proper that married people should enjoy themselves in bed. Then there was John, bishop of Persia, from lands outside the empire, and from the unknown north came Theophilus the Goth, a flaxen-haired Scythian from somewhere in Russia.

This motley crowd of bishops represented varying traditions of Christianity. There were sharp-featured intellectuals, men of abstruse book learning, capable of splitting hairs by the yard. There were wise old hermits who had spent the previous year clothed in rough goat hair cloaks, living on roots and leaves. There were men so saintly that it was almost expected of them that they would perform miracles during the council.

There were cantankerous men, and men riddled with heresies, and men who rode to Nicea in hope of preferment from the hands of the emperor. There were men who came peacefully, intending only to observe and then report to their flock, and there were other men determined to wage war in the council chamber.

Yet in the last instance, none of these bishops except Hosius of Cordova was to have any great and final effect upon the outcome of the conference.

Enter the Emperor

Although five separate accounts of the council have been handed down from eyewitnesses, and there are eight more accounts written by historians of the generation immediately following Nicea, we do not know exactly where the council took place, whether it was in a building specially erected for the purpose or whether it was in one of the imperial palaces.

Tradition points to a site on the edge of the lake, a vast marble hall enclosed with columns, and perhaps open to the sunlight. In the center of the hall was a throne on which a copy of the Gospels was placed, and at the far end was another throne for the emperor, carved in wood, richly gilt and set above the level of the unpainted thrones of the bishops.

In this hall, early in the morning of Ascension Sunday, while a mist was floating on the lake, the bishops awaited the arrival of the emperor. Few of the bishops had set eyes upon this emperor, who had singlehandedly welded the East and West into a single empire and shown himself so devout a Christian. They waited expectantly.

At last they heard the tramp of armed guards, and then some high officers of the court, themselves converted to Christianity, entered the hall to announce that the emperor was on his way. The bishops were standing. Soon an avant-courier was seen raising a torch, the signal that the emperor was about to enter, and then like children, these bishops from Syria and Cilicia, Arabia, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Mesopotamia, Persia, Scythia, and Europe were hushed. Human majesty in the person of Constantinius Victor Augustus Maximus was about to appear before their eyes, and in the history of the world only Octavian, who had ruled the Roman Empire during the life of Christ, had ever reigned over so vast an empire.

Constantine wore high-heeled scarlet buskins, a purple silk robe blazing with jewels and gold embroidery, and there were more jewels embedded in his diadem. He was then 51 but looked younger, enormously tall and vigorous, with a high color and a strange glitter in his fierce, lion-like eyes. He wore his hair long, but his beard was trimmed short. He had a thick heavy neck, and a curious way of holding his head back, so that it seemed not to be well set on the powerful shoulders, and there was about all his movements a remarkable casualness, so that when he strode, he gave the impression of someone dancing.

Constantine’s Speech

Having marched slowly across the whole length of the hall, Constantine sat in silence for a while, sitting between Pope Alexander of Alexandria and his closest ecclesiastical adviser, Bishop Hosius of Cordova. All eyes were fixed on him. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea [or, more likely, Eustathius of Antioch] read a speech of welcome in metrical prose and then chanted a hymn of thanksgiving for the emperor’s victories; then once again there was silence until Constantine collected himself, and speaking in Latin, which was still the language of the court, in a voice that seemed strangely soft and gentle for a man so commanding, he bade the bishops remember that it was the power of God that had dethroned the tyrants, and worse than any battlefield was a civil war between factions of the church.

“It is my desire,” he said, “that you should meet together in a general council, and so I offer to the King of All my gratitude for this mercy that has come to me above my other mercies—I mean that there has been granted to me the benefit of seeing you assembled together and to know you are resolved to be in common harmony together.”

All this was flattery, for the very purpose of the convocation was to resolve a bitter conflict, and Constantine knew well enough from the petitions he had already received from the bishops that bitterness remained.

He continued, “When I gained my victories over my enemies, I thought nothing remained for me but to give thanks unto God and to rejoice with those who have been delivered by me. But when I learned, contrary to all expectations, that there were divisions among you, then I solemnly considered them, and praying that these discords might also be healed with my assistance, I summoned you here without delay. I rejoice to see you here, yet I should be more pleased to see unity and affection among you. I entreat you, therefore, beloved ministers of God, to remove the causes of dissension among you and to establish peace.”

There was now no mistaking the threat behind the words, and as though to make his threat more clear, the emperor summoned one of his attendants and silently produced the parchment rolls and letters containing complaints and petitions that the bishops had privately sent him. A brazier was set up. The emperor tossed the petitions into the flames. While they were still burning, he explained that all these petitions would appear again on the day of judgment, and then the great Judge of all things would pass judgment on them: for himself he was content to listen to the public deliberations of the bishops and had not even read these bitter messages sent to him.

Vicious Debates in Song

The conference was now open. At once the Arians and the anti-Arians were at one another’s throats. Denunciation and angry accusation flew across the hall. Everyone was suddenly arguing. There was a wild waving of arms. “It was like a battle in the dark,” the historian Socrates said later. “Hardly anyone seemed to know the grounds on which they calumniated one another.”

Constantine had invited Arius to be present and listened earnestly when Arius explained the nature of his beliefs, and he was not particularly surprised when Arius burst out into a long, sustained chant, having set his beliefs to music. These chants and songs were sung by the people, and Arius may have thought the emperor would listen more keenly to chanting than to a disquisition on the faith:

The uncreated God has made the Son
A beginning of things created,
And by adoption has God made the Son
Into an advancement of himself.
Yet the Son’s substance is
Removed from the substance of the Father:
The Son is not equal to the Father,
Nor does he share the same substance.
God is the all-wise Father,
And the Son is the teacher of his mysteries.
The members of the Holy Trinity
Share unequal glories.

The anti-Arian bishops were appalled, closed their eyes, and put their hands over their ears. It was as though in the middle of a critical debate on the future of the world, someone interrupted with nonsense rhymes or a series of perplexing and meaningless mathematical equations.

Yet the heart of the Arian mystery was in these rhymes sung to a music employed by the Alexandrian dance bands. Arius, gaunt, white-faced, his stringy hair reaching to his shoulders, could repulse any theological argument by simply chanting one of these songs, and when Athanasius [or likely another] answered with a close-knit argument, there was consternation, for they seemed to be talking in different languages about different things, like two men from different worlds or different universes.

A Stab at Compromise

Probably Athanasius was standing just behind Pope Alexander, and therefore very close to the emperor. We know that he attracted the emperor’s attention, but it was not Athanasius who resolved the issue. It seems to have been Hosius who announced that the simplest way of reaching agreement would be to draw up a creed.

The first creed presented to the council was written by 18 of the Arian bishops. Couched in scriptural language, this creed stated the Arian position so offensively that bedlam broke loose when it was solemnly presented to the attention of the bishops.

At this point, Eusebius of Caesarea suggested a creed that he had first heard as a child, an astonishingly beautiful creed that was to form the basis of the creed finally adopted. Eusebius was careful to say he advanced this creed only because he believed divine things cannot be fully expressed in human language: it was not perfect, but it was as close to perfection as he ever hoped to reach. This creed read:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible,

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God from God, Light from Light, Life from Life, the only begotten Son, the Firstborn of every Creature, begotten of the Father before all worlds, through whom also all things were made.

Who for our salvation was made flesh and lived among men, and suffered and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the one Holy Ghost.

Believing each of them to be and to have existed, the Father, only the Father, and the Son, only the Son, and the Holy Ghost, only the Holy Ghost.…

This creed the emperor accepted, and the Arians, seeing in it nothing that specifically destroyed their position, would have accepted it if their opponents had not seen that this creed failed in any way to resolve the conflict. It was necessary to state the creed in such a way that the Arians would be forced to deny their essential tenets.

Pope Alexander discussed the matter with Hosius. Constantine, turning against the Arians he had previously favored, suggested that Christ should be defined as homoousios—one in essence with the Father—and this definition should be included in the creed. The orthodox bishops were gaining strength.

A new creed, formed by patching together the old creed and a new, more vigorous statement of the anti-Arian position, was finally announced by Hosius on June 19. It read:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God, begotten not made, of the same substance as the Father, through whom all things were made, both things in Heaven and things in earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was made flesh, was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into Heaven, and shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

And those who say “There was a time when he was not” and “He did not exist before he was made” and “He was made out of nothing” or those who pretend that the Son of God is “of another hypostasis or substance” or “created” or “alterable” or “mutable,” the Catholic Church anathematizes.

In this form, the Nicene Creed left much to be desired. It was tortured, blunt-edged, without poetry or rhythm, and without the nobility of the creed of the church of Palestine. But many words that gave a living significance to the original creed—“the Word of God,” “the Firstborn of every creature,” “begotten of the Father before all worlds”—were in fact deliberately omitted to show that the triumphant Alexandrians would allow no compromise, no loophole for the Arians and were bent on avoiding all misunderstanding.

Poetry from Chaos

In its original form, the Nicene Creed was a weapon: it was to become a more sublime article of faith in time, when poetry and ornament and a less abrupt rhythm were fashioned for it by the simple process of adding words. These words, which gave depth and resonance to the Creed, were added at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and finally approved at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Then the second clause came to read:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light from Light, very God from very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens and was made flesh of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and went up into the heavens, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and is to come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

So there came about by the slow process of trial and error, as a poet will substitute a new word to a line or resurrect a word used formerly, continually revising his rhythms, an astonishingly beautiful summary of the Christian faith, such a summary as might have come full-grown from the mind of one of the apostles.

But in fact this statement of faith came about arduously and slowly, after many bitter contests and many subtle dialectical quarrels, and in the version accepted by the West, there were to be more changes. The words “God from God,” omitted in the original creed of the church of Constantinople, were restored, and there were still more alterations in the coda, for in time the anathemas against Arianism lost their force. No one reading the Western version of the Nicene Creed today need remember that it was originally a hammer struck at heresy.

But the heresy remained. All Athanasius’s diatribes, and all the decisions of the council, were powerless to prevent it.

Later Athanasius was to write to the Emperor Jovian, saying that Nicea was the occasion for a public proscription of every heresy. For a while he believed that “the Word of the Lord, which was given at the Ecumenical Council of Nicea, remains for ever.” He had good reason to believe that he had won a resounding success.

Constantine had been won over. Arius was publicly anathematized. According to the historian Socrates, Constantine issued an imperial rescript ordering that all the books of Arius should be burned “so that his depraved doctrine shall be entirely suppressed and so that there shall be no memorial of him left in the world.” The punishment for concealing any book compiled by Arius was death!

Yet some 54 years later, when Gregory Nazianzus was summoned to Constantinople, he found only one small congregation in the city that had not become Arian. In the end, Arianism was to die, and largely as the result of Athanasius’s enduring statement of the orthodox doctrine. But in spite of the anathemas, it was still a living force in the land.

Closing Banquet

The council came to an end on July 25 with a solemn banquet attended by the emperor.

They had deliberated for nearly seven weeks, not only about the Arian heresy. An Arabic translation of the canons discussed at Nicea, found in the sixteenth century, shows that they debated on 84 subjects, ranging from the date of Easter (they set the day as the first Sunday, not coinciding with the Passover, after the first full moon following the vernal equinox) to determining whether the clergy could marry (the clergy were enjoined to marry before ordination, but not afterward).

Now exhausted, the bishops prepared to make their way homeward. The last speeches had been made. There remained only the ceremonial leave-taking at the banquet, with the emperor sitting at a table in the midst of them. Constantine, stiff with purple, gold, and precious stones, was in good humor. He complimented Athanasius, gave presents to the bishops he favored, and at one point he summoned the unregenerate Bishop Acesius, who possessed a singular regard for the Novatian heresy, which held that only God had the power to pardon sins and that anyone who commits sin after baptism must be permanently refused Communion.

Constantine reminded Acesius that the doctrine of the church was now finally established. Acesius made a long speech in defense of his puritan interpretation of the Scriptures.

Constantine guffawed, “Ho, ho, Acesius! Now plant a ladder and climb up to heaven by yourself!”

And sometime later, Constantine summoned the saintly Bishop Paphnutius and kissed the empty socket, and pressed his legs and arms to the paralyzed limbs, and he was especially gentle to all the other bishops who had suffered under the persecutions.

Then the bishops went out through a line of imperial bodyguards with bared swords.

The council was over.