Just as Constantine had consolidated his power, and the Empire had come together politically, a new deadly heresy threatened to permanently rip it all apart. Once Constantine had defeated Licinius in 324, there was nothing really stopping him now from coming out in the open for his support of Christianity. He would for the short term continue to tolerate paganism, but what he would not tolerate was heresy within the Church.
It wasn’t too long after Constantine had begun his ambitious plans for his new city at Byzantium (For continuity sake we will start to refer to Byzantium now as Constantinople) that he became fully aware of a North Africian priest named Arius and his teachings that Christ was not fully divine and inferior to God.
According to Arius, Jesus as the Son of God was not the same substance as God the Father. He preached that there was once a time before the Son of God, when only God the father existed. His views were originally condemned and he was expelled from Alexandria where he was a priest in 321, but in time his views gained momentum in exile.
By 325 AD, Arius’ controversial teachings had spread far beyond his own see, which caught everyone by surprise. Warring factions in the church just simply could not agree what to do with this growing menace, highlighting the distinct lack of leadership that existed in the church.
This developing rift in the church worried Constantine. Prior to the Arian crisis, Constantine saw first hand how schisms in the church could unstable things. He had battled fiercely against two schismastic groups, the Donastists and Meletians, both in North Africa and Egypt respectively. These two groups were unable to forgive those bishops or priests who had left the Church during Diocletians prosecutions and later returned to it. With these two troublesome groups firmly planted in the back of his mind and now Arius “rocking the boat”, Constantine sought a solution. He decided to flex his imperial muscle and take control of the matter at hand and announced a great council, the first “Ecumenical Council’ inviting every bishop in the Empire to attend in 325 AD.
Approximately three hundred and eighteen bishops gathered at Nicaea, near Constantinople. An overwhelming majority were Eastern Bishops with a reported handful from the west.
The Council discussed minor matters from baptism, to setting the dates of Easter, the Meletian schism to the burning issue of the relationship between the Son and the Father. One can only imagine how fiery and robust debate amongst the bishops would have been. Undoubtedly, there would have been a lot of hotheads with egos to match. There were even rumours of alleged punches thrown at Arius on the council floor.
Next up The Nicene Creed. Click here to continue with Byzantium’s story.
Photo credits: The header image is an Eastern Orthodox icon depicting the First Council of Nicea 325 AD. It is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. The second image used here shows Bishop Nicholas of Myra allegedly slapping Arius at the First Ecumenical Council.
Notes and Further Reading
Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine, Phoenix, 1993.
David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity, Quercus, 2007
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.