The Nicene Creed

After the whole assembly of Bishops were seated at the first council (of Nicaea) Constantine advised them that he wanted to resolve the issue of the relationship between father and son. He stressed the importance of unity on the matter at hand and the need to compromise in reaching a decision. Although debate was encouraged, in reality Constantine made sure that his idea of what the statement of faith should be was followed. He bullishly wound up all manner of debate by stating that his version of the creed (it is said, composed by a Cappadocian priest) and the use of the word ‘homoousios’, of like substance would describe Jesus relationship with God.

David Potter, in his biography of Constantine states that:

“It is hard at this distance to grasp the extraordinary originality of what Constantine proposed to do; there had never been a universal creed, and bishops who were used to working with their own baptismal creeds are unlikely to have seen the need for such a statement.” 

Potter adds that only an experienced imperial administrator, like Constantine, would have insisted on something like that. 

At first many of those bishops with semi-Arian sympathies protested greatly, but Constantine persuaded them that it was the right thing to do. Who would dare contradict him? Later, the term homoiousios, by adding an extra ‘i’ was suggested to help appease many of the bishops. Though, the controversy over the difference between homoousios and homoiousios would be agonized over the better part of the fourth century. Nevertheless, with the inclusion of homoousios ‘of one substance’ into the prepared statement of faith- the first version of the Nicene Creed was born. (The final version would not appear until Theodosius reign in 381.) It also in one swift blow sealed the fate of Arius and his supporters. He was formally condemned and his writings were ordered to be burnt by Constantine. Once again, Aruis was exiled, this time to Illyricum and forbidden to return to Alexandra (where he was a priest in 321).

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The burning of Arius books.

In reality, Arianism would plague the empire for a little while longer. Many in Constantine’s family harbored Arian sympathies, in particular, his son Constantius. For at least another two hundred years, the German kingdoms after the fall of the west would also favour Arianism. Finally, not until the sixth and seventh centuries would the last remnants of Aranism be finally suppressed in western Europe.

The Nicene Creed that Constantine had overseen then became more than just a statement of faith. It became the official definition of what it meant to be  Christian, and defined what the ‘true’ church believed.

“We believe in One God, the father, Almighty, Maker of all that is, seen and unseen. 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, True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, by whom all things were made, both things in heaven and in earth; who for us and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, was made man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven and is coming to judge the living and dead; and in the Holy Spirit.”   –Creed of the Council of Nacaea, 325 AD.

The Creed and the first council itself, in a sense allowed bishops to decide upon all church matters. It also defined the role of the Emperor as an ‘enforcer’, the sword arm of the church, with the capabilty and power to put a stop to heresy and protect the Christian faith against division.

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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.

David Potter, Constantine The Emperor, Oxford, 2013.

Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.