There has never been a time the Church has lived apart from the constant threat of heresy.
It was a long way from Emperor Nero watching Christians burning alive in his garden to Emperor Constantine watching theologians debate the nature of Christ.
Ecumenical councils are formed in response to controversy and contention effecting the entire church. It is the council’s job to decide which is the correct position and declare the other “heretical”, or out of accord with correct teaching.
Ecumenical councils weren’t a new thing. The apostles called one in response to the controversy that erupted as a result of Gentiles coming into the church and not embracing the established Jewish practices (Acts 15).
These councils can only be convened when Christians do not live in fear of persecution because they require a sizeable portion of the church to attend. This is why no church councils were called for almost 300 years, despite the sweeping heresies of Donatism, Marcionism and Gnosticism.
It wasn’t until Constantine rose to power and ended the persecution of Christians that the church felt comfortable convening en masse as Christians. And that’s precisely what Constantine did. He called for a council to settle several ongoing disputes among the various sectors of the church. Chief among these was the issue of Arianism.
Arius was an elder in the church of Alexandria, and a popular one at that. He viewed Jesus (the Logos, or the Word) as being created by God before the rest of creation, but not co-eternal with God. His phrase was “there was a time when he was not.” He was opposed by a bishop in Alexandria named Alexander, who argued that Jesus existed eternally with the Father. Arius said that those who held Alexander’s view were denying monotheism, insisting on the worship of two gods: Jesus and the Father. To this, Alexander responded that either Jesus is divine or the Christian church needs to stop worshiping him.
What began as a dispute between two men grew to a church-wide controversy that touched on the very heart of Christianity: was Jesus divine or a creature? Bishop Alexander had Arius removed from office for his teaching, but Arius was so popular and persuasive that there were protests in the streets by his supporters and threats to split the church in the Eastern portion of the empire. It was at this point in A.D. 325 that Constantine felt the need to intervene and call what is now referred to as The First Ecumenical Council: The Council of Nicea.
Approximately 300 bishops from various regions throughout the Roman Empire convened publically to dispute these matters and settle them once and for all. There was fierce debate, during which time (as we said in the Prologue to this series) it is believed that St. Nicholas struck Arius in the face for blasphemy.
When the dust had settled, Jesus was affirmed to have existed eternally with the Father and Arius’ position that Jesus was created was declared heretical. To ensure that this was adopted as the church-wide position, the Nicene Creed was written, codifying Jesus to be “begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father” and declaring anyone that teaches “that He is created, or mutable, these the catholic church anathematizes.” However, even with this church-wide condemnation, Arianism didn’t cease after the close of Nicea and wasn’t fully eradicated until the 7thCentury (!). In fact, for many of those years Arianism was even more popular than the orthodox Christian position.
There were several other ecumenical councils following Nicea. It is debated how many should be considered “ecumenical”, meaning representing the entire church, but seven is the number most agreed on. Instead of delving into each of them, it suffices to say that most of them dealt in some way with the nature of the Trinity: is the Holy Spirit also co-eternal with the Father and the Son, did Jesus have both a human and a divine nature, did Jesus have one or two wills, did Jesus have human reason or just divine reason, etc.? It was through this process of councils that we have arrived at the ecumenical, or orthodox, doctrine of the Trinity affirmed by all branches of Christianity.
It’s worth noting that everyone at these councils believed in the Bible as the word of God. These were not issues of inspiration, but interpretation. And the church felt there was no leniency when it came to the formulation of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. Therefore, they wrote down for all places and ages what they felt to be the one true interpretation of the scriptures in regards to the Trinity. Perhaps this seems restrictive or heavy-handed in our age, but the ancient church understood the doctrine of the Trinity – the nature of God – sits at the very heart of Christianity itself.
The calling of the Council of Nicea and the ecumenical councils that followed, had the unexpected consequence of setting the dynamic between the church and state for centuries to follow, continuing to this day. We will look at this in our next episode.