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From Nicaea to Nicaea: The Attempted Solidification of the Christian Empire
A proper understanding of the reasons why Christianity became the over powering influence in western civilization cannot be separated from an understanding of the first seven ecumenical councils. The questions that were paramount on the minds of the historians and theologians in the early Church were similar to the questions on the minds of early Christians then and now. Who was Jesus? What was the nature of his being and how was it revealed to us? What was the relationship of Mary to her son and how was she to be revered? What books were to be condoned and which books/writings were to be banned? What was the Church proper and how was it to be organized? What was the relationship of the Father to the Son and what was the Holy Spirit's role in the doctrine of the Trinity? These questions that have occupied Christian minds since earliest times were largely consolidated as a result of the decisions that were made during the councils.
Felix Just, prominent Catholic theologian and historian expressed in his article, The Development of Core Christian Teaching that "these large meetings of bishops also produced some of the earliest and most concise statements of belief which are still foundational for the Christian religion"
The first ecumenical Council of the Christian Church convened on June 19th, 325 AD with 318 Church fathers present along with the presence of the Emperor Constantine. The number of 318 Church Fathers is the traditional number although other numbers range from 250 to more than 300 depending on whom one reads.
The reason for the convening of this event was twofold. Constantine's presence was to ensure that some form of unity be established within the ranks of the Christians and hopefully this would help the state of affairs existing within his empire. The bishops and theologians present were concerned with the standardization of rules for governing the many churches and sects that existed within their ranks although regional sectarianism cannot be dismissed as a motive. They also seemed to be aware that the united front that Christianity presented was of vital importance to their future security within the empire. The fact that years of persecution from the empire and their own internal strife weighted heavily on the attending fathers cannot be denied. It was only a few years earlier that the Edict of Milan placed Christianity in a favorable light protected as an officially favored religion.
Prior to the Council of Nicaea, Christians chose a variety of beliefs concerning questions about their founder although the majority seems to have no question about the divine nature of Jesus. After all, the teachings of Paul stated that "in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form," and also "Jesus is God overall". John's Gospel declares Jesus as the Divine Logos, "the Way, the Truth, and the Life"
Jean Danielou in his monumental work, The Theology of JewishChristianity outlines historically and theologically the various theories that came to designate and define the relationship of the Father to the Son. He convincingly relates how the streams of thought throughout Jewish theological thinking form a strong and solid foundation for belief in the relationship of the physical Jesus and the Divine Logos. The Name and the Word were interchangeable.
It is a safe assumption that the Council did not deify Jesus Christ, but rather attempted to affirm the majority opinions concerning that position. The question now was about how Jesus was divine and determining that would some how unify the faith.
A major issue raised at the Council was the question of the apparent heretical stance taken by Arius who taught that Jesus was inferior to God the Father and was created by the Father, which relegated Jesus to the position of a god but not God. According to Alexander, the newly appointed Bishop of Alexandria, Arius proposed that:
"That God was not always the Father, but that there was a period when he was not the Father; that the Word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing; for that the ever-existing God ('the I AM'—the eternal One) made him who did not previously exist, out of nothing; wherefore there was a time when he did not exist, inasmuch as the Son is a creature and a work."
To counter this apparent threat, the official Nicene proclamation (by a majority vote only two dissenters) stated in the Letter of the Synod in Nicaea to the Egyptians the following:
"First of all, then, in the presence of our most religious Sovereign Constantine, investigation was made of matters concerning the impiety and transgression of Arias and his adherents; and it was unanimously decreed that he and his impious opinion should be anathematized, together with the blasphemous words and speculations in which he indulged, blaspheming the Son of God, and saying that he is from things that are not, and that before he was begotten he was not, and that there was a time when he was not, and that the Son of God is by his free will capable of vice and virtue; saying also that he is a creature. All these things the holy Synod has anathematized, not even enduring to hear his impious doctrine and madness and blasphemous words even to be heard."
The official declaration of the Council which was to become known as the Nicene Creed stated:
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, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance, consubstantial with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes
A very important issue was the use of the term, homoousia that was seemingly inserted to establish the anti-Arian sentiments of the document. As C.A. Blaising states in his article on the proceedings at Nicea:
"The theology expressed in the Nicene Creed is decisively anti-Arian. At the beginning the unity of God is affirmed. But the Son is said to be "true God from true God." Although confessing that the Son is begotten, the creed adds the words, "from the Father" and "not made." It is positively asserted that he is "from the being (ousia) of the Father" and "of one substance (homoousia) with the Father." A list of Arian phrases, including "there was when he was not" and assertions that the Son is a creature or out of nothing, are expressly anathematized. Thus an ontological rather than merely functional deity of the Son was upheld at Nicaea" 
No doubt, there were many other heretical issues on the minds of the participants at the Council but Arias was currently under fire for his views and it seems that he was convenient and the most current threat.
The influence of the proceedings at the Council of Nicea and how those decisions further influenced the solidification of the new fledgling organization that was to become the official religion of the Roman Empire seem to be a stepping stone but what is apparent is that the Christian churches and groups seemed to have lost an element of choice when the Council decreed its proclamations.
Further declarations that emerged from the proceedings dealt with definite disciplinary standards for the consolidation of churches and clergy including establishing a common date for the celebration of the most solemn of Christian feasts, namely Easter.
The long-term effects of the Council's proclamations seemed to break down after their dismissal with many of the bishops and theologians returning to their areas only to attempt to soften the proclamations and find a compromise that would be more acceptable to the Arian outlook, a position that still found adherents among theologians and ruling leaders. Ironically, Constantine who received baptism on his deathbed was given that ritual by an Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia.
All in all, the significance of the first recognized ecumenical council was substantial because it was a first attempt to attain some type of consensus in the rapidly developing church using an assembly of bishops and theologians that represented a majority of Christendom. It was apparent that a definite theology was developed concerning the nature of the Christ. The fact that the Emperor convened it was significant because it signaled a measure of imperial control that would plague Christianity throughout its history. Establishing the Nicene Creed set a precedent for the establishment of specific beliefs that would become guidelines for a definite orthodoxy that characterizes the history of Christianity.
Held in Constantinople in 381, the second ecumenical council, also called the first Council of Constantinople was convened for the purpose of clarification of issues that had arisen concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. Although the relationship of the Father to the Son was clearly defined by the Council of Nicaea, the position that the Holy Spirit held was not. As a result of the disagreement, certain factions contended that the Holy Spirit was not a person but a power of God. The followers of Macedonius advocated this position. The Emperor Theodosius convened the council to clarify the controversy. As a result of their decrees, the Macedonian heresy was condemned and the council added five articles to the original Nicene Creed. The creed would now read:
And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver-of-Life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And [we believe] in one, holy, (II) Catholic and Apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins,
[and] we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The significance of this addition seems to have had an effect on the future of the Trinitarian Doctrine for the Church because Theodosius, the last emperor of both the eastern and western Roman Empire issued the Theodosian Code which in effect made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It states:
"It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our clemency and moderation, should continue to the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation and the second the punishment of our authority, in accordance with the will of heaven shall decide to inflict."
The canons issued by the Council are significant in that they deal with administrative decisions that have an effect on the future standing of the Church. The seeds of the final split between the eastern and western parts of the Empire and the Church trace their origins to the acceptance of the canons issued by the second ecumenical council. The insistence that Constantinople was to hold a privileged position surfaced officially with the acceptance of the decree that stated:
The most holy Pope of Old Rome shall be first of all all priests. But the most blessed Archbishop of Constantinople, which is New Rome, shall have the second place after the Holy Apostolic See of Old Rome.
The next council that is considered ecumenical by both East and West was held in Ephesus in 431. Once again a controversy arose considering the nature of Christ. The dispute centered around the teachings of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople who emphasized the dual natures of Christ. If Jesus was both human and divine, he was also subject to the human condition. After all, was not man a sinner by his very nature? If Jesus was only divine, this fact would make him different from humans. If Jesus was both human and divine, he would be a sinner as well. This stance angered the other church fathers especially Cyril of Alexandria who convinced the pope to condemn the heresies put forth by Nestorius. In addition, because of the position held by Nestorius, the question of the status of the Virgin Mary was also brought into question. Did she give birth to a human or a god? Socrates, noted for his impartiality related in his history of the church that:
Nestorius had an associate whom he had brought forth from Antioch, a presbyter named Anastasius; for this man had high esteem and consulted him in the management of affairs. Anastasius, preaching one day in church, said, "let no one call Mary Theotocus: for Mary was but a human being; and it is impossible that God should be born of a human being." This caused a great sensation, and troubled both the clergy and the laity, as they been heretofore taught to acknowledge Christ as God and by no means to separate his humanity from his divinity on account of the economy of incarnation
Socrates goes on to state that had studied the writings of Nestorius and that he found him to be "an unlearned man" and "that the causeless alarm he manifested on this subject just exposed his extreme ignorance."
The banter that resulted between Nestoprius and Cyril, each epousing the correctness of their positions resulted in the councils declaring that Nestorius was to be excommunicated. The decree issued by the council stated:
As, in addition to other things, the impious Nestorius has not obeyed our citation, and did not receive the holybishops who were sent by us to him, we werecompelled to examine his ungodly doctrines. We discovered that he had held and published impious doctrines in his letters and treatises, as well as in discourses which he delivered in this city, and which have been testified to. Compelled thereto by the canons and by the letter of our most holy father and fellow-servant Cœlestine, the Roman bishop, we have come, with many tears, to this sorrowful sentence against him, namely, that our Lord Jesus Christ, whom he has blasphemed, decrees by the holy Synod that Nestorius be excluded from the episcopal dignity, and from all priestly communion.
Once again the council declared the decisions made at Nicaea were to be adhered to and that the creed that was accepted there was to be considered doctrine. As with previous councils, administrative concerns involving the organizational aspects of the church were dealt with but most were reiterating the absolute adherence to the Nicene Creed going so far as forbidding the production of new creeds.
Twenty years passed before another major controversy threatened to shake the foundation of the Church. Considered to be the fourth ecumenical council of the Christian church, the Council of Chalcedon was convened in 451 at the decree of the eastern emperor, Marcian. Although the Pope Leo urged the Emperor to postpone the council, communications failed and the council was convened first at Nicaea and then transferred to Chalcedon to be closer to the Emperor This council's main purpose was to settle major theological disputes about the nature of Jesus Christ, an ongoing controversy since the first council at Nicaea. Perhaps the reason this council was planned to be held at the original site was a desire of the church fathers to glean inspiration there. Although the Nicene Creed was accepted as an absolute declaration of faith for Christianity, it did not stop theologians and church fathers from meandering into areas of inquiry about how the nature of Christ was to be viewed. Orthodoxy in theological thought seemed impossible as long as man possessed a thinking mind.
The number of bishops and legates attending the council attests to the severity of the issues that were to be discussed. A safe estimate seems to be "more than five hundred bishops with several papal legates in attendance."
The next challenge that confronted Church fathers was Monophysitism which overemphasized the divine nature of Jesus to the detriment of his human nature. The council reiterated the beliefs and decisions of previous councils based on the Nicene formula, affirming that Christ is two natures in one person. This formula embraced Nicene doctrine and became known as the Chalcedonian Formula. It stated in its body all the decisions affirmed by the previous councils and emphasized:
One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union….not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ…
Although the council was concerned with the growing controversy, the most significant contribution to Church history was the famous tome attributed to Pope Leo I. As Judith Herrin states in The Formation of Christendom:
His famous Tomus, the letter addressed to Patriarch Flavian of Constantinople on the question of Christ's two natures, became the agreed doctrinal definition of this gathering of over 500 bishops, who invested the Roman document with supreme authority
With the acceptance of this document, Rome took a leading role in establishing Christian dogma. Needless to say, the eastern churches hesitated to accept its supremacy and as Judith Herrin summarizes "that in the years to come the western churches in particular were to cling to this fame and the increased theological standing that Leo brought to the see of Rome." Needless to say, this and other decisions in previous and future councils further contributed to the separation between the Eastern and Western Churches that has characterized the Christian Church today. Administrative and doctrinal issues remain at the heart of the gap between East and West. It reappears again and becomes especially crucial for future generations of Christian growth after the next council held in 553.
The next council convened by the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople (553) seems to have a definite political agenda. Judith Herrin points out "the resurgence of anti-Nestorian conviction in the churches after Chalcedon seemed to Justinian to present an opportunity to reunite Monophysite tendencies with Constantinople." She further emphasized that "all parties could agree on an emphatic condemnation of Nestorianism…this became the chosen weapon and the Three Chapters the particular instrument"  The Three Chapters were texts of three particular bishops (Theodore of Mopsiestia, Ibas of Edessa, and Theodoretas of Kyrros) which apparently espoused the beliefs of Nestorius or were at least close to heretical tendencies attributed to Nestorius. It seems that Ibas of Edessa and Theodoretas of Kyrros were cleared of charges at Chalcedon according to Judith Herrin citing information from The Concilium Chalcedonese but the fame of Theodore of Mopsiestia was too much to ignore since he had been a teacher of Nestorius.
The condemnation of the bishops and the Three Chapters had overwhelming consequences for both the Church and the Empire. Herrin points outs that "an inevitable distrust of imperial power developed in the West, together with tendency to dismiss eastern theological debate. Instead of accepting Greek doctrinal definitions, western churches would in the future draw on the Augustinian corpus that had created a comparable Latin authority of their own. The Fifth Council opened a breach in the ecclesiastical oikoumene which would never be repaired" Justinian was attempting to institute total control over ecclesiastical affairs using the new religion as emperors in the past had used the old pagan cults at their whim. Christianity had developed its own authority in both its eastern and western sections. Its seems that as the political unity of the empire became a thing of the past, the idea of Christian unity became a fact of the present.
The next ecumenical council called the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) was summoned by Constantine IV and had a definite secular presence. As is pointed out by Judith Herrin in her exposition on the council taken from The Formation of Christendom:
The emperor presided at the first eleven sessions, until March 20, accompanied by 13 military, civilian and judicial officials, representing the highest offices of state. When he was unable to attend, his place was taken by four lay officials, and every session was directed by a secular person…discussions were subjected to a marked degree of non-clerical control.
As with preceding councils, the acts and canons of those councils were read and reaffirmed in an ongoing attempt to establish stronger unity throughout Christendom and Empire especially with the looming threat of Islam lurking at its eastern door.
The heresy of the day was Monothelitism (The Doctrine of the One Will) and as was common with all Christological discussions between east and west, tensions developed culminating in the rejection of Monothelitism by the west. The definition of faith reaffirmed by the Council once again attempts to establish the unity in thought tracing its origins from the First Council at Nicaea to this council. It states unequivocally that any divergence from the established creed must be anathematized. The definition of faith declared:
And this our holy and Ecumenical Synod inspired of God has set its seal to the
Creed which was put forth by the 318 holy Fathers, and again religiously confirmed by the 150, which also the other holy synods cordially received and ratified for the taking away of every soul-destroying heresy. The Nicene Creed of the 318 holy Fathers; we believe.. etc… the Creed of the 150 holy Fathers assembled at Constantinople; we believe..etc…
The holy and Ecumenical Synod further says, this pious and orthodox Creed of the Divine grace would be sufficient for the full knowledge and confirmation of the orthodox faith.
The next Council was called by Justinian II in 692. Both the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils fully occupied their time with Christological problems and issued no canons pertaining to ecclesiastical government and order. Actually, this Quinisext Council (combination of the fifth and sixth councils) may be considered to be the continuation of all the preceding Ecumenical Councils. It also ratified the so-called "Eighty-five Apostolic Canons", the canons of local synods, and the most important of the canons of the principal Fathers of the Church, thus empowering all of them with Ecumenical authority. The important consideration of this act was that the canons ratified were apparently intended to legislate for the entire Christian world and that they reveal a preoccupation with discipline which was peculiar to the East. These disciplinary canons were not accepted by the West in their entirety and, since Justinian tried to force their decisions on the West, another breach developed that signaled the division between the two parts of the Church.
The disciplinary canons of the Quinisext, however, were not accepted by the Pope, and even though most of them were not completely observed in the East, they contributed to the widening of differences between East and West.
The next Council dealt predominantly with the controversy regarding icons and their place in orthodox worship. It was convened in Nicaea in 787 by Empress Irene at the request of Thrasios, Patriarch of Constantinople. The Council was attended by 367 bishops.
The iconoclastic controversy had once more shaken the foundations of both Church and State in the Byzantine empire. Excessive religious respect and the ascribed miracles to icons by some members of society, approached the point of worship which was due only to God and idolatry. This instigated excesses at the other extreme by which icons were completely taken out of the liturgical life of the Church by the Iconoclasts. The Iconophilles, on the other-hand, believed that icons served to preserve the doctrinal teachings of the Church; they considered icons to be man's dynamic way of expressing the divine through art and beauty.
The Council decided on a doctrine by which icons should be venerated but not worshipped. In answering the Empress' invitation to the Council, Pope Hadrian replied with a letter in which he also held the position of extending veneration to icons but not worship, the last befitting only God. It was stated emphatically that:
The council decreed that similar veneration and honour should be paid to the representations of the Lord and of the Saints as was accustomed to be paid to the "laurata" and tablets representing the Christian emperors, to wit, that they should be bowed to, and saluted with kisses, and attended with lights and the offering of incense. But the Council was most explicit in declaring that this was merely a veneration of honour and affection, such as can be given to the creature, and that under no circumstances could the adoration of divine worship be given to them but to God alone.
The decree of the Council for restoring icons to churches added an important clause which still stands at the foundation of the rationale for using and venerating icons in the Church:
"We define that the holy icons, whether in colour, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honour but not of real worship, which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature. The veneration accorded to an icon is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands". 
In addition, the Council issued 22 canons relating to administrative and disciplinary matters, condemning Simony (ordination for payment), the election of bishops by secular authority, and the erecting of mixed monasteries. However, and in spite of the recognition of this Council by the Pope, Charlemagne refused to recognize it not only as Ecumenical but altogether. He disapproved of its decision for venerating the icons, and as a result of his hostility, a synod at Frankfurt in 794 condemned the veneration of icons and rejected the entire Council. And it was only by the end of the 9th century that the Council was recognized in the West but without its rules that were contrary to the established practices of the Roman Church. The unique fact in this decision lies in its declaration of independent Western thought separate from Eastern domination. It also showed that the traditional method of representing Christianity at a general council was no longer valid and decisions made at such councils were not binding universally within the Christian world. The concept of the universality of the Church had changed and would define the face of the Church for future centuries.
From the beginning, Church councils were bureaucratic sessions which formed an organization of impenetrability. It cannot be denied that the solidification of the Church and its doctrines, both signs of that impenetrability were forged through the work of the first seven ecumenical councils. The acceptance of the universality of those Councils were, on occasion questioned but their impact on the unification of the organization cannot be ignored. The decisions of the Councils defined Church doctrine and at its best established a firm orthodoxy upon which its belief structure could rely. In addition, they laid a strong cultural foundation upon which the West could build its own identity.
After the Second Council of Nicaea, the history of the Church was impacted strongly by the strengthening of the position of the West politically and economically. With the rise to power of the Carolingian rulers, the west became a match for its Eastern counterparts. The rise and predominant position of the Islam Empire was another significant factor in the strengthening of the West's position. The eastern faction of Christianity was in essence in a position of subjugation and could not be relied on as safe. In addition to its political challenges, the West had become increasingly disillusioned with the Eastern viewpoint. The tendency of the Eastern theologians to bicker over theological positions and the use of Councils to strengthen those positions became a significant factor in the separation of thought between the East and the West. As early as 382, Gregory of Nazianzus wrote on the futility of councils when he said:
For my part, if I am to write the truth, my inclination is to avoid all assemblies of bishops, because I have never seen any council come to a good end, nor turn out to be a solution of evils. On the contrary, it usually increases them. You always find a love of contention and love of power…
The growth of the separate empires both adhering to their supremacy fashioned the path that eventually became the world that we know today. The Church helped to fashion that world and continues to exert its influence in ways that form the foundation of both Eastern and Western thought.
As I completed my research on the seven ecumenical councils and realized what their impact on the development and organization of western civilization produced, it reminded me of a story that has God and Satan walking side by side in the heavens. As they walked along talking, they both saw ahead of them a brilliant ball of light. Both were dazzled by the brilliance and beauty of the object. God walked over and picked up the object and said… Ah…Truth…how beautiful!!! Satan, without any hesitation whatsoever said ….here…. let me have it..I can organize that for you.
Bettenson, Henry. ed., Documents of the Christian Church, London: Oxford University Press, 1943
Gallatin, Harlie Kay.Unit One: Lecture/Essay Eighteen: "Strife over Anthropology and Christology, and How the Church of the East came to be called Nestorian: From c. AD 364 to c. AD 480", HIS/THE 3463. History of Christianity I, Southwest Baptist University.
Hall, J H. (Elwell Evangelical Dictionary) NPNF, series II, vol. XIV.
Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Just, Felix S.J., Ph.D. The Development of Core Christian Teaching in Ecumenical Councils, http.//www.catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/Ecumenical Councils.htm
"First Council of Nicaea – 325 AD", St Michael's Depot.
Labbe and Cossart: The Seven Ecumenical Councils, The Christian Classics Ethereal Library, NPNF 2-14. http://www.ccel.org
Schaff, Phillip. The Seven Ecumenical Councils, The Christian Classics Ethereal Library, NPNF 2-14. http://www.ccel.org
Stevenson, J. Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church A.D. 337-461. New York: The Seabury Press. 1966.
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