Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
(Matthew 16:13-17 ESV)
The Council of Nicea was called to answer one basic question that had been plaguing Christians for the past hundred years -- how can a faith that affirms the basic unity of God also assert the diety of Jesus Christ? There were many attenpts to answer this question, but all were unsatisfactory at some point. Some, adoptionists like Theodotus, taught that Jesus was born a normal man, and that the Christ, the Logos of God, descended upon him at his baptism. This denied the eternal existance of God (which the Bible clearly teaches
). Others, such as the monarchians, acknowledged the diety of Christ but denied that He was distinct from the Father. This lead ultimately to the idea of patripassianists -- those who taught that the Father Himself suffered on the cross. There is no distinction between the Father and the Son -- which minimizes, or even obscurs, the humanity of Christ. In fact, many who believed this ultimately taught that Christ's humanity was an illusion -- a clear contradiction of Christ's teaching, especially after the resurrection.
Ultimately, each attempt to reconcile Christ's diety with Judeo-Christian monotheism strayed in one of two directions: either emphasizing the humanity of Christ at the expense of his diety, or affirming his diety while minimizing his humanity. Early Christians recognized the problem, and spent a lot of time trying to come up with a solution that would affirm His diety and humanity. Nicea was the first step; later councils would address Christ's dual nature (Ephesus and Chalcedon), and the wills of Christ (3rd Constantinople). Trinitarian thought was further developed at 1st Constantinople, when the diety of the Holy Spirit was affirmed. Each of these councils will be treated in depth later on in the series.
The issue that finally made a general church council necessary was the prevelance of the teachings of Arius. Arius believed that the Son was divine, and was the agent of creation, but the Son was not God. They were similar, but not the same. Arius taught that God created the Son to act as His agent in creation, so that "All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (Joh 1:3 ESV)" Arius had been excommunicated twice for his unorthodox beliefs, and finally left Alexandria for Palestine, and won support for his beliefs there. Soon Arianism spread throughout Christendom.
The chief opponent of Arius was Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius advocated the idea of Christ being consubstantial with God and coeternal with God. "There was no time when He was not" vs. "There was a time when he was not." "homoousios"(of the same substance) vs. "homoiousios"(of like substance) -- amazing what the addition or subtraction of one vowel can do to a word in Greek.
The exact number of bishops present at the council is uncertain. Eusebias records 250, Athanasius himself says around 300. The most commonly accepted number is 318, given by Hilary of Poitier. The bishops heard arguement from both sides, and judged the issue by Scripture, finally determining that the Arian position was incorrect and, in fact, heretical.
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ek tes ousias] of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father [homoousion to patri], through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made our of nothing (ex ouk onton); or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father], or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic Church anathematizes.
The decision, contrary to popular opinion, was near unanimous. Five bishops disagreed, though that number was quickly reduced to two -- Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais. Both of these men were exiled and anathematized.
The major issue of the council was thus settled, and yet at the same time, it wasn't. Later councils would address the idea of the person of Christ and the nature of Christ, in an attempt to express exactly how He could be both God and man at the same time. Christological conflict was not over, but at Nicea an important foundation was established.
Other issues that were addressed by the council included the controversy over the date of Easter
, and another schismatic named Melitus of Lycopolis
, whose name has gone down in obscurity just as Arius' has gone down in infamy.
The Medieval Sourcebook documents from the First Council of Nicea.
The First Council of Nicea
The Catholic Encyclopedia articles on: Arius, Arianism, and the First Council of Nicea