Making the Empire Great Again

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Council of Nicaea

As much as we might try to see Constantine’s direct hand in the wording or outline of the final creed, it’s unlikely he had much input at all in it. He as a secular ruler with no theological training (much less a baptism certificate) wouldn’t have been qualified to produce such a creed on his own. The dominant influence in the final product was probably Bishop Hosius of Cordova who led the small, but critical delegation of bishops from the west. Writings of previous Popes and other bishops in Gaul and North Africa suggest that the Western church views on Christ largely conformed with those of the Nicenes and sharply contrasted with those of the Arians. The Eastern church on the other hand had always been more diverse, likely due to the more cosmopolitan nature of that part of the empire and its less centralized ecclesiology. If Constantine did use his influence to tip the scales at Nicaea, then it was likely with this in mind rather than the actual doctrine itself. His desire for unanimity in the church was part of his larger concern for reunification of an empire that had been fractured in two. A creed that enjoyed near unanimous favor in the West and at least decent support in the East seemed best. Any illusions we might have that the words or meaning of the creed itself deeply concerned Constantine can be put to rest by his subsequent actions later in life. Constantine came under the increasing influence of Eusebius in his final years and actually restored many of the Arian bishops and priests to their offices, while exiling the most ardent Nicenes like Athanasius and Eustathius of Antioch. His son Constantius would be an even bigger partisan to Arianism. While this does give credence to your argument about the destructive influence state would come to have on the church, it also shows that the emperors didn’t really need councils or creeds in order to assert themselves on the church. It also shows that there was no side in 325 as far as we know that was live-and-let-live when it came to doctrine. Once in power the Arians banished and excommunicated the Nicenes just as they had done to them. All were as obsessed with the nature of Jesus as the next group.
As tempting as your direct comparison between Constantine and Trump might be, it doesn’t do credit to the real complexities of early church history and above all the character and culture of Christianity itself at that time. You speak of many different types of Christianity that existed at the time, but don’t give voice to any of them in your piece.

Phil 18 days ago

Council of Nicaea

But let’s no be too quick to assume Constantine’s mere presence itself set the course for the entire council. This doesn’t give due credit to the impressive personalities who made up the episcopal leadership of the 320s. Bishop of Alexander of Alexandria, who was more or less the spokesman for the faction who carried the council, was no mere puppet kissing the imperial ring, nor was his even more impressive young deacon Athanasius who would later be exiled no less than seven times rather than recant the Nicene Creed. Nor was Arius some poor beggar with no influence in the council. He had friends and supporters among the leaders, most notably Eusebius of Nicomedia who would later become the emperor’s chief religious advisor. Think of these two groups (which isn’t to say everyone at the council necessarily fell in with one or the other automatically) like competing liberal and traditionalist factions at general conference. Constantine’s role in these proceedings, at least in theory would have been as an observer or possibly informal presider (much like the bishops at conference) who might keep order, but by can’t by any means dictate its decisions. He is not recorded to have spoken or otherwise directed the council except to call on those present to reach a uniform decision, which is exactly what the church leaders wanted. The early church took heresy very seriously as evident by the numerous church records left behind imploring readers to engage in the “proper rituals”, uphold the “true doctrines”, and read the “proper texts”. It would be so easy to lay the obsession with doctrine and uniformity at the feet of Constantine in order to maintain some ideal image of the pre-Constantinian church as more tolerant, more compassionate, and more unworldly than it actually was. The truth is the church leadership didn’t need to hear Constantine’s speech. They had already set out reach a uniform decision without his direction.

Phil 18 days ago

The Council of Nicaea

With respect sir, I think you making the same mistake as many other church historians (and Dan Brown) of giving Constantine too much credit in the deliberations at Nicaea while neglecting the men who actually produced the creed. In all three of your commentaries, I did not see even a reference to any of the bishops or other leaders who attended the council, which suggests to me that you don’t see their influence in its decisions.
First, let’s hold off on assuming Constantine was overly-eager to call church councils. In fact, some evidence would suggest he was quite reluctant to do so, especially after his first debacle with the Donatists in North Africa. In both cases it was in fact the church leadership itself who requested these meetings, which some could argue were not a particularly new or radical way of dealing with divisions within the church. We of course have Council of Jerusalem according to the writings of Luke for precedent. Apostolic sources also record subsequent church councils held prior to Nicaea (possibly as many as 13). The main difference between these previous meetings and Nicaea would have been the presence of the emperor.

Phil 18 days ago