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This week in history: The First Council of Nicaea

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 23 2013 12:37 p.m. MDT

Brownworth wrote: “Announcing a great council, Constantine invited every bishop in the empire to attend, personally covering the cost of transportation and housing. When several hundred clerics had arrived at the city of Nicaea, the emperor packed them into the main cathedral and on May 20, 325, opened the proceedings with a dramatic plea for unity.”

The council first dealt with less important issues. The bishops addressed the problem of recognizing baptism performed by heretics, and then devised the formula for calculating the exact date of the year that Easter would fall upon. On the fundamental issue of Arianism, however, each faction stuck rigidly to its positions and refused any form of compromise.

In his book “How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower,” historian Adrian Goldsworthy wrote: “Fierce debate raged over the precise nature of the Trinity — God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In many ways the arguments show the deep influence of the ways of thinking promoted by the major philosophical schools, with their obsession with specifically categorizing things. … Constantine was present but seems to have acted as an interested layman and did not actually take part in the debate.”

Among the bishops present was the staunch anti-Arian, St. Nicholas of Myrna, who was the basis for the Santa Claus legend. Tempers flared during the debate, and according to some accounts St. Nicholas even slapped Arius at one point. Eventually, the traditionalist faction won over the Arians, and a new creed was created. God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit were described as “of the same substance.” The Greek word used was “homoousios.”

The Nicene Creed therefore completely rejected Arianism. Pro-Arian bishops, like Constantine's favorite Eusebius of Caesarea, were forced to recant and accept the Nicene Creed lest they be excommunicated. Many like Arius who refused to accept the Nicene Creed were sent into exile, though years later Constantine would allow them to return to their homes.

The First Council of Nicaea was significant for its role in early Christian Church organization and defining such concepts within the church as orthodoxy and heresy. It saw learned bishops coming from all over to decide these questions in a (relatively) democratic manner, and it also saw support from the emperor himself, giving the council a firm foundation of legitimacy.

Arian Christianity would not die out as a result of the council, however. Though most Romans ultimately embraced the Nicene Creed, Arian Christians remained a minority for years to come, and even some later emperors would worship as Arian Christians. Arian Christianity would also spread to the German lands north of the empire, and when the Goths invaded in the late fourth century, they did so as Arians. By the time the Western Roman Empire fell in A.D. 476, the various Germanic kingdoms that arose were almost all Arian, ruling over a population of largely Roman Catholic subjects. Arianism would virtually disappear in the West, however, after the Frankish King Clovis I converted to Catholicism in the late fifth century and after the Muslim invasion of Visigothic Spain in A.D. 711.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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