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Arius and Nicea

History

Before the era of Constantine and the beginning of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, a large part of Christian energy was spent on martyrdom. Persecution was a fairly consistent specter haunting the Church and as the martyrs became more and more revered for the putting forth the height of Christian devotion, the subject of martyrdom and the martyrs took up a great deal of the Church’s attention. With the end of persecution by the State, early Christianity began to turn its attention elsewhere. And so the fourth century became the age of the great Church Fathers—those intellectual and spiritual giants that unpacked, sharpened, and refined the theology of the Church. In simplistic terms, with the end of persecution, the early Church turned its physical energy spent on martyrdom into the intellectual energy needed for a sort of theological golden age.

The heresy of Arianism was the first major controversy of this new age of the Church. Arius was a local popular priest in Alexandria. He began to develop and promote an alternate understanding of the person and nature of Christ that was not necessarily new in its fundamentals, but was able to catch on and spread for a variety of reasons—not least because Arius was smart (thus able to create a more thoughtful system of thought) but also because of his popularity (good P.R. helps to sell all sorts of things).

For Arius, if God was unknowable (a popular Christian theological assumption brought about through platonic influence), then Jesus could not be God in the same sense that the Father is because Jesus is knowable. Further, if God is both one and indivisible, then clearly Jesus must be both other than and after God—a kind of higher divine creature, but not one with and sharing in the divine nature of the Father. “Creature” is the operative word here. For Arius, Jesus was a created being and, while the firstborn of creation, surely not eternal. And so Arius came up with and taught a little theological song to encapsulate his thought on Jesus Christ for popular memory purposes with the simple lyrics, “There was a time when he (Christ) was not.” (Apparently it was catchy.)

The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa tells us that theological argument became very popular at this time. As Gregory reports it, one couldn’t even go to the marketplace to buy needed goods without being led into an argument on the nature of Christ by even the merchants. This caused a real stir in the Church and a quickly growing division in early Christianity. Both the seriousness and the spread of the crisis are evident in one particular turn of events: the intervention of the Emperor.

The Roman Emperors had always been concerned with the unity of the Empire. This concern had often manifested itself religiously with various Emperors attempting to bolster the unity of the Roman Empire by standardizing religious practices. This did not change with the decline of the ancient Roman religion and the rise of Christianity as the increasingly preferred religion of the State. Constantine, witnessing the extent to which the Arian controversy was troubling and endangering the unity of the Church, felt the very traditional need to protect the Empire’s unity (notice the central role the Church already began to play in the Empire) by intervening in religious affairs.

And so in 325 Constantine called for a council of the Church in the city of Nicea (a city in which the Emperor had a vacation home) where the bishops of the Church throughout the Empire would assemble to settle the issue. The outcome of the council is common knowledge in the Church—Arianism was denounced as heresy and the first steps were taken toward an authoritative creedal statement that is regularly repeated by the faithful throughout the world to this day. The theological narrative is the one that generally dominates the retelling of the story. We are interested in telling and hearing what the Church decided and asserted that it believes. But there is another story that gets less attention and often gets mentioned only in passing if at all. One scholar tells it like this:

It is necessary to remember that several of those attending the great assembly had recently been imprisoned, tortured, or exiled, and some bore on their bodies the physical marks of their faithfulness. (Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, pg. 186)

It is easy to give in to the temptation to come to theology and theological debate from a place of strength. We want to put our best foot forward, show ourselves as more studied and knowing. We look for the weakness in our opponents and exploit it. It is, of course, important to get theology right and the Church has needed to take getting it right seriously. There are battles that are worth fighting and fighting hard. The theological battle at Nicea against Arianism defending the divinity of Christ and his co-eternality with the Father was clearly one of them, and the Church fought hard. But the Church that inherits the Nicene tradition must remember that we are heirs of those who came limping to the debate. And their wounds were ones inflicted through real and practical faithfulness. Nicea is the first great debate of the Church, and it is these wounded bishops that are our Fathers in theological debate. They were strengthened first by costly faithfulness and real theological debate is forever accountable to them.