The Anti-Nicene Creed

Myths and mysteries of the First Ecumenical Council of the Church

The First Council of Nicea often gets a bad rap from LDS apologists, or from any apologists who depend on the failure of the Church by the time of the Council.  Plenty of popular myths get thrown around as fact on all levels of publication.  They seem to have no source, and certainly no basis in fact.  They form a kind of “Anti-Nicene Creed,” that goes something like this:

1)  Constantine, a pagan sun-worshipper,

2)  called the Council and was in charge of it,

3)  hoping to unite the Christians for political gain.

4)  The Pope didn’t even go or approve of it.

5)  The bishops argued and debated and fought endlessly, and finally,

6)  by a slim margin,

7)  the doctrine of the Trinity was approved.

8)  All who disagreed were excommunicated, and the “winners” became the accepted Church.

In my time as an apologist, I’ve encountered all of these claims, and I’m becoming bewildered at how popular they are, and how widely accepted they are as fact.  So what’s the truth?

1)  Constantine – a sun worshipper?

Constantine indeed grew up a pagan, though his mother, St. Helena, was a Christian.  However, he gained devotion to the Christian God in the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge.  As the story goes, before the battle he was told in a vision, “In this sign thou shalt conquer,” and saw the Chi- ro, Christ’s monogram.  He had his soldiers engrave it on their shields, and marched his outnumbered army into battle.  They won indeed, and for the rest of his life as emperor, Constantine removed the persecutions and legal barriers that had hindered the Church for so long.

He was not baptized until his death, because he feared that, as emperor, he would have to do un-Christian things.  This is not a good reason not to be baptized, nor should anyone do un-Christian things for any reason, but that’s why he didn’t belong to the Church for so long.  He did retain some traditional Roman pagan practices, but drastically reduced them in the government.  The point is , he was far from a committed pagan whose only interest in the Church was political gain (we’ll get to that in a bit).

2)  Did Constantine run the show?

He did not, actually.  After he arrived, he formally convened the Council, but then let the bishops do their work.  He assumed no authority that was not his, and the actual president of the Council was his Christian advisor, Hosius of Cordova, along with the Pope’s legates.  Hosius, by the way, was not a puppet; he dared to pen a document that warned about imperial meddling in Church affairs.

3)  Did Constantine gain from it?

There is some truth to this, but not the way it’s usually presented.  LDS apologists make it seem like Constantine stood to gain military or economic power by settling the Arian controversy.  They make it seem like it was none of his business.

In fact, Constantine wanted peace in the Church for the sake of having peace in the Church.  Religion was not so absolutely separated from state as it is in modern, secular cultures.  Thus, there were things that would be utterly foreign today, like a Christian advisor to the emperor, or the Church’s cooperation with the government.

Of course, without the notion that Constantine was in charge of the Council and told the bishops what to do, the fact that he called for the Council doesn’t seem nasty anymore; in fact, it seems to me a good and noble thing for him to do.

4)  Did the Pope approve?  Why wasn’t he there?

Of course he approved.  The reason he wasn’t there is the same reason that most of the western bishops didn’t go – this was almost entirely a problem of the eastern churches, and the western bishops had other things to attend to.  The Pope, Sylvester I, probably had an agreement with Constantine for the convocation of the Council.  He sent his two legates, Victor and Vincentius.

5)  Was it a drug-out, endless argument?

The Council first met on May 20, 325.  The emperor wasn’t there yet, so the bishops took care of less important matters until his arrival on June 14.  The Creed, which is the part of the Council most disputed by LDS apologists, was finished on June 19.  That’s five days to draw up a summary of the entire faith, not the weeks or months usually depicted by those ignorant of the facts.

6)  Did the Creed barely pass?

This is a good one.  The generally-accepted number of bishops at the Council is 318.  Of them, all agreed to the symbol (i.e., the Creed), except five.  To reiterate, it passed by a 313-5 vote.  That’s 98.43%.  Three of the five dissenters changed their minds shortly, and the other two remained in opposition and were excommunicated.

7)  Did the Council create the doctrine of the Trinity?

The Council didn’t even mention the doctrine of the Trinity.  What was at issue, and what Arius had been disputing, is that the Son is in fact of the same substance of the Father (i.e., that Jesus is God, not a created being).  The bishops enthusiastically declared what they knew to be the faith delivered by the Apostles, that He is indeed one is being with the Father.  While this matter is certainly related to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Council really didn’t touch it.  By the way, the Trinity’s first recorded mention in writing was in A.D. 181, by Theophilus of Antioch, in his letter to Autolycus.

8)  Did the “winners” just get rid of the losers?

This is another myth that falls apart, once the facts are known.  Since the “winners,” were, in fact, almost the entire Church, it’s hardly unreasonable that they anathematized the remaining two dissenters, as well as Arius and those who obstinately followed him.  When the apostolic Church affirms a point of doctrine and some perpetually deny it, adding lies and misinformation about the Church, there’s no reason for her not to take the necessary steps to protect the faithful from their errors.

Furthermore, the powerful figures in the government in the decades following the Council were Arians.  They continued to oppose and persecute the orthodox Church.

Wrapping it up

Anti-Nicene apologists try to portray the Council as some kind of popularity contest, dictated by Constantine to his own ends, with the Church’s cooperation in exchange for his protection, or something like that.  That picture is hardly accurate, and an examination of the facts gives the lie to it.  The Council’s history is no more a mystery than any other event so important; you can even read the Council’s documents.

As usual, it’s up to the investigator to discern the truth of popular claims like this.  They’re thrown around as universally known fact, when they’re not.  I’ve now given the little-heard side that’s supported by history.

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