The Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea (The History of Christianity #111)

Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is 1 John 5:7-8 which reads: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from the Creed of Nicea (ni-‘se-a). It says: “And [we believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father as the only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

From its very beginnings, Christianity had been involved in theological controversies. In Paul’s time, the burning issue was the relationship between Jewish and Gentile converts. Then came the crucial debate over Gnostic speculation. In the third century, when Cyprian was bishop of Carthage, the main point at issue was the restoration of the lapsed. All of these controversies were significant, and often bitter. But in those early centuries the only way to win such a debate was through solid argument and holiness of life. The civil authorities paid scant attention to theological controversies within the church, and therefore the parties in conflict were not usually tempted to appeal to those authorities in order to cut short the debate, or to win a point that had been lost in a theological argument.

After the conversion of Constantine, things changed. Now it was possible to invoke the authority of the state to settle a theological question. The empire had a vested interest in the unity of the church, which Constantine hoped would become the “cement of the empire.” Thus, the state soon began to use its power to force theological agreement upon Christians. Many of the dissident views that were thus crushed may indeed have threatened the very core of the Christian message. Had it not been for imperial intervention, the issues probably would have been settled, as in earlier times, through long debate, and a consensus would eventually have been reached. But there were many rulers who did not wish to see such prolonged and indecisive controversies in the church, and who therefore simply decided, on imperial authority, who was right and who should be silenced. As a result, many of those involved in controversy, rather than seeking to convince their opponents or the rest of the church, sought to convince the emperors. Eventually, theological debate was eclipsed by political intrigue.

The beginning of this process may be seen already in the Arian controversy, which began as a local conflict between a bishop and a priest, grew to the point that Constantine felt obliged to intervene, and resulted in political maneuvering by which each party sought to destroy the other. At first sight, it is not a very edifying story. But upon closer scrutiny what is surprising is not that theological debate became entangled in political intrigues, but rather that in the midst of such unfavorable circumstances the church still found the strength and the wisdom to reject those views that threatened the core of the Christian message.

Next time, we will begin looking at The Outbreak of the Controversy.


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