The Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea, Part 3 (The History of Christianity #113)

Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is John 1:14 which reads: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Ephrem of Edessa. He said: “God’s Word is an inexhaustible spring of life.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea – The Outbreak of the Controversy” – Part 2 from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1). And, I want to remind you to take advantage of our special offer. If you enjoy this podcast, please feel free to purchase a copy of the book that we are using, “The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1” by Dr. Justo L. González. The book is available on our website for just $30. You can make your purchase today at

The controversy itself began in Alexandria, when Licinius was still ruling in the East, and Constantine in the West. The bishop of Alexandria, Alexander, clashed over several issues with Arius, who was one of the most prestigious and popular presbyters of the city. Although the points debated were many, the main issue at stake was whether the Logos, the Word of God, was coeternal with God. The phrase that eventually became the Arian motto, “there was when He was not,” aptly focuses on the point at issue. Alexander held that the Word existed eternally with the Father; Arius argued that the Word was not coeternal with the Father. Although this may seem a very fine point, what was ultimately at stake was the divinity of the Word. Arius claimed that, strictly speaking, the Word was not God, but the first of all creatures. It is important to understand at this point that Arius did not deny that the Word existed before the incarnation. On the preexistence of the Word, all were in agreement. What Arius said was that, before anything else was made, the Word had been created by God. Alexander argued that the Word was divine, and therefore could not be created, but rather was coeternal with the Father. In other words, if asked to draw a line between God and creation, Arius would draw that line to include the Word in creation, while Alexander would draw it in a manner that would place all of God’s creation on one side and the eternal Word on the other.

Each of the two parties had, besides a list of favorite proof-texts from the Bible, logical reasons that seemed to make the opponents’ position untenable. Arius, on the one hand, argued that what Alexander proposed was a denial of Christian monotheism – for, according to the bishop of Alexandria, there were two who were divine, and thus there were two gods. Alexander retorted that Arius’ position denied the divinity of the Word, and therefore also the divinity of Jesus. From its very beginning, the church had worshiped Jesus Christ, and Arius’ proposal would now force it either to cease such worship, or to declare that it was worshiping a creature. Alexander concluded that, since both alternatives were unacceptable, Arius was proven wrong.

The Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea, Part 2 (The History of Christianity #112)

Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is John 1:1 which reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from St. Jerome. He said: “I beg of you, my dear brother, to live among these books [Scriptures], to meditate upon them, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else.”

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).

The roots of the Arian controversy are to be found in theological development that took place long before the time of Constantine. Indeed, the controversy was a direct result of the manner in which Christians came to think of the nature of God, thanks to the work of Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and others. When the first Christians set out to preach their message throughout the empire, they were taken for ignorant atheists, for they had no visible gods. In response, some learned Christians appealed to the authority of those whom antiquity considered eminently wise: the classical philosophers. The best pagan philosophers had taught that above the entire cosmos there was a supreme being, and some had even declared that the pagan gods were human creations. Appealing to such respected authorities, Christians argued that they believed in the supreme being of the philosophers, and that this was what they meant when they spoke of God. Such an argument was very convincing, and there is no doubt that it contributed to the acceptance of Christianity among the intelligentsia.

But this was also a dangerous argument. It was possible that Christians, in their eagerness to show the kinship between their faith and classical philosophy, would come to the conviction that the best way to speak of God was not in the manner of the prophets and other biblical writers, but rather in the manner of Plato, Plotinus, and the rest. Since those philosophers conceived of perfection as immutable, impassible, and fixed, many Christians came to the conclusion that such was the God of scripture.

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.

The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism, Part 5 (The History of Christianity #110)

Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is 1 Peter 2:5 which reads: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Clement of Alexandria. He said: “If you enroll as one of God’s people, then heaven is your country and God your lawgiver.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 6)” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Around the year 340, there appeared among the Donatists a group called the circumcellions – a name of debatable origin, which probably means that they had their headquarters in martyrs’ shrines. They were mostly Numidian and Mauritanian Donatist peasants who resorted to violence. Although sometimes they have been depicted as no more than bandits masquerading as people driven by religious motives, the truth is that they were religious to the point of fanaticism. They were convinced that there was no death more glorious than that of the martyrs, and that now that persecution in the old style had ended, those who died in battle against the perverters of the faith were also martyrs. In some cases, this quest for martyrdom rose to such a pitch that people committed mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. This may well be fanaticism; but it is not opportunistic hypocrisy.

The circumcellions became an important factor in the schism. Sometimes the Donatist leaders in the towns tried to disassociate themselves from this radical party. But at other times, when they needed activist troops, they appealed to the circumcellions. The time came when many villas and land holdings in secluded places had to be abandoned. The rich and those who represented the empire did not dare travel though the countryside without heavy escort. More than once, the circumcellions appeared at the very gates of fortified towns. Credit suffered, and trade almost came to a standstill.

The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism, Part 4 (The History of Christianity #109)

Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is Daniel 2:20-22 which reads: “Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding: He revealeth the deep and secret things: he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Cyril of Alexandria. He said: “We, who are children of earth and slaves and subject by the law of nature to him who created us, call him who is in heaven ‘Father.’ Most fittingly, he enables those who pray to understand this also. Since we call God ‘Father’ and have been counted worthy of such a distinguished honor, we must lead holy and thoroughly blameless lives. We must behave as is pleasing to our Father.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 4)” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

It is a fact that the two parties, Donatists and Caecilians, soon separated along social and geographical lines. In Carthage and its immediate surroundings — Proconsular Africa — Caecilian and his followers were strong. But further west, in Numidia and Mauritania, the Donatists were very popular. Numidia and Mauritania were agricultural areas. A great deal of their produce was exported to Italy through Carthage. The net result was that as middle-men the Carthaginians, with less labor and risk, made more money from the crops than those who actually raised them. Furthermore, Numidia and Mauritania were much less Romanized than Carthage and the area around it. Many in the less Romanized areas retained their ancestral language and customs, and saw Rome and everything connected with it as a foreign and oppressive force. In Carthage, on the other hand, there was a strongly Latinized class of landowners, merchants, and military officers, and it was this class that reaped most of the benefits of trade and other contacts with Italy. For these people, good relations with Rome as well as with the rest of the empire were of paramount importance. But in Carthage itself, as well as in its outlying districts, there were numerous people among the lower classes whose feelings were similar to those of the Numidians and Mauritanians.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism.

The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism, Part 3 (The History of Christianity #108)

Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is Romans 15:4 which reads: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Justin Martyr. He said: “And when you hear that we look for a kingdom, you suppose, without making any inquiry, that we speak of a human kingdom. Instead, we speak of that which is with God, as can be shown from the confession of their faith made by those who are charged with being Christians, even though they know that death is the punishment awarded to those who so confess. For if we looked for a human kingdom, we would deny our Christ, so that we might not be killed. We would try to escape detection, so that we might obtain what we hope for. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since death is a debt which must at all events be paid.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 3)” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The Dentists on their part, insisted that Caecilian, whose consecration had been flawed by the participation of a traitor, was not really a bishop, and that for that reasons all those whom he had ordained were false ministers, whose sacraments had no validity. Furthermore, the other bishops whose consecration was not in no doubt had sinned by joining in communion with people such as Caecilian and his party. In consequence, their sacraments and ordinations were no longer valid.

Given the two positions, if a member of Caecilian’s party decided to join the Dentists, a new baptism was required, for the Dentists claimed that a baptism administered by their opponents was not valid. But, on the other hand, those who left the Donatist party were not rebaptized by Caecilian and his followers, who held that baptism was valid regardless of the worth of the person administering it.

Besides the matter of the validity of sacraments administered by an unworthy person, the debate had to do with two very different conceptions of the church. The Donatists held that the church, being the bride of Christ, had to be pure and holy, while their opponents pointed to the parable of the wheat and the tares, which suggests that it is best for the disciples not to try to adjudge who is worthy and who is not, but rather leave that judgment to the Lord. For one party, the holiness of the church consisted of the holiness of its members; for the other, it was grounded in the holiness of its Lord. For the Donatists, what gave authority to a priest or bishop was his personal holiness; for their opponents, such authority was derived from the office – which was a common principle of Roman law.

These were the main theological issues involved in the debate. But when one reads between the lines of the documents of the time, one becomes aware that there were other causes of conflict often obscured by the theological debates. Thus, it appears that among the Donatists there were some who had delivered the scriptures to the authorities, and even some who had made an entire inventory of all the objects that the church used to worship, in order to give that inventory to the authorities. Yet, these people were accepted among the Donatists. Furthermore, one of the first leaders of Donates was a certain Purpurius, who had murdered two nephews. Thus, it is difficult to believe that the real source of enmity of the Donatists toward the rest of the church was their concern for purity.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism.

The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 2)

The History of Christianity #107

Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is Ephesians 4:4 which reads: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Cyprian of Carthage. He said: “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother.”

Last time, in the History of Christianity, we looked at “The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 1)”.

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 2)” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

On the other hand, there were many Christians who remained firm in their faith, and as a result suffered imprisonment, torture, and even death. As earlier, those who survived imprisonment and torture were called “confessors,” and were particularly respected for the firmness of their faith. In Cyprian’s time, some of the confessors had been too ready to readmit the lapsed, without any consultation with the authorities of the church. Now, after Constantine’s conversion, a significant number of confessors took the opposite tack, insisting on greater rigor than the church was applying. These more demanding confessors claimed that the lapsed were not only those who had actually worshiped the gods, but also those who had handed the scriptures to the authorities. If changing a tittle or a jot in scriptures was such a great sin, argued the confessors, is it not an even greater sin to turn the sacred text over to be destroyed. Thus, some bishops and other leaders were given the offensive title of traditores – that is, those who had handed over or betrayed, a title often applied to Judas.