Constantine & the Council of Nicaea

From Ch. 7 of In Search of the Loving God by Mark Mason

. . .
Constantine was now undisputed emperor in the West, and the only other emperor was Licinius in the East, who, as Galerius's comrade, was Constantine's implacable enemy. Nevertheless these two Augustii met in Milan, and agreed to ban the persecution of Christians. Constantine had already been involved in church politics for some time, adjudicating in disputes and receiving petitions. This was an ideal situation for the church: no longer persecuted, but still independent. It was not to last, though. Twelve years after the Milan conference, Constantine accused Licinius of reviving persecution of Christians in the east, and attacked and defeated him. Licinius' life was initially spared at the request of his wife Constantia, Constantine's sister. Two years later, however, only a few months after the Council of Nicaea, where he helped lay down the guidelines for a united imperial Christianity, Constantine went on a killing spree. He put Licinius to death on a charge of treasonable intrigue, then went on to kill his own son Crispus, who had ably and loyally served him as a general, and the younger Licinius, his sister's son, who was, at the most, twelve years old. Next he put to death his wife Fausta, reputedly by boiling her alive in her own bath, and went on to kill a number of his friends.[14] By determination, ruthlessness, and military genius, Constantine had made himself the most powerful man in the world, but he was obviously anxious about his grip on power, and prepared to do anything to ensure it. His giant ego is testified to by the colossal statue he had made of himself in Rome. Judging by the huge marble head, the entire statue must have been at least fifty feet tall. An even greater monument to himself was the city of Constantinople, which was extravagantly adorned at the expense of a looted empire. Constantine was certainly no humble follower of Jesus - there were other reasons for his courting of Christianity.

Almost immediately after uniting the empire under himself, Constantine had convened the first general council of the Christian church at Nicaea. Having seen human "gods" like Diocletian fail as a binding force for the empire, and noting the wide appeal of Christianity, and the futility of Diocletian's attempts to persecute it, Constantine was determined to use Christianity as the "glue" to hold his empire together. At this council of Nicaea (in 325 A.D.) the precise nature of Christian faith was negotiated, and its relationship to Constantine and his successors established. The way Constantine orchestrated the council was brilliant. He seized the initiative from the eastern bishops who had called a smaller council to excommunicate some heretics who didn't believe in the full divinity of Jesus. In a letter announcing his imperial convocation, Constantine wrote:

It had been agreed that the Synod of Bishops should meet at
Ancyra of Galatia, but, it seems to us on a number of counts,
that it would be better for a Synod to assemble at Nicaea, a
city of Bithynia, both because the Bishops of Italy and the rest
of Europe are coming, and because of the excellent temperature
of the air, and so that I may be present as a spectator and
participator in the things that will be done…[15]

He didn't mention the excommunications; his desire was for unity, not confrontation. And moving the council to Nicaea brought it under his control. The bishops were summoned by the emperor to a place only a few miles from the palace where the recently defeated (and soon to be executed) Licinius lived. Constantine filled the church council with his imperial presence and purpose, and carefully created the grandeur of this first image of Christendom. Church leaders from the four corners of the world attended it. One eyewitness declared: "It might have seemed the likeness of the Kingdom of Christ." Later generations even believed this council had been directly guided by the Holy Spirit. And to this day, as Dean Stanley has pointed out, every church feels it has some standing in the Council of Nicaea.[16]

The most important results of the Council of Nicaea were twenty statements containing rules of behavior for clergy, and the famous creed of faith known ever since as the Nicene Creed. Here is an early form of it from Rome at about 340 A.D.:

I believe in God almighty.
And in Christ Jesus, his only son, our Lord
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried,
And the third day rose from the dead
Who ascended into heaven
And sitteth on the right hand of the Father
Whence he cometh to judge the living and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost
The holy church
The remission of sins
The resurrection of the flesh
The life everlasting.[17]

Later versions have seen fit to add that Jesus "died" and "descended into hell." Perhaps this was because the original creed didn't mention hell, reflecting its lack of importance in the early church, and the medieval church, whose allegiance was largely built around the fear of hell, thought a reference to it should be added to help keep the thought of it uppermost in people's hearts and minds. The reference to Jesus dying could have been added to counteract the popular contention that Jesus didn't die on the cross, but merely went into a swoon resembling death.

This creed, still used by most churches as a basic statement of faith, was a result of careful compromise at the Council. Other creeds were rejected before this Jerusalem baptismal creed, which had its origins in the earliest days of the church, was selected. It is an inspiring creed, and everybody was able to agree with what it said, so it fostered unity in the church emerging from Nicaea. Most Christians, even today, see it as being profoundly true and beautiful. It is, however, a limited statement, as notable for what it doesn't say, as for what it does. It is far from being a balanced statement of Christian belief, let alone a comprehensive one.

Missing from the Nicene Creed is any reference at all to Jesus' teachings, especially his all-important teachings on the kingdom of heaven. Missing is any suggestion that we can all, individually, come into God's presence in prayer, and know Him during this life. Missing is Jesus' teaching that you can't serve both God and worldly ambition. The very practical basis of the spiritual life, which Jesus taught, is totally missing from this creed. This was, of course, necessary for the creed to be acceptable to Constantine, who was a worldly and ambitious man, and who didn't want Christianity to be a practical teaching which could guide people's lives, but rather a romantic, other-worldly faith. Constantine wanted to be the absolute ruler on earth, and have God far away in heaven, fully accessible only after death, and in the meanwhile only in a limited way through an hierarchy of priests and bishops. And most bishops wanted the same thing as Constantine, because they were a part of the power structure which was emerging. Any suggestion that people could attain salvation directly from God, without the help of the church as an intermediary, would undermine their importance, privilege and power. So the bishops forgot Jesus' teachings, and were willing collaborators with Constantine in molding Christianity into an instrument to serve the ambitions of the power hungry. Admittedly there were some who later regretted signing the Nicene formula. After returning home, Eusebius of Nicomedia wrote: "We have committed an impious act, O Prince, by subscribing to a blasphemy from fear of you."[18] But it was too late then to change what had happened. The course of history for over a thousand years to come had been established.
. . .

From: In Search of the Loving God by Mark Mason -- Copyright © 1997.

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