Early Church Fathers: Council of Nicea



Historical Background

            After persecution ended, the Church grew. In early days, Jerusalem was the center of Christianity, later Rome, and now Constantinople. The apostles ordained men to succeed them. Today, these are known as bishops. Bishops were the shepherds of their flocks – rural bishops of small towns and villages, metropolitan and archbishops of larger cities and states, and the Patriarchs were by now five: Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch. The Patriarchates were a position of honor and prestige but not a ruling oligarchy. When a council is called, just as at Jerusalem in the first century, all bishops converge, each with an equal vote.

At the beginning of the 4th century, two disagreements troubled the Church:

1. When should Christians celebrate Pascha (Easter)? Some Christians were celebrating with the Jewish Passover, others on a particular Sunday, and others in a certain week, not on Sunday.


2. What was the nature of Jesus – God or man? No one had yet put into words exactly what the Church believed abut Jesus. Now that peace reigned for the Church, theology blossomed. What is theology? The study of God and formulation of Christian belief. Soon, a serious disagreement developed between Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria and one of his priests, named Arius. Arius thought things through and decided that, if Jesus was born, there must have been a time when He was not, and therefore He could not be equal to God the Father. He was not truly God. Many Christians began to be swayed by his reasoning, splitting the Church.


Life of Athanasius the Great

Athanasius was born at the end of the third century in the city of Alexandria in Egypt.  At that time, Alexandria was an important center of education and learning in the Roman Empire and its bishop an important leader in the Christian Church. One day, Bishop Alexander looked out his window and saw some small boys walking back and forth at the seashore. When he asked what they were doing, they said that they have made their friend, Athanasius, their bishop and are following his order to baptize the other children.  Athanasius had taught the children all about Jesus and they were ready to follow the Lord! The bishop came to love Athanasius and the boy spent many hours in the bishop’s home reading and studying.

      By the time he was 20 years old, Athanasius was writing books about the Lord. His extensive writings all are concerned with the dominant purpose of his life – to defend the divinity of Christ. He believed that Jesus was truly God as well as truly man. He used the word “homoousios” in Greek, meaning “of the same essence”. But, another priest in Alexandria, named Arius, believed just the opposite. Bishop Alexander of Alexandria held meetings with his priests, teaching that Jesus was truly God and man, but Arius would not stop his false teachings. Bishop Alexander even removed Arius from the priesthood and from communion with other Christians (called “excommunication”), but Arius just fled to Jerusalem and continued teaching that Jesus was only a man and not God. Even the Emperor Constantine heard of this great disagreement in the Christian Church and was upset by the arguments. So Constantine decided to hold a council of all the bishops. Athanasius and Arius would both attend and defend their beliefs. Athanasius won! Athanasius was only 25 years old when Bishop Alexander brought him as a deacon to the council, but none could defend their heresy against his logical arguments and eloquence. And, to this day, orthodoxy has no better defense than the writings of Athanasius.

      Athanasius became Bishop of Alexandria in 328 AD. But Arius was still alive and even the Emperor allowed Arius to keep teaching. Then he spread rumors that Athanasius had murdered a man. Athanasius went to Constantinople as a prisoner, but he showed them alive the man he was supposed to have killed! Even so, Athanasius was sent into exile – a prisoner in France for many years. When he came home to Alexandria, he again became Bishop. But, when a new Emperor arose who believed with Arius, Athanasius had to escape to Rome. He would try over and over to go back to Alexandria, only to have to flee – finally to the desert. Depending on the whim of the Emperor, some of whom (descendants of Constantine) were Arians, Athanasius would be exiled and return 5 times! But he never stopped writing about his beloved Jesus. Finally, as an old man, he was able to go home to Alexandria as its beloved bishop. Athanasius died in 373 AD.


Discussion: Athanasius is called “The Great” by the Church. Why? He defended Jesus against Arianism for many years. His was the major role in that conflict; he suffered exile over and over for his faith. We, now, centuries later, cannot easily picture the struggle; we are firmly established in Orthodox doctrine. But the entire Christian faith could have been destroyed if Arius had won. Think a bit about how important it is for Christians to know that Jesus is God. Have the students talk about superman (or spider man, batman, etc.) What are they like? What powers do they have? Are they God? What is different about God? Yes, Jesus was powerful and could walk on water, but His birth, death, and resurrection mean nothing if He was just another superhero! Athanasius would argue that only Jesus the God-man could have died for our sins; only if He were truly God and truly man would the crucifixion have meant anything at all. If Jesus, as the Arians taught, were only a creature, then Christianity would be only idolatry. As WB Bolmer states in his history of the western church, “No wonder that society was stirred to its depths when Christians were coolly told that He whom they had worshiped, upon whose divine power they had been taught to lean, to whom they looked up with a fervid and reverential love strong enough to carry them with songs of triumph through devouring flames, was no more of a God in actuality than any one of the hundreds whom they had hurled down from their marble pedestals.”

The Council Itself

Constantine decided to hold a council of all the bishops. With imperial mandate and travel assistance, came 318 bishops from all over the empire – all 5 ancient patriarchates represented (Can you name them? Alexandria, from which came both Athanasius and Arius as well as Bishop Alexander, Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Constantinople). Adding priests and deacons, about 2000 attended. Almost all of them had suffered under the persecutions of Rome, all but 15 of the 318 bishops – some scarred from the lash, some missing eyes or arms. From far-away Spain came Hosius, the ancient bishop of Cordova, 100 years old, to sit at the emperor’s left hand. This council was held at Nicea in Asia Minor near Constantinople in 325 AD. Constantine himself was the presiding judge. Athanasius, still a young deacon, spoke to the bishops about the dangers of this new belief that Arius was spreading. Arius also spoke. Even Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna was present to defend true Orthodoxy along with Athanasius. The Council decided against Arius and wrote a creed, or statement of belief, that says, “Jesus Christ…being of one essence with the Father” to end the disagreement. In Greek, the word “homoousion” ( of the same essence or substance) and not “homoiousion” (of similar substance) – the difference of a single “I” or iota.


            In addition, the Council decided that Pascha would be celebrated according to the following formula:

  1. After the Vernal Equinox.
  2. After the first full moon.
  3. The first Sunday after the Jewish Passover. (This requirement has been rejected by the Roman Catholic and Protestant Chuches, leading to the difference in celebration dates today.)


The Creed

Work on the creed. The Creed is a magnificent document. If there is time, take it apart with the class, line by line, and examine its beauty. Even to this day, it is used by the Church to distinguish orthodox (true) belief from heresy. Can the students define these two important words? Today, it is unpopular to believe in truth; whatever a person feels is fine. But, the early Church understood that truth exists and must be carefully guarded. Some groups today use the word Christian or Christ but deny the creed; we know they are not truly Christian. For example, the Christian Scientists, following the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, do not believe that Jesus was truly God nor in the Trinity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in only God the Father – Jesus was a “superman”. (And you thought Arianism was gone for good?) And the Mormons (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, founded by Joseph Smith) do not believe in the Trinity. All fail the test of the Creed, written by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD! Ask the students, if someone asked you to define your faith as a Christian, what would you answer? The Nicene Creed gives a full and adequate answer, elegant and simple.

The Nicene Creed

The first Ecumenical Council in Nicea adopted this creed, known throughout history as the Nicene Creed:

 We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end.

There developed over time disagreements about the nature of the Holy Spirit. The following definition of the Council in Constantinople in 381, which has come to be known as the second ecumenical council was added to the Nicene statement:

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Play a learning game: Creed Bounce. Have a beach ball ready. Sit or stand in a circle on the

floor. Begin with the first few words of the Creed. Bounce the ball to a student who continues for another line. He bounces the ball to another student… Do the Creed 2-3 times thru.


Primstav: Add St, Athanasius the Great on January 18, and St. Nicholas on December 6. How will they be symbolized?

Close with Prayer.