The second episode Noll describes jumps ahead to the fourth century, just after the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. As Noll says, bishops from around the Mediterranean met in 325 at the behest of the emperor; although they eventually discussed and made decisions on a variety of issues, the primary “presenting problem” was the description of Jesus that was going around Alexandria from the mouth of the a preacher named Arius.
This was not the first time that gatherings of Christian leaders had taken place; in fact, we know that they had been going on for many decades. When historians talk about regional gatherings, we tend to call them “synod” (from a Greek word for “gathering”); when we talk about gatherings of leaders from all corners of the Christian world – or at least as many as can make it – we call them “councils.” Since this one was held in Nicaea, we call it the “Council of Nicaea,” and it eventually the first of many “ecumenical [worldwide] councils” of the Church.
A couple of links that might be helpful:
- Selections from Arius’s writings: http://www.fourthcentury.com/index.php/arius-thalia-intro/
- The first (325) and second (381) “versions” of the so-called “Nicene Creed” (p. 51), in parallel columns to assist in discussion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicene_Creed#Comparison_between_Creed_of_325_and_Creed_of_381
Here are some further comments on Noll’s presentation in ch. 2, with questions to consider:
- Constantine was the one who called the council (notice the guy in the crown in the image at the top of this post). It wasn’t the pope (who didn’t even go by that name yet) — it was the secular ruler. He wanted to standardize the Christian religion in the empire. How do you think people would react if an American president called major Christian leaders together — not to pray or consult, but to actually decide major matters of doctrine for American Christianity?
- Arius was extremely successful in marketing his understanding of Jesus’ relationship to God, so much so that Constantine felt the need to call the council. That tells me something about the state of Christian doctrine at that time: it was simply not the case that people said, “What, Arius? You’re crazy!” A lot of things hadn’t been “decided” yet, and so there was diversity in the various beliefs that Christians held about Jesus. Can you imagine living at a time in which we didn’t really have a lot of those “orthodox” Christian doctrines settled? Or, looking forward, what doctrines do you think we will have settled in a thousand years that we don’t right now (if Jesus hasn’t come back by then)?
- Obviously, the “content” of the council is hugely important, and the “Christological” content was captured in the text we know as the “Nicene Creed” (the painting on the left shows the “council fathers” holding the document). Do you belong to a church that recites a creed every week? Have you ever belonged to one that does so? If so, what is that like? If not, and you have visited a church that does that, how did you react? When you “state your faith” every week, is it odd, comforting, informative, or something else?
- Follow-up: What about the Christian groups that do not use creeds (for whatever reason)? Are they missing something by not having something like a creed? How might “Arian” views about Jesus flourish in a church that doesn’t use a creed (or one that does, for that matter)? What would that look like?
- As Noll says, the emperors in the mid-fourth-century sometimes supported what became the “orthodox position”; at other times they backed the “Arian view.” Given this historical state of affairs, how much confidence can we place in political leaders to protect various aspects of Christian doctrine, culture, and/or practice? What kinds of “protections” would we welcome? What would be unwelcome?
- The Nicene council is a turning point not just because it was important then, but also because it has shaped worldwide Christianity for the 1,700 years since it occurred. Basically all Christians affirm the tenets of the Nicene Creed, even if they don’t know that text. In fact, we hold a number of our Christian beliefs because we think “it says so” in the Bible… and yet sometimes the words come more from a creed than from the Bible itself. For example, we believe that God made everything, but we tend to think about “heaven” and “earth” as the two parts of “all that exists” — God’s place, and everywhere else. That’s probably partly because the creed says God is the “maker of heaven and earth.” So: Is it odd to believe something, in part because (or knowing that) some people 1,700 years ago put it into words for you? Most modern people want to think of things as their “own,” and yet Christian statements of doctrine, even though much of it is about God, are more the expressions of human beings than words directly revealed by God on stone tablets. Is that troubling or good news? Why?
Image credits for the two icons included above: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea
Suggested next click: Chapter 3