The First Council of Nicaea lays claim to the tile of the most doctrinally important council in Christendom, ancient and modern. This medieval council focused specifically on Christology, that is, the definition of Christ’s being within the Godhead. The Council is often referred to as a mode through which the Church “combatted Arianism,” but it must be noted that the attendees of the council included bishops on both sides of the debate, those who believed Jesus is eternally divine versus those who did not. Furthermore, although the council did approve documents which irrefutably declare the full divinity of Christ, the Arian controversy continued to rage in one form or another for centuries to come. Another misconception occurs with the very title “First Ecumenical Council.” This is not the first general council (or synod) ever – not at all – Acts 15 clearly debunks that claim. In fact, the Church held many local synods for three hundred years before this Ecumenical (universal) council. That said, the council is vital to Christianity as a whole.
Constantine the Great, the very man who issued the Edict of Milan, also issued the council. Seeing the vigorous and often violent debates between those holding the Arian view on Christ and those holding what would become the Nicene view, Constantine worried the Church would crumble. In effect, the Empire of Rome would suffer the consequences of religious instability. Constantine, quite obviously, did not like the thought of this. He determined an ecumenical council would be the best solution. After the first attempt at holding a council failed due to natural disaster, the council was finally held in Nicaea on July 4th, 325 Anno Domini.
The gathering collected many intellectual giants, including Athanasius, the youngest and arguably most profound attendee; Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate; and Arius himself. Eusebius the historian was present, along with Eusebius of Caesarea, who baptized Constantine. Athanasius is of particular interest here due to his young age and because he was only a deacon at the time of the council. It speaks volumes about Athanasius’ intellect that he was able to combat the most vicious heresy of the time while being relatively inexperienced.
After long debate, the Arian position, “There was a time when the son was not,” was denied by the Nicene Creed. “[Jesus Christ is] true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.” This position clearly wiped Arianism from the Church proper, and with it, Arius himself was exiled. Arianism survived for many centuries as a heresy that plagued the Church through different times (and sparked much confusion in the filioque debate). Despite the controversies, the Nicene Creed survived to be the creed which can unite mainstream Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy to condemn the blaspheming heresies of Arianism.
Though some additions and revisions would be made at the Council of Constantinople (381) the statement of faith which the Nicene Fathers compiled remains:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father. Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost …
[But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]