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     The Arian Controversy and the Nicean Council

The Arian Controversy and the Nicean Councli

1. In 324 Constantine defeated Licinius and assumed control of both eastern and western halves of the empire. He soon found that in the East had been raging a theological controvery over the nature or status of the Son/Logos and its relation to the nature of God. The controversy had begun in Alexandrai, probably in 318, when a presbyter named Arius began propounding the view that the Logos was a creature, begotten by God out of "non-existence", and thereby was subject to change, capable of vice and virtue just as human beings were. This implied, taught Arius, that there was a time when the Logo/Son did not exist. The pope of Alexandria heard Arius' views in a debate and decided that his position was erroneous, and commanded Arius to cease this teaching. Arius, however, made clear his intention to continue expressing his views, and so the controversy gradually grew until, in 320, Alexander deposed Arius and his associates through a council of about 100 Egyptian bishops. But by this time Arius had fled to palestine convinced that once outside of Egypt he would find sympathy and support for his views, which he did indeed find, most notably in Eusebius of Nicomedia, bishop of the eastern imperial city. Between them, Arius and Eusebius, through a campaign of letters, brought pressure to bear on Alexander to reinstate Arius. In ressponse Alexander began his own letter campaign claiming that Arius' denial of the divinity of the Logos/Son was blasphemous. Alexander held that the Logos/Son was eternally generated from the Father, irrespective of time, comes "from God himself" rather than from "non-existence", and is changeless and perfect. This position evoked from the Arians the accusation that Alexander was teaching two coequal Gods, two "unbegottens".

2. Constantine, in an effort to provide a peaceful and successful resolution to this debate summoned all the empires's bishops to the city of Nicea in Asia Minor for what was to become the first universal council of the church. This council, assembled in May 325, has lived in Christian tradition as the one whose confession of faith defined the very foundation of orthodoxy. The great majority of the bishops who attended wrer from the East. Of about the 200 or 300 which attended, only six were westerners. The bishops represented three schools of thought. A small number led by Eusebius of Nicomedia were thoroughgoing Arians. Another small group were fervent supporters of Alexander. The majority, the most prominent of whom was perhaps Eusebius of Caesarea, the church historian, were conservatives in the sense that they represented the pluralism and subordinationism of the eastern tradition. The emperor himself was present at the assembly and dominated its proceedings.

3. Soon after it opened, the assembly showed the direction it was going to take by rejecting a confession of faith presented by the Arians. Accordingly they took another baptismal creed and altered its text, in the process creating a new, non-liturgical type of confession. At its end they added a short series of anathemas which directly condemned the basic propositions affirmed by the Arians. In the text itself they inserted the significant expressions "true God from true God", "begotten not made," "from the substance [ousia] of the Father," and most important of all, as it turned out, "of one substance [homoousia] with the father". The general force of these expressions was plain: They excluded absolutely the idea that the Logos is a creature, they asserted that he is truly the eternally generated "Son" of God, and they insisted that he belongs to the same order of being as God.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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