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The Church During Nicea

  • 1 Emperor Constantine.

      The Edict of Milan issued in A.D. 313 freed the Church from persecution. It was the work of two Emperors, Constantine and Licinius who were then ruling the two parts of the vast Roman Empire, and the main influence behind it was that of Constantine. They met at Milan (North Italy) and promulgated the famous Edict. Constantine was sympathetic towards Christians. According to Eusebius, the fourth century Church historian, Constantine was aware of the fact that all the Kings who persecuted Christians met with tragic end. But he had been successful in his career as a King. In this state of mind, as Eusebius tells us, he prayed God to enlighten his mind by some marvelous sign. His prayer was granted and he saw a Cross of light in the sky with the words "by this conquer".

      Constantine did all that he could to strengthen the Church. When divisions arose he tried to unify the Church. He brought many reforms by means of legislation, which were favorable for the Christians. He declared Sunday as a holiday and a day of rest. Christian clergy were exempted from civil burdens and taxes. Constantine professed himself as a follower of Christ, but he refrained from Baptism for fear that he might sin after Baptism. He desired Christianity to be the one religion of his Empire.

      The freedom the Church thus gained was both a boon and a bane. It was a boon that the Church had remarkable growth in many ways. It was a bane that the Church had to face two dangers. First of all freedom gave rise to heresies which made internal conflicts and ultimately to a certain extent lost its authority to be a witness of Christ. Secondly it degraded the quality of Christian living. But the Fathers safeguarded the Church in two ways, the Councils and monasticism. The Fathers came together in Councils and pronounced the faith of the Church. The great monks kept up the standard of Christian living by discipline and prayer.

  • 2 Athanasius, Arius, and the Council of Nicea

      Athanasius was born in Ca. A.D. 296 of Greek parents in Alexandria. He was probably educated at the Catechetical School in his native city. When he was a boy bishop Alexander of Alexandria brought him to his house. Later the Archbishop ordained him deacon and young deacon attended the Council of Nicea (325) as Bishop Alexander’s secretary. In 328 when Alexander died he became the Archbishop of Alexandria. He showed his ability and clear grasp of Christian principles by writing at the age of twenty one, his celebrated work "The Incarnation". He throughout his life fought relentlessly against the Arian heresy. Because of his opposition to Arianism he was exiled at least four times from Alexandria. His "Life of St. Antony" is one of the classics of monastic literature. He died at Alexandria in 373 A.D.

      Arius was the presbyter of an important church in Alexandria. He was an ascetic and a good speaker. In 319 Alexander, Archbishop Alexandria came to know of his erroneous teaching about the Son God. He taught that God alone is eternal, therefore the Son cannot eternal. God alone is uncreated: so the Son is created. The essence of God is God's alone, the Son cannot be of God's essence. Since the Son is created, there was a time when the Son was not. Bishop Alexander summoned him and discussed these views in private. But that was not fruitful. So he summoned a Synod of the bishops of Egypt and Libya. About a hundred bishops met at Alexandria. They excommunicated Arius and his followers. Gradually the conflict spread to a wider circle. The controversy became a subject matter of conversation even in the streets.

      Emperor Constantine was grieved to hear the new division in the Church. He sent Bishop Hosius of Cordova (in Spain) his counselor, Bishop Alexander and Arius to get them reconciled. But his embassy failed. Constantine summoned the great Council of Nicea, the first Ecumenical or Universal Council of the Church to settle the matter.

      318 bishops came together at the Council. Only the bishops had the right to vote. But the presbyters and deacons who came with the bishops, could be present and speak in the Council. Deacon Athanasius with his bishop Alexander took the most prominent part in the discussion. The Council of Nicea was notable for its representative character. Bishops from the Churches in the East were far greater in number than those from the West. Among the participants there was John from Persia who bore the title "Metropolitan of India". Bishop Hosius of Cordova presided over the Council.

      The Fathers of the Council formed a Creed which explains well the Person of Christ. The Creed begins with "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…". It contains the famous phrase 'homoousios' which means 'of the same substance'. The Son is of the same substance (consubstantial) with the Father.

      The Arian controversy was on the scene for a few decades with all its miserable intrigues, conflicts and quarrels. What Athanasius and the Fathers fought for was not for a philosophical phrase, though it is correct to say so,' but to safeguard the mystery of Incarnation: God became man and the God incarnate is the second person of the Holy Trinity: He is true God of true God. This mystery of faith cannot be understood through sheer logic. But faith in its simplicity and devotion can discern the truth of the Incarnation.