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To understand the Council of Nicea, you must first understand the Rule of Faith.
The study I put into these articles has resulted in a book called Decoding Nicea. Often reviewed as "interesting," it tells the story of Nicea in more detail than is possible here. Available wherever books are sold. See Amazon reviews.
It is important to understand the role tradition played in the early church. Protestants have rightly rejected the Roman Catholic view of the authority of tradition, but as is common in such cases, they lost an apostolic truth.
Tradition to the early churches was not the tradition of the Church or churches. Tradition was apostolic tradition.
The tradition that carried authority with the apostolic churches—the churches the apostles started themselves—was the traditions given to them by the apostles. Those churches believed it was their job—and, more specifically, the job of the elders—to preserve that tradition unchanged (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III:2:2).
This is Scriptural. Paul said, "Stand fast and hold to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter" (2 Thess. 2:15, see also 1 Cor. 11:2).
The Council of Nicea convened to preserve apostolic tradition, not discover new truth. The rule of faith—the tradition given by the apostles to the churches—was the basis for it.
Each of the early churches had a rule of faith. This was a set of basic doctrines learned and confessed at baptism, somewhat centered around a confession of the Trinity (Tertullian, Against Praxeas 11). In the mind of the early churches Jesus had given the first rule of faith in Matthew 28:19: " … in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Over the years, the churches had simply expanded Jesus' statement of faith as heresies had arisen. As Tertullian put it in A.D. 200, at baptism we "make a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in his Gospel" (De Corona 3).
With so many bishops together at the Council of Nicea, representing so many churches, they had to use one church's rule of faith as a framework from which to work. Caesarea's was chosen; we don't know why.
Since it would seem to be of interest, I'm going to insert that rule of faith here. It's contained in Eusebius' Life of Constantine, but I'm getting it from The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, who wrote about a century after Nicea. I made the paragraphs; it was one paragraph in the original.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible:
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God of God, Light of light, Life of life, the only-begotten Son, born before all creation, begotten of God the Father, before all ages, by whom also all things were made; who on account of our salvation became incarnate, and lived among men; and who suffered and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
We believe also in one Holy Spirit.
We believe in the existence and subsistence of each of these [persons]: that the Father is truly Father, the Son truly Son, and the Holy Spirit truly Holy Spirit; even as our Lord also, when he sent forth his disciples to preach the Gospel, said, "Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Concerning these doctrines we steadfastly maintain their truth, and avow our full confidence in them; such also have been our sentiments hitherto, and such we shall continue to hold until death and in an unshaken adherence to this faith, we anathematize every impious heresy. In the presence of God Almighty, and of our Lord Jesus Christ we testify, that thus we have believed and thought from our heart and soul, since we have possessed a right estimate of ourselves; and that we now think and speak what is perfectly in accordance with the truth. We are moreover prepared to prove to you by undeniable evidences, and to convince you that in time past we have thus believed, and so preached.
~Book I, ch. 8; brackets in original
This was the original the Council of Nicea had to work from. Eusebius testifies that everyone there was okay with it … except one. The emperor requested the insertion of the word homousios.
Here is Eusebius' short description of what happened at the Council of Nicea:
A variety of topics were introduced by each party, and much controversy was stirred up from the very commencement. The emperor listened to all with patient attention, deliberately and impartially considering whatever was advanced. He partially supported the statements which were made on either side, and gradually softened the severity of those who contentiously opposed each other. He conciliated each by his mildness and affability.
And since he addressed them in the Greek language—for he was not unacquainted with it—he was at once interesting and persuasive. He brought conviction on the minds of some and prevailed on others by entreaty. Those who spoke well he applauded.
At length he moved everyone to unanimity. He accomplished this by bringing them into similarity of judgment and conformity of opinion on all the controverted points. As a result, there was not only unity in the confession of faith, but also a general agreement as to the time for the celebration of the feast of Salvation [i.e., Passover, when Jesus died]. Moreover the doctrines which had thus the common consent, were confirmed by the signature of each individual. (The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus I:8)
As you can see, it is apparent that Constantine played a heavy and significant role in the Council of Nicea, according to Eusebius even introducing the word homoousios.
Go to Part III: Homoousios and the Council of Nicea
Or return to Part I and Contents
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