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The Council of Nicea met in A.D. 325 to address the doctrines of Arius, that were spreading with the help of Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia (not to be confused with Eusebius the historian).
Arius' doctrine that the Son of God was created in the beginning, rather than begotten of God's own substance, was rejected and condemned at Nicea. The council drew up a short creed summing up Christian belief and specifically condemning Arius' belief.
The council had other, lesser issues to address as well. Their decisions were given in a series of "canons," or rules, which are not so well-known as the creed.
This simply says that no one who is a eunuch—castrated— by his own design may remain a bishop or elder. Also, in the future, no one should be appointed elder who is castrated by their own will.
Why would someone do this? In the early church, remaining a virgin your whole life was greatly honored.
It was this focus—in my opinion borrowed from Greek ascetic philosophies, not from the apostles—that would eventually lead to all bishops and elders being required to take a vow of chastity.
Basically, this requires that a person have an unspecified amount of experience before being promoted to elder or bishop.
Strangely, it adds that if he's found in "any sensual sin," then he needs to be dismissed from his office. Several suggestions have been made for what this means:
None of these are very satisfying. As far as I know, it's still debated what this means.
A "subintroducta" would be a person—in this case, female—brought into a leader's house for the purpose of discipleship.
Apparently, this practice, a common problem in the Middle Ages, was already happening in the early 4th century. This is very sad.
A Metropolitan is a bishop that is over a city and surrounding towns that have multiple congregations.
This canon says that a bishop should have the approval of all the bishops in a province. Cyprian had said this 75 years earlier (see Leadership Quotes), so this is not new.
What this covers is plain. Those excommunicated in one church should not be readmitted in another. If there's questions about the excommunication, the bishops should talk to one another. In order to facilitate that, there will be synods held twice a year in each province.
You may notice that there's an official "Lent" here. That's a very early practice. Irenaeus mentions differences in various churches over how long they fasted prior to Passover (it wasn't "Easter" until later) already in A.D. 185 (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V:24).
This is an important canon!!!
To say the least.
This says that the bishop of Alexandria has far more authority than a Metropolitan (mentioned in canon 4). He has authority over all of Egypt, Libya, and the Pentapolis. Then it says that the bishop of Rome has a similar jurisdiction.
It doesn't express the extent of that jurisdiction, but it seems certain that the pope's claim to be the leader of the Church in the whole world is contradicted by canon 6 of Nicea.
This canon is considered to have created the first official "patriarchs." To this day the bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome—the ones mentioned in this canon—are the heads of the various Orthodox churches. Others, like the bishop of Constantinople and Moscow have been added in the centuries since.
This canon adds patriarchal dignity (see comments on canon 6) to the bishop ot Jerusalem, even though he doesn't have the same wide range of authority as the metropolitans mentioned in canon 6.
The Cathari, or "the pure," are the Novatianists, not to be confused the Cathari of the late middle ages.
The Novatianists were started by an elder named Novatian around A.D. 250 in Rome. Novatian objected to the forgiveness of those who lapsed during persecution. The churches did not agree with him, so he found three bishops willing to ordain him a bishop, and he formed his own schism.
The Novatianists and Montanists were the only pre-Nicene schisms in the church except the gnostics, who cannot be called Christians.
Novatianist doctrine was exactly the same as the catholic (universal) churches except for refusing forgiveness to those who lapsed during persecution. They also would not take communion with any who were divorced and remarried as Christians. (Many would disagree with me, but it seems quite obvious that divorce and remarriage prior to becoming a Christian was ignored by the Church. See quotes by Tertullian on this page.)
This canon allows Novatianist clergy to leave the Novatianists and keep their status as elder or bishop, though the catholic bishop would have priority where there was conflict.
A Chorepiscopus is a bishop of a small congregation that is also under the supervision of a Metropolitan (see canon 4 comments). The office was invented in the late 3rd century and ceased to be used in the 9th.
The examination mentioned here is not a written test, but a questioning done by other bishops.
Some of the more heinous sins (blasphemy, bigamy, heresy, idolatry, etc.) made a person uneligible for leadership in the Church. This canon says that churches have to check for these things, and that anyone who was not examined or who was wrongly ordained must be removed from office.
The argument used for such rules came from passages like Lev. 21:17-18, where God tells Moses and Aaron that no one with a blemish can approach the altar of God.
If a person denied Christ or offered sacrifice to the Roman gods during persecution, he is never to be a church leader. If he is already ordained for some reason, he shall be deposed.
For those that are used to a purely Biblical—or even purely apostolic—Christianity, there are a lot of new words here. These all resulted from the Church having to learn how to deal with situations of church discipline.
Basically, if you denied Christ or offered sacrifice, and the persecutors didn't have to hurt you or take your property to get you to do so, there's a long path of discipline to go through before you are admitted to communion. The canon even mentions that you wouldn't deserve even that (which is true), but the Church is being merciful.
In 4th century congregations, people sat in sections. There were those admitted to communion; there were those learning the basics of the faith in preparation for baptism, called catechumens; there were hearers, who had made no decision to continue as Christians but were considering; and there were penitents, or prostrators as they are called here, who are forbidden from communion in penance for something they did.
This canon requires those who lapsed without having to be compelled to sit with the hearers for three years, the penitents for seven years, and then they could pray with the rest of the congregation but not take communion.
That may seem harsh, as it adds up to 12 years, but such people need to be grateful they're admitted to the church at all.
An oblation is a sacrifice, and the early church thought of communion as a sacrifice. They often called it the eucharist, which has a very Roman Catholic connotation nowadays, but really just means "thanksgiving," which is an awesome name.
I have had to replace my comments here because they were wrong. It had always surprised me that Constantine, who led the Council of Nicea, would allow a canon that forbids military service. Under his reign, much of the Roman empire became "Christian," at least in name. I have read estimates that up to 90% of the Roman empire was Christian by the end of Constantine's reign. How could Constantine defend his empire if 90% of his citizens refused to fight?
Apparently, Canon 12 is directed toward those that were in the army under Constantine's co-emperor Licinius. When the civil war started (or perhaps before), he required his army to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Some Christians left the army rather than sacrifice. Those who stayed and sacrificed were considered lapsed from the faith, just as all those who sacrifice under persecution are considered lapsed. Some, though, who left changed their mind and returned. Some of those even bought their way back into Licinius' army. After Licinius lost the civil war, those in his army wanted back into the Church. After all, it was the emperor who supported Christianity who won the civil war.
Canon 12 deals with this situation, not Christians joining Constantine's army.
Again, this is a retraction. (I am writing July 3, 2018.) I did not know about this until challenged (secondhand) by a Facebook acquaintance that converted to Orthodoxy (William Leary). I got the information above from the notes on Canon 12 in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. XIV, p.65 of my PDF version. You can read the notes on ccel.org.
The Viaticum is a last rite. The editors of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers say that it applies to "everything that could be conducive to the happy death of the person concerned."
This canon makes provision for a person receiving the Eucharist even if he is going through the penance mentioned in the previous canons. However, if he (or she) then recovers from his illness, he is to be once again banned from communion.
If you're a catechumen [someone learning the basics of the faith in preparation for baptism] and you deny Christ or sacrifice during a persecution, you have to go listen with the hearers for three years before you are readmitted as a catechumen.
This canon stopped bishops, elders, and deacons from moving from city to city. Such a situation had happened with Origen. He had taught while traveling in Caesarea, and the bishop of his home church, Alexandria, had objected, saying only elders can teach.
So the next time through, Caesarea ordained him as an elder. When the bishop objected to that, too (rightly, I'd assume, because this was a divisive thing to do), Origen simply remained in Caesarea as an elder there.
Obviously, this applies to Origen's situation, mentioned in the comments on the last canon. This is simply punishment decreed for those who violate canon 15.
The early church believed that lending money at interest (usury) was a sin. Getting caught doing it, according to this canon, would get you removed from church leadership.
It's important to understand the context of this. American Christians often want to apply Christian commands to the government or to banks, which are secular institutions. The early churches knew that Christians are supposed to be family. They are supposed to share their resources (see 2 Cor. 8:13-15, for example).
But what Christians are commanded is not what secular institutions are commanded. The Scriptures guide Christians into obedience to God, not into social activism. Notice that the punishment for charging interest is removal from church leadership, not being taken to court. This is a church matter, not a civil one.
Somehow, I have a hard time believing that the council called by the apostles in Acts 15 would have called itself "the holy and great Synod." That's quite a pompous beginning to a canon, fit for kings but not for church leaders.
It's important not to confuse this council with apostolic authority. The apostles committed the faith to the churches "once for all" (Jude 3).
There is a lot of ungodly comments here about the importance of certain offices. Let me assure you, God is not impressed with such things, and he does not think they are okay. Everything in this canon is sin and offensive to Christ. Jesus rebuked those who loved titles and the best seats (Matt. 23:6-11).
Okay, having said that, let me also say that this canon would have been gibberish in 1st and 2nd century churches. They would have asked, "What are you talking about? Administer the eucharist??? What does that mean?"
In the earlier churches, the eucharist was a meal. Bread was served, not administered, and people didn't take note of who "touched" it first.
The word deacon is the Greek word for servant. It is wrong that Bible translators translate diakonos as deacon in 1 Timothy and Titus, when it's translated as servant all 30 other times it's used in the New Testament.
The deacons were the servants of the churches. Thus, they were the ones who served the bread and wine of communion (Justin Martyr, First Apology 67) to those who were at the meal. It would have been normal for them to serve the bishops, elders, and everyone else.
Only late in the 3rd century does the eucharist turn into a ceremony where it's some sort of privilege to hand a small piece of bread or a wafer into the hand or mouth of the recipient. This canon is one of the signs of the terrible state the church had fallen into.
"Paulianists" is a reference to Paul of Samosata, who believed that Jesus did not pre-exist. He believed that the Logos came upon Jesus at his birth, and it was only through righteousness that Jesus achieved oneness with God. He was accused of heresy in A.D. 269 and removed from the office of bishop.
He found protection from a queen in Syria, however, and so he was able to continue teaching for a few years. His followers, obviously, still existed 60 years later.
This canon says they have to be rebaptized to be admitted to the catholic churches. Paulianist baptism was not to be accepted. If they were clergy in the Paulianist church, then they could be ordained after baptism into the catholic churches.
Deaconnesses are mentioned here, and the editors of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers mention that "the duties of the deaconess are set forth in many ancient writings."
These duties almost exclusively had to do with women, and they were especially needed at baptism for the sake of modesty. Sometimes, though, they would instruct the female catechumens as well. They were never allowed to teach men.
It is likely that they were required to take a vow of chastity.
In De Corona (ch. 3) Tertullian, around A.D. 200, says that the practice of praying while standing on Sunday and between Passover and Pentecost was a long-standing tradition. So this tradition predates Nicea by around two centuries, at least.
The reason for this is that the first day of the week and Passover were days to celebrate the resurrection. Since they were days of celebration, kneeling and fasting were forbidden. Tertullian seems to think those traditions were observed everywhere.
Obviously, they weren't, but the council is asking that those practices become universal.
There are many who believe, falsely, that the Council of Nicea instituted the observance of Sunday as the Lord's day. They did not. It's mentioned in Ignatius' Letter to the Magnesians mentions observing the Lord's day rather than the Sabbath in A.D. 110 and The Letter of Barnabas mentions the first day of the week in opposition to the Jewish Sabbath around A.D. 130 (possibly earlier).
The observance of the Lord's day and the avoidance of fasting and kneeling on the first day of the week is a very ancient tradition.
The Council of Nicea issued these twenty canons and a creed. There were also letters issued by Eusebius of Caesarea, by the council itself, and by Constantine. However, these introduce no new issues.