What Was the Council of Nicaea (And What Did They Decide)?

Critics, Joe Rogan among others, claim the New Testament canon was decided by the Council of Nicaea (325 AD).  Another claim is that the Council of Nicaea invented the divinity of Jesus.  It is also sometimes argued that Emperor Constantine either decided on the canon or invented the divinity of Christ. Do any of these claims have any historical foundation?  This post will examine the history of the Council of Nicaea, and Constantine’s role in it, to determine if these claims hold up to historical scrutiny.

What Were Ecumenical Councils?

Ecumenical refers to a representation from the entire body of the Church. Thus, ecumenical councils were meetings with representatives from all areas with the goal of deciding controversies or disagreements between various churches or leaders.  Council decisions were meant to be binding on all churches.  Later councils led to expulsion of those who refused to submit to the council decision.

Although not considered an official council, the first council recorded was the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15:2-35 (circa 50 AD).  Following the Jerusalem Council there were no official councils until the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  Catholics, Protestants, and Greek Orthodox all disagree on the number of councils and their authority, but all agree with the decision of Nicaea.

Why Was the Council of Nicaea Called?

In 313 AD Emperor Constantine issued a decree that Christians could freely practice their religion. This freedom made meetings of fully inclusive councils possible.  Bishops from all regions could now travel to these meetings without threat of persecution

We have very good records of what led up to the Council of Nicaea and what was discussed. Two individuals that attended, Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius, wrote accounts of the events.  There are also accounts from attendees that were relayed by later writers such as Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, and Theodoret.

As controversy grew in the early church, Constantine became concerned that it could have a negative impact on the security of his already failing empire.  In 325 AD, in an attempt to prevent disruption, Constantine requested that the bishops of all the churches meet in Nicaea to discuss their differences. He even provided stipends for each bishop and an assistant to make the trip.  The council began in May of 325. 

Although Constantine attended, according to Eusebius of Caesarea, his role was mostly limited to sponsor and sometime referee; again, in an attempt to maintain peace.  Following the decision of the council Constantine codified their decision into secular law.

What Did They Decide?

Nicaea addressed several minor issues and one major issue.  The minor issues included the proper date for Easter and re-admission of lapsed Christians.  These minor issues were decided with little controversy, although some bishops still disagreed.

But by far the biggest concern was a heresy being taught in Alexandria regarding the status of Jesus.  An Alexandrian priest named Arius was teaching that God and Jesus were of separate substance. He believed that Jesus was a created substance separate from God. He also believed that there was a “time” when Jesus wasn’t. This went against the Christian understanding of God and Jesus that had existed from the beginning.

The opposing position was led by Athanasius, one of the most learned and important theologians of the fourth-century. Arius and Athanasius both served Bishop Alexander of Alexandria; Athanasius as a senior deacon and Arius as a priest. Nicaea was the result of their differences which had resulted in Alexander removing Arius from his priestly position. 

The exact number of bishops in attendance is uncertain, between 200-350 depending on the account; however, a large portion of churches sent their bishop to the council. When the discussion turned to the divinity of Jesus there were three main supporters of Arius’ teaching: Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nice.

Constantine, who deferred to the bishops, seemed to favor the Arian view, but assented to the decision of the council.  According to Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine even suggested language to strengthen the Athanasian view. The result of the council was the Nicene Creed, asserting God and Jesus were separate persons of the same substance and uncreated.

Only five attendees refused to sign the creed: Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis, Maris of Chalcedon, Theonas of Marmarica, and Secundus of Ptolemais.  Arius was exiled by Constantine to Nicomedia. Both Eusebius and Theognis were exiled to Trier (modern Luxembourg), but later acquiesced to the creed.

Over the next few years politics entered the discussion as first Constantine, then his sons, switched from Arianism to Trinitarianism and back.  During this time Athanasius was himself exiled several times for his stand for Trinitarianism, despite being elected bishop of Alexandria. Arianism was finally defeated as orthodoxy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.

When Was the Canon Determined?

So, what about the claim that the canon was decided by the Council of Nicaea?  As we have shown, the canon was not even discussed during Nicaea.  There were later councils that did discuss the canon, however records from those councils show they were simply affirmations of accepted books.  The Church based its acceptance of books on doctrinal cohesion, broad usage, and apostolicity (connection to an apostle).

In the late second century in Against Heresies, Irenaeus affirmed that only four gospels were accepted. He quotes from all the current New Testament books with the exception of Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude.  We also have the Muratorian Fragment, a copy of an earlier manuscript from 187 AD, that mentions every New Testament as accepted except possibly Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter.

By 250 AD, Origen and other scholars had referenced all 27 books in our current New Testament as canon.   Two early codices (Sinaiticus, 325-360 AD and Vaticanus, 300-350 AD) also verify our current canon; with 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation missing from Vaticanus.

From this we can determine that, with some local variation, all our current New Testament were accepted, in use, and considered canon well before the Council of Nicaea.  As Bruce Metzger, the leading Biblical textual critic of the 21st Century, said: “the canon is a list of authoritative books, not an authoritative list of books.”  Biblical scholar F. F. Bruce pointed out that the “books did not become authoritative…because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them…as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority.”  Even atheist critic Bart Erhman concedes that Nicaea had nothing to do with the canon.

As we’ve seen, none of the claims made by critics concerning the divinity of Christ, the biblical canon, Constantine, or the Council of Nicaea have any historical merit.  They are, at best, uninformed misrepresentations of this event. At worst, an intentional attempt to mislead people from the truth of the Bible and, by extension, the truth of God’s Word.

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