Did Jesus become God in 325 A.D.?


What really happened at the

Council of Nicea?

Garry D. Nation

Part 3

Decoding Nicea

The Emperor Intervenes

Soon after Arius was banned from Alexandria the controversy was flaring widely and fiercely enough to attract the attention of the emperor.  Constantine's political situation was a dependent on a unified Christianity as the peace of the churches was dependent upon him.  Not surprisingly he perceived the controversy as a political one, and considered the theological debate to be an insignificant sideshow and an unworthy war of words that had gotten out of hand.  

As kings and emperors are wont to do, he decided that governmental intervention was called for, but as a good politician he chose to use measured steps.  He first sent a letter to Alexander and Arius urging (i.e., commanding) them to put aside their belligerence, agree to disagree, and embrace one another in the name of unity.  “Had the dispute been really trifling,” observes Gwatkin, “such a letter might have had a chance of quieting it.”1

Though its significance was beyond Constantine's understanding, the issue was not trifling and his letter did not soothe the conflict.  If anything it raised the stakes.  The debate continued to intensify.

At last Constantine summoned the bishops to a synod in Nicea, hoping to see them agree on a common settlement of the Arian issue, along with several minor perplexities added to the agenda—perhaps in the hope that the little disputes would dilute the acidity and diminish the energy of the main controversy.2

Synods, essentially conferences of bishops, were nothing new.  Nicea, however, was the first to gather church leaders from all over the empire in an ecumenical council, and significantly it was not summoned at the behest of a leading bishop, not even the bishop of Rome, but of the emperor himself.  The council convened on May 20 (Socrates) or June 19 (Eusebius), 325. The vast majority of those in attendance were from the eastern churches, including the leading churches founded by apostles (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria).  Constantine the Emperor of Rome (and as yet unbaptized catechumen of the church) presiding. He was not a passive observer but an active participant, moderating the debate and sometimes interjecting commentary and admonitions.    

The Council of Nicea of 325 was not held behind closed doors, but was a public event that attracted enormous attention.  It was heavily documented by contemporaries on all sides.  If writers of fiction want to foster notions of surreptitious deliberations and conspiracies they should pick another foil.  The Council had its share of intrigue, but to seriously argue that it was a railroad job with a predetermined outcome is either ignorant or irresponsible.

The Son Was the Issue

There were a number of questions debated and resolved at Nicea, including the important but not particularly controversial issue of which Christian writings had apostolic authority and should be considered holy scripture. (But that is an essay for another day.)

The main point of discussion at Nicea, though, could be considered a refinement of the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew: “What think ye of Christ? Whose son is he?”  But the question was not whether Jesus is the Son of God (as certain novelists have proposed). All Christians called him the Son of God. The question was rather,  what kind of Son is he? What does it mean to call Christ the Son of God? At that point there were two competing answers: Alexander's and Arius's.  

Alexander's answer was that Jesus Christ is called the Son of God because he possesses a truly divine nature as one with the Father and equal with the Father.  The Arians did not deny the Sonship or even the divinity of Jesus, but asserted that sonship means not equality but subordination, not merely of role, but of substance.  Jesus is indeed the Son of God and of a divine nature, they averred, but not on the same level with the Father.  Essentially they were asserting that Christ is a lesser deity.

Between these two factions and their well-defined, highly articulated positions, there was the larger body of bishops representing the larger mass of Christians who did not fully understand what was at stake, who were mostly interested in preserving the status quo and the still new Pax Romana between church and state, and just wished the whole quarrel would go away. Their creedal statements were compounds of terms and phrases mined from New Testament scriptures all acknowledged (again putting the lie to the tale that Nicea invented the Bible).

Eusebius of Nicomedia inaugurated the discussion by reading a letter presenting his argument for the Arian teaching.  Perhaps surprisingly, it was decisively, vociferously rejected by the convocation—and literally torn to shreds! Afterward the Arians presented a straightforward confession of their doctrine, "which was torn on being read, and pronounced to be spurious and false. A great outcry was raised against them, and they were generally accused of having betrayed the truth."3  Clearly the churches were not willing to equivocate on the divinity of the Lord.  

At this point Eusebius of Caesarea, perhaps motivated to dissociate himself from the Arians, then came forward with his own creed, probably the baptismal confession of the church of Caesarea, one of those simple statements composed of biblically rooted phrases with none of technicalities that had caused all the trouble.  Nobody objected to this creed from either side, and it provided a template for the creed that would emerge from the council.  Still it missed the point of the gathering, which was to compose a creed that would resolve the questions raised by the Arians.  The problem, as the Alexandrians saw it, was not that the Arians did not use scripture, but that they twisted the meaning of the scriptures according to their own novel definitions.  The difficulty was arriving at a clarification of terms that would still affirm what the churches had (at least tacitly) believed for three centuries.

Agonizing discussion ensued, and various terms and definitions were weighed.  None of them were invented by the council.  All were contemporary and current to the debate.

The Anti-Arian Creed

The creed that was finally adopted, the original Nicene Creed, could descriptively be called the Anti-Arian Creed.  The focus of the confession is Christ:

The Son of God, begotten of the Father, an only-begotten one—

that is, from the essence (Gk., ousia; Lat. substantia) of the Father—

God from God, light from light, true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

one essence (Gk.,homoousios; Lat., consubstantialem) with the Father,

by whom all things were made…

who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh,

was made man, suffered, and rose again the third day…. 4

One significant term that is missing from the creed is Logos (Word), a designation of Christ from the Gospel of John which was the leading term in the Caesarean creed presented by Eusebius.  It is possible that by this omission the bishops were consciously moving away from the older Logos theology, perhaps regarding it has having been co-opted and corrupted by the Arians.  It is possible on the other hand that they simply regarded inclusion of the term Logos as non-germane to the matter at hand. We have no specific indication of any discussion of the issue one way or the other.

The key words and phrases in this creed are those that exclude Arian interpretations of doctrine.  “True God from true God” is a phrase which goes against the grain of Arianism, but it did not really enter much into the debate.  Athanasius noted that Arians were willing to rationalize it since in some sense the Son can be said to be truly divine.5

The first controversial item defines the begottenness of the Son as “from the essence (or substance) of the Father” (toutestin ek tes ousias tou patros).  This clause excludes the Arian interpretation of the begetting of the Son by the Father.  The Son is not created out of nothing, nor is his Sonship a matter either of creation or adoption, because Fatherhood and Sonship are intrinsic to the nature and essence, the ousia of God. Ibid, 235.

Ousia is not a scriptural term.  It is rather a word with rich philosophical background and is inadequately translated by the traditional “substance” (from the Latin substantia, which holds a much more materialistic connotation in our usage than it did for 4th century clerics).  “Essence” is, I think, better (and etymologically closer), but still more vague in current usage than those who applied ousia to the Father and Son surely intended it to be.  Or not.  Gwatkin gives as clear an explanation as possible of its meaning:

Now the essence of a thing is that by which it is that by which it is what we suppose it to be.  We look at it from various points of view, and ascribe to it first one quality and then another.  Its essence from any one of these successive points of view is that by which it possesses the corresponding quality.  About this unknown something we make no assertion, so that we are committed to no theory whatever.  Thus the essence of the Father as God (for this was the point of view) is that unknown and incommunicable something by which He is God.6

The implication, then, is that the Son shares “the divine essence to the full.”7

Further eliminating the Arian definitions is the qualifier, “begotten, not made.”  The Arians had equated the two ideas in regard to the Son.  The Arians did not deny that Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God, nor even that he was pre-existing before his birth in this world.  But they defined begetting as a mode of creation.  That he was begotten meant that he was created.  It presupposed a time before his existence.  The Arians accused the Alexandrians of blurring the distinction between the Son and the Father.  The Nicene formulation took care to make that distinction plain, for it specifies that the Son has his origin in and somehow derives his being from the Father.  Yet it also distinguished the Son's relation to the Father from the creature's relation to the Creator.

One Essence with the Father

The true rock of offense in the new creed, however, was the phrase “one essence (or “one substance,” the crucial word homoousios) with the Father.”  This clause, says Kelly, “completely traversed the Arian position by asserting the full deity of the Son.”8  

Just to make sure, however, that every Arian expression is circumscribed, the creed anathematizes (curses) those who use certain slogans that had been coined by Arius and were in common currency among his tribe.  “There was once when he was not” is a recurring refrain in the Arian writings,9 as well as “before he was begotten he was not” and “he was made of things that were not.”

Rejected was the doctrine that the Son is hetero-ousios, i.e. he is of a different hypostasis or essence from the Father.  Likewise banned is the doctrine that the nature of the Son is either mutable (capable of growth or decline) or peccable (able to sin), making the creed a total and decisive repudiation of Arianism at its most fundamental level.

All this may give the impression that the Alexandrian forces just steamrolled the Council.  Such is not the case.  The debate was vigorous and numerous issues settled before the new creed was accepted.  Unquestionably the emperor showed his favor to the anti-Arian side in order to see the controversy come to a quick conclusion, but that also undoubtedly meant imperial pressure on the favored group to get to a conclusion regardless of what compromises had to be made.  It was a pressure they apparently resisted, because the record shows they were able to succeed with arguments rather than political pressure.

The anti-Arian/Alexandrian party had to overcome three major objections in order to get the restrictive language into the creed.10

1. Homoousios a tainted word. In A.D. 269 the Council of Antioch that condemned the doctrines of Paul of Samosata.  Among the banned words was homoousios.  The Arian faction appealed to precedent, and on its face the argument seemed strong.

The problem was that  to many, applying the expressions “from the essence/substance” (ousias)  and “same essence” (homoousion) to God smacked of materialism and denied the spirituality of the Deity.  Compounding the problem for the Western church was that the Greek ousia was commonly translated substantia, a word that connotes material substance. The Paulinists (followers of Paul of Samosata, heretics of a previous generation) had in fact used the term homoousios that way.

The Alexandrians won the point with their argument that the issues were entirely different and that the meaning of the word had changed. No one accused Alexander and his church of teaching that God the Father had a physical nature. The Alexandrians persuaded Nicea that ousia had to do only with the “Godness” of the God who is Spirit, with no extraneous material connotation.

2. Slippery slope.  Many feared homoousios was a slippery slope toward Sabellianism—the merging of the Persons of the Trinity into mere modes of being of the one God, thereby losing the distinctiveness of Jesus Christ in his incarnation as the Son of God.  It was not an unfounded fear.  It's not a great step from saying the Son is the “same essence” as the Father to saying that he is the same as the Father.  Marcellus of Ancyra was a prominent preacher who did tend toward that heresy.  

This was a blind spot for the Alexandrian party, who saw in homoousios the best (if not the only) word whose use would directly repudiate Arianism.  It needed a balance, and as the conference proceeded the creed acquired the crucial phrase “begotten…from the essence of the Father” (ek ten ousias tou Patros).  The preposition ek means “out from,” indicating procession from a source—thus indicating a distinction between Father and Son.  It's a subtle point, but the whole debate hinged on grand interpretations of such subtleties.  

3. Non-scriptural terms.  Creeds had been used to encapsulate doctrines and help Christians express their common faith for generations, but always they had used the language of the New Testament.  For the first time it was being proposed to incorporate non-scriptural language into a common confession.  It's one thing to do that in theological debate, but it's another thing to bring into the liturgy.  Many, perhaps most of the conservative bishops who had no abstract problem with ousia and homoousios were reluctant to put them into a creed.  It was an innovation they were not ready for.  

In response, the Alexandrian group pointed out that every simple scriptural statement was being given a novel interpretation by the Arians.  No amount of scripture quoting would do.  The creed would have to put forth an true interpretation of doctrine.  Athanasius, who would become the champion of the Nicene theology, denied that the non-scriptural language in the creed made it unscriptural.  Those the words themselves might not be from the Bible, the doctrines and ideas they expressed certainly were.11

In the end all but a few die-hard Arian bishops signed the creed, but it is hardly the case that all were equally enthusiastic.  Eusebius of Caesarea was particularly reluctant to affix his signature until after several questions were answered which clarified—and possibly diluted—the creed.12

The Impact

The Council of Nicea was a watershed in the history of theology.  It signaled more than merely the first rejection of Arianism (which would be completed at Constantinople after more than half a century of wrangling).  What took place, says J. N. D. Kelly, was nothing less than “a profound intellectual revolution.”  He continues,

Prior to Nicea the accepted Christian doctrine of God was...of a holy Triad, of an ineffable Godhead with two subordinate and, in the last resort, disparate hypostases; but after Nicea the pressure group which pushed through the introduction of the homoousion dragged, if you will forgive the crude metaphor, these two inferior hypostases within the divine essence.  During the four or five decades following Nicea, the predominant view in the church continued to be Origenistic, pluralistic….  But once the creed of Constantinople both reaffirmed and supplemented the Nicene creed proper, there could be no future for such pluralism.13

Is it really so, then, that Jesus was elected to Deity by the Council of Nicea?  No serious analysis could conclude that.  To say so is either ignorant or dishonest.  It is true that Christian theology and worship was dramatically affected, but the effect was not so much of a change as a course correction.  The question was never whether Jesus was God or man.  It was rather whether his divinity as the Son of God was equal to that of the Father.  The unity of the divine nature was affirmed, along with the distinctiveness of the Persons of the Trinity.  What was averted was a possible slide into a two- or three-level polytheism.

Part 1 - The 'True' Story vs. the Facts

Part 2 - The Controversial Preacher Arius

Part 4 - After Nicea


1  H. M. Gwatkin, The Arian Controversy (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), 7.

2  The following discussion of the Council of Nicea is drawn from a number of sources, including Athanasius, De decretis, in Schaff and Wace, v. 4; Socrates I.8-9; Sozomen I.17-21; Eusebius of Ceasarea, Letter, in Hardy, 335-340; The First Ecumenical Council: The First Council of Nicea, A.D. 325, in Schalff and Wace, v. 14; The Seven Ecumenical Councils, Henry R. Percival, ed. 1956; T. Herbert Bindley, ed. The Oecumenical Documents of the Faith, 4th ed., rev. by F. W. Green (London: Methuen & Co., London):11-49; Gwatkin, Arian Controversy, 16-40; Gwatkin, Studies, 16-55; J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (NY: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1950), 235-242.

3  Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Council of Nicea 10.

4  This is a composite translation.  The Greek version is in Bindley, 26.  See also First Ecumenical Council, 3, and Gwatkin, Arian Controversy, 29-30.

5  Kelly, Creeds, 238.

6  Gwatkin, Arian Controversy, 30-31.

7  Kelly, op.cit.

8  Ibid, 238.

9  See ibid, 239 n. 3 for a partial listing of passages in which this slogan is found.

10 Gwatkin, Studies, 46-49; Arian Controversy, 32-35.

11 De decretis 21, cited in Kelly, 239.

12 Eusebius, Letter.

13 Kelly, “The Nicene Creed: A Turning Point,” Scottish Journal of Theology 36 (1983): 38.  It should not be overlooked, as Maurice Wiles points out (Journal of Theological Studies 16, 1965:455f) that the homoousios formula “was not merely given formal ratification; rather it was there for the first time effectively introduced into the language of orthodox theology at all.”  The key word is “orthodox.”  A term which had always before been shunned as heretical was now embraced, albeit reluctantly, because there was not a better one to combat a more pernicious heresy.