THE Donatist dispute had developed the decision and established the fact that it was "the Catholic Church of Christians" in which was embodied the Christianity which was to be recognized as the imperial religion. Constantine had allied himself with the church only for political advantage. The only use he had for the church, was in a political way. Its value for this purpose lay entirely in its unity. If the church should be all broken up and divided into separate bodies, its value as a political factor would be gone.
The Catholic Church, on her part, had long asserted the necessity of unity with the bishopric, a unity in which the bishopric should be possessed of authority to prohibit, as well as power to prevent, heresy. The church had supported and aided Constantine in the overthrow of Maxentius and the conquest of Rome. She again supported and materially aided him in the overthrow of Licinius and the complete conquest of the whole empire. She had received a rich reward for her assistance in the first political move; and she now demanded her pay for services rendered in the second and final one.
The Catholic Church demanded assistance in her ambitious aim to make her power and authority absolute over all; and for Constantine's purposes it was essential that the church should be a unit. These two considerations combined to produce results both immediate and remote, that proved a curse to the time then present and to ages to follow. The immediate result was that Constantine had no sooner compassed the destruction of Licinius in A.D. 323, than he issued an edict against the Novatians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Paulians, Cataphrygians, and "all who devised and supported heresies by means of private assemblies," denouncing them and their heresies, and commanding them all to enter the Catholic Church. The edict runs as follows: --
"Victor Constantinus Maximus Augustus, to the heretics: Understand now, by this present statute, ye Novatians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Paulians, ye who are called Cataphrygians, and all ye who devise and support heresies by means of your private assemblies, with what a tissue of falsehood and vanity, with what destructive and venomous errors, your doctrines are inseparably interwoven; so that through you the healthy soul is stricken with disease,and the living becomes the prey of everlasting death. Ye haters and enemies of truth and life, in league with destruction: All your counsels are opposed to the truth, but familiar with deeds of baseness; fit subjects for the fabulous follies of the stage: and by these ye frame falsehoods, oppress the innocent, and withhold the light from them that believe. Ever trespassing under the mask of godliness, ye fill all things with defilement: ye pierce the pure and guileless conscience with deadly wounds, while ye withdraw, one may almost say, the very light of day from the eyes of men. But why should I particularize, when to speak of your criminality as it deserves, demands more time and leisure than I can give? For so long and unmeasured is the catalogue of your offenses, so hateful and altogether atrocious are they, that a single day would not suffice to recount them all. And indeed it is well to turn one's ears and eyes from such a subject, lest by a description of each particular evil, the pure sincerity and freshness of one's own faith be impaired. Why then do I still bear with such abounding evil; especially since this protracted clemency is the cause that some who were sound are become tainted with this pestilent disease? Why not at once strike, as it were, at the root of so great a mischief by a public manifestation of displeasure?
"Forasmuch, then, as it is no longer possible to bear with your pernicious errors, we give warning by this present statute that none of you henceforth presume to assemble yourselves together. We have directed, accordingly, that you be deprived of all the houses in which you are accustomed to hold your assemblies: and our care in this respect extends so far as to forbid the holding of your superstitious and senseless meetings, not in public merely, but in any private house or place whatsoever. Let those of you, therefore, who are desirous of embracing the true and pure religion, take the far better course of entering the Catholic Church, and uniting with it in holy fellowship, whereby you will be enabled to arrive at the knowledge of the truth. In any case, the delusions of your perverted understandings must entirely cease to mingle with and mar the felicity of our present times; I mean the impious and wretched doublemindedness of heretics and schismatics. For it is an object worthy of that prosperity which we enjoy through the favor of God, to endeavor to bring back those who in time past were living in the hope of future blessing, from all irregularity and error, to the right path, from darkness to light, from vanity to truth, from death to salvation. And in order that this remedy may be applied with effectual power, we have commanded (as before said), that you be positively deprived of every gathering point for your superstitious meetings; I mean all the houses of prayer (if such be worthy of the name) which belong to heretics, and that these be made over without delay to the Catholic Church; that any other places be confiscated to the public service, and no facility whatever be left for any future gathering; in order that from this day forward none of your unlawful assemblies may presume to appear in any public or private place. Let this edict be made public."1
Some of the penal regulations of this edict "were copied from the edicts of Diocletian; and this method of conversion was applauded by the same bishops who had felt the hand of oppression, and had pleaded for the rights of humanity." -- Gibbon. 2
The Donatist dispute resulted in the establishment of the Catholic Church. Yet that dispute involved no question of doctrine, but of discipline only. Just at this time, however, there sprang into prominence the famous Trinitarian Controversy, which involved, and under the circumstances demanded, an imperial decision as to what was the Catholic Church in point of doctrine -- what was the Catholic Church in deed and in truth, and which plunged the empire into a sea of tumult and violence that continued as long as the empire itself continued, and afflicted other nations after the empire had perished.
A certain Alexander was bishop of Alexandria. Arius was a presbyter in charge of a parish church in the same city. Alexander attempted to explain "the unity of the Holy Trinity." Arius dissented from the views set forth by Alexander. A sort of synod of the presbyters of the city was called, and the question was discussed. Both sides claimed the victory, and the controversy spread. Then Alexander convened a council of a hundred bishops, by the majority of which the views of Alexander were indorsed. Upon this, Arius was commanded to abandon his own opinions, and adopt Alexander's. Arius refused, and Alexander excommunicated him and all who held with him in opinion, of whom there were a considerable number of bishops and other clergy, and many of the people.
The partisans of Arius wrote to many bishops a statement of their views, with a request that if those views were considered correct, they would use their influence to have Alexander receive them again to communion; but if they thought the views to be wrong in any particular, they would signify it, and show them what were the correct opinions on the question. Arius for himself wrote a book entitled "Thalia," -- Songs of Joy -- a collection of songs in which he set forth his views. This expedient took well, for in the excited state of the parties, his doctrinal songs were hummed everywhere. Alexander on his part, likewise, sent circular letters to the principal bishops round about. The controversy spread everywhere, and as it spread, it deepened.
One of the chief reasons for the rapid and wide-spread interest in the controversy was that nobody could comprehend or understand the question at issue. "It was the excess of dogmatism founded upon the most abstract words in the most abstract region of human thought." -- Stanley.3 There was no dispute about the fact of there being a Trinity, it was about the nature of the Trinity. Both parties believed in precisely the same Trinity, but they differed upon the precise relationship which the Son bears to the Father. Alexander declared: --
"The Son is immutable and unchangeable, all-sufficient and perfect, like the Father, differing only in this one respect, that the Father is unbegotten. He is the exact image of his Father. Everything is found in the image which exists in its archetype; and it was this that our Lord taught when he said, `My Father is greater than I.' And accordingly we believe that the Son proceeded from the Father; for he is the reflection of the glory of the Father, and the figure of his substance. But let no one be led from this to the supposition that the Son is unbegotten, as is believed by some who are deficient in intellectual power: for to say that he was, that he has always been, and that he existed before all ages, is not to say that he is unbegotten."5
Arius said: --
"We say and believe, and have taught, and do teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way unbegotten, even in part; and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter; but that by his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time,and before ages,as perfect God, and only begotten and unchangeable,and that he existed not before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say that the Son had a beginning, but that God was without beginning. This is really the cause of our persecution, and likewise, because we say he is from nothing. And this we say, because he is neither part of God, nor of any subjacent matter."6
From these statements by the originators of the respective sides of this controversy,it appears that with the exception of a single point, the two views were identical, only being stated in different ways. The single point where the difference lay was that Alexander held that the Son was begotten of the very essence of the Father, and is therefore of the same substance with the Father, while Arius held that the Son was begotten by the Father, not from his own essence, but from nothing; but that when he was thus begotten,he was, and is, of precisely the like substance with the Father.
Whether the Son of God, therefore, is of the same substance, or only of like substance, with the Father, was the question in dispute. The controversy was carried on in Greek, and as expressed in Greek the whole question turned upon a single letter. The word which expressed Alexander's belief, is Homoousion. The word which expressed the belief of Arius, is Homoiousion. One of the words has two "i's" in it, and the other has but one; but why the word should or should not have that additional "i," neither party could ever exactly determine. Even Athanasius himself, who succeeded Alexander in the bishopric of Alexandria, and transcended him in every other quality, "has candidly confessed that whenever he forced his understanding to meditate upon the divinity of the Logos, his toilsome and unavailing efforts recoiled on themselves; that the more he thought, the less he comprehended; and the more he wrote, the less capable was he of expressing his thoughts." -- Gibbon.7
It could not possibly be otherwise, because it was an attempt of the finite to measure, to analyze, and even to dissect, the Infinite. It was an attempt to make the human superior to the divine. God is infinite. No finite mind can comprehend him as he actually is. Christ is the Word -- the expression of the thought -- of God; and none but he knows the depth of the meaning of that Word. "He had a name written that no man knew but he himself; . . . and his name is called The Word of God." Rev. xix, 12,
13. Neither the nature nor the relationship of the Father and the Son can ever be measured by the mind of man. "No man knoweth the Son but the Father, neither knoweth any man the Father save the Son and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him." Matt. xi, 27. This revelation of the Father by the Son cannot be complete in this world. It will require the eternal ages for man to understand "the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus." Eph. ii, 7. Therefore, no man's conception of God can ever be fixed as the true conception of God. God will still be infinitely beyond the broadest comprehension that the mind of man can measure. The true conception of God can be attained only through "the Spirit of revelation in the knowledge of Him." Eph. i, 17. Therefore the only thing for men to do to find out the Almighty to perfection, is, by true faith in Jesus Christ, to receive the abiding presence of this Spirit of revelation, and then quietly and joyfully wait for the eternal ages to reveal "the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God."
One who lived near the time of, and was well acquainted with, the whole matter, has well remarked that the discussion "seemed not unlike a contest in the dark; for neither party appeared to understand distinctly the grounds on which they calumniated one another. Those who objected to the word `consubstantial' [Homoousion, of the same substance], conceived that those who approved it, favored the opinion of Sabellius and Montanus; they therefore called them blasphemers, as subverters of the existence of the Son of God. And again the advocates of this term, charging their opponents with polytheism, inveighed against them as introducers of heathen superstitions. . . . In consequence of these misunderstandings, each of them wrote volumes, as if contending against adversaries: and although it was admitted on both sides that the Son of God has a distinct person and existence, and all acknowledged that there is one God in a Trinity of persons, yet, from what cause I am unable to divine, they could not agree among themselves, and therefore were never at peace." -- Socrates.8
That which puzzled Socrates need not puzzle us. Although he could not divine why they should not agree when they believed the same thing, we may very readily do so, with no fear of mistake. The difficulty was that each disputant required that all the others should not only believe what he believed, but that they should believe this precisely ashe believed it, whereas just how he believed it, he himself could not define. And that which made them so determined in this respect was that "the contest was now not merely for a superiority over a few scattered and obscure communities: it was agitated on a far vaster theater -- that of the Roman world. The proselytes whom it disputed were sovereigns. . . . It but but judging on the common principles of human nature to conclude that the grandeur of the prize supported the ambition and inflamed the passions of the contending parties; that human motives of political power and aggrandizement mingled with the more spiritual influence of the love of truth, and zeal for the purity of religion." -- Milman.9
It is but just to Arius, however, to say that he had nothing to do with the political aspect of the question. He defended his views in the field of argument, and maintained his right to think for himself. Others took up the argument with more ambitious motives,and these soon carried it far beyond the power or the guidance of Arius. The chief of these and really the leader of the Arian party in the politicotheological contest, was Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia. This Eusebius is to be distinguished always from Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who was Constantine's favorite, although both were Arians.
The controversy spread farther and farther, and raged more fiercely as it spread. "All classes took part in it, and almost all took part with equal energy. `Bishop rose against bishop, district against district, only to be compared to the Symplegades dashed against each other on a stormy day.' So violent were the discussions that they were parodied in the pagan theaters, and the emperor's statues were broken in the public squares in the conflicts which took place. The common name by which the Arians and their system were designated (and we may conclude they were not wanting in retorts), was the Maniacs, -- the Ariomaniacs, the Ariomania; and their frantic conduct on public occasions afterwards goes far to justify the appellation. Sailors, millers, and travelers sang the disputed doctrines at their occupations or on their journeys. Every corner, every alley of the city [this was said afterwards of Constantinople, but must have been still more true of Alexandria] was full of these discussions -- the streets, the market- places, the drapers, the money-changers, the victualers. Ask a man `how many oboli?' he answers by dogmatizing on generated and ungenerated being. Inquire the price of bread, and you are told, `The Son is subordinate to the Father.' Ask if the bath is ready, and you are told, `The Son arose out of nothing.'" -- Stanley.10
Constantine's golden dream of a united Christendom was again grievously disturbed. The bow of promise -- of the bishops -- which had so brilliantly irradiated all the political prospect when his alliance was formed with the church party, was rudely dissipated by the dark cloud of ecclesiastical ambition, and the angry storm of sectarian strife. He wrote a letter to Alexander and Arius, stating to them his mission of uniting the world under one head, and his anxious desire that there should be unity among all, and exhorted them to lay aside their contentions, forgive one another, use their efforts for the restoration of peace, and so give back to him his quiet days and tranquil nights. The letter is long, but it is worth giving in full, not only on account of the present question, but because it so clearly shows the views and the hopes of Constantine, as to the unity of the church; and which controlled him in his alliance with the church party.
"Victor Constantinus Maximus Augustus, to Alexander and Arius: I call that God to witness (as well I may), who is the helper of my endeavors, and the Preserver of all men, that I had a twofold reason for undertaking that duty which I have now effectually performed.
"My design then was, first, to bring the diverse judgments formed by all nations respecting the Deity to a condition, as it were, of settled uniformity; and, secondly, to restore a healthy tone to the system of the world, then suffering under the malignant power of a grievous distemper. Keeping these objects in view, I look forward to the accomplishment of the one with the secret gaze of the mental eye, while the other I endeavored to secure by the aid of military power. For I was aware that, if I should succeed in establishing, according to my hopes, a common harmony of sentiment among all the servants of God, the general course of affairs would also experience a change correspondent to the pious desires of them all.
"Finding, then, that the whole of Africa was pervaded by an intolerable spirit of madness and folly, through the influences of those whose wanton temerity had presumed to rend the religion of the people into diverse sects, I was anxious to allay the virulence of this disorder, and could discover no other remedy equal to the occasion, except in sending some of yourselves to aid in restoring mutual harmony among the disputants, after I had removed that common enemy of mankind [Licinius] who had interposed his lawless sentence for the prohibition of your holy synods.
"For since the power of divine light, and the rule of our holy religion, which have illumined the world by their sacred radiance, proceeded in the first instance, through the favor of God, from the bosom, as it were, of the East, I naturally believed that you would be the first to promote the salvation of other nations, and resolved with all energy of purpose and diligence of inquiry to seek your aid. As soon, therefore, as I had secured my decisive victory and unquestionable triumph over my enemies, my first inquiry was concerning that object which I felt to be of paramount interest and importance.
"But, O glorious providence of God! How deep a wound did not my ears only, but my very heart, receive in the report that divisions existed among yourselves more grievous still than those which continued in that country, so that you, through whose aid I had hoped to procure a remedy for the errors of others, are in a state which demands even more attention than theirs. And yet, having made a careful inquiry into the origin and foundation of these differences. I find the cause to be of a truly insignificant character,and quite unworthy of such fierce contention. Feeling myself, therefore, compelled to address you in this letter, and to appeal at the same time to your unanimity and sagacity, I call on Divine Providence to assist me in the task, while I interrupt your dissensions in the character of a minister of peace. And with reason: for if I might expect (with the help of a higher power) to be able without difficulty, by a judicious appeal to the pious feelings of those who heard me, to recall them to a better spirit, how can I refrain from promising myself a far easier and more speedy adjustment of this difference, when the cause which hinders general harmony of sentiment is intrinsically trifling and of little moment?
"I understand, then, that the occasion of your present controversy is to be traced to the following circumstances: that you, Alexander, demanded of the presbyters what opinion they severally maintained respecting a certain passage in the divine law, or rather, I should say, that you asked them something connected with an unprofitable question: and then that you, Arius, inconsiderately gave utterance to objections which ought never to have been conceived at all, or if conceived, should have been buried in profound silence. Hence it was that a dissension arose between you; the meeting of the synod was prohibited; and the holy people, rent into diverse parties, no longer preserved the unity of the one body. Now, therefore, do ye both exhibit an equal degree of forbearance, and receive the advice which your fellow-servant feels himself justly entitled to give.
"What then is this advice? It was wrong in the first instance to propose such questions as these, or to reply to them when propounded. For those points of discussion which are enjoined by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by the contentious spirit which is fostered by misused leisure, even though they may be intended merely as an intellectual exercise, ought certainly to be confined to the region of our own thoughts, and neither hastily produced in the public assemblies of the saints, nor unadvisedly intrusted to the general ear. For how very few are there able either accurately to comprehend, or adequately to explain, subjects so sublime and abstruse in their nature? Or, granting that one were fully competent for this, in how few ordinary minds will he succeed in producing conviction? Or who, again, in dealing with questions of such subtle nicety as these, can secure himself against a dangerous declension from the truth? It is incumbent, therefore, on us in these cases to be sparing of our words, lest, in case we ourselves are unable, through the feebleness of our natural faculties, to give a clear explanation of the subject before us, or, on the other hand, in case the slowness of our hearers' understandings disables them from arriving at an accurate apprehension of what we say, from one or other of these causes we reduce the people to the alternative either of blasphemy or schism.
"Let therefore both the unguarded questions and the inconsiderate answer receive your mutual forgiveness. For your difference has not arisen on any leading doctrines or precepts of the divine law, nor have you introduced any new dogma respecting the worship of God. You are in truth of one and the same judgment: you may therefore well join in that communion which is the symbol of united fellowship.
"For as long as you continue to contend about these truly insignificant questions, it is not fitting that so large a portion of God's peopleshould be under the direction of your judgment, since you are thus divided between yourselves. I believe it indeed to be not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that such should be the case. But I will appeal to your good sense by a familiar instance to illustrate my meaning: You know that philosophers, while they all adhere to the general tenets of their respective sects, are frequently at issue on some particular assertion or statement: and yet, though they may differ as to the perfection of a principle, they are recalled to harmony of sentiment by the uniting power of their common doctrines. If this be true, is it not far more reasonable that you, who are the ministers of the supreme God, should be of one mind respecting the profession of the same religion?
"But let us still more thoughtfully and with closer attention examine what I have said, and see whether it be right that, on the ground of some trifling and foolish verbal difference between ourselves,brethren should assume towards each other the attitude of enemies, and the august meeting of the synod be rent by profane disunion, because we will wrangle together on points so trivial and altogether unessential. Surely this conduct is unworthy of us, and rather characteristic of childish ignorance, than consistent with the wisdom of priests and men of sense. Let us withdraw ourselves with a good will from these temptations of the devil. Our great God and common Saviour has granted the same light to us all. Permit me, who am his servant, to bring my task to a successful issue, under the direction of his Providence, that I may be enabled through my exhortations, and diligence, and earnest admonition, to recall his people to the fellowship of one communion. For since you have, as I said, but one faith, and one sentiment respecting our religion, and since the divine commandment in all its parts enjoins on us all the duty of maintaining a spirit of concord, let not the circumstance which has led to a slight difference between you, since it affects not the general principles of truth, be allowed to prolong any division or schism among you.
"And this I say without in any way desiring to force you to entire unity of judgment in regard to this truly idle question, whatever its real nature may be. For the dignity of your synod may be preserved, and the communion of your whole body maintained unbroken, however wide a difference may exist among you as to unimportant matters. For we are not all of us like-minded on every subject, nor is there such a thing as one disposition and judgment common to all alike. As far then as regards the divine Providence, let there be one faith, and one understanding among you, one united judgment in reference to God. But as to your subtle disputations on questions of little or no significance, though you may be unable to harmonize in sentiment, such differences should be consigned to the secret custody of your own mind and thoughts. And now let the precious bonds of common affection, let faith in the truth, let the honor due to God, and the observance of his law, continue immovably established among you. Resume, then, your mutual feelings of affection and regard; permit the whole body of the people once more to unite in that embrace which should be natural to all: and do ye yourselves, having purified your souls, as it were, from every angry thought, once more return to your former fellowship. For it often happens that when a reconciliation is affected by the removal of the causes of enmity, friendship becomes even sweeter than it was before.
"Restore me then my quiet days and untroubled nights, that henceforth the joy of light undimmed by sorrow, the delight of a tranquil life, may continue to be my portion. Else must I needs mourn, with copious and constant tears, nor shall I be able to pass the residue of my days without disquietude. For while the people of God, whose fellowservant I am, are thus divided amongst themselves by an unreasonable and pernicious spirit of contention, how is it possible that I shall be able to maintain tranquillity of mind? And I will give you a proof how great my sorrow has been on this behalf. Not long since I had visited Nicomedia, and intended forthwith to proceed from that city to the East. It was while I was on the point of hastening towards you, and was already among you in thought and desire, that the news of this matter arrested my intended progress, that I might not be compelled to witness that which I felt myself scarcely able even to hear. Open then for me henceforward by your unity of judgment that road to the regions of the East which your dissensions have closed against me, and permit me speedily to see the happiness both of yourselves and of all other provinces, and to render due acknowledgment to God in the language of praise and thanksgiving for the restoration of general concord and liberty to all."11
This letter he sent by the hand of Hosius, whom he made his ambassador to reconcile the disputants. But both the letter and the mission of Hosius were in vain; and yet the more so, by the very fact that the parties were now assured that the controversy had attracted the interested attention of the imperial authority. As imperial favor, imperial patronage, and imperial power, were the chief objects of the contest; and as this effort of the emperor showed that the reward was almost within the grasp of whichever party might prove successful; the contention was deepened rather than abated.
It had already been decided that the imperial favor and patronage was for the Catholic Church. Each of these parties claimed to be the orthodox and only Catholic Church. The case of the Donatists had been referred to a council of bishops for adjudication. It was but natural that this question should be treated in the same way. But whereas the case of the Donatists affected only a very small portion of the empire, this question directly involved the whole East, and greatly concerned much of the West. More than this, the Catholic religion was now the religion of the empire. This dispute was upon the question as to what is the truth of the Catholic religion. Therefore if the question was to be settled, it must be settled for the whole empire. These considerations demanded a general council. Therefore,a general council was called, A.D. 325, which met at the city of Nice, the latter part of May or the first part of June, in that year.
The number of bishops that composed the council was three hundred and eighteen, while the number of "the presbyters and deacons, in their train, and the crowd of acolytes and other attendants, was altogether beyond computation" (Eusebius12), all of whom traveled and were entertained to and from the council, and while there, at the public expense. "They came as fast as they could run, in almost a frenzy of excitement and enthusiasm; the actual crowd must have been enough to have metamorphosed the place." And "shrill above all other voices, vehement above all other disputants, `brandishing their arguments like spears, against those who sat under the same roof and ate off the same tables as themselves,' were the combatants from Alexandria, who had brought to its present pass the question which the council was called to decide." -- Stanley.13
The emperor did not arrive at Nice for several days after the others had reached that place; but when he came, "He had no sooner taken up his quarters in the palace of Nicaea, than he found showered in upon him a number of parchment rolls, or letters, containing complaints and petitions against each other from the larger part of the assembled bishops. We cannot ascertain with certainty whether they were collected in a single day, or went on accumulating day after day. It was a poor omen for the unanimity which he had so much at heart. . . . We are expressly told both by Eusebius and Sozomen, that one motive which had drawn many to the council was the hope of settling their own private concerns, and promoting their own private interests. . . . There, too, were the pent-up grudges and quarrels of years, which now for the first time had an opportunity of making themselves heard. Never before had these remote, often obscure, ministers of a persecuted sect come within the range of imperial power. He whose presence was for the first time so close to them, bore the same authority of which the apostle had said that it was the supreme earthly distributor of justice to mankind. Still after all due allowance, it is impossible not to share in the emperor's astonishment that this should have been the first act of the first Ecumenical Assembly of the Christian Church." -- Stanley.14
The council met in a large hall in the palace of the emperor, which had been arranged for the purpose. In the center of the room on a kind of throne, was placed a copy of the gospels; at one end of the hall was placed a richly carved throne,which was to be occupied by Constantine. The day came for the formal opening of the assembly. The bishops were all assembled with their accompanying presbyters and deacons; but as it was an imperial council, it could not be opened but by the emperor himself; and they waited in silence for him to come. "At last a signal from without -- probably a torch raised by the `cursor' or avaunt-courier -- announced that the emperor was close at hand. The whole assembly rose and stood on their feet; and then for the first time set their admiring gaze on Constantine, the conqueror, the august, the great.
"He entered. His towering stature, his strong-built frame, his broad shoulders, his handsome features, were worthy of his grand position. There was a brightness in his look and mingled expression of fierceness and gentleness in his lion-like eye, which well became one who, as Augustus before him, had fancied, and perhaps still fancied, himself to be the favorite of the sun-god Apollo. The bishops were further struck by the dazzling, perhaps barbaric, magnificence of his dress. Always careful of his appearance, he was so on this occasion in an eminent degree. His long hair, false or real, was crowned with the imperial diadem of pearls. His purple or scarlet robe blazed with precious stones and gold embroidery. He was shod no doubt in the scarlet shoes then confined to emperors, now perpetuated in the pope and cardinals. Many of the bishops had probably never seen any greater functionary than a remote provincial magistrate, and gazing at his splendid figure as he passed up the hall between their ranks, remembering too what he had done for their faith and for their church, -- we may well believe that the simple and the worldly both looked upon him, as though he were an angel of God, descended straight from heaven." -- Stanley.15
He paraded thus up the whole length of the hall to where the seat of wrought gold had been set for him; then he turned, facing the assembly, and pretended to be so abashed by the presence of so much holiness, that he would not take his seat until the bishops had signalled to him to do so; then he sat down, and the others followed suit. On one side of Constantine sat Hosius, on the other, Eusebius. As soon as all had taken their seats after the entrance of Constantine, Eusebius arose and delivered an oration in honor of the emperor, closing with a hymn of thanksgiving to God, for Constantine's final victory over Licinius. Eusebius resumed his seat, and Constantine arose and delivered to the assembly the following address: --
"It has, my friends, been the object of my highest wishes, to enjoy your sacred company, and having obtained this, I confess my thankfulness to the King of all, that in addition to all my other blessings, he has granted to me this greatest of all -- I mean, to receive you all assembled together, and to see one common, harmonious opinion of all. Let, then, no envious enemy injure our happiness, and after the destruction of the impious power of the tyrants by the might of God our Saviour, let not the spirit of evil overwhelm the divine law with blasphemies; for to me far worse than any war or battle is the civil of the church of God; yes, far more painful than the wars which have raged without. As, then, by the assent and co-operation of a higher power I have gained my victories over my enemies, I thought that nothing remained but to give God thanks, and to rejoice with those who have been delivered by us. But since I learned of your divisions, contrary to all expectations, I gave the report my first consideration; and praying that this also might be healed through my assistance, I called you all together without delay. I rejoice at the mere sight of your assembly; but the moment that I shall consider the chief fulfillment of my prayers, will be when I see you all joined together in heart and soul, and determining on one peaceful harmony for all, which it should well become you who are consecrated to God, to preach to others. Do not, then, delay, my friends; do not delay, ministers of God, and good servants of our common Lord and Saviour, to remove all grounds of difference, and to wind up by laws of peace every link of controversy. Thus will you have done what is most pleasing to the God who is over all, and you will render the greatest boon to me, your fellow-servant."16
Thus the council was formally opened, and then the emperor signified to the judges of the assembly to go on with the proceedings. "From this moment the flood-gates of debate were opened wide; and from side to side recriminations and accusations were bandied to and fro, without regard to the imperial presence. He remained unmoved amid the clatter of angry voices, turning from one side of the hall to the other, giving his whole attention to the questions proposed, bringing together the violent partisans." -- Stanley.17 To end their personal spites, and turn their whole attention to the question which was to come properly before the assembly, he took from the folds of his mantle the whole bundle of their complaints and recriminations against one another, which they had submitted to him immediately upon his arrival. He laid the bundle out before the assembly bound up, and sealed with the imperial ring. Then, after stating that he had not read one of them, he ordered a brazier to be brought in, and at once burned them in the presence of the whole assembly. As they were burning, he addressed the authors of them in the following words: --
"`You have been made by God priests and rulers, to judge and decide, . . . and have even been made gods, so highly raised as you are above men; for it is written, "I have said ye are gods, and ye are all the children of the Most High;" "and God stood in the congregation of the gods, and in the midst he judges the gods." You ought really to neglect these common matters, and devote yourselves to the things of God. It is not for me to judge of what awaits the judgment of God only.' And as the libels vanished into ashes, he urged them, `Never to let the faults of men in their consecrated offices be publicly known to the scandal and temptation of the multitude.' `Nay,' he added, doubtless spreading out the folds of his imperial mantle as he spoke, `even though I were with my own eyes to see a bishop in the act of gross sin, I would throw my purple robe over him, that no one might suffer from the sight of such a crime.'"18
Then the great question that had caused the calling of the council was taken up. There were three parties in the council -- those who sided with Alexander, those who sided with Arius, and those who were non-committal, or, through hope of being mediators, held the middle ground. Arius, not being a bishop, could not hold an official seat in the council, but he had come at the express command of Constantine, and "was frequently called upon to express his opinions." Athanasius, who was more responsible for the present condition of the dispute than was Alexander himself, though only a deacon, came with his bishop Alexander. He, likewise, though not entitled to an official place in the council, played not a small part in the discussion and in bringing about the final result of the council.
The party of Alexander and Athanasius, it was soon discovered, could depend upon the majority of the council; and they determined to use this power in the formulation of such a statement of doctrine as would suit themselves first,and if it should be found impossible for the party of Arius honestly to accept it, so much the better they would be pleased.
In the discussion, some of the songs which Arius had written, were read. As soon as Alexander's party heard them, they threw up their hands in horror, and then clapped them upon their ears and shut their eyes, that they might not be defiled with the fearful heresy.
Next the draft of a creed was brought in, signed by eighteen bishops of the party of Arius; but it was not suffered to exist long enough for anybody ever to obtain a copy. Their opponents broke into a wild uproar, tore the document to pieces, and expelled Arius from the assembly.
Next, Eusebius of Caesarea, -- Constantine's panegyrist -- thought to bring the parties together by presenting a creed that had been largely in use before this dispute ever arose. He stated that this confession of faith was one which he had learned in his childhood, from the bishop of Caesarea, and one which he accepted at his baptism, and which he had taught through his whole career, both as a presbyter and as a bishop. As an additional argument, and one which he intended to be of great weight in the council, he declared that "it had been approved by the emperor, the beloved of heaven, who had already seen it." It read as follows: --
"I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things both 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, the First-born of every creature, begotten of the Father before all worlds, by whom also all things were made. Who for our salvation was made flesh, and lived amongst men, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come in glory to judge the quick and the dead. And we believe in one Holy Ghost. Believing each of them to be and to have existed, the Father, only the Father; and the Son, only the Son; and the Holy Ghost, only the Holy Ghost: as also our Lord sending forth his own disciples to preach, said, `Go and teach all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:' concerning which things we affirm that it is so, and that we so think, and that it has long so been held, and that we remain steadfast to death for this faith, anathematizing every godless heresy. That we have thought these things from our heart and soul, from the time that we have known ourselves, and that we now think and say thus in truth, we testify in the name of Almighty God, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, being able to prove even by demonstration, and to persuade you that in the past times also thus we believed and preached."19
As soon as this was read in the council, the party of Arius all signified their willingness to subscribe to it. But this did not suit the party of Alexander and Athanasius; it was rather the very thing that they did not want, for "they were determined to find some form of words which no Arian could receive." They hunted about, therefore, for some point or some word, upon which they could reject it. It will be noticed that this creed says nothing about the substance of the Son of God, while that was the very question which had brought the council together. Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, was chief of the Arians who held seats in the council. At this point a letter was brought forth. which he had formerly written, in which he had stated that "to assert the Son to be uncreated, would be to say that he was `of one substance' -- Homoousion -- with the Father, and to say that `He was of one substance' was a proposition evidently absurd."
This gave to the party of Alexander and Athanasius the very opportunity which they desired; it supplied from the opposite party the very word upon which they had all the time insisted, and one of the chiefs of that party had declared that the use of the word in that connection was evidently absurd. If they, therefore, should insist upon the use of that very word, it would certainly exclude the Arian party. "The letter produced a violent excitement. There was the very test of which they were in search; the letter was torn in pieces to mark their indignation, and the phrase which he had pledged himself to reject became the phrase which they pledged themselves to adopt." -- Stanley.20
As Constantine had approved the creed already read by Eusebius, the question of the party of Alexander now was whether he would approve it with the addition of this word, and the hopes of both parties now hung trembling upon the emperor. Hosius and his associates, having the last consultation with him, brought him over to their side. At the next meeting of the assembly, he again presented the creed of Eusebius, approved it, and called upon all to adopt it. Seeing, however, that the majority would not accept the creed of Eusebius as it was, Constantine decided to "gain the assent of the orthodox, that is, the most powerful, part of the assembly," by inserting the disputed word. "He trusted that by this insertion they might be gained, and yet that,under the pressure of fear and favor,the others might not be altogether repelled. He therefore took the course the most likely to secure this result, and professed himself the patron and also the interpreter of the new phrase."-- Stanley.21
Constantine ordered the addition of the disputed word. The party of Alexander and Athanasius, now assured of the authority of the emperor, required the addition of other phrases to the same purpose, so that when the creed was finally written out in full, it read as follows: --
"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things both visible and invisible.
"And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is to say, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, both things in heaven and things in earth; who for us men,and for our salvation, came down, and was made flesh, and was made man, suffered, and rose again on the third day , went up into the heavens, and is to come again to judge the quick and dead.
"And in the Holy Ghost.
"But those that say, `There was when he was not,' and `Before he was begotten he was not, and that he came into existence from what was not,' or who profess that the Son of God is of a different person or `substance.' or that he is created, or changeable, or variable, are anathematized by the Catholic Church."22
Thus came the original Nicene Creed. Constantine's influence carried with it many in the council, but seventeen bishops refused to subscribe to it. The emperor then commanded all to sign it under penalty of banishment. This brought to terms all of them but five. Eusebius of Caesarea, the panegyrist and one of the counselors of Constantine, took a whole day to "deliberate." In his deliberation he consulted the emperor , who so explained the term Homoousion that it could be understood as Homoiousion. He "declared that the word, as he understood it, involved no such material unity of the persons of the God-head as Eusebius feared might be deduced from it." -- Stanley.23 In this sense, therefore, Eusebius adopted the test, and subscribed to the creed.
Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nice subscribed to the body of the creed, but refused to subscribe to the curse which it pronounced upon the Arian doctrines. Sentence of banishment was pronounced; then they yielded and subscribed, yet they were removed from their bishoprics, and Catholics were put in their places. Two of the other bishops, however, -- Theonas of Marmarica in Libya, and Secundus of Ptolemais, -- absolutely refused from first to last to sign the creed, and they were banished. As for Arius, he seems to have departed from Nice soon after he was expelled from the council. Sentence of banishment was pronounced against him with the others. But as he was the chief expositor of the condemned doctrines, Constantine published against him the following edict: --
"Victor Constantine Maximus Augustus, to the bishops and people: Since Arius has imitated wicked and impious persons, it is just that he should undergo the like ignominy. Wherefore as Porphyry, that enemy of piety, for having composed licentious treatises against religion, found a suitable recompense, and such as thenceforth branded him with infamy overwhelming him with deserved reproach, his impious writings also having been destroyed; so now it seems fit both that Arius and such as hold his sentiments should be denominated Porphyrians, that they may take their appellation from those whose conduct they have imitated. And in addition to this, if any treatise composed by Arius should be discovered, let it be consigned to the flames, in order that not only his depraved doctrine may be suppressed, but also that no memorial of him may be by any means left. This therefore I decree, that if any one shall be detected in concealing a book compiled by Arius, and shall not instantly bring it forward and burn it, the penalty for this offense shall be death; for immediately after conviction the criminal shall suffer capital punishment. May God preserve you."24
"His book, `Thalia,' was burnt on the spot; and this example was so generally followed, that it became a very rare work." -- Stanley. 25 The decree banishing Arius was shortly so modified as simply to prohibit his returning to Alexandria.
When the council finally closed its labors, Constantine gave, in honor of the bishops, the grand banquet before mentioned, in which it was pretended that the kingdom of God was come, and at which he loaded them with presents.
He then exhorted them to unity and forbearance, and dismissed them to return to their respective places.
It was intended that the decision of this council, in the creed adopted, should put an end forever to all religious differences. "It is certain that the Creed of Nicaea was meant to be an end of theological controversy." -- Stanley.25 Constantine published it as the inspiration of God. In a letter to the "Catholic Church of the Alexandrians," announcing the decision of the council, he said: --
"That which has commended itself to the judgment of three hundred bishops cannot be other than the doctrine of God; seeing that the Holy Spirit dwelling in the minds of so many dignified persons has effectually enlightened them respecting the divine will. Wherefore let no one vacillate or linger, but let all with alacrity return to the undoubted path of duty."26
Another, expressing the views of the Catholic Church in this same century, ascribes absolute and irresistible infallibility to the decisions of the council. He flatly declares that even if those who composed the council had been "idiots, yet, as being illuminated by God and the grace of his Holy Spirit, they were utterly unable to err from the truth." -- Socrates.27 And Athanasius declared: --
"The word of the Lord, which was given in the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, remaineth forever." 28 Those who had formed the creed were exalted as the Fathers of Nicaea, and then to the creed was
applied the scripture, "Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set."29 From that time forth the words, "Stand by the landmark," were considered a sufficient watchword to put every Catholic on his guard against the danger of heresy. "From this period we may date the introduction of rigorous articles of belief, which required the submissive assent of the mind to every word and letter of an established creed, and which raised the slightest heresy of opinion into a more fatal offense against God, and a more odious crime in the estimation of man, than the worst moral delinquency or the most flagrant deviation from the spirit of Christianity." -- Milman.30
In the unanimity of opinion attained by the council, however, the idea of inspiration from any source other than Constantine, is a myth, and even that was a vanishing quantity, because a considerable number of those who subscribed to the creed, did so against their honest convictions, and with the settled determination to secure a revision or a reversal just as soon as it could possibly be brought about: and to bring it about they would devote every waking moment of their lives.
Yet more than this, this theory proceeds upon the assumption that religious truth and doctrine are subject to the decision of the majority, than which nothing could possibly be farther from the truth. Even though the decision of the Council of Nicaea had been absolutely, and from honest conviction, spontaneously unanimous, it never could rest with the slightest degree of obligation or authority upon any soul, who had not arrived at the same conclusion from honest conviction derived from the free exercise of his own power of thought. There is no organization, nor tribunal, on earth that has any right to decide for anybody what is the truth upon any religious question. "The head of every man is Christ." 1 Cor. xi, 3. "One is your Master, even Christ." Matt. xxiii, 8. "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. . . . So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God." Rom. xiv, 4, 12.
In the quest for truth every man is free to search, to believe, and to decide for himself alone. And his assent to any form of belief or doctrine, to be true, must spring from his own personal conviction that such is the truth. "The truth itself, forced on man otherwise than by its own inward power, becomes falsehood." -- Neander. 31 And he who suffers anything to be so forced upon him, utters a lie against himself and against God.
The realm of thought is the realm of God. Whosoever would attempt to restrict or coerce the free exercise of the thought of another, usurps the dominion of God, and exercises that of the devil. This is what Constantine did at the Council of Nice. This is what the majority of the Council of Nice itself did. In carrying out the purpose for which it was met, this is the only thing that it could do, no matter which side of the controversy should prove victorious. What Constantine and the Council of Nice did, was to open the way and set the wicked precedent for that despotism over thought, which continued for more than fourteen hundred dreary years, and which was carried to such horrible lengths when the pope succeeded to the place of Constantine as head over both Church and State.
To say that the Holy Spirit had anything whatever to do with the council either in discussing or deciding the question or in any other way, is but to argue that the Holy Spirit of God is but the subject and tool of the unholy passions of ambitious and wicked men.
1 [Page 331] Eusebius's "Life of Constantine," book iii, chaps. lxiv, lxv.
2 [Page 331] "Decline and Fall," chap. xxi, par. i.
3 [Page 332] "History of the Eastern Church," Lecture iii, par. 8.
5 [Page 333] Theodoret's "Ecclesiastical History," book i, chap. iv.
6 [Page 333] Id., chap. v.
7 [Page 334] "Decline and Fall," chap. xxi, par. 8.
8 [Page 335] "Ecclesiastical History," book i, chap. xxiii.
9 [Page 336] "History of Christianity," book iii, chap. iv, par. 5.
10 [Page 337] "History of the Eastern Church," Lecture iii, par. 10.
11 [Page 341] Eusebius's "Life of Constantine," book ii, chaps. lxv-lxxii.
12 [Page 342] Id., book iii, chap. viii.
13 [Page 342] "History of the Eastern Church," Lecture iii, par. 22.
14 [Page 343] Id., Lecture iv, par. 2,3. I take this occasion to remark that which has already become apparent, and which becomes more and more emphatic as the history proceeds, that the term "Christian" in such connection as it is here used by Stanley, is totally misapplied. This was not an assembly of the Christian Church; It was not the Christian Church that united with the State. This was an assembly of the Catholic Church; it was the Catholic Church that formed the union with the State. The history of "the church" is not the history of Christianity. The history of Christianity has not been written except by the rack, by sword, and by flame; in tears, in sufferings, and in blood, -- and in the books that shall be opened at the last day. Faithfulness to the authors whom I quote will oblige me in a few instances to copy this misapplication of the word "Christian." But the reader will need merely to note the connection to see that the word is sadly misused, and this note will be the assurance in every such case that I do not indorse the use of the word in any such connection.
15 [Page 345] Id., par.4.
16 [Page 346] Stanley, Id., par. 6.
17 [Page 346] Id., par. 9.
18 [Page 346] Id., par. 9.
19 [Page 348] Id., par. 22.
20 [Page 349] Id., par. 22.
21 [Page 349] Id., par. 28.
22 [Page 350] Id., par. 29.
23 [Page 350] Id., par. 34.
24 [Page 351] Socrates's "Ecclesiastical History," book i, chap. ix.
25 [Page 351] "History of the Eastern Church," Lecture iv, par. 39.
25 [Page 352] Id., par. 41.
26 [Page 352] Socrates's "Ecclesiastical History," book i, chap. ix.
27 [Page 352] Id.
28 [Page 352] Stanley, "History of the Eastern Church," Lecture iv, par. 41.
29 [Page 352] Id.
30 [Page 353] "History of Christianity," book iii, chap. iv, par. 1.
31 [Page 354] "History of the Christian Religion and Church," Vol. ii, Section Second, part i, div. i, par. 1.