Put it to a Vote: The Importance of the First Council of Nicea
“Let’s put it to a vote!” the emperor declared. Just 200 years earlier, not a single Christian would have imagined a Roman official uttering such a phrase. After countless years of persecution at the hands of the state, the church was now going to be a core element of its rule; a reality that would both benefit the rapid spread of the Gospel message and at times, threaten its core teachings.
One of the first challenges this new Church-state relationship encountered was inconsistency within the teaching from church to church. This problem became unavoidable when, Arius, a Bishop from Alexandria began teaching that Jesus was not fully God. Emperor Constantine did not want such contradictory teaching to undermine his recent unification of “Christendom,” and so he called together a council to clarify the true teaching regarding the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. Almost 2000 Church leaders were invited, but nobody knows how many actually showed up. This first official Roman Christian council became the new model for how the Church handled conflict.
The question at hand was quite short, “Who is Jesus Christ?” For many, the answer seemed quite simple. After all, the Scriptures ask this question constantly, and the answer they assert is obvious: Jesus was, is, and ever shall be the Son of God. But to Arius and his followers, “Son of God,” was nothing more than a title. Jesus was simply a created being, an important one certainly, but not of the same substance as the eternal God the Father. A son is not his father’s equal and a creation can never be the creator.
At first glance, this logic holds, yet there is still a substantial problem. Earthly wisdom is not the standard by which the Church tests its teaching. In fact, the straight and narrow path of true doctrine is often an attack on the logical systems of this world. Did not the apostle Paul himself say the salvation gifted in Christ Jesus would be a stumbling block?
Despite an onslaught of verses and proofs from Scripture and the earliest Church Fathers, Arius would not stand down; he had a sovereign God to defend. However, this is where Arius went wrong. The Holy God did not need defending from his messy work of incarnation. By trying to remove God from Christ, Arius wasn’t upholding the first commandment as he thought but was instead waging war against the crucifixion, and thus, humanity's only hope of salvation. The longer he argued his case, the more upset his critics became. Bishop Nicholas became so agitated he lost control - he couldn’t let Arius continue. He jumped across the table and slapped the words of heresy right out of Arius’ mouth.
In the end, the debating and fighting would not solve the issue. It must be put to a vote as the emperor decreed. The bearded men cast their lots, and the decision was clear. A vast majority of the Bishops agreed: Arius’ teachings were misguided. He misunderstood who Christ was and in doing so, jeopardized the message of the Gospel. In order to clarify for the emperor and the Church as a whole, the council formed simple and distinct phrases that represented the doctrine found in Scripture. Regarding Christ, the council clarified that Jesus Christ is true God, co-eternal with the Father, begotten not created.
The First Council of Nicea did not solve every issue in the Church, nor did it put an immediate end to false teaching. Instead, it was a historic moment for the early Church not only because it formally condemned the Arian heresy but also because it established the beginning of credal Christianity. The creeds became a standard by which church leaders and lay members alike could judge the various teachings that they heard and read. These early creeds, including the Nicene, became central to the confession of the Church and a core means for maintaining orthodox doctrine and the truths of Scripture. To this day, the creeds are an important part of Christian worship that unite believers across a spectrum of denominations with the reality of who Christ was and how his death and resurrection alone saves sinners.