History of the Catholic Church – The First Council of Nicaea (Story Series Ep3)
Homoousion or Homoiousion?
First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325 AD) – Part 1
“…God from God. Light from Light. True God from True God. Begotten, not made. Consubstantial with the Father…”
Did you try pronouncing those Greek terms? Unless you’re Greek and, happily, even if you’re not, you must have noticed they sound alike. But although the tire of a moving car and the tire that makes you jump in for a good night rest sounds alike, homoousion (the same substance) in your creed makes you Catholic while homoiousion (similar substance) makes you a heretic – Arian.
I am sorry I made you try to pronounce them again. We’d find out why when we arrive Iznik. Iznik? Yes, the town on the east end of the Lake Iznik in Turkey. Roads now run through the fortified walls of this ancient city. Now reduced to less than 2000 in population, Iznik, formerly Nicaea, was host to at least 2000 clergy men from all parts of Asia under Roman rule.
See! There’s a bishop just beside you, with his mitre encircling his aged head, white all through with golden lines running on the edges. His regal robes flow to the ground as though to sweep off sin as he walks along. He supports his not so firm movement with his shepherd’s staff, brown, curved at the handle and sturdy as it goes. He is not alone, there are some other clerics with him and servants with his baggage. The Lake of Nicaea, from which you alighted is replete with ships carrying an array of bishops, their mitres from afar glitter in the clearness of the sea as so many stars in the night sky.
They are all headed for the cathedral in Nicaea to answer the summons of Emperor Constantine. Constantine, still undergoing catechism for Baptism under Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia in the imperial palace there and later under Hosius, Bishop of Cordova.
The emperor was still in the euphoria of his recent defeat over Licinius, emperor of the East when news of the many troubles plaguing the Church was brought to his notice. First of a certain Arius, an archdeacon, who had become infamous for contradicting his bishop, Alexander in his very see of Alexandria in Egypt, and banished by his bishop had gone abroad to spread his erroneous doctrines. Some Christians in Asia Minor were celebrating Easter on the 14th day of the first month of the Jewish calendar, others, in Rome, calculated theirs such as to never coincide with the impious Jews. There was also news of a certain Bishop Meletius, who was also stirring trouble in Alexandria, ordaining bishops and conferring holy orders without the approval of the shepherd of that great see.
With the church pulled apart on three fronts, Constantine, in consultation with Pope Sylvester, Bishop of Rome, with reverent letters summons the bishops of the Catholic Churches in the East for this great Synod so as to settle these matters.
The Cathedral is not afar off, and many of the ecclesiastics had arrived already. The emperor is yet to come and we must be grateful to have come at this time. Had we arrived only twenty years earlier, we may have died in the persecutions of Diocletian, nay less than ten years and Maximin would have demanded us to sacrifice to idols or face untold horrors. We are here, in Nicaea, and as the bishops take their place from the most prominent sees, we see the survivors of these persecutions. Patamon of Heraclea, who lost one eye; Paphnutus of Thebias, who had one eye bored, and his legs cut above the knees is assisted by some other clerics; a little further, the bishop Paul of Neocaesarea with hands burnt with red-hot iron is seen taking his place. The pope is not here but has sent three legates: Hosius, and two roman priests – Vitus and Vincent. These holy men, some famed for apostolic gifts, of miracles, and prophecy, others noted for their learning, many, though ignorant of all science but the Cross of Christ, even Nicholas of Myra, noted for his generosity (he is the real santa claus).
They held daily sessions and disputed amongst themselves and some philosophers who were present. On one such day, before the arrival of the emperor, a heated disputation had ensued between a philosopher and some of the bishops. The sophist always gave subterfuges when he was shown the error of his position.
This went on until a confessor, unlearned and ignorant, spoke up:
“In the name of Jesus Christ, listen, O philosopher, to the
truth. There is one God, who created heaven and earth, who formed man of clay, and gave him a soul. He created everything visible and invisible by His Word: this Word, whom we call the Son, took pity on human sinfulness, was born of a virgin, delivered us from death by His sufferings and death, and gave us the assurance of eternal life by His resurrection. We expect Him now to be the Judge of all our actions. Dost thou believe what I say, O Philosopher?”
The philosopher, wonderfully moved, could no longer hold out, and said:
“Yes; surely it is so, and nothing is true but what thou hast said.”
The old man replied: “If thou believest thus, rise, follow me to the Lord, and receive the seal of His faith.”
The philosopher turned towards his disciples and hearers, exhorted them to embrace the faith of Christ, followed the old man, and became a member of the holy Church.
On the the day after the Ides of June, with the bishops all seated again, Emperor Constantine finally arrived. He appeared as a
messenger from God, covered with gold and precious stones, and
magnificent figure, tall and slender, and full of grace and majesty. To this majesty he united great modesty and devout humility, so that he kept his eyes reverently bent upon the ground, and only sat down upon the golden seat which had been prepared for him when the bishops gave him the signal to do so. As soon as he had taken his place, all the bishops took theirs.
Hosius (or was it Alexander?) sitting at the right of the emperor gave a welcome address, thanking God for his safe arrival. As he returned to his sit, the emperor, in a gentle voice, began his address, in the Latin tongue:
“My greatest desire, my friends, was to see you assembled…I consider disunion in the Church an evil more terrible and more grievous than any kind of war…Do not hesitate, ye servants of God; banish all causes of dissension … and cause me, your fellow-servant, an infinite joy.”
His attendant translated into Greek the words of the emperor for the many bishops who conversed only in that tongue.
The disputations commenced immediately afterwards. First Arius, a lanky man with beards, as some serpent standing on its tail, took his position in the center, and after stealing a glance from this bishop and fixing a gaze on another, facing the emperor, began:
“My Lord, servants of God, my case is known but I shall restate the truth as I know it in brief. Before I go on, I would ask, is it possible for a son to be before he is born? I answer No, and this clear. How then can the Son of God, Begotten of the Father as we hold Him, be said to be the same as the Father? I do not here agree with the Sabellians who call Him Son-Father, confusing the persons. I find my stance clearly recorded by Holy Writ in the book of Proverbs, for it is there written:
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made anything from the beginning. I was set up from eternity and of old —”
“Fables! Wresting the Scriptures to suit his fables”, cried one of the bishops.
Arius, after a brief silence, was about to continue, when an archdeacon seated behind his bishop, was vested with powers to speak up as he moved towards the center. It is the famed Athanasius, as immortal as his name implies. He was already enraged, but collecting himself, cut Arius with his question:
“Can you, Arius, tell me the difference between the sun and its brilliance? Are both of the same light or no?”
Arius was skilled in logic, and Athanasius was an eminent logician as well. The back and forth went on and into deep theological issues. A certain confessor, ignorant and unlettered, careless of these movements from point to sub-point, holding firm to what his Bishop taught him, kept repeating as he dozed in and out of sleep:
“Jesus is the Christ, Son of God and God Himself, Lord over all. Jesus is the Christ, Son of God, … Lord over all. Jesus…, Lord over all. …Lord…all”
Athanasius was the chief rival of Arius, and both did battle for days on end. At long last, after Eusebius of Caesarea drew up a creed which he presented to the council as symbol of the Apostolic Faith, and after further deliberations, struggles and scrutiny, a creed, forming the bulk of that which we call Nicene, was drawn up and presented to the council. The Emperor threatened exile to those who failed to subscribe the creed. Only five bishops opposed the creed making mockery of the very terms used in composing it. Three of these five later deceitfully signed and the two others – Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais – who did not sign were exiled after the council. Those deceitful three – Eusebius of Nicomedia (who was catechizing the emperor and had deceived him about the Arian heresy), Theognis of Nicaea and Maris of Chalcedon, were later discovered (went on to accept Arians in their congregations) and exiled as well. Of course, Arius and his followers enjoyed a similar fate.
The creed and the anathema appended to it by the Nicene Bishops is as follows:
“We believe in one GOD, the Father Almighty, Creator of all things
visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of GOD, only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father, GOD of GOD, light, of light, very GOD of very GOD, begotten, not made, being of the same substance with the Father, by whom all things were made in heaven and in earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate, was made man, suffered, rose again the third day, ascended into the heavens, and He will come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.
Those who say, There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten, and He was made of nothing (He was created), or who say that He is of another hypostasis, or of another substance (than the Father), or that the Son of God is created, that He is mutable, or subject to change, the Catholic Church anathematizes.”
Arius and his followers continued to spread their errors in exile and we would still meet the heresy centuries into time coming back to persecute the church. Some emperors after Constantine were Arians and martyred many Catholics. The Church here met to declare what was Catholic and what was not. Before the council, it was a matter of debate whether or whether not the Son of God was truly God, afterward, anyone who did so much as raise the matter for debate, was simply not Catholic, a heretic, anathematized by the Church. The Faith is something revealed by God, more unchanging than the facts that grass will always be grass and the sun emits light as well as heat. As it is useless to debate whether water really quenches thirst, so it is to debate an article of Faith. It is either the truth as revealed by God and handed down by the Church, or well, it is not.
In our day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses by a more incongruous argument, reduce our Lord to an angel (an archangel), that he is Son of God, but not God.
With Arius and Arianism put in its proper place the bishops will hold other sessions to settle the Easter Controversy and the problem of Meletius. We arrived here, May 20, 325, see it’s July already. Yes, agreed, we partook in the sumptuous meals provided for the bishops and their attendants. The Bishop I attached myself to is an ascetic and did not eat much, so well, I had a treat.
Let’s check out the province of Nicaea, we’d return during the week to hear what became of Easter and Meletius, in the second and third parts of this part of the series.