Commemorating the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea

Today on the seventh Sunday in the Paschal season, the last Sunday before the Great Feast of Pentecost, the ‘birthday’ of Christ’s Church on earth, the Orthodox Church commemorates the ‘birthday’ of the Nicene Creed and the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council held at the city of Nicaea in the year 325.

Church tradition holds that 318 bishops traveled to Nicaea where the Emperor Constantine I convened the first ecumenical council representing the whole Church. The composite Greek term katholikos, from kata holos (κατά ὅλος), from which we get the word ‘Catholic”, does not refer to the ‘universal’ jurisdiction of the Church, but the unity of its faith and doctrine. Katholikos literally means ‘according to the whole’.

Saint Constantine convened this Council in his role as the Roman Emperor, seeking to end the divisions which the Christological heresy of Arianism was causing in the life of the Church.

An extremely complex character: Honored along with his mother St. Helena as ‘equal to the apostles’ for his role in supporting and protecting the early Church, Constantine ended the period of religious persecution which his predecessors, most notably Diocletian, had waged against Christians. As Emperor of the West, in 313 he and his brother-in-law and co-emperor Licinius (Emperor of the East) issued the Edict of Milan ending the persecutions and declaring religious tolerance throughout their domains. After defeating Licinius for control of the whole empire by 324, Constantine initially spared his life due to his sister Constantia’s pleas, but in 325 he ordered his brother-in-law’s execution. He later commanded the deaths of his empress Fausta, his eldest son Crispus, and his nephew, Constantia’s son Valerius Licinius (Licinius the Younger). Baptized on his deathbed, he likely repented of these horrific sins.

By denying the eternally divine nature of Jesus Christ and His equality with God the Father, Arius falsely taught that the Savior is not consubstantial with the Father, but is a lesser, created being. Prior to the Council he had deceived Eastern bishops into supporting his heretical view of the Savior.

Among the 318 assembled bishops were many confessors who had suffered during the Roman persecutions of the Church before Constantine issued the Edict of Milan legalizing the practice of Christianity throughout his empire. Several great luminaries of the Church, including St Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, St Spyridon, Bishop of Tremithos, Alexander, the nineteenth Patriarch of Alexandria and his deacon St Athanasius (who succeeded Alexander as Patriarch) and others venerated as holy Fathers were also present.

Saint Athanasius (c. 296-373) served as the twentieth Patriarch of Alexandria and is venerated as the “Father of Orthodoxy” due to his stirring and impassioned defense of Orthodox, Catholic Christology against Arius and other heretics in the early Church. Roman Catholics venerate him as a Doctor of the Church, and he is also considered a saint in most Protestant confessions.

Church Tradition holds that St. Nicholas of Myra, in his zeal for the Orthodox faith, slapped Arius across the face in righteous anger.

This fresco depicts St Nicholas (c. 270-343) slapping Arius during the First Council of Nicaea. Nicholas served as the bishop of Myra in modern Turkey and was one of the prominent early Fathers of the Church. Venerated as a saint by the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans today, Orthodox and Catholic priests share the care for his miraculous and myrrh-streaming relics at his basilica in Bari, Salento. He is the patron saint of Russia, Greece, sailors, fishermen, and all who travel by sea. The saint served as the inspiration for the popular tales of Father Christmas and Santa Klaus.

Despite his persistent efforts to deceive and persuade the bishops to approve his teachings, the Council ultimately condemned Arius as a heretic, excommunicated him, and adapted an orthodox Symbol of Faith, the Nicene Creed, which explicitly repudiated Arius’ teaching that Christ was a created being who was not co-eternal with the Father.

“I believe. . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made. . .”

Church Tradition holds that the Emperor St. Constantine personally insisted on adding the term consubstantial to the Symbol of Faith, (Greek: homooúsios, Latin: consubstantialis) usually translated into English as “of one essence”.

This marble Roman bust depicts Constantine (272-337) as Emperor. Half a century before his rule, Emperor Diocletian (who viciously persecuted Christians throughout his reign) initiated a major political transformation by incorporating Eastern components of monarchical veneration of the person of the emperor into court ceremony in the belief that this would strengthen his power and prestige. The illusion of a Principate, the notion that the emperor ruled in conjunction with the wishes of the ancient Senate and that a ‘republic’ still existed, gave way to unparalleled displays of autocratic power, with the Emperor seen as the manifestation of the majesty of Rome itself. This is why Diocletian came to demand that Christians offer incense to his image: he came to believe that as emperor, he was divus, a god. To facilitate administration of his domains, Diocletian divided the empire into East and West, to be governed by two senior emperors with the title of ‘Augustus’ supported by two junior ‘Caesars’ or deputy emperors. This system, called the Dominate, was designed to facilitate administration and military movement throughout the Roman Empire in the wake of invasions. It perpetuated an unstable system of armies proclaiming their generals as emperor. Constantine spent his early reign fighting wars against several rival claimants to the Western throne (based in Rome) after his troops hailed him as Augustus in Roman Britannia in 306. He ultimately established the Greek port of Byzantion as his new capital, renaming it Nova Roma (New Rome, or Nea Roma in Greek) in 330.