Christian terminology defines a council as a meeting of church leaders, like bishops, that is held to consider and rule on questions of administration, doctrine, and discipline, among other matters. Following that line of thought, an ecumenical council is a general council, i.e., a meeting of bishops of the entire church.
But not every general council is considered ecumenical. According to the Roman Catholic church, a meeting is ecumenical, and its decrees are binding only if it has been called by the pope and the decrees promulgated by the pope. Such decrees hold the highest authority in the Roman Catholic Church.
Interestingly, the first ecumenical council was not called by a pope. The pope wasn’t even in attendance; the meeting was called by an unbaptized catechumen, the then emperor of the Roman empire, Constantine I. This was the First Council of Nicaea, a meeting of 4th-century bishops and church leaders held in ancient Nicaea, and here is its story.
The first ecumenical council in history
On the eastern shore of Lake Iznik in Bursa lies a small farming town of about 15,000 people. If it weren’t for the massive medieval walls surrounding the town, you would be forgiven to think that this is another ordinary town. It isn’t, though; this is ancient Nicaea, a 2300-year-old settlement that hosted two ecumenical councils, one of which was the first-ever in Christian history.
The day is July 4, the year 325 CE. Three hundred Christian deacons and bishops have assembled from all churches of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. They are meeting in a conference hall in Nicaea, where a table with an open copy of the Gospel awaits. The goal? To discuss a recent controversy that has arisen from the teachings of the bishop Arius of Alexandria.
How did we get here?
For about 300 years, Christians in the Roman Empire had endured persecution from the state. Many were executed and banished for their faith by an empire that still clung to its old ways and struggled to understand the concept of one god.
On February 27, circa 280, a baby, Flavius Valerius Constantinus, would be born to Constantinus and his wife/concubine Helena. The boy would go on to shape the course of the Roman empire and that of the entire world.
In 289 CE, Constantinus, his father, left his mother to marry the stepdaughter of the emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Maximan. Constantinus would then be elevated to the role of deputy emperor, and Constantine sent to the court of the Diocletian, the Eastern Roman emperor. There, he was educated in Latin and Greek and probably witnessed the persecution of Christians.
In 305 CE, Maximian abdicated his throne, allowing Constantine’s father to become emperor of the Western Roman Empire. He would later die in Eboracum (York) a year after a military campaign in Britain, where he fought alongside his son, Constantine. The troops declared him the emperor.
This decision pitted Constantine against Maximian’s son, Maxentius, and other Roman factions, eventually plunging the empire into civil war. Finally, in the defining battle between Constantine and Maxentius in Italy near the Tiber River, Constantine won and entered Rome as the empire of the Western Roman Empire.
Certain accounts of the emperor’s life state that before the battle, he received a vision that prompted him to accept Christ and order the painting of a Christian symbol on his soldier’s shields. He then used his emperor status to address Christianity in the empire and, in 313 CE, issued the Edict of Milan. The proclamation would legalize Christianity in the Western Roman Empire.
Eleven years later, in 324 CE, he became the sole emperor after defeating Licinius of the Eastern Roman Empire. With this victory, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. He would also found the city of Constantinople(now Istanbul) in Byzantium as he continued to porcelain his adherence to Christianity.
Meanwhile, in Alexandria, a priest called Arius was brewing ‘trouble and division’ among the Christian populace of the city.
Arius was a Christian priest born in Libya in 250 CE. He was the moral leader of the Christian community in Alexandria, a poet, and a singer. He taught by putting lessons into songs and poems, making him an interesting and popular teacher among young people, sailors, and dockworkers. He drew large crowds of congregants who found conventional preachings borings.
However, he wasn’t so popular among other priests and Alexander, the main bishop of the city. This wasn’t so much because of his teaching style or the large crowds he drew because of the message he preached.
Arius didn’t buy into the idea of the trinity that was widely accepted (and still is) back then. Instead, he integrated Neoplatonism into his teachings. This idea emphasized the absolute oneness of God as the highest perfection. This essentially meant that God was God the Father, not the son, nor the Holy Spirit.
Thus, Arius preached that while the teachings of Jesus would help people get closer to God, Jesus wasn’t one with God. Instead, he was a mere human being that was so holy that God the Father adopted him as a son, a finite being that would never be equal to the divinity of God. This theological doctrine is what is now known as Arianism.
Arianism in its early days cause great divisions among the Christians of Alexandra. Those for and against the doctrine would hold debates in the market that would often escalate into skirmishes and riots. And since it was quite popular among sailors and travelers, the belief began spreading across the Roman empire.
Road to the council
Constantine saw Christianity as the means to unify and strengthen the warring empire. And being a Christian himself, he didn’t like the constant debates and clashes between waring Christian factions. So, in 325 CE, he called a council in his summer residence in Nicaea, where he expected the bishops to agree on a creed that would restore unity to the church.
The council is held
On July 4, 325 CE, Constantine made his way to the conference hall to meet with bishops of the Church. He was dressed in his imperial brocades but, out of respect for the occasion, didn’t bring his customary train of soldiers. He made a brief address to the clergymen, during which he uttered the famous words, “Division in the church is worse than war.”
The primary matter at hand was, of course, the increasingly popular preachings of Arius of Alexandria. Was Jesus, the divine son of God? Constantine wanted the bishops to decide on the matter once and for all and end all arguments. Whatever decisions made would be enforced with the power of the emperor.
Arius and Alexander were both in attendance. However, Arius wasn’t allowed to speak because he was a mere priest. So it all went down to Alexander and his supporters, who took their time to convince the council of Arius’ dangerous heresy by presenting the priest’s songs and poetry. Only two bishops remained on Arius’s side by the time they were done.
The rest of the council then went on to write a creed, the Nicaean Creed, of all the acceptable beliefs in Christianity. Arius and the two bishops refused to sign the creed and were subsequently declared Heretics and sent into exile. However, he held on to his belief and continued to be a thorn on the church’s side until his eventual death in Constantinople.
Any other business
The First Council of Nicaea also attempted to establish a uniform date for Easter; it failed. Instead, they issued decrees on other matters, including:
- A refusal to allow the transfer of priests, deacons, and bishops from one church to another.
- Condemning the lending of money with interest by clerics.
- An agreement on the proper method of consecrating bishops.
- A confirmation of the primacy of Alexandria and Jerusalem over other sees in their respective areas.
Recognized ecumenical councils throughout history
Overall, the first seven ecumenical councils (including Nicaea) are recognized by all three major branches of Christianity.
|Ecumenical Council||Place and Date||Decision|
|First||Nicaea I, 325 AD||The first part of the creed; affirmed the divinity of the son of God.|
|Second||Constantinople I, 381 AD||The second part of the creed: affirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit|
|Third||Ephesus, 431 AD||Defined Mary as Theotokos and Christ as the Incarnate Word of God|
|Fourth||Chalcedon, 451 AD||Defined Christ as Perfect God and Perfect Man in one person|
|Fifth||Constantinople II, 553 AD||Recomfirmend the Doctrines of Christ and the Trinity|
|Sixth||Constantinople III, 680 AD||Affirmed the True Humanity of Jesus|
|Qiniset||Constantinople IV, 692 AD||Completed the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils|
|Seventh||Nicaea II, 787 AD||Affirmed icons as genuine expressions of the Christian Faith|
The ancient city of Nicaea is now Iznik, a small but beautiful town on the eastern end of a Lake. Book a tour with us for the opportunity to spend a day in the stunning location.