NICAEA: Duane W.H. Arnold
The Emperor and the Bishops
Despite the undoubted importance and singular status of the Council of Nicaea, we have no complete set of documents to draw upon to aid in our knowledge as to exactly what took place. We know what was concluded, but the process is less certain. We are informed that minutes of some sort were kept, but these were not passed down to succeeding generations. In the absence of a surviving official record, one has to rely upon a miscellaneous sheaf of letters, direct and indirect testimony on this or that aspect of the council, summaries of oral or written recollections, reports of documents seen years following the council, and fragments from quarters both reputable and otherwise.
Although there are descriptions of the council found in Rufinus, Socrates, Sozomen, Epiphanius, and Philosotorgius, our only eyewitness testimony is found in four sources: the works of Eusebius of Caesarea, a letter of Eusebius of Nicomedia, the report of Eustathius of Antioch found in Theodoret, and the works of Athanasius. Of these four sources, the accounts of Athanasius and Eusebius of Caesarea are the lengthiest and most complete. On the surface, however, it appears as though these two writers have not even recorded the same event, so different is their approach to what they witnessed. This has, in the case of both writers, led to suspicions of deception, manipulation of the facts or, as some have claimed, that both Eusebius and Athanasius were simply putting forth propaganda to support their differing theological positions.
The apparent discrepancies between the Athanasian and the Eusebian accounts of the proceedings at the Council of Nicaea have, for example, led to diametrically opposing views concerning the role of the Emperor Constantine. These opposing views try to suggest that Constantine either (a) tried unsuccessfully to fight against the majority decision of the bishops or, on the contrary, that (b) he sought to despotically impose his will upon the activities and decisions of the Council. It seems to me, however, that the Athanasian and Eusebian accounts do not essentially disagree, but they describe precisely the same events from different points of view with a totally different emphasis and desired effect upon their readers. The method is not one of misinformation but rather that of what we might consider to be “guided narratives.”
Eusebius of Caesarea provides us with two separate accounts of the Council of Nicaea.
One is in a letter which is addressed to the faithful of his diocese and was written at the conclusion of the synodal deliberations in AD 325. It appears to have been written by Eusebius in order to explain why he had accepted the Nicene formula having previously shown a certain degree of support for the Arian position. (This same letter was later appended by Athanasius to his work De Decretis which was written about AD 350.) The second Eusebian account is found in his Life of Constantine which had been written during the last years of the church historian’s life and, according to Timothy Barnes, was left uncompleted at Eusebius’ death in AD 339/340 and had to be completed by another hand.
Eusebius in the Life of Constantine gives the following general view of the sessions of the synod:
“Numerous seats were put in rows along the walls of the house. The members went in, and all took their appropriate places. When the entire assembly was seated in due order a silence came over everyone as they waited for the arrival of the Emperor. First one, then a second and third of the imperial retinue entered. In front were not the usual soldiers and armed escort but only his trusted friends. Then at a signal everyone stood up, indicating the arrival of the emperor, and there he was at last among them like some heaven-sent messenger of God. There was a fiery gleam around him, a striking blaze of light on his purple robe, and he shone with the adorning light of gold and precious stones. Such was the finery about the man, and his soul was clearly jewelled with fear of God and with pious faith. The lowered eyes showed this, the blush of his face, the way he walked. And then there was his appearance, the height surpassing all around him. Handsome for his years, majestic in body, strong and with undiminished vigor yet with all this tempered by good manners and real gentleness, the nobility of his spirit was beyond praise. He came and stood in the middle of the front row of seats. A small golden throne was held out to him, but he did not sit down until bidden by the bishops. Following the emperor everyone did the same.”
Following this majestic and, one must say, majestically described entrance, Eusebius informs us that there was an oration addressed to Constantine by a bishop only described as one who occupied the chief place on the right of the assembly. We are unsure as to the identity of this bishop. Sozomen tells us that it was in fact Eusebius himself. Theodoret, however, insists that it was Ossius of Cordova. (We must admit that it is unlikely that Eusebius would have given the opening address in view of the fact that he had only recently been excommunicated by the earlier Synod of Antioch and, therefore, arrived at Nicaea with a somewhat tarnished name and reputation)
In the Eusebian account it was then the turn of the emperor to speak. He welcomed the bishops with an exhortation delivered in Latin which was translated immediately into Greek by an interpreter who stood by him. In Eusebius’ account the address of Constantine of the Council makes up the largest single portion of the entire narrative. Eusebius then goes on to describe in an epitomized form the proceedings of the council which followed Constantine’s address. Here, it is important for us to note the role assigned to the emperor.
“As soon as the emperor had spoken these words in the Latin tongue, which another interpreted, he gave permission to those who presided in the council to deliver their opinions. On this some began to accuse their neighbours, who defended themselves, and recriminated in their turn. In this manner numberless assertions were put forth by each party, and a violent controversy arose at the very commencement. Notwithstanding this, the emperor gave patient audience to all alike, and received every proposition with steadfast attention, and by occasionally assisting the argument of each party in tum, he gradually disposed even the most vehement disputants to a reconciliation. At the same time, by the affability of his address to all, and his use of the Greek language, with which he was not altogether unacquainted, he appeared in a truly attractive and amiable light, persuading some, convincing others by his reasonings, praising those who spoke well, and urging all to unity of sentiment, until at last he succeeded in bringing them to one mind and judgment respecting every disputed question.”
These particular extracts from the Life of Constantine give us some useful information about the circumstances and setting of the Synod at Nicaea, although one might agree with G. C. Stead’s comment that ‘no serious attempt is made to describe any of the dogmatic debates’.
Most of what Athanasius has to contribute by way of historical evidence for the Council of Nicaea can be found in three texts – De Decretis, Ad Afros, and De Synodis – while scattered information may be gleaned from Ad Episcopos Aegypti and Ad Epictetum. Yet shorter references occur in De Sententia Dionysii, Ad Dracontium, Historia Ariano, Apologia Contra Arianos, and Ad Maximum Philosophum.
In view of the great reputation of Athanasius as the champion of Nicene orthodoxy, and in light of the fact that he wrote so extensively concerning the Arians, it is surprising that he failed to write more on the subject of the Council itself. He seems to be very selective, even concerning those matters which he chooses to mention. This notwithstanding, Athanasius does, in total, provide us with much more information than does Eusebius. Because of this large amount of material we can summarize and schematize the material in Athanasius as follows:
In the first instance, Athanasius gives the problem of the dating of Easter and the Arian crisis as the official reason for the summoning of the Bishops, but he is silent about the role of Constantine both in the convocation of the assembly and in the conduct of the deliberations. He has two references to the numbers present and makes the point that more bishops gathered at Nicaea than at any of the numerous synods held in the following twenty years or so. He mentions, without elaboration, the decision of the Council concerning the Meletians, although he provides us with valuable documentation concerning the background of these Egyptian schismatics. Other background information comes in the section of De Synodis where he quotes from several letters of those whom he deemed to be supporters of Arius”. As with the other writers, Athanasius provides us with the text of the Creed”, and appends the Letter of Eusebius mentioned above. He then tells us of an incident when a text presented to the Council by a group of bishops (apparently associated with Eusebius of Nicomedia) was denounced in the assembly, causing great embarrassment to its authors. Finally, in both De Decretis and Ad Afros, Athanasius provides us with a detailed account of the adoption of the homoousios by the Council. These two single accounts of the theological arguments are four times the length of Eusebius’ total Nicene narratives.
There are, however, even more references to the Nicene Council than the list above suggests, but they occur in contexts where the line between historical statement and apologetic assertion is not easy to draw. Most of these Athanasian accounts were written some twenty years after the event – an event which, by AD 350, Athanasius came to see as the singular doctrinal and juridical reference by which he could halt what he considered to be the major heretical scourge of his day. Reflecting on the drafted Creed and the homoousian formula, however, he came to see the Council as more than just a device to use against the Arians. Instead, the Council became a criterion of orthodoxy, the inspired utterance of those ‘three hundred or so’ bishops, who by the year AD 350, had become the mystically significant 318 Fathers. As such, Nicaea was given special status by Athanasius, which marked it off from other similar synods. It was the ‘great’, the ‘ecumenical’ synod, whose creed was more than an agreed communique. Moreover, to him, the words homoousios and ek tou ousia, and the way in which they were arrived at, were not peripheral, but crucial.
Again, we also note that the accounts of Eusebius and Athanasius are strikingly different in the role which appears to be assigned to the Emperor Constantine. Athanasius says nothing whatsoever about the Emperor, whereas Eusebius makes him the decisive factor in the work of the Council. We cannot, of course, be sure that the two writers are recording exactly the same thing. Athanasius always tends to speak of the dogmatic controversy, whereas Eusebius’ remarks are more general and we are left in doubt as to whether they refer to the whole program and agenda of the assembly or to only a very select portion. Here, we must remind ourselves that the Council at Nicaea dealt not only with the particular doctrinal issues raised by the Arian crisis in Alexandria, but also concerned itself with the Meletian schism (as well as other minor factions), the dating of Easter, legislation on jurisdiction of metropolitans, clerical discipline, and repentant apostates being received again into the church – to name but a few of the other important items on the agenda. All these points may have caused disputes, especially those dealing with clerical discipline, schismatics and matters of jurisdiction. They may have, in fact, required Constantine’s intervention much more than the doctrinal issue. Eusebius, therefore, may have had some cause to place Constantine as the central figure of his narrative. Furthermore, in seeking to extrapolate an historical record from the Life of Constantine it must be kept in mind, as has often been pointed out, that this particular treatise is a eulogy. It would, therefore, seem reasonable to expect that Eusebius would emphasize, if not to say exaggerate, the part played by its hero.
To say, however, that the dogmatic issues raised at the synod held no interest for Eusebius would clearly be overstating the case. From his letter to the faithful of his diocese we can see that Eusebius places the dogmatic issues to the forefront. In this letter, the only document coming from the year of the Council itself, Eusebius explains the way in which the homoousian formula was accepted. In his narrative it is Constantine himself who introduces the homoousios into the draft creed, and it is also Constantine who explains the meaning of the phrase in such a way as to make it acceptable to the Arian and Semi-Arian or centrist’ party. All in all, however, in the hands of Constantine the homoousios dies the death of a hundred qualifications.
This letter does, however, provide us with the key to Eusebius’ mentality. Here, again, we see Constantine dominating the proceedings of the Council, not as the central figure in an eulogistic treatise, but now portrayed by Eusebius as a theologian among theologians. It might in fact be fair to say that for Eusebius the Council of Nicaea was not the ‘great and holy synod’ of bishops ‘drawn from the four comers of the earth’, but more like a sanctified Roman senate presided over by the Emperor Constantine the Great. Additionally, and perhaps more to the point, it was Constantine who provided the basis for Eusebius’ eventual subscription to the Nicene formula.
We must remember that the famed church historian was an old-fashioned biblicist and Origenist who felt uncomfortable with the ruthless rationalism of such typical Arian catch phrases as ‘he came out of nothing’, ‘once he was not’, and so on. On the other hand we may rest assured that it was certainly not through conviction that he finally signed the Creed. He paid only lip service to homoousios and never really accepted it or believed in it. He feared Sabellianism. In his letter he explains the homoousios to suit himself – something, by the way, which would be used by Athanasius at a later date. Eusebius in fact distorts the sense of the telling words in the Creed into precisely the semi-Arian equivocations that those words were called upon to make impossible. We see this in Eusebius when, in his explanation of the Creed,’From the substance of the Father’ is reduced once more to meaning simply ‘from the Father’.
Yet Eusebius must have been present at those heated and exacting dogmatic discussions described by Athanasius which led to the adoption of homoousios. The agreement of the great majority of the bishops in condemning Arius, however, appears to have had no authority whatsoever for Eusebius. On the other hand, in justifying his interpretations and actions to his faithful, he emphasizes throughout the role of Constantine. According to Eussebius, it is Constantine himself who sponsors the insertion of homoousios in the Creed. It is in Constantine’s presence that Eusebius makes all of his explanations. Finally, it is Constantine who puts into words the theory of the relationship between the Son and the Father that, not surprisingly, Eusebius seems to approve of – a theory reminiscent of the older logos endiathetos and logos prophorikos. Although Eusebius does not explicitly say that he signed the Creed at the wish of Constantine, he undoubtedly implies it. This results in a view of Eusebius that is less than flattering. In the words of J. Higgins, ‘for Eusebius the emperor was everything and the Fathers of the Council nothing’. Whether Eusebius’ letter gives a true or false narrative of the event at the synod is only one question among many. I, for one, find it difficult to believe, for instance, that the bishops would ever have accepted Eusebius’ signature to the Creed in the sense which he alleges. Certainly to say, as Eusebius does, that all those present signed the Creed in this sense, is patently untrue. Regardless of the actual discussions or decisions of the bishops, we are again and again directed towards the prominence of Constantine – a prominence assigned to him by Eusebius.
If we then view the synod of Nicaea through Eusebius’ eyes we have no difficulty in understanding why he describes it as he does. Dogmatically, Eusebius regarded the synod as a failure because it arrived at a conclusion that he could not accept. He, therefore, had little interest in recording the process by which it did so because the end product was flawed. The only success achieved to his way of thinking was that some degree of harmony was restored. All but two or three of the hierarchy finally agreed to, and signed, the Council’s declaration of faith. The great majority seems to have done so spontaneously and if we accept the accounts of Athanasius and Eustathius they needed no persuading from anyone as they had rejected the Arian formularies from the outset. Only a comparatively small group in any way shared Arius’ opinions – the most prominent among them being Eusebius himself and Eusebius of Nicomedia, and they had to be cajoled into signing. Eusebius claims friendship with Constantine, although this may be doubted as early as Nicaea, and Eusebius of Nicomedia was a close friend of Constantia, Constantine’s sister. Constantine, according to Eusebius’ letter, undertook to win them over personally. Constantine’s gracious condescension in pleading with him as ‘one friend to another’ left an indelible impression upon him. It is then small wonder that Eusebius depicts the Council of Nicaea as exclusively a triumph of the Emperor who, in his affability and mildness, stooped to deal with dissidents individually, entreating and urging them to unity, and thus bringing the Church, and the almost ten million Christians in the empire, once again to something approaching unanimity.
Athanasius’ point of view was at the opposite pole to that of Eusebius. For him the dogmatic issue always remained supreme, and the synod was an unqualified success in that it defined the relationship between God the Father and God the Son in terms which were clear, uncompromising, and unequivocal. (The Arians found fault with the Council for employing unscriptural expressions but Athanasius argues that the Fathers only came reluctantly to do so.) No doubt Constantine did from time to time intervene in this debate as a peacemaker – soothing tempers and softening the tone of the discussion. To Athanasius, however, this was quite irrelevant to the overall work of the Council and, therefore, there was no reason why he should allude to it at all. For Athanasius, when it came to settling matters of faith, the bishops were everything and the civil ruler counted for little. In his eyes the Emperor would have no authority at all over the doctrine of the Church. As a matter of fact, if we accept the views attributed to Constantine by the letter of Eusebius, we discover that they were subordinationist and, as such, seem not to have had the least influence on the outcome of the synod.
The discrepancy between the Athanasian and Eusebian narratives is now apparent. They are talking about the same event but the singular event means totally different things to each of them. Eusebius tells how surface harmony was achieved by Constantine’s personal influence over the Council. Athanasius, however, relates how the Fathers came to a dogmatic decision which safeguarded the integrity of the Church’s faith. In considering the accounts of Eusebius and Athanasius, which one, if either, we regard as a witness, a propagandist, or a deceiver is a decision which each of us is left to make based upon the imperfect written legacy of the ‘great and ecumenical’ Council of Nicaea.
Duane W.H. Arnold