The First Council of Nicaea, held in AD 325, was a watershed event in the history of Christianity. It was so significant, we now divide church history into ante-Nicene and post-Nicene periods. Yet many Christians have a relatively poor idea what actually went on at this ecumenical council. As a result, many other religious movements and skeptics of Christianity have been able to weave their own narrative about it, presenting this crucial event—a triumph of orthodoxy over heresy—as the moment where everything seemed to go wrong with the church.
Many New Agers, for example, assert that the Council of Nicaea removed all references to reincarnation from the Bible. Other people claim it established the papacy, or that emperor Constantine's involvement established the state-run church. Religious movements that deny the deity of Christ point to Nicaea as the point where that doctrine was first declared. Anti-Trinitarians say the same about the doctrine of the Trinity. Still others claim that the Nicene council selected the four Gospels out of all the competing "gospels" and declared them canonical—an argument that some Muslim apologists have taken up to question the Bible's authenticity.
A decade ago, Dan Brown's bestselling thriller The Da Vinci Code introduced these conspiracy theories into popular culture. He writes:
"At this gathering," Teabing said, "many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon—the date of Easter, the role of the bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus."
"I don't follow. His divinity?"
"My dear," Teabing declared, "until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet . . . a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. . . . Jesus' establishment as 'the Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea. . . .
"Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned."[i]
What really happened at Nicaea? The council was a significant event, but not the sinister gathering that Dan Brown and others imply.
In about AD 313, Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, preached a sermon in which he taught that the Son of God was co-eternal with, and of the same substance (in Greek, homoousios) as, God the Father. That is, Father and Son were two Persons, yet one Being. A presbyter in Alexander's see, Arius, countered that the Son had a finite beginning: he was the first thing the Father ever created out of nothing. "There was a time when the Son was not," Arius famously argued. Furthermore, he was of different substance than the Father (heteroousios).
A local council excommunicated Arius in 321, but the theological controversy had already spread beyond Egypt, turning Eastern Christendom into a theological battleground and threatening the unity of both the church and the Roman Empire. After a diplomatic solution failed, Constantine summoned the first ecumenical (universal) church council to settle the issue, in 325.
About 300 bishops assembled in Nicaea, near present-day Istanbul. The vast majority were from the East; only a dozen Western bishops were there. The bishop of Rome, Sylvester, was notably absent, and sent two delegates instead. Arius was there by imperial command, supported by about 20 bishops. Alexander spearheaded the small orthodox party, assisted by a young deacon named Athanasius. The majority of participants, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, represented a "middle" opinion. They agreed with Alexander that Christ was fully God, but objected to the term homoousios, believing it aided the Sabellians (an anti-Trinitarian heresy that said Father and Son were one Person and one Being). They instead proposed a compromise: the Son was homoiousios, of similar substance.
For about a month in June and July of 325, Constantine presided as both sides of the issue debated. Arius argued for his position, and Alexander for the orthodox one, helped by the theologically brilliant Athanasius. (It is said that the debates became so intense, that jolly old St. Nicholas of Myra lost his cool and slapped Arius in the face! This, too, is probably myth.) The middle group proposed a creed that had the emperor's and Arians' approval, and avoided the term homoousios. However, Alexander's party wanted to refute the Arians, not accommodate them, so they rejected it. (The difference between homoousios and homoiousios—orthodoxy and heresy—is literally one iota, a single stroke of the pen.)
In the end, the orthodox party won the middle over. They drafted a creed of their own: affirming Jesus Christ as "being of one substance [homoousion] with the Father," and declaring: "whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not . . . the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them."[ii] Despite what Dan Brown says, the vote was nowhere near close: only Arius and two bishops refused to affirm it.
The Nicene Creed was the Council of Nicaea's most important achievement. However, they also dealt with other, less controversial issues. These included the responsibilities of bishops, priests, and other clergy; how to deal with Christians who had denied the faith under persecution, but later repented; and the dating of Easter.[iii]
On the other hand, the Council did not invent any new doctrine. The early church believed in the deity of Christ, and their writings affirm it repeatedly. Rather, the bishops recognized that the doctrine was taught in Scripture, and defended it against Arius' errors. Similarly, Nicaea did not define the Trinity: that word was first used to describe the divine nature about a century earlier. Nor did they define or even discuss the canon. In AD 325, the church already agreed on a New Testament similar to the present one. The four Gospels were the earliest books recognized as divinely inspired, and were never confused with the many unorthodox "gospels" that appeared in the early centuries of the Christian era. The more offbeat claim that the Council censored the Bible's teaching on reincarnation, is an empty assertion made without any evidence whatsoever. Many ante-Nicene biblical manuscripts survive. They are virtually identical with the modern Bible. It never mentioned reincarnation at all.
The conspiracy theorists overestimate the power the Council of Nicaea had. They refuted and denounced the Arians, but didn't silence them. Arians continued to cause controversy throughout the fourth century. Two later emperors, Constantius and Valens, were Arians. Athanasius succeeded Alexander and continued to oppose them, but in 335 a synod of bishops at Tyre exonerated Arius and forced Athanasius into exile. Overall, Athanasius was deposed from the see of Alexandria five times. His perseverance in the face of overwhelming opposition inspired the saying, Athanasius contra mundum: "Athanasius against the world." The Synod of Tyre was not overturned until 381, when the Council of Constantinople again definitively denounced Arianism. It still exists today, mainly in the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Why do these myths about the Council of Nicaea persist? My guess is that unbelievers of various kinds hope to undermine Christianity by claiming its core beliefs are man-made inventions or corruptions of the original teachings of Jesus. To give an effective answer to skeptics of Christianity, we need to know what we believe and why we believe it, and also how those beliefs came to be. These attacks on the faith wither in the light of the true facts of history. An accurate understanding of church history removes a potential stumbling block to unbelief, helping to "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).
[i] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003; Anchor, 2006), 306-07.
[ii] This creed is similar, but not identical, to the familiar Nicene Creed that was actually drafted at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381.