Nicea and its Aftermath: A Historical Survey of the First Ecumenical Council and the Ensuing Conflicts -- By: J. David Ray

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 39:0 (NA 2007)
Article: Nicea and its Aftermath: A Historical Survey of the First Ecumenical Council and the Ensuing Conflicts
Author: J. David Ray


Nicea and its Aftermath: A Historical Survey of the First Ecumenical Council and the Ensuing Conflicts

by J. David Ray*

The First Ecumenical Council—Nicea 325

With the ascension in 312 of Constantine to the place of co-ruler of the Roman Empire came a fairly sudden and monumental shift in the life of the Christian Church in the world. Certainly the church had previously experienced times of moderate peace and tolerance from its neighbors in the Empire. But never before had it known anything close to the acceptance and freedom which was now thrown open to it by this new ruler. Constantine is often heralded as the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire—the man who declared Christianity to be the official dogma of Caesar’s realm.

Though the former is almost certainly true, the latter is somewhat less so. While he no doubt considered himself to be a follower of Christ, he did not mandate his faith to be the faith and practice of all. Constantine was that curious and at times contradictory mix of the soldier-politician. He knew the value of giving his subjects a good measure of personal and social freedom as a means of buying loyalty and minimizing dissent. But Constantine made it quite clear that his personal sympathies lay with the Christians, and thus it was inevitable that those who shared his own faith would be the primary beneficiaries of the Emperor’s power and blessing. When, in 324, Constantine defeated his co-ruler, Licinius, he not only became the absolute ruler of the Roman Empire—he also became the most powerful political leader whose favor and protection the church had known.

It is difficult to say whether the presence of this new pro-Christian Emperor actually caused the eruption of the Trinitarian conflict (the Church now having the freedom to pursue such matters instead of giving the bulk of its energies to mere survival), or whether Constantine’s arrival at the throne was an issue of providential timing (the conflict was ready to come to a head, and Constantine provided the platform for it to be addressed more completely). Most likely, both are true. The Church was no longer an infant, but was certainly in its childhood, and struggling to settle its identity, clarifying fundamental doctrine to delineate who is truly Christian and who is not. By the very nature of the name “Christian”, it is apparent that the first major doctrinal conflict to be settled is, “What does the church believe about Jesus Christ?” So, just as the entrance of the Savior into the world was “in the fullness of time”, so also all the needed political, social, and ecclesiastical environments were right for the church to come together and seek to clarify and codify its...

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