Rethinking The Council of Nicaea (325)


The Council of Nicaea, and the Arian controversy with which it dealt, remains “a landmark in the development of classical Christology.”1 Its reception, and the process that led up to its development, is a far more convoluted process than the classical portrayal of the victory of Athanasian ‘orthodoxy’ over ‘Arian heresy’. Many of its conclusions were far from wholeheartedly embraced by many for much of the rest of the fourth-century, and a millennia and a bit later, elements of Arianism still exist in the thinking of groups like the Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Notwithstanding this, its conclusions and the process by which it arrived at them, lay important foundations not only for Christology but also for the life and practice of the Church and its key thinkers. The controversy of Nicaea revolved around the person of Arius. His fundamental premise was the “absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, the unoriginate source of all reality.”2 God is the only one who is selfsubsistent; nothing exists which does not ultimately derive from God. Arius’ logic led him to the conclusion that the Father must have existed before the Son. Hence the familiar slogan ‘There was when He was not’.3 This statement clearly places Father and Son on different levels; Father as unoriginate, Son as a creature deriving from the Father. Arius was keen to emphasise the Son’s uniqueness to the rest of creation, but does so with some difficulty: The Son, he argued, is “a perfect creature, yet not as one among other creatures; a begotten being, yet not as one among other begotten beings.”4 To refer to the ‘Son’, according to Arius, was “an honorific, rather than a theologically precise way of speaking”5 because of the controlling principle of a God who is totally different in essence from his creation – including, of course, the Son. Equally, to speak of the Son as ‘God’ was also a courtesy title, a designation “by participation in grace”6 We can therefore tentatively conclude, based on incomplete source material, that the status of the Son was seen by Arius as a consequence not of the nature of the Son, but of the will of the Father.7

We must be aware of the danger of concluding, however, that the controversy surrounding Arius concerned the ‘divinity’ of Christ. At issue until the very last decades of the crisis was “the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.”8 Ayres points out that many fourth-century theologians would distinguish the terms ‘God’ and ‘true God’, making any a priori agreement about the meaning of, and ‘grammar’ for talking about, God very difficult.9 Aside from the language of the divine, the question of the generation and ontological status of the Son or Word does have “immediate repercussions for how one understands incarnation and redemption.”10 One must question whether a generated and inferior Son can act salvifically to effect closeness to the Father in any meaningful way. If Jesus was lower than the Father then he couldn’t possibly fully know and understand the Father: God was again ‘unknown’ and ‘unrevealed’. A key thinker in the development of this line of thought can be identified in the figure of Athanasius of Alexandria.

Athanasius is often credit to be the “rock from which Nicene orthodoxy was hewn.”11 Whilst present at the council as a young deacon accompanying his bishop, Alexander, we do not see any “sustained public refutation of Arianism until the early 340s with his Orations against the Arians.”12 For Athanasius, the established liturgical customs of baptising in Jesus’ name and of addressing prayers to the Son made nonsense of Arius’ description of the Son’s lower status to the Father if he was worshiped both in the New Testament and liturgical tradition.13 Christians were not wrong to worship Jesus – but in doing so they were recognising him as God incarnate, as the worship of any creature was forbidden.14 Most importantly, Athanasius emphasised that it is only God who can save, and so the redemptive work of Christ was undermined by Arius’ views. Only the creator can redeem creation,15 since only a divine Mediator could re-establish fellowship with God. If creatures cannot redeem other creatures, and according to Arius Jesus is a creature, then Jesus Christ cannot redeem humanity – salvation requires divine intervention.

It would seems then, that the council “had a more limited objective than is sometimes supposed.”16 Through the process of outlawing Arianism, the council was able to affirm both the Son’s full divinity and equality with the Father. Whilst debates on the issue would continue well beyond Nicaea, we can consider this council to be the place where Jesus was first officially to be considered ontologically identical the Father, which dealt “a mortal blow to subordinationism.”17 This was, perhaps, Nicaea’s main achievement. The degree of Christological consensus achieved did enable the development of doctrine concerning the relationship of the Trinity. In the aftermath of the debates between Arius and Alexander at the council on the relationship between Father and Son, the council adverted to the Holy Spirit in what seemed “like a mere afterthought”18 in the short addendum ‘And we believe in the Holy Spirit’. This clause would need to be developed further, especially through the writings of Athanasius and Basil of Caesarea, and in 381 at Constantinople.

It’s pretty clear that the creed produced at Nicaea did not “end the Arian crisis – it confirmed its existence.”19 Through its condemnation of Arius and its positive formulation of the faith, it “opened the way for the solution of questions that were still open.”20 Through the confrontation at Nicaea, Arius had “stirred an intellectually careless Church into a ferment of conceptual reconstruction.”21

Some blogs about Nicaea

For more on Alexander’s dealings with Arius head over to Notes from a Small Scotsman. also gives an account of the crisis that’s worth a read, as is as

Books worth a read…

  • Ayres, L., (2006) Nicaea and its Legacy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Bray, G., (1997) Creeds, Councils and Christ, (Ross-shire: Christian Focus / Mentor)
  • Cassidy, A., and Norris, F., W., (Eds.), (2007) Cambridge History of Christianity: Constantine to c. 600, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) – Norris, F., Greek Christianities, pp. 70 – 117 – Anatolios, K., Discourse on the Trinity, pp. 431 – 459
  • Chadwick, H., (2003) The Church in Ancient Society, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Hanson, R., P., C., (1988) The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark)
  • Kelly, J., N., D., (2007) Early Christian Doctrines, Fifth Edition, (London: Continuum)
  • Letham, R., (2004) The Holy Trinity, (New Jersey: P & R Publishing)
  • McGrath, A., Christian Theology: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)
  • Studer, B., (1993) Trinity and Incarnation, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark)
  • Williams, R., (1979) The wound of knowledge: Christian spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd)
  • Williams, R., (2001) Arius: History and Tradition, (London: SCM Press)

  1. McGrath (2001), p. 357  ↩

  2. Kelly (2007), p. 227  ↩

  3. Kelly (2007), p. 229  ↩

  4. Arius cited in McGrath (2001), p. 358  ↩

  5. Arius cited in McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  6. Arius cited in Kelly (2007), p. 229  ↩

  7. McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  8. Ayres (2006), p. 14  ↩

  9. Ayres (2006), p. 14  ↩

  10. Ayres (2006), p. 3  ↩

  11. Norris in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 74  ↩

  12. Anatolios in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 436  ↩

  13. Kelly (2007), p. 233  ↩

  14. McGrath (2001), p. 360  ↩

  15. McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  16. Kelly (2007), p. 237  ↩

  17. Letham (2004), p. 117  ↩

  18. Anatolios in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 441  ↩

  19. Letham (2004), p. 117 – 8  ↩

  20. Studer (1993), p. 107  ↩

  21. Williams cited in Letham (2004), p. 126  ↩

4 thoughts on “Rethinking The Council of Nicaea (325)

  1. Good stuff. This is one of my favorite areas of study. Many of the volumes on your reading list line my shelves and hold a place of great importance among my other books. I look forward to more posts like this.


  2. Sam, thank you for your quote from Rowan Williams. I would like to use it in my current essay but do you have a page reference number for it. You say it is from Rupert Shortt’s Rowan Williams:An Introduction.My essay – training for Reader in the Anglican Church – is due to be submitted in three days’ time. Thank you for your site. Jan


  3. Hi Jan,
    Do you mean the “What he’s doing is what God’s doing” one…?
    If so it’s page 60. Shortt notes that it is from Easter 1995 if that’s helpful (I assume from a sermon)…
    Good luck! I’d be interested in reading it if you want to send it through 😉


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