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What happened at the Council of Nicaea?
There is a shared root by all who have lived and grown up in Western society. The root is the influence of the philosophies of Ancient Greece, which are far more prevalent than you could ever imagine. To try to understand this we are going to a place called Nicaea. A summit meeting is being held. It is the Council of Nicaea, in Turkey, in 325 AD.
This was the first great meeting of the wider Christian Church, though only around a sixth of the invitees actually became attendees. Delegates had come from far and wide, though only five came from the Western Church, and none from the land of Britain. And none of them were of Jewish descent. How things had changed since that earlier summit in Jerusalem!
You peer at the proceedings from behind an ornate pillar. Delegates are arranged in a semi circle, facing a raised dais, where two men sit on the left and right on jewel-encrusted thrones and a third stands dead centre behind a wooden lectern. Sitting on the right is the Patriarch, Alexander of Alexandria, chairman of the conference. The man on the left is the Emperor, Constantine, who had called the conference. He had already ensured that his throne was just that bit higher than the Patriarch's and, wearing a haughty expression, he sits impassively, seemingly bored with the proceedings.
Constantine. This man had a lot to answer for and, in terms of legacy, did almost as much damage as Plato, Origen and the rest of them. But, in the case of Constantine, there was no honour or altruism in his motives. The only good news about this Roman Emperor is that he put to an end the bloody persecutions of his predecessor, Diocletian. It seemed that the Church's worst enemy gave way to the Church's greatest friend. It must have seemed that way at the time, but the evidence of history showed that whereas Diocletian destroyed bodies, Constantine's decisions were to affect the soul of millions who came after him.
So who was he? Constantine was a military Emperor who worshipped the sun god and relied on this deity for success in battles. The key moment in his life happened on a bridge over a river. It was 312 AD and he was preparing for yet another skirmish when supposedly he had a vision of a cross against the sun, accompanied by the words, “In this sign, conquer”. He took this to mean that his army should march into battle under the sign of the cross. It was all a bit vague and historians disagree about the actual chain of events, but the outcome was victory and the result was that Christianity, the religion of the Cross, was to become the state religion of the Roman Empire.
Meanwhile, in the imperial palace, Nicaea, the man at the centre of the stage, clutching the lectern, is Athanasius. He is speaking.
And so, bishops, I may be just a lowly deacon but I cannot but emphasise the importance of the decision we are going to make today.
He pauses for effect, looking around, but concentrates his gaze on the two dissenters, Secundus and Theonus, followers of Arius, who are seated directly in front of him. He continues.
The teachings of Arius must not be allowed to pollute the Holy Church. I will repeat my position, so perhaps those of you still suffering under delusion will come to your senses … Jesus Christ, the Son of God is of the same substance, homoousian with God the Father. Any other position relegates our Lord to a mere creation, an unacceptable position.
The whole debate, pitting Arius against Athanasius, both of Alexandria, was indeed a crucial one. It was a debate created, argued and resolved with the language and ideas of Greek philosophy. Athanasius, and the majority of the bishops, believed in the homoousian position. Arius (naturally) took the arian position, which relegated Jesus to a created being. A third group took the compromised homoiousian position, where Jesus was like the Father. A contemporary called Basil sneered at this fudge, saying "that which is like can never be the same as that to which it is like". There were also the homoian and heterousian positions, but let's not go there!
It was both mind-stretching and mind-numbing but, to the Christian world as it was then, it was important and the deliberations at the Council of Nicaea were to produce the Nicene Creed, used to this day to remind us what we believe in and exactly who God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are and what is their relationship with each other.
There was another issue discussed at this Council. It was deemed so important that Emperor Constantine himself took a leading role in the discussion. It concerned the timing of Easter. Because of the growing animosity towards the Jews, there were movements seeking to strip away all connection between this festival and the Jewish festival of Passover, where it owes its origins. Constantine is now reading the letter that he was going to circulate to Churches throughout the Christian world.
...When the question arose concerning the most holy day of Easter it was decreed by common consent to be expedient, that this festival should be celebrated on the same day by all, in every place ... And truly, in the first place, it seemed to every one a most unworthy thing that we should follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this most holy solemnity, who, polluted wretches, having stained their hands with a nefarious crime, are justly blinded in their minds ... It is fit, therefore, that rejecting the practice of this people, we should perpetuate to all future ages the celebration of this rite, in a more legitimate order ... Let us then have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews.
The Council, the first great Council of the Christian Church, now takes a sinister turn and validates a policy that is going to result in nothing less than persecution, leading to genocide, of the Jewish people for centuries to come. Our "One New Man" has been well and truly garotted. It's the start of a long slide away from the Jewish roots of the faith, with further Church Councils putting the boot in, again and again. The Council of Antioch in 345 AD threatened excommunication for any Christian celebrating Passover with the Jews. The Council of Laodicea in 365 AD extended this to all Jewish festivals as well as the Saturday Sabbath.
The Jewish roots of the Christian faith had been well and truly sliced away and left rotting in the ground.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Way: And How it Can Find it Again )