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First Ecumenical Council

First Ecumenical Council - Nicea 325 AD
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

The First Ecumenical Council was summoned by Emperor Constantine the Great in the year 325. The Council assembled at Royal Palace in Nicaea, in the province of Bithynia of Asia Minor, on May 20th, 325, and was formally opened by Constantine himself. While it is uncertain who presided over the sessions, it is more likely that either Eustathius of Antioch or Alexander of Alexandria presided. The Council passed 20 canons including the Nicene Creed, the Canon of Holy Scripture, and established the celebration of Pascha. The Council lasted two months and twelve days. The work of the Council ended on August 25 of that same year.

The Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council are commemorated on May 29 and also on the seventh Sunday after Pascha. They are also commemorated on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Six Councils.

Three hundred and eighteen bishops were present. Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, assisted as legate of Pope Sylvester. A list of bishops at the council exists, including about 230 names, though there are indications that the signature lists are defective. St. Athanasius of Alexandria and St. Hilary of Poiter place the number at 318. Other numbers of bishops in attendance are Eusebius 250, Eustathius of Antioch 270, and Gelasius of Cyzicus at more than 300. Most representatives were from Asia, Pontus, and Syro-Phoenicia although legates did travel from Rome and from throughout other regions of the Empire. In fact, only a few bishops from the West were present (a pattern common to all the Ecumenical Councils): Marcus of Calabria, Nicasius of Dijon, Domnus of Stridon, Hosius of Cordoba, and Caecilian of Carthage.

Heresies flourished throughout Christendom at the time and chief among them was the Arian controversy. This was the principal reason for the council being called together. Arius was a priest from Alexandria who held that Jesus Christ was created by God and denied Christ's divinity. Arius argued that if Jesus was born, then there was time when He did not exist; and if He became God, then there was time when He was not. Arius' original intent was to attack another heretical teaching by which the three persons of the Godhead were confused (Sabellianism).

To be sure, some bishops followed Arius, and the Church went into her first and perhaps deepest division of faith. Up to then, statements of faith were incorporated into Creeds recited by a candidate to Baptism. A baptismal Creed representing Arianism was submitted to the Council by Eusebius of Nicomedia but was at once rejected. Another Creed, which represented the baptismal Creed of Jerusalem, was finally accepted with the addition of the very important term 'homoousios', meaning of the 'same substance'. Thus, the view that Christ was of the 'same substance' with the Father was received as orthodox. This Creed is known as the Nicene Creed, which read:

We (I) believe in one God. The Father Almighty. Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures. And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end.

Another important decision of this Council was the establishing of a calendar formula by which Pascha (Easter) ought to be celebrated. Pascha occurs on the first full moon following the spring equinox and following the Hebrew Passover feast.

The Council also regulated matters of ecclesiastical importance regarding territorial and moral questions pertaining to both clergy and laity. St. Athanasius from Alexandria proved the champion of Orthodoxy by his statements of faith and the draft of the Creed that bears his name. Another delegate, who by his eloquent argument against imposing compulsory celibacy on all ranks of Clergy prevented outright celibacy in the Orthodox Church, was Paphnutios, an Egyptian who had been a disciple of St. Anthony. He had suffered such hardships and cruelty during the persecution of Maximin that his mutilated body proved an object of veneration to the assembled bishops, and his recommendations were highly respected.

The Twenty Authentic Canons of the Council of Nicaea

  • The conditions of ordination - 1,2, 9, & 10
  • Hierarchical structures - 4,5,6, & 7
  • The life and status of clerics - 3,15,16, & 17
  • The penance and reconciliation of lapsed Christians - 11,12,13, & 14
  • The ways to admit dissidents - 8 & 9
  • Liturgical discipline - 18 & 20

For structural purposes, the Council had to deal with the visible organization of the Church. It singled out for mention the three great centers of Christianity : Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. The see of Jerusalem, while remaining subject to the Metropolitan of Caesarea, was given the next place of honor after these three. (Constantinople was declared the New Rome five years later).

Among other things achieved at Nicaea in addition to the Arian controversy, the Creed, and establishment of Pascha was a ruling on the Melitian Schism in Egypt. To wit, Arius and his most resolute followers were banished, but only for a short time. In the majority at Nicaea was St. Athanasius, then a young deacon, soon to succeed Alexander as bishop and it was he that carried on what would become a minority challenge to a resurgent Arianism in the East. However, the orthodoxy of Nicaea would eventually and decisively be reaffirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

We shall now discuss that Second Ecumenical Council, held in Constantinople in the year 381, in our next article.

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