If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Council of Nicaea

The attempted unification of church doctrine by Constantine through the Council of Nicaea, in response to the Arian Controversy. 

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- [Instructor] In previous videos, we have talked about how Christianity evolved and developed under the Roman Empire. In particular we saw that as we entered into the 4th century, that Christianity continued to be persecuted, in particular by the Emperor Diocletian, who had some of the worst persecutions of the Christians. But over the course of the next century, from roughly 300 to 400, the relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity goes completely in the opposite direction. As Constantine takes over, he becomes sympathetic to the Christians and he eventually becomes Christian himself. Even then, there was a lot of diversity within the Christian Church. There were debates about the nature of Jesus Christ relative to the Father, relative to the Holy Spirit. There were multiple sects of Christianity. And one in particular started to create a debate. There was a priest in Alexandria, which was one of the major cities of the Roman Empire. Now remember, by this point, Rome of course is one of the most significant, if not the most significant city. Now Constantine sets up a capital at Byzantium, which will eventually be known as Constantinople. And Alexandria, which was originally founded by Alexander the Great, is also one of the significant cities of the Empire. And in Alexandria there is a Christian priest by the name of Arius, who has a view on Christ that becomes a bit of a controversy. And to understand that, here is an account of his writings, or his beliefs. So this is Arius of Alexandria. If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows that He, the Son, had his substance from nothing. So, he's drawing a distinction between the essence of the Father and the Son, who's manifested as Jesus Christ. Now this is very controversial, because even his own bishop in Alexandria viewed the Father and the Son to be of the same substance. Now, today, you might say, hey, isn't this just word play? It feels like it's semantic, which is really debating around the meaning of words. But, at the end of the Roman Empire and as we get into the Middle Ages, this was a major issue of philosophical and it would sometimes bleed over into political debate. And so Constantine, who we mentioned has a sympathy towards the Christians, he allows Christianity to be tolerated, he does not like this idea of this debate and he wants to help unify the Christians. So, in 325 he calls the Council of Nicaea, to help resolve this controversy, which gets known as the Arian Controversy, named after Arius of Alexandria. Now it's worth mentioning, Arius wasn't the first person to make this argument, that the Father in some way was more divine than the Son, because He begat the Son, He existed before the Son. But this controversy really revolves around Arius, because he was especially persuasive about spreading this view of the relationship between the Father and the Son, manifested by Jesus. And at the Council of Nicaea, many of the bishops throughout Christendom are in attendance, it's known as the First Ecumenical Conference, the word ecumenical comes from the Greek word for the inhabited Earth. So you can view it as the Church leaders from the inhabited Earth, in order to create a consensus about what it means to be a Christian. And Arius of Alexandria was there to defend his position, but the majority of those there did not like his point of view. So they declared Arius' beliefs as heresy and they exile him. And to be very clear that they do not believe that the Son is of a different substance of the Father, they issue the Nicene Creed. So what I have here, this is known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. And this is based on the Nicene Creed, which was established in 325, which was shorter, but then in 381, under Theodosius, you have your Second Ecumenical Council, which is held in Constantinople, to reaffirm some of the ideas of the Nicene Council. And so as I read this, keep a look out for some of these words, which were really put there to try to settle the Arian Controversy, to try to ensure that that type of belief does not surface again. We 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. So, not like Arius was arguing, that there was a time where the Father existed before the Son existed. Here it says begotten of the Father, but before all ages, so there was always a time when there was a Son. Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made. So, once again, really addressing this Arian Controversy, the Arian Heresy as it becomes known, that the Father and the Son are of the same essence, one is not more divine than the other. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man. And was crucified also 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. And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father. Now here in brackets I've written filoque and the son? Because even though the official Nicene- Constantinopolitan Creed just says Who proceeds from the Father, as we will see later on, as the Church starts to become more and more divided, in the West, in Latin, the term filoque gets added, which means and the son. And, once again, this is starting to address this notion of how does the Son relate to the Father? So, when you add filoque, you're saying, hey, the Holy Spirit is emanating from both the Father and the Son, versus just the Father, but we'll get into that. This was not a matter of debate in the 4th century, but it will become a matter of debate as we go into the 6th century and beyond. And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father. Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets. And we believe in one, holy, catholic, meaning universal, and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come, Amen. So this is interesting, because it's, you can view it as a unification of Christendom. Now, as we will see, that unification does not hold well over the next several hundred years. Even though Arius is exiled and he dies shortly thereafter, you continue to have sympathetic bishops and even Roman Emperors, to the Arian Doctrine. You also, this debate between the relation of the Father and the Son continues, we'll talk about this filoque debate. But maybe most important and the biggest cause of the eventual divisions between the Church, ones that carry on even to today, it's really about a power struggle. So, as we've been talking about the late Roman Empire and even the fall of the Western Empire and the beginning of the Byzantine Empire, you might already notice that there are several very powerful actors here. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, you have the Byzantine Emperor, who considers him, and as we'll see, also herself, the Roman Emperor. We have the Bishop, the Patriarch, or, often known, the Pope of Rome. Now Rome is significant, because according to tradition the Church at Rome was founded by the Apostle Peter, who is considered by many to be the first amongst the Apostles. But of course Rome was the seat of the Roman Empire for a very, very, very long time. And so you could imagine the Bishop of the Church of Rome, the Pope of Rome would be a very powerful figure. Now you also have the Bishop or the Patriarch of Constantinople, which is another capital and really the capital of the Byzantine Empire. And so what we're going to see, over the next several hundred years, is the jockeying for position amongst these three, in particular the Byzantine Emperor and the Pope of Rome. The Pope of Rome starts to consider themselves as really the leader of all of Christendom. The Patriarch of Constantinople and the bishops of the other major centers of Christianity, like Antioch and Jerusalem and Alexandria, they view themselves as all kind of a college of, as peers and they will give extra space for the Pope of Rome or the Bishop of Rome, because of the importance of that city and the significance of how the Church of Rome was founded. And this gets, this jockeying for power over the next several hundred years gets even more complex as the West, what was the Western Roman Empire, or some of the areas of the Western Roman Empire, start to get consolidated under Germanic rule really, Frankish rule and you start having this notion of a Holy Roman Emperor that we'll talk about in a few hundred years down our timeline. So, keep a look out for this power struggle. We're going to talk about particular issues of theological doctrine, things like the filoque issue, things like the relationship between the Father and the Son, whether you should have icons. But, at the end of the day, what's eventually going to lead to the Great Schism, in the beginning of the Second Millennium, is this power struggle.