What Happened at Nicaea
By Fred Sanders
The Council of Nicaea opened on this day, May 20, 325. What happened at that first ecumenical council? What was at stake theologically? The narrative of events and players is available elsewhere, but here is an account of the doctrinal dynamics.
The council of Nicaea was a response to the challenge of Arianism. In the history books on Christian doctrine, Arianism has often been presented as a kind of outside force invading the Church. That was Athanasius’ view, for instance, and it is certainly true if you view things from the perspective of the eternal truth of the gospel. But in the last several decades, scholars have argued for a more sympathetic view of Arianism as a logical development of certain elements already contained in the Christian theological tradition. Modern scholars with their unshakable hermeneutic of suspicion are always keen to rehabilitate heretics, of course, but in this case they have rightly identified how it must have looked to the actual participants. The thinkers of the fourth century did not inherit an obvious and pristine doctrinal tradition. The stream had become muddied in various ways. Everybody was quoting the second-century theologian Origen, but Origen had left in his writings as many terrible errors as he had solid expositions of the faith. By the fourth century, there was a lot of cleaning up to do. The work of the Nicene theologians can be seen as a kind of Reformation.
Nicaea was therefore a conflict of Christian tradition with itself, or between diverse strands within the theologies available in the Christian tradition. The conflict itself clarified much that had been left ambiguous in previous theology, and in order to maintain the central claims of Christian doctrine, the Nicene theologians had to make two decisive changes in the tradition: on the one hand, they had to reject strands of theology that had previously had a good claim to being considered catholic and authoritative; and on the other hand they had to make decisive new statements in the realm of the metaphysical implications of doctrine…
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