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Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI: THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA (AD 325)

We might expect to find that, when the persecutions by the heathen
were at an end within the Roman empire, Christians lived together in
peace and love, according to their Lord's commandment; but it is a
sad truth that they now began to be very much divided by quarrels
among themselves. There had, indeed, been many false teachers in
earlier times; but now, when the emperor had become a Christian, the
troubles caused by such persons reached much further than before.
The emperors took part in them, and made laws about them, and the
whole empire was stirred by them.

Constantine was, as I have said (p. 40), very fond of taking a part
in Church matters, without knowing much about them. Very soon after
the first law by which he gave liberty to the Christians, he was
called in to settle a quarrel; which had been raised in Africa by
the followers of one Donatus, who separated from the Church and set
up bishops of their own, because they said that the bishops of
Carthage and some others had not behaved rightly when the
persecutors required them to deliver up the Scriptures. I will tell
you more about these Donatists (as they are called) by-and-by (see
Chapter XXI, parts 3, 4, and 5), and I mention them now only because
it was they who first incited the emperor to judge in a dispute
about religion.

When Constantine put down Licinius and got possession of the East
(as has been said), he found that a dispute of a different kind from
the quarrel of the Donatists was raging there. One Arius, a
presbyter (or priest) of Alexandria, had begun some years before
this time to deny that our blessed Lord was God from everlasting.
Arius was a crafty man, and did all that he could to make his
opinion look as well as possible; but, try as he might, he was
obliged to own that he believed our Lord to be a "creature". And the
difference between the highest of created beings and God, the maker
of all creatures, is infinite; so that it mattered little how Arius
might smooth over his shocking opinion, so long as he did not allow
our Lord to be truly God from all eternity.

The bishop of Alexandria, whose name was Alexander, excommunicated
Arius for his impiety; that is to say, he solemnly turned him out of
the Church, so that no faithful Christian should have anything to do
with him in religious matters. Thus Arius was obliged to leave
Egypt, and he lived for a while at Nicomedia, with a bishop who was
an old friend of his. And while he was there, he made a set of songs
to be sung at meals, and others for travellers, sailors, and the
like. He hoped that people would learn these songs, without
considering what mischief was in them, and that so his heresy would
be spread.

When Constantine first heard of these troubles, he tried to quiet
them by advising Alexander and Arius not to dispute about trifles.
But he soon found that this would not do, and that the question
whether our Lord and Saviour were God or a creature was so far from
being a trifle, that it was one of the most serious of all
questions. In order, therefore, to get this and some other matters
settled, he gave orders for a general council to meet. Councils of
bishops within a certain district had long been common. In many
countries they were regularly held once or twice a year; and,
besides these regular meetings, others were sometimes called
together to consider any business which was particularly pressing
Some of these councils were very great; for instance, the bishop of
Alexander could call together the bishops of all Egypt, and the
bishop of Antioch could call together all the bishops of Syria and
some neighbouring countries. But there was no bishop who could call
a council of the whole Church, because there was no one who had any
power over more than a part of it. But now, Constantine, as he had
become a Christian, thought that he might gather a council from all
quarters of his empire, and this was the first of what are called
the general councils.

It met in the year 325, at Nicaea (or Nice), in Bithynia, and 318
bishops attended it. A number of clergy and other persons were also
present; even some heathen philosophers went out of curiosity to see
what the Christians were to do. Many of the bishops were very homely
and simple men, who had not much learning; but their great business
was only to say plainly what their belief had always been, so that
it might be known whether the doctrines of Arius agreed with this or
no; and thus the good bishops might do their part very well,
although they were not persons of any great learning or cleverness.
One of these simpler bishops was drawn into talk by a philosopher,
who tried to puzzle him about the truth of the Gospel. The bishop
was not used to argue or to dispute much, and might have been no
match for the philosopher in that way, but he contented himself with
saying his Creed; and the philosopher was so struck with this, that
he took to thinking more seriously of Christianity than he had ever
thought before, and he ended in becoming a Christian himself.

There was a great deal of arguing about Arius and his opinions, and
the chief person who spoke against him was Athanasius, a clergyman
of Alexandria, who had come with the bishop, Alexander. Athanasius
could not sit as a judge in the council, because he was not a
bishop, but he was allowed to speak in the presence of the bishops,
and pointed out to them the errors which Arius tried to hide. So at
last Arius was condemned, and the emperor banished him with some of
his chief followers. And, in order to set forth the true Christian
faith beyond all doubt, the council made that creed which is read in
the Communion-service in our churches--all but some of the last part
of it, which was made at a later time, as we shall see. It is called
the Nicene Creed, from the name of the place where the council met;
and the great point in it is that it declares our blessed Lord to
be "Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one
substance" (that is to say, of the same nature) "with the Father."
For this truth, that our Lord has the same nature with the Almighty
Father--this truth that He is really God from everlasting--was what
the Arians could not be brought to own.

The emperor attended the council during the latter part of its
sittings; and a story is told of him and a bishop named Acesius, who
belonged to the sect of Novatianists. You will remember that this
sect broke off from the Church in St. Cyprian's days, because
Novatian and others thought that St. Cyprian and the Church were too
easy with those who repented after having sacrificed in time of
persecution (see page 27); and, from having begun thus, it came to
be hard in its notions as to the treatment of all sorts of
penitents. But, as it had been only about the treatment of persons
who had behaved weakly in persecution that the Novatianists at first
differed from the Church, and as persecution by the heathens was now
at an end, Constantine hoped that, perhaps, they might be persuaded
to return to the Church; so he invited some bishops of the sect to
attend the councils and Acesius among them. When the creed had been
made, Acesius declared that it was all true, and that it was the
same faith which he had always believed; and he was quite satisfied
with the rules which the council made as to the time of keeping
Easter, and as to some other things. "Why, then," asked Constantine,
"will you not join the Church?" Acesius said that he did not think
the Church strict enough in dealing with penitents. "Take a ladder,
then," said the emperor, "and go up to heaven by yourself!"