First Council of Nicaea

The First Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of bishops held in 325 AD at Nicaea in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The purpose was to resolve disputes in the church - primarily those concerned with Arianism - regarding the relationship between the Father and Son. Constantine (ca. 288-377), the sole emperor of the Roman Empire, feared that the church would split over this theological issue and thus called a universal council. In May 325^[1]^ Constantine opened the council where roughly 250-300 bishops attended, the majority from the East.^ [2]^ The council produced the first truly ecumenical creed which is known as the Nicene Creed which became a test of orthodoxy and set a precedent for future councils.


Background and historical setting

The main issue set before the Council of Nicaea concerned the teachings of Arius (ca. 250-ca. 336), a presbyter from Alexandria. The church was required to give a more concrete definition of Jesus' relationship to the Father, further specifying his unique status as "Son of God", "Word" or "Logos." Many solutions had been proposed, yet the efforts to define Jesus' nature had been unsatisfactory.


One of the proposals was known as Monarchianism. Coming from the Greek word monarchy, meaning "one source", this view stressed the unity of God. One Monarchianist, Sabellius, taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were separate modes from which the one God had appeared throughout history. These were merely three names that described one reality. Followers of Sabellius later became known as Modalists. Another variation of Monarchianism was known as Adoptionism. Proponents of this view taught that Jesus had been adopted by God and was given the fullness of the divine presence. Neither view was found to be satisfactory since both threatened the belief that Jesus was a distinct person and was fully divine. ^[3]^

Origen and Arius

Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254), the great Alexandrian theologian, argued that Jesus was "generated" from the Father but that this generation was "eternal." His goal was to preserve the unity of the Trinity and yet keep a real distinction between the Father and Son. One of his followers, Arius of Alexandria, did not seek to sustain this balance. In 318 Arius first communicated his views to his bishop, Alexander, stating

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The First Council of Nicaea did not end all debates. "For fifty years after Nicaea, the Church debated the affirmation, "Of one essence with the Father."^[4]^

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  1. ? R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 (Baker Academic, 2005), p. 152.
  2. ? Hanson, p. 156.
  3. ? Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 2nd edition (Baker, 2000), p. 48-49.
  4. ? John H. Leith, ed. Creeds of the Churches, 3rd edition (John Knox Press, 1982), p. 29.

Further reading

  • Bray, Gerald, Creeds, Councils, and Christ. InterVarsity, 1984.
  • Hanson, R. P. C. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. Baker Academic, 2005.
  • Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. 5th ed. Harper & Row, 1978; Prince Press, 2003.

See also