We continue our series on…
The A- Z of the Christian Faith
N is for the Nicene Creed.
The date is 28th October 312AD. The Roman Empire, which had been divided for several years, was to be reunited by Constantine the Great. As a necessary step, he had marched his army on Rome and now needed to defeat his rival Maxentius. Legend has it that just before the battle the Emperor looked up and saw a vision of a cross above the sun. Inscribed on it were the words “Conquer by This”. Taking this as a sign of divine favour, Constantine drove his enemy from the field and became the Ruler of the Western Empire. Whether this day marked the conversion of the Emperor or not, nevertheless he became the Christians’ patron and protector.
It may seem strange to start a short article on the Nicene Creed by writing about a long dead Roman Emperor. But, it is perfectly reasonable to argue that, apart from the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the conversion of the Emperor Constantine is the most important event in the history of Christianity. With the Emperor as patron, Christianity ceased to be a religion on the margins, the object of persecution and oppression, and became the “state religion” of the most powerful Empire the world had ever seen. Christianity eventually came out of the shadows of obscurity into the light of power, prestige and privilege. (And some might say this is where the rot set in! )
In 324 Constantine defeated Licinius, the Emperor of the East, and became the undisputed Ruler the Roman Empire. A year later he called together the first Oecumenical Council in Nicaea. A Oecumenical Council in the early church was a meeting of all the bishops from across the world. There were a series of councils during the fourth and fifth centuries. The bishops would meet up and argue out the beliefs and rules (the doctrine and canon law) of the Church.
Constantine called the first council because, as had achieved political unity in his Empire, so he wanted to establish religious unity, and the Christians were far from united. The major division of that time was between the people we now call orthodox Christians, whose champion was Saint Athanasius, and those called Arians who followed the theologian Arius. Constantine hoped to put an end to this dispute. It is hard for us today to understand just how closely linked religion and politics were in the fourth century. But at this time there were riots in cities with the opposing sides shouting obscure theological statements at one another as slogans!
Very briefly, orthodox catholic Christianity believes that the Son of God (the second person of the Trinity) has always been and is eternally of the same substance as the Father (the first person of the Trinity). Arius denied this. He taught people that the Son was created by the Father as an instrument for the creation the universe. The council of Nicaea condemned Arius and his doctrine, and so we read every Sunday (in the creed which is based on the one which came out of the council of Nicaea in 325AD ):
… We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father…