Myths of the First Ecumenical Council

Saint Constantine the Great and the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council
Recently, a friend, with whom I frequently have debates about religion, politics, and morality, gave me a digital copy of Zeitgeist, The Movie and told me to watch it (specifically the first part of it) with the promise that it would “open [my] eyes.” The first part of the movie, entitled “The Greatest Story Ever Told” purports to “debunk” Christianity. Peter Joseph, the writer and producer of the movie, attempts to prove that Christianity was derived from the pagan and Gnostic myths and beliefs of the day. His final conclusion is that Jesus Christ never actually existed and that the origins of his story actually lie in Sun worship and the mythology of various solar deities and their cults. He concludes that the Gnostic Christian religion was the original Christianity (which did not believe in a historical Christ) and that their religion was later usurped and historicized by Roman authorities, specifically St. Constantine the Great, in order to create a religion that could be used as a means for uniting the Empire and controlling the people. Here’s a quote from the transcript in which Peter Joseph summarizes his point:

The reality is, Jesus was the Solar Deity of the Gnostic Christian sect, and like all other Pagan gods, he was a mythical figure. It was the political establishment that sought to historize the Jesus figure for social control. By 325 a.d. in Rome, emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea. It was during this meeting that the politically motivated Christian Doctrines were established and thus began a long history of Christian bloodshed and spiritual fraud. And for the next 1600 years, the Vatican maintained a political stranglehold on all of Europe, leading to such joyous periods as the Dark Ages, along with enlightening events such as the Crusades, and the Inquisition.

Christianity, along with all other theistic belief systems, is the fraud of the age. It serves to detach the species from the natural world, and likewise, each other. It supports blind submission to authority. It reduces human responsibility to the effect that “God” controls everything, and in turn awful crimes can be justified in the name of Divine Pursuit. And most importantly, it empowers those who know the truth but use the myth to manipulate and control societies. The religious myth is the most powerful device ever created, and serves as the psychological soil upon which other myths can flourish.

Peter Joseph’s “debunking” of Christianity has itself been very thoroughly debunked by dozens of others. This one in particular impressed me due to its abundant sourcing of scholarly works and writings by experts in their fields. I’ve also included a link to this page in my “Links” section on the right for easy access. It’s worth reading through if for no other reason than being able to answer such claims when they are made.

The reason that it’s so important to be able to refute the claims of this film is that, in spite of its absolutely ridiculous claims, it is immensely popular. There’s no telling how many people this film has influenced. According to Zeitgeist‘s website:

In total, the views for “Zeitgeist, The Movie” have exceeded 50,000,000 on Google video alone. Considering the other posts in different formats, along with public screenings, it is estimated that the total world views are well over 100 Million.

Since the work of debunking the ludicrous claims of this film has already been completed (and better than I ever could) by numerous others, I have no need to address them. There is a point raised in the film, however, that I want to talk about, namely, its treatment of the First Council of Nicaea in 325. My reason for wanting to address this is my love for history. Anybody who knows me well knows that I’m a history buff. I can’t get enough of learning about history; I’m especially interested in the ancient and Medieval worlds. Lucky for me, these are the times that Peter Joseph chooses to slander in his movie.

People today, including many Protestant Christians (especially so-called “Restorationists,” such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charismatics, and Seventh-Day Adventists), seem to have a very distorted view of the First Council of Nicaea, concluding that it turned its back on the real Christian Faith, that the Bishops acquiesced to the Emperor, and even that Constantine made the decisions and forced them on the Church. There seems to be a lot of people who hold the view that, in some way, the Bishops at Nicaea sold out and Christianity became a concocted Roman state religion which included large amounts of pagan influence, and not the Faith taught by the Apostles.

I’m not sure where these ideas come from. My guess (purely conjecture) is that they probably originated alongside the creation of the myth of the “Dark Ages,” which was propagated by early Protestants and “Enlightenment” thinkers as a way to demonize the Roman Catholic Church. These ideas concerning the Council, however, are entirely fabricated, and there is abundant historical witness to prove this. Apparently, we’ve forgotten that several of the attendees wrote about the events of the Council and some of these firsthand accounts are preserved for us to read to this day. In fact, Eusebius of Caesarea, sometimes called the “Father of Church History” for his meticulous documentation of the first centuries of Christianity, was present at the Council. Are we really to think that he wouldn’t document such a momentous event?

Also, if one is looking for aspects of the Christian Faith which the Council may have altered or innovations which they may have introduced, it is very easy to compare notes. The Canons of the Council of Nicaea are readily available online, as is the original Nicene Creed. It is not a very difficult task, then, to compare the Faith expressed in these articles (in fact, compare the Orthodox Faith as practiced today as well for truly enlightening experience) with that expressed by early Christian writers in such works as the Didache (ca 100 AD), the first letter (this one being of undisputed authorship) of St. Clement of Rome (ca 96 AD), the letter of St. Polycarp of Smyrna to the Philippians (ca 120 AD), and the several letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (ca 107 AD). All of these and many more are readily available online for free.

Allow me to address a couple of the myths that I have most commonly encountered concerning the First Council of Nicaea:

  • Myth: Emperor Constantine was in charge of the Council, either presiding as its head or dictating its decrees.
  • Truth: While St. Constantine did both convoke and attend the Council, he neither presided as head nor was he involved in the decision-making. St. Alexander of Alexandria, as Pope of Alexandria and therefore ranking Patriarch (Pope Julius, Patriarch of Rome, was unable to attend), originally presided over the Council, but resigned his position because he believed it to be a conflict of interest, as he was also the chief accuser of Arius, whose heretical ideas were on trial at the Council. He was replaced by St. Ossius of Cordoba. Not only did St. Constantine not preside at the Council, but he also did not vote. (see The Building of Christendom by Warren Carroll and Eusebius’ Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine for more on the way the Council proceeded) Often included alongside the myth that Constantine headed the Council is a picture of him striding into the Council in full regalia and glory, taking his place triumphantly at the head. I have often seen Eusebius quoted in this regard:

    And now, all rising at the signal which indicated the emperor’s entrance, at last he himself proceeded through the midst of the assembly, like some heavenly messenger of God, clothed in raiment which glittered as it were with rays of light, reflecting the glowing radiance of a purple robe, and adorned with the brilliant splendor of gold and precious stones.

    But, if the passage is read in context, it gives a very different picture than if you read that selection alone:

    As soon, then, as the whole assembly had seated themselves with becoming orderliness, a general silence prevailed, in expectation of the emperor’s arrival. And first of all, three of his immediate family entered in succession, then others also preceded his approach, not of the soldiers or guards who usually accompanied him, but only friends in the faith. And now, all rising at the signal which indicated the emperor’s entrance, at last he himself proceeded through the midst of the assembly, like some heavenly messenger of God, clothed in raiment which glittered as it were with rays of light, reflecting the glowing radiance of a purple robe, and adorned with the brilliant splendor of gold and precious stones. Such was the external appearance of his person; and with regard to his mind, it was evident that he was distinguished by piety and godly fear. This was indicated by his downcast eyes, the blush on his countenance, and his gait. For the rest of his personal excellencies, he surpassed all present in height of stature and beauty of form, as well as in majestic dignity of mien, and invincible strength and vigor. All these graces, united to a suavity of manner, and a serenity becoming his imperial station, declared the excellence of his mental qualities to be above all praise. As soon as he had advanced to the upper end of the seats, at first he remained standing, and when a low chair of wrought gold had been set for him, he waited until the bishops had beckoned to him, and then sat down, and after him the whole assembly did the same. [emphasis mine]

    The parts which I have italicized are, I believe, the most indicative of St. Constantine’s place in the Council (and his own awareness of that station). Whereas the commonly quoted portion of this passage reflects Eusebius’ own impressions of Constantine, namely that he was “like some heavenly messenger of God,” the italicized passages above record the actual activity of Constantine. And what were his actions? (1) He entered without his normal entourage of soldiers and guards, instead accompanied only by “friends in the faith.” This is an indication that his entrance was the very opposite of a show of force; so much for him strong-arming the Bishops into submission. (2) He proceeded past the assembled Bishops with “downcast eyes,” a “blush on his countenance,” and a quickened pace. All of these behaviors are indications of nervousness and all of these are the body language of an individual who recognizes himself to be standing in the presence of superiors, not inferiors. (3) Once he reached his seat, he waited (hesitated?) to sit until he was coaxed to do so by the Bishops. So much for Constantine presiding in splendor at the Council. One further interesting note on Eusebius: As a semi-Arian, he never fully accepted the Canons of the Council of Nicaea, but he nonetheless wrote rather glowing accounts of the participants and proceedings.

  • Myth: The Bishops at the Council of Nicaea betrayed the true Christian Faith which had been taught by the Apostles.
  • Truth: Although it is possible, it would be very time-consuming and cumbersome to go through each canon of the Council and each line of the Creed and put them side by side with similar statements from early Christian writers. Instead, I think the easy way to answer this accusation is to take a look at the Bishops who were at the Council, who are being called traitors by a statement like this, and see if these really were men who would be willing to compromise or betray the Faith. It’s important to remember at this point that official persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire had ceased only 12 years prior, with the issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313. The Bishops taking part in this Council had been wanted men only 12 years before. In fact, as recent as two years before, in 323, the Bishop of Pontus had been tortured to death under the orders of Licinius, the main contender against St. Constantine for the title of Emperor. Some of the Bishops present at the Council had gone into hiding and been hunted during these persecutions. Some had been tortured. Many had lost friends, family, and members of their flock to martyrdom. Here are a couple of quotes from famous 4th century historians:

St. Theodoret of Cyrus writes: “… many, like the holy apostle, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. . initNote(“fnf_iv.viii.i.vii-p7.3″); //–>.. Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. Among these was Paphnutius of Egypt. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.”

Socrates Scholasticus writes: “… in this assembly the number of bishops exceeded three hundred; while the number of the presbyters, deacons, and acolyths and others who attended them was almost incalculable. Some of these ministers of God were eminent for their wisdom, some for the strictness of their life, and patient endurance [of persecution], and others united in themselves all these distinguished characteristics.”

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time thinking that men that were willing to suffer for the Faith during the Diocletian Persecution (299-313) would then turn around and betray it only 12 years later. The usual number of Bishops that are counted as being in attendance at Nicaea is 318. Each of them, in addition, was allowed to bring along with him two priests and three deacons. This is already about 1800 people present and that’s just the clergy! Many lay members of the Church were also in attendance. Socrates Scholasticus even records that a layman, whom he describes as being a “confessor” (that is, one who has suffered for the Faith but not been martyred) , corrected the Bishops when the dispute between the Orthodox and Arian parties became especially heated. We don’t know exactly how many people were in attendance at the Council of Nicaea, but, clearly, it was a large number. Is anyone really willing to seriously assert that all of these people simultaneously decided to betray the Christian Faith? I seriously doubt it. Also, there were approximately 1800 total Bishops within the Church at this time (all of them had been invited to the Council but only the 318 had been able to attend). Once the decrees of the Council were published, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that at least one of the approximately 1500 Bishops not in attendance would have taken issue had those decrees conflicted with the Faith with which he was familiar? That seems like a logical prediction, right? But none of these Bishops protested the decisions of the Council.

  • Myth: After Nicaea, the Church was used as a tool for the political power of Rome, including justifying wars and atrocities.
  • Truth: Nicaea neither established Christianity as Rome’s official religion nor did it mark the end of Rome’s persecution of Christians. In fact, St. Constantine’s grandson, Constantius II, was an ardent supporter of Arianism, which the Nicene Council had declared a heresy, and attempted to force the Orthodox to reconcile with the Arians and perhaps even adopt Arianism. Constantius was succeeded by his cousin Julian, who is known as “the Apostate” for having renounced Christianity, revived official state Paganism, and renewed the persecution of Christians. Why would Julian do this if Christianity had indeed been invented as a means of power for the Roman state? Because, in fact, Roman Paganism, which Christianity was in the process of supplanting, was the means of power for the state and Julian recognized this. Constantine, if he had indeed needed a common religious cult to control the Empire, already had one, and it was the official religion of the Empire until the Edict of Milan in 313. The Imperial Cult of Rome not only gave religious sanction to the actions of the Empire, but included the divinity of the Emperor himself as an article of faith! In fact, the Christians’ failure to reverence the Emperor as a semi-divine being was one of the reasons they were so often persecuted by Rome during their first 300 years. If Constantine was attempting to reinforce his authority with religious sanction, he chose the wrong religion with which to do so by far; he already had one better suited for the purpose handy. In fact, even after the establishment of Christianity as Rome’s official religion by Theodosius I, the relationship between Church and State in Rome was hardly as cozy as the above myth implies. The Church was often an outspoken critic of the government, no small thing in an empire which had no ideas like “freedom of speech.” St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, for instance, was exiled from the Empire by Emperor Arcadius in 403 for having criticized the extravagance of Arcadius’ wife, Eudoxia, and of the royal court in general. St. Ambrose of Milan threatened to excommunicate Emperor Theodosius I after the Emperor ordered the massacre of 7000 people at Thessalonica in 390. Ambrose publicly exhorted the Emperor to imitate David in repentance even as he had imitated him in guilt. When Theodosius did repent, Ambrose imposed several months of penance on him and refused to admit him to the Eucharist during this time. In addition to all of this, there is a further issue with this myth. It is often accompanied, as it is in Zeitgeist, The Movie, by laundry lists of atrocities attributed to the Pope of Rome. Here is the relevant quote from Zeitgeist:

    By 325 a.d. in Rome, emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea. It was during this meeting that the politically motivated Christian Doctrines were established and thus began a long history of Christian bloodshed and spiritual fraud. And for the next 1600 years, the Vatican maintained a political stranglehold on all of Europe, leading to such joyous periods as the Dark Ages, along with enlightening events such as the Crusades, and the Inquisition.

    There is a flaw in logic to be found here. The statement moves from the Roman State to the Vatican and seems to equate the two, but they are very different entities. The first question that comes to mind is: Why would Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, if seeking to advance his own power, empower the Pope of Rome, who had formerly been one of the leaders of a persecuted minority group? It doesn’t make sense. What also doesn’t make sense is why Constantine would, in 330, only five years after Nicaea, move the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome (meaning, away from the Vatican) to far away Constantinople. If Constantine were seeking (for some odd reason) to empower the Vatican, why would he move the seat of Roman Imperial authority away from the Vatican? Also worth noting in this regard is that the Western Roman Empire, where the Vatican is located, had been conquered by barbarians and ceased to exist by 476, which means the Pope of Rome was no longer part of the Roman Empire. All three of the events listed above (the Dark Ages, the Crusades, and the Inquisition) happened after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and outside of what remained of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Pope of Rome had officially broken with the Eastern Patriarchs in the Great Schism of 1054, meaning that by the time of the Crusades and the Inquisitions he no longer even shared a common religion with the people of the Roman Empire! The Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, which stood until 1453, never experienced the “Dark Ages” (in fact, the period commonly referred to as the “Dark Ages,” approximately the years 500-1000, were times of great prosperity in the East); was, in fact, a victim of the Crusades, not a belligerent; and had absolutely nothing to do with any of the Inquisitions. In fact, in the end, the fall of the Byzantine Empire, and the accompanying disappearance of the last vestiges of the Roman Empire, is, in part, a consequence of Christianity. First, the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders (who had been sent by the Pope of Rome) in 1204 significantly weakened the Byzantine Empire, a weakening from which they never recovered. In addition, the obstinacy of Eastern Christians and their leaders in preserving the Orthodox Christian Faith prevented the Byzantine Empire from acquiring European assistance. The last several Emperors appealed constantly for help from the much stronger Western European powers in repelling the Ottoman onslaught. The Pope of Rome refused to sanction this help by the Roman Catholic leaders of Western Europe unless the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs submitted to him and accepted reunion on his terms; they refused to compromise the Faith to facilitate the life of the Empire. As a result, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 and the Roman Empire was no more.

A major problem with these myths is that they do not take into account the well-documented narrow scope of the Council. The Council was not called, as these myths appear to assume, in order to redraw or redefine doctrine in the Church. The Council’s purview was very limited. Their main focus (and the reason for which the Council was called in the first place) was to refute Arianism, a heretical doctrine which has a clear historical beginning outside of Apostolic Tradition and is not to be found in the writings of the early Christians.

In addition, they made no attempt to innovate a doctrine themselves and, in fact, actively avoided doing so. Rather, they sought to enunciate what it was they learned through the Scriptures and from the Bishops and other believers who had preceded them. They were not looking for a compromise. In their own words (this is the statement which prefaced the first reading of the Creed at the Council):

“As we have received from the Bishops who preceded us, and in our first catechisings, and when we received the Holy Laver, and as we have learned from the divine Scriptures, and as we believed and taught in the presbytery, and in the Episcopate itself, so believing also at the time present, we report to you our faith, and it is this!– initNote(“fnf_ix.ii-p7.1”); //–>.”

Also, while they were assembled, and after they had addressed Arianism, they decided to address a few other, rather uninteresting (in my humble opinion), issues. You can read a short summary of the Canons of the Council of Nicaea here or you can read the full text of the Canons here. A couple of examples: the Council issued prohibitions on self-castration and on kneeling while praying on a Sunday. Not exactly grist for the conspiracy theory rumor mill.

There is much, much more interesting history surrounding the First Council of Nicaea and 4th Century Christianity that I would like to discuss, but this is already a very long post. If you want to learn more about the Council, here’s some links to the surviving primary documents:

In conclusion, if St. Constantine was indeed attempting to create a religion that would serve to justify the power of the State, he and his successors not only did a horrible job of it, as we have seen, but also clearly chose the wrong religion to do so with.

I know that I am probably preaching to the choir with this post; if you’re reading my blog, you probably don’t buy into any of these myths about Nicaea and Church history. But, as I said earlier, I have a love for history. I only hope that you enjoyed reading all of this as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

4 thoughts on “Myths of the First Ecumenical Council”

  1. I don't buy into the myths, but neither do I give the bishops so much credit. Some of these were not supported by those called “schismatics” because they saw many of the attendees to Nicaea as lapsii and traitors having fled their sees during times of persecution.

  2. ThinkingAhead:

    Which ones? Please list the names of the Bishops present at the Council of Nicaea who had abandoned their sees during the persecutions.

    Also, it should be pointed out that the Donatists were in agreement with the Nicene confession of Faith, even if they weren't in attendance at the Council, and not the Arian one.

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