Myths of the Council of Nicaea, part one

In this video, I explore and debunk a few of the common myths surrounding the Council of Nicaea, as propagated by books like The Da Vinci Code; movies like Zeitgeist, The Movie; and groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. The myths I address in this video:

1. Constantine headed the Council and/or dictated its decrees.
2. Nicaea determined the canon of the New Testament and had other books destroyed.
3. The Bishops at Nicaea betrayed the truth Christian Faith.

To watch more of my videos, visit my YouTube page.

My script for the video:

As I said in my last video, What are you wearing?, I’ll be exploring some of the common modern myths surrounding the Council of Nicaea in my next couple of videos. So, let’s get started.

Myth #1: Constantine was in charge of the counsel and presided over it and/or dictated its decrees.

While St. Constantine did both convoke and attend the Council, he neither presided as head nor was he involved in the actual decision-making. St. Alexander of Alexandria, as Pope of Alexandria and therefore ranking Patriarch, 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.

Often included alongside the myth that Constantine headed the Council is a picture of him striding into the Council in full imperial regalia and glory, taking his place triumphantly at the head. I have often seen Eusebius of Caeasarea’s “Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine” quoted in this regard thus:

“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.”

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 passage quoted above records the actual actions and demeanor of the Emperor. And what were they? (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 (perhaps 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 #2: The canon of the New Testament was decided at Nicaea, after which there were burnings of the books decided against.

This is complete and utter falsehood with absolutely no grounding in reality. Nicaea never discussed the canon of the New Testament, much less formally decided it; in fact, the canon of the New Testament as we know it today didn’t come about for another 42 years after Nicaea, in AD 367, and, even then, there was plenty of debate afterwards. The agenda at Nicaea included addressing Arianism, deciding a univeral date for Pascha (or Easter), addressing the Meletian Schism, deciding whether Baptisms by heretics were valid, and determining the status of those Christians who had renounced the Faith in the recently-concluded persecutions. The canon of Scripture was nowhere on the docket.

Myth #3: The Bishops at Nicaea betrayed the true Christian Faith taught by the Apostles.

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. Most of the Bishops present at the Council had gone into hiding and been hunted during these persecutions. Many had been tortured. Nearly all 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. … 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 of 299-313 would then turn around and betray it only 12 years later. They didn’t lapse during 14 years or more of sustained persecution but they lapse in a matter of days at Nicaea; this myth betrays logic.

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.

13 thoughts on “Myths of the Council of Nicaea, part one”

  1. Great videos
    This subject is very interesting.

    Will you let me translate the audios in French (based on the scripts) by adding subtitles so that Francophones may have access to it ?
    Of course, if you allow me to do so, I will mention the original link of the author, your approval if that is the case, as well as your blog.
    I would like you to know that my intent (if is possible) is to upload it again on a French web site like Youtube (Dailymotion).

    If that is not possible, it doesn't matter.
    Thank you.

  2. Zed:

    Absolutely — I'd be honored to have you translate my videos. Please let me know what I can do to facilitate this (I assume, e-mailing you the scripts as well as the raw video to add subtitles to).

    Thank you very much,


  3. Thank you David for your answer and to have accepted.

    All is fine for the scripts since we can access to them through your web site, it's perfect.

    Regarding the video, I was wondering if it could be possible to make a “French version”. What I mean, is that actually, there are some English notations in the video, I could do the same with only notations in French. I would insert pictures in relation with the topic and the original audio would be conserved with added sub-titles.

    Tell me what do you think?
    Or would you prefer me to keep your original video?

    It's up to you.

    Thank you again.

  4. Zed:

    Sorry for taking so long to get back; just returned from a vacation in New York.

    Everything sounds great to me; please let me know if there's anything I can do along the way to help more. I can't speak French, but I'm looking forward to seeing the finished product!


  5. Hello David,

    This was a well laid out presentation… but some questions still remain.

    Even if we remove the possibility of undue influence from Constantine, or Bishops attempting to curry favour with the Empire, it does not answer one large question:

    Where did the Council receive it's authority to amend the Rule of Faith, making an addition to it on pain of excommunication?

    This issue is the very same issue that divides East and West now(the Filloque controversy).

    In the days prior to Nicea, there was a Symbol of Faith that was a fitting expression of the Catholic(univeral, not Roman) faith, a form of which survives as “The Apostle's Creed.”

    This profession was seen as a complete and faithful summary of doctrine, an unchangeable part of the Apostolic Deposit, a sacred trust… from where did the 300 or so Bishops receive the right to change it?

  6. Joshua,

    Where do the Arians get the authority to keep the words of the Rule of Faith but amend the meaning? The Apostles' Creed itself changed over time, as did the Nicene (everyone uses the version from Constantinople these days, filioque added or no). It is not words but the meaning behind the words that matters. Who had the authority to create the Apostles' Symbol in the first place?

    What we now call the Apostles' Creed was last modified after Constantinople, which modified Nicea, so your chronology doesn't follow perfectly either. What does it mean when it says the Son is “our Lord?” That is what was disputed by the Arians, and it's not a question that, once asked, can remain unanswered, for the entire Faith hinges upon that answer.

  7. Joshua:

    I think that perhaps your question requires more elucidation before an answer can be given. What exactly about the Apostolic Rule of Faith do you allege that the Bishops present at the Council of Nicaea “amend[ed]”?

    It's important to keep in mind, I think, that the original use of creeds was not in the Liturgy (this practice began later, in the 5th century if I remember correctly, amongst the Orthodox as a means by which to counter the Monophysites) but as a confession of faith before Baptism. Once this original use and purpose is acknowledged, I think we can trace a very clear line of development from the revelation to the Hebrews (that is, the Old Testament) through to Christ, from Christ through to the Apostles, from the Apostles through to the early (pre-Nicene) Christians, and from these early Christians to the Age of the Great Councils.

    I also believe that if we trace these developments, we'll find only one point at which there is something “new” (that is, with the revelation of Christ) and no point at all at which there is a “amend[ment]” in the Rule of Faith. Instead, we will find that things within the creeds expressing that Rule of Faith are sometimes stated differently than they had been previously or further elucidated upon in order to counter heretical interpretations that had arisen and/or to remain relevant in new circumstances (such as the increased conversion of Gentiles rather than Jews to Christianity beginning in the mid-1st century).

    The oldest creed expressing faith in the God of Revelation, the Rule of Faith, is, with little doubt, the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4, still recited daily by Jews even today: “Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”

    Christ's revelation of the Trinitarian nature of this God and of himself as the Second Person of that Trinity is the closest thing to an “amend[ment]” in the Rule of Faith that you will find (though I would venture to say that the Shema also is a Trinitarian creed that is another conversation, so I'll concede the point for the time being). We'll also find, as I already stated, that the origins of the creeds, these standardized expressions of the Rule of Faith, are found in confessions of Faith made before Baptism, the Sacramental Event marking re-birth as a member of the Christian Church. Christ himself gave us what one might call the earliest Christian creed, still in use at all Christian Baptisms today (aside from the farsical non-Baptisms administered “in Jesus' name” by groups like the Oneness Pentecostals): “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)

  8. Added to this by the Apostles, apparently, (or perhaps in spontaneous, inspired Faith by the early Christians) was the confession before Baptism that Jesus Christ is this Second Person (“the Son”) mentioned in the Baptismal formula: “And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, 'See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?' And Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts 8:36-37)

    Later, apparently, the creed was expanded in order to elucidate upon what it is that this Second Person, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, did. St. Paul gives us at least two examples of different versions of this in his letters, as he almost certainly quotes from early Christian creeds (whether in their entirety or not I can't say, nor does he give us the context of Baptism but I believe that can be assumed based upon what we know from the previous two creeds mentioned as well as the later use of creeds in the Church [again] up until the Monophysite schism):

    “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” (1 Cor. 15:3-7)

    “… who, though he [Jesus Christ] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11)

    Later, we see much the same creedal formulation of the Rule of Faith, slightly expanded to include more detail, in St. Irenaeus of Lyons' Against Heresies 1, 10, 1. As examples of this expansion, we can see that his creed expands upon the role of the Holy Spirit (just as the earlier expansions elucidated upon the role of the Son) and includes a mention of the Virgin Mary as the one from whom Christ took his human flesh, a point that would later become very important in the Christological debates of the late 4th and early 5th centuries and which culminated in the official endorsement of the title “Theotokos” (God-bearer) for her at the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus. Jaroslav Pelikan's book “Mary through the Centuries” is a particuarly insightful look at the Virgin Mary's role in the early Church and the Great Councils as a safeguard of both Christ's humanity and, later, his divinity. Irenaeus' creed: “…this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race . . . “

  9. Later, St. Hippolytus of Rome's 19th canon would slightly expand upon the former creedal formulations and also, somewhat similar to the use of the Creed we found earlier amongst the Apostles in Acts, phrase it in the form of questions to be asked of one who is about to be Baptized: “When the person being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say: 'Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?' And the person being baptized shall say: 'I believe.' Then holding his hand on his head, he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say: 'Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?' And when he says: 'I believe,' he is baptized again. And again he shall say: 'Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and the resurrection of the body?' The person being baptized shall say: 'I believe,' and then he is baptized a third time.”

    The next major creedal statement we come across is, of course, the Nicene Creed. Many (most, perhaps?) scholars believe that the Nicene Creed is nearly word-for-word a Baptismal creed already in use in Caesaria (JND Kelly avers that it is from Syria, if I remember correctly).

    I'm unsure what “amend[ment]” you are referring to as having been made in the writing of the Nicene Creed, so I'll refrain from too much commentary lest I end up wasting my time. I can only assume that the “amend[ment]” you are speaking of is the use of the phrase (in Greek, word) “of one essence/substance” in reference to Christ's likeness to/relationship with the Father. The use of this word/phrase is something new, but to say that it is an “amend[ment]” is to 1. ignore (or be forced to reject) all previous developments in the wording of the creed, 2. the historical and theological factors that forced the adoption of this word, namely, the need to put an Arian interpretation of the creed out of bounds, and 3. all previous statements by early Christians (see St. Paul's creed found in his Epistle to the Philippians and its statements about Christ “being in the form of God”) which say the same thing in other wording. In the end, a rejection of “in one substance/essence” in the Nicene Creed as if the idea expresses were an innovation reflects an ignorance of the clear statements by all previous generations of Christians as to the divine nature of Christ and is little more than an attempt to play word games. Of course, I'll refrain from any further comments on that until I'm sure that this is what you're referring to.

    As for the Apostles' Creed, while this creed certainly reflects earlier creeds and isolated statements of earlier Fathers, the creed itself dates from perhaps the 7th century; the first document we have which contains the creed as we have it dates from around 715, almost 400 years after the formulation of the original Nicene Creed. Most scholars believe that the wording of the Apostles' Creed in some areas relies upon the wording of the Nicene Creed.

    (As an interesting aside: all three uses/versions of the creed that we find in the early Church are still in use at Orthodox Christian baptisms. There is the interrogatory “do you believe…” questions before Baptism, the recital of the entire Nicene Creed, and, of course, the original Trinitarian Baptismal formula during the actual Baptism.)

    Looking forward to your response.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s