Myths of the Council of Nicaea, part two

This is part two (a) of my short series addressing some of the modern myths surrounding the First Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea in AD 325. The myths I address here are ones that are propagated by groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, individuals such as Dan Brown and Elaine Pagels, and media such as the book The DaVinci Code and Zeitgeist, The Movie.

The myths I address in this video are:
1. Constantine the Great was a pagan when he convoked and attended the Council of Nicaea.
2. The Arians were the true Christians, the “Orthodox” were the heretics.
3. The Council of Nicaea invented the Divinity of Christ.

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And the script for these videos:

In this video, I’ll be addressing a couple more of the myths surrounding the Council of Nicaea. Let’s jump right in.

Myth #4: Constantine was a pagan when he convoked and attended the Council of Nicaea.

This myth is a great example of an old saying: “A little education is a dangerous thing.” Let’s look at the truthy edge around this myth:
1. St. Constantine was not baptized until he was on his deathbed, well after the Council of Nicaea.
2. He was still, as Emperor, officially a pagan high priest, an honorary position held by all Roman Emperors.
3. He probably viewed Paganism and Christianity as compatable at this point in history.
4. He hadn’t been catechized yet, and probably didn’t know that much about the Christian Faith.

But that’s pretty much where it stops. The most obvious problem with this myth is that it is anachronistic; it attributes a very modern mindset, in which crafty politicians manipulate religiosity and feign piety in order to win the support of the masses, to a very ancient time, when people had a very real fear of the gods. Religion, in the ancient world, wasn’t something you toyed with. This was especially true if one wanted to be the Emperor of Rome — you needed the favor of the gods of Rome. Why would Constantine, then, choose to abandon them in favor of a god –the Judeo-Christian one– who was considered the enemy of the Roman gods? The only reasonable answer, as it bears out in logic and history, is true Faith. He may not have understood this Faith well –which is almost a certainty– but he was no pagan.

Myth #5: The Arians were the true Christians; the Orthodox were the heretics.
Or, stated in another way: The Council of Nicaea invented the Divinity of Christ.

First off, those who buy into this myth are working with some false assumptions to begin with. They assume that the Arians didn’t believe in the Divinity of Christ; this is incorrect. The Arians believed that Christ was a created being, but still asserted that he was Divine and pre-existed all other created things. Those who try to tap into Gnosticism for support for this myth, as both the DaVinci Code and Zeitgeist do, are misinformed, to say the least. The Fathers’ problem with the Gnostics was not that they thought Christ too human, but that the Gnostics thought Christ too Divine. This played out in Gnostic theology in a variety of ways that generally included the outright denial of his humanity altogether. Those who claim that the Gnostic Gospels present a more human Christ are asserting an utter falsehood; the complete opposite is true.

Now, back to the myth itself. Today, this myth is propagated primarily by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and so it is their views on the matter that I will address. The Jehovah’s Witnesses adopt an Arian theology and regard Arius himself as having been a teacher of true Christianity. Before I begin I should note that this is not going to be exhaustive as the work has already been done for me by St. Athanasius of Alexandria nearly 1700 years ago (and what’s really “exhaustive” in a YouTube video anyway?). Also, arguments from Scripture are difficult in this case because the Jehovah’s Witnesses have duly “corrected” their copies of the Bible to fit their beliefs. A glaring example of their intentional fudging of the Scriptures, from their New World Translation, is their consistent mistranslation of the Greek word for “cross” (stauroV) to “torture stake.” A quote from their New World Translation:

Pilate wrote a title also and put it on the torture stake. It was written: “Jesus the Naz·a·rene´ the King of the Jews.” (Gospel of John 19:19)

And, more on topic with this post, they don’t forget to edit the offending (that is, refuting) verses when it comes to theology. Example:

In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god. (Gospel of John 1:1)

Ironically, the scholar of Greek language whom they cite as an authority to justify their change here has subsequently written an article rebutting their mistranslation. In his own words:

“The translation suggested in our Grammar for the disputed passage is, “the Word was deity.” Moffatt’s rendering is “the Word was divine.” William’s translation is, “the Word was God Himself.” Each translation reflects the dominant idea in the Greek. For, whenever an article does not precede a noun in Greek, that noun can either be considered as emphasizing the character, nature, essence or quality of a person or thing, as theos (God) does in John 1:1, or it can be translated in certain contexts as indefinite, as they have done. But of all the scholars in the world, as far as we know, none have translated this verse as Jehovah’s Witnesses have.

“If the definite article occurred with both Word and God in John 1:1 the implication would be that they are one and the same person, absolutely identical. But John affirmed that “the Word was with (the) God” (the definite article preceding each noun), and in so writing he indicated his belief that they are distinct and separate personalities. Then John next stated that the Word was God, i.e., of the same family or essence that characterizes the Creator. Or, in other words, that both are of the same nature, and the nature is the highest in existence, namely divine.”

Notice that he uses the word “essence” there. This is the English translation of one of the root words for the the Greek compound homoousios (“same essence/nature/substance”), the very word that the Fathers of the Ecumenical Council used. There we have the concept in Scripture. Why, some might ask, is the word itself not in Scripture? The reason is that there was no need for it. Words like “consubstantial,” “transubstantiation,” and “Trinity” were unnecessary. It was innovative heresies, like Arianism, that popped up later which forced Christians to name and explain their beliefs. Importantly, they did not seek to invent anything new, but only to more precisely define what they already believed. As a very simplified example, if all you ever knew were apples that were green, you would simply call them “apples.” However, if someone brought you a red apple for the first time, you would now find the need to differentiate between the two, calling one a “green apple” and the other a “red apple.” Your apples have always been green, but now you find it necessary to point out that they are such.

Now, if we’re going to show that Arianism is not the true, original Christianity, the first thing we need to know is what exactly Arius taught. Here are Arius’ words about his own philosophy, contained in a letter he wrote to Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, one of his supporters, in 319:

We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning. This is the cause of our persecution, and likewise, because we say that He is of the non-existent. And this we say, because He is neither part of God, nor of any essential being.

In essence, Arians believed in a kind of “divine hierarchy” of Father–>Son–>Holy Spirit, with the Father creating the Son and then creating, through the Son, the Spirit. This is summarized in a letter written by the Arian bishop Auxentius his Arian creed:

I believe that there is only one God the Father, alone unbegotten and invisible, and in His only-begotten Son, our Lord and God, creator and maker of all things, not having any like unto Him. Therefore there is one God of all, who is also God of our God, And I believe in one Holy Spirit, an enlightening and sanctifying power. As Christ says after the resurrection to his Apostles: “Behold I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem until ye be clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24.49) And again: “And ye shall receive power coming upon you by the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1.8) Neither God nor Lord, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son. And I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.

The problem with all of this, and the reason that the Fathers of the Council knew they had to quickly address the Arian heresy, is that it puts our possibility of salvation in jeopardy. This is most succinctly stated by St. Athanasius of Alexandria in his treaties On the Incarnation: “[God], indeed, became man that man might become God.” If Christ is not God, then our salvation and our theosis, or deification, is impossible. This is why Arianism was (and still is) such a dangerous heresy.

So which is the belief that the earliest Christians held, Arianism or Trinitarianism? The most clear evidence that they were not Arian is that Arian ideas are nowhere to be found until Arius, who delineated his motives for inventing them, namely, that he did not believe that a doctrine (God as three in one, specifically) could be true which could not be entirely understood by the human mind. Essentially, he set up human reason as the standard by which to judge Faith and Scripture. A serious mistake. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.” – Isaiah 55:8.

Here are some selections from the earliest Christian writings that address the topics of the Holy Trinity and each Divine Persons’ relation to the other members of the Trinity. Please note that this list of quotes is by no means exhaustive; there are, in fact, dozens of passages throughout the writings of the Fathers which are similar to these. I have placed them in chronological order and inserted the most commonly accepted dates for Arius’ birth and the beginning of his career, so that it is clear that the Fathers were not just responding to Arius, but actually communicating the Faith as they knew it in their own words. All emphasis below is mine.

95 – “there is one God, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His eternal Word,” – St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians

96 – “For this is how Christ addresses us through his Holy Spirit: ‘Come, my children, listen to Me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.’” – St. Clement of Rome, First Letter to the Corinthians

130 – “…believe on our Lord and God Jesus Christ and on His Father that raised him from the dead.” – St. Polycarp of Smyrna, Letter to the Philippians

150 – “The Jews, accordingly, being throughout of opinion that it was the Father of the universe who spake to Moses, though He who spake to him was indeed the Son of God, who is called both Angel and Apostle, are justly charged, both by the Spirit of prophecy and by Christ Himself, with knowing neither the Father nor the Son. For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God. And of old He appeared in the shape of fire and in the likeness of an angel to Moses and to the other prophets; but now in the times of your reign, having, as we before said, become Man by a virgin, according to the counsel of the Father, for the salvation of those who believe on Him, He endured both to be set at naught and to suffer, that by dying and rising again He might conquer death. And that which was said out of the bush to Moses, “I am that I am, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and the God of your fathers,” this signified that they, even though dead, are yet in existence, and are men belonging to Christ Himself. – St. Justin Martyr, The First Apology

170 – “For, being at once both God and perfect man likewise, He gave us sure indications of His two natures: of His Deity, by His miracles during the three years that elapsed after His baptism; of His humanity, during the thirty similar periods which preceded His baptism, in which, by reason of His low estate as regards the flesh, He concealed the signs of His Deity, although He was the true God existing before all ages.” – St. Melito of Sardis, Fragments

177 – “The Son…is the first offspring of the Father. I do not mean that he was created, for since God is eternal mind, he had his Word within himself from the beginning, being eternally wise.” – Athenagoras of Athens, A Plea for the Christians

180 – “The three days before the luminaries were created are types of the Trinity, God, his Word, and his Wisdom.” – Theopholis of Antioch, Letter to Autolycus

216 – “Keep always in mind the rule of faith which I profess and by which I bear witness that the Father and the Son and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and then you will understand what is meant by it. Observe now that I say the Father is other, the Son is other, and the Spirit is other. This statement is wrongly understood by every uneducated or perversely disposed individual, as if it meant diversity and implied by that diversity a separation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” – Tertullian, Against Praxeas

225 – “For we do not hold that which the heretics imagine: that some part of the being of God was converted into the Son, or that the Son was procreated by the Father from non-existent substances, that is, from a being outside himself, so that there was a time when he did not exist.” – Origen, Fundamental Doctrines

225 – “For it is the Trinity alone which exceeds every sense in which not only temporal but even eternal may be understood. It is all other things, indeed, which are outside the Trinity, which are to be measured by time and ages.” – Origen, Fundamental Doctrines

225 – “The Word alone of this God is from God himself, wherefore also the Word is God, being the being of God. Now the world was made from nothing, wherefore it is not God.” – St. Hippolytus of Rome, Refutation of All Heresies

235 – “For Scripture as much announces Christ as also God, as it announces God himself as man. It has as much described Jesus Christ to be man, as moreover it has also described Christ the Lord to be God. Because it does not set forth him to be the Son of God only, but also the son of man; nor does it only say, the son of man, but it has also been accustomed to speak of him as the Son of God. So that being of both, he is both, lest if he should be one only, he could not be the other. For as nature itself has prescribed that he must be believed to be a man who is of man, so the same nature prescribes also that he must be believed to be God who is of God…. Let them, therefore, who read that Jesus Christ the son of man is man, read also that this same Jesus is called also God and the Son of God.” – Novatian, Treatise on the Trinity

250 – Arius is born

262 – “It is blasphemy, then, and not a common one but the worst, to say that the Son is in any way a handiwork … But if the Son came into being, there was a time when these attributes did not exist; and, consequently, there was a time when God was without them, which is utterly absurd.” – St. Dionysius of Rome, Letter to Dionysius of Alexandria

265 – “There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged. Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything super-induced, as if at some former period it was non-existent, and at some later period it was introduced. And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abides ever.” – St. Gregory the Wonderworker, Declaration of Faith

313 – Arius is ordained to the Priesthood and begins teaching for the first time.

It is very obvious from these and an abundance of other writings that the early Christians were most certainly not Arians. They believed that Christ is indeed God and, even before they had the word, they were Trinitarian.

I will conclude with one final, authoritative quote, this one recording the words of the Lord Himself on this matter:

“Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.'” – Gospel of John 8:58

4 thoughts on “Myths of the Council of Nicaea, part two”

  1. Just saying hi. We've commented back and forth in the comments of one of your youtube videos.

    Nice collection of quotes, and I especially like the comment about the gnostic Jesus being too divine. That's oversimplified, of course, but it's sure an interesting way of stating the heresy.

  2. Paul:
    Thanks for the comments. Definitely oversimplified, but, unfortunately, I have to do that for some of my videos in order to pack all the info in and boil it down — and it addresses the very obviously and blatantly false assertion that the Gnostics believed in a “more human” Christ. I almost spit my juice out when I heard that on the History Channel — but, then again, I should have expected it from them, I guess.

    Way ahead of you on that one (see Myth #2 in my first video: ;). Even though I addressed it I've already got comments on my second (this one) at YouTube saying something about the Bishops there getting rid of 26 books of the Bible — the craziness never ends.

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