Orthodoxy and Heresy (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.11)

One of the problems Constantine encountered when he decided to become a Christian and make Christianity the favored religion in the Roman Empire was the divisions in the Christian Church. There had been various heresies before the fourth century, but one was just beginning to take hold throughout Christianity when Constantine converted in 312. This heresy was called Arianism.

Arianism began with a deacon named Arius who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Plato’s ideas were very popular in the Roman Empire at that time and Arius was trying to find a way to make Christianity fit in with them. One of Plato’s popular ideas was that God was so different from material things that he could not communicate directly with them. Arius concluded that it was impossible, then, for the idea of the Incarnation to be true. If God and material things are so entirely different that they cannot even talk to each other there is no way that God could have become a human being because humans are made of matter.

Arius believed that Jesus was not both God and a human being, like most Christians believed, but was instead something else entirely. He was neither God nor a human being, Arius concluded. Instead, he is something in between the two, not quite God and not quite man.

Arius’s ideas were immediately rejected by the bishop of Alexandria and most other Christians, but some decided to accept Arius’s ideas. These people who thought that Arius was right were called Arians. The people who rejected Arius’s ideas and kept to the older Christian beliefs about Jesus called themselves orthodox, which is a Greek word that means “right-believing.” The bitter fight between the Arians and the orthodox lasted for decades.

Constantine decided to intervene and try to mediate the conflict. He sent out letters to every bishop in the Roman Empire as well as bishops of Christian communities outside of the Roman Empire. He invited them to gather at a city called Nicaea, near Constantinople, in the year 325. In total, over 300 bishops as well as hundreds of priests, deacons, and other leaders in the Church gathered at Nicaea to discuss Arius’s ideas. This gathering of Church all the leaders of the Church from everywhere in the world is called the Council of Nicaea. It also sometimes called the First Ecumenical Council, which means it was the first council of all of the leaders of the Christian Church.

The bishops at the Council of Nicaea allowed both Arius and those who were against him to speak. Each side tried to defend its ideas using the books of the Bible and books written by widely respected earlier Christian leaders. In the end, the bishops voted unanimously against Arius and in favor of the orthodox belief in the Incarnation. Arianism lived on for about another hundred years but lost its popularity over time and eventually disappeared.

The bishops of the Council of Nicaea used a word that had been used by Christians for about 200 years to describe God. They said that God is a Trinity, which means that although there is only one God he is three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In explaining the idea of the Trinity, some early Christians used the human body as an analogy. They said the Father would be the mind who directs everything, the Son the right hand, and the Holy Spirit the left hand. Another early Christian used the example of a candle flame to show how the three are related to each other. If you take one candle and use it to light two other candles, you have three flames but they are still all fire.

In addition to defining Christian beliefs, the bishops at the Council of Nicaea took care of a few other issues that were causing fights between Christians. For example, they set the date for Easter, the holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. Most Christians today still celebrate Easter using the date set by the bishops at Nicaea.

 

Review Questions

  1. What was Arius’s idea about who Jesus was?
  1. What was the orthodox idea about who Jesus was?
  1. What is the name of the council called by Constantine to decide between the Arians and the orthodox?
  1. What year was this council held?
  1. Who came?

 

Vocabulary Words

Orthodox – the correct or most popular belief or opinion

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