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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

2. The Triumph Of Christianity (27 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church
Page 8

Council of Nicaea — First Ecumenical Council.

These were the years of Constantine’s triumph.
His victory over Licinius in 323 had finally confirmed his supreme power, and he pictured a united empire, spiritually renewed by a united Church. Suddenly, instead of his dream there was sad reality: new disputes and divisions. In all likelihood his Christian counselors gave him the idea of summoning a council of bishops, the customary means used by the Church to settle controversy. Constantine wanted to make of this council the symbol and crown of his own victory and of the new position of the Church in the empire. And so the first ecumenical council was summoned at Nicaea in the spring of the year 325. It was universal, not in the number of bishops attending (tradition defines it as the council of the 318 Fathers), but in its conception and significance. For the first time, after centuries of semi-subterranean existence, prelates gathered from all parts of the Church, many still with the marks of wounds and mutilations received under Diocletian. The unprecedented magnificence of their reception and the hospitality and kindness of the emperor confirmed their joyous assurance that a new era had begun and that Christ was indeed victorious over the world. Constantine himself was the first to interpret the council in this way. He had designated it for the twentieth anniversary of his reign and wanted a gala occasion and rejoicing; as he said in his speech to the assembled bishops on the opening day, disputes were “more dangerous than war and other conflicts; they bring me more grief than anything else.”

The importance of the Council of Nicaea lies, of course, first of all in the great victory the truth sustained there. It left no records or “Acts,” as the other ecumenical councils have done; we know only that it condemned Arianism and inserted in the traditional baptismal symbol of the faith a new precise definition of the relationship of the Son to the Father, by calling the Son “consubstantial” (homoousion) with the Father, and consequently equal to Him in divinity. This term was so precise as to exclude any possibility of reinterpretation. Arianism was unconditionally condemned.

But the new definition, too, was to be for many long years a stumbling block and a temptation, and it plunged the Church into yet another lengthy dispute, which took up the next half-century. Hardly any other fifty-year period in the history of the Church has had such significance in defining its future. The immediate reason for the controversy was that the condemned Arians not only did not surrender, but by means of very complex intrigues were able to bring the government authorities over to their side. The participation of the emperor in the life of the Church was a chief element in this new struggle, and one must say from the start that the events of the fourth century from this point of view were more than destructive — they were truly tragic.


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