Before the Council Meets
The previous page ended with the emperor Constantine’s decision to call an œcumenical council, taken toward the end of the year 324 or the beginning of 325 after the failure of Hosius’s mission to Alexandria. That council met at Nicæa in Bithynia, not far from the capital Nicomedia, in June 325. The church historians say nothing of what happened in the six months between the end of Hosius’s mission to Alexandria and the convocation of the Council of Nicæa, no doubt considering the events insignificant. In fact a number of things happened, which may be insignificant but are nonetheless interesting.
We know of them only through collections of canons and letters of which the Greek originals were lost but that survive in Syriac translation. Scholars first became aware of relevant documents in the middle of the 19th century, and further documents turned up in the first half of the 20th century. What we can deduce from them involves a certain amount of conjecture. I base the reconstruction that follows on Timothy D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (1981), R.P.C. Hanson, The search for the Christian doctrine of God (1988) and Alastair H.B. Logan, ‘Marcellus of Ancyra and the Councils of AD 325: Antioch, Ancyra, and Nicaea,’ J. Theol. Studies, NS, 43, 2 (1992), pp. 428–446.
We know that Constantine summoned the council originally to meet, not at Nicæa in Bithynia, but at the metropolis of Galatia, Ancyra (now Ankara in Turkey). The bishop of Ancyra, Marcellus, was a strong supporter of St Alexander of Alexandria and an equally vehement opponent of Arius.
We now come to something more speculative. We know from Eusebius of Cæsarea’s Contra Marcellum that he and Marcellus met and debated the issues involved, although Eusebius does not say when. It seems, however, that a year or two before the council at Alexandria in 324, Eusebius of Cæsarea, Paulinus of Tyre and Asterius the Sophist went on a tour of Syria and Asia Minor to promote Arius’s cause, including a visit to Ancyra. It may have been on this occasion that they debated the question with Marcellus, who criticised them for teaching more than one οὐσία in the Godhead. Marcellus himself was a firm believer in one divine οὐσία. St Alexander, on the other hand, rarely used the word with reference to the Trinity, probably because of its ambiguity. Marcellus must now have realised that the question of the οὐσία of the Godhead was the one vulnerable point in the Arians’ argument: they could not confess one οὐσία or its equivalent ὁμοούσιος, ‘of one essence,’ without implicitly denying their entire teaching.
As a Latin-speaking westerner, Hosius was accustomed to teach one substantia in the Godhead, the Latin equivalent of the Greek οὐσία, and in canvassing the eastern bishops on the issue, would have learnt Marcellus’s views. Further, Ancyra had been the venue for a regional council in 314 notable for its disciplinary canons. What more natural, then, when the meeting in Alexandria to reconcile Alexander and Arius failed, than that Hosius should write the emperor recommending a council in Ancyra to condemn the Arian doctrines.
Meanwhile, St Philogonius, patriarch of Antioch, had died in December 324 and the bishops of the region were meeting to elect his successor, St Eustathius. Hosius, returning from Alexandria to Nicomedia, stopped in Antioch. The encyclical letter, written probably by Hosius himself to communicate the results of the council to other bishops, describes what happened.
‘When I arrived at the church in Antioch, I saw that it was full of troublesome weeds, sown by the teaching of certain men and their contentious faction … It seemed necessary for the likeminded fellow-ministers from the surrounding territories to step out of their usual boundaries and help their brothers here in Antioch deal with this most pressing and urgent matter. This included those from Palestine, Arabia, Phoenicia, Syria, Cilicia and some from Cappadocia. We met so that, by applying our minds to scrutinizing and reviewing, we would completely establish what was proper for the church.
‘This subject has been most pressing, since our brother and fellow-minister, the dearly beloved Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, has expelled certain priests of Arius’ party because of the blasphemy which they raised against our Savior. Unfortunately, they were able to deceive others with their ungodly teaching and were even received into fellowship by them …
‘Alexander of Alexandria’s action against Arius and his party was continually on our minds and in our discussion. We decided that if anyone should appear and make themselves a corruptive influence by teaching contrary to these statements, they should be cast out of the church, so that they could not drag down some of the simpler church members by remaining in our midst …’
(Codex Parisinus Syriacus 62, Syriac translation of a lost Greek original, published in 1905 by Edward Schwartz with Greek retroversion, from Wisconsin Lutheran College fourthcentury.com website, trans. from the Greek retroversion by Aaron J. West.)
The bishops present proceeded to draft a statement of faith, comparable to that presented shortly before to the council in Alexandria by St Alexander:
‘Our faith is as follows: To believe in one God, Father, almighty, incomprehensible, unchangeable and unalterable, administrator and governor of all, just, good, maker of heaven and earth, and all that is in them, the Lord of the Law and the Prophets and the New Testament.
‘And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son, begotten not from nothing, but from the Father; not made, but a genuine offspring.
‘He was begotten inexpressibly and unspeakably, because only the Father who begot and the Son who was begotten know it, ‘for no one knows the Father except the Son, or the Son except the Father’ [Matthew 11:27]. He always exists and never before did he not exist, for we have been taught from the holy Scriptures that he alone is God’s image. He is not unbegotten, for he is clearly begotten of the Father. This status has not been placed upon him; in fact, it would be godless blasphemy to say so. But the scriptures say that he is the real and truly begotten Son, so we believe him to be unchangeable and unalterable.
‘He has not been begotten or come into being merely by the Father’s will, nor has this status been placed upon him, which would make him appear to be from nothing. But he was begotten as was fitting for him, not at all according to the impermissible idea that he resembles, is of similar nature to, or is associated with any of the things that came into existence through him.
‘But, because this transcends all thought, conception, and expression, we simply confess that he has been begotten from the unbegotten Father, God the Word, true Light, righteousness, Jesus Christ, Lord of all and Savior. He is the image not of the will or of anything else except the actual being of the Father.
‘This one, the Son, God the Word, was also born in the flesh from Mary the Mother of God and was made flesh. After suffering and dying, he rose from the dead and was taken into heaven, and he sits at the right hand of the Majesty of the Most High. He is coming to judge the living and the dead.
‘Just as the holy writings teach us to believe in our Savior, so also they teach us to believe in one Spirit, one catholic church, the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment which will pay back to each man according to what he has done in the flesh, whether good or evil.’
Like St Alexander’s confession, this one probably did not use the word οὐσία—the reference to ‘the actual being of the Father’ may have used the term ὑπόστασις—we cannot be sure since the document is a translation into Syriac, but the ambiguity of οὐσία discouraged its use in creeds at this time.
The bishops then added anathemas to their confession, the first record that we have of anathemas against doctrinal error of any church council:
‘We anathematize those who say or think or proclaim that the Son of God is a creation; has come into being, or was made, or was not truly begotten; or that there was a time when he did not exist (for we believe that he was and that he is Light); still also those who think he is unchangeable only by his free will [i.e., not according to his essence], as with those who think he did not exist before he was begotten and that he is not unchanging by his nature as the Father is. He has been proclaimed as the Father’s image in every respect, especially in this respect, that he does not change.’
Theodotus of Laodicea in Syria was present at the council, as well as Eusebius of Cæsarea in Palestine and Narcissus of Neronias in Phœnicia. (Eusebius had dedicated one of his apologetic treatises to Theodotus a decade before.) Hosius must have known from Marcellus that all three taught more than one οὐσία in the Godhead. There was nothing specifically in the bishops’ statement of faith that would have prevented the three signing it, but Hosius subjected them to an interrogation that called their orthodoxy into question: ‘[They] have appeared together and brought forward ideas contrary to those expressed here, as if they have forgotten the holy Scriptures and the apostolic teachings … In fact, from what they were asked and what they asked in turn, they clearly were proven to agree completely with Arius’ party, and to hold opinions contrary to what was established by our synod.’ As a result, they were suspended from communion and directed, if they wished the anathema to be lifted, to plead their case before the great and priestly synod to meet shortly at Ancyra.
Constantine soon after decided to move the council from Ancyra to Nicæa in Bithynia (now Iznik in Turkey) at the eastern end of Lake Ascania. He may have been prompted by memories of the Council of Arles in 314, which had so signally failed to end the Donatist schism in the West, and decided that this time he would have to take personal charge of proceedings. Nicæa is just 25 miles from Nicomedia, readily accessible from the capital, while Ancyra was more than 150 miles away as the crow flies in the middle of Asia Minor. Whatever his motivation, the stage was now set for the first ever œcumenical council, the great and holy Council of Nicæa.