6. The Intervention of Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea

Cover ImageDünzl, Franz.

A Brief History of the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church

Translated by John Bowden.

New York: T&T Clark, 2007. Pp. xi + 148. Paper. $26.95.

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It’s a modern misconception (perpetuated by such fiction as The Da Vinci Code) that the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in order to fabricate/invent the deity of Christ, but nothing is farther from the truth.  Dünzl does well to summarize Constantine’s agenda in 4 points.

The unity of the cult, the unity of the church, the prosperity of the state and the success of imperial policy through the favour of the deity are the guidelines of the church-political programme which Constantine also pursued in his letter to Bishop Alexander and Arius. [p. 50]

Constantine was concerned with unity and maintaining peace and prosperity in his empire, his goals were not theological.  Dünzl also does well to mention that the dispute between Alexander and Arius was also not merely theological saying:

Nor was the dispute only over theology; it was also about the question of church discipline. Alexander, whose episcopal authority had been put into question by Arius and his friends, certainly did not want to suffer any further loss of face. [p. 51]

To hear Arius’ opponents tell it, he was a master propagandist and this factored highly into his gaining such a large following — this following threatened his bishop’s see and fragmented his congregation — actions that obviously did not go unnoticed by the emperor.

We’re also given a closer look at Eusebius of Caesarea and the part he played in the controversy.  We’re referred to a creed drafted by Eusebius in which he affirms that:

We believe in One God Father, Almighty, the Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in One Lord Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, God from God, Light from Light, Life from Life, Only-begotten Son, firstborn of all creation, before all ages begotten from the Father… [p. 53]

But Dünzl is quick (and quite right) to note that ‘the statements of the creed remained ambiguous — even Arius could have subscribed to them (if need be)…’ [p. 55]  Eusebius was a master at playing the middle position, occupying a place between Arius and Alexander in the dispute but with closer ties to Arius.

Once again we’re referred to the soteriological consequences for Christ’s deity which is a point that I feel many histories have tended to gloss over or neglect but Dünzl highlights it nicely in this volume saying:

By contrast, for the majority of the council the divinity of Jesus Christ is no mere honour bestowed on the Son by grace, but is in full accord with reality. This has consequences for soteriology, since in Arius’ system a (perfect) creature redeems other creatures; the council fathers differ, seeing redemption guaranteed by the true divinity of the saviour. [p. 56]

Another area that I feel is given too much attention and is hyped up way beyond necessity is regarding the term ‘homoousios’.  Dünzl correctly notes that the term homoousios while being considered a core statement of the creed is in and of itself ambiguous [p. 57] — both sides could affirm it and it’s semantic overlap with homoiousios was enough so as to make it ultimately irrelevant until a later period in history.

After providing us with what I felt was a pretty good summary of the Council of Nicaea and taking the time to emphasize that the discussion concerned the Son’s relationship to the Father, Dünzl ends the chapter by wrongly identifying the discussion as one concerning the Trinity when he says, ‘however, it was soon to prove that the dispute over the doctrine of the Trinity had by no means been settled with the council’ [p. 59].  This is so because the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t the focus, indeed, the Holy Spirit was almost completely absent from the proceedings of Nicaea, meriting only a brief mention in a clause at the end of the Nicene Creed (a point noted later in the book).


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