It has long been our opinion at Saint Benedict Center that a thorough understanding of the twenty-one Ecumenical Councils of the Church would be a great inspiration to Catholics. Especially is this true today when we are laboring to preserve that Faith contained in Scripture and Tradition, exactly as it was entrusted to the Church by God our Savior.
As a nation cannot be known unless its history is studied, neither can Holy Mother Church be known, nor loved and defended, until we are familiar with her periods of unity and turmoil, and the deeds of her outstanding saints and sinners. To obtain such knowledge then, it is wise to turn to these renowned Councils. For they stand as eloquent witnesses to the Faith and experiences of the Church, since each Council had its origin in a crisis of large, even universal magnitude.
The twenty-one Councils, like the Popes, can edify, but they can also give scandal, because they are not impeccable. But above all, the Councils demonstrate the traditional, uncompromising attitude of the Church in matters of doctrine. For when they rise to the height of their responsibility to proclaim with authority and majesty the revealed Truths, they are guaranteed by a Divine assistance not to lead us into error. Thus, if Catholics today knew the history of the previous twenty Councils, they would not be confused by Vatican II, which, by the will of the Pope, was merely pastoral, and not dogmatic. They would realize that no doctrinal definition came from it, and would be better prepared to live by their traditional Faith, and strive to protect it in this post-Vatican II era.
An Ecumenical, or General, Council is a solemn assembly of the bishops of the world, convoked by the Pope and subject to his authority. Its purpose is to discuss officially those matters that concern either the Faith or ecclesiastical discipline.
The model for all the twenty-one Councils is the Council of Jerusalem, mentioned in Holy Scripture (Acts 15), and attended by all but one of the Apostles of Our Lord. It was convened in the year 51 by Saint Peter to settle the first crisis in the history of the Church, the heresy of the Judaizers — converted Jews who held that the prophetic and figurative practices of the Mosaic Law ought to continue side by side with the seven Sacraments. The Council was certainly “general” for the embryonic church, but could not be called “ecumenical,” i.e., representing the entire inhabited earth, because the Church was not yet established to the measure of such magnitude. Nevertheless, the Apostolic Council establishes the clear precedent for the Church to hold similar sessions.
As a witness to the Faith of the Church, the more ancient a Council is, the more valuable is its testimony. And this gives a decided preeminence to the eldest of them all, the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea.
Some Background Information
Our story unfolds in the Fourth Century, or in the Three Hundreds, if you wish, in a near-Eastern village, quite easy to find. All we must do is to locate Istanbul, the principal city of modern Turkey, cross over the narrow strait of the Bosphorus to the Asiatic side, and then travel inland some seventy-five miles. Here is our destination, Iznik, which harbors a beautiful lake of the same name. It is a village of 2,500 Moslems, but more significantly, it is all that remains of the once prosperous Catholic city of Nicea, whose name is immortalized in the Nicene Creed. In the practically tenantless hamlet stands a barren tree fixed with a monument to inform the visitor that on this very spot stood the ancient edifice wherein was held the first General Council of the Catholic Church.
That great and holy synod took place 1652 years ago, in the year of Our Lord 325, only twelve years after the Age of the Catacombs, an age that was made glorious by the blood of at least eleven million Christians. So recent had the last persecution been that many of the 318 bishops attending the synod bore on their bodies testimony of the tortures they had undergone for the Faith. In fact, so disfigured were they, that the Fathers of the Council broke into tears of love and veneration at the sight of them.
One of the last martyrs to die for the Faith before the end of the official persecutions was Saint Lucy; who, on the eve of her death in 304, prophesied that she saw the dawning of religious freedom for the Church and the end of the last and most dreadful of all the persecutions, that of Emperor Diocletian. Nine years later, in 313, that prophecy was fulfilled with the ascendancy of Constantine the Great as Emperor of the West. He, together with Licinius, the Emperor of the East, signed one of the most famous of all historical documents, the Edict of Milan, which acknowledged the right of Catholics to worship, and dissolved the ancient law whereby the profession of Christianity was considered a capital offense.
Constantine was the son of Constantius Chlorus, one of the four emperors in the Tetrarchy of Diocletian who simultaneously ruled the extensive empire, and the only one of the four emperors who did not press the persecution of Christians. Through this same father, Constantine was related by blood to the Flavian House, which in the first Christian century had given to the empire three emperors, and to the Church two glorious saints and martyrs, Saint Flavius Clemens and Saint Flavia Domitilla. But of all the members of this famous family, Constantine’s mother receives the highest honor. Although a pagan at one time, she became the great Saint Helena, and the discoverer of the True Cross.
Constantine became emperor in 306. But before becoming sole emperor in 323, two years before the Council, he had to overcome his major opponents, Maxentius in the West, and Licinius in the East, each of whom would have frustrated the policy of toleration toward Christians.
The first opponent he conquered was the pagan usurper, Maxentius, who occupied Rome. Constantine defeated him in 312 at the famous battle of Milvian Bridge. But all the credit for this victory does not go to Constantine. For at noon on the day of the battle, while leading his army on Rome, there appeared in the sky over them, a cross, and over it was written in Greek the words, “In this sign thou shalt conquer.” Then, on the night following the victory, Our Lord came to Constantine while he slept. He bore in His hand the same sign that had appeared in the sky, and ordered the son of Saint Helena to place on his royal standards the sacred symbol of His Passion. The standard — known ever since as the Labarum — was prepared immediately, and behind it the armies of Constantine, still on the whole pagan, would win victory after victory.
In the next year, 313, Licinius was persuaded by Constantine to come to Milan and sign with him the Edict of toleration towards the Christians. Returning to his empire, however, Licinius ignored the Edict and continued his pagan policy of persecution. He was finally overcome in the naval battle of Chrysopolis in 323. This victory made Constantine sole emperor. And at last a relative peace settled upon the East and West. But not for long. Satan was stirring, and a far more serious threat to order was unmasking itself — the threat of a religious insurrection in the Church, far more damaging than any persecution which had assaulted Her from the outside. The cause of this great storm throughout the East was the priest Arius, from the see of Alexandria in Egypt. And it was because of his heresy (now called Arianism) that the First Council of Nicea was summoned.
Of all the heresies which have arisen to afflict the Church, Arianism was one of the most contemptible, for it attacked the Divinity of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Arius preached that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was not equal with the Father but was subordinate to Him. Christ is not God, said Arius; He is but the first and most exalted of creatures!
The pernicious teachings of the priest received welcome audience with those weak in the Faith. Laymen and even members of the clergy, some in high places in the hierarchy, fell into heresy. Apparently, the newly acquired liberty of the Church brought with it an increase in the number of those who would glory in the name “Christian,” while really repudiating the Christian beliefs and values, and clinging to their own brand of comfortable, naturalistic religion and pagan morals.
Arius used every device within his power to propagate his false doctrine. He was a master artist who could play on all the strings of our fallen nature. It is said of him that there was no greater logician in his time, nor a man more skilled in the art of persuasion. As one historian wrote:
He used his very persuasive gifts of oratory and writing, his reputation for learning, his handsome person, his genius for making and flattering friends, even his ability to bring fine theological problems within the understanding of the people through the medium of popular songs. During the height of the Arian heresy, the attributes of the august Son of God and His life in the adorable Trinity — before the contemplation of which the angels in Heaven veil their faces — resounded in coarse song in the market places, rose in shrill humor from the throats of fishwives on the water front, rang in noisy chorus through the night, the theme of drinking songs in the inns and hostelries.
Arius could not have found a more blasphemous way to promote his lies, and misuse his exceptional talents. Just imagine! The adorable Son of God laughed about in the market places, even being the subject of drinking songs. But, then, such vulgar and sacrilegious behavior always accompanies heresy.
Rumblings of the storm reached Emperor Constantine, who promptly called upon his counselor and friend Hosius, the Spanish Bishop of Cordova, to go to Eqypt and seek a reconciliation between Arius and his bishop, Saint Alexander of Alexandria. Thus, bearing with him a personal letter from the Emperor to Bishop Alexander, he made the journey to Alexandria. The Emperor requested of the Egyptian Bishop a very simple thing; in fact, almost any bishop of our times would have been eager to oblige such an august personage. But Saint Alexander, thank God, was of another stamp. He bluntly
refused to receive Arius back into communion. As he explained to his fellow shepherd from Spain, the cause for the dismissal of that “wicked serpent’ had not been removed, so reconciliation was impossible. Hosius, unquestionable in his orthodoxy, understood his position full well.
Upon his return to Spain, this simple bishop, together with the ruler Constantine, concluded that the only solution to the complex problem rocking the East was to summon a general assembly of all the Church leaders. And having obtained authority from the Sovereign Pontiff, Saint Sylvester I, Constantine sent out letters of invitation to every bishop in the empire and (as appears form the list of the bishops in attendance) outside the empire as well. Arius was also invited to come and freely explain his views. This the heresiarch could not resist. For it flattered his conceit to realize that all the agitation and concern was on his account.
But knowing that he would need support at the Council for this controversial position, the clever Arius sought out the notoriously ambitious Eusebius, the Bishop of Nicomedia, who not only agreed to help Arius, but also delighted in spearheading the Arian cause in Council debates. Eusebius eventually became the real leader of the Arian party, as well as the counselor of Constantine, into whose confidence he had skillfully insinuated himself through his friendship with Constantine’s sister, Constantia. Because of Eusebius’ influence upon Constantine — who looked upon Arianism as an ‘idle war of words’ — the heresy became so well established in the see of Constantinople that for fifty years, from the death of Constantine until the reign of Theodosius the Great, every bishop of Constantinople was Arian.
“Eusebius and Arius,” said Saint Athanasius, “like serpents coming out of their holes, have vomited forth the poison of this impiety; Arius daring to blaspheme openly, and Eusebius defending his blasphemy. He was not, however, able to support the heresy until he found a patron for it in the Emperor….”
The Holy Synod Begins
It was in the Spring of the year 325, when the great leaders of Christendom began to converge upon Nicea, the city designated for the Council because of its accessibility from the main centers of the Catholic world at the time. The 20th of May marked the official opening of the synod. Eusebius of Caesarea, a Father of Church history and confidant of the Emperor, who himself played a significant role at the Council, described its opening.
When all the bishops had entered the place appointed for their session, the sides of which were filled by a great number of seats, each took his place, and awaited in silence the arrival of the Emperor. Ere long the functionaries of the court entered, but only those who were Christians; and when the arrival of the Emperor was announced, all those present rose. He appeared as a messenger from God, covered with gold and precious stones — a magnificent figure, tall and slender, and full of grace and majesty. To his majesty he united a great modesty and devout humility, so that he kept his eyes reverently bent upon the golden seat which had been prepared for him when the bishops gave him the signal to do so.
The Bishop of Caesarea then rose and addressed a brief salutation, on behalf of the assembly, to Emperor Constantine. Then, Eusebius sitting down, the son of Queen Saint Helena courteously returned the greeting, and afterwards proceeded to plead for peace and unity.
Constantine was not a theologian. He was a soldier. As such, he was trained to detect the strategy of an enemy on the battlefield, not the subtlety of that father of all heresies, Satan, the prince of darkness who can make himself appear as an angel of light. Constantine’s main goal was to return order to his troubled kingdom. And though he did see blasphemy in Arius’ ideas, he did not realize that there can never be peace in a land where heresy is running rampant. For heresy always leads to moral anarchy, and moral anarchy eventually leads to social and political disintegration. The rightness or wrongness of Arianism, therefore, was not as important to him as the fact that the controversy was disturbing his empire, and the sooner the trouble ended, the better. Thus, the great monarch concluded his address to the bishops with these words: “I shall not believe my end to be attained, until I see that peace and that union reign among you which you are commissioned, as the appointed of the Lord, to preach to others.” Then the Emperor handed over the proceedings and discussions to the spiritual leaders there assembled, being himself present at all the sessions and following the discussions with great interest.
The number of the bishops of the Council was 318. Twenty-two of them were in the Arian faction, with Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia as their leader. It is interesting to remark here that unlike many of the other bishops, neither the Bishop of Nicomedia nor any of his Arian companions bore on his body any marks of persecution.
In reporting the proceedings of the Council, the Church historian, Rufinus, explains that “…they then held daily sessions, and that they would not decide lightly or prematurely upon so grave a subject; that Arius was often called into the midst of the assembly; that they seriously discussed his opinions; that they attentively considered what there was to oppose them; that the majority rejected the impious system of Arius; and that the confessors especially declared themselves energetically against the heresy.’
Indeed the belligerent heresiarch was called before the assembly, and he so poured forth his opinions that many of the Fathers were seen to stop their ears rather than hear any more of his blasphemies. The Emperor himself was so furious at his sacrilegious opinions that it took all the influence of both Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea to prevent him from chastising the monster, physically, on the spot. From this point onward no one dared to profess pure Arianism!
But a third party now appeared, a group of about twelve to fifteen bishops, led by the intriguing Eusebius. He and his party claimed they had abandoned the position of Arius. But the Church historian, Theodoret, says of them that, “they attempted to conceal their impiety, and only secretly favored the blasphemies of Arius.” According to the testimony of Saint Athanasius, “the Eusebian intermediate party was very plainly invited by the Nicene Fathers to explain their opinions, and to give religious reasons for them. But hardly had they commenced speaking when the bishops were convinced of their heterodoxy.” The heresy may be expressed in something like the following statements. The Lord Jesus Christ, say the Eusebians, is indeed the “Word made flesh,” as is plainly revealed in Holy Scripture (John 1:14). But ” the Word,” before He became incarnate, was produced by the eternal mind, proceeding from God the Father as a child in a kind of spiritual birth, whence he can be called also the Son. He is, therefore, greater than other creatures, but not truly God.
In answer to such sophistries, the young Alexandrian deacon, Athanasius, who came to the Council as secretary and assistant of his saintly uncle, the Bishop of Alexandria, expounded the Catholic reply in clear and forceful terms.
The basis of the Christian Faith is nothing else but the Mystery of the Word incarnated in order to redeem men and make them children of God. But how could he divinize them if He were not Himself God? How could He communicate a divine sonship, even an adoptive one, if He were not by His own nature the Son of God?
Such clarity and uncompromising constancy in the Faith earned for Saint Athanasius the titles, Doctor of the Church and Champion of Orthodoxy. And it also earned for him a life of persecution by the semi-Arians and the cowardly Catholics.
When the Bishop of Nicomedia and his party realized that they could never obtain a majority at the Council, they directed all their efforts towards the formulation of an ambiguous and evasive creed; one, namely, that would leave the door open to Arian interpretation. But their stratagem was detected, thanks to the alertness of Athanasius and other saintly Fathers.
Saint Athanasius himself reports how difficult it was to discover the criterion , the sharp and decisive phrase, that would divide the faithful from the faithless.
To indicate clearly that the Word did not come forth from nothing, as the Arians maintained, the Fathers were inclined to accept the expression “The Word is from God.’ But presently the Eusebians were seen whispering together, ‘Is not everything from God? Are not we also, and all creatures, from God?”…
The Fathers then expressed their idea more precisely by adding; “The Word is the Power of God, the Eternal Image of the Father, perfectly like to the Father, unchangeable and True God.’ But when the passage was read, the Eusebians were observed again exchanging signs of mutual understanding. They were caught saying to one another; “All these expressions are suitable for the Son of God, since, according to the Bible, they are applied to man. Is not man called the image and glory of God?”…
“Consubstantial With the Father”
The Fathers of the Council could now see clearly that, no matter what expression they might use from Holy Scripture, the Eusebians were sure to find an opening for Arian equivocation. At this crucial point, philosophy, proving herself to be a true handmaid of theology, came to the rescue, and the Fathers fought fire with fire! That sharp and decisive word, which is not found in Holy Scripture, but is securely defined in philosophy, is the word “consubstantial.” Rendered into Greek it comes out “homoousios” and means “same substance.” This word implied two very subtle philosophical ideas, identity of substance and plurality of persons. Since no person can be “of the same substance” with himself, the word necessarily involves more than one person. But the hero of the Council, Saint Athanasius, explains more clearly the theology of the term, saying:
…That the Son is not only like to the Father, but that, as His Image, He is the same as the Father; that He is of the Father; and that the resemblance of the Son to the Father, and His immortality, are different from ours: For in us they are something acquired, and arise from our fulfilling the divine commands. Moreover, they (the Fathers) wished to indicate by this, that His generation is different from that of human nature; that the Son is not only like to the Father, but inseparable from the substance of the Father; that He and the Father are One and the same…as the sun and its splendor are inseparable.
At the general behest of the Assembly, Saint Athanasius, with the assistance for Hosius of Cordova, then drew up the celebrated Nicene Creed, which included the crucial and discriminating test word, “homoousios.” The controversial section of the Creed reads: “I believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God… true God of true God. Begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father….” The Nicene Creed was then presented to all the bishops to be signed. Failure to subscribe was now tantamount to automatic exclusion from the communion of the faithful. And to bishops denying the Creed, it meant deposition and exile.
Two of the Eusebian bishops refused to sign. With Arius and a few priests who were supporting him, they were promptly sent into exile by Constantine’s command. But Eusebius and some of his other followers, found a way out. Rather than suffer exile and lose all dignities, they subscribed to what appeared at first glance to be the Nicene Creed. What happened was that when the Creed was given to Eusebius and his colleagues to sign, they perceived that by inserting an “iota,” the Greek letter corresponding to the English “I,” in the middle of the word “homoousios,” making it “homoiousios,” the meaning of the word would be altered to say “of like substance.”
Having committed this forgery, they signed. But shortly thereafter the trickery was discovered, and the Emperor banished them also.
Unfortunately, Constantine, who started out by upholding the Creed of the Council and the cause of orthodoxy, was eventually prevailed upon, probably by his sister Constantina, to favor the Eusebian party. Thus, he not only recalled the heretics from the banishment he had put upon them after the great Council, but then, amazingly, sent into exile Saint Athanasius, the one man best equipped by nature and grace to see through the doctrinal pretexts and sham holiness of the heretics, and to bring back the true Faith to the people! So the Arian heresy, instead of diminishing, went on gathering in fury until Saint Jerome, writing thirty-four years after the Council, was forced to cry out, “The whole world groaned, and marveled at finding itself Arian!”
Prayers of the Just Bring Down God’s Justice
Saint Athanasius was in exile off and on for thirty-one years. Upon his return to Alexandria from his last exile, in 365, Saint Athanasius received such popular acclaim that the Arian Emperor Valens, now ruling the Empire, feared an uprising should he again banish him. So, for the remaining eight years of his life, until his death in May 373, he was allowed to perform quietly the duties of his office. The great warrior of Jesus Christ, against whom the whole world had leagued itself to persecute him for the Catholic Faith, died peacefully in his residence in the forty-sixth year of his priesthood, renowned and beloved throughout Christendom.
The death of the heretic who brought such storm and heartache and loss of souls to the Church was a fitting contrast to the holy death of the blessed Athanasius. Arius died thirty-seven years before the saint he fought against. He died in the midst of his greatest triumph with God’s wrath clearly upon him. With the help of the heretical Bishop of Nicomedia, he had overcome the doctrinal qualms of the worried Constantine, and was about to be received as a priest into the communion of the Church at Constantinople. This was to be carried out, on the orders of the Emperor, by the holy man who at that time was Bishop of Constantinople, Saint Alexander, who in vain had pleaded with Constantine not to be deceived by the heretic.
The great Doctor of the Church, Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, wrote, “Saint Alexander, grieved to the heart, went to the church accompanied by only two persons, and prostrating himself on the floor, with tears in his eyes, prayed to the Lord: ‘O my God, either take me out of the world, or take Arius, that he may not ruin your Church.’ Thus Saint Alexander prayed. And on the same day, Saturday, at three o’clock, the Eusebians were triumphantly conducting Arius through the city, and he went along, boasting of his re-establishment; but when he came to the great square, the vengeance of God overtook him; he got a terrible spasm in his bowels, and was obliged to seek a place of retirement. A private place near the square was pointed out to him; he went in and left a servant at the door.
“He immediately burst open like Judas; his intestines, his spleen, and his liver all fell out, and thus his guilty soul took her flight to her Creator, deprived of all communion of the Church. When he delayed too long, his friends came to the door, and on opening it, they found him stretched on the floor in a pool of blood in that horrible state.”
Thus ends one of the most dramatic periods of Church history. The prayers of the faithful in the time of Saint Athanasius were heard, and they saw how God’s justice is reserved for those who dare blaspheme and preach false doctrines.
But although Arius was gone, his heresy did not die with him, but continues even to this day. It is, therefore, the obligation of all the faithful who live in this Age of Mary to continue the fight that Saint Athanasius started, that we, too, might see God’s justice intervene, putting an end not only to Arianism, but to all heresy, so that the Heart of His Immaculate Mother may reign throughout the world.