The primary church councils

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The Primary Councils of the Church, their focus, and their successes and/or failures are presented in the following articles.
The Council at Jerusalem 52 AD
The net result of this council was to release Gentile believers from Jewish legal observation. The reference by James in Acts 15:13-18 to the Tabernacle of David is an acknowledgment that the “religion” of Israel is not tied to the nation of Israel. The “residue” of men is an endorsement of Stephen’s true “ecclesia” doctrine and the association of his residue of (Jewish) men with Gentile believers enunciates a new association that is not Jewish and credits the origination of this body to the purposes of God in the beginning of the ages. This is the Pauline doctrine of Ephesians. From this point forward, the truly new begins. Scofield stated – “Dispensationally, this is the most important passage in the New Testament.”
Although not included in the standard list of ecumenical councils, this first of church councils included Greek, Jewish, and Roman believers and issues, with James as representative of Judaism, and Peter and Paul as representative of the Roman and Greek cultures and believers. This council essentially determined that Christianity would not be a sect of Judaism and, by default, Jerusalem would not be the center of the Christian world as it was of the Jewish world.

  • Council of Arles -314AD

Arles is located in southeast France about 54 miles northwest of Marseilles. It stands on the left bank of the Rhone. Arelate (Arles) was important in the time when Julius Caesar invaded Omnia Gallia. It was pillaged in 270 AD but restored by Constantine who made it his principal residence. It became one of the foremost cities in the western empire. Its bishopric was founded by St. Trophimus in the first century and it was the site of several ecclesiastical synods.

The first general council of the western church was summoned in 314 AD at Arles by the Emperor Constantine to settle the dispute between Catholics and Donatists, after an assembly of referees in 313 AD at Rome had failed to resolve the questions at issue. The most important question was the eligibility for priestly office of traditores or those who had delivered up their copies of the Scriptures during the Diocletian persecution. Thirty three bishops were present at Arles including three from Britain. Canons were drawn up by the synod that dealt with matters of ecclesiastical discipline, clerical and lay, and included a declaration that ordination was not invalid because it was performed by a traditore if it was otherwise regular. Thereby the principal contention of the Donatists was condemned.
The Roman authorities had from the first regarded Christianity as a subversive sect and had not initially distinguished it from Jewry. Being a Christian was a crime against the state. Pliny, as governor of Bythinia, asked the Emperor Trajan if all Christians should be automatically punished. He said ‘Yes!’, unless they proved their denial by sacrificing to the gods. Many believers did not take this easy path and suffered brutal persecution. Those at the beginning of the fourth century were particularly so. But in 313 AD this was changed through Constantine. Because of their insistence on social order and discipline, the churches had maintained themselves and organized themselves in a time of general disintegration in the face of the barbarians.
It is often speculated that Constantine moved the capital of empire from west to east to enable a smooth changeover from paganism to Christianity. It is also speculated that Constantine wanted to take advantage of the unity and cohesion that Christianity seemed to offer empire. But the unity he sought did not materialize. Controversies between different groups of Christians and theologians even threatened division in his empire. Constantine felt that by virtue of his office he had the right to intervene in such controversies and preside over the councils to settle them. Constantine further wanted to show he was supreme in ecclesiastical matters and hoped to mold the church into an instrument for consolidating the absolute power of the emperor. Unfortunately, the main body of Christian bishops at that time did not see themselves as servants of Imperial Government.
Constantine’s idea that political compromises could solve theological problems was not right. The councils summoned by Constantine seemed to promote the independent attitude of the bishops. But whereas in the east the church and the state became bound together after the Fall of Rome, it did not happen in the west. As a matter of fact, the departure of the seat of government from Rome to Constantinople meant more independence for the church leadership in Rome. As St. Ambrose said - ‘the emperor is within the church, not over it.’
After 315 AD, the Christian community became a respected body in society. This increased worldliness in the church and produced many nominal Christians. Reaction against this worldliness produced the institution of monasticism as many in the fourth century fled to the desert.
To worldliness and political entanglement was added a combination of ecclesiastical and secular power that could punish what was held to be treason against God and State, namely heresy. The persecuted had turned persecutor and those who disagreed with orthodox teaching were stripped of authority and exiled. In one case when all persuasion failed, Church and State combined to put them down by force. The Donatists present such a case.
The Donatist controversy was a continuation of third century dissension which was led by Novatian, a presbyter of the Roman Church. In the persecution of Decius in 250 AD, many believers apostasized and then sought re-admission to the church when peace was restored. Novatian held that those who had lapsed could not dispense the sacraments. The Bishop of Rome disagreed and wanted leniency. Novatian set himself up as rival bishop of Rome and became head of a rival sect allied with the Montanists. Some fifty years later a similar situation happened in the persecution of Diocletian. Many had given away their Scriptures and were known as traditore. One such was consecrated Bishop of Carthage in 311 AD. A faithful priest was installed by a rival group and his successor, Donatus, was charged with ecclesiastical offenses at the trial of the rival bishops which took place in Rome after an investigation instituted by Constantine. Donatus was found guilty at the Synod of Arles and Constantine confirmed his guilt. The Donatists were considered not only heretics but rebels. Their property was confiscated and their civil rights lost.
Nonetheless, Constantine and his successors were not able to crush them. A century later, St. Augustine tried to reason with them and in 411 AD arranged a conference at Carthage to resolve their differences. This also failed. Augustine who had previously maintained that force should not be used against heretics changed his mind because he felt the unity had to be maintained or the church could not function. Church and government combined to subjugate them and they simply became more fanatical. They attracted fugitive slaves and vagrants. There were violent outbursts in North Africa that almost led to civil war. Persecuted but not subdued they lingered on until the Saracen invasions of the seventh century.
The Donatist controversy raised two important questions. The first concerned the meaning of the sacraments. The Donatists held that Sacraments administered by the unworthy were invalid. Augustine held that the sacrament was valid if the receiver had faith even if the priest did not. God was the giver of grace and not man. The distinction between the office and the man was made....a distinction that enabled the catholic Church to survive some corrupt periods of history.
The other question was the meaning of the Church itself. Was the church for the perfect or for all levels of mankind. The Donatists called themselves the ‘communion of saints’. Augustine took the position the church is not perfect in the here and now but is a sign of what will be. There were wheat and tares in the church but only the church had power to cleanse and outside the church there is nothing. Some who appear to be elect may not be and vice versa. The elect cannot be the matter of human judgement; only God can judge who is and who is not elect.

To the Donatists the compromise between church and state was too great a price to pay for the continuity of the church. The problem continues with us today. There are always those who regard themselves as the ‘inner sanctum’ and the ‘little, little flock’. Bonhoeffer deals with the issue in ‘The Cost of Discipleship’. Nonetheless, one has to face the fact that the pastor was not very realistic who said, when speaking of the parable of the thirty, sixty, and one hundred fold increase, he only wanted one hundred fold members in his church.
Council of Nicaea – 325 AD
In order to put the Council of Nicaea in perspective it is necessary know something about the life and impact of the Emperor Constantine’
Constantine I was born 288 AD at Naissus, the modern Nish, in upper Meosia (Serbia). He was the illegitimate son of Constantius I and Favia Helena whom St. Ambrose described as an innkeeper. While a boy Constantine was sent as a ‘hostage’ to eastern court. He was with Diocletian in the east in 302. He was invested with the title of tribunus primi ordinis, or tribune of the first order, and served under Galerius on the Danube. In 305 AD, Diocletian and Maximianus abdicated and Constantius and Galerius became Augusti while Severus and Maximun Daia attained the rank of Caesars. Constantius demanded the return of his son which was unwillingly granted. Constantine joined his father at Bonania as he was about to cross into Britain to repel an invasion of the Picts and the Scots. Constantius won a victory and died at Eboracum or York in 306 AD. The army proclaimed Constantine Augustus which he accepted with feigned reluctance followed by a carefully worded letter to Galerius disclaiming responsibility for the troops’ action but requesting recognition as Caesar. Galerius could not decline in view of the temper of the western army and so for a year Constantine bore the title of Caesar in his own provinces and also in the east. Constantine fought with success against the Franks and the Allamani and reorganized the defenses of the Rhine. The rising of Maxentius in Rome, which was supported by his father Maximianus, led to the defeat and death of the western Augustus Severus. Maximianus thereon recognized Constantine as Augustus in 307 AD and confirmed their alliance by the marriage of his daughter Fausta with Constantine. Father and son-in-law held the consulship which was not recognized by the east. Galerius invaded Italy but a mutiny of his troops forced him back at the gates of Rome. Maximianus wanted Constantine to fall upon the retreating flank of Galerius but Constantine elected to walk a strict path to legitimacy. In 308 AD, Diocletian and Galerius held a conference at Carnuntum to annul the actions of the western rulers. Licinius was made Augustus of the West and Maximianus was set aside. The title filius Augustorum ( sons of Augustus) was given to Constantine and Maximin Daia, an arrangement which Constantine ignored and continued to bear the title of Augustus. In 309 AD when Constantine was proclaimed consul with Licinius in the East, no consuls were recognized in his dominions. In 310 AD, when Constantine was repelling an incursion of the Franks, Maximianus tried to resume the purple at Arelate (Arles). Constantine returned from the Rhine and pursued Maximianus to Massilia where he was put to death. Because Constantine’s title to the western empire depended on his recognition by Maximianus, he needed a new basis and found it by claiming descent from Claudius Gothicus who was represented as the father of Constantius Chlorus.
Constantine’s patience was rewarded. Galerius died in 311 AD and Maximin Daia marched to the shores of the Bosphorus and negotiated with Maxentius. This put Licinius in Constantine’s camp which he cemented by betrothing his half-sister Constantia to him. In 312 AD Constantine crossed the Alps before Maxentius could ready himself. Constantine stormed Susa defeating Maxentius’ generals at Turin and Verona and marched for Rome. This was a bold move for a generally cautious Constantine which is explained by Eusebius in his Life of Constantine. According to this account, Constantine saw a flaming cross in the noonday sky and the words ‘In hoc signo vinces’ or ‘in this sign, conquer’. This event led to Constantine’s conversion to Christianity according to Eusebius. In 312 AD, his opponent Maxentius trusted in superior numbers and marched out of Rome to dispute the crossing of the Tiber River at Pons Mulvius. Constantine’s army proved superior . His Gallic cavalry swept the enemy’s left wing into the Tiber and Maxentius perished. The remaining troops surrendered and became part of Constantine’s army with the exception of the Praetorian guard which was finally disbanded.
Constantine was now the undisputed master of Rome and the West. Christianity secured toleration throughout the empire by the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. This resulted from a meeting of Constantine and Licinius at which Constantine and Constantia married. In 314 AD, war broke out between the two and concluded by Constantine adding Illyricum and Greece to his dominion. Both men held the consulship in 315 AD and peace was preserved for nine years. Constantine grew stronger while Licinius, who resumed his persecution of Christians, grew weaker. In 323 AD, Licinius declared war. Licinius was defeated, captured at Nicomedia, and executed the next year.
Constantine was now sole emperor in East and West. In 326 AD, Constantine determined to move the seat of empire from Rome to the East. The foundation stone of Constantinople was laid before the end of the year. It is thought that this step was linked to Constantine’s desire to make Christianity the official religion of empire. Rome was the stronghold of paganism to which the senate clung with fervent devotion. Constantine apparently resolved to found a new capital for the new empire of his creation. He declared the site had been revealed to him in a dream and the ceremony of inauguration was performed by Christian ecclesiastics on May 11, 330 AD when the city was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.
In 332 AD, Constantine was called to aid the Samartians against the Goths. Two years later he was fighting on the Danube. In 335 AD, he divided the empire between his three sons and two nephews but Constantine retained the supreme government. Finally in 337 AD, Persia challenged his claims to the provinces formerly captured by Diocletian. Constantine was getting his army readied for war when he was taken ill and died at Ancyrona, a suburb of Nicomedia. He received Christian baptism by Eusebius shortly before his death and was buried in the church of the Apostles of Constantinople.
It has been observed that Constantine was entitled to be called ‘the Great’ by reason of what he did, not what he was. His claim to greatness lay in the fact that:

He discerned the future that lay before Christianity and enlisted it in his service,

he transformed the quasi-constitutional monarchy or ‘principate’ into the naked absolute that has been called the ‘dominate’

Constantine either by choice or by necessity entered into the religious fray and ecclesiastical decision making. He intervened in the Donatist controversy in 313 AD and presided at the Council of Arles in 314 AD. He conferred special privileges on the Catholic Church and clergy. He slowly exhibited an attitude of contemptuous toleration toward paganism as it sank from the established religion of the state to a mere superstitio. Pagan symbols disappeared from coinage and the Christian monogram became a prominent device. When the Arian controversy demanded attention, he presided at the Council of Nicaea and pronounced banishment against Athanasius.
Constantine determined to assert his supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs and took the position that his title of Pontifex Maximus gave him supreme control of religious matters throughout the empire. But the task exceeded his spiritual abilities. The Arian controversy raised fundamental issues of doctrine that could not be compromised. Thus the church which Constantine hoped to shape into an instrument of absolutism became a most determined opponent.
The time of Constantine was a time of feverish activity in the enactment of Codes and legislation. Constantine believed as had Diocletian that the time had come for society to be remodeled by the fiat of despotic authority and from his time forward it is clearly asserted that the will of the emperor is the only foundation of law. Constantine embodied the spirit of absolute authority which in both church and state would prevail for centuries.
Nicaea ( modern Isnik) is an ancient town of Asia Minor in Bithynia on Lake Ascania. The city was built by Antigonus about 316 BC. Soon after, Lysimachus, one of the four generals of Alexander, changed the name to Nicaea after his wife. Nicaea grew in importance after Constantinople became the center of empire. It remained important for some time after its incorporation into the Ottoman Empire but has degenerated into an insignificant village.

The council held here in 325 AD is of highest importance in Christian history and development. The council was called by Constantine The emperor discerned Christianity to be the most vital and vigorous of religions and the power of the future and wanted a positive relationship between it and the state. But the value of Christianity to the politician lay in it remaining the resilient, compact organization it has proved to be under the persecution of Diocletian. Unfortunately, as soon as Christianity was at peace with the state, feuds broke out that threatened to dismember it. Donatism in the west was followed by the Arian struggle in the east.

The issue that the council at Nicaea addressed was kindled by the Alexandrian presbyter Arius. This matter concerned the relation of Christ to God and assumed a formidable character.
Arianism rose out of the meaning of the Trinity and the Nature of Christ. Questions about the nature of God as revealed in the New Testament had begun in the second century. Worshiping Jesus as the Son of God was becoming the accepted form of devotion at Christian services. Explanation was required for Jewish converts, who were rigid monotheists, and for pagans, to distinguish Christianity from polytheism. What did the words ‘in the name of the father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost’ mean?
One school of thought was represented by the Monarchists, a term first used by Tertullian. The Monarchists had an Adoptionist view of Christ or a Pneumatic view. The Adoptionists held that Christ was a man in whom the Spirit of God dwelt to an intense degree. A man so completely obedient to this divine power that God elevated him tithe position of the Son of God.
The Pneumatics held that a Divine Spirit had assumed human flesh. Christ was the temporary manifestation in human form of a Divine Redeemer. But to ensure strict adherence to monotheism they adopted a Modalist view of God. This view was later called Sabellianism in the eastern churches after its protagonist Sabellius. Father and Son were held to be different designations or aspects or modes of the same subject. Before Creation God should be thought of as Father. In his appearance in the world God should be thought of as Son. Tertullian argued that the logical outcome of this view was that God Himself had suffered and died on the cross. This earned the Modalists the title of Patripassionists. Church leaders saw a danger in this. If Divine Substance was so exclusively stressed, the Son and Savior would have no substance in himself and his humanity would disappear. Sabellius was condemned but his views continued.
While theologians were struggling to formulate, the Christian belief and liturgy were taking shape in everyday Christian life and practice. Christ was being worshiped as Redeemer and prayers were being offered to him. Paul of Samosta who was Patriarch of Antioch toward the end of the third century saw a dangerous anti-monotheistic tendency in this and would not allow prayers to Jesus or hymns in his honor. Prayers were to be through Jesus as intermediary between God and man. But Paul of Samosata came into conflict with the Pope who condemned and exiled him. It was in this conflict that the transliterated Greek word ‘homoousios’ (of like substance) was first used. It would later assume great importance but was rejected on this occasion.
Origen, the head of the Alexandrian catechetical school, stressed the Divinity of Christ. Strangely, Origen was later attacked for making Christ subordinate to God and not co-equal. Origen explained the three persons in the Godhead as being within the Godhead; namely, the Father, the unbegotten; the Son, the Wisdom and Power of God directing the universe; and the Holy Spirit brought into being by the Father through Christ. Central to his teaching was the idea that ‘the whole man would not have been saved unless Christ had taken upon himself the whole man’. Origen held that Christ must have had the soul, mind and body of a man. The essence of Christianity for Origen was that Christ made his humanity divine as a first fruit of the hope that is ours. But this did not answer the question of how there existed in Christ both the Divine and the human. What was the relation of Jesus Christ to the one and only God? Origen accepted that the Son was mediator between God and man and so subordinate to God in a sense. A ‘sense’ which got his writings condemned in the fifth century.
Attempts to explain Christ’s divinity were thought by some to be leading to the danger his humanity would be forgotten. This fear led Arius, a priest of Alexandria at the beginning of the firth century, to protests against the Sabellianism of his Bishop, Alexander, who said that ‘God is always; the Son is always; and the Son was present in the Father without birth.’ Arius wanted to establish that God as pure spirit could have no direct contact with a material world and therefore a mediator was necessary who was the Son. The Son was a created being, formed before time began. He was divine by participation in the divinity of the Father. In short, Origen saw the divinity of the Son as being within the Godhead and Arius saw him as intermediary and a being separate from the father.
Predictably, the Bishop of Alexander called for Arius to be excommunicated. Disputes began that led to the breakaway movement known as the Arian heresy. It divided the church and did not go away until the eighth century.
To resolve a theological dilemma turned political, Constantine resorted to something evolved by the Christian church, to decide on burning issues, the synod. The council at Nicaea was designed to represent the whole church of the empire and he convened it close to the imperial palace at Nicomedia. This was easily accessible to the oriental bishops but a long way from the west which was not largely represented. However, the able western theologian, Hosius, bishop of Cordova, was present. The three most important bishoprics of the east were present - Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. A prominent part was taken by Eusebius the bishop of Nicomedia. The young deacon Athanasius was prominent as the most powerful antagonist to Arianism. The synod sat from May 20th to July 25th.
Several direct stages of deliberation were passed through before the council pronounced condemnation on Arius and his doctrines. A clearly defined standpoint of the relation of Christ to God was held by a small group of Arians and an opposing view held by those of Alexandria. The majority of attendees had a position between the two extremes.. They rejected the formulas of Arius and declined those of his opponent. They could negate but not make a definitive statement. The neutral majority finally capitulated to the Alexandrians partly due to indifference and partly due to a yielding to the imperial will.
In the synod, an Arian confession of faith was first brought forward and read. It aroused such indignation that there was no question that it would be accepted. Eusebius submitted the baptismal creed of his community. However, since this counter-creed dated from a period before Arianism, its acceptance would been equivalent to the council saying that it declined to take a position. It is thought that the neutral majority might have inclined to accept this subterfuge and shelf the issue. The emperor saw that if the difficulties were dodged they could re-emerge in an accentuated form and no pacification would be had from such policy.
Constantine proposed the Caesarean creed be modified by inserting the Alexandrian passwords of which the most important was ‘homoousios’ meaning of one substance or co-substantial with the father. It is doubted that Constantine appreciated the importance of these alterations or realized the revision was the proclamation of new doctrine. But the creed so evolved paved the way for a struggle that convulsed the empire. The proclamation of the Nicene Creed opened the eyes of many bishops to the significance of the problem they faced and led the church to force herself into compliance with the creed by the path of tough theological work.
Co-substantiality was the central issue for those who accepted the Nicene Creed and those who opposed it. Many theologians were not happy with the word ‘homoousios’ which was not a scriptural term. Its use is the first example of a purely theological definition set forth as an article of belief. Others would follow like ‘Immaculate Conception’, ‘Limbo’, and so forth.
After the council the emperor supported the anti-Arian decrees. The Latin West including Egypt accepted Nicaea but the Greek East was divide into many schools of thought. Quarrels continued and three years after Nicaea, Constantine reversed himself, recalled Arius, and supported the anti-Nicene part until the end of his reign.
Succeeding emperors had different views. Most were Arian or semi-Arian. They adopted the formula that ‘the Son was like unto the Father’ or of ‘like substance but not the same’. The word they used was ‘homoiousius’ which produced the accusation that the church was torn apart over a diphthong. Constantine who became a semi-Arian pronounced their definition as the official faith in 360 AD.
Athanasius was the major opponent of Arianism. He survived a storm of ups and downs and died before Nicene orthodoxy was established. But his writings got to the root of the problem and why it was important. As a result of his significance to the situation, the creed is known as the Nicene or Athanasian Creed.
Athanasius held the Word became man and not ‘came into a man’. If the latter were true there would be no difference between Christ and the prophets of old. Christ had to be unique and different from ordinary humanity even where that humanity was given by divine grace. The change in the innermost being of man which was necessary to restore his lost immortality, could only be wrought by God Himself. Escape from final death could only come from one who partook of the nature of God.. That was the purpose of Incarnation. The Son must be of one substance with the father.
Athanasius saw the error of Arius in that he made Trinitarian distinction outside the Deity. He saw one Supreme Being and two lesser beings. Athanasius saw the Trinity as differentiation within the Godhead. Athanasius saw Arius as presenting a Christ who was neither God nor man and thus destroyed the scheme of salvation.
Athanasius saw the necessity of Christ being fully human and fully divine.

To Athanasius, Christ had to be fully human or the whole man could not be saved - ‘what Christ has not assumed, he has not healed’. He had to be fully divine or there would be no escape from the determinism of nature - ‘God became man so that man might become God.’ If Christ is not fully divine, there can be no incarnation. If Christ is not full human, there can be no redemption.

Bishop Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus who were known as the ‘three great Cappadocians’ brought the disputing parties together. They reached a formula that most could accept : ‘there was one substance in the Godhead - one ousia; there were three persons - hypostases, not three gods but one, to be found equally and identically in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. These views gradually came to be accepted.
By the year 379 AD, Theodosius who was a strict Nicene was emperor. In 381 AD, he summoned the second world council, the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. The Nicene Creed was there made the definition of Catholic orthodoxy and the Catholic Church was declared to be Trinitarian. Arianism in all its forms was anathema and Arianism became a heresy. Heretics and pagans were to be subject to fines and all pagan temples were to be destroyed. Thus in the eastern empire was Nicene orthodoxy established while in the western empire, Arianism, as a form of Christianity that was distinct from Catholicism, survived for some four hundred years,
Strangely, the idea of the Son as intermediary distinct from the Father has persisted. Some Protestant churches formed after the Reformation are Arian-based and have an anti-Trinitarian view of Christ, the Unitarian churches being an example. But the creed on which the present Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Creeds are based is the Nicene Creed of 381 AD. The Nicene Creed retained what Paul called the mystery of Godliness and rejected pure rationalism. There are mysteries in God which we will only begin to be understood as we begin to understand him whom to know is life eternal.
In conclusion it is worth noting that Arius in denying the full divinity of Christ had also denied the divinity of the Spirit. Others affirmed the Spirit was a Minister on the same level as angels. This was the Macedonian Heresy named after its founder Macedonius.

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