"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty" (Council of Nicea).
It is often suggested by many Trinitarians that the "doctrine of the Trinity" was roundly defended and sealed at Nicea. However, this is hardly the case and is a very distorted representation of the facts. The council was not convened to establish Trinitarian beliefs but to explore and establish Christological beliefs. For example, the issue of the Holy Spirit was not even addressed. The Council of Nicea attempted to resolve a Christological question concerning the nature of Christ and the nature of his relationship to God. And neither was this particular question firmly resolved at Nicea. In fact, some of those who agreed with the Nicean statement later recanted. Indeed, the Arians nearly won the day about 40 years after Nicea and a modified form of Arianism was not far from becoming the official belief of Christianity. The debate continued fiercely for the better part of the fourth century until 381 A.D. when Emperor Theodosius chose Athanasianism over Arianism as his personally preferred doctrine, banned the practice of Arianism from his empire, and declared the Athanasian position to be the official doctrine of Christianity. The final decision was politically based, not theologically based, and was confined to Roman Empire rules by the wishes of the emperor. The ground for the development of Trinitarian doctrine was not won by a careful and congenial theological debate but finally enforced by the unilateral decision of a forceful emperor. Between the councils of Nicea and Constantinople the opposing parties sought victory far more through political means than a quest for truth through honorable discussion and peaceful collaboration. And very often, the means these men employed, on both sides, were very devious and bore little resemblance to Christian virtue. They were ambitious men who wanted to come out on top and take positions of power in an empire now congenial to Christianity since the decree of Constantine. Nicea was more of a beginning than an end and it was a gathering of men wrestling with a theological question and dispute on one hand, and a host of leaders in a church clamouring for positions of prestige in Constantine's empire on the other hand. The entire episode was more of a worldly power struggle to a much greater degree than a spiritual search for truth. It was a time when Christian men were tired and weak from the sufferings of persecution and a time when the luxury of noble honor could instead be seized because now that opportunity presented itself. For many of these men, it was a lustful struggle for control. It was a time when tired Christians desired no longer to suffer for Christ but to practice their religion without persecution. It was a time when there was doctrinal strife and disputes among Christians. It was a time when the Roman aristocracy found a way to employ the old and very effective "divide and conquer" routine with the Christians. It was a time when Christians began to persecute each other instead of being persecuted by Rome. It was a time when the Roman aristocracy became viewed in a favorable light to some Christians and other Christians were viewed as the Roman establishment once was. It was a time when an opportunity arose for Christian leaders to have worldy power in Constantine's emerging kingdom. The time was ripe to tempt the flesh with pride and greed. It was the opportune season for devilish schemes.
Background - on the eve of Nicea
In order to fully comprehend the atmosphere over Nicea we must step back a few years. Radical changes were taking place in the Roman world that had a direct and very influential impact upon the Christian community. Christianity was in the process of becoming a "state religion." And a state religion necessarily had to have official beliefs developed, controlled, and enforced, by official leaders. How then could this occur when the present leaders had a difference of opinion? Only one side could prevail in such an atmosphere.
The Diocletian Persecution
Emperor Diocletian had named Galerius his "caesar" in the east and Constantius in the west. The father of the future emperor Constantine, Constantius Chlorus, tolerated Christians. However, Galerius convinced Diocletian that Christians had to be exterminated for the unity and benefit of the empire. On February 23, 303 A.D. the "Diocletian Persecution" was initiated, the last organized persecution of Christians and one of the worst in the history of the church. Christian books were to be handed over for destruction, clerics were jailed, and finally all Christians who refused to sacrifice to the gods were to be killed. Many Christians suffered torture and death when they refused to give up their sacred writings or sacrifice to the pagan gods. The persecution was not enforced equally in all parts of the empire, nor was it directed at everyone who was a Christian. The main targets of persecution were church leaders and relatively few of the common people suffered. The plan was to destroy the church by removing its leaders, those who protected the apostolic faith. The persecutions were carried out more intensely in the East than in the West. They lasted until 312 A.D. 600 Christians were martyred in Alexandria in 311 A.D., including Peter, bishop of Alexandria and predecessor of Alexander, the first enemy of Arius. Many guardians of the apostolic faith were wiped out and with them went their wisdom.
Such was the life of Christians before the era of Emperor Flavius Valerius Constantinus. Constantine was the son of Constantius Chlorus, Diocletian's western Caesar. Constantius had tolerated Christianity in his region of the empire and we see this toleration later influenced his son Constantine. Constantius rose to the position of Augustus upon Diocletian's abdication in 305 A.D. The western army then raised Constantine in 306 A.D. to fill his father's shoes in the now vacant position. However, their was a struggle for power. In 312, Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. In 313 A.D., his Edict of Milan promised toleration for Christians and ended forever the Roman persecution of the Christians. The edict was also anti-semitical. Jews were no longer permitted to live in Jerusalem, or to proselytize. Constantine had Christian tendencies although he did not submit to baptism until his deathbed. Constantine appears to have given the Lateran palace to the bishop of Rome around this time. With the defeat of his brother-in-law Licnius in 324 A.D., Constantine become the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire. That same year Constantine founded a new capital city in the eastern empire in Byzantium which would come to be known as Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). The Council of Nicea was convened the following year just a few miles down the road.
Constantine ruled as pontifex maximus over the pagan worship and protected its rights. It was also in the western part of the empire that the veneration of Mithras predominated, a chief rival of Christianity with many similar characteristics. Without realizing the full import of his actions, Constantine granted the Church one privilege after another. As early as 313 the Church obtained immunity for its leaders including freedom from taxation. The Church further obtained the right to inherit property, and Constantine moreover placed Sunday (Sol Invictus) under the protection of the state in 321 A.D. Believers in Mithras also observed Sunday as well as December 25th as the birthdate of their god. Consequently Constantine speaks not of the day of the Lord, but of the everlasting day of the sun.
In 326 A.D., the year after the council of Nicea, Constantine executed his son (by a previous wife) and his current wife on accusations of adultery.
Arius vs. Alexander
About 318 A.D. during an amiable discussion concerning the nature of Christ, Arius a presbyter under bishop Alexander of Alexandria, accused him of the heresy of Sabellianism. Arius indeed may have been correct for we do not know the details of Alexander's comments. However, it obviously offended Alexander to no small degree. Alexander had himself stepped into his current position when his predecessor had been martyred in the persecution. This little dispute erupted into a major controversy extending throughout the empire for the next 60 years. The battle was most fierce among the eastern Christian community. Antioch tended to side with the Arians and Alexandria of course sided with Alexandrius. It was this controversy which called for a council to settle this mattter.
Now let us consider the stage that was set for Nicea. The persecutions essentially ended with Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. Constantine also henceforth supported the church in many ways. From 313 to 325 A.D. the Christian church in the empire was establishing itself as an organization sanctioned by the state and even promoted by the state. The state, the world, was no longer against them but with them. This created a brand new opportunity for Christian men to vye for positions of power in what they perceived to be a utopian situation. However, these men did not always agree with each other theologically and the Arian dispute brought this issue to front and center. Prior to the fourth century, Christians had spent their energies on living holy lives in the midst of suffering for their faith. Now they no longer needed to suffer and it was easy to live a Christian life in complete peace. Many of the attendees at Nicea had suffered great persecution. So now this was no longer an issue and Christian philosophy came to center stage. Leaders and emerging leaders perceived they would need to instruct Christians exactly how they were to think with respect to philosophical notions pertaining to the faith. Christianity was organizing into a visible and accepted religion in the one empire under one emperor and its philosophical belief system was rising above the significance of Christian living. It therefore had to have one defined belief system. The only way to ensure a desired belief system was adopted was to ensure one had ecclesiastical control to enforce those beliefs and remove all other contenders. The role of the state appeared to be all "good" to the men in question. It was a breeding ground of greed, pride and deception. To the new leaders in the church who led the state church, the enemy was no longer Rome; the enemy were Christians who opposed the Christian leaders sanctioned by Rome.
"If you can't beat them join them."
The council of Nicea was called by Emperor Constantine. It was held at Nicea in Bitnyia (now Isnik, Turkey) near Constantinople. The council opened June 19, 325 A.D. with Emperor Constantine in attendance. It is not entirely certain who officially presided. It may have been Hosius of Cordova (Ossius) or Eustathius of Antioch or Alexander of Alexandria. It was most likely the Spanish bishop Hosius who had earlier represented Constantine in Antioch concerning this controversy. The bishop of Rome was not in attendence but was represented by two presbyters.