MythBusters Case#23: The Council of Nicea

Posted: October 17, 2012 in History Lessons
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The Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) was the first of the great church councils and perhaps the most important because it established the divinity of Christ as taught in Scripture.

This was opposed to Arianism, which subordinated Christ to the Father as a created being.  According to R.J. Rushdoony in “Foundations of Social Order (p.11,12),” the three main points of Arianism were, first, Christ was a created being; second, He was not eternally existent; and, third, Christ was not of the same essence with the Father.

The battle was waged over the key words homoousion (being of one essence, i.e., with the Father), and homoiousion (of like essence).   The change of a single letter by Arius had monumental consequences.  If Christ was a mere man then his claims on earthly kings were more easily dismissed than if He were of the same essence with God and thus King of kings.

Initially, Athanasius stood alone for the orthodox position.  His bold stand for truth inspired the phrase, “Athanasius against the world.”

This great triumph of orthodoxy at Nicea is somewhat obscured by various myths about the Council, in particular one perpetuated by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code:

Myth:  Constantine collated an entirely new Bible at the Council of Nicea, containing only books that speak of Jesus as divine.

Paul Pavao tackles this myth and several others in the following article:

The Council of Nicea: Dispelling the Myths

By Paul Pavao, Expert Author

Myths about the Council of Nicea proliferate on the web. My Google Alert for “Council of Nicea” yields up to 3 new blogs a day, many of them filled with misinformation.

There are three primary myths:

That the Council of Nicea determined which books would be in the Bible.

That St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, was at Nicea and slapped Arius.

That the emperor Constantine changed the Sabbath day to Sunday at the          Council of Nicea

Before we look at these, why should you believe me?

HOW WE KNOW ABOUT THE COUNCIL OF NICEA?

There are major sources for knowing about the council of Nicea:

The letter of Eusebius the historian to his home church at Caesarea explaining the council’s decision

A discussion of the council in Eusebius’ Life of Constantine

A letter to the churches from Constantine after the council

Minor references to the council in Athanasius’ later letters.

Three church histories from about a century after Nicea, referencing sources, some of which we no longer have available

The creed and the 20 canons [ecclesiastical rules] of Nicea

A multitude of letters from before and after Nicea that make it clear what controversies led to the council

Anything not found in those sources is made up.

BASIC FACTS

The Council of Nicea took place in A.D. 325, and it convened to address two major topics:

The doctrine of Arius that the Son of God did not exist before being begotten of God in the beginning.

The day on which Passover (Easter) should be celebrated.

It was called by Constantine. The three people who attended and gave numbers said it was attended by over 250 bishops, approximately 270 bishops, and 318 bishops.

DID THE COUNCIL OF NICEA DETERMINE

WHICH BOOKS SHOULD BE IN THE BIBLE?

This myth was popularized by Dan Brown in his book, The Da Vinci Code. There he wrote:

Constantine collated an entirely new Bible at the Council of Nicea, containing only books that speak of Jesus as divine.

The truth is that the issue of which books should be in the Bible is not even mentioned in any of the sources above. As a matter of fact, except for some of the general epistles, which books should be in the Bible had been settled for well over a century. A document called the Muratorian Canon has been found dating from around A.D. 160 which gives a list of books very similar to our modern New Testament. A search of which books were quoted by 2nd and 3rd century church fathers shows that their Bible was already almost exactly the same as ours.

There was no reason for the Council of Nicea to discuss the books of the Bible because it was not a controversial subject.

WAS ST. NICHOLAS AT THE COUNCIL,

AND DID HE SLAP ARIUS?

Nicholas, too, is not mentioned by any of the contemporary historical sources, though it’s possible he was at Nicea. Stories about him are not told until the 6th century, 200 years after Nicea, and the story of him slapping Arius did not arise until 500 years after Nicea.

Jolly St. Nick did rap the psychologist with his cane according to Miracle on 34th Street, but it’s best to treat the slapping of Arius as a complete fabrication.

DID CONSTANTINE CHANGE THE SABBATH TO SUNDAY?

 The issue that was addressed at Nicea was whether Passover should be celebrated on Nisan 14, on the day it fell on the Jewish calendar, or whether it should be celebrated on a Sunday near Nisan 14.

The council did decide that Passover would be celebrated on a Sunday by all churches, but it did not address the weekly meeting of the churches.

The churches had been meeting on Sunday since apostolic times. Justin Martyr mentions Sunday as the Christian meeting day by name in A.D. 150 (First Apology 67), but Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, addresses the issue even earlier:

Those who have been brought up in the ancient order of things [i.e., converted Jews] have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath but living in observance of the Lord’s day. (Magnesians 9, c. A.D. 110)

Entire books have been written trying to propagate the myth that it was Constantine who changed the Sabbath to Sunday, but anyone familiar with early Christian history knows that there is abundant and unanimous testimony that Christians met on Sunday, not Saturday, and that they did not require physical rest on any day.

REVIEWING THE SOURCES YOURSELF

A good, short explanation of the early Christian understanding of the Sabbath is contained in the early 2nd century Letter of Barnabas, chapter 15, which are available for free, along with all the other sources I mention here, at the Christian Classic Ethereal Library at.  Look for the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, and Theodoret, and you can follow the notes to the sources they use that are available today.

Christian history isn’t boring! History is, by definition, the most exciting stories and interesting facts of all time.

Paul Pavao’s Christian History for Everyman is dedicated to telling you those stories. You can learn more than you ever wanted to know about first ecumenical council at his Council of Nicea pages.

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