We live in an age where Christian conferences are fairly regular occurrences. There are gender-specific Christian conferences, conferences for specific denominations, conferences for regions… need I go on? But this hasn’t always been the case.
The first official ‘universal’ Christian conference was held in 325AD in Nicea and organised by the Emperor Constantine. By this period in history, persecution against Christians had been decreasing, (which was aided by Constantine’s conversion), yet the leaders of the church still held the scars of the persecution era. For the first time in history, Constantine gathered all the Church leaders from the ‘universal church’ (Bishops, deacons etc) throughout his Empire and paid for their expenses in bringing them together at Nicea (in modern-day Turkish city of Iznik).
One of the men, Eusebius of Caesarea, who was present at the Council descriptively wrote:
There were gathered the most distinguished ministers of God, from the many churches in Europe, Libya [i.e., Africa] and Asia. A single house of prayer, as if enlarged by God, sheltered Syrians and Cilicians, Phoenicians and Arabs, delegates from Palestine and from Egypt, Thebans and Libyans, together with those from Mesopotamia. There was also a Persian bishop, and a Scythian was not lacking. Pontus, Galatia, Pamphylia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Phrygia sent their most outstanding bishops, jointly with those from the remotest areas of Thrace, Macedonia, Achaia, and Epirus. Even from Spain… Constantine is the first ruler of all time to have gathered such a garland in the bond of peace, and to have presented it to his Savior as an offering of gratitude for the victories he had won over all his enemies.
- Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, 3.7 in Justo L. Gonzalez “The Story of Christianity: Vol. 1” New York: Harper Collins, 2010, p.186
Constantine sat front and centre in all his Emperor-jewel-encrusted-splendor, presiding over the happenings. There were around 300 delegates present, many of whom had lost limbs or had scars through persecution, who had rode in comfort to the council as guests of Constantine. This heralded a significant point in Christian history.
The purpose of this conference was both political and religious in nature. Firstly, when Constantine was converted to Christianity, the Christian faith entered the political sphere. Prior to this, doctrinal matters and disputes within the Church were debated amongst Bishops (leaders of Churches in set locations) until one party ‘won’ the debate. Emperors and Political Rulers remained largely unconcerned with Christian debate. When Constantine became a Christian however, things started to change. All of a sudden, the Emperor could be appealed to, to ‘rule’ on a doctrinal matter. It was therefore in Constantine’s best interest to gather Church leaders to formally make decisions on matters of doctrine and standard policy. As Bruce Shelley says, “Constantine had no choice but to intervene to stop this constant bickering, or worse, and to make his Christian subjects agree on what their own beliefs were.” (1995, p.100).
Of particular interest at the time of the First Council of Nicea was the doctrine of the Trinity. One side was arguing that Jesus was lower than ‘God’ but above general mankind, sort of like a ‘heroic man’ (Arianism). “To Arius, when Christians called Christ God, they did not mean that he was deity except in a sort of approximate sense. He was a lesser being or half-God, not the eternal and changeless Creator. He was a created Being…” (Shelley, 1995, p.100). The danger of this false doctrine was escalated through Arius’ eloquent preaching and he put his ideas into jingles which were being sung by “dock-workers, the street-hawkers, and the school children of the city” (Shelley, 1995, p.100-101).
A second party was arguing that the Father and the Son were the same entity, and so the Father was crucified (Patripassianism- Latin ‘Patri’- Father, ‘Passio’- suffering). Finally, the third group argued the Biblical doctrine that God was “three persons and one substance” (Trinitariansim as Tertullian had stated years earlier).
At the First Council of Nicea, the matter of the Trinity was quickly determined. Those who followed Arius presented their case, likewise the group arguing along the lines of Patripassianism also presented their case. Both were quickly ousted as heretical teaching and the Doctrine of the Trinity (God is three persons as One) was clarified.
Secondly, the assembly realised the need for an agreed formula that clearly dictated what the Christian church believed was written. It was adapted from the creed of Caesarea, however included the Doctrine of the Trinity clearly. The Nicene Creed (with some additions over time) says:
I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds. God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the death; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And I believe in one Holy Catholic (universal) and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
- in Shelley, 1995, p.102
This Creed is the most widely accepted statement of faith for the universal Church. The Apostles’ Creed was Roman in origin and is used most distinctly in churches of Western origin, it is similar to the Nicene Creed.
The Nicene Creed for Us Today
As I sit here in the comfort of my lounge-room and think about those battle-scarred men, sitting together, writing out a doctrinal statement and fighting for correct Biblical doctrine, I realise how blessed I am to live in the age I do. Yet also, I realise how little I know of the men and women who have courageously pursued God and championed the faith before me. I realise the importance of us growing in our knowledge of this history, our history, in order to understand the blessing of being a Christian today. We also need to know what we believe in order to do what Paul instructed Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). So often we can be taken in by eloquent speakers, or catchy tunes spouting incorrect doctrine.
To deepen our knowledge of the Apostles’ Creed, Matt Chandler has recently preached a sermon series on it, which can be accessed through The Village Church website.
- Bruce Shelley. 1995. Church History In Plain Language, 2nd Edition. Texas: Word Publishing.
- Justo L. Gonzalez. 2010. The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: HarperCollins.