The First Council of Nicaea
September 17th, 2012
The reasoning process used in many religions reveals much about attitudes towards rationalism in a culture. All of the major religions today have a similar intellectual structure. The foundation is a set of scriptures: the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible, the Islamic Koran, the writings of Confucius, the Buddhavacana for Buddhism and the Vedas (among others) for Hinduism. Each of these scriptural foundations is extended with commentaries by holy thinkers, some commentaries more revered than others. The complete corpus of writings for each of these religions is enormous, and requires a lifetime of scholarship to master. In this basic structure, all of these religions are alike.
In most of these religions, the commentaries serve almost exclusively to fill in gaps regarding correct behavior. Moral dilemmas are raised, discussed, and resolved. Much of this material is rather silly in its microscopic attention to trivial details of proper behavior: exactly when should Easter be celebrated, the precise definition of kosher food, how you should cut your hair or what kind of clothing you should wear.
But Christian writings deviate from these standards in a crucial and fundamental way: they also serve to make sense of the religion. There is little attempt in other religious traditions to rationalize the creed; everything is simply taken on faith. God is God and that’s just the way things are. From earliest days, however, Christian thinkers worried endlessly about logical dilemmas. These issues, and the unique Christian approach to them, are exemplified by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.
Constantine the Great became emperor of Rome in 306 CE; he was the first Christian emperor. In 313 CE he issued the Edict of Milan establishing religious toleration throughout the empire. Just 12 years later, irked with dissensions within the Christian church, he called the Council of Nicaea, a grand council of most of the important Christian prelates, to address and resolve their disagreements.
The most divisive controversy revolved around the precise nature of the relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father. Was Christ an integral extension of God the Father or was he created by God the Father? To put it in plainer terms, was Jesus a spin-off of God the Father, or a creation by God the Father?
This might strike you as a petty issue best shrugged off, but it was of immense importance to Christians because they expected their religion to make sense. This expectation was unique to Christianity; in other religions, oddities such as this were shrugged off with a simple appeal to faith: “That’s the way things are, so stop asking silly questions and have faith”. Not so Christianity – a logical conundrum was considered to represent a serious flaw in the faith, something that must be addressed.
The second striking aspect of the Council of Nicaea was its emphasis on reasoned discussion. Other faiths had their religious disputations, of course, but this was on a far grander scale. It began on June 19th, 325, and lasted more than a month, ending on July 25th. In other religions, disputations over the creed were at most one-day affairs, typically a debate between savants. This was more like a congress, with about 300 attending bishops engaged in group discussion of the issues.
The third striking aspect was the democratic nature of the proceedings. It appears that the floor was open to all, and disputes were settled by simple majority vote. This is particularly remarkable because it acknowledges the subjective nature of some aspects of faith. In other religions, faith was a matter of adhering to The Truth as revealed in scripture. The Truth could not possibly be established by a majority vote; it was above all human consideration and could only be determined by the saintly insight of special people. But Christianity recognized that some fine points were a matter of interpretation and as such could only be established by a vote among well-educated interpreters of the scriptures.