Significant Moments in Church History — Number 1, The Council of Nicaea, 325AD

This is the first article in a series. For the introduction click here. This series is part of a longer series Why Christianity Must Change or Die. For the introduction, click here.

This Council took place, at the instigation of Emperor Constantine, in order to standardise Christianity. Before this, according to scholar Bart Ehrman: “There was no New Testament. To be sure, all the books of the New Testament had been written by this time, but there were lots of other books as well, also claiming to be by Jesus’s own apostles — other gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses having very different perspectives from those found in the books that eventually came to be called the New Testament. The New Testament itself emerged out of these conflicts over God (or the gods), as one group of believers acquired more converts than all the others and decided which books should be included in the canon of scripture. During the second and third centuries, however, there was no agreed-upon canon — and no agreed-upon theology. Instead, there was a wide range of diversity: diverse groups asserting diverse theologies based on diverse written texts, all claiming to be written by apostles of Jesus”. As he also points out, “groups calling themselves Christians adhered to beliefs and practices that most Christians today would insist were not Christian at all” (1). Bishop Irenaeus and his followers may have “insisted that there could be only one church, and outside of that church, he declared, ‘there is no salvation’ ”(2). This clearly did not mean, however, that theological debates ceased, for battles continued against various ‘heresies’.

The Council obviously had the potential to be a positive theological development, if it were in pursuit of religious truth. It seems, however, that the motivation was not theological, rather political, in that it was Emperor Constantine who wanted to establish a religion for his own ends, namely to find one which could unite his empire. According to David Elkington “it was his imperial duty to bring stability to a strife-torn Empire, and he had the genius to see that such stability could be wrought through the offices of religion” (3). Peter Farley says that Constantine “is said to have accepted the Christian faith, but his ultimate purpose was not to join the faith under the authority of the Bishop of Rome, but rather to take over the Christian Church in its entirety. He even put forward a proclamation which stated that ‘In the future, We, as the Apostle of Christ, will help choose the Bishop of Rome’ ” (4). It is therefore important to note that the establishing of Christianity as we know it was under the direction and control of Constantine, not the Church.

How sincere was Constantine’s conversion?

Before discussing Constantine and the version of Christianity he established, it’s worth spending some time considering his relationship with Christianity as he knew it. There are two versions of this, one offered by critics, and another by those more neutral or with Christian sympathies.

According to the Britannica online encyclopedia, he was “the first Roman emperor to profess Christianity”. “He not only initiated the evolution of the empire into a Christian state but also provided the impulse for a distinctively Christian culture that prepared the way for the growth of Byzantine and Western medieval culture” (5). One wonders whether this writer has done enough research.

According to the critical line of thinking, reason to doubt his sincerity is that he chose not to be baptised. Thus David Elkington says “the idea that Constantine converted to Christianity is mistaken. He was not even baptised until AD 337 — as he lay on his deathbed” (6). Charles Sutherland goes further and says that even this was a “fiction (which) was spread throughout Christendom in a romanticized version of the life of Pope Sylvester, The Acts of St. Sylvester”, and then later repeated in a document now known as the Donation of Constantine, which is a forgery. He says: “Although he helped formulate some of the basic doctrine of the church, he did so while still a pagan. Perhaps to mitigate the fact of a heathen’s tremendous influence on its most important theological principles, church tradition holds that Constantine was converted to Christianity on his deathbed” (7).

In response to this point the late Henry Chadwick, distinguished professional academic and therefore perhaps more knowledgeable, says: “He was not baptized until he lay dying in 337, but this implies no doubt about his Christian belief. It was common at this time to postpone baptism to the end of one’s life”. Regarding Constantine’s Christianity Chadwick says that “his letters from 313 onwards leave no doubt that he regarded himself as a Christian whose imperial duty it was to keep a united Church”. “Constantine favoured Christianity among the many religions of his subjects, but did not make it the official or ‘established’ religion of the empire”. He “also endeavoured to express Christian ideals in some of his laws” (8).

From the critical viewpoint this is a somewhat rosy picture. Chadwick, as well as being a professional academic, was also a priest in the Church of England; this may have influenced his appraisal of Constantine. As we all know, politicians can say one thing in public, or in their letters, and think and behave differently in private. However, another distinguished scholar, Bart Ehrman, former committed Christian but now agnostic following his studies (9), also seems to have no reservations about Constantine’s conversion. He says: “A cataclysmic change occurred when the emperor of Rome, Constantine, converted to the faith about 312 C.E. Suddenly Christianity shifted from being a religion of social outcasts, persecuted by local mobs and imperial authorities alike, to being a major player in the religious scene of the empire”. Persecutions were halted, and favours poured out. Scriptoria were established, so that copies of scripture were now being made by professionals. “In 331 C.E., the emperor Constantine, wanting magnificent Bibles to be made available to major churches he was having built… (had) fifty Bibles produced at imperial expense”, thus providing “lavish copies of the Christian scriptures” (10).

Ehrman thus sees Constantine’s conversion as a positive opportunity to standardise and promote Christianity. The date 331 is significant. Chadwick also mentions Constantine’s “financing new copies of the Bible” (p128). This suggests that there was an established Bible to be copied, which Ehrman himself denies in my opening quote. Christian texts, however, if they had not been lost or destroyed during the previous persecutions, had already been subject to extensive editing and copying errors — this is the main theme of Ehrman’s book. Also, both scholars fail to mention that, prior to this commissioning of new copies of the Bible, Constantine had ordered the destruction of all texts he considered heretical. The new editions were therefore not necessarily faithful copies of existing texts, but revisions and editings which conformed with his new orthodoxy.

The story has been handed down that Constantine had a dream or vision which persuaded him to convert to Christianity. It is necessary to explore the background to this story, in order to avoid any misunderstanding. According to one version it was of a luminous ‘cross’ shining brightly in the sky. Across the symbol was inscribed “By this sign you will conquer”, a military reference — the occasion was associated with a victory in battle. (One wonders what Jesus might have made of this.) Upon hearing this, Christians today might find this reasonable, since the cross has become Christianity’s best known symbol, and may believe it was adopted following Jesus’s crucifixion. At the time, however, this would or should have aroused suspicions, since, even though the man on a cross was an ancient pagan and Indian symbol (11) long before the time of Jesus, the symbols of Christianity were either a fish, a lamb or a shepherd (12). The adoption of a man on a cross as the primary Christian symbol did not occur until AD 680, as noted by Charles François Dupuis: “This custom (of the lamb) subsisted up to the year 680, and until the pontificate of Agathon, during the reign of Constantine Pogonat. By the sixth synod of Constantinople (canon 82) it was ordained, that instead of the ancient symbol, which had been the Lamb, the figure of a man fastened to a cross should be represented; all this was confirmed by Pope Adrian I” (13), (14), and (15).

The dream or vision was not even of a cross as Christians would understand it. The design that Constantine subsequently emblazoned on the shields of his troops was the Chi Rho.

This is linked with Christianity because it combines the first two capital letters of the name of Christ, as written in Greek, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos).

How ‘Christian’ was this vision?

David Elkington says: “According to a witness in Constantine’s army, the vision took place within the precincts of a temple to Apollo… …the vision was of a sun god, Sol Invictus — the Invincible Sun” (16). This story is repeated by David Livingstone (17), Charles W. Sutherland (18), and also by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, who add that “Constantine had been newly initiated into a Sol Invictus cult, which makes his experience perfectly plausible” (19). Elkington concludes that “Constantine was stating that the sun was God, Apollo was a sun god, and so too, it seems, was Jesus” (p70). And so too, it seems, was Constantine! Laurence Gardner notes: “At the Council of Arles in AD 314, Constantine retained his own divine status by introducing the omnipotent God of the Christians as his personal sponsor” (20). Henry Chadwick, who as noted above believes in Constantine’s conversion, reports that when “he decided to found a new capital for the eastern half of the empire” at Byzantium, he “placed in the forum a statue of the Sun-god bearing his own features”, which seems an extraordinary thing for a devoted Christian to do. As the churchhistory101 website suggests, “Constantine had begun to see himself as something like Plato’s philosopher-King, the emperor who was also the spiritual leader. As the Augustus he was also taking on the official role of Pontifex Maximus, the High Priest of the empire” (21).

My conclusion is that, if Constantine ever had this dream/vision, and some commentators doubt this, it should never have been interpreted as a conversion to Christianity. It is reasonable to conclude therefore that it had very little to do with Jesus, but everything to do with what Christianity was to become under Constantine’s direction.

Who was this Constantine? And what was the nature of the religion he established?

According to David Elkington, he was “an arch-politician” and “an unsavoury character”.

The first is undoubtedly true and, given that he was a military leader, determined to retain his status as emperor, there is presumably some truth in the second. Is such a person the right one to be put in charge of theological disputes in a religion of love and peace? It is clear in retrospect that Constantine was more concerned with attaining unity in the Church (or rather his empire) than he was with theology or doctrine.

Given that he was attempting to unify the empire, it is obvious that his new religion would have to be a synthesis or hybrid of the previously existing traditions, including Mithraism, and whatever was the Christianity of the time. This view is agreed by several authors including:

  • David Elkington: “Constantine’s Christianity was in many ways a compromise, bringing together all of the disparate elements, one of which was Mithraism. Mithraism had been declared the principal religion of the Empire in 274 AD by the Emperor Aurelian and similarities may have played a decisive part in Constantine’s decision to promote Christianity as the religion of the Empire”. “Unsurprisingly, the main religion under Constantine was not Christianity but one of sun-worship and Constantine was its chief priest”. It was under the tutelage of the official cult of Sol Invictus that Christianity grew ever more powerful and absorbent. Mithraism, of which Sol Invictus was a part, contained elements of other religions, those of Baal, Isis, Astarte and so on”. Under the auspices of Constantine, the united front of Christianity papered over many divisive cracks. Christianity rewrote and even reconstructed its history” (22).
  • Laurence Gardner: “Constantine dealt with the anomalies of doctrine by replacing certain aspects of Christian ritual with the familiar pagan traditions of sun worship, together with other teachings of Syrian and Persian origin. In short, the new religion of the Roman Church was constructed as a hybrid to appease all influential factions. By this means, Constantine looked towards a common and unified world religion (Catholic meaning Universal) with himself at its head” (23).
  • Charles Sutherland: “Constantine hoped to unite the three principal religions of the empire: — Sol Invictus, Mithraism and Christianity — into a single institution that would serve to support the state rather than undermine it. Like Diocletian, Constantine had long-term stability of rule uppermost in his mind”. Constantine accordingly attempted to establish beliefs and practices that would progressively blur the distinctions between the three religions. Thus, for example, Constantine was interested in consolidating Jesus’s position as a god rather than a mortal prophet, and for this and other purposes he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 (24).

This development has inspired some literature with interesting puns in their titles: Suns of God (25), and Jesus Christ, Sun of God (26).

What did the Council decide?

The significant theological developments were that it was decided that Jesus the Son was of the same nature as God the Father, and the doctrine of the Trinity was confirmed as orthodoxy. (Previously the most significant debate had been about the nature of Jesus’s divinity, whether he was of the exact same nature as God, or whether he was in some sense created by God, a doctrine now known as Arianism, after its main propounder Arius.) These can be seen clearly in the Nicene Creed, which was formulated at that time:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, 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 [both in heaven and on earth];
 Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
 He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
 From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
 And in the Holy Ghost.

There was then an addition, which confirms Arianism as heresy: “But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’ — they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church”.

The Council decided, by a vote of 218 to 2 against Arianism, which is extraordinary in that it was very influential at the time and, according to David Elkington, “nearly became the faith of the Empire” (p71). However, it clearly posed problems for Constantine’s plan to unite the religions of the empire; as Charles Sutherland explains: “As a god Jesus could be associated conveniently with Sol Invictus. As a mortal prophet he would have been more difficult to accommodate” (27). This majority would seem to indicate either the strong desire of the bishops to conform to Constantine’s wishes, or the enormous pressure that he placed upon them. Charles Sutherland comments: “It does not seem to bother Christian believers that Constantine oversaw the writing of this essential doctrine while still a convinced pagan and for decidedly secular purposes” (28).

Following the Council, there was an orgy of book-burning and, according to various authors, editing and rewriting of texts, destruction of records, sites and artefacts.

Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed” (Pagels, p18).

The death penalty (was) imposed for the hiding of such books” (Elkington, p75).

I once assumed, it would now seem naïvely, that the Church indulged in this because it believed that it was in possession of the truth, and wanted to ensure that all alternative versions were eradicated. It now seems much more likely that they did it because they knew, or strongly suspected, that what they believed was, at best highly debatable, at worst a lie, created to conform to the wishes and needs of Constantine. In either case, they were determined to eliminate anything which contradicted their version of Christianity.

His main collaborator was Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. He drew up the Nicene Creed, and thus defined the Christianity of the future. According to Gerald Massey: Eusebius “and his co-conspirators did their worst in destroying documents and effacing the telltale records of the past, to prevent the future from learning what the bygone ages could have said directly for themselves”. He also notes that Eusebius made a “memorable boast that he had virtually made ‘all square’ for the Christians, (which) was an ominous announcement of what had been done to keep out of sight the mythical and mystical rootage of historic Christianity” (29). The wisdomworld website sums up the situation: “Many of these old works later came to be considered dangerous to the temporal power of the new faith, so that in the fourth century A.D. Eusebius, Bishop of Cæsarea and so-called ‘father of Church history,’ took upon himself the task of censoring and editing the entire body of Holy Writ, Pagan as well as Christian. The result of this ignoble undertaking was that many valuable treatises were destroyed, others perverted beyond recognition. Socrates, a historian of the fifth century, and Syncellus, vice-patriarch of Constantinople (eighth century), both denounced Eusebius as the most daring and desperate forger” (30).

So, post-Nicean Christianity began in an atmosphere which we would now describe as a totalitarian regime, very similar to the worst excesses of Communism in the 20th century — censorship, violence, suppression of dissent. This continued during the Inquisition, and it was not until 1966 that the Roman Catholic Church eventually dropped the policy of a list of prohibited books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. I believe, however, that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith still reserves the right to ban books it deems theologically in error.

Many spiritual traditions contain the idea that the average human being is in a state of sleep (unconsciousness or ignorance), and needs to wake up. In the light of that, David Elkington makes an interesting observation: the “word ‘heresy’ means ‘to make a choice’, from the Greek hairesis, the act of ‘taking a choice’. This implies that being a member of the Roman Church involved being given no choice. To make a choice, one has to know a certain amount, and ‘knowing’ was something that, in later years, the Roman Church would take bloody steps to repress.

The Church had developed a centralised doctrine, a dogma, that made sure that the sleeper never awoke, that the faithful remained dependent upon the priesthood and the institution behind it, which continued to grow in power” (31).

According to this analysis, therefore, the Roman Catholic Church (in its exoteric forms) has been consistently opposed to the whole purpose of religion and spirituality.

I believe it is true to say that, as a consequence of this purge, we do not have any extant manuscript versions of the New Testament earlier than the fourth century. It may therefore be no exaggeration that we have no access to the originals of the texts which now form the New Testament, and we are left to speculate, or piece together from clues, what they might have contained. (Bart Ehrman’s book is a valiant attempt to do so.) We therefore have to contemplate the possibility that the original, true Christianity has been lost (32).

Conclusions:

  • The creation of modern Christianity at the Council of Nicaea and in its aftermath was a political decision. The purpose was not a search for theological truth.
  • There is a strong element of paganism in Christianity. Since Constantine managed to synthesize the traditions, it is reasonable to suggest that there were already strong similarities between them, thus Christianity already had features of pagan cults. Even the Christian scholar Henry Chadwick concedes: “Constantine was not aware of any mutual exclusiveness between Christianity and his faith in the Unconquered Sun. The transition from solar monotheism to Christianity was not difficult”. To understand this from the perspective of Judaism see, for example, Hyam Maccoby, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (33). From Islam, see Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, The Mysteries of Jesus (34). Both of these concentrate on the first century, well before Nicaea, which shows how strong the pagan elements were even then.

Carl Jung says that what is unconscious for individual clients in analysis is often obvious to their friends and family. Thus, when they gain an important insight and share this with them, the response is that they have known this all the time. A similar situation exists in regard to Christianity. These two other members of the Abrahamic family can clearly see it, while Christians continue to strenuously deny that there is a strong element of paganism in their religion, for example N. T. Wright:

Early Christianity, claiming the high ground of Israel’s heritage, was first and foremost a movement that defined itself in opposition to paganism, and only secondarily in opposition to mainline Judaism itself”.

All early Christianity was Jewish Christianity… Every single document in the New Testament is in some sense ‘Jewish Christianity’… Paul’s theology, in which the Jewish world view he had embraced as a Pharisee is systematically rethought and remade, only makes sense if it is still seen nevertheless as Jewish theology. It is emphatically not a variant on paganism” (35).

Christians who have been brought up to believe that their religion is in strong opposition to paganism may be shocked to discover that it is closely associated with a cult of the Sun God. There is much evidence that this is the case, yet they continue to cling to the standard version.(What was that about needing to wake up?) Others who are more inclined to free thinking may ask whether or not this was a good idea — was Constantine actually on to something? We can also ask whether we should go back and attempt to reconstruct pre-Nicean Christianity. Those would be questions for another day, however.

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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I am now engaged in what will be a long series of articles about Christianity, but have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, politics, astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here).

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Footnotes:

(1) Misquoting Jesus, HarperOne, 2005, p153, p152

(2) Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Penguin Books, 1990, p21. In agreement with Ehrman she says: “Those who identified themselves as Christians entertained many — and radically differing — religious beliefs and practices. And the communities scattered throughout the known world organized themselves in ways that differed widely from one group to another”.

(3) In the Name of the Gods, Green Man Press, 2001, p68

(4) Where Were You Before The Tree of Life? Volume 3, p40, books.google.co.uk

(5) https://www.britannica.com/biography/Constantine-I-Roman-emperor

(6) as (3), p70

(7) Disciples of Destruction, Prometheus, 1987, p126

(8) The Early Church, Penguin, 1967, p127, p128

(9) as (1), Introduction, and p247

(10) ibid., p72–73

(11) see Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy, Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999, p218. There she quotes the holy Father Minucius Felix, addressing pagans: “Your victorious trophies not only represent a simple cross, but a cross with a man on it”.

(12) The fish is well-known. For lamb and shepherd, see Acharya S, p218.

(13) The Origin of All Religious Worship, Michigan Historical Reprint Series, p252

(14) For the full text of canon 82, see http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3814.htm

(15) I am not quite sure what to make of this, but J. H. Hill claims that there was an ancient Egyptian meaning to this symbol. In relation to their need for an abundant harvest, a certain water level was required, marked by a cross. If the water failed to rise “it was the custom of the people to nail to these crosses symbolical personifications of the Demon of Famine. …he was represented by the figure of a lean and haggard man, with a crown of thorns upon his head; a reed cut from the river’s bank was placed in his hands, as his unreal scepter; and, considering the inhabitants of Judea as the slavish and mean-spirited in their knowledge, they placarded this figure with the inscription: ‘This is the King of the Jews’ ”. (Astral Worship, chapter 14, Signs of the Cross, https://books.google.co.uk/books)

(16) as (3), p70

(17) The Dying God: The Hidden History of Western Civilization, 2002, p241 https://books.google.co.uk/books?isbn=0595231993

(18) Sutherland, Disciples of Destruction, Prometheus, 1987, p124 (19) The Messianic Legacy, Arrow, 1996, p58

(20) Bloodline of the Holy Grail, Element Books, 1996, p135

(21) http://www.churchhistory101.com/council-nicea-325.php

(22) as (3), p68, p70, p73

(23) as (20), p135–136

(24) as (18), p124

(25) Acharya S, Adventures Unlimited Press, 2004

(26) David Fideler, Quest Books, 1993

(27) as (18), p124

(28) ibid. p127

(29) The Logia of the Lord, p1, quoted by Elkington, p250

(30) www.wisdomworld.org/additional/TheAnathemasAgainstOrigenSeries part 2

(31) as (3), p85

(32) At least as it is presented to the majority of believers. I understand that there are still esoteric Christian traditions, which may be closer to the original ideas.

(33) George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd., 1986.

(34) Sakina Books, 2000.

(35) The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1, SPCK, 1992, p165, and p453