It was a scene very few of us in the Western Church today can imagine. In 325 more than 200 bishops, most from Asia Minor, gathered in Nicea. It was the first church wide council in history and it had been called by the new emperor Constantine who, it was reported, was a Christian or at least had Christian sympathies. From wherever Christianity had spread the bishops came. One was from Persia, one from Crimea and another from Armenia. There were a few who had already become well known for their theological acuity. But most of them were simple pastors. And they had been called together by the new emperor! What had happened to their world? Only a few years earlier they and their churches had been harassed by the empire and some of their brethren had been tortured and even killed. One of the bishops who had come to the council had had his eyes put out during the Great Persecution and when Constantine arrived at the council he made a point of bending low and kissing the pastor's empty eye sockets. What sort of new world was this?
They had come to settle a dispute that had riled up the Church. The Church, not a phrase that has the same meaning today when we have so many independent churches and not one Church as the Church was known then. This Nicean council was Roman, ecumenical and catholic. There was unity in the Church across ethnic and geographic borders. That's not to say there was agreement and harmony among all the churches but there was an attempt to preserve the unity of the Church. This council was an attempt to do that. In Egyptian Alexandria a conflict between the bishop Alexander and a popular leader named Arius had surfaced. By 318 it had spread throughout the Eastern Church. It was the first of many Christological controversies that consumed the Church during the fourth century. Arius, who was a strong leader and a good speaker, had the manner and bearing of a philosopher and was in charge of the devoted virgins in the Alexandrian church. He was a disciple of Origen who taught a subordinationist Christology which made Christ inferior to the Father. Arius took this one step further saying Christ was begotten and before that he did not exist. Arius had been condemned by a synod of Egyptian bishops and banished from the city. But another synod in Bithynia was more sympathetic and reversed the Alexandrian decision. A third synod in Antioch condemned and excommunicated the bishop (Eusebius) who called the Bithynia synod. As tensions escalated, Constantine chose to gather all the bishops at Nicea. This had never been done before. An emperor convening a Church council. There was no precedent to follow. Some historians have found a heavy hand in the proceedings and charged Constantine with rigging the outcome. However, he was invited to attend the meetings, and sat separately from the bishops and he had more than met his match if he thought he as going to railroad the outcome. Athanasius, for one, rebuked the emperor to his face.
True, this was a whole new ballgame for Constantine as well as for the bishops. Some were gunshy about being in the presence of the emperor since it was not so long ago they were being chased down and their churches closed down by the preceeding emperors. Some probably basked in the new freedoms Constantine offered. Many undoubtedly wondered if this was too good to be true and were waiting for a trap to be sprung. But they were not pushovers. They were used to suffering for their faith and managing congregations on very little. They would not be led astray by the new emperor.
At Nicea, the term "one substance" was introduced to describe the critical relationship of Father and Son. Arius was condemned, excommunicated and exiled. Only two bishops out of 250 or so did not sign off on the Nicene Creed. Unfortunately, Arius continued to stir up the pot. Even Constantine helped him do that since he lobbied to have Arius readmitted to the Alexandrian church (can't we just all be friends, you know, for the sake of the unity of the church). Athanasius was the new bishop of Alexandria and he was not having it. Constantine in a snit threatened to have him removed. When Constantine would not let the issue alone, Athanasius traveled secretly to Constantinople to confront the emperor and he successfully persuaded him to take his (Athanasius's) side (Athanasius may have done a little more than argue his position theologcially - he may have threatened to interrupt the transport of grain through his area to Constantinople). But it was not long before Athanasius's enemies met with Constantine and persuaded him to change his mind, again. Constantine exiled Athanasius to Trier. Arius continued to appeal to Constantine to be readmitted to the church faking an orthodox confession of faith which Constantine accepted as valid. However, on his way to church to be readmitted, he died, strangely, perhaps poisoned. Yet, Arianism lives on.