Nicaea and the World

Constantius II

       Council in agitation

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After two years, Bishop Liberius was brought back to Rome from his  banishment.  He  was  now  willing  to  sign a condemnation of Athanasius and the new Arian creed.  24

Hosius of Cordova, now 100 years old, was at the Council of Milan.  He had refused to sign the creed, but Constantius was determined to  have  him  sign.   He  imprisoned  the  aged  man, and  put him on the rack.  Eventually the bishop yielded and signed the creed.

One historian stated, “The case of Hosius deserves,  without all doubt, to be greatly pitied… but it must be observed that he was the promoter of the first Christian persecution, because it was he who stirred up Constantine against the Donatists, many of whom were sent into exile, and some even sentenced to death: nay, and led to the place of execution.”  25 

Constantius was still determined to arrest Athanasius, who was now settled back in Alexandria.  He sent a Prefect to deprive the bishop of Imperial revenue. Instructions were given that every person who held public office must abandon the cause of Athanasius. Nicene bishops were commanded to only communicate with Arian bishops.

The Emperor sent two officers to ask Athanasius to leave the city, but the bishop demanded a written order.  While this was being prepared, the officers began secretly to gather troops into the city.   Soon they had a force of 5000 holding possession of the most important parts of the city.  

A solemn feast was in progress. At midnight the sound of the trumpet gave the signal to attack. The doors burst open and soldiers with drawn swords poured in. 

“The cries of the wounded,  the groans of those who were  trampled down in attempting to force their way out through the soldiery, the shouts of the assailants, mingled in wild and melancholy uproar.”  26  

In  the  tumult,  Athanasius  again  escaped.  The whole  army pursued, but he could not be found.   The bishop had cleverly slipped away, travelling by night to monks in the Egyptian desert.  There he stayed for six years.


While Athanasius was in hiding, Constantius changed his belief on the nature of Christ.  He adopted what has been called a Semi-Arian belief.  27 

The strict Arians declared the Son to be like the Father, but rather by grace than nature, similar to how a creature would be to the Creator.   This is expressed in anomean, decided at the Council of Milan.

The Semi-Arians declared the Son to be like the Father in nature, in existence, in essence, in substance, and in every other way.  This is expressed in the word homoiousios that would be decided in a council held by Constantius.

The Semi-Arian position was actually nearer the original belief of Arius.  Semi-Arians now outnumbered the strict Arians.  Many had moved away from the homoiousios to anomean during the years of struggle, little realising they were losing the beliefs of Arius.

Constantius  was  determined  to  have  a general  council  where the Semi-Arian doctrine would be adopted. It was to be in Nicomedia in AD358, but an earthquake destroyed the city, and the venue was changed to Nicaea.  It would be held in the early Summer of AD359.  28

Before the day arrived, Constantius decided to have two councils instead of one.   The two councils were to act as one and two deputies were appointed to report the proceedings to the Emperor. 

One council would be for the Western bishops in Rimini Italy (also called Ariminum) in July, the other at Seleucia in Turkey in September for the Eastern bishops.  A civil officer of high rank was appointed to represent the Emperor at each council.  He was directed not to allow any bishop to leave the hall until all had come to one mind concerning the Faith.

Constantius did not plan to attend either of the councils, but would meet elsewhere  with  five  Semi-Arian  bishops and draw up a new creed.  29

At Rimini, 400 bishops assembled.   Of these, 80 were Arians. 

Letters were sent from the Emperor to the council saying they must discuss the Faith before anything else.  When the Emperor’s bishops arrived at Rimini, earnest discussion was taking place.

The bishops representing the Emperor held the creed in their hands and stated, ‘This Creed has been ratified by the Emperor, and it is to be accepted universally without discussion.’    

The Nicene bishops looked at each other.  ‘This does not sound good.’

After the death of his brother, Constantius became the ruler of the whole Roman Empire.  He was determined to make Arianism the religion of the Empire.

He called a General Council, which met in the Summer of AD353 in Arles.  Liberius, the Bishop of Rome did not attend,  but he sent two presbyters to represent him. The Arian bishops were in the majority.  17

Constantius passed an edict that condemned all who refused to sign his creed made at Antioch without the word homoousios.  

When Bishop Liberius received the report from his presbyters, he refused to accept the creed and rejected the action of the council.  In a letter to Hosius he said,  “I am willing to wash out with my blood the stain of this scandalous conduct.” 18 

Lucifer the Bishop of Cagliari in Sardinia, suggested the Bishop of Rome ask for another council.  He offered to go with the bishop’s two representatives.

Constantius granted the council which convened in Milan.  More than 300 bishops arrived from the West, with only a few from the East. The meeting was held at the Imperial palace, with Constantius presiding.  19

Again the Emperor insisted on the condemnation of Athanasius, demanding the whole assembly sign his condemnation, and that they subscribe to the Arian Formula of Faith. 

One bishop objected saying it was not a Canon of the church, to which Constantius replied,  ‘My will is the Canon,  and  whoever will not sign will be banished.’  20

The Catholic bishops lifted up their hands in horror and one called out, ‘May the Emperor fear God and not confound the secular power with the law of the church.’ 21 

In spite of the protests, some refused to sign – Lucifer of Cagliari, Dionysius of Milan, Eusebius of Vercelli and the representatives of Liberius, Pancratius and Hilary, among them.

Again Bishop Liberius rejected the decision and defended Athanasius.  Constantius sent a message to bribe the bishop, but it was rejected.  He sent threats.  Finally he sent the Prefect of Rome to arrest Liberius and bring him to Milan.  

The captive bishop was brought to Constantius.  ‘Either sign or go into exile’, said the Emperor. ‘You have three days to decide.’  The bishop replied, ‘I don’t need three days.  I have decided already.’ Constantius gave him the three days, but Liberius stood firm.  He was sent to Berea in Thrace.   22

When the people of Rome learned of the bishop’s banishment, they bound themselves by an oath not to acknowledge any other bishop as long as Liberius lived.  

The Arian party were determined to have a bishop in Rome and they elected Felix.  The Nicene clergy would not receive him, and when  he  came  to  the palace for the ordination, it “caused a great sedition, in which many lost their lives.”  23  

The creed was read aloud. 

“We believe in one only and true God, the Father and Ruler of all, Creator and Demiurge (Greek craftsman) of all things, and in one only-begotten Son of God, who was begotten of the Father without change before all ages, and all beginning, and all conceivable time, and all comprehensible substance… God from God, similar to the Father, who has begotten Him according to the Holy Scriptures, whose generation no one knows (understands) but the Father who has begotten Him…  The word ousia, because it was used by the Fathers in simplicity (that is, with good intention), but not being understood by the people, occasions scandal, and is not contained in the Scriptures, shall be put aside, and in future no mention shall be made of the Usia with regard to God. But we maintain that the Son is similar to the Father in all things, as also the Holy Scriptures teach and say….”  30

The Arians all agreed, but the Nicenes dissented.  Their loud voices sounded throughout the hall.  

‘A new Creed is not necessary’, cried one.

‘No’, called another bishop.

‘The Council of Nicaea has done all that is necessary.  This council must curse all heresies, especially the Arians.’

The Nicenes then took things into their own hands.  They unanimously approved the homoousios.   The sound of 320 voices rang loud and clear, ‘We approve the Nicene Creed.   We declare the Emperor’s creed heresy.’

‘Yes, and we place a curse on each point of the Arian Creed.’

The Emperor’s bishops were at a loss to know what to do.   Suddenly voices were turned on them.

‘You are ignorant and deceitful men, imposters and heretics. You should be deposed.’  

The whole of the proceedings was recorded in writing and each Nicene bishop signed the document, dated July 21 AD359.  

The  letter  would be  taken  to  the  Emperor  by  ten  Nicene representatives from the council. 31

As they left, a bishop called out, ‘Ask if we are allowed to return to our churches’.

When they arrived at the Emperor’s lodging, Constantius refused to see them. ‘Wait’, he said.  Many hours later, a creed was brought to them.   The words ‘in all things’ had been omitted, so that the Son was not like the Father in all things.   Nothing was said of the change.    32

The ten deputies were forced to sign the creed, and to reverse all the acts of the Council of Rimini.  They returned to Rimini where everyone else was forced to sign.  Again these men were not told the creed had been altered.  Some held back, but gradually they began to waver.   Eventually those who refused were reduced to twenty.    

Finally all signed and the council broke up.   The bishops returned home in ‘the unity of the faith’!!  

Later, “Upon examination of the creed, the twenty bishops were obliged to confess that they had been entrapped.  They renounced the creed, and publicly retracted ‘all they had said, done, or signed, (that was) repugnant to the truths of the Catholic Church’.” 33

In September, the Council of Seleucia met with 160 bishops in assembly.

Of these, 105 were Semi-Arians, 40 were Arians, and less than 15 were Catholics. The remainder differed from all three. 

After four days of angry debate, there was such confusion and bitterness that the Imperial officer declared he would have nothing more to do with the council.   He told them, ‘You can go to church if you want to and indulge in this vain babbling as much as you please.’  34

Old engraving Two Republics 1891

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The  parties  then  met  separately,  denouncing,  condemning, and excommunicating one another.  Deputies were sent from each group to Constantius, and he demanded they sign the new Creed.   Each one signed under duress. 

At the main hall, the whole day and most of the night was spent persuading men to sign the Creed.   It was in the early morning hours that the last bishop signed. 

The approved Confession of Faith was published throughout the whole Empire, and every bishop in the field was commanded to sign under penalty of exile. Very few refused, even those thought to be invincible, were overcome.   The rest were sent into exile.

Jerome observed later, “The world woke up to find itself Arian.”    There are many variations of this statement, such as, “The whole world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian”, and another, “The whole world woke up one morning, lamenting and marvelling to find itself Arian.”  35

As a result of the unified signature, all the Sees were filled with Arians.   In the East not one was left who followed the Nicene Creed, and in the West there was only one, Gregory Bishop of Elvira, who had absented himself from his flock and lay concealed.

Arianism was now entirely orthodox and catholic, in the sense of being true and universal.   It was the reverse of Nicaea, and certainly far worse.  At least each bishop at Nicaea had made his own choice, even if having compromised. It was their choice.

In AD360 Constantius called another council at Constantinople. In an effort to end the bitter conflict, the words ‘substance’ (ousia) and persona (hypostasis) were omitted.  It affirmed the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but adopted what came to be known by its opponents as the Semi-Arian position.  36

It said in part, “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, of whom are all things.  And in the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of God before all ages, and before every beginning;  through whom all things visible and invisible  were made:  who is the only-begotten

born of the Father, the only of the only, God of God, like to the Father who begat him, according to the Scriptures, and whose generation no one knows but the Father only that begat him.

We know that this only-begotten Son of God, as sent of the Father, came down from the heavens, as it is written, for the destruction of sin and death:  and that he was born of the Holy Spirit, and of the Virgin Mary according to the flesh, as it is written…

But the name of ‘essence’, which was set down by the Fathers in simplicity, and, being unknown by the people, caused offense, because the Scriptures do not contain it, it has seemed good to abolish, and for the future to make no mention of it at all…”  37 

However, the policy failed to win over the extreme partisans of either camp.  It was especially offensive to the Nicene party.

In AD361, Constantius died of natural causes, one year after Arianism had become the religion of the Empire. 

What would happen now?

Would the world convert back to the Nicene belief?




Chapter 9

Arian versus Nicene

After the death of their father, the three boys, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans, began the sovereign rule of their assigned kingdoms.   

Constantine II was 21 years of age;  Constantius II was 20, and Constans 17 years.   Constantine and Constans both favoured the Nicene Creed and the Trinity, whereas Constantius was an Arian.

Immediately the sovereigns ascended their thrones, the battle began between the Nicenes and the Arians.  

Through Constantine II, the Nicenes succeeded in persuading Constantius to allow the return of Athanasius and all the bishops who were banished with him. Their return “set the East ablaze.”  1

Athanasius returned to his bishopric in triumph.

When the Bishop of Constantinople died in AD338, Athanasius put Nicene Bishop Paul in his place.  Constantius removed Paul and made Eusebius of Nicomedia Bishop of Constantinople.   When Eusebius died four years later, Paul claimed the bishopric, saying he had been unjustly deposed.

“The dispute spread from the church into the streets, from the clergy to the populace;  blood was shed;  the whole city was in arms on one part or the other.” 2  

Constantius  was  in  Antioch Syria,  and  he  ordered  Hermogenes, Commander of the Cavalry to go with his troops to expel Paul.   (Not deacon Hermogenes)

Thousands of Nicenes met with an attack, and in the process the soldiers were scattered.  Hermogenes was captured and dragged by his feet through the streets until he was torn to pieces.  Unceremoniously, his body was thrown into the sea. 3 

When the news was given to Constantius, he immediately went to Constantinople and expelled Paul.   Paul travelled to Rome and put his case before Bishop Julius. The bishop declared Paul to be the true bishop and sent him back with a letter to the bishops in Constantinople.  Paul was reinstated in his place. 

When Constantius learned of it, he commanded Philip, the Praetorian Prefect, to depose Paul again and put the Arian Macedonius in his place.  Fearful for his life, the Prefect worked carefully.  Speaking to Paul alone, he showed him the Emperor’s message and quietly took him to a waiting ship bound for Thessalonica.

Macedonius, arrayed in full pontifical dress, sat beside Philip the Roman Prefect in his chariot, surrounded by soldiers with drawn swords.  In grand style, the party proceeded to the church for the consecration ceremony. 

Before they arrived, a rumour had spread through the city and thousands of Nicenes rushed to the streets.  They stood at the front of the church to prevent the ceremony from taking place.  Imperial soldiers hacked their way through the dense and resisting crowd to the altar.   Over 3000 people died. 4  

Macedonius was installed into the episcopate.

In AD340 Constantius convened another council in Tyre where he condemned Athanasius under new charges.  A counter council also convened in Alexandria where Athanasius was cleared.  5

Later  in  the  year, Constantine II died in a war with his brother Constans.  6   The Empire was now divided between Constantius in the East and Constans in the West.    Those in the East called the Nicenes ‘heretics’, and those in the West called the Arians ‘heretics’.   

“The religious war continued and increased in violence.”   7 

The following year a council was held in Antioch, at which Constantius presided over 90 bishops.  The council ratified the decision made at the Council of Tyre to condemn Athanasius, and appointed Gregory of Cappadocia as Bishop of Alexandria.  8  

A new creed was adopted from which the word homoousios had been omitted.  All the Arians signed it, but the Nicenes objected.  

Loud protests followed one after another.  ‘This is Imperial interference.’  

‘Yes’, said another, ‘The purple makes Emperors, not priests.’   

Hilary, one of Rome’s bishops, as well as Athanasius, remained adamant, ‘We will never change’, they said.

The contending party was banished, including Athanasius, however, he returned to his bishopric.

One writer stated, “While the Council of Nicaea amounted to a coup, the Council of Antioch amounted to a countercoup, fifteen years later.” 9

After  the  council,  Gregory,  the  new  Arian  appointee  to  the bishopric, proceeded to Alexandria accompanied by 5000 armed soldiers.  It was the evening service and the church was full.    Athanasius saw them coming and quietly slipped away to Rome.  10

Troops  posted themselves around the church  and Gregory was officially installed. The Nicenes were enraged, and in retaliation, set the church on fire.  

This provoked anger throughout the city, and “scenes of savage conflict ensued.”   Churches were taken as by a storm, and “every atrocity, perpetrated by unbridled multitudes (took place), embittered by every shade of religious faction.”  11 

When Athanasius arrived in Rome, Julius the Bishop of Rome summoned his accusers to a council, but they refused, saying he had no right to rejudge him.  Julius proceeded with the council, meeting with 50 bishops who voted Athanasius innocent.

Banishment had placed Athanasius in the dominion of Constans, and he appealed to the Emperor for help.  Constans held a council in Milan at which he presided. The decision of the council was the same as in Rome:  Athanasius was innocent.   12

In AD345, a general council was called in Sardica, with 96 representatives from the West, and 74 from the East.  When Athanasius and his party arrived, the Eastern bishops demanded they be excluded.  The Western bishops refused, and as a result, the Eastern bishops walked out.  They met at another venue in Philippopolis.   13

The historian Milman has rightly stated, “In these two cities sat the rival councils, each asserting itself a genuine representative of Christendom, issuing decrees and anathematizing their adversaries.”   14 

Both councils blamed the other for the acts of violence.   The Nicene bishops were zealous for Athanasius.  They revoked the decree of Antioch and confirmed the Council of Rome.  They made a number of Canons, one granting a condemned bishop freedom to seek support from the Bishop of Rome, effectually magnifying the Roman bishop.

Athanasius feared going back to Alexandria.  He stayed in the West and became friends with Constans.  This resulted in Constans sending a letter to Constantius to reinstate Athanasius to his bishopric  in Alexandria.   A warning was given that if he refused, Constans would reinstate him with a fleet and an army.  15  

Constantius did not want a war with his brother.  He was also being threatened by the King of Persia.  He yielded to Constans and invited Athanasius to Antioch in Syria. While there, the Emperor ordered all accusations erased from the public registry.  

In AD350 Emperor Constans was assassinated.  When sending Athanasius back to Alexandria, Constantius included a letter to the church saying he had “recalled Athanasius to Alexandria out of respect to his deceased brother.”  Obviously, he was not in total harmony with the return of the bishop. 16

​Athanasius walked into Alexandria in a triumphal procession.  It was evening and the city was ablaze with lights.   Incense ascended from every corner.  A host of bishops and friends cheered him as he walked through the streets to the church.