First Christian emperor, Emperor Constantine united the first ecumenical council in Nicaea, with the aim of establishing the unity of the Church, in the East as in the West. The Council of Nicaea is an important event in the reign of Constantine I because it fixes certain key points of Christian dogma. But it is also a complex episode that we will try to explain.
Christianity is a religion in progression at the beginning of the 4th century but which however is far from being the first of the Empire. The ancient traditional religion, although less and less practiced effectively, has been replaced by a multitude of other religions, often of oriental origin, such as the cult of Mithras, the solar god, of Isis from 'Egypt, or even Serapis. The Roman world then needs a different religious conscience, more inclusive and close to the faithful, also providing answers of a spiritual nature, in particular on the question of the soul.
Emperor Diocletian (284-305) once again proclaimed Rome's unwavering bond with its ancient gods, making him and his colleagues (he had founded the government of four; the Tetrarchy) descendants of Jupiter and Hercules , and persecuted Christians who did not want to participate in the cult that had become "national". Antagonism was becoming problematic because Christians could not, theologically speaking, perform a liturgical task of another religion, perceived as idolatry.
Christianity is a monotheistic religion, advocating a single truth that cannot accept the existence of another form of piety. When Constantine, after certain prodigies (a revelation in a dream of the symbol of Christ before the battle of the Milvian Bridge against Maxentius according to Lactantius, the most direct source) would have established a sympathy more and more displayed for Christianity. It is this personal inclination which is at the source of the triumph of Christianity during the fourth century. But above all, the character has very strong religious convictions.
Indeed, in the lineage of his father, Constance Chlore, and Emperor Aurélien, he reveres the sun. Dogmatically close to Christianity, like many religions of that time, this cult is quite representative of the beliefs populating the Roman Empire at that time. The cultivation of worship also agitated the Christian faith, where the various interpretations of the texts led to conflicts.
Convening of the Ecumenical Council
In order to pacify Christian worship and under the advice of Saint Hosius of Cordoba, Constantine decided to convene an ecumenical council in Nicaea in 325. The imperial will was above all to establish a common guideline, a standardization of Roman society which was defined more and more as a single whole, distinct from the outside; the Romania. This conception of the Empire, which therefore included Rome itself, was based on the principle of a sacral union of society behind its sovereign. Constantine, interested in Christianity, without really admitting its specificities from the point of view of the single thought, wanted to give Christianity a guideline and clarify, through discussion, the problems relating to the differences of points of view .
The most fundamental point of the question remains the Arian heresy, named after the priest Arius. This Christian doctrine started from the postulate that Christ, Jesus, could in no case be the equal of the Father and of the Holy Spirit, because of his mortal flesh and of his birth; it was therefore conceived by the Father, therefore posterior. The Orthodox regarded his analysis of the texts as an error and could only agree on a strict equity between the three substances of God. This controversy fits remarkably in a century when theological debates fascinate the wealthy inhabitants of the Empire. At its meeting on June 19, 325, the Council of Nicaea therefore proposed to deal with the Arian divergence, but also with the date of the Passover feast.
According to Saint Athanasius, he gathered 318 bishops but Pope Sylvester, because of his age, could not come to attend. Arius was also invited to attend, his case to be discussed in detail. In fact, discussions began on this essential point. The heated debates soon pitted Arius' supporters and enemies. Among the first, Eusebius of Nicomedia who with Arius faced in particular Alexander of Alexandria and Hosius of Cordoba (one of the few Westerners present and whose role is nevertheless fundamental). Constantine is described to us as an attentive spectator, trying to balance the points of view, wishing, in his office as Head of State, to preserve thehomonoia ; concord, fraternity.
However, the majority of the prelates present decided to condemn Arius after two months of heated debate. The assembly then proclaimed thehomoousios, ie the fact that the divine person is, in his three natures, strictly of the same substance; the Son consubstantial with the Father, he exists from all eternity. It is then said, under the impetus of Hosius, “God of God, Light of Light, begotten, not created, of the same substance as the Father”. This condemnation of Arianist thought can be considered as an adaptation of Christianity to Rome and its unifying desire, the East traditionally leaving a larger part to divergent interpretations. In addition, the council ruled on the question of the date of Easter, which on this occasion is fixed by following the Julian calendar, therefore the Sunday following the Jewish Easter. It ends in apotheosis, during the feast of vicennalia, sanctioning the twenty years of the reign of Constantine I.
The consequences of the Council of Nicaea
But the aftermath of the council leads to a relaxation of its decisions regarding the thought of Arius. Indeed, the notion ofhomoousios had been accepted in a somewhat forced way, without many prelates really agreeing with this vision, mainly because it did not appear in the Scriptures. Arius is thus re-established in his functions from 327, while at the same time his most fierce opponents are dismissed like Athanase of Alexandria. Moreover, it should be noted that the emperor himself was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian, in 337. The expansion of Arianism was therefore in no way called into question by the council.
Constance II, one of the sons of Constantine, who reigned over the Roman East between 337 and 360 (and the entire Empire between 353 and 360) was a staunch Arian. It was not until the reign of Emperor Theodosius I that the Catholic and Apostolic Church as defined by the Council of Nicaea definitively prevail over Arianism. An imperial edict of 380 declares that: "All peoples must rally to the faith transmitted to the Romans by the apostle Peter, that recognized by the pontiff Damasus and Peter, the bishop of Alexandria, that is to say the Holy Trinity of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ”, and the Council of Constantinople in 381 condemns Arianism a second time.
Ulfila, the evangelizer of the Goths who translated the Bible into the Gothic language was an Arian. This event has a gigantic significance; the Visigoths, for example, the Arians therefore, after settling over a very large territory, between the Loire and Gibraltar, lost the domination between the Loire and the Pyrenees against Clovis, because this Frankish Catholic king had very good relations with the bishops of this region, mainly Nicene (therefore Catholic), which facilitated its conquest.
- The Christian Empire, 325-395 by André Piganiol. PUF, 1973.