NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 19.2
In today's commentary and next week Tom Lee spends a little time looking at the outcomes of the Council of Nicaea. This first ecumenical council played a crucial role in moulding the subsequent development of the Church.
Heretical Challenge and Imperial Solution– Part 19.2
Transformation of the meaning of the cross...
"The conversion of Constantine," says Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard P. McBrien, "and his granting of civil protection and privileges to the church made it possible for the church to carry out its mission more effectively, but in becoming a part of the political establishment the church also lost its prophetic edge."
"After Constantine," says James Carroll, "the metaphors that Christians used to describe their faith were re-invented in the categories of Hellenistic metaphysics. ... Neoplatonism posited a dualism, as that between sin and grace." Thus salvation came to mean the healing of a metaphysical rift between God and man, body and soul in the ethereal realm of eternity, rather than the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham in the here and now of human history.
St. Paul's theology of sacrificial atonement transformed Christ's defeat on the cross into victory, his death into life-giving martyrdom, and empowered first-century Christians to bravely endure crucifixion. But it de-historicized Christ's life and set it within the context of a triumphal church and a newly benevolent empire that recast Rome as a benign policeman and the cross as a symbol of automatic salvific power rather than empowerment for martyrdom. This abstract, idealized cross became a symbol of a victorious church and the sacred foundation of a divinely mandated state, emblematic of veneration rather than the dynamic of discipleship, emphasizing idolatry rather than self-sacrifice.
"The transformation of the cross was complete," says Carroll, "not a sign of real suffering any longer, nor even with Paul of spiritual victory, but a sign of power in the world." This Constantinian cross is the direct antecedent to the American Evangelical theology that claims that Christ had to die, that he was not a victim of the Roman death penalty, but rather a victim of divine wrath. Christ had to die to heal the metaphysical rift between an angry God and a sinful humanity, thus saving all sinners and opening the gates of heaven.
While this theology may justify sinners who are saved by its passive cross, it also justifies Constantine and George W. Bush; and it further justifies "just wars" and unjust wars, crusades and inquisitions, death camps and death penalties, permitting defeat to try and cover itself with glory. It justifies and sanctifies the making of victims by the divinely sanctioned state. It falls here to the temptation of Satan. It is a pact with the devil, the difference between fanatical faith and authentic faith — the willingness to use force rather than gentle persuasion. That is why, we are told, Jesus rejected the violent kingdoms of the world offered to him by Satan in the wilderness. He refused to further his messianic project by the use of violence, and for almost two centuries most of his followers practiced love and cheek-turning rather than crusades and inquisitions.
The first edition of the Nicene Creed...
In the end the Council of Nicaea adopted a creed that may be described as the first edition of the Nicene Creed. It would be revised twice more by future councils, with Rome having a final tinker, the latter never accepted by the Eastern churches. The initial version was as follows:
"We believe in one God, Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of His Father, only begotten, that is of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, both things in heaven and things in earth; Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was made flesh and was made man; suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens and will come to judge the living and dead."
To make the position of the council towards Arius unmistakable, it was declared that the Catholic Church anathematized, in other words cursed, those who say "there was a time when he (the Son of God) was not," or "that he did not exist before he was begotten," or "that he was made from nothing," or that "he is of other substance or essence from the Father," or that he was created, or mutable, or susceptible to change.
The incorporation of theology in the Creed was meant to support unity and catholicity; but the more theology invaded the Creed, the more Christians were required to believe, the sharper became their differences. Once admitted to the Creed, theological opinions became a matter of life and death.
Although they were legislating the unknown, and Jesus never proclaimed himself the eternal Son of God, and nor did the early Christians; despite early partisanship, all but two of the bishops signed the new Creed. But some of the language was ambiguous and understood differently by Greeks and Latins. The two objectors were from Libya, and their refusal to sign rested not so much on the Creed as the legal canons pronounced at the same time, subjecting their church to governance by the bishop of Alexandria.
The Council brought Syria into line with Egypt and Rome in calculating the date of Easter, and, in vain, made arrangements for the reconciliation of the dissident Melitians in Egypt. Many of them persisted in schism for another century.
The metropolitan system of governance...
Twenty canon laws were issued, mainly regulating discipline. The preachers had become rigid enforcers. Previously individual bishops had been remarkably free in their actions and decisions, and churches had been little controlled in electing them. The Nicene code forbade ambitious bishops moving from one see to another, and directed that a bishop should be consecrated by all the bishops of his province if possible and never by less than three.
A power of veto was given to the metropolitan bishop, accelerating the process that concentrated power in the hands of what would become known as Archbishops and Patriarchs. The bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch had traditionally exercised a degree of jurisdiction beyond their own provincial boundaries, Alexandria controlling Upper Egypt and Libya, and Rome the churches of southern Italy. Their rights were recognized as a modification of the metropolitan system, but precise limits were not defined. It also laid down that the see of Jerusalem, while remaining subject to the Metropolitan of Caesarea, should be given the next place in honor after Rome, Alexandria and Antioch.
Another canon dealt with excommunications. The sentence passed by the bishops of a province was to have the force of law throughout the whole church, and could only be appealed in the same province.
Celibacy, while recommended, not yet a law of the Church...
Another decree stated that no cleric should have living in his residence any woman who was not a relative. As yet celibacy for the clergy, while recommended, was not a law of-the church except in the Spanish province. When Ossius proposed it as a universal law he was vigorously opposed. One of the Eastern bishops pleaded the case of those priests who had been married before ordination, declaring that they should not be separated from their wives. The majority agreed. Most parish priests in the Eastern churches, including those in communion with Rome, are still married men.
To enforce the decisions of the Council, Constantine commanded, with the death penalty for disobedience, the burning of all books written by Arius. He banished the recalcitrant priest and his close supporters, and deposed from his see Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had dared to admit Arius to communion before his fate had been decided. Each had lost his groundlings and his chorus.
Arius must have been discouraged especially by the turncoats, the friends who turned out to be subtly pleased to suppress him. From now on a jealous craziness lurked under the touching and sensible guise of austerity. But all was not lost. Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had blithely signed the decree at Nicaea, must have done so with considerable mental reservation.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 19.2
IMAGE CREDITS: The headline image features a fresco of the Council of Nicaea found in the Holy Trinity Church Above the Gate in Kiev sourced from a beautiful Ukrainian website: www.wumag.kiev.ua. Clicking on the images in the body of the article will take you to the original source.
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