Blessed Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky)
The First Ecumenical Council
The First Ecumenical Council [held in 325 A.D. in Nicea, Asia Minor] was the first not only in time, but in the sacred authority which it has gained and in its significance for the true faith and the Church The subsequent Councils recognized this primacy, as did the holy Fathers of the Church, and especially our holy hymnographers whose works became part of our divine services.
Three services were composed in honor of the Ecumenical Councils and are celebrated on the following Sundays: for the First Council. on the sixth Sunday after Pascha; for the first six Councils: on the Sunday falling closest to the 16th of July; and for the Seventh Council (which the service recognizes as the final and concluding council): on the Sunday following the 11th of October. However, these three services, those similar to them (on the Sunday of Orthodoxy - which is directed against the iconoclasts and falls on the first Sunday of Great Lent - and the services of the 18th of January and the 2nd of May, dedicated to St. Athanasius the Great), glorify primarily the First Ecumenical Council and inveigh against the irreverent Arius.
The fathers of the First Ecumenical Council are revered in the mind of the Church pre-eminently for their sanctity and power to work miracles, while St. Athanasius, who as the main champion of the doc trine of the Trinity and the God-manhood of Christ, is termed the thirteenth Apostle (in the sixth ode of the canon), which subsequently was assumed as a title by his successors to the throne of the Patriarchate of Alexandria. In addition, all the fathers of this Council are commemorated as a whole; especially Osios of Cordoba (probably the presiding bishop at the Council), Nicholas the Wonderworker, Eustathius of Antioch, Paphnutius the Confessor, Spyridon of Trymiphon, the Wonderworker, and others.
The Emperor and Equal of the Apostles, Constantine, is equally lauded with them, for it was he who decided to assemble the episcopal 4*'pastors from the entire civilized world for the first time since the days of Christ and the apostles. He refrained from any misuse of his power, for he took a position at the Council only “at the behest” of the fathers and, as the Synaxarion of the Triodion states, “he sat not upon a royal throne, but upon a seat of little note.”
In extolling the First Council and its participants over the other Councils, the Church all the more firmly smites and condemns Arius above the other heretics.
We are all familiar with the depiction of the holy hierarch Peter of Alexandria, who lived a few decades after the Council, in which with a sorrowful expression he lifts his hands toward the Divine Child Who is depicted with torn clothing. The message of this representation and the point of his exclamation is made clear by the verse which is sung to a special melody at all the feasts dedicated to the commemoration of the Councils:
“'Who, O Saviour, hath rent Thy raiment?’ ‘Arius,’ hast Thou said” .’ - thus the Lord replies to the grieved inquiry of the hierarch - “ ‘Arius,’ hast Thou said, who hath severed the co-honored principle by division: this person hath denied that Thou art one of the Trinity, this , person and Nestorius teach one not to say, ‘Theotokos.’ But the Council which is in Nicea proclaims Thee to be the Son of God, O Lord, co-enthroned with the Father and the Spirit.”
In the canon of the feast of the Holy Fathers, Arius is constantly compared to Judas and in the depictions of hell he is shown seated on the knees of Satan. As with the majority of heretics, he was not simply a erring thinker, but a cunning and malicious enemy of Christ, deceptive and clever, and, as with the majority of heretics who resembled him, he strove to spread his false teaching by means of court intrigues and slander of the defenders of the truth; as a result, St. Athanasius was subjected to twelve exiles and St. Constantine almost fell into heretical error. The right-believing emperor, at the very least, believed that Arius had repented and convinced the Patriarch of Constantinople, St. Metrophanes, to receive him back into communion with the Church, but the Lord prevented this from being realized. On the way to church Arius fell ill of intestinal disorder and, after he went to a concealed spot, his bowels were torn open, just as those of the hanged Judas (Acts 1:18). Let us now turn our attention to St. Athanasius again before saying a few words about the significance of the First Council for the Christian Church. In the canon for his feastday it is said that St. Athanasius “attracted all to himself like a magnet” and the saint is addressed with the following words: “In the fire of thy doctrines every kindling is consumed, O most glorious one; in the depths of thy wisdom the unsubmissive and impious army is drowned, O Athanasius the venerable” (verses for the lauds).
Thus, having noted the witness of the Church concerning the great and sacred significance of the First Ecumenical Council and its main participants, it behooves us to state precisely what is the significance of this Council both in regard to the confirmation of the Church and ecclesiastical order and in regard to the content of our holy Faith.
Until the First Council, the Church did not have an unquestioned external authority. True, she was sacred in the minds of all Christians. In all the most ancient Symbols of Faith (creeds), which permitted various definitions of the most important doctrines concerning the essence of God and the Holy Trinity, we encounter also without fail the doctrine of the Holy Church as the preserver of truth and as the conjoining of the heavenly world with that of the earth; we know also of the faith placed by Christian teachers and all Christians in Tradition (common to the entire Church), as an infallible guide in the faith and as an interpreter of the Holy Bible. But in order to consult such a Tradition it was necessary to travel to the most ancient Apostolic Churches, as St. Irenaeus of Lyons teaches, this being attainable only for the few, and the means for making such an inquiry, especially with the presence of established heresies, was extremely difficult. The Sacred Scriptures, on the other hand, which the Protestants consider to be (in the majority, without sincerity) the sole guide for the true faith, made possible not only purely dogmatic errors, but errors in the realm of ethical principles (for example, those of the Manicheans, the Gnostics, and their like). The concept of an Ecumenical Council, as the infallible interpreter of the word of God, of the the doctrines, and of the commandments, was as yet unknown to the ordinary Christian. This is why the First Council referred to itself only as Holy and Great, while the term “ecumenical” (universal) became part of the Christian mind only later. The existence of such a Council, brought into being by the divinely enlightened Constantine while still unbaptized and only a catechumen Christian (cf. VI:95, where catechumens are referred to as Christians), was a kind of revelation, establishing forever the path for the perception of truths which were not fully apparent from the Holy Scriptures. It is no accident that medieval writers said of the Bible: this is a book in which each can seek and find his own private dogmas ("Hic liber est in quo quaerit sua dogmata quisque invenit et pariter dogmata quisque sua").
Thus, the greatest and the incomparable merit of the First Ecumenical Council lies in the fact that it manifested to all the highest instance of ecclesiastical authority and was the tribunal preceptor of the Faith.
Of course, who is ignorant of the fact that the authority granted to this tribunal was not universally submitted to, and indeed, not everyone submitted to the doctrines of even the Gospel; who is ignorant of the fact that opposition to the dogmas concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ and, in particular, the authority of the Nicean Council, was stubborn and cunning, especially in the first fifty years. Nevetheless, sincere people received once and for all an infallible witness to the truth which could authorize the very contents of the Bible and the true interpretation of its doctrines and commandments, even as the Church proclaims on the Sunday of the 318 God-bearing Fathers of Nicea: “The apostolic proclamation and doctrines of the fathers impressed one Faith upon the Church.” And in the service for the Three Hierarchs on January 30 the Church expresses it in this manner, “By the word of understanding do you compose the doctrines, by which formerly the simple words of the fishermen overturned the mind through the power of the Spirit: for thus it behooves us to acquire the simple content of our Faith.”
Such is the significance of the First Ecumenical Council and the Symbol of the Faith it initiated, for which the Church particularly extolls this Council in her sacred hymnody.
Now we may ask just which truths of the Faith did this Council set forth, or, more precisely, confirmed for the Holy Church? And how much need was there for the confirmation and explication of these truths? Let us answer the second question first. All are aware how stubborn and persistent were the false teachings concerning the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, beginning with the Ebionites and the Docetics who were contemporaries of the holy apostles (I Jn. 4:3; II Jn. 10; Heb. 14:2-14).
And thus although a conscientious and dispassionate study of the Gospels and epistles convinces us beyond a shadow of a doubt that the First Council only confirmed what is revealed to us about the Trinity and the Son of God in the Sacred Scriptures. Nevertheless, history has proven how many children of the Church and even ecclesiastical pastors were unprepared for the acceptance of these elucidations which are unquestionable for a disinterested reader of the New Testament. Perfectly disinterested and unprejudiced interpreters of Holy Writ are few. Had they all been perceptive and dispassionate, Orthodoxy would have remained undisturbed and without councils. Prejudice and cunning partisanship are the primary causes of all the heresies and of unbelief. This is why the evil characteristics of the human soul armed themselves with every weapon available against the decisions of the Nicean Council. Protestants of various types quibbled with exceptional stubbornness (and foremost among them were many authoritative bishops) with the word “co-essential” by hypocritically pointing out that this word was not of Biblical origin. The reason why this latter term was so precious to the younger contemporaries of the Council is explained through the mouth of St. Basil the Great. He affirmed that they were ready to offer their souls for this word, for even one “iota,” in accordance with the behest of the Saviour (Matt. 5:18), for upon this iota hung Orthodoxy itself. The fact of the matter is that only a single iota in Greek distinguishes homoousios “co-essential” ("of one essence") from homoiousios “of like essence,” which was the term used by the Arians to refer to the Son of God. Of course, at that time both the Orthodox and the Arians regarded the Gospel with such esteem that they could never utter - as do some of our contemporaries led by the nihilists - such an absurdity which one continually hears from frivolous people: “I respect Jesus Christ, but not as a Son of God, but only as a great man.” There did not exist at that time the general ignorance and shoddiness in regard to the Holy Scripture which now blinds people confronted with the dilemma: “Jesus Christ was either the Son of God and God, or a miserable fraud, who pretended to be the Son of God.” Thus Arius and his followers, although they rejected the co-essentiality of the Son with the Father and thus His divine qualities, did not dare to regard Him as merely an ordinary man, as Strauss, Renan, Tolstoy, and those like them did, but considered Him to be the first-created of the angels, incarnate of the Holy Virgin, suffering, risen, and ascended into heaven and intending to return to earth to judge the living and the dead. The Arians believed in the Holy Gospel; they were many times-over closer to Christ and to God than the above-mentioned ignoramuses, who are nothing more than atheists. For them the Symbol of Faith and the Holy Gospel do not exist, but they did for those who desired to change only a single letter.
But was the struggle for one word on the part of the Ecumenical Council not a vain one? Note how our historians rail against the Old Believers, accusing them of the fact that for one “az” they were ready to sacrifice their lives; and here not even an “az” is at issue, but a little iota. Did St. Basil the Great not struggle in vain, and before him the 318 Fathers of the Council? Or, to put it another way: What are the ethical values which are granted to the human race through the absence of this iota and what ethical deprivations threaten us with its introduction into the Symbol of Faith ("co-essential": homoousios; and “of like essence": homoiousios). We gave a detailed reply to this question more than thirty years ago in the Theological Messenger, contained in the Complete Collected Works, volume II. These articles were translated into French and German (The Moral Idea of Christian Dogmas) and were published in St. Petersburg. There separate articles were devoted to the ethical concepts of the dogmas concerning the Trinity, God-manhood, the Divinity of the Holy Spirit, the Church, and others. Here we will say a few words only concerning the dogma of co-essentiality, although the First Ecumenical Council was also closely connected with the dogma of the Trinity.
In opposition to the Orthodox doctrine of co-essentiality, the teachers of the “like-essence” doctrine numbered the Son of God among the ranks of the created and in this way made Him a part of the world, as are all human beings and even the angels - and, in addition, apart of the earthly world, since He took on flesh; and if at the same time He had not remained God, then He would be some sort of being characteristic of the world, like the rest of creation, even ,though He may have been personally sinless. In actuality, being the True God, by entering the world He established a new world order, with which, of course, the created and fallen world immediately entered into conflict. Consider the remarkable words of the Apostle John: “Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world” (I Jn. 4:4); and the similar statement made by the Lord Himself in the Gospel (Jn. 10:28-29). These words would be inappropriate if the universe were of a higher order than Christ or equal to Him. “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world ... Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? ... And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.” (I Jn. 5:4-5, 19).
The words “the world lieth in wickedness” refer not only to the evil which predominates in the life of society, but also to the fact that evil has entered the very nature of the universe, every living thing that exists on earth, as well as the fallen angels. The struggle for existence is conjoined with malice and vindictiveness; such is the lot of human relationships and of all created beings in general. Inherent to the human soul are pride, self-love, and sensuality, or - in the words of the Evangelist - “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I Jn. 2:16). Therefore the favorite and confidant of Christ says to Christians in the same epistle: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world; if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 in. 2:15). The follower of Christ contests with the world and fights against himself, having inherited worldly, sinful corruption; he battles against nature, and he struggles against history. In the world he finds for himself no support that is stronger than the world; it is to be fouled only in God, and God, Who was incarnate in the world, abides in the Christian (Jn. 15:1-7). Read these comforting words of the Son of God to God the Father: “I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that Thou hast sent Me, and hast loved them, as Thou hast loved Me” (Jn. 17:23; cf. Rom. 15:45-50). These exalted and compassionate words would be meaningless if Christ, in Whom Christianity abides, were not True God, but only a part of the world which is hostile to Christians (Jn. 15:18-20). This is why the victory of the First Ecumenical Council over the Arians was the victory over the world of the way of Christ and of holiness which Christ bestowed. By not allowing the hateful iota into the Symbol of Faith, so-called moral relativism and ethical conditionality (that is, ethical indifference) were prevented from entering Christian life and thought. Otherwise, there would have been a nullification of the commandments of Christ and of Christian asceticism and martyrdom.
Let us not forget what a great event in the history of the salvation of the human race the First Ecumenical Council was, for it confirmed unswervingly the doctrine of the Divinity of Jesus Christ and the no less salvific doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity.
Translated by Timothy Fisher from: Tserkovnya Vedomosti, No. 9 & 10, May, 1925, pp. 14-17.
Taken from Orthodox Life, Volume 34, No. 6, November-December 1984, Published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.
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