First Council of Nicaea

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1st Council of Nicaea
May 20 / June - July 25, 325
Accepted by
Convened by Constantine the Great
Attendees A total of about 2000 participants (of which probably 200-300 bishops )
  • Creed
  • 20 canons
  • 1 synodal letter
First Council of Nicaea (325): Emperor Constantine unrolls the text of the Nicano-Constantinopolitanum , as it was reformulated at the First Council of Constantinople (381), with the exception of the first word, from πιστεύομεν ('we believe') to πιστεύω (' I believe ') changed as in the liturgy.

The First Council of Nicaea was convened by Constantine I in AD 325 in Nicaea (now İznik , Turkey ) near Byzantion (now Istanbul ). In the autumn of 324 Constantine had achieved sole rule; One reason for convening the council could have been the wish to combine the newly won imperial unity with Constantine's name and his rule for the entire Roman Empire through an ecclesiastical council . In addition, various problems had to be solved, such as the regulation of Easter, but also the dispute over Arianism that had broken out in Alexandria , always with the aim of establishing church unity. A little more than 200, possibly more than 300 bishops and other clerics came to Nicaea, almost all of them from the east of the empire . On the basis of the list of signatures for the 'canons' passed in Nicaea, at least a little more than 200 bishops can be identified by name. The council ended with the (preliminary) victory of the opponents of Arianism or various forms of Origenistic hypostasis theology and with the Nicene creed . The confession was at least formally recognized by the vast majority of the bishops of the council, but a number of the eastern bishops had rejected the confession during the consultation phase. But Emperor Constantine is said to have ended the discussions with the explicit statement that “the son of one being with the father”, so that almost all bishops who had disagreed, would have given in.

The canons of the council are the first doctrinal decisions of the whole Christian church. a. had become significant through the traditional joint signatures of the bishops and clergy; but especially through the official status of the Nicene Council under the authority of Emperor Constantine I, who confirmed the canons and resolutions of the Nicene Council, which thus became law for the Roman Empire. The previous synods and councils had been organized regionally by church representatives themselves without the corresponding possibilities of generally binding / legal force of the resolutions and their enforcement ability.

In church history, the Council of Nicaea is counted as the first ecumenical council , although the vast majority of bishops and clergy came from the eastern part of the Roman Empire and only a handful of ecclesiastical dignitaries had traveled from the western part. Regardless of this fact, the Nicene Council is seen as one of the essential points of reference in church history, so that the history of the ancient Church is often divided into pre-Nicene and post-Nicene theology. The ecclesiastical significance of the council only crystallized in the course of the fourth century, and the decisions of the council were often called into question after the death of Constantine in 337, before they were confirmed by the first council of Constantinople in 381 .

The First Council of Nicaea is commemorated on June 12 in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod . In the Orthodox Church it is celebrated on the sixth Sunday after Easter.


At the council itself no protocol was kept and no files have been handed over, even if some alleged protocols subsequently emerged. However, there were various contemporary and later letters and reports or traditions about it, the essential events at the Council are historically undisputed today:

Circumstances of the time

With the sole rule achieved by the (West) Roman Emperor Constantine I after the decisive battle against the Eastern Roman Emperor Licinius in September 324, now also over the easternmost areas of the empire, the dogmatic unity of the entire Roman Empire, which had developed since the turn of Constantine , became state-supported and recognized Christian imperial church necessarily increasingly important. Various questions and problems, especially in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire, which Constantine I also ruled from September 324, such as Egypt with Alexandria, made this unity more difficult. Since the important differences could not be resolved by the bishops and other ecclesiastical dignitaries alone, Emperor Constantine I pushed for a uniform settlement of the various points of contention, one of the tasks of the first Nicene Council. Furthermore, in Nicaea, Constantine I's newly won, comprehensive imperial autocracy over the entire Roman Empire was supposed to be sealed with a church synod under Constantine's patronage and direction after the victory over Licinius, which he also interpreted religiously. Especially since Nicaea as well as the originally planned council venue Ankyra belonged to those eastern territories over which Constantine the Great also ruled from September 324. He also intervened actively in the course of the council with compromise formulas, and from his point of view securing religious peace was an essential imperial task with political implications (see also Pax romana ).

In the 20th century, the files of a local council were discovered that took place six months before the Council of Nicaea in Antioch (today Antakya / Turkey). This council is seen by some researchers (JND Kelly, Eduard Schwartz ) as an essential precursor of Nicaea. Participants were 59 bishops from Palestine , Arabia , Phenicia and Cappadocia . Ossius of Cordoba , who also played a leading role in Nicaea, was in charge . The reason for the council was the election of a new bishop of Antioch, but in addition a clear statement on Arianism and a detailed anti-Arian creed was written, which, however, has no literary relationship to the Nicaean creed. Scientifically controversial is the thesis that Eusebius of Caesarea and other bishops should have been provisionally excommunicated - with the chance to change their minds before the "great and holy synod" of Ancyra (which then took place in Nicea) - because they refused would have to sign this commitment.

The council

place and time

The council took place in Nicaea, today's İznik , at that time the second largest city of Bithynia and only about 30 km from the then imperial seat of Nicomedia , a place that was easily accessible by land and sea. The premises probably belonged to the imperial palace.

The opening session took place on May 20 or 25, 325, possibly not until June, and the council ended in late July of the same year with a banquet to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the accession of Emperor Constantine.

The participants

Emperor Constantine had asked all 1,800 bishops of the Christian church at that time (about 1,000 in Greek and 800 in Latin-speaking countries) to participate and carried the travel expenses of the 200-300 bishops and clerics who accepted the invitation. The traditional number of 318 bishops, first mentioned in 359/360 by Hilary of Poitiers , which became canonical from the 1960s onwards , goes back to the 318 servants or men of Abraham ( Gen 14.14  EU ).

Since each bishop could bring two presbyters and three deacons , up to two thousand people are likely to have attended the council. Most of the empire's eastern provinces were well represented. Of the Latin, 'Western Roman' churches, only seven came: Ossius of Córdoba , Nicasius of Die , Caecilian of Carthage , Domnus of Strido , Mark of Calabria and the two presbyters Victor (or Vitus) and Vicentius as deputies of the old bishop of Rome New Year I.

Among the bishops there were some; B. Paphnutius of Thebes, Potamon of Heraklea and Paul of Neo-Caesarea, visibly mutilated by the persecution of Christians only 15 years ago . Noteworthy are James of Nisibis , who was a hermit, or Spyridion of Cyprus, who also lived as a shepherd as a bishop. In addition, Nikolaus von Myra , a Persian bishop Johannes and a Gothic bishop Theophilus were also present, i.e. bishops from areas outside the Roman Empire.

On the orders of the emperor, the Alexandrian presbyter Arius also took part.

Ossius of Cordoba and Eusebius of Nicomedia are likely to have had the greatest influence on the emperor.

The participants had three main positions on the question of the doctrine of the Trinity:

  • The few Arians around the presbyter Arius from Alexandria and his Arianism .
  • The Homoousians (from homo-ousios , of the same essence ) held fast to the perfect divinity of Christ. At the head were the Patriarchs Alexander of Alexandria , Eustathius of Antioch and Macarius of Jerusalem , plus Ossius of Córdoba , the court bishop, and in particular the young archdeacon Athanasius of Alexandria , who had neither a seat nor a vote, but who stood out for perseverance, argumentation and Zeal excelled.
  • The great majority belonged in one way or another to the so-called 'Origenist middle group', which had only developed from a certain interpretation of Origen's theology long after Origen's death . This middle group also included Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea . From this direction two separate currents emerged after 357, the so-called 'Homeers' and the 'Homeusians' (both parties used arguments that they derived from Origen). Many representatives of this middle group opposed the condemnation of Arius and the, from their point of view, questionable theology, as defended by the main opponent of Arius, Alexander of Alexandria , very aggressively. From the late 360s onwards, the majority of the 'Origenist middle group' turned decisively against the so- called Neo -Arian doctrine of the Trinity around Aetios of Antioch and Eunomius , the so-called heterousians.


The course itself has not been passed down in concrete detail; there are various summaries of individual points, for example in Eustathius, which partly contradict each other.

In his Vita Constantini , a kind of biography / life story of Constantine I, Eusebius of Caesarea gave a brief lecture on the opening and outcome of the council. Thus, Eusebius writes in his Vita Constantini , III, 13, at the beginning many bishops had submitted petitions about private disputes to the emperor, who finally exhorted the participants to reconciliation and harmony. Later legendary decorations even let the emperor burn all written submissions unread.

At first the Arians proposed a creed, but it was torn by those present amid tumult, whereupon sixteen of the eighteen signatories switched sides. Arius argued from the position of an absolutely monotheistic theology, which should not allow any violation of the unity and uniqueness of God. Consequently, he denied the deity of the person of Jesus Christ and assigned her only the role of the most distinguished of all creatures. In his philosophical arguments he started from Platonic and Neoplatonic premises.

The opponents of Arius on the side of Athanasius, however, argued with the term homoousios , one being (essence equality). The Homoousians argued that Arianism replaces Christian doctrine of God not with monotheism but with polytheism , since God and Jesus Christ are completely different beings for the Arians, who are both worshiped. It would also make liturgical traditions such as baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit or prayers to Jesus Christ nonsensical. Furthermore, perhaps most importantly, the Christian concept of salvation in Christ is inconceivable in Arianism , since only a truly divine mediator can bring about a reconciliation of creation with God - this is not possible for a creature.

Then Eusebius of Caesarea , who had taken Arius into his home after his exile from Alexandria , proposed an ancient Palestinian creed that confirmed the divinity of Christ in general biblical terms. According to more recent findings based on the Council of Antioch, this should not have been a suggestion of a confession for the assembly, but a justification of his orthodoxy before the council on the basis of his excommunication (which Eusebius understandably does not emphasize in a letter to his congregation).

Eusebius remarks that the Creed that he presented was regarded as orthodox by Emperor Constantine, but the impression Eusebius subsequently gave that the Creed he presented should have become the Confession of Nicaea with a small change, but would have been from a council commission with a whole different text and so adopted does not apply.

Since, on the one hand, the few representatives of Arian Christology found an appropriate interpretation for every biblical expression proposed by the very vehement, but hardly more strongly represented anti-Arian or anti-Origenist faction, and on the other hand the opposing faction was not ready, To leave the decision open by means of an ambiguous confession, the emperor expressly voted for the expression "essence" (Greek ὁμοούσιος homoousios , Latin consubstantialis (of the same substance)), which Arius rejected , and ordered the confession to be revised accordingly. Eusebius writes that the emperor personally interpreted this expression in such a way that it could be accepted as broadly as possible: “He declared that ὁμοούσιος should not be understood in the sense of physical relationships, (?) Since an immaterial, spiritual and non-physical nature is not subject to physical relationships could be. These things should be understood as spiritual and ineffable meaning. "

Since there are various very similarly sounding Eastern Confessions, it cannot be decided which of them was the basis for the newly developed Confession. The revising group under Ossius of Córdoba was not satisfied with expressing the godly unity of the son with the father, but included largely all the formulas against which the Arians, but also in many cases the representatives of the Origenist middle group, had opposed in recent years. The formulas included: “created from the being of the Father”, “created and uncreated” and “being with the Father”. The council emphasized that the Son is a person of the Trinity and not part of creation . There was also an addition that expressly condemns the Arian heresy .

Council decisions

Confession of Nicaea

Practically all bishops signed the Nicean Creed proposed by Ossius , first Ossius and after him the two Roman presbyters in the name of their bishop. Eusebius of Caesarea also signed after a day's reflection and defended his signature in a letter to his diocese. Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea signed the confession, but not the appendix at the end of the confession text, the anathematisms (condemnations) of Arian core positions, were removed and banned for a time, but then rehabilitated around 327. Only Arius and two of his followers, the bishops, Theonas and Secundus, who also came from Egypt, consistently refused to sign the confession and were exiled to Illyria, but like Eusebius of Nicomedia, rehabilitated around 327.

Canons of the Council

In addition to the main topic of Arianism, the council decided on other questions that were discussed in the church of that time. These are listed in the canons of the council:

  • Canon 1: Eunuchs can become priests unless they have castrated themselves. Prohibition of self-castration.
  • Canon 2: People who after a short catechumenate were ordained priest or bishop at the same time as baptism, contrary to 1 Tim 3,6-7  EU , can keep their status, but this should not happen in the future. If such an ordained minister is convicted of sin by two or three witnesses, he will be suspended.
  • Canon 3: The council absolutely forbids bishops, priests and deacons from living with a woman, except of course her mother, sister or aunt or a woman above suspicion.
  • Canon 4: A bishop should be ordained by all the bishops of the province. If this is not practical, at least three bishops should ordain after the others have given written consent. In any case, the Metropolitan has the right to confirm the action.
  • Canon 5: The excommunication of a priest or lay person must be respected by the bishops of all provinces. However, there should be an investigation by the remaining bishops in the province to ensure that no one has been excommunicated by a bishop for personal reasons. In order to conduct these investigations in an orderly manner, the bishops of each province should meet twice a year in a synod.
  • Canon 6: The ancient authority of the Bishops of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome over their provinces is affirmed. An election of bishops without the consent of the metropolitan is invalid. However, if there are two or three dissenting votes among the electing bishops, the majority decides.
  • Canon 7: The bishop of Aelia (Jerusalem) is to be honored according to old custom, without, however, restricting the rights of the metropolitan.
  • Canon 8: Novatian clergymen who publicly enter the Church may retain their spiritual rank if they undertake in writing to accept and obey the decrees of the Church. However, they are subordinate to any local clergy of the Church.
  • Canon 9: If people have been ordained priests without examination and subsequently confess a sin that disqualifies them for it, ordination is invalid.
  • Canon 10: If it is discovered that a priest fell away from persecution and was subsequently ordained a priest, the ordination is invalid.
  • Canon 11: If people have fallen away from the faith without danger, they should be treated mildly, although they do not deserve such leniency: They should be admitted to communion again after a penance of twelve years.
  • Canon 12: When Christians who have first given up military service have returned to the army (which under Licinius required sacrifices for pagan gods), they should be allowed to communion again after 13 years of penance. However, this period of repentance can be shortened by the bishop in the case of genuine repentance.
  • Canon 13: A dying person may be given the Eucharist if he asks for it, even if he was not admitted to communion.
  • Canon 14: Catechumens who have fallen away are allowed to pray with the catechumens again after a period of penance of three years.
  • Canon 15: Bishops, priests and deacons are not allowed to wander from town to town, but should, if they try to do so, be sent back to the church where they were ordained.
  • Canon 16: Priests and deacons who leave their church may not be accepted into another church. Bishops are not allowed to ordain anyone who belongs to another diocese.
  • Canon 17: Whoever charges usurious interest should be deposed.
  • Canon 18: Deacons may not give the Eucharist to priests, but should receive the Eucharist from the bishop or priest.
  • Canon 19: Followers of Paul of Samosata who seek refuge in the Church are to be baptized in every case. Clergymen can be re-ordained after examination.
  • Canon 20: On Sunday and at Pentecost one should not kneel but pray standing.

Easter date

The literal canon regarding the date of Easter has not been preserved; It may not be entirely certain whether a binding regulation for calculating the Easter date has been passed. Perhaps in Nicaea only something like a recommendation was given to adhere to the Easter date and calculation method calculated in Alexandria. In any case, the regulation or recommendation can be reconstructed from various remarks that have been preserved by authors of the fourth century (e.g. Epiphanios von Salamis , Socrates Scholastikos ). Then it was decided or recommended:

  • Easter must be celebrated on the same day in all churches.
  • Easter is to be celebrated after the beginning of spring .
  • Easter is celebrated on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover festival.
  • The Bishop of Alexandria should calculate the date of Easter every year and report it to the Pope in Rome in good time so that it can be displayed from here to all other churches. Alexandrian science was held to be the best capable of mathematical and astronomical calculations. The Pope should, however, choose from the differing results of competing types of calculation or bring about an agreement through negotiations.


Despite the decision of the council, the resolutions in the Arian dispute remained controversial among the assembled church dignitaries and some of the bishops who had signed, all belonging to the so-called Origenist middle group, later revoked or distanced themselves from it. For example, Eusebius of Nicomedia wrote in a letter to the emperor: "We acted sinfully, O Prince, when we agreed to blasphemy out of fear of you ."

Influence of the emperor on the result

Constantine tried by all means to consolidate the stability and unity of the empire. The dynamically growing Christian Church offered itself as an integrating factor which he made use of.

Constantine was only baptized on his deathbed. According to Eusebius of Caesarea and Lanctantius , he is said to have seen Christ in a vision before the battle against Maxentius. In the theological dispute, he first pushed for an amicable agreement, then supported the Trinitarians at the council, but subsequently showed himself to be ready to reconcile the Arians. There is evidence that the emperor was primarily interested in peace and unity in the church - and thus in the empire. In a letter he wrote: "My aim was to bring the different judgments among all nations that worship the deity to a state of decided unity, and secondly, to restore the sound tone in the world system." but reached neither at the council nor in the following years.

Proponents of an imperial influence believe that Constantine allowed a vote on Jesus' equality with God until all those who think differently had left, which means that Jesus was made God by a manipulated majority decision.

The following arguments speak against an imperial dictation:

  • The Synod in Antioch, which met a few months earlier, at the end of 324 and beginning of 325, also adopted an anti-Arian creed without imperial influence.
  • The anti-Arians and anti-Origenists had no real government support: Constantine himself was theologically anything but fixated on Nicene. A few years later he banished Athanasius , because he vigorously opposed the imperial policy of balancing the conflicting camps, and was on the verge of having Arius, whom he had already recalled from exile in 327, also rehabilitated as a priest (which was done by Arius 'Death became obsolete). Most recently, Constantine was baptized on his deathbed by the anti-Nicene and Origenist Eusebius of Nicomedia . Various subsequent emperors in the fourth century supported the 'anti-Nicene' church currents.
  • Many of the bishops present had experienced and endured the last persecution of Christians, so they were not so easy to put under pressure.
  • In the years that followed, a number of anti-Arian and anti-Origenist, hence Nicene or Old Nean bishops, were banished partly because of their teaching and partly because of their uncompromising attitude, without switching to the Arians.
  • The Nicano-Constantinopolitanum of the Council of Constantinople (381) leaned on the Nicene Creed without any pressure from an emperor.



Secondary literature

  • Henryk Pietras: Council of Nicaea (325). Religious and Political Context, Documents, Commentaries . Gregorian and Biblical Press, Roma 2016. ISBN 978-88-7839-329-5 .
  • Lewis Ayres: Nicaea and its legacy. An approach to fourth-century trinitarian theology. Oxford University Press, Oxford et al. 2004, ISBN 0-19-875506-6 .
  • Heinrich Gelzer , Heinrich Hilgenfeld , Otto Cuntz : Patrvm Nicaenorvm nomina Latine, Graece, Coptice, Syriace, Arabice, Armeniace. Teubner, Leipzig 1898 (reprint with an afterword by Christoph Markschies . Teubner, Stuttgart et al. 1995, ISBN 3-519-01995-7 ).
  • Felix Haase : The Coptic Sources for the Council of Nicaea (= studies on the history and culture of antiquity. Vol. 10, H. 4, ZDB -ID 510174-8 ). Schöningh, Paderborn 1920.
  • Ignacio Ortiz de Urbina: Nicea and Constantinople (= history of the ecumenical councils. Vol. 1, ZDB -ID 533811-6 ). Matthias Grünewald Verlag, Mainz 1964.
  • Jörg Ulrich : The beginnings of the occidental reception of the Nicene (=  Patristic texts and studies. Vol. 39). de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 1994, ISBN 3-11-014405-0 (also: Erlangen, Nürnberg, Universität, Dissertation, 1993).

Web links

Notes and individual references

  1. ^ Stefan Klug: Alexandria and Rome. The history of the relationship between two churches in antiquity . Aschendorff Verlag , Münster / Westphalia 2014, p. 177.
  2. Hanns Christof BrenneckeNicaea, Ecumenical Synods: Nicaea I . In: Theologische Realenzyklopädie (TRE). Volume 24, de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1994, ISBN 3-11-014596-0 , pp. 429-441. ( Retrieved for a fee from Theologische Realenzyklopädie , De Gruyter Online), p. 431.
  3. Hanns Christof Brennecke:  Nicaea, Ecumenical Synods: Nicaea I . In: Theologische Realenzyklopädie (TRE). Volume 24, de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1994, ISBN 3-11-014596-0 , pp. 429-441. ( Retrieved for a fee from Theologische Realenzyklopädie , De Gruyter Online), p. 435.
  4. ^ Wolf-Dieter Hauschild , Volker Henning Drecoll : Textbook of Church and Dogma History. Volume 1. Old Church and Middle Ages . Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh 2016, p. 80. 5., completely revised new edition.
  5. Hanns Christof Brennecke:  Nicaea, Ecumenical Synods: Nicaea I . In: Theologische Realenzyklopädie (TRE). Volume 24, de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1994, ISBN 3-11-014596-0 , pp. 429-441. ( Retrieved for a fee from Theologische Realenzyklopädie , De Gruyter Online), p. 430.
  6. ^ Wolf-Dieter Hauschild, Volker Henning Drecoll: Textbook of Church and Dogma History. Volume 1. Old Church and Middle Ages . Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh 2016, p. 78. 5., completely revised new edition.
  7. Hanns Christof Brennecke:  Nicaea, Ecumenical Synods: Nicaea I . In: Theologische Realenzyklopädie (TRE). Volume 24, de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1994, ISBN 3-11-014596-0 , pp. 429-441. ( Retrieved for a fee from Theologische Realenzyklopädie , De Gruyter Online), p. 431.
  8. Jan Rohls : God, Trinity and Spirit (History of Ideas of Christianity, Volume III / 1). Mohr Siebeck , Tübingen 2014, p. 126 f., P. 92.
  9. Jan Rohls: God, Trinity and Spirit (History of Ideas of Christianity, Volume III / 1). Mohr Siebeck , Tübingen 2014, p. 133.
  10. ^ Wolf-Dieter Hauschild, Volker Henning Drecoll: Textbook of Church and Dogma History. Volume 1. Old Church and Middle Ages . Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh 2016, p. 90 f. 5th, completely revised new edition.
  11. 13. Constantine unites the fighting bishops. . Greek patristic and oriental languages ​​- Miséricorde. Retrieved April 1, 2019.
  12. Franz Dünzl : Brief history of the Trinitarian dogma in the old church. Herder, Freiburg (Breisgau) a. a. 2006, ISBN 3-451-28946-6 , pp. 71-73.
  13. ^ Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. XIV, The Canons of the 318 Holy Fathers Assembled in the City of Nice (sic), in Bithynia. . In: Early Church Fathers . Retrieved May 8, 2006.
  14. ^ Stefan Klug: Alexandria and Rome. the history of the relationship between two churches in antiquity . Aschendorff Verlag , Münster / Westphalia 2014, p. 182.
  15. Nikolaus Bär: The Date of Easter , Section: The Council of Nicaea ( online ).
  16. ^ Joseph Bach: The calculation of Easter in old and new times , Strasbourg 1907, page 14 ( online ).