Constantine and the ‘Jesus of faith’

Some day, I think I’ll write a book about the Emperor Constantine I (‘the Great’, r. 306ish-337) for the popular audience. It seems to me that quality research about the man has been conducted within scholarly circles in recent decades, yet popular audiences continue to believe not only old stories but new ones made up since the old stories were overturned in a scholarly discourse no one but other specialists reads.

And I don’t begrudge scholars the specialist literature. I am going to contribute to it the moment my first publication hits the presses. Nonetheless, sometimes this knowledge needs to step beyond the Ivory Tower to the mean streets of the ‘real world’.

I am at present thinking along these lines because of the following from Michael Wood in the October issue of BBC History magazine, who writes:

Christians have got used to the huge fissure between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. Not that the Jesus of history isn’t a compelling figure: a Jewish exorcist, faith healer and teacher swimming in the soup of Hellenistic mystery religions and millennial cults of first-century Palestine, an altogether more believable and human character. It was the pivotal role of Paul in the construction of the narrative, and the appropriation of that narrative by the Roman empire under Constantine in the 330s, that turned him into the Jesus of faith. (27)

The educated reader doesn’t go to Dan Brown for history because she is too busy reading the quite good BBC History magazine to fill her hours. And here we have Michael Wood basically giving us Dan Brown, at least as far as Constantine (Constantine!) is concerned. Wood may be a good scholar of Anglo-Saxon Britain, but he needs to put better investment in the history of Christianity.

I won’t deal with the enormously debatable things he says about Jesus, Paul, and how Paul apparently constructed the narrative of the Jesus of faith, although I understand that Pauline studies has got beyond that sort of thinking these days, and large books by clever people point to a collective belief in the Jesus of faith on the part of all the apostles, not just Paul. Whatever. People who do Biblical Studies can do that.

Let’s look briefly at Constantine, because not even PhDs seem to have a clue what influence he had.

Now, maybe my problem stems from the fact that Wood does not even tell us what the Jesus of faith looks like. It’s the sort of trigger phrase that I’d think Wikipedia would flag. It means too many things. And within the things it means, Wood’s description of the Jesus of history is included, simply amplified.

This leaves me no alternative but to imagine that Wood means, by the Jesus of faith, the Jesus who redeems the world and the Jesus who is God.

What does Constantine have to do with either of those?

The former — pretty much nothing. The idea of Jesus’ death and life as redeeming and atoning for sin and bringing humanity to God, besides being in the New Testament, is at the forefront of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, most especially St Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. 180s) but, if I could remember names, all over the place elsewhere.

The latter — well. That’s a funny story. You see, the Dan Brown version goes that there were these really happy, liberal, feminist Gnostics whom the angry, conservative, patriarchal orthodox destroyed at the Council of Nicaea under big, evil Constantine who wielded imperial power for the Church. I’ve shaken my head at this before.

Only the Gnostics have nothing to do with anything in the major events of church history starting in the 300s, a fact I’ve wondered at on this blog. Nicaea was a debate between ‘Arians’ and … um … ‘Nicenes’ … about the divinity of Jesus. And the remarkable thing is, the ‘Arians’ would have been willing to say that Jesus was/is God. Well, some of them. Not a homogeneous group (neither are the ‘Nicenes’). They just would have rejected the idea that Jesus is of the same substance (homoousios/consubstantialis) as the Father. I mean, at bottom-line Arianism.

The theology that was being argued at Nicaea was two sides of the theology borne not only from the New Testament Scriptures but the logos theology of St Justin Martyr (d. 165) and Origen of Alexandria (184-253) that takes John 1 with the utmost seriousness and tries to see how it works that Jesus, who is the logos, is also theos.

And, outside of the high-flying theology, we have Melito of Sardis, c. 170, proclaiming Christ as God in unequivocal terms. So also does Polycarp in his martyrdom and the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne in like manner. Christians believed that Jesus was God.

So what did Constantine do??

What Nicaea did was help settle an unsettling conflict about how the faith in Jesus as God was articulated and what it means for Christians to believe it. It wasn’t actually settled until 381 within the empire, and persisted amongst the ‘barbarians’ for centuries.

This is to say: the Jesus of faith existed long before Constantine, and someone like him would even have been believed in by today’s media-darling Gnostics.

The Trinity and Mission

These are musings brought upon me by my friend Rick (who blogs over here) in an e-mail today as I plan some seminars on the Fathers. One of the hard sells these days can be the deep theology of the Church Fathers. What does homoousios have to do with me? I already know why Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong; why discuss the patristic discussions of Christology? Isn’t it more important just to accept Jesus in your heart? This is all so impractical.

But Rick just sent me an e-mail challenging all of that. Where do we evangelicals tend to get our vision of mission? The Great Commission. What do we see happening there?

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus has appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Mt. 28:16-20, KJV)

This should be one of our foundational texts for Christology and Trinitarian theology (as Rick said to me in his e-mail). I have usually seen it quoted only in part, ‘Go ye therefore … and of the Holy Ghost.’ But the beginning of the passage is of the utmost importance because we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is the therefore there for?’ Jesus says first, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.’

If you know the Christological debates of the fourth century, you will know that those words alone pose no problems for an Arian. This is an important point, if we want to encourage people to read Sts. Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and of Nazianzus (‘the Theologian’), Ambrose, and Augustine for their Christology. For us, in a post-Nicene, post-Reformation, post-Christendom world, it is ‘obvious’ to many a believer that when ‘all power is given unto [Christ] in heaven and in earth’ he is, therefore, fully God.

But an Arian would tell us that the authority was given to Him by the Father.

So we need to go farther up in the passage.

What did the Eleven do when the meet Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him.’ True, ‘some doubted’. But the Evangelist here seems to me to be commending the worshipful action of the Eleven. When they worship Jesus, the word is proskunésan, from the verb proskuneo. It is a word for worship used throughout Christian literature to refer to that kind of reverence and honour given to God alone. When people in the Bible give proskunésis to someone other than God, it is condemned.

This is an argument normally used on Jehovah’s Witnesses; no doubt it can work with the sly neo-Arians in your midst.

If Jesus is God and — working from the logical context of the day — there is only one God, when Jesus comes to the discussion of baptism, how can it be that people baptise in the name of the Father and of the Son (let alone the Holy Spirit?).

Now we enter into the mystery of the Trinity. Here’s the usefulness of the Fathers.

When the fourth-century Fathers were confronted by the Arian complaint that Jesus cannot be entirely God because that makes us at least dyotheists if not polytheists, new ways of thinking about Jesus’ divinity and his relation to God the Father needed to be found. The earlier Fathers had all asserted Jesus to be divine (so did the Arians). They had said things such as the Son and the Spirit being the Father’s hands (so did the Arians). They had even used the word Trinitas (first attested in Tertullian). Some had said that the Father and Son were homoousios or consubstantialis (the Arians did not).

These last terms were taken by the Fathers of the fourth century and they built on the preceding tradition, using this theological framework as well as the internal arguments above to combat the Arian argument for the Son’s createdness. And when we decide that Father and Son are co-equal and co-eternal, why neglect the Holy Spirit? Is he not also one of those in whose name the disciples are called to baptise?

This brings us full circle to mission. Embedded in a passage used on a regular basis to assert the importance of mission and the call to preach to the nations is Trinitarian theology. It is explicated as being Three Persons who share a single Essence or Substance, and eternal communion of being.

Jesus tells His disciples to go forth and make more disciples. They are able to do this because Jesus is God. And they are to baptise people in the threefold Divine Name(s). Because of His Divine authority, we can feel confident telling people Jesus’ teachings, even the hard ones, knowing that He is with always, to the very end of the age.

And, having made disciples, they are to be baptised, to be washed clean of their old life through the symbol and sacrament of water, in the Name of these three Persons who are One God. They enter into the Divine Life, then. They enter as participants by grace (not nature, and not ontologically) into the everlasting communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And as we go forth, we are ourselves living as part of that communion, an everlasting love and joy that lies as the basis for all creation.

As a member of this Divine Communion, how will you live your life today? As a person called to teach all nations by God Himself, how will you relate to the world around you? These are the questions the Trinity poses us as we look at mission.

Don’t forget, I have a page (probably outdated by now) of Resources on the Holy Trinity.

Spyridon

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

The Kypriot shepherd (wearing the beehive hat in the right-hand group, close to Konstantinos) walked down from his place near the top of the stands of overseers. Konstantinos watched a man who deigned to wear a straw hat, an old green tunic, and a worn, grey traveller’s cloak who considered himself worthy to debate Aurelios, the well-trained and learned Arian philosopher who had studied philosophy at Athenai and Alexandreia. Gelassios, head overseer of Kypros, had nodded his approval. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, it would seem.

As he approached Aurelios,* he fingered the knots of his prayer rope, each knot signifying a prayer his heart was calling forth to God above, to God in His threeness, His threeness in its oneness.

Spyridon bowed to Aurelios. Aurelios, right eyebrow raised, bowed in return.

“Good afternoon, shepherd,” Aurelios began.

“Good afternoon, philosopher,” returned Spyridon. “God’s holy blessings upon you.” He fingered his prayer rope.

“So, you believe that the Anointed Jesus, the Word, the Son of God, is eternal?”

“Yes.”

And then it began. It began as it always, inevitably (almost tiresomely so, to Spyridon) did, with Proverbs 8:22, as though this were a stepping-off point. His counterargument was swift and simple, to the effect that Wisdom in Proverbs need not necessarily be considered to be the same person as the Word of Holy Iohannes. He also noted that perhaps this was the wrong place to start.**

“What,” he asked Aurelios, “does our Lord and Saviour Jesus the Anointed say about Himself?”

They went through the Scriptures themselves, Spyridon noting that in interpreting the written Word, its plainest sense is to be favoured to one that involves philosophical leaps and entanglements. Is it not plainer to simply take Jesus at His word, that He and the Father are one, that if you have seen Him, you have seen the Father?

Nevertheless, as they discussed these texts (How is it logical for Holy Iohannes to call the Word God if the Word is not God?), Spyridon knew that Aurelios was having trouble being convinced, and that he was starting to pull out his own prooftexts and the philosophy of Platon and Sokrates.

And so they moved from Scripture, with which Spyridon was intimately acquainted, to a discussion of substance — ousia — and hypostasis and the uses of language. Spyridon, rather than speeding up the spinning of the prayer rope actually slowed it down. This was not because he was suddenly less concerned with his prayers, but more. He took his time as he passed over each knot, Lord Jesus the Anointed, have mercy on me.

And he made each response, meeting Aurelios’ challenges. What he did not know was that as the debate continued, as he answered Aurelios calmly and slowly, as Aurelios became more and more notably fervent, as all this happened — his face started to glow.***

Aurelios, naturally, noticed it first and stumbled in mid-statement, “Yet if . . . Jesus is called the first . . . born of creation . . .” with an astonished pause before he continued, “how can he rightly be called Creator?”

Spyridon answered that if everything that has been created was created through Him, how can He himself be part of creation? At that moment, Nikolaos noticed the glowing and held his book of the Good News close to his breast, closed his eyes and entered the mansion of his spirit where he interceded mightily for Spyridon.

At length, Spyridon countered every argument put forth by Aurelios, his facing shining like a light in the midst of the assembly.

“I admit that you have outargued me,” said Aurelios. “Yet I still cannot accept what you say. It feels like blasphemy to say that God the Father shares His divine nature with another.”

Spyridon smiled, a twinkling, brilliant smile. From somewhere in his traveller’s cloak he pulled out a terracotta tile.

“Aurelios, stop doubting and believe!” he declared, clenching the tile in his fist.

And then Spyridon the Wonderworker did it. Flame spurted from the top of his fist. Water ran out the bottom. He held forth his palm to Aurelios, showing him the red earth therein.

“Three can be one, Aurelios.”

“I believe, I believe,” said Aurelios falling to his knees. “Oh Lord, save me from my unbelief!”

*The name “Aurelios” is fake; I don’t know the name of the philosopher St. Spyridon debated. It is not a reference to Marcus Aurelius, however; it is a reference to the fact that a lot of people in late antiquity had the Roman family name “Aurelius” (as previously discussed here).

**In all likelihood, Spyridon would have equated with the Wisdom with the Word; the standard answer was that of Athanasius, that Pr. 8:22 was about the Incarnation. Spyridon here is uttering my modern idea, not an ancient one.

***This happened to St. Seraphim of Sarov and Evelyn Underhill; I do not know if it happened to St. Spyridon, but it could have at some point.

Alexandros

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Alexandros (the one nearest Konstantinos in the left-hand cluster) had presented his case before the gathering of overseers, explaining why Arios’ answer to his question was not acceptable. It had been long years since that fateful moment when the repercussions of Arios’ thoughts had come forth.

It all came out at the regular gathering of Alexandros and his elders. Alexandros took his role as overseer seriously. He knew that in earlier days the overseer would have been able to meet with the faithful individually. Now, though, the numbers of believers were too great, and that was the job of the elders under Alexandros’ charge. Nonetheless, he had had hands laid on him, and it was his threefold appointment to guide that flock, to uphold right teaching and theology, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.[1] The elders did the last two things on a regular basis with most people for him. The Lord’s Supper was the normative occasion for worship, and at worship would the elders teach the people.

Thus, it was the responsibility of Alexandros to ensure that those into whose hands he had placed the spiritual health of his flock were teaching them the truth of the Anointed Jesus. It was also, he believed, part of the task of the overseer to pray with the elders and encourage them on their own spiritual journey. Alexandros took his spiritual authority and responsibility very seriously, for these were the matters of the greatest importance, never to be taken lightly.

And so they had gathered those long years before. After they had eaten the Lord’s Supper together, they sat down in a circle in the nave of the new basilica-style house of worship, serving the original congregation that Holy Markos had founded when he brought the Good News to Aigyptos. All eyes were upon Alexandros as he looked down at them.

“We believe in one God, and Jesus is the Word of that God, my brothers. As Holy Iohannes tells us, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him, all things were made; nothing that has been made was made without Him.’[2] Many who read the book of Proverbs see in the person of Wisdom this same Word of God. If this is the case, how can it be that Wisdom says, ‘The Lord created me a beginning of his ways, for his works’?”[3]

Konstantinos had told Alexandros in a letter that this was where he went wrong; that asking such questions was itself impious — and Arios had been wrong to answer. They ought, Konstantinos had told them, simply to make peace with one another.[4] Konstantinos was a politician and a warrior, just barely redeemed from darkest superstition and still minting coins with the Unconquered Sun on them.[5] He did not realise the deep import of these questions as the theologians pondered God and meditated on His great glory. Furthermore, the Assembly’s beliefs rested upon Scripture. Coming to an understanding of difficult passages of Scripture helped believers remain strong in the faith; if one could not trust the Scriptures, one could very well turn back to the worship of the Unconquered Sun.[6]

Furthermore, the young elder Arios was present; Arios had formerly been mixed up with Meletios,[7] and some Meletians who had an axe to grind had told Alexandros that Arios was teaching some unusual things regarding Jesus’ divinity.[8] Alexandros wanted to be sure his preachers would preach the faith handed down; he wanted to be sure that the rumours about Arios were untrue. Arios had a reputation for being a good preacher and expounder of the Scriptures at the Baukalis,[9] the house of God where he tended the flock.

Then Arios opened his mouth and formed words about the Word. He was determined at any cost to keep Jesus the Word subordinate to the Father and to do it all in a combination of Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian divisions. The accusations of the Meletians were true.

“The verse from Proverbs means that there was when he was not, Father. The Word is the Wisdom of God, and this passage clearly states that the Wisdom of God is a created being. This makes sense, for as Origen taught, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit each have a separate hypostasis.[10] If they each have a separate hypostasis, then they are distinct beings. If they are distinct beings, then only one of them can be God. God the Father is that one God, and He will never share his glory with another, as it says in Isaiah. The Word and the Spirit are, thus, creations; they are like God the Father’s hands, active in the creation and preservation of the universe. But they are not God Himself.”

“If they are not God himself, why does Holy Iohannes say that the Word is God?” the blessed servant Athanasios[11] had asked.

“This is a good question. Holy Iohannes is being rhetorical here, my brothers. He is not being literal. The Word is given the word God as a title only; he is not literally God. Being a creature, he is capable of change, as are we all, but of his own free will He continues good so long as he wishes. He is capable of change even as we are, but God, foreknowing that he would remain good, gave him in anticipation the glory which as man and in consequence of his virtue he afterward possessed. God from foreknowledge of his works made him become what he afterward was.”[12]

“Could not all three of them be, um, different manifestations of God?” asked one young elder.

Many eyebrows had risen at that. Alexandros shook his head slowly.

“No,” said another, “for they are mentioned as being distinct persons by Jesus Himself in the Good News according Holy Matthaios when He tells us to plunge people into water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.[13] Therefore, since they all have distinct names, they are not simply manifestations of the one God. They are, as Arios noted, three hypostases.”

“Exactly,” said Arios. “And a difference of name means that there is a difference of substance. An apple is not a tree, is it? The Father is, thus, not the Son. If the distinction between apple and tree were false, we could give them both the same name. But if we call Father and Son by different names, they are not the same thing. And if they are not the same thing, and if the Father is God, then the Son cannot be said to be God in the same way. I do not deny that he is a divine being, but his divinity is not inherent to his being; his divinity comes from the Father and is only partial. He is not truly God in his substance and essence.”[14]

“You would dare say that the Anointed Jesus, the Word, the Son of God, whom the Scriptures themselves call God, is not eternal with the Father?” Alexandros had asked. He could say nothing more. He could not argue. He could only stare in shock at this man.

“Yes,” answered Arios. “As I said at the beginning, there was when he was not. The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. As he dwelt among us, subordinating his will — as, indeed, his own being was so subordinated — to the Father’s, he improved, he resisted temptation. This divine Word came to mediate to us the grace of God the Father, for creation itself, so weak, fallen, feeble, sinful, cannot endure direct relationship with God Himself.”[15]

“Well, we see that you do not believe that Jesus is fully God,” said Athanasios. “Now it sounds that as some semi-divine being enfleshed he is not fully human.”

“This is true,” said Arios, sitting tall.

“If He is not fully God, He cannot redeem us or save us,” said Athanasios. “If He is not fully human, He cannot live a perfect human life and serve as a ransom for many; He cannot offer us a model to live by. His perfection is useless if He is not fully man. His sacrifice is empty if He is not fully God. What you offer us cannot conquer sin. It cannot conquer death. All it can do is feebly tackle philosophers’ questions. The true Anointed One, however, can tackle the philosophers’ questions with might and strength, as well as standing astride sin and death. We eat the flesh of the real man, Jesus. We drink the blood of the real God, Jesus. He is alive, and He is eternal with the Father, true God of true God. I shall not quote the Scriptures to you, impious preacher. You have read them; you know them. Reread them and meditate upon them!”

Once Arios’ teaching became public, it spread beyond Alexandreia. Two years before Nikaia they had excommunicated him and condemned his teachings in Alexandreia. The next year, Antiokheia did likewise, also condemning Eusebios of Kaisereia as a follower of Arios pernicious teachings. And now they were at Nikaia to bring down Arios’ teachings once and for all.

Alexandros was drawn from his reverie by Alexandros of Byzantion, next to whom he was sitting.

“Alexandros,” he whispered, “what is your vote?”

“About what?” he asked, looking about at the assembled crowd.

“Do you agree that an overseer should be chosen by all the overseers of his province, with a minimum of three present if they cannot all make it, but the consent of the others being sent in by letter?”

“What?”

“The statement we’re voting on is: It is by all means proper that an overseer should be appointed by all the overseers in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent overseers also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place. But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.”[16]

“Sure. Yeah. Otherwise we’d have Donatos or Meletios all over again or something, wouldn’t we? There are rogue overseers in Aigyptos, men consecrated by Meletios.”

“Then raise your hand,” the overseer of Byzantion said, gesturing at his own raised hand. “Did you think I was just blessing everyone with this upraised arm?”

Alexandros chuckled and raised his hand to show his assent.


[1] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Peguin: 1963), p. 253.

[2] John 1:1-3.

[3] Proverbs 8:22.

[4] Eusebius, Life of Constantine. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall trans. and commentary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 118.

[5] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London, Penguin: 1967), pp. 126-127.

[6] Chadwick notes that a bishop of Troy had done just that but fails to mention which one, p. 127. Emperor Julian the Apostate would do so as well.

[7] Meletius of Lycopolis was a schismatic in the early fourth century who was ordaining people in Alexandria against the current bishop’s wishes. His actions were dealt with at Nicaea as well. (For more, see the Catholic Encyclopedia)

[8] Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), p. 237. W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Peabody, Mass.: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 136.

[9] Drobner wonders if Arius’ church got its name due to its shape, a baukalis being ‘a sturdy earthenware vessel with a narrow bottleneck’, p. 236.

[10] You try to find a good English word for hypostasis. Drobner, 236.

[11] The chances of St. Athanasius being at the event in question are very slim; if he was there at all, his participation in it would also be slim.

[12] From the words “is capable…” onwards, quoting Athanasius quoting Arius as recorded by W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church, pp.135-136.

[13] Matthew 28:19.

[14] This development of Arius’ logic is from Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ, (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989), p. 107.

[15] Frend, 135.

[16] Canon IV of the Council of Nicaea.

Makarios

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Makarios (the first on the left) stood in the midst of the gathering. He was one of the notables in the theological disputes. He and Eustathios of Antiokheia had been comparing the baptismal formulae of their cities, trying to come up with a statement to which the overseers could agree and put a stop to Arios’ destructive preaching.

However, this was a day to deal with other business. They were all in ready agreement with the condemnation of Origen’s self-mutilating solution to the problem of lust; such men as who purposefully made themselves eunuchs were by no means allowed to become or remain shepherds of Jesus’ flock. Nonetheless, those who were made so by a physician, due to illness, or by the cruelty of barbarians, ought surely to be admitted into holy orders if they so desire? There was assent all around to this.

Makarios stood up. “At the urging of various dear friends,” he began, “the following was brought to the revered Konstantinos, and thence, I, too, had private audience with his greatness. As many know, the dignity of the city I oversee, Aelia Capitolina, has much suffered in the past centuries. Thirty years after our Lord’s ascent on high, Titus and his men sacked and spoliated the city. And forty years further, the soldiers of Roma, when the people rebelled once more, destroyed it, until not one stone was left upon another, save one retaining wall, which once held the glorious Temple. But I am here, brothers, to say to you that the dignity of Mount Zion, of the city of Jerusalem, is to be restored!” He noted his arch-overseer, Eusebios of Kaisereia, sigh.

“Is it not shameful, dear friends,” he continued, “that the city within which our Lord and Saviour, the Anointed Jesus, walked is devoid of any prestige and dignity at all? This was the city in former days, in times of old, where God Himself chose to dwell. Glorious things of you are spoken, Zion city of our God! calls out the psalmist. He made it His holy habitation, where the prophets proclaimed His word to the people. In this city, the words of the Holy Scriptures were put down for generations to come. He was worshipped in Jerusalem, sacrificed to, praised in song and dance.

“From the days of King David, Jerusalem was the chief city of God’s chosen people, of the descendants of Father Abraham, the people to whom His divine Light was given, to whom He disclosed His revelation. And from the line of King David himself, overseers, came our Lord. He visited Jerusalem, walked in Jerusalem, preached in Jerusalem, died in Jerusalem. In a garden near Jerusalem, Jesus, the High King of Heaven come down, was betrayed by the kiss of a friend. In a cold sepulchre, they laid the body, the lifeless corpse of the One who was life itself.

“Yet by that death, as we all know, He trampled upon death, and slew it with the lightning flash of His Godhead!” Makarios paused, knowing he had used the much-disputed word. “And in Jerusalem, He rose from the dead. Fifty days later, our Lord the Spirit descended in Jerusalem. The apostles were sent forth from Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Stephanos, whose blood is beautiful and calls out to the Lord for justice, was the first witness to die for the cause of the Good News. In Jerusalem, as well, Jacobos was beheaded. In Jerusalem, the very first gathering of overseers, of the apostles themselves, was assembled to deal with a divisive issue. And thus, in Jerusalem, as now here in Nikaia, the true Faith was upheld and the unity of the Assembly was maintained.

“Yet — oh sorrow — this city, the place where God Himself walked, where His incarnate foot trod upon the soil, rock, and grass, where His Blood was poured out for us men and for our salvation, is not honoured, but is only a minor city. The great sites of our faith, brothers, have been sorely neglected. Yet I tell you we know where the upper room of our Lord’s last supper is. We know where his holy sepulchre is. For generations, His disciples have walked the way from Gabbatha to Golgotha, sowing tears for their sins which led their Lord there. And we have suffered in Jerusalem as in all cities. And we have died, and our blood has run in the streets of Aelia Capitolina as did His.

“Let us, therefore, reclaim this place where the glory of Lord was shown forth so perfectly unto us! Let us restore the dignity where the fullness of His revelation was made known! Let us, in honour of that His precious death and glorious resurrection, give this city of Aelia Capitolina, that is, Jerusalem, a dignity and honour becoming so important a place to our abiding faith.”

Makarios stood silent. There was perhaps, by the dripping of the water clock, a pause of three seconds. And then Eustathios stood and noted his approval of the plan. Nikolaos of Myra also seemed pleased. He saw a fellow in a hat resembling a beehive nodding his agreement. And was that Metrophanes of Byzantion applauding in the corner? No, Makarios must have been seeing things. Most important of all, Konstantinos sat smiling, resplendent.

“But,” he noted, “we must remember the dignity and honour and history of Kaisareia, the city under whose administration Aelia falls. This council has noted how to uphold respect for those assembled, and Kaisareia is the administrative centre of the province. Whatever this holy gathering decides regarding Aelia, we must not forget the dignity of Eusebios and his city.”

Makarios then sat down. Not that he felt Eusebios had that much dignity, with his tendencies towards Arios’ teachings. He just knew that being irenic rather than polemic was the course of prudence, especially when one is taking dignity from someone else.

Little did innocent Makarios realise what the results of his impassioned speech and audience with the revered Konstantinos would be — pilgrims and basilicas, gold and glory, monks and holy places; a visit from Lady Helena, resulting in the discovery of the Cross itself! His head would have swum at Nikaia had he even thought of it. But he did not; he thought only of the importance of Aelia and its role in the history of salvation.

* * *

Canon VII of the Council of Nicaea, the result of Makarios’ action, viewable on the CCEL: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.vii.vi.viii.html

The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Macarius”: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09482a.htm

Eusebius of Caesarea. Life of Constantine. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, translators and commentators. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. pp. 132, 282.

Waugh, Evelyn. Helena. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2005. An excellent novel about the life of Helena, Constantine’s mother. The chapter “The Innocence of Bishop Macarius” was the inspiration for this telling of the tale.

Nikolaos, Part I

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Nikolaos (the one in the middle of the cluster to the right of Konstantinos) sat in the yellow sandstone cell. While his monastic lifestyle had accustomed him to harsh living conditions, he had normally sought them of his own will; being in prison was not the same as being a monk. He breathed in and out, trying to focus his thoughts, praying the name “Jesus” with each movement of his lungs.

“Jesus,” he breathed slowly in, focussing on the wall across from him. “Jesus,” he breathed out again. He had heard of some contemplatives who had made the prayer longer, larger, fuller, a declaration: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Nikolaos had found that simply calling out the Name of the Anointed Jesus was all he needed, that by so doing the risen, ascended Lord of Creation came near to him and indwelt his being, making him full. It helped quiet his thoughts and bring him to a place where the praise of God could truly be always on his lips. “Jesus,” he uttered once more.

But now — now his thoughts were having trouble calming down. He had been shocked to hear of the declarations of Elder Arios of Alexandreia, who declared, “There was when he was not.” How could that be true? The Anointed Jesus is Lord, so all the Assembly of God, so all the New Jerusalem scattered across the world declared. And there is only one Lord, and he is God himself. For Nikolaos, it was simple — Jesus the Anointed was God enfleshed; he was the . . . the God-Man! God had taken flesh up into himself; by this action, all humanity was able to be redeemed. If the Anointed Jesus were not God, then we are not saved. Nikolaos would be doomed; so also would be Arios. As the letters, messengers, and travellers passed through Myra, Nikolaos, as overseer, had learned of Arios and of the condemnation of his teachings in Antiokheia.

When the summons to Nikaia came, Nikolaos could not stay away from Bithynia. He set out to this gathering of all the overseers of the world. He was, as anyone would be, impressed by the grandeur of Konstantinos, his palace, and the houses he had built for the Lord in the city. But, as a monk, he saw that no matter how much gold was poured out, no matter how many gems were embroidered in garments, no matter how many beautiful images were painted, the hearts of men are still corrupted and corruptible. Indeed, amidst the 300 overseers, he was surprised that there was less virtue and discipline than he had anticipated — almost as though the brief years of what some called the Triumph had already corroded the very fabric of the Assembly.

The meetings troubled Nikolaos still further. Arios was not the only one who held that the Anointed was a created being, that the Word was begotten and created! This was heresy; Jesus was begotten, not made. Arios’ supporters explained that at the base of everything in the universe lay one uncreated, unbegotten Being who had no beginning and who was free from the vicissitudes of change. This Being had one substance and one divine nature. This Being was the Being to whom the Anointed Jesus referred as Father. There could be but one divine nature, they argued, since there could be a single divine substance; if Jesus has a divine nature as well, he must share it with the Father. Either this produces two gods or it reproduces the teachings of Sabellios, which confuse the persons of the Son and the Father. Surely, they argued, none of the overseers present was a heretical Sabellian, or so uncultured as to say that somehow there could be two divine natures and somehow a single substance! This would go against the clearly demonstrable rules of philosophy!

“We are not here,” declared Nikolaos when they had continued on long enough about Platon and Aristoteles, “to discuss philosophy. Philosophy is created by man, by pagans; it is flawed. What has Athenai to do with Jerusalem? We are here to discuss the infallible truths of the Book and the Traditions of the Holy Ones! What do these tell us? Did not Holy Johannes, companion of our Lord, write, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’? How could the Word both be God and not God at once? Does not your Aristoteles warn against contradiction in his teachings on philosophy?”

An Arian had stood and said, “According to the Book of Proverbs, the Son of God was created before time and everything was created through him in his guise as the Wisdom of God; he is pre-eminent before the rest of creation; he goes by the names God, Word, Wisdom, and Strength due to the grace of God, not due to his very nature.” [1]

Nikolaos interrupted, “But does Holy Paulos not write in his letter to Philippi that he was in very nature God?”

“Yes,” came the Arian response, “but Holy Paulos continues and declares that the Anointed did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. But the Anointed had his will perfect with the Father for all time, despite his changeability; thus, the Father granted him glory before all worlds. He is subordinate in terms of rank, authority, and glory. The Son is alien and dissimilar in every way to the essence and selfhood of the Father. He is a creature.”

“I am a creature; you are a creature; this very building we overseers stand is a creature.”

“And so is the Anointed.”

“A creature? Like me? How in Hades could a creature save a fallen creature?! This is sheer self-contradictory madness!” Nikolaos turned his blazing monastic eyes to Arios amidst the elders and holy servants. As he did so, he stepped from among the overseers and mindlessly walked across the gathered council. “I had no idea your idiocy ran so deep, Arios! If you are not excommunicated by the end of this for your deep blasphemy and hatred of the truth, I shall turn in my holy orders as overseer in the Anointed’s Holy Assembly! For there is nothing holy about an assembly in which such destructive evils as your teachings can abide! You are a scoundrel and an anti-Christ, heretic!”

And then the peace-loving ascetic overseer from Myra, a man who believed only in doing good works for the Anointed and his people, did the unthinkable. Using his right hand, the old man struck Arios with a back-handed blow. Elder Arios stumbled backwards, Nikolaos’ ring of office leaving a mark on his face.

Thus Nikolaos found himself in turmoil in his cell, trying his utmost to pray the Jesus Prayer, seeking the place of rest, of inner peace, where he could abide with his Maker and calm his thoughts. As the cell grew dark, he lay down on the straw pallet and drifted into sleep in a strange city, suffering the harsh justice of the Revered Konstantinos.

* * *

[1] All discussions of Arian theology are based on Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007, pp. 235-237.

Konstantinos

Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus (my photo)

This is a re-post from 2008. The rest of the series to follow!

Konstantinos (he’s the one in the middle) strode into the midst of the greatest gathering of overseers that the Holy Assembly of the Anointed Jesus had ever seen. There were between 200 and 300 overseers present, he understood. On the fringes were the elders and blessed servants as well as the faithful themselves, come here to Nikaia to see what the overseers would decide. Amongst them he noted the notorious elder from Alexandria who had started all this trouble — one whom the Revered Konstaninos had already berated as being a wild animal.[1] As he walked, a hush fell over the gathering, which was exactly what he had intended.

Before him had come his retinue, who themselves were impressive, arrayed in notable Eastern finery. But now Konstantinos the Victor, Greatest, Revered, the sole ruler of East and West was in their midst, and they stood in awe of him. He was clad in a purple robe that had gold interwoven amidst its threads as well as ornamenting it variously. Gems adorned it and glittered under the light from the candles and the windows. The effect was notable, for he seemed to Eusebios, Overseer of Kaisareia, to be emitting light itself — once more, exactly in line with Konstantinos’ intention. Nevertheless, in so august a company, he did not hold his head high as he would have with his soldiers; nor did he perceptibly cast his piercing eagle’s gaze upon them. Rather, he walked with his eyes down, and even with a bit of a blush on his face — what am I, a soldier, and politician, doing here, in the midst of men whom my predecessors persecuted so harshly?

He passed by the seats arrayed on either side of him, noting Makarios of Jerusalem, Eustathios of Antiokheia, Alexandros of Alexandreia, a fellow in a hat that resembled a beehive, and Alexandros of Byzantion. He reached his golden chair, set on a raised dais at the far end, and turned, standing in front of it and facing the overseers. Then the light of East and West sat.

Eusebios of Nikomedeia stood and opened the proceedings with a speech and a song of praise to the Supreme. Then all eyes were once more on Konstantinos. He gazed upon them all, eyes shining and loving, as he stood to speak. They had come to settle two disputes that were tearing at the fabric of The Anointed’s Holy Assembly, the date of the Christian Passover and the troubling teaching of Elder Arios from Alexandria.

Konstantinos had lost much sleep over the issue surrounding Arios — not, mind you, for the theological implications but for the fabric of the Assembly, so delicate and so recently brought out of darkness into light, for the union of the holy ones; theology was secondary to peace and peaceableness; Konstantinos had even implied in his letters that, “There was when he was not,” was so trivial a matter that it would have been better for Arios not to have brought it up. Why had he not kept silent when Alexandros asked him the question? Or, indeed, how could he not see that the Anointed Jesus had to be eternal with God the Father, that he could not be a creature, for how could a creature save us?

The fabric was being torn once more, as the followers of Donatus had already torn it. Now was to be the triumph of the Assembly, not its downfall! No, Konstantinos would not allow this Holy Apostolic Assembly to be torn asunder. Not now, not after the defeat of Licinius, not after the Lord’s property had been returned. Not here, in Nikaia, Bithynia, thirteen days before the Kalends of Iunios, 1078 years after the founding of Roma.[2]

The time for polemic was over, for the overseers, guided by the Holy Spirit, would choose truth and properly describe the nature of the Anointed Jesus. Order in other matters would be established, and the Assembly would operate as smoothly as possible and the Peace of Roma would be maintained. And so, with so many thoughts whirling through his mind on this first day of the first world-wide council (from Hosius of Cordoba to men of Arabia), Konstantinos addressed the assembled overseers in Latin, his native tongue. Eusebios of Kaisereia recalls that it ran somewhat as follows:

It was the object of my prayers, my friends, to share in your company, and now that I have received this, I know I must express my gratitude to the King of all, because in addition to everything else he has allowed me to see this, which is better than any other good thing; I mean, to receive you all gathered together and to observe one unanimous opinion shared by all.

Let no jealous enemy ruin our prosperity; now that the war of the tyrants against God has been swept away by the power of God the Saviour, let not the malignant demon encompass the divine law with blasphemies by other means. For to me internal division in the Church of God is graver than any war or fierce battle, and these things appear to cause more pain than secular affairs.

When therefore I won victories over enemies through the favour and support of the Supreme, I considered that nothing remained but to give thanks to God, and to rejoice also with those who had been liberated by him through our agency. When contrary to all expectation I learnt of your division, I did not defer attention to the report, but, praying that this too might be healed through my ministration, I immediately sent for you all.

I rejoice to see your gathering, and I consider that I shall be acting most in accordance with my prayers, when I see you all with your souls in communion, and one common, peaceful harmony prevailing among you all, which you, as person consecrated to God, ought yourselves to be announcing to others.

So do not delay, my friends, ministers of God, and good servants of the common Lord and Saviour of us all, to begin now to bring the causes of the division between you into the open, and to loosen all shackles of dispute by the laws of peace. Thus you will be achieve what is pleasing to the God of all, and you will give extreme gratification to me, your fellow servant.[3]

Konstantinos sat down, and the overseers began the debate in earnest. He was to watch over the proceedings until thirteen days before the Kalends of Iulios,[4] and bring them to a resolution and a statement of belief, even suggesting — though he was not a theologian or philosopher himself — that they say that the Anointed Jesus was of one substance with the Father — in Latin consubstantialis, in Greek homoousios.

Throughout the rest of his earthly life, Konstantinos saw that Nikaia’s formulation held the field throughout his domain. Little did he know what would happen in the years to come, when the whole earth would groan to find itself following Arios, or the debates that would arise due to the very word he introduced, some saying that it made inroads for the teachings of Sabellios. But in Nikaia, upright teaching and upright worship won the day, paving the road for the rest of the Assembly’s understanding of the Three-in-One to be put into words, thoughts, and statements, casting a fence around belief and fostering true worship.


[1] Cameron, Averil & Stuart G. Hall, Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 251.

[2] That is to say, 12 days before; May 20, AD 325.

[3] Eusebius, (Cameron & Hall) 125-126.

[4] June 19.