Nicaea and the principle of church councils

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Today, my local Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate of CP) was celebrating the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. I was hoping to slip into the Divine Liturgy, but no one unlocked the doors of the church, so I went for a short walk instead. Nonetheless, I felt it was timely, since this past Sunday my friend Cory was preaching on Acts 15, the ‘Council of Jerusalem’, wherein the Apostles gather to discuss whether Gentile Christians need to follow Mosaic ceremonial law or not.

The answer, as you know, is, ‘No.’

Actually, it’s a very interesting answer, because it includes this wonderful little phrase, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28). It was not simply 12 Jewish dudes sitting around offering their own opinion on what level of commitment to Jewish law followers of the Way ought to have. Rather, the holy Apostles and the elders were gathered together in council, in dispute, and in prayer, and the Holy Spirit inspired them to see the way forward for the Jesus movement.

On what authority do these Apostles and elders decide that they know what seems good to the Holy Spirit?

Well, on the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom they had travelled for a few years, whose resurrection they witnessed, whose deep teaching they received, and whose ascension into heaven left them dumbfounded. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit Himself has descended in miraculous power upon these people. They were selected by Jesus before He ascended. And they were anointed by the Holy Spirit in a stunningly palpable way afterwards.

The principle governing the Acts 15 council at Jerusalem was that when the leaders of Christ’s church, set apart for headship and anointed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, prayerfully meet together, the Holy Spirit can communicate through them.

This, whether you agree with the Council of Nicaea and the other six ecumenical councils, is the biblical foundation of the authority of the councils. It is an application as logically applied to these councils as any application your local Baptist or Presbyterian minister is likely to give you for your own life from any other passage of Acts.

Arguably, more so.

I once heard one of the guys who was at some point associated with the word ‘Emergent’ (honestly, it was my sole encounter with him, years ago) state that he didn’t want to have to believe the Nicene Creed just because a bunch of guys said this was orthodoxy. Who, he said, were they to tell him what to believe?

The argument is this: They are the church’s chosen, anointed leaders.

The bishops gathered together in council. They argued. They prayed. Some guys may have been punched (unlikely — sorry, St Nicholas fans). They argued. They put together a faith statement. They argued about it. They signed off on it.

According to the ideal church structures of the time, each of these bishops was an actual spiritual elder. For example, St Spyridon was a shepherd of such great holiness of life that he was chosen to be bishop by the local community in Cyprus. The theory of episcopal election was that the local bishop, the overseer of local church life, was chosen — elected, even — by his local community, both clerical and lay. So each of the alleged 318 ‘Fathers’ at Nicaea was an elected representative of the Christian community in his home city. That, at least, is the theory.

Another fact is that they did not see themselves as a bunch of unrelated, discrete units, entirely autonomous of each other. They believed that the individual Christian believers, their local congregations, and the congregations of cities reaching from London to Adiabene, from Gallaecia to Alexandria, were united through the simple fact that they were Christ’s mystical body. Therefore, if you could get a majority of their elected, anointed leaders to agree about something, it was something to which to pay heed.

Now, you may think that is still all nonsense. And, in fact, the councils for which we have the blow-by-blow records show us how fractious these assemblies of Christ’s elected, anointed ministers could be. Furthermore, orthodoxy should probably be better determined than simply a majority vote. I, personally, agree with the seven ecumenical councils because I think they are the most philosophically defensible and biblically faithful expression of Christian doctrine out there.

But that’s a different argument, isn’t it?

Advertisements

Ancient Christians of Cyprus: Spyridon

Spyridon
Saint Spyridon — You can tell him from his beehive hat (My photo from St Sozomenos’ Church, Galata, Cyprus). Also, he is my WordPress avatar.

After Barnabas, the Church of Cyprus slips into the mists of unreliability. Cyprus re-enters reliable history in 325 at the Council of Nikaia. In different records for this council, 12 or 14 bishops from Cyprus are recorded as having been present. They all seem to have supported the teaching that Jesus is fully God, homoousios with the Father—a debate we will look at more closely tomorrow.

Two of them were singled out by fourth-century historians as being men of special holiness: Spyridon (two posts on him here and here) and Paphnutios. I want to focus on Spyridon. You will have undoubtedly seen his name on various churches on the island. You may probably have even heard the story how, at the Council of Nikaia he stood up and performed a miracle with a tile to prove that three things could be one. This miracle is not attested in any of our early sources for the events of the council, and I am disinclined to believe it.

Our two earliest records for the life of Spyridon are two ecclesiastical historians, Socrates and Sozomenos. They were both active in the first half of the 400s, so over 75 years after Nikaia. Socrates gives us the more sober account of this man’s life:

With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd, that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric. Many extraordinary things are related of him: I shall however record but one or two, lest I should seem to wander from my subject. Once about midnight, thieves having clandestinely entered his sheepfold attempted to carry off some of the sheep. But God who protected the shepherd preserved his sheep also; for the thieves were by an invisible power bound to the folds. At daybreak, when he came to the sheep and found the men with their hands tied behind them, he understood what was done: and after having prayed he liberated the thieves, earnestly admonishing and exhorting them to support themselves by honest labor, and not to take anything unjustly. He then gave them a ram, and sent them away, humorously adding, ‘that ye may not appear to have watched all night in vain.’ This is one of the miracles in connection with Spyridon.

Another was of this kind. He had a virgin daughter named Irene, who was a partaker of her father’s piety. An acquaintance entrusted to her keeping an ornament of considerable value: she, to guard it more securely, hid what had been deposited with her in the ground, and not long afterwards died. Subsequently the owner of the property came to claim it; and not finding the virgin, he began an excited conversation with the father, at times accusing him of an attempt to defraud him, and then again beseeching him to restore the deposit. The old man, regarding this person’s loss as his own misfortune, went to the tomb of his daughter, and called upon God to show him before its proper season the promised resurrection. Nor was he disappointed in his hope: for the virgin again reviving appeared to her father, and having pointed out to him the spot where she had hidden the ornament, she once more departed.

Such characters as these adorned the churches in the time of the emperor Constantine. These details I obtained from many inhabitants of Cyprus. I have also found a treatise composed in Latin by the presbyter Rufinus, from which I have collected these and some other things which will be hereafter adduced.[1]

There is no necessity for us to believe these miracles. However, since we do believe in a mighty God who can do anything, I see no real reason as a Christian to doubt them. I have read a lot of church histories and saints’ lives, and when I combine these with the stories I have heard from today’s missionaries — whether in the jungles of South America or the jungles of London — I am inclined to accept that, whether these particular miracles are true, God was at work in these sorts of ways in the ancient Church.

Besides these miracles and others, Sozomenos gives us some other indicators of the character of Spyridon. For example:

It was a custom with this Spyridon to give a certain portion of his fruits to the poor, and to lend another portion to those who wished it as a gratuity; but neither in giving nor taking back did he ever himself distribute or receive: he merely pointed out the storehouse, and told those who resorted to him to take as much as they needed, or to restore what they had borrowed.[2]

Sozomenos also tells us that Spyridon was hospitable to strangers and travellers and careful in administering his role as a bishop. What I find most encouraging about the story of Spyridon is its reminder that personal holiness and wisdom from God are what matter most in our ministers.

I am working on a PhD in church history. No doubt some people think this will make me uniquely qualified to be a pastor. I disagree—it will make uniquely qualified to be a university lecturer, but what have those skills to do with leading God’s people in the face of wisdom and strong character? Thus, our last glimpses of the Cypriot church before Konstantinos are of a hierarchy that is open to any believing Christian who has wisdom and good character.


[1] Socrates, Ecclesiastical History Book 1.12, NPNF2, Vol. 2.

[2] Sozomenos, Ecclesiastical History Book 1, Chapter 11, NPNF Vol 2.

Eustathios

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

Re-post from 2008.

Eustathios (in the middle of the left cluster) raised his eyebrows in surprise. He hoped he did not audibly gasp. He and Makarios had been disappointed in Eusebios of Kaisareia’s support of Arios, but now Eusebios was advocating a formula of belief that called Jesus “God of God” and “begotten of the Father before all the ages.”

Eusebios concluded the formulary of Kaisareia, “. . . who was made flesh for our salvation and lived among men, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and dead; we believe also in one Holy Spirit.”

“Well,” said Makarios quietly from his right, “the Lord still performs marvels.”

“Or Eusebios still plays at politics,” responded Eustathios.

“Let us be charitable, brother,” chided Makarios gently, a smile playing on his lips.

“We need something stronger. Shall I recommend the formula of Antiokheia or Aelia?”

“Whichever you like, Eustathios.”

Eustathios stood. Assembled were many, many overseers. The council was drawing to a close. The proposed formula would set a standard for the Assembly; if one disagreed, then one was not following the true and right teaching handed down from the apostles. Nikolaos, Spyridon, Alexandros of Alexandreia, Aurelianos, Vitos and Vikentios the legates from Roma, Hosios of Cordoba, an elderly woman who always caught his eye, someone who looked suspiciously like Metrophanes of Byzantion (Eustathios had heard that Metrophanes was too ill to travel, like Father Silvester), Arios himself, and Konstantinos all looked at him. Konstantinos nodded.

“I feel that the word-twisting logic games of the Arian philosophers would find a way around Kaisareia’s formula. I would like to recommend one that Makarios, Overseer of Aelia Capitolina,” Makarios raised his right hand in a little wave, “and I have put together. It is based largely on that of Antiokheia, but with additions from Aelia and our own prayerfully considered thoughts. It is as follows:

“I believe in one only true God, the Father almighty, creator of all creatures visible and invisible; and in our Lord Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son and first-begotten of all creation, born from Him before all ages and not made, true God from true God, of one substance with the Father, through Whom also the ages were framed and all things were made, Who because of us came and was born from the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was buried, and one the third day rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and will come again to judge living and dead; and in one Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, Who spoke in the prophets, and in one baptism of repentance to the remission of sins, and in one holy Catholic church, and in the resurrection of the flesh, and in the life everlasting.**

“Thank you,” Eustathios sat back down. The Metrophanes-like man was clapping quietly in the corner.

“Let us go with that of Overseer Eustathios,” stated Spyridon.

Alexandros of Alexandreia stood, “I feel that Kaisareia’s is more elegant, but that the one proposed by Brother Eustathios has important phrases we need to combat the dark teachings of Arios.”

“We must use the powerful words of Antiokheia,” proclaimed Nikolaos. “To say that Jesus was not made is an important statement; this holy mystery of God’s Incarnation and the knowledge of Jesus as the uncreated light of the world are what set us apart!”

“I would like to recommend,” said Konstantinos, glimmering from his throne, “that we keep Eusebios’ baptismal formula as the basis for the statement to be produced here. However, I agree with Alexandros that certain phrases are important in settling this dispute and establishing peace throughout the Anointed’s Assembly. Let us be sure, therefore, to count Jesus as of one substance with the Father, as well as what Nikolaos says about him being begotten, not made.”

The debate moved on, phrases being added here and there, and then, at the instigation of men such as Nikolaos and Spyridon, anathemas added to the end, dealing specifically with Arios. After some thirty days of gathering for prayer and discussion, the largest gathering of overseers the world had ever seen produced the following:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

And those that say, “There was when he was not,” and “Before he was begotten he was not,” and that, “He came into being from what-is-not,” or those that allege, that the son of God is “Of another substance or essence” or “created” or “changeable” or “alterable,” these the Universal and Apostolic Assembly anathematizes.

Some stayed in Nikaia for Konstantinos’ twentieth anniversary celebrations. The more monkish went home immediately. Many thought it was over, that Arios and falsehood had been cleansed from the Assembly. It was only just beginning.

*Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963, pp. 24-25.

**J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 2nd ed. London: Longmans, 1960, pp. 184-185. The creed is the creed of Antioch as quoted by John Cassian up to “living and dead.” After that, it is the creed of Jerusalem. Kelly notes that Cassian’s creed, quoted in 430/31, has had Nicene phraseology added to it (185). The creed of Jerusalem, however, is “of fairly early date” (183). All three creeds are ancient baptismal formulas, just like the West’s “Apostle’s Creed.” That Sts. Macarius and Eustathius were working together in creedal formulation behind the scenes, see The Catholic Encyclopedia.

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.

Saint of the Week: St. Spyridon

I just returned from Cyprus, and one of the saints who figures largely in the church dedications of the island is St. Spyridon, one of the Fathers who made the journey to Nicaea in 325.

You can always tell St. Spyridon when you see him on a church wall (as on the exterior of St. Sozomen’s Church in Galata, Cyprus [my photo to the left]) because of his beehive hat. Spyridon was a literal shepherd before he became a spiritual shepherd (in Latin, that would be pastor). As a sign of his humble origins, he is always shown wearing this traditional Cypriot headgear.

The image to the left is from a large fresco of the Council of Nicaea (the whole thing is viewable here). It’s hard to tell because I didn’t have a good angle to take the photo (I took it from a good distance below the image), but Spyridon is pictured performing a miracle that tradition relates concerning his actions at Nicaea.

He is clutching in his fist a tile. Out of the top of the tile comes a flame, from the bottom drips water, and soil remains in his hand. This threefold nature of the tile was a refutation of Arius, showing how three things could share a single essence, an object lesson in the Holy Trinity.

Because what we have from the histories is brief, allow me to quote Socrates Scholasticus in full (from CCEL):

With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd, that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric. Many extraordinary things are related of him: I shall however record but one or two, lest I should seem to wander from my subject. Once about midnight, thieves having clandestinely entered his sheepfold attempted to carry off some of the sheep. But God who protected the shepherd preserved his sheep also; for the thieves were by an invisible power bound to the folds. At daybreak, when he came to the sheep and found the men with their hands tied behind them, he understood what was done: and after having prayed he liberated the thieves, earnestly admonishing and exhorting them to support themselves by honest labor, and not to take anything unjustly. He then gave them a ram, and sent them away, humorously adding, ‘that ye may not appear to have watched all night in vain.’ This is one of the miracles in connection with Spyridon. Another was of this kind. He had a virgin daughter named Irene, who was a partaker of her father’s piety. An acquaintance entrusted to her keeping an ornament of considerable value: she, to guard it more securely, hid what had been deposited with her in the ground, and not long afterwards died. Subsequently the owner of the property came to claim it; and not finding the virgin, he began an excited conversation with the father, at times accusing him of an attempt to defraud him, and then again beseeching him to restore the deposit. The old man, regarding this person’s loss as his own misfortune, went to the tomb of his daughter, and called upon God to show him before its proper season the promised resurrection. Nor was he disappointed in his hope: for the virgin again reviving appeared to her father, and having pointed out to him the spot where she had hidden the ornament, she once more departed. Such characters as these adorned the churches in the time of the emperor Constantine. These details I obtained from many inhabitants of Cyprus. I have also found a treatise composed in Latin by the presbyter Rufinus, from which I have collected these and some other things which will be hereafter adduced.

What I like about the story of St. Spyridon is the fact that he was made a presbyter for all the right reasons — it wasn’t because he had a clear singing voice for the liturgy, or because he was the only literate man in the village, or because he had the right educational credentials but because of holiness of life. He was so holy and had such spiritual authority that, although a simple shepherd, the people knew that he was the right man for the job.

This is a stark contrast with the lawyers and aristocrats who fill the clergy elsewhere in fourth century! It is a stark contrast to today where we are more concerned with one having the right training than we are with whether one is actually a spiritual leader. Perhaps seminaries and bishops should take the life of St. Spyridon to heart when they are seeking out and evaluating postulants for ordination. Imagine if we had a whole generation of clergy chosen for the holiness of their lives! We might even see spiritual fruit as a result!

Remember as well: God chooses the simple. Few of us are Origens — and he was branded a heretic post-mortem — but by the grace of Christ, many can be Spyridons.