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9. Nicea |
Showdown at Nicea: the victory that failed

Nicea is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 230, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Constantine’s intervention helps carry a vital clause, but Arianism wins over the emperor and prospers; Athanasius becomes the creed’s defiant champion

Nicea - Showdown at Nicea: the victory that failed

Nicea - Showdown at Nicea: the victory that failed
The creed approved at the Council of Nicea in 325 took pains to clarify the relationship of the Father and the Son, and also to denounce the heretical understandings that were anathema, i.e. cursed. It would eventually form the basis of the Nicene Creed used to the present in church liturgies.

They poured in by boat, caravan and mule cart from across the Roman Empire–from Asia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, Thrace–and beyond from as far as Persia and Scythia, 318 bishops by one count, along with their attendants more than one thousand travelers in all, descending upon the bustling commercial city of Nicea in the month of May 325. The emperor, Constantine the Great, had summoned them, and the bishops willingly answered his urgent call. It was he, after all, who had finally put a halt to the torture, enslavement and death that the Roman Empire had, from time to time, visited upon the Christians for the past three centuries, never more severely than in the earlier reign of Diocletian, and its immediate aftermath.

So when Bishop Patamon of Egypt, who had lost an eye in the persecutions, received Constantine’s invitation, he responded eagerly. So did Paphnutius, who had one of his eyes bored out, and both of his legs cut off under the reign of Daia; and Paul of Neocaesarea (now Niksar, Turkey), his hands twisted into permanent claws by red-hot irons, under orders of Licinius.

Along with those who carried the scars of persecution in their bodies came delegates who, wrote the historian Eusebius of Caesarea, “were celebrated for their wisdom, others for the austerity of their lives and for their patience, others for their modesty; some were very old, some full of the freshness of youth.” All had taken the journey to Nicea to assemble in the Christian church’s first-ever general council. They were to consider a growing controversy, one that threatened not only the church, but the hard-won unity of the empire itself.

The voyage to the pleasant lakeshore city of Nicea in Bithynia (now the city of Iznik in Turkey), up from the Mediterranean, along the west coast of the Aegean Sea, and through the Sea of Marmara, was easiest for the Eastern Christians; and of the bishops who attended (the number would vary from day to day and week to week), only about eight came from the West, including those from Spain, Italy, Dalmatia and Gaul. With Pope Sylvester ailing, Rome sent two priests, but no bishop.

From the Eastern metropolises came Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch and Macarius of Jerusalem. From Nicomedia, the Bithynian capital about twenty miles away, came Bishop Eusebius. Also present was the historian, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, giving rise to occasional minor uncertainty in the records of the council as to which Eusebius said or did what.1

Safe though they were from governmental persecution, a new and even greater concern beset them. For by the year 325, few in the entire church were unaware of the crucial and embittered battle that raged in the East, fiercely dividing its bishops. It centered squarely on the question that had dogged Christians from the beginning. Who was Jesus Christ? There were many items on the agenda for the Council of Nicea, but this one, and this alone, stood paramount.

Indeed, it was chiefly to resolve that question that Constantine had called the council, the first meeting of the whole church since that time in Jerusalem when the apostles had met to resolve another crucial question: Was Jesus Christ for Jews alone, with those few Gentiles prepared to accept circumcision and all the complexities of the ancient Jewish Law? Or was he for all the peoples of the world? That question had been answered. Now there was another. “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” Jesus had asked his disciples (Matt. 16:13). Three hundred years later, they at last sought to agree on an answer.

Many theories had been advanced over the years, but by 325 they came down to two, one incompatible with the other. The first, though the most easily believed, was essentially negative. It said who he was not. It held that Jesus was not God, at any rate, not in the way that the Father was God. By this view, the term “God” without modification could be applied only to the Father. The being who became Jesus was actually a creature, something created by God, created before the world was created, but created nevertheless. In other words, there was a time when there was a Father and no Son.

That view was already called Arianism, after the man who had most recently articulated it, the priest Arius, excommunicated by a council called in his home diocese of Alexandria, but later supported by another council called by the two Eusebii.

The advocates of the other view had, for the moment, no name and no firmly agreed-upon theology. In general, they believed that God was One all right, but he existed in Three Persons. The First did not create the Second; both had existed eternally, as had the Third, the Holy Spirit. Therefore, there never had been a time when the First existed without the Second and Third. Though all three existed eternally, the Second had lived on Earth as the man Jesus. He had “come down from heaven” at a specific point in created time. Because he was a man, he had suffered and died a human death. Because he was also God, he had saved man from eternal destruction.

But the controversy could not yet be described as the Arian view versus the catholic view. Both claimed to be Catholic, both prepared for a showdown, and both recognized that a key factor in the decision would be the position taken by Constantine. However, the emperor was known to have one purpose only. He wanted the question settled. Period. To him, the theological issue was not central. The unity of the Roman Empire was central, and Christianity was his chosen method to bring that unity about.

This unbecoming brawl over “abstract theology,” as he saw it, was most distressing. This “bishop against bishop, district against district,” as Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian, would later describe it, was unacceptable. Who won it, Constantine did not seem to care. The crucial necessity was that somebody win it, and the row be over and done with.

Getting the emperor’s ear was therefore key. But neither side had any direct experience in lobbying emperors, nor had emperors defined any single way in which to entertain lobbying. Not many years earlier, any Roman emperor who contrived to get so many bishops together under one roof would have done so in order to imprison, torture or kill them. Now the bishops were to be the emperor’s favored guests, many arriving in Nicea in carriages he had sent to meet their ships or caravans. He had even raised Nicea’s grain quota to make sure everybody had plenty to eat.

The priest Arius was among those making the journey to Nicea, of course. So were his top supporters, the two Eusebii. Chief among those arrayed against the “Arian party” was Arius’s old foe from Alexandria, Bishop Alexander, and that smart young deacon, Athanasius, who assisted him. Athanasius was a small man, with auburn hair and a beard, who despite his youth, had an inclination to stoop. As a deacon, he couldn’t say much to the assembled bishops, but he had a knack for convincingly summarizing the anti-Arian case. Moreover, he wrote voluminously, and seemed incapable of fatigue. Though he was not yet a frontline disputant and would play no visibly prominent role at Nicea, his talents and energy made him extremely dangerous to the Arian cause. Yet he had, as they saw it, a telling weakness. He seemed utterly fearless, more concerned with the assertion of truth than with its political acceptability. Since Constantine’s concern was not primarily truth but unity, he might be persuaded to view Athanasius as an obstacle to unity, a chronic troublemaker.

Constantine’s entrance during the opening ceremonies, held in the judgment hall of his imperial palace, was accomplished with imperial splendor. As the bishops stood up among their rows of benches, Constantine followed his bodyguards and attendants–conspicuously unarmed–to the front of the room, where he paused before a golden stool, near a table holding the texts of the Gospels. “He wore the purple imperial robes, covered with embroidery, gold and diamonds. With his majestic bearing and dignity, he looked,” the enthusiastic Eusebius writes, “like an angel of God come down from heaven.”

When the emperor seated himself on the stool, the rest of the assembly sat down too. The Arians, though far fewer in number, then scored a major opening coup. Their most avid and distinguished advocate, Eusebius of Nicomedia, had been chosen as the host bishop to deliver the welcoming address. This would leave the distinct impression that Constantine was on the Arian side, a point that would not be lost on any that may be wavering. Eusebius lavishly praised Constantine and the empire and the leaders of the church.

Next, no doubt to thunderous standing applause, Constantine himself arose. The roar of approval faded, and all fell silent, listening intently, wholly conscious of a momentous occasion. For the first time in history, a Roman emperor yet unbaptized was addressing the Christian church. The man Jesus, crucified by the Romans like a common felon, was now the very center of imperial devotion.

Constantine spoke in Latin, with an interpreter providing a version in Greek, the language of most of those present. He was most grateful that they had come, he said. Divisions and dissent within the church were works of the devil, worse even than civil war. His own military victories, hard-won in an effort to unite the empire, would remain incomplete, if the leaders of the church were torn and distracted by disharmony. He urged those present to speak openly and to make their positions and disagreements clear, but to maintain a spirit of peace and harmony. Such an effort would please not only the emperor, but the God whom they all served.

In a version of Constantine’s opening remarks set down by the fifth-century historian Hermias Sozomen, Constantine went further. He told the council: “I deem dissension in the church of God as more dangerous than any other evil. . . . The favor which I seek is that you examine the causes of the strife, and put a consentient and peaceful end thereto, so I may triumph with you over the envious demon who excited this internal revolt, because he was provoked to see our external enemies and tyrants under our feet.”

Then in a dramatic act, typically Constantinian, and recorded by another fifth-century historian, Rufinus of Aquileia, he suited the deed to the word. He knew well, he said, that there were disagreements–not only over theological issues, but there was also a buzz of individual spats and power struggles between individual bishops. Even before the meeting began, many bishops had sought him out and leveled charges at one another, he said. Some had drawn up elaborate petitions in which they begged him to rule one way or another in their squabbles.

He quietly sat down. All eyes were fastened upon him as aides, appearing from the wings, swiftly brought forward these written petitions and silently placed them, one by one, in his lap. Then in feigned fury he arose, faced the bishops, raised his hitherto lowered voice to a level of authority and military command, and glared upon them. Their petty quarrels, he declared, were incompatible with their offices as Christ’s servants. He had made a point of reading not a single one of their petitions, he said, and with that, tossed them one by one into a brazier, and before their eyes burned them. “Only God,” he declared, “can decide your controversies.”

It was a stinging rebuke. He had chastised them not only for failing the empire, but also for failing their own Christian ministries, and it doubtless had the effect he sought, pushing local trivialities aside and forcing attention on the main Arian issue, with the implied threat of the imperial wrath if they couldn’t reach an agreement.

The details of what happened next are largely lost to history. Though the council’s resolutions are well documented, all that remains of the proceedings themselves is a scattering of unrelated facts. Both Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius would leave records, but neither provides more than skimpy details on the council’s day-to-day workings. If minutes were kept, they are lost. Who presided is not known, though it was probably Bishop Hosius of Cordoba, who as Constantine’s chief theological adviser helped convince him of the need for such a gathering.2 Even the precise dates of the council are debated; some records say it ran from May 25 to June 19, others that it began earlier and lasted longer, one that it was actually two meetings, spaced two years apart.

This leaves it to historians to reconstruct from the surviving fragments and their own imaginations what probably occurred.

The silver-tongued Arius was doubtless one of the first speakers, and is portrayed as expounding his theology brilliantly. The elegance of his tall, thin frame, his slightly emaciated mien, the carefully unkempt hair and rumpled garments conveyed unmistakably the image of the ascetic that had so enchanted the young Christian women of Alexandria. Could a man so holy, so pious, so self-evidently noble, possibly speak anything but truth?

Eusebius of Caesarea3 spoke in support of him, followed even more urgently by Eusebius of Nicomedia and others. Was it not easier, more congenial, less problematic, they asked, to think of Jesus Christ as a mere creature like themselves than to see him as the actual creator and preserver of the universe, come to fallen Earth on a mission of salvation? Wasn’t a suffering god a contradiction, an oxymoron? How could God suffer while at the same time remaining God?

Alexander and Hosius had contrary observations. If Jesus was not God but merely made by God as men and angels and beasts, how could his sacrifice in any sense redeem fallen humanity? The sacrifices of animals and birds in the pagan religions did not redeem humanity. Were not the sacrifices of creatures in the old Temple of the Jews merely a forerunner of the sacrifice of God himself? Such, surely, had always been the Christian understanding.

However, as the debate unfolded, much to the chagrin of the traditionalists, the Arians would consistently assign their own private meaning to theological terms. “They changed like chameleons,” Athanasius would later recall. In this way, they could subscribe to whatever formal statement of Christian belief the council might adopt, avoiding excommunication, while rationalizing the statement’s meaning, and privately maintaining their own beliefs. Or they would frame their own contentions in highly ambiguous language, in order to prevent clarification.

Thus, when the traditionalists rejected Arius’s description of the Son as having arisen “out of nothing” and insisted that the Word of God who “became flesh” in the man Jesus, was both “God” and “with God,” as the opening verse of John’s Gospel describes him, supporters of Arius said they heartily agreed. After all, they declared, everything is “with God” anyway–humans as well as all other creatures.

Or again, when the traditionalists, vainly trying to pin down the point, proposed that “the Word is . . . the eternal image of the Father, perfectly like to the Father, immutable and true God,” the Arians would accept that as well. Doesn’t the Bible describe man as having been made in God’s image and therefore like him? And didn’t the apostle Paul’s assurance that “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ” mean that the creature known as man, too, is “immutable” in a sense?

Finally, however, the traditionalists came up with a term the Arians could find no way to compromise. It involved the Greek word ousia, which translates into English as “essence” or “substance.” Man could not possibly know, of course, what might be the “essence” or “substance” of God, the ultimate quality of the Divine. But whatever that quality is, said the traditionalists, it was shared by both the Father and the Son. They thus developed the expression homoousios, “of the same essence” or “of the same substance.” The Son, they declared, was of the same “essence” or “substance” of the Father. At this the Arians balked. It was specifically this that they could not accept, they declared.

Throughout all these abstract discussions, Constantine might be expected to have appeared impatient and restless at so much theological hairsplitting. But he did not. He is credited with working steadily throughout the council’s meetings to bring accord, always urging moderation and reason. Having sought and won permission to sit with the bishops, he interjected himself directly and forcefully into the discussions. Only occasionally did he urge the participants to stop quibbling over matters that might be understood by God but could only remain mysteries to the minds of men. There was too much asking of frivolous questions, he said, and there were too many unworthy answers. Faith in the Divine Providence, under a united consensus, was the only thing that mattered.

But he no doubt saw, as did they all, that a major doctrine could pivot on the definition of a term. To Hosius, Alexander and Athanasius, and most others present, the point under debate was crucial to the gospel message. God could redeem mankind; man could not redeem man, they said. If Jesus were a creature, like the rest of us, then his death meant no more than the death of any man, and humanity was therefore left unredeemed.

Such was the issue, and it finally came to a head when the Arian Eusebius of Caesarea proposed as the creed of Christianity the one he had learned as a child in Palestine. Before what we may assume was a hushed house, he read it to the assembled bishops and the emperor:

We believe in one God, Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible; and in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life, his only Son, the firstborn of all creatures, begotten of the Father before all time, by whom also everything was created, who became flesh for our redemption, who lived and suffered among men, rose again the third day, returned to the Father, and will come again one day in his glory to judge the living and the dead. We believe also in one Holy Spirit. We believe that each of these three is and subsists: the Father truly as Father, the Son truly as Son, the Holy Spirit truly as Holy Spirit; as our Lord said, when he sent his disciples to preach: “Go and teach all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

That, Eusebius said, was a statement representing his true beliefs, one that he could wholeheartedly endorse.

The traditionalists listened in dismay. Whatever else it said, the Eusebian creed declared the Son a “creature,” so if that creed were adopted, their cause was lost, and the declaration of the redemptive power of Christianity lost along with it. Then came a worse development. The emperor arose. All arose with him. He believed it too, he said. Hearts sank. Frantic prayers ascended. “Lord, have mercy.” But then an odd thing happened.

The emperor wasn’t finished. However, he continued, he felt that one other phrase ought to be added to this statement of belief, to more fully clarify what was being said. The creed of the Christians must declare, he argued, that the Son is “of the same substance as the Father.”

The words no doubt came like a thunderclap, leaving the resulting scene to be imagined. The traditionalists would have grasped one another and wept. The battle had been won after all. “Doxa Theou!” they would cry in Greek, “Laus Deo!” in Latin. “Praise God!” Among the Arians, all would have been consternation. That clause, the one they could not explain away, was there, boldly and unmistakably. Someone had obviously “got” to Constantine. Who was it? No one to this day knows, of course, but the best bet was Hosius of Cordoba, the Spaniard, who still had the emperor’s ear.

Out of this agreement, the first version of the first Christian statement of faith began to emerge. Known as the Nicene Creed, it would knock the props out from under Arianism. It declared that the Son of God was “begotten, not made,” and repeated for anyone who still didn’t get it that the Son was “of the same substance [or essence] with the Father.”

Going further still, it made clear that anyone pronouncing the Son of God to be of another substance than the Father, or to have been created or to be subject to change was to be declared anathema: formally excommunicated. When the vote was taken, only five bishops refused to sign it, three of whom later relented.4 The priest Arius himself likewise refused.

With all that and several other issues settled (see sidebar page 244), the council adjourned.5 Constantine invited the bishops to a sumptuous feast at the imperial palace, celebrating the twentieth anniversary (or vicennalia) of his rule. It was a splendid affair. As the bishops entered, they passed through a “hedge” of uniformed soldiers, standing smartly at attention, with swords drawn. Constantine mingled and chatted with the crowd, at one point getting off a quick one-liner.6

When the banquet concluded, each of the men received fine presents from the emperor. A few days later, at an official closing session, Constantine asked the bishops to pray for him as they returned home; and with an exhortation that they continue to use their offices to maintain peace, he sent them on their way to report the council’s results in their own lands. Constantine also issued letters to all the bishops who had not attended the council, expounding upon the council’s decrees, and declaring that they were to be regarded as imperial law. In accord with the council’s decision, Arius and the two bishops who had refused to sign the creed were exiled to Illyricum on the Adriatic. Arius’s writings were declared anathema, and all books of his that could be found were gathered up and burned. The Arian dispute had been resolved, the church united. And that, the emperor no doubt told himself, was that.

But that was not that, the Arian crisis was not resolved; the Christians, if anything, were farther from unity than they had been before the council was called. For the Arians left Nicea more determined than ever to take their case directly to the growing Christian intelligentsia, and to convert through them the mass of Christians to the Arian view. One of the first converts they sought to make was Constantine himself. His commitment to the traditional, they knew, was at best tentative. His aim was not the unity of the church so much as the unity of the empire, and hard on the heels of the council came an event that proved the imperial unity as precarious as that of the church.

The trouble centered in the old city of Rome. It remained pagan territory; and pagan hostility focused on this emperor, now openly embracing what had so recently been the despised religion called Christianity. He seemed clearly bent on sweeping away all that the ancient city held dear. Moreover, he fanned the flame of revolt, marking his vicennalia celebration in the city by publicly scorning as meaningless the city’s celebration of the victory of the twin pagan gods Castor and Pollux at the battle of Lake Regillus in 496 b.c. where Rome acquired mastery of the Italian peninsula. Open rioting broke out, and a statue of Constantine was hit with a barrage of rocks, knocking off its nose, and badly disfiguring its face. Told of the incident, he smiled grimly, used his fingers to take a careful inventory of his facial features, and said, “I am not able to perceive any wound that has been inflicted upon my face. Both the head and the face appear quite sound.” It amounted to a sneer, not calculated to endear him to the Roman populace.

In that climate, and given the well-known Roman penchant for hatching murderous plots against those in authority, Constantine seems to have convinced himself that he was under siege. On October 1, 325, with the Nicene council barely concluded, he issued a public challenge. Anyone with any accusations of any kind that could be leveled against any of Constantine’s friends, officials, or intimates was urged to bring such charges forth. The emperor promised to listen and to take any action necessary.

Then came the deed that would permanently blacken his reign, its explanation an enduring historical mystery. Some said it somehow derived from his call for criticism, others from a falsified plot against him, others from a fit of rage. Whatever the cause, the outcome is not in dispute. Beset by gloom and suspicion, he had his first-born son Crispus, offspring of his first wife Minervina, hero of the naval victory that secured the throne for Constantine, and once the apple of his eye, suddenly and without explanation put to death. Hard behind it came the murder of his young nephew, Licinius Licinianus, and others in his immediate household. Soon after, there followed the murder of his second wife, Fausta–locked up in her baths with the heat turned up so high that it killed her. “He departed,” records the pagan writer Eutropius, “from his former agreeable mildness of temper. Falling first of all upon his own relatives, he put to death his own son, an excellent man, his sister’s son, a youth of amiable disposition; soon afterwards his wife, and later numerous friends.”

But why? Speculation abounds. The most plausible theory is that of the Arian writer Philostorgius. Fausta convinced Constantine to put Crispus to death, in an ambitious attempt to clear the way to power for her own sons, he then discovered Fausta in the act of adultery with one of his grooms, and had her killed. Whatever provoked the killings, writes the historian Lloyd B. Holsapple, in his biography, Constantine the Great, “the series of deaths has . . . covered the name of Constantine with shame and degradation.”

Meanwhile, although the Nicene council had banished Arius and condemned his beliefs, Arianism gained ground rapidly, and very soon became a dominant belief among the Eastern bishops. They were skeptical about both Nicea and Athanasius, because in their tradition, there must be a strong assertion of the “threeness” in God, and they feared that Nicea did not explain the difference between the Father and Son. Exacerbating their fears was the relentless campaign conducted by Eusebius of Nicomedia, a veritable prototype of the ecclesiastical court politician whose central modus was the vilification of his foes.

To accomplish this, Eusebius must, of course, win the confidence of the emperor. He accomplished this by first winning the favor of the emperor’s sister Constantia, then of the emperor himself.

The first victim of Eusebius’s machinations was a certain Eustathius, bishop in the powerful see of Antioch, which, as the Arians saw it, belonged in their camp, not that of the traditionalists. Eustathius had loudly opposed the Arians at Nicea, and when he returned to his diocese, refused to ordain any clergy of the Arian school, which meant most of the candidates then presenting themselves.

Historian R. V. Sellers, in his brief biography of Eustathius, describes Eusebius of Nicomedia as traveling through Antioch en route to admire Constantine’s new churches in Jerusalem, and stopping at Caesarea to plot with the other Eusebius a campaign against Antioch’s bishop. On his return to his see, he recruited a prostitute to name the bishop as the father of her child. Further, Eusebius accused Eustathius of slandering Helena, the emperor’s mother, a treasonous offense. Though they were blatantly trumped up, writes Sellers, the charges were enough to persuade Eusebius’s handpicked council of Arians to send Eustathius into exile. There he died some thirty years later, having continued to pen letters pouring scorn on the “demented chorus-dancers on the Arian stage,” who were “horrible sycophants and accusers” that “concoct their earthborn deceits.” He was of course replaced by an Arian bishop; the traditionalists elected a rival bishop, and for the next eighty years, there were two claimants for the see. So much for “unity.”

In the meantime, the Arians faced a challenge at Alexandria, which they had fully expected. In January 328, Bishop Alexander died and was succeeded by Athanasius, the young deacon who had assisted him at Nicea. Eusebius of Nicomedia promptly opened another smear campaign against him, but Athanasius was to prove a far tougher target than Eustathius. Almost as soon as he reluctantly took up what was a powerful position in a city second only to Rome, it became clear that the battle against Arianism would fall to him.

In their first move against Athanasius, the Arians made an alliance with the Melitians, who had been received back into the church by the Nicene council, on the condition they recognize the authority of the bishop of Alexandria. This they now refused to do, and went back into schism under their own bishop, John Arcaph, who with Arian support declared himself the “real” bishop of Alexandria, the Arians contending Athanasius had been elected illegally. They also accused Athanasius of treason. He had sent, they said, a purse of gold to a rebel. Athanasius forcefully rejected the charge, and Constantine circulated a letter saying that the accusation against Athanasius was false.

Undaunted, Eusebius next charged Athanasius with sacrilege. A village church, said the accusers, had been desecrated during a communion service by the priest Macarius, who was acting under orders from Athanasius. Macarius had smashed the church altar, shattered the chalice and burned the holy books. Athanasius quickly assembled evidence proving himself innocent. There was no church in the village, for one thing, he said, and there would have been no celebration of the Holy Communion on that particular day anyway.

None of this seemed to be sticking, so Eusebius arranged a far more bizarre accusation, this one advanced by the Melitian claimant John Arcaph. John’s fellow Melitian bishop, a man named Arsenius, had disappeared, he said. He was known to have been murdered, and the killer was obviously Athanasius. Worse still (and here the horror doubtless made the deed too revolting to be easily told), Athanasius had actually cut off the dead man’s hand and was using it in a diabolical rite. However, said Arcaph, his own people had actually procured the hand, and he now had it in his possession–in a wooden box. Then, as indisputable evidence, he publicly produced the box and the hand.

All this, said Eusebius of Nicomedia, was too much to be ignored. While some of these charges may seem a little embellished, where there was smoke, there must be fire. He assembled a council in the diocese of his colleague Eusebius of Caesarea, and summoned Athanasius to appear before it. The council assembled in 333, but Athanasius simply refused to attend.

Meanwhile, Eusebius of Nicomedia had scored another victory, the reacceptance into the church of Arius himself. Arius had by no means given up his fight, despite being excommunicated and exiled. He saw in the Nicene council’s action, and in the emperor’s unprecedented participation in church affairs, a way of rehabilitation. If the church allowed the emperor to involve himself in its policy decisions, then an appeal to Constantine himself would enable him to bypass the church altogether.

Through the influence of Constantia, Eusebius arranged for Arius to be allowed to return from Illyricum, and to begin to reestablish himself. Once in the capital, Arius convinced Constantine that his faith was not really incompatible with that expressed at Nicea, and that he had merely been misunderstood. Seeing once again an opportunity to finally resolve the conflict, the emperor accepted Arius’s case, and wrote Athanasius, instructing him to readmit Arius to communion. Athanasius, reasoning that the emperor did not run the church, flatly refused.

Now the fat was really in the fire. Constantine, understanding that Athanasius had set himself defiantly against church authority, ordered him to answer the charges at a church council that was about to meet at Tyre, on the east coast of the Mediterranean. Here, finally, would be the opportunity to make the investigation that could not be made at Caesarea, because Athanasius had not shown up. What about the missing bishop Arsenius? What about the hand?

This time, Athanasius and forty-seven of his bishops from Egypt answered the call, and went to Tyre. Arrayed against them were sixty Eastern bishops, most of them holders of Arian views, including his two arch-foes, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea. But it soon became obvious that the Council of Tyre was not a church council at all. It was a military commission of inquiry under an army officer named Flavius Dionysius, all the members of the commission being Arians. The accusers made their case, presenting to the commission the wooden box and its macabre contents.

Athanasius acted in his own defense. He had, he said, made certain inquiries when the affair of the hand had first been made known. He had sent a deacon into the back country to look for the missing Arsenius. The deacon had learned that the dead man had been seen very much alive and hiding out in a monastery. Now he was gone. But the deacon had followed his trail, and eventually tracked him down to an inn in this very city of Tyre.

“Does anyone in this council know this Arsenius?” asked Athanasius. Nodding, many said they did. He then brought into the chamber a man wearing a heavy cloak that covered him completely, except for his head and face.

“Is this not Arsenius?” Athanasius asked.

Those who knew the man agreed that yes, that was Arsenius all right.

With considerable drama, Athanasius flung back the cloak to reveal Arsenius’s hands and arms, intact and connected undeniably to his body.

“I presume that no one thinks God has given to any man more than two hands,” Athanasius observed dryly.

It was all “more magic,” shouted the Arians. Athanasius was plainly a sorcerer.

Bishop Arcaph wrote a letter to Constantine repenting for his misdeed, and Arsenius, too, confessed and sought forgiveness. Constantine wrote a public letter, warning that if Athanasius’s enemies continued to carry out such false schemes, he would haul them before the magistrates and judge them under the law.

However, the commission would not give up at that. What about the matter of the shattered chalice and the church desecration? That too must be investigated. Having listened to a variety of witnesses–including unbelievers, Jews and catechumens (none of whom would have been present at a Communion service)–the commission maintained that the accusations against Athanasius were true. Athanasius was therefore removed as bishop of Alexandria and ordered exiled.

But Athanasius did not wait for the decision. He knew full well that he had no chance of exculpation before that commission. He would flee, he resolved, but then found all roads leading out of Tyre were guarded to stop him. That night, therefore, the figure of a very slight man could have been seen boarding a raft on the Mediterranean beach. It vanished into the darkness, and shortly the bishop of Alexandria was aboard a waiting ship and headed for Constantinople. He could hope for justice, he knew, from one man only. That man was Constantine.

But Constantine was in no mood to grant an audience to Athanasius. A few weeks later, however, as the emperor returned to Constantinople from a country palace, he saw a man standing in the middle of the road. Drawing to a halt, Constantine did not at first recognize the man. It turned out to be Athanasius, greatly changed by his tribulations. “Either convene a legitimate assembly or allow me to meet my accusers in your presence,” he urged. Doubtless with a sigh, Constantine agreed.

He summoned a meeting in Constantinople where Athanasius’s accusers now appeared with a brand new charge: that he had arranged to prevent a number of wheat-bearing ships from sailing out of Alexandria to Constantinople. Preposterous, Athanasius replied. After all, he was just a private citizen and certainly not a wealthy one. He could do nothing of the sort. But Eusebius of Nicomedia assured the gathering that Athanasius was a powerful and influential bishop, and could get away with anything.

Constantine, no doubt concerned about the security of the vital wheat shipments, and no doubt also exasperated with the antics of both Athanasius and his enemies, ordered Athanasius banished to the ancient and magnificent city of Trier in northwestern Germany. Athanasius would spend more than two years there, during which two of the men who had figured prominently not only in his own life but in that of the entire Christian church, would die, one under sordid circumstances, the other nobly.

In 336, Arius was invited to appear before the emperor, who wished to put any lingering dissent to rest. Did he really hold to the teachings of the church as defined at Nicea? he asked. When Arius responded that he certainly did, Constantine ordered that he be received into communion on the following day at Constantinople.

What happened to Arius that day was recorded only by Athanasius, exiled among the Alamanni at the time; and the account is therefore regarded by some historians as suspect, given the lengthy and bitter relationship between the two men. In any event, Athanasius writes that when Alexander, bishop of Constantinople, learned of the emperor’s decree, he spent the entire night in prayer, asking God not to allow this to happen. On the next day, when the triumphant Arius was on his way to the church to be readmitted at last, he was suddenly stricken with severe stomach pain. He lurched into a public latrine, where his bowels burst. His companions found him sitting on the toilet, half-clothed, covered with gore and excrement, dead. Christians would recall that, according to the Acts of the Apostles (1:18), someone else had died with his bowels bursting. His name was Judas Iscariot.

During the centuries since his death in 336, Arius has remained a highly controversial figure. Most Christian writers, whatever their denomination, unequivocally condemn him as the quintessential heretic. John Calvin, for example, wrote in the sixteenth century that, “when Arius arose, the Council of Nicea was convened, and by its authority, both crushed the wicked attempts of this impious man, and restored peace to the churches, which he had vexed and asserted the eternal divinity of Christ in opposition to his sacrilegious dogma.”

Not everyone takes such a harsh view of the man, however. “I do not think that Arius was a heretic,” the twentieth-century historian T. G. Elliott writes in his book, The Christianity of Constantine the Great, “and I do not wish to present him as more wedded to his Arian ideas than he was. He invented what turned out to be a heresy; and he was for some years before 325 fairly busy with it, resisting his bishop and seeking support from other bishops. However, when his ideas were declared heretical by the Council of Nicea in 325, he did not continue, so far as I can see, to develop them. He got back into the church. I take it that Arius did not have the will to be a heretic, and that, in the absence of such a will, he could not have been one.”

However, he adds, Arianism is an easy pitfall into which the individual can stray. “Arianism can arise at any moment when a Christian confronts the problem of the relationship between the Father and the Son. It results from a natural way (not the best way) of thinking about this problem, and is always widespread. Arians are everywhere, and when a fourth-century bishop says that they are everywhere, we should not be surprised.” Indeed, the Jehovah’s Witnesses translate John 1:1 not as “the Word was God,” but rather as “the Word was a god.”

Constantine would die in 337, the year after Arius, at about the age of sixty-five and in the thirty-first year of his reign; he was preparing an offensive in the East to defend the Christian Armenians against the Persians. He fell gravely ill and convalesced in Nicomedia. Sensing that he would not recover, he determined at last to be baptized. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, he explained that he had delayed so long because he had wanted to be baptized in the river Jordan, as had Jesus. Now, though, after preparation and acknowledgment of his sins, he was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia at a villa in the suburbs of Nicomedia. Soon thereafter, while still wearing baptismal white rather than imperial purple, Constantine died. He was placed in a coffin of gold; his body was reverently carried from Nicomedia to Constantinople, where it was entombed in the mausoleum of the Church of the Holy Apostles.7

Like Arius, Constantine has remained controversial over the centuries. The historian Henri Daniel-Rops assesses him as a brooding soul, struggling toward enlightenment, “a man perpetually torn by conflicting elements in his nature, obsessed by superstitious fears, desiring what was good even while doing what was evil, disturbed in the deepest depths of his nature by inherited contradictions.” His impact upon the Christians was profound–he freed them from the persecution they had endured from the beginning; he largely established Christianity as the faith of the Roman Empire; and by founding Constantinople, he focused the empire and the church eastward. “But for the chance of Constantine’s conversion,” writes the historian A. H. M. Jones, “Christianity might have remained a minority sect.” That view is not universally shared. “A movement so expansive that an emperor could embrace it without serious political cost,” observes the church historian David Priestley, “cannot have had such a pathetic future.”

To some, particularly to many Protestant Christians, Constantine’s purposeful mingling of church and state was a catastrophe that would result in unforeseen horrors in centuries to come. Others say that either Christianity will inform public policy or suffer under it, and that the final choice will, in the end, always lie between a Constantine and a Diocletian.

Whatever the view, nearly all agree that the palace murders of his son, nephew and wife remain deeds defensible on no possible grounds, creating the imponderable mystery of why he committed them. Perhaps it’s fitting therefore that a twentieth-century mystery writer should tie all the baffling pieces of the puzzle together.

Classics scholar and Christian apologist Dorothy L. Sayers, the British detective story author, in her play Constantine, advances the theory that Fausta, Constantine’s wife, plots with his nephew the execution of Crispus, the beloved son by his first wife, by fabricating the story that Crispus had seduced her. Infuriated, Constantine orders the young man’s execution. Then, discovering too late that his son was absolutely innocent, he must execute his nephew and wife as well. All this he confesses before his baptism. He has committed a sin so grievous, he says, that nothing and no one could possibly atone for it. Then a light dawns within him. God, his Creator, could atone for it. At last he sees the point that Athanasius and Alexander had fought so hard to preserve. If Christ were merely God’s creature, there could be no absolution for Constantine or for anyone else. Thus is he baptized in the faith of Christ. In the church of the East, not the West, he is recognized as a saint.

Athanasius, in the meantime, remained in comfortable exile at Trier, close to the German tribes, who were ready at any moment to burst through the frontier and despoil the whole civilized world. Christians were by now active among them, and when they came, every one of them would be Arian.

This is the end of the Nicea category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 230, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Nicea from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at