While many have contributed to the growth of Christianity, one man was a key part of the legitimacy, acceptance and growth of the religion. He was the Roman emperor Constantine. Christians had been
persecuted in the Roman Empire since the beginning of the religion. Constantine’s participation in the Council of Nicea and his implementation of Christian symbols in highly visible locations are the reasons that Christianity became the dominant religion in the western world. Constantine’s role in the council is why Christianity flourished.
During Constantine’s reign, there were many social issues within the Roman Empire which Constantine felt had roots in the religious revolution of paganism and Christianity. These quarrels affected the prosperity of the Roman Empire. After years of infighting among leaders of the Christian church, the Roman emperor, Gaius Julius Octavius, also known as emperor Constantine, summoned all the Christian bishops to attend a council. The purpose of the council was to openly discuss and solve the problems that the differing views caused in the religion. The motivation for this action has been disputed by many, but most agree that Constantine felt a bond with the Christians that were being persecuted throughout the empire. The reason for the bond may have been due to Constantine growing up as a hostage in the east or his vision of the Christian cross on the eve of his most important battle (O’Grady 71). These factors played the deciding role in the decision of Constantine to call a meeting of the church. There had been many councils before this one, but none before had been called for by an emperor, and none had imperial authority. Constantine was intent on settling the disputes within the church for both economic and political gain (Payne 52).
The council took place on Asia Minor on June 19th, 325 AD and lasted two months. Many Bishops from the west felt the meeting was of no concern to them; they held the populous power and underestimated the resolve of Constantine to settle the disputes at hand. Many bishops of the west were also outraged that the emperor had chosen such a distant local for the council; they felt the west was the center of the empire and this significant of a meeting should be held in the west. The western bishops also took this as Constantine publicly announcing his distain for the western empire and a display of favor for the people with which he identified with, the people of the east. Bishops from the Eastern Church were convinced this was their opportunity to be heard and their view of the Christian religion to be accounted for. The views of the bishops and the location of the meeting accounted for the turnout of the Council of Nicea, while 318 attended only six bishops and two presbyters of the bishop of Rome were representing the west (Payne 59). The influential control held by the Eastern Church was not the only aspect of this council that was unorthodox. Never before had an emperor presided over a council of the Christian church.
Constantine’s views on religion were “that it should be tidy with well defined lines of command” and his views of the men of the church was, “these men are bishops”, which was a status symbol of the time,” and these men, like all men, are riddled with flaws” (qtd. in Walker 14). These views along with his lack of tolerance for quarrels set a tone for the proceedings. As the council began, Constantine addressed the council by stating “he was glad to see them in harmony,” knowing they were in a bitter conflict. “I won my battles for the glory of God and to my dismay I hear there are divisions among you. We are here to fix it” (qtd. in Walker 14).
At the beginning of the meeting, two antagonists came to the forefront. Arius, an outspoken bishop who had little tolerance for any beliefs that were not similar to his own and his fiery public speaking was cause for many of the council’s arguments. Athanasius, an older gentleman, was characterized as having an imposing physical presence, quiet during some disputes but with others he refused to compromise or to end the arguments. His actions led to numerous stalemates in the decision making process. Tired of the endless bickering, Constantine singled out the two men and had them removed from the council, Constantine then summoned the attendees to bring him all of their complaints and petitions he then threw them into the fire. These acts by the emperor left another large segment of the Christian faith unrepresented in the shaping of the religion (Bainton 92). During the remaining meetings of the council the emperor ruled similar to a judge. Constantine silenced all arguments that seemed arbitrary to him and rebuked all that spoke too angrily (Cowie 104). Constantine’s actions influenced the makeup and atmosphere of the council.
The most dominating arguments of the council involved the beliefs in the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit, also known as the Trinity. The Bishops debated over the relationship between the three entities. One segment of the church believed that God was superior to Jesus and therefore was subordinate to him, while the other segment believed that each entity had its own place and none was subordinate to the others (First 1). Constantine, not understanding or grasping the ideology behind the argument, placed imperial pressure onto the council to come to a solution or he would step in. The council came to the agreement that the son was equal to the father and the Divinity was established. Religious writings were also topics of disputes. Claims of a hierarchy pertaining to one writing versus another were highly contested and no group could offer concrete evidence to legitimize the scrutinized documents (Lane 1).
Disputes over religious text lagged for days and with the urging of Constantine the council proceeded to discuss a system of validation for the writings. Constantine had very little knowledge of the writings or of the religion in fact, he was a life long pagan and only converted to Christianity late in life. The council decided to focus on the writings that held popular truth. Writings that contained elements that all could agree upon were validated. The council did not review all writings but the writings that failed to meet the set standards of the council, were burned by the emperor. Many believe that this was done by Constantine because he felt once the center of the argument were no longer around then they could no longer cause disputes. This action enraged many in the church and leaders felt Constantine had no authority to destroy their sacred texts (Brandt 1). To this day, historians and theologists believe that many books of supposed prophets were lost here.
The Council of Nicea of 325 was plagued with numerous debates, but progress for uniformity within the church was achieved The council was able to establish the Nicene Creed, a statement that echoes the beliefs and duties of the bishops, the Twenty Cannons and the establishment of a continuing council whose goal would be to further debate and verify texts along with solidifying the religion. With Constantine’s influence over the council, he set in motion an ever progressing religion that would gain momentum and begin to spread. Constantine also influenced everyday life with the Christian religion, he placed XP on currency. XP symbolizes Jesus Christ in Roman moniker. This was done to help give the religion social acceptance within the empire. With the backing of the Roman Empire, Christianity blossomed (Cowie 14).
Constantine’s involvement in laying the foundation for the success of Christianity arose primarily from the social and economic problems that were crippling the Roman Empire. Without his participation in the Council of Nicea the Christian religion would have never have gained such momentum. Many people in history have played large roles in the growth of the religion but none more profound than Constantine.
Bainton, Roland H. The Horizon History of Christianity. New York: American Heritage, 1964.
Brandt, Steven. “The Council of Nicea.” Steves Theology Page. 27 Jan. 2007. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/sbrandt/nicea.htm.
Cowie, Leonard W. March of the Cross. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962.
“First Council of Nicaea.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2003. Answers.com 27 Jan. 2007 http://www.answers.com/topic/first-council-of-nicaea.
Lane, Anthony N.S. “The Council of Nicaea: Purposes and Themes.” 27 Jan. 2007. http://debate.org.uk/topics/theo/council_nicaea.html.
O’Grady, Desmond. Beyond The Empire. New York: Crossroads, 2001.
Payne, Robert. The Christian Centuries. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.
Walker, Williston. A History of The Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1959.