Catholic Encyclopedia: Nicaea, First Council of
The First Council of Nicaea
First Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, held in 325 on the occasion of the
heresy of Arius (Arianism). As early as 320 or 321 St. Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria,
convoked a council at Alexandria at which more than one hundred bishops from
Egypt and Libya anathematized Arius. The latter continued to officiate in his church
and to recruit followers. Being finally driven out, he went to Palestine and from there
to Nicomedia. During this time St. Alexander published his "Epistola encyclica", to
which Arius replied; but henceforth it was evident that the quarrel had gone beyond
the possibility of human control. Sozomen even speaks of a Council of Bithynia which
addressed an encyclical to all the bishops asking them to receive the Arians into the
communion of the Church. This discord, and the war which soon broke out between
Constantine and Licinius, added to the disorder and partly explains the progress of the
religious conflict during the years 322-3. Finally Constantine, having conquered
Licinius and become sole emperor, concerned himself with the re-establishment of
religious peace as well as of civil order. He addressed letters to St. Alexander and to
Arius deprecating these heated controversies regarding questions of no practical
importance, and advising the adversaries to agree without delay. It was evident that
the emperor did not then grasp the significance of the Arian controversy. Hosius of
Cordova, his counsellor in religious matters, bore the imperial letter to Alexandria, but
failed in his conciliatory mission. Seeing this, the emperor, perhaps advised by Hosius,
judged no remedy more apt to restore peace in the Church than the convocation of an
The emperor himself, in very respectful letters, begged the bishops of every country to
come promptly to Nicaea. Several bishops from outside the Roman Empire (e.g., from
Persia) came to the Council. It is not historically known whether the emperor in
convoking the Council acted solely in his own name or in concert with the pope;
however, it is probable that Constantine and Silvester came to an agreement (see
SILVESTER I, SAINT, POPE). In order to expedite the assembling of the Council, the
emperor placed at the disposal of the bishops the public conveyances and posts of the
empire; moreover, while the Council lasted he provided abundantly for the
maintenance of the members. The choice of Nicaea was favourable to the assembling of
a large number of bishops. It was easily accessible to the bishops of nearly all the
provinces, but especially to those of Asia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and Thrace.
The sessions were held in the principal church, and in the central hall of the imperial
palace. A large place was indeed necessary to receive such an assembly, though the
exact number is not known with certainty. Eusebius speaks of more than 250 bishops,
and later Arabic manuscripts raise the figure to 2000 - an evident exaggeration in
which, however, it is impossible to discover the approximate total number of bishops,
as well as of the priests, deacons, and acolytes, of whom it is said that a great number
were also present. St. Athanasius, a member of the council speaks of 300, and in his
letter "Ad Afros" he says explicitly 318. This figure is almost universally adopted, and
there seems to be no good reason for rejecting it. Most of the bishops present were
Greeks; among the Latins we know only Hosius of Cordova, Cecilian of Carthage,
Mark of Calabria, Nicasius of Dijon, Donnus of Stridon in Pannonia, and the two
Roman priests, Victor and Vincentius, representing the pope. The assembly numbered
among its most famous members St. Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch,
Macarius of Jerusalem, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Nicholas of
Myra. Some had suffered during the last persecution; others were poorly enough
acquainted with Christian theology. Among the members was a young deacon,
Athanasius of Alexandria, for whom this Council was to be the prelude to a life of
conflict and of glory (see ATHANASIUS, SAINT).
The year 325 is accepted without hesitation as that of the First Council of Nicaea.
There is less agreement among our early authorities as to the month and day of the
opening. In order to reconcile the indications furnished by Socrates and by the Acts of
the Council of Chalcedon, this date may, perhaps, be taken as 20 May, and that of the
drawing up of the symbol as 19 June. It may be assumed without too great hardihood
that the synod, having been convoked for 20 May, in the absence of the emperor held
meetings of a less solemn character until 14 June, when after the emperor's arrival, the
sessions properly so called began, the symbol being formulated on 19 June, after which
various matters - the paschal controversy, etc. - were dealt with, and the sessions came
to an end 25 August. The Council was opened by Constantine with the greatest
solemnity. The emperor waited until all the bishops had taken their seats before
making his entry. He was clad in gold and covered with precious stones in the fashion
of an Oriental sovereign. A chair of gold had been made ready for him, and when he
had taken his place the bishops seated themselves. After he had been addressed in a
hurried allocution, the emperor made an address in Latin, expressing his will that
religious peace should be re-established. He had opened the session as honorary
president, and he had assisted at the subsequent sessions, but the direction of the
theological discussions was abandoned, as was fitting, to the ecclesiastical leaders of
the council. The actual president seems to have been Hosius of Cordova, assisted by
the pope's legates, Victor and Vincentius.
The emperor began by making the bishops understand that they had a greater and
better business in hand than personal quarrels and interminable recriminations.
Nevertheless, he had to submit to the infliction of hearing the last words of debates
which had been going on previous to his arrival. Eusebius of Caesarea and his two
abbreviators, Socrates and Sozomen, as well as Rufinus and Gelasius of Cyzicus,
report no details of the theological discussions. Rufinus tells us only that daily sessions
were held and that Arius was often summoned before the assembly; his opinions were
seriously discussed and the opposing arguments attentively considered. The majority,
especially those who were confessors of the Faith, energetically declared themselves
against the impious doctrines of Arius. (For the part played by the Eusebian third
party, see EUSEBIUS OF NICOMEDIA. For the Creed of Eusebius, see EUSEBIUS OF
CAESAREA, ) St. Athanasius assures us that the activities of the Council were
nowise hampered by Constantine's presence. The emperor had by this time escaped
from the influence of Eusebius of Nicomedia, and was under that of Hosius, to whom,
as well as to St. Athanasius, may be attributed a preponderant influence in the
formulation of the symbol of the First Ecumenical Council, of which the following is a
We believe in on God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible;
and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance
 of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God,
begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father ,
through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and
our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again
the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And
in the Holy Ghost. Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not
before He was begotten; and that He was made our of nothing (); or
who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father],
or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic
The adhesion was general and enthusiastic. All the bishops save five declared
themselves ready to subscribe to this formula, convince that it contained the ancient
faith of the Apostolic Church. The opponents were soon reduced to two, Theonas of
Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais, who were exiled and anathematized. Arius and
his writings were also branded with anathema, his books were cast into the fire, and he
was exiled to Illyria. The lists of the signers have reached us in a mutilated condition,
disfigured by faults of the copyists. Nevertheless, these lists may be regarded as
authentic. Their study is a problem which has been repeatedly dealt with in modern
times, in Germany and England, in the critical editions of H. Gelzer, H. Hilgenfeld,
and O. Contz on the one hand, and C. H. Turner on the other. The lists thus
constructed give respectively 220 and 218 names. With information derived from one
source or another, a list of 232 or 237 fathers known to have been present may be
Other matters dealt with by this council were the controversy as to the time of
celebrating Easter and the Meletian schism. The former of these two will be found
treated under EASTER, ; the latter under MELETIUS OF
Of all the Acts of this Council, which, it has been maintained, were numerous, only
three fragments have reached us: the creed, or symbol. given above (see also NICENE
CREED); the canons; the synodal decree. In reality there never were any official acts
besides these. But the accounts of Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and
Rufinus may be considered as very important sources of historical information, as well
as some data preserved by St. Athanasius, and a history of the Council of Nicaea
written in Greek in the fifth century by Gelasius of Cyzicus. There has long existed a
dispute as to the number of the canons of First Nicaea. ALl the collections of canons,
whether in Latin or Greek, composed in the fourth and fifth centuries agree in
attributing to this Council only the twenty canons, which we possess today. Of these
the following is a brief resume:
Canon i: On the admission, or support, or expulsion of clerics mutilated by choice or
Canon ii: Rules to be observed for ordination, the avoidance of undue haste, the
deposition of those guilty of a grave fault.
Canon iii: All members of the clergy are forbidden to dwell with any woman, except a
mother, sister, or aunt.
Canon iv: Concerning episcopal elections.
Canon v: Concerning the excommunicate.
Canon vi: Concerning patriarchs and their jurisdiction.
Canon vii: confirms the right of the bishops of Jerusalem to enjoy certain honours.
Canon viii: concerns the Novatians.
Canon ix: Certain sins known after ordination involve invalidation.
Canon x: who have been ordained knowingly or surreptitiously must be
excluded as soon as their irregularity is known.
Canon xi: Penance to be imposed on apostates of the persecution of Licinius.
Canon xii: Penance to be imposed on those who upheld Licinius in his war on the
Canon xiii: Indulgence to be granted to excommunicated persons in danger of death.
Canon xiv: Penance to be imposed on catechumens who had weakened under
Canon xv: Bishops, priests, and deacons are not to pass from one church to another.
Canon xvi: All clerics are forbidden to leave their church. Formal prohibition for
bishops to ordain for their diocese a cleric belonging to another diocese.
Canon xvii: Clerics are forbidden to lend at interest.
Canon xviii: recalls to deacons their subordinate position with regard to priests.
Canon xix: Rules to be observed with regard to adherents of Paul of Samosata who
wished to return to the Church.
Canon xx: On Sundays and during the Paschal season prayers should be said
The business of the Council having been finished Constantine celebrated the twentieth
anniversary of his accession to the empire, and invited the bishops to a splendid repast,
at the end of which each of them received rich presents. Several days later the emperor
commanded that a final session should be held, at which he assisted in order to exhort
the bishops to work for the maintenance of peace; he commended himself to their
prayers, and authorized the fathers to return to their dioceses. The greater number
hastened to take advantage of this and to bring the resolutions of the council to the
knowledge of their provinces.
Transcribed by Anthony A. Killeen
Taken from the New Advent Web Page (www.knight.org/advent).
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