Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. This council was convened by the emperor Constantine in 325 to put forth an official response to the Arian heresy, a new teaching which brazenly denied both the eternal deity of the Son of God and traditional Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. The council condemned the teachings of Arius, and put forth most of what we now know as the Nicene Creed, the balance being completed by a second council held 56 years later. We owe a great debt of thanks to these 318 Holy Fathers who labored so courageously to defend the apostolic faith and articulate it with such great precision. Their Spirit-guided efforts literally saved Christianity from extinction at its most vulnerable time.

Today, many people would take great exception to that statement. There are of course still heretics who insist that Arius was right and that the Council of Nicaea corrupted Christianity by “inventing” the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. According to this fable, Constantine (who is always portrayed as a villain) saw the Arian controversy as an opportunity to seize control of the Church and further his own power. As the story goes, Constantine decided the best way to accomplish this was to elevate Jesus to the status of a God. The bishops of the Church--reduced to being shrewd minions of the emperor by this tale--allegedly recognized that this change would assure them a multitude of obedient followers and thus eagerly came onboard with his plan. Thus, with apparently little more than a wink and a nod the old “simple” Jesus was thrown out, and the new, Almighty Jesus became the latest God of the Holy Roman Empire.

To believe this fable, one not only has to ignore all the readily-available historical documents that describe the actual workings of the First Ecumenical Council, all the scriptures which clearly point to the deity of Christ, and all the writings of the second and third century Church Fathers who also upheld Jesus as God and presented teachings concerning the Triune Godhead, but one must additionally ignore--or in fact, impugn--the character of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea themselves. To say the least, these men were not the types to cave in to pressure from any emperor, under any threat or promise.

The Holy Fathers who were present at the First Council of Nicaea were mostly all survivors of the persecutions of Diocletian and Galarius, the last Roman emperors to act as persecutors of Christians before the Edict of Milan put an official end to this policy in 313. These Fathers had known little more than persecution for their faith in the Son of God their entire lives, as had many Christians for generations before them. Many of the Holy Fathers who attended the council were Confessors, men who had been severely tortured but who had steadfastly refused to deny Christ as Lord. Some had eyes gouged out by red-hot irons, some had stumps where limbs had been chopped off. Quite a few of them came to Nicaea suspecting that the new emperor Constantine was gathering them together for a mass execution. Yet they came anyway, bravely facing potential martyrdom for the sake of Christ.

To their great surprise, Constantine greeted them with reverence, kissing their holy wounds and bowing down before them. Whatever else may be said about Constantine, he was a man who honored courage and held suffering Christians in high regard.

Are we to believe that these men who had endured so much rather than deny Christ and had already secured great eternal rewards from their sufferings, would--at the prospect of mere temporal power--throw everything away so readily to accept a new Jesus? If the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity were “invented” at Nicea as the heretics claim, can we imagine that these saintly Holy Confessors just rolled over and accepted this presumably blasphemous change without a single objection? Furthermore, if they had not always believed that Jesus was the eternal Son of the Father, then why did they suffer for Him in the first place? Only those who believed that Jesus is the true God would have refused to offer incense to the false gods of ancient Rome. The tale the heretics tell to support their false beliefs simply makes no sense.

We might expect the heretics to invent such false stories. What is somewhat surprising and very disappointing is that so many of our contemporary Christian brethren, particularly those of the Evangelical tradition, also seem to have developed a false mythology concerning Constantine, the First Ecumenical Council, and our Holy Fathers. You would think that all Christians today who share a common belief in the Holy Trinity and in the deity of Christ would realize what thanks we owe to these men who preserved these beliefs for us. Sadly, this is not always the case.

Although it is historically inaccurate to do so, many Evangelicals mark the Constantine era as the beginning of Roman Catholicism, and thus regard with deep suspicion all church development between the 4th and 15th centuries. Although Rome had always been geographically and linguistically removed from the other Patriarchates of Christendom, it really didn’t become the separate entity we know today until many centuries later. But Evangelicals have a tendency to see the cathedrals, the complex liturgies, the ornate vestments, the altars and iconography and other things which flourished so visibly after this time and label them as “catholic innovations” that were supposedly unknown to the early Church.

However, a true reading of church history shows that Christianity was liturgical and sacramental from its very beginning. Archeological finds have supported this, having uncovered Christian altars and iconography in the ancient catacombs! What we see during and after the Constantine period is Christianity emerging from its underground hiding places and beginning to express itself in beauty in the world above. These developments do not represent a change of belief, but a flowering of belief. The beautiful cathedrals and such that followed the end of the persecutions represent the Christian spirit attempting to manifest the splendor and glory of the kingdom of heaven as best in can in this fallen world.

Not truly understanding the theology of ancient Christendom, and thus not recognizing these developments as genuine expressions of that theology, many Evangelicals see these things only as departures from the early Church, and tend to blame them on Constantine (who seemingly can’t escape being made a villain!).

But in addition to this, the Sola Scriptura inclinations of Evangelicals often lead them to insist that no church and no group of men could possible save the Christian faith. In their view, only a clear reading of the bible could do that. The historical reality however is that God did use a Roman emperor, as well as bishops, priests, and deacons of the Church to save the faith during this time. As St. Paul had charged the elders at Ephesus to watch over the flock and defend it from the savage wolves who would arise from their own midst, so the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council rose up to defend against the presbyter Arius and his false teachings, which by the way he based on his own private reading of the scriptures in disregard to the faith of his Christian forefathers.

Clearly there is a great deal of confusion and misinformation in circulation today about this council and the men who formed it. But what should we learn from our own commemoration of the Holy Fathers? At the very least, we should understand that our actions in life as the people of God have true meaning and purpose before Him, and often very long-lasting consequences to others. God did use holy men, their deeply-formed beliefs, and the bold actions they took, to save the faith for those who followed, just as He has used holy men and women in every generation to perpetuate the Christian faith and cause it to stand strong in a world so openly hostile to it.

So now it is our turn. From these examples we must understand that the pursuit of purity and holiness in our own lives is of first and vital importance if we desire to be of use to God in our generation, and of benefit to any generations which may follow. In this age of deep spiritual darkness and manifold temptations, holiness seems almost impossible. We seem to be living in those last, terrible days in which even simple faith in God is something of a miracle of grace. But let us not lose hope, remembering that it doesn’t take very much light to illumine a truly darkened room; even the tiniest candle can provide enough light for men to find their way. We must use whatever faith we have to resist the sins which so easily entangle us, and pursue purity and an increase of the Holy Spirit within us. We may never gain the holy wisdom to write creeds that will guide millions into a true knowledge of God, but we just might gain enough to guide our own children and grandchildren and godchildren toward the safe haven of salvation in God’s Church. Perhaps that will be our legacy, if we will allow it to be.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 5/20/2010 6:58 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

I have been amazed at how ignorant I was of anything representing historic Christianity. For the first 40 years of my life, my thoughts were that Christianity really started out in America, and finally got going in the Jesus People movement of the late 1960's. After going to Europe, seeing the catecombs in Rome, the Roman Forum, and then being bleseed to visit Mr Athos with you, you can see with your own eyes that this faith did quite well long before Christopher Columbus was ever born! We tend to be a bit arrogant and ignorant of anything pre Reformation to be sure. Wonderful homily Father. Thank you for posting it!


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