Church historians agree that next to the events in the New Testament, the most important event in the history of Christianity is the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in AD 312. In brief, here's the story: Constantine's troops were positioned at the Milvian Bridge just outside of Rome, where they were preparing to overthrow the Roman emperor Maxentius. A victory would, in effect, make Constantine the sole ruler of the empire. But the night before the battle Constantine saw a vision that changed his life and the history of the church.
In the words of Eusebius of Caesarea, who was both a historian and a confidant of Constantine, the emperor was praying to a pagan god when "he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross in the light of the heavens, above the sun and an inscription, Conquer By This attached to it.Then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make an likeness of this sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.
To make a long story short, Constantine crossed over the bridge and won the battle, fighting under the banner of the Christian cross. Later he issued the Edict of Milan, decreeing that Christians were no longer to be persecuted. And now, although a politician, he took leadership in the doctrinal disputes that were disrupting the unity in his empire.
Let's travel back to Nicaea (modern-day Iznik in Turkey, about 125 miles from modern-day Istanbul) to find out what happened there 1,700 years ago.
Welcome to the Council
Those of us reared in a country where religion is largely private and where diversity is gladly tolerated might find it difficult to believe that in the early fourth century, doctrinal disputes were tearing Constantine's empire apart. It is said that if you bought a load of bread in the marketplace of Constantinople, you might be asked whether you believe that God the Son was begotten or unbegotten and if you asked about the quality of the bread you might be told that the Father is greater and the Son is less.
Adding fuel to these disagreements was a man named Arius, who was gaining a wide following by teaching that Christ was not fully God but a created god of sorts. He believed that Christ was more than a man but less than God. Arius was a great communicator, and because he put his doctrinal ideas into musical jingles, his ideas became widely accepted. Although many church bishops declared him a heretic, the disputes nonetheless continued. Constantine called the first ecumenical council at Nicaea, hoping to suppress dissent and unify Christianity. In fact, the emperor even paid the expenses of the bishops who gathered.
Constantine did not care about the finer points of theology, so practically any creed would have satisfied him-as long as it would unify his subjects. As one historian has said, "Christianity became both a way to God and a way to unite the empire." He gave the opening speech himself, telling the delegates that doctrinal disunity was worse than war.
This intrusion of a politician into the doctrines and procedures of the church was resented by some of the delegates, but welcomed by others. For those who had gone through a period of bitter persecution, this conference, carried on under the imperial banner, was heaven on earth.
More than three hundred bishops met at Nicaea to settle disputes about Christology-that is, the doctrine of Christ. When Constantine finished his opening speech, the proceedings began.
Overwhelmingly, the council declared Arius a heretic. Though Arius was given an opportunity to defend his views, the delegates recognized that if Christ was not fully God, then God was not the Redeemer of mankind. To say that Christ was created was to deny the clear teaching of Scripture: "For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers of authorities; all things were created by him and for him" (Colossians 1:16). Clearly, if he created all things, he most assuredly could not have been created himself! To this passage many others that teach the deity of Christ were added, both from the Gospels and the Epistles (John 1:1; Romans 9:5; Hebrews 1:8; etc).
Affirming the divinity of Jesus, the delegates turned their attention to the question of how he related to the Father. Eusebius the historian presented his view, claiming that Jesus had a nature that was similar to that of God the Father.
Present, but not invited to the actual proceedings, was the theologian Athanasius, who believed that even to say that Christ is similar to God the Father is to miss the full biblical teaching about Christ's divinity. His argument that Christ could only be God in the fullest sense if his nature was the same as that of the Father was expressed by his representative, Marcellus, a bishop from Asia Minor in the proceedings. Constantine seeing that the debate was going on in Athanasius's favor, accepted the suggestion of a scholarly bishop and advised the delegates to use the Greek word homoousion, which means "one and the same." In other words, Jesus had the very same nature as the Father.
The council agreed, and today we have the famous Nicene Creed. As anyone who has ever quoted the creed knows, Jesus Christ is declared to be "Light of Light, very God of very God' begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made" (italics added). There can be no question that the delegates affirmed that Christ was deity in the fullest sense
Why should we be interested in this debate? Some critics have been amused that the Council of Nicaea split over one "iota." The difference between the Greek words for similar and same is but one letter of the alphabet: the letter i. Some people argue that it's just like theologians to split hairs, arguing over minutiae that have little to do with the real world. How much better to help the poor or get involved in the politics of the day!
But Williams E. Hordern tells a story that illustrates how a single letter or comma can change the meaning of a message. Back in the days when messages were sent by telegraph there was a code for each punctuation mark. A woman touring Europe cabled her husband to ask whether she could buy a beautiful bracelet for $75,000. The husband sent this message back: "No, price too high." The cable operator, in transmitting the message, missed the signal for the comma. The woman received the message "No price too high." She bought the bracelet; the husband sued the company and won! After that, people using Morse code spelled out all punctuation. Clearly, a comma or an "iota" can make a big difference when communicating a message!