• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Nicaea: the Ecumenical Council the West Ignored


As with the Arian controversy (318-) Nicaea took place without any considerable Western involvement, a trend that continued until roughly the 360s when it began to digest the implications of the orthodoxy explained in the East. Perhaps the West did not see the necessity in any of it. Its conception of the Trinity was formed almost wholly by Tertullian (d. 240) who had argued against modalistic ideas in his Adversus Praxean. He emphasised the unity in the Trinity but also outlined the subordinate aspects of order (not nature) when distinguishing its persons.


In the East minds were not able – for better or for worse – to let sleeping premises lie. They had to be pushed relentlessly on to their full conclusions. It was probably Origen who encouraged this element of speculative theology. He certainly played bedrock to the many complicated questions that the Arian controversy summoned (by raising the issue of the Son’s relation to the Father in terms of nature).


Indeed, such was the Latin distaste for this sort of theology that they often accused the Eastern Romans of “using too many words.”[1] That wasn’t to say that the West didn’t have its own controversies, of course, but comparatively they were storms in tea-cups. Much of the the West’s relative absence in the discourse can be ascribed to the fact few theologians knew Origen’s texts until the end of the fourth century when Rufinus of Aquileia translated them into Latin.


The number of participants at Nicaea is unknown. Athanasius claimed there were 318 bishops there but this was almost certainly derived from the number of Abraham’s servants (Gen 14:14).[2] The lists of bishops contain 221 participants but they are incomplete.[3] So the real number is probably between 250-300. Only six were from the Western half of the empire, however. These included Ossius of Cordoba, Nikasius from Gaul, Caecilian of Carthage, Domnus from Pannonia and Markus from Calabria, as well as Vicentius and Victor from Rome.


Under the circumstances even Rome’s influence was curtailed by the fact – though they represented the bishop of Rome – Vicentius and Victor were only presbyters and so not well positioned to throw their weight around a bishop’s council. In fact, the only Latin who amounted to some sort of big-wig in eastern eyes was Ossius of Cordoba in his role as a theological adviser and court bishop to Constantine. Indeed, Athanasius even goes so far as to claim the Spaniard formulated the Nicene creed – though other sources give different names and Ossius appears to have held the middle ground as Eusebius frames him as a “peace keeper.”[4] Moreover, he appears to have been a fair-weather friend to either side in most controversies considering he signed not only Nicaea (325) but also the crypto-Sabellian one of Serdica (342) and the homoean creed of Sirmium (357).


Even after Nicaea the West remained aloof from the Arian controversy. It was forcibly entangled in its politics in 340, however, when Marcellus and Athanasius were deposed from their sees in Ancyra and Alexandria, the former for dogmatic reasons. Impressively, Marcellus somehow managed to convince the synod at Rome that he was orthodox. He seems to have quoted as proof the Old Roman Creed (an ancestor of our Apostles’ Creed) i.e. not the Nicene equivalent.


His acquittal was also probably due to the fact the West’s Trinitarian universe was still almost entirely Tertullian in nature. So when Marcellus talked of mia ousia/hypostasis, Tertullian had spoken of una substantia – a position still acknowledged as orthodox in the West. His polemic against three hypostaseis as being Arian must also have reminded the Latins of the heretical “three substantiae” that had plagued the West in the early third century. Lastly, given the split between the sons of Constantine (Constantine II, Constans and Constantius I) there was a political motive to accept this refugee from the Eastern half of the empire.

Marcellus must have had the courage of his conviction because instead of running off with his theological passport into a western sunset, he lobbied for a general council that would cancel the sentence against him in the East. The result was Serdica (342) where combatants were supposed to come to an agreement but instead ended with the West trying to foist what amounted to Sabellianism on the East. This (the Serdican) then became the main creed to circulate the West, not the Nicaean equivalent. Indeed, it was the Serdican one that was confirmed in Gaul (346), Carthage (347), Sicily, Sardinia and Spain. Furthermore, so little was known about Nicaea in the early fourth century that a figure as learned as Hilary of Poitiers only heard about it after his exile (c. 356).[5]


[1] Rufin, Orig. Comm. In Rom. Praef (FChr) p.59.

[2] Athanasius, ep. Afr. 2.

[3] Patrum Nicaenorum Nomina, ed. Gelzer et al. (1995) LX f.

[4] Eusebius Caes., De Vita Constantini 2,63.

[5] Hilarius, De Syn. 91.

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