The first of the 21 ecumenical councils, the Council of Nicaea, was convoked to deal with the crisis of the Arian heresy that claimed — among other things — that Christ was not to be identified with God, but rather He was the first and greatest of God’s creatures, and therefore not eternal.
Pretty difficult stuff to swallow for the many Christians who had suffered arrest, torture and imprisonment at the hands of the Romans. It was as though everything they had believed was a lie, and their sacrifices in His name pointless.
Imagine, then, what these orthodox Christians would make of the misinformation to be found in popular culture today. A casual survey of the Internet for its offerings on Nicaea reveals a macabre set of assertions, including the notion that Emperor Constantine (and not the Church) summoned the council and decided the canon of the Bible when he gathered up all of the sacred writings of the time and threw them onto a large table; allegedly, the ones that did not roll off onto the palace floor were declared “inspired.” Or did you know that the dogma of the Trinity was settled only by a close vote, with victory achieved by the assassination of several dissenting bishops?
In truth, of course, the facts of Nicaea are well-established. There were no assassinations, no secret plots by power-hungry emperors and bishops, and no skeletons hidden from history.
The council opened in June 325 with several hundred bishops in attendance. According to the ecclesiastical historian Theodoret, the bishops entered the council proudly, and clearly visible for all to see were the scars and mutilations they had suffered at the hands of their Roman persecutors in the years before Constantine. There was, for example, Bishop Paphnutius from Egypt. He could barely walk because his knees had been crushed, and he had only one eye; the other had been gouged out by a Roman soldier for refusing to deny that Christ was the Son of God. He was not the only one. As Theodoret wrote, the council resembled an army of martyrs.
These heroes for the Faith took upon themselves the duty to issue a formal statement of what Christians believed in the face of lies and heresy. This month, Father Richard Gribble, C.S.C., offers the first in a two-part study of the Creed, with “‘I Believe’: What Are the Historical Origins of the Creed?” His study is a helpful opportunity for all of us to meditate on the courage of the early Christians, their clarity of mind and purpose, and above all their love for Jesus Christ.
And we can ask: Can each of us say, in truth, “Credo” (“I believe”)?
Matthew Bunson, D.Min., K.H.S., is editor of The Catholic Answer and The Catholic Almanac and author of more than 40 books. He is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a professor at the Catholic Distance University. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.