As I mentioned in the last post, many of the myths about Constantine’s influence or control over the Church revolve around his imagined ability to control the outcome of the council at Nicaea or over the bishops of the Church in general. I looked at the bishops yesterday. Today I want to look at the outcome of the Council at Nicaea. While there were a number of issues discussed and decisions made, the central one revolved around the novel teaching of a priest named Arius. For those who may not be familiar with his teaching, it revolved around an idea in a popular hymn he wrote: There was a time when the Son was not. In other words, though the Son might be the first of all creation, the Son was not co-eternal with the Father. The Son was not uncreated with the Father.
Arius was quite intelligent and charismatic. Reports of his examination indicate that he was able to interpret the Holy Scriptures at every point in a way that supported his view. (As a side note, that does illustrate one of the fundamental flaws in the idea of Sola Scriptura, the idea that a text as complex as the Holy Scriptures somehow has any authoritative interpretation independent of its interpreting context or agent.) He also was good at popularizing his view in hymns and other media of his age. As a result, his view had spread pretty widely across the empire, especially with the legalization of Christianity.
Constantine clearly wanted the council to make a decision for or against Arius. Just as he was looking to the Church to act as an agent to help stabilize the empire, the Church was being ripped and torn between those who held fast to the traditional view of Jesus as the Son of God and those who followed Arius instead. It’s less clear which side he personally favored. Constantine stayed neutral in his official pronouncements and statements. But there were certainly synergies between the views of Arius and the Imperial cult that may have led Constantine to prefer such a view of Jesus. Although he did banish Arius after the council, Constantine also later recalled him. When he was baptized almost on his deathbed years later, Constantine specifically sent for an Arian bishop to baptize him. And his son, of course, embraced Arianism wholeheartedly when he succeeded Constantine.
So if Constantine controlled the council and the bishops were willing to acquiesce to his will, it certainly doesn’t appear that he did so very effectively. And I find it odd that a man who was able to win military battle after military battle and reunite the entire Roman Empire under a single emperor couldn’t manage a simple council filled with bishops and priests supposedly cowed by his might any better than that.
No, in this case, the “official” story is simply the more reasonable one. The council itself was not particularly influenced by the presence of the emperor and came to a decision about which Constantine was at best ambivalent.
Unless someone a specific Constantinian myth to raise, this post wraps up this series.