Prior to the Council of Nicea, theological controversies had been resolved by long debate until a consensus was finally reached. Rarely did civil authorities get involved. There was no reason for them to. Once Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, however, a perceived threat to the unity of the church threatened the unity of the empire (Gonzales 158). The Council of Nicea was, therefore, as much about Imperial unity as it was about Christian unity.
The Arian controversy was about who Christ was. The Arian party believed that he was the first created being, but the orthodox party believed he was eternal. This does not sound like a major issue, but it was. If Christ was created, then the Church had been worshipping a created being, rather than a divine one. This was idolatry and must be stopped, according to the orthodox party. The Arian party asserted that if Christ was not created, then He was the same as the first person of the Trinity, and it was the Father that suffered on the cross.
When the Nicene creed was written to affirm Christ’s divinity and co-eternity with the Father, Constantine banished Arian bishops from their sees to prevent discord (Gonzales 166). Although preventing discord seemed to be Constantine’s only goal, tying theological debates with civil authority only served to cause more unrest later, when doctrines would be decided by court position and political influence.
The key to the Arian Controversy is politics. Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian, had an important place in the Imperial court and swayed Constantine’s decisions regarding Nicean and Arian leaders (Gonzales 166). Through Eusebius’s influence, Constantine allowed the Arian bishops back from exile, and it was Eusebius who gave Constantine the sacrament of baptism on his deathbed.
Eusebius used his influence at court to have Athanasius, one of the Nicean party’s most staunch and formidable supporters, brought to trial on false charges. After dismissing the charges, Athanasius went to the emperor. Eusebius had made it impossible for Athanasius to gain an audience with Constantine. Finally, through unorthodox means, Athanasius gained an audience with the emperor and pleaded his case.
This was just the beginning of the political maneuverings surrounding the Arian controversy. After Constantine died, his three sons divided the empire and allowed all exiled bishops back to their sees. Athanasius, who had been and really was, bishop of Alexandria, encountered problems. A man named Gregory, who was supported by the government, claimed the episcopacy. Athanasius was unwilling to give Gregory the church buildings, so Gregory took them by force. This spawned more disorder and disruption, and eventually Athanasius left the city and went to Rome.
In Rome, Athanasius presented the Nicene position to the Bishop of Rome and gained the support of the Roman clergy. Eventually, Athanasius returned to Alexandria, where he spent time solidifying the Nicean position. He had come to the conclusion that so many opposed the Nicean position because it seemed to deny that the Son and the Father were different and therefore opened the way for patripassianism. A synod was gathered in Alexandria in AD 362 which refuted this idea.
The Cappadocian Fathers were important Nicean bishops and writers in Asia Minor. All of them, with the exception of Gregory of Nazianzus, were related. Raised in a Christian household, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa grew up in the shadow of their parents and elder sister. When their father and elder brother died, their sister Macrina suggested that the family retreat and seek the joys of religious life. Macrina spent the rest of her life in monastic retreat.
Basil the Great sought to be a monk, but was ordained as a presbyter against his will. Shortly after ordination, he encountered difficulties with the bishop, and decided to return to the monastery rather than create more difficulties. He remained there until Valens (who supported Arianism) was crowned emperor. Basil was elected bishop of Caesarea.
The emperor declared a state visit to Caesarea, and sent officials ahead of him to prepare the way. Part of preparing the way included subduing obstinate bishops who held opposing views. Basil was threatened with torture, confiscation of goods, exile, and death. He refused to recant.
His younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, was a completely different temperament. He had no desire to champion a cause. After his wife died, he entered the monastic life and viewed it as a way of escaping the pains and struggles of an active life. His brother forced him to become bishop of Nyssa. When Emperor Valens and the Arians used their might against the Nicean party, it was too much for Gregory, who went into hiding. In spite of this, after Valens and Basil died, he became a leader in the party and was invited to the Council of Constantinople in 381.
After that council, Emperor Theodosius took him as an advisor, forcing him to travel throughout the empire for work. His true desire, however, was always for a life of contemplation, to which he returned after being assured the Nicene cause was firmly established. The circumstances and date of his death are unknown.
Gonzales, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: HarperCollins, 1984. Print.