Monday, April 24, 2006

DaVinci Decoded: Part 5 -- The Council of Nicea

This week in our ongoing study of the themes related to the bestselling book and soon to be film DVC, we are going to look at one of the most important events in Christian history: The Council of Nicea. If anything good has come out of the popularity of DVC, it is that it has given pastors an opportunity to discuss these important themes with congregations who may not otherwise be interested in hearing about the crucial events of Church History. I hope that those who have read DVC will have their curiosity spurred on to investigate more about the Council of Nicea, rather than just believing what Dan Brown writes about it. To begin, I am going to tell you what Dan Brown says about the Council of Nicea, and then I will tell you what the council actually was.

On page 233, Brown writes:
“During this fusion of religions, Constantine needed to strengthen the new Christian tradition, and held a famous ecumenical gathering known as the Council of Nicea.”

The fusion of religions is the supposed melding together of Constantine’s newfound
Christianity with his cultic beliefs in the state religion of the empire, Sol Invictus. As we noted last week, Constantine did remain the head of this religion, but only because Roman Senate required the Emperor to be the religious head as well. Of course, Brown’s characters insist that his conversion was not genuine, and that he remained a steadfast pagan throughout his life.

p233: “At this gathering … many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon—the date of Easter, the role of bishops, the administration of the sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus. ... Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal."

The following dialogue ensues:
Teabing: “Jesus’ establishment as the ‘Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicea.”
Neveu: “Hold on. You’re saying that Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote?”
Teabing: “A relatively close vote at that.”

One of the sources which influenced Dan Brows was the work by Picknet and Prince entitled
The Templar Revelation. On page 261 of that book, we read the following:
“The Council of Nicea, when it rejected the many Gnostic gospels and voted to include only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament, had no divine mandate for this major act of censorship. They acted out of self-preservation, for by that time—the fourth century—the power of the Magdalene and her followers was already too widespread for the patriarchy to cope with.”

So, if we believe The DaVinci Code and its literary cousins, then the Council of Nicea was
where Jesus was voted in as God and where all the Scriptural writings that speak against the deity of Christ were voted out of the New Testament Canon. But should we believe this?

Constantine assembled The Council of Nicea on May 20, 325 AD. Nicea is known today as Isnik in Turkey. It was a gathering of the bishops from across the empire. Approximately 300 bishops attended, mostly from the eastern half of the empire. Contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not preside over the meeting, but instead he appointed Hosius, bishop of Cordova and friend. Though he was present at all the sessions, after his opening remarks, Constantine moved aside and allowed the theologians to settle the issues. The main purpose of the council was to debate and decide matters involved in what has come to be known as the Arian Controversy.

Arius was a North African priest with a history of controversy. So it was no surprise at all in 318 when he began to challenge teachers in Alexandria about the nature of Christ. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, engaged him in a heated exchange of words. Arius claimed that the Logos, the Word, which became flesh in Jesus Christ was not the true God. The Son of God, according to Arius, had a different nature from God the Father. The Son was not omnipotent, nor eternal, nor divine except in some approximate way. He was a lesser being, created by the Father, though higher than all other created beings. Arius knew how to get his teaching accepted by the masses. He had his ideas composed into little songs, like ad jingles. It is said that in any schoolyard or shipyard, one could hear these songs being sung. Arius's ideas and their obvious divergence from orthodox, biblical Christianity, created quite an uproar, such that wherever Arius went, riots broke out.

The teachings of Arius and the controversy they sparked were widespread. Bruce Shelley, in Church History in Plain Language (p59), cites the comments of one ancient bishop in reference to the city of Constantinople:
“If in this city you ask anyone for change, he will discuss with you whether God the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the quality of bread, you will receive the answer that ‘God the Father is greater, God the Son is less.’ If you suggest that a bath is desirable, you will be told that ‘there was nothing before God the Son was created.”

At the Council of Nicea, Arius was invited to present his case for his divergent views.
As Arius gave his position, he burst into one of his songs:
“The Uncreated God has made the Son; A beginning of things created; And by adoption has God made the Son; into an advancement of Himself; Yet the Son’s substance is; Removed from the substance of the Father; The Son is not equal to the Father, Nor does he share the same substance; God is the all-wise Father; And the Son is the teacher of His mysteries; The members of the Holy Trinity; Share unequal glories.”

It did not take long at all for him to be recognized by those in attendance as a heretic. Notice in the artwork at the top of this page that
there is a body under Constantine’s throne. That is Arius, and it is to represent how he was trampled underfoot by the council. And so it was not, as Brown’s Code would have you believe, a situation where the debate occurred and then the moderator said, “OK, How many think Jesus was God? And how many think he was not?” No, each one of these men at the council came in believing that Christ was fully God, and Arius was unable to convince them otherwise. And in order to prevent future perversions of the doctrine of Christ, the council made several key assertions about the nature of Christ:

Very God of Very God (John 1:1, Colossians 2:9)
The Council allowed for a differentiation of tasks and relationships within the Trinity, but a shared fullness of deity.
Of one substance with the Father (
homo ousios; John 10:30)
Begotten, not made (John 1:1-3)
Became man for us and for our salvation (John 1:12-14)

The conclusions of the council were affirmed by everyone present except two: Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarica. Both of these men were from Libya, and both were friends of Arius. Following the council, Arius, Secundus and Theonas were all exiled. So, it was not as Brown would have you believe. It was not a
very close vote that established Jesus as the Divine Son of God, unless somehow you consider 298 to 2 a close vote.

The Council of Nicea published the Nicene Creed summarizing the doctrine of Christ. The Nicene Creed that most people are familiar with today is actually a revised form issued at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The original Nicene Creed was very simple and reads as follows:
"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who forus men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost."

While not explicitly stated by Dan Brown, we know that some of his sources believe that the council of Nicea also produced what we now know as the Canon of the New Testament -- that list of acceptable scriptures. The word "canon" means "standard," or "rule." However, there is no historical record indicating that there was any discussion taking place at the Council of Nicea concerning the New Testament Canon. However, one can understand how this mistaken notion comes about. The Council did publish a list of "canons," but remember that this was not originally a technical term referring only to the acceptable list of Scriptures. The Canons of the Council of Nicea were the conclusions of the Council concerning how church leaders and laypeople should be disciplined over various issues. These were the "standards" or the "rules" concerning church discipline in that day. They can be read in their entirety in Eusebius'
Ecclesiastical History. There are some historical indications that the Council did discuss the dating of Easter, but this was not a major issue for the Council.

So, in conclusion, contrary to the claims of the
DaVinci Code, Jesus was not elected to be God at the Council of Nicea by a narrow margin. The Council affirmed the historic Christian doctrine that was established by Jesus Himself and recorded in the writings of the Apostles that we now have in the New Testament documents. Neither did the Council of Nicea canonize the Bible. In fact, the discussion never came up.

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