To find the third of our eight key moments in Church history, we need only move about a dozen years forward and once again see the Roman Emperor Constantine in the middle of the action.
In A.D. 325, the Emperor called bishops from throughout the Empire to gather at Nicaea in order to settle a growing controversy over the true nature of Christ. Is he eternal or was he a created being? How could he simultaneously be fully God and man? What was and is his true relationship with the Father?
While Constantine could hardly be considered a stickler for doctrinal purity, he did seem to understand the importance of this issue. So resolving this issue was the principle assignment given to the 300 bishops who gathered at Nicaea.
The chief proponent of a more limited view of Christ was a priest named Arius. He taught that the Christ was not eternal, but was created by the Father. In a sense, he had become the Christ, but was not pre-existent with the Father.
As Constantine oversaw the discussions, various bishops including Alexander and a deacon named Athanasius spoke in opposition to Arius’ ideas. They insisted that the each member of the triune Godhead was eternal; thus forming the arguments for trinitarianism–a theological concept that dominates the Church today.
Arius’ argument was defeated, though his ideas didn’t go away so easily. Constantine then called on the bishops to issue a collective statement of their conclusion. Their work, called the Nicene Creed, continues to this day as a foundation stone of Church doctrine. Here is one effort to provide it’s original text:
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 [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us 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. [But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]
It’s rather easy to see the issue at hand in this version. In later years, doctrinal ideas concerning the Holy Spirit were enlarged so that today’s Nicene Creed provides more of a balanced effort in addressing core doctrinal matters.
Athanasius’ place in this debate established him as a key doctrinal leader in the Church. Within a few years he was appointed Bishop of Alexandria.
A.D. 325 is a key moment in Church history because it’s Council at Nicaea gave us a doctrine statement that though edited a few times throughout history, continues to provide a foundation for orthodox Christian truth.