Sunday, May 20, 2012
On this day in history: allusions to sex, religion and the trappings of power.
Yesterday, had we been faithful to this day in history we would have focused on the execution of Anne Boleyn and all of the scintillating sexual details that went a long way into making her HBO worthy. We would have asked then today, what could have possibly topped such sensationalism? What could ever burn the loins more than love triangles and beheadings? Is there anything that can arouse in man such a fervor as illicit copulation and political intrigue? There is but one thing, religious and political intrigue!
So today on this day in History we'll celebrate the consummation of Church and State in its most modern, Western form, before their estrangement and untimely divorce in the unfortunate aftermath of the Enlightenment. Having over exhausted this innuendo though, we'll move on to the beginning of the 1st Council of Nicea, that began on May 20, 325 AD. The Council was called Constantine the Great in order to bring a single voice to Christianity in attempt to unify a splintering Empire. Constantine had just won a succession of civil wars and looked to the Cross as a political tool to reunify his disparate peoples. But the problem was as Constantine soon found out, his unifying tool was not very uniform. Basically there were two major veins of Christianity at the time. One that would become a template for future Christological thought within the Church and one that would be labeled a heresy.
The controversy came up when Arius, a Christian thinker and teacher from Alexandria decided that Jesus the Son was essentially different from God the Father. Arius basically taught that Jesus was God the Father's first creation and perfect, but still a creation. Arius and the Arians (his followers) were vehemently opposed by Athanasius, a younger contemporary of Arius and a fellow Alexandria native. Athanasius taught that God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit were all of the same essence. This line was followed and proclaimed by the Council of Nicea. It's this decision that led to the Church following a strict Trinitarian view of the nature of God, three persons, but one essence. Arian teachers fled the council in quite a huff and even though their belief was declare a heresy and thus, not part of the orthodoxy, the belief didn't immediately die out. In fact Arianism would linger on long enough for some of the barbarians who would eventually rip the Empire apart to become practitioners of this heretical branch of Christianity. The fact that the Orthodox, Catholic view was held by the Roman establishment and the Arian view held by many Germanic invaders gave the debate renewed political trappings. But, when Clovis became the first barbarian king to become a Catholic and thus, a Trinitarian, ruler, his power would wipe much of Arian theology from the West, leaving the remaining Arians in North Africa. They would linger there until the Muslims swept across the continent and effectively destroyed Arius' teachings.
The 1st Council of Nicea had some other outcomes as well. In addition to declaring Trinitarian views as the only acceptable understanding of the Christian God, it also put together the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed would serve as statement of faith to be repeated by the faithful to express the most fundamental tenants of Christianity. The council also established Constantine's role in the history of the Church. It also helped establish Canon Law. It gave Rome and her bishop an exalted place in the Church. And it led to Christianity becoming fundamentally declared separate from its parent religion, Judaism. Basically the 1st Council of Nicea was a huge step in the long process of formalizing the Christian church. It is for this reason that the Council get's this day in history status.