Baptists at Nicea

"Ancient Baptists" and Other Myths
Fr. Hugh Barbour, O.Praem.

Nicea, August 24, A.D. 325, 7:41 p.m. "That was powerful preaching, Brother Athanasius. Powerful! Amen! I want to invite any of you folks in the back to approach the altar here and receive the Lord into your hearts. Just come on up. We've got brothers and sisters up here who can lead you through the Sinner's Prayer. Amen! And as this Council of Nicea comes to an end, I want to remind Brother Eusebius to bring the grape juice for tomorrow's closing communion service . . ."

Ah yes, the Baptists at the Council of Nicea. Sound rather silly? It certainly does. And yet, there are those who claim the Church of Nicea was more Protestant in belief and practice than Catholic. I recently read an article in The Christian Research Journal, written by a Reformed Baptist apologist, who argued this very point. No, I'm not making this up. The article, "What Really Happened at Nicea?" actually claimed the Fathers of the Council were essentially Evangelical Protestants.

As a trained patristics scholar, I always feel a great deal of sadness and frustration when I encounter shoddy historical "scholarship," whether it be in the pages of The Watchtower, a digest of Mormon "archaeology," or a popular and usually well-produced Evangelical Protestant apologetics journal. But this article was so error-laden, so amateurishly "researched," and so filled with historical and theological fallacies, that I simply couldn't let it stand without response.

All the classical Protestant confessions of faith expressing the beliefs of the various Reformation branches include the doctrinal proclamations of the ancient Catholic Council of Nicea, whereby Christ is professed to be "of one essence" with the Father. The original Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1531, for example, and the later Formula of Concord of 1576-1584, each begin with the mention of the doctrine of the Nicene Council.

Calvin's French Confession of Faith of 1559 states, "And we confess that which has been established by the ancient councils, and we detest all sects and heresies which were rejected by the holy doctors, such as St. Hilary, St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose and St. Cyril." The Scotch Confession of 1560 deals with general councils in its 20th chapter. The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, both the original of 1562-1571 and the American version of 1801, explicitly accept the Nicene Creed in article 7.

Even when the particular Protestant confessional formula does not mention the Nicene Council or its creed, its doctrine is nonetheless always asserted, as, for example, in the Calvinist Scotch Confession just mentioned, or in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of 1647.

At first glance, this all seems rather odd to the Catholic reader. After all, every branch of Protestantism professes the absolute and sole sufficiency of Sacred Scripture for establishing the fundamental points of doctrine. Why, then, do these various Protestant confessions bother to bring up the early councils (or any councils) when establishing their core teachings? Well, we shouldn't be too quick to accuse them of inconsistency just yet, for all of these confessions make it abundantly clear that the councils of the Church have no authority of their own, but only insofar as they teach things which have a clear warrant in the written Word of God.

For a Protestant, then, the general councils of the ancient Church and their creeds provide useful historical references for the expression of orthodox, biblical doctrine. They don't have any particular infallible status as councils of the Church. Even less are the doctrines of the early councils proposed as sound because they reflect the Church's Tradition as a source of knowledge of revealed truth.

So far so good. A Catholic may not agree with it, but such a view at least isn't internally inconsistent. Classical Protestants accept the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation as scriptural, and so refer to the early councils which taught these dogmas. They pick and choose from the riches of Christian teaching, and sometimes they get it right. A Catholic can only be content that they do; we are not stingy with the good things we enjoy. As Pope Pius XI said of the various Protestant groups, "Stones cut from gold-bearing rock themselves bear gold."

But there's a bigger problem here. The words of Calvin quoted above give us an example of it. He refers to "the sects and heresies rejected by the holy doctors, such as St. Hilary, St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose and St. Cyril." Protestant apologists want to claim for themselves the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, as well as the early councils. Some even go so far as to claim that the Fathers held to the principle of sola scriptura (by Scripture alone)! A brief look into the events surrounding the great Nicene Council should suffice to dispel this foolishness.

Things were hard for the Church in A.D. 325. A certain Arius, a wildly popular presbyter in Egypt, was publicly denying the full divinity of Christ. In his view, Jesus was godlike, but not God Almighty (Jehovah's Witnesses are the modern day purveyors of this position). A charismatic figure, Arius gathered about himself a school of followers, and his influence spread. The local Catholic bishops condemned him, yet his activities continued. Finally, fearing that perhaps a split in Christendom would lead to disruption in the empire, the Emperor Constantine called a general council of bishops. There is some question as to whether the emperor acted on his own, or in concert with Pope Sylvester. While the accounts contemporary to the event mention only Constantine, a statement made in the Third Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680) indicates Nicea was called by both the emperor and the pope. It is interesting to note this statement was made during the general session, and was received as true without question or objection. Surely they would have known better, were it not true.

Most of the Nicene Council's 318 episcopal attendees were representatives of eastern churches, like Ephesus, Jerusalem and Antioch. Pope Sylvester, too ill to make the journey himself, sent two legates. According to the ancient historian Gelasius, the Roman Church was represented by Hosius, bishop of Cordova (Spain) and the leading proponent of the orthodox position regarding Christ's divinity. Not only was Hosius representing Rome, but it seems he also presided over the council after Constantine's introduction. St. Athanasius, an attendee and tireless defender of orthodoxy, wrote admiringly about Hosius, "What council can be mentioned in which he did not preside?" (Apologia de Fuga, 5).

So the Council proceeded, led by a bishop officially representing the Church of Rome. The debate was heated, but the outcome was clear: Christ is not some kind of minor deity, but He is one in Being with the Father — God, in the fullest sense of the term. An important question, then, arises: Just how did the Council arrive at this position?

The Reformed Baptist author of the Christian Research Journal article claims, "The council had no idea that they (sic), by their gathering together, possessed some kind of sacramental power of defining beliefs: they sought to clarify biblical truth, not to put themselves in the forefront and make themselves a second source of authority." This statement, though brief, is littered with errors.

First, even if the proceedings of the Council were nothing more than a debate on Scripture, it is thunderingly clear that the participants believed they had the authority to give the definitive interpretation of the data. According to the position of the Protestant apologist, the Church had no final interpretive authority; if an individual Christian believed the conciliar arguments to be unbiblical, he could reject them. How different this is from the position of the Council itself. The very end of the original Nicene Creed reads: "And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before He was begotten He was not, or that He was made of things that were not, or that He is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that He is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them."

Again, recall that the real issue is whether or not the Council believed itself to be the final authority in interpreting the data regarding Christ's deity. Clearly, the Church that anathematizes (cuts off) those who disagree with its findings is a Church that believes itself to have the last word.

But there is another problem with the claim that the authority of Nicea rests solely on biblical authority. The Council did not declare that the doctrine it proposed was simply a restatement or clarification of the Scriptures, but that "the Catholic and Apostolic Church" believes it, and condemns the contrary. The Scriptures are not cited even once in the Fathers' definition, hardly a likely thing had they been adherents of some "Bible only" ideology. To be sure, the Fathers of Nicea were certain that the orthodox doctrine was found in Scripture, but because they most assuredly did not hold to sola scriptura, it never occurred to them to separate the Church's authority from the interpretation of Scripture. Rather, if anyone at that time held to a view akin to the "Bible only," it was the heretical Arians, who rejected the Church's definition because it used terms not found in Sacred Scripture, but rather taken from Greek philosophy.

The absurd, and the outrageously absurd.

In trying to make his argument that the Council attendees were Protestant, our apologist makes the outrageous claim that, "Convinced that Scripture is 'sufficient above all things,' Athanasius acted as a true 'Protestant' in his day." Oh really? Did Athanasius hold to the doctrine of sola scriptura? Everywhere in his writings, St. Athanasius takes the Church's faith as the rule whereby the Scriptures are to be rightly interpreted. This rule of ecclesiastical faith (Greek: ho skopos tes ekklesiatikes pisteos) he adopts as a canon for rightly establishing the sense of the sacred text. The Arian heretics, on the other hand, use their private opinion (Greek: ho idios nous) as their rule or canon of interpretation.

Glancing through St. Athanasius' Discourses Against the Arians, one will quickly see how classically Catholic his use of Scripture is: "[S]ince they allege the divine oracles and force on them a misinterpretation according to their private sense, it becomes necessary to meet them just so far as to vindicate these passages, and to show that they bear an orthodox sense" (Discourse 1, 37).

"This then I consider the sense of this passage, and that a very ecclesiastical sense" (Discourse 1, 44).

"This then is what happens to God's enemies the Arians; for looking at what is human in the Savior, they have judged Him a creature . . . But for them, learn they, however tardily, that 'the Word became flesh;' and let us, retaining the scope of the faith, acknowledge that what they interpret ill, has a right interpretation" (Discourse 3, 35).

"Had Christ's enemies thus dwelt on these thoughts, and recognized the ecclesiastical scope as an anchor for the faith, they would not have made shipwreck of the faith" (Discourse 3, 58).

And these are just snippets. Repeatedly throughout his discourses, St. Athanasius gives the Church's rule of faith, and then applies it to the passages of Scripture misinterpreted by the Arians. There is simply no other way to understand his defense of the Faith against them.

In his Letter to Serapion on the Death of Arius, St. Athanasius distinguishes the orthodox Faith from widely held opinion, not by reason of its Scriptural basis solely, as a Protestant would, but because it is the teaching of the Church. Thus, the dictum "Athanasius against the world" points out his defense of the Nicene Faith against those who reject the Church's interpretation of Scripture, not his defense of Scripture against the "established church" (as our Protestant friend claims in his article).

Athanasius declared: "For the Lord Himself judging between the threats of Eusebius and his fellows, and the prayer of Alexander, condemned the Arian heresy, showing it to be unworthy of communion with the Church, and making manifest to all, that although it receive the support of the Emperor and of all mankind, yet it was condemned by the Church herself" (Letter to Serapion, 4).

Perhaps our Protestant apologist is a bit disappointed that I have not yet engaged him in any quibbling about Greek. Well, he's offered me a beauty of an instance; in fact, it's his very favorite quotation from Athanasius, the one in which he pretends that Athanasius professes the doctrine of sola scriptura over and against Church councils. Speaking of the Arians, St. Athanasius says:

"Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded councils for the faith's sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a council is needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in the divine Scriptures" (On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia, 6).

Does St. Athanasius' original Greek really say that Scripture is "sufficient above all things"? No. In a very simple sentence which a first-year Greek student should be able to translate correctly, St. Athanasius declares "For divine Scripture is more sufficient than all [other writings, councils, etc.]." The sentence in transliterated Greek reads Esti men gar hikanotera panton he theia graphe. Here we do not have an absolute statement, but a comparative one. To say that Scripture is the primary source of doctrine is not to say that it is the sole source of doctrine. I do not know of any Catholic theologian, doctor, or council of prelates of any period in the Church's history who would not view arguments from Sacred Scripture as the more authoritative among various sources of doctrine. This quotation gives absolutely no support to the Protestant error of sola scriptura. The issue here in the Greek is subtle, yes, but seemingly too subtle for the Protestant apologist to have caught.

Athanasius' entire anti-Arian corpus is nothing if not a scriptural refutation of heresy. The heretics claim Scripture as their guide. Fine, then let's show them how they err from Scripture itself. St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, all the doctors of the Church, patristic and scholastic, prefer scriptural authority. In doing so, they do not reject, but rather assert, the teaching of the Church.

But there's more. The very context of this alleged Athanasian "Bible-only" proof-text (which just went "poof" as a proof) shows that even with the mistranslating, it demonstrates the exact opposite of the Protestant apologist's thesis. Immediately preceding the passage cited, and in the very same paragraph, St. Athanasius rejects the Arians' call for new councils based on the already sufficient expression of the Church's authority. He writes: "What need is there of Councils when the Nicene is sufficient, as against the Arian heresy, so against the rest, which has condemned one and all by means of the sound faith?" (On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia, 6).

In other words, the Council of Nicea has decided the matter; the authoritative interpretation of the data has been given. The progression of the holy doctor's reasoning is clear: "Why do the Arians call for further councils when the Church's definition at Nicea suffices? Indeed, why do they want a council at all since Scripture, on which they claim to base their teaching, is so clear on this point? In any case, Nicea is enough for clarifying the true faith found in the Scriptures. Nicea is sufficient, and Scripture is more sufficient still, but either one would be enough." This, ladies and gentlemen, is a traditional Catholic argument through and through.

St. Athanasius wrote the famous Life of Antony, the semi-biography of the patriarch of monks — a work that later spurred St. Augustine on to his full conversion to Catholicism. In it, Athanasius gives St. Antony's dying words, a fine summary of the Catholic attitude toward Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Church in the face of heresy: "Have nothing to do with the Arians, for the irreligion of these is plain to everyone . . . Therefore keep yourselves clean from these and watch over the tradition of the Fathers, and above all, the orthodox faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, as you have learned it from the Scriptures, and as you have often been put in mind of by me" (Life of Antony, 89).

So was St. Athanasius a "true Protestant," as the Baptist apologist claims? The Athanasius who believed that a Christian could lose his salvation through mortal sin (cf. Discourses Against the Arians 3, 25)? The Athanasius who venerated Mary as "the Mother of God" (Greek: theotokos; cf. Treatise on the Incarnation of the Word, 8)? The Athanasius who believed in Mary's perpetual virginity (cf. Discourses Against the Arians II, 70)? The Athanasius who believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (Sermon to the Newly Baptized)? If indeed Athanasius can be called a Protestant, then the word "Protestant" has no meaning at all.

But what about the other Fathers of Nicea? Did they give evidence of any Protestant leanings? Not even remotely. The Council of Nicea was a Catholic Council in the fullest sense, Catholic in the sense commonly understood today. If someone were handed the canons of this council for examination, he would immediately recognize the things treated there as matters of Catholic Church order, and not applying to any recognizable Protestant group.

The Council of Nicea dealt with many of the same canonical issues in 325 that are dealt with in the Church's current canon law, both Eastern and Western. Its decrees concern the qualifications, precedence and jurisdiction of bishops and priests (canons 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17, 19), the proper role of deacons at the celebration of the Eucharist (canon 18), measures to ensure the validity of the ordination of bishops (canon 4), uniformity in the celebration of the Church's Eucharistic Liturgy (canon 20), the preservation of the celibacy of the clergy (canon 3) and the treatment of penitents and their reconciliation (canons 11, 12, 13, 14). It's worth quoting a few of these canons that show the Council's Catholic character quite unambiguously.

Canon 3 states: "The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion."

In this way, the Council forbade any woman to dwell in the house of a member of the clergy, except mothers, aunts, sisters or those "beyond all suspicion." It's interesting that there is no mention of wives here. Obviously, the clergy was by this time largely celibate. Perhaps even more significant, however, is the description of the sacrament of holy orders being divided into three levels of ordained ministry: bishop, presbyter (priest) and deacon. The Church of the Council of Nicea had all three, just like the Catholic Church today. The Baptist apologist who wrote the article we're critiquing does not agree with the Catholic teaching on the sacrament of holy orders (ie. bishops, priests, and deacons). In this, he is typical of most Evangelical Protestants, who likewise reject this sacrament.

Canon 18 states: "It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great Synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them . . . And if, after this decree, any one shall refuse to obey, let him be deposed from the diaconate."

Let's think this through. Does it seem likely that a council of "Evangelical Protestants" (which, remember, is exactly what the Baptist writer of that article in the Journal was arguing they were) would issue a canon laying out the liturgical order for the distribution of the Eucharist? Not likely. Of course, one would expect such a thing at a Catholic council. And that is precisely why we see this and similar canons emanating from this council: It was a Catholic assembly, not a Protestant one.

Another revealing canon is the 13th. In regard to the granting of Holy Communion to penitents at the point of death, it says: "Concerning those about to die, the ancient canon law is still to be maintained, namely that those who are departing are not to be deprived of their last, most necessary viaticum . . . As a general rule, in the case of anyone who is departing and seeks to share in the Eucharist, the bishop upon examining the matter shall give him a share in the sacrifice."

Is there any Protestant who would view the Holy Eucharist as "most necessary viaticum" at the hour of death? Would the Baptist apologist recognize the Eucharist as a "sacrifice" or oblation in which he shares? Do Protestants, for that matter, concern themselves with episcopal jurisdiction, the dates of feasts and the proper posture for liturgical prayer? When was the last time you heard of a Protestant pastor giving absolution and holy viaticum to a repentant excommunicate in order to ensure his eternal salvation?

No Protestant apologist attending the Council of Nicea would recognize it as an organ of his denomination or as anything resembling his version of "biblical" Christianity. The issues discussed and the conclusions reached are common only to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Of course none of the 318 council Fathers would be familiar with the expression "Roman" Catholic, since this pejorative expression was invented by the Protestants of the 16th century, and later humbly adopted by orthodox Christianity in the West. Nevertheless, the Council of Nicea bears the unmistakable mark of Catholicism. Not surprising, since the Council was Catholic.

"But wait," a Protestant might respond. "What about Canon 6 of the Council of Nicea? Doesn't that demonstrate there was no papal primacy in the early centuries of the Church?" This claim is always presented in polemical discussions of the Nicene Council.

The PlayersMajor Figures at the First Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) AriusA popular Alexandrian priest who, under the influence of Lucian of Antioch, denied the divinity of Christ. According to Arius, Jesus was the first "creation" of God, but was not God Himself. This false teaching was rebuked at a local Egyptian synod of bishops, but Arius refused to submit to their correction and was excommunicated. After several appeals, his heretical views were aired, debated and formally condemned by the bishops of the Catholic Church assembled at Nicea.

St. AthanasiusA priest from Alexandria (who would become the bishop in 328) and tireless defender of the Trinity and Catholicism. Along with Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and Bishop Hosius of Cordoba, he stood as Arius' chief and most formidable opponent.

ConstantineRoman Emperor and convert to Christianity. The growing tension between the orthodox Catholics and the Arians on the matter of Christ's deity compelled him to call the Council to settle the issue.

HosiusBishop of Cordoba, and presider over the Council. He played a central role in Constantine's conversion, and acted as the Emperor's theological advisor. A vocal opponent of Arius, Hosius represented the Church of Rome, along with two Roman priests.

Vito and VincentiusThe two Roman priests sent by Pope Sylvester (who was too sick to travel) to represent the Church of Rome at the Council of Nicea. They, along with Bishop Hosius, signed the acts of the Council before the other convened bishops did — which was a remarkable thing for mere priests to do, unless they had special authority as legates of the pope.

Major issues addressed by the Council of Nicea

The relationship of the Son to the Father was the primary issue of dispute. Arius claimed the Son was a creation of the Father; the orthodox argued the Son was one with the Father (homo-ousion, one in being). The orthodox position was adopted and the defenders of the Trinity prevailed. The 20-year-old Meletian schism was brought to an end. Its instigator, Meletus, was returned to his see in Lycopolis but was forbidden to ordain any more bishops. The ordinations he had previously performed were declared null and void.

The traditional date of Easter held by the Church of Rome was adopted by the universal Church. The extent of the penance required of apostates before readmittance to the sacrament of the Eucharist was settled. Several qualifications for ordination to the office of bishop were outlined. Deacons, priests and bishops were to remain in their diocese. The jurisdictions for ecclesial ordinations were set forth.

Canon 6 reads: "Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop. If, however, two or three bishops shall from natural love of contradiction, oppose the common suffrage of the rest, it being reasonable and in accordance with the ecclesiastical law, then let the choice of the majority prevail."

Are we to understand from this that the bishop of Rome is no greater in authority than the bishop of Alexandria? Indeed, our Baptist apologist writes, "This canon is significant because it demonstrates that at this time there was no concept of a single universal head of the church with jurisdiction over everyone else." Is this true? Not at all. The first thing one must do is note the context. What is the nature of the "jurisdiction" mentioned here? It is, primarily, the authority to ordain bishops. Notice that after laying out the territory for each of the metropolitans, the canon explains what is to take place within those limits: the selection and ordination of bishops. This point also fits the context of the preceding canons, paraphrased here:

Canon 4: Bishops are to be chosen by bishops of their province, and their choice is then to be ratified by the metropolitan having jurisdiction over that area.

Canon 5: Those excommunicated by one bishop are not to be re-instituted by a bishop of a different territory. Every province should have regular synods to decide these issues.

Canon 6: The metropolitans have jurisdiction over their respective territories. No one is to be made a bishop without their final approval.

Notice the function of canon 6 in context with the preceding two canons: It sets out territorial boundaries for more efficient administration. Recall that the pope is also the bishop of the city of Rome. He has a special administrative jurisdiction over Rome, whereas the bishop of New York has the same jurisdiction over New York, the bishop of Alexandria over Alexandria, etc. But this is not to say the Roman bishop has no authority over the Church; these are two different kinds of jurisdiction. So a plain reading of canon 6 in context shows it is hardly a blow against Roman primacy.

In the end, there is no way to avoid the inescapable fact that the Council of Nicea was Catholic in every sense of the term. Unfortunately for the Protestant author of the Journal article, no amount of cut-and-paste patristic work, no feats of "scholarly" gymnastics, no grotesque historical contortions can change that.

8:12 p.m.

"Brothers and sisters, I want to announce to you all that we've just had 23 people saved up here. Keep on coming! I see some more folks in the back. Let them through. Sister Pearl, can you make your way to the piano and do 'Onward Christian Soldiers'? It's the Emperor Constantine's favorite, you know . . ."

Evangelical Protestants at the Council of Nicea? The idea would be funny, if it weren't so sad that some people actually believe it.