Doctrine

Council, Constantine, and Canon, Oh My!

After many months of not fielding any apologetics related questions that I haven’t written about before, the same topic has come up in conversation multiple times in the last few weeks.

The assertion, which was popularized a few years ago in The Davici Code, is that the accepted canon of Scripture was dictated by Emperor Constantine to the Council of Nicea and that both the canon and the doctrine of the deity of Christ were formulated at that council and passed by a narrow vote.

 

To summarize, the argument is:

1 – The books to be included in the Bible were dictated by Constantine and ratified by the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325               
2 – Both the doctrine of the deity of Christ and the canon of Scripture were formulated at the Council.
3 – These ‘new doctrines’ were passed by a slim majority vote of the bishops present.

For the benefit of those of you who don’t want to wade through some potentially boring history, I’ll say this up front and you can skip to the links at the end watch the video I’ve linked to: EVERY one of the above assertions is not only false, but not even close to truth.

What follows is summary of what the Council of Nicea was all about, and Constantine’s role in it. For more details, check out the links at the end.

Background and Purpose of the Council

After ending the civil war in 324 and becoming the sole ruler of the Roman empire, Constantine called for a council of bishops to address the problem of divisions in the Christian church. Eusebius quotes him as declaring that “Division in the church is worse than war.”

The council convened on May 20, 325 and adjourned on June 19 of that year. Constantine opened with a speech on the necessity of unity in the church, and presided much as a committee chair would today. In other words, he would introduce topics on the agenda and call on speakers but had no vote or official say in any decisions made. Over 1,000 bishops from across the empire were invited; although no exact count was made, estimates of the number in attendance are between 250 and 318, plus support staff including deacons and secretaries.

The Council agenda included the question of the Arian teaching (more on that later), the date of the Easter celebration, the leader of a minor sect (Meletus), and various matters of church discipline (more on that later as well).

We’ve already established that Constantine did not dictate what books should or should not be included in the Canon at Nicea; not only did he not have a vote in the Council, but the question of the Canon was not even addressed there!

On to the formulation of the doctrine of the deity of Christ:

The Council did not ‘formulate’ ANY doctrine. What the council addressed (and ultimately voted on), was the question of whether Arian’s Christology was orthodox or heretical, and how to present ALREADY ACCEPTED doctrine in such a way as to be unambiguous about the deity of Christ. Again, the Council did not formulate doctrine; it formulated a statement defending preexisting and accepted doctrine. Thus, the writing of the Nicene Creed, which recognized a Christology articulated as far back as the the first century, and stated throughout the New Testament.

Arianism, which stated that Jesus was a created being, was a doctrine that was less than a century old at the time. Which view would you consider ‘new’?

Oh, and about that close vote. There was no vote per se – bishops in attendance were either signed the final draft of the Creed, or didn’t. Out of a conservative estimate of 250 bishops present, only three did not sign it. 247 to 3 in favor is hardly close!

The council did produce 20 “canons”, which were declarations of church law – practices either prohibited or commanded by the church, and rules regarding church discipline. None of these 20 edicts had anything to do with the contents of Scripture.

In conclusion:

Not only did Constantine NOT dictate the canon of Scripture or the doctrine of the deity of Christ, but he deferred to the consensus of the bishops in regards to statements concerning the nature and deity of Christ.

The inclusion or exclusion of any books in the Bible was not addressed at the Council at all.

Finally, the wording of the Nicene Creed was approved by almost 90% of those attending the Council.
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Useful Links, in no particular order:

Here is a link to Dr. Michael Heiser's video on What Really Happened at the Council of Nicea and this is an abridged print version of the above with a link to a better quality but much shorter video

James R. White has a well-written synopsis of the events and decisions made at the council at the Christian Research Institute.

Paul F. Pavao has a series of articles on the Council; this is the first. If you read all 4, you will notice that he lists FIVE bishops (rather than three) who did not sign the creed. This is because he lists two bishops whose actual attendance at the council is disputed.

Finally, I list the Wikipedia article simply because it cites a very large number of sources that you can either link to or look up.

Essentials #8 – The Triunity of God

You may notice that I’ve slightly reordered our list of essential Christian beliefs. I’ve done so because in this revised order, the first eight in our list now (as one of our more logically-minded readers suggested) makes a progressive path of doctrine that makes number 9 on our list much more understandable once you grasp these first eight. Here’s the reordered list:

1. The infallibility of the Bible in the original manuscripts
2. God’s sovereign rule over all creation
3. Human depravity
4. The necessity of God’s grace
5. The virgin birth
6. Christ’s sinlessness
7. The full humanity and deity of Christ
8. The triunity of God
9. The atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Christ
10. The necessity of faith
11. Christ’s second coming, final judgement and reign.

This makes this installment all about one of the most ridiculed and misunderstood of our core beliefs. The doctrine of the Trinity has been debated for millennia, and yet it is impossible to deny the triune nature of God without denying both essentials #1 and 7.

Continue reading

Essentials #4: The Necessity of God’s Grace

Previously, we examined the truth that everyone is subject to God’s punishment for sin, and this time we will briefly look at the necessity of God’s grace. Before that, however, let’s review our list of essential Christian beliefs:

1. The infallibility of the Bible in the original manuscripts.
2. God’s sovereign rule over all creation
3. Human depravity
4. The necessity of God’s grace
5. The virgin birth
6. Christ’s sinlessness
7. The full humanity and deity of Christ
8. The atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Christ
9. The triunity of God
10. The necessity of faith
11. Christ’s second coming, final judgement and reign.

So far, we’ve seen that, in plain terms, God made everything (and everyone), and as Creator He has both the power and authority to make the rules and set the punishment for any offenses. We’ve also seen that every one of us had disobeyed those rules and have rejected God’s terms for life, liberty, and contentment with Him. We are all therefore deserving and certainly subject to punishment unless God Himself rescues us from it.

That act of rescue is the ultimate demonstration of God’s grace toward us. Continue reading

Essentials

Recently, I was posed this question:

You often go on about the ‘essentials of the faith’ or ‘core Christian doctrine’ but you never really give an explanation of what these are OR why they are considered essential. Can you at least give me some kind of explanation about this?

So, the next few articles are going to do exactly that. With this article, I’ll define just what an essential doctrine is, give a list of the absolutely foundational Christian beliefs, and go into a bit of detail about why number one on the list is so important. In future posts, I’ll take a closer look at one or two of the core beliefs.

What is a doctrine, and what makes one essential?

A doctrine is simply a statement of belief or truth. Therefore, even if your belief statement is ‘I don’t believe in the value of doctrine”, you have just made a statement of doctrine! Make no mistake: EVERYONE HAS A DOCTRINE OF CHRISTIANITY.

Doctrines (truth statements) that are essential or foundational to the Christian faith are those doctrines that cannot be denied and still be considered a disciple of the Christ. In other words, if you deny these truths, you cannot be Christian. Continue reading

In part 1, I started a point-by-point rebuttal of Kurt Eichenwald’s Newsweek article entitled The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin. I dealt with his misunderstanding of both the transmission and translation of the Biblical text, and I’ll start out part 2 with his rather lengthy assertion that many of the core doctrines of the faith are not found in the Bible.

Eichenwald starts out this section of his article by stating that both the deity of the Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity are not found in the Bible. He does so by postulating that the passages identifying Jesus as God are all mistranslated, and that since there is no verse explicitly stating, “God is a Triune God” or “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all the same” that therefore the Trinity is non-Biblical.

Eichenwald once again makes another basic common to the majority of skeptics pontificating in the popular press. He ignores both context and reason. Continue reading