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.
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.
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
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.