April 25, 2004


So what really happened at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.? Elaine Pagels, of whose work I am particularly fond, asserts in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas that,

From that meeting and its aftermath, during the tumultuous decades that followed, emerged the Nicene Creed that would effectively clarify and elaborate the "canon of truth," along with what we call the canon -- the list of twenty-seven writings which would become the New Testament.

The hedging of language is interesting; surely the Nicene Creed was adopted at the Council, although it underwent some changes in the ensuing decades. There were other issues discussed at the Council -- the version presented in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which is, after all, a source biased somewhat toward Catholic orthodoxy (this does not diminish its value, in my mind, quite the contrary) matches closely the all too brief article presented in my 1967 edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia: the Council dealt primarily with the heresy of Arianism, adopted the aforementioned creed -- a sort of affirmation of the basics of Christian belief -- dealt with the problem of dating Easter, and adopted a canon, but not the Canon to which Pagels refers. Here's a few sample items from the canon adopted at Nicea:

* Canon 1: On the admission, or support, or expulsion of clerics mutilated by choice or by violence.

* Canon 2: Rules to be observed for ordination, the avoidance of undue haste, the deposition of those guilty of a grave fault.

* Canon 3: All members of the clergy are forbidden to dwell with any woman, except a mother, sister, or aunt.

* Canon 4: Concerning episcopal elections.

* Canon 10: Lapsi who have been ordained knowingly or surreptitiously must be excluded as soon as their irregularity is known.

* Canon 11: Penance to be imposed on apostates of the persecution of Licinius.

* Canon 12: Penance to be imposed on those who upheld Licinius in his war on the Christians.

* Canon 13: Indulgence to be granted to excommunicated persons in danger of death.

* Canon 15: Bishops, priests, and deacons are not to pass from one church to another.

* Canon 17: Clerics are forbidden to lend at interest.

And so on. Perhaps the Canon of New Testament books was arrived at in the ensuing decades, although it is interesting to note that Irenaeus of Lyon, himself an ardent adversary of the heresies of his day (the second century A.D.), quoted or referenced just about all the books of the New Testament. Irenaeus wasn't setting forth a Canon, or arguing that such books were the New Testament -- rather, he was relying on the authority of scripture to combat his enemies.

I've seen several authors other than Pagels argue that the Council of Nicea was decisive in shaping the New Testament, but I have yet to see much in the way of documentary corroboration of this claim. At this point, I think it's as dubious as the little scenario I sketched out below.

Posted by Ideofact at April 25, 2004 11:54 PM

I like this "Canon" you mentioned. It looks pretty forthright.

And the facts keep on disputing the idea that the Nicene council produced a radical course change in Christian history.

Curious, those stubborn facts...maybe there's something to them.

Posted by: steve h at April 26, 2004 06:12 PM

If you'd like a good, contemporary, deeply grounded in the texts approach to the council of Nicea I recommend Norman Tanner, The Councils of the Church. Tanner (a Jesuit at Oxford's Campion Hall) was the general editor of a new text and translation (original language on the left page, English on the right page) of a collection of Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils. He's a specialist in later medieval theology, but the history of the councils is excellent and readable.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at April 28, 2004 09:09 PM

Thanks for the recommendations.

I picked up one of the books Pagels cites in her discussion of Nicea, but left it at work -- I'll scan through it and see if there's anything worth mentioning.

Posted by: Bill at April 29, 2004 01:13 AM