The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy

The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy

Written by Matthew J. J. Hoskin |
Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Creed of Constantinople was, on the one hand, a necessary rearticulation of disputed points. On the other hand, it also expanded the section on the Holy Spirit and the church, making a more clearly Trinitarian creed than that of Nicaea.

Growing up in an Anglican church, we recited the Nicene Creed every Sunday—you know, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” I remember being quite surprised in confirmation class when I learned that the creed we recited at Holy Communion wasn’t actually the Nicene Creed but a later Creed, from Constantinople, with some added bits about the Holy Spirit. As I recall, I was a bit put out about this. Why didn’t we use the original? Why did we use some interloper masquerading as the Nicene Creed? Somehow, whatever lessons I got from confirmation class about why these two creeds exist just didn’t stick. I blame, of course, my teenage self. The priest who taught me was very good and a huge church history buff. I still talk church history with him to this day.[1]

The question of my teenage self, setting aside the bizarre feelings that the Creed of Constantinople is an interloper, is a worthwhile question though: why do we have two creeds that we think of as the Nicene Creed? Isn’t one Nicene Creed enough? And why is the second such creed the one we use at Holy Communion?

The answer to this creedal question is the story central to my upcoming Hilary Term course with Davenant Hall, “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy (325-407).” While sometimes you might meet someone who thinks that the Council of Nicaea convened by Constantine in 325 settled the Arian debate, the fact that I consider this the “Nicene Controversy” immediately shows that the debate did not die out or fizzle in 325. It quietened down for a while—until 337, when Constantine died and was no longer around to enforce Nicene orthodoxy.

In 337, those bishops opposed to the teaching of Nicaea seized the opportunity to undo the work of the council of 325. And Constantine’s sons were in on it, especially Constantius II (r. 337-361). From 337 to 381, fifty-four councils that were related to this controversy were held. Some tended towards what we call “Arianism” in its various forms. Others tended to favour Nicene teaching. Others tried to avoid the contentious questions altogether. Along the way, bishops were exiled, recalled, exiled, deposed, and so forth—most famously St Athanasius of Alexandria.

Read More

Scroll to top