The Council of Nicaea - 2
Dn. Michael Hyatt · December 13, 2008
Dn. Michael continues his look at the Council of Nicaea, the first salvo in a centuries-long battle for Truth. At stake is the doctrine of the Incarnation.
Dn. Michael Hyatt: Well, this is the second week that we’re going to be talking about the Council of Nicaea. And I don’t know if you all have this book, but let me just mention it again in case you don’t. Leo Donald Davis is the author. The title is The First Seven Ecumenical Councils: Their History and Theology. It sounds kind of dry and academic; it’s really not. I mean, parts of it are, but it’s like reading a novel. I flew to Colorado this last week, and I had a lot of time to read which is one of the reasons why I love to fly—and no phones ringing, no internet access. It was awesome. So, I read through, I got about a third of the way done now, and it’s absolutely captivating. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There was no “golden age” in the Church, and it was a mess.
You know, last week, we talked about the Council of Nicaea, and we talked about the battle with Arianism. And you just think we’d get it nailed down: and so the council decided Arianism is a heresy, next chapter. No. No sooner had they dismissed the council than the whole empire really disintegrated into chaos and Arianism, and Athanasius is exiled and the Arian bishops are reinstalled, and it’s just a mess. It’s warfare. So, Nicaea is really not the last battle in a series of battles. It’s really kind of the first salvo in what’s going to be a centuries-long battle for the true doctrine of the Trinity and particularly the true doctrine of the Incarnation.
Okay. Let’s go on. We may not finish today; we may have to roll forward, but the Council of Nicaea is so critical. Some of the other councils accomplish important things, but they weren’t this elaborate. But this was the first one. By the way, not the first council. There had been many other councils before, but the first council that, with the benefit of hindsight, was regarded as ecumenical. Okay?
One principle that we see in Christian faith and life is the doctrine of the Incarnation as it works itself out. It’s not just some abstract theological construct, but it’s a very important working truth for us today. So, the Fathers, in true fashion, didn’t just stop with the theoretical. They didn’t just debate Arianism and all these finer points of theology, and then they wrote up a paper and a creed and then dismissed. Orthodoxy always carries with it, like two sides of the same coin, orthopraxy. So you have to have right belief, but you also have to have right practice. It’s not just enough to believe the right things. We also have to practice a Christian life as followers of Jesus. So, we just have to be careful, I think, and it’s a warning really to us in the 21st century to not just be content with believing the right things. It’s important, to be sure. It’s the foundation of everything else, but if that’s all we have, even the demons have that.
As James reminds us in chapter 2, and I’m just going to read this because it’s a good reminder or a good set-up for what I want to talk about today in the canons. James says (James 2:14-17):
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works. Can faith save him?
You know, mere intellectual assent: is that enough?
If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food and one of you says to him, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not even give him the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?
You know, our faith has to work itself out in very concrete, very practical, very daily ways. Verse 17:
Thus also, faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
We, typically, following the Protestant Reformation in the West, pit these things against one another, as if they could exist apart from each other. They cannot. This is what James— really the point he’s making is that they can be distinguished but not separated. It’s like the roundness of an orange and the orangeness of an orange can be differentiated, but not separated, otherwise you don’t have an orange anymore. And so the faith carries with it the intellectual assent, the personal belief, devotion to, willing to trust, but also the practice: the living out the Christian life in practical daily ways. And that’s really what happened at the Council of Nicaea.
They finished the creed. They licked it, put a seal on it. They set it aside, rolled up their sleeves, and got very busy on 20 canons and two decrees. And that’s what I want to talk about today, is these 20 canons and two decrees, because they’re very instructive. Some of them are more lofty and elevated. Some of them are really mundane and very practical. These canons don’t appear in any particular order. There’re 20. They seem to be random, but I’ve divided them into five categories following, really, Leo Donald Davis’ schematic in his book, which I think is very helpful, though I’ll present them to you in a slightly different order. The first block of canons talks about the dignity of the clergy.
Canon 1 says this. By the way, I’m not quoting. I’m paraphrasing. It’s too much. Some of them are short, some of them are long, but I’m going to paraphrase. Canon 1 says that clerics who have castrated themselves cannot continue as clerics. Whoa. This is so amazing that they jump right into the middle of it. They’re not afraid. They’re not squeamish about dealing with these kinds of issues that might be “difficult” to talk about in polite company. There’s a certain earthiness to the faith of the Fathers that I think would serve us well today. And sometimes we get accused, as Orthodox, of sort of being neo-Platonic and ethereal and mystical. Well, anybody that says that has never attended an Orthodox service, read through an Orthodox prayer book where we have blessings for all kinds of things, have never really grasped the earthiness of the Faith.
So they condemn clerics who have castrated themselves. Furthermore, laymen who have castrated themselves cannot be ordained. And see, what you’re going to find in these canons is the beginning of a war against super-spirituality: people who think that to be spiritual takes these extraordinary efforts that the Bible itself, that Christ himself doesn’t condone. Those who were mutilated by virtue of birth, health, or torture are exempted, of course, but we’re talking about self-mutilation. People who, misunderstanding Jesus’ words—you know: “If your right hand offends you, cut it off”?—had taken it too far. And it was critically important that the Fathers make a statement here, lest others follow their example. Origen himself—one of the reasons among several that we don’t refer to him as “St. Origen” is because he had self-mutilated himself. He is not regarded as a saint in the Church.
Canon number 2. This is another one that’s really interesting. This says the newly baptized cannot be hastily promoted to the rank of priest or bishop. St. Paul himself warns that we’re not to lay hands suddenly on people, which is, really, a reference to ordination. People are not to be quickly ordained. They’re to be tested. It takes time for them to gather knowledge about the Faith. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been Orthodox for 22 years now, and I feel like I’m just a beginner. This is the first faith, hopefully the last faith for me, but a faith where I felt like I could not possibly outgrow it. Just as you think you begin to master it, you’re blown away by the sheer expanse of it. And so, neophytes are not to be ordained too quickly. And if somebody had been ordained quickly, the bishops in this canon, Canon 2, reserved the right to re-evaluate them and depose them if found unworthy.
Now it’s interesting that this practice has not always been followed, and in some cases, it’s been violated with good results. Ambrose, for example, the bishop of Milan, who is very important later in Church history, some 50 years later, in one week he went from a catechumen to being baptized, ordained a deacon, ordained a priest, and ordained a bishop: in one week. Bam! That’s a busy week. I don’t know about your week, but that’s a busy week. (laughter) And he served very successfully, and in fact was canonized later on. But I think it tells us something important about canons and their role in Church life. And this is really a distinction, I think, with Roman Catholicism. There’s not a legalism here. These are really more seen as important guides, generally to be followed, unless there’s an issue of salvation at stake. And then a bishop may exercise what’s called “economia.” Again, not in regards to doctrine, but with regard to the application to administration and disciplinary matters. So an economia is basically a pushing open the door so that someone may go through. And occasionally, in the case of Ambrose, for example, the bishops later did that.
Canon 3. Again, this is still under the dignity of the clergy. Women could not dwell with clerics unless they were mothers, sisters, aunts, or someone above suspicion. Married clergy were obviously exempted. At this time, in 325, from this canon we know there are still married clergy. There was a faction of celibate clergy who insisted on celibacy, but that was not widely practiced at this point.
Canon 9. Notorious sinners could not be ordained even after they had reformed their lives. Now, think about that. We’re kind of quick to lay hands on people and to celebrate people who have reformed themselves as sinners, who had lived a notorious life. In fact, in some ways, they’re even more celebrated. The Church is not denying them forgiveness, not denying them admission to the sacraments, but they’re basically saying, “Look, we can’t hold you up as a leader, as an example in the Church.” And this comes, really, biblically, from 1 Timothy 3, where we have the qualifications for bishops, or, as it [is] in the New King James also sometimes translated [as] “overseers,” but listen to what it says in 1 Timothy 3.
This is a faithful saying. If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless,
You know, can’t have anything to blame or pin on the guy. It doesn’t mean he’s sinless, but he’s blameless.
the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous, one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence. If a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the Church of God? Not a novice,
Remember, we talked about that in an earlier canon, the last one.
lest, being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation of the devil.
And here’s the key verse, verse 7:
Moreover, he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach in the snare of the devil.
Q1: What about the Apostle Paul? That Saul/Paul thing? That’s pretty significant.
Dn. Michael: Yeah, I think there are exceptions, but by and large, I think what the Church is saying here in 325, if they’ve lived a notorious public sinful life, they need to spend the rest of their life in repentance. So, yeah, you’re going to find exceptions, and, by the way, again, that’s going to happen through all this. These are canons which are general rules, but they are not law in the sense that they can never be violated. Okay? We have to use judgment.
Okay, Canon 10. Again, under the dignity of the clergy. Clerics who have denied the faith were to be deposed. Wow. That sounds pretty strong. We’re going to deal with this in several other canons, because, under the persecution, there were a lot of Christians who had lapsed, who had denied the Faith, who had turned their back on Christ. And what we’re going to find is that there is a procedure for readmitting people to the Church and readmitting people to the sacraments, but clerics who had denied the faith, they’re to be leaders, they’re to be examples, and they were to be deposed, based on this canon.
Canon 17, this is an interesting one, too. Clerics were forbidden to engage in usury. Anyone know what usury is? Charging interest. You know, lending money to people and charging interest on it. And it mentions that even if they charged only the 12% interest allowed by Roman law, they were to be forbidden, they couldn’t engage in it which tells us a couple of things. The Romans were pretty reasonable when it came to interest. Twelve percent was the maximum amount allowed by law, and you know now, it’s customary, common for credit card companies and others to charge well in excess of that. But again, I think that clerics were forbidden from this because they were not to be greedy for gain. They were to be single-minded in terms of pursuing the interests of other people without repayment. So, that’s the dignity of the clergy.
Now, I want to move on to Church government, because there’s a lot to learn from these canons about Church government. First of all, Canon 4 says that a bishop must be ordained by all the bishops of a province. Now you understand that the Roman Empire was organized by provinces. It would be roughly equivalent—don’t take this too literally—to a state. You know, it’s compromised of several cities, but there’s a province. It would have a provincial governor, and each of the cities in this state, most of the cities in this state would have a bishop, and maybe several parishes under his oversight. And the provinces itself, by this time, in 325, would also have a metropolitan, a bishop that had administrative oversight over the other bishops in that state.
But what it says is, that a the bishop must be ordained by all the bishops of a province. This was to prevent heresy, to maintain the peace and unity of the Church, to maintain a principle of conciliarity. In an emergency, a bishop could be ordained by a minimum of three bishops, but only with the written permission of the bishops not present. Again, this principle of conciliarity and unity was so important that they recognized that there were emergencies that sometimes occurred, but they wanted to make sure that they gave all the other bishops a chance to weigh in on it. And then the metropolitan of the civil province had to confirm episcopal elections. So it was just an administrative function, but this is one of the first times you have reference to “metropolitans.” That was Canon 4.
Canon 5. Bishops—this is really practical—bishops are forbidden from receiving into communion laymen or clerics who have been excommunicated by another bishop. Now, see, today, if you were in some churches, not Orthodox, and you’re excommunicated, you know it has the full force of no longer receiving that church’s newsletter, because you can go right down the street and you can join another church. (laughter) But that wasn’t true then, here in 325. If you were excommunicated from one diocese, you couldn’t just wander into another diocese, because the bishop could not receive you. He could, however, inquire into the justice and legality of the excommunication. I mean, bishops aren’t perfect; sometimes they make errors in judgment. Maybe somebody was excommunicated that didn’t deserve to be, so the new bishop could, in fact, look into the legality and the justice of it and rule against it.
Yeah, the question is: does the Orthodox Church still excommunicate people? I’m sure that it does. In my own experience, people often excommunicate themselves. They just stop coming to church and they stop coming to communion, and, whatever else excommunication is, it’s being removed from the sacrament.
I know even in our own parish, there are times when we put people out of the Eucharist for a period of time. Well, and, you know, if you look at the words of Jesus, for example, in Matthew 18, starting at verse 15, where he says if your brother sins against you, go and reprove him in private. If he listens to you, great: you’ve won your brother. If he doesn’t listen to you, take two or three with you and reprove him, and if he doesn’t listen to that, what it says is tell it to the Church and put him out of the Church. So excommunication is always seen as sort of a last resort. There are many intervening steps before you get to that point, Okay?
Another thing with Canon 5. Bishops were told to assemble in provincial synods twice a year. Here’s what’s interesting: preferably before Lent. So by 325, common Christian practice to observe Lent before Pascha. So this is not some Middle Ages practice that was imposed upon the Church by the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. Even by 325, the late Patristic period, you’ve got Lent referenced as a common practice, and the bishops are to meet once before the Lent and then once in the autumn.
Canon 6. Some bishops were given supra-provincial authority over the other bishops. This is even beyond metropolitans. This is, in infancy, kind of the patriarchal system that we know today. The bishop of Alexandria, for example, was given authority over Libya and Pentapolis. These had a very practical reason. These provinces were strongholds of Arianism and he was trying to rout that out. And Alexandria was the see of Alexander, who was one of the major Homoousians, one of the major Nicene Fathers who argued for the Orthodox Faith in the council. The bishop of Rome was given authority over Sicily and Sardinia, which was central and southern Italy; and the bishop of Antioch was given authority over an unspecified area in Syria.
Canon 7. The see of Jerusalem was given a special position of honor based on the fact that it contained so many holy places, but the bishop of Jerusalem—interesting distinction between administrative oversight and a position of honor—the bishop of Jerusalem was still subject to the metropolitan of Caesarea. So he had a special place of honor, but it didn’t give him special administrative rights. Fast forward several centuries. The bishop of Rome is given a special place of honor, but it doesn’t give him special administrative rights to speak, for example, ex cathedra, to be sort of the universal bishop that rules over the other bishops. So that’s kind of in seminal form here in the first council.
Canon 15. Clerics, bishops, priests, and deacons are prohibited from transferring from place to place. They were commanded to remain attached to the church for which they were ordained. Did you know that even today, if I want to serve in another diocese, proper procedure for Orthodox clerics, if I want to serve, for example, in a diocese in Denver, I have to ask permission of that bishop to enter his diocese and to serve in that church? I can’t just show up, although frequently that happens. Yes? Mark?
Mark: Dn. Michael, this is interesting to me. What would happen if, say, there was an Arian bishop, or, conversely on the other count you were talking about, if someone was excommunicated by an Arian bishop? How would the Orthodox have dealt with that? Were there instances where they might appoint substitute bishops and/or accept those who had been legally excommunicated by Arian bishops for being Orthodox?
Dn. Michael: They would have conducted an inquiry. If the bishop himself was Arian, first of all, they would have deposed, sometimes in absentia, the bishop who was Arian, and re-appoint an Orthodox bishop to that city, and we’re going to see this here in a minute, but you sometimes ended up with two bishops in a city. You had, for example, an Novatian bishop who had left the Church because he thought he was too good to hang out with the Orthodox, basically, but not an error of doctrine, but schismatic, and an Orthodox bishop. And so, the council had to deal with that. “Okay, now we’ve got two bishops in this city. This Novatian has repented, what happens?” We’ll see that in just a minute, but the person who had been excommunicated by a heretical bishop would not be regarded as [excommunicated], just like we’re going to see that a person who had been baptized by a heretical bishop or priest was not regarded as baptized and had to, in fact, be re-baptized. More about that in a minute. Hang on.
Canon 16. Clerics were enjoined to return to the churches in which they were enrolled. They were kind of wandering around the Roman Empire, some of them, going from diocese to diocese, just like people today church-hop. You know, “Well, I don’t like this, and his preaching’s not that entertaining, and I don’t like the youth group there, and I don’t like this, and I don’t like that.” Except these were clerics, wandering from church to church, and they’re ordered in Canon 16 to go back from where they came. And bishops, in fact, were also in this canon, forbidden from poaching clergy from other dioceses. (Laughter) By kind of wooing them over the fence, you know? “The grass is greener over here,” because they had a vacancy. They were forbidden from doing that in Canon 16. You see just the practical order in the Church? They were dealing with, really, just practical issues, and they hit them head-on. They didn’t try to avoid them. They didn’t try to pretend that the Church was more spiritual, but it had these very practical problems. So, that’s [Church government].
Third category is the reconciliation of the lapsed, and these are people who had fallen away from the Faith during the persecutions that had gone on prior to Constantine’s embracing the faith. So, Canon 11 says this. This is going to amaze you, I think, given our Church standards today. It kind of blew my hair back. Canon 11: those who fall away from the faith without being threatened—in other words, somebody’s not holding a gun to your head, or a sword to your neck in this case, and saying, “Recant or else!”—but these are people who are not threatened but fell away from the Church anyway, okay? So these are called “the lapsed.” They have to repent before they can be readmitted into communion, for—how long do you think? Let’s take a guess. How long do you think they had to repent before they could be received back into communion? Four years? Okay, good guess. Three? Seven? Three? Okay, all of those sound serious to me, right?
Eleven is the answer. Here’s the issue. They had to spend two years among the hearers. They couldn’t participate in the Liturgy. You know, we think participation in the Liturgy is kind of optional. It was a privilege, and there was a clear distinction between the hearers who would gather in what we would today call the narthex of the church who were allowed to listen in, dismissed before the anaphora, but could not participate, couldn’t sing, couldn’t take the Eucharist, just had to quietly listen. Those were the hearers. So they had to hang out with the hearers for two years. I mean, that’s a long time. We live in an age of instant coffee, microwave ovens. You know, if I repent this week, I want to be back in the Eucharist next week.
But that’s not how they looked at it then. Then they had to spend seven years kneeling before their fellow Christians on Sundays and begging forgiveness. Seven years. And they still had to leave the Liturgy at the beginning of the anaphora, you know, when the deacon says, “The doors, the doors!” that’s a remnant of this time when they would dismiss the catechumens, the hearers, and the kneelers. Okay, let me keep going. This gets better. So two years as a hearer, seven years as a kneeler, and then they got to spend two years in the full Liturgy, but they couldn’t receive communion.
Then Canon 12 deals with Christian soldiers. You have to understand that before Constantine consolidated power in the whole Roman Empire, that there were many— there were three different emperors at one point and then it finally came down to two. Licinius was the emperor of the East and he was Constantine’s brother-in-law, and some Christian soldiers had defected from Constantine and, through bribery, had gone to work as mercenaries for Licinius and had fought against Constantine. Well, these people are actually given a mercy because they have to repent for a total of three to ten years. Okay, and here’s how it works. Again, very specific, very practical. They had to spend three years among the hearers, and, at the end of that time, the bishop has an interview with them. And if he deems that they have been truly repentant, then they’re off the hook. They are readmitted into the Liturgy, they can commune. If he doesn’t think they are sufficiently repentant, then they get ten years among the kneelers. Okay? So, three to ten years.
Okay, here’s another mercy. Canon 13. Another one. The lapsed who were dying were allowed to receive the Eucharist in Canon 13, but, if they recovered, they were allowed to return to the Liturgy, but could not participate. So, it’s kind of like: you’re dying, you get to take communion; you’re revived, go back to the end of the line and start over. So it’s like, we’re going to give you some mercy if you’re dying, but we still want the discipline, so: go back to Go, do not collect $200, start over. Canon 14 says that catechumens who had lapsed had to spend an additional three years as hearers and then they could return to their place as catechumens. So they got another three years, and then they got to go back to [being] catechumens.
Let me just say this in summary about the reconciliation of the lapsed. These canons seem harsh, but they were actually more moderate than previous synodal decrees. So the Church had been a lot tougher when the Church was under persecution, but this was actually a more moderate position than what had gone before. But it sounds tough, doesn’t it? I was going to say this at the end of my summary comments, but I think there’s a couple things that we can learn from this.
The Church takes sin seriously. The Church also understands and teaches, obviously, based on the Gospel, that there’s forgiveness, that there’s reconciliation, but it takes repentance seriously too. Sin is seen as a disease, as an evil, as something that separates us from God and takes us from Christ, and therefore war is declared on sin. And the way back is not mere confession. It is that, but it’s not mere confession. Repentance is more than that, as you know. “Repentance,” from the Greek means “a turning around,” or “a turning,” and it means literally to do a 180. And it involves effort, and this is for our salvation. St. Paul says that we’re to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Yes, the good news of the Gospel is that we’re given this great salvation by grace in Christ, but because we’re given that, now we have an obligation and a responsibility to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Again, there’s not this faith and works dichotomy. They go hand-in-hand together. So that if somebody sins, then there’s a repentance.
Now, today I will say that while the Church doesn’t impose those kinds of strict disciplinary procedures or penitential procedures, good spiritual fathers often do impose some kind of penance, not because—this is really important for you to understand—not because we’re atoning for our sins. That’s a concept that in the Orthodox East would be totally unknown: the idea that somehow we could suffer and pay for our sins. You can’t do that; it’s impossible. That nullifies the Gospel to even suggest it. But we’re given this penance as a corrective measure, like you might put a broken foot in a cast, so that it would heal. So somebody, through a process and over time, would be fully reconciled and fully healed and restored into the body. That’s really the whole nature of the Orthodox understanding of penance and reconciliation. Any comments on that? I think we’re not going to get into this rest of this.
Joel: You know, it sure speaks to the value that the people placed on the Church, and, I dare say: I don’t know if I have that much value. I find it hard sometimes to make it to vespers or great vespers, much less to say, “Okay, I’m so repentant and this is so important and this is such a pearl of great price that I’ll stay in the narthex for three years before I’m even able to come into the church.”
Dn. Michael: Joel, can you imagine the humility that would require? And I think it also teaches us the great value they placed on the Eucharist itself, but to keep people out of the Eucharist for that long? This was no mere symbol. You know, it was not some quaint little practice we did when we got together that would have some sort of sentimental value. But the early Church, from as early as St. Ignatius of Antioch, our patron here at this church, saw the Eucharist as the medicine of immortality: essential to communion with Christ.
Q2: When you talk about lapsed Christians, what did they have to do to become “lapsed”? Is it missing church for a couple weeks or is it talking against the Gospel? What made them “lapsed”?
Dn. Michael: That’s a good question. I don’t know technically if there was a definition. It seems like in my memory, the idea of being out of the Eucharist for three successive Sundays was enough to be considered lapsed. I don’t know that for a fact, so don’t quote me.
Q3: There’s a big difference between somebody saying, lapsed, “I really don’t believe this anymore,” and they walk away as a conscious choice, and others that say, “Man, I’d really like to stop my problem with addiction right now, but I’m struggling. I want to get out, but don’t know how,” but they keep falling immorally. Would that be lapsed, too?
Dn. Michael: No, absolutely not. We don’t have time to get into it, but there was a group of—we’re going to see some canons next week, because we’ll pick this up next week. The Novatianists, and in the Donatists, they basically had that view. That if you had lapsed, we could no longer associate with you. If you had fallen away or if you were too sinful— the Novatianists regarded themselves as “the pure ones.” And one of the decrees or one of the canons of the council required them— they, first of all, had to be received back through the imposition of hands, and, secondly, they had to sign an agreement where they would commune with the twice-married and the lapsed. They had to acknowledge that they were in a communion among sinners, and they were one of them. So, I think the Orthodox concept of the Church itself is that it’s a hospital for the sick. You know, it’s not a museum for the sanctified. There’s so much more I wish we had time to talk about, but we’ll pick it up next week. Thank you; God bless you.