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The Power of Nicaea: Paving the Way for the Ecclesiastical Authority of Ecumenical Councils

The deposit of Faith, as handed down to the Church from Christ through the Apostles, was safeguarded, expounded, and clearly delineated in the Ecumenical Councils such that their influence touches every aspect of Orthodox Christianity. These Councils were entrusted to elucidate the fundamental doctrines of the Church, including, but not limited to, Trinitarian theology, Christology, Mariology, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology, while also administering and regulating a rapidly-growing Christian community. Without the perceptive and transformative decrees that came out of the Ecumenical Councils, the Church would not be as we know her to be today. As members continued to be added to the Church, to the extent that the Church became universal, an official definition of her Faith and a more formal arrangement of her service became necessary. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware summarizes the role of the Ecumenical Councils in the growing Church: “[They] clarified and articulated the visible organization of the Church, crystallizing the position of the five great sees or Patriarchates…The councils defined once and for all the Church’s teaching upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.”[1] As is evident in the reception of the decrees, Creed of Faith, canons, and liturgical, moral, and behavioral laws pronounced and decreed by the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, this Council, and all Ecumenical Councils that came after it, became, after the Scriptures, the ruling authority regarding the Faith and life of the Church.


Shortly after the turn of the fourth century, Arianism grew rampant, plaguing and dividing the Church more than any heresy that preceded it. As a result of this division among the Christians, the imperial authorities saw it necessary to convene the first Ecumenical Council to rectify the issue. Representatives were chosen from among the leaders of the Churches, and in May of 325 A.D. they convened at Nicaea to address Arianism, which purported that the Incarnate Logos “is not eternal, nor coeternal with the Father, nor uncreated like the Father,” but is rather a perfect creation.[2] By the conclusion of this Council, those in attendance, mainly Bishops and those of the various clerical orders, had identified, formulated, and deemed acceptable and Orthodox certain terminology based upon the Holy Scriptures and the Tradition which they had received, in order to clarify the Orthodox doctrine of the All-Holy Trinity, one in essence. The formulated Creed, which would come to be known as the Nicene Creed, introduced to Christological language the term Homoousios, meaning “of one [and the same] substance” with the Father, and confirmed the Church’s faith that Christ is “True God of True God,” affirming the divinity of the Lord.[3] The inclusion of the term Homoousios into the Nicene Creed was essential, as a response to the efforts of Eusebius of Caesarea, who had composed a creed of faith completely devoid of this doctrine, or at the very least the word used for consubstantiality.[4] In order to clarify the sound Orthodox teaching as they had received it, this Council felt it necessary to not only include the term Homoousios, but also to expound upon its interpretation, since it was not explicitly from the divinely-inspired Scriptures but was produced “in man’s reason.”[5] It became the intent and practice of the Church’s leaders, most notably Athanasius of Alexandria, to use the terminology developed at Nicaea, and especially its statement of Faith, to remain faithful to the Scriptural teaching and not deviate from the sound understanding of the Person of Christ.[6] The statement of Faith agreed upon at Nicaea is until today recited by the Faithful in every Orthodox liturgical prayer, albeit as modified by the Ecumenical Council at Constantinople. As such, it is evident that the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea became the precedent and foundation upon which the subsequent Ecumenical Councils would build their efforts to preserve and convey proper Orthodox dogma.[7]


Besides the Creed of Faith that was agreed upon, anathemas were instituted by the Ecumenical Council at Nicaea. An aim of the Council was to affirm that those who fall away from the Church’s doctrine were to be set apart from the Church and not to commune with the Faithful, on the basis that they do not worship the same God. The anathemas decided at Nicaea were:

“And those who say that 'there was once when he was not' and 'before being begotten he did not exist,' and that 'he came into existence from nothing' or who affirm that the Son of God is of another hypostasis or ousia, or mutable or changeable, these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.”[8]

Here, the Council’s anathemas first deal with those who asserted that Christ was not eternal and was therefore successive to the Father as a mutable creation (i.e., a creation subject to change). The Council then reiterated the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the incarnate Logos and clarified that if any were to identify with or believe a contrary teaching, the Church, in her authority, condemned them, for the sake of preserving the Orthodox Faith and the spiritual and dogmatic wellbeing of her members.


The Ecumenical Councils not only dealt with theology and dogma, but also touched on ritual practice and areas of practical life, as evidenced by the canons issued by them. The Ecumenical Council at Nicaea decreed twenty canons dealing with various matters of the Church’s life, for the sake of ritual order and the edification of the Church’s members. The canons issued at Nicaea remain authoritative until today. For example, even until today, a bishop must be ordained by no less than three other bishops, although the preference and most common practice is to have many bishops present. This practice corresponds to the fourth canon established at Nicaea and is a prime example of the Church issuing regulations for the proper ordination of bishops.[9] The fifth Nicene canon required that universal consistency be maintained in the Church with regard to the reception of those who were excommunicated by other bishops: pre-excommunication investigations and examinations were conducted twice a year with the gathering of a “synod.” Other canons established by this council addressed many other canonical functions, such as baptism, ordination, ecclesiastical authority, and traveling/relocated clergy. Along with these, there were canons that fulfilled a moral or ethical function, such as canon seventeen, against usury, which stated that any member of the clergy who practices usury — a rampant issue at the time — shall be deposed.[10] In the second canon, an ecclesiastical and moral issue is addressed, as ordaining a newly-baptized convert out of necessity due to a lack of clergy is denounced: it is ecclesiastical in that there is care for the Church to not cause any to stumble if the ordained convert were to fall into sin, and it is moral in its care for the one called to ordination, “lest, being lifted up with pride, he fall into condemnation and the snare of the devil.”[11] The Council saw fit to enact such preventative measures in keeping the Church ordered, secure and well-balanced.


The effects of the Ecumenical Council at Nicaea pervaded throughout history to underpin the authority of the subsequent Ecumenical Councils, and thereby the life of the Church and her members. The Councils thereafter, having the Ecumenical Council at Nicaea as their foundation, became the ruling authority in the Church for expounding and clarifying proper Orthodox theology and terminology: for instance, the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus I, which convened in 431 A.D. and confirmed as most proper for use in reference to the Virgin Mary the term Θεοτόκος in lieu of Nestorius’ preferred term Χριστοτόκος[12], and the Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381 A.D., at which the divinity and equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son was confirmed and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed was completed, were founded upon the decrees established and Faith confirmed at Nicaea.[13] The Ecumenical Councils collectively and authoritatively sought to preserve the Orthodox Faith against doctrinal and behavioral deviations by and among certain members of the Flock, and the canons and decisions that resulted from these Councils define and safeguard the Faith of the Church until today. The Orthodox Churches continue to adhere to the Faith defended at the aforementioned Ecumenical Councils and the decisions of these Councils, for the sake of faithfully delivering the deposit of Faith, as was received from Christ, through the Apostles, and in the Church, to past, present, and future generations of Orthodox Christians.


[1] Ware, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity, 19.

[2] Letter of Arius to Alexander of Alexandria

[3] Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 134.

[4] Behr, The Nicene Faith, 152.

[5] Danielou and Marrou, The First Six Hundred Years, 1:252.

[6] Behr, The Nicene Faith, 152.

[7] Danielou and Marrou, The First Six Hundred Years, 1:252-253.

[8] Behr, The Nicene Faith, 155.

[9] Schaff, A Select of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Ser. 2, 14, 69–70.

[10] Ibid., 114

[11] 1st Timothy 3:6

[12] Schaff, A Select of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Ser. 2, 14, 419

[13] D’Ambrosio, When the Church Was Young, 200–201.


Mr. Kyrillos Tadros is a seminarian presently completing his studies at the Antiochian House of Studies and a Reader in the Coptic Orthodox Church serving in New Jersey. His interests and research encompass scriptural exegesis, liturgics, liturgical vestments, and patristics. He can be reached at kjtadros9@gmail.com. This article is an adaptation of a paper submitted by Mr. Tadros for “Church History I: The Christian Church from Its Foundation through the Seventh Century,” offered by Fr. Michel Najim in Fall 2020 at AHOS.

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