This is preposterous. The doctrine adopted at Nicea had been discussed since the time of the apostles, and the relatively close vote was 316 to 2! But tens of millions of people have read Dan Brown’s version of the matterincluding millions who recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday morning. And, sadly, millions more will absorb it in movie theaters in the weeks ahead. As Hollywood’s recension of The Da Vinci Code descends on us, we should recall the authentic story of the Nicene Creed.
The Little Hero
The true story is much more dramatic than the fantasy promoted by Dan Brown. And the gist of the story is almost exactly the reverse of Brown’s account. For decades after Nicea, the power of the Roman state was used against supporters of the creed adopted by the council. Constantine and his successors repeatedly intervened on the side of the Arian heretics, the deniers of Christ’s divinity.
The hero of the story is St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius was a little man (the Romans were contemptuous of his short stature) and only a youth when he came to prominence. He may even have looked a bit like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins, the hobbit hero of The Lord of the Rings. Like Frodo, he was drawn into conflict with a menacing imperial power. And, improbably, he won.
The Arian crisis began around 318, when Arius, a priest of Alexandria, began teaching that Jesus Christ is not God. He reasoned as follows: the biblical concept of son, begotten of the Father, implies a beginning of existence. Therefore the son is not eternal, but was created out of nothinga being prior to other creatures, but a creature nevertheless, different in nature from God the Father, and adopted by God as we are.
Now if Athanasius resembled Frodo Baggins, Arius seems to have resembled Tolkien’s evil wizard Saruman. An ancient writer described Arius as very tall in stature, with downcast countenance, counterfeited like a guileful serpent, and well able to deceive any unsuspecting heart through a cleverly designed appearance...he spoke gently, and people found him persuasive and flattering.
Arius also seems to have been a promotional genius. He set his ideas to popular drinking songs to facilitate their spread. Arius’s opponents believed him to be acting in bad faith, in part because he set theology to flippant-sounding meters (like the meter of a modern limerick).
In time, the bishops of Egypt and Libya debated the matter and excommunicated Arius. The disgraced heretic then fled to Palestine, where he had powerful friends, including prominent bishops who called synods and wrote letters in his support.The Emperor Strikes
By 324, when Constantine took power in the East and became sole emperor, the Arian crisis was full blown. Christians of all ranks, from bishops to laborers, were arguing over the issue. Constantine (whose overriding concern was for the social order and unity of his empire) reproved both sides for quarreling over an idle question.
Arius’s opponents knew the question was not an idle one. If Christ is not God, then the Gospel message is no longer compellingGod did not so love humanity as to enter the world and rescue it; we are not redeemed at the price of God’s self-sacrifice; the Eucharist is not God’s abiding presence. Had Arius prevailed, Christianity might have shriveled after the manner of all the Neoplatonic and Gnostic cults that then pervaded the Mediterranean region.
Contrary to The Da Vinci Code, Arius’s theology was a radical departure from Christian tradition. The Gospel of John, for example, explicitly affirms that Jesus is God again and again. (Before Abraham came to be, I am; The Father and I are one; My Lord and my God). The synoptic Gospels call him Lord (a title reserved to Yahweh) and repeatedly show him asserting divine prerogatives (changing the Law of Sinai, forgiving sins and so on). And Jesus’ divinity was affirmed repeatedly by pre-Nicene church fathersnotably Ignatius of Antioch around the year 110, Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen.
Constantine’s remonstrances to the contrary, the dispute did not abate. So the emperor invited all the world’s bishops to Nicea in 325 to resolve the issue. Some 318 bishops appeared. An eyewitness states that they looked like an assembled army of martyrs, many bearing scars from the Roman persecutionssome had the right eye dug out; others had lost the right arm. One had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron.
The vast majority of the bishops were adamantly hostile to Arius’s doctrine. The Da Vinci Code’s statement that there was a relatively close vote is absurd. Of the 318 bishops at Nicea, the Arians apparently numbered 17. Their leader, Eusebius of Nicomedia, was a politically powerful figure and the bishop of Constantine’s court city. But when Eusebius proposed an Arian creed, the whole council rose in furious protest against it, and tore up the heretical document. When the orthodox Creed of Nicea was placed before the council, only two Arians had the nerve to dissent.
The creed that was approved at Nicea was later revised to produce the Nicene Creed that we say today. But the original version contained the great Christological formula that has been repeated from that day to this: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is of the substance of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.
This great affirmation of Christ’s divinity resounds down the centuries, emphatically rejecting notions of Jesus like those promoted by Dan Brown.
But the Council of Nicea was only the beginning of the battle over the Creed, for the imperial court was full of Arians. Through crafty plotting, they induced Constantine to banish the Nicene leaders. Later, two Arian emperors (Constantine’s son Constantius and Valens) systematically persecuted Nicene Christians. For nearly five decades, the coercive power of the Roman state was used to suppress the belief that Jesus is God.
Athanasius, who had distinguished himself at Nicea in debate against the Arians, intrepidly led the resistance to this imperial persecution. Soon after the council, the little man was elected bishop of Alexandria and promptly became the principal target of the Arian plots and schemes.The Mummy’s Hand
The Arians concocted fantastic charges against Athanasius. The most bizarre was the affair of Arsenius’s hand. The Arians concealed Arsenius (a schismatic bishop in Egypt) and accused Athanasius of having murdered him. They further accused him of dismembering the body and of using Arsenius’s hand to practice magic. To give this tale credence, they obtained a mummified hand, which they brandished as evidence.
Constantine ordered that the matter should be tried by a synod of bishops. The Arians organized and packed the synod, displayed Arsenius’s hand, and triumphantly prepared to condemn Athanasius. To their consternation, the little man ushered in Arsenius alive (opportunely captured by Athanasius’ supporters) with both hands demonstrably intact. But the kangaroo court proceedings resumed on other false charges. When the synod condemned Athanasius, Constantine banished him to Gaul.
This was the first of five exiles imposed on Athanasius by four emperors over the course of 30 years. During most of these episodes, he was forced to hide in the Egyptian desert, fully aware of the price on his head. As each successive emperor died, Athanasius would return to Alexandria amid scenes of public rejoicing. Then the new emperor would order him arrested, and Athanasius would return to exile.
The Egyptians, who revered their bishop, resolutely defied these persecutions. On several occasions, the Alexandrian populace poured out in vast crowds to prevent the arrest of Athanasius. These episodes read like accounts of members of the Solidarity movement defying the Polish Communist leaders. Nothing could be further from the picture of ecclesiastical docility depicted by Dan Brown.
On one dramatic night, 5,000 troops surrounded a church where Athanasius was leading a vigil service. The minions of Constantius, Constantine’s son and the new emperor, broke down the doors and forced their way through the congregation, manhandling and murdering many worshippers. The faithful crowd then snatched up the tiny bishop, whisked him out a back door, submerged him in the crowd and somehow smuggled him out through the cordon of soldiers.
Meanwhile, the Arians set out to impose their heresy on the world. Constantius flagrantly intimidated bishops throughout his domains. He summoned them to regional synods, demanded that they sign Arianizing creeds, held them under house arrest, bullied and threatened them, and banished any dissenters. The great majority finally gave in. In St. Jerome’s famous phrase, The world groaned in wonder to find itself Arian.
In Egypt, however, the fugitive Athanasius evaded capture and marshaled orthodox resistance. With indefatigable energy, he wrote letters and essays urging Christians to uphold the Nicene Creed. In response, imperial agents scoured the earth for Athanasius, invading monasteries, peering into tombs and ransacking houses, much like Black Riders from The Lord of the Rings. Year after year, Athanasius eluded them. His writings and his heroic example steeled the will of clergy and laity all over the Christian world.
Thus, despite what the emperor said, the vast majority of Christians continued to believe in Jesus’ divinity. Following the deaths of Constantius and, later, of the Emperor Valens, the Arian dominance melted away. Athanasius’ long labor was carried forward by Basil the Great and the Young Nicenes, who refined the theology of Nicea. In 381, the Council of Constantinople reaffirmed the Nicene Creed in a revised and expanded form. This creed (with the addition of the filioque clause in the West) is still recited in churches around the world.The People’s Creed
In short, the story of the Creed is just the opposite of the story told by Dan Brown. The Arians were the party of the imperial court and of the cultural elite. The coercive power of the Roman state was repeatedly employed on their side. The Nicene party was the party of the people. The Creed reflected the faith of ordinary worshippers all over Christendomand that is why Athanasius prevailed. Even when Constantius had beaten down all resistance, banishing every bishop whom he could not intimidate, the vast majority of Christians continued believing that Jesus is divine.
These stories are hardly remembered today. The Da Vinci Code is, at heart, an Arian manifesto, promoted with all the cleverness that Hollywood can bring to bear. Now as in the fourth century, it is crucial for Christians everywhere to speak out in conversations with friends and neighbors against this cultural juggernaut. To steel our conviction as we do so, we should look to the dramatic story of St. Athanasius and his comrades in their 50-year fight for the Great Creed.