Nonsense at Nicea: Introduction
The First Council of Nicea occurred in 325 CE, nearly seventeen centuries ago. It may be odd to think that it bears any importance to or sheds any illumination on the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but in fact it does.
The common story told among Mormons about Nicea wrap up multiple ideas and beliefs about the Apostacy, the Bible, traditional Christianity, and even the Mormon conception of the nature of God. Long used, and often abused, the story is important to both Mormons and many former Mormons. However, the story itself is often mis-told, misremembered, and highly mythologized. From Jeffrey R. Holland to “The Da Vinci Code”, the Council of Nicea has been the scapegoat for why modern Christianity can seem so messed up at times. I want to pursue a series of blog posts that will explore the context of Nicea and unravel the myths from the facts.
When I was a young man I enjoyed traveling to BYU's Education Week. My parents paid the costs and let us pretty much go wherever we wanted for the week. Even then I loved history and archeology, so I spent most of my time at classes with names like, “Paul: Citizen of Three Worlds” or “Ancient America and the Book of Mormon: What We Know and What We Don't Know”. They had some EFY speakers, too, which usually helped to round out the scholastics with a bit of kid-focused fun.
I still remember one year listening with rapt attention to an instructor (I don't know whether or not to give his name as while I do not know him personally I used to be good friends with his son and daughter-in-law and he is otherwise a fantastic scholar of the Roman world) as he went over the progression of the Great Apostacy in the ancient world.
For those who don't know about the LDS conception of the Great Apostacy let me briefly explain: Mormons believe that Mormonism is the exact same belief system as Christ established during his lifetime, they also believe it's been on Earth multiple times before that even, all the way back to Adam. However, each time the Gospel has become corrupted or has nearly disappeared before being restored by another prophet (with Joseph Smith being the last of these restorers). So Mormons believe that the truths and authority of Jesus's Church were lost early in the Common Era and that humanity entered a period of nearly two thousand years where God was silent and where His authority was not present on Earth before Joseph Smith was called to restore the teachings and authority in 1820. (It's a little more complicated than that as Mormons also believe that there were real, physical immortals who roamed the world during that time who knew the true gospel and held the true authority of God, but since Mormons don't usually like nuance they tend to ignore the awkward questions that arise around these figures.) This period between Jesus and Joseph Smith is often called the “Great Apostacy”, where “great” is used in terms of size as it lasted nearly two millennia.
So the instructor was going over how the Apostacy began and while he had talked a little bit about shifting doctrines among the Church Fathers most of his blame was placed on the Emperor Constantine. Constantine, he said, had wanted a tool to unify a fractured Empire and saw Christianity as the perfect tool for it. Christianity was undergoing some internal divisions over the nature of God and Jesus where the true knowledge of the nature of God was in danger of being lost. Constantine assembled a great Council from across the Empire where he resolved the issue by proclaiming that the Christian Godhead was like the Roman gods who could have various forms and responsibilities and yet be one god. The instructor then said that in order to solidify the idea and his authority simultaneously that Constantine forced the Council to decide upon this doctrine of the Trinity while arrayed in the resplendent robes of a sun worshiper. The Council, cowed by the Emperor's might, decided upon the false doctrine of the Trinity, and thus we can say that the loss of truth that led to the Great Apostacy, was advanced nearly to completion.
The narrative he delivered stuck with me for a long time. It was very persuasive, and I knew that regular Christians believed in this extra-biblical “Trinity” thing, while Mormons believed in what we saw as the true biblical conception of God and Jesus as a team of individuals which we called the “Godhead”.
Besides this, I had already learned a bit about Nicea through general discussions with Church members. In Sunday School we'd discussed how the Bible had not emerged from the Apostacy entirely intact but had instead suffered from a “telephone game” of transmission, along with several cases where truths had been boldly ripped out of the text. The Council of Nicea was one of those places where scriptures were removed, I was often taught. One of the purposes of the Joseph Smith Translation was to resolve this loss of the “plain and precious” parts of the Bible, of which the Council of Nicea was one of the prime offenders.
Fast forward a number of years and I had found myself in the midst of a crisis of faith in Mormonism. In an attempt to salvage what I could, I resolved to study at the very least the Christian New Testament and the message of Jesus of Nazareth and to reconstruct my faith in Mormonism from there. I spent a long time learning Ancient Greek to read the reconstructed originals of the New Testament and learned more about the world of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the early Christian movement. (In an unforseen development, this study only further eroded my trust of the foundation of Mormonism and Christianity in general.)
Amazingly enough, though considering everything else I had already been struggling with, it turns out that what I had been taught about Nicea, the Trinity, and the development of the biblical canon was mostly wrong and those parts that were correct were often presented without context. Also amazingly enough, it seemed these same broken narratives told among members of the Church about Nicea were still prevalent among former Mormons.
Over the next few weeks I'd like to cover the history of the Council with you from my perspective as someone raised as a Latter-day Saint. I'd like to discuss why the Council was assembled, who attended, the role of Constantine, and the long-term effects of the Council (and later councils) on the developing history and doctrine of Christianity.
Along the way, I would like to try to explain and display some of the more popular ideas of Nicea as either untrue or simplistic myths. Often these myths have been preserved because they serve the world-view of Mormons and/or former Mormons, but the truth is much more complex and, in my opinion, interesting. Among these are:
The scriptural canon of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament was decided at Nicea. In fact, the subject of which books were authoritative was not decided at Nicea nor at any Christian Council for centuries before and after Nicea. In fact, the apocalyptic “Shepherd of Hermas”, not to be found in any modern canon, was a major source of proof-texting for participants of the Council.
The true conception of God as embodied and seperate from Jesus was lost at Nicea. The Council of Nicea was mostly about the vying theologies of the proto-orthodox and the Arianists. The Mormon conception of God is very different from both theologies and is not to be found as a topic of discussion at the Nicean Council.
The doctrine of the Trinity was invented at Nicea. The forms of Trinitarianism promoted by the hard-line proto-orthodox and the centrists had been in existence before Nicea and the doctrine itself continue to evolve over time for centuries afterwards.
Nicea employed Greek philosophy to resolve the Arianist debate, not scripture. Appeals to scripture formulate the bulk of the disagreement with Neoplatonic ideas being used by all present as secondary rhetoric.
The doctrine of the Trinity is based on Roman pantheism. Usually paired with an assertion that Constantine was a sun worshiper, this idea again ignores the history and development of Trinitarianism before the Nicean Council assembled.
Nicean Trinitarinism is nothing more than modalism (often vulgarly dismissed by Mormons as the “Three-Headed Monster”). The Council had to deal with walking the knife's edge between the heresies of polytheism and modalism. The infamous homoousia/homoiousia debate occurred between these heresies, and the view of the Trinity as more similar to the Mormon conception continued for hundreds of years. Also, the Book of Mormon describes God and Jesus in ways that are difficult if not impossible to define as being other than modalist.
The debate between two opposing sides who saw each other more as opponents than as brothers is not in keeping with how such issues are dealt with by the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Rather than denying the occasionally raucous nature of the Council, the truth is that the form of disputations found at Nicea are often seen in similar proportion and similar volume among leaders of Mormonism throughout its history.
Understanding Nicea doesn't matter when it comes to understanding Mormonism. Nicea and the embattled doctrines involved with it have been viewed as important themes in the Mormon conception of the Apostacy. Figures including Talmage, Holland, Oaks, Packer, and many others have used it when discussing the truth claims of Mormonism. Sometimes these figures have consciously misused and misrepresented the history in an attempt to paint a false contract between the Council and the modern LDS Church.
I plan on exploring each of these myths in their place as I trace the history and context of the Council. It will take a long time, but I think it's important. I hope you'll join me down this trip to the ancient world.