June 26, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: Defending decisions of Council of Nicaea

John F. Fink(Twelfth in a series of columns)

As I wrote last week, the Council of Nicaea in 325 didn’t end Arianism, the heresy that taught that God the Father created the Son. It spread widely after Emperor Constantine’s death, supported by his successors Constans in the west and Constantius II in the east. Even during Constantine’s lifetime, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who defended the divinity of Christ at the council, had been sent into exile, the first of five such exiles.

The most influential bishop among the Arians was Eusebius of Nicomedia, who baptized Constantine. After Constantine’s death, Athanasius was restored to his see. The Eusebians objected and appealed to Pope Julius to prevent this. Julius, however, was a vigorous supporter of the decisions reached at the Council of Nicaea, and took Athanasius under his protection when he had to flee from his see again.

The Eusebians then held their council in Antioch at which they condemned Athanasius and adopted a creed that omitted the Nicene phrase “one in being with the Father.”

Pope Julius, hoping to settle the matter, asked the two emperors to call a general council, which they did in 342. However, when the western delegates insisted on Athanasius taking part, the eastern delegates not only walked out but issued an encyclical that excommunicated the western bishops, including Pope Julius.

The western bishops continued to meet and condemned the Eusebians. Athanasius returned to his see in Alexandria and enjoyed 10 years of relative peace.

Pope Liberius succeeded Pope Julius in 352. Constantius II was then sole emperor after Constans died in 350. The eastern bishops were still insisting on anathematizing Athanasius, so Pope Liberius asked Constantius to call another council. Instead, he held a synod that reaffirmed Athanasius’s condemnation.

Recognizing that the faith proclaimed at Nicaea, not just by Athanasius, was at issue, Pope Liberius again demanded a general council. It was held in Milan in 355, but once again Constantius forced the bishops to condemn Athanasius.

Then Liberius was taken by force from Rome to Milan. When he continued to refuse to yield to the emperor, he was banished to Berea in Thrace. There, he underwent the fourth century equivalent of brainwashing and in 357 acquiesced in Athanasius’s excommunication and accepted the Eusebians’ creed.

He was permitted to return to Rome. By this time, though, there was another complication: in Liberius’s absence, his archdeacon Felix had been elected pope—the third antipope in the history of the Church. Constantius demanded that the two popes reign jointly, but the people followed Liberius.

Constantius continued to support Arianism. In 359, he convened a synod at Rimini in southern Italy at which the western bishops accepted an Arian creed.

Constantius died in 361 and Pope Liberius was able to re-assume his role as champion of Nicene orthodoxy. He published a decree setting aside the decisions of the synod of Rimini, and accepted the bishops who compromised themselves at that synod back into communion with the Church. In 366, he even received back into communion some eastern bishops on condition that they accept the Nicene Creed. †

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