Riots in the streets…vicious propaganda and pamphlet wars…graffiti on the stone walls… the situation in the Bospurus straits was increasingly untenable, and the leader of that land knew that something had to be done. But unlike today’s unrest in Turkey, where mobs continue to demand the resignation of the prime minister, the ruler of that fractious region eighteen centuries ago had a different problem on his hands, one far more theological than political.
It had all begun with a priest in Egypt named Arius, a persuasive and charismatic figure indeed, who had clashed with his bishop over claims that the Father alone was really God and so the Son, as one created by God, must be essentially different from Him. As the teachings of that preacher spread, however, others saw that there was a greater issue at stake: Was Jesus truly God or not?
And so to answer that question the Roman ruler Constantine decided to summon bishops from across the empire to the world’s first church-wide council held at his vacation lake home in the town of Nicaea, now known as Izmit, Turkey. Some 220 bishops arrived, coming from as far away as France and North Africa (but only two from Rome itself), spending a month during that sweltering summer of 325 A.D., all under the watchful eye of the emperor himself.
Piling up all of the scrolls and letters which had been sent to him with accusations and complaints by bishops against other bishops, Constantine began by announcing he had not read any of them, and then he instructed his attendant to burn them all on the altar. Whatever grievances they had, the emperor chided, he wanted them all settled during their time in Nicaea together.
Similarly, when faced with a rather rigid stance on the part of one of the participants, it is said that Constantine—who surprised them all by his understanding of both Greek and theological concepts—scolded the bishop in question, saying, “Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone into heaven.”
So encouraged, thus, in the end the bishops hammered out a consensus that may not have been either specific or pretty but which was able to gain the assent of all but three of those who were present: the Father and the Son, so they suggested, were of the same substance, or homoousias, using a Greek word not found in the scriptures but which pointed to a basic equality all the same.
Later on, the basic tenets which were discussed at that lakeside assembly would come to be known as the Nicene Creed, though many of the issues remained unresolved, including what exactly to do with those who followed Arius. When the council concluded, however, it is said that the emperor went around the hall not only to speak with each bishop but to kiss many of them right on the wounds that they had suffered in earlier times of persecution by the empire itself—the stubbed fingers that had been hacked off, the empty eye sockets where eyes had been gouged out. He asked the bishops to remember him in prayer and to likewise live in peace with one another in the days to come, despite the imperfections of what they had been able to accomplish together.
In the centuries which followed, of course, everything was to change in Turkey as it shifted from being a vital center of Christian faith to a land embracing Islam instead. But I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the followers of Christ had been stronger and clearer when faced with the competing claims of Mohammad in expressing both the abiding truth and winsome love of God which can bring even those of vastly varying views into genuine communion.
Similarly, as the struggles in Turkey continue to unfold, we should remember that it was in that very land that not only the Council of Nicaea met long ago, but every other ecumenical council of the undivided church, as well, including those at Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople. We ought never to take for granted thus the continuing obligation of each generation to live out the gospel to all those around us, whether we live in a “churched” culture or not. After all, as even the German chancellor Angela Merkel has rather remarkably said of her own homeland, “we don’t have too much Islam, we have too little Christianity.”
And I can’t help but wonder just what the emperor would have said to that.