The Seven Ecumenical Councils. The First Council of Nice.

Advanced Information

Edited with Notes Gathered from the Writings of the Greatest Scholars

by Henry R. Percival, M.A., D.D.

Published in 1886 by Philip Schaff, New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co.

The First Ecumenical Council.

The First Council of Nice.

a.d. 325.




Historical Introduction.

The Creed and the Creed of Eusebius of Cæsarea.

Excursus on the word homousios

Excursus on the words gennethenta ou poiethenta .

The XX. Canons, with the Ancient Epitome and Notes.

Excursus to C. i, On the use of the word Canon

Excursus to C. v, On the word prospherein

Excursus to C. vi, On the Extent of Rome's Jurisdiction over Suburbican Churches.

Excursus to C. vii, On the Rise of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Excursus to C. viii, On the Chorepiscopi

Excursus to C. xi, On the Public Discipline.

Excursus to C. xiii, On the Communion of the Sick.

Excursus to C. xv, On the Translation of Bishops.

Excursus to C. xvii, On Usury.

Excursus to C. xix, On Deaconesses.

Excursus on the Number of the Nicene Canons, with the Contents of the spurious Arabic Canons.

Proposed Action on Clerical Celibacy.

The Synodal Letter with the Decree on the Keeping of Easter.

Text Font Face
Text Size
(for printing)


Historical Introduction.

The history of the Council of Nice has been so often written by so many brilliant historians, from the time of its sitting down to to-day, that any historical notice of the causes leading to its assembling, or account of its proceedings, seems quite unnecessary. The editor, however, ventures to call the attention of the reader to the fact that in this, as in every other of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the question the Fathers considered was not what they supposed Holy Scripture might mean, nor what they, from à priori arguments, thought would be consistent with the mind of God, but something entirely different, to wit, what they had received. They understood their position to be that of witnesses, not that of exegetes. They recognized but one duty resting upon them in this respect--to hand down to other faithful men that good thing the Church had received according to the command of God. The first requirement was not learning, but honesty. The question they were called upon to answer was not, What do I think probable, or even certain, from Holy Scripture? but, What have I been taught, what has been intrusted to me to hand down to others? When the time came, in the Fourth Council, to examine the Tome of Pope St. Leo, the question was not whether it could be proved to the satisfaction of the assembled fathers from Holy Scripture, but whether it was the traditional faith of the Church. It was not the doctrine of Leo in the fifth century, but the doctrine of Peter in the first, and of the Church since then, that they desired to believe and to teach, and so, when they had studied the Tome, they cried out: [47]

BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet Our List of 2,300 Religious Subjects
"This is the faith of the Fathers! This is the faith of the Apostles!...Peter hath thus spoken by Leo! The Apostles thus taught! Cyril thus taught!" etc.

No Acts of either of the first two Ecumenical Councils have been handed down. [48]


[47] This is clearly set forth by Pope Vigilius as follows: "No one can doubt that our fathers believed that they should receive with veneration the letter of blessed Leo if they declared it to agree with the doctrines of the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Councils, as also with those of blessed Cyril, set forth in the first of Ephesus. And if that letter of so great a Pontiff, shining with so bright a light of the orthodox Faith, needed to be approved by these comparisons, how can that letter to Maris the Persian, which specially rejects the First Council of Ephesus and declares to be heretics the expressed doctrines of the blessed Cyril, be believed to have been called orthodox by these same Fathers, condemning as it does those writings, by comparison with which, as we have said, the doctrine of so great a Pontiff deserved to be commended?"--Vigil., Constitutum pro dammatione Trium Capitulorum. Migne, Pat. Lat., tom. lxix., col. 162. [48] About twenty-five years ago Mr. Eugène Révillout discovered, in the Museum of Turin, two fragments in Coptic which he supposed to be portions of the Acts of this Council (of which the rest are still missing) incorporated into the Acts of a Council held at Alexandria in 362. But there is too little known about these fragments to attribute to them any fixed value. I therefore only refer the reader to the literature on the subject--Journal Asiatique, Fevrier-Mars, 1873; Annales de Philosophie Chrétienne, Juin, 1873; Revue de Questions Historiques, Avril, 1874; M. W. Guettée, Histoire de l'Église, t. III., p. 21; Eugène Révillout, Le Concile de Nicée et le Concile d'Alexandrie...d'après les textes Coptes.


The Nicene Creed.

(Found in the Acts of the Ecumenical Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, in the Epistle of Eusebius of Cæsarea to his own Church, in the Epistle of St. Athanasius Ad Jovianum Imp., in the Ecclesiastical Histories of Theodoret and Socrates, and elsewhere, The variations in the text are absolutely without importance.)

The Synod at Nice set forth this Creed. [49]

The Ecthesis of the Synod at Nice. [50]

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (gennethenta), not made, being of one substance (homoousion, consubstantialem) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not (en pote hote ouk en), or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion [51] --all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.


The Creed of Eusebius of Cæsarea, which he presented to the council, and which some suppose to have suggested the creed finally adopted.

(Found in his Epistle to his diocese; vide: St. Athanasius and Theodoret.)

We believe in one only God, Father Almighty, Creator of things visible and invisible; and in the Lord Jesus Christ, for he is the Word of God, God of God, Light of Light, life of life, his only Son, the first-born of all creatures, begotten of the Father before all time, by whom also everything was created, who became flesh for our redemption, who lived and suffered amongst men, rose again the third day, returned to the Father, and will come again one day in his glory to judge the quick and the dead. We believe also in the Holy Ghost. We believe that each of these three is and subsists; the Father truly as Father, the Son truly as Son, the Holy Ghost truly as Holy Ghost; as our Lord also said, when he sent his disciples to preach: Go and teach all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.


[49] This is the heading in the Acts of the IIId Council. Labbe, Conc., tom. iii., 671. [50] This is the heading in the Acts of the IVth Council. Labbe, Conc., tom. iv., 339. [51] This word, in the Greek trepton is translated in the Latin convertibilem, but see side note in Labbe.


Excursus on the Word Homousios. [52]

The Fathers of the Council at Nice were at one time ready to accede to the request of some of the bishops and use only scriptural expressions in their definitions. But, after several attempts, they found that all these were capable of being explained away. Athanasius describes with much wit and penetration how he saw them nodding and winking to each other when the orthodox proposed expressions which they had thought of a way of escaping from the force of. After a series of attempts of this sort it was found that something clearer and more unequivocal must be adopted if real unity of faith was to be attained; and accordingly the word homousios was adopted. Just what the Council intended this expression to mean is set forth by St. Athanasius as follows: "That the Son is not only like to the Father, but that, as his image, he is the same as the Father; that he is of the Father; and that the resemblance of the Son to the Father, and his immutability, are different from ours: for in us they are something acquired, and arise from our fulfilling the divine commands. Moreover, they wished to indicate by this that his generation is different from that of human nature; that the Son is not only like to the Father, but inseparable from the substance of the Father, that he and the Father are one and the same, as the Son himself said: `The Logos is always in the Father, and, the Father always in the Logos,' as the sun and its splendour are inseparable." [53]

The word homousios had not had, although frequently used before the Council of Nice, a very happy history. It was probably rejected by the Council of Antioch, [54] and was suspected of being open to a Sabellian meaning. It was accepted by the heretic Paul of Samosata and this rendered it very offensive to many in the Asiatic Churches.

On the other hand the word is used four times by St. Irenæus, and Pamphilus the Martyr is quoted as asserting that Origen used the very word in the Nicene sense. Tertullian also uses the expression "of one substance" (unius substantiæ) in two places, and it would seem that more than half a century before the meeting of the Council of Nice, it was a common one among the Orthodox.

Vasquez treats this matter at some length in his Disputations, [55] and points out how well the distinction is drawn by Epiphanius between Synousios and Homousios, "for synousios signifies such an unity of substance as allows of no distinction: wherefore the Sabellians would admit this word: but on the contrary homousios signifies the same nature and substance but with a distinction between persons one from the other. Rightly, therefore, has the Church adopted this word as the one best calculated to confute the Arian heresy." [56]

It may perhaps be well to note that these words are formed like homobios and homoiobios, homognomon and homoiognomon, etc., etc.

The reader will find this whole doctrine treated at great length in all the bodies of divinity; and in Alexander Natalis (H. E. t. iv., Diss. xiv.); he is also referred to Pearson, On the Creed; Bull, Defence of the Nicene Creed; Forbes, An Explanation of the Nicene Creed; and especially to the little book, written in answer to the recent criticisms of Professor Harnack, by H. B. Swete, D.D., The Apostles' Creed.


[52] Our older English writers usually wrote this word "homoousion," and thus spoke of the doctrine as "the doctrine of the homoousion." For the Arian word they wrote "homoiousion." Later writers have used the nominative masculine, "homoousios" and "homoiousios." The great Latin writers did not thus transliterate the word, but, wrote "homousios," and for the heretical word "homooesios" or "homoesios." I have kept for the noun signifying the doctrine, our old English "Homoousion," but for the adjective, I have used the ordinary latinized form "homousios," in this copying Smith and Wace, Dict. Christian Antiquities [53] Athanas., De Decret. Syn. Nic., c. xix., et seq. [54] Vide Swainson, in Smith and Wace, Dict. Christ. Biog., sub voce Homousios, p. 134. [55] Vasquez, Disput. cix., cap. v. "Rightly doth the Church use the expression Homousios (that is Consubstantial) to express that the Father and the Son are of the same nature." [56] Vasquez may also well be consulted on the expressions ousia, substantia, hupostasis, etc.


Excursus on the Words gennethenta ou poiethenta .

(J. B. Lightfoot. The Apostolic Fathers--Part II. Vol. ii. Sec. I. pp. 90, et seqq.)

The Son is here [Ignat. Ad. Eph. vii.] declared to be gennetos as man and agennetos as God, for this is clearly shown to be the meaning from the parallel clauses. Such language is not in accordance with later theological definitions, which carefully distinguished between genetos and gennetos between agenetos and agennetos; so that genetos, agenetos respectively denied and affirmed the eternal existence, being equivalent to ktistos, aktistos, while gennetos, agennetos described certain ontological relations, whether in time or in eternity. In the later theological language, therefore, the Son was gennetos even in his Godhead. See esp. Joann. Damasc. de Fid. Orth. i. 8 [where he draws the conclusion that only the Father is agennetos, and only the Son gennetos].

There can be little doubt however, that Ignatius wrote gennetos kai agennetos, though his editors frequently alter it into genetos kai agenetos. For (1) the Greek ms. still retains the double [Greek nun] n, though the claims of orthodoxy would be a temptation to scribes to substitute the single n. And to this reading also the Latin genitus et ingenitus points. On the other hand it cannot be concluded that translators who give factus et non factus had the words with one n, for this was after all what Ignatius meant by the double n, and they would naturally render his words so as to make his orthodoxy apparent. (2) When Theodoret writes gennetos ex agennetou, it is clear that he, or the person before him who first substituted this reading, must have read gennetos kai agennetos, for there would be no temptation to alter the perfectly orthodox genetos kai agenetos, nor (if altered) would it have taken this form. (3) When the interpolator substitutes ho monos alethinos Theos ho agennetos...tou de monogonous pater kai gennetor, the natural inference is that he too, had the forms in double n, which he retained, at the same time altering the whole run of the sentence so as not to do violence to his own doctrinal views; see Bull Def. Fid. Nic. ii. 2 § 6. (4) The quotation in Athanasius is more difficult. The mss. vary, and his editors write genetos kai agenetos. Zahn too, who has paid more attention to this point than any previous editor of Ignatius, in his former work (Ign. v. Ant. p. 564), supposed Athanasius to have read and written the words with a single n, though in his subsequent edition of Ignatius (p. 338) he declares himself unable to determine between the single and double n. I believe, however, that the argument of Athanasius decides in favour of the nn. Elsewhere he insists repeatedly on the distinction between ktizein and gennan, justifying the use of the latter term as applied to the divinity of the Son, and defending the statement in the Nicene Creed genneton ek tes ousias tou patros ton huion homoousion (De Synod. 54, 1, p. 612). Although he is not responsible for the language of the Macrostich (De Synod. 3, 1, p. 590), and would have regarded it as inadequate without the homoousion, yet this use of terms entirely harmonizes with his own. In the passage before us, ib. §§ 46, 47 (p. 607), he is defending the use of homousios at Nicæa, notwithstanding that it had been previously rejected by the council which condemned Paul of Samosata, and he contends that both councils were orthodox, since they used homousios in a different sense. As a parallel instance he takes the word agennetos which like homousios is not a scriptural word, and like it also is used in two ways, signifying either (1) To on men, mete de gennethen mete holos echon ton aition, or (2) To aktiston. In the former sense the Son cannot be called agennetos, in the latter he may be so called. Both uses, he says, are found in the fathers. Of the latter he quotes the passage in Ignatius as an example; of the former he says, that some writers subsequent to Ignatius declare hen to agenneton ho pater, kai eis ho ex autou huios gnesios, gennema alethinon k.t.l. [He may have been thinking of Clem. Alex. Strom. vi. 7, which I shall quote below.] He maintains that both are orthodox, as having in view two different senses of the word agenneton , and the same, he argues, is the case with the councils which seem to take opposite sides with regard to homousios. It is clear from this passage, as Zahn truly says, that Athanasius is dealing with one and the same word throughout; and, if so, it follows that this word must be agenneton, since ageneton would be intolerable in some places. I may add by way of caution that in two other passages, de Decret. Syn. Nic. 28 (1, p. 184), Orat. c. Arian. i. 30 (1, p. 343), St. Athanasius gives the various senses of ageneton (for this is plain from the context), and that these passages ought not to be treated as parallels to the present passage which is concerned with the senses of agenneton . Much confusion is thus created, e.g. in Newman's notes on the several passages in the Oxford translation of Athanasius (pp. 51 sq., 224 sq.), where the three passages are treated as parallel, and no attempt is made to discriminate the readings in the several places, but "ingenerate" is given as the rendering of both alike. If then Athanasius who read gennetos kai agennetos in Ignatius, there is absolutely no authority for the spelling with one n. The earlier editors (Voss, Ussher, Cotelier, etc.), printed it as they found it in the ms.; but Smith substituted the forms with the single n, and he has been followed more recently by Hefele, Dressel, and some other. In the Casanatensian copy of the ms., a marginal note is added, anagnosteon agenetos tout' esti me poietheis. Waterland (Works, III., p. 240 sq., Oxf. 1823) tries ineffectually to show that the form with the double n was invented by the fathers at a later date to express their theological conception. He even "doubts whether there was any such word as agennetos so early as the time of Ignatius." In this he is certainly wrong.

The mss. of early Christian writers exhibit much confusion between these words spelled with the double and the single n. See e.g. Justin Dial. 2, with Otto's note; Athenag. Suppl. 4 with Otto's note; Theophil, ad Autol. ii. 3, 4; Iren. iv. 38, 1, 3; Orig. c. Cels. vi. 66; Method. de Lib. Arbitr., p. 57; Jahn (see Jahn's note 11, p. 122); Maximus in Euseb. Præp. Ev. vii. 22; Hippol. Hær. v. 16 (from Sibylline Oracles); Clem. Alex. Strom. v. 14; and very frequently in later writers. Yet notwithstanding the confusion into which later transcribers have thus thrown the subject, it is still possible to ascertain the main facts respecting the usage of the two forms. The distinction between the two terms, as indicated by their origin, is that agenetos denies the creation, and agennetos the generation or parentage. Both are used at a very early date; e.g. agenetos by Parmenides in Clem. Alex. Strom. v. 14, and by Agothon in Arist. Eth. Nic. vii. 2 (comp. also Orac. Sibyll. prooem. 7, 17); and agennetos in Soph. Trach. 61 (where it is equivalent to dusgenon. Here the distinction of meaning is strictly preserved, and so probably it always is in Classical writers; for in Soph. Trach. 743 we should after Porson and Hermann read ageneton with Suidas. In Christian writers also there is no reason to suppose that the distinction was ever lost, though in certain connexions the words might be used convertibly. Whenever, as here in Ignatius, we have the double n where we should expect the single, we must ascribe the fact to the indistinctness or incorrectness of the writer's theological conceptions, not to any obliteration of the meaning of the terms themselves. To this early father for instance the eternal gennesis of the Son was not a distinct theological idea, though substantially he held the same views as the Nicene fathers respecting the Person of Christ. The following passages from early Christian writers will serve at once to show how far the distinction was appreciated, and to what extent the Nicene conception prevailed in ante-Nicene Christianity; Justin Apol. ii. 6, comp. ib. § 13; Athenag. Suppl. 10 (comp. ib. 4); Theoph. ad. Aut. ii. 3; Tatian Orat. 5; Rhodon in Euseb. H. E. v. 13; Clem. Alex. Strom. vi. 7; Orig. c. Cels. vi. 17, ib. vi. 52; Concil. Antioch (a.d. 269) in Routh Rel. Sacr. III., p. 290; Method. de Creat. 5. In no early Christian writing, however, is the distinction more obvious than in the Clementine Homilies, x. 10 (where the distinction is employed to support the writer's heretical theology): see also viii. 16, and comp. xix. 3, 4, 9, 12. The following are instructive passages as regards the use of these words where the opinions of other heretical writers are given; Saturninus, Iren. i. 24, 1; Hippol. Hær. vii. 28; Simon Magus, Hippol. Hær. vi. 17, 18; the Valentinians, Hippol. Hær. vi. 29, 30; the Ptolemæus in particular, Ptol. Ep. ad. Flor. 4 (in Stieren's Irenæus, p. 935); Basilides, Hippol. Hær. vii. 22; Carpocrates, Hippol. Hær. vii. 32.

From the above passages it will appear that Ante-Nicene writers were not indifferent to the distinction of meaning between the two words; and when once the orthodox Christology was formulated in the Nicene Creed in the words gennethenta ou poiethenta, it became henceforth impossible to overlook the difference. The Son was thus declared to be gennetos but not genetos. I am therefore unable to agree with Zahn (Marcellus, pp. 40, 104, 223, Ign. von Ant. p. 565), that at the time of the Arian controversy the disputants were not alive to the difference of meaning. See for example Epiphanius, Hær. lxiv. 8. But it had no especial interest for them. While the orthodox party clung to the homousios as enshrining the doctrine for which they fought, they had no liking for the terms agennetos and gennetos as applied to the Father and the Son respectively, though unable to deny their propriety, because they were affected by the Arians and applied in their own way. To the orthodox mind the Arian formula ouk en prin gennethenai or some Semiarian formula hardly less dangerous, seemed always to be lurking under the expression Theos gennetos as applied to the Son. Hence the language of Epiphanius Hær. lxxiii. 19: "As you refuse to accept our homousios because though used by the fathers, it does not occur in the Scriptures, so will we decline on the same grounds to accept your agennetos ." Similarly Basil c. Eunom. i., iv., and especially ib. further on, in which last passage he argues at great length against the position of the heretics, ei agennetos, phasin, ho pater, gennetos de ho huios, ou tes autes ousias. See also the arguments against the Anomoeans in [Athan.] Dial. de Trin. ii. passim. This fully explains the reluctance of the orthodox party to handle terms which their adversaries used to endanger the homousios. But, when the stress of the Arian controversy was removed, it became convenient to express the Catholic doctrine by saying that the Son in his divine nature was gennetos but not genetos. And this distinction is staunchly maintained in later orthodox writers, e.g. John of Damascus, already quoted in the beginning of this Excursus.

Also, see links to 3500 other Manuscripts:

E-mail to: BELIEVE

The main BELIEVE web-page (and the index to subjects) is at: BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet