When we come to tell the tale of the 4th century theological controversies, it is incredibly difficult to identify a starting point for narration or analysis. Indeed, to identify any starting point only invites contextualisation of that starting point, entangling us in historiographical commitments leading us back to the start of time. Nonetheless a start must be made somewhere.
I want to suggest then, that in re-imagining the 4th century, Nicaea and Constantinople, 325 and 381, still function as decisive focal points. Nicaea because it starts something, Constantinople because it ends it.
While Nicaea 325 is far from the triumph of a Nicene orthodoxy pre-existing against the coming tide of heresy with a clear and universal declaration of truth, it remains significant for 3 reasons:
(1) Nicaea represents the end of Arianism. Arius himself and his teaching may continue on for a few years, and there are attempts at rehabilitation, but essentially Arius' doctrine is anathematised at Nicaea, and no significant resurgence of Arianism occurs afterwards. This is significant both for understanding the history of the debate up to Nicaea, and for how we read 'Arianism' after Nicaea.
(2) Nicaea unites only to divide. When varying 'theological trajectories' walk away from Nicaea content with its creed, yet interpreting it in quite divergent ways (cf. Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius), Nicaea opens the controversy between parties we might later call 'Nicene' and non-Nicene (especially 'Eusebians'). As such, Arius acts as a catalyst for the 4th centry controversies
(3) Nicaea's retrospective status. The very fact that Nicaea becomes a rallying point in the 360s and 370s, and is hallowed into church tradition and divine history, can function to grant it a significance that the bishops present in 325 never imagined. Almost accidentally Nicaea expressed the pro-Nicene orthodoxy that was to emerge full-fledged half a century later.
In treating Nicaea 325 then, we want to provide some immediate contextualisation, the years leading up to it, the conflict between Alexander and Arius, and the theological trajectories that were to meet. In my next post I will summarise 5 contributing contextual/historical points.