Yesterday (May 20th) was the 1688th anniversary of the start of the Council of Nicaea (a.k.a. Nicaea I). To mark the occasion, Fred Sanders has written a nice succinct article (though beware of the technical terms) called ‘What Happened at Nicaea?’ It’s an interesting read, but unfortunately the title is somewhat misleading. While the article has some really good information about theology in the fourth century, it doesn’t really tell us what happened at Nicaea. Rather, it gives us a good summary of what happened in theology after Nicaea. I don’t think Sanders is aiming to mislead, though. I just think the title does not really match the article’s content.
The article gives the impression that Athanasius was able to win the day with his theology at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but historically that’s not true. In fact, no sooner had the council finished up, than its conclusions were questioned. It took the rest of Athanasius’ life and the Council of Constantinople in 381 to bring theologians back into an orthodox understanding of God’s ontology. Athanasius himself seems to have played a minor role in proceedings at Nicaea, being a young deacon under his bishop, Alexander.
Also, the article gives the impression that those who disagreed with Athanasius were all Arians, but this is a mistake. Arius was very quickly neutralised and sidelined at the council. And even though Arius had a brief period in which his reputation was rehabilitated, he never really recovered his clout. Debate then proceeded for the next few decades after Nicaea between Athanasius and the radical subordinationists like Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia. These guys weren’t Arians, though. Athanasius calls them ‘Arians’ throughout his writings to show that the logical endpoint of their theology was not far from Arius’ conclusions. They wanted to major on the difference between the Father and the Son in the Godhead, which is well and good in maintaining a distinction between the persons of the Godhead, and so avoiding the heresy of Modalism (a.k.a. Sabellianism). They saw the Son as subordinate to the Father, which is biblical, but then concluded that the Son was an inferior being to the Father. Athanasius rightly saw this as a fatal theological flaw. Subordination did not mean inferiority or separation. In order to capture this, Athanasius insisted on new terms, such as ὁμοούσιος (homoousios—’of the same substance’) to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son. The radical subordinationists, however, saw this as unbiblical, and wanted to stay with biblical terminology only. Athansius eventually won the day by insisting that new terms helped to clarify what the biblical terms meant, giving precision to theological discussion. Throughout this process, though, Athanasius called the radical subordinationists ‘Arians’. This does not mean they actually were Arians, though. This was just a rhetorical strategy on the part of Athanasius: everyone knew Arius was anathematised, so if Athanasius could tar his opponents with a similar brush, he might score some points and have some chance of keeping his orthodox theology alive in a very hostile environment. It was another way of implying that the conclusions of the radical subordinationists were unbiblical and should be rejected.
Athanasius did end up winning the day. A key turning point came when he chaired the local Council of Alexandria in 362. At this council, he made a huge leap forward in reconciling the theological terms people were using. He argued that those who talked about the Son’s substance as being ‘similar to the Father’ (ὁμοιούσιος) were being orthodox if in using the term they were not denying the full divinity of Christ and a singular triune Godhead. In other words, people could use the notion of ‘similar substance’ if they were implying that the Father and Son were coequal within the Trinity. This began to win many over to Athanasius’ theology. Eventually, it was the (now) older terminology of Nicaea that would become the standard paradigm for describing the nature of God: all three persons were ὁμοούσιος (of ‘one substance’). This was ratified at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and further developed by the likes of the Cappadocians (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus).
So while the Council of Nicaea in 325 was of immense significance, it actually took most of the fourth century to bear out its conclusions.