How much credit should Constantine and Council of Nicaea get for the bible and Christian doctrine?

A hair-splitting side debate ensued in another thread that does bring up some interesting points, so I thought I'd bring it into its own discussion.

Specifically, the influence (or lack thereof) of Constantine I and the First Council of Nicaea in shaping Orthodox Christianity. 

FACT A1Constantine did seek to strengthen Rome religiously, in large part in a "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" sanctioning of Christianity. Which itself was split into many different sects and theologies with some very different ideas about it's frontman Jesus, what scriptures should be canon, and doctrine in general. 

FACT B1: Constantine also never really gave up his Pagan roots nor did he outright outlaw all non-Christian religions. It's debatable whether or not he ever truly converted to Christianity or whether he was just pandering to the populous. While he is recognized as the first, true, Christian-friendly Roman emperor, others before him had various degrees of tolerance for the religion and thereby, a helping hand in keeping the cult alive.

FACT A2Constantine was instrumental in convening the First Council at Nicaea in 325 C.E. He and Rome gave financial support to certain bishops and church representatives to come to the council. 

FACT B2: Constantine didn't personally preside over (or by some accounts, even really attend) the Council. He was the figurehead who said, "Y'all go hash this out."

FACT A3: The basic purpose of the Council was to bring together the generally accepted (read; politically accepted) sects and from there further narrow the field by debating and voting on the validity of doctrines by some of those present.

FACT B3: Specific scriptures and heresy/validity of those sects not in attendance were not on the menu. There was no grand floor debate to say "This gospel should be canon and that one shouldn't." or "Shall we let the Gnostics come and play? All in favor say aye."



Here's where it seems the debate in the previous thread lies: How much credit do we give to Constantine and the First Council of Nicaea for compiling the bible as we know it today?

- By virtue of the (B) facts above; Neither Constantine nor the Council of Nicaea had any direct hand in compiling the bible as we know it. Therefore some would say, "Neither of them had anything whatsoever to do with the compilation of the Christian bible."

- By virtue of the (A) facts above; Both Constantine and the Council of Nicaea heavily influenced which Christian sects would become the Orthodox Church, and by extension, it is those sects' scriptures that become canon while excluding now-heretical sects and their scriptures. Therefore some would say, "The bible as we know it today was effectively determined by Constantine and the First Council of Nicaea.

Both statements in my not so humble opinion are gross oversimplifications on opposite ends of the scale. Though admittedly, when my answer has to be 30 seconds or less, I've been guilty of the "Constantine and Nicaea effectively compiled the bible" end of the extreme.

So, discuss. When trying to pry open a Christian's eyes or enlighten someone genuinely curious about how we wound up with the scripture and doctrine that we did, how Orthodox Christianity became Orthodox, is there a quick and easy answer that's also accurate? Within the ballpark of accurate? How much credit do you give to Constantine and Nicaea for 'founding' Christianity and the bible as we know them today?



One reason I'd much rather give them too much credit than not enough is that for Christianity to take hold as a power-religion it had to be politically powerful. Christianity was born out of resistance to Roman oppression. And yet, by the 4th century, you've got a Roman emperor looking to co-opt Christianity as a political tool to regain control of the people. By then you also have some Christian sects who really don't hate the idea of being little tyrannical mini-emperors themselves. Constantine may never issued a declaration saying "If you want my blessing you and your religion had damn well better tell me what I want to hear," but I think we can all agree that's the rule of the land.

In that sense, Constantine and the Council were pivotal in effectively determining what Christianity would look like - including its sacred texts. Plus, the unwashed masses need to know that what they are following are far less the divine "Will of God" and more like political Will of Rome." 

Tags: Early Christianity, Nicaea, bible, constantine

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Your hypothesis is faulty, because you are assuming a separation of religion and state

Not sure where you're getting that, since my hypothesis states and depends upon the exact opposite: That religion and politics are so interdependent that for a religion to become a power player, it must be at least accepted, if not embraced, by Rome.

So it would seem we agree. Yay! Common ground!
My bad - I phrased that poorly.

"by some accounts [didn't] even really attend [the Council]" ... I meant that to mean his participation was minimal. The sources I've read rarely get into the details of attendance one way or another. But I also notice there's no mention of him being the grand poobah overseeing the thing from start to finish. So I thought I'd cover my base with a vague qualifier.

Which I mistakenly made way, way too vague.

Oops! Thanks for setting that one straight!
And let's not forget the obvious: Constantine never attempted to use Christianity as a tool to "regain control of the people": all he did was legalise this tiny minority religion (which comprised about 5% of the Empire's population). There was no political motive for this, it was more of a religious one: after his conversion to Christianity he quickly noticed that there were many different sects around. In an attempt to reconcile these various tribes he encouraged them to convene at Nicea.
The important thing to realise, however, is that the theological differences between the mainstream branches of Christianity where already very small, especially with the dwindling influence of the exclusive Gnostic sects.

Constantine himself was there at the beginning (as Dannyisme points out), and left several days later, most likely out of sheer boredom over the theological bickering over small details.

So while Constantine's rule was certainly pivotal for Christianity's influence (it started growing much faster after it became legalised, for obvious reasons), it was not pivotal for Christian theology: he simply encouraged them to come together in an attempt to solve the differences. And it turned out they already largely agreed: the "major" Arian heresy for instance, was declared a heresy with a devestating 258-2 vote (that's over 99%).

So was Nicea really that instrumental? Or was it more of an official declaration of minor theological niceties that were agreed upon by the vast majority.

As for Constantine himself, he didn't care either way, apart for the fact that he wanted Christianity to be more united: he practised a weird and unsophisticated form of pagan Christianity; but how much of his personal ideas permeated the Council of Nicea? Was the detailing of the doctrine of the Trinity his idea? Was the fixing of the date of Easter his concern?
No. Constantine's influence on Christian theology was infinitesimal.
And let's not forget the obvious: Constantine never attempted to use Christianity as a tool to "regain control of the people"

Where did I say that?

And where do you get that Constantine had no political motive for legalizing Christianity?

Here was an upstart cult, albeit fragmented into many different sects, originating out of resistance to Roman rule and gaining in popularity. Add that to the fact that Rome, throughout its history, had always used religion towards its own political gain (E.g.; equating themselves with the gods and/or as intermediaries between the people and the gods, as Dannyisme points out).

I kind of doubt that Constantine directly declared in an official decree, "Hey all you Christians, I'm going to co-opt your religion for my own political strength," any more than the Republicans directly declare, "Hey Tea Partiers; we're going to co-opt your rallys and channel them for our own political gain."

We're left to interpret likely motive on our own.

But it's kind of a given when church and state are so heavily intertwined, when a Roman emperor legalizes a previously rival religion, calls a council to further organize it, finances certain sect leaders to come to that council, and that emperor equates himself with the apostles, he isn't doing it just because he's bored.

"Regain control of the people" might be a stretch (but definitely is not out of the realm of possibility). But it's well beyond reasonable to assume he sought to use Christianity as just one more tool of control. As I summed up in my OP; If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Or in this case, co-opt them and make your would-be enemy into your populous ally.
Where did I say that?
That's what "by the 4th century, you've got a Roman emperor looking to co-opt Christianity as a political tool to regain control of the people" sounds like to me.

Here was an upstart cult, albeit fragmented into many different sects, originating out of resistance to Roman rule and gaining in popularity.
Gaining popularity? It was at a puny 5% of the population after 300 years of proselytizing.

But it's kind of a given when church and state are so heavily intertwined, when a Roman emperor legalizes a previously rival religion, calls a council to further organize it, finances certain sect leaders to come to that council, and that emperor equates himself with the apostles, he isn't doing it just because he's bored.
If he was himself a Christian, why on Earth wouldn't he do that?
You migh want to start explaining what direct benefits Constantine reaped from legalising Christianity: if anything, he got a lot of flak for it.

And why do you keep mentioning political motives but ignore his biggest personal motive: the fact that he himself was a Christian?
...Where did I say that?...
That's what "by the 4th century, you've got a Roman emperor looking to co-opt Christianity as a political tool to regain control of the people" sounds like to me.


Ahh, ok, now I see where I wrote it. Yes, poorly phrased so as to sound like I'm talking about the entire populous of Rome.

"by the 4th century, you've got a Roman emperor looking to co-opt Christianity as a political tool to regain control of the Christians"

"by the 4th century, you've got a Roman emperor looking to co-opt Christianity as a political tool to better secure the would be enemies (Christians) into allies."

Is my meaning any clearer in either of those?

And why do you keep mentioning political motives but ignore his biggest personal motive: the fact that he himself was a Christian?

Why did he adopt Christianity? When did he convert (seeing as how no scholar agrees on when or if he ever really did)? Why did he continue to practice other Pagan religions? Is not the basic tenant of Christianity that you forsake all other religions? So why practice both?

Modern day example.
I pretty much agree with you, Jo. I'm no historian or scholar but the following is a synopsis of my take on the Council of Nicaea.

Constantine's mother was a Christian. I think that, through her, he became impressed with the powerful grip Christianity exerted on its followers. The biggest problem with Christianity, from a ruler's point of view, was that it was so fragmented. Pockets of followers were dispersed over the empire and had developed different ideas about what Jesus and Christianity stood for. Clearly, if Constantine were to take advantage of this upstart religion, he first needed to unify Christianity under a single authority.

Hence, the Council of Nicaea.

The original Christianity of the Jewish converts lost out to the Christianity of (Roman) gentiles. The doctrines -- and even books of the Bible -- chosen were the ones Constantine would favor (and, I maintain, reveal their pagan roots). The politics of the council were predictable, given that it was orchestrated by Constantine.

Christianity appears to have had a relatively strong appeal but once it was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire, its preeminence was assured.
Hey Dannyisme,

I'm not sure where the pre-Constantine = bad v. post-Constantine = good comment came from. You were replying to me, right? All I said was that, "Christianity appears to have had a relatively strong appeal but once it was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire, its preeminence was assured." The "relatively strong appeal" part of that statement is based on the fast spread of Christianity despite Roman persecutions. But you're right to say that I'm just presenting a hypothesis . . . which I acknowledged in my very first paragraph (i.e. "my take on the Council of Nicaea"). It's my interpretation of the facts . . as is the same for you, I might add. Even historians can't agree amongst themselves.

Then there's your comment: "it is not known when he converted or why--despite your suggestion to the contrary" . . . again, I don't know where that comes from: I never even mentioned Constantine's (potential) conversion.

You stated that: "As for your final statement, "once it was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire, its preeminence was assured," that is clearly wrong, if you mean under Constantine." No; I did not mean under Constantine. I stated in my first paragraph that I was only providing "a synopsis of my take on the Council of Nicaea"; so I can understand how you would associate my assertion with Constantine. However, Nicene Christianity wasn't made the official state religion until 380 A.D., long after Constantine was dead and buried. As I recall reading somewhere, government jobs were only given to Christians after Christianity became the state religion of the empire. This "state religion" was definitely NOT "co-equal with traditional religions", as you assert.
The doctrines -- and even books of the Bible -- chosen were the ones Constantine would favor (and, I maintain, reveal their pagan roots).

Garbage.

What doctrine was chosen because it would favor Constantine? And what book was introduced in the Biblical canon thanks to Constantine?

This is gonna be good...
Garbage, huh, Matt? Easy for you to say when you don't back it up. THAT is what I call garbage.

Constantine grew up a pagan. There were key issues of disagreement between Jewish and gentile converts within Christianity. The divinity of Jesus. The Trinity. The gospels of Peter and Paul, written in Greek. Constantine, if he had a political agenda, obviously wanted it to succeed with his (mostly) pagan subjects. His subjects would be more comfortable with a divine savior as opposed to a human one; a bit of polytheism (trinity) as opposed to monotheism; a pagan Easter as opposed to a holiday that did not retain their accustomed spring celebration. All of those at the Council of Nicaea would have understood this without instruction. Constantine might not have been an active player within the council but his influence was stamped upon proceedings nonetheless.
From my understanding, the decisions at Nicosia had little to do with determining the text of the New Testament as that was already done by Athanasius. And, as you said, Constantine had little or no understanding or concern about the division between the Arian and Athanasianist theology. My question is why was Constantine compelled to embrace a very minor religion over one in which he was the earthly embodiment, the principle religion of the governing elite - Mithraism - Solus Invictus? .
I have a hard time being convinced that an individual driven to power, as was Constantine, would be swayed by a sudden conversion to reject the religion of the power figures of the Empire for some cult that had opposed the Empire for nearly 3 centuries. There has to be more to the tale than that because that scenario seems to be really counterproductive.
1. Mithraism was a mystery cult, whereas Christianity was accessible to the masses.
But in its mythic form Christianity is a mystery cult. And Mithraism, cult or not, was the religion of those who held power (both military and financial).

3. Mithraism rejected women. Christianity accepted them.
Yeah, as long as they are barefoot, in the kitchen and pregnant. Considering the status of women at the time how does that gain any advantage?
Add to this the striking similarities between Jesus and Mithra--virgin birth, 12 disciples, baptism, Sunday as day of rest, a sacrament of flesh and blood
Which myth was construed first and which was the clone?

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