Volume III - Church History

Fourth Century

The First Ecumenical Council

Saint Nicholas

Soon after Emperor Constantine took up residence in Nicomedia, the eastern capital, after his victory over Licinius, he was chagrined to learn of this new controversy that was troubling the whole Eastern Church. So, with the advice of St Hosius, Bishop of Spain (c. 257–357), his theological advisor, he summoned the largest council of bishops ever held up to that point. It opened on May 20, 325, in the city of Nicea, near Nicomedia. Constantine himself gave the opening address. According to tradition, 318 bishops were in attendance, including the famous and greatly beloved Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Lycia, and Saint Spyridon, Bishop of Tremithus in Cyprus.

Saint Spyridon

This council, known now as the First Ecumenical Council, decreed that the Logos, the Word and Son of God, is uncreated, ever-existent, and fully divine. He is begotten—that is, “born” or generated—from the Father, and not made or created by Him. He is of one essence (in Greek, homoousios) with the Father. He is true God of true God, the Word of God by Whom all things were made (Jn 1.3; Heb 1.2). It is this uncreated, only-begotten, divine Son of God Who became man from the Virgin Mary as Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.

The Council of Nicea also decreed a number of canons (i.e., Church regulations) concerning various issues of order and discipline in the Church. Canon 6 confirmed the jurisdictional authority of Alexandria over Egypt and the neighboring regions of Libya and Pentapolis, “since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also [meaning that the Roman Church, in a corresponding way, had jurisdictional authority only over Rome and its neighboring territory—at that time, most likely central Italy]. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces let the Churches retain their privileges.” This canon clearly ratifies the ancient practice of the Churches in the major cities each having full jurisdictional authority only over the surrounding region.

Concerning the lapsed, Canon 11 offered the possibility of restoration to Eucharistic communion, but only after a period of 12 years of heartfelt contrition, in three stages:

Concerning those who have fallen without compulsion, without the spoiling of their property, without danger or the like, as happened during the tyranny of Licinius, this Synod declares that, though they have deserved no mercy, they shall be dealt with mercifully. Those who were previously communicants, if they heartily repent, shall spend three years among the hearers; for seven years they shall be prostrators; and for two years they shall join the people in prayers, but still as yet without receiving the Eucharistic gifts.

Canon 20 prohibited the practice of penitential kneeling during the Church’s Sunday Liturgy, as well as during the entire Pentecostarion season.


The Nicene Council also established guidelines for determining the date of the annual celebration of Pascha—thus helping to bring the Quartodecimans’ practice to an end.

Finally, this council affirmed once and for all, at least for the Eastern Churches, the propriety of allowing married men to be ordained as deacons, presbyters, and at that time even bishops, and to still have a normal married life. While the Roman Church during the 4th century began trying to force its clergy to be celibate, it was not until the 12th century that it was finally able to enforce this rule.