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The introduction to this volume begins with a reflection on the impact of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, especially for its presentation of the Council of Nicaea as a conspiratorial moment in the history of Christianity. It then offers a sweeping examination of how various contemporary Christian traditions and denominations have received the Council of Nicaea and its creed and how they understand historical figures such as Arius and Constantine. As we near the 1,700-year anniversary of the first “ecumenical” council, the chapters in this volume will revisit old debates and discussions, ask new questions, and offer different perspectives on the people, context, and consequences related to the Council of Nicaea.
During the formative period of disputation over the theology of Arius, the emperor Licinius ruled over the eastern Roman provinces. The emperor Constantine was directly involved in the doctrinal controversy only after his victory over Licinius in 324. But Constantine’s engagement in imperial politics had already shaped his thinking about theology. In imperial successions sons were sometimes promoted but also sometimes overlooked. Emperors introduced a new five-year cycle for calculating taxes and often held annual consulships. Emperors identified with deities such as Jupiter and Hercules. At the Council of Nicaea, Constantine was hence ready to debate with bishops over the theology of Father and Son, the annual date of Easter, and the simultaneous divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. One bishop who attended the council was Eusebius of Caesarea, whose panegyric equated the emperor with the Son of God. Constantine himself strengthened the association by funding churches in honor of Jesus’s nativity and resurrection in the Holy Land and by publicizing a story about his own vision of a cross in the sky. The Council of Nicaea had been a crucible for the formation of both a theology of God and a political philosophy of a Christian emperor.
Whether to baptize returned heretics, and whether to let them exercise priestly functions, were major practical problems, solutions for which called on the subtlety and flexibility of, especially, Innocent I.
Rather than providing a detailed survey of recent research (since this is available elsewhere), the chapter concentrates on the key contributions to the field of Erich Caspar, Charles Pietri, Geoffrey Dunn, and two historians influenced by Michel Foucault: Kristina Sessa and George Demacopoulos.
The movement of large numbers of Christians from one place to another, as immigrants, pilgrims, monks, bishops and theologians, connected numerous local forms of Christianity across the Greek-speaking world. Churches and monasteries were built in urban and rural locations, to provide fixed points for the daily lives of Greek Christians. Of the numerous councils held circa 300-600, most were strictly regional or local. The majority were never recognised as ecumenical, though some could be regarded as trial runs in which significant positions and terms were aired. What should be remembered about the five councils in this era that eventually came to be recognised as ecumenical (Nicaea in 325; Constantinople in 381; Ephesus in 431; Chalcedon in 451; Constantinople in 553) is, first, that they were directly under the influence of emperors who wanted their wishes fulfilled. Second, the Christian leaders who attended these councils often wrangled at least as much over the ranking of their sees as over theological issues.
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