12 June 2007

Church in the City

Today is the commemoration of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, which met in the early summer of the Year of Our Lord 325. The question was asked of me recently, why this date? Well, there is at least some Eastern Orthodox precedent for it (the 12th of June), but there was also a fairly longstanding LCMS precedent for the 19th (in many of the old Lutheran Annuals). I honestly don't remember why we opted for the 12th instead of the 19th, but thus has it been written in the LSB, and so shall it be done. No undoing the laws of the Medes and Persians, and all that. But perhaps we should simply spend this entire coming week remembering the Council of Nicaea. It couldn't hurt (especially with a synodical convention beginning a month from now).

It was at the Council of Nicaea that the divinity of God the Son and His equality and unity with the Father were confessed in response to the Arian heresy. The 318 holy fathers convened in the council were not inventing anything new, but saying more pointedly and precisely what the Holy Triune God had revealed concerning Himself in the Holy Scriptures, and which the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church had always and everywhere believed. Dan Brown would have the world believe that it was avant garde theology, a toss-up and a close vote, when it came right down to it (like certain resolutions that were passed in 2004). Nope. Enjoy Dan Brown's page turners, if you like, but get your theology and church history from elsewhere. As I recall, there were only two bishops who voted against the decision of the council. The rest of the bishops had already known, going into it, that Jesus is God; it was only a matter of how to say it.

The hero of the Council of Nicaea was a young deacon at that point, Athanasius, who later became the great bishop of Alexandria. It was especially his theological acumen and clarity that served and supported the position of his bishop, Alexander, in opposition to Arius and his followers. Over the course of the subsequent decades, as the recalcitrant Arian heretics came in and out of power, St. Athanasius suffered repeatedly for his staunch confession of the true faith. It was really not until after his death, at the Council of Constantinople in the Year of Our Lord 381, that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was more or less settled and articulated in the form of the "Nicene Creed" as we have come to know it. Surely we ought to remember these events with thanksgiving unto God, that He has revealed Himself and spoken His Word to us, and opened the lips of His Church to call upon His Holy Name in the Spirit and the Truth of Christ.

One of the many things that I love about the Council of Nicaea is the way it demonstrates the benefit and blessing of politics in the life of the Church. There are those who want to get all pious about it, who decry "politics" as though it were evil and a detriment to the Church. But what those people have in mind is not really politics, but the abuse of politics and the sinful human lust for power and position. "Politics," properly speaking, is simply the process of using the established structures and orders (the polity) of the city (polis). It is an aspect of the "good government" for which we pray and give thanks in the fourth petition of the Our Father. Like all of God's good gifts of creation, it can be turned into an idol and misused in false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. But it ought not to be so used as such a false god.

The Council of Nicaea was called by the emperor, Constantine, who evidently presided over the opening session. One can debate the pros and cons of the Constantinian era, but in this case the true and only God used the governing authorities of the Roman Empire to call His Church on earth to the confession of His Word and faith. And let us not suppose that the 318 holy fathers were all passive, namby-pamby milquetoasts. They were contending for a truth that mattered, determining what it was necessary to say and confess concerning God, the Savior of the world. They knew how to discuss and debate and even argue, not for the sake of contentiousness, but for the sake of calling one another to repentance and being sharpened, as iron sharpens steel. Both imperial and ecclesiastical politics served those ends, as they should in our own day, also.

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