Decisive Moments:  Nicholas Punches Arius (?)

25 March 2024 by Wes Bredenhof

Following the conversion of Constantine, the Church appeared to have peace, at least from external threats.  However, there were still internal threats.  One of the most serious was the presence of heresy – by which I mean weighty doctrinal errors endangering salvation. 

One reason we have creeds and confessions in Reformed churches is to define and guard the important truths of God’s Word.  Now imagine a time when there were no such doctrinal statements, or few.  It was a theological Wild West in the early 300s. 

Our story begins in Alexandria, Egypt.  It was an important Christian centre.  One of the key figures in Alexandria was Arius, a presbyter and theologian.  Tall, lean, and charming, women were impressed with his manners.  A powerful preacher, men were impressed with his great intellect.  However, his name has been preserved in history because of his great heresy:  the idea that the Son of God was the first and most important creature, but not God.  Arianism remains today in the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, illustrating that Satan may have a lot of experience with our race, but he doesn’t have a lot of creativity. 

The teaching of Arius developed a following in Alexandria and beyond.  The Christian church was rocked by controversy and confusion.  Disagreements about the doctrine of Christ even resulted in street fights in Alexandria.  All over Christendom there was polarization, but many people were stuck in the middle wondering what exactly they should believe about the two natures of Jesus. 

Naturally, word about this controversy reached the ears of Constantine, the emperor.  He decided that it was his responsibility to end it.  One of his priorities was to establish unity in his empire and that included theological unity in the church.  So in AD 325 he called a church council in the city of Nicea, which today is in Iznik, Turkey.  Constantine not only called this ecumenical council (with representatives from all over the known Christian world), he also chaired it, even though he wasn’t baptized (!). 

The Council of Nicea didn’t start off so well.  There was endless bickering between the church leaders attending.  They brought all kinds of petitions to Chairman Constantine and rather than entertain them, he burned them all. 

Eventually, however, a consensus was reached about Arianism.  The Council decided that the teaching of Arius was indeed heretical.  Contrary to what he taught, “Jesus Christ is true God of true God; begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father…”  Those words may be familiar from the Nicene Creed.  The Council of Nicea didn’t write the Nicene Creed – it would come later from the Council of Constantinople in AD 381.  However, the doctrinal statements of Nicea were incorporated into that creed and thus it bears its name.

One of the most intriguing legends connected to the Council of Nicea is about a punch to the face.  In one corner, there was Nicholas of Myra, better known as Saint Nicholas.  Yes, the same Saint Nicholas behind friendly old “Santa Claus.”  In the other corner was the lanky arch-heretic Arius.  During one of the debates at Nicea, Nicholas allegedly slugged Arius right in the kisser.  While things did get quite heated at Nicea, there’s no evidence that this actually happened.  The earliest account of it is from the 1300s.  It seems it was just the product of someone wishfully thinking, “Just imagine how awesome it would be if Saint Nicholas punched Arius at Nicea!”

As we’ll see next time, Nicea didn’t resolve every theological issue surrounding the doctrine of Christ or the Trinity.  More heresies would have to be addressed in other ecumenical councils.  However, it was a big deal to settle the issue of Arianism.  It was a big deal to recognize once and for all the biblical truth that the Son of God is and always has been true God.