The Council of Nicaea and the Sabbath
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
The Council of Nicea in 325 AD is considered one of the important milestones in early Church history. In this article, we want to review the events leading up to Nicaea and what impact, if any, this Church Council had on the Sabbath. Many people fail to fully understand Nicaea because they do not understand events before it, such as the Council of Arles.
Background to Nicaea
In 303, the Great Persecution started. Among the ways that Roman officials harassed Christians was to require that they hand over important texts of the faith, such as the writings of the first Apostles and early church writers. Those who handed over these writings were called the traditor, which is from the Latin root tradere meaning ‘to hand over.’ This is the origin of the modern English word traitor.
During and after the Great Persecution, there was controversy concerning those who handed over these writings. Should they receive correction or be allowed to hold positions of authority?
In the north African city of Carthage, there was a bishop named Mensurius who was a traditor. He ordained a man named Caecilian to take his place – who may have aided his actions as a traditor. Seventy leaders gathered in North Africa and refused to accept the ordination of Caecilian because it was conducted by a traditor. They placed another leader, Majorinus, in the position instead.
This was a significant issue for multiple reasons, but I will mention two for our purposes. First, Christians in Carthage and other areas needed to know who to trust as the legitimate leader. Secondly, this position concerned great influence, finances, and property. This debate impacted other cities, as some chose a bishop loyal to Caecilian and others loyal to Majorinus.
In 313, the two sides appealed to Constantine to help sort out the mess (Augustine, Letter 43.4). At that time, he was the highest civil official in the Western Empire. According to Eusebius and Augustine, Constantine appointed bishops from other regions who were not affected by this conflict to help judge which person should be bishop of Carthage.
The Council of Rome was convened in October 313 to make the final decision. By this time, a man named Donatist had succeeded Majorinus. It was decided by the bishops appointed to the case and the bishop of Rome that Caecilian was innocent and should remain bishop. They also determined that Donatist should be removed from his position. All those cities with two bishops were ordered allow the one with the longest tenure to remain.
The Donatists, as they came to be called, appealed this decision on the basis that only nineteen bishops decided the Council of Rome, but seventy bishops in North Africa previously decided the issue. They argued based on the number of bishops that the first ruling was more correct.
Constantine then ordered a meeting with Christian bishops of many different cities in the Western Roman Empire. Representatives from these regions convened at Arles, a city in modern-day France, in August 314. Sylvester was the bishop of Rome at the time of this gathering.
This was the first time a council was held with such a variety of representation. While the Donatist issue was the central focus of the meeting, it was utilized by the Roman Church to pressure other churches to conform to its wishes in practice and church discipline. For instance, Roman Church leaders used this meeting to impose upon all the churches one and the same practice for the Pascha observance. Pascha was observed at different times in different locations.
The next episode in this saga occurred at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The year before this event, Constantine gained control of the entire Roman Empire by defeating his brother-in-law Licinius. The circumstances surrounding the Council of Nicaea were very similar to that of the Council of Arles.
The two main subjects which caused Nicaea to be convened were Arianism and the Meletian Schism. These controversies required decisions from Christian bishops of the highest stature and civil authority. What were these issues?
In the early fourth century, Arius of Alexandria began to teach about the nature of God and Christ in a way that was contrary to the Roman Church. This caused a serious division among the churches, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean world. His followers were called Arians.
A similar division occurred with a group called the Meletians. Like the Donatists, they disagreed with the laxity with which the Roman Church addressed apostasy during and after the Great Persecution. The group was also known as the Church of the Martyrs.
The Council of Nicaea
Hosius of Cordova was a religious advisor to Constantine and presided over the council until the emperor arrived. Hosius was likely the one to convene the meeting and invited the emperor to participate and make final decisions – in a manner like Arles. The emperor arrived about a month into the proceedings of Nicaea
At the council, decisions were made concerning Arius and the Meletians. Twenty canons, or church principles, were also passed. None of them mention the seventh-day Sabbath.
At the end of the meeting, there was a letter composed by Constantine which mandated that all churches follow the Roman rite as it comes to the observance of Pascha. This composition is the basis for some who claim that Constantine changed the Sabbath. We have an excerpt from it below (In the translation, I have substituted the word Easter for Pascha to retain more historical accuracy; the term Easter was not known to be used until about the seventh century). We have an English translation of the letter below:
“At this meeting the question concerning the most holy day of Pascha was discussed, and it was resolved by the united judgment of all present, that this feast ought to be kept by all and in every place on one and the same day. For what can be more becoming or honorable to us than that this feast from which we date our hopes of immortality, should be observed unfailingly by all alike, according to one ascertained order and arrangement? And first of all, it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul. For we have it in our power, if we abandon their custom, to prolong the due observance of this ordinance to future ages, by a truer order, which we have preserved from the very day of the passion until the present time. Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way. A course at once legitimate and honorable lies open to our most holy religion. Beloved brethren, let us with one consent adopt this course, and withdraw ourselves from all participation in their baseness. For their boast is absurd indeed, that it is not in our power without instruction from them to observe these things. For how should they be capable of forming a sound judgment, who, since their parricidal guilt in slaying their Lord, have been subject to the direction, not of reason, but of ungoverned passion, and are swayed by every impulse of the mad spirit that is in them? Hence it is that on this point as well as others they have no perception of the truth, so that, being altogether ignorant of the true adjustment of this question, they sometimes celebrate Pascha twice in the same year. Why then should we follow those who are confessedly in grievous error? Surely we shall never consent to keep this feast a second time in the same year. But supposing these reasons were not of sufficient weight, still it would be incumbent on your Sagacities to strive and pray continually that the purity of your souls may not seem in anything to be sullied by fellowship with the customs of these most wicked men. We must consider, too, that a discordant judgment in a case of such importance, and respecting such religious festival, is wrong. For our Saviour has left us one feast in commemoration of the day of our deliverance, I mean the day of his most holy passion; and he has willed that his Catholic Church should be one, the members of which, however scattered in many and diverse places, are yet cherished by one pervading spirit, that is, by the will of God. And let your Holinesses’ sagacity reflect how grievous and scandalous it is that on the self-same days some should be engaged in fasting, others in festive enjoyment; and again, that after the days of Pascha some should be present at banquets and amusements, while others are fulfilling the appointed fasts. It is, then, plainly the will of Divine Providence (as I suppose you all clearly see), that this usage should receive fitting correction, and be reduced to one uniform rule.” (Life of Constantine, 3.18; emphasis mine).
A portion of this quote, which I have placed in bold, is most often used to claim that the Sabbath was changed by the emperor. However, even a casual reader will note that the purpose of this letter was to force uniformity for the observance of Pascha. Particularly, Constantine opposed keeping that specific feast in any manner like the Jewish people. The subject matter of this quote had nothing to do with the Sabbath.
What does the letter mean?
While it appears that Constantine was against keeping Pascha in a manner like Jewish people, there is also no record of any laws to punish people for non-compliance. Thus, we must not misconstrue his ruling to have the weight of the imperial government behind it.
He did not issue this letter as a Christian leader, but as a civil ruler adjudicating between two disputing parties. He left it up to the Christian congregations and their leaders to enforce its rulings. Being an emperor, he probably thought that they had the ability to force compliance regarding their own religious rites.
At this point, it is important to understand how many of the Councils of this time worked. The Roman Church did not have the power of civil authority to force compliance. Instead, these Councils are attempts to affirm what they view to be ‘orthodox’ or accepted teaching. Moreover, these councils sought to bring about greater uniformity among Christians. At the very least, many of these convocations express the will of the Roman Church.
As time passed, those who refused to comply with these church councils would be threatened by the Roman Church. They would threaten to withhold financial support, spiritual support, or approval of that church’s ‘orthodoxy’. At first, this meant very little. As the Church of Rome grew in influence, these councils had greater weight. The Roman Church could refuse to help another diocese in time of need if they did not meet their demands.
As time passed, civil rulers increased their interest and involvement with church councils. Roman Church officials appealed to temporal rulers to intervene on their behalf. Constantine set the precedent.
The rulings at Nicaea did not stop people from keeping Pascha in a manner like the Jewish people. References to Christians keeping Passover like the Jewish people are found decades later in writers such as John Chrysostom (Eight Homilies Against the Jews) and Epiphanius (Panarion, sections 50 and 70) as well as church councils such as the Councils of Antioch (341) and Laodicea (364).
Many people are not aware the Nicaea addressed many of the same issues as the Council of Arles eleven years earlier. This knowledge and the proper context of Constantine’s letter help us to understand that Nicaea had zero impact on the Sabbath.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.