Nicaea, Athanasius, and the Arian Controversy

Many of my Muslim friends have often told me that Jesus' deity was not established until 325 AD at the council of Nicaea. They say that the side of monotheism was led by Arius, whose camp lost in a vote against Athanasius and the Trinitarians. Because of this monumental vote, Jesus was finally granted divine status.

There is much that can be said about this reconstruction of history. I will make 2 brief points and then focus on a third.

1: The deity of Jesus had been a cherished doctrine of the Christian faith for almost 3 centuries before the council of Nicaea, at the very inception of the Christian faith. I have a whole series of videos I'm making on this topic, so I wont linger here further. Suffice it to say, I know of no NT scholars who argue against the deity of Jesus in the Gospel of John (no later than 70 years after Jesus, often understood to be about 55-65 years after Jesus.) In addition, we see clear deity being taught in Paul (1 Cor 8, Phil 2) and Hebrews, which brings the doctrine traceably back to 20 years of Jesus. (Note, Hurtado has argued for Jesus' deity being traceable back to 2-5 years of Jesus; c.f. How on Earth Did Jesus Become God?)

2: Of the 318 clergymen who were in attendance, how many voted on behalf of Arius? A grand total of 2. Clearly, this was not a monumental vote. What was monumental was how loudly the church proclaimed their acknowledgement and understanding of the doctrine of Jesus' deity.

3: An equally staggering claim to me, though, is the idea that the doctrine of Jesus deity was even in jeopardy at this council. All parties agreed that Jesus was God, including Arius. The issue at hand was what the nature of that deity was.
Those who argue that Arius did not believe Jesus was God usually are relying entirely upon Athanasius' apologetic against Arius (e.g. as found in "Paradise or Garden"). Here, Athanasius was attempting to contrast Arius's position with orthodoxy. In that kind of polemic, we can expect the commonalities to be discarded.

When we read quotations of Arius, even as found in Athanasius, we see an aspect of Arius which is often left out of the polemic: a clear concession that Jesus is "God", though a created one. For example, in De Synodis we find Athanasius quoting Arius as saying: "the Son who was not (eternal) is only-begotten God."

We find Arius describing Jesus as "immutable" and distinct from all creation in his letter to Alexander: "By his own personal will He established him to be one who is unchangeable and immutable, a perfect creation of God, but not included among creatures, and offspring, but not like whatever has come to be."

Most clear of all, Arius said in his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia: "the Son is not unbegotten nor from some substratum but that by the Father’s will and counsel he existed before time and the ages as God full, only-begotten, immutable."

This is why scholars note the complexity of the issue, but concede that Arius himself taught a type of deity for Jesus: 
"In particular, it should not be forgotten that amid all the statements posing a fundamental difference between the Father and the Son there is also the clear declaration that the Son is God and ’only-begotten’ God at that, a description which must surely bear some important weight. He is ’spirit, power, wisdom, glory of God, truth, image and logos ... splendour and light’. He is a ’great God’." (Colm Luibheid, Finding Arius, Irish Theological Quarterly 1978 45: 81)

So what is the truth of the matter? Arius was a polytheist. That's not to cast aspersions on his character - I'm sure it'd be fun to hang out and watch football with him. But If, as he teaches, God has created another God, even if he be a God of much lower substance, then that means there are multiple gods. That is polytheism by definition.

On the contrary, Christians teach that there is one God. That is monotheism by definition. They teach that the one God is far more complex than any other creation, having a plurality in the Godhead. For this, those who are wont to confound the issue label it polytheism. But the fact remains: the worldview involves one God which is, by definition, monotheism.

In sum, the Council of Nicaea was an overwhelming proclamation that the church had already established the doctrine of Jesus' Deity with precision: there is One God, and Jesus and the Father, though distinct in person, are both that One God.

P.S. Sorry about the spacing in this blog post - blogger is acting up!


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  2. Thanks for summing this up Nabeel, I remember reading about this in parallel with trying to formulate a response to the accusation that "Paul invented the Trinity."

  3. There are actually some secular and archaeological sources which confirm the deity of Jesus long before the council of Nicaea:

    Between 111 and 113 Pliny the Younger (who at the time was governor of Bithynia et Pontus) mentioned this in one of his letters to the Emperor Trajan:

    "They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so."

    Also, while a bit later, but before the council Nicaea, a 3rd century church in Meggido, Israel contained this inscription:

    "Akeptous, the God-loving, offered this table for (the) god Jesus Christ, as a remembrance."

  4. Thank you very much for this material. I argued with a Muslim from Egypt who called himself an "Arian Christian"

    I keep reminding Muslims that when they quote from these men, and, or the gnostic texts, that they are using the material of men who considered Jesus a God, and they keep remaining impervious to the fact.

  5. By the way. Please keep up the notes. I learn better with notes than I do videos

  6. Hey Nabeel.

    Sorry but this question is off topic but I hope you can help anyway.

    As you know that most arabs are against the existence of state of Israel however from what Iv I read in sura 17 100-104 of the quran it acknowledges that allah did indeed give the land that is Israel to the jews. As you know there are numerous prophecies in the the Bible that God will bring the jews back to Israel after them being scattered around the world and that they will never be uprooted again.
    I understand that there is good and bad on both Israeli and Palestinian sides and that its usally the innocent that suffer and I would like to see a lasting peace in Israel .
    However my question is : if the quran says that allah gave the land to the jews why do muslims not accept the state of Israel ? Also I hear muslims saying that they believe there is some truth in the Bible but it got corrupted, so how do they view the prophecies about the jews return to Israel? do they believe these are corruptions too?

    Again im sorry for going off topic but I would like to hear your opinion since you are a former muslim.

    p.s I just watched your dabate with Shadid Lewis on your reasons for converting,excellent debate but I cant help but get the impression that racial issues played a bigger part than intellectual or spiritual issues in Shadids conversion however I dont know Shadid so who am i to judge him. some solid arguments on your part especially the views of ibn masood on the quran muslims have today. So excellent work and much respect to you mate.

    Hope to hear from you soon on my question
    Peace and Blessings of God on you and your loved ones in Jesus name.

  7. Israelite --

    Unfortunately, I'm not adequately familiar with Israel/Palestine issues to comment. I focus more on the historical origins of Christianity and Islam. Sorry I cannot help.

    P.S. Where did you see the Shadid debate?

  8. No problem thanks anyway.
    I saw the dabate on youtube it was around 3 hours long