We might expect to find that, when the persecutions by the heathen were at an end within the Roman empire, Christians lived together in peace and love, according to their Lord's commandment; but it is a sad truth that they now began to be very much divided by quarrels among themselves. There had, indeed, been many false teachers in earlier times; but now, when the emperor had become a Christian, the troubles caused by such persons reached much further than before. The emperors took part in them, and made laws about them, and the whole empire was stirred by them.
Constantine was, as I have said (p. 40), very fond of taking a part in Church matters, without knowing much about them. Very soon after the first law by which he gave liberty to the Christians, he was called in to settle a quarrel; which had been raised in Africa by the followers of one Donatus, who separated from the Church and set up bishops of their own, because they said that the bishops of Carthage and some others had not behaved rightly when the persecutors required them to deliver up the Scriptures. I will tell you more about these Donatists (as they are called) by-and-by (see Chapter XXI, parts 3, 4, and 5), and I mention them now only because it was they who first incited the emperor to judge in a dispute about religion.
When Constantine put down Licinius and got possession of the East (as has been said), he found that a dispute of a different kind from the quarrel of the Donatists was raging there. One Arius, a presbyter (or priest) of Alexandria, had begun some years before this time to deny that our blessed Lord was God from everlasting. Arius was a crafty man, and did all that he could to make his opinion look as well as possible; but, try as he might, he was obliged to own that he believed our Lord to be a "creature". And the difference between the highest of created beings and God, the maker of all creatures, is infinite; so that it mattered little how Arius might smooth over his shocking opinion, so long as he did not allow our Lord to be truly God from all eternity.
The bishop of Alexandria, whose name was Alexander, excommunicated Arius for his impiety; that is to say, he solemnly turned him out of the Church, so that no faithful Christian should have anything to do with him in religious matters. Thus Arius was obliged to leave Egypt, and he lived for a while at Nicomedia, with a bishop who was an old friend of his. And while he was there, he made a set of songs to be sung at meals, and others for travellers, sailors, and the like. He hoped that people would learn these songs, without considering what mischief was in them, and that so his heresy would be spread.
When Constantine first heard of these troubles, he tried to quiet them by advising Alexander and Arius not to dispute about trifles. But he soon found that this would not do, and that the question whether our Lord and Saviour were God or a creature was so far from being a trifle, that it was one of the most serious of all questions. In order, therefore, to get this and some other matters settled, he gave orders for a general council to meet. Councils of bishops within a certain district had long been common. In many countries they were regularly held once or twice a year; and, besides these regular meetings, others were sometimes called together to consider any business which was particularly pressing Some of these councils were very great; for instance, the bishop of Alexander could call together the bishops of all Egypt, and the bishop of Antioch could call together all the bishops of Syria and some neighbouring countries. But there was no bishop who could call a council of the whole Church, because there was no one who had any power over more than a part of it. But now, Constantine, as he had become a Christian, thought that he might gather a council from all quarters of his empire, and this was the first of what are called the general councils.
It met in the year 325, at Nicaea (or Nice), in Bithynia, and 318 bishops attended it. A number of clergy and other persons were also present; even some heathen philosophers went out of curiosity to see what the Christians were to do. Many of the bishops were very homely and simple men, who had not much learning; but their great business was only to say plainly what their belief had always been, so that it might be known whether the doctrines of Arius agreed with this or no; and thus the good bishops might do their part very well, although they were not persons of any great learning or cleverness. One of these simpler bishops was drawn into talk by a philosopher, who tried to puzzle him about the truth of the Gospel. The bishop was not used to argue or to dispute much, and might have been no match for the philosopher in that way, but he contented himself with saying his Creed; and the philosopher was so struck with this, that he took to thinking more seriously of Christianity than he had ever thought before, and he ended in becoming a Christian himself.
There was a great deal of arguing about Arius and his opinions, and the chief person who spoke against him was Athanasius, a clergyman of Alexandria, who had come with the bishop, Alexander. Athanasius could not sit as a judge in the council, because he was not a bishop, but he was allowed to speak in the presence of the bishops, and pointed out to them the errors which Arius tried to hide. So at last Arius was condemned, and the emperor banished him with some of his chief followers. And, in order to set forth the true Christian faith beyond all doubt, the council made that creed which is read in the Communion-service in our churches--all but some of the last part of it, which was made at a later time, as we shall see. It is called the Nicene Creed, from the name of the place where the council met; and the great point in it is that it declares our blessed Lord to be "Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance" (that is to say, of the same nature) "with the Father." For this truth, that our Lord has the same nature with the Almighty Father--this truth that He is really God from everlasting--was what the Arians could not be brought to own.
The emperor attended the council during the latter part of its sittings; and a story is told of him and a bishop named Acesius, who belonged to the sect of Novatianists. You will remember that this sect broke off from the Church in St. Cyprian's days, because Novatian and others thought that St. Cyprian and the Church were too easy with those who repented after having sacrificed in time of persecution (see page 27); and, from having begun thus, it came to be hard in its notions as to the treatment of all sorts of penitents. But, as it had been only about the treatment of persons who had behaved weakly in persecution that the Novatianists at first differed from the Church, and as persecution by the heathens was now at an end, Constantine hoped that, perhaps, they might be persuaded to return to the Church; so he invited some bishops of the sect to attend the councils and Acesius among them. When the creed had been made, Acesius declared that it was all true, and that it was the same faith which he had always believed; and he was quite satisfied with the rules which the council made as to the time of keeping Easter, and as to some other things. "Why, then," asked Constantine, "will you not join the Church?" Acesius said that he did not think the Church strict enough in dealing with penitents. "Take a ladder, then," said the emperor, "and go up to heaven by yourself!"