The Ecumenical Patriarchate hosted an International Conference on the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea

His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew opened with his extensive address on 1 December, 2022, the two-day International Conference entitled: “Πιστεύομεν. The Status Quaestionis and the Neglected Topics of Nicaea and its Creed”. The Congress held in view of the completion of 1700 years since the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, in the year 2025, was placed under the auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and organized in collaboration with the Italian Foundation “Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose”. Hierarchs and distinguished researchers from various Christian Churches and Confessions participated and presented papers.

ADDRESS By His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

At the International Conference on

“WE BELIEVE: The Status Quaestionis and the Neglected Topics of Nicaea and its Creed”

(Istanbul, December 2022)

Most honorable brother Hierarchs,

Your Excellencies,

Distinguished scholars,

Beloved conference participants,

We welcome you with great joy to this conference on “We believe: The Status Quaestionis and the Neglected Topics of Nicaea and its Creed,” which inaugurates a series of scholarly events on the occasion of the forthcoming 1700th anniversary since the convocation of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea. We greet you with particular honor and profound gratitude as you have assembled from overseas in the City of Constantine and the historical Center of Orthodoxy. It is here as well as nearby the Queen of Cities that six of the seven Ecumenical Councils were held and sealed the journey of all Christendom.

In accordance with the Synaxarion of the Feast for the 318 Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, “that a Council convened after the City was already fully constructed, to which Constantine the Great invited all those saintly men. At the directive of the Emperor, they all gathered and prayed in recognition of what was appropriately called and confirmed the Queen of Cities dedicated to the Mother of the divine Word. And afterward, each of these Saints departed for their home“. So the Fathers of Nicaea arrived in the City of Constantine, the “City of the Theotokos,” thereby prophetically sealing through their visit here its central status in the history of Christianity.

With the convocation of the Council in Nicaea, a new period is launched in the synodal history of the Church. Synodality is an essential dimension of ecclesiastical life, “a permanent function” of the body of the Church. Theology speaks of a “primeval” or “ontological” synodality. “The Church in herself is a Council, established by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, in accord with the apostolic words: ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15.28),” as the Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church articulately observes (Crete 2016, paragraph 3). We underlined this synodal nature of the Church during our address at the opening session of the Council of Crete (June 20, 2016):

The synodal institution derives its origin from the depths of the mystery of the Church. It is not merely a matter of canonical tradition, which we have received and preserve, but of fundamental theological and doctrinal truth, without which there is no salvation. By professing through the sacred Symbol our faith in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we are simultaneously also proclaiming its synodality … Therefore, it is not coincidental or insignificant that synodality has always permeated all the basic dimensions of Church life, from its local to its universal expression.

This perception and expression of the Church was for the first time in history manifested through the Council of Nicaea, which constitutes a special kind of synodal reality and structure. Until that time, the synodal system – the gathering “in one place” for the sake of reaching decisions “together” (Acts 2.1) on various issues related to ecclesiastical life – operated on the local level inasmuch as the assembly of all bishops throughout the world was impossible. Of course, when local synods were convened in order to respond to serious ecclesiastical challenges, their function “was more or less a natural transcendence of the local for the sake of proclaiming the “unity of faith” expressed in all local Churches throughout the world.”[1] This is why many bishops were invited to local councils and their consensus was promoted through synodal letters, which in turn comprised a confirmation of the pursuit of an “ecumenical perspective.” This ecumenical perspective proves that “the synodal conscience of the Church inherently contained the notion of Ecumenical Council.”[2] Indeed, His Eminence Metropolitan John of Pergamon emphasizes that “it is within this ecumenical framework that even decisions of eparchial councils were taken and announced.”[3]

Consequently, the convocation of the Council of Nicaea does not emerge from nowhere, but comprises an expression, application and consummation of the ecumenical conscience of the Church. The fact that the Council was convened by the Emperor Constantine the Great, who “assembled the attending Fathers from all parts of the world to Nicaea with public vehicles” (Synaxarion for the Sunday of the Fathers), that he personally attended its deliberations, as well as that he embraced its anathemas with the validity of state law, neither diminishes nor of course invalidates the ecclesiastical character of the Council; it does not render it an “imperial council.” As Metropolitan John of Pergamon rightly points out, the objective of the Emperor was “to implement as fully as he possibly could the principle of rendering unto Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, allowing the Church to decide about its own matters in persona Christi.”[4]

The definitive contribution of the First Council of Nicaea to the Christian faith and the Church – which, we reiterate, was “an ecclesiastical event” – is the sacred Symbol of Faith, the Creed, which is fundamentally a local baptismal confession or a series of local baptismal confessions, suitably directed to the specific theological problem of the Arian heresy. It is certain that, in full consciousness, the Council avoided composing a theological text as a dogmatic definition, because it wanted to express the living and perennial ecclesiastical tradition and self-conscience that is never extinguished and always present in the Church as its authentic bearer.

The fact that the Symbol of Nicaea was a confirmation and recapitulation of the Apostolic Tradition experienced by the local Churches has special theological and ecclesiological weight. As Athanasius the Great states, the Synodal Fathers “wrote about the faith, that ‘this is what the Catholic Church believes’ and not this is what the Church thinks. Moreover, they immediately confessed how they believe in order that they would not express something novel, but rather the apostolic mind; moreover. Thus, what they decreed was not their own invention, but precisely what the Apostles taught.”[5] It is in this spirit that we, too, chant on the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, that the divinely-inspired Fathers there “clearly received the revelation of truth from above … and through their illumination issued a definition that was divinely instructed” (Troparion of the Lauds). The victory over Arius was achieved “with the support of prayers by godly priests” (Eirmos of the 6th Ode). Arius “minimized the one Son and Word of God within the Trinity” (Kathisma of the Sunday of the Fathers) because he denied the coeternity and consubstantiality of the Son in relation to the Father and the immutability of the latter. In this way, he rejected the Christian teaching about the Trinity and the universally salvific mystery of the incarnate Economy of the pre-eternal Son and Word of God.

It is of particular interest that, despite the opinion formulated today – that “in Arius, the God of the philosophers repudiated the living God of history” and that “the theology of Arius constitutes an acute hellenization of Christianity”[6]– the Council introduced the philosophical term “essence” (and homoousion) into the Symbol without fearing that this would enslave dogma to intellectual forms. The philosophical terminology here functioned as a means of expressing ecclesiastical experience. It has been said that the “spark of Hellenic thought” concealed in the formulation of Christian dogmas does not relate to their content but only to their linguistic clothing. The adoption of philosophical terminology that originally began as a “historical necessity” for the Church was rendered a creative spiritual instrument in the theology of the great Church Fathers.

The Symbol of Nicaea has a soteriological orientation, expressing and interpreting the common ecclesiastical tradition in the face of the challenge of the Arian heresy with its sole point of reference being the salvation of humankind in Christ. It is in association with this soteriological dimension alone that we are capable of understanding the use of the term “homoousios” (or consubstantial). This hitherto “unwritten” definition was incorporated into the Symbol after an extensive theological debate during the Council, despite the fact that: 1) it had been adopted by heretics like Sabellius of Libya and Paul of Samosata; 2) it was acceptable to the Gnostics; and, 3) as the late Fr. Georges Florovsky says, “it was prone to diverse interpretations.”[7] The “hermeneutic key” for the proper understanding of the term is the ecclesiastical experience, participation in the life of the Church as the place and way in and through which God effects our salvation. It is precisely the estrangement from the life of the Church, the unquestionable force of the patristic saying, that “There is nothing more mediocre that an intellect outside of God philosophizing about matters pertaining to God.” The effort to interpret the term “homoousios” on this erroneous basis is what led to the conflicts after the Council of Nicaea and provide substantiation to the opinion of Cardinal Walter Kasper, that the period following the Council of Nicaea proved to be “one of the darkest and most confusing periods of the Church.”[8]

Distinguished participants,

The seven Ecumenical Councils belong to the very core of the identity of the undivided Church. It is worth noting that they constituted an “exceptional event” in the life of the Church, whereby the Church was called to address ad hoc serious issues of faith and specific threats to the authenticity of its life as well as its sacred mission in the world in an effort to restore unity and eucharistic communion. The synodal system does not comprise a “pyramid” at the top of which lies the Ecumenical Council. Of course, when such a Council is recognized by the conscience of the Church as ecumenical, then it acquires supreme authority. We must approach Ecumenical Councils in relation to the entire life of the Church. The truth is experienced authentically in the Church, and it is the Church itself that authentically formulates the true faith. Moreover, this formulation is sanctified once it is ratified by the body of the Church and incorporated into its life as a liturgical element and as a genuine expression of the Apostolic deposit. As the late Prof. Nikolaos Matsoukas wrote: “An ecumenical council does not discover truth from the outset. Nor is it conceivable for one to claim that life expires and a council performs a resurrection from the dead. ‘The truth was not discovered by the councils, because it had never been lost,’ says G. Florovsky. And this truth is experiential and charismatic. It precedes every council and defines the council itself.”[9]

Our common journey toward the 1700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council is a vocation and an occasion to discover this truth about the Church. In this sense, our preoccupation with the First Council of Nicaea is not a matter of the past, inasmuch as the “spirit of Nicaea” represents the dimension of depth in ecclesiastical affairs. In his commentary on St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, writing in reference to the phrase “the Church of God” says: “The Church is of God and not of one or another individual. And so he calls the Church in Corinth the Church of God in order to demonstrate that it should be united. If the Church is of God, then it is united as one not only in Corinth but throughout the entire world. For the name of the Church does not imply division, but is the name of unity and consensus.”[10]

Unfortunately, the current way of division in the Church today is not “a way toward some terra incognita” but in fact a return to the foundation of our ecclesiastical identity. This means that the dialogue of the Churches is not a pursuit of truth, but rather “a way within truth.” Along the way toward the great anniversary of 2025, in our dialogues and conferences, in our theological seminaries and pastoral ministry, we are called to promote the importance of the real concept of synodality and its contribution on the road to unity. More precisely, in dealing with the Council of Nicaea, we will understand the central place of its ecumenical Symbol for the Christian world, as well as its relevance for a joint celebration of the “most holy day of Pascha” on the basis of the pertinent exhortation of the Synodal Fathers as testified by Theodoret of Cyrus: “When discussion arose there about the holiest day of Pascha, it seemed right to them in consensus that everyone everywhere should observe one and the same day. What could possibly be more beautiful or more appropriate but for all of us with united resolve and visible expression to celebrate this feast, through which we received the hope of immortality?”[11]

We are convinced that this conference, along with the others to follow, will contribute to highlighting the significance of the First Ecumenical Council for the witness of the Church in the world over the past seventeen centuries and for the ongoing witness of God’s people in the world as they journey to the heavenly kingdom that is “not of this world.” The study of the First Council of Nicaea revives the recollection of the undivided Church, of the “common Christian archetypes” in our fidelity to the Apostolic tradition, and of the ever timely struggle against the misconceptions and misrepresentations of the Christian faith, while at the same time inviting us to direct our attention toward the vital and essential aspects of our common identity.

In conclusion, we express our gratitude to the organizers of this conference for their invaluable contribution, as well as to all of you – our most honorable brother Hierarchs, the representatives of Churches, but also spiritual and scholarly institutions, the erudite professors and presenters – for your presence and participation. And we add our warm thanks to all those who labored for the practical facets in preparing this event.

With these sentiments, in wishing you every success in our conference proceedings, we convey to all of you the blessing of the Holy Great Church of Christ in Constantinople and invoke on you the abundant grace and the illumination of the Comforter, the Spirit of wisdom and prudence.

Thank you for your attention. 


[1]  Vlasios Phidas, Church History, volume 1 (Athens, 2002), p. 419.

[2]  Op. cit., p. 420.

[3]  Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, Works, volume 1: Ecclesiological Studies (Athens: Domos Publications, 2016), p. 677.

[4] Op. cit., p. 676.

[5]  On the Council 5, PG 26.688.

[6] Walter Kasper, Jesus der Christus (Mainz: Grünewald Verlag, 1974), p. 208.

[7]  Georges Florovsky, The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century (Thessaloniki: Pournaras Editions, 1991), p. 29. [Translation from the Greek]

[8] Kasper, Jesus der Christus, p. 210.

[9] N. Matsoukas, Dogmatic and Symbolic Theology, 2nd edition (Thessaloniki: Pournaras Editions, 1985), p. 444.

[10] Homily I on 1 Corinthians, in PG 61.13.

[11] Church History I, 9 in PG 82.934.