The city was originally named after the wife of one of the Alexander’s generals, victorious over his rivals in the civil war after the “son of Zeus” died of too much drinking in Persia. It was one of those cities that the divine human Alexander the Great and his heirs built to be a true representation of the City of Man, a proud declaration of the autonomous man to be a god, to build the tower of Babel and reach heaven. Every inch of the ground of Bithynia – one of the richest Roman provinces at the time – spoke volumes about the quest of man for divinity. There was no place within a few days walk from the city where there wasn’t some memory of ancient glories, victorious battles and dramatic defeats, fabulous riches, and great civilizations. Just 150 miles east were the great cities of the ancient Hittite Empire, one of the earliest attempts of man to build a world empire. The same distance west were the ruins of Troy – the earlier Carthage, the mistress of the seas and trade, destroyed by the lust, greed, and vaingloriousness of the Achaean barbarians. Thirty miles north was Chrysopolis, one of the ancient gold depositories of the Persian empire, the “golden city” of Xerxes. Just south was the kingdom of Lydia with its king Croesus – for a time a king over Bithynia as well – whose fame for his riches outlived antiquity by two millennia. Just a few miles north, in Nicomedia, the last great Canaanite in history, a hero of the City of Man, Hannibal (Baal is my Lord) took poison after Rome demanded his surrender. Throughout its history, Bithynia controlled the “cross of trade” – the sealines through the Bosporus, and the land roads from Asia to Europe. The place had everything that excites even our modern pagans today.
As Propraetor of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger rebuilt the city in the image and likeness of that ultimate City of Man, Rome, the highest achievement ever of man’s prideful attempt at conquering other men. His walls encircled area far larger than the population at the time. And, as a faithful servant of the City of Man, it is from the palace in the city that he commanded the persecutions against the Christians in Bithynia. Pliny knew what was at stake; he knew – better than modern Christians – that Christ’s goal was to make the kingdoms of the world, Rome included, His Kingdom. So he forced Christians to take the routine political oath of loyalty to the Empire. Those that refused to honor Caesar above Christ, he considered true Christians, true enemies of the City of Man, and therefore true ambassadors, and soldiers, of the City of God. He killed them.
The name of the city was Nicaea – the city of Victory. The victory of man over his fellow man – the victory of man over God. The ground, the history, every tree, even the names of the roads and the gates were laden with symbolism and witnessed to the attempt of the sinful man to rule as God.
So when in AD 325 Constantine gathered over 300 of the Christian bishops of the Empire in his imperial palace – most likely the same building where Pliny had been signing death sentences for Christians over 200 years earlier – the place was chosen very carefully, and its name too. Constantine made it clear that he resided in Victory over his enemies, and he called the bishops to live in the same Victory with him, even if for a few weeks. But there was more: The First Council was not simply a gathering of theologians. It was a Victory feast, a triumphal declaration to the world that Christ and His Church have vanquished those who had persecuted them. The world knew: After 300 years, the small band of one carpenter and 12 apostles forced the Empire to its knees. Caesar surrendered to Christ.
So when on that summer day in June of AD 325 Constantine personally gave the opening address, he said three things that were a political revolution for the ancient world. Modern historians, secular and Christian alike, being the blind bunch they usually are, focus almost exclusively on the manner of Constantine’s entry and his purple mantle – as recorded by Eusebius – to prove their own bias against him as “vainglorious and proud” (as if the Emperor had jogged to his throne in sport shoes and shorts, it would prove his humility or something). But they usually miss the essence of his words. The points of his address were (1) the peace of the Empire depends on the peace in the Church; (2) the peace in the Church depends on the revelation about the nature of God and Christ in the divine scriptures; and (3) the past is not worth mentioning, it is the future that matters. These points deserve much more detailed discussion in another article. Suffice to say here, from a political point of view they were the ultimate betrayal of everything pagan Rome stood for. Political peace (pax romana) was the ultimate, divine peace for the nations; the word of men was foundational, the word of gods was heeded only when it confirmed the goals of men; and the real meaning of the “peace” of man was a return to the past, to the long-lost but never forgotten mythical “golden age” of abundance, power, and happiness. These were the three foundations of Octavian Augustus’s ideology. Constantine, in his opening address to the Nicaean Council, turned the ancient world upside down, politically and ideologically.
This wasn’t the first act of the Emperor in this vein. A year before the Council, right after his final victory over the pagan forces, Constantine started a building project: The New Rome, the City of God that will replace the Old Rome, the City of Man. The site was right across from the site of his last victory, on the other side of the Bosporus, where the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium stood, a mere 40 miles north of Nicaea. A Christian empire deserved a Christian capital. And Constantine was in the process of building, while at the Council he was presenting the philosophy of government for the new Empire.
Everything pointed to a victory of Christ over Caesar, of light over darkness, of Christianity over paganism. Even when the Emperor tried to influence the Council in favor of his preferred Arianism, the orthodox bishops revolted, and in his presence they tore to pieces the proposed Arian creed. (On the preference of Emperors to Arianism, see Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order, chapter 2.) Constantine conceded, as did his friend, Eusebius. Purple robe or not, Christ was not retreating before Caesar. In the final account, when the reign of Constantine was over, it was the church that emerged triumphant, and in the church the orthodox Trinitarian creed that we have today. With all the personal shortfalls of Constantine, with all the imperfections of his faith, his reign will remain as one of the greatest periods of triumph for Christianity and the Church.
Modern American theologians, preachers, and Christians know little of these events. If they have anything to say, it usually is a word of condemnation. They reject what they call the “Constantinian model.” They believe that the church should never preach to the civil government. They believe the civil government has a different sphere of operation, one that the Bible doesn’t speak to, and therefore the church has nothing to say about. They limit the Gospel to a few propositions for individual salvation. The Gospel can’t and doesn’t speak to the civil ruler, they claim. The issues of justice are left to the Old Testament. The New Testament is strictly individual, and it never addresses the culture, the law of the land, or the civil government.
They justify this retreatist ideology by resorting to the argument of “trials and tribulations.” According to the majority of modern theologians, the mark of a true church is persecutions. The more persecuted the church is, the purer it is, and therefore the better and the faster it will grow. If all institutions in a society and a culture are obedient to God, there would be no persecutions, and therefore such a “model” is unacceptable for the true Church. We cannot work to change the culture; to the contrary, we should rejoice when the culture is farther away from God, because then we have persecutions, and the Church grows much faster. Christians under persecutions are by default much stronger, and Christians in a peaceful, righteous society are weaker in the faith. The “Constantinian model” therefore cannot be an acceptable model for the Church.
But in the very “Constantinian model,” there is a strong testimony against such a view.
Theodoret and other church historians, based on the account of Eusebius, a participant in the Council, tell us something very peculiar about the Nicaean Council: The majority of the bishops present were maimed or disfigured. Some were one-eyed, others had their limbs cut off. All of them bore on their bodies the marks of persecution. Little is known today that the bishops present at the first Council had all passed through severe persecutions. Modern theologians only babble about persecutions and trials and tribulations from their cozy offices in churches and seminaries in America. (Strange how we never hear calls for more persecutions from Christians in North Korea, Pakistan, or Zimbabwe. We only hear babbling about persecutions from American theologians and preachers.) These early bishops didn’t babble about it; they saw it firsthand. They knew firsthand if the Church was really stronger under pressure; they knew firsthand how strong Christians were under persecutions. Some of these bishops were the first to voluntarily present themselves for mutilation of their bodies in order to save their flocks from fire, beasts, or torture. Death was the most merciful end of a true Christian; exile (the much condemned “persecution” in the later Christian Empire for heresy) was reserved only for the Christian members of the Emperor’s family. Most of the time Christians ended up tortured for weeks, or burned alive, or crucified in a most cruel manner. Some persevered and yet survived. Others gave in. Thousands died. The bishops present at the Nicaean Council were among those who persevered and survived. But they paid the price.
So, by the standards of the modern theologians of the “trials and tribulations” doctrine, these bishops were the best Christians of all. They can be taken as our standard for righteous action, since they not only passed through the tribulations, but they managed to grow the church to become the most influential community in the Empire. They knew the tribulations were a battle, a battle that would inevitably end in victory. They didn’t know if the victory would be in their lifetime – after all, many before them had died without seeing it. But they certainly expected it.
But when Constantine not only put an end to the persecutions but also declared that the peace of his Empire will from now on depend on the Church of Jesus Christ, these exemplary Christians, these mutilated, disfigured, tortured bishops did not resist the new turn of events. They apparently didn’t have the ideology of our modern theologians. They didn’t start babbling about the necessity of persecutions for “growth” and “strength.” They had a much different idea.
When Constantine gathered them, the men who felt the wrath of the pagan Empire now joyfully accepted the invitation to stay at the Emperor’s palace for over two months, discussing issues of theology that from now were to direct not only the Church, but the Empire as well. The persecutions were not an end in themselves; they were the means to victory. Not only the eternal victory in the final judgment, but an earthly victory as well, the victory of the City of God over the City of Man, in history, on earth. The persecuted Church – truly persecuted, unlike our modern theologians – accepted the surrender of Caesar as something normal, historically inevitable, and expected. And a year after the last battle on the battlefield against the Old Empire, the victorious Church in the persons of the formerly persecuted bishops was ready and willing to shape the future of the Empire and its culture and society, according to the Word of God.
The modern theological idolatry of suffering was not part of the early Church’s doctrine. Suffering was the means; victory in both history and eternity was the goal. The means couldn’t be more important than the goal. When Constantine surrendered, the bishops accepted his sword. And when he summoned them to learn from them the official ideology of his future Empire, they were there to teach him.
So when you hear a modern theologian talking nonsense about “exile,” “tribulations,” “by the rivers of Babylon” as if those are supposed to be the eternal state of the Church in history, remind them that they have never been through tribulations. Then set before them the example of those who have been, and persevered, and lived to see the victory of Christ over Caesar. Christianity accepts tribulations as a means, and we do not complain about them. But the idolatry of suffering is not a Christian concept, and the early Church’s example teaches this very well. God is not God over eternity only, but over history as well.
It is time for the modern Church to prepare the ground for its future Nicaea. The City of God vanquished the City of Man before. God will do it again.