The modern myth and caricature that surround the First Council of Nicaea never cease to amaze me.
We don’t usually do this, but sometimes something so shocking and so specific is said that the person who said it needs to stop what they’re doing and back it up. As a friend noted recently, when something said is huge but isn’t common knowledge a person has a duty to readers (for the sake of edifying, constructive conversation) to make a substantive, supporting citation. Particularly with specific historical claims.
On September 8th Blake Ostler wrote:
“What I don’t accept about the Nicene creed is the right to kill approximately 100,000 Arians within a few days because they disagreed. It was really a political document between rival political factions with the Emperor Constantine taking advantage of the conflict to kill his rivals.” (>>)
An obvious problem with this is that the Nicene Creed doesn’t in its text give anyone the right to kill anyone for rejecting the full deity of Christ. But we won’t deal with that issue here. Bewildered especially with the claim that “approximately 100,000 Arians [were killed] within a few days”, I forwarded Blake’s comments to a more knowledgeable acquaintance in Utah. He responded:
“A few people of Arian sympathies, I think three, got exiled in the aftermath of the Nicene Council, one of them was Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was reinstated shortly after and became a close adviser to Constantine. It was he, in fact, that baptized the dying emperor in 337. Blake’s statement about the Emperor Constantine using the document as an excuse to kill Arians is completely false. In fact Constantine waffled between Arianism and Nicene Orthodoxy for the remainder of his life, ultimately, as we said, being baptized on his deathbed by an Bishop with Arian sympathies and leaving the eastern part of the Empire to his Arian son. The web source Blake references would not be considered reputable or scholarly.”
Blake, for the benefit of us all, would you support the specific claim of yours that 100,000 Arians were killed within a few days of the Nicene Creed?
PS: Any comments off-topic will be deleted.
Addendum 1: Blake responded with:
“The Nicene creed was adopted in the midst of a civil war and the creed was used as justification for continuing the war. That is what I was referring to. It is not secret. Check it out yourself… [T]he Arians… were immediately excommunicated and many of those who refused to accept the Nicene creed were murdered. Arius himself was murdered. The creed was adopted in the midst of a civil war and was used to justify war. That is abominable in my book.”
So far Blake doesn’t want to substantiate his specific claims, particularly about Constantine using the creed to kill “approximately 100,000 Arians” within a few days. As a side note, I believe it is historically unclear whether Arius was murdered. But don’t let that distract anyone from the bigger issues here. Blake, I don’t care where you write out your response. Just make it public and accessible. We’re still waiting.
Addendum 2: Blake responded with:
Let’s say you’re right and I simply withdraw the “few days.” Does it make a difference how many days it took? Does it make it less abominable? I can’t see how. Are you going to suggest that excommunicating those who disagreed and murdering many of them was somehow justified. Come on.
Blake, no one ever argued here that murdering Arians was right, and no one even argued that the historic creeds themselves granted such.
So far it just sounds like you’re saying, “Well, even if I’m wrong then my other point still stands.” You’re not actually indicating whether you were right or wrong. Until you do, I’m still going to ask you to substantiate your seemingly irresponsible claims. And withdrawing the “few days” qualifier isn’t sufficient, because you also need to substantiate (or withdraw) the claim that Constantine used the creed as an excuse to kill approximately 100,000 Arians between 325 and 337.
Addendum 3: Seth, a Mormon, said,
“it seems to me that whatever [Blake] was doing in the original passage, it wasn’t ‘hyperbole.’ The statement seemed to be meant to be taken seriously. And I did take it seriously and literally when I first read it. I read it just like I think he intended it to be read.”
No one apparently besides Blake took what he wrote as hyperbole. Even Geoff, also a Mormon, wrote:
“I thought he meant in a battle that lasted ‘a few days’.”
Blake backtracks and tries to explain himself:
I should not have said “within a few weeks [probably an unintended typo; he actually originally said ‘days’].” It was meant as hyperbole but it was obviously misleading without further info. However, what I have in mind is: (1) Constantine’s efforts to consolidate his power thru the use of Christianity and the creeds; (2) Constantine’s war against Licinius in 323-24 primarily based on Licinius’ refusal to align with the Christian trinitarians and the following battles which led to the alliances with the pro-Trinitarian factions, (3) the Catholic legacy of genocide against the Cathars and Valdesians based primarily upon their refusal to accept creeds, among them the Nicene and Chalcedon creeds, and (4) the murder of Arius and several of his followers.
There are not only remaining problems but new ones. Let the reader be reminded that Blake originally attributed the murder of approximately 100,000 Arians to Constantine’s exploitation of the Nicene Creed (written and adopted in 325 A.D.). He wrote:
What I don’t accept about the Nicene creed is the right to kill approximately 100,000 Arians within a few days because they disagreed. It was really a political document between rival political factions with the Emperor Constantine taking advantage of the conflict to kill his rivals.
The only clear part of the original statement that Blake has forthrightly retracted is the “within a few days” qualifier. Unfortunately, this leaves the statement still categorically false. Blake still needs to retract the other historical specificity he used.
In any case, with his modified, expanded purview Blake goes on to make it clear that, “I didn’t overstate the numbers put to death because they were deemed Arians.” This still leaves a mess of unsupportable claims to clean up. Geoff, one of Blake’s Mormon friends, writes, “I don’t see anything that supports the specific idea that Constantine himself ordered the killing off vast numbers of Arians.” Blake even goes on to state that “Constantine… had Licinius and his followers in Milan killed and massacred because they would not support the Trinitarians” and that those who adopted the Nicene Creed “immediately” murdered Arius.
Dialog presupposes the open and honest use of historical sources. Is Blake willing to do that or not? I would be glad to talk about the nature, function, and substance of creeds (indeed, I have elsewhere), but I’m not going to let someone like Blake get by without substantiating (with credible citation) his outlandish historical claims. It’s not easy or often desirable to engage with a fast and loose dialog partner. In closing, I’d like to include some remarks from Ron Huggins of Salt Lake Theological Seminary:
On the issues your friend raised.
No, Arius was NOT murdered, or at least not so far as is known. He died suddenly in 336 in Constantinople while relieving himself in a public toilet. So far as I am aware no credible scholar has ever/would ever suggest that Constantine had a hand in his death. The suddenness and timing of Arius’s death caused the Trinitarians to really believe that it was God’s judgment and at least some of his followers to suspect foul play. But to assert definitively that Arius was murdered goes right beyond the evidence. Even if Arius was murdered, it wouldn’t have been at Constantine’s instigation, but rather at the hand of some orthodox poisoner who wanted to evade the consequences of Constantine’s order to permit Arius back into the fellowship of the Church.” (See, e.g., Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition [rev. ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich: Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2001] 80-81, 303-304; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, 2:29-30).
No, Constantine did NOT use the Nicene Creed as an excuse for murdering 100,000 Arians, neither “within a few days” or “weeks,” nor in fact within his entire lifetime. I wonder whether your friend is really familiar enough with the material to provide a single clear instance of an Arian being murdered because of his Arian convictions at the direct instigation of Constantine, or by way of any sort of official application of his policies. In any case the 100,000 number is not merely an exaggeration, it is a complete fabrication. This simply wasn’t Constantine’s policy. (The sources for this question are going to be Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History and Life of Constantine, and the histories of Socrates and Sozomen. Any missing details you should be able to picked up in Michael Grant’s biography of Constantine).
No, the war between Constantine and Licinius was NOT about the Arian/Trinitarian divide. Licinius was a persecutor of Christians. I doubt very much whether he cared, nor inquired very closely, into the question whether the Christians he was persecuting were friendly toward Arius or not. (See e.g., Eusebius, Life of Constantine 2:1-2; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 1.7).
No, Licinius was NOT killed because he “would not support the Trinitarians,” the usual excuse given was treachery, after having been defeated and spared by Constantine. Anyway, Licinius was dead before the council in 325. Licinius was not killed in Milan, if that is being suggested, but in Thessalonica (See, e.g., Michael Grant, The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome 31 B.C. – A.D. 476 [New York: Barnes & Noble, 1997 (Orig. 1985)] 237; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 1.7)
He additionally wrote:
You sent this quote from your friend:
“I didn’t overstate the numbers put to death because they were deemed Arians. But what is important that I wanted to point is that those who adopted the creed felt like they had the right to kill those who disagreed. They did it not only immediately in murdering Arius and a number of his close followers, but also over years.”
As I said the war between Constantine and Licinius had nothing to do with Arianism. I also noted that if Arius was murdered it was not done with the approval or participation of Constantine. As to the statement about the supposed timing of Arius’s murder, which seems to imply that it took place right after either the war with Licinius or the Nicene Council–the word “immediately” was used, Licinius was executed in 324, and the council was in 325. Arius died in 336.