More than anyone else, Ossius of Cordova is the unsung hero of the Council of Nicea. In part, this is because criticisms coming from various Novatians and Donatists influenced the West and its understanding of his character. They suggested that not only was he corrupt, but he willingly lapsed from the faith by signing an Arian decree (the Decree of Sirmium). His defenders, among whom was St. Athanasius, held him in high esteem; they indicated that he was not culpable for what happened at Sirmium because he, being an elderly man, was tortured while having the rest of his family threatened with similar or worse torture. He was told that he would be set free and his family would be safe if he signed the decree. Being under great duress, and not in the best frame of mine, he signed the decree. Since it was done out of force, and against his will, he immediately denounced the decree when he was released and found his way to safety. Athanasius, understanding this, said that Ossius should not be held culpable for what he signed, and that whatever slight sin he might have succumbed to due to the torture could be and was easily forgiven. The East, accepting Athanasius’ defense of Ossius, recognized him as a saint, while the West, influenced by Novatian polemics, did not.
The other reason why Ossius, once a famous confessor of the church, became obscured by history is that it was not what happened at Nicea, but what happened after, that is, the works and deeds of its great defenders who received the greatest amount of historical reflection and consideration. These defenders, such as St. Athanasius, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Theologian, actively campaigned for the Nicene Faith, writing far more extensively on it than those who were at the council itself. . But, it must be said, without Ossius, and his desire to get to the truth, the Arian crisis could have been much worse, and it could have and would have taken much longer for the crisis to be resolved if he did not establish the means by which the church would respond to it. Because of the significance of his work, and his accomplishments before Nicea, Athanasius always accorded the greatest respect to Ossius, considering him a father-figure and leader who inspired him and his own life’s mission.
Ossius was a very important and influential bishop. He had been a confessor, having been tortured in such a way that he was scarred for life. When Christianity was no longer being targeted by those in power, he was set free, and then when Constantine showed himself interested in the Christian faith, he chose Ossius not only to be his advisor in regards the Christian faith, but to serve as a mediator between the Roman government and Christians, making official decisions for the government (such as in determining which Christian communities should receive reparations for the crimes Roman committed against them). Most Christians applauded the choice, because Ossius had proven himself faithful to Christ.
Things would not be as smooth as Constantine or Ossius expected. For Christians, who had limited contact with each other during the time of persecution, were reconnecting, finding themselves often at odds with each other. Rival understandings of the identity of Christ had developed, causing Christians to fight against each other. In Alexandria, the Patriarch, Alexander, was dealing with one of his own priests, Arius, who created a scandal by proclaiming Jesus, as the Son of God, was a created being and not God. Constantine heard there was discord emerging in Egypt, but did not know the details of it. Ossius made a journey to Alexandria to find out what was going on and to deal with it. Once Ossius arrived, he talked with Alexander, found out what the problem was, and immediately agreed with Alexander and worked with him, issuing a decree against the Arians.
While Ossius was away, Constantine found out that the discord was not only found in Egypt, but throughout the church, and this threatened to create discord within the empire itself. Ossius was trying to deal with the problem in Egypt by summoning a local council, but Constantine decided the best solution would be to have a universal council, bringing together faith leaders from throughout the empire so that they could come together and hash out their differences. This, of course, would not happen, as the council would only reveal the dividing lines in the church, but nonetheless, by bringing Christians together at Nicea, Constantine provided the means by which Ossius, Alexander, and other Christian leaders could not only deal with the Arian crisis, but various other conflicts, such as in ecclesiastical discipline, which were revealing themselves and causing undue strain on the church. The fathers of Nicea therefore established a proclamation of faith (the Nicene Creed) and several ecclesiastical canons which were meant to reveal the basic practices which Christians were meant to hold in common.
Ossius and Alexander wanted to make sure there would be no ambiguity in the way Christians declared Jesus as being God and not a created being. They came up the Nicene Creed, with Ossius, it is said, being the one who introduced the term “homoousios” (consubstantial) into the declaration so that the equality of the Father and the Son could be and would be affirmed.
Thus, Ossius was central to the Council of the Nicea. Ossius, with the other fathers of the council, made it clear that Christians should work together and continue to promote unity with each other, so that if and when some major conflict emerged, Christians would have a way to resolve the conflict. But what he and the fathers of Nicea did was only the start, and as it was only the start, it is understandable why there could be, and was, ambiguity in what they produced. They certainly established basic principles which went beyond what had been said before, but Christians were still trying to determine the best way for the Christian faith to be proclaimed. They were using words which, in and of themselves, were changing in meaning, even as they used them, so that people could and would misconstrue them. This can be seen in the way the original Nicene Creed had anathemas attached to it, anathemas which are rarely read, anathemas which must be carefully and within the context in which they were written, because they use words in a way which differed from how they would be used later. For, when we read the anathemas, they say that those “who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance” (from the Father) are anathema; the point is to deny substantial division between the Father and the Son, but the word choice could be and was later misconstrued because the term hypostasis would undergo change after Nicea and would be seen as distinct from ousia (substance). This distinction would prove to be necessary, as it would offer a way to distinguish the persons of the Trinity from the divine nature, so that modalist claims that the Father and the Son and the Spirit were not distinct persons, but one person undergoing modal changes, could be repudiated. Thus, because how the anathema was stated, modalists could and would use the original Nicene Creed in support of their position, but they did so ignoring the context in which the creed was written, ignoring the fathers of Nicea meant something different than they did with the use of the word hypostasis.
Thus, while the teaching of Nicea is an important and authentic representation of the Christian faith, it left room for development. It was not meant to be some sort of unreformable declaration (though its meaning, the intention behind it, would always need to be represented in any further development). What is key to Nicea, and what made it so important, is that it was when Christians realized that they needed to come together and present the faith in a unified manner. They were able to do so because they were no longer being persecuted. The fathers at Nicea had an impossible task on their hands; they had to try to preserve the unity of the faith while allowing diversity in practice, recognizing distinct theological opinions were possible so long as they did not undermine the common core of the faith. Ossius, in presiding at the council, and establishing the creed, did just that and, more than any other, set up the church so that it could continue to establish that common core belief when discord threatened to undermine it. It was, in respect, his attempt to fulfill the words of Jesus, to keep Christians one: “And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (Jn. 17:11 RSV). Athanasius wisely looked up to Ossius, and we, likewise, should do so, even if we know that Ossius was a man of his times, a man who was not perfect, and so left a legacy which needed further development after he died.
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