Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Diana Butler Bass vs Council of Nicaea

Recently liberal Episcopal writer Diana Butler Bass ignited a Twitter storm by recalling how she learned to disdain the Council of Nicaea, which set standards of orthodox doctrine for the early church.

Bass recounted she was studying at Duke University in 1989:

At the time, I was a “just holding on evangelical Episcopalian,” having graduated from an evangelical college and seminary, and having joined an Episcopal church. Politically pretty conservative, but thoughtful. Worried about the future. Wanting to do well in Ph.D. work.

Attending a seminar on the early creeds by Elizabeth Clark, “an extraordinary scholar in early Christianity,” Bass heard what was to her a stunning revelation about Nicaea.

According to Clark, the bishops at Nicaea were “bought & paid for by Constantine” and could not “objectively discuss doctrine.” She insisted: “Emperors don’t defer to bishops. Power works the other way around.”

For Bass, this discrediting of Nicaea “was like a dagger through the heart.” She understood Clark’s point: “the business of the Holy Spirit writing the creed, miraculously guiding the church to particular words explaining Christ, was better understood in terms of political consolidation of imperial power.”

So Nicaea “wasn’t a miracle” but “about people and power and privilege. About controlling outcomes and getting your way. About sin and writing history so that you are the hero.”

This claim by Clark was apparently accepted by Bass uncritically amid great distress, as she recalled: “I was shaking. I didn’t know what to say. After the seminar, I ran to the bathroom and promptly threw up.”

Bass, struggling to salvage her traditional faith, tried initially to persuade herself that Clark was a “wretched liberal who took pleasure in undoing the hope of others.” But she then decided that Clark’s claims were simply “history.” After all, “why wouldn’t Constantine privilege a particular form of theology for political reasons?”

Under Clark’s persuasion, Bass realized that “in the wake of the council, the state exercises political power to exile and execute anyone who disagrees with Constantine’s creed.” Nicaea was simply a manipulation by the state to exploit the church for expanding its own power. “And that was my moment,” Bass tweeted, “In the women’s room at Duke Divinity School throwing up over the political nature of the First Council of Nicaea.”

Bass concluded her tweet narrative:

And yes, I’m still a Christian. One who understands questions of historical inquiry, of the complex motives that animate Christians through the ages. If you are church historian, you understand sin and evil, esp how it works in the church itself.

But does Bass believe the Nicene Creed’s affirmation of Jesus fully divine and human, born of a virgin, crucified unto death, raised from the dead, and set to judge the living and the dead? In her tweets she didn’t say. But why would she or anybody believe a corrupt creed coerced by a manipulative emperor?

Liberal “emergent” writer Brian McLaren hailed Bass for her anti-Nicene tweets:

One of the best threads I’ve read on Twitter this year. Thinking of Constantine in the time of the Evangelical/Catholic Trumpcult seems … eerily and tragically fitting.

It’s not uncommon for some theological liberals to agree with Bass that Nicaea and traditional orthodoxy are tools of oppression against the ostensibly more authentic message of Jesus they discern, with inevitably progressive political implications.

But others responded to Bass by defending Nicaea. Episcopal priest Jonathan Grieser in Madison, Wisconsin questioned whether Nicaea’s bishops would have been so easily coerced:

The outsiders, persecuted bishops, some of them with scars from torture on display, sitting in a room with the emperor whose co-ruler and predecessor had initiated the Great Persecution. Who of them wouldn’t see the will of God in that transformation?

Episcopal priest Mary Ann Hill of Tulsa, Oklahoma responded:

So Clark believed that bishops who had already been defying emperors for three hundred years and coveted the crown of martyrdom, would suddenly roll over for Constantine? How did she account for such a rapid cultural reversal? I mean, this was before Twitter.

United Methodist blogger Thomas Dierson of Birmingham, Al, who self-identities as “exvangelical,” tweeted about Nicaea during the Bass controversy:

Constantine did NOT impose Doctrines or practices on the Christian Church. He actually supported the ARIANS before Nicaea, and his preferred side LOST. He only supported the Trinitarians as a political calculation after the Council turned against Arius in the first session.

Oxford, England, theology student Matthew Benson tweeted:

It honestly seems like DBB’s education began and ended with Nicaea. But the Nicene Creed didn’t emerge in a vacuum, and the Nicene controversy was settled over the course of the following decades with a great deal of free debate among all sides

Methodist preacher Austin Rivera, a Yale PhD student, tweeted:

Believing that Constantine engineered the decisions of the Council of Nicaea doesn’t mean you’ve seen through to the truth of Christianity’s relationship to worldly power. It means you’ve accepted the imperial fantasy that the emperor gets whatever he wants

Presbyterian pastor Nathan Rouster of Erie, PA, tweeted:

At the end of the day, Nicaea asserted that a poor Jew executed by the empire was fully equal to God. I’m aware of and not troubled by the history and politics that led to the council.

Allen Junek, a pro-LGBTQ student at Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Brite Divinity School at Fort Worth, TX, tweeted:

Yes, we need to seriously grapple with the Empire’s meddling in the early Church—but this is a profoundly bad historical take. Much of the material predates Nicaea by at least 150 yrs (Irenaeus 1.10.1). The bishops didn’t conjure the Creed from nothing. They weren’t magicians.

United Methodist Church historian Ryan Danker of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, tweeted:

The First Council of Nicaea was neither a political power-grab nor even creative. It was a declaration of what the Church had always taught, made necessary by a twisted and destructive theology that denied the divinity of the Son.

Some liberal Christians like Bass demonize Nicaea as imperial manipulation to justify their own discomfort with or rejection of orthodoxy. But this narrative is not simply settled “history” as she apparently decided in 1989, but is an ideological critique with its own political implications.

What Bass apparently didn’t learn at Duke University 30 years ago is that earthly powers (including academia) may try to manipulate the Christian message. But the church’s Bridegroom remains sovereign. And His message endures.

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