Can Protestants Accept the First Council of Nicea?

I noted in an earlier post that Reformed folks like Keith Mathison condemn Evangelicals for not caring about Ecumenical Creeds and Councils, while rejecting the teachings of those same Creeds and Councils themselves. Before, I talked about the Second Council of Nicea, which Calvin openly rejected.  But let’s consider the First Council of Nicea, the Council which gave us the Nicene Creed.  This is the Council, mind you, which Mathison describes as “the great ecumenical council at Nicea in A.D. 325, which officially condemned Arianism and vindicated orthodox doctrine” (p.29-30), and which Luther calledthe most sacred of all the Councils.

The eighteenth canon of the First Council of Nicea says:

It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great Synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them. Furthermore, let not the deacons sit among the presbyters, for that is contrary to canon and order. And if, after this decree, any one shall refuse to obey, let him be deposed from the diaconate.

Now, I’ll acknowledge at the start that the instruction that the bishop should receive the Eucharist, and then the presbyter, and then the deacon is disciplinary. It’s not an immutable rule.  On the other hand, there are three matters of faith which are assumed to be true by Canon 18:

  1. The Eucharist is the Body of Christ.
  2. There are three ranks of Holy Orders: Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons.  
  3. Bishops are superior in rank to presbyters, who are superior in rank to deacons.  Both presbyters and deacons work for the bishop (“are the ministers of the bishop”), while the bishop is mentioned in the singular, not as one amongst multiple overseers.
In other words, Canon 18 isn’t creating a Eucharist which will be called the Body of Christ, or creating a three-fold structure.  It’s acknowledging that they exist, and making rules based upon those facts. So if you deny any of these three things, Canon 18 had some bad ideas, but that it’s theologically false, and you have to conclude that either the First Council of Nicea was wrong as a matter of faith, or that your theological presuppositions may be askew.

Yet even Reformed Protestants who believe in the possibility of authoritative Ecumenical Church Councils deny all three of these things.  The first of these three points is clear: you don’t see Calvinists claiming that the Eucharist is the Body of Christ, much less using the terms interchangeably, as Nicea does.  But the second two points, on Church polity, are even more striking. Presbyterianism is founded on (and named after) the idea that Church governance doesn’t go above the level of the presbytery — denying that the bishop is a superior order than presbyter.  This idea is Calvinist from the start.  Calvin himself, in his commentary on Acts 20:28-32, wrote:

Concerning the word overseer or bishop, we must briefly note this, that Paul calleth all the elders of Ephesus by this name, as well one as other. Whence we gather, that according to the use of the Scripture bishops differ nothing from elders. But that it came to pass through vice and corruption, that those who were chief in every city began to be called bishops. I call it corruption, not because it is evil that some one man should be chief in every college or company; but because this boldness is intolerable, when men, by wresting the names of the Scripture unto their custom, doubt not to change the tongue of the Holy Ghost.

And Francis Turretin, another of the major Reformers, wrote,

The Distinction Between Bishop and Presbyter – Is the episcopate an order or grade of ecclesiastical hierarchy distinct from the presbyterate; and is it superior by divine right? We deny.

The Swiss Reformer Theodore Beza wrote to the Scottish Reformer John Knox, warning him to forbid bishops, since “as Bishops brought forth the Papacy, so will false Bishops (the relics of Popery) bring in Epicurism into the world. Let those who devise the safety of the Church avoid this pestilence, and when in the process of time you shall have subdued that plague in Scotland, do not, I pray you, ever admit it again, however it may flatter by the pretence of preserving unity, which deceived even many of the best of those of former times.
This rejection of the three-fold structure of the Church is still found throughout Protestantism today.  The Book of Church Order, the official governing document for the Presbyterian Church of America, says of the office of elder:

This office is one of dignity and usefulness. The man who fills it has in Scripture different titles expressive of his various duties. As he has the oversight of the flock of Christ, he is termed bishop or pastor. As it is his duty to be grave and prudent, an example to the flock, and to govern well in the house and Kingdom of Christ, he is termed presbyter or elder. As he expounds the Word, and by sound doctrine both exhorts and convinces the gainsayer, he is termed teacher. These titles do not indicate different grades of office, but all describe one and the same office.

I could go on with innumerable more examples, but the fact remains that Reformed Christianity rejects the Church described by the Council of Nicea.  You can either conclude that Calvin was right, or that the Council of Nicea was.  But you can’t, in good faith, pay lip service to the council as “great,” “sacred,” and a defender of orthodoxy, while rejecting the Church that the Council is defending. The “Tradition 0” folks Mathison looks down upon are at least consistent — they reject the Ecumenical Councils, and are open about it; Luther, Calvin, Mathison and the like reject the Ecumenical Councils while praising them.

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