Diana Butler Bass

November 21, 2019

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.


36 Responses to Diana Butler Bass vs Council of Nicaea

  1. Rev Timothy M Adams says:

    Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Ft Worth, TX is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, not The Episcopal Church.

  2. John Kenyon says:

    Is theology nothing but a subset of politics and history; mythology and philosophy? Nicaea was 325 years after the event of the gospels, composed to defend the eternal nature of Christ against Arians teaching Christ was a created being. But the creed itself is riddled with logical conundrums (see Barth); is not superior to the OT and NT (sola scriptura); and thankfully, the evidence of God with us according to scripture cannot be explained by the Socratic square or scientific rules of evidence. If one views the era as Jesus vs. Caesar and Jesus as God with us or not, then the struggle continues.

    • Denise says:

      “… is not superior to the OT and NT (sola scriptura)”

      There is no question of superiority or inferiority regarding Scripture vs. the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed summarizes the truths that Scripture conveys–those which the Christian church gathered and agreed upon as the correct understanding of God’s revelation in word and in the incarnation.

      The Creed stands against Scripture becoming a matter of private interpretation, where each individual decides for him or herself what it means, creating the panoply of denominational factions that plagues Protestantism today.

      • John Kenyon says:

        Long and profitable discussion not for a blog and off-point to the article. Let’s leave it that I agree with “Kepha” that homoousian was not imposed by Constantine; that attempts to rationally explain the distinctions of Father, Son and Holy with One God have caused traumatic confusion to many more than Diane Blass. Best, I think, to better understand why before assaulting her. For the record, I am no liberal on this point.

    • Palamas says:

      Since the Creed doesn’t use the Socratic square or scientific rules of evidence, I don’t know what you’re getting at. And since I don’t have 18 months to go through Barth to see what you’re talking about regarding “logical conundrums”…what are you talking about?

      • John Kenyon says:

        I am talking about the many theological conflicts that led to the council of Nicaea and the dissatisfaction expressed by many even at the council that the formula failed to resolve them. Even Augustine threw up his hands. One can hold fast, as I do, to Father, Son and Holy Spirit according scripture and not hold fast to Nicaea as an accurate summary or restatement of Holy Scripture. Again, long discussion. The surface question is why it took hundreds of years for some to claim to have parsed “the plain word” of the bible.

  3. Keith Pavlischek says:

    At times like these I wish we still had the old Wittenberg Door. For surely Bass would be a candidate for Theologian of the Year.

  4. David says:

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

    Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus.

    • Palamas says:

      Your point being what, exactly? Clark’s “history” is nothing more than the delusion of a “theologian” who wants to be a politician.

      • David says:

        Constantine was well aware of the usefulness of religion and had himself depicted with pagan divinities after this supposed conversion on his several monuments. The Met Museum had an interesting lecture on official images in the Roman era that mentioned this at length. He essentially played both sides of the coin.

        • Palamas says:

          And again the question is raised: so what? So Constantine was a politician. Congratulations! You ferreted him out. What difference does that make to the subject at hand?

  5. Ralph W. Davis says:

    Historically, rulers have certainly appointed and used bishops….for worldly ends. However, when it comes to doctrine–about spiritual things, they’ve tended to be rather disinterested. The person & life of Jesus and the relationship of the holy Trinity, really don’t concern a dictator intent on enlarging his power. Using church polity connections to gain land, or influence other rulers….sure, but the Nicene Creed? No!

    Even Henry VIII & his daughter Elizabeth as direct heads of the English Church…..didn’t really influence doctrine.

  6. Dav says:

    Pity we don’t have the actual thoughts of Constantine sitting there watching the good bishops going at each other throats. And still – the fighting and whining goes on yet still with NO sign of an end…

  7. John Warren says:

    That was a really interesting article – thank you.

  8. Kepha says:

    I wish I had five green dollars for every time I’ve heard someone say that Constantine either imposed the homoousian position at Nicaea, imposed the canon of the New Testament at Nicaea, or both. I’d retire rich.

    That people like Clark an Bass can say such things of an emperor who was openly homoiousian and a council that already knew what its New Testament was and still remain respected scholars of religion says that religious scholarship in our day in age is often not worth the paper on which it is printed. Then again, our “science” (a fancy Latin word for “knowledge”) , after years of telling us that XX is female and XY is male now tells us our sex is whatever we think it is; and the only settled, unchangeable thing there is is a homosexual orientation. It also told us we were going to freeze by 2000 back in the 1970’s, and now tells us we are going to burn. As far as I can tell, we live in a golden age of triumphant ignorance and folly.

    • senecagriggs says:

      Then again, our “science” (a fancy Latin word for “knowledge”) , after years of telling us that XX is female and XY is male now tells us our sex is whatever we think it is; and the only settled, unchangeable thing there is is a homosexual orientation. It also told us we were going to freeze by 2000 back in the 1970’s, and now tells us we are going to burn. As far as I can tell, we live in a golden age of triumphant ignorance and folly.

      That’s awesome

    • David says:

      First of all, there is no such thing as “science” that says one thing or another. There are no official doctrines, but only a consensus of individual investigators. Sometimes these ideas must be altered or overturned when new evidence come to light. The fact that scientific ideas can change over the years is a good thing and shows that research continues.

      By the way, there are persons walking around who are XY and appear female by all external appearances due to testosterone insensitivity. This is sometimes discovered only when the patient fails to menstruate or become pregnant. There are also XXY and XYY cases as well.

      • Joan Wesley says:

        You make a valid comment. However, as a lifelong Methodist/United Methodist with a scientific background, my problem with the United Methodist Church is not its lack of scientific understanding, it is that it no longer possesses a single robust theology about God and us. Without a common theological understanding we have no basis to debate anything, including sexuality. Since everybody is approaching this from their own perspective of science and theology, we end up talking apples and oranges to each other. My life in science gave me no basis to understand how I was to live my life with the knowledge that there is the triune God who created the world and everything in it; unfortunately my time with the church did not either. I had to wander off and discover an understanding of God that took my breath away and finally made sense of all the ransom bits and pieces of information that i had collected over a lifetime of being a Methodist/United Methodist. As the pastor said yesterday during his sermon, being a Methodist no longer necessarily equates with understanding what it means to be a Christian–for which we owe John Wesley an apology.

  9. Randy Kiel says:

    The relevance of St. Paul’s comment to his student (2 Timothy 4:3) comes to the fore daily in these times: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions “

    • Indnajns says:

      Randy Kiel: The thing I find most disturbing about that and similar verses pointing out our human proclivities is that in 2000 years We Have Learned Absolutely Nothing.

  10. Tom says:

    The Nicene Creed is still going strong 1800 years later.

    Does anyone seriously think that anyone will still remember Diana Bass in 18 years?

  11. Donald Philip Veitch says:

    Diana wasn’t very steeped in patristics if she’s still saying this.

    • CHARLES TWOMBLY says:

      Diana once slammed me (on FB) for “lecturing” her on some of these matter and indignantly informed me about her academic background. I think her main area is American Religious History. As for patristics, I share your reservations. (Elizabeth Clark is a solid patritics scholar. Shame on her for politicizing Nicea; she should know better.)

  12. Roger says:

    One of the more troubling parts of her recollections (if I understood correctly) is that she was a PhD student/candidate at the time.

    If so, that would be horrific scholarship (from a seminary grad & PhD candidate) to simply hear someone speak on a topic, be so bothered by it that you have a severe physical reaction, & then simply digest that point of view as fact without even studying it further (or even looking into the speaker’s outlook/worldview).

    This doesn’t sound like a serious PhD student. If this is an example of her approach, I’m not sure I’d put much credence in her conclusions. Just a thought.

  13. John Smith says:

    Remember, for the liberal, the necessary precondition to bring about change to achieve a preconceived and desired result is to remove the obstacles which in the case of Christianity is orthodoxy. If the councils and church fathers can be discredited then those who are “enlightened” (woke, whatever) have a blank tablet on which to write the future.

  14. CHARLES TWOMBLY says:

    Lively discussion. Lots of ignorance on the part of the anti-Niceans, a rebuke as much to us historical theologians (and others) as it is to the respondents here. We “scholars” simply need to do a better job in showing what really went on. For one, it was reported that nearly every bishop present in 325 bore visible scars of persecution. These were serious folks doing visible work. For another, a primary “value” of the Creed is its durability. It’s exhibit A of Vincent of Lerins’s famous canon. Unlike Chalcedon, it was accepted (“received”) by virtually all the major groups, including those we later called Nestorians and mono/mia physites and remains (explicitly or implicitly) the basic faith of the vast majority of Christian traditions to this day (without the alleged coercion of an emperor). Forgive me if I put in a plug for my own book: PERICHORESIS AND PERSONHOOD (on John of Damascus). It has things to say about the Trinity and the Incarnation which might be helpful here.

  15. td says:

    I submit that if you don’t adhere to the nicene creed then you technically can’t be labeled as christian. Like it or not, the nicene creed defines christianity.

    Of course, you can make the claim that the nicene creed isn’t “true christian”, but that’s not what was decided in 325 AD. So…if you can’t submit to the nicene creed, you really should call yourself something other than christian.

    • Steve Thomas says:

      TD “ So…if you can’t submit to the nicene creed, you really should call yourself something other than christian.”

      I need to ask you an important question. What does the label Christian actually mean?

      Your position amounts to a claim that a Christian is a person who holds to a particular set of ideas.

      We need to take care.

      I wonder what the Christ would make of that? I think that we can learn from passages such as those that discuss what a real Jew is.

      Isn’t what really matters being found in Christ? If so what does that mean? Are only those who know (how many rank and file – apparently something other than) Christians even understand Trinitarian doctrine except (perhaps) in a very basic sense.

      How do we judge the tree? By its knowledge or its fruit?

      What did Jesus mean by salt and light?

      Would the Good Samaritan be accepted?

      Who is it that John suggests “knows God”?

      What was the status of the 12 when they served with Christ in proclaiming the Kingdom?

      I could go on …

      Having said all that, I have only in recent years come to understand how important Trinitarian theology is in understanding who we who human beings are in relationship to the universe of which we are a part, to one another (especially the community of “faith”) and God.

      Charles Twombly’s is right in plugging his book Perichoresis and Personhood.

      • td says:

        I primarily was speaking to religious denominations and clergy calling themselves Christian; i was not specifically speaking about individuals calling themselves christian.

  16. Theo says:

    I do not question DBB’s sincerity and the negative effect this supposed “revelation” had on her faith. Yes, there was no reason for her to accept Clark’s assertion in so submissive a fashion without further investigation on her part.

    Yet after three decades of following the path she set for herself, she almost certainly has too much invested in her current revisionist approach to be able easily to pull back from the edge.

    My guess is that she probably now knows that Clark’s account was flawed, but she may think it too late to put it aside, especially since she’s so publicly affirmed it.

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