When contemplating how they should oppose enemies of the Church, Orthodox Christians often recall St. Nicholas, who slapped Arius in the face. Several Russian Orthodox clergymen talk with us about the saint’s “intolerant” deed.
“Arius was stricken to the heart by thy learned voice.”
Deacon Vladimir Vasilik, doctoral candidate of linguistics; docent, history department of St. Petersburg University; docent, Sretensky Seminary.
—Let’s begin with the question as to the reality of this event. First of all, was St. Nicholas present at the First Ecumenical Council?
We still have a list of names of those who participated in the First Ecumenical Council. St. Nicholas is not among them. Nevertheless, as researchers themselves acknowledge, these lists are far from complete. There is no unanimous opinion even about the number of fathers. Some consider that there were 270, others 318 according to the number of Abraham’s slaves who came after him to free Lot. Taking into consideration that some left and others came before the end of the council, anything is possible. Even some of the most significant bishops are not in the list, never mind the modest bishop of Myra and Lycia, which could have disappeared from the list.
But they will tell you that according to his Life, St. Nicholas had debates with Arius. That means that these debates should have been recorded in the protocols. I have to disappoint the reader—we do not have the protocols from the First Ecumenical Council. It is unlikely that they were even recorded—otherwise various Orthodox apologists would have cited them, such as St. Athanasius of Alexandria and others. Only some documents have miraculously been handed down to our time: A speech by Emperor Constantine, the Nicean Creed, and the Rules of the council. If other things have not survived then even less so would have survived any record of St. Nicholas’s debates with Arius.
There is witness of St. Nicholas’s arrival at the Council in early Lives, including the Life written by Archimandrite Michael. And although this relates to the year 800, its compiler was most likely a compiler of ancient stories about St. Nicholas rather than an independent author. In the ancient hymns dedicated to the saint there is information on how St. Nicholas debated with Arius and won. Let’s take for example the ancient beatitudes dated to the early eighth century:
Arius was stricken to the heart
by thy learned voice
and Eunomius was caught
in thy theological nets.
The unoriginate Trinity—
and Spirit One in essence—
thou didst thoroughly preach
and by this condemned
to profound silence
those who equate the Creator
with the creation.