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The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Nicaea, edited by Young Richard Kim

05 November 2021

The new Companion is mainly for specialists, says Robin Ward

IS THERE anything more to be said about the Council of Nicaea? This Companion garners a diverse collection of articles with an eye on the 1700th anniversary of the Council in 2025, but even the editor, in his acknowledgements, seems to have some doubts. He regrets that he has been unable to assemble a more diverse range of scholars, especially those of colour, and he wonders whether the whole scholarly enterprise exemplified in the collection can still seem significant in the light of, among other challenges of the day, racism, authoritarianism, and climate change.

This is, in fact, a rather old-fashioned looking product: there is much minute scholarship in the style of the Oxford patristics school of Kelly and Chadwick — perhaps most notably Daniel McCarthy’s fantastically erudite piece on the Council of Nicaea and the dating of Easter — but not much by way of synthesis.

The Companion contains 15 contributions in all, which the editor has grouped thematically: we begin with “Contexts”, move on to the Council itself, then consider “Outcomes”, “The Aftermath”, and “The Long Reception”. The two articles in the section on the “Long Reception” are perhaps the most wide-ranging, considering the reception of the Council in the Orthodox tradition and in the Latin Church, although Geoffrey Dunn’s piece on the latter jumps rather disconcertingly from the papacy of Zosimus in the fifth century straight to the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Otherwise, the several contributions are rather less thematically united than the editorial process actually implies: in the section on the Council itself, Ine Jacobs attempts to make bricks without much straw in her account of the physical setting and arrangements for the Council, whereas David Gwynn and H. A. Drake stick to a more conventionally text-based analysis.

Perhaps the most immediately useful two contributions are those by Mark Edwards on the Creed of the Council and Andreas Weckwerth on the Twenty Canons in the section on “Outcomes”. Edwards updates us succinctly and lucidly on the state of scholarship about the creed, not least the somewhat baffling complexities of how what we now call the Nicene Creed is not the same as the text that the Council endorsed. Weckwerth gives us a thorough and incisive analysis of the canons, all the more useful, given, as he notes, that there is surprisingly still no critical edition of their text. But, taken as a whole, the collection is more a series of scholarly clearings made in the dense forest of fourth-century patristics than a systematic introduction for the intelligent but uninitiated reader.

New students of patristics, ordinands, and clergy will still want to go to Dünzl, Kelly, and Hanson for reliable — if ageing — textbooks to find out what happened at the Council of Nicaea and why it is important. This Companion presupposes an entry level of erudition which few people without experience of graduate study in this highly recondite field will possess. But those who teach early Christian doctrine, and those who appreciate the painstaking method of traditional patristic scholarship, will find at least something to engage them here.

Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.


The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Nicaea
Young Richard Kim, editor
Cambridge University Press £28.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.10

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