On the eve of the commemoration of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, there are three Old Testament lessons read at Great Vespers. Two of them are not unexpected: from the Book of Deuteronomy, we have one lesson about Moses’ call to appoint elders to govern the vast numbers of Israel, and another lesson about how Israel must not harden their hearts in stubbornness. Makes sense—the bishops gathered at Nicea in 325 to govern the Church were like the elders that Moses appointed to govern Israel, and it was important that Church receiving the bishops’ wisdom not harden their hearts stubbornly, like Arius did. One can see why those lessons were chosen for the feast of the Nicene Fathers. But the third lesson is a bit of a puzzle—the story of Abraham and Lot and the armies of the pagans.
Read all about it in Genesis 14:14-20. Lot and Abraham settled down in the occupied Land of Canaan, Abraham settling in Hebron, and Lot in the more lush area of Sodom. Unfortunately for Lot, an alliance of pagan kings from the north conducted a raid on the area around Sodom, vanquishing its kings and taking lots of plunder before returning home. Among the plunder was Lot. Someone who escaped from the scene of battle carnage fled to Hebron to tell Abraham what had happened to his nephew Lot. Abraham’s response was immediate: he gathered together an army (or raiding party, as we might say today) and gave chase. They went far into the north, overtook them, routed them, and brought back Lot to safety. On the way back home, he was met by Melchizedek, king of Salem, who brought out bread and wine as priest of El Elyon, God Most High. A good story, one that would make a great movie. But what on earth does it have to do with the Fathers gathered at Nicea?
The answer lies in a small detail mentioned almost in passing: Abraham “led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen of them” (verse 14). And how many bishops were there at Nicea who rallied around the truth proclaimed by Athanasius and who produced the statement now known as the Nicene Creed? You guessed it: three hundred and eighteen. In fact the creed of Nicea was traditionally known as “the creed of the three hundred and eighteen” (from the definition of faith of the council of Chalcedon). For the one who chose the lessons for the feast of the Nicene Fathers, that number practically jumped off the page of Genesis, and the typological analogy was too good not to use. Just as Abraham had gathered an army of three hundred and eighteen and rescued his kinsman Lot from pagan captivity, so Jesus, the Seed of Abraham, gathered an army of three hundred and eighteen to rescue His children from heretical error. Armies are indispensible when war threatens, and those who fight in them to protect and save us are justly honoured as war heroes. The bishops who gathered at Nicea are justly honoured as well. In the case of Athanasius (at the time of the Nicene council, a mere deacon), he would suffer much for the faith, being exiled many times in the long aftermath of the council when the faith of Nicea strove for ascendency against the Arians. A war hero indeed.
This tells us that the choices between truth and error, between orthodoxy and heresy, are not merely intellectual options, parts of a mental game played by scholars when they’re bored. The contest between truth and error is part of a war, the eternal war between light and darkness, between God and Satan, between the woman clothed with the sun and the dragon (Revelation 12). A war is going on around us, and Nicea was only one battle in that long contest. Other battles are being fought even now, and show up in blogs and on the six o’clock news. We are all caught up in it. All the more reason to honour the war heroes, like the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.