Emperor Theodosius wiped out Arianism among the Roman people in 380.

SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE

Constantine had a decisive influence on the formulation of the Nicene Creed but later reversed his position. Constantine’s successors crushed the Nicene party.  When emperor Valens died in 378, the imperial capital was solidly Arian.

Theodosius I succeeded Valens.  He was a passionate supporter of the Nicene Creed.  Commentators often refer to the Council of Constantinople of 381 as the turning point where Arianism was replaced by Nicene Christology, but that council was a mere formality.  Already prior to the council, Theodosius outlawed all other forms of Christianity and exiled Arian bishops.  Furthermore, Arians were not allowed to attend the Council of 381.

The 381 Council, therefore, was simply a formality.  The real decisions were taken by the Roman Emperor. Theodosius, with the strong arm of the empire, effectively wiped out Arianism among the ruling class and elite of the Eastern Empire.  This supports again the main thesis of this article series, namely that the emperors had a decisive influence on the Christology of the church.

The 381 Creed does not contain the Trinity concept (that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being).  But Theodosius’ Edict of Thessalonica of 380 does prescribe Trinitarian theology.  In other words, the State laws were Trinitarian while the CHURCH CREEDS LAGGED BEHIND. This also supports the thesis that the Christology of the church was determined by the emperors.

In the period after Theodosius, the church formulated the doctrines of Mary as the Mother of God and that Christ had distinct divine and human natures that were neither commingled nor divided and that were equally present in one person. 

Articles in this series include the following:

Christology of the persecuted church – first 300 years
Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
The Nicene Creed Interpreted
Fourth Century Arianism

What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
Death of Arianism among the Roman people – Current Article

The massacres of the Waldensians. – Middle Ages

THE EMPIRE WAS SOLIDLY ARIAN.

As discussed in the article on Fourth Century Arianism, Constantine had a decisive influence on the formulation of the Nicene Creed.  He forced the council of Nicaea to accept the key term Homoousios and to condemn Arianism.  However, just a few years later, Constantine reversed his position, banished the main promotor of the Nicene Creed (Athanasius) and allowed the Arian bishops who were exiled after Nicaea, to return. 

Constantine’s son and successor, Constantius II, was openly Arian.  At first, Constantius only ruled in the east, but by the year 353, he became the sole ruler of the empire.  He crushed the Nicene party, forcing the western bishops to abandon Athanasius and exiling leaders of the Nicene party.

The next emperor (Julian) did not choose sides, but he ruled only for three years.

Valens (364–378) succeeded Julian and revived Constantius’ anti-Nicene policy.  He also exiled Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used force against them.  Consequently, when Valens died in the year 378, the imperial capital of the empire (Constantinople), which by then has existed for 50 years, WAS SOLIDLY ARIAN.

THEODOSIUS WIPED OUT ARIANISM.

Theodosius I succeeded Valens.  He and his wife Flacilla were passionate supporters of the Nicene Creed.  Flacilla was instrumental in Theodosius’ campaign to end Arianism.  Sozomen reports an incident where she prevented a meeting between Theodosius and Eunomius of Cyzicus, who served as figurehead of the most radical sect of Arians.  Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa praised her Christian (Roman Catholic Encyclopedia (1909), article “Ælia Flaccilla” by J.P. Kirsch)..

Commentators often refer to the First Council of Constantinople, which Theodosius convened in the spring of 381, as the turning point where Arianism was replaced by Nicene Christology, but that council was a mere formality:

Firstly, Theodosius already on 27 February 380, with the Edict of Thessalonica (see Definition of orthodoxy in Theodosius I) decreed that Homoousian Christianity (the Nicene Creed) will be the only legal religion of the Roman Empire and that Christians teaching contrary views will be punished.  By means of this edict, Theodosius outlawed all other forms of Christianity.

Secondly, the incumbent bishop of Constantinople was an Arian. Two days after Theodosius arrived in Constantinople, on 24 November 380, and therefore also prior to the First Council of Constantinople in the spring of 381, he exiled the Arian bishop and appointed Gregory of Nazianzus, the leader of the rather small Nicene community in the city, as bishop over the churches of that city.

Thirdly, only supporters of the Nicene Creed were allowed into the Council of 381.  The previous Arian bishop and leaders were already banished and Arians arriving to attend the council were denied admission.

The 381 Council, therefore, was simply a formality.  Theodosius, with the strong arm of the empire, effectively wiped out Arianism from the Roman Empire.  

EDICT OF THESSALONICA

The edict stated:

According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.

We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment, they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles (places of worship) the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict. — Edict of Thessalonica (Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, editor, 1967, p. 22)

The term “Catholic” in this quote probably means ‘universal’.  The word “Catholic” only became part of the name of that denomination in 1054, at the East-West schism.

Summarized, Church historian Sozomen reports as follows on the Edict of Thessalonica:

Gratian bestowed the government of Illyria and of the Eastern provinces upon Theodosius. The parents of Theodosius were Christians and were attached to the Nicene doctrines.  Theodosius made known by law his intention of leading all his subjects to the reception of that faith which was professed by Damasus, bishop of ROME, and by Peter, bishop of ALEXANDRIA. He enacted that the title of “Catholic Church” should be exclusively confined to those who rendered EQUAL HOMAGE to the Three Persons of the Trinity and that those individuals who entertained opposite opinions should be treated as heretics, regarded with contempt, and delivered over to PUNISHMENT. (Sozomen’s Church History VII.4)

FIRST COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE

It was practice, in the fourth century, that emperors, as the real heads of the church, appoint church leaders and convene church councils.  Theodosius convened the First Council of Constantinople in the spring of 381.  It is also known as the Second Ecumenical Council.  ‘Ecumenical’ means it represents all Christian Churches and perspectives, but that was certainly not the case in this instance:

Arianism has already been outlawed the previous year, with the threat of punishment for people that teach anything different.

Gregory of Nazianzus—the leader of the Nicene party in the city—presided over part of the Council and vehemently opposed any compromise with the Homoiousians.  (Wikipedia, see note 17Lewis Ayres – Nicaea and its legacy: an approach to fourth-century Trinitarian theology)

Arians were not admitted into the council.  The previous Homoiousian bishop and leaders were already banished.  And 36 Pneumatomachians arrived to attend the council but were denied admission when they refused to accept the Nicene Creed.

Gregory resigned from his office and Nectarius, an unbaptized civil official, was chosen to succeed Gregory as president of the council (Wikipedia, also note 17).  Nectarius, as a civil servant, was fully under Theodosius’ control.

The Council confirmed Theodosius’ installation of Gregory Nazianzus as Bishop of Constantinople, accepted the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 and dogmatically condemned of all shades of Arianism as heresy. 

CONTENTS OF THE CREED OF 381

THE HOLY SPIRIT IN THE 381 CREED

The 325 Creed merely mentions the Holy Spirit in connection with the Father and Son.  It does not refer to the Holy Spirit as God or of the same substance as the Father. 

The 381 Creed goes much further.  The 5 words about the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed of 325 became 33 words in the creed of Constantinople, saying that the Holy Ghost is “the Lord and Giver of life,” that He proceeds from the Father and that He is worshiped together with the Father and the Son.  The 381 Creed therefore describes the Holy Spirit much clearer as a separate Person and as God.

The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “God,” p. 568, states that the teaching of the three Cappadocian Fathers “made it possible for the Council of Constantinople (381) to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which up to that point had nowhere been clearly stated, not even in Scripture.

Note: Catholics are not concerned if their doctrines are not found in the Bible because they believe in continued revelation through the church.

THE TRINITY IN THE 381 CREED

As discussed in the article What did Arians believe in the fourth century, the present writer does not find the Trinity concept (namely that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being) in the Nicene Creed.  It is also absent from the creed of 381.  (See the Comparison between the creed of 325 and 381.) 

However, the Edict of Thessalonica of 380, quoted above, which was an act of law by the emperor, made Trinitarian theology law:

“Let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

An edict which Theodosius issued after the Council of 381 is also clearly Trinitarian:

“We now order that all churches are to be handed over to the bishops who profess Father, Son and Holy Spirit of a single majesty, of the same glory, of one splendour” (quoted by Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 1999, p. 223).

In other words, the State laws were Trinitarian while the church creeds lagged behind.  The first clear Trinitarian church statement is the Athanasian Creed which was formulated perhaps 100 years later.  This supports the thesis of these articles, namely that the decisions, with respect to which Christology the church will adopt, was made by the emperors; not by ecumenical councils.

POST-381 TRINITY DEVELOPMENT 

MOTHER OF GOD

In the period after Theodosius crushed Arianism, the church formulated the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God.  Britannica reports:

Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, taught that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, may not properly be called mother of God (Greek Theotokos, or “God-bearer”), because she was the mother only of the human Jesus, not of the preexistent Word of God.  The Council of Ephesus (431) condemned this teaching. 

This matter, and its relationship with the Trinity doctrine, has not been further investigated for this article.  According to the 381 Creed, the “Lord Jesus Christ” has been “begotten of the Father.”  In what way Mary may the called mother of God and how this relates to the Trinity doctrine is unclear.

TWO NATURES OF CHRIST

The Arians objected to the creeds of 325 and 381 by asking, if the Son is of the same nature as the Father, why did He say that He does not know the day and hour of His return?  Why does only the Father knows that (Mat. 24:36)?  And why did Jesus say that He only do and say what the Father gave Him to do and say (e.g. John 5:30; 8:28).  Do such statements not imply that He is subordinate to the Father?  In response to such questions, the church developed the teaching that Christ had two natures:

But this council (of Ephesus) gave rise to monophysitism, which taught that Christ only had one nature.  It emphasized Christ’s divine nature to such an extent that it effectively negated Christ’s humanity.  It compared the relationship between Christ’s humanity and his divinity to a single grain of sugar in the ocean. Pope Leo I (reigned 440–461) led a reaction against this monophysite doctrine that culminated in the Council of Chalcedon (451). This council concluded that Christ had two distinct natures that were neither commingled nor divided and that were equally present in one person.  (Britannica)

See also the Wikipedia article on the Council of Chalcedon

The key word in the quote from Britannica is perhaps “equally.”  The argument is that Christ’s subordination statements in the New Testament must be understood as Him speaking from His human nature. 

Most Christians today accept the dual nature theory.  Opponents of this theory point out that this does not solve the problem, but makes it worse, for it means that Jesus was not telling the truth when He said that He does not know, for in His divine nature He actually knew.

CHALCEDONIAN SCHISM

The decisions at Chalcedon led to the Chalcedonian Schism.  The patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem accepted the decisions of the council but the Egyptian (Coptic) and Syrian, Ethiopian and Armenian Christians rejected the Chalcedonian formula:

They declared that Christ’s human and divine natures, while distinct, were equally present through the mystery of the Incarnation in a single person.   (Britannica)

In other words, they maintained that divinity and humanity are united in one undivided nature in Jesus Christ.

ATHANASIAN CREED

It was the Athanasian Creed—formulated around the year 500, which gave or take 50 years—which became the standard formulation of the Trinity theory throughout the middle ages.  Still today, it is used by many denominations in liturgy and confessions.  This creed was not written by Athanasius.  He died much earlier.  Neither was this a creed, for it was not produced by any known council.

The problem with the previous creeds is that they define the Father alone as God, but then proceed to elevate the Son and the Holy Spirit to the same level as the Father.  This may mean that we have three Gods (polytheism), while the Bible is strictly monotheistic.  The Athanasian Creed, for the first time, strongly and repeatedly emphasizes the oneness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a single Being.  It declares that they together are the one God of the Bible.  For example:

So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.”

For fifty years after Nicaea, the church was dominated by Arian emperors.

Trinity
Trinity

This is an article on a series that explains the historical development of the Trinity doctrine.  The main purpose of this series is to show the DECISIVE influence which the Roman Emperors had on the acceptance of the Trinity doctrine.  The previous article discussed the Council of Nicaea.  It shows that Constantine manipulated that council.  He called the council, presided over it, actively guided the discussions, proposed the key word Homoousios, enforced the formula that his advisor had agreed on, exiled all bishops that did not sign the creed and ordered all copies of Arius’ book to be burned.  The current article shows that the emperors after Constantine were Arian and crushed the Nicene party.

Articles in this series include the following:

Christology of the persecuted church – first 300 years
Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
The Nicene Creed InterpretedPrevious article
Fourth Century Arianism – Current Article

What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
The massacres of the Waldensians. – Middle Ages

SUMMARY

The Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. In fact, there was no unanimity at Nicaea. The bishops went on teaching as they had before, disputing the term homoousios.  Soon after Nicaea, while Constantine was still emperor, the consensus shifted away from the Homoousian to the Arian view.   

Constantine himself convened a gathering of Church leaders in 335 to address various charges against Athanasius; the chief advocate for the Nicene Creed and now bishop of Alexandria.  Constantine then banished Athanasius.  Athanasius was exiled no fewer than five times.

Arius and other bishops, who were condemned and exiled at the Council of Nicaea, regained imperial favor and were readmitted to communion.

When Constantine accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from an Arian bishop.

Constantine’s son Constantius II became the sole ruler of the empire by 353. He actively ENCOURAGED the church to reverse the Nicene Creed, FORCED the western bishops to abandon Athanasius and EXILED bishops adhering to the Nicene Creed. Constantius largely crushed the Nicene party.

The Third Council of Sirmium in 357 was the high point of Arianism. It held that homoousios (of one substance) does not appear in the Bible, that it is “above men’s understanding” and that “there ought to be no mention of any of these at all.”  

Constantius’ successor was Julian.  He was a devotee of Rome’s pagan gods.  He did not favor one church faction above another.  However, he reigned only for three years.

Emperor Valens (364–378) succeeded Julian and revived Constantius’ policy.  Similar to Constantine and Constantius before him, he EXILED Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used FORCE. 

This also shows the decisive influence which the emperors exerted with respect to which Christology the church accepted; albeit now Arian Christology.

NICAEA DID NOT END ARIANISM.

The Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. Karen Armstrong explains:

“In fact, there was no unanimity at Nicaea. After the council, the bishops went on teaching as they had before, and the Arian crisis continued for another sixty years. Arius and his followers fought back and managed to regain imperial favor. Athanasius was exiled no fewer than five times.” (A History of God – pp. 110-111)

Homoousios is the central term of the Nicene Creed. Many bishops of the Eastern provinces disputed this term, for it does not appear in the Bible and had already had been condemned by the Synods of Antioch in 269. 

Furthermore, the Bible is clear that only one Being exists without cause, and that is the Father.  Like all the ancient creeds, even the Nicene Creed starts by confessing monotheism:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible
.”

To say that Jesus is “very God of very God … being of one substance with the Father,” while there is only one God, seems like a contradiction; even polytheism.

CONSTANTINE BECAME AN ARIAN.

Soon after Nicaea, while Constantine was still the head of the empire, the consensus in the church shifted away from the Homoousian view towards Arianism, as indicated by the following: 

Ten years after Nicaea, the same emperor, Constantine the Great, convened another gathering of Church leaders at the regional First Synod of Tyre in 335 (attended by 310 bishops) to address various charges against Athanasius.  He now was the bishop of Alexandria, the most vocal opponent of Arianism and the chief advocate for the Nicene Creed.  These charges include “murder, illegal taxation, sorcery, and treason.”  He was convicted of conspiracy and Constantine banished Athanasius. 

In 336 the Synod of Jerusalem, under Constantine’s direction, readmitted Arius to communion. Arius died on the way to Constantinople.

Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis were condemned and exiled at the Council of Nicaea.  Constantine allowed them to return once they had signed an ambiguous statement of faith.

When Constantine accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from the same Eusebius of Nicomedia (Gonzalez, Justo (1984). The Story of Christianity Vol.1. Harper Collins. p. 176).  This implies that Constantine converted to Arianism.  (Constantine’s deathbed baptism does not mean that he was not a Christian before.  It was common for rulers to put off baptism to avoid accountability for things like torture and executing criminals (The Early Church, 1993, p. 127).  Constantine himself had his wife and son killed in the year after Nicaea.)

THE NEXT EMPEROR WAS CONSTANTIUS.

Constantius II

Constantine died in 337.  His three sons inherited the empire:

Constantine II received the far western part: Britain, Gaul, and Spain.

Constantius received the far eastern part: Macedonia, Greece, Thrace, Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. Constantius II ACTIVELY ENCOURAGED THE ARIANS  to reverse the Nicene Creed. His advisor in these affairs was still Eusebius of Nicomedia, who already at the Council of Nicaea was the head of the Arian party.  But he was now made the bishop of the capital city of the Roman Empire; Constantinople.  Constantius exiled Nicene bishops, especially Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius fled to Rome in the west, where Constantius did not rule. 

Constans received the area lying in between, namely Italy, North Africa, and Illyricum.

Both Constantine II and Constans took the western position with respect to the Arian controversy and supported Athanasius. 

In 340, Constantine II was killed in battle with the forces of Constans.  This left the empire divided between Constans in the West and Constantius in the East. In 350, Constans was assassinated by the rebel German emperor Magnentius. Three years later, Constantius defeated and killed the latter. Thus, by 353, Constantius was the sole ruler of the entire empire. 

CONSTANTIUS CRUSHED THE NICENE PARTY.

After Constantius became emperor of the entire empire, he extended his pro-Arian policy toward the western provinces.  In councils held in the West at Arles and Milan, he forced the western bishops to abandon Athanasius, and he exiled some of the leaders of the Nicene party. For example, he exiled Pope Liberius and installed Antipope Felix II.  Athanasius was exiled several times:

Although Nicaea spoke against Arianism, Constantine in later life leaned toward it, and his successor, Constantius II, was openly Arian (Britannica).

Under Constantius’ leadership the Nicene party was largely crushed. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Arianism, Vol. I, p.509)

In 357 a council held in Sirmium forbade the use of ousia (nature or substance) when speaking of the relationship between the Father and the Son. This was a complete victory [for the Arians]. (A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, p117)

The Third Council of Sirmium in 357 was the high point of Arianism. It resulted in the Second Creed of Sirmium which held that both homoousios (of same substance) and homoiousios (of similar substance) do not appear in the Bible, “are above … men’s understanding,” and “there ought to be no mention of any of these at all.”  It concluded that the Father is greater than the Son. After the Trinity doctrine became generally accepted in the church—in later centuries—this confession became known as the Blasphemy of Sirmium.

Jerome (c. 347–420) is best known for his translation of most of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate).  He remarked that “the term Usia was abolished: the Nicene Faith stood condemned. The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian” (The Dialogue Against the Luciferians).

EMPEROR VALENS WAS AN ARIAN.

Constantius died 361. His successor was Julian.  He was a devotee of Rome’s pagan gods.  He no longer favored one church faction over another but allowed all exiled bishops to return.  However, he reigned only for three years.

Emperor Valens (364378) succeeded Julian, revived Constantius’ policy and supported the “Homoian” party (the Son is like the Father).  Similar to Constantine and Constantius, he EXILED Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used FORCE.  The main purpose of this article is to show the DECISIVE influence which the emperors had on whether the church was Arian or Nicene.

WHAT THE CHURCH BELIEVED

The article Arianism explains what the church believed in this period.  The Nicene Creed of 325 makes the Son equal to the Father.  The word “God” is a modern invention.  We use it as the proper name of the One who exists without a cause.  In Arianism, THEOS, when it describes Jesus, or to any being other than the Father, should be translated as “god.”  The Father is the only God, the Son is our god, but the Father is His god and the Holy Spirit is not a person, but as a power; subject to the Son.

Constantine played a huge role in the decision of the Council of Nicaea.

PURPOSE

Nicene Creed
Emperor standing behind the church fathers

This article is one of a series that explains the historical development of the Trinity doctrine.  The main purpose of this series is to show the huge influence which the Roman emperors had on the acceptance of the Trinity doctrine, as opposed to Arianism.  In the fourth century, when Nicene Christology became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church existed effectively as part of the state and the emperor was, in practice, the head of the church.  Over the course of the following century, Nicene Christology further developed into the Trinity doctrine.  The purpose of the current article is to show, in particular, the influence which the first Christian emperor (Constantine) exerted over the Council of Nicaea in the year 325.

SUMMARY

In the years 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christianity.  This was the beginning of the transition of Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the year 380.

But soon a disagreement arose in the church with respect Christology—the study of the nature of Christ—between Arius, a minister in Alexandria of Egypt, and the head (bishop) of the church in that city.   Arius’ views spread, causing controversy within the wider church.

In the year 325, Emperor Constantine called an assembly of bishops; the First Council of Nicaea to formulate a single statement of belief with respect to the nature of Jesus Christ.  Nicaea condemned Arius’ doctrine and provided the definition of the relationship between the Father and the Son that is still accepted by most Christians today. 

WHY DID CONSTANTINE CALL THE COUNCIL?

Some think that Constantine was not really a Christian, but he probably was just like us; sinners.  However, his power as emperor aggravated his sins; similar to King David. 

There is a general agreement that Constantine did NOT really understand the arguments in the dispute.

This article proposes that Constantine did not call the Council of Nicaea because he was concerned about the church, but because he was concerned that the controversy may cause a division of the empire. The Roman Empire was very large and consisted of many different and diverse nations.  To maintain unity was a continual struggle, and religion had the potential to unite or divide.

CONSTANTINE CONTROLLED THE COUNCIL DECISION.

The main purpose of this article series is to show that the Roman Emperors controlled and determined the decisions of the church councils. 

In the fourth century, the prestige of the church spiraled upwards.  Constantine’s conversion encouraged many other Roman citizens to become Christians but the church became part of the state and the emperor became the real head of the church.

Constantine did control the Council of Nicaea.  He called the council, presided over it, actively guided the discussions, proposed the key word Homoousios, stepped in to enforce the formula that his advisor Hosius had agreed on with Alexander of Alexandria, exiled all bishops that were not willing to sign the creed and ordered all copies of Arius’ book to be burned, warning to execute those who refused to surrender the Arian’s writings.  “Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination” (Britannica).  In this way Constantine played a huge role in the formulation and acceptance of the creed, and consequently, in the eventual development of the Trinity doctrine.

The majority bishops opposed the creed.  The great majority of the Eastern bishops were disciples of Origen. They were uncomfortable with the wording of the creed, particularly the concept put into the creed by Constantine himself; Homoousios.  There was suspicion of this word because of its earlier association with Gnosticism.  The decisions the Council of Nicaea were really the work of a minority, but the support of the emperor ensured that their view was formally adopted.

This supports the main thesis of this series of articles, namely that the decision, whether the church should adopt Nicene Christology or Arianism, was dictated by the emperors.

EVENTS LEADING UP TO NICAEA

FIRST 300 YEARS

An apologist is a person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial. The Church Fathers of the first two or three centuries are called apologists because the church was a persecuted minority, and these theologians had to defend their faith against the Roman authorities.  Many of the apologists died for their faith. 

These church fathers, during the first 300 years of the church’s existence, did not believe that the Son existed as a Person from all eternity.  Many of them viewed the existence the Logos (the Word – Christ, before He became a human being) as consisting of two stages, namely, that the Logos existed from all eternity as an ATTRIBUTE of God and then as a Person alongside God from a specific POINT IN TIME.  That point in time must have been before or at the time of creation, for God created the cosmos THROUGH Him.

Origen of Alexandria (c. 184 – c. 253) was a Christian scholar and theologian who was born and spent the first half of his career in Alexandria. He was a prolific writer.  He wrote roughly 2,000 treatises in multiple branches of theology. He was one of the most influential figures in early Christian theology and has been described as “the greatest genius the early church ever produced.”  As explained below, one of the three parties at Nicaea represented his view.

Origen rejected the two-stage theory and maintained the eternal generation of the Son, which means that the Son existed at all times.  However, to remain strictly monotheistic, he explained the Son and the Holy Spirit as SUBORDINATE to the Father, who alone was true god; God in the strict sense. 

CHRISTIANITY LEGALIZED

The Diocletianic Persecution of 303-313 was the most severe persecution of Christians up to that point in history.  The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (reigned AD 306–337) legalized Christianity in 313 with the Edict of Milan.  He granted to Christians “the right of open and free observance of their worship.” This was a turning point for Christianity.  During Constantine’s reign, Christianity began to transition to become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the year 380 (see Constantine).

ARIUS

But soon a disagreement arose with respect Christology—the study of the nature of Christ—between Arius (c. 250–336), a minister (presbyter or priest) in Alexandria of Egypt, and the head (bishop) of the church in that city.   This was centuries before the rise of Islam, and Alexandria was one of the leading centers of Christian thinking. 

Around the year 318, his bishop removed Arius from office and in 321 a synod at Alexandria denounced Arius for teaching a heterodox view of Jesus Christ.  But Arius had influence in the schools of Alexandria as well in the wider eastern Empire.  He began to write letters and to teach in other ways.  His views spread, resulting in a controversy within the wider church, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, which is where Christianity originated, with Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria as main centers.

Although the words Arian and Arianism are derived from Arius’ name, Arius was not the first Arian.  As discussed in the article on Arianism, the main difference between Arianism and the Trinity doctrine (Nicene Christology) is that, in the Trinity Doctrine, Jesus is EQUAL with the Father, while, in Arianism, Jesus is SUBORDINATE to the Father.  With this simple definition of Arianism, all main theologians of the first three centuries were Arians (See Christology of the church fathers).

COUNCIL OF NICAEA

Emperor Constantine called an assembly of bishops; the First Council of Nicaea (Wikipedia; Britannica – Council of Nicaea) in the year 325 to formulate a single statement of belief with respect to the nature of Jesus Christ.  More than 300 bishops (traditionally 318) attended from all over the Roman Empire.  Since the meeting took place only 12 years after the persecutions ended, many of the bishops had previously been exiled or tortured.

The Council of Nicaea condemned Arius’ doctrine and provided the definition of the relationship between the Father and the Son that is still accepted by most Christians today.  For a discussion of the contents of the creed, see Nicene Creed.

WHY CONSTANTINE CALLED THE COUNCIL

BIBLE.CA contends that anti-Trinitarians falsely claim that Constantine was a pagan sun-worshipper who had no faith in Christ and had no understanding of Christian doctrine. 

WAS CONSTANTINE A CHRISTIAN?

The following are some of the evidence which BIBLE.CA offers to prove that Constantine was a Christian:

The reasons for Constantine’s conversion to Christianity have been much debated. Some believe that it was designed to win the support of the Christians, or a wise act of statesmanship aimed at buttressing the decaying empire. NEITHER VIEW IS VERY LIKELY (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, Constantine, Vol. 6, p. 386).

In building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 325 on the site where Hadrian had built a temple to Venus, Constantine destroyed and REMOVED EVERY TRACE OF THIS PAGAN IDOLATRY.  He even removed the soil on the site and dumped it far away (Eusebius, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, book 3, ch 27).

Constantine showed marked favor to Christians, thereby causing a flood of conversions. At the same time, his attitude to his pagan subjects became more severe. He DESTROYED THREE FAMOUS TEMPLES in 331 (Britannica).

Throughout his life, Constantine ascribed his success to his conversion to Christianity and the support of the Christian God. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Constantine the Great, Vol. 5, p.71)

In the year after the Council of Nicaea, Constantine had both his wife and son murdered (Britannica) which puts a huge question mark behind Constantine’s Christianity.  BIBLE.CA does its utmost to justify those murders.

Conclusion: Constantine probably was just like us.  None of us are without sin and all Christians are supposed to grow to maturity over time.  The point in this article is not that Constantine was a pagan, but that he manipulated the Nicene Council to achieve a predetermined result.

DID CONSTANTINE UNDERSTAND THE DISPUTE?

BIBLE.CA concedes that Constantine had not grappled with the concepts of the Trinity discussion.  The following is further proof of this:

The Arian heresy, couched in difficult Greek … was remote from Constantine’s educational background. The Council of Nicaea had already been preceded by a letter to Arius of Alexandria, in which Constantine stated that THE POINT AT ISSUE WAS TRIVIAL … (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Constantine the Great, Vol. 5, p.71)

NOT UNDERSTANDING the theological points at issue, Constantine first sent a letter to the two parties rebuking them for quarreling about minute distinctions (Britannica).

Constantine had basically NO UNDERSTANDING whatsoever of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology. …  (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)

TO PREVENT A SPLIT OF THE EMPIRE

Constantine called the council TO PREVENT A SPLIT IN HIS EMPIRE.  This may be explained as follows:

The Roman Empire was very large and consisted of many different and diverse nations.  To maintain unity was a continual struggle.  The emperors recognized the potential of religion to either unite or divide the empire.  Before Christianity was legalized, emperors persecuted Christianity and required the pagan ceremonies of showing respect for the gods and for the emperor AS A MEANS TO MAINTAIN UNITY. 

Christianity is different from other religions, for it is based on a large book (the Bible), written by many people over thousands of years.  This book determines Christian doctrine; not human authority; at least in Protestant thinking. However, this large book leaves much scope for different interpretations.  These differences always existed, for example, the Pharisees and Sadducees.  However, after Christianity was legalized, the emperors saw these rifts as threats to the unity in the empire.  Arthur Cushman McGiffert wrote:

“In the hope of securing for his throne the SUPPORT of the growing body of Christians he had shown them considerable favor and it was to his interest to have the church vigorous and united. The Arian controversy was threatening its unity … He therefore undertook to put an end to the trouble. … Constantine himself of course neither knew nor cared anything about the matter in dispute …” (A History of Christian Thought, 1954, Vol. 1, p. 258).

EMPERORS DICTATED CHURCH DOCTRINE.

In the fourth century, the prestige of the church spiraled upwards.  Constantine’s conversion encouraged many other Roman citizens to become Christians, including those who converted only with the hope of advancing their careers.  But this also commenced a period of state interference in church affairs (Britannica).  The church became part of the state, and the emperor became the real head of the church.

EMPEROR MANIPULATED THE NICENE COUNCIL

BIBLE.CA states that anti-Trinitarians falsely claim that Constantine “ran” the Nicene Council.  However, it is true that Constantine manipulated the council.  He called the Council of Nicaea, presided over it, proposed the key word Homoousios (Latin – consubstantial), forced the council to accept this term and exiled all bishops that were not willing to sign the creed.  Constantine, therefore, played a huge role in the formulation and acceptance of the creed, and consequently, in the eventual development of the Trinity doctrine:

The church was faced by a new form of governmental interference when Constantine the Great both CALLED and CHAIRED the Council of Nicaea (Britannica).

“In 325 a Council was CONVOKED by Constantine the emperor” (The Triune God, Edmund J. Fortman, p 66-70)

The Council of Nicaea OPENED with an address by the Emperor (BIBLE.CA).

“Constantine himself PRESIDED, actively GUIDING the discussions, and PERSONALLY PROPOSED . . . the crucial formula expressing the relation of Christ to God in the creed issued by the council . . . OVERAWED by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination” (Britannica, 1971 edition, Vol. 6, “Constantine,” p. 386).

The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely Homoousios, COMES FROM no less a person than the emperor himself. To the present day, no one has cleared up the problem of where the emperor got the term (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53).

Dale Tuggy’s podcast 247 confirms that Constantine himself suggested the term homoousios.

The emperor at first gave the council a free hand but was prepared to step in if necessary to enforce the formula that his advisor Hosius had agreed on with Alexander of Alexandria. (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)

CONSTANTINE EXILED BISHOPS WITH OTHER VIEWS

Of the roughly three hundred bishops in attendance at the Council of Nicaea, only two refused to sign the creed.  This is often mentioned as a great victory for Nicene Christology, but few mention that the emperor exiled all bishops who were not willing to sign the creed.  In other words, the bishops were forced to sign.  Religious liberty is a modern invention.  If they refused to sign, they lost their jobs and were exiled to a remote part of the empire:

“Two bishops who refused to sign the Creed, the Libyan bishops Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarike, were deposed by the Council and exiled by the Emperor” (pp. 162–163, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318–381. 2005).

The Wikipedia page on Theognis of Nicaea indicates that Zopyrus (Bishop of Barca), Eusebius of Nicomedia and Maris of Chalcedon were also exiled.

Constantine exiled Arius himself and the deacon Euzoios; and also all bishops who signed the creed but REFUSED TO JOIN IN CONDEMNATION of Arius, namely Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea.  (See Nicaea and Hanson 2005)

This was not the first time that the emperor took sides in religious matters and forced his will through the strong arm of the empire.  One of the first such controversies was with respect to a group in North Africa, later called Donatists.  Synods in 313 and 314 ruled that the Donatist faith was heresy.  When the Donatists refused to recant, the Roman Emperor Constantine launched the first campaign of persecution by Christians against Christians.

The question remains, how many bishops would have voted against the Nicene Creed if this vote was anonymous?  Would they have been willing to sign if the emperor did not intimidate them with the power of the state?

THE MAJORITY BISHOPS OPPOSED THE CREED

BIBLE.CA also states that anti-Trinitarians falsely claim that the majority opposed the Nicene Creed.  However, that website also states as follows:

When Frend says “The great majority of the Eastern bishops found themselves in a false position,” he tells us what that position is: “The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of Origen. Future generations have tended to dub them “Semi-Arian.” In fact, they were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church”

This requires some further elucidation:

TRADITIONAL LOGOS THEOLOGY

The “traditional Logos-theology” is what many in the church believed in the first 300 years, namely that the Son is the pre-existent “Word” (Logos) that created all things, and became the human being Jesus, the Christ.  In this theology, the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father.  The large number of Origenists at the council must have been uneasy about the Nicene Creed, which made the Son equal to the Father.  It is interesting that the Nicene Creed does not use the term Logos for Christ but the Son.  This is perhaps an indication that the creed is a move away from the traditional Logos-theology.

SEMI-ARIANS

The “Semi Arians” were one of the factions of Arianism that existed during the fifty years after the Nicene Council when the Nicene Creed was rejected and Arianism dominated the Church.  The Semi-Arians accepted the equality and co-eternality of the persons of the Trinity, but rejected the Nicene term homoousios.  They preferred the term homoiousios (similar substance).

THE WORK OF A MINORITY

The following is further evidence that the majority of the council did not agree with the Creed, but only accepted it due to the pressure exerted by the emperor:

The decisions of the Council of Nicaea were really the work of a minority, and they were misunderstood and disliked by many who were not adherents of Arius. In particular, the terms aroused opposition, on the grounds that they were unscriptural, novel and tending to Sabellianism. (Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)

Even most of Arius’s allies abandoned him, and as Pelikan says, “saluted the emperor, signed the formula, and went right on teaching as they always had.” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)

Most of the bishops who were present at the council signed this creed. Among the signers were those who, judging by their theological presuppositions, could not do so, such as Eusebius of Caesarea. What seemed especially objectionable to many bishops was the concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios. (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)

HOMOOUSIOS COMES FROM PAGAN SOURCES

The website BIBLE.CA states that anti-Trinitarians falsely claims that Constantine introduced the Trinity doctrine from pagan sources.  However:

Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85) states (summarized): There was some suspicion of the word homoousios on the part of the orthodox because of its earlier association with Gnosticism and even Manicheism. Even its defenders experienced some embarrassment about this term because of its identification with the condemned ideas of Paul of Samosata.

Kegan Chandler discusses the theories of the origin of the word Homoousios and concludes Constantine obtained it from Egyptian Hermetic sources.

It is, therefore, very likely that Constantine obtained this term from his previous pagan sources.

THE EMPEROR SUPPORTED THE MINORITY

Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85) explains the pressure applied by the emperor as follows (summarized):

Among those present, three “parties” were discernible:

– Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
– The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and
Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.

The Lucianists … put forth a rather blunt statement of their beliefs. To their considerable surprise, this was summarily rejected. It was then their hope that the Origenists’ position, which was something of a midpoint between the Arian and the Alexandrian parties, would prevail.

Indeed, the Origenists put forth a creed, which was unanimously pronounced to be orthodox by those present.

Those of the party of Alexander, however, were not fully satisfied. They were FAVORED BY THE EMPEROR and followed the strategy of accepting the Creed of Caesarea while demanding a more precise definition of some of its key terms. THE EMPEROR FAVORED the inclusion of the word homoousios.  The Alexandrian party then presented a carefully worked out statement, which they said was a revised form of the Creed of the Origenists, with certain steps taken to close loopholes that could be interpreted in Arian fashion.

The Origenists had considerable reservation about some elements of the creed, fearing that phrases such as “out of the Father’s substance” and “of the same substance as the Father” could be interpreted in a material sense, could be understood as Sabellian, and were not of biblical origin.

The emperor exerted considerable influence. Consequently, the statement was approved by all except three members of the council.

This supports the main thesis of this series of articles, namely that the decision, whether the church should adopt Nicene Christology or Arianism, was dictated by the emperors. Further articles will show how the emperors determined the further development of the Trinity doctrine.  Later emperors did not participate in the formulation of creeds, as Constantine did, but they decided which formulation will be accepted; often against the majority view in the church.

EMPEROR DESTROYED ARIUS’ WRITINGS

After the Nicene Council, the Emperor ordered all copies of the Thalia, the book in which Arius had expressed his teachings, to be burned, and commanded the death penalty for those who refused to surrender the Arian’s writings:

If any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. … “Emperor Constantine’s Edict against the Arians”. fourthcentury.com. 23 January 2010.

Constantine burning Arian books, illustration from a compendium of canon law, c. 825.