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.
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.
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:
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 (364–378) 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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
“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:
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.
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.
Analysts often claim that the Nicene Creed declares the Son to be equal with the Father. However, the creed starts by saying,
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible,”
This identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father in four ways:
If the Father is the “one God” in which we believe, that excludes the Son.
If the Father is Almighty, then the Son is not Almighty, for two Almighty beings is impossible.
The Father/Son terminology also identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father.
The Father is the “Maker of all things.” The creed later adds that all things were made BY the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things. The Son is the Father’s hands through whom the Father made all things.
The creed makes a fundamental distinction between the Son and the created cosmos by saying that the Son is “begotten, not made;” even the “only Begotten.” This also implies that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father, for He generated (begat) the Son.
The creed describes the “one Lord Jesus Christ” as “very God of very God,” but this is an inappropriate translation. It should read “very god of very god,” for the word in the creed, that is translated “god,” is the common word for the immortal Greek gods. In contrast, the word “God” is a modern invention, with a very different meaning.
The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “of one substance with the Father.” This implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality), but He subordinate to the Father in all other respects. The Father is the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.
NO TRINITY DOCTRINE
The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine, for it does not describe the Holy Spirit as God and there is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The issue before the council was not the unity of the Godhead, but the nature of the Son, relative to the Father.
The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is homoousios. It means “of the same substance:”
In the time before the creed was formulated, this term meant likeness of substance.
Later Catholic theologians interpreted it as ‘identically the same substance.’ In other words, that the Father and Son not only have similar substance; exactly the same substance of the Father is also the substance of the Son. This implies His numerical identity with the Father.
But this article proposes that the council did not agree on the meaning of Homoousios. The emperor himself proposed the term Homoousios and applied pressure on the council to accept this term. For this reason, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father
the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; …
And in the Holy Ghost.
But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or
‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—
they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
IS THE SON SUBORDINATE?
Analysts often claim that this creed declares the Son to be equal with the Father. In this section, that statement is evaluated and qualified.
The Nicene Creed starts by saying,
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible,”
but later adds
“And in one Lord Jesus Christ …
very God of very God”
Does this mean that the Son is EQUAL with the Father?
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN God and god
But first, it is important to note, for the discussion of these phrases, that the original language of the creed did not distinguish between upper and lower case letters. Consequently, the word “God” could actually also be translated as “god.” There is a huge difference between these two words:
God – “God” is a modern word. We use it today as the proper name for the “unbegotten,” as the ancients used to say; that is, the One who exists without cause. The creed (and the New Testament) does not contain any one word that is exactly equivalent to the modern word “God.”
god – The word which the creed uses is the common title for a Greek god (theos) and simply means a supernatural, immortal being, like the “gods” of the Greek pantheon. It should be translated as “god,” unless the context indicates or implies that the Unbegotten is intended.
For a further discussion of the words “God” and “god,” see the articles Ignatius of Antioch or Arianism or THEOS. With this information, the wording of the creed is discussed below:
THE ALMIGHTY FATHER
The creed identifies the Father as “Almighty.” This means that ONLY the Father is “Almighty,” for two “Almighty” beings is impossible. This also means that the Son is not “Almighty.”
The creed also says that “we believe in one god, the father.” (For the reasons above, to more accurately reflect the meaning of the text, capital letters have been converted into small caps.) That statement means that we do not believe in many gods, but in only one god, and that is the One to whom Jesus referred as “Father.” It excludes the Son as the “one god” in which we believe. They are both gods, but only the Father is “Almighty.”
The Father is the “Maker of all things visible and invisible.” The New Testament often states that God created all things THROUGH the Son (John 1:3; Col. 1:16; Hebr. 1:2; “by” in 1 Cor. 8:6 – NASB). The creed similarly says that all things were made BY the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things. The Son is the Father’s hands through whom the Father made all things.
THE ONLY-BEGOTTEN SON
The Lord Jesus Christ is called “the Son of God” while the Almighty is His “Father.” On their own, the terms “Son” and “Father,” imply that the Lord Jesus Christ is SUBORDINATE to the Father.
To say that the Son is “very god of very god” (or “true god of true god” in other translations) merely says that both the Father and the Son truly are supernatural, immortal beings. It is a MUCH LOWER CLAIM that being the Almighty. It does not even mean that they are the only gods. Jesus even referred to humans, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods” (same word – John 10:34-35). To translate this as “true God of true God” misrepresents the meaning of the creed, for only the Almighty qualifies to be “God” in modern nomenclature.
The creed also says that the Son is “begotten, not made.” The word “of,” in the phrase, “very god of very god,” is related to this concept. This also implies that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father, for He generated (begat) the Son.
The creed adds that the Son is the “only Begotten.” In other words, no other being was “begotten” by the Father. This implies a fundamental difference between the Son and “all things.” All things were “made,” according to the Nicene Creed, but only the Son was “begotten.”
The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “being of one substance with the Father.” This is probably derived from the concept that He is begotten, for the Bible does not discuss the substance of the Father or of the Son.
MADE OUT OF NOTHING
The creed condemns all who say that “He was made out of nothing.” Since He was begotten, one could perhaps argue that He was made of the substance of the Father. However, such arguments are dangerous because the Bible says nothing about this and this is not something which humans are able to understand.
Nevertheless, the implication of the Nicene Council is that all other things were made out of nothing. However, Einstein taught us that things cannot be made out of noting (E=mc2, where E stands for Energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light). The Father, therefore, did not use other materials to make “all things.” Rather, all things are brought forth from His own being. He provided from His own being the energy which He converted into the material from which He made all things. The claim that the Son is the only-begotten, is humanly incomprehensible but sets the Son apart from all other things.
On the one hand, the creed identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father:
We believe is only “one god; the Father.”
Only the Father is “Almighty.”
The Lord Jesus is called “Son;” in contrast to the Father.
The Son has been “begotten“ by (generated by) the Father.
The Father made all things through the Son.
On the other hand, the Son is “of one substance with the Father,” which implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality), but He subordinate to the Father in all other respects. Also bear in mind that this concept, that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, is an interpretation, of the word “begotten,” and is not directly stated as such in the Bible.
We can compare the Father and the Son to a human father and son, who are of the same substance, and say that the human son is subordinate to the human father, but this comparison breaks down, for the Father did not only generate the Son: The Father is also the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.
NO TRINITY IN THE NICENE CREED
The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine. This statement is justified as follows:
Firstly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Holy Spirit is a separate Person, equal with the Father and the Son, but the Nicene Creed merely and very briefly mentions the Holy Spirit together with the Son and the Father, to indicate a belief in the Triad (three Persons) of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. It says nothing about the Holy Ghost being “true God” or being of the same substance.
Secondly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being, but there is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed.
The Athanasian Creed, formulated more than a century later, expresses the trinity concept explicitly, including with the phrase, “the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity:”
Note: Most often today, we use the word “Trinity” as a SINGULAR REFERRING TERM (meaning that it refers to a single being), for, in the Trinity doctrine, God is One Being, consisting of three Persons. The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed and in Tertullian and in many other church fathers, in contrast, is actually a PLURAL REFERRING TERM, meaning that it refers to a group of three distinct Beings. It is, rather, the word “Unity,” in the Athanasian Creed that emphasizes their One-ness. The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed should, therefore, be rendered with a lower case “t.”
Thirdly, as Millard J. Erickson stated, the issue before the council, it is virtually universally agreed, was not the unity of the Godhead but rather the coeternity of the Son with the Father, and his full divinity, as contrasted with the creaturehood that the Arians attributed to him (God in Three Persons, p82-85).
DOES HOMOOUSIOS MEAN ONE BEING?
This section is adapted from Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85).
The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is homoousios (consubstantial in Latin). It means “of the same substance” or “of one being.” The Nicene Creed uses this term to say that the Son is “of one substance” or “of one being” with the Father, namely that He was begotten “from the substance of the Father.” This is often understood to mean that the Son is fully equal to the Father. But what did it actually mean to the council? Three possibilities are considered:
SAME TYPE OF SUBSTANCE
If this was the meaning, then the creed says that the Son is utterly unlike creatures in substance, but it does not mean that they share the same substance (numerically the same substance), as required by the Trinity doctrine. This view is supported by the following:
Firstly, before Nicaea, homoousios meant likeness of substance. This is how Origen and his followers used the term. In that sense, it could signify the kind of substance or stuff common to several individuals of a class. We could say, for example, that all humans consist of the same substance.
Secondly, if it was used to mean numerical identity of substance, the Eusebians would have identified it as Sabellianism and would have resisted it vigorously. (Sabellianism is the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are THREE DIFFERENT MODES or aspects of God.)
Thirdly, the great issue at Nicaea was the SON’S FULL DIVINITY and not the unity of the Godhead. The word Homoousios, therefore, would have been understood to signify the Son’s full divinity; His total likeness in substance to the Father and total unlikeness to creatures in substance.
Lastly, later on—after the numerical identity of substance became a standard part of Christology—some orthodox theologians still used the word homoousios in the sense of the same type of substance.
NUMERICALLY (EXACTLY) THE SAME SUBSTANCE
For later Catholic theologians, Homoousios meant ‘identically the same substance’:
In other words, the Father and Son not only have a similar substance; exactly the same substance of the Father is also the substance of the Son. This implies His numerical identity with the Father. (That they are the same being.) Arguments that are used for this view include the following:
(a) It would seem to be unnatural” for monotheists to admit two divine ousiai (substances).
(b) Origen used the word to mean SIMILAR SUBSTANCE, but for Origen, the Son was INFERIOR to the Father, (The Triune God, Edmund J. Fortman, p 66-70). Since the intent of the council was to affirm the Son’s equality with the Father, would they use the word Homoousios with the meaning which Origen attached to it?
(c) If Hosius of Cordova influenced the adoption of the term, would he have failed to indicate to the Nicene Fathers that for him and the West it signified ‘identity of substance’?
In recent years there is a growing tendency to reject the numerical identity view.
As discussed in another article, the emperor himself proposed the term Homoousios and exerted pressure on the council to accept the term. Since there were three different factions at the meeting with three different views, and because of the pressure applied by the emperor, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways, depending on their theological tendencies (e.g. Marcellan neo-monarchianism or Eusebian subordinationism). In other words, THE COUNCIL DID NOT AGREE ON THE MEANING OF HOMOOUSIOS.
The creed describes certain people that “are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” However, to condemn people with different views is inconsistent with the Christian principles of love and humility. This is made worse by the fact that the nature of Christ is a humanly incomprehensible subject, and not explicitly taught in the Bible.
Furthermore, people are saved by theirfaith (trust) in God; not by believing the right doctrines. The creed makes itself a criterion for the true faith. All that the Bible requires from believers is stated in John’s summary of his gospel:
“These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
It always amazes me how important Christology became in the fourth century. Why did the church, in the fourth century, elevate the nature of Christ to be the most important doctrine? I would like to venture that, during the first 300 years, the enemy of the faith attacked the church from outside, through persecution. After the church has been legalized in 313, the enemy entered the church. It was now inside the church and saw in this topic fertile ground for causing division in the church. He still today uses this topic very effectively for that purpose.
The condemnations in the creed refer to “the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” The word “catholic,” here, simply means ‘universal’. During the 11th century, the East-West schism permanently divided Church. That schism resulted from a dispute on whether Constantinople or Rome held jurisdiction over the church in Sicily, followed by mutual ex-communications in 1054. Since that event, the Western (Latin) branch of Christianity has since become known as the Catholic Church, while the Eastern (Greek) branch is called the Orthodox Church. In this way, “Catholic Church” became the name of one particular denomination. When used as such, the “c” in both ‘catholic’ and “church’ are capitalized; Catholic Church.
In the fourth century, the church transformed from being persecuted to being the official religion of the Roman Empire. At the same time, a huge controversy raged with respect to the nature of Christ. To prevent a split in the empire, the emperors could not allow disunity in the church. They forced the church to formulate creeds, and, true to the nature of the empire, persecuted church leaders with other views.
We are not sure what Arius taught, for his books were destroyed after Nicaea, and we should not trust what his opponents wrote. Athanasius claimed that Arius said that “there was a time when the Son was not,” but Arius wrote that the Son existed “before time.”
The Nicene Creed of 325 makes the Son equal to the Father, but soon the church consensus shifted to Arianism, and it remained so for the next 50 years. During that fifty-year period, Arianism was refined. Consequently, it is important to understand what Arianism believed after these intense debates.
GOD AND THEOS
Today, we use the modern word “God” as the proper name of the One who exists without a cause. There was no equivalent word for “God” in ancient Greek. The original Bible and other ancient Greek writings use the word THEOS, which is equivalent to our modern word “god.” The word “God,” in our translations, is an interpretation, and should only be used to refer to the One who exists without a cause.
When THEOS refers to Jesus, it can only be translated as “God” if one assumes Nicene Christology. In Arianism, THEOS, when it describes Jesus, or to any being other than the Father, is translated as “god.”
The Father is the “only one God.” He is “the unbegotten,” which means to exist without a cause, and therefore to be the ultimate Cause of all else.
The Son is our god, but the Father is His god. The Son is the maker of all creation. This elevates Him infinitely above pagan gods. As the “only-begotten,” the Son was not created but is subordinate to the Father.
The Holy Spirit is not a Person, but as a power; subject to the Son.
PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE
Metamorphosis – The fourth century was a remarkable period. In it, the church changed from being PERSECUTED to being the OFFICIAL RELIGION of the Roman Empire. For all practical purposes, the church became part of the state, with the emperor as the HEAD of the church. Adopting the character of the empire, the church PERSECUTED church leaders that do not abide by official church doctrines.
Arian Controversy – In that century also, a huge controversy raged with respect to the NATURE OF CHRIST. The Nicene Creed—formulated in 325 at the city of Nicaea—essentially stated that the Son is EQUAL to the Father. But within a few years, the church reverted to Arianism, which dominated the church for the next 50 years, and which taught that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father. This Arian period was brought to an end when Theodosius became emperor in the year 380. He was an ardent supporter of Nicene Christology and IMMEDIATELY declared Arianism illegal and Nicene Christology to be THE ONLY religion of the empire. He then replaced the Arian church leadership with Nicene leaders.
Purpose – The purpose of this article is to analyze what Arianism believed in the fourth century. Some of the historical facts mentioned in this article are described in more detail in other articles.
CONFLICTING EVIDENCE IN THE BIBLE
To understand the war between Nicene Christology and Arianism, we must appreciate the conflicting evidence in the Bible about the nature of Christ. Many statements describe Him as divine, but many others imply that He is subordinate to God, for example:
“All things have been created through Him.” He “upholds all things by the word of His power,” has “life in Himself,” sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples, is “the first and the last,” and owns everything which the Father has. “All will honor the Son even as they honor the Father.” In Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form. “At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow.” Only He knows the Father. (Col. 1:16; John 5:26; Luke 24:49; Rev. 1:17; Heb. 1:3; John 5:23; John 20:28; John 16:15; Col. 2:9; Mt. 11:27; Phil. 2:10)
Only the Father knows the “day and hour” of His return. Everything which the Son has, He received from the Father, including to have “life in Himself.” The Father sent Him and told Him what to say and do. The NT consistently makes a distinction between Jesus and God. For example, Jesus is today at the right hand of God. The “one God” and “the only true God” is always the Father. The Father is His God and He prayed to the Father. (Mt. 24:26; John 5:22, 26; John 7:16; Philemon 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Eph. 4:4-6; John 17:3; Rev. 3:12; John 17; Acts 7:56).
WHAT ARIUS BELIEVED ABOUT CHRIST
Arius – The words Arian and Arianism are derived from the name of Arius (c. 250–336); a church leader who had significant influence at the beginning of the fourth century. His teachings initiated the Arian controversy and Emperor Constantine called the council at Nicaea specifically to denounce Arius’ teachings.
We are not sure what Arius taught. After Nicaea in 325, the emperor gave orders that all of Arius’ books be destroyed and that all people who hide Arius’ writings, be killed. Very little of Arius’ writings survived, and much of what did survive are quotations selected for polemical purposes in the writings of his opponents. Reconstructing WHAT Arius actually taught, and—even more important—WHY, is, therefore, a formidable task. There is no certainty about the extent to which his teachings continued those of church fathers in previous generations.
Letter to Eusebius – We have a brief statement of what Arius believed in a letter he wrote to the Arian archbishop of Constantinople; Eusebius of Nicomedia (died 341). He wrote as follows:
We say and believe … that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter; but that by his own will and counsel he has subsisted (existed) before time and before ages as perfect as God, only begotten and unchangeable, and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning. — Theodoret: Arius’s Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, translated in Peters’ Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, p. 41
BRIEF REFLECTIONS ON ARIUS’ VIEW
Distinction – Arius made a clear DISTINCTION between the Son and God, for he wrote:
The Son existed “as perfect as God” and “The Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning”.
The unbegotten is that which exists without a cause. Since the Son is the only-begotten, He is not part of that which exists without a cause. For Arius, the Father alone is unbegotten.
He does not derive his subsistence from any matter for He derived His subsistence (existence) only from God.
He existed by his own will and counsel, which means that He existed as an independent Person with His own will; distinct from God.
He existed before time and before ages, which may be understood to mean that He was begotten by God before time began.
He existed as perfect as God,only begottenand unchangeable. The phrase “only begotten” identifies the Son as unique. There is no other like Him. He is as perfect as God and unchangeable. This indicates the extremely high view of the Son which Arius. Sometimes people say that Arius taught that the Son was a created being. That statement misrepresents Arius.
Before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. Here, Arius implies that HE DOES NOT KNOW HOW the Son was begotten. That is hidden in the mystery of the infinite. But it remains clear that He was not unbegotten. In other words, He exists by the will of God, the Father.
The Son has a beginning but God is without beginning. We explain below how the Son can have a beginning if He existed before time.
A TIME WHEN THE SON WAS NOT
In the fourth century, Athanasius was the arch-enemy of Arianism and the great advocate of the homoousian (Nicene) theology. He quoted Arius as saying:
“If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this, it follows there was a time when the Son was not.”
Today, this quote by Athanasius is quite famous and is still used to characterize Arius’ teaching. But Arius wrote to Eusebius—in the quote above—that the Son existed “before time.” This seems to contradict what Athanasius wrote. We do not know whether Arius really wrote the words quoted by Athanasius or whether they were an emphasis put on Arius’ words to discredit him.
Since the Trinity doctrine is generally accepted in the church today, most Christians regard Athanasius as the hero of the fourth century who stood for ‘the truth’ when ‘the whole world’ was Arian. Athanasius is counted as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church in the Catholic Church. On the other hand, in his own time, the church accused him of horrible crimes. We are not able to judge either way today, but Athanasius was a prolific writer, and we can judge his spirit by his writings. For this purpose, listen to the following podcasts:
Eternal generation – In the Trinity doctrine today, the Son had no beginning but always existed with the Father. The Bible is clear that He is begotten by the Father but that is explained with the concept of eternal generation: The Father always was the Father; there never was a time that the Father was not the Father.
Arius, as quoted above, wrote that “the Son has a beginning but … God is without beginning.” But in the same statement, he wrote that the Son existed “before time and before ages.” Did Arius contradict himself? I wish we had Arius’ book to explain his own words but would like to propose the following explanation:
God created time. God is that which exists without a cause, and time exists because God exists. God, therefore, exists outside time, cannot be defined by time and is not subject to time. We cannot say that God existed ‘before time’, for the word “before” implies the existence of time, and there is no such thing as time before time. Therefore, we prefer to say that God exists ‘outside time’.
Since God created time, time had a beginning and is finite.
God created all things through the Son. Therefore, God created time through the Son. It follows that there never was a time when the Son did not exist. Arius, therefore, could validly write that the Son existed “BEFORE TIME.”
There exists an infinity beyond the boundaries of time. All the power and wisdom that we see reflected in this physical universe, comes out of that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, space and matter. In that infinity beyond time, Arius wrote, “THE SON HAS A BEGINNING.” This is not a beginning in time, for there is no such thing as time in infinity.
This explains why Arius could both claim that the Son existed before time and had a beginning. Also following this line of thinking, Arius never said that “there was a time when the Son was not,” as Athanasius claimed.
ARIANISM DEVELOPED AFTER NICAEA
Forced unity – Under the stern supervision of the emperors, who demanded unity in the church to prevent a split in the empire, the fourth-century church fathers were unable to allow different views about Christ to co-exist within the church. The church’s view of Christ changed from time to time, but, nevertheless, it always formulated a view of Christ and, through persecution, forced all Christians to abide by the formal church doctrine.
Numerous synods – The fifty-year Arian period resulted in numerous synods, including at Serdica in 343, Sirmium in 358 and Rimini and Seleucia in 359. The pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus commented sarcastically: “The highways were covered with galloping bishops.”
Numerous creeds – The best-known creed today is the Nicene Creed, but no fewer than fourteen further creeds were formulated between 340 and 360, depicting the Son as subordinate on the Father, e.g. the Long Lines Creed. Historian RPC Hanson lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith—one of the variants of Arianism—including the creeds of Sirmian (357), Nice (Constantinople – 360), Akakius (359), Ulfilas (383), Eudoxius, Auxentius of Milan (364), Germinius, Palladius’ rule of faith (1988. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 558–559).
Arianism evolved – During the fifty years between Constantine and Theodosius, Arianism was refined and nuanced, relative to what Arius believed. Consequently, although Arius’ views are important, it is far more important to understand what version of Arianism the church adopted after Arius’ views and the Nicene Creed were intensely debated in the decades following Nicaea.
THE WORD GOD IS AMBIGUOUS
Before we discuss what Ulfilas wrote, we need to explain the difference between the word “God” and the words used in the New Testament:
In modern languages, we differentiate between the words “god” and “God:”
When we use a word as a proper name, we capitalize the first letter. The word “God” therefore has a very specific usage: It is the PROPER NAME of one specific being; the One who exists without cause.
The word “god,” on the other hand, is a general category name used for all supernatural beings. It is even for human beings with exceptional qualities.
Only capital letters – The capital “G” therefore makes a huge difference. But, when the Bible was written, and also in the fourth century, there were no capital letters. Or, more precisely, the ancients wrote only in capital letters. The distinction between upper and lower case letters did not yet exist. According to the article on the timeline of writing in Western Europe, the ancients used Greek majuscule (capital letters only) from the 9th to the 3rd century BC. In the following centuries, up until the 12th century AD, they used the uncial script, which still was only capital letters. Greek minuscule was only used in later centuries.
Since the word “God” is a name for one specific Being, the original New Testament does not contain any one word with the same meaning as “God.” The New Testament writers used the word THEOS, which is the same word that was used for the plethora of Greek gods and which is equivalent in meaning to our modern word “god.” The word theos was also used for beings other than the one true God, even for “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and for human judges (John 10:35). Therefore, by describing the Father and the Son as “god,” the Bible and the fourth-century writers only indicated that the Father and the Son are immortal beings; similar to the immortal Greek gods. The word “god’” DOES NOT ELEVATE THE FATHER AND THE SON ABOVE THE PAGAN GODS.
The word “God,” in the translations of the New Testament and other ancient Greek writings, is, therefore, an INTERPRETATION. When the translator believes that THEOS refers to the One who exists without a cause, THEOS is rendered as “God.” But when Paul wrote spoke about the THEOS of the pagan nations, the New Testament translates that as “god.” And when they translate THEOS, when it refers to Jesus, as “God,” they do it on the assumption of Nicene Christology.
To indicate that the Unique Being is intended, the Bible writers added words such as “only,” or “true” or “one” to THEOS. Most often they added the definite article “the” to THEOS to indicate the Father.
In the Nicene Creed, both the Father and the Son are “true god.” The Bible never identifies the Son as “true god.” In the Bible, the “true god” is always the Father. For example:
“You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3)
“You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven” (I Thess. 1:9-10).
“So that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).
But then translators translate the Greek equivalent of “true god” as “true God.” Not only is this faulty translation, the word “true” in the phrase “true God” is SUPERFLUOUS, for there is only one “true God.” Since “God” already indicates the only true god, “true god” should be translated “true god” or “God.”
Germanic missionary – The Goth Ulfilas (c. 311–383) was ordained as bishop by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia and returned to his Gothic people to work as a missionary. He translated the New Testament into the Gothic language and is credited with the conversion of the Gothic people, which resulted in the wide-scale conversion of the Germanic peoples.
Ulfilas’ Arianism – What he believed is perhaps a good reflection of the Arianism that was generally accepted in the church between Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). He wrote:
I, Ulfila … believe in only one God the Father, the unbegotten and invisible, and in his only-begotten Son, our lord/master and God, the designer and maker of all creation, having none other like him. Therefore, there is one God of all, who is also God of our God; and in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power … Neither God nor lord/master, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son. And I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father (Heather and Matthews. Goths in the Fourth Century. p. 143 – Auxentius on Wulfila).
DISCUSSION OF ULFILAS’ CHRISTOLOGY
THE FATHER – ULTIMATE CAUSE OF ALL ELSE
Only one God – Ulfilas believed in “only one God,” who he identified as the Father. Actually, this was the standard opening phrase of all ancient creeds. The Nicene Creed starts with the words, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.” But then it continues to perhaps contradict this opening phrase by adding that the Son is “true god from true god”.
The unbegotten – The Father is “the unbegotten.” Arius also mentioned “the unbegotten,” which is that which exists without a cause. That also means that the Father is the ultimate Cause of all else.
Invisible – Ulfilas adds that the Father is invisible. This is also stated a number of times in the New Testament. Certainly, in the past, there were appearances (theophanies) of God, but an appearance is vastly different from God Himself. An appearance does not contain God in His fullness. It is not possible for God in His fullness to be seen, for He exists outside this visible realm.
Unique – Ulfilas also believed “in his only-begotten Son, our lord/master and God, the designer and maker of all creation, having none other like him.” The phrases “only-begotten” and “none other like him” identify the Son as utterly unique.
Not created – Arius wrote that the Son was “begotten, or created, or purposed, or established.” In other words, Arius did not make a clear distinction between begotten and created. But after Nicaea, Arianism emphasized that the phrase “only begotten” means that the Son was NOT CREATED. See, for example, the Long Lines Creed. Ulfilas similarly wrote that the Son is the “designer and maker of all creation.” If He made all things, presumably then He was not made Himself.
Same substance – “Begotten” implies that the Son came from the being or substance of the Father in a way that humans probably are unable to understand:
Equal – In Nicene Christology, just like a human son is of the same substance as his father, the Son is of the SAME SUBSTANCE as the Father. The Nicene Creed uses the Greek word homoousian; from homós (same) and ousía (being or essence). In Latin it is consubstantial. The idea is, since the Son is of the same substance as the Father, that He is in all respects EQUAL with the Father.
Subordinate – In Arianism, on the other hand, “begotten” means that the Son’s existence was caused by the Father, and that He is dependent on the Father, who alone is the uncaused Cause of all things. Arianism claims that the Bible reveals Him as SUBORDINATE to the Father; both before and after His existence as a human being.
THE FATHER IS GOD OF OUR GOD.
Our God – The Son is “our … God” in this translation of Ulfilas’ statement, but this is faulty translation. It should be rendered “our god,” with a small “g.” As explained above, the word “God” did not yet exist when Ulfilas wrote. He merely used the general word for the pagan gods. To say that the Son is “god” simply means that He is supernatural, like the pagan gods. What really sets Him apart from the pagan gods is not the title “god,” but that He is “the designer and maker of all creation.”
God, the Father – All instances of the word “God” in the quote from Ulfilas should be translated “god;” even when referring to the Father. Ulfilas made a distinction between the Father and the Son and the pagan gods in HOW he described Him, namely as the “only one god” who is “god of all” and also “god of our god.”
God of our God – As Ulfilas wrote, “there is one God of all, who is also GOD OF OUR GOD.” In other words, the Father is the Son’s god. The Bible similarly describes Jesus as “only-begotten god” (John 1:18) and “mighty god” (Isaiah 9:6); the Lord of the universe (1 Cor. 8:6), but the Father as Jesus’ “God” (e.g. Rev. 3:2, 12; Heb. 1:8-9; John 20:17). Paul described the Father is the Head of Christ.
Subordinate – Ulfilas closed by saying, “I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.”
HOLY SPIRIT IS NOT A PERSON.
Subject and obedient – Ulfilas furthermore believed “in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power … Neither God nor lord/master, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.” That the Holy Spirit is “neither God nor lord” implies that Ulfilas did not think of the Holy Spirit as a Person, but as a power, and a power that is subject and obedient in all things to the Son.
Therefore, the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father and the Holy Spirit is SUBORDINATE to the Son.
NO TRINITY IN THE FIRST FOUR CENTURIES
Ulfilas did not believe is the Trinity. For him:
The Father alone was God. The Holy Spirit is not a Person. There is no mention of three Persons in one Being.
It is often said that Arians do not believe in the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, which is true. However, the concept of the Trinity, as we know it today, did not yet exist in Arius’ day.
First 300 years – In the first three centuries, the church fathers did not think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three Persons in one Being. Tertullian did use the word “trinity,” but he used it to refer to a group of three distinct beings; not use in the sense of a single being.
Nicene Creed – Neither does the Nicene Creed contain the Trinity concept, as a careful reading of that creed will show. The purpose of that creed was to say that the Son is equal to the Father; not say that they are one Being; the same God. It does say that they are homoousios (of the same substance), but that does not mean that they are one being. We may argue that human beings are of the same substance, and that does not make us all one being.
The Trinity doctrine was formulated later in the fourth century, perhaps by the Cappadocian Fathers, probably in response to the Arian criticism that the Nicene Creed creates the impression of two gods and can be accused of polytheism.
THREE FORMS OF ARIANISM
In fact, as debates raged during the five decades after Nicaea, in an attempt to come up with a new formula, different forms of Arianism developed. Three camps are identified by scholars among the opponents of the Nicene Creed:
The Homoiousios Christians (only an “i” added to “homoousios”) accepted the equality and co-eternality of the persons of the Trinity, as per the Nicene Creed, but rejected the Nicene term homoousios. They preferred the term homoiousios (similar substance). They were called “semi-Arians” by their opponents. (See homoousia).
Homoian Arianism maintained that the Bible does not reveal whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, and we, therefore, should not speculate about such things. They avoided the word ousia (substance) altogether and described the Son as homoios = like the Father. Although they avoided invoking the name of Arius, in large part they followed Arius’ teachings. RPC Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 557–559) lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith in the years 357 to 383.
A third group explicitly called upon Arius and maintained that the Son is of a different substance than the Father. They described the Son as unlike (anhomoios) the Father.
In the fourth century, these differences were taken quite seriously and divided the church; similar to the denominations in Christianity we know today. Emperor Constantius, for example, wavered in his support between the first and the second party, while harshly persecuting the third.
Historians, unfortunately, categorize all three positions as Arianism, but there are important differences between these views.