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 that Roman Emperors had on the church’s acceptance of the Trinity doctrine. A previous article showed that Constantine manipulated the Council of Nicaea that council. He called the meeting, took part in the the discussions, personally proposed and insisted on the key term homoousios, and exiled all bishops who refused to sign the creed.
The current article shows that the emperors after Constantine but before Theodosius were ‘Arians’ and crushed the Nicene party.
The Council of Nicaea discussed and soon rejected Arius’ theology. But then the Council, by including new terms created a new problem and a new controversy. Constantine’s influence allowed a minority at the council to make the final edits to the Creed and to include the word homoousios. After Nicaea, however, the term homoousios soon disappeared from the debate. But, in the 350s, Athanasius re-introduced the Nicene Creed and homoousios became the focus in the Controversy.
After Nicaea, Arius and two bishops, who were exiled at Nicaea, regained imperial favor and were readmitted to communion and allowed to return. Constantine himself seems to have accepted Arianism, because he was baptized, shortly before his death, by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia.
Constantine also convened a gathering of Church leaders in AD 335 to discuss various charges against Athanasius; now bishop of Alexandria. In consequence, Constantine exiled Athanasius. Over his career, Athanasius was exiled no fewer than five times.
Constantius – Homo-ian
Constantine’s son Constantius II became the sole ruler of the empire by the year 353. He actively encouraged the church to reverse the Nicene Creed, attempted to force the Western bishops to abandon Athanasius, and exiled bishops adhering to the Nicene Creed.
Third Council of Sirmium
The Third Council of Sirmium in 357 is regarded as 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.”
Julian – Pagan
Constantius’ successor was Julian. He was a devotee of Rome’s pagan gods and did not favor one church faction above another. But he reigned only for three years.
Valens – Homo-ian
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.
Note in these examples the decisive influence that the emperors had on the church’s Christology:
“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority” (RH, 849).1Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988
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Did not end the Controversy.
The Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy:
“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.” 2Karen Armstrong, A History of God – pp. 110-111
Objections to Homoousios
Homoousios is the most controversial term in the Nicene Creed. Many bishops objected to this term because it does not appear in the Bible but was borrowed from Pagan philosophy. It was not part of the standard Christian language but had already been condemned at a Synod in Antioch in 268. (Objections to Homoousios)
Polytheism or Sabelianism?
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 begins with a standard unitarian statement:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible.”
But this seems to be contradicted by the statement in the Creed that Jesus is “very God of very God … being of one substance with the Father.” If this is understood as presenting two Beings with two rational faculties, it is polytheism. If Father and Son are understood as one ‘Person’ with one single rational faculty, that is Sabellianism.
Constantine accepted ‘Arianism’.
Soon after Nicaea, while Constantine was still the head of the empire, the imperial preference shifted to Arianism, as indicated by the following:
Ten years after Nicaea, Constantine 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. These charges include “murder, illegal taxation, sorcery, and treason.” He was convicted of conspiracy and exiled by Constantine.
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. But 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. 3Gonzalez, Justo (1984). The Story of Christianity Vol.1. Harper Collins. p. 176 This implies that Constantine accepted ‘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. 4The Early Church, 1993, p. 127 Constantine himself had his wife and son killed in the year after Nicaea.)
Constantine died in 337. His three sons inherited the empire:
Constantine II received the far western part.
Constantius received the far eastern part: Macedonia, Greece, Thrace, Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt.
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.
He actively encouraged the ‘Arians’ to reverse the Nicene Creed. His advisor in these affairs was Eusebius, previously of Nicomedia, who at Nicaea was the head of the Arian party. But he was now made the bishop of Constantinople; the capital city of the Roman Empire. Constantius exiled Nicene bishops, especially Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius fled to Rome, where Constantius did not rule.
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).
He was a Homo-ian ‘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, without reference to His ‘substance’). 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 did the church believe?
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.
- 2Karen Armstrong, A History of God – pp. 110-111
- 3Gonzalez, Justo (1984). The Story of Christianity Vol.1. Harper Collins. p. 176
- 4The Early Church, 1993, p. 127