Homoousios was not regarded as important at Nicaea.

PURPOSE

The church adopted the Trinity doctrine at the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, discoveries of ancient documents and research over the past century have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate, casting doubt on its legitimacy. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The present article challenges the common belief that ‘homoousios’ was the key term in the Nicene Creed of 325. It shows that the term was not mentioned by anybody for about 25 years after the Nicene Council. It wasn’t until the 350s, some 30 years later, that it again became part of the controversy. This article explains why a term, that was regarded as unimportant, was accepted at Nicaea, and how and why it became part of the Controversy 30 years later.

SUMMARY

Why was the term included?

The Nicene Creed of AD 325 says that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance as / consubstantial with) the Father. It was inserted in the Creed, not because it was regarded as an important term but, since Arius had already rejected that term, it was included merely to force Arius and his supporters to reject the Creed so that the emperor could exile them.

But it was not the entire council that agreed to the term. The majority at Nicaea strongly objected to it because it is not Biblical, was borrowed from pagan philosophy, was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, and was already condemned by an important church council as associated with the heresy of Sabellianism. Furthermore, ‘same substance’ implies that God has a body. However, a minority dominated the Council of Nicaea because Constantine had taken Alexander’s part. Following this minority, Constantine insisted on the inclusion of the term.

Given the modern culture of religious freedom, the reader might find it strange that an emperor was able to insist on the inclusion of a keyword in a church creed. However, the Roman Empire was not a democracy and religious freedom did not exist. The empire was ruled by the general who commanded the strongest army. Consequently, the emperors decided which religions were allowed. Furthermore, in the Christian Roman Empire, the emperors were the final judge in religious disputes.

How was homoousios revived?

As stated above, the term homoousios was re-introduced into the Controversy in the 350s; about 30 years after Nicaea. This section explains the history chronologically.

At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. For example, the Westerners at the Nicene Council represented a tiny minority.

The term homoousios caused an intense struggle during the years immediately after Nicaea. Sabellians claimed homoousios as a victory for their side. However, that struggle resulted in the exile of all leading Sabellians. After that, homoousios disappears from the debate.

After he was exiled for violence against the Melitians in 335, ten years after Nicaea, Athanasius developed a masterful polemical strategy to explain why he was exiled. He claimed that Arius developed a novel heresy, that he (Athanasius) represents scriptural orthodoxy and really was exiled for his opposition to Arianism, and that his opponents, the Eastern bishops, are ‘Arians’, meaning followers of Arius’ already condemned theology. None of these points are true but the important point is that homoousios was not yet part of his polemical strategy.

Using this strategy, Athanasius appealed to the bishop of Rome. The bishop accepted Athanasius’ version of reality, called a council in Rome in 340, and declared both Athanasius and Marcellus orthodox, causing division between the Eastern and Western churches.

In the 340s, while the empire remained divided East and West, the division between the church in the East and West also remained. However, after Constantius became emperor of the entire empire in the early 350s, he sought unity in the church. For this purpose, he attempted to get the Western church to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.

Since Athanasius was Constantius’ greatest enemy, both politically and in the church, his primary goal was to isolate Athanasius. In response to the emperor’s attack on him, Athanasius incorporated homoousios into his polemical strategy. Athanasius was very influential in the Western church. Therefore, the church in the West also slowly came to accept the term. In this way, beginning in the mid-350s, homoousios became part of the dispute.

As a result of the introduction of homoousios into the Controversy, the church divided into various factions. Those who accepted homoousios were divided between one-hypostasis and three-hypostases views. Those who rejected homoousios were divided between those who rejected all ousia (substance) language (the Homoians) and those who did use the term in their theologies (the Heterousians and the Homoiousians).

INTRODUCTION

Recommended Prior Reading

Two articles should be read before this one:

Since this is a highly controversial subject, these articles quote extensively from leading scholars. Therefore, the green blocks have been designed to sufficiently summarize the concepts in this article without the need to read all these quotes.

Thought to be the Key Word

The Nicene Creed of AD 325 says that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance as / consubstantial with) the Father. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, this term is the key word of the Creed:

In the “centuries-old account of the Council of Nicaea,” “the whole power of the mysterious dogma is at once established by the one word homoousios;” “with one pronouncement the Church identified a term that secured its … beliefs against heresy.” (Ayres, p. 11) 1“The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios …” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)

But was not mentioned for 25 years.

The view that homoousios was of fundamental importance is deeply mistaken. For about 25 years after Nicaea, nobody mentioned the term, not even those who defended the term at Nicaea, nor Athanasius, the main defender of the term, nor the Western church, which is often described as the stalwart defender of Nicaea throughout the fourth century.

Referring specifically to the view that homoousios was of fundamental importance, Ayres says that “such older accounts are deeply mistaken.” (Ayres, p. 11) For about 25 years after Nicaea, nobody mentions homoousios:

“What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.” (Hanson Lecture)

“During the years 326–50 the term homoousios is rarely if ever mentioned.” (Ayres, p. 431)

Not even Athanasius, who is traditionally regarded as the great hero of the Arian Controversy and defender of the Nicene Creed, mentioned the term:

“Even Athanasius for about twenty years after Nicaea is strangely silent about this adjective (homoousios) which had been formally adopted into the creed of the Church in 325.” (Hanson, p. 58-59)

“In most older presentations, ‘western’ bishops were taken to be natural and stalwart defenders of Nicaea throughout the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 135) However:

“Even the Western bishops at Serdica in 343 did not mention the word.” (Hanson, p. 436) That council, 18 years after Nicaea, “opted clearly for Una substantia meaning one hypostasis, (rather than consubstantial).” (Hanson, p. 201)

The events of the Council of Serdica in AD 343 show that the main drivers of the Nicene Creed, “such as Ossius, Athanasius, and Marcellus” were “willing to turn to an alternative statement of faith.” (Ayres, p. 126)

The word homoousios “has left no traces at all in the works of … the leaders of the anti-Arian party such as Alexander of Alexandria, Ossius of Cordova, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Eustathius of Antioch, who are usually considered Constantine’s theological advisers and the strongest supporters of the council.” (P.F. Beatrice) For example, the draft creed formulated at the Council of Antioch just a few months before Nicaea, which was an anti-Arian, pro-Alexander council, does not mention the term. (See here.)

It only became important in the 350s.

Athanasius re-introduced the term into the debate in the 350s, some 30 years after Nicaea, but it took some time before the Western church adopted it.

“It is not until he (Athanasius) writes the De Decretis (356 or 357) that Athanasius again mentions the word and begins to defend it.” (Hanson, p. 436)

“Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (Ayres, p. 144)

“The 350s show how Nicaea only slowly came to be of importance in the west.” (Ayres, p. 135) (For more detail, see here.)

Since homoousios was first defended in the 350s, we see attacks on it only in the 350s:

“Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Authors Quoted

Based on discoveries and research over the past century, leading scholars explain the fourth-century Arian Controversy very differently from scholars in preceding centuries.

The main authors quoted in this article are:

Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Hanson, Bishop R.P.C., The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

Williams, Archbishop Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

Beatrice – Pier Franco, Professor of Early Christian Literature at the University of Padua, Italy.

WHY NOT MENTIONED

It was not important.

This absence of the term homoousios in the 20 or more years after Nicaea means that it was not regarded as important.

“For nearly twenty years after Nicaea nobody mentions homoousios, not even Athanasius. This may be because it was much less significant than either later historians of the ancient Church or modern scholars thought that it was.” (Hanson, p. 170)

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. … It was not seen as that useful or important.” (Ayres, p. 96)

“It is … likely … that the word homoousios when it was inserted in N did not have the crucial importance in the eyes of people of that time which it was later supposed to have.” (Hanson, p. 437)

The term was a problem even for anti-Arians:

“Homoousios was in fact a foreign body or stumbling block for all the people attending the council, without distinction, Arians and anti-Arians, and for this very reason it soon disappeared in the following debates.” (P.F. Beatrice)

It was simply used to oust Arius.

The term homoousion was inserted in the Creed, not because it was an important concept, but merely to force Arius and his supporters to reject the Creed so that the emperor could exile them.

“The choice of the term homoousios seems to have been motivated in large part because Arius was known to reject it. Athanasius … tells us that those running the council originally proposed describing the Son as ‘like’ the Father or ‘exactly like the Father in all things’ and as being ‘from God’. But these terms would not serve because everyone could agree to them. … Hence, homoousios and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were chosen specifically to exclude Arius’ supporters.” (Ayres, p. 90) 2Arius and his supporters had already rejected the word before the Nicene Council (Hanson, p. 10).

Hanson concludes similarly that “the most satisfactory explanation of why it was put there is that it was certainly a word … which serious and wholehearted Arians could not stomach.” (Hanson, p. 167; cf. Hanson, p. 172)

Ayres agrees with Hanson that “the homoousion was probably not a flag to be nailed to the masthead, a word around which self-conscious schools of theology could rally. But it was an atropopaic formula for resisting Arianism.” (Ayres, p. 92) (Atropopaic means to avert evil influences.)

The meeting knew that the emperor would exile all who refused to sign the Creed and “desired to secure the condemnation of Arius.” (Ayres, p. 91)

The majority opposed homoousios.

Even though homoousios was inserted in the Creed to get Arius exiled, most delegates strongly objected to the concept. As discussed here, the Eusebians opposed the term because it is not Biblical, was borrowed from pagan philosophy, was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, and was already condemned as associated with the heresy of Sabellianism. Furthermore, ‘same substance’ implies that God has a body. The Dedication Creed of 341 shows what the majority at Nicaea really believed, when not compelled by an emperor. They opposed both Arius and the term homoousios. The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.

More or less the same people who attended Nicaea, 16 years later formulated the Dedication Creed:

The delegates to the Nicene Council of 325 were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (Ayres, p. 19), and the Dedication Creed of 341 “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

They opposed both Arius and also the term homoousios:

“Loofs comes nearest to the truth when he says that it (the Dedication Creed) is both anti-Marcellan and anti-homoousian.” (Hanson, p. 287-8)

The Dedication Creed also “deliberately excludes the kind of Arianism professed by Arius.” (Hanson, p. 290)

So, the Nicene Creed did not reflect die views of the majority:

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)

“We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. … The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!” (bible.ca)

Constantine insisted on homoousios.

A minority dominated at Nicaea because Constantine had taken Alexander’s part. Therefore, Constantine insisted on the inclusion of the term.

“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (Ayres, p. 89) “This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force.” (Ayres, p. 89)

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians (extreme anti-Arians) were in favour of it [the term homoousios], and that, when he had insisted that it did not have the objectionable meaning which Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia had attached to it, the favourers of Arius in the Council could accept it, he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 202)

Did Ossius propose the term?

If Ossius, the chairperson, proposed the term, as some think, then it was on instruction of the emperor, for he was the emperor’s agent.

“According to the Arians … the Nicene Creed was presented by Ossius of Cordova in his capacity as president of the assembly.” (P.F. Beatrice) However, Ossius did not preside because of his position in the church. He was the bishop of the “obscure” see of Cordova (Hanson, p. 155). He presided in his capacity “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and represented “the Emperor’s interest.” (Hanson, p. 156) 

The emperor was the final authority.

Given the modern culture of religious freedom, the reader might find it strange that an emperor was able to insist on the inclusion of a keyword in a church creed. However, the Roman Empire was not a democracy and religious freedom did not exist. The empire was ruled by the general who commanded the strongest army. Consequently, the emperors decided which religions were allowed and also acted as the final judge in religious disputes.

“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine (during the Arian Controversy), there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)

The so-called ‘ecumenical’ church councils of the fourth century were “the very invention and creation of the Emperor” (Hanson, p. 855). “Everybody recognised the right of an Emperor to call a council, or even to veto or quash its being called” (Hanson, p. 849-50). “The Emperor was expected to dominate and control them” (Hanson, p. 855).

Conclusion

The term was not mentioned for some decades after Nicaea because the Nicene Creed was the work of a minority under the protection of the emperor, while the majority was most uncomfortable with this term.

Nicaea was not regarded as binding.

Furthermore, at the time, the Nicene Creed was not regarded as binding. It was a temporary solution to an immediate problem. 

“Many modern readers assume that the Nicene creed was intended at its promulgation to stand as a binding and universal formula of Christian faith.” (Ayres, p. 85) However, “by the time Nicaea met, Church leaders … had no precedent for the idea of a council that would legislate for the Church as a whole.” (Ayres, p. 87) “Councils were not expected to produce precise statements of belief.” (Ayres, p. 87)

“All the bishops at Nicaea would have understood their local ‘baptismal’ creed to be a sufficient definition of Christian belief.” (Ayres, p. 85)

For a further discussion of this point, see Ayres – 4.1 The Nicene Creed as a Standard of Faith.

HOW WAS HOMOOUSIOS REVIVED?

As stated above, the term homoousios was re-introduced into the Controversy in the 350s; about 30 years after Nicaea. This section explains the history chronologically.

The West was not at Nicaea.

At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. For example, the Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.

At Nicaea in 325, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)

“The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” “The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church.” (Hanson, p. 170)

Post-Nicaea Correction

The inclusion of the term homoousios caused an intense struggle during the years immediately after Nicaea. Sabellians claimed the homoousios in the Creed as a victory for their side but that struggle resulted in the exile of all leading Sabellians. After that, homoousios disappears from the debate. (See here.)

Period of no Controversy

As already mentioned, after the post-Nicaea Correction, the Nicene Creed and Homoousios were not part of the Controversy for more than 25 years. In fact, there was no controversy.

“At some times there was almost no controversy at all. If there was any controversy from 330 to 341, it was a controversy about the behaviour of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria.” (Hanson, p. xviii)

“There was a long period of confusion and uncertainty from 341 to 357 when it was far from clear what the controversy was about, if there was a controversy.” (Hanson, p. xviii)

In other words, the Council of Nicaea brought the dispute between Arius and his bishop Alexander to an end. The Real Controversy began only decades later:

Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy

After he was exiled in 335, Athanasius developed a masterful polemical strategy to explain why he was exiled. He claimed that:

      • Arius developed a novel heresy.
      • He (Athanasius) represents scriptural orthodoxy.
      • He was exiled for his opposition to Arianism.
      • An Arian Conspiracy manipulated the council of Tyre to exile him for violence, of which he was innocent.
      • His opponents are ‘Arians’, meaning followers of Arius’ condemned theology.

None of these points are true but the important point for the current article is that homoousios was not yet part of his polemical strategy.

During those decades after Nicaea, while nobody thinks about homoousios, Athanasius and Marcellus were both exiled from the East and sent to the West (Rome). There they met and joined forces against the East:

“Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (Ayres, p. 106)

In Rome, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy:

“Athanasius’ engagement with Marcellus in Rome seems to have encouraged Athanasius towards the development of” “an increasingly sophisticated account of his enemies;” “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years;” “a masterpiece of the rhetorical art.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

What was his polemical strategy?

“Athanasius’ account begins by presenting Arius as the originator of a new heresy.” (Ayres, p. 107) In contrast, “Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (Ayres, p. 107)

Athanasius described “his enemies as ‘Arians’ seeking to perpetuate a theology stemming from Arius.” (Ayres, p. 106) “To this end Athanasius quotes extensively from Arius’ Thalia.” (Ayres, p. 107) See also – Athanasius invented Arianism.

This polemical strategy is discussed further in – The Creation of ‘Arianism’. It presents a misleading picture of that Controversy:

“If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis.” (Williams, p. 234)

“Once we begin to grasp the problems with Athanasius’ rhetorical unmasking of ‘Arians’ then we need to look beyond the Athanasian terminology of an ‘Arian’ conspiracy to get a more accurate sense of how to understand non-Marcellan and non-Athanasian eastern theologies during this period.” (Ayres, p. 432)

Rome accepted Athanasius.

Using his polemical strategy, Athanasius appealed to the bishop of Rome. The bishop accepted his version of reality, called a council, and vindicated both him and Marcellus.

The subsequent events are described in more detail here. In brief:

“Athanasius appealed to Julius of Rome in 339–40 by using his strategy of narrating a theological conspiracy of ‘Arians’. His success had a profound impact on the next few years of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 108)

Julius of Rome held a council in Rome which “quickly vindicated Marcellus and Athanasius.” (Ayres, p. 109)

“Julius wrote to the east in 341 in a letter which shows the strong influence of the emerging Athanasian account of ‘Arianism’.” (Ayres, p. 109)

Caused division between East and West

It is traditionally thought that the West had always supported Nicaea. In reality, similar to the East, most in the West believed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Beings. However, after the West had declared Athanasius and Marcellus orthodox, cracks in that unity began to appear. That was the real beginning of the ‘Arian’ Controversy.

In Ayres’ discussion of the Western (Latin) Theologists at the time of Nicaea, he concludes that they believed more or less the same as the theologians in the East:

“These Latin theologians have as far to travel towards later pro-Nicene theology as the eastern trajectories.” (Ayres, p. 75)

“Ironically, an anti-monarchian, anti-‘modalist’ polemic fundamentally shapes these early Latin theologians, and that is taken so often to be determining the future course of a unitary western theology!” (Ayres, p. 74)

This last quote says that the West opposed the idea that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one Being.

So, around the time of Nicaea, there was harmony between East and West. It was the West’s acceptance of Athanasius’ polemical strategy that first caused division between East and West:

“Once Julius had acted we begin to see divisions between the Church in the eastern and western halves of the empire emerging.” (Ayres, p. 109)

This, in the early 340s, was the real beginning of the ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, the bishop of Rome’s acceptance of Athanasius’ strategy did not mean that the entire West accepted it.

“We should … be cautious in our reading of these divisions. The divisions we initially observe are between one group of eastern bishops taking their lead from Eusebius of Nicomedia and Julius and his immediate associates. We must be wary of reading this as reflecting a simple division between eastern and western theology. Even when just such a division appears to come clearly into the open at the Council of Serdica in 343, even there the participants cannot usefully be divided in purely geographic terms.” (Ayres, p. 109-110)

Constantius strived for unity.

In the 340s, while the empire remained divided East and West, the division between the church in the East and West remained. However, after Constantius became emperor of the entire empire in the early 350s, he attempted to get the Western church to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.

In the same year that Julius wrote his letter to the East (AD 341), the East formulated the Dedication Creed which says that the Father, Son, and Spirit “are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.” Two years later, in 343, the West formulated a Manifesto at Serdica which “opted clearly for Una substantia meaning one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 201) There-after. the Western and Eastern churches continued to oppose one another. Since they were ruled by different emperors, there was little incentive to reconcile these opposing views.

However, in the early 350s, Constantius became emperor of the entire Roman Empire:

“Over the period AD 351–3, and after a complex civil war, the eastern Emperor Constantius achieved complete control of the whole empire.” (Ayres, p. 133)

“At this point Constantius found himself sole ruler of the Roman world and with the ability to push for a unified religious policy throughout his domains in a way no emperor had been able to do since the death of his father in 337.” (Ayres, p. 133)

He attempted to get the Western church to agree to the eastern Creeds:

“As his control over the west grew Constantius increased his attempts to get bishops to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.” (Ayres, p. 135)

“Through the 350s … we seem to see a growing opposition to Constantius’ attempts to force western councils to agree to the decrees of Sirmium 351.” (Ayres, p. 136)

He attempted to isolate Athanasius.

Since Constantius’ greatest enemy, both politically and in the church, was Athanasius, his primary goal was to isolate Athanasius.

“Athanasius had a desire for power; he suppressed ruthlessly whenever he could any opposition to him within his diocese … towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421)

Therefore, the emperor “attempted to get the condemnation of Athanasius and probably some sort of theological statement accepted throughout the west.” (Ayres, p. 135) With that double goal in mind, “the council of Sirmium in 351 set the trend for a series of councils.” (Ayres, p. 135) For here for a discussion of the Creed of 351.

Athanasius re-introduced Homoousios.

In response to the emperor’s attack on him, Athanasius incorporated homoousios into his polemical strategy, which was the basis for the schism between the East and West. Therefore, homoousios became part of the dispute. As argued above, that was in the mid-350s.

“He began to use it [homoousios] first in the De Deeretis and thereafter regularly in his theological works, defending it fiercely against all criticism of it. If we place De Deeretis in 356 or 357, we can perhaps see the reason for this change of policy. By then it had become abundantly clear not only that Constantius was everywhere trying to isolate Athanasius himself from ecclesiastical support both in the East and the West … Athanasius decided that he must begin a policy of defending the very words of N as a slogan or banner round which to gather.” (Hanson, p. 438)

It was a turn to Nicaea.

Athanasius and the West did not oppose Constantius because they defended Nicaea. Rather, they turned to Nicaea to strengthen their resistance to the emperor’s efforts.

“It seems unlikely that previous adherence to Nicaea motivated their (the West’s) growing opposition (to Constantius’ efforts): it is much more likely that events in the second half of the decade prompted a turn to Nicaea as a focus for their already strong opposition.” (Ayres, p. 136)

In the ‘West’ there were, already before 357, “the beginnings of attempts on the part of a few to turn to Nicaea as a standard against the direction of Constantius’ policies.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Anti-Nicene Accounts Emerged.

As stated above, anti-Nicene theologies, particularly Homoianism, emerged in the late 350s; only after Athanasius introduced homoousios into his polemical strategy.

For example, Homoian theology is specifically anti-Nicene. Particularly, it opposes ousia-language. For example, they were “refusing to allow ousia-terms of any kind into professions of faith.” (Williams, p. 234) It appeared only in the 350s:

“Though Homoian Arianism derived from the thought both of Eusebius of Caesarea and of Arius, we cannot with confidence detect it before the year 357, when it appears in the Second Sirmian Creed.” (Hanson, p. 558)

“Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Homoousios divided the church.

As a result of the introduction of homoousios into the Controversy, the church divided into various factions. Those who accepted homoousios were divided between one-hypostasis and three-hypostases views. Those who rejected homoousios were divided between those who rejected all ousia (substance) language and those who did use the term in their theologies.

One-hypostasis Homo-ousians (Sabellians), such as Athanasius and Marcellus, interpreted homoousios as “one substance,” namely, as saying that Father and Son are one Being. See above the Council of Serdica in 343, where the Western delegates asserted ‘one hypostasis’.

Three-hypostases Homo-ousians, such as Basil of Caesarea and Meletius of Antioch, interpreted homoousios as “same substance,” namely, that Father and Son are two beings with the same type of substance. (See – Basil.)

The Homoi-ousians (from ὅμοιος, hómoios, “similar”) maintained that the Son’s substance is like the Father’s, but not the same.

The Heter-ousians said that the Son is like the Father but His substance is unlike the Father’s.

The Homo-ians, who remained the dominant emperor-supported faction, rejected all use of ousia-terms. They held that Jesus Christ is like the Father, without referencing ousia (essence or substance).


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios …” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)
  • 2
    Arius and his supporters had already rejected the word before the Nicene Council (Hanson, p. 10).

In the Nicene Creed, homoousios meant ‘one Person’.

Purpose

The church adopted the Trinity doctrine at the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, over the past century, discoveries of ancient documents and research have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate, casting doubt on its legitimacy. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The current article discusses how the Nicene Council understood the term ‘homoousios’ in the Nicene Creed. It shows that it was understood very differently from how this term is today usually understood.

The articles in this series quote extensively from leading scholars. However, not all readers are interested in the technical details. For that purpose, the green blocks provide a sufficient summary. The reader might prefer to initially read only the green blocks.

INTRODUCTION

Homoousios in the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed describes the Son of God as homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father.

The Nicene Creed, as formulated at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, which is accepted as official doctrine by most denominations, states that the Son was begotten from the substance (ousia) of the Father and that He is of the same substance (homoousios; from homós = same; ousia = substance) as the Father. (See – The Free Dictionary or GotQuestions.) Via the Latin, homoousios is often translated as ‘consubstantial’.

Means either one or two substances.

This statement can mean that they are a single substance. This is called numerical sameness because there is only one substance. Or it can mean that they are two substances of the same type. This is called qualitative sameness.

‘Same substance’ (homoousios) has two possible meanings because the word “same” has two possible meanings. When I say that John and I drive the same car, it can mean that we drive one and the same car or two different cars of the same type. Similarly, ‘same substance’ can mean:

One substance – This is called numerical sameness because there is only one. Father and Son are a single undivided substance (one Being).

Two distinct substances of the same type – This is qualitative or generic sameness. Like two human beings are of the ‘same substance’, Father and Son are two distinct substances (Beings). 1“A standard connotation of the term homoousios was membership in a class, a generic similarity between things that were, in some sense, co-ordinate [equal in rank or importance]. The term was used loosely to point to markers of commonality and did not at all exclude relationships between realities that were hierarchically distinct in other ways.” (Ayres, p. 94-95)

Since ‘one substance’ is expressed by the more specific terms ‘monoousios’, the primary meaning of ‘homoousios’ is “two distinct substances of the same type”. 2“According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.” (Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A))

Scholars also refer to the two alternative meanings as ‘unity’ versus ‘equality’. For example:

“As it stands, the homoousios can be read either as an affirmation of the divine unity or as an affirmation of the equal deity.’” (Hanson, p. 170-1) 3Quoting Person, R. E. The Mode of Theological Decision-Making at the Early Ecumenical Councils (1978) p105

One theological objection to the “equal deity” option is that it presents two Gods; two First Principles (two Beings who exist without cause and caused all else to exist). For a further discussion of the different meanings of “same,” see Right Reason or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Arius did not accept the term homoousios. For him, the Son’s substance is different from the Father’s:

“No doubt he (Arius) believed that the Father and the Son were of unlike substance, but he did not say so directly.” (Hanson, p. 187)

Arius is what later in the fourth century became known as a Heter-ousian (different substance).

In the Trinity Doctrine

Person – In layperson language, the traditional Trinity doctrine teaches that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three Persons but one Being. However, the term ‘Persons’ is misleading because it implies three distinct entities with three distinct minds. In the traditional Trinity doctrine, the three Persons share one mind. (See here)

Hypostasis – Sometimes the Trinity doctrine is explained, using Greek terms from the fourth century, as one ousia (substance) and three hypostases. But the term hypostasis is also misleading for it means something that exists distinctly. 4“hypostasis, i.e. individual existence” (Hanson, p. 193, quoting Simonetti In the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit are essentially a single entity. The only difference between them is their “relationships of origin.” But this is not a distinction that the created universe can perceive.

But the point, for the current article, is that the Trinity doctrine interprets homoousios as ‘one substance’ meaning ‘one Being’. 

The following are definitions of the Trinity doctrine by two leading Catholic scholars, both saying that the term ‘Person’ in misleading:

“The champions of the Nicene faith … developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word’ Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (Hanson Lecture)

“By the conventions of the late fourth century, first formulated in Greek by the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’, these three constituent members of what God is came to be referred to as hypostases (‘concrete individuals’) or, more misleadingly for us moderns, as prosōpa (‘persons’).” (Anatolios, xiii)

The word ‘Person’ is misleading because, in normal English, each ‘person’ has his own mind. In contrast, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit share a single mind because they are one Being. (See here) As quoted, rather than the word ‘Person’, Hanson prefers to explain the hypostases in the Trinity doctrine as three “modes of existing as God.” However, that sounds like Modalism.

Anatolios describes the distinction between the ‘Persons’ as something invisible:

“By the last quarter of the fourth century, halting Christian attempts … had led … to what later generations generally think of as ‘the doctrine of the Holy Trinity’: the formulated idea that the God … is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, as one reality or substance, operating outward in creation always as a unity, yet always internally differentiated by the relationships of origin that Father and Son and Holy Spirit have with one another.” (Anatolios, xiii)

Did not mean ‘one substance’ at Nicaea.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed from the beginning of that controversy. It would follow that homoousios in the Nicene Council meant that Father and Son are a single substance (Being), which means that the Son is co-equal, co-eternal, and co-immutable with the Father. However, scholars now propose that, at Nicaea, the term had a less specific meaning.

“The Nicene Creed does not expressly assert the singleness or numerical unity of the divine essence.” 5Philip Schaff. History of the Church volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition. pp.672-673.

“We can therefore be pretty sure that homoousios was not intended to express the numerical identity of the Father and the Son.” (Hanson, p. 202) 6“While a large number of scholars have contended that the council used the term in this latter (numerical) sense, there are good grounds for questioning such a conclusion.” Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons – Nicene Creed” p82-85

Scholars conclude now that homousios must NOT be interpreted EITHER numerically or qualitatively:

“Recent studies on the word homoousios have tended to show, not that it can be reduced to two meanings, one identifying two ousiai as one, and the other conveying a ‘generic’ sense of ‘God-stuff’ (Loofs), but that it was of a much looser, more flexible, indeed less specific and therefore less controversial significance.” (Hanson, p. 170) 7“It was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense than has in the past history of scholarship been attached to it.” (Hanson, p. 202)

“Studor … notes that the term homoousios is not used with precision at Nicaea and that later arguments for homoousios always involve constructing accounts of its meaning.” (Ayres, p. 238)

Hanson agrees with Loofs’ statement that “the meaning of homoousios was so fluid that we cannot determine its meaning from its appearance in N alone.” (Hanson, p. 192) 8“Eusebius’ discussion nicely demonstrates the extent to which the promulgation of homoousios involved a conscious lack of positive definition of the term.” (Ayres, p. 91) 9“Our investigation of the use of homoousios before it was inserted in N, then, should have suggested strongly that it would be unwise to give the word a strictly defined or single meaning.” (Hanson, p. 196)

The Core Issue in the Controversy

Contrary to the usual explanation, the core issue in the Arian Controversy was not whether Jesus is God. The core issue was the two possible meanings of homoousios; whether it must be understood as one single or two distinct substances. In other words, the core issue was whether the Son is part of the Father or whether He is a distinct Person with a distinct mind. (See here for a detailed discussion.)

“It is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (LA, 14).

In the Greek terminology of the fourth century, the core issue was whether Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (one Person with one mind) or three hypostases:

In one-hypostasis theologies, such as Sabellianism and the theology of Alexander and Athanasius, the Son is not a distinct Person. Consequently, homoousios means ‘one substance’.

In three-hypostases theologies, such as those taught by Origen, the so-called Arians,10There was no such thing as an Arian. and Basil of Caesarea, the Son is a distinct hypostasis (Person). While the anti-Nicenes rejected the term homoousios, Basil accepted it and interpreted it as meaning two substances of the same type.

For more details, see – What was the real main issue in the Arian Controversy?

This article analyses what homoousios meant (1) before, (2) during, and (3) after Nicaea.

AUTHORS CITED

The conclusions in this article may seem heterodox. However, based on discoveries and research over the past 100 years, leading scholars explain the fourth-century Arian Controversy very differently from scholars in preceding centuries.

This article relies mainly on the following authors:

Hanson, Bishop RPC
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988

Williams, Archbishop Rowan
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

Ayres, Lewis
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Beatrice = An article by Pier Franco Beatrice; Professor of Early Christian Literature at the University of Padua, Italy
The word “homoousios” from Hellenism to Christianity.)

Over the last hundred years, certain ancient documents have become more readily available. For example:

“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (Williams, p. 11-12)

Consequently, the scholarly view of the Controversy has changed dramatically:

“The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 11)

Hanson even describes the traditional account of the Arian Controversy as a complete travesty.

This article was not developed by studying the primary sources but these secondary sources; people who have studied the primary sources for decades and who are regarded as leaders in this field. Therefore, it quotes extensively from them.

BEFORE NICAEA

Pre-Christian – Distinct Realities

Greek philosophy and Egyptian paganism used the term homoousios but not to say that two things are really one thing. They used it to say two things are really distinct. 

Aristotle was known for using the term οὐσία (ousia) to describe his philosophical concept of Primary Substances. (Beatrice)

“In the theological language of Egyptian paganism the word homoousios meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son, who are two distinct beings, share the same perfection of the divine nature.” (Beatrice) In other words, it did not mean ‘one substance.

These pre-Christian uses of the term are not important for deciding how Christians used it. However, Beatrice argues that Emperor Constantine had a connection with Egyptian paganism, and that that at least partly explains his insistence on the term at Nicaea, as is discussed below.

The Bible does not mention the term.

The Bible never talks about God’s substance and never says that the Son is homoousios with the Father.

Gnostics – of a similar kind

The second-century Gnostics used the word homoousios but not to say that two beings are really one being. They did not even use the term to say that two beings are equal. They used the term to describe distinct beings as “belonging to the same order of being.”

The second-century Gnostics used the word homoousios (Beatrice) but they were not real Christians and did not use the term to describe Christ.

“Gnosticism is a very general term applied to a wide variety of groups that would have called themselves Christian but who held to beliefs very different than anything we know as Christian today.” 11Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 18). Kindle Edition.

They used homoousios to say that lower deities are of ‘a similar kind’ as the highest deity from whom they emanated:

“The term was adopted in the second century by Gnostics, probably to indicate ‘same ontological status’ or ‘of a similar kind’.” (Ayres, p. 93)

It meant, “belonging to the same order of being.” (Hanson, p. 191) They did not use the word to mean “identity, nor even equality.” (Hanson, p. 191) 12“Hippolytus quotes Gnostics as using the word homoousios, none of them suggesting identity, nor even equality.” (Hanson, p. 191)

The word homoousios in the Nicene Creed is not the result of a Gnostic influence because “by the fourth century the Gnostic threat to the Christian faith was over” (Hanson, p. 856).

Tertullian – ‘one substance’

Tertullian (155-220), writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding exactly to the Greek word homoousios. However, in his theology, Father and Son are a single substance and a single hypostasis. This is an even stronger statement than homoousios (same substance). It specifically means ‘one substance’.

Tertullian, “writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding to homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 190) 

Substance – He did use the term “substance.” For him, God has a body (is a substance) and the Son is part of God’s substance:

“Tertullian … had already used the Latin word substantia (substance) of God … For him God … had a body … It was possible for Tertullian to think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sharing this substance.” (Hanson, p. 184)

Hypostasis – He also used the term “unius substantiate.” In his theology, it means ‘one hypostasis’:

He used “the expression unius substantiae.” “This has led some scholars to see Tertullian as an exponent of Nicene orthodoxy before Nicaea … But this is a far from plausible theory.” (Hanson, p. 184) “The word in Greek translation of Tertullian’s una substantia would not be the word homoousios but mia hypostasis (one hypostasis).” (Hanson, p. 193)

Although he did not use a term equivalent to homoousios, to say the Father and Son are one hypostasis (and “individual existence”) is an even stronger statement. It implies not only homoousios (same substance) but, more specifically, ‘one substance’. (See here for more on Tertullian’s theology)

Sabellius – one hypostasis

Sabellius did indeed use the term. He used it to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (a single Entity). In other words, he used the term not only to mean ‘same substance’ but, specifically, ‘one substance’.

Sabellianism is named after Sabellius (fl. ca. 215); a theologian from the early 3rd century. He used the term homoousios to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person):

“If we can trust Basil here, it is interesting to observe that Sabellius had apparently used homoousios in a Trinitarian context early in the third century.” (Hanson, p. 192) According to Basil of Caesarea, “Sabellius used it (homoousios) … in rejecting the distinction of hypostases” (Hanson, p. 192);

“In the sense of numerical sameness” (Prof Ninan).

In other words, he used the term not only to mean ‘same substance’ but, specifically, ‘one substance’.

As discussed here, according to Von Mosheim, for Sabellius, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three parts of God:

“He considered the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as being three portions of the divine nature.” (Von Mosheim J.L. p220)

By the time of the Nicene Council, the church had already formally rejected Sabellianism.

Origen did not use the term.

It is sometimes claimed that Origen of Alexandria, the great theologian of the time before Nicaea, was the first theologian to use the word homoousios to describe the relation of the Son to the Father. But Origen did not use the term. In opposition to Tertullian and Sabellius, he believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, meaning three distinct substances.

In opposition to Tertullian and Sabellius, “he (Origen) taught that there were three hypostases within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 184)

“He (Origen) deplores those heretics who confuse the ‘concepts’ of Father and Son and make them out to be one in hupostasis, as if the distinction between Father and Son were only a matter of concepts and of names, a purely mental distinction.” (Williams, Rowan, p132)

It is sometimes claimed that Origen (c. 185 – c. 253) described the Son as homoousios. If he did accept homoousios, he would have understood that to mean the same type of substance. But he did not use the term:

“Origen may have rejected the term.” (Ayres, p. 92) 13“Origen had rejected the term (substance) years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” (Steven Wedgeworth) 

“Origen certainly did not apply the word homoousios to the Son and did not teach that the Son is ‘from the ousia’ of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 185) 14“It is almost certainly right to conclude that Origen could not have spoken of the Son as homoousios with the Father.” (Williams, p. 132) 15“Origen never says that the Son comes from the substance of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 67)

“The likelihood of Origen having described the Son as consubstantial with the Father is very slim” (Hanson, p. 68). The word “consubstantial … would have suggested to him that the Father and the Son were of the same material, an idea which he was anxious to avoid.” (Hanson, p. 68) 16Epiphanius stated that “Origen often declared ‘that the only-begotten God is alien from the Father’s Godhead and substance’ (ousia)” (Hanson, p. 62).

“There is one celebrated fragment … where Origen appears to sanction the use of homoousios. … But in its present form, this seems too closely bound to the specific interests of the post-Nicene period … to come directly from Pamphilus, let alone Origen.” (Williams, p. 132-3) “One famous passage in which he seems to use the term homoousios … may have been adulterated by later writers.” (Ayres, p. 24)

The Two Dionysii disagreed.

Around the year 260, the bishops of Rome and Alexandria; both named Dionysius, disagreed about the term. Some Sabellians in Libya, as well as Dionysius of Rome, believed the Father and Son to be a single hypostasis (one Person) and described the Son as homoousios with the Father. In opposition to them, Dionysius of Alexandria believed in three hypostases and, initially, rejected the term because Sabellius used it in rejecting the distinction of hypostases. He later reluctantly accepted it but only after the bishop of Rome applied pressure on him and only in a general sense of meaning ‘the same type of substance’. In this understanding, the Son can still be subordinate to the Father. Athanasius falsely claimed that both bishops approved of the word homoousios.

“Some local Sabellians” described the Son as homoousios with the Father (Ayres, p. 94). 17Both “Dionysius of Rome and Eusebius of Caesarea label” “the accusers of Dionysius of Alexandria” as “Sabellians.” (Beatrice)

“Stead … believes … it was the people in Libya criticized by Dionysius of Alexandria who had introduced the term. Simonetti agrees that it was not Dionysius of Rome who first used the word homoousios in the interchange.” (Hanson, p. 193)

For Sabellians, the Father and Son are a single hypostasis (one Person).

Dionysius of Alexandria, overseeing the church in Libya, initially rejected the term due to its association with Sabellianism.

“It seems … likely that Dionysius of Alexandria, in a campaign against some local Sabellians, had denied the term.” (Ayres, p. 94)

According to Basil of Caesarea, “Dionysius of Alexandria … sometimes rejected homoousios because Sabellius used it … in rejecting the distinction of hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 192)

The Libyan Sabellians complained to the bishop of Rome (Hanson, p. 191). The latter had also accepted the term homoousios and, similar to the Sabellians, taught that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person):

“Dionysius of Rome … (also) claimed that Father and Son were homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 94)

“Dionysius of Rome … found homoousios acceptable but could not tolerate a division of the Godhead into three hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 192, quoting Loofs) 18He “at least took up or championed it (the term homoousios).” (Hanson, p. 193) 19“Dionysius of Rome harshly condemned those who divided the Trinity into three distinct hypostases.” (Beatrice) 20“Dionysius of Rome … said that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy ‘into three sorts of … separated hypostases and three Godheads’; people who hold this in effect produce three gods.” (Hanson, p. 185)

“His doctrine could only with difficulty be distinguished from that of Sabellius!” (Hanson, p. 193)

Dionysius of Alexandria was “persuaded by his namesake of Rome to accept (the term)” (Ayres, p. 94) but he “only adopted it with reluctance” (Hanson, p. 193) and only “in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature, ‘of similar kind’” (Hanson, p. 192). Or “belonging to the same class” (Ayres, p. 94), “meaning that both had the same kind of nature.” (Hanson, p. 193) This “did not at all exclude relationships between realities that were hierarchically distinct in other ways.” (Ayres, p. 94-95) In other words, for him, the term did not mean that Father and Son are one and the same or even that they are equal. In his view, Father and Son were two distinct hypostases.

Athanasius explained this dispute differently. He “tried tendentiously to demonstrate that they were all without distinction supporters of homoousios.” (Beatrice). For example, Athanasius “says, somewhat disingenuously, that both the bishops of Rome and of Alexandria approved of the word homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 192)

In 268, the church rejected homoousios.

More or less at the same time, Paul of Samosata used the term to say that Father and Son are a single substance, a single hypostasis or Person. But, in the year 268, a council at Antioch condemned both Paul and the term homoousios because the word to them spelled Sabellianism. The condemnation of homoousios by this well-known council caused considerable embarrassment to fourth-century pro-Nicenes.

A few years later, Paul of Samosata used this term to describe Father and Son as a single hypostasis (Person):

“In using the expression ‘of one substance’, Paul declared that Father and Son were a solitary unit;” “a primitive undifferentiated unity.” (Williams, p. 159-160)

“The council that deposed Paul of Samosata in 268 condemned the use of homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 94; cf. Hanson, p. 193-194)

According to Hilary, “Our fathers (the 268-council) … repudiated homoousion” because “the word to them spelt Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 194)

“The condemnation of homoousios by this well-known council” caused “considerable embarrassment to those theologians who wanted to defend its inclusion in an official doctrinal statement in the next century.” (Ayres, p. 94; cf. Hanson, p. 195) 21“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.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

Conclusion – A Sabellian term

In conclusion, before Nicaea, if we define Sabellianism as the believe that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis, homoousios was preferred only by Sabellians. This includes Sabellius himself, the Libyan Sabellians, Dionysius of Rome, and Paul of Samosata. For them, Father and Son are a single Person with a single mind. The only non-Sabellian who accepted the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he accepted it reluctantly and only as meaning that the Father and Son are two distinct substances (two hypostases) of the same type.

There are different forms of one-hypostasis theology, such as:

Sabellianism is therefore only one of the one-hypostasis theologies. However, the term is often used to refer to all one-hypostasis theologies. Used in that way, we can say that only Sabellians used the term:

Homoousios before it was placed in N must have been regarded as a term which carried with it heretical, or at least unsound, overtones to theologians in the Eastern church.” (Hanson, p. 195)

“The word homoousios, at its first appearance in the middle of the third century, was therefore clearly connected with the theology of a Sabellian or monarchian tendency.” (P.F. Beatrice)

“The word homousios had not had … a very happy history. It was probably rejected by the Council of Antioch, and was suspected of being open to a Sabellian meaning. It was accepted by the heretic Paul of Samosata and this rendered it very offensive to many in the Asiatic Churches.” (Philip Schaff)

“We can detect no Greek-speaking writer before Nicaea who unreservedly supports homoousion as applied to the Son.” (Hanson, p. 169)

AT NICAEA

A Surprising Innovation

The term homoousios was a surprising innovation in the Nicene Creed. It is not to be found in the Holy Scripture, was borrowed from pagan philosophy, did not appear in any precious creed, was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, and was already condemned as associated with the heresy of Sabellianism at an important church council 57 years earlier. Furthermore, ‘same substance’ implies that God has a body. For these reasons, the term homoousios seemed especially objectionable to most delegates at Nicaea, most of whom were from the East. Some powerful force must have been working to ensure its inclusion in the Creed.

Not Biblical

The Bible never says anything about God’s substance:

The term homoousios “is not to be found in the Holy Scripture” (P.F. Beatrice).

“Nobody could pretend that it was Scriptural” (Hanson, p. 167).

Borrowed from pagan philosophy:

“The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they try to show that the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really to be found in Scripture.” (Hanson, p. 846)

Not Traditional Language

It was not part of the standard Christian language of the day. The term did not appear in any precious creed; not even in the draft creed prepared only a few months before Nicaea:

“To say that the Son was ‘of the substance’ of the Father, and that he was ‘consubstantial’ with him were certainly startling innovations. Nothing comparable to this had been said in any creed or profession of faith before.” (Hanson, p. 166-7)

Rowan Williams described it as “the radical words of Nicaea” (Williams, p. 236) and “conceptual innovation” (Williams, p. 234-5), in contrast to “the lost innocence of pre-Nicene trinitarian language” (p. 234-5). Consequently, anti-Nicenes objected that these words are “untraditional.” (Williams, p. 234-5)

A meeting was held in Antioch a few months before the Nicene Council which formulated a draft creed. “This text makes no use of the ousia language that we see in Nicaea’s creed.” (Ayres, p. 51)

“The word homoousios is not to be found in the extant writings of Alexander of Alexandria.” (Beatrice“We can detect no Greek-speaking writer before Nicaea who unreservedly supports homoousion as applied to the Son.” (Hanson, p. 169)

Already condemned as Sabellian.

As discussed above, before Nicaea, the term was closely associated with Sabellianism and was, for that reason, already condemned in 268 at a Council in Antioch (Hanson, p. 198), the headquarters of the entire church at the time.

“It was impossible to rid the term in the minds of many of Sabellian, if not Gnostic associations.” (Hanson, p. 437)

The Homoiousians rejected “homoousios as leading to Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 439) “To them an acceptance of homoousios … would naturally appear to involve them in pure indiscriminate Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 440)

Athanasius wrote that their objection to the term “homoousios” was that it was considered to be “un-Scriptural, suspicious, and of a Sabellian tendency.” 22Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn 23“The terms aroused opposition, on the grounds that they were unscriptural, novel, tending to Sabellianism” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)

Implies God has a body

The Eusebians were uncomfortable with the term ‘same substance’ because they understood the term as saying that God is material:

“Williams points out that the objection based on the Manichean tendency of the word assumed that it implied that the Son was a component or extension of God, thus representing God as composite, perhaps as material, and suggesting that there is a kind of common ‘God-stuff’ shared by Father and Son.” (Hanson, p. 197) 24“This word (substance) was thought, as it was always thought by Arians, to introduce corporeal notions into the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 346) 25“For Christian writers such notions seemed irredeemably materialist, and made it easy for them to suppose that the mere use of homoousios implies a certain materiality.” (Ayres, p. 93)

The Eusebians argued that we should not understand the terms “Father,” “Son,” and “begotten” in a literal, material sense, as if the Son was begotten like humans are by breaking off a part of the parent.

Why was it included?

The vast majority of bishops at Nicaea were from the East26“Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19) and, for the reasons above, the term homoousios “seemed especially objectionable to many bishops and theologians of the East.” 27Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53  28“The Origenists had considerable reservation about homoousios and the other phrases containing the term ousios (substance).” (Erickson) “A majority opposed the Nicene creed. The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!” (Bible.ca29Eusebius accepted homoousion with “obvious reluctance.” (Hanson, p. 165) Given these strong objections, powerful forces must have been working to ensure its inclusion in the Creed.

The Emperor enforced the term.

The article on the Nicene Council is recommended for pre-reading.

The Emperors determined the Church’s doctrine.

That powerful force was the emperor. The Nicene Council, like all general councils during the fourth century, was called and dominated by the emperor. Constantine ensured that the council reached the decision he thought best. In the Christian Roman Empire, the emperors were the final arbiters in doctrinal disputes and they used those general councils, misleadingly called ecumenical councils, to establish the church’s doctrine according to their preferences. 

This council was not called by the church but by the emperor. It was his meeting. It was not his goal to find the truth but to prevent this dispute from causing division in his empire:

“The history of the period shows time and time again that … the general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils … were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them.” (Hanson, p. 855)

Furthermore, as astounding as it might sound to people who grew up in a culture of separation of church and state, in the fourth century, the emperor was the final judge in Christian doctrinal disputes:

“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.” (Hanson, p. 849)

Constantine enforced the term.

The emperor not only proposed but used his influence to enforce the inclusion of the term. “Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (Hanson, p. 850) 

He proposed the term:

The Emperor accepted Eusebius’ creed “and he advised all present to agree to it … with the insertion of the single word ‘consubstantial.’” (Beatrice) (See also – Eusebius’ letter.)

“The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” 30Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53 31“Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” “The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

He enforced the term:

“The Origenists had considerable reservation about homoousios and the other phrases containing the term ousios (substance), but the emperor exerted considerable influence. Consequently, the statement was approved.” (Erickson) 32Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85

“The emperor “himself proposed and insisted on the word homoousios.” (Erickson, Millard J, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

Constantine “pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)

“’Homoousios’ and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were added to the creed by Constantine himself, bearing witness to the extent of his influence at the council.” 33Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15. 34“The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios. ” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53) 35Constantine “himself … insisted upon the word homoousia being included in the creed.” (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997) p 15.) 

Constantine explained the term.

One of the major objections was that the phrases ‘homoousios’ and ‘begotten from the substance of God’ sound as if God has a body and as if the Son was begotten like humans are through a material, corporeal process. To enable the Eusebians to accept the new terms, Constantine insisted that these terms must be understood without material connotation: It simply means that He is not out of any other substance, but out of the Father. The fact that the council allowed Constantine to explain the term’s meaning and that the delegates had to accept his explanation is further evidence of his domination of the council.

Emperor Constantine not only imposed, by his authority, the inclusion of the word homoousios; he also dared to explain what the word meant to that assembly of the church’s leading theologians. 36Eusebius of Caesarea “gives the impression throughout this letter that Constantine took the initiative in all the matters that the letter deals with, apparently regarding himself as qualified to deal with any discussion about the profound questions raised by the Christian doctrine of God.” (Hanson, p. 160) Constantine did his best “to placate Eusebians” (Ayres, p. 91) to enable them to accept the term:

“It seems … that Constantine interceded on behalf of those unhappy with homoousios, insisting on the importance of understanding the term without material connotation.” (Ayres, p. 96)

“Eusebius … writes that Constantine himself spoke, endorsing the term homoousios, but insisting that it did not imply any material division in God.” (Ayres, p. 90-91) 37Eusebius “alleges that the Emperor himself qualified the addition of ‘consubstantial’ by saying that it must not be understood “in the sense of any corporeal experiences.” It also does not mean that the Son “exists as a result of division or any subtraction from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 165) 38“Eusebius directly ascribes to Constantine only an emphasis on understanding homoousios without reference to material division or the sorts of change associated with corporeal existence.” (Ayres, p. 96) 39“This term, however, upon which Constantine insisted, was given a special turn of meaning here. What was being affirmed and insisted upon was that the Son is different, utterly different, from any of the created beings. He is not out of any other substance, but out of the Father.” (Erickson, Millard J, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

The Creed says that the Son is homoousios with the Father because He is ‘from the substance of the Father’. The Eusebians also objected to the latter phrase but Constantine explained that it merely means that the Son was truly from the Father. With that non-literal explanation of the contentious terms, all delegates could agree. So, these unfamiliar phrases were included in the Creed due to the emperor’s domination of the council. 

“The phrase ‘from the ousia of the Father’ also had a complex history of use before Nicaea, much of which revolved around its seemingly materialistic or inappropriately genetic implications. Origen treats this phrase as implying something like a human birth and thus a materialistic understanding of divine being. … Eusebius of Caesarea, also writing before Nicaea, demonstrates similar worries that the phrase implies a materialistic diminution of the Father’s being in the generation of the Son.” (Ayres, p. 97)

“All the theologians … probably saw homoousios as expanding on and secondary to the phrase ‘from the ousia of the Father’. … Eusebius tells us that once he had been assured that this phrase (from the ousia of the Father) served only to indicate that the Son was truly from the Father he could agree even to homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 96) 40“Eusebius also reports that he himself secured clarity that the phrase ‘from the essence of the Father’ did not mean ‘is part of the Father’s substance’.” (Ayres, p. 90-91)

Following Eusebius’ lead, the Eusebians accepted Constantine’s explanation. So, these unfamiliar phrases were included in the Creed due to the emperor’s domination of the council. For more detail, see the discussion of Eusebius’ letter.

Because the Sabellians preferred the term.

This section explains why Constantine insisted on homoousios:

Another article argues that Constantine found the term agreeable because he was familiar with it through his contact with Egyptian paganism. Even if that is true, he would not have proposed the term without support from at least some delegates.

(1) The emperor took Alexander’s side in his dispute with Arius.

“Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (Ayres, p. 89)

“This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force.” (Ayres, p. 89)

(2) Alexander believed in one hypostasis, meaning that Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person with a single mind.

See here for a detailed discussion. Some brief examples:

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)

Alexander described the Son as “idios to (a property or quality of) the Father (which) is a Sabellian statement.” (Hanson, p. 92)

(3) But the one-hypostasis theologians were in the minority. The vast majority of the delegates were from the East and, following Origen, believed in three hypostases, meaning the Father, Son, and Spirit are three Beings with three distinct minds. (See here.) 

“Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)

“The Westerners at the Council (of Nicaea) represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) were ultimately disciples of Origen.” 41Frend, WHC: The Rise of Christianity As stated above, Origen believed in three hypostases.

For example, the Dedication Creed declared a belief in three hypostases. 

(4) Since the three-hypostasis view was in the majority, Alexander allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians in the council; the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, and their supporters. 

He allied with Eustathius and Marcellus:

“Eustathius and Marcellus … certainly met at Nicaea and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (Hanson, p. 234)

“Marcellus, Eustathius and Alexander were able to make common cause against the Eusebians.” (Ayres, p. 69)

Eustathius and Marcellus were Sabellians:

Eustathius attended the Nicene Council (Hanson, p. 208) but was deposed soon after Nicaea (“in 330 or 331”) (Hanson, p. 210) “primarily for the heresy of Sabellianism” (Hanson, p. 211).

Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix) Marcellus of Ancyra “cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism” (Hanson’s Lecture). 42“There were present at the Council people, such as Marcellus of Ancyra, who were quite ready to maintain that there is only one hypostasis in the Godhead, and who were later to be deposed for heresy because they believed this.” (Hanson, p. 167)

(5) For these reasons, the Sabellians were influential at the council. 

“Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus … Both were influential at the council.” (Ayres, p. 99)

“Marcellus of Ancyra … had been an important figure at the council and may have significantly influenced its wording.” (Ayres, p. 431) 43“Marcellus … played a major role at Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 62)

“Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Alexander must all have been key players in the discussions.” (Ayres, p. 89)

(6) Therefore, Constantine insisted on homoousios, not because Alexander preferred it, but because the Sabellians preferred the term. 

Alexander did not prefer the term.

Just a few months earlier, the draft statement prepared by the pro-Alexander council at Antioch did not mention ousia or homoousios:

“Alexander indeed seems to be avoiding homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 139)

“Alexander in his extant utterances never uses homoousios, though there are several places where its application to the Son would have been apt.” (Hanson, p. 140)

The Sabellians endorsed homoousios.

“Marcellus and Eustathius also seem likely to have endorsed homoousios because of the notion of shared being.” (Ayres, p. 95) “Shared being” can be understood as ‘one Person’.

“For him (Marcellus) homoousios, whose presence in N he must have welcomed enthusiastically …” (Hanson, p. 229-230)

Constantine insisted on homousios because, firstly, as explained here, he knew the term from his association with Egyptian paganism and, secondly, because the Sabellians preferred it:

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians [the Sabellians] … were in favour of it (homoousios) … he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)

(7) Alexander accepted the term because, as a one-hypostasis theologian, he might have found the term agreeable and because he needed the support of the Sabellians. 

“Simonetti estimates the Nicene Council as a temporary alliance for the defeat of Arianism between the tradition of Alexandria led by Alexander and ‘Asiatic’ circles (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) whose thought was at the opposite pole to that of Arius. … Alexander … accepted virtual Sabellianism in order to ensure the defeat of Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 171)44Eusebius of Caesarea put forward a creed that was “revised” by “the party of Alexander,” which was “favored by the emperor,” who “favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Erickson)

(8) As explained above, the Eusebians reluctantly accepted the term due to the emperor’s strong influence on the council, and based on the emperor’s non-material explanation of the term. 

The Creed was the work of a Minority.

In conclusion, the emperor’s authority allowed the one-hypostasis minority to include the term homoousios in the Creed, despite the Sabellian history of the term and despite the objections raised by the majority. 

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.” 45Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41

The reformed website Bible.ca states: “We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. … The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!”

Ossius of Cordova

Ossius was the emperor’s religious advisor. Constantine appointed him as chair of the Nicene Council “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and as Constantine’s “agent.” (Hanson, p. 190) 

His humble position in the church, as bishop of the small city of Cordova, did not qualify him as chair of that assembly.

“Ossius … represented the policy of Constantine” (Hanson, p. 170)

He also believed in one hypostasis, similar to Alexander and the Sabellians

“Ossius evidently believed that God is a single hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 870) 46“It also seems possible that Ossius at least believed in only one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 167) For example, eighteen years later, in 343, Ossius helped to compose another creed (at Serdica) (Hanson, p. 201) which had “the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion.” (Hanson, p. xix) That manifesto explicitly confesses a single hypostasis.

In all probability, Ossius was the one who advised Constantine to take Alexander’s part. 

The Anathema confirms Sabellian domination.

Another indication of Sabellian domination is the anathema in the Creed against all “who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance.” This seems to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person) and substance, which is the hallmark of Sabellianism. 

“If we are to take the creed N at its face value, the theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea. That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis. This was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” (Hanson, p. 235) 

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325 … ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.” (Hanson’s Lecture) 47“The condemnation … that the Son is ‘of another hypostasis or ousia’ from the Father … can only have been a highly ambiguous and extremely confusing statement. By the standard of later orthodoxy … it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition.” (Hanson, p. 167) 48“The anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support” Sabellianism. (Hanson Lecture). 49“He (Eustathius) could have replied … that the notorious anathema in N gave him every encouragement to believe that there is only one distinct reality in the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 216)

See here for a further discussion of that anathema.

All understood the term as Sabellian.

Given these facts, how did the delegates to the Council understand the term? 

Sabellians intended ‘One Person’.

The Sabellians understood homoousios as saying that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis (a single Person). 

For example:

“For him (Marcellus) homoousios … meant not merely ‘consubstantial’ or ‘of similar substance’, but ‘of identical being’.” (Hanson, p. 229-230)

“Marcellus and Eustathius also seem likely to have endorsed homoousios because of the notion of shared being that was an accepted part of its semantic range, but not because they thought it implied two distinct eternally co-ordinate realities.” (Ayres, p. 95-96) [“Co-ordinate” here means two distinct but more or less equal entities.]

“It is unlikely that Alexander or Ossius would have chosen the term intending a simple co-ordinate sense.” (Ayres, p. 95) 50“Eusebius’ discussion nicely demonstrates the extent to which the promulgation of homoousios involved a conscious lack of positive definition of the term. Of course, those who were broadly in the same trajectory as Alexander would have easily been able to sign up to Nicaea’s terms but would have read them in a very different manner.” (Ayres, p. 91)

Consequently, as discussed below, after Nicaea, the Sabellians claimed the Creed as support for their doctrine:

“In the controversies which erupted over Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus after Nicaea, both thought their theologies faithful to Nicaea—and they had good grounds for so assuming. Both were influential at the council, and Nicaea’s lapidary formulations were never intended to rule out their theological idiosyncrasies.” (Ayres, p. 99)

Eusebians also understood it as Sabellian.

The emperor’s explanation that homoousios simply means that the Son is truly from the Father enabled the Eusebian majority to accept the term reluctantly. They were able to square that explanation with their view that the Son is distinct from and subordinate to the Father. However, in reality, they knew this term implies Sabellianism. 

“Eusebius tells us that once he had been assured that this phrase served only to indicate that the Son was truly from the Father he could agree even to homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 96)

With that understanding, it does not mean that Father and Son are one Person or even that they are equal. Like Dionysius of Alexandria, the Eusebians at Nicaea were forced to accept the term but accepted it only with a generic meaning.

However, after Nicaea, that same church mainstream opposed the Creed because it implied Sabellianism. For example:

“It was impossible to rid the term in the minds of many of Sabellian, if not Gnostic associations.” (Hanson, p. 437)

“We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. But the opposition was over the use of specific words … they felt the creed could lend support to Sabellianism.” (Bible.ca)

“The language of that creed seemed to offer no prophylactic (prevention) against Marcellan doctrine, and increasingly came to be seen as implying such doctrine.” (Ayres, p. 96, 97)

“To many the creed seemed strongly to favour the unitarian tendency among these existing trajectories.” (Ayres, p. 431)51The term “unitarian” refers to Sabellianism. For example: “A great deal of controversy was caused in the years after the council by some supporters of Nicaea whose theology had strongly unitarian tendencies. Chief among these was Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Ayres, p. 431)

So, the majority also really understood the term as Sabellian.

Was Nicaea a Sabellian victory?

Our authors say that Nicaea was a drawn battle between the Sabellian one-hypostasis theology and the Eusebian three-hypostases theology. However, in the view of this article, since homoousios was known to be a Sabellian term and given the anathema, it was a Sabellian victory. 

“The ‘Asiatics’ (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) … were able to include in N a hint of opposition to the three hypostases theory.” (Hanson, p. 171, quoting Simonetti)

It is not “an openly Sabellian creed.” “It is going too far to say that N is a clearly Sabellian document. … It is exceeding the evidence to represent the Council as a total victory for the anti-Origenist opponents of the doctrine of three hypostases. It was more like a drawn battle.” (Hanson, p. 172) Ayres says that his conclusions are close to Hanson’s. (Ayres, p. 92)

AFTER NICAEA

Sabellianism and homoousios were rejected.

Nicaea brought an end to the dispute around Arius’ theology. After Nicaea, Arius was no longer an issue. 

“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (Ayres, p. 56-57) (For detail, see – Arius.)

Alexander died soon after Nicaea. He was not the focus of the dispute after Nicaea. 

“The Index to the Festal Letters of Athanasius dates the death of Alexander firmly to April 27th, 328.” (Hanson, p. 175)[/mfn] 

In the previous century, the controversy was between Sabellius’ one-hypostasis theology and Origen’s three hypostases. Sabellianism was defeated. However, with the emperor’s help, the Sabellians gained a major victory at Nicaea. But the war continued for a few years after Nicaea. It was specifically between the Eusebian majority and the Sabellians, and resulted in the exile of the leading Sabellians. 

the Nicene Creed caused this conflict. But it was not a new controversy:

“Nicaea has been a catalyst for conflict between pre-existing theological trajectories.” (Ayres, p. 101)

The phrase “pre-existing theological trajectories” refers to schools of thought that had existed before Nicaea. The leading Sabellians were exiled.

“Within ten years of the Council of Nicaea all the leading supporters of the creed of that Council had been deposed or disgraced or exiled – Athanasius, Eustathius and Marcellus, and with them a large number of other bishops who are presumed to have belonged to the same school of thought.” (Hanson, p. 274)

“Eustathius lost this battle and was deposed at some point between 326 and 331.” (Ayres, p. 101)

“The new synod met in the summer of 336 and deposed Marcellus for holding the heresy of Paul of Samosata.” (Williams, p. 80)

This conflict was specifically about the meaning of the term homoousios. The Sabellians claimed that it supports their theology, namely, that the Father and Son are a single Person, meaning that the Son does not have a real distinct existence. 

As an example, the following is one event during that period “probably in 326 or 327:” (Ayres, p. 101)

“The fifth-century ecclesiastical historian Sozomen reports a dispute immediately after the council, focused not on Arius, but … concerning the precise meaning of the term homoousios.

Some [must be the Eusebians] thought this term … implied the non-existence of the Son of God; and that it involved the error of Montanus and Sabellius. …

Eustathius accused Eusebius [of Caesarea] of altering the doctrines ratified by the council of Nicaea, while the latter declared that he approved of all the Nicaean doctrines, and reproached Eustathius for cleaving to the heresy of Sabellius.” (Ayres, p. 101)52“This event was only one part of the conflict that now began.” (Ayres, p. 101)

Therefore, the rejection of the Sabellians after Nicaea was also a rejection of the term homoousios. This site refers to the decade after Nicaea as the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’ because it closed the door to Sabellianism that was opened at Nicaea. For a detailed discussion, see here

After that, nobody mentions Homoousios.

For about two decades after the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’, nobody mentions homoousios. 

“There is a near-fifteen year absence before the creed is mentioned again.” (Ayres, p. 100)

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. …This lack of usage also results from the association of Nicaea with the theology of Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Ayres, p. 97)

“What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.” (Hanson Lecture)

Councils in the 340s do not mention it.

Respectively 16 and 18 years after Nicaea, two councils met; the Dedication Council in 341 and the Council at Serdica in 343. Since both councils met during the period that homoousios was not mentioned, the creeds from these councils do not mention the term. These councils focused on the more fundamental issue, of which homoousios was only a symptom, namely, the number of hypostases in God. 

The Dedication Council was a council of the Eastern Church. Its main purpose was to condemn Sabellianism. It explicitly asserts three hypostases (three Persons or Beings with three distinct minds).

The Serdica Council never met as one. The Western and Eastern delegates met separately and issued two different creeds. While the Eastern creed maintained three hypostases, the Western creed explicitly asserts one hypostasis (one Person with one mind). 

As discussed here, the dispute about the number of hypostases was the main issue of the entire Arian Controversy. It began with the second-century Monarchains and the third-century Sabellians confessing one hypostasis. In opposition to them, Origen taught three hypostases. In the third century, his view dominated and Sabellianism was rejected. In the fourth century, the Sabellians, Alexander, Athanasius, and the West continued to teach one hypostasis. Sabellianism was eventually victorious when emperor Theodosius in 380 made one-hypostasis theology the official and sole religion of the Roman Empire.

Athanasius revived Homoousios in the 350s.

Not even Athanasius mentioned homoousios in the 330s and 340s. That would have been the end of homoousios, but Athanasius revived it in the 350s; 30 years after Nicaea. 

During the years 335-6, Athanasius and Marcellus were deposed by the Eastern Church. Meeting in Rome, they joined forces. At that time Athanasius also developed his polemical strategy; his “masterpiece of the rhetorical art,” (Ayres, p. 106-7) claiming that:

      • Arius originated a new heresy, causing the Controversy.
      • All opponents of Nicaea are followers of Arius.
      • Athanasius preserves scriptural orthodoxy.
      • An Arian Conspiracy caused him to be exiled for violence but, in reality, he was exiled for opposition to Arianism.

These statements may sound familiar but none of them are true. However, the church has believed Athanasius for more than 1500 years. The truth of the Arian Controversy was only revealed in the last about 100 years.

But the point is that, in the 330s and 340s, Athanasius’ polemical strategy did not say anything about homoousios. He did not yet defend it.

By the time Constantius became emperor of the entire Empire in the early 350s, Athanasius had become extremely powerful5353“Towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421) and Constantius attempted to isolate Athanasius. 54For example, at Milan in 355 “almost everybody present acquiesced in the Emperor’s demands, condemned Athanasius, and probably also signed some formula which was not openly Arian but was patient of an Arian interpretation.” (Hanson, p. 333-4) It was in this time of crisis that Athanasius strengthened his polemical strategy by adding homoousios to his arsenal:

“It is not until he (Athanasius) writes the De Decretis (356 or 357) that Athanasius again mentions the word and begins to defend it.” (Hanson, p. 436)

“Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (Ayres, p. 144)

In this way, homoousios came back into the Controversy. As discussed above, the West was not involved when the Arian Controversy began. By the 350’s, the West had already entered the stage and Athanasius had become their “paragon” (model) (Hanson, p. 304). See here for a more detailed discussion of the current section.

Because he was a Sabellian.

Athanasius was a one-hypostasis theologian, similar to the Sabellians. For him, the term meant that the Son is “inseparable from the substance of the Father, that he and the Father are one and the same.” That he re-introduced homoousios into the Controversy confirms the one-hypostasis implication of the term. 

Athanasius is known as the main defender of the Nicene Creed and homoousios but, as discussed here, Athanasius also was a Sabellian. He claimed that he was not a Sabellian but, like the Sabellians, he believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (a single Person). Specifically, he believed that the Son is part of the Father. For example:

“In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)

“The Westerners had at Serdica in 343 produced a theological statement which appeared to have the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion, and Athanasius had certainly supported this statement, though he later denied its existence.” (Hanson, p. xix)

There were different forms of one-hypostasis theology. Some believed that the Son is another name for the Father. Others, like Athanasius, said that the Son is part of the Father. Still others, like Sabellius himself, said that Father and Son are two parts of God. But they all believed in one hypostasis, as opposed to the three-hypostases theology of Origen and the Eusebians. If we define Sabellianism as belief in only one hypostasis, then Athanasius was a Sabellian. Consequently, he understood homoousios as saying that Father and Son are a single hypostasis:

“Just what the Council intended this expression to mean is set forth by St. Athanasius as follows: ‘That the Son is not only like to the Father, but that … he is the same as the Father; that he is of the Father … that the Son is not only like to the Father, but inseparable from the substance of the Father, that he and the Father are one and the same … as the sun and its splendour are inseparable.’” (Schaff)

An anti-homoousios front

After homoousios had again become a disputed point in the Controversy, the Eusebians were divided into several factions concerning this term. However, they united against homoousios and Sabellianism, showing that one-hypostasis theologies remained the main enemy. 

In the 350s, after homoousios was re-introduced into the Arian Controversy, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) were divided into several factions concerning this term:

      • The Homoiousians said the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s.
      • The Heterousians argued that no being’s substance can be like or similar to the Father’s because the Father alone exists without cause.
      • The Homoians avoided all uses of ousia words, including homoousios.

But they joined forces against homoousios and the one-hypostasis theologies that favored the term:

The Homoians “included bishops of different stripes.” What “united” them was “the desire to find a solution to the ongoing controversy that would rule out any theologies seemingly tainted with Marcellan emphases.” (Ayres, p. 138) 

“Basil (of Ancyra – leader of the Homoiousians) made ad hoc alliances with theologians such as Acacius (leader of the Homoians) against Photinus and Marcellus.” (Ayres, p. 150)(Photinus was “perhaps the most visible representative of a Marcellan theology in these years (in the 350s).” (Ayres, p. 134))

Basil explained homoousios as three hypostases.

Basil of Caesarea, the first of the Cappadocian fathers, was the first Pro-Nicene to believe in three hypostases. 

Another article shows that Basil of Caesarea, who wrote in the 360s and 370s, did not follow Athanasius and did not base his theology on the Nicene Creed. He began as a Homoiousian but later also accepted the term homoousios. However, while Athanasius and other pro-Nicenes explained homoousios as meaning one hypostasis, Basil taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct substances (three hypostases or Persons or Beings) with exactly the same type of substance:

“Like unalterably according to ousia.” (Hanson, p. 696-7)

The problem is that, since their substances are equal, this implies tritheism. Nevertheless, he was the first Pro-Nicene to believe in three hypostases.

In the 360s and 370s, in what is known as the Meletian Schism, a dispute between two pro-Nicene groups in Antioch, Basil’s view brought him to oppose Athanasius and other one-hypostasis theologians. 

While Basil supported Meletius as bishop of Antioch, Athanasius, Damasus of Rome and Athanasius’ successor Peter supported Paulinus (another ‘one-Person’ theologian) for that position. For example:

“The opening of the year 375 saw the ironical situation in which the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic … against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East” (Hanson Lecture)

The Chalcedonian Creed of AD 451 uses homoousios in the same way as Basil. 

The Chalcedonian symbol says that Christ is “consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father as touching the Godhead, and consubstantial with us [and yet individually, distinct from us] as touching the manhood.”  55Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673. In other words, similar to Basil, it interprets homoousios as saying that Father and Son are two distinct substances of the same type.

The Sabellians seemed to have switched to the more specific term monoousios (or synousios) after the pro-Nicenes, following Basil, used homoousios in a three-hypostasis sense. 56“According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.” (Beatrice) Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A).

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

Before Nicaea, the only Christian theologians who favored the term were the Sabellians.

At Nicaea, a Sabellian minority had the upper hand because they allied with Alexander and because the emperor took Alexander’s part. Consequently, the term homoousios, which they preferred, was inserted in the Creed, despite the objections of the majority. However, Emperor Constantine appeased the majority fears by explaining the ousia-terms highly figuratively, saying that it only means that the Son is truly from the Father. This explanation enabled the Eusebian majority to accept the Creed.

In the third century, the Sabellians lost major battles but Nicaea may be counted as their victory. After the Council, Sabellians claimed that victory, namely, that the term homoousios means that the church had accepted a one-hypostasis theology. This caused a major dispute in the decade after Nicaea, resulting in the exile of all leading Sabellians.

After that, the term homoousios disappeared from the Controversy. The Controversy now focused on the more fundamental disagreement; the number of hypostases in God. In the 350s, however, Athanasius brought the term back into the Controversy, causing the church to divided into various factions:

    • Athanasius and the West defended homoousios, explaining it as saying that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (one Person).
    • The Cappadocian fathers accepted homoousios but interpreted it in a generic sense, meaning three hypostases.
    • The Homoians, who dominated the church for much of the 350s to 370s, rejected all ousia terms, including homoousios.
    • The Homoiousians said that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • The Heterousians claimed that the Son’s substance is different from the Father’s.

In conclusion, throughout the entire Arian Controversy, the only people who regarded homoousios as saying that Father and Son are one substance, as the Trinity doctrine also claims, were the one-hypostasis (Sabellian) theologians.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “A standard connotation of the term homoousios was membership in a class, a generic similarity between things that were, in some sense, co-ordinate [equal in rank or importance]. The term was used loosely to point to markers of commonality and did not at all exclude relationships between realities that were hierarchically distinct in other ways.” (Ayres, p. 94-95)
  • 2
    “According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.” (Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A))
  • 3
    Quoting Person, R. E. The Mode of Theological Decision-Making at the Early Ecumenical Councils (1978) p105
  • 4
    “hypostasis, i.e. individual existence” (Hanson, p. 193, quoting Simonetti
  • 5
    Philip Schaff. History of the Church volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition. pp.672-673.
  • 6
    “While a large number of scholars have contended that the council used the term in this latter (numerical) sense, there are good grounds for questioning such a conclusion.” Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons – Nicene Creed” p82-85
  • 7
    “It was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense than has in the past history of scholarship been attached to it.” (Hanson, p. 202)
  • 8
    “Eusebius’ discussion nicely demonstrates the extent to which the promulgation of homoousios involved a conscious lack of positive definition of the term.” (Ayres, p. 91)
  • 9
    “Our investigation of the use of homoousios before it was inserted in N, then, should have suggested strongly that it would be unwise to give the word a strictly defined or single meaning.” (Hanson, p. 196)
  • 10
    There was no such thing as an Arian.
  • 11
    Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 18). Kindle Edition.
  • 12
    “Hippolytus quotes Gnostics as using the word homoousios, none of them suggesting identity, nor even equality.” (Hanson, p. 191)
  • 13
    “Origen had rejected the term (substance) years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” (Steven Wedgeworth)
  • 14
    “It is almost certainly right to conclude that Origen could not have spoken of the Son as homoousios with the Father.” (Williams, p. 132)
  • 15
    “Origen never says that the Son comes from the substance of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 67)
  • 16
    Epiphanius stated that “Origen often declared ‘that the only-begotten God is alien from the Father’s Godhead and substance’ (ousia)” (Hanson, p. 62).
  • 17
    Both “Dionysius of Rome and Eusebius of Caesarea label” “the accusers of Dionysius of Alexandria” as “Sabellians.” (Beatrice)
  • 18
    He “at least took up or championed it (the term homoousios).” (Hanson, p. 193)
  • 19
    “Dionysius of Rome harshly condemned those who divided the Trinity into three distinct hypostases.” (Beatrice)
  • 20
    “Dionysius of Rome … said that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy ‘into three sorts of … separated hypostases and three Godheads’; people who hold this in effect produce three gods.” (Hanson, p. 185)
  • 21
    “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.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)
  • 22
    Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn
  • 23
    “The terms aroused opposition, on the grounds that they were unscriptural, novel, tending to Sabellianism” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)
  • 24
    “This word (substance) was thought, as it was always thought by Arians, to introduce corporeal notions into the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 346)
  • 25
    “For Christian writers such notions seemed irredeemably materialist, and made it easy for them to suppose that the mere use of homoousios implies a certain materiality.” (Ayres, p. 93)
  • 26
    “Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)
  • 27
    Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53
  • 28
    “The Origenists had considerable reservation about homoousios and the other phrases containing the term ousios (substance).” (Erickson)
  • 29
    Eusebius accepted homoousion with “obvious reluctance.” (Hanson, p. 165)
  • 30
    Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53
  • 31
    “Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” “The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)
  • 32
    Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85
  • 33
    Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.
  • 34
    “The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios. ” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53)
  • 35
    Constantine “himself … insisted upon the word homoousia being included in the creed.” (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997) p 15.)
  • 36
    Eusebius of Caesarea “gives the impression throughout this letter that Constantine took the initiative in all the matters that the letter deals with, apparently regarding himself as qualified to deal with any discussion about the profound questions raised by the Christian doctrine of God.” (Hanson, p. 160)
  • 37
    Eusebius “alleges that the Emperor himself qualified the addition of ‘consubstantial’ by saying that it must not be understood “in the sense of any corporeal experiences.” It also does not mean that the Son “exists as a result of division or any subtraction from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 165)
  • 38
    “Eusebius directly ascribes to Constantine only an emphasis on understanding homoousios without reference to material division or the sorts of change associated with corporeal existence.” (Ayres, p. 96)
  • 39
    “This term, however, upon which Constantine insisted, was given a special turn of meaning here. What was being affirmed and insisted upon was that the Son is different, utterly different, from any of the created beings. He is not out of any other substance, but out of the Father.” (Erickson, Millard J, God in Three Persons, p82-85)
  • 40
    “Eusebius also reports that he himself secured clarity that the phrase ‘from the essence of the Father’ did not mean ‘is part of the Father’s substance’.” (Ayres, p. 90-91)
  • 41
    Frend, WHC: The Rise of Christianity
  • 42
    “There were present at the Council people, such as Marcellus of Ancyra, who were quite ready to maintain that there is only one hypostasis in the Godhead, and who were later to be deposed for heresy because they believed this.” (Hanson, p. 167)
  • 43
    “Marcellus … played a major role at Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 62)
  • 44
    Eusebius of Caesarea put forward a creed that was “revised” by “the party of Alexander,” which was “favored by the emperor,” who “favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Erickson)
  • 45
    Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41
  • 46
    “It also seems possible that Ossius at least believed in only one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 167)
  • 47
    “The condemnation … that the Son is ‘of another hypostasis or ousia’ from the Father … can only have been a highly ambiguous and extremely confusing statement. By the standard of later orthodoxy … it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition.” (Hanson, p. 167)
  • 48
    “The anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support” Sabellianism. (Hanson Lecture).
  • 49
    “He (Eustathius) could have replied … that the notorious anathema in N gave him every encouragement to believe that there is only one distinct reality in the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 216)
  • 50
    “Eusebius’ discussion nicely demonstrates the extent to which the promulgation of homoousios involved a conscious lack of positive definition of the term. Of course, those who were broadly in the same trajectory as Alexander would have easily been able to sign up to Nicaea’s terms but would have read them in a very different manner.” (Ayres, p. 91)
  • 51
    The term “unitarian” refers to Sabellianism. For example: “A great deal of controversy was caused in the years after the council by some supporters of Nicaea whose theology had strongly unitarian tendencies. Chief among these was Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Ayres, p. 431)
  • 52
    “This event was only one part of the conflict that now began.” (Ayres, p. 101)
  • 53
    53“Towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421)
  • 54
    For example, at Milan in 355 “almost everybody present acquiesced in the Emperor’s demands, condemned Athanasius, and probably also signed some formula which was not openly Arian but was patient of an Arian interpretation.” (Hanson, p. 333-4)
  • 55
    Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.
  • 56
    “According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.” (Beatrice) Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A).