The real dispute and main meaning of the Nicene Creed of AD 325

Summary of this article

Purpose

It is often said that the Council of Nicaea was called to determine whether Jesus is God. But that does not accurately describe the dispute prior to Nicaea or the meaning of the creed. The purpose of this article is to identify the fundamental point of disagreement that led to the Nicene Creed of AD 325 and to establish what the attendees at the council understood the creed to say.

The Two Phases of the Arian Controversy

The Arian Controversy of the fourth century consisted of two phases:

The first phase began around AD 318 in Alexandria and came to an end during the Nicene Council when Arius’ Christology was presented but rejected.

The second phase began during the Nicene Council and lasted for another about 50 years after the meeting. It was not a dispute between the Arius-faction and the rest, but a dispute between four different views of the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son:

        1. Same substance (homoousian)
        2. Different substance (The Arius view)
        3. Similar substance (homoiousian)
        4. God’s substance is not revealed. Therefore, we should not formulate doctrines that refer to God’s substance. This was the majority view in the decades after Nicaea.

How the delegates in 325 understood the creed

This point is that, through the debates of that long second phase of the Arian Controversy and even after that second phase was brought to an end, many new concepts were developed, for example with respect to the Holy Spirit and the meaning of the word hypostasis. Therefore, to read the Nicene Creed of 325 using concepts and definitions that were developed later will fail to reveal its true meaning. It is only possible to grasp the meaning of the creed of AD 325 when one understands how the delegates in 325 understood the creed. For this reason, this article focuses on the development of the doctrine of God prior to the Nicene Creed of 325.

The Apostolic Church

The Bible associates the Son with God in many ways but also describe Him as subordinate to the Father. In the view of many, the Bible’s description of the relationship between God and His Son is inadequate and we need to develop a more advanced description.

But in the Apostolic Church of the first century, while Jews remained the majority in the church, Christians did not attempt to explain the relationship between God and His unique Son in more detail. They simply repeated what the New Testament said about God and Jesus.

Logos-Christology

Somewhere during the second century, Gentiles became the majority in the church. The Gentile Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (also called the Apologists) identified the Son of God of the New Testament as the Logos of Greek philosophy. In this Logos-Christology:

Created substances, including spirit beings, did not always exist and exist only by God’s grace. Uncreated substances, in contrast, are inherently eternal; always existed and must necessarily always exist.

The Logos existed inside God from the “beginning.”

That the Logos was emitted from God when God decided to create was interpreted as that the Son of God was begotten.

This, however, did not leave God without His wisdom; God and His Logos always remained integrated.

Since the Logos was part of the uncreated substance of God from “the beginning,” He:

        • Is of the same uncreated substance as the Father.
        • Always existed and
        • Must necessarily always exist.
        • Is subordinate to the Father. As B.B. Warfield noted, “The dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels.” (cf. Irenaeus and Tertullian or Origen.)

Sabellianism

Sabellianism (Modalism) was the first challenge to Logos-Christology. Due to Logos-Christology, Christianity was often accused of having two or three gods. Sabellianism was one attempt to explain how God might be three and one at the same time (Kevin Giles). However, the church fathers rejected this Christology early in the third century. 

The Christology of the Nicene Fathers

With Modalism formally condemned, Logos-Christology was the theology with which the church entered the fourth century.

At Nicaea, there were three parties:

The Arius-group taught that the Son was created from nothing. In other words, they rejected Logos-Christology which taught that the Son is the Logos that always was inside God. After Sabellianism, Arius’ Christology was the second great challenge to Logos-Christology.

The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea were the majority at Nicaea and maintained the traditional Logos-theology.

The third group was led by Alexander of Alexandria. A letter in which Alexander explained Arius’ ex-communication shows that Alexander also continued the traditional Logos theology of the previous century.

In conclusion:

All the delegates at Nicaea, except the Arius-group, maintained the traditional Logos-Christology. 

This means that, at the time, the Nicene Creed was formulated and interpreted on the basis of Logos-Christology.

This further means that the word “begotten” in the creed must be understood as that the Logos, who always was inside God, was begotten (emitted) from God and became the Son of God.

The Nicene Creed – Four issues

This analysis allows us to read the Nicene Creed from the perspective of the delegates at Nicaea.

Since more than 80% of the words in the creed are about Jesus Christ, the issue before the council was about Him; not about the Father or about the Holy Spirit.

Analyzing the creed, including the anathemas, shows that it addresses four issues about the Son:

(1) HOW He was generated in eternity past, namely that He was not made from nothing, as Arius claimed but that He is the only being ever “begotten” of the essence of the Father;

(2) WHAT His nature now is, namely, of the same substance (homoousion) as the Father.

(3) Whether He always existed, and

(4) Whether He is mutable (subject to change)

It is proposed that, of those four issues, the primary issue of dispute was how the Son was generated, namely, whether He was generated out of nothing (as Arius said) or out of the substance of God, as the creed suggests. This is justified as follows:

(a) Most of the words that were added in response to the Arian controversy are about this.

(b) After the meeting, Eusebius, the leader of the majority Eastern Greek delegation, identified this as the foundational matter.

(c) All the other differences (whether He always existed, what His substance is, and whether He is mutable) are consequences of this fundamental difference.

(d) That He always existed and that He is immutable are only mentioned in the anathemas, implying that these are not fundamental issues.

Homoousios

The word homoousios does not represent the main idea in the creed because the Origenists, who were in the majority at Nicaea, resisted this word to the last and only accepted it because of the pressure applied by the emperor. (See Eusebius’ explanation for more detail.)

The Son is God.

The creed does not identify the Son as “God” in the sense of the Ultimate Reality because the delegates to Nicaea held to the traditional Logos-Christology in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. This is confirmed by the creed itself which identifies the “one God” of Christianity as the Father alone.

Conclusion

The main point of the creed, with respect to the controversy with Arius, is that the Son was begotten out of the eternal, uncreated substance of the Father. That principle is foundational to everything else in the creed.

– END OF SUMMARY –

Purpose of this article

In his excellent book, Decoding Nicea, Paul Pavao wrote:

“It is commonly said that the Council of Nicea was called to determine whether Jesus was God. … But if we really want to understand Nicea, then that description will not suffice. It would be more accurate to say that the Council of Nicea met to determine what the Son of God was made of.”

The purpose of this article is to explain this somewhat strange statement. The purpose of this article is to identify the fundamental point of disagreement that led to the Nicene Creed of AD 325 and to establish what the attendees at the council understood the creed to say.

The Two Phases of the Arian Controversy

The Arian Controversy of the fourth century consisted of two phases:

The first phase began around AD 318 in Alexandria with a dispute between elder Arius and his bishop Alexander. After this dispute spread over a large part of his empire, Constantine the Great called the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to address this controversy. At the Council, Arius’ Christology was presented but soon rejected. 

However, after Arius’ Christology was rejected, the council meeting evolved into a dispute between the two other parties at Nicaea over how the creed must be formulated. As Eusebius of Caesarea explained, the minority party of Alexander of Alexandria, because they enjoyed the protection of the emperor, was able to add the terms ousia (substance) and homoousion (same substance) to the Nicene creed even though the majority was uncomfortable with these terms. As Bettenson stated, “The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41). As 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!”

That dispute, which arose during the council meeting, became the second phase of the Arian Controversy, continued after the meeting and lasted for another about 50 years.

While the first phase of the Arian Controversy was between the Arius-faction and everybody else, the second phase of the controversy was a dispute between four different views of the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son:

      1. Same substance (homoousian – as per the Nicene Creed)
      2. Different substance (heteroousian – the view which Arius maintained)
      3. Similar substance (homo-i-ousian – attempted to find a view midway between the homoousians and the heteroousians.)
      4. God’s substance is not revealed. Therefore, we should not formulate doctrines that refer to God’s substance. This is known as the homoian (or homoean) view which simply taught that the Son is similar to the Father.

During the 50 years of the second phase of the Controversy a string of further church councils considered and approved various alternatives for homoousion, but the homoian view became the dominant view. Hanson lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith (Hanson RPC 2005, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 AD. pp. 558–559).

At the Council of Constantinople in 360 the homoian view was finally accepted as the official creed of the Christian Church. It rejected the term homoousion and banned all use of ousia in theological discussions. (Steven Wedgeworth)

With the homoian creed, the church returned to the theology of Origen, who warned against attempts to overly define God:

“If then, it is once rightly understood that the only-begotten Son of God is his Wisdom existing in substance, I do not know whether our curiosity ought to advance beyond this.” (De Principiis. I:2:1-2. c. AD 230.)

The Doctrine of God evolved after Nicaea.

Through the debates of that second phase of the Arian Controversy, many new concepts were developed, for example:

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

“Finally, following the authoritative example of St. Basil the Great, it became accepted to understand by the word Hypostasis the Personal attributes in the Triune Divinity.” (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p. 94-95) (To understand what this means, see Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

Many other Trinitarian concepts were developed even after the Creed of Constantinople in 381. For example:

A German theologian named Gieseler stated that the first person who asserted “the numerical sameness of nature in the three divine persons” was Augustine. [Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 reprint) p. 463.] (For an explanation, see Should homoousion in the Nicene Creed be translated as “same substance” or as “one substance?”)

How the delegates in 325 understood the creed

Given the significant development of the Trinity doctrine, during the fourth and fifth centuries, to read the Nicene Creed of 325 using concepts and definitions that were developed later will fail to reveal its true meaning. It is only possible to grasp the meaning of the creed of AD 325 when one understands the nature of the controversy at that time and what the delegates in 325 understood the creed to say.

Furthermore, the Nicene Creed of 325 was formulated by a minority and only accepted by the majority due to the pressure applied by the emperor. And, as we see in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, the majority defined the terms “substance” and “same substance” is a way that made it possible for them to accept the creed. Therefore, we need to determine what meaning that majority assigned to the creed because it is on that basis that they accepted the creed.

For this reason, this article focuses on the development of the doctrine of God prior to the Nicene Creed of 325. It will discuss, in brief, the Christology of:

      • The Bible,
      • The Apostolic Church,
      • The Gentile Church, namely Logos-Christology, and
      • Sabellianism,
      • The Nicene Fathers, and 
      • The Lucians.

The Bible

The Bible associates the Son with God. For example:

The church is commanded to baptize believers “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).

He will be honored equal with the Father, has life in Himself like the Father, and in Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form (John 5:23; 26; Col 2:9). These things seem to indicate divinity.

But the Bible also describes Him as subordinate to the Father. For example:

He received honor equal with the Father, life in Himself, and the fullness of Deity the Father (John 5:22; 26; Col 1:19).

The Bible describes the Father as His God (e.g., Eph 1:3; Rev 3:12) and as His Head (e.g.,1 Cor 11:3).

This creates the challenge to explain the tension between the divinity and subordination of the Son. 

R.P.C. Hanson stated, “the Bible does not give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God.” It almost seems as if Hanson is saying that the Bible’s description of the relationship between God and His Son is inadequate and we need to develop a more advanced description.

The renowned ecclesiastical historian, Philip Schaff (1819 – 1893) stated:

“At the beginning of the fourth century the problem of how to preserve the Godhood of Christ and at the same time his subordination to the Father … had not been solved.”
(Prolegomena: “The Outbreak of the Arian Controversy. The Attitude of Eusebius.” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series II. Vol. I.)

If Schaff could say that with respect to the fourth century, he would have said the same of the first century.

Development within the Bible

While the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not clearly state the divinity or even only the pre-existence of Christ, John and Paul present a much higher Christology. Perhaps the reason is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written earlier and only describe the literal historical events as seen from the perspective of people on earth, while John and Paul, who wrote later, were assisted by the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-13) to understand more clearly who the Son is relative to the “one God” of the Bible. In other words, even in the New Testament, we see a development of thought on the question of the relationship between the God of the Bible and His only-begotten Son. 

Apostolic Church

In the Apostolic Church of the first century, while Jews remained the majority in the church, Christians did not attempt to explain the relationship between God and His unique Son in more detail. They simply repeated what the New Testament said about God and Jesus. (For more information. see Jewish Dominated Church)

Gentile Church

Somewhere during the second century, Gentiles became the majority in the church. Gentile Christians, in order to explain their religion to their fellow Gentiles people of the empire, needed an explanation of the God of the Bible. Greek philosophy was still a dominant force in the culture of the Roman empire and the Gentile Christians were themselves very familiar with that philosophy. In that Greek philosophy, God’s Logos (word, mind, wisdom, or reason) existed through two stages:

      1. First, inside of the high God but
      2. When God determined to create, God’s Logos was emitted and became a separate being through whom God created all things and communicated with the creation.

Based particularly on the “wisdom” of Proverbs 8 and the “word” of John 1, the Gentile Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (also known as the Apologists) thought and explained that the Son of God of the New Testament is the same as the Logos of Greek philosophy. As B. B. Warfield, stated:

“In the 2nd century, the dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels, and produced what is known as the Logos-Christology.” (Warfield, Benjamin B. “Trinity, 2.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.)

Logos-Christology

This section provides an overview of the Logos-Christology of the 2nd and 3rd centuries:

Uncreated Substances

Logos-Christology distinguished between created and uncreated substances. Created substances, including spirit beings, did not always exist and exist only by God’s grace. Uncreated substances, in contrast, is inherently eternal. Uncreated substances, therefore, always existed and must necessarily always exist. For example:

“The Deity is uncreated and eternal … while matter is created and perishable.” (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians. 4. AD 177)

Inside God

On the basis of John 1:1, Logos-Christology agreed that the Logos existed inside God from the “beginning.” For example:

“God was in the beginning … was alone, but … the Logos … was in him” (Tatian, c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.)

“’ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God’, showing that at first God was alone, and the Word was in him.” (Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, To Autolycus. II:22. c. AD 168)

Begotten Son

As stated, in Greek philosophy, the Logos was emitted from God to become a separate being. In Logos-Christology, this event was described as that the Logos was begotten of God to become a distinct being; identified as “the only-begotten Son of God” who later became the man Jesus Christ. For example:

“But when God wished to make all that he determined, he begot this Logos, uttered, the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15)” (Theophilus, c. AD 168)

As Biblical proof, they used verses such as, “My heart has emitted a good Word” (Psm 45:1) and “I begat you out of my bosom before the dawn” (Psm 110:3).

“The only-begotten Son of God is his Wisdom existing in substance.” (Origen. De Principiis. I:2:1-2. c. AD 230)

Integrated

This, however, did not leave God without His wisdom; God and His Logos always remained integrated. For example:

“The Father has not divested him … of the Logos power” (Tatian, c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.).

“Always conversing with his Reason” (Theophilus, c. AD 168. To Autolycus. II:22.).

Same Substance

Since the Son was begotten from the uncreated substance of God, He is of the same uncreated substance as the Father. It is not clear whether the Logos theologians used the exact word homoousios which we find in the Nicene Creed, but the concept is similar. For example:

“The Logos … came into being … not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], for what is cut off is separated from the original substance” (Tatian, c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.). (In other words, the Son has not been separated from the uncreated substance of the Father.)

“We employ language which makes a distinction between God and matter … For we acknowledge a God and a Son, his Logos, and a Holy Spirit, united in essence.” (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians. 24. Emphasis mine.)

In an analogy, Tertullian stated that, like the sun and a sunbeam, the Father and the Son are “two forms of one undivided substance(Tertullian, Against Praxeas. 13)

“For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as [the Son] himself acknowledges: ‘My Father is greater than I’” [Jn. 14:28]. (Tertullian, Against Praxeas. 9)

Always Existed

Since the Logos was part of the uncreated substance of God “in the beginning,” He always existed and must necessarily always exist. There never was a time that He did not exist. For example:

“The Son of God is the Logos of the Father … He is the first product of the Father, not as though he was being brought into existence, for from the beginning God, who is the eternal Mind, had the Logos in himself.” (Athenagoras, AD 177 – A Plea for the Christians. 10.)

Subordinate

Since, in Logos-Christology, the Son is part of the substance of the Father, Father and Son have the same substance qualitatively but the Son is ontologically (in terms of substance) subordinate to the Father. It follows that the Son is subordinate to the Father in all respects. As B.B. Warfield (quoted above) noted:

“The dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels.”

R.P.C. Hanson wrote:

“The conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … (made) the Son into a demi-god” (Hanson).

And as Philp Schaff stated:

“The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality. But we must distinguish between a subordination of essence (ousia) and a subordination of hypostasis.” (Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. III. Section 130.)

In other words, Schaff stated that, while Father and Son were regarded as equal in essence (substance), the hypostasis (Person) of the Son is subordinate to the hypostasis of the Father.

For a further discussion of Logos Christology, see The Apologists by R.P.C. Hanson. 

Sabellianism

Due to Logos-Christology, Christianity was often accused of having two or three gods. Tertullian stated:

They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods. (Tertullian. Against Praxeas. 3. c. AD 210.)

Sabellianism (Modalism) was the first challenge to Logos-Christology. Sabellianism was an attempt to defend Christianity against the accusation of polytheism.

Kevin Giles (The Academic Journal of CBE International) stated:

“One of the first suggestions as to how God might be three and one at the same time was that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were merely successive modes of revelation of the one God. … This error, which was called modalism, was rejected by the Church Fathers.” 

Wikipedia states that Modalism has been mainly associated with Sabellius, who taught a form of it in Rome in the 3rd century. This had come to him via the teachings of Noetus and Praxeas.

Tertullian condemned Modalism (c. 213, Tertullian Against Praxeas 1, in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 3). Sabellius was excommunicated in AD 220. (GotQuestions). 

The Christology of the Nicene Fathers

With Modalism formally condemned, Logos-Christology was the theology with which the church entered the fourth century.

“Among those who were, three basic “parties” were discernible: Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia; the Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.” (Erickson) (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)

Arius and the Lucianists

The quote from Erickson above refers to “Arius and the Lucianists.” Arius was the main spokesperson of this Christology, but he did not invent it. Pavao noted, “all the major players of the early Arian Controversy were trained in the school of Lucian.” (Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 273). Kindle Edition.) And Boer (A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, p113) described Arius as “a disciple of Lucian.” Lucian was martyred in 311 or 312; at the very end of the Great Persecution.

While Logos-Christology taught that the Son is the Logos that always was inside God, “Arius and the Lucianists” taught that the Son was created from nothing. In other words, the Arius-delegation rejected Logos-Christology. The first great challenge to the Logos-Christology of the Apologists was Sabellianism. The second great challenge was the Lucian Christology which Arius proclaimed.

The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea

This group was the majority at Nicaea and maintained the traditional Logos-theology:

“The most important of the Eastern bishops were present, but the West was poorly represented” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85).

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of Origen. Future generations have tended to dub them “Semi-Arian.” In fact they were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church” (Frend, W.H.C. The Rise of Christianity. see also, Bible.ca).

Alexander of Alexandria, with his following

Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, where the dispute with Arius began, explained Arius’ ex-communication in a letter (The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus. I:6.). In that letter, he explains what Arius taught and why his views were rejected. But it is also clear from that letter that Alexander continued the traditional Logos theology of the previous century. For example:

He stated that “the Son is the Word and Wisdom of God.”

And he used verses that were often used by Logos theologists, but which we would not necessarily today associate with the Son:

          • “My heart has dictated a good Word,” and,
          • “I begat thee out of my bosom before the dawn”? [45:1; 110:3, LXX]

Conclusion

All the delegates at Nicaea, except the Arius-group, maintained the traditional Logos-Christology. R.P.C. Hanson, a great authority on the Arian Controversy, wrote:

“The theological structure provided by the Apologists lasted as the main, widely-accepted, one might almost say traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was, in differing form, the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted.” (link)

This means that the Nicene Creed was formulated and interpreted at the time on the basis of Logos-Christology. This further means that the word “begotten” in the creed must be understood as that the Logos, who always was inside God – part of God’s uncreated substance – was emitted from God (when God wanted to create) and became the Son of God.

Nicene Creed

This analysis allows us to read the Nicene Creed from the perspective of the delegates at Nicaea.

Since more than 80% of the words in the creed are about Jesus Christ, the issue before the council was about Him; not about the Father or about the Holy Spirit. The question is, what did they dispute about the Son?

Compared with 1 Corinthians 8:6

The first part of the creed seems to be based on 1 Corinthians 8:6, but notice the section inserted to describe the Son. It is proposed that this additional section specifically affirms what Arius disputed: 

1 Corinthians 8:6 Nicene Creed (AD 325)
For us there is but one God, the Father We believe in one God, the Father Almighty
From whom are all things and we exist for Him Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And one Lord, Jesus Christ, And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, 
consubstantial with the Father;
By whom are all things, and we exist through Him By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;

This added section may be divided into two subjects:

Firstly, how the Son was generated in eternity past, namely that He is the only being ever to be begotten of the essence of the Father;

Secondly, what His nature now is, namely, of the same substance (homoousion) as the Father.

This phrase “God from God, light from light, true God from true God” indicates both HOW He was generated and WHAT His nature now is. However, the part of the added section that begins with “begotten” and ends with “begotten not made” seems to form an inclusio, indicating that this part is a unit with the word “begotten” pointing to its main meaning, namely the generation of the Son from the being or substance of the Father.

Compared with the Anathemas

In addition to this added section, which described the Council’s agreed view of Christ, the creed of AD 325 also includes a list of statements that are categorized as heretical, and all of these statements are about Christ. These statements reflect Arius’ Christology. The following table compares the affirmations with Arius’ view:

  Council’s view:
(Affirmations)
Arius’ view:
(Anathemas)
Before He was generated There was when He was not – Before being born He was not
How He was generated Begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, He was created out of nothing.
His substance of one substance with the Father of a different hypostasis or substance
His nature subject to alteration or change (mutable)

The Nicene Creed, therefore, basically says 4 things about the Son, namely that He:

      • Always existed.
      • Was begotten from the substance of the Father.
      • Is of the same substance as the Father.
      • Is not subject to change.

The main point of dispute

It is proposed that, of those four issues, the primary issue of dispute was how the Son was generated, namely, whether He was generated out of nothing (as Arius said) or out of the substance of God, as the creed suggests. This is justified as follows:

Firstly, the previous table shows that most of the words that were added in response to the Arian controversy are about HOW He was generated; repeating the word “begotten” three times.

Secondly, all the other differences are consequences of this fundamental difference.

If the Son was created out of nothing, as Arius claimed, then, (a) He did not exist before He was begotten, (b) He consist of created substances, which is a different substance from the Father’s uncreated substance, and (c) He is mutable.

Given how the Council understood “begotten,” namely that the Son is the uncreated Logos that always was inside God but that was emitted from the essence of God to become God’s only begotten Son, means that (a) He always existed, (b) is of the same uncreated substance as the Father and (c) is as unchangeable as God.

Thirdly, that He always existed and that He is immutable are not mentioned in the affirmations; only in the anathemas, implying that these are not fundamental issues.

Fourthly, after the meeting, Eusebius, the leader of the majority Eastern Greek delegation, explained the dispute with Arius and identified Arius’ main argument as that the Son was created out of nothing. It also shows that Eusebius’ response was that, because the Son was begotten from the Father, He came out of the being of the Father and was not created from nothing. (See The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus – Book II (mb-soft.com))

Homoousios

That He is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father is also mentioned in the affirmations of the creed. For that reason, that may indicate that this was the main point of the creed.

However, the word homoousios was proposed and enforced by the emperor. Eusebius and the other Origenists resisted this word to the last and, in the end, accepted this word only because of the pressure applied by the emperor. (See Eusebius of Caesarea’s explanation of Nicaea for more detail.) In other words, at least from the perspective of the majority at the council, this word does not reflect what they wanted to say in response to Arius’ Christology. For that reason, this word was the cause of the second phase of the Arian Controversy during the 50 years after Nicaea.

The Son is God

It is often stated that that creed identifies Jesus as God (e.g., Bible.ca) but, as R.P.C. Hanson – who studied the Arian Controversy of 20 years – stated, the traditional account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. In fact, the issue was decidedly not whether Jesus is God. As discussed above, all the delegates to Nicaea, except the Arius-group, held to the traditional Logos-Christology in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. As Philip Schaff noted with respect to perhaps the most respected theologian at Nicaea:

“That Eusebius [of Caesarea] was a decided subordinationist must be plain to every one that reads his works with care” (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series II, Vol. 1)

As quoted above, Philip Schaff also stated that, while Father and Son were regarded as equal in essence (substance), the Nicene Fathers regarded the hypostasis (Person) of the Son as subordinate to the hypostasis of the Father (Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. III. Section 130. Emphasis mine, parentheses his. (pp. 251-252).

The Arius-group denied that the Son always existed and, therefore, had an even lower Christology. Therefore, if we use the word “God” for the Ultimate Reality, then none of the delegates thought of Christ as such. All of them regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.

This is confirmed by the creed itself which identifies the “one God” of Christianity as the Father alone:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty …
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God …
And in the Holy Ghost. (cf. 1 Tim 2:5; cf. 1 Cor 8:6; John 5:44)

Conclusion

Out of what

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that Paul Pavao wrote that the main point of the Nicene Creed was “what the Son of God was made of.” I propose that that is not entirely correct. What the Son of God was made of is only a consequence of the question out of what He was generated; out of God or out of nothing.

I propose, therefore, that the main point of the creed is that the Son was begotten out of the eternal, uncreated substance of the Father. That principle is foundational to everything else in the creed. Consistently, the Nicene Creed states three times that the Son was “begotten.”

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Eusebius of Caesarea’s explanation of the Nicene Creed

Summary

Eusebius of Caesarea, perhaps the most highly respected theologian at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain certain “objectionable expressions” in the creed. This article discusses that letter. Its main conclusions are as follows:

Three “parties” were present at Nicaea:

      1. Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
      2. The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea; and
      3. Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.

At the meeting, the Lucians first presented their views, which were rejected by both the other groups.

Then Eusebius of Caesarea presented the statement of faith used in his home church in Caesarea. That statement did not include the terms “substance” or “same substance” but was accepted by the meeting.

Eusebius particularly mentions that the emperor approved the statement of faith from Caesarea. For us, it is astounding that Eusebius felt it important to have the emperor’s approval but we need to remember that separation of Church and State did not exist at that time. In the culture of the day, the Christian Roman Emperor was regarded as God’s agent on earth. Church and State were one. Consequently, emperors like Constantine, Constantius, Theodosius, and Justinian had a significant influence on church councils and doctrine.

After Eusebius presented the Creed of Caesarea, the emperor spoke and urged the meeting to accept and support that statement but also asked that the word homoousios be added.

The emperor also explained how he understood the meaning of this word. However, as Hanson wrote, “The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, it ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous …”

Constantine’s key point in explaining the word homoousios seems to be that the Son (when He was begotten) was not cut off from the Father. I propose we understand this as follows:

In the Logos-Christology of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, God’s Logos (word or mind or wisdom) has always existed inside God but, when it became time to create, was emitted from God to become a separate being. In Biblical language, the Logos was begotten by God to become the Son of God. However, God cannot change. Therefore, His Logos was not separated from Him when the Son was begotten: He always had access to His Logos. It seems as if the emperor was emphasizing this point.

Constantine did not develop these ideas by himself. It was proposed to him by Alexander of Alexandria and the emperor’s advisor Hosius. And, since they had his backing, the emperor proposed the word at the council meeting and was also able to enforce the inclusion of the word.

Following the emperor’s request, the party of Alexander presented a carefully worked out statement – the Nicene Creed as we have it today – which they said was a revised form of the Creed of Caesarea, with certain adjustments to make its rejection of Arianism explicit.

This revised statement included references to the “Father’s substance,” including:

      • “Out of the Father’s substance” and
      • “Of the same substance as the Father.”

Years before, Origen had rejected the term substance for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine. Therefore, Eusebius and his fellow Origenists “resisted to the last moment the introduction of certain objectionable expressions.” But due to the considerable pressure applied by the emperor, the statement was approved by all except three.

Eusebius explains how he understood the disputed terms:

Ousios (substance or essence) implied that the Son is of the Father indeed, but is not part of the Father.

Homoousios (same substance) must not be understood in a material sense. That the Son was begotten by God does not mean that a portion of God’s substance was cut off. Neither did the Father’s substance and power change in any way, for the Father’s substance is “underived” and, therefore, cannot change. That he is homoousios with the Father then simply implies that the Son:

        • Has no resemblance to created things, but resembles the Father is in every respect.
        • Is of no other substance or essence but of the Father’s.

Conclusion

Henry Bettenson wrote, “The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41). The meeting was called to deal with the Arian Controversy but became a dispute between the parties of Alexander and Eusebius of Caesarea. Due to the pressure exerted by the emperor, the formulation presented by the party of Alexander was accepted and became adopted as the Nicene Creed.

The acceptance of these “objectionable expressions” caused the second phase of the Arian Controversy that raged for 50 years after Nicaea. Emperor Constantine, through the Council of Nicaea in 325, attempted to unite Christianity and establish a single, imperially approved version of the faith. But his efforts were the cause of the deep divisions created by the disputes after Nicaea. Homoousios became the object of dissension.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Purpose

Who was Eusebius of Caesarea?

According to Paul Pavao, in his excellent book, Decoding Nicea, at Nicaea, “the bishop who occupied the chief place in the right division of the assembly” is almost universally believed to be Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (AD 260/265 – 339/340).

Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85) mentions Eusebius of Caesarea as the leader of “the Origenists” and as “already highly reputed:”

Among those who were (at Nicaea in 325), three basic “parties” were discernible:
(1) Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
(2) the Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and
(3) Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.

Eusebius left us with the only record of the proceedings and discussions at Nicaea that is available today.

Eusebius of Nicomedia

Eusebius of Caesarea must be distinguished from Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was a leader of “the Lucianists” at Nicaea. Since the infamous Arius was one of them, we may refer to them as the Arians. Lucian was already dead by then, but people like Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia probably learned their Christology at the school of Lucian at Antioch in the late third century.

Purpose of this article

After the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain the decisions at Nicaea.  That letter is recorded in The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus I:8.

This article provides extracts from that letter as well as comments (in blocks and tables), with headings added. The letter reads:

Introduction

You have probably had some intimation, beloved, of the transactions of the great council convened at Nicea in relation to the faith of the Church … we have deemed it necessary to submit to you:

      • In the first place, an exposition of the faith proposed by us in written form, and then
      • a second which has been promulgated, consisting of ours with certain additions to its expression.
Comment: The “us” here seems to refer to the delegation led by Eusebius. As discussed below, at the council meeting, they first proposed a statement of faith. “A second which has been promulgated” refers to the Nicene Creed, as was formally promulgated.

The Creed of Caesarea

The declaration of faith set forth by us, which when read in the presence of our most pious emperor seemed to meet with universal approbation, was thus expressed:

Comment: Emperor Constantine attended the council and had a huge impact on the outcome, as is discussed below. But Eusebius claims that his proposal was generally accepted. Below, I quote sections from Eusebius’ proposed statement of faith that are key to understanding the Nicene Creed:

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

And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Word of God—
God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life—
the only-begotten Son,
born before all creation,
begotten of God the Father before all ages,
by whom also all things were made …

We believe also in one Holy Spirit. …

Comment: Note that Eusebius’ proposed statement of faith does not include the terms substance or “same substance.”

When these articles of faith were proposed, there seemed to be no ground of opposition. No, even our most pious emperor himself was the first to admit that they were perfectly correct and that he himself had entertained the sentiments contained in them. 

Comment: Paul Pavao commented: It is simply astounding that Eusebius felt it important to have the emperor’s approval of the articles of faith, rather than informing the emperor of what the church approved.

I would like to add that it is important to understand that separation of Church and State did not exist at that time. In the culture of the time, the Christian Roman Emperor was regarded as God’s agent on earth. The supreme bishops of the Empire – the spiritual heads of the Christian world – were regarded as acting in harmony with him. Church and State were therefore one. Consequently, emperors Constantine, Constantius, Theodosius, and Justinian had a significant influence on the decisions of church councils. For a discussion, see Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy.

Constantine added homoousios

He (the emperor) exhorted all present to give them their assent and subscribe to these very articles (as proposed by Eusebius), thus agreeing in a unanimous profession of them—with the insertion, however, of that single word, homoousios, an expression which the emperor himself explained as not indicating corporeal affections or properties. Consequently, the Son did not subsist from the Father either by division or by cutting off. For, said he, a nature which is immaterial and incorporeal cannot possibly be subject to any corporeal understanding; hence, our conception of such things can only be in divine and mysterious terms. Such was the philosophical view of the subject taken by our most wise and pious sovereign,

Constantine’s definition of homoousios

It was, therefore, the emperor that proposed the word homousios. He also explained the meaning of this word. But it is a negative explanation; saying what homoousios does NOT mean. It is a bit strange to propose a term and then to say that it is not possible to understand what it means; that “our conception of such things can only be in divine and mysterious terms.”

But Constantine’s key point seems to be that the Son (when He was begotten) was not cut off from the Father. Tatian (c. AD 165) mentioned the same principle:

“He (the Son) came into being by participation, not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], for what is cut off is separated from the original substance.”

Note the word “separated.” The point seems to be that the Son did not become separated from the Father when He was begotten by the Father. Justin Martyr (c. AD 155) wrote similarly:

This Power was begotten from the Father, by his power and will, but not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], as if the essence of the Father were divided.

Tatian and Justin Martyr, like all the other Gentile Christian theologists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, held to a Logos-Christology in which the Logos has always existed inside God but was emitted from God (begotten by God) and became the Son of God when it became time to create. See The Apologists for a further discussion.

So, what Constantine seemed to have said that is the Son is homoousios does not mean that He was separated from God when He was begotten. I propose that we understand this in terms of Logos-Christology in which God cannot change. Therefore, His Logos was not separated from Him when the Son was begotten: God always had access to His Logos. It seems as if the emperor was emphasizing this point.

Where did Constantine get all this?

Constantine did not develop all these ideas by himself. He got it from somewhere. Above, I listed the three parties at Nicaea. Since Constantine did not get these ideas from the Origenists or from the Lucianists, he received it from the party of Alexander of Alexandria:

“Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’. The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios, as suggested to him by Hosius. The emperor at first gave the council a free hand, but was prepared to step in if necessary to enforce the formula that his advisor Hosius had agreed on with Alexander of Alexandria.” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)

The party of Alexander, which includes the emperor’s advisor Hosius, therefore, prior to the council meeting, has already agreed on the word homoousios. And, since they had the backing of the emperor, the emperor proposed the word and was able to enforce the inclusion of the word. “Enforce” may seem like a strong word, but is confirmed by many authors. Bernard Lohse, (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53) stated:

“What seemed especially objectionable to many bishops and theologians of the East was the concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios.”

Substance and Same Substance Added

… and the bishops, because of the word homoousios, drew up this formula of faith:

Eusebius then quotes the Nicene Creed, which is also available from Earlychurchtexts. It is instructive to compare the section of the creed that is key with respect to the Arian Controversy, with the same section in the statement of faith presented by Eusebius:
Eusebius proposed Nicene Creed
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Word of God—
God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life—
the only-begotten Son,
born before all creation,
begotten of God the Father, before all ages,
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Son of God,
begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father,
God from God, light from light, true God from true God,
begotten not made,
of one substance with the Father,
I emphasized the key additions, namely the terms “substance” and “one substance.”

Eusebius asked questions

Now when this declaration of faith was propounded by them, we did not neglect to investigate the distinct sense of the expressions “of the substance of the Father” and “consubstantial with the Father.”

Who are “them?” Above, Eusebius referred to “the bishops” but Erickson identified “them” as “the party of Alexander:”

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

Henry Bettenson wrote,

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

That Eusebius had to ask questions shows that the Nicene Creed was formulated by a group over which he had no control. It is, therefore, probable that the Nicene Creed was formulated prior to the council meeting itself. 

Ousios (Substance)

When we did, questions and answers were put forth, and the meaning of these terms was clearly defined. At that point it was generally admitted that ousios (substance or essence) simply implied that the Son is of the Father indeed, but does not subsist as a part of the Father. To this interpretation of the sacred doctrine—which declares that the Son is of the Father but is not a part of his substance—it seemed right to us to assent. We ourselves therefore concurred in this exposition.

Steven Wedgeworth stated that “Origen had rejected the term (substance) years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” Eusebius and “the Origenists,” therefore, questioned this term.

Homoousios

Nor do we cavil at the word homoousios, having regard to peace, and fearing to lose a right understanding of the matter.

Paul Pavao commented that it does not appear that Eusebius embraced homoousios with great enthusiasm, remarking in his letter to Caesarea that “we do not cavil” at the word homoousios. This is hardly rousing support.

Begotten, not Made

On the same grounds we admitted also the expression “begotten, not made.” “For ‘made,'” said, “is a term applicable in common to all the creatures which were made by the Son, to whom the Son has no resemblance. Consequently he is no creature like those which were made by him, but is of a substance far excelling any creature. The Divine Oracles teach that this substance was begotten of the Father by such a mode of generation as cannot be explained nor even conceived by any creature.”

Paul Pavao commented that the delegates all agreed that Proverbs 8:22, in the LXX, refers to the Son as created. Therefore they all referred to Him as such, but the council here banned this term.

Consubstantial (homoousios)

Thus also the declaration that “the Son is consubstantial with the Father” having been discussed, it was agreed that this must not be understood in a corporeal sense, or in any way analogous to mortal creatures; inasmuch as it is neither by division of substance, nor by abscission [cutting off], nor by any change of the Father’s substance and power, since the underived nature of the Father is inconsistent with all these things.

That he is consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father then simply implies that the Son of God has no resemblance to created things, but is in every respect like the Father only who begat him; that he is of no other substance or essence but of the Father.

This is an expansion of the emperor’s explanation of this term above. I understand the explanation as follows:

We cannot really understand this concept because there is nothing like it in the created realm.

That the Son was begotten by God does not mean that a portion of God’s substance was cut off. Neither did the Father’s substance and power change in any way, for the Father’s substance is “underived” and, therefore, cannot change.

That he is consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father then simply implies that:

        • The Son of God has no resemblance to created things, but resembles the Father is in every respect.
        • He is of no other substance or essence but of the Father.

Ancients used this term

To this doctrine, explained in this way, it appeared right to assent, especially since we knew that some eminent bishops and learned writers among the ancients have used the term homoousios in their theological discourses concerning the nature of the Father and the Son.

Paul Pavao provides examples in Chapter 15 of Decoding Nicea. Philip Schaff mentioned that Irenæus used the word homousios four times and that Tertullian also uses the expression “of one substance” (unius substantiæ) in two places.

Anathemas

We have also considered the anathema pronounced by them after the declaration of faith inoffensive because it prohibits the use of illegitimate terms, from which almost all the distraction and commotion of the churches have arisen.

Again the “them,” confirms that “the decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Bettenson, quoted above).

The anathemas reflect the typical statements made by Arius and his followers.

Objectionable Expressions

We deemed it incumbent on us, beloved, to acquaint you with the caution which has characterized both our examination of and concurrence in these things and that on justifiable grounds we resisted to the last moment the introduction of certain objectionable expressions as long as these were not acceptable. We received them without dispute when, on mature deliberation as we examined the sense of the words, they appeared to agree with what we had originally proposed as a sound confession of faith.

Generally, Eusebius’ letter gives the impression that consensus was achieved fairly easily, but the phrase “resisted to the last moment” gives us an indication of the struggle within the council. The Nicene Creed was eventually accepted only because “the emperor exerted considerable influence:”

“The Origenists had considerable reservation about references to the ‘Father’s substance’, including ‘out of the Father’s substance’ and ‘of the same substance as the Father’. The emperor exerted considerable influence. Consequently, the statement was approved by all except three. (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons)”

“Certain objectionable expressions” refer particularly to those listed by Erickson. As stated before, Eusebius and his followers were Origenists and “Origen had rejected the term years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” (Steven Wedgeworth)

But these terms were accepted at “the last moment.” However, the acceptance of these “objectionable expressions” resulted in the second phase of the Arian Controversy in which these words were resisted:

The Wikipedia page on the Arian controversy states that Emperor Constantine, through the Council of Nicaea in 325, attempted to unite Christianity and establish a single, imperially approved version of the faith. Ironically, his efforts were the cause of the deep divisions created by the disputes after Nicaea. (Smither, Edward L., ed. (2014-02-14). Rethinking Constantine: History, Theology, and Legacy. p. 65–66)

“Homoousios … in the subsequent strife between orthodoxy and heresy became the object of dissension. ” (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)

As Hanson wrote, “The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, it 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.”

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