Did Polycarp believe that Jesus is God Almighty?

This is an article in the series on the development of the Trinity doctrine. The current article briefly discusses the views of one of the first post-Biblical writers; Polycarp, who lived from about the year 70 to 155. The question in this article is whether Polycarp regarded the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to be one Being, or that they are equal Persons, as per the Trinity doctrine.


Polycarp’s Prayer

The following is a short excerpt from the Martyrdom of Polycarp (ch. 14), giving Polycarp’s prayer just prior to his execution:

O Lord God Almighty,
Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ,
through whom we have received knowledge of you,
the God of angels and powers and of all creation …
I glorify you,
through the eternal and heavenly high priest,

Jesus Christ, your beloved Son,
through whom be glory to you,
with him and the Holy Spirit,
both now and for the ages to come. Amen.1Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third Edition (Grand Rapid: Baker Academic, 2007), pp. 321-323.

Sometimes, the Martyrdom of Polycarp is a bit unbelievable. For example, when they attempted to burn Polycarp in a great fire, the fire miraculously shaped itself into the form of an arch and burned around him, emitting a sweet odor like frankincense. It is, therefore, difficult to say how trustworthy this document is, but it is accepted as early, and that it at least has a historical core.

Slick claims Polycarp as a Trinitarian.

The Trinitarian apologist Matt Slick used this quote to prove that Polycarp was a Trinitarian:

(1) It is a triadic passage for it says that the Father is glorified “with” the Son and the Holy Spirit. (A triadic passage is a passage that mentions the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together.)

(2) Polycarp glorifies the Father “with” Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Son is also glorified.

(3) Since the Holy Spirit is glorified, it implies that the Spirit is a Person. 

These three concepts are discussed below:

(1) Triadic Passages

Trinitarians often use the triadic passages in the New Testament in support of the Trinity doctrine. To mention the three Persons together does indeed indicate a close relationship. However, it does not prove that they are one Being, or that they are equal, or that they have the same substance, as required by the Trinity doctrine. 

Only the Father is Almighty.

Furthermore, the quote above indicates that Polycarp did NOT think of them as equal:

He identified the “Lord God Almighty” as the Father alone.

He does not identify the Son as God or as Almighty, but as “the eternal and heavenly high priest.” This is consistent with the Bible’s use of the term Almighty. The Bible NEVER refers to Jesus as Almighty. On the contrary, the Bible maintains a distinction between Jesus and the Almighty. See – Is Jesus the Almighty God?

Jesus is not God.

In his only authentic work, Polycarp clearly distinguished between God and Jesus when he wrote:

“Now may the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ,
AND the eternal high priest himself,
the Son of God Jesus Christ,
build you up” (Holmes, p295).

The Bible consistently distinguishes between the Son and
“God.”
. For example, each and every one of Paul’s letters starts with a similar phrase, where the word “and” is used to distinguish between God and Jesus. For example:

“God our Father
AND the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7)

The Father is Jesus’ God.

Furthermore, note that, in the quote above, that Polycarp refers to the Father as Jesus’ God. This concept is also repeatedly found in the Bible (e.g. Eph 1:3; John 20:17; Heb 1:9). In Revelation 3:12, Jesus repeats this concept AFTER He has returned to heaven.

The Son is the Mediator.

The word “through” appears three times in Polycarp’s prayer quoted above. This word explains the Son’s roles. According to the quote above:

We receive knowledge of God through the Son
and we glorify God through the Son.

The quote identifies the Son as the “heavenly high priest.” This also emphasizes His intermediary role between God and man and his distinction from God. This is also consistent with the Bible:

“There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).

(2) We honor the Son.

Polycarp is quoted above as saying,

“I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit.”

The word “with” that we also glorify the Son. This is also consistent with the Bible. Jesus Himself said:

“All will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23).

Because that is God’s will

However, this does not mean that the Son is God or that He is equal to Father, as per Slick’s definition of the Trinity, for we “honor” the Son because that is God’s will. For example:

“God highly exalted Him …
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
” (Phil 2:9-10; cf. Heb 1:6). 

The Son is subordinate to the Father.

As stated in the previous article, in the Trinity doctrine, after His incarnation, Jesus had both a divine and human nature. Presumably, His human nature died on the Cross. But, according to Philippians 2:8-9, God exalted His Son to be worshiped AFTER His death; when only His divine nature existed. That means that He is subordinate to the Father also in His divine nature.

His present subordination to the Father is confirmed, for example, by the verses that say that:

      • He now sits at God’s right hand (e.g. Acts 2:33).
      • Even in that glorified position, He received the Revelation from God (Rev 1:1).
      • And He recognizes the Father as His God (Rev 3:12).

For further discussion, see – God is the Head of Christ.

He did exist before His birth.

On the other hand, since the Son is worshiped together with the Father, it would be very difficult to believe that Jesus did not exist before He was born as a human being, as Dr. Tuggy proposes.

(3) Is the Holy Spirit a Person?

The version of Polycarp’s prayer quoted above implies that the Holy Spirit is given glory and that the Holy Spirit is, therefore, a self-aware Person. However, the version of that same prayer that is preserved in Eusebius’ Church History (4.15.35) reads differently. It does not say “and the Holy Spirit,” but that Polycarp glorified God “through … Jesus Christ … in the Holy Spirit.” As a result of this textual uncertainty, we should not rely on this quote as evidence of Polycarp’s confession in the Spirit as a distinct person.

Eternal High Priest

Polycarp described the Son as “the eternal and heavenly high priest.”  He was not always a high priest because sin and man did not always exist. He became the high priest at His ascension (Heb 2:17; 5:9-10).  “Eternal” therefore does not mean that He always was a high priest. It rather means that he will be our high priest for as long as we need a high priest.

Conclusion

Did Polycarp believe in the Trinity? In his view:

The Father alone is God.

The Father alone is Almighty.

The Son is the Mediator between God and man, meaning that He is distinct from God.

Polycarp never mentioned “substance” or that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature. These concepts were developed much later.


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third Edition (Grand Rapid: Baker Academic, 2007), pp. 321-323.

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

Abstract: The Nicene Creed describes the Son of God as homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. Homoousios can either mean ‘one substance’ or two substances of the same type:

    • Before Nicaea, this term was strongly associated with Sabellianism; the theory that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (Person) with a single mind. Consequently, the term was understood as ‘one substance’.
    • At Nicaea, Sabellians dominated because they allied with Alexander and because the emperor took Alexander’s side. Consequently, they were able to cause the inclusion of the term.
    • After Nicaea, based on the word homoousios, Sabellians claimed that the church at Nicaea had formally adopted one-hypostasis (one Person) theology. Due to this conflict, the leading Sabellians were deposed soon after Nicaea.
    • After that, homoousios disappeared from the Controversy for about 20 years. The Controversy now raged around the more basic question of whether Father, Son, and Spirit are one or three hypostases (Persons).
    • In the 350s, Athanasius brought homoousios back into the Controversy. Since Athanasius and the West believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis, meaning one Person, they explained the homoousios as ‘one substance’.
    • In the 360s and 370s, Basil of Caesarea opposed Athanasius and explained homoousios as meaning three hypostases (three Persons) with the same type of substance, which may be regarded as tritheism.

INTRODUCTION

The Nicene Creed asserts ‘Same Substance’.

The Nicene Creed, as formulated at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, is accepted as official doctrine by most denominations. It 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’.

It means either one or two substances.

‘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).

Scholars also refer to the two alternative meanings as ‘unity’ versus ‘equality’.1“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) 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.2“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).

It relates to the Core Issue in the Controversy.

These two alternative meanings of homoousios relate to the core issue in the Arian Controversy. Contrary to the usual explanation, the core issue was not whether Jesus is God.3“It is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (LA, 14). The core issue was whether the Son is part of the Father or whether He is a distinct Person with a distinct mind. In other words, 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,4There was no such thing as an Arian. and Basil of Caesarea, the Son is a distinct hypostasis (Person). The anti-Nicenes rejected the term homoousios but Basil accepted it and interpreted it as two substances of the same type.

The Trinity Doctrine asserts ‘One Substance’.

The traditional Trinity doctrine teaches that the three Persons (hypostases) are one Being. Consequently, it interprets homoousios as ‘one substance’. For example:

“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)

In this quote, Hanson says the word ‘Person’ is misleading. The reason is that, 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. As quoted, rather than the word ‘Person’, Hanson prefers to explain the hypostases in the Trinity doctrine as “realities or entities” or even three “modes of existing as God,” which steers close to Modalism.

Homoousios did not mean One Substance.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed from the beginning of that controversy. Therefore, homoousios always meant that Father and Son are one substance (Being), which means that the Son is co-equal, co-eternal, and co-immutable with the Father.

However, recent scholarship agrees that homoousios did not mean one substance:

“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)

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)5“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)

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

AUTHORS CITED

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.)

The conclusions in this article may seem heterodox but these are leading scholars on the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Over the last hundred years, certain ancient documents have become more readily available.6“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.7“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.

BEFORE NICAEA

Pre-Christian

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 at least partly explains his insistence on the term at Nicaea. See the discussion 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 – a similar kind

The second-century Gnostics used the word homoousios (Beatrice) but they were not real Christians and did not use the term to describe Christ.8“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.” (Pavao, 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.9“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) In other words, they did not use the term to say that two beings are one being or that two beings have the exact same type of substance.

Tertullian implied ‘one substance’.

Tertullian (155-220), writing in Latin, never used a term equivalent to the Greek homoousios. He never directly said that Father and Son have the same substance.10Tertullian, “writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding to homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 190)

He did use the term “substance.” For him, God has a body and the Son is part of His substance.11“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) Perhaps that implies they are of the ‘same’ or even ‘one substance’.

He also used the term “unius substantiate” which means, in his theology, ‘one hypostasis’ (one Person).12He 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 exactly equivalent to homoousios, to say that they are one Person is an even stronger statement. It implies not only ‘same substance’ but specifically ‘one substance’. See also – Tertullian was a Sabellian.

Sabellius used homoousios as ‘one hypostasis’.

Sabellianism is named after Sabellius (fl. ca. 215); a theologian from the early 3rd century. He did use the term. He used it to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person).13According 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 homousios in the sense of ‘one substance.

As discussed, according to Von Mosheim, for Sabellius, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three parts of God.14“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.

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

“Origen may have rejected the term.” (Ayres, p. 92)

“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)

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)

“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)15Rowan Williams believes that the translator altered the text to make it appear consistent with Nicene theology.

The Two Dionysii disagreed about homoousios.

Around the year 260, the bishops of Rome and Alexandria; both named Dionysius, argued about the term homoousios:

“Some local Sabellians” (Ayres, p. 94) used the term”16“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) to describe the Son as homoousios with the Father. For Sabellians, the Father and Son are a single hypostasis (one Person).

Dionysius of Alexandria, who had authority in Libya, rejected the term due to its association with Sabellianism.17“It seems … likely that Dionysius of Alexandria, in a campaign against some local Sabellians, had denied the term.” (Ayres, p. 94)18According 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) who also had accepted the term homoousios and who, similar to the Sabellians, taught that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person).19“Dionysius of Rome … (also) claimed that Father and Son were homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 94)20“Dionysius of Rome … found homoousios acceptable but could not tolerate a division of the Godhead into three hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 192, quoting Loofs)21“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).22Or “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.

In 268, the church condemned homoousios.

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

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)

Conclusion: Only Sabellians used homoousios.

Before Nicaea, homoousios was used only by one-hypostasis theologians, including 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. There are different forms of one-hypostasis theology.23The Son is part of the Father (Tertullian) OR Son = Father (Monarchianism), OR Son and Father are two parts of the one Person of God (Sabellius). Technically, Sabellianism is one of the one-Person theologies but the term often refers to all one-Person theologies. Used in that way, we can say that only Sabellians used the term:

“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)24“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)

The only Christian who believed that Father and Son are two distinct Persons who used the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he adopted it reluctantly and as meaning that the substances of Father and Son are similar:

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

AT NICAEA

Homoousios was a surprising innovation.

It was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, was not Biblical but was borrowed from Greek philosophy, and was associated with the heresy of Sabellianism:

Not Biblical – The Bible never says anything about God’s substance.

Not Standard Language – It was not part of the standard Christian language of the day. Williams refers to “the radical words of Nicaea” (p. 236) and “conceptual innovation” (p. 234-5) in contrast to “the lost innocence of pre-Nicene trinitarian language” (p. 234-5). The term did not appear in any precious creed; not even in the draft creed prepared only a few months earlier. Consequently, anti-Nicenes objected that these words are “untraditional.” (Williams, p. 234-5)

Pagan Origin – R.P.C. Hanson describes the terms ousia, homoousios, and hypostasis as “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (Hanson, p. 846)

Sabellian History – The Sabellian history of the term rendered it particularly suspect.

Given these strong objections, powerful forces must have worked to ensure its inclusion in the Creed.

The Emperor enforced the term.

The emperors determined church doctrine.

That powerful force was the emperor. 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 insisted on the term.

The emperor not only proposed but also insisted on 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) 25Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85

Constantine “pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)26“The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)27“’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.” (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)28“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)

Constantine also explained the term.

Constantine even dared to explain the term to that assembly of the church’s leading theologians. One of the major objections was that the Nicene language sounds as if God has a body and as if the Son was begotten like humans are through a material, corporeal process.29“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. … It is, then, no surprise that talk of the Son coming from the Father’s ousia, or from the Father himself was also unacceptable to Arius.” (Ayres, p. 97)

Therefore, at the Council, Emperor Constantine did his best “to placate Eusebians” (Ayres, p. 91) so that they would 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)30“Eusebius … writes that Constantine himself spoke, endorsing the term homoousios, but insisting that it did not imply any material division in God. 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)31“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)32“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 emperor gave a non-literal interpretation of the terms:

“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)

With that, all delegates could agree. Following Eusebius’ lead, the Eusebians accepted Constantine’s explanation. See – Eusebius of Caesarea’s letter.

Sabellians caused the term to be inserted.

This explains why these unfamiliar phrases were included in the Creed, namely, due to the emperor’s domination of the council. Another article argues that Constantine found the term agreeable because he was familiar with it through his contact with Egyptian paganism. However, he would not have proposed the term without support from at least some delegates.

Alexander allied with the Sabellians.

As discussed in another article, similar to the Sabellians, Alexander was a one-hypostasis theologian, meaning that Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person with a single mind. For example:

“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)33For example, he described the Son as “idios to (a property or quality of) the Father (which) is a Sabellian statement.” (Hanson, p. 92)

Alexander’s opponents, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians), following Origen, were three-hypostasis theologians. See – the Dedication Council.34The Nicene Creed was essentially a meeting of the Eastern Church. At the Dedication Council in 431, the Eastern Church explicitly declared its belief in three hypostases.

The one-hypostasis view was in the minority.35“The great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) were ultimately disciples of Origen. … they were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church.” (Frend, WHC: The Rise of Christianity)36“Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19) For that reason, Alexander allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians; the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, and their supporters.37Eustathius 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).38“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).

“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)

Constantine took Alexander’s part.

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)

Ossius, the chairperson, presided “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and Constantine’s “agent.” (Hanson, p. 190)39His humble position in the church, as bishop of the small city of Cordova, did not qualify him as chair of that assembly. He also believed in a single hypostasis.“40Ossius evidently believed that God is a single hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 870) For example, eighteen years later, in 343, Ossius helped to compose another creed (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 Sabellians were influential.

Since the emperor had taken Alexander’s side, and since the Sabellians joined forces with Alexander, they 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)

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

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

The Sabellians proposed homoousios.

Alexander did not propose 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)

Constantine proposed the term because the Sabellians wanted it.

“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’.

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

Ossius, the chairperson, was instrumental in that process because he was the emperor’s agent. “Athanasius, who was certainly present at Nicaea … says that Ossius composed the Creed of Nicaea” (Hanson, p. 154-155)41Ossius presided “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and as Constantine’s “agent.” (Hanson, p. 190) “Ossius … represented the policy of Constantine” (Hanson, p. 170)

Alexander played along because, as 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)42Eusebius 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)

Due to the emperor’s strong influence on the council, and based on the emperor’s non-literal explanation of the term, the Eusebians reluctantly accepted.

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), 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)43“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)

For further discussion, see the discussion of that anathema.

The Nicene 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 in the council.

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.” 44Bettenson, 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!”

All understood the term as Sabellian.

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

Sabellians intended ‘One Person’.

The one-hypostasis theologians, including the Sabellians, understood homoousios as saying that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis (one Person). For example:

“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) 

Consequently, as discussed below, after Nicaea, the Sabellians claimed the Creed as support for their doctrine.45“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 understood it as Sabellian.

The majority agreed to the Creed because they had accepted the emperor’s explanation that it simply means that the Son is truly from the Father.46“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, who was forced by Dionysius of Rome to accept the term but accepted it only with a generic meaning, they accepted it because the emperor forced them but accepted it only with a generic meaning.

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

“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)47The 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.

Nicaea was a Sabellian victory.

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

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

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. 48“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 in 328.49“The Index to the Festal Letters of Athanasius dates the death of Alexander firmly to April 27th, 328.” (Hanson, p. 175) He was not the focus of the dispute.

However, the new conflict that arose at Nicaea around the term terms borrowed from Greek philosophy continued in the years immediately after Nicaea. The conflict was specifically between the Eusebian majority and the Sabellians. The result was the exile of all leading Sabellians.50“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 it as support for their view that Father and Son are a single Person (numerical identity). Consequently, 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)51“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. See – After Nicaea, the church restored proper balance in its doctrine.

After that, nobody mentions Homoousios.

 After the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’, “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 340s do not mention homoousios.

Respectively 16 and 18 years after Nicaea, two councils met, the Dedication Council in 341 and the Council at Serdica in 343. Both councils met during the period that homoousios was not mentioned. Therefore, nobody at these councils mentions the term. These councils focused on the more fundamental issue, of which homoousios was only a symptom, of 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). 

This dispute about the number of hypostases was the main issue of the entire Controversy. It began with the second-century Monarchains and the third-century Sabellians confessing one hypostasis. But Origen taught three hypostases. His view was dominant and Sabellianism was rejected. In the fourth century, Alexander, Athanasius, and the West continued to teach one hypostasis but were opposed by the three-hypostases Eusebians.

It is important to note that the West interpreted the Nicene Creed and its term homoousios as teaching one hypostasis. The only link in these two councils to the term homoousios is that the Western delegates at Serdica claimed that their one-hypostasis creed was an interpretation of the Nicene Creed. They wrote:

“While circumstances demanded a supplementary statement they in no way intended to alter Nicaea’s decrees.” (Ayres, p. 126)

Athanasius revived Homoousios in the 350s.

That would have been the end of homoousios, was it not for Athanasius. As discussed, during in 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) which the church believed for more than 1500 years but which misrepresents history. According to his polemical strategy:

      • Arius was “the originator of a new heresy.”
      • This heresy caused the Controversy.
      • All opponents of Nicaea are followers of Arius.
      • Athanasius himself is the preserver of scriptural orthodoxy and was deposed for his theology by an Arian Conspiracy.

These and other points are discussed in – The Overview of the Arian Controversy. But, at this time, Athanasius did not yet defend homoousios.

By the 350s Athanasius had become extremely powerful; both politically and in the church.52“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) After Constantius became emperor of the entire Empire in the early 350s, he attempted to isolate Athanasius.53At 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 at this time that Athanasius strengthened his polemical strategy by adding the Nicene Creed and homoousios to his arsenal.54“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, but this was a new development with a new context. The West was not represented at Nicaea.55“Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170) Therefore, Alexander allied with the Eastern Sabellians. By the 350’s, the West had entered the stage (see – The West vindicated Athanasius) and Athanasius had become the “paragon” (model) of the West (Hanson, p. 304).

Because he was a Sabellian.

Athanasius is known as the main defender of the Nicene Creed and homoousios during the years after Nicaea but, as another article shows, Athanasius also was a Sabellian. He would have claimed that he is not a Sabellian but, like the Sabellians, he believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (a single Person). 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 the important point is they all believed in one hypostasis, as opposed to the three-hypostasis theology of Origen and the Eusebians. If we define Sabellianism as belief in only one hypostasis, then Athanasius was a Sabellian.

That Athanasius, who believed in only one hypostasis, re-introduced homoousios into the Controversy confirms the one-hypostasis implication of the term.

Anti-homoousios, anti-‘one hypostasis’ front

In the 350s, after homoousios had again become a key factor in the Controversy, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) were divided into several factions concerning this term:

      • The Homoiousians said that 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, who alone exists without cause.
      • The Homoians avoided all uses of ousia words, including homoousios.

But they formed a united front against homoousios and the one-hypostasis theologies that underlie 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)56Photinus was “perhaps the most visible representative of a Marcellan theology in these years (in the 350s).” (Ayres, p. 134)

This united front shows that the main enemy remained one-hypostasis theologies.

Basil taught homoousios as three hypostases.

Another article shows that Basil of Caesarea, the first of the Cappadocian fathers, 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. However, he also accepted the term homoousios. But, while Athanasius and other pro-Nicenes explained homoousios as meaning one hypostasis, Basil interpreted it as teaching 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.

Basil’s view brought him into conflict with the one-hypostasis theologians Damasus of Rome, Athanasius, and Athanasius’ successor Peter. This is known as the Meletian Schism, after Meletius, bishop of Antioch. While Basil supported Meletius as bishop of Antioch, Damasus and Athanasius 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)

Epiphanius of Salamis adopted Basil’s explanation of homoousios:

Epiphanius became Bishop of Salamis in 365 or 367. He explained homousios, similar to Basil, as qualitative sameness. To distinguish his view from that of the Sabellians, he used the term Syn-ousios for the ‘one hypostasis’ view and homo-ousios for the ‘three Persons’ view.57“Vasquez … points out how well the distinction is drawn by Epiphanius between Synousios and Homousios, for synousios signifies such an unity of substance as allows of no distinction: wherefore the Sabellians would admit this word: but on the contrary homousios signifies the same nature and substance but with a distinction between persons one from the other.” (Philip Schaff)

The Chalcedonian Creed of AD 451 also uses homoousios like Basil used it. It says Christ is “homoousios with the Father as touching the Godhead, and homoousios with us [and yet individually distinct from us] as touching the manhood.”58“The term homoousion … differs from monoousion. … and signifies not numerical identity, but equality of essence or community of nature among several beings. It is clearly used thus in the Chalcedonian symbol, where it is said that Christ is “homoousios with the Father as touching the Godhead, and homoousios with us [and yet individually distinct from us] as touching the manhood.” Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.

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.59“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).

The Traditional Trinity Doctrine

The traditional Trinity doctrine describes Father, Son, and Spirit as one Being (ousia, substance) but three Persons (hypostases). That, however, is misleading because the three Persons share one single mind (rational faculty). The ‘Persons’ are not ‘persons’ in the ordinary sense of the term. For example:

“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)

Essentially, the traditional Trinity doctrine describes Father, Son, and Spirit as one Person (hypostasis). It adds Basil’s three hypostases as window dressing but there is no real distinction between the three Persons.

This website only studies the fourth-century Arian Controversy and cannot explain how the Trinity doctrine developed after that Controversy.

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 wishes of the majority. However, Emperor Constantine appeased the majority’s 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.

However, after the Council, the Sabellians claimed that the term homoousios means that the church had accepted a one-hypostasis theology. This caused a major dispute in the decade after Nicaea during which all leading Sabellians were deposed.

After that, the term homoousios disappears from the Controversy. The Controversy now focused on the number of hypostases in God. In the 350s, however, Athanasius brought the term back into the Controversy. Since Athanasius and the West explained the term as saying that Father and Son are one hypostasis (one Person).

However, the Cappadocian fathers and some later pro-Nicenes opposed Athanasius and interpreted homoousios in a generic sense, meaning three hypostases.

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


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “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)
  • 2
    “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)
  • 3
    “It is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (LA, 14).
  • 4
    There was no such thing as an Arian.
  • 5
    “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)
  • 6
    “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)
  • 7
    “The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 11)
  • 8
    “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.” (Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 18). Kindle Edition.)
  • 9
    “The term was adopted in the second century by Gnostics, probably to indicate ‘same ontological status’ or ‘of a similar kind’.” (Ayres, p. 93)
  • 10
    Tertullian, “writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding to homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 190)
  • 11
    “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)
  • 12
    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)
  • 13
    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).
  • 14
    “He considered the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as being three portions of the divine nature.” (Von Mosheim J.L. p220)
  • 15
    Rowan Williams believes that the translator altered the text to make it appear consistent with Nicene theology.
  • 16
    “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)
  • 17
    “It seems … likely that Dionysius of Alexandria, in a campaign against some local Sabellians, had denied the term.” (Ayres, p. 94)
  • 18
    According to Basil of Caesarea, “Dionysius of Alexandria … sometimes rejected homoousios because Sabellius used it … in rejecting the distinction of hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 192)
  • 19
    “Dionysius of Rome … (also) claimed that Father and Son were homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 94)
  • 20
    “Dionysius of Rome … found homoousios acceptable but could not tolerate a division of the Godhead into three hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 192, quoting Loofs)
  • 21
    “His doctrine could only with difficulty be distinguished from that of Sabellius!” (Hanson, p. 193)
  • 22
    Or “belonging to the same class” (Ayres, p. 94), “meaning that both had the same kind of nature.” (Hanson, p. 193)
  • 23
    The Son is part of the Father (Tertullian) OR Son = Father (Monarchianism), OR Son and Father are two parts of the one Person of God (Sabellius).
  • 24
    “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)
  • 25
    Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85
  • 26
    “The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)
  • 27
    “’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.” (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)
  • 28
    “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)
  • 29
    “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. … It is, then, no surprise that talk of the Son coming from the Father’s ousia, or from the Father himself was also unacceptable to Arius.” (Ayres, p. 97)
  • 30
    “Eusebius … writes that Constantine himself spoke, endorsing the term homoousios, but insisting that it did not imply any material division in God. 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)
  • 31
    “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)
  • 32
    “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)
  • 33
    For example, he described the Son as “idios to (a property or quality of) the Father (which) is a Sabellian statement.” (Hanson, p. 92)
  • 34
    The Nicene Creed was essentially a meeting of the Eastern Church. At the Dedication Council in 431, the Eastern Church explicitly declared its belief in three hypostases.
  • 35
    “The great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) were ultimately disciples of Origen. … they were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church.” (Frend, WHC: The Rise of Christianity)
  • 36
    “Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)
  • 37
    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).
  • 38
    “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).
  • 39
    His humble position in the church, as bishop of the small city of Cordova, did not qualify him as chair of that assembly.
  • 40
    Ossius evidently believed that God is a single hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 870)
  • 41
    Ossius presided “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and as Constantine’s “agent.” (Hanson, p. 190) “Ossius … represented the policy of Constantine” (Hanson, p. 170)
  • 42
    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)
  • 43
    “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)
  • 44
    Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41
  • 45
    “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)
  • 46
    “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)
  • 47
    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)
  • 48
    “Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (Ayres, p. 56-57)
  • 49
    “The Index to the Festal Letters of Athanasius dates the death of Alexander firmly to April 27th, 328.” (Hanson, p. 175)
  • 50
    “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)
  • 51
    “This event was only one part of the conflict that now began.” (Ayres, p. 101)
  • 52
    “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)
  • 53
    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)
  • 54
    “Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (Ayres, p. 144)
  • 55
    “Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)
  • 56
    Photinus was “perhaps the most visible representative of a Marcellan theology in these years (in the 350s).” (Ayres, p. 134)
  • 57
    “Vasquez … points out how well the distinction is drawn by Epiphanius between Synousios and Homousios, for synousios signifies such an unity of substance as allows of no distinction: wherefore the Sabellians would admit this word: but on the contrary homousios signifies the same nature and substance but with a distinction between persons one from the other.” (Philip Schaff)
  • 58
    “The term homoousion … differs from monoousion. … and signifies not numerical identity, but equality of essence or community of nature among several beings. It is clearly used thus in the Chalcedonian symbol, where it is said that Christ is “homoousios with the Father as touching the Godhead, and homoousios with us [and yet individually distinct from us] as touching the manhood.” Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.
  • 59
    “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).
  • 60
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy

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