Homoousios – What does it mean?

This is a summary of my article on the meaning of the term homoousios. That article is already very long and involved. And since this is, in my view, a crucial subject that puts a new perspective on the entire fourth-century Arian Controversy, I decided to make this summary a separate post.

These conclusions will seem heterodox to the average Christian but they’re based entirely on the writings of recent world-class scholars. Over the last century, after ancient documents have become more readily available, scholars have realized that the traditional textbook account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. For a discussion, see – The Revised Scholarly View.

The Nicene Creed was first formulated at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). It says that the Son

    • Was begotten of the substance (ousia) of the Father and that
    • He is of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father.

Alternative Meanings  

‘Same substance’ has two possible meanings:

One Substance – In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed right from the beginning. In the Trinity doctrine, God is one Being (ousia) but three Persons (hypostases). Therefore Trinitarians claim that the word homoousios in the Creed means that Father and Son are one single substance (one Being).

Two Substances – The alternative meaning is two substances (two Beings) with equal divinity.

But recent scholarship, however, seems to agree that homoousios does not have either of these two meanings. They say that it was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense.

Two Views at Nicaea

A minority was able to dominate the Nicene Council because they had the support of the emperor. Consequently, they were able to put the term homoousios in the Creed, despite the objections of the majority. So, we must distinguish between two meanings:

    • The meaning the minority intended with the term and
    • The meaning the majority assigned to it that enabled them to accept the Creed.

To determine those meanings, consider what homoousios meant (1) before, (2) during, and (3) after Nicaea:

Homoousios before Nicaea

In Greek Philosophy, Aristotle used the term οὐσία (ousia) to describe his philosophical concept of Primary Substances.

In Paganism, particularly 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.

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

Gnostics used the term homoousios to indicate that the lower deities are of the ‘same ontological status’ or ‘of a similar kind’ as the highest deity from whom they were derived or emanated. But Gnostics were not really Christians and they did not use the term to describe the Son’s relationship to the Father.

Tertullian (155-220), writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding to homoousios. He used “the expression unius substantiae.” In the past, it was often claimed that this is equivalent to homoousios but it means ‘mia hypostasis’ (one hypostasis).

Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) used the term homoousios in his theory in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one and the same Person (hypostasis). In other words, he said there is only one substance.

Origen (c. 185 – c. 253) did not apply the word homoousios to the Son and did not teach that the Son is ‘from the ousia’ of the Father, despite claims in the past to the contrary. There is one celebrated fragment where Origen appears to sanction the use of homoousios, but the translator probably altered the text to make it appear consistent with Nicene theology.

Libyan Sabellians, around the year 260, described the Son as homoousios with the Father. They were meaning that the Father and Son are one single hypostasis (Person). Consequently, the Son does not have a real distinct existence.

Dionysius, bishop of Rome, agreed with the Libyan Sabellians that Father and Son were homoousios. He, effectively, was a Sabellian. His doctrine could only with difficulty be distinguished from that of Sabellius.

Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, opposed those Libyan Sabellians and rejected the term because Sabellius used it in rejecting the distinction of hypostases. But those ‘Sabellians’ in Libya complained to the bishop of Rome who persuaded Dionysius of Alexandria to accept the term. However, the latter only adopted it with reluctance and only in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar kind’. 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.

Paul of Samosata was deposed only a few years later in 268. Paul used the term to say that Father and Son were ‘a primitive undifferentiated unity’. That same council also condemned homoousion because it spelt to them Sabellianism.

Conclusion

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was used only by Sabellians. They used it to say that Father and Son are one single Person. In their view, the Son has no real distinct existence. The only non-Sabellian to use the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he only adopted it with reluctance and only in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature’.

Therefore, to determine the meaning of the term in the Nicene Creed, one needs to identify the theology of the party that was able to force the inclusion of the term in the Creed.

Homoousios at Nicaea

A Surprising Innovation

The inclusion of the term in the Nicene Creed must be regarded as a surprising innovation because it is not a Biblical term, was not part of the standard Christian language at the time, but was borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day. Furthermore, the Sabellian history of the term rendered it particularly suspect. For these reasons, some very powerful force must have been at work to ensure its inclusion.

The Emperor’s Role

That powerful force was the emperor. In the fourth century, the general councils (the so-called ecumenical councils) were called and controlled by the emperors. They were the tools by which the Emperor ruled the church. In the Roman culture, the emperor had the final say in church doctrine.

Consistent with this principle, at Nicaea, the emperor not only proposed but also insisted the inclusion of the term. Constantine even dared to explain the meaning of the term.

Alexander’s Party

However, Constantine did not come up with the term homoousios by himself. The term was favored by the minority party of Alexander. That party was able to dominate and insert the term in the Creed because the emperor took their side.

The leaders of that party were:

    • Alexander himself,
    • Ossius – the chairperson, as the emperor’s representative, and
    • the two leading Sabellians, Eustathius and Marcellus.

However, all four of them were Sabellians. The Nicene Creed, therefore, was the work of a Sabellian minority.

How was Homoousios understood?

How, then, did the delegates to the Council understand the term homoousios?

The Sabellians intended to term to mean that the Father and Son are one single Person (one hypostasis). Consequently, after Nicaea, the Sabellians claimed the Creed as support for their doctrine.

The majority, on the other hand, was able to agree to the Creed because they had accepted the emperor’s explanation that it simply means that the Son is truly from the Father. With that understanding, it does not mean that Father and Son are one Person or even that they are equal. However, after the council meeting, that same majority opposed the Creed because they thought it taught Sabellianism.

So, in conclusion, all parties understood the term homoousios in a Sabellian sense.

Homoousios after Nicaea

Post-Nicaea Correction

After Nicaea, the conflict over the term homoousios continued for a few years. I refer to it as the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’ because it corrected the distortions caused at Nicaea by the sway of the emperor. This ‘correction’, therefore, should be regarded as part of the Nicene event.

By this time, Arius was out of the picture. Alexander also retired a year after Nicaea. The conflict was specifically between the Eusebian majority and the two leading Sabellians; Eustathius and Marcellus. As a result of this conflict, both of them were deposed for Sabellianism:

Not Mentioned

After the ‘Post-Nicaea correction’, Nicaea and homoousios were mentioned again for about 20 years. It was not regarded as useful or important.

During this period when homoousios was not mentioned, two councils were held that are important because they reveal the true views of the delegates at Nicaea.

East – At first, the ‘West’ was on the fringes of the Arian Controversy. For example, the delegates at Nicaea were drawn almost entirely from the East. So, what the delegates to Nicaea really believed when not compelled by the emperor can be seen in the Eastern Dedication Creed formulated in 431. It shows that they regarded the Nicene Creed as dangerously Sabellian.

West – Two years later, in 343, the West held a council at Sardica. The ‘West’ is generally known for being defenders of Nicaea, but the creed from that council explicitly says that Father and Son are one Person, which reveals the Sabellian preference of the West at this time. This is confirmed by their vindication of Marcellus, the main Sabellian at the time, in the year 431.

Neither of these councils used the term homoousios.

Athanasius re-invented Homoousios.

That would have been the end of homoousios. However, in the 350s – 30 years after Nicaea, Athanasius brought it back into the Controversy. 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. In his view, the Son is part of the Father. Athanasius, therefore, re-invented homoousios to defend his Sabellian theology; not to defend the Nicene Creed.

Anti-Sabellian Front

In the 350s, after homoousios had become a key factor in the Controversy, and the West attacked the East with it, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) were divided into several factions with respect to homoousios, but they formed a united front against the Sabellian thrust of the Western church. This shows that the main enemy remained Sabellianism.

Meletian Schism

In the 360s and 370s, in what is known as the Meletian Schism, there were two factions in the pro-Nicene camp:

    • The ‘one hypostasis’-side (the Sabellians) was led by bishop Damasus of Rome and by Athanasius.
    • The ‘three hypostasis’-side was led by Basil of Caesarea. He regarded the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be three distinct Beings (substances) but he claimed that they have exactly the same type of substance. See – Basil.

Final Conclusions

Before Nicaea, the only Christians who favored the term were Sabellians.

At Nicaea, a Sabellian minority was able to insert the term in the Creed, against the wishes of the majority, because the emperor took Alexander’s part.

During the decade after Nicaea, the main drivers of the term homoousios were removed from their positions. There-after, the term was not mentioned again until Athanasius brought it back into the dispute about 30 years after Nicaea; not to defend the term as such, but to defend his own Sabellian theology.

The West accepted Athanasius’ explanation because the West was traditionally Sabellian.

Basil of Caesarea later accepted homoousios. However, he opposed Athanasius’ understanding of the term and explained it in a generic sense.

Therefore, before, during, and after Nicaea, the advocates of the term homoousios were Sabellians. It must be understood in a Sabellian sense.


Other Articles in this Series

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 18The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 19‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 20In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 21This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 22Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

The Pro-Nicenes

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Extracts from the writings of scholars who have studied the ancient documents for themselves:

Trinity Doctrine – General

    • Elohim 27Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 28The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

All articles on this Site

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 2
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 3
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 4
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 5
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 6
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 7
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 8
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 9
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 10
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 11
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 12
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 13
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 14
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 15
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 16
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 17
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 18
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 19
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 20
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 21
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 22
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 23
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 24
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 25
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 26
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 27
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 28
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

The Meaning of Homoousios in the Nicene Creed

SUMMARY

Homoousios does not mean ‘one substance’.

The Nicene Creed, as first formulated at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), states that the Son was begotten of the substance (ousia) of the Father” and that He is of ‘the same substance’ (homoousios) as the Father.

This 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 that we drive two different cars that are the same qualitatively. In the same way, ‘same substance’ can be understood as numeric sameness, meaning that Father and Son are one single substance, or as generic sameness, meaning two separate substances that are qualitatively the same.

In the Trinity doctrine, the three Persons are one Being (one substance or ousia). In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed right from the beginning and the word homoousios in the Creed means that Father and Son are one single substance.

Recent scholarship, however, agrees that that is not what homoousios meant. “We can therefore be pretty sure that homoousios was not intended to express the numerical identity of the Father and the Son.” (RH, 202) 1RH = Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

The purpose of this article is to determine what Homoousios meant at Nicaea.

Homoousios before Nicaea

Greek Philosophy used the term οὐσία (ousia) to describe his philosophical concept of Primary Substances.

Egyptian paganism (See – here) used homoousios to say that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son, who are two distinct beings, share the same perfection of the divine nature.

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

Gnostics – The second-century Gnostics used homoousios to say that lower deities are of ‘a similar kind’ as the highest deity from whom they emanated.

Tertullian – In the past, it was often claimed that Tertullian (155-220) used the term. However, the term that he used (unius substantiae) meant one hypostasis.

Sabellius (fl. ca. 215), after whom Sabellianism is named, used homoousios to say that Father and Son are one single hypostasis. Sabellianism was formally rejected in the third century.

“Origen (c. 185 – c. 253) certainly did not apply the word homoousios to the Son and did not teach that the Son is ‘from the ousia’ of the Father.” (RH, 185)

The Two Dionysii (c. 260) – The word homoousios was prominent in a dispute between the bishops of Rome and Alexandria; both named Dionysius. Certain Libyan Sabellians described the Son as homoousios with the Father. The bishop of Alexandria, in a campaign against them, rejected the term. The Sabellians complained to the bishop of Rome. This Dionysius also taught one single hypostasis and accepted the term homoousios. He put pressure on the bishop of Alexandria to accept the term. The latter Dionysius then accepted it, but only in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature, ‘of similar kind’.

Paul of Samosata (c. 268) – Paul used the term to say that Father and Son are a solitary unit; “a primitive undifferentiated unity.” The council at Antioch that deposed him for Sabellianism also condemned the term homoousios.

Conclusion – We exclude the meanings in Greek Philosophy, Egyptian paganism, and the Gnostics as non-Christian. The Bible, Tertullian, and Origen never used the term. Sabellius himself, the Libyan Sabellians, and the Sabellians Dionysius of Rome and Paul of Samosata used the term to say that Father and Son are one single hypostasis (one single Mind). The only non-Sabellian Christian who accepted this term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he accepted it with reluctance and only “in a general sense. Before Nicaea, therefore, homoousios was associated with Sabellianism.

Homoousios at Nicaea

The inclusion of the term in the Creed was a surprising innovation because it is not a Biblical term but was borrowed from pagan philosophy. It was also not part of the standard Christian language at the time but was associated with the heresy of Sabellianism.

It was the Emperor’s influence that ensured its inclusion. In the fourth century, the emperor was the final arbiter in doctrinal disputes. Emperor Constantine insisted on the term and also explained what it meant. There was considerable unhappiness about the term and the emperor gave it an acceptable meaning.

Constantine did not come up with the term homoousios by himself. Both the chairperson Ossius, who was the emperor’s agent, and Alexander were Sabellians or at least semi-Sabellians. They formed an alliance with the Sabellians in the Council against the Eusebians (the so-called Arians). The Sabellians favored the term and were successful because the emperor took their side.

The Eusebians in the Council accepted the Creed under duress. They accepted the emperor’s explanation of the term.

Conclusion – At Nicaea, the majority (the Eusebians) accepted the term as meaning three distinct substances but the minority Sabellians understood it to mean ‘one substance’ and, therefore, one Mind. Similar to Dionysius of Alexandria, who was compelled by Dionysius to accept the term, but accepted it only in a generic sense, the Eusebians at Nicaea were compelled to accept the term, but accepted it only in a generic sense.  

Homoousios after Nicaea

In the years immediately after Nicaea, the conflict at Nicaea continued. This conflict was not about Arius. He has now disappeared from the scene. It also did not involve Alexander. He died three years after Nicaea. The Controversy was directed at the two main Sabellians; Marcellus and Eustathius. It was about the meaning of homoousios. The Sabellians insisted on a Sabellian interpretation. The Eusebians had accepted the term in its generic sense of two Beings of the same class. As a result of this conflict, both Eustathius and Marcellus were deposed for Sabellianism:

Thereafter, homoousios disappears from the Controversy. Athanasius brought the term back into the Controversy in the 350s. But Athanasius was also a Sabellian. He brought the term back into the Controversy to defend his Sabellian theology; not to defend the Nicene Creed.

The Dedication (AD 341) and Serdica (AD 343) councils met during the period when homoousios was not mentioned. So, nobody in these two councils mentions the term. The main issue at these councils was Sabellianism. The Easterners (the Eusebians) proclaimed three hypostases (three Minds) but the Western Church, defending Marcellus’ Sabellian theology, taught one single hypostasis. Since, they claimed that their Sabellian creed was an interpretation of the Nicene Creed, they interpreted the Nicene Creed with its term homoousios as Sabellian.

Basil of Caesarea, the famous Cappadocian father, taught three distinct substances and, therefore, three Minds. In other words, he accepted the term homoousios in a generic sense, similar to the Eusebians. This brought him into conflict with Athanasius and other ‘one-hypostasis’ theologians.

The famous Chalcedonian Creed of AD 451 also uses homoousios in a generic sense. It says 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.”

Conclusion

Before Nicaea. the only Christian theologians who favored the term were Sabellians. At Nicaea, a Sabellian minority had the upper hand and were able to insert the term in the Creed, against the wishes of the majority. Immediately after Nicaea, in a continued conflict between the Eusebians and Sabellians, while the Sabellians interpreted homoousios to mean one hypostasis, the Eusebians defended three distinct substances. The main Sabellians were deposed, after which the term disappeared from the Controversy. In the 350s, Athanasius brought the term back to defend his own Sabellian theology. However, other pro-Nicenes, such as Basil of Caesarea, interpreted it similarly to the Eusebians as implying three distinct substances and three Minds, causing conflict within the pro-Nicene camp.

THE NICENE CREED

The Nicene Creed was first formulated at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) in Greek. It is accepted as official doctrine by most Christian churches. It states that:

      • The Son was “begotten … of the substance (ousia) of the Father” and that
      • He is of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father.

Homoousios (ὁμοούσιος) literally means “same substance” from homós (same) and ousía (substance). E.g., – The Free Dictionary or GotQuestionsVia the Latin, homoousios is often translated as “consubstantial.”

HOMOOUSIOS

Two Possible Meanings

The word “same” has two possible meanings. For example, when I say that John and I drive the same car, it can mean that we drive ‘one and the same’ car, or it may mean that we drive two different cars that are the same in all or almost all respects. Similarly, “same substance” (homoousios) also has two possible meanings:

One Substance – The traditional Trinity doctrine interprets homoousios as ‘one and the same substance’. In this view, Father and Son are one single undivided substance (Being). This is called numerically the same because there is only one substance. On the assumption that this is the meaning, the phrase is often translated as “of one substance.” With that interpretation, the Nicene Creed supports the Trinity doctrine.

Two Substances with equal diety – Alternatively, “same substance” may mean that Father and Son are two distinct substances (Beings) but with the same type of substance, just like human beings have the “same substance.” This is called qualitative or generic sameness. With this interpretation, the Nicene Creed does not support the Trinity doctrine.

As an example of the two meanings, Person wrote:

“As it stands, the homoousios can be read either as an affirmation of the divine unity or as an affirmation of the equal deity.’” (RH, 170-1)

Qualitative Sameness – Weak or Strong

Qualitative sameness can vary from strong to weak, depending on how similar the two things are. If we read homoousios as saying that the Son’s substance is more or less the same as the Father’s, the differences between them imply that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

For a further discussion of the different meanings of “same,” see Right Reason or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Giving three Possible Meanings

The three possible meanings of homoousios are that Father and Son are:

      • One single substance (Being),
      • Two distinct Beings with identical substances, and
      • Two distinct Beings with similar substances.

One objection to the second option is that it presents two Gods; two First Principles (two Beings who exist without cause and caused the existence of all else).

Arius opposed all three.

Arius did not accept any of these three views:

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

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

PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE

Trinity Doctrine asserts One Substance.

The Trinity doctrine states that God is one Being (ousia) but three Persons (hypostases). For example, the following defines the Trinity doctrine as the outcome of the Arian Controversy:

“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)

For a further discussion, see – Trinity Doctrine.

Homoousios did not mean One Substance.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed right from the beginning. It claims, therefore, that the word homoousios in the Creed means that Father and Son are one single substance (Being). It would follow that the Son is co-equal, co-eternal, and co-immutable with the Father.

However, recent scholarship seems to agree that that is not what homoousios meant. For example:

“We can therefore be pretty sure that homoousios was not intended to express the numerical identity of the Father and the Son.” (RH, 202)

In fact, scholars seem to 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.” (RH, 170)

“It was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense than has in the past history of scholarship been attached to it.” (RH, 202)

Studer “also 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.” (LA, 238) 

So, what did Homoousios mean at Nicaea?

This article, however, shows that a minority was able to dominate the Nicene Council because they had the support of the emperor. Consequently, they were able to put the term homoousios in the Creed, despite the objections of the majority. So, we must distinguish between the meaning the minority intended with the term and the meaning the majority assigned to it that enabled them to accept the Creed.

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

AUTHORS CITED

This article relies mainly on the following authors:

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

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

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.)

HOMOOUSIOS BEFORE NICAEA

Greek Philosophy

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

Paganism

“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)

The Bible

The root of homoousion is the word ousia, but the Bible never talks about God’s ousia and never says that the Son is homoousios with the Father.

Gnostics

Scholars agree that the first theologians to use the word homoousios were the second-century Gnostics. (Beatrice)

“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.” 2Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 18). Kindle Edition.

The Gnostics used the term homoousios “probably to indicate” that the “lower deities” are of the “‘same ontological status’ or ‘of a similar kind’” as “the highest deity” from whom they were “derived or emanated.” (RH, 191) It meant, “belonging to the same order of being.” (RH, 191)

They did not use the word to mean “identity, nor even equality” (RH, 191). In other words, they did not use the term homoousios to say that two beings are really one being or even that two beings have the same type of substance.

However, the Gnostics did not use the term to describe the Son’s relationship to the Father, which makes the Gnostics relatively irrelevant in the context of this article.

Tertullian (155-220)

Contrary to what is often claimed, Tertullian, “writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding to homoousios.” (RH, 190)

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

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.” (RH, 184) “The word in Greek translation of Tertullian’s una substantia would not be the word homoousios but mia hypostasis (one hypostasis).” (RH, 193)

Sabellius (fl. ca. 215)

Sabellianism is named after Sabellius; a theologian from the early 3rd century. According to Basil of Caesarea, “Sabellius used it (homoousios) … in rejecting the distinction of hypostases” (RH, 192); “in the sense of numerical sameness” (Prof Ninan).

Another article discusses Sabellius’ theology. According to Von Mosheim, for Sabellius, God is the whole and the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are parts of the whole:

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

However, for Sabellius, there remains only one hypostasis (Person). By the time the Nicene Creed was formulated, Sabellianism was already formally rejected by the church.

Origen (c. 185 – c. 253)

In the past, it was often claimed that Origen described the Son as homoousios. However:

“Origen may have rejected the term.” (LA, 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.” (RH, 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.” (RH, 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.” (RW, 132-3) Rowan Williams believes that the translator altered the text to make it appear consistent with Nicene theology.

The Two Dionysii (c. 260)

Around the year 260, there was a dispute between the bishops of Rome and Alexandria; both named Dionysius, in which the word homoousios was prominent.

The Libyan Sabellians

The dispute began between Dionysius of Alexandria and “some local Sabellians.” (LA, 94)

Both Stead and Simonetti believe that it was those Sabellians “who had introduced the term (into the dispute).” (RH, 193) In other words, they described the Son as homoousios with the Father. As discussed, for Sabellians, the Father and Son are one single hypostasis (Person), meaning that they deny the existence of the Son as a separate reality.

Dionysius of Rome

The ‘Sabellians’ in Libya complained about Dionysius of Alexandria “to the bishop of Rome.” (RH, 191) “Dionysius of Rome … (also) claimed that Father and Son were homoousios.” (LA, 94) He, effectively, was a Sabellian:

“Dionysius of Rome … found homoousios acceptable but could not tolerate a division of the Godhead into three hypostases.” (RH, 192, quoting Loofs)

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

Dionysius of Alexandria

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

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

However, Dionysius of Alexandria was “persuaded by his namesake of Rome to accept (the term)” (LA, 94) but he “only adopted it with reluctance” (RH, 193) and only “in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature, ‘of similar kind’” (RH, 192), or “belonging to the same class” (LA, 94), “meaning that both had the same kind of nature.” (RH, 193) This “did not at all exclude relationships between realities that were hierarchically distinct in other ways.” (LA, 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.

Paul of Samosata (c. 268)

Only a few years later, “the council that deposed Paul of Samosata in 268 condemned the use of homoousios.” (LA, 94; cf. RH, 193-194) “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.” (LA, 94; RH, 195)

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

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

Conclusions

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was used mainly by Sabellians, including Sabellius himself, the Libyan Sabellians, Dionysius of Rome, and Paul of Samosata. They used it to say that Father and Son are one single Person.

The only non-Sabellian Christian who used the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he “only adopted it with reluctance” (RH, 193) and only “in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature’.” (RH, 192)

“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)

HOMOOUSIOS AT NICAEA

This section discusses how the term was understood at Nicaea.

A Surprising Innovation

For the following reasons, the inclusion of the term homoousios (same substance) in the Nicene Creed must be regarded as most surprising:

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

Not Standard Language – The term was not part of the standard Christian language at the time. “We can detect no Greek-speaking writer before Nicaea who unreservedly supports homoousion as applied to the Son.” (RH, 169) Rowan Williams described it as “the radical words of Nicaea” (RW, 236) and “conceptual innovation” (RW, 234-5) in contrast to “the lost innocence of pre-Nicene trinitarian language” (RW, 234-5). The term did not appear in any precious creed; not even in the draft creed prepared only a few months before Nicaea. Consequently, anti-Nicenes objected that these words are “untraditional.” (RW, 234-5)

Pagan Origin – R.P.C. Hanson describes them as “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (RH, 846)

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

“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)

For these reasons, some very powerful forces must have been at work to ensure its inclusion.

The Emperor’s Influence

That powerful force was the emperor. This meeting was not called by the church; it was called by the emperor. It was his meeting. Constantine’s goal was not 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.” (RH, 855)

Furthermore, as astounding as it might sound to people who grew up in a culture of separation between church and state, in the fourth century, the emperor was final arbiter in 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” (RH, 849).

Ossius chaired the council, but not in his capacity as the bishop of the small city of Cordova, but as the emperor’s representative.

Constantine insisted on the term.

Furthermore, the emperor not only proposed but also insisted on the term. 3“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) 4“’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.) 5“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)

“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) 6Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85

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

Constantine also explained the term.

Constantine even dared to explain the term to that assembly of the top leaders of the church. One of the major objections was that God is immaterial and that Nicene language sounds as if God has a body and as if the Son was begotten like humans through a material, corporeal process. For example:

The phrase ‘from the ousia of the Father’ was criticized by Origen, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Arius as “something like a human birth,” as implying a “diminution of the Father’s being in the generation of the Son,” and as “materialistic.” (LA, 97)

However, at the Council, Emperor Constantine did his best “to placate Eusebians” (LA, 91) so that they (the eastern majority) 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.” (LA, 96) 7“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’.” (LA, 90-91) 8“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.” (LA, 96) 9“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 meaning to the term homoousios:

“This phrase served only to indicate that the Son was truly from the Father.” (LA, 96)

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

Alexander’s party dominated.

This explains why these unfamiliar phrases were included in the Creed. It was due to the emperor’s domination of the council. But, Constantine did not come up with the term homoousios by himself. There were some in the meeting who favored it, namely, Alexander’s party, which was successful because the emperor took their side:

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

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

Ossius, the chairperson of the meeting, was Constantine’s advisor and apparently was the one who advised Constantine to take Alexander’s part. It seems as if Alexander and/or Ossius chose the term homoousios:

“Athanasius, who was certainly present at Nicaea … says that Ossius composed the Creed of Nicaea.” (RH, 154-155)

“It is unlikely that Alexander or Ossius would have chosen the term intending a simple co-ordinate sense.” (LA, 95)

Erickson explains that the Nicene Creed was put forward by Eusebius, but was “revised” by “the party of Alexander,” which was “favored by the emperor,” who “favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.”

Eustathius and Marcellus also favored the term:

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

“Marcellus and Eustathius also seem likely to have endorsed homoousios because of the notion of shared being.” (LA, 95) [“shared being” = one Person]

Hence, Eustathius and Marcellus may be counted as members of Alexander’s party:

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

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

Since the emperor had taken Alexander’s side, and since Eustathius and Marcellus were able to join forces with Alexander, they were influential at the council: 

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

“Marcellus of Ancyra … had been an important figure at the council and may have significantly influenced its wording.” (LA, 431)

Athanasius’ party, therefore, included Alexander himself, Ossius, as the emperor’s representative, Eustathius and Marcellus, and their supporters:

Ossius of Cordoba probably chaired the meeting; Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Alexander must all have been key players in the discussions.” (LA, 89)

Alexander’s party was Sabellian.

Alexander

Another article shows that Alexander was a Sabellian. For example, he described the Son as “idios to (a property or quality of) the Father (which) is a Sabellian statement.” (RH, 92) In other words, he regarded the Father and Son to be one single Person (hypostasis), which is Sabellianism.

Ossius

Ossius – the chairperson – was also a Sabellian. For example:

Eighteen years later, in 343, Ossius helped to compose another creed (Serdica) (RH, 201) which had “the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion” (RH, xix)

“Ossius evidently believed that God is a single hypostasis.” (RH, 870)

Marcellus

“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (RH, ix) Marcellus of Ancyra “cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism” (Hanson’s Lecture).

Eustathius

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

The Anathema

Another indication of the Sabellian domination at the council 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 one single Person (hypostasis), which is Sabellianism. For example:

“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.” (RH, 235)

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325 … ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.” (Hanson’s Lecture)

The Nicene Creed was the work of a Minority.

Therefore, the emperor’s authority allowed the Sabellian minority to include the term homoousios in the Creed, despite the Sabellian history of the term, and despite the objections of the majority in the council.

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.” 10Bettenson, 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!”

The Meaning of Homoousios

How, then, did the delegates to the Council understand the term homoousios?

Sabellians Understanding

The Sabellians intended to term to mean that the Father and Son are one single Person (one hypostasis or reality). For example:

“It is unlikely that Alexander or Ossius would have chosen the term intending a simple co-ordinate sense.” (LA, 95)
(“Co-ordinate” here means two distinct but more or less equal entities.)

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.” (LA, 95-96)

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

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

Eusebian Understanding

The majority, on the other hand, was able to agree to the Creed because they had accepted the emperor’s explanation that it simply means that the Son is truly from the Father:

“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.” (LA, 96)

With that understanding, it does not mean that Father and Son are one Person or even that they are equal.

However, after Nicaea, that same church mainstream opposed the Creed because they thought it taught 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)

After Nicaea, the Creed was associated “with the theology of Marcellus of Ancyra. … The language of that creed seemed to offer no prophylactic (prevention) against Marcellan doctrine, and increasingly came to be seen as implying such doctrine.” (LA, 96, 97)

“To many the creed seemed strongly to favour the unitarian tendency among these existing trajectories.” (LA, 431)

(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.” (LA, 431))

So, the majority also really understood the term as Sabellian. They had only agreed to the Creed because they submitted to the pressure from the emperor.

Was Nicaea a victory for 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. … The ‘Asiatics’ … were able to include in N a hint of opposition to the three hypostases theory.” (RH, 171)

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.” (RH, 172) Ayres says that his conclusions are close to Hanson’s in this regard (LA, 92).

HOMOOUSIOS AFTER NICAEA

Post-Nicaea Dispute

In the years immediately after Nicaea, the conflict at Nicaea continued. I refer to it as the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’ because it corrected the distortions caused at Nicaea by the involvement of the emperor. This ‘correction’, therefore, should be regarded as part of the Nicene event.

This conflict did not involve Arius’ theology. “During the years 325–42,” Arius was not “at the heart of theological controversy.” (LA, 100)

“The Index to the Festal Letters of Athanasius dates the death of Alexander firmly to April 27th, 328.” (RH, 175) He was now out of the picture. The conflict was specifically between the Eusebian majority and the two leading Sabellians; Eustathius and Marcellus:

The theology of “Marcellus and Eustathius” “was able to provoke a strong and sustained reaction from the Eusebians, and one that seems to have gained wide support throughout the east.” (LA, 102)

The conflict was specifically about the meaning of the term homoousios. The Sabellians claimed it as support for their view in which Father and Son are one single Person (numerical identity) so that the Son does not have a real distinct existence. In contrast, the Eusebians had accepted the term in its generic sense of two Beings of the same classFor example, the following describes one event in that conflict that occurred “probably in 326 or 327:” (LA, 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 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.” (LA, 101)

“This event was only one part of the conflict that now began.” (LA, 101)

As a result of this conflict, both Eustathius and Marcellus were deposed for Sabellianism:

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

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

Homoousios Disappears

The rejection of the Sabellians after Nicaea was also a rejection of the term homoousios. Thereafter, “there is a near-fifteen year absence before the creed is mentioned again.” (LA, 100) The term homoousios was seen as problematic due it its Sabellian trajectory:

“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.” (RH, 437)

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. … it may not be discussed simply because it was not seen as that useful or important. This lack of usage also results from the association of Nicaea with the theology of Marcellus of Ancyra. As we shall see, the language of that creed seemed to offer no prophylactic against Marcellan doctrine, and increasingly came to be seen as implying such doctrine.” (LA, 97)

That would have been the end of homoousios, was it not for Athanasius.

Athanasius revived Homoousios in the 350s.

As discussed here, during the 330’s, Athanasius and Marcellus were both in Rome after being exiled from their positions. In Rome, they joined forces against the East and Athanasius developed his polemical strategy – his “masterpiece of the rhetorical art,” (LA, 106-7) “presenting Arius as the originator of a new heresy” (LA, 107) and “himself as the preserver of … scriptural orthodoxy” (LA, 107), claiming that all opponents of Nicaea are mere followers of Arius, and that he himself was exiled for theological reasons. None of these were true. “If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis.” (RW, 234)

But Athanasius was able to convince the bishop of Rome of his version of the Controversy and the bishop of Rome attacked the East, using Athanasius’ polemical strategy. This caused, for the first time, tension between the East and the West.

More than a decade later, in the 350s, after Constantius had become emperor of the entire Roman Empire and attempted to compel the West to accept the creeds developed in the East, Athanasius strengthened his polemical strategy by adding the Nicene Creed and homoousios to it. In this way, homoousios came back into the Controversy, but this is a new development with a new dynamic.

Athanasius 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 believed that the Son is part of the Father. For example:

“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.” (RH, xix)

Athanasius re-invented homoousios to defend his Sabellian theology; not to defend the Nicene Creed.

The Dedication and Serdica Councils

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. So, nobody in these two councils mentions the term.

The main issue at these councils was Sabellianism:

The Dedication Council was a council of the Western Church and its main purpose was to condemn Sabellianism. It explicitly asserts three hypostases (three 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 single Being with one single Mind). 

The only link in these two councils to the term homoousios is that the Western Church is generally known as defenders of Nicaea and the Western delegates at Serdica explicitly claimed that their Sabellian creed was an interpretation of the Nicene Creed. That Western council wrote:

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

In other words, they interpreted the Nicene Creed with its term homoousios as Sabellian.

The emphasis on Sabellianism in these two councils also implies that Sabellianism was the main issue at Nicaea.

Anti-Sabellian Front

In the 350s, after homoousios had become a key factor in the Controversy, and the West attacked the East with it, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) were divided into several factions with respect to homoousios, but they formed a united front against the Sabellian thrust of the Western church. But they formed a united front against Marcellan theologies:

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.” (LA, 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.” (LA, 150)

Photinus was another prominent ‘one-hypostasis theologian’. Photinus was “perhaps the most visible representative of a Marcellan theology in these years (in the 350s).” (LA, 134)

This united front shows that the main enemy remained Sabellianism.

Pro-Nicenes accepted a generic interpretation.

We now jump forward to the decades 360s and 370s.

Basil of Caesarea

Another article shows that Basil, who wrote in the 360s and 370s, regarded Father, Son, and Spirit as three distinct substances (Beings) but with exactly the same type of substance. Consequently, he interpreted homoousios as “like unalterably according to ousia.” (RH, 696-7) Basil was not a follower of Athanasius and did not base his theology on the Nicene Creed. He began as a Homoi-ousian but had come to accept the term homoousios. However, he accepted it in a generic (qualitative) sense, in contrast to the Sabellians.

This view brought him into conflict with Damasus of Rome, Athanasius, and Athanasius’ successor Peter, who taught that Father and Son are one single Person. This is known as the Meletian Schism, after Meletius of Antioch. While Damasus and Athanasius supported Paulinus (another ‘one-Person’ theologian) as bishop of Antioch, Basil supported his friend Meletius. 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)

For a further discussion, see – Meletian Schism.

Epiphanius

Epiphanius (c. 310/320 – 403) became Bishop of Salamis in 365 or 367. He also explained homousios as qualitative sameness:

“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.  Rightly, therefore, has the Church adopted this word as the one best calculated to confute the Arian heresy.” (Philip Schaff)

Chalcedon

The Chalcedonian Creed of AD 451 uses homoousios in a generic sense:

“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.” 11Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.

Sabellians switched to monoousios.

Consequently, the Sabellians switched to the more specific term monoousios (or synousios):

“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) 12Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A).

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

The only Christian theologians who favored the term before Nicaea were Sabellians.

At Nicaea, a Sabellian minority had the upper hand because the emperor took Alexander’s part. Consequently, they were able to insert the term in the Creed, against the wishes of the majority.

However, at the council, Emperor Constantine tried to appease the fears of the majority by explaining the ousia-terms in a highly figurative, non-material way, saying that it only means that the Son is truly from the Father. This explanation allowed the Eusebian majority to accept the Creed. Nevertheless, that majority also regarded the term as Sabellian. The battle against Sabellianism was clearly not fully won at the time of Nicaea and Nicaea may be seen as a win for the Sabellians.

During the decade after Nicaea, the main drivers of the term homoousios were removed from their positions. This corrected the deviations caused at Nicaea by the interference of the emperor in church doctrine.

During the ‘post-Nicaea-correction’, the main drivers of the term homoousios at Nicaea were removed from their positions. Thereafter, the problematic term homoousios disappears from the scene.

But, as discussed in another article, in the 350s, Athanasius brought the term back into the Controversy and convinced the West to adopt his view. Since Athanasius and the West were Sabellian, they understood the term as saying that Father and Son are one Person.

Later pro-Nicene theologians, however, opposed Athanasius and interpreted homoousios in a generic sense.

The only people who regarded homoousios as saying that Father and Son are one substance, as in the Trinity doctrine, were the Sabellians.


OTHER ARTICLES

Other Articles in this Series

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • The Dedication Creed 31This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 32The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 33‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 34In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 35This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 36Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

The Pro-Nicenes

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Extracts from the writings of scholars who have studied the ancient documents for themselves:

Trinity Doctrine – General

    • Elohim 43Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 44The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

Other Articles

All articles on this Site

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    RH = Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
  • 2
    Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 18). Kindle Edition.
  • 3
    “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)
  • 4
    “’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.)
  • 5
    “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)
  • 6
    Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85
  • 7
    “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’.” (LA, 90-91)
  • 8
    “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.” (LA, 96)
  • 9
    “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)
  • 10
    Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41
  • 11
    Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.
  • 12
    Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A).
  • 13
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 14
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 15
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 16
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 17
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 18
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 19
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 20
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 21
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 22
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 23
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.
  • 24
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 25
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 26
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 27
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 28
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 29
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 30
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 31
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 32
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 33
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 34
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 35
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 36
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 37
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 38
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 39
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 40
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 41
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 42
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 43
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 44
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.
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