Introduction to the fourth-century Arian Controversy

SUMMARY

The fourth-century Arian Controversy is very important because it gave birth to the Trinity doctrine. This article discusses some introductory thoughts.

The fundamental problem in understanding that Controversy is that we have a limited number of ancient documents; mostly from those who later were regarded as orthodox. On that basis, the traditional account of that Controversy was developed. However, after much further research during the 20th century, that traditional account is now described as a ‘complete travesty’. (Hanson Lecture)

Firstly, the name ‘Arian’ is a misnomer. It was derived from Arius’ name, implying that he developed a new heresy in contrast to an existing orthodoxy and was able to convince many Christians of his views. In reality:

      • Arius was an insignificant writer. He did not say anything new.
      • He did not leave behind a school of disciples. He was part of a wider theological trajectory.
      • Many in this trajectory opposed his views.
      • Arius did not cause the Controversy. The Controversy was a continuation of a controversy that has been raging for centuries.

The name ‘Arian’ was invented by Athanasius to insult his opponents by tarring them as followers of a discredited theology. But Athanasius’ opponents were not followers of Arius.

Secondly, the term Controversy is also a misnomer. For most of that period, there was no controversy. After Nicaea, the term homoousios disappeared from the debate. The real controversy began in the 350s when Athanasius began to use the Nicene Creed and homoousios to defend his theology.

Thirdly, Athanasius is often acclaimed as the main defender of the Nicene Creed, but a study of his theology shows that, in his view, the trinity is one single rational faculty (one single mind), which is Sabellianism.

Fourthly, in the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began. But the opposite is true. The orthodoxy was that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

Lastly, the main issue was not whether Jesus is God. All sides described Him as God. But the words all used (theos and deus) mean ‘divine being’ and they described both Father and Son as such. The real issue in the Controversy was whether the Son is a real ‘Person’ with a distinct rational faculty.

– END OF SUMMARY –


INTRODUCTION

Authors Cited

Published in 1988, RPC Hanson wrote perhaps the most influential book on the Arian Controversy. 1Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988 This was followed (2004) by another influential book by Lewis Ayres. 2Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004 As confirmation of the importance of Hanson’s book, Ayres says:

“Richard Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (1988) and Manlio Simonetti’s La Crisi Ariana nel IV secolo (1975) remain essential points of reference.” (LA, 12)

Ayres says that his book is based on those surveys and “in some measure advances on their texts.” (LA, 5)

I am sometimes challenged with respect to my sources. But those who are familiar with the Arian Controversy will recognize these as two of the most influential books on that subject.

The fourth century is not what it used to be.

It never was.

“The fundamental problem in understanding … these controversies … (is that) the documentary evidence from this period is … fragmentary.” (LA, 2) The views discussed in these two books oppose the traditional account of the Arian Controversy in several ways. The reason is that many ancient documents have become accessible during the 20th century and recent research has put that Controversy in a new light:

“Since the time of Gwatkin and Harnack (at the beginning of the 20th century) … much important work upon the period has been done.” (RH, xx)

“A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years [before 2004] has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (LA, 2).

Hanson gave some examples, including:

“Schwartz has established much of the chronology of the period more securely. Bell has published the papyrus which throws such a lurid light on the behaviour of Athanasius in his see. … so important for our estimation of Athanasius’ character. … The existence of the Synod of Antioch of 325 has now been brought to light. … A store of Arian literature hitherto unknown or little known has been made available by Turner, Gryson and others.” (RH, xx)

Hanson says that his book exists because of this new perspective on the Arian Controversy:

“It is because this manner of presenting the ‘Arian Controversy’ has not hitherto been found in textbooks that this work should be thought to have its raison d’2tre.” (RH, xx)

Purpose of this article

This article is a summary and discussion of the introductions in these two books, which highlights some main features of that Controversy.

The fourth-century controversy “produced … the most important creed in the history of Christianity.” (LA, 1)

THE NAME ‘ARIAN CONTROVERSY’

“The expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer.” (RH, xvii)

The term ‘Arian’ is a misnomer.

Arius was an insignificant writer.

The term ‘Arian’ is a misnomer because it was derived from Arius’s name and implies that Arius was an important person; the leader of those who opposed the Nicene Creed and a person who developed a new heresy. In reality, Arius was a relatively insignificant writer. He did not say anything new and he did not leave behind a school of disciples:

“The people of his (Arius’) day, whether they agreed with him or not, did not regard him as a particularly significant writer. … Neither his supporters nor his opponents thought them (his writings) worth preserving. … He virtually disappears from the controversy at an early stage in its course.” (RH, xvii)

“Arius was part of a wider theological trajectory; many of his ideas were opposed by others in this trajectory: he neither originated the trajectory nor uniquely exemplified it.” (LA, 2)

Arius had no followers.

To call somebody an Arian implies that that person is a follower of Arius, but Arius had no followers:

“At the Council of Serdica in 343 one half of the Church (the Western bishops) accused the other half of being’ Arian’ … But these were wild unsubstantiated pieces of propaganda.” (RH, xvii)

“Most famously some participants in the debate [i.e., Athanasius] described loosely related but clearly distinct thinkers as Arians. In fact, it is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius’ specific theology, and certainly impossible to show that even a bare majority of Arians had any extensive knowledge of Arius’ writing.” (LA, 2)

Arius did not cause the Controversy.

To call it the ‘Arian’ Controversy implies that Arius caused the Controversy by creating a new heresy that opposed the existing orthodoxy. But that is also false. Arius did not say anything that was not already said before him.

“In the fourth century there came to a head a crisis … which was not created by either Arius or Athanasius.” (RH, xx)

I’m not sure it is right to say that the Controversy was not caused by Athanasius. It was Athanasius who inspired the West to oppose the East and it was he who introduced the Nicene Creed and homoousios into the Controversy in the 350s. (See – Athanasius introduced Homoousios.)

Nevertheless, the Controversy was the continuation of a controversy about the nature of Christ that has been raging for centuries:

“The views of Arius were such as in a peculiar manner to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering … He was the spark that started the explosion. but in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

What has changed in the fourth century is not that Arius introduced a new heresy but that the emperor had legalized Christianity, intended to use Christianity to help keep the empire united, and was determined to end the controversy because it put the unity of the empire at risk.

There were not just two sides.

The anti-Nicenes were divided into various groups with very different views but some pro-Nicene writers, such as Athanasius, labeled them all as ‘Arians’, implying that they were a coherent group. However:

“Scholars continue to talk as if there were a clear continuity among non-Nicene theologians by deploying such labels as Arians, semi-Arians, and neo-Arians. Such presentations are misleading.” (LA, 13)

The name Arian was invented to insult.

The reason that the Controversy is named after him is that Athanasius accused his opponents of being followers of Arius, and, therefore, followers of a theology that was already condemned:

“Heresiological labels enabled early theologians and ecclesiastical historians to portray theologians to whom they were opposed as distinct and coherent groups and they enabled writers to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute.” (LA, 2)

But Athanasius’ opponents were not followers of Arius. Unfortunately, the church has traditionally believed Athanasius. For further reading, see – Athanasius invented Arianism.

‘Controversy’ is also a misnomer.

Next, Hanson explains that the term “Controversy” is also a misnomer:

“At some times there was almost no controversy at all. If there was any controversy from 330 to 341, it was a controversy about the behaviour of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. … There was a long period of confusion and uncertainty from 341 to 357 when it was far from clear what the controversy was about, if there was a controversy.” (RH, xviii)

“Should this state of affairs be called a controversy, or a search in a fog, a situation when ‘ignorant armies clash by night’?” (RH, xviii)

Homoousios disappeared after Nicaea.

One indication of the lack of ‘controversy’ is that the key term from the Nicene Creed (homoousios) was not mentioned for several decades after Nicaea. The emperor Constantine, by supporting the Sabellian faction in the Nicene Council, forced that council to include the term homoousios in the Creed. (See – Nicene Council)

In the years after that council, however, the church removed the main supporters of the term, namely the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, from their positions. (Alexander died soon after the Council.) Thereafter, homoousios was not mentioned for decades. There was no controversy around the Nicene Creed. (See, Homoousios after Nicaea)

The real Controversy began in the 350s when Athanasius began to use the term to defend his own Sabellian theology. Athanasius was extremely powerful, both religiously and politically. He was the “paragon” of the West (RH, 304), and, following him, the ‘West’ also began to defend homoousios.

ORTHODOXY

At first, there was no Orthodoxy.

In the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was established orthodoxy when the Controversy began and is reflected in the Nicene Creed of 325 but that is another piece of fiction. Our authors explain:

The “Arian Controversy” “was not a history of the defence of an agreed and settled orthodoxy against the assaults of open heresy. … There was not as yet any orthodox doctrine. The accounts of what happened which have come down to us were mostly written by those who belonged to the school of thought which eventually prevailed and have been deeply coloured by that fact. The supporters of this view wanted their readers to think that orthodoxy on the subject under discussion had always existed and that the period was simply a story of the defence of that orthodoxy against heresy and error.” (RH, xviii-xix)

“This is not the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy.” (RH, xix-xx)

That is why Hanson named his book, ‘The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God’. ‘Pro-Nicene’, namely, what we today understand as Nicene theology, has only been developed in the years 360-380 and is not the same as the theology of the Nicene Creed of AD 325:

The century must be understood as “one of evolution in doctrine.”  (LA, 13)

“The conflict that resulted eventually led to the emergence of a series of what I will term pro-Nicene theologies interpreting the Council of Nicaea in ways that provided a persuasive solution to the conflicts of the century.” (RH, 12)

‘Pro-Nicene’ refers to “those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s … of how the Nicene creed should be understood. … All of these theologies build closely on and adapt themes found earlier in the century, but none is identical with any original ‘Nicene’ theology apparent in the 320s or 330s.” (LA, 6)

Subordination was ‘orthodoxy’.

But this is also not the full story. There was an ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began. What later became ‘orthodox’ was not ‘orthodox’ when the Controversy began. While the Nicene Creed presents the Son as equal to the Father, the ‘orthodoxy’, when the Controversy began, was that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Hanson says:

“Almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was in some sense subordinated to the Father before the Incarnation.” (RH, xix)

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy.” (RH, xix)

In the first quote, Hanson refers to “the Eastern theologians.” We must remember that at Nicaea, the delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (LA, 19). So, if almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was subordinated to the Father, then almost all delegates at Nicaea believed the same.

SABELLIANISM

The Defenders of Nicaea were Sabellians.

The great controversy in the century before the fourth was over Sabellianism. That theology teaches that the trinity is one single ‘Person’ with one single rational faculty or mind. This was declared as a heresy in the third century. The ‘West’ is often regarded today as the great defender of the Nicene Creed. However, what is less well known is that both Athanasius and the Western Church were Sabellians:

“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.. … Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (RH, xix)

“Damasus (a later bishop of Rome) supports the near Sabellian Paulinus of Antioch” (RH, xix)

In fact, the ‘pope’ vindicated Marcellus after he had already been deposed by the Eastern Church for Sabellianism. Since Athanasius supported both the Sabellian creed and Marcellus:

“Nobody, not even Athanasius, had a wholly unblemished record of orthodoxy in the course of events.”

See also – Athanasius was a Sabellian and The Meaning of Homoousios.

MISTAKES AND FAULTS

All sides made mistakes.

It is traditionally stated that the so-called ‘Arians’ proposed a defective theology. BUT Hanson says that all sides made mistakes. With respect to the pro-Nicene, for example, Hanson wrote:

“Hilary in order to defend his Trinitarian theology plunges wildly into Docetism. Pope Liberius signs a doctrinal formula which was widely believed in the West to be rankly Arian and certainly was not in accordance with pro-Nicene orthodoxy. Ambrose supports the Apollinarian Vitalian for some time after his unorthodoxy has been evident to Eastern theologians, and Damasus supports the near Sabellian Paulinus of Antioch.” (RH, xix)

PHILOSOPHY

All sides used philosophy.

In the past, Arius and the ‘Arians’ were often accused of using philosophy. The fact is that all sides used philosophy:

“It would of course be absurd to deny that discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy. … The theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself.” (RH, xxi)

THE MAIN ISSUE

Not whether Jesus is God.

In the traditional account of the ‘Arian’ Controversy, the core issue was “whether or not Christ was divine.” (LA, 3) But the core issue was not “whether to place the Son on either side of a clear God/creation boundary.” The ancients did not have such a clear boundary. “Many fourth-century theologians (including some who were in no way anti-Nicene) made distinctions between being ‘God’ and being ‘true God’ that belie any simple account of the controversy in these terms.” (LA, 4) They described the Son as “God” and the Father as “true God’.” Therefore, both were on the “God” side of the boundary but were not seen as equal. (See – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as God?)

It was the “late fourth-century theologians” who, by removing the distinction between ‘true God’ and ‘God’, and by admitting “no degrees” created “a clear distinction between God and creation.” (LA, 4)

Not whether the Son shared the Father’s being.

The core issue was also not whether the Son shared the Father’s being:

“Many participants supposedly on different sides … (insisted) that one must speak of the Son’s incomprehensible generation from the Father as a sharing of the Father’s very being.” (LA, 4-5) “For some the position entailed recognizing the coeternity of the Son, for many it did not.” (LA, 5)

The Number of Rational Faculties

After studying the Arian Controversy for some years now, it is my view that the core issue was the number of rational faculties (minds, centers of consciousness) there in the trinity:

In second-century Monarchianism, third-century Sabellianism, Alexander, Athanasius, and in some fourth-century Western theologians, Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Being with one single rational faculty.

In contrast, the second and third-century Logos-theologians, the fourth-century Eusebians, and some pro-Nicene, such as Basil of Caesarea taught three distinct rational faculties.

See:


OTHER ARTICLES

In this Series

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • The Dedication Creed 22This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 23The 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? 24‘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 25In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 26This 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? 27Forget 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 34Elohim (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 35The 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
  • 2
    Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004
  • 3
    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.
  • 4
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 5
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 6
    The Controversy gave us the Trinity doctrine but the traditional account of the Controversy is a complete traversy.
  • 7
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 8
    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.
  • 9
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 10
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 11
    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?
  • 12
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 13
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 14
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.
  • 15
    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.
  • 16
    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.
  • 17
    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
  • 18
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 19
    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.
  • 20
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 21
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 22
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 23
    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.
  • 24
    ‘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.
  • 25
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 26
    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.
  • 27
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 28
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 29
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 30
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 31
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 32
    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.
  • 33
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 34
    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?
  • 35
    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 Dedication Council of Antioch of AD 341

SUMMARY

In the year 341, a council of the Eastern Church met in Antioch. It produced four documents. The second is the most important, known as the Dedication Creed because the council dedicated a new church building.

The Creed reveals what the church believed.

The Dedication Council was one of the many council meetings that were held during the Controversy. The most famous meeting was the Nicene Council in AD 325. However, Constantine manipulated the Nicene Council and forced the delegates to accept a creed that included the term homoousios, despite many objections to it.

The Nicene Council was attended almost exclusively by delegates from the Eastern Church. Since the Dedication Council was a council of the Eastern Church, the Dedication Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if Constantine had not manipulated the outcome.

The Creed is anti-Arian.

Julius, the bishop of Rome accused the Eastern Church of being ‘Arians’, meaning followers of Arius. That strategy was developed by Athanasius while he was in Rome after he was exiled from the Eastern Church (See – Athanasius invented Arianism). Athanasius was accused of Sabellianism – a theology that was already rejected by the church – and returned the favor by tarring his enemies “with the name of a figure already in disrepute” (LA, 2), namely, AriusHowever, the Eastern Church did not follow Arius. The Dedication Creed explicitly anathematizes some key aspects of Arius’ theology.

Homoousios was not part of the Controversy.

After Nicaea, Homoousios disappeared from the scene. For about 30 years, nobody mentioned it. It was only brought back into the Controversy in the mid-350s when Athanasius began to use it to defend his own ‘one hypostasis’ (Sabellian) theology. Since the Dedication Council was held during the period that nobody mentions the term homoousios, the Dedication Creed also does not mention it.

Now the threat was Sabellianism.

With Arius and homoousios no longer issues, the real threat was Sabellianism. That theology was condemned by councils in the third century. Nevertheless, it was “the [Sabellian] theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea.” (RH, 235) Consequently, after Nicaea, in the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction‘, the two main Sabellians at Nicaea, Eustathius and Marcellus, were deposed. Thereafter, homousios was no longer debated. But the exiled Marcellus and Athanasius joined forces. Both of them believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one hypostasis (one single Person with one single Mind), which is Sabellianism.

Bishop Julius of Rome organized a council that declared Marcellus and Athanasius orthodox. (LA, 117) This indicates the Sabellian inclination of the Western Church.

Since Marcellus and Athanasius were Eastern bishops who were deposed by the Eastern Church and exiled to Rome, Julius’ indication of them caused significant tension between the Western and Eastern Churches. This friction was intensified by Julius’ letter to the Eastern Church. The Dedication Council was called in response to this letter.

Since the main threat was specifically the Sabellian tendency of the Western Church, the Dedication Creed is primarily anti-Sabellian. In contrast to the single hypostasis and single Mind of Sabellianism, the Dedication Creed explicitly asserts that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “three in hypostasis but one in agreement” (LA, 118). “One in agreement” indicates the existence of three distinct ‘Minds’.

The Son is subordinate to the Father.

The Eastern Church was ‘Eusebian’, meaning followers of Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicodemia. The Eusebians regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father, and the Dedication Creed states that explicitly. However, “until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism.” 1RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.

The Son is God.

The Creed does refer to the Son as “God.” However, “in the fourth century the word ‘God’ (theos, deus) had not acquired the significance which in our twentieth-century world it has acquired … viz. the one and sole true God. The word could apply to many gradations of divinity.” (RH, 456)


INTRODUCTION

“In the year 341 a council of ninety bishops assembled at Antioch.” (RH, 284) This council produced four documents. The “Second Creed of Antioch … was the Council’s most important result.” (RH, 285-6) This is called the ‘Dedication Creed’ because “the formal occasion was the dedication of a church in Antioch which [emperor] Constantius had built.” (RH, 284) 2RH=Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

Extracts from the Dedication Creed

Hanson provides the entire Creed. The salient parts are as follows:

      • “We believe in one God Father Almighty,
        artificer and maker and designer of the universe;
      • And in one Lord Jesus Christ his only-begotten Son, God,
        Through whom are all things,
        Who was begotten from the Father before the Ages,
        God from God … Lord from Lord …
        Unchanging and unaltering,
        Exact image of the Godhead and the substance and will and power and glory of the Father,
        First-born of all creation, who was in the beginning with God, God the Word according to the text in the Gospel [‘and the Word was God’, by whom all things were made, and in whom all things exist;]
      • And in the Holy Spirit …
      • They are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.” (RH, 286)

The Creed ends by anathematizing all who say:

      • “That either time or occasion or age exists or did exist before the Son was begotten” (RH, 286)
      • “That the Son is a creature like one of the creatures” (RH, 286)

Historical Context

During the first three centuries, the Roman Empire persecuted Christianity. The Great Persecution (303-313), only the 2nd empire-wide persecution and easily the longest, was led by Diocletian and was Rome’s final attempt to limit the expansion of Christianity across the empire. Beginning around 303, Diocletian’s first edict commanded churches and holy sites razed to the ground, sacred articles burned, and believers jailed.

That persecution of Christians came to an end when Christianity was legalized through Galerius’ Edict of Toleration in 311 followed by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, after Emperor Constantine himself had become a Christian.

The Arian Controversy began only 5 years later in 318 when Arius, who was in charge of one of the churches in Alexandria, publicly criticized his bishop Alexander for “carelessness in blurring the distinction of nature between the Father and the Son by his emphasis on eternal generation.” (Legal History Sources)

That controversy was brought to an end 62 years after it began by Emperor Theodosius who, in the year 380, through the edict of Thessalonica, made Trinitarian Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

That entire period of 62 years, from 318 to 380, is known as “the Arian Controversy” and was “the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced.” (RW, 1)3Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. (2002)

Many different council meetings were held during that period with different conclusions. The Dedication Council was one of them.

WHY THIS CREED IS IMPORTANT

The emperor manipulated the Nicene Council.

Perhaps the most famous council of the Arian Controversy was the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325, where the Nicene Creed was formulated. However, “Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (RH, 850) For this purpose, “Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (LA, 89) For details, see – Nicaea.

Consequently, many bishops were not comfortable with the creed. In particular, the term homoousios, or ‘consubstantial’, troubled many bishops. It is not to be found in the Scriptures but was borrowed from pagan philosophy. It was not a traditional term but was in fact rejected at the Council of Antioch in 286 because of its Sabellian orientation. It also sounds as if God has a body. See – Objections to Homoousios

The Dedication Creed reveals the real Nicaea.

The Nicene Creed was almost entirely an Eastern affair:

The delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (LA, 19). 4LA=Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004 “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.” (RH, 170)

The Dedication Council of the year 341 consisted exclusively of bishops from the Eastern part of the Empire and “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop.” (RH, 290-1) “They constituted a widespread point of view, but we can hardly call them a party.” (RH, 291) In other words, it reveals what the delegates to the Council of Nicaea really believed and how the Nicene Creed would have read in the absence of Emperor Constantine.

THE MAIN ISSUE

The Council responded to Julius’ letter.

“There can be little doubt that this Council of Antioch was conceived by those who organized it as an answer to Julius’ Council of Rome and the letter which he wrote to the Eusebian party after it.” (RH, 285)

The council was “an immediate response” to “Julius’ letter to ‘those around Eusebius’.” (LA, 117)

To understand Julius’ letter requires a brief discussion of the preceding history:

After Nicaea, Arius was unimportant.

After the Nicene Council, Arius’ theology was no longer of much significance. “Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (LA, 56-57) (For detail, see – Arius.) “The views of Arius were such as … to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering. … He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)

After Nicaea, Homoousios was not mentioned.

In fact, after Nicaea, the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios were not important either. It was not mentioned for about 30 years

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

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

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

Homoousios was re-introduced into the Controversy by Athanasius in the mid 350s when he began to use this term to defend his theology:

“He began to use it first in the De Deeretis … in 356 or 357.” (RH, 438) “Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (LA, 144)

The Dedication Council, as well as the Council of Serdica two years later, therefore, were held during the period that nobody mentioned the Nicene Creed or the term homoousios, not even Athanasius. For that reason, the Dedication Creed was not concerned with the Nicene Creed or with the term homoousios. It did not oppose homoousios; that term was simply not an issue.

The Creed is mainly anti-Sabellianism.

Before the Dedication Council, the epicenter of the Controversy has shifted to the theology of Marcellus and Athanasius. For a discussion, see the Council of Serdica. In brief, both Marcellus and Athanasius were Eastern bishops who were deposed by the Eastern Church and exiled to Rome. Both of them believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one hypostasis (one single Being with one single Mind or Center of consciousness). (For detail, see Marcellus and Athanasius.)

Although that is Sabellianism, which was already rejected during the preceding century, bishop Julius of Rome organized a council that evaluated their theologies and declared them orthodox. (LA, 117) This indicates the Sabellian inclination of the Western Church. For example:

“That Julius and later the Westerners at Sardica should have declared him (Marcellus) orthodox was bound to appear to the Eastern theologians to be a condoning of Sabellianism.” (Hanson Lecture)

Hanson refers to “the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (RH, 290-1)

That action of the Western church caused significant tension between the Western and Eastern Churches. Furthermore, in the year 431, the bishop of Rome wrote a letter to the Eastern Church in which he accused the ‘East’ of Arianism. This brings us back to the purpose of the Dedication Council of 431, namely, to respond to Julius’ letter.

Since the main threat was specifically the Sabellian tendency of the Western Church, the Dedication Creed’s “chief bête noire [the thing that it particularly dislikes] is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead.” (RH, 287) The Dedication creed is “strongly anti-Sabellian.” (RH, 287) “The creed has a clear anti-Sabellian and anti-Marcellan thrust.” (LA, 119)

While Sabellianism asserts only one single hypostasis, meaning one single Mind, the Dedication Creed explicitly asserts that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “three in hypostasis but one in agreement (συμφωνία)” (LA, 118). “One in agreement” indicates the existence of three distinct ‘Minds’.

What was Constantius’ purpose?

“The Emperor Constantius was in the city at the time, and attended the council.” “What he probably had in mind was a desire to prevent bishops exceeding the rights and limits of their sees (as in his view Julius of Rome was doing), and interfering with the decisions of other bishops and of councils far removed from their proper sphere of influence.” (RH, 284-5)

ANTI-ARIAN

Is the Dedication Creed Anti-Arian?

Julius’ letter, following Athanasius’ polemical strategy, accused the Eusebians of being ‘Arians’, meaning, followers of Arius. The council denied this:

“We have not been followers of Arius.” (LA, 117-8) “We have rather approached him as investigators and judges of his belief than followed him.’” (RH, 285)

What does ‘Arian’ mean?

Scholars debate whether the Dedication Creed is ‘Arian’. Some say it is, others say that it is not. This dispute is caused by confusion about the meaning of the term ‘Arian’. It is often used to describe ALL opposition to Nicene theology. However, Arius and his followers were only a small subset of those who opposed the Nicene Creed. After Nicaea, Arius was of little significance.

“The views of Arius were such as … to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering. … He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)

Recent scholarship, therefore, for example Rowan Williams, says:

“’Arianism’ as a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples, is a fantasy … based on the polemic of Nicene writers, above all Athanasius.” (RW, 82)5Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. (2002)

The Eusebians opposed both Arius and Nicaea.

In his discussion of the ‘trajectories’ at the beginning of the fourth century, Lewis Ayres included the ‘Arians’ under the category of the ‘Eusebians’:

“My second theological trajectory is the one in which we locate Arius himself. This loose alliance I will term ‘Eusebian’. When I use this term I mean to designate any who would have found common ground with either of Arius’ most prominent supporters, Eusebius of Nicomedia or Eusebius of Caesarea.” (LA, 52)

The ‘Eusebians’ opposed the extreme aspects of Arius’ theology:

“He (Arius) emphasized the transcendence of the Father in ways that distanced him from the others: Arius’ teaching that the Son does not know the Father seems to have been at odds with the theologies of other ‘Lucianists’—and with other Eusebians.” (LA, 57)

The Eusebians also opposed Alexander’s theology:

“The theological positions of Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea are distinct and yet close enough for them to be allied in opposition to Alexander.” (LA, 52)

The Creed is Anti-Arius.

The Dedication Creed opposes Arius’ own theology. In that sense, it is anti-Arian:

It “deliberately excludes the kind of Arianism professed by Arius and among his followers by Eusebius of Nicomedia/Constantinople.” (RH, 290) It “does anathematize doctrines associated … with Arius.” (LA, 120)

For example:

The Creed anathematizes all who say: “that either time or occasion or age exists or did exist before the Son was begotten” (RH, 286)

“True-blue Arians would have found it impossible to accept the statement that the Son is ‘the exact image of the substance (ousia) … of the Godhead of the Father’” (RH, 287)

For that reason, some authors have considered the Dedication Creed anti-Arian, including Schwartz and Klein.

The Creed is pro-Eusebian.

The Creed describes the theology of the Eusebians. “Many scholars have noticed the affinities between this creed and the kind of doctrine which Eusebius of Caesarea taught … before the Arian Controversy came into the open.” (RH, 290) As already quoted, the Dedication Creed “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop who was no admirer of the extreme views of Arius but who had been shocked and disturbed by the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (RH, 290-1)

KEY ASPECTS

The Creed presents the Son as Subordinate.

The creed presents the Son as subordinate to the Father. For example:

      • It says “that the names of the Three signify the particular order and glory of each.” (RH, 287)
      • The Father alone is described as “Almighty.”
      • The Son is the Father’s agent in creation. The Father is “maker and designer of the universe” but the Son is the One “through whom are all things” and “by whom all things were made.”
      • In contrast to the Father as the “one God,” the Son is the “one Lord.”

But subordination is to be expected. ”Almost everybody in the East at that period would have agreed that there was a subordination of some sort within the Trinity.” (RH, 287) “Indeed, until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism.” 6RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153. In other words, the subordination in the Creed is not a concession to Arius’ theology.

He is the image of the Father’s substance.

“One particular expression in this creed has always attracted attention, the statement that the Son is ‘the exact Image of the Godhead, the ousia and the will and the power and the glory of the Father’.” (RH, 288) In contrast to the Nicene Creed, which says that the Son is of the same ousia as the Father (homoousios), the phrase “exact image of the … ousia … of the Father” means that the Son is distinct from the substance of the Father.

Later in the fourth century, in the mid-50s, after Athanasius had re-introduced the term homoousios into the Controversy, “image of the Father’s substance” became the catchphrase of the Homoi-ousians (meaning ‘similar substance’). But the Heter-ousians (meaning ‘different substance’) said that, since only the Father exists without cause, no other Being can have a substance similar to the Father’s. The third group, the Homoians said that we should not talk about God’s substance because it is not revealed in the Scriptures.

Jesus is God.

The creed quotes John 1:1-2 and refers to the Son as “God.” It describes Him as “God from God” and as:

“God the Word according to the text in the Gospel,
‘and the Word was God’,
by whom all things were made,
and in whom all things exist.”

Two years later the same people – the Easterners at Serdica – condemned those who say “that Christ is not God.” (RH, 298) Since the Easterners regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father, their description of Christ as “God” “reminds us of the variety of ways in which the term ‘God’ could be deployed at this point.” (LA, 124)

“It must be understood that in the fourth century the word ‘God’ (theos, deus) had not acquired the significance which in our twentieth-century world it has acquired … viz. the one and sole true God. The word could apply to many gradations of divinity and was not as absolute to Athanasius as it is to us.” (RH, 456)

The same term was used for the Greek gods and goddesses. See – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?”

THE FOURTH CREED

The Fourth Creed of Antioch was drawn up “by an anonymous group in Antioch some months later. … It is widely accepted that this creed was intended to function as a reconciling formula obnoxious to nobody and capable of being accepted by all.” (RH, 291) “It has a special clause inserted against Marcellus” (RH, 292) and ends with an anathema against Arius:

“But those who say that the Son is from non-existence or of a different hypostasis, and not from God, and that there was once a time or age when he did not exist, these the holy Catholic Church recognizes as alien’.” (RH, 292)

But otherwise, it leaves out all contentious issues, such as the words ousia and homoousios, and “it makes no attempt to establish the distinctness of the ‘Persons’ in an anti-Sabellian manner.” (RH, 292)

This creed “was destined to be used for nearly fifteen years as the basis for all other creeds which were designed to be ecumenical.” (RH, 292)


OTHER ARTICLES

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • The Dedication Creed 25This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 26The 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? 27‘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 28In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 29This 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? 30Forget 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 37Elohim (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 38The 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
    RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.
  • 2
  • 3
    Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. (2002)
  • 4
    LA=Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004
  • 5
    Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. (2002)
  • 6
    RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.
  • 7
    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.
  • 8
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 9
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 10
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 11
    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.
  • 12
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 13
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 14
    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?
  • 15
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 16
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 17
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.
  • 18
    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.
  • 19
    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.
  • 20
    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
  • 21
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 22
    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.
  • 23
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 24
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 25
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 26
    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.
  • 27
    ‘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.
  • 28
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 29
    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.
  • 30
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 31
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 32
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 33
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 34
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 35
    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.
  • 36
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 37
    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?
  • 38
    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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