Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms

Purpose of this article

The original Nicene Creed, formulated in the year 325 AD, in the condemnations at the end of it, denounces:

“Those who say … that the Son of God is
of a different hypostasis (ὑποστάσεως)
or substance (οὐσιάς)” (Early Church Texts).

CONSTANTINE THE GREAT

“Substance” (οὐσιάς) is transliterated as ousia. In other words, according to the creed, the words hypostasis and ousia are synonyms and the Son of God is both of the same hypostasis as the Father and of the same ousia or substance as the Father. This causes the following anomalies:

(1) While, in the Creed, the Son is of the same hypostasis as the Father, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father and the Son are different hypostases (Persons).

(2) While the Creed uses hypostasis and ousia as synonyms, in the Trinity doctrine, hypostasis and ousia differ in meaning: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three hypostases (Persons) but in one ousia (substance or being).

(3) By describing the Father and the Son as the same hypostasis and as the same ousía, the creed seems to teach Sabellianism (modalism), in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one Person (one mind and one will) wearing three faces or masks, like a single person playing three characters in a theatre. However, Sabellianism has already been rejected before the Nicene Creed was formulated.

To address these anomalies, this article discusses the original meanings of these words and how the meanings changed over time.

Summary

Etymology

Etymologically, ὑποστάσεως (hypostasis) is a direct cognate of οὐσιάς (ousia), just like the English father, German Vater, and Latin pater are cognates. Originally, therefore, hypostasis and ousia had the same meaning.

Greek philosophers

Etymologically, both words meant “that which stands under.” The ancient Greek philosophers used these terms to describe real entities as having substance – “the fundamental reality that supports all else,” in contrast to imaginary entities.

Hebrews 1:3

Hypostasis appears only once in the Bible (Hebrews 1:3), where it has the same meaning as it had for the ancient Greeks, and is translated as “substance” (ASV) or “nature” (NASB).

How did the meaning change?

Since hypostasis originally meant substance, nature, or essence, to explain how and why its meaning changed to “person,” we need to trace this word through history:

First three centuries

In the first three centuries, Christian writers still used hypostasis in the same way as the Greek philosophers did before them, namely to denote “being” or “substantive reality” and as a synonym for ousia (substance).

Nicene Creed

As discussed above, the Nicene Creed used hypostasis in the same way.

Meaning changed to prevent Sabellianism

The council at Nicaea added the word homo-ousios (same substance) to the Nicene Creed on the insistence of Emperor Constantine (Erickson). As indicated by the large number of creeds which the church fathers formulated in the 50 years after Nicaea (see Arian creeds – Wikipedia), particularly to find alternatives for the word homo-ousios, the church reacted quite strongly against the word homo-ousios. One great objection, as explained above, was that the description of the Son as of the same hypostasis and as of the same ousia as the Father teaches Sabellianism.

It was explicitly to neutralize the objection that the creed teaches Sabellianism that Basil of Caesarea (in AD 375) and Gregory of Nyssa (in AD 380) proposed a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía, and that hypostasis be understood to mean person

Theodosius

In 380, through the Edict of Thessalonica and by replacing bishops with people who support his views, and, in the next few years, by exiling and sometimes killing people who opposed the edict, by forbidding them to remain in the cities, to meet, to ordain priests, or to spread their beliefs, and by confiscating their churches, Roman emperor Theodosius eradicated all opposition to his theology, which the edict stated as:

“Let us believe in the one deity
of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.”

This is how the Trinity doctrine was established, namely through the Edict of Thessalonica and the strong arm of the Roman Empire. There-after, the interpretation of hypostasis as meaning “person,” became official church doctrine. 

Conclusions

(1) The meaning of hypostasis did not change over time as a natural process of evolution in how the word was used. Rather, the meaning was changed as a result of an explicit proposal by one theologian that became generally accepted in the church as a means to interpret the Nicene Creed as to not teach Sabellianism.

(2) However, this does not take away the fact that the Nicene Creed describes Jesus Christ and the Father as one hypostasis (person), which implies Sabellianism.

– END OF SUMMARY –

Original Meaning of Hypostasis

Etymology

Etymologically (i.e., relating to the origin and historical development of words and their meanings), ὑποστάσεως (hypostasis) is a direct cognate of οὐσιάς (substance) (See, Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils). This means that these two words have the same linguistic derivation. Examples of other cognates are the English father, German Vater, and Latin pater. Originally, therefore, ὑποστάσεως (hypostasis) and οὐσιάς (substance) had the same meaning.

In Greek Philosophy

Both ousía and hypostasis, originally, meant “that which stands under.” The ancient Greek philosophers used these terms to describe real entities as having substance – “the fundamental reality that supports all else,” in contrast to imaginary entities:

“Hypostasis is the underlying state or underlying substance and is the fundamental reality that supports all else” (Hypostasis – Wikipedia)

In Hebrews 1:3

Hypostasis appears only once in the Bible, namely in Hebrews 1:3;

His Son … is the exact representation
of His
(God’s) υποστασις (hypostasis).”

Although hypostasis, today, is commonly interpreted to mean “Person,” in this verse, it is translated as “substance” (ASV) or as “nature” (NASB). In this verse, therefore, hypostasis has the same meaning as it had for the ancient Greeks. Similarly, Strong’s Greek: 5287 – ὑπόστασις (hupostasis) explains it as meaning “a support, substance, steadiness, hence assurance.”

How did the meaning change?

Since hypostasis originally meant “substance, nature, or essence,” how and why did its meaning change to “person?”

The meaning of hypostasis did not change over time as a natural process of evolution in how the word was used. Rather, the meaning was changed as a result of an explicit proposal by one theologian that became generally accepted in the church as a means to interpret the Nicene Creed as to not teach Sabellianism. To explain this, we need to trace the history of this word:

First Three Centuries

In the first three centuries, Origen and other Christian writers used hypostasis in the same way as the Greek philosophers did before them, namely to denote “being” or “substantive reality.” They used hypostasis as a synonym for ousia (substance). (Ramelli, Ilaria (2012). “Origen, Greek Philosophy, and the Birth of the Trinitarian Meaning of Hypostasis”. The Harvard Theological Review. 105 (3): 302–350.doi:10.1017/S0017816012000120.JSTOR 23327679, p. 302-350.)

For a definition of ousia, see, for example, Homoousion – definition of Homoousion by The Free Dictionary or οὐσία in Liddell & Scott.

Nicene Creed – 325

As discussed above, this is also how hypostasis was used in the anathemas appended to the Nicene Creed.

Five decades after Nicaea

The meaning of hypostasis was changed during the five decades after Nicaea. The council added the word homo-ousios (same substance) on the insistence of Emperor Constantine (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997), p15) God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85.

As indicated by the large number of creeds which the church fathers formulated in the 50 years after Nicaea (see Arian creeds – Wikipedia), particularly to find alternatives for the word homo-ousios (see Fourth Century Arianism or Arianism – Wikipedia), the church reacted quite strongly against the word homo-ousios:

At the time, one main argument against the word homo-ousios was, with respect to words such as “Latin substantia, but in Greek ousia,” “that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them and that they are above men’s knowledge and above men’s understanding” (Fourth Century Christianity – Second Creed of Sirmium – 358). This is called Homo-ianism (see Acacians – Wikipedia). RPC Hanson lists twelve creeds from the fourth century that reflect the Homoian faith (Hanson R. P. C. 2005, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 AD. A&C Black. ISBN 978-0-567-03092-4, pp. 558–559)

But another great objection, as explained above, was that the description of the Son as of the same hypostasis and of the same ousia as the Father teaches modalism. It was explicitly to counter the suspicion that the creed teaches modalism that supporters of the Nicene Creed proposed a new meaning for hypostasis:

Basil of Caesarea (AD 375)

The first person to propose a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía, and for using hypostasis as a synonym of person, was Basil of Caesarea, namely in his letters 214 (AD 375 – Letter 214) and 236 (AD 376 – Letter 236) (See also Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils or Turcescu, Lucian (1997). “Prosopon and Hypostasis in Basil of Caesarea’s “Against Eunomius” and the Epistles”. Vigiliae Christianae. 51 (4), JSTOR 1583868, p. 374-395.) In both letters, his main motive was to neutralize the objection of the opponents of the Nicene Creed that, to speak of the Father and the Son as one hypostasis, is Sabellianism (modalism).

Gregory of Nyssa (AD 380)

After Basil of Caesarea, in c. 380, Gregory of Nyssa devotes his letter 35 to the difference between ousía and hypostasis (Letter-35).

Emperor Theodosius (AD 380)

As stated, during the five decades after Nicaea, the church opposed the Nicene Creed and formulated various alternative creeds, each proposing alternatives for the word homo-ousios in the Nicene Creed (See Arian creeds – Wikipedia). In 380, Emperor Theodosius made an abrupt end to all resistance to the Nicene Creed.

Before Theodosius became emperor, as indicated by the contents of the creeds of that period (See, Arian creeds – Wikipedia), the Nicene supporters were in the minority. When he became emperor, “Arianism was widespread in the eastern half of the Empire” (Williams, Stephen; Friell, Gerard (1994). Theodosius: The Empire at Bay. B.T. Batsford Ltd. ISBN 0-300-06173-0, pp. 46–53).

In February 380, the 23-year-old emperor, through the Edict of Thessalonica, declared:

“Let us believe in the one deity
of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.” 

“This edict was the first known secular Roman law to positively define a religious orthodoxy” (Errington, R. Malcolm (2006). Roman Imperial Policy from Julian to Theodosius. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-3038-0, p. 217.)

Enforcement

The Edict of Thessalonica authorized imperial punishment for those who oppose it.

On 26 November 380, two days after he had arrived in Constantinople, Theodosius expelled the Homo-ian bishop (See Theodosius I – Wikipedia). (The Homo-ians are the people who refused to get involved in the debate about the substance of God because His substance is not revealed in the Bible. See Acacians – Wikipedia.)

Through persecution, Theodosius destroyed all resistance to the Trinity doctrine:

“In January of the following year (381), another edict forbade the heretics to settle in the cities.” (Boyd, The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code, page 45) (cf. Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 1999, p. 223).

“In the same year, after the reformulation of the Nicene doctrine by the Council of Constantinople … the procouncil of Asia was ordered to deliver all churches to these bishops ‘who profess that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one majesty and virtue'” (Boyd, pages 45-46 or Rubenstein).

In 383, the Emperor ordered the various non-Nicene sects (Arians, AnomoeansMacedonians, and Novatians) to submit written creeds to him, which he prayerfully reviewed and then burned, save for that of the Novatians, who also supported Nicene Christianity. The other sects lost the right to meet, ordain priests, or spread their beliefs (Boyd, page 47).

“The execution of Priscillian and his followers may be cited as typical of the treatment of heretics conditions in that time.” In 384, Priscillian was condemned by the synod of Bordeaux, found guilty of magic in a secular court, and put to death by the sword with a number of his followers (Boyd, pages 60-61 or The Edict of Thessalonica | History Today)

382 Synod Letter

After Theodosius destroyed all resistance, the interpretation of hypostasis as meaning “person,” became official church doctrine:

In 382, the bishops in Constantinople, to argue that their belief is not Sabellianism, sent a letter to the western bishops in which they used the phrase, “three most perfect Hypostases, or three perfect Persons” (Papal Encyclicals).

Overview of the Historical Development
of the Trinity Doctrine

This topic is addressed through a series of articles on this website. The current article is one of the links in the chain:

Arian or Unitarian?

Strictly speaking, Arianism refer to the teachings of Arius (e.g., Definition of Arianism by The Free Dictionary). But his was only one of many views during the Arian controversy of the fourth century (AD 318-381). Nevertheless, Trinitarians often refer to anything that opposes the Trinity doctrine as Arian. Due to this ambiguity, I avoid the term Arian.

Rather than Arianism, I prefer the term Unitarianism (from Latin unitas “unity, onenes). This term is often defined negatively, for example, “a part of the Christian Church that does not believe in the Trinity” (Cambridge Dictionary). But I like to define this term as the teaching that only the Father is God Almighty. As I read the Bible, God created all things through His Son (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6), maintains the universe through His Son (e.g., Heb 1:3), gave His Son to have life in Himself (John 5:26) and to have the fullness of deity (Col 1:19). However, in my view, in the Bible, only the Father is Almighty (e.g., Rev 21:22). (See, for example, the articles Subordinate and Almighty.) (By the way, I do not belong to any church or religious group. That means that I am a bit freer to form and express independent views.)

The Nicene Creed is Unitarian.

The Trinitarian concept, in a rudimentary form, was one of the views presented at Nicaea and became the basis for the Nicene Creed. However, on the insistence of emperor Constantine (see Erickson or The role of Constantine at Nicaea), words related to the substance of God (homo-ousios and ousia) were added to the decree. However, in spite of the claims of Trinitarians, the Nicene Creed is not Trinitarian. (See the article Nicene Creed.) Consistent with the views of the church fathers of the first three centuries, it still is a Unitarian statement of belief. For example, it begins as follows:

We believe in one God,
the Father Almighty, …

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God

The term homo-ousios does not mean that the Son share the same substance (being) as the Father (numerical sameness). Rather, it means that the Son has a different substance (being) that is exactly equivelent to the Father’s substance (numerical sameness) Philip Schaff (History of the Church volume 3, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition, pp.672-673) stated:

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.” The Nicene Creed does not expressly assert the singleness or numerical unity of the divine essence … the main point with the Nicene fathers was to urge … the strict divinity and essential equality of the Son … with the Father.[Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.]

But even qualitative sameness does not mean that the Son is equal with the Father for, as the article on the Nicene Creed shows, there are a number of indications in the creed itself that shows that it views the Son as subordinate to the Father. To explain this in analogy to human beings: We are homo-ousios (of the same substance) but we are not equal.

Arian or Homo-ousian controversy?

People often refer to the great controversy of the fourth century as the Arian controversy. I do not agree with this term either because, as stated, Arius’ view was only one of a number of alternative views of the nature of Christ. It also was not the dominant view. The dominant view was Homoian. For example, the creeds formulated at the councils of Sirmium in 358, Ariminum in 359 and the key council at Constantinople in 359 / 360 were homoian, which is that it is inappropriate for us to speculate about the substance of God. 

Particularly during the 50 years after Nicaea, I prefer to refer to the controversy as the homo-ousian controversy because the controversy was particular about the word homo-ousios. This can be seen from the many creeds formulated in that period. (See Arian creeds – Wikipedia.) In that period, various views were proposed with respect to the nature of Christ (Christology) which divided the church – similar to the way that the church is today divided into denominations.

Branches of Christianity

These views were:

(1) Father and Son share one single ousia (substance). – This aligns with the Trinity doctrine as it later developed. 

(2) The Son has His own substance, but His substance was exactly equivalent to the Father’s (qualitative sameness). – This might imply 

(3) The Son has His own substance, which is very similar to the Father’s (Homo-i-ousian – Wikipedia), but different.

(4) Jesus is hetero-i-ousios with the Father (different substance). (See Anomoeanism – Wikipedia.) This, more or less, was Arius’ view.

(5) He is homo-ian (or homo-ean), which means similar to the Father without reference to substance. It is this view that held that it is inappropriate for us to speculate about the substance of God. (See Homo-eanism.)

For a discussion of these views, see, Homoousion – Wikipedia or my article Arianism.

Blasphemy of Sirmium

Perhaps the high point of this rejection of Nicaea was the Second Creed of Sirmium which Trinitarians refer to as the Blasphemy of Sirmium, This was a homo-ian statement which concluded:

“Many persons are disturbed by questions concerning what is called … in Greek ousia (substance). … There ought to be no mention of any of these at all … for this reason … that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them.”

Of the various views during the 50 years after Nicaea, Homo-eanism seems to have been dominant. RPC Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God) lists twelve creeds from that period that reflect the Homoean faith. And when Theodosius came to power, the bishop in the Capital of the empire (Constantinople) was Homoean (as the current author is also). 

Theodosius

But, as discussed above, as from the year 380, the 23-year old emperor Theodosius not only supported the Nicene Creed; he supported the Trinitarian interpretation of the Nicene Creed and made it law through the Edict of Thessalonica. By the strong of the empire, he ensured compliance within the Empire. This eradicated all opposition the Trinity doctrine among the elite in the Empire, but the Germanic peoples remained Unitarians. (See also Theodosius.)

Fifth Century

In the next (fifth) century, the Germanic people, who remained Unitarian, took control of the Western Empire, including Rome. Now the Western Empire was again Unitarian dominated but the Eastern Empire, with Constantinople as capital, remained Trinitarian. See Fall of the Western Roman Empire and Fifth Century Arianism

Sixth Century

In the sixth century, the eastern emperor Justinian sent troops to the West, significantly weakened the Unitarian Germanic nations, and established control over the West through the Byzantine Papacy, a period of about two centuries during which the eastern emperors effectively ruled the West through the Papacy. (See Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy.) In this way, Unitarianism was eventually eradicated also among the Germanic peoples and the Trinity doctrine established.

The role of the Emperors

In conclusion, from the above and the other articles in this series, it should be clear that the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by the church; it was made by the Roman Emperors.

Why the emperors controlled the church

It is important to understand that the empire consisted of a very large number of diverse nations and that the main task of the emperors was to keep the empire united.

One should also appreciate that religion has a terrible power over people. For the emperors, religion, potentially, was both an asset and a liability. Religion can split the empire but an universal religion with strong links to state could help to keep the empire united.

That helps to explain why the emperors persecuted Christianity during the first three centuries and why, when they realised that Christianity is here to stay, they legalised it but also maintained control over it. The emperors used religion (both paganism and Christianity) to control the people but they not afford a split in the church. Their decisions to adopt one or the other doctrine, were at least partly motivated by their desire to maintain unity in the empire.

“Since Constantine desired that the church should contribute to the social and moral strength of the empire, religious dissension was a menace to the public welfare, and if necessary, secular authority might be exercised for its suppression” (Boyd, p34).

“The same desire to preserve unity within the church, rather than the protection of any creed or interpretation of Christian doctrine, led Constantine to intercede for the settlement of the Arian controversy. … Believing ‘disunity in the church’ a danger to the state ‘more grievous than any kind of war'” (Boyd, p37).

How the emperors governed the church

Emperors called church councils and even presided over some of the councils; for example, Constantine and the council at Niceaea.

Emperors maniupulated the decisions of the councils. For example, Constantine insisted on the inclusion of the term homo-ousios in the Nicene Creed. As another example, Constantius

“Constantine established the precedent for imperial intervention in ecclesiastical affairs … while Gratian and Theodosius finally and decisively fixed the alliance of the state with ecclesial creed and persecution” (Boyd, p33).Emperors issued .

With this background, consider the role which the emperors played:

The Emperors and the Trinity Doctrine

The emperors took the decision for the church to adopt the Trinity doctrine. In brief:

The Nicene Creed, basically was a Unitarian document, but the references to the substance of God (homo-ousios and ousia), on which Constantine insisted, were inspired by views that are aligned to the Trinity doctrine.

Later, Constantine changed his view and allowed the .

Constantine did not understand must about the debate, describing it as “small and very insignificant questions” (Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55). Nevertheless, he called the Council at Nicaea (325), chaired the meeting, participated in the debate, proposed the controversial phrase homo-ousios, insisted on its inclusion and exiled the bishops who refused to sign the decree (Useful resources include: (a) Britannica, (b) Bible.ca, (c) Erickson (d) Graham).

“In 350 Constantius became sole ruler of the empire, and under his leadership the Nicene party was largely crushed” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Arianism, Vol. I, p.509 (Bible.ca – search for Constantius). According to the Wiki page on Arian controversy, at the 359 council in Constantinople, the voting did not go to Constantius’ liking. Constantius simply banished one of the leaders of the winning group (Aëtius). After that, the council agreed the homoian creed.

Constantius did not support the Trinity doctrine, but his example shows the decisive impact of emperors on the debate in the church.

Above, we described how the young man Theodosius declared, through the Edict of Thessalonica, the Trinity doctrine as the only legal religion, and with the power of the Roman Empire behind him, eradicated all opposition.

This is the information age. Through internet and other sources, information is available as never before. Through research, people are rolling back the clouds of darkness that built up during the Middle Ages.

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries

Extract from important books

Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy eliminated Anianism.

Purpose of this article

JUSTINIAN THE GREAT

This article series has a dual purpose:

Firstly, it discusses the Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine.  The purpose is to show that the decisions to adopt the Trinity doctrine were not taken by Church Councils, but by the Roman Emperors; particularly Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian. 

The second purpose is to identify the eleventh horn of Daniel 7. It grows out of the fourth beast; after that beast has already fragmented into many kingdoms (Dan 7:7, 24). That horn becomes God’s all-time great adversary (Dan 7:25) and is only destroyed when Christ returns (Dan 7:9-14). A comparison of the beasts of Daniel 7 and 8 identified the fourth beast as the Roman Empire. Since these articles also explain the history of the fall of the Roman Empire, they also identify that 11th horn.

Previous Articles

In summary, the previous articles in this series cover the following ground:

First Three Centuries

The series starts with articles that show that Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and other church fathers of the first three centuries were not Trinitarians. They had a very high view of Christ, but always subordinate to the Father, who they identified as the only true and almighty ‘god’.

Fourth Century

The controversy over the nature of Christ arose early in the fourth century when a presbyter named Arius taught that, with respect to the Son, “there was when He was not.” But since he also believed that the Son existed before time began, the phrase “there was when He was not” does not refer to literal time but means that the Father was the Ultimate Source of all things. In other words, the Son received His existence from the Father and therefore was subordinate to Him

To bring an end to the controversy, Emperor Constantine exerted his influence on the Council of Nicaea of the year 225 and on the formulation of the Nicene Creed. That creed declared the Son to be “true God from true God.” To support this view, the Nicene Creed ventured that the Father and Son are of the “same substance” (homoousios).

However, over the next fifty years following Nicaea, more or less from 330 to 380, the church adopted Arianism and rejected the Nicene Creed. Constantine’s successors, Emperors Constantius and Valens were Arians and actively encouraged the church to reverse the Nicene Creed. They also exiled bishops adhering to the Nicene Creed and crushed the Nicene party.

But then Theodosius – an ardent supporter of the Nicene Creed – became emperor in 380. He immediately outlawed Arianism and exiled all Arian bishops. He did this even before the 381 Council and manipulated that council to accept the Nicene Creed.

Fifth Century

After Theodosius died, the Western Roman Empire weakened. Germanic tribes, who previously migrated into the Empire, reached such large numbers and high positions in the Roman army that they, in reality, controlled the Western Roman Empire. Over the course of the fifth century, they divided the territory of the Western Empire into Germanic kingdoms. Since these Germanic peoples were Arians, the Western Empire was Arian once again!

In the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire), with Constantinople as its capital, Nicene Christianity remained dominant.

Sixth Century – Byzantine Papacy

To free the Roman Church in the west from Arian domination, Emperor Justinian, emperor of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the sixth century, sent troops to combat the Arian nations and significantly weakened Arianism. His troops dispersed the Vandals to the fringes of the empire, forced the Ostrogoths back north to South Austria, and barricaded the Visigoths with the new province of Spania.

Some Arian nations remained, but after liberating the Roman Church from Arian domination, the Byzantine Empire continued to protect, strengthen and rule over the Roman Church. Through two centuries of Byzantine rule over the Papacy (known as the Byzantine Papacy) , the Byzantine Empire, through the Roman Church, converted the remaining Arian kingdoms, one after the other, to Nicene Christology.

Conclusion

Given the facts of this brief overview, it is not possible to deny the decisive influence which the emperors had on the church’s acceptance of the Trinity doctrine. As mentioned above, Constantine and Theodosius respectively manipulated the key creeds of 325 and 381, and Justinian, through the Byzantine Papacy, wiped Arianism out. These emperors did not develop this doctrine, but they did decide what the church should believe concerning the nature of Christ (Christology).

This means that the church received the Trinity theory from the Roman Empire. As stated in Revelation 13:2, the dragon (the Roman Empire), gave the beast from the sea (the Church of the Middle Ages) “his power and his throne and great authority.

Summary of this article

Fall of the Western Roman Empire

In the fifth century, the Germanic people, who have migrated into the Western Roman Empire over the previous century or more, became a dominant force within the Western Roman Empire due to their large numbers and military supremacy. They revolted against the severe conditions under which they were allowed to remain in the Empire, sacked Rome twice, and deposed the last Roman Emperor. Through wars, they divided up the territory of the Western Empire into Germanic kingdoms. However, these nations at least pretended to function as part of the Roman Empire—under the governance of the Emperor in Constantinople.

Although they were Arian Christians, they allowed the Roman peoples and the Roman Church to remain in their territories. This is one indication of the desire of these immigrants to remain part of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Church had to depend on the Arian nations for physical protection. But still, the Roman Church managed to grow in strength, partly due to its central and superior organization and administration and expertise in statecraft from years of being part of the Roman Government in the fourth century.

Unity of Church and State

Justinian I was the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (also called the Byzantine Empire) from 527 to 565. 

It is important to understand that separation of Church and State did not exist at that time. In the view of the time, the Christian Roman Emperor was regarded as God’s agent on earth. The supreme bishops of the Empire – the spiritual heads of the Christian world – acting in harmony with him. Church and State were therefore one.  Justinian believed that “he had the right and duty of regulating by his laws the minutest details of worship and discipline.”

His authority was not limited to the church in the east. In Justinian’s view, the Church included the Church in Rome and he, as emperor, had the right and duty to also protect and regulate the Church in Rome. 

The Imperial conviction always was that the unity of the Empire presupposes the unity of faith. Emperor Justinian protected the ‘purity’ of the faith by persecuting and killing ‘heretics’.

DELIVERED THE PAPACY FROM ARIAN DOMINATION.

After the Germanic peoples, in the fifth century, divided the territory of the Western Empire between them, the Church in Rome was subject to their laws and customs. The Roman Church was unable to dominate or to compel the population in Europe to comply with its doctrines.

As a keen supporter of the Nicene church in Rome, Justinian considered it his divine duty to restore the Roman Empire to its ancient boundaries and to liberate the church in Rome from Arian domination. He sent troops to combat the Arian nations in the west:

      • They dispersed the Vandals of North Africa to the fringes of the empire.
      • Following their final defeat at the Battle of Mons Lactarius in 553, the Ostrogoths went back north and (re)settled in South Austria.
      • Justinian’s troops recovered a small strip of land along the Mediterranean coast which formed a barrier between the Visigoths and Rome.

It is remarkable that Justinian attacked the Christian nations in the west, but was willing to negotiate a truce with the pagan nations to his east. As it turned out, in later years, these pagan nations later became Muslim countries and conquered most of the previous territory of the Eastern Empire.

BYZANTINE PAPACY

Justinian’s wars conquered the Italian peninsula and delivered the church in Rome from Arian domination. This commenced the period of about two centuries which is known today as the Byzantine Papacy because the Byzantine monarch claimed for himself the right to approve the appointment of the bishop of Rome.

On the one hand, the Roman Church was now once again subject to the authority of the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor. On the other hand, the Nicene Church (the Byzantine Papacy), with the protection and status it received from the Byzantine Empire, became a powerful social and political institution in Europe. 

This relationship also allowed the Byzantine Empire, through the Byzantine Papacy, a certain level of control over the Germanic nations in the West. To some extent, the Roman Empire was reunited.

The Germanic tribes, consequently, during the Byzantine Papacy, abandoned Arianism in favor of Catholicism. By the 8th century, Arianism had ceased to be the mainstream belief of the Germanic people as the tribal rulers gradually came to adopt Nicene orthodoxy.   

CONCLUSIONS

Firstly, this article shows how the Trinity Doctrine was advanced by the military might of the Roman Empire. If Justinian, followed by the Byzantine Papacy, did not wipe out Arianism in the territory of the Western Empire, Arianism might still have dominated the church today. It is not possible to deny the decisive influence which emperors such as Constantine, Constantius, Valens, Theodosius, and Justinian had on the church’s acceptance of the Trinity doctrine.

Secondly, this article helps us to identify the little horn of Daniel 7 as the Nicene Church. As predicted in Daniel 7:

    • The Roman Empire was divided into MANY FRAGMENTS (symbolically, the 10 horns),
    • The 11th horn comes into existence AFTER the Roman Empire has already been fragmented into many kingdoms (horns), and
    • It UPROOTED THREE of the other horns as it came up; the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and the Vandals.  

– END OF SUMMARY –

FALL OF THE WESTERN ROMAN EMPIRE

BARBARIANS DIVIDED THE TERRITORY OF WESTERN ROME

Arian and Chalcedonian kingdoms in 495
Arian and Chalcedonian kingdoms in 495

In the fifth century, the Germanic people, who have migrated into the Western Roman Empire over a century or more, became a dominant force within the Western Roman Empire due to their large numbers and military supremacy.  They revolted against the severe conditions under which they were allowed to remain in the Empire, sacked Rome twice, and deposed the last Roman Emperor.  Through wars, they divided up the territory of the Western Empire into Germanic kingdoms. However, these nations continued to function as part of the Roman Empire—under the governance of the Emperor in Constantinople.

TOLERATED THE ROMAN CHURCH.

There are at least two reasons why the Germanic peoples might have made an end of the Roman Church (the Church in Rome):

Firstly, the Roman Church was part of the Roman government.  In the Roman Empire, there was no separation of church and state.  The church was a department of government.  In practice, the bishop of the Church in Rome was accountable to the Roman Emperor.

Secondly, the Germanic peoples were Arian Christians because they became Christians during the 50 years in the fourth century when the Roman Church was Arian (Fourth Century Arian Period).  These Germanic peoples included the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths of Spain, and the Vandals in North Africa.

Despite these facts, the Arian nations allowed the Roman peoples and the Roman Church to remain in their territories.  This is one indication of the desire of these immigrants to remain part of the Roman Empire.

THE ROMAN CHURCH GREW IN STRENGTH.

After the Western Roman Empire was divided up into these kingdoms, the Roman Church had to depend on the Arian nations for physical protection. But the Roman Church managed to grow in strength. The reasons include the following:

1. Previously, the Emperor appointed the bishop of Rome and the bishop was subordinate to the Roman Emperor.  Now, the church had more independence.

2. The church’s central and superior organization and administration and expertise in statecraft from years of being part of the Roman Government allowed it to stand out among the various Germanic nations that had no central political control.

3. The Germanic nations desired to remain part of the Empire. As the official religion of the Empire, the church had a certain status.

UNITY OF CHURCH AND STATE

Justinian I is traditionally known as Justinian the Great. He was the Eastern Roman emperor from 527 to 565.  He ruled from Constantinople; the capital of the empire.  Due to his religious preferences and actions, he is venerated by the Roman Catholic Church and by some other churches.

WHAT WAS THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE?

This article often refers to the “Byzantine Empire.”  Byzantium was an ancient Greek colony in early antiquity that later became Constantinople; the capital of the Roman Empire.

The Byzantine Empire is simply another name for the Eastern Roman Empire after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD.  The Byzantine Empire, therefore, was the continuation of the Roman Empire.

Byzantine Empire is a term created after the end of that empire.  Its citizens referred to their empire simply as the Roman Empire and to themselves as Romans.

CHURCH AND STATE WERE ONE.

It is important to understand the context of the time. A Cambridge article explains the relationship between church and state in the Byzantine Empire:

The idea of papal sovereignty was foreign to the Byzantines. … unintelligible, unreasonable, and unhistorical. …  (in) their concept of the order of the Christian world … The Christian Roman Emperor was the elect of God and God’s vice-gerent (God’s agent on earth) on earth … His patriarchs or supreme bishops of the Christian Empire … were the spiritual heads of the Christian world, acting in harmony with him. Church and State were therefore one, indissoluble and interdependent.

Modern readers may find this lack of separation of Church and State may be difficult to grasp but unless we understand this concept, we will not understand the history of the church or of the process through which the Trinity doctrine became accepted.

Similar to his predecessors, Justinian believed that “he had the right and duty of regulating by his laws the minutest details of worship and discipline, and also of dictating the theological opinions to be held in the Church”. (Ayer, John Cullen, ed. (1913). A Source Book for Ancient Church History. Mundus Publishing (2008 reprint). p. 553)  The Emperor regulated everything:

At the very beginning of his reign, he promulgated by law the Church’s belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation and threatened all heretics with the appropriate penalties.[See Wikipedia page on Justinian 1]

He made the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan creed the sole symbol of the Church: “We direct that all Catholic churches, throughout the entire world, shall be placed under the control of the orthodox bishops who have embraced the Nicene Creed.” (Codex Justinianus)

Justinian felt entitled to settle disputes in papal elections, as he did when he favored Vigilius and had his rival Silverius deported.

As a result, the church within the Eastern Roman Empire had become firmly tied with the imperial government.  Church and State were one.

ALSO THE CHURCH IN THE WEST

The First Council of Nicaea in 325 affirmed that the bishop of a provincial capital had a certain authority over the other bishops of the province. It also recognized the authority of the sees of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch and granted special recognition to Jerusalem. The First Council of Constantinople in 381 added the see of Constantinople.

Emperor Justinian assigned to those five sees (including Rome) a superior ecclesial authority that covered the whole of his empire. In other words, in Justinian’s view, the Church included the Church in Rome and he, as emperor, had the right and duty also to protect and regulate the Church in Rome

A GENUINE INTEREST IN THE CHURCH

Justinian had a genuine interest in the church.  Over the course of his reign, he authored a small number of theological treatises.  He was indeed a “nursing father” of the Church. Both the Codex and the Novellae contain many enactments to benefit the church.  Just in Constantinople, he built 25 churches (see traditioninaction).  Justinian also rebuilt the Church of Hagia Sophia, with its numerous chapels and shrines, gilded octagonal dome, and mosaics.

SUPPRESSED HERETICS

Even before Christianity was legalized in 313, the Imperial conviction always was that the unity of the Empire presupposes the unity of faith. Emperor Justinian protected the ‘purity’ of the church by suppressing heretics. For example:

The Codex contained two statutes [WIKIPEDIA JUSTINIAN NOTE 76] that decreed the destruction of paganism.  These provisions were zealously enforced.

At Constantinople, on one occasion, not a few Manicheans, after strict inquisition, were executed in the emperor’s very presence: some by burning, others by drowning. [WIKIPEDIA JUSTINIAN NOTE 93]  Manichaeism was a major religion that was founded by the Iranian prophet Mani.  It taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. (See the Wikipedia page on Manichaeism.)

MONOPHYSITISM

In the east, in Justinian’s time, the main threat to the orthodoxy was not Arianism but Monophysitism.  This sect had many adherents in the eastern provinces of Syria and Egypt. While the Council of Chalcedon in 451 concluded that Jesus has two natures; a divine and a human nature, Monophysitism maintained that Jesus Christ only had one nature; a divine nature or a synthesis of a divine and human nature.

Previous emperors and the Patriarch of Constantinople tolerated Monophysitism and allowed the appointment of Monophysites to church offices but this had been a source of tension in the relationship with the bishop of Rome.

Justin I—Justinian’s predecessor—reversed this policy, confirmed the Chalcedonian doctrine, openly condemned the Monophysites. This allowed him to reestablish the union between Constantinople and Rome.[WIKIPEDIA – JUSTINIAN – NOTE 75]

Justinian’s policies alternated between ATTEMPTS TO FORCE Monophysites to accept the Chalcedonian creed by persecuting their bishops and monks – thereby embittering their sympathizers in Egypt and other provinces – and ATTEMPTS AT A COMPROMISE that would win over the Monophysites without surrendering the Chalcedonian faith.

Justinian’s wife Theodora favored the Monophysites unreservedly. While Theodosius’ wife is venerated in the Catholic Church because she was a fervent supporter of the Nicene Creed, Empress Theodora, for Catholics, was “one of the most … deplorable figures of ancient history,” for “she became an enemy of the Faith and a supporter of the heresies, and she strove to make Justinian enter into conflict with the Holy See at the end of his life” (traditioninaction).  “Near the end of his life, Justinian became ever more inclined towards the Monophysite doctrine” (Wikipedia).

WARS AGAINST THE ARIAN NATIONS IN THE WEST

After the Germanic peoples divided the territory of the Western Empire between them in the fifth century, the Church in Rome was subject to their laws and customs. 

From a catholic perspective, the website Traditioninaction states that the Catholics at the time were groaning under the yoke of the barbarians.  But from a Jewish perspective, “in contrast with the domination of the orthodox church, the Arian was distinguished by a wise tolerance and a mild treatment of the population of other faiths” (Kohler et al, ARIANISM”. Jewish Encyclopedia). 

What we can conclude, at least, is that the Roman Church was unable to dominate or to compel the population in Europe to comply with its doctrines.

As an ardent supporter of the Nicene church in Rome, Justinian considered it his divine duty to restore the Roman Empire to its ancient boundaries and to liberate the church in Rome from Arian domination. Justinian never personally took part in military campaigns, but one of the most spectacular features of Justinian’s reign was the recovery of large stretches of land around the Western Mediterranean basin that had slipped out of Imperial control in the 5th century.

Through these wars, Justinian neutralized the three main Arian nations that prevented the supremacy of the Papacy:

VANDAL KINGDOM OF NORTH AFRICA

The first Arian Christian kingdom which Justinian’s armies attacked was the Vandals in North Africa. Again, from a catholic perspective, “that whole area had been taken over by the worst barbarians, the Vandals” (traditioninaction).  Although the Arians generally tolerated other faiths, the Vandals tried for several decades to force their Arian beliefs on their North African Nicene subjects, exiling Nicene clergy, dissolving monasteries, and exercising heavy pressure on non-conforming Nicene Christians.  This might have been why Justinian attacked them first.

In the Vandalic War of 533–534, general Belisarius defeated the Vandals. [WIKIPEDIA ARIANISM NOTE 40]  The Vandals were dispersed to the fringes of the empire and became lost to history.

OSTROGOTHS IN ITALY

Justinian next attacked the Ostrogoths; another Arian Christian nation.  This war may be divided into three phases:

In 535, Belisarius invaded Sicily and advanced into Italy, sacking Naples and capturing Rome in 536. In 540 he reached the Ostrogothic capital Ravenna and reclaimed it for the Empire.[WIKIPEDIA JUSTINIAN NOTE 52]

But Belisarius was recalled in the face of renewed hostilities by the Persians to the East.  While military efforts were focused on the east, the Ostrogoths made quick gains in Italy. They reconquered the major cities of Southern Italy and soon held almost the entire Italian peninsula.

The third phase of the war in Italy (from 541 to 554) followed after a truce was agreed upon with the Persians.  Following their final defeat at the Battle of Mons Lactarius in 553, the Ostrogoths went back north and (re)settled in south Austria.  Through the Gothic War, Justinian restored Dalmatia, Sicily, Italy, and Rome to the empire after more than half a century of Ostrogoth rule.

VISIGOTHS IN SPAIN

In 552, Justinian dispatched a force of 2,000 men to invade Visigothic Hispania: still another Arian Christian Germanic nation.  This short-lived reconquest recovered only a small strip of land along the Mediterranean coast, known as the new province of Spania (Hispania) before being checked by the Visigoths. This campaign marked the apogee (apex) of Byzantine expansion. Spania kept the Visigoths as a threat to Hispania alone and not to the western Mediterranean nor to Africa.

Perhaps it is worth commenting that Justinian was willing to negotiate a truce with the pagan nations to the east of his empire but attacked Christian nations in the west. One obvious reason was that his purpose was to reunite the old empire, but it also reveals his intolerance for Arianism.

BYZANTINE PAPACY

After Justinian conquered the Italian peninsula and delivered the church in Rome from Arian domination, he replaced the pope and also appointed the next three popes.  In this way, Justinian put the church in the west firmly under the control of the Byzantine monarch.  This practice was continued by his successors for the next two centuries. The papacy in the years 537 to 752 is known as the Byzantine Papacy because the Byzantine monarch claimed for himself the right to approve the appointment of the bishop of Rome.  This allowed the emperor to also dominate the Papacy in other ways during this period.

DOMINANCE OF THE GREEK LANGUAGE

One indication of the dominance of the Byzantine Empire, over the church in Rome, during these years, was the Greek dominance of the Roman Church:

The two halves of the Empire always had cultural differences, exemplified particularly by the widespread use of the Greek language in the Eastern Empire and its more limited use in the West.  The spoken vernacular in the West was Latin.

During the Byzantine Papacy, countless Easterners rose through the ranks of the clergy in the church in Rome. At the end of the sixth century, Easterners constituted less than one percent of the papal hierarchy.  In contrast, according to Ekonomou, over a century later, between 701 and 750, “Greeks outnumbered Latins by nearly three and a half to one”.

This confirms that the church in the west was now once again firmly subject to the authority of the (Eastern) Roman Emperor. 

THE EMPIRE REIGNED OVER THE WEST.

After Justinian defeated the Goths, the Roman Church was no longer dependent on the Arian Germanic nations for protection. The church and its Nicene Christology, with the protection and status it received from the Byzantine Empire, became a powerful social and political institution in Europe. 

This relationship also allowed the Byzantine Empire, through the Church, a certain level of control over the Germanic nations in the West.  To some extent, the Roman Empire was reunited.

ARIAN CONVERSIONS TO THE PAPACY

The Franks entered the Western Roman Empire as Pagans.  In 496, before the time of Justinian, Clovis I, the pagan king of the Franks, was the first important barbarian ruler to convert to Catholicism rather than to Arianism.  He forcibly converted the Franks to Chalcedonian Christianity.

After Justinian established protection for the Papacy, the Germanic tribes, consequently, abandoned Arianism in favor of Catholicism.

The first Germanic ruler to convert from Arianism to Chalcedonian Christianity was Reccared I of the Arian Visigoths in Spain. He converted in 587.  Visigothic Spain converted to Catholicism at the Third Council of Toledo in 589

Pope Gregory I reigned from 590 to 604; a few decades after Justinian.  He was perhaps the best-known pope of the Byzantine Papacy.  Britannica describes him as the first of the medieval popes.  With the support of the Byzantine Empire, He reformed the ecclesiastical structures and administration, which then launched renewed missionary efforts to convert the peoples of northern Europe as far north as Ireland. These efforts were able to convert the Arian peoples to Catholic (Nicene) Christianity:

The Anglo-Saxons of Southern Britain were the predecessors of the English. They have never been part of the Empire and were entirely pagan, but were forcibly converted by their kings Æthelberht of Kent, following the work of missionaries sent by Pope Gregory the Great.

The Anglo-Saxons in turn sent missionaries to northwestern Europe – to what is now the Netherlands. 

The Visigoths also converted to Catholicism during the Byzantine Empire.

Aripert I of the Lombards converted to Catholic Church in 653. Grimwald, King of the Lombards (662–671) and his young son and successor Garibald (671) were the last Arian kings in Europe. By 700, the Lombards in northern Italy have moved away from Arianism to Catholicism.

By the 8th century, Arianism had ceased to be the mainstream belief of the Germanic people as the tribal rulers gradually came to adopt Nicene orthodoxy.   

CONCLUSIONS

Firstly, this article shows how the Trinity Doctrine was advanced by the military might of the Roman Empire. What would the Christian world have looked like if Justinian did not effectively wipe out Arianism in the territory of the Western Empire?  If Europe was allowed to remain Arian, Arianism might have dominated the church today.

Secondly, this article helps us to identify the little horn of Daniel 7 as the formal Christian Church:

In Daniel 7, the Roman Empire (the fourth empire) divides into MANY FRAGMENTS (symbolically, the 10 horns). – This article mentions some of these kingdoms, such as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, and the Anglo-Saxons.

The little horn comes into existence AFTER the fourth (Roman) empire has already been fragmented into many kingdoms (horns). – The Papacy was not able to dominate until after Justinian conquered the Arian nations.

The little horn UPROOTED THREE of the other horns as it came up. – The Roman Empire uprooted the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and the Vandals to establish the Papacy.  

Daniel 7 also explains that the eleventh horn will become larger than the others, persecute the saints, and attempt to change the law. The next articles will explain this.

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries

Middle Ages

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