Emperor Theodosius wiped out Arianism among the Roman people in 380.

SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE

Constantine had a decisive influence on the formulation of the Nicene Creed but later reversed his position. Constantine’s successors crushed the Nicene party.  When emperor Valens died in 378, the imperial capital was solidly Arian.

Theodosius I succeeded Valens.  He was a passionate supporter of the Nicene Creed.  Commentators often refer to the Council of Constantinople of 381 as the turning point where Arianism was replaced by Nicene Christology, but that council was a mere formality.  Already prior to the council, Theodosius outlawed all other forms of Christianity and exiled Arian bishops.  Furthermore, Arians were not allowed to attend the Council of 381.

The 381 Council, therefore, was simply a formality.  The real decisions were taken by the Roman Emperor. Theodosius, with the strong arm of the empire, effectively wiped out Arianism among the ruling class and elite of the Eastern Empire.  This supports again the main thesis of this article series, namely that the emperors had a decisive influence on the Christology of the church.

The 381 Creed does not contain the Trinity concept (that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being).  But Theodosius’ Edict of Thessalonica of 380 does prescribe Trinitarian theology.  In other words, the State laws were Trinitarian while the CHURCH CREEDS LAGGED BEHIND. This also supports the thesis that the Christology of the church was determined by the emperors.

In the period after Theodosius, the church formulated the doctrines of Mary as the Mother of God and that Christ had distinct divine and human natures that were neither commingled nor divided and that were equally present in one person. 

Articles in this series include the following:

Christology of the persecuted church – first 300 years
Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
The Nicene Creed Interpreted
Fourth Century Arianism

What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
Death of Arianism among the Roman people – Current Article

The massacres of the Waldensians. – Middle Ages

THE EMPIRE WAS SOLIDLY ARIAN.

As discussed in the article on Fourth Century Arianism, Constantine had a decisive influence on the formulation of the Nicene Creed.  He forced the council of Nicaea to accept the key term Homoousios and to condemn Arianism.  However, just a few years later, Constantine reversed his position, banished the main promotor of the Nicene Creed (Athanasius) and allowed the Arian bishops who were exiled after Nicaea, to return. 

Constantine’s son and successor, Constantius II, was openly Arian.  At first, Constantius only ruled in the east, but by the year 353, he became the sole ruler of the empire.  He crushed the Nicene party, forcing the western bishops to abandon Athanasius and exiling leaders of the Nicene party.

The next emperor (Julian) did not choose sides, but he ruled only for three years.

Valens (364–378) succeeded Julian and revived Constantius’ anti-Nicene policy.  He also exiled Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used force against them.  Consequently, when Valens died in the year 378, the imperial capital of the empire (Constantinople), which by then has existed for 50 years, WAS SOLIDLY ARIAN.

THEODOSIUS WIPED OUT ARIANISM.

Theodosius I succeeded Valens.  He and his wife Flacilla were passionate supporters of the Nicene Creed.  Flacilla was instrumental in Theodosius’ campaign to end Arianism.  Sozomen reports an incident where she prevented a meeting between Theodosius and Eunomius of Cyzicus, who served as figurehead of the most radical sect of Arians.  Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa praised her Christian (Roman Catholic Encyclopedia (1909), article “Ælia Flaccilla” by J.P. Kirsch)..

Commentators often refer to the First Council of Constantinople, which Theodosius convened in the spring of 381, as the turning point where Arianism was replaced by Nicene Christology, but that council was a mere formality:

Firstly, Theodosius already on 27 February 380, with the Edict of Thessalonica (see Definition of orthodoxy in Theodosius I) decreed that Homoousian Christianity (the Nicene Creed) will be the only legal religion of the Roman Empire and that Christians teaching contrary views will be punished.  By means of this edict, Theodosius outlawed all other forms of Christianity.

Secondly, the incumbent bishop of Constantinople was an Arian. Two days after Theodosius arrived in Constantinople, on 24 November 380, and therefore also prior to the First Council of Constantinople in the spring of 381, he exiled the Arian bishop and appointed Gregory of Nazianzus, the leader of the rather small Nicene community in the city, as bishop over the churches of that city.

Thirdly, only supporters of the Nicene Creed were allowed into the Council of 381.  The previous Arian bishop and leaders were already banished and Arians arriving to attend the council were denied admission.

The 381 Council, therefore, was simply a formality.  Theodosius, with the strong arm of the empire, effectively wiped out Arianism from the Roman Empire.  

EDICT OF THESSALONICA

The edict stated:

According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.

We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment, they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles (places of worship) the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict. — Edict of Thessalonica (Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, editor, 1967, p. 22)

The term “Catholic” in this quote probably means ‘universal’.  The word “Catholic” only became part of the name of that denomination in 1054, at the East-West schism.

Summarized, Church historian Sozomen reports as follows on the Edict of Thessalonica:

Gratian bestowed the government of Illyria and of the Eastern provinces upon Theodosius. The parents of Theodosius were Christians and were attached to the Nicene doctrines.  Theodosius made known by law his intention of leading all his subjects to the reception of that faith which was professed by Damasus, bishop of ROME, and by Peter, bishop of ALEXANDRIA. He enacted that the title of “Catholic Church” should be exclusively confined to those who rendered EQUAL HOMAGE to the Three Persons of the Trinity and that those individuals who entertained opposite opinions should be treated as heretics, regarded with contempt, and delivered over to PUNISHMENT. (Sozomen’s Church History VII.4)

FIRST COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE

It was practice, in the fourth century, that emperors, as the real heads of the church, appoint church leaders and convene church councils.  Theodosius convened the First Council of Constantinople in the spring of 381.  It is also known as the Second Ecumenical Council.  ‘Ecumenical’ means it represents all Christian Churches and perspectives, but that was certainly not the case in this instance:

Arianism has already been outlawed the previous year, with the threat of punishment for people that teach anything different.

Gregory of Nazianzus—the leader of the Nicene party in the city—presided over part of the Council and vehemently opposed any compromise with the Homoiousians.  (Wikipedia, see note 17Lewis Ayres – Nicaea and its legacy: an approach to fourth-century Trinitarian theology)

Arians were not admitted into the council.  The previous Homoiousian bishop and leaders were already banished.  And 36 Pneumatomachians arrived to attend the council but were denied admission when they refused to accept the Nicene Creed.

Gregory resigned from his office and Nectarius, an unbaptized civil official, was chosen to succeed Gregory as president of the council (Wikipedia, also note 17).  Nectarius, as a civil servant, was fully under Theodosius’ control.

The Council confirmed Theodosius’ installation of Gregory Nazianzus as Bishop of Constantinople, accepted the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 and dogmatically condemned of all shades of Arianism as heresy. 

CONTENTS OF THE CREED OF 381

THE HOLY SPIRIT IN THE 381 CREED

The 325 Creed merely mentions the Holy Spirit in connection with the Father and Son.  It does not refer to the Holy Spirit as God or of the same substance as the Father. 

The 381 Creed goes much further.  The 5 words about the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed of 325 became 33 words in the creed of Constantinople, saying that the Holy Ghost is “the Lord and Giver of life,” that He proceeds from the Father and that He is worshiped together with the Father and the Son.  The 381 Creed therefore describes the Holy Spirit much clearer as a separate Person and as God.

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

Note: Catholics are not concerned if their doctrines are not found in the Bible because they believe in continued revelation through the church.

THE TRINITY IN THE 381 CREED

As discussed in the article What did Arians believe in the fourth century, the present writer does not find the Trinity concept (namely that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being) in the Nicene Creed.  It is also absent from the creed of 381.  (See the Comparison between the creed of 325 and 381.) 

However, the Edict of Thessalonica of 380, quoted above, which was an act of law by the emperor, made Trinitarian theology law:

“Let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

An edict which Theodosius issued after the Council of 381 is also clearly Trinitarian:

“We now order that all churches are to be handed over to the bishops who profess Father, Son and Holy Spirit of a single majesty, of the same glory, of one splendour” (quoted by Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 1999, p. 223).

In other words, the State laws were Trinitarian while the church creeds lagged behind.  The first clear Trinitarian church statement is the Athanasian Creed which was formulated perhaps 100 years later.  This supports the thesis of these articles, namely that the decisions, with respect to which Christology the church will adopt, was made by the emperors; not by ecumenical councils.

POST-381 TRINITY DEVELOPMENT 

MOTHER OF GOD

In the period after Theodosius crushed Arianism, the church formulated the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God.  Britannica reports:

Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, taught that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, may not properly be called mother of God (Greek Theotokos, or “God-bearer”), because she was the mother only of the human Jesus, not of the preexistent Word of God.  The Council of Ephesus (431) condemned this teaching. 

This matter, and its relationship with the Trinity doctrine, has not been further investigated for this article.  According to the 381 Creed, the “Lord Jesus Christ” has been “begotten of the Father.”  In what way Mary may the called mother of God and how this relates to the Trinity doctrine is unclear.

TWO NATURES OF CHRIST

The Arians objected to the creeds of 325 and 381 by asking, if the Son is of the same nature as the Father, why did He say that He does not know the day and hour of His return?  Why does only the Father knows that (Mat. 24:36)?  And why did Jesus say that He only do and say what the Father gave Him to do and say (e.g. John 5:30; 8:28).  Do such statements not imply that He is subordinate to the Father?  In response to such questions, the church developed the teaching that Christ had two natures:

But this council (of Ephesus) gave rise to monophysitism, which taught that Christ only had one nature.  It emphasized Christ’s divine nature to such an extent that it effectively negated Christ’s humanity.  It compared the relationship between Christ’s humanity and his divinity to a single grain of sugar in the ocean. Pope Leo I (reigned 440–461) led a reaction against this monophysite doctrine that culminated in the Council of Chalcedon (451). This council concluded that Christ had two distinct natures that were neither commingled nor divided and that were equally present in one person.  (Britannica)

See also the Wikipedia article on the Council of Chalcedon

The key word in the quote from Britannica is perhaps “equally.”  The argument is that Christ’s subordination statements in the New Testament must be understood as Him speaking from His human nature. 

Most Christians today accept the dual nature theory.  Opponents of this theory point out that this does not solve the problem, but makes it worse, for it means that Jesus was not telling the truth when He said that He does not know, for in His divine nature He actually knew.

CHALCEDONIAN SCHISM

The decisions at Chalcedon led to the Chalcedonian Schism.  The patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem accepted the decisions of the council but the Egyptian (Coptic) and Syrian, Ethiopian and Armenian Christians rejected the Chalcedonian formula:

They declared that Christ’s human and divine natures, while distinct, were equally present through the mystery of the Incarnation in a single person.   (Britannica)

In other words, they maintained that divinity and humanity are united in one undivided nature in Jesus Christ.

ATHANASIAN CREED

It was the Athanasian Creed—formulated around the year 500, which gave or take 50 years—which became the standard formulation of the Trinity theory throughout the middle ages.  Still today, it is used by many denominations in liturgy and confessions.  This creed was not written by Athanasius.  He died much earlier.  Neither was this a creed, for it was not produced by any known council.

The problem with the previous creeds is that they define the Father alone as God, but then proceed to elevate the Son and the Holy Spirit to the same level as the Father.  This may mean that we have three Gods (polytheism), while the Bible is strictly monotheistic.  The Athanasian Creed, for the first time, strongly and repeatedly emphasizes the oneness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a single Being.  It declares that they together are the one God of the Bible.  For example:

So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.”

For fifty years after Nicaea, the church was dominated by Arian emperors.

Trinity
Trinity

This is an article on a series that explains the historical development of the Trinity doctrine.  The main purpose of this series is to show the DECISIVE influence which the Roman Emperors had on the acceptance of the Trinity doctrine.  The previous article discussed the Council of Nicaea.  It shows that Constantine manipulated that council.  He called the council, presided over it, actively guided the discussions, proposed the key word Homoousios, enforced the formula that his advisor had agreed on, exiled all bishops that did not sign the creed and ordered all copies of Arius’ book to be burned.  The current article shows that the emperors after Constantine were Arian and crushed the Nicene party.

Articles in this series include the following:

Christology of the persecuted church – first 300 years
Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
The Nicene Creed InterpretedPrevious article
Fourth Century Arianism – Current Article

What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
The massacres of the Waldensians. – Middle Ages

SUMMARY

The Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. In fact, there was no unanimity at Nicaea. The bishops went on teaching as they had before, disputing the term homoousios.  Soon after Nicaea, while Constantine was still emperor, the consensus shifted away from the Homoousian to the Arian view.   

Constantine himself convened a gathering of Church leaders in 335 to address various charges against Athanasius; the chief advocate for the Nicene Creed and now bishop of Alexandria.  Constantine then banished Athanasius.  Athanasius was exiled no fewer than five times.

Arius and other bishops, who were condemned and exiled at the Council of Nicaea, regained imperial favor and were readmitted to communion.

When Constantine accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from an Arian bishop.

Constantine’s son Constantius II became the sole ruler of the empire by 353. He actively ENCOURAGED the church to reverse the Nicene Creed, FORCED the western bishops to abandon Athanasius and EXILED bishops adhering to the Nicene Creed. Constantius largely crushed the Nicene party.

The Third Council of Sirmium in 357 was the high point of Arianism. It held that homoousios (of one substance) does not appear in the Bible, that it is “above men’s understanding” and that “there ought to be no mention of any of these at all.”  

Constantius’ successor was Julian.  He was a devotee of Rome’s pagan gods.  He did not favor one church faction above another.  However, he reigned only for three years.

Emperor Valens (364–378) succeeded Julian and revived Constantius’ policy.  Similar to Constantine and Constantius before him, he EXILED Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used FORCE. 

This also shows the decisive influence which the emperors exerted with respect to which Christology the church accepted; albeit now Arian Christology.

NICAEA DID NOT END ARIANISM.

The Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. Karen Armstrong explains:

“In fact, there was no unanimity at Nicaea. After the council, the bishops went on teaching as they had before, and the Arian crisis continued for another sixty years. Arius and his followers fought back and managed to regain imperial favor. Athanasius was exiled no fewer than five times.” (A History of God – pp. 110-111)

Homoousios is the central term of the Nicene Creed. Many bishops of the Eastern provinces disputed this term, for it does not appear in the Bible and had already had been condemned by the Synods of Antioch in 269. 

Furthermore, the Bible is clear that only one Being exists without cause, and that is the Father.  Like all the ancient creeds, even the Nicene Creed starts by confessing monotheism:

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

To say that Jesus is “very God of very God … being of one substance with the Father,” while there is only one God, seems like a contradiction; even polytheism.

CONSTANTINE BECAME AN ARIAN.

Soon after Nicaea, while Constantine was still the head of the empire, the consensus in the church shifted away from the Homoousian view towards Arianism, as indicated by the following: 

Ten years after Nicaea, the same emperor, Constantine the Great, convened another gathering of Church leaders at the regional First Synod of Tyre in 335 (attended by 310 bishops) to address various charges against Athanasius.  He now was the bishop of Alexandria, the most vocal opponent of Arianism and the chief advocate for the Nicene Creed.  These charges include “murder, illegal taxation, sorcery, and treason.”  He was convicted of conspiracy and Constantine banished Athanasius. 

In 336 the Synod of Jerusalem, under Constantine’s direction, readmitted Arius to communion. Arius died on the way to Constantinople.

Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis were condemned and exiled at the Council of Nicaea.  Constantine allowed them to return once they had signed an ambiguous statement of faith.

When Constantine accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from the same Eusebius of Nicomedia (Gonzalez, Justo (1984). The Story of Christianity Vol.1. Harper Collins. p. 176).  This implies that Constantine converted to Arianism.  (Constantine’s deathbed baptism does not mean that he was not a Christian before.  It was common for rulers to put off baptism to avoid accountability for things like torture and executing criminals (The Early Church, 1993, p. 127).  Constantine himself had his wife and son killed in the year after Nicaea.)

THE NEXT EMPEROR WAS CONSTANTIUS.

Constantius II

Constantine died in 337.  His three sons inherited the empire:

Constantine II received the far western part: Britain, Gaul, and Spain.

Constantius received the far eastern part: Macedonia, Greece, Thrace, Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. Constantius II ACTIVELY ENCOURAGED THE ARIANS  to reverse the Nicene Creed. His advisor in these affairs was still Eusebius of Nicomedia, who already at the Council of Nicaea was the head of the Arian party.  But he was now made the bishop of the capital city of the Roman Empire; Constantinople.  Constantius exiled Nicene bishops, especially Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius fled to Rome in the west, where Constantius did not rule. 

Constans received the area lying in between, namely Italy, North Africa, and Illyricum.

Both Constantine II and Constans took the western position with respect to the Arian controversy and supported Athanasius. 

In 340, Constantine II was killed in battle with the forces of Constans.  This left the empire divided between Constans in the West and Constantius in the East. In 350, Constans was assassinated by the rebel German emperor Magnentius. Three years later, Constantius defeated and killed the latter. Thus, by 353, Constantius was the sole ruler of the entire empire. 

CONSTANTIUS CRUSHED THE NICENE PARTY.

After Constantius became emperor of the entire empire, he extended his pro-Arian policy toward the western provinces.  In councils held in the West at Arles and Milan, he forced the western bishops to abandon Athanasius, and he exiled some of the leaders of the Nicene party. For example, he exiled Pope Liberius and installed Antipope Felix II.  Athanasius was exiled several times:

Although Nicaea spoke against Arianism, Constantine in later life leaned toward it, and his successor, Constantius II, was openly Arian (Britannica).

Under Constantius’ leadership the Nicene party was largely crushed. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Arianism, Vol. I, p.509)

In 357 a council held in Sirmium forbade the use of ousia (nature or substance) when speaking of the relationship between the Father and the Son. This was a complete victory [for the Arians]. (A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, p117)

The Third Council of Sirmium in 357 was the high point of Arianism. It resulted in the Second Creed of Sirmium which held that both homoousios (of same substance) and homoiousios (of similar substance) do not appear in the Bible, “are above … men’s understanding,” and “there ought to be no mention of any of these at all.”  It concluded that the Father is greater than the Son. After the Trinity doctrine became generally accepted in the church—in later centuries—this confession became known as the Blasphemy of Sirmium.

Jerome (c. 347–420) is best known for his translation of most of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate).  He remarked that “the term Usia was abolished: the Nicene Faith stood condemned. The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian” (The Dialogue Against the Luciferians).

EMPEROR VALENS WAS AN ARIAN.

Constantius died 361. His successor was Julian.  He was a devotee of Rome’s pagan gods.  He no longer favored one church faction over another but allowed all exiled bishops to return.  However, he reigned only for three years.

Emperor Valens (364378) succeeded Julian, revived Constantius’ policy and supported the “Homoian” party (the Son is like the Father).  Similar to Constantine and Constantius, he EXILED Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used FORCE.  The main purpose of this article is to show the DECISIVE influence which the emperors had on whether the church was Arian or Nicene.

WHAT THE CHURCH BELIEVED

The article Arianism explains what the church believed in this period.  The Nicene Creed of 325 makes the Son equal to the Father.  The word “God” is a modern invention.  We use it as the proper name of the One who exists without a cause.  In Arianism, THEOS, when it describes Jesus, or to any being other than the Father, should be translated as “god.”  The Father is the only God, the Son is our god, but the Father is His god and the Holy Spirit is not a person, but as a power; subject to the Son.