In the Nicene Creed, is the Son to EQUAL to the Father?

Summary of this article

Analysts often claim that the Nicene Creed describes the Son as equal with the Father. However, the creed begins as follows:

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

In four ways, this identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father:

(1) “We believe in one God” means that we do not believe in many gods, but in only one god. The quote above continues to identify that “one God” as the Father. That excludes the Son as the “one god” in which we believe.

(2) The creed identifies the Father as “Almighty.” Nothing similar is said of the Son in the remainder of the Creed. Consequently, the Son is not Almighty.

(3) The titles “Father” and “Son” also imply that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

(4) The Father is the “Maker of all things,” it implies that the Son is not the Creator. The creed later adds that all things were made “by” the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things “through” or “by” the Son.

Another indication that the Son is subordinate to the Father is when the creed says that the Son is “begotten, not made.” This statements makes a fundamental distinction between the Son and the created cosmos, but if the Father begat (gave birth to) the Son, then the Son is not the original Source of all things; the Father is.

Very God

The creed describes the “one Lord Jesus Christ” as “very God of very God,” but this is not the only possible translation:

The word in the creed, that is translated “god,” is the common word for the immortal Greek gods. When the Jewish community began to use Greek, they began to use this same word for the Almighty God and even for exalted people.

The word “God,” in contrast, is a modern invention, with a very different meaning. Namely, we use the word “God” as a name for one specific Being – the omnipotent originator of the universe (Merriam-Webster).

The phrase “very God of very God,” therefore, could also be translated “very god of very god.” The translation “God” would only be appropriate if the creed describes the Son as such. However, as already stated, the creed present the Son as subordinate to the Father.

Homoousios

The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “of one substance with the Father.” This implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality). However, as discussed, the creed presents the Son as subordinate to the Father in other respects. The Father is the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.

No Trinity Doctrine

The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine:

      • It does not describe the Holy Spirit as God and
      • There is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The issue before the council was not the unity of God, but merely the nature of the Son, relative to the Father.

The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is “homoousios.” Although it is often translated as “one substance,” it means “of the same substance:” 

Before the creed was formulated, this term meant likeness of substance. (Qualitative sameness of substance)

After AD 325, Catholic theologians interpreted it as ‘identically the same substance‘ or “one substance.” In other words, that the Father and Son not only have a similar substance but share one single substance. (Numerical sameness of substance)  

But this article proposes that the council did not agree on the meaning of homoousios. The emperor himself presided over the meeting and proposed and insisted on the term homoousios. Because of this pressure, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways.

– END OF SUMMARY –

The Text of the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed, according to Wikipedia, reads as follows:

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

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God,
begotten of the Father
the only-begotten; that is,
of the essence of the Father,

God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];

And in the Holy Ghost.

But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and
‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or
‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or
‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—
they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Is the Son Subordinate?

Analysts often claim that, according to this creed, the Son is equal with the Father. This section evaluates and qualifies, this statement. The Nicene Creed starts by saying:

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

but later adds:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ …
very God of very God.

Does this mean that the Son is EQUAL with the Father?

The difference between “God” and theos

First, it is important to note, for the discussion of these phrases, the significant difference between the title “God” and the word used in the original Greek text of the creed:

“God” is a modern word; made possible by the distinction between upper- and lower-case letters, which did not yet exist when the creed was formulated in the year 325. We use “God” today as the proper name for the “unbegotten,” as the ancients used to say; that is, the One who exists without cause. The creed (and the New Testament) does not contain any one word that is exactly equivalent to the modern word “God.” 

Theos – The word which the creed uses is theos. This is the same word as used by the Greek text of the New Testament and, as discussed in the article on theos, has a wide range of meanings. It was used for the “gods” of the Greek Pantheon, who were believed to be immortal beings with supernatural powers over nature and mankind. But theos was also used for exalted people. Consequently, it approximates the meaning of the English word “god” and, unless the context indicates or implies that theos refers to the Unbegotten, it should be translated as “god.”

Against this background, the wording of the creed is discussed below:

The Almighty Father

The creed identifies the Father as “Almighty.” Nothing similar is said of the Son in the remainder of the Creed. Consequently, the Son is not Almighty.

One God

The creed also says that “we believe in one god, the father.” [Since the distinction between upper- and lower-case letters did not yet exist when the creed was formulated, to more accurately reflect the meaning of the text, I converted the capital letters into lower caps.]

We believe in one God” means that we do not believe in many gods, but in only one god. The quote above continues to identify that “one God” as the Father. That excludes the Son as the “one god” in which we believe. 

The Father is the “Maker of all things visible and invisible.”  The New Testament often states that God created all things “through” the Son (John 1:3; Col 1:16; Hebr 1:2). In 1 Corinthians 8:6, the NASB reads that all things are “by” Christ. However, the word in Greek is “di’” and is explained by Strong’s as “a primary preposition denoting the channel of an act, through.” (See Interlinear.) In Young’s Literal Translation, therefore, this verse reads:

Jesus Christ,
through whom [are] the all things,
and we through Him
.”

The Nicene Creed similarly says that all things were made “by” the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things. “By whom all things were made” means:

Through The Son, as Word of God,
all things have been created.
As Logos, the Son is the agent and artificer of creation.
(See, St. Peter’s Episcopal)

The Son, therefore, is the Means through Whom the Father made all things.

The Only Begotten Son

The Nicene Creed refers to the Lord Jesus Christ as “the Son of God” while the Almighty is His “Father.” The titles “Son” and “Father” imply that the Lord Jesus Christ is SUBORDINATE to the Father.

To say that the Son is “very god of very god” (or “true god of true god” in other translations) merely says that both the Father and the Son truly are supernatural, immortal beings. For both the Father and the Son, this is a MUCH LOWER CLAIM than the claim to be the Almighty. It does not even mean that they are the only gods. Jesus even referred to humans, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods” (same word – John 10:34-35). [For a discussion, see Did Jesus claim to be God?.]To translate this as “true God of true God” misrepresents the meaning of the creed, for only the Almighty qualifies to be “God” in the modern sense of the word.

The creed describes the Son as “begotten, not made.”  The word “of,” in the phrase, “very god of very god,” is related to this concept and also implies that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father, for He begat (gave birth to) the Son. 

The creed adds that the Son is the “only Begotten” Son. In other words, God has many other sons, but only one “begotten” Son. No other being was ever “begotten” by the Father. This implies a fundamental difference between the Son and “all things.” All things were “made,” according to the Nicene Creed, but only the Son was “begotten.”

The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “being of one substance with the Father.” This is probably derived from the concept that He is begotten, for the Bible does not discuss the substance of the Father or of the Son. 

Made out of Nothing

The creed condemns all who say that “He was made out of nothing.”  Since He was begotten, one could perhaps argue that He was made of the substance of the Father. However, such arguments are dangerous because the Bible says nothing about this and this is not something that humans perhaps are even able to understand.

Nevertheless, the implication of the Nicene Council is that all other things were made out of nothing. However, Einstein taught us that things cannot be made out of noting (E=mc2, where E stands for Energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light). The Father, therefore, did not use other materials to make “all things.”  Rather, all things are brought forth from His own being. He provided from His own incomprehensible Being the energy which He converted into the material from which He made all things. The claim that the Son is the begotten is humanly incomprehensible but sets the Son apart from all other things.

Conclusion

On the one hand, the creed identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father:

      1. We believe in only “one god; the Father.”
      2. Only the Father is “Almighty.”
      3. The Lord Jesus is called “Son;” in contrast to the Father.
      4. The Son has been “begotten“ by (born by) the Father.
      5. The Father made all things through the Son.

On the other hand, the Son is “of one substance with the Father,” which implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality), but He is subordinate to the Father in all other respects. Also, bear in mind that this concept, that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, is an interpretation of the word “begotten” and is not directly stated as such anywhere in the Bible.

We can compare the Father and the Son to a human father and son, who are of the same substance, but this analogy breaks down, for the difference between the Father and the Son is much greater than the difference between a human father and a human son: While the Son was begotten by Him, the Father exists without cause. The Father is also the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.

No Trinity in the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine. This statement is justified as follows: 

Firstly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Holy Spirit is a separate Person, equal with the Father and the Son, but the Nicene Creed merely and very briefly mentions the Holy Spirit together with the Son and the Father, to indicate a belief in the Triad (three Persons) of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. It says nothing about the Holy Ghost being “true God” or being of the same substance.

Secondly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being, but there is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed. 

The Athanasian Creed, formulated more than a century later, expresses the trinity concept explicitly, including with the phrase, “the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity:”

Note: Most often today, we use the word “Trinity” as a SINGULAR REFERRING TERM (meaning that it refers to a single being) for, in the Trinity doctrine, God is One Being but three Persons. The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed and in Tertullian and in many other church fathers, in contrast, is actually a PLURAL REFERRING TERM, meaning that it refers to a group of three distinct Beings. It is, rather, the word “Unity,” in the Athanasian Creed that emphasizes their One-ness. The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed, therefore, should be translated with a lower case “t.”

Thirdly, as Millard J. Erickson stated, the issue before the council, it is virtually universally agreed, was not the unity of the Godhead but rather the co-eternity of the Son with the Father, and his full divinity, as contrasted with the creaturehood that the Arians attributed to him (God in Three Persons, p82-85).

Does Homoousios mean One Being?

This section is adapted from Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85).

The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is homoousios (consubstantial in Latin). It means “of the same substance” or “of one being.” The Nicene Creed uses this term to say that the Son is “of one substance” or “of one being” with the Father, namely that He was begotten “from the substance of the Father.” This is often understood to mean that the Son is fully equal to the Father.  But what did it actually mean to the council? Three possibilities are considered:

Same Type of Substance

If this was the meaning, then the creed says that the Son is utterly unlike created beings in substance, but it does not mean that they share the same substance (numerically the same substance), as required by the Trinity doctrine. This view is supported by the following:

Firstly, before Nicaea, homoousios meant likeness of substance. This is how Origen and his followers used the term. In that sense, it could signify the kind of substance or stuff common to several individuals of a class. We could say, for example, that all humans are homoousios – consist of similar substance.

Secondly, if homoousios was understood to mean numerical identity of substance, in other words, like three persons with one body, then the Eusebian faction at the council would have identified it as Sabellianism and would have resisted it vigorously. (Sabellianism is the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are THREE DIFFERENT MODES or aspects of God.)

Thirdly, since the great issue at Nicaea was the SON’S FULL DIVINITY and not the unity of the Godhead, the word homoousios would have been understood to signify the Son’s full divinity. Then total unlikeness to creatures in substance and total likeness in substance to the Father would have sufficed.

Lastly, later on—after the numerical identity of substance became a standard part of Christology—some orthodox theologians still used the word homoousios in the sense of the same type of substance.

Exactly the same substance

For later Catholic theologians, Homoousios meant ‘identically the same substance’:

The Cappadocian Fathers “made extensive use of the formula “one substance (ousia) in three persons (hypostaseis)” (McGrath, Alister (1998), Historical Theology). 

In other words, the Father and Son not only have a similar substance; exactly the same substance of the Father is also the substance of the Son. This implies His numerical identity with the Father, which means that they are the same being; like three persons with one body.  Arguments that are used for this view include the following:

(a) It would seem to be unnatural” for monotheists to admit two divine ousiai (substances).

(b) The famous eastern theologian Origen used the word to mean SIMILAR SUBSTANCE, but for Origen, the Son was INFERIOR to the Father, (The Triune God, Edmund J. Fortman, p 66-70). Since the intent of the council was to affirm the Son’s equality with the Father, would they use the word homoousios with the meaning which Origen attached to it?

(c) If Hosius of Cordova influenced the adoption of the term, would he have failed to indicate to the Nicene Fathers that, for him and for the church in the West, it signified ‘identity of substance’?

In recent years, there is a growing tendency to reject the numerical identity view. 

No Agreement

As discussed in another article, the emperor himself proposed the term homoousios and exerted pressure on the council to accept the term.  Since there were three different factions at the meeting with three different views, and because of the pressure applied by the emperor, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways, depending on their theological tendencies (e.g. Marcellan neo-monarchianism or Eusebian subordinationism).  In other words, THE COUNCIL DID NOT AGREE ON THE MEANING OF HOMOOUSIOS.

Condemnations

The creed identified certain people as “condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” However, to condemn people with different views is inconsistent with the Christian principles of love and humility. This is made worse by the fact that the nature of Christ is a humanly incomprehensible subject, and not explicitly taught in the Bible.

Furthermore, people are saved by their faith (trust) in God; not by believing the right doctrines. But this creed makes itself a criterion for true faith. All that the Bible requires from believers is stated in John’s summary of his gospel:

These have been written
so that you may believe

that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of God
;
and that believing
you may have life in His name

(John 20:31).

It always amazes me how important Christology became in the fourth century. Why did the church, in the fourth century, elevate the nature of Christ to be the most important doctrine? I would like to venture that, during the first 300 years, the enemy of the faith attacked the church from outside, through persecution. After the church has been legalized in 313, the enemy entered the church. It was now inside the church and saw in this topic fertile ground for causing division in the church. He still today uses this topic very effectively for that purpose.

Catholic Church

The condemnations in the creed refer to “the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” The word “catholic,” here, simply means ‘universal’.  During the 11th century, the East-West schism permanently divided Church. That schism resulted from a dispute on whether Constantinople or Rome held jurisdiction over the church in Sicily, followed by mutual ex-communications in 1054. Since that event, the Western (Latin) branch of Christianity has become known as the Catholic Church, while the Eastern (Greek) branch is called the Orthodox Church. In this way, the “Catholic Church” became the name of one particular denomination. When used as such, the “c” in both ‘catholic’ and “church’ is capitalized; Catholic Church.

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries

What did Fourth Century Arianism believe?

Summary of this article

In the first three centuries after Christ, the Roman Empire persecuted the church. In the fourth century, the church was first legalized (AD 313) and later became the official religion of the Roman Empire (AD 380). During that period, a controversy raged in the church with respect to the nature of Christ. The emperors could not allow disunity in the church because a split in the church could split the entire empire. The emperors, therefore, forced the church to formulate creeds, and, true to the nature of the empire, banish church leaders who were not willing to accept the creeds.

Arianism was named after Arius.

We are not sure what Arius taught, for his books were destroyed after Nicaea, and we cannot trust what his opponents wrote about him. For example, Athanasius claimed that Arius said that “there was a time when the Son was not,” but below we quote Arius saying that the Son existed “before time.” 

‘Arianism’ dominated the church for 50 years.

Many erroneously understand the Nicene Creed of 325 to say that the Son is equal to the Father but, after 325, the consensus in the church was that the Son is subordinate to the Father. What the church believed at the time was different from what Arius believed, but it is practice today to describe anything that is not perfectly consistent with the Trinity doctrine as Arianism. Therefore, since, in the Trinity doctrine, the Son is co-equal to the Father, it is common for people to the refer to the belief in the fourth century, that the Son is subordinate to the Father, as Arianism.

This ‘Arianism’ remained the dominant view in the church for the next 50 years. During those fifty years, this ‘Arianism’ evolved and divided into a number of branches. It is, therefore, important to understand what the church believed after the intense debates of those years.

God and theos

Today, we use the modern word “God” as the proper name of the One who exists without a cause. The ancient Greek word, in the Bible and other ancient documents, such as the Nicene Creed, that is translated as “God” is theos. But theos is the common name for the Greek gods and means “god” in Eglish. When it refers to the One who exists without a cause, it is correctly translated as “God.” In instances where theos refers to Jesus, it can be translated as “God” only if one assumes the Trinity doctrine. In Arianism, in which only the Father is the One who exists without a cause, theos, when it describes Jesus, or to any being other than the Father, must be translated as “god.” See the article – theos – for a further discussion.

What the Arian church believed

In Arianism:

The Father is the “only one God.” In contrast to the Son who is the “begotten,” the Father is “the unbegotten,” which means that He exists without a cause and, therefore, is the ultimate Cause of all else. 

The Son is our god, but the Father is His god. God created all things through the Son. Since the Son was begotten” by the Father, which is understood to mean that He was born of the Being of the Father, He was not created but, nevertheless, subordinate to the Father.

The Holy Spirit is not a Person, but as a power; subject to the Son.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Purpose of this article

The Metamorphosis of the Church

The fourth century was a remarkable period in which the church changed from being PERSECUTED to being the OFFICIAL STATE RELIGION of the Roman Empire. For all practical purposes, the church became part of the state and, as will be explained, the emperor became the head of the church. Adopting the character of the empire, the church changed from being persecuted to persecuting church leaders who do not accept the official church decrees.

Arian Controversy

Emperor Constantine standing before the bishops

In that fourth century, a huge controversy raged with respect to the NATURE OF CHRIST. The Nicene Creed—formulated in the year 325 at the city of Nicaea—described the Son as “true theos from true theos” and as of the “same substance” as the Father. Many today interpret these phrases as that the Son is EQUAL to the Father. The article on the Nicene Creed shows that this interpretation is wrong and that that Creed described the Son as subordinate to the Father.

After the creed was formulated in the year 325, for the next 50 years, the church was dominated by teachings in which the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father. This Arian period was brought abruptly to an end when Theodosius became emperor in the year 380. He was an ardent supporter of Nicene Christology and, on ascending the throne, IMMEDIATELY declared Arianism to be illegal and Nicene Christology to be THE ONLY religion of the empire. He then replaced the Arian church leadership with Nicene leaders.

Purpose of this article

The purpose of this article is to analyze what Arianism believed in the fourth century. Some of the historical facts mentioned in this article are described in more detail in other articles.

Conflicting evidence in the Bible

To understand the war between Nicene Christology and Arianism, we must appreciate the seemingly conflicting evidence in the Bible about the nature of Christ. Many Bible statements describe Him as equal with the Father, but many others imply that He is subordinate to God, for example:

EQUAL SUBORDINATE
He “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb 1:3) has “life in Himself” (John 5:26) sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples (Luke 24:49), is “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17) and owns everything which the Father has (Matt 11:27). “All things have been created through Him” (Col 1:16) and “all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23). In Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form (Col 2:9). “At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow” (Phil 2:10). Only He knows the Father. (Matt 11:27) Only the Father knows the “day and hour” of His return (Matt 24:26). Everything which the Son has, He received from the Father, including to have “life in Himself” (John 5:22, 26). The Father sent Him and told Him what to say and do (John 7:16). The NT consistently makes a distinction between Jesus and God (e.g., Philemon 1:3). For example, Jesus is today at the right hand of God. The “one God” and “the only true God” is always the Father (1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 4:4-6; John 17:3). The Father is His God and He prayed to the Father. (Rev 3:12; John 17; Acts 7:56).

What Arius believed about Christ

Arius

The words Arian and Arianism are derived from the name of Arius (c. 250–336); a church leader who had significant influence at the beginning of the fourth century. His teachings initiated the Arian controversy and Emperor Constantine called the council at Nicaea specifically to denounce His teachings. 

We are not sure what Arius taught. After Nicaea in 325, the emperor gave orders that all of Arius’ books be destroyed and that all people who hide Arius’ writings, be killed. Very little of Arius’ writings survived, and much of what did survive are quotations selected for polemical purposes in the writings of his opponents. Reconstructing WHAT Arius actually taught, and—even more important—WHY, is, therefore, a formidable task. There is no certainty about the extent to which his teachings continued those of church fathers in previous centuries.

Letter to Eusebius

We have a brief statement of what Arius believed in a letter to the Arian archbishop of Constantinople; Eusebius of Nicomedia (died 341). He wrote as follows:

We say and believe …
that the Son is not unbegotten,
nor in any way part of the unbegotten;
and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter;
but that by his own will and counsel
he has subsisted (existed) before time
and before ages as perfect as God,
only begotten and unchangeable,
and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not.
For he was not unbegotten.
We are persecuted because we say
that the Son has a beginning
but that God is without beginning.

(Theodoret: Arius’s Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, translated in Peters’ Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, p. 41)

Brief reflections on Arius’ view

The Son is not unbegotten,
nor in any way part of the unbegotten.

Unbegotten” is how the ancients described the Being who exists without a cause (the Father). Since the Son is begotten, Arius argued that He is not part of that which exists without a cause. For Arius, only the Father is unbegotten.

He does not derive his subsistence from any matter.

ARIUS INTERPRETATION
NOT UNBEGOTTEN
The Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten.
Unbegotten” is how the ancients described the Being who exists without a cause. Since the Son is begotten, Arius reasoned that He is not part of that which exists without a cause. For Arius, only the Father is unbegotten. 
ONLY BEGOTTEN
He does not derive his subsistence from any matter.
The phrase “only begotten” identifies the Son as unique. There is no other like Him. “Begotten” indicates that His being came from the being of the Father. He was not created from other matter.
BEFORE TIME
By his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before age.
He existed as an independent Person with His own will; distinct from the will of God. He was begotten by God before time began.
PERFECT
as perfect as God … unchangeable
This shows the extremely high view which Arius had of the Son. Created beings change over time due to influences, but God and the Son are “unchangeable.”
HE WAS NOT.
Before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. The Son has a beginning but God is without beginning.
Firstly, here, Arius indicates that he does not know what it means that the Son was begotten. Nevertheless, since He was is begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, He exists by the will of God (the Father) and “was not” before He was “begotten.”

Arius seems to contradict himself. Above, he wrote that the Son “subsisted before time.” But he also wrote that the Son “was not” before He was begotten and that the Son “has a beginning.” It is a pity that we do not have Arius’ book that he can explain himself. Below, I propose how these statements can be reconciled.

A time when the Son was not

In the fourth century, Athanasius was the arch-enemy of Arianism and the great advocate of the homoousian (Nicene) theology. He quoted Arius as saying:

“If the Father begat the Son,
then he who was begotten
had a beginning in existence,

and from this, it follows
there was a time when the Son was not.”

Today, this quote by Athanasius is quite famous and is still used to characterize Arius’ teaching. But Arius wrote to Eusebius—in the quote above—that the Son existed “before time.” This seems to contradict what Athanasius wrote. We do not know whether Arius really wrote “there was a time when the Son was not” or whether this was a straw man created by Athanasius.

Today, Trinitarians regard Athanasius of Alexandria as a hero who stood for ‘the truth’ when ‘the whole world’ was Arian. Athanasius is counted as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church in the Catholic Church.

But in his day, he was a highly controversial character in his day. The church accused him of horrible crimes and exiled no less than five times. We are not able to judge either way today, but Athanasius was a prolific writer, and we can judge his spirit by his writings. For this purpose, listen to the following podcasts:

Assessing Athanasius and his Arguments
Athanasius’s On the Nicene Council

The Son had a beginning.

Eternal generation

In the Trinity doctrine today, the Son had no beginning but always existed with the Father. The Bible is clear that He is begotten by the Father but that is explained with the concept of eternal generation, namely that the Father always was the Father, that there never was a time that the Father was not the Father.

Arius, as quoted above, wrote that “the Son has a beginning but … God is without beginning.” But in the same statement, he wrote that the Son existed “before time and before ages.” Did Arius contradict himself? I wish we had Arius’ book to explain his own words but would like to propose the following explanation:

God created time. God is that which exists without a cause, and time exists because God exists. God, therefore, exists outside time, cannot be defined by time and is not subject to time. We cannot say that God existed ‘before time’, for the word “before” implies the existence of time, and there is no such thing as time before time. Therefore, I prefer to say that God exists ‘outside time’.

Since God created time, time had a beginning and is finite.

God created all things through the Son (e.g. 1 Col 8:6). Therefore, God created time through the Son. It follows that there never was a time when the Son did not exist. Arius, therefore, could validly write that the Son existed “BEFORE TIME.”

But, there exists an infinity beyond the boundaries of time. All the power and wisdom that we see reflected in this physical universe, comes out of that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, space and matter. In that infinity beyond time, Arius wrote, “THE SON HAS A BEGINNING.” But this is not a beginning in time, for there is no such thing as time in infinity.

This explains why Arius could both claim that the Son existed before time and had a beginning. If this was Arius’ thinking, he could not that written that “there was a time when the Son was not,” as Athanasius claimed.

Arianism evolved after Nicaea.

Forced unity

Under the stern supervision of the emperors, who demanded unity in the church to prevent a split in the empire, the fourth-century church fathers would not allow different views about Christ to co-exist within the church. The church’s view of Christ changed from time to time, but, nevertheless, it always formulated a view of Christ and, through persecution, forced all Christians to abide by the formal church doctrine.

Numerous synods

The fifty-year Arian period after Nicaea resulted in numerous synods, including at Serdica in 343, Sirmium in 358 and Rimini and Seleucia in 359. The pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus commented sarcastically: “The highways were covered with galloping bishops.”

Numerous creeds

The best-known creed today is the Nicene Creed, but no fewer than fourteen further creeds were formulated between 340 and 360, depicting the Son as subordinate on the Father, e.g. the Long Lines Creed. Historian RPC Hanson lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith—one of the variants of Arianism—including the creeds of Sirmian (AD 357), Nice (Constantinople – 360), Akakius (359), Ulfilas (383), Eudoxius, Auxentius of Milan (364), Germinius, Palladius’ rule of faith (1988. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 558–559).

Arianism evolved.

During the fifty years between Constantine and Theodosius, Arianism was refined and nuanced, relative to what Arius believed. Consequently, although Arius’ views are important, it is far more important to understand what version of Arianism the church adopted after Arius’ views and the Nicene Creed were intensely debated in the decades following Nicaea.

The word “GOD” is ambiguous.

Before we discuss what Ulfilas wrote, we need to explain the difference between the word “God” and the words used in the New Testament:

Modern English

In modern languages, we differentiate between the words “god” and “God:”

When we use a word as a proper name, we capitalize the first letter. The word “God,” therefore, has a very specific usage: It is the PROPER NAME of one specific being; the One who exists without cause.

The word “god,” on the other hand, is a general category name used for all supernatural beings. It is even for human beings with super-human qualities.

Ancient Greek

The capital “G,” therefore, makes a huge difference. But, when the Bible was written, and also in the fourth century, there were no capital letters. Or, more precisely, the ancients wrote only in capital letters. The distinction between upper and lower case letters did not yet exist. According to the article on the timeline of writing in Western Europe, the ancients used Greek majuscule (capital letters only) from the 9th to the 3rd century BC. In the following centuries, up until the 12th century AD, they used the uncial script, which still was only capital letters. Greek minuscule was only used in later centuries.

Te Greek word theos

Since the word “God” is a name for one specific Being, the original New Testament does not contain any one word with the same meaning as “God.” The New Testament writers used the word theos, which is the same word that was used for the pantheon of Greek gods. The word theos, therefore, is equivalent in meaning to our modern word “god.”  The word theos was also used for beings other than the one true God, even for “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4) and for human judges (John 10:35). Therefore, by describing the Father and the Son as “god,” the Bible and the fourth-century writers only indicated that the Father and the Son are immortal beings; similar to the immortal Greek gods. Consequently, the word “god” does not elevate the Father or the Son above the pagan gods.

The word “God,” in the translations of the New Testament and other ancient Greek writings, therefore, is an INTERPRETATION. When the translator believes that theos refers to the One who exists without a cause, theos is rendered as “God.”  But when Paul wrote spoke about the theos of the pagan nations, the New Testament translates that as “god.” And when it translates theos, when it refers to Jesus, as “God,” it does that on the assumption of the Trinity doctrine.

True god

To indicate that the Unique Being is intended, the Bible writers added words such as “only,” or “true” or “one” to theos. But most often they simply added the definite article “the” to theos to indicate that the God of the Bible is intended. 

In the Nicene Creed, both the Father and the Son are described as “true god.” The Bible never identifies the Son as “true god.” In the Bible, the “true god” is always the Father.  For example:

You, the only true God, and
Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3)

You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God,
and to wait for His Son from heaven” (I Thess 1:9-10).

So that we may know Him who is true;
and we are in Him who is true,
in His Son Jesus Christ.
This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).

But then translators translate the Greek equivalent of “true god” as “true God.” Not only is this faulty translation, the word “true” in the phrase “true God” is SUPERFLUOUS, for there is only one “true God.”  Since “God” already indicates the only true god, “true theos” should be translated either as “true god” or as “God.” 

Ulfilas’ Christology

Germanic missionary – The Goth Ulfilas (c. 311–383) was ordained as bishop by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia and returned to his Gothic people to work as a missionary. He translated the New Testament into the Gothic language and is credited with the conversion of the Gothic peoples, which resulted in the wide-scale conversion of the Germanic peoples. 

Ulfilas’ Arianism – What he believed is perhaps a good reflection of the Arianism that was generally accepted in the church between Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). He wrote:

I, Ulfila … believe in
only one God the Father,

the unbegotten and invisible,

and in his only-begotten Son,
our lord/master and God,
the designer and maker of all creation,
having none other like him.

Therefore, there is one God of all,
who is also God of our God;

and in one Holy Spirit,
the illuminating and sanctifying power …
Neither God nor lord/master,
but the faithful minister of Christ;
not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.

And I believe
the Son to be subject and obedient in all things
to God the Father

(Heather and Matthews. Goths in the Fourth Century. p. 143 –  Auxentius on Wulfila).

Discussion of Ulfilas’ Christology

The Father – Ultimate Cause of all else

Only one God

Ulfilas believed in “only one God,” who he identified as the Father.  Actually, this was the standard opening phrase of all ancient creeds. The Nicene Creed also starts as follows:

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

But then it continues to perhaps contradict this opening phrase by adding that the Son is “true god from true god“.

The unbegotten

Ulfilas identified the Father as “the unbegotten.” Arius also mentioned “the unbegotten,” which is that which exists without a cause. That means that the Father is the ultimate Cause of all else.  

Invisible

Ulfilas added that the Father is invisible. This is also stated a number of times in the New Testament (e.g. Col 1:15). Certainly, in the past, God appeared to people (theophanies), but an appearance is vastly different from God Himself. An appearance does not contain God in His fullness. It is not possible for God in His fullness to be seen, for He exists outside this visible realm.

Only-begotten Son

Ulfilas also believed in:

His only-begotten Son,
our lord/master and God,
the designer and maker of all creation,
having none other like him
.”

Our God

In this translation of Ulfilas’ statement, the Son is “our … God,” but this is faulty translation. It should be rendered “our god,” with a small “g.”  As explained above, the Greek of the New Testament does not have a name for the God of the Bible. It uses theos; the common word for the pagan gods but added words such as “the” or “only” or “true” to identify “the only true god” (John 17:3). To say that the Son is “god” simply means that He is a immortal being, like the pagan gods. Consequently, Ulfilas followed up His description of the Son with the following explanation:

Therefore, there is one God of all,
who is also God of our God;

In this phrase, “our God” again refers to Jesus. This is similar to Hebrews 1:8-9, which also refers to Jesus as theos, but then says that the Father is His theos.

The phrases “only-begotten” and “none other like him” identify the Son as utterly unique. 

Maker of all creation

Ulfilas described Son as the “designer and maker of all creation.” If He made all things, presumably, He was not made Himself.  

Arius wrote that the Son was “begotten, or created, or purposed, or established.” In other words, Arius did not make a clear distinction between begotten and created. But after Nicaea, Arianism emphasized that the phrase only begotten” means that the Son was not created. See, for example, the Long Lines Creed.

Only-Begotten

Ulfilas described the Son as the “only-begotten Son” of the “only one God the Father, the unbegotten.” The word “begotten,” which means that the Father gave birth to the Son, implies that the Son came from the being or substance of the Father. “Only-begotten” means that He is the only being that ever was born of God. 

Because He was “begotten” of the being or substance of God, the Nicene Creed described the Son as homoousios with the Father. This word comes from homós (same) and ousía (being or essence) and means “same substance.” In Latin, it is consubstantial. In other words, the Nicene claimed that the Son is of the “same substance” as the Father.

In Arianism, this means that the Father and the Son have the “same substance,” just like we as people have the “same substance,” but remain different persons with different skills and capacities.

Trinitarian theology replaces the word “same” with “one” and understands homoousian as that the Father and Son have “one substance;” like three Persons with one body.

In his description of the Father and the Son, Ulfilas does not mention substance at all, which is a good thing, for that concept is not revealed in the Bible (Deut 29:29). It was an unfortunate addition to the Nicene Creed, probably due to the insistence of the emperor, who presided over the proceedings. (Listen to Kegan Chandler on the term “homoousios.”)

Subordinate

In Trinitarian theology, the Son is in all respects equal with the Father. In contrast, in Arianism, “begotten” means that the Son’s existence was caused by the Father, and that He is dependent on the Father, who alone is the uncaused Cause of all things. Arianism claims that the Bible reveals Him as subordinate to the Father; both before and after His existence as a human being. See the article – Subordinate.

The Father is God of our God.

What really sets Him apart from the pagan gods is not the title “god,” but that He is “the designer and maker of all creation.”

God, the Father – All instances of the word “God” in the quote from Ulfilas should be translated “god;” even when referring to the Father.  Ulfilas made a distinction between the Father and the Son and the pagan gods in HOW he described Him, namely as the “only one god” who is “god of all” and also “god of our god.” 

God of our God – As Ulfilas wrote, “there is one God of all, who is also GOD OF OUR GOD.”  In other words, the Father is the Son’s god.  The Bible similarly describes Jesus as “only-begotten god” (John 1:18) and “mighty god” (Isaiah 9:6); the Lord of the universe (1 Cor. 8:6), but the Father as Jesus’ “God” (e.g. Rev. 3:2, 12; Heb. 1:8-9; John 20:17).  Paul described the Father is the Head of Christ. 

Subordinate – Ulfilas closed by saying, “I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.” 

The Holy Spirit is not a person.

Subject and obedient – Ulfilas furthermore believed “in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power … Neither God nor lord/master, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.” That the Holy Spirit is “neither God nor lord” implies that Ulfilas did not think of the Holy Spirit as a Person, but as a power, and a power that is subject and obedient in all things to the Son.

Therefore, the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father and the Holy Spirit is SUBORDINATE to the Son. 

No Trinity in the first four centuries

Ulfilas did not believe is the Trinity.  For him:

The Father alone was God. 
The Holy Spirit is not a Person.
There is no mention of three Persons in one Being.

It is often said that Arians do not believe in the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, which is true.  However, the concept of the Trinity, as we know it today, did not yet exist in Arius’ day. 

First 300 years – In the first three centuries, the church fathers did not think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three Persons in one Being.  Tertullian did use the word “trinity,” but he used it to refer to a group of three distinct beings; not use in the sense of a single being. 

Nicene Creed – Neither does the Nicene Creed contain the Trinity concept, as a careful reading of that creed will show.  The purpose of that creed was to say that the Son is equal to the Father; not say that they are one Being; the same God.  It does say that they are homoousios (of the same substance), but that does not mean that they are one being.  We may argue that human beings are of the same substance, and that does not make us all one being. 

The Trinity doctrine was formulated later in the fourth century, perhaps by the Cappadocian Fathers, probably in response to the Arian criticism that the Nicene Creed creates the impression of two gods and can be accused of polytheism.

Three Forms of Arianism

In fact, as debates raged during the five decades after Nicaea, in an attempt to come up with a new formula, different forms of Arianism evolved. Three camps are identified by scholars among the opponents of the Nicene Creed:

Different Substance

One group, similar to Arius, maintained that the Son is of a different substance than the Father. They described the Son as unlike (anhomoios) the Father.

Similar Substance

The Homoiousios Christians (only an “i” added to “homoousios”) accepted the equality and co-eternality of the persons of the Trinity, as per the Nicene Creed, but rejected the Nicene term homoousios. They preferred the term homoiousios (similar substance). This is very close to the different substance view of the Arians. Therefore, they were called “semi-Arians” by their opponents. (See homoousia.)

No speculation about Substance

Homoian Arianism maintained that the Bible does not reveal whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, and we, therefore, should not speculate about such things. They avoided the word ousia (substance) altogether and described the Son as homoios = like the Father. Although they avoided invoking the name of Arius, in large part they followed Arius’ teachings. RPC Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 557–559) lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith in the years 357 to 383.

None of these groups, therefore, adopted the Trinitarian approach of “one substance.”

In the fourth century, these differences were taken quite seriously and divided the church; similar to the denominations in Christianity we know today. Depending on the interpretation supported by Emperor Constantius, for example, wavered in his support between the first and the second party, while harshly persecuting the third.

Historians, unfortunately, categorize all three positions as Arianism, but there are important differences between these views.