Did Arius corrupt theology with pagan philosophy?

Summary

Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of mixing philosophy with theology. This article shows that that is not true. There are two ways in which Greek philosophy could have influenced the debate in the fourth century:

Logos-theology

In Greek philosophy, the Logos was the Intermediary between God and creation. The Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (the Apologists) identified the Son of God as that Greek Logos. Consequently, Logos-theology was orthodoxy when the Arian Controversy began. It was accepted by most delegates to Nicaea. Therefore, Arius did not bring Logos-theology into the church. In fact, Arius was not comfortable with Logos-theology.

Classical Theism

Classical Theism includes principles such as that God is immaterial, unable to change or do evil, exists outside time, and incapable of suffering or feeling pain. These principles from Greek philosophy were accepted by Christian theologians in the centuries before Arius and all theologians of the fourth century accepted these principles. Theologians, generally accept these principles even to this day.

Arius was not a philosopher.

Our authors conclude:

Arius. “is not a philosopher, and it would be a mistake to accuse him of distorting theology to serve the ends of philosophical tidiness. On the contrary: the strictly philosophical issues are of small concern to Arius.” (RW, 230)

The Cappadocians were philosophers.

However, while Arius was traditionally accused of using philosophy, according to R.P.C. Hanson, it was the Cappadocian fathers who, in the years 360-380, developed the Trinity Doctrine (pro-Nicene theology) as a way to explain “how the Nicene creed should be understood” (LA, 6), who were deeply influenced by philosophy. “The Cappadocians … were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863) 

– END OF SUMMARY –

Arius is accused of philosophy.

Scholars have often accused Arius of combining Christian theology with philosophy. For example:

Up to the 1830s, “it had been customary to associate the Arian system primarily with Neoplatonism” (RW, 3).

Gwatkin (1900) described Arianism as the result of “irreverent philosophical speculation” and “almost as much a philosophy as a religion.” (RW, 9)

“Harnack’s … sees Aristotelian Rationalism as the background of Arius’ system.” (RW, 6)

Even modern writers sometimes say, for example: “The heretics typically took pre-existing Christian or Jewish tradition (and) combined it with certain philosophical rhetoric.” (Wedgeworth)

The purpose of this article is to determine whether Arius and/or his opponents were primarily philosophers.

Authors quoted

This article series is largely based on three books:

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004
Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

These are world-class scholars and Trinitarians who have made in-depth studies of the Arian Controversy of the fourth century and are regarded as specialists in this field.

Forms of Philosophy in Theology

There are two forms of philosophy that could have influenced theology, namely:

      • The general principles of Classical Theism and
      • The more specific application of such principles in the traditional Christian Logos-theology.

Logos-Theology

The Logos of Greek Philosophy

In Greek philosophy, the Logos was the Intermediary between God and creation.

In Greek philosophy:

The Supreme Being is immutable, abstract, and immaterial.

For that reason, He is unable to communicate directly with our world of change, decay, transitoriness, and matter.

Therefore, He brought forth the divine Logos or nous as His agent for creating the world and for revealing Himself in the world. (Hanson)

The Logos of the Apologists

The Apologists identified the Son as that Greek Logos.

These concepts from Greek philosophy were generally accepted in the intellectual world of the Roman Empire. The Christian Apologists (the pre-Nicene fathers), therefore, found it effective to identify the Biblical Son of God with the divine Logos of Greek philosophy; both before and after He ‘became a man’. (Hanson) For example:

“Ever since the work of Justin Martyr, Christian theologians had tended to use the identification of the pre-existent Son with some similar concept in contemporary Middle Platonism as a convenient philosophical device” (RH, 22-23).

The Apologists’ Logos-theology, therefore, was strongly based on Greek philosophy.

Logos-theology was orthodoxy.

Logos-theology was orthodoxy when the Arian Controversy began.

Logos-theology was the standard explanation of the Son when the Arian Controversy began. Both Arius and his opponents inherited and accepted Logos-theology. For example:

“Our mistake is to try to interpret him (Arius) in terms of a theology with which he was not at home, the Logos-theology he shares with his opponents.” (RW, 12)

Most delegates to Nicaea accepted Logos-theology. The West was poorly represented at Nicaea (Erickson) and “the great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) … were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology.”1Frend, W.H.C.: The Rise of Christianity

Hanson uses the term “Logos-doctrine” for “the theological structure provided by the Apologists” and confirms that it was “the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted.” (Hanson’s article)

Arius did not bring Logos-theology into the church.

While writers have often accused Arius of attempting to bring pagan philosophy into the church, the above shows that pagan philosophy, in the form of Logos-theology, had entered the church during the centuries before Arius. It was something that both Arius and his enemies inherited and accepted. Arius did not attempt to bring it into the church.

Arius was not comfortable with Logos-theology.

On the contrary, as Williams stated, Arius was not “at home” with Logos-theology (RW, 12-13). It was not part of his language.

Classical Theism

What is Classical Theism?

“‘Classical theism’ is the name given to the model of God we find in Platonic, neo-Platonic, and Aristotelian philosophy.” (Springer) In this model, God is, amongst others:

      • “Unqualifiedly perfect,”
      • Immutable, meaning unable to change or do evil,
      • Impassible, meaning incapable of suffering or feeling pain,
      • An “absolute unity,” meaning that He does not consist of parts,
      • Fully self-sufficient, including that He exists without cause,
      • “Atemporal,” meaning that He exists outside time and is not subject to time,
      • Immaterial, meaning that He is free from all limitations of space and matter.

The pre-Nicene fathers accepted Classical Theism.

Arius inherited these concepts from the church fathers. For example:

“The Christian theologians of the second and third centuries” used “this particular type of Platonism … for explaining the relation of the Father to the Son.” (RH, 85-86)

Arius received “this type of Platonism … through Clement and Origen.” (RH, 87) (Clement and Origen are famous Alexandrians from the third century.)

Arius’ opponents accepted Classical Theism.

Arius did use such principles from Classical Theism in his arguments but if we judge Arius to be a philosopher for that reason, then all theologians in the fourth century were philosophers for they all accepted these principles. For example:

“For all the writers of the early Church, that freedom from time, matter, fate and chance expressed in the classical philosophical attribution of negative predicates to God (immateriality, immutability, and so on) was self-evidently the only way to make sense of scriptural data … Athanasius is at one with Arius here.” (RW, 111)

“All Greek-speaking writers in the fourth century were to a greater or lesser degree indebted to Greek philosophy.” (RH, 858-9)

All fourth-century theologians accepted Classical Theism.

“It would … be absurd to deny that discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy.

The reason for this was … a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself.” (RH, xxi)

“The fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy.” (Hanson’s Article)

Hanson wrote:

“One can draw up a rough list of the general presuppositions derived from contemporary philosophy which were likely to occupy the mind of any Christian theologian in the fourth century:

        • reality meant ontological permanence so that God, the highest form of reality, is most immutable of all;
        • and he cannot in any way involve himself with pathos (process, change or flux or human experience)” (RH, 859)

He says:

“These did not necessarily cancel nor obscure Biblical ideas and assumptions in the minds of those who held them, but they certainly coloured and shaped their general outlook.” (RH, 859)

“Christians were capable of using Platonist terms without necessarily being Platonists.” (RH, 861-2)

Arius was not a philosopher.

For these reasons, in contrast to the accusations listed above, our authors conclude that Arius was not a philosopher:

“We misunderstand him completely … if we see him as primarily a self-conscious philosophical speculator. … Arius was by profession an interpreter of the Scriptures.” (RW, 107-108)

“He is not a philosopher, and it would be a mistake to accuse him of distorting theology to serve the ends of philosophical tidiness. On the contrary: the strictly philosophical issues are of small concern to Arius.” (RW, 230)

“It is not just to dismiss him as one wholly preoccupied with philosophy. … His chief source was necessarily not the ideas of Plato or Aristotle or Zeno, but the Bible.” (RH, 98)

The Cappadocians were philosophers.

While Arianism is often accused of corrupting theology with philosophy, the shoe is on the other foot. Pro-Nicene theology was developed in the period 360-380 by essentially the three Cappadocian fathers, and they were, according to R.P.C. Hanson, deeply influenced by philosophy:

No philosophers before the Cappadocians

“Before the advent of the Cappadocian theologians there are two clear examples only of Christian theologians being deeply influenced by Greek philosophy.” (RH, 862) However, they did not have much influence:

“One is … Marius Victorinus … [who] had no influence that can be ascertained on his contemporaries.” (RH, 862)

“The other … is the Neo-Arian theologians Aetius and Eunomius … [who were] repudiated by almost all other Christian parties, pro-Nicene or anti-Nicene.” (RH, 862-3)

The Cappadocians were Christian Platonists.

“The Cappadocians, however, present us with a rather different picture. … They were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863)

Basil of Caesarea

“The debt of Basil of Caesarea to philosophy is undeniable” (RH, 863). “He … uses arguments drawn from several different philosophical traditions … along with arguments drawn from Scripture and tradition” (RH, 864). “Basil knew something of the work of Plotinus and consciously employed both his ideas and his vocabulary when he thought them applicable.” (RH, 866)

Gregory of Nazianzus

“Gregory of Nazianzus … certainly was deeply influenced by Platonism” (RH, 867). “In Trinitarian contexts, Gregory parallels Plotinus’ nous (mind) to the Father, and the Logos to the Son, and his thought of God as simple as ‘first ousia’, ‘first nature’ (Physis), the ‘first cause’ … all resemble doctrines of Plotinus.” (RH, 867)

Gregory of Nyssa

“Gregory of Nyssa … was more concerned than they (the other two Cappadocians) to build a consistent philosophical account of Christianity. He had therefore much more need of philosophy than they. … It is impossible to deny that he was influenced by the work of Plotinus.” (RH, 868)

What type of philosophy did Arius prefer?

Both RPC Hanson and Rowan Williams discuss the type of philosophy which Arius preferred, but they come to different conclusions:

Hanson proposes that “Middle Platonist philosophy” was a strong “candidate for the philosophical source of Arius’ thought.” (RH, 85-86)

But Williams thinks that “Arius’ metaphysics and cosmology … is of a markedly different kind from … ‘Middle Platonism'” (RW, 230) and that Arius “stands close to Plotinus and his successors.” (RW, 230)

Parallels to Middle Platonism

The following are some of the parallels which Hanson sees:

In both Arius and Middle Platonism, God and things exist ‘beyond’ time. “Arius … held that the Son was produced before all ages but yet there was a time when he did not exist.” (RH, 86)

Both Arius and Middle Platonism have a “drastic subordination of the Son to the Father.” (RH, 87)

In philosophy, Arius is ahead of his time.

Williams, therefore, concludes as follows:

“In philosophy, he is ahead of his time; he … presses the logic of God’s transcendence and ineffability to a consistent conclusion.” (RW, 233)

“And here is a still stranger paradox – his apophaticism (knowledge of God) foreshadows the concerns of Nicene theology later in the fourth century, the insights of the Cappadocians, or even Augustine.” (RW, 233)


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Frend, W.H.C.: The Rise of Christianity

The origin of the word Homoousios in the Nicene Creed

Overview

The Nicene Creed says that the Son of God is homoousios (of the same substance as) the Father. The word homoousios does not appear in the Bible and was not part of the standard Christian language before Nicaea. So, where did it come from, and who put it in the Creed? 

The Nicene Creed was intended to bring an end to the Controversy. However, the term homoousios remained an issue of controversy for 55 years after Nicaea in 325. In this period, the Controversy was no longer about Arius’ theology.

Another article shows that, before Nicaea, the only Christians who favored the term were Sabellians. That article is required pre-reading.

So, why was the term included? This article evaluates several options but concludes that it was included because Emperor Constantine insisted on it.

The Arians objected to the word homoousios because it seems to say that God has a physical body and because of its Sabellian connotations. However, the pro-Nicenes also disliked this word. For example, after Nicaea, nobody mentions the term for over twenty years, and at the Council of the Western Bishops at Sardica in the year 343, these pro-Nicene theologians replaced homoousios with “one hypostasis.”

So, since there is no “evidence of a normal, well-established Christian use of the term homoousios in its strictly Trinitarian meaning, either before or during Constantine’s time, where did Constantine get this word?

RPC Hanson wrote that homoousios was “borrowed from the pagan philosophy” (RH, 846). This article shows that the word homoousios is an integral part of the theological terminology of Hellenistic-Roman Egypt. In both Egyptian paganism and the Nicene Creed, the word meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son, who are two distinct beings, share the same perfection of the divine nature. The theological use of homoousios, therefore, should be traced back to its real pre-Christian Egyptian roots.

Sources

This article relies on the following sources:

Beatrice – A 2002 article by Pier Franco Beatrice, professor of Early Christian Literature at the University of Padua, Italy, on the origin of the word homoousios in the Nicene Creed. Unless otherwise stated, all assertions in this article are from Beatrice’s article.

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams, Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001

Purpose

The Nicene Creed says that the Son is of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father. Since the word does not appear in the Bible, the purpose of this article is to determine the origin of this word, who added it to the Nicene Creed, and what it meant at the time. 

Cause of the Controversy

It is usually thought that the Arian Controversy was caused by Arius’ theology. That may be true for the first seven years until Nicaea in 325 but that council made a quick end to Arius’ theology. During the main part of the Controversy – after Nicaea – the Controversy was about the Creed’s use of these “radical words” to describe the Son; no longer about Arius’ theology. For example:

Williams refers to “the conservative anti-Nicene response” in “the first half of the fourth century” (RW, 236).

And he says, “Arianism,’ throughout most of the fourth century, was in fact a loose and uneasy coalition of those hostile to Nicaea in general and the homoousios in particular” (RW, 166).

The term homoousios is often regarded as the most important word in the Creed.

Pre-Nicene Uses

For a discussion of the pre-Nicene uses of Homoousios, see – The Meaning of Homoousios. It concludes that. before Nicaea, the only Christians who favored the term were Sabellians. That article is required pre-reading.

Who proposed the word?

So, if the word homoousios is not found in the Holy Scriptures or in the orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea but rather in Sabellianism, why was it included in the Nicene Creed, which is regarded by some as the most important of all Christian creeds?

Scholars do not agree on this. There remains significant disagreement about how the word was used before the year 325, why it was included in the Creed, and by whom. The following are possible explanations:

1. Emperor Constantine

Eusebius of Caesarea, who is “universally acknowledged to be the most scholarly bishop of his day” (RH, 46), has already before Nicaea denied that other beings share the same substance of God. He was the leader of the “Originist”-party at Nicaea in 325 (Erickson).

In his letter to his church in Caesarea, written immediately after the Nicene Council in 325, Eusebius attempted to justify the fact that he had subscribed to the Creed of Nicaea containing the word homoousios. One of the things he wrote is that the word homoousios was inserted into the Nicene Creed solely at the insistence of Emperor Constantine. Since Eusebius wrote this immediately after the end of the council and given his high status, it would seem impossible to deny that his report is substantially reliable.

Given the modern culture of religious freedom, the reader might find it strange that an emperor can insist on the inclusion of a key word in a church decree. However, as RPC Hanson stated:

“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine (during the Arian Controversy), there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority” (RH, 849).

We also need to remember that the so-called ‘ecumenical’ church councils of the fourth century were “the very invention and creation of the Emperor” (RH, 855). “Everybody recognised the right of an Emperor to call a council, or even to veto or quash its being called” (RH, 849-50). “The Emperor was expected to dominate and control them” (RH, 855).

2. Eusebius of Caesarea

Rowan Williams has a different proposal. He argues that Eusebius of Caesarea managed to develop an understanding of homoousios that was acceptable to almost everybody and that he coached the emperor to provide that explanation. He describes that explanation in his letter to his home church (RW, 69-70).

But, if Eusebius of Caesarea fundamentally disagreed with the word homoousios, what would motivate him to develop an ‘acceptable’ understanding? Is it not better to accept the word of the highly respected Eusebius, namely that the emperor enforced the formula?

3. To Repel the Arians

“Ambrose adds that … the bishops decided to include the word in the creed, seeing how strongly the Arians disliked it.” (RW, 69) In other words, they included the word in the Creed simply to force the Arians to reject the Creed so that the emperor could exile them; not because it was regarded as an important Christian word or concept.

However, Ambrose did not attend the council at Nicaea and had no direct contact with its delegates. He only wrote in the second half of the fourth century and Beatrice states that Ambrose does not seem to be well-informed about the details of the council.

Furthermore, if it was included to force the Arians to reject the Creed, that would explain WHY the word was included, not WHO advocated for it.

4. Western Theology

Some modern German scholars have claimed that homoousios was adopted at Nicaea because it expressed the Western theology of the Spanish bishop Ossius.

Supporters of this view point out that Tertullian was the first Western theologian to use the expression “unius substantiae” (one substance) in a Trinitarian context. They then propose that the word homoousios was the Greek equivalent of the Latin unius substantiae and that its introduction into the Nicene Creed was a victory for the Western tradition.

However, for the following reasons, Beatrice concludes that this thesis is to be rejected.

Firstly, as RPC Hanson stated: “We have no satisfactory evidence that it [i.e. homoousios] was a term at home in Western theology” (RH, 201).

Secondly, at the council of the ‘Western’ bishops held at Sardica in 343, where Ossius could freely express his thoughts, the word homoousios was ignored. The Western bishops wrote: “We … teach, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost have one hypostasis.”

Thirdly, Tertullian translated the word homoousios, which was used before his time by the Gnostics, as “consubstantialis” and not as “unius substantiae.” He, therefore, did not regard homoousios, at least as it was used by the Gnostics, to be the Greek equivalent of the Latin unius substantiate. The discussion of Tertullian’s theology elaborates on this point.

5. The Delegates

Athanasius wrote that the delegates to the council decided to include the word.

However, the Arian historian Philostorgius wrote that one of the parties at the council, under the leadership of Ossius of Cordova, formulated a draft creed before the meeting and that Ossius presented that creed at the council in his capacity as chairperson (RW, 69). In other words, it was not proposed from the floor.

Conclusion

By exclusion, the only remaining explanation is the one provided by Eusebius of Caesarea, namely that the word homoousios was included in the creed because Emperor Constantine insisted on it. So, where did he get it?

Response from the Delegates

Arians

The Arians opposed the word homoousios for several reasons, including that:

It gives the impression that God has a physical body, which everybody denies. Arius specifically connected the word homoousios with the “materialistic” theology of Mani.

They regarded the word to be Sabellian and, therefore, that it confounds the Persons of the Trinity. For example, Hanson noted that “the Arians always accuse the pro-Nicenes of confounding the Persons of the Trinity.” (RH, 102)

Pro-Nicenes

However, it is important to understand that the anti-Arians also disliked this word. Beatrice says that they were “strikingly reticent about homoousios, in a way that reminds us of Dionysius of Rome.” The following confirms this:

1. Eusebius of Caesarea unambiguously stated that it was Constantine, and nobody else, not even the anti-Arians, who wanted the word homoousios.

2. The word falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years (See – Hanson Lecture). “Even Athanasius for about twenty years after Nicaea is strangely silent about this adjective (homoousios) which had been formally adopted into the creed of the Church in 325” (RH, 58-59). See also, Why was Homoousios not mentioned after Nicaea?

3. At the Council of the Western bishops at Sardica in the year 343, where they gave a different explanation of the relationship between the Father and the Son, the pro-Nicene theologians Ossius of Cordova and Marcellus of Ancyra omitted the word. This was, without doubt, an intentional omission.

4. At the end of his long life, spent resisting Arianism, Ossius participated in drafting the “blasphemy” of Sirmium (AD 357). That creed states that neither homoousios nor homoiousios are Biblical and that inquiries about God’s essence are beyond human understanding.1Sozomen, Hist. eccl. IV,12,6 (SC 418, 242) This seems to be decisive proof that Ossius had no responsibility at all for the introduction of homoousios in the Creed of Nicaea.

5. Eustathius, archbishop of Antioch in the 4th century, whose anti-Arian polemic against Eusebius of Nicomedia made him unpopular among his fellow bishops in the East, openly expressed his dissatisfaction with the formula approved at Nicaea, complaining that he and his anti-Arian fellows had been reduced to silence to preserve peace.

Since the anti-Arians also disliked this word, it could not have been ‘suggested’ to Constantine by his “orthodox” advisers. Homoousios was a stumbling block for all attendees to the council, without distinction; Arians and anti-Arians.

Pagan Origin

So, since there is no “evidence of a normal, well-established Christian use of the term homoousios in its strictly Trinitarian meaning” either before or during Constantine’s time, why did he insist on the inclusion of the word? Where did Constantine get this word that the Arians openly rejected and the pro-Nicenes regarded with suspicion if not with hostility? And what was the meaning of this word in Constantine’s mind, that compelled him to challenge both parties in this way?

Hanson described homoousios as a new term “borrowed from the pagan philosophy” (RH, 846) but he does not elaborate. Beatrice agrees that, since Christian tradition does not answer these questions, we turn to the pagan world.

The Poimandres

The only pagan text known so far that uses homoousios in a discussion specifically and exclusively concerned with the nature of God is the Poimandres, the first tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum. This is the mystic doctrine of the Egyptian scribe-priests. It describes the following divine beings:

      • The Nous (Mind) is the supreme God.
      • The Logos (Word) proceeds from him and is the Son of God.
      • By speaking, the Nous generated a second Nous, the Demiurge … who crafted the sensible world.

The important point is that the Poimandres states that both the Logos and the Demiurge are homoousios.

It is possible that the writer of the Poimandres borrowed the word homoousios from Christian theology. However, Beatrice argues that, although the Poimandres uses Hellenistic philosophical terminology, it reflects the genuinely pagan doctrine of the Egyptian priests. In other words, the concept of homoousios characterizes the overall Hermetic conception of the Godhead, making it likely that the word originates from the mystic doctrine of the Egyptian scribe-priests.

The Theosophia

Beatrice also quotes from the Theosophia, but this is a sixth-century document and has many similarities to the Trinity doctrine. For example:

“There was a unique Nous, more intelligent than all … 
from him the intelligent Logos, creator of the universe, eternally incorruptible Son … one with the Father. Distinct from the Father only by name … being from the glory of the Father, consubstantial (homoousios) … 
with the prime holy Pneuma and beginning of life.”

“They are three, but they are only one nature.”

“They are a pure trinity, being the one in the other.”

“The Son-Logos is God as is the Father, since his substance is derived from the substance of the Father.”

Because of these similarities to the Trinity doctrine, I believe that the Theosophia are “forgeries” fabricated to demonstrate harmony between pagan wisdom and the Christianity of that day. In support of this view, Beatrice mentions that the Theosophia at times report some blatantly bogus oracles.

Constantine and Hermeticism

So, was Constantine familiar with the Hermetic tradition? Beatrice argues that Constantine was not only familiar with it but that the Hermetic tradition had a strong influence on Constantine’s religious thought. Beatrice argues as follows:

Firstly, in his youth, Constantine certainly had contact with pagan philosophers at Diocletian’s court.

Secondly, in Constantine’s so-called Speech to the Assembly of the Saints, Constantine praises Plato for having said many true things about God, including that Plato taught:

          1. Two Gods having the same perfection;
          2. The second receives its subsistence from the first and is subordinate to the first;
          3. The first works through the second.

Beatrice argues that this statement with its two gods has no relation at all with Plato’s real doctrine but that it is similar to Hermeticism.

Thirdly, Lactantius, one of Constantine’s advisors, also claimed that “Plato spoke about the first God and the second god” but then adds, “Plato perhaps was following the teaching of Hermes Trismegistus.” Although Lactantius recognizes two distinct gods, he still thinks that the Father and the Son have in common one Mind, one Spirit, and one Substance, according to the Hermetic doctrine of “consubstantiality.” So, perhaps Lactantius influenced Constantine to interpret Plato’s theology as Hermetic.

Fourthly, just a few months after the Nicene council, Constantine wrote a disconcerting letter to the Church of Nicomedia in which he described Jesus by using concepts from Egyptian paganism. He wrote: “Christ is called Father as he eternally begets his Aion, and that he is called Son as he is the Will of the Father.” This confirms Constantine’s involvement with Egyptian paganism, for Aion is also the name of the Son of the virgin Kore, whose birth was celebrated in Egyptian rituals. And the notion of the creative will of God is found again in the Poimandres and the Asclepius. 

Fifthly, it is normally said that Constantine ascribed his victory to the Christian God but the anonymous pagan panegyrist of Trier in the year 313 identified the divine Mind (the Hermetic Nous) as the source of the emperor’s inspiration. And the inscription on the arch (315 C.E.) attributes the victory of Constantine at the battle of the Milvian Bridge to the inspiration of the Divinity and the greatness of the “divine Mind.”

Sixthly, in a document dated 326 AD, Nicagoras, torchbearer of the Eleusinian Mysteries, thanked Constantine for allowing him to visit the underground passages of the Valley of the Kings near Thebes in Upper Egypt–many centuries after the “divine” Plato visited the same places. This shows that Constantine maintained close personal contact with “pagan” intellectuals such as Nicagoras. It is also important that the word homoousios has been preserved in those underground passages, as recorded by the Theosophia.

Conclusions

Particularly, the Poimandres shows that the word homoousios was an integral part of the theological terminology of Hellenistic-Roman Egypt. In both Egyptian paganism and the Nicene Creed, the word meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son, who are two distinct beings, share the same perfection of the divine nature. The theological use of homoousios, therefore, should be traced back to its real Egyptian, pre-Christian roots.

But what did the word mean for Constantine? Beatrice concludes that Constantine:

Fully shared the concern of the Fathers of Nicaea in sustaining the divine nature of the Logos-Son against the threat of Arian subordinationism. He imposed homoousios in order to place the Logos-Son unequivocally on the side of the transcendent Father.

Did not adopt the word with the sole “political” aim of isolating Arius.

Did not support Sabellian or Monarchian theology because, in his thought, consistent with the ancient Egyptian theology, the word homoousios did not contradict the distinction of two divine ousiai.


Other Articles in this Series

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 19The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 20‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 21In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 22This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 23Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

The Pro-Nicenes

Authors on the Arian Controversy

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

Trinity Doctrine – General

    • Elohim 28Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 29The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

All articles on this Site

External sources:

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Sozomen, Hist. eccl. IV,12,6 (SC 418, 242)
  • 2
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 3
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 4
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 5
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 6
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 7
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 8
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 9
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 10
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 11
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 12
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 13
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 14
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 15
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 16
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 17
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 18
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 19
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 20
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 21
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 22
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 23
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 24
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 25
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 26
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 27
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 28
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 29
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.
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