The Council and Creed of Constantinople 381

Authors / Sources

This article series is based largely on the books of two world-class scholars and specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy:

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –
The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

When people talk about “the Nicene Creed,” they often mean the creed formulated at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. But there were two ‘Nicene’ creeds: Hanson refers to them using the following codes:

      • N = Creed of Nicaea of 325
      • C = Creed of Constantinople of 381

The Proceedings of the Council

“The Council of Constantinople met during May, June and July 381.” (RH, 805)

Not an Ecumenical Council

This is sometimes called the second ecumenical council but this council was not ‘ecumenical’ at all. Ayres says:

“The details … of this council indicate the problems with later presentation of the meeting as an ‘ecumenical’ reaffirmation of Nicaea.” (LA, 255)

For example:

      • The delegates were drawn only from a limited area.
      • Only bishops supporting one specific views were invited.
      • Already in the previous year (380) the emperor made the Trinity doctrine the state religion of the Roman Empire, outlawed all opposition, and exiled the main leaders of the anti-Nicenes.

This is confirmed by the following:

“When Theodosius had entered Constantinople in November 380,” he immediately exiled the Homoian bishop Demophilus. (LA, 253)

The council was summoned by Theodosius; not by the church. (LA, 253)

“It seems unlikely that this meeting was intended as a universal council to rival Seleucia/Ariminum or Nicaea itself. … Those present at the council initially came from a fairly restricted area and the majority from areas known to be favourable to Meletius.” (LA, 253)

“Only about 150 bishops attended and they appear to have been carefully chosen from areas which would be friendly to Meletius, who was its president, that is areas under the influence of the see of Antioch.” (RH, 806) Meletius was the leader of the Pro-Nicene faction in Antioch.

Rome was not involved in this council at all. Hanson refers to the “tenuous contact which the council might have been thought to have with the see of Rome.” (RH, 807)

Dominated by the Emperor

There are several indications that Emperor Theodosius dominated the council:

He summoned the bishops.

“Theodosius welcomed the participants in his magnificent throne-room in the Imperial palace. … Theodosius did not appear at any session of the Council, but remained in the wings, as it were, holding a watching brief.” (RH, 806)

“The wording of the pneumatological article owed something to indirect pressure from Theodosius who saw that a larger number of bishops would accept C if it were expressed in a cautious way.” (RH, 815)

After Theodosius had exiled the Homoian bishop of Constantinople (Demophilus) in November 380, he “accepted Gregory Nazianzen (one of the Cappadocians) as de facto bishop” (LA, 253) of Constantinople. “The first act of the Council was to affirm that Gregory of Nazianzus was the Catholic and legitimate bishop of Constantinople.” (RH, 806; cf. LA, 253-4) In other words, the council merely ratified the emperor’s selection of Gregory as bishop.

The meeting began with Meletius as the presiding officer but, “during the council Meletius suddenly died, and Gregory of Constantinople was chosen to succeed him as president of the council.” (RH, 807) 

“At some point he (Gregory) seems also to have lost the support of Theodosius.” (LA, 255)

“In Gregory’s place Nectarius, an unbaptized civil official in Constantinople, was chosen” (LA, 255), “who then became president of the council” (RH, 807).

After Gregory had resigned, “the Council found itself in a quandary over the choice of a new bishop of the capital city. … They finally picked … an unbaptised layman, Nectarius, who had been praetor urbanus in Constantinople. It was as if today the cardinals had chosen as Pope … the mayor of Rome.” (RH, 811)

So, Theodosius had one of his civil servants appointed as presiding officer and as bishop.


Ayres often mentions the Homoiousians in the context of the 381 council. For example:

    • Gregory of N “had strongly opposed any compromise with the Homoiousians.” (LA, 255)
    • The creed was formulated for the purpose of a “debate with the 36 Homoiousian bishops.” (LA, 256)
    • Some think that “the omission of ‘from the ousia of the Father’” “resulted from negotiation with Homoiousians” (LA, 256)
    • “The very ambiguity of Constantinople’s pneumatological clauses enabled it to serve not only as a negotiating tool to draw in as many Homoiousians and ex-Homoiousians as possible” (LA, 258)

This is important to understand the context. “The pro-Nicene faction in the capital (Constantinople) was small.” They were “a marginalized group.” (LA, 244) The faction of the Arians that dominated the church during the years before the council was the Homoians but the Arian faction nearest to the Pro-Nicenes was the Homoiousians. Therefore, at the council, the pro-Nicenes attempted to draw in the Homoiousians.

The Creed of Constantinople

Produced in 381

“The first question to decide about C is whether or not it was produced by the council which met in the capital city of the Roman Empire in 381. … No surviving document reproduces C until it is … read out at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451, seventy years after the date at which it was supposed to have been composed.” (RH, 812)

Hanson discusses “some evidence, tenuous but not easy to explain away, that the existence of C was known before the year 451” (RH, 813) and concludes, “as seems almost certain, C was indeed composed by the council of 381” (RH, 815).

Gregory of Nazianzus

One “piece of evidence that the Council of 381 drew up C comes from the words of Gregory of Nazianzus us about the council.” (RH, 814) “He is complaining that the majority of the council, motivated by a mixture of ignorance, cupidity and fear of imperial displeasure, added to the creed N words which were not unorthodox but were inadequate and inappropriate.” (RH, 815)

The Creed

Similar to the Creed of 325, the Creed begins by saying:

“We believe in one God,
the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth
and of all things visible and invisible.” (LA, 255)

It continues to describe “Jesus Christ” as

One Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God, the Only-begotten,
begotten by his Father before all ages,
Light from light, true God from true God,
begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father,
through whom all things came into existence” (LA, 255)

The Creed continues with the usual description of Jesus Christ from His incarnation until His return. The creed then has a much longer description of the Holy Spirit than in N:

And (we believe) in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and Life-giver,
who proceeds from the Father,
who is worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, who spoke by the prophets; (RH, 816)

Hanson lists 12 differences between N and C and says that “most of these twelve differences have no significance at all.” (RH, 816) The significant differences are the following:

No end to his kingdom

In the description of the Son, the creed adds, “and there will be no end to his kingdom.” (LA, 255) It “was certainly inserted as a precaution against the doctrine of Marcellus.” (RH, 817)

From the substance of the Father

This Creed omits the statement in the original Nicene Creed that the Son was begotten “from the substance of the Father.” Various possible reasons for this omission have been proposed. For example:

    • Hanson says the omission was “out of indifference or carelessness.” He says that “the bishops in 381” probably did not “use a creed as a carefully-designed formula to assert a complicated theological doctrine.” (RH, 818)
    • Ayres proposes that this phrase “probably meant far less” in the pro-Nicene theology of “Basil and Meletius.” (LA, 257)

The Holy Spirit

Compared to the Creed of 325, the 381-Creed “added clauses on the Spirit to insist (though without directly asserting that the Spirit was God) that ‘with the Father and the Son He is worshipped and glorified’.” (LA, 434) The creed says that the Son is homoousios with the Father and that He is “true God from true God” but does not say the same about the Holy Spirit. Why not? Hanson says:

“C’s article on the Holy Spirit … summarizes very nicely the doctrine of Basil of Caesarea; it does not directly call the Holy Spirit God and it does not apply the word homoousion to him, but it does clearly declare that he is an object of equal (not inferior) worship with the other two Persons.” (RH, 818)

Basil and “many who were not Macedonians” others “did not wish to take the further step which gave Gregory of Nazianzus no difficulty, of directly calling him God (rather than divine, theion) and consubstantial.” (RH, 818-9) [What the Macedonians denied that the Holy Spirit “is worshipped and glorified” “with the Father and the Son.” (RH, 818)]

“This is why Gregory of Nazianzus objected so strongly to C: it declared a ‘half-way’ doctrine which was not unorthodox but which did not go as far as Gregory wanted it to go. Better, he thought, to leave the bare statement of N and permit orthodox theologians to read the full doctrine into it, as Athanasius and Damasus had done.” (RH, 819; cf. LA, 257)

No Anathemas

“There is no difficulty in accounting for the omission in C of the anathemas of N, for owing to the change in the meaning of hypostasis and ousia one of them (the anathemas) had become an embarrassment rather than an asset.” (RH, 819)

But Ayres says that “Nicaea’s anathemas” were omitted because “the creed was not designed to exclude a party present at the council.” (LA, 256)

An Update of the Nicene Creed?

Not a Precise Marker of Orthodoxy

Today, we often use the Creed as “a precise marker of orthodoxy” but scholars seem to agree that that was not the original intention:

Contrary to how these creeds later became to be used, “part of the reason for the lack of reference to this creed until the council of Chalcedon in 451 is the lack of intention of its framers that the Constantinople creed serve as a precise marker of orthodoxy.” (LA, 256)

J.N.D. Kelly said that this creed was intended merely for one specific debate. “Kelly argues that in debate with the 36 Homoiousian bishops, it was necessary to state in a simple form the ‘Nicene faith.’” (LA, 256)

“The Fathers of the ancient church were not concerned about the exact wording of formulae.” (RH, 820)

An Independent Document

Did the council begin with the 325-Creed and revised it?

Britannica says that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 “was probably … an independent document and not an enlargement of the Creed of Nicaea.”

Hanson says similarly:

“These meaningless variations (between N and C) make it quite clear that C is not an amended form of N, but that its original was a quite different creed.” (RH, 816-7)

“If we take this view we can also rid ourselves of the illusion that the compilers of C ‘omitted’ the clause ‘from the ousia of the Father’. In their view, and in the view of their contemporaries, this clause was not ‘omitted’ because it was still in N, of which C was a re-affirmation. C did not in their eyes cancel N, but rather enhanced it.” (RH, 820)

A Revised Theology

The Same Theology

But the more important question is whether the Creed of 381 teaches a different theology compared to the Creed of 325. Ayres and Hanson seem to agree that the two creeds say more or less the same thing in different words:

Ayres says: “Nobody intended this (381) creed as a replacement for Nicaea, merely as a statement of Nicaea’s faith.” (LA, 256)

Hanson states: “Those who drew up C … and used it for the next fifty years did not think of it as a new, separate, creed … but simply as a reaffirmation of N, an endorsement of what it really meant by means of a little further explanation.” (RH, 820)

However, there are also many indications that the Creed of 381 does say something different and that it is an improvement of the Creed of 325:

Nicaea increased the Confusion.

Firstly, the 325-creed was intended to bring an end to the Controversy but it actually increased the confusion:

“The creed of Nicaea, sanctioned by imperial decree … only added increased confusion and complication to the problem it was intended to solve.” (Boyd, p38)

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, it ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as heresy even at that period.” (Hanson)

Nicaea caused Controversy.

In fact, the description of the Son as homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father, is found for the first time in the Nicene Creed of 325 and was the cause of the continuation controversy after 325.

, as indicated by the names of the sides in that controversy, the controversy after Nicaea was specifically about the word homoousion:


  • Homoousian = Same Substance,
  • Homoiousian = Similar Substance,
  • Heterousian = Different Substance,
  • Homoian – In this view, we should not talk about God’s substance because His substance is not mentioned in the Scriptures

“In 357 a council held in Sirmium in Illyria forbade the use of ousia (nature) in speaking of the relationship between the Father and the Son. With this, the homoousios of Nicaea became a dead confession.” (A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, p117)

Theology Evolved

My point is that the 55 years of Controversy after Nicaea were a period of evolution of theology, on both or all sides of the Controversy. The Pro-Nicenes did more than just defend the Nicene Creed. Rather, they developed new theories.

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

In the older account, “a clear Nicene doctrine (was) established in the controversy’s earliest stages.” Now we know that the ‘orthodoxy’ as we know it today did not exist at the beginning but was worked out through that struggle. (LA, 11-12)

In the traditional account of the ‘Arian’ Controversy, the eventual pro-Nicene formulation simply was “the clearer restatement of an original Nicene theology.” “This (original Nicene) theology is understood as defended (if not defined) by Athanasius (and) taken up and given more precision by the Cappadocians.” (LA, 236-7) However, Ayres says, “there is no one original Nicene theology that continues unchanged through the century.” (LA, 237)

Firstly, they redefined the word hypostasis in order to deal with the confusion caused by the Nicene Creed:

“It was mainly under the influence of the Cappadocian Fathers that the terminology was clarified and standardized so that the formula “three hypostases in one ousia” came to be accepted as an epitome of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.” 1González, Justo L. (1987). A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. p. 307 (Hypostasis)

Secondly, they also developed the view of the Holy Spirit that was taken up in the 381-creed:

“Constantinople’s account of the Spirit seems to mirror Basil’s cautious strategy of insisting that we accord the Spirit equal glory and honour, but refrain from using the terms God or homoousios.” (LA, 257)

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.”


I propose, therefore, since that same controversial and unscriptural word appears in the creed of 381, that the 381-creed was a revision of the 325-creed. 

Although the creed of 381 reads very similar to the creed of 325, the Arian Controversy stimulated a huge jump in the development of the Trinity doctrine and that, what the authors of the 381 creed meant by that creed is significantly different from what the authors of the 325 creed meant.











The Egyptians and Westerners could not object because they had acquiesced seven years ago at the choice for the important see of Milan of an unbaptised officer in the imperial service, Ambrose. Nectarius was … the protege of Diodore … supporting the Eustathian cause in Antioch.”  This is an indication of the control which the emperor exercised over the meeting.

“In the council itself Gregory seems to have quickly made himself unpopular.” (LA, 254) “Gregory wanted the council to elect Paulinus in place of Meletius as bishop of Antioch, but it preferred to choose Flavian.” (RH, 807)

Bishop of Constantinople

Constantinople was the capital of the empire and, therefore, a very important city.

The council agreed that “the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy precedence in honour next after the bishop of Rome because it is the New Rome’.” (RH, 808)


Pre-Nicene texts

“Socrates and Sozomen report that on the suggestion of Nectarius Theodosius asked the representatives of each sect to say whether they revered the earliest Christians who lived before the current divided state of the Church and then whether they were prepared to defer to the witness of those Christians. Socrates reports that this suggestion caused consternation among all present: everyone had now become sensitive to the ways in which pre-Nicene texts could not easily be used by any of the late fourth-century theological parties!” (LA, 259)

“This ‘end’ to our narrative is thus only the beginning of the end of non-Nicene theology in the east.” (LA, 260)


  • 1
    González, Justo L. (1987). A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. p. 307

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