Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons – Nicene Creed

This page is a quote from Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85

“The Nicene Solution: 

In June 325 a general council met at Nicea. The number of bishops was apparently somewhere between 250 and 300. The most important of the Eastern bishops were present, but the West was poorly represented; the bishop of Rome did not attend but sent two presbyters in his place.

The emperor at first gave the council a free hand, but was prepared to step in if necessary to enforce the formula that his advisor Hosius had agreed on with Alexander of Alexandria.

Apparently a fairly large percentage of the delegates were not theologically trained, but among those who were, three basic “parties” were discernible:

    • Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
    • the Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and
    • Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.

The Lucianists, who fully expected to prevail, without previously conferring with the Origenists, put forth a rather blunt statement of their beliefs. To their considerable surprise, this was summarily rejected. It was then their hope that the Eusebian position, which was something of a midpoint between the Arian and the Alexandrian parties, would prevail.

Indeed, Eusebius put forth a creed, which was unanimously pronounced to be orthodox by those present.

Those of the party of Alexander, however, were not fully satisfied. They were favored by the emperor, and followed the strategy of accepting the Creed of Caesarea while demanding a more precise definition of some of its key terms. The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios, as suggested to him by Hosius. The Alexandrian party then presented a carefully worked out statement, which they said was a revised form of the Creed of Caesarea, with certain steps taken to close loopholes that could be interpreted in Arian fashion.

The Origenists had considerable reservation about some elements of the creed, fearing that phrases such as “out of the Father’s substance” and “of the same substance as the Father” could be interpreted in a material sense, could be understood as Sabellian, and were not of biblical origin.

The emperor exerted considerable influence, saying that there was a desire to preserve the spirituality of the Godhead. Consequently, the statement was approved by all except three members of the council. Even most of Arius’s allies abandoned him, and as Pelikan says, “saluted the emperor, signed the formula, and went right on teaching as they always had.”

The creed read 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 (homoousios) with the Father;
by whom all things were made
[both in heaven and on earth];
who for us men, and for our salvation
came down and was incarnate and became man;
he suffered, and the third day he rose again,
ascended into heaven;
from whence he will come
to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the HOLY GHOST.

[But for 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 .]

The statement is significant both for what it affirmed and what it denied. The word homoousios, which was to carry such great significance in the years ahead, is especially interesting. There was some suspicion of this word on the part of the orthodox because of its earlier association with Gnosticism and even Manicheism. Even its defenders experienced some embarrassment about this term because of its identification with the condemned ideas of Paul of Samosata. This term, however, upon which Constantine insisted, was given a special turn of meaning here. What was being affirmed and insisted upon was that the Son is different, utterly different, from any of the created beings. He is not out of any other substance, but out of the Father. The condemnations attached to the confession also spoke very emphatically to the Arian position, specifically rejecting its major affirmations.

Arius refused to sign this statement and was apparently joined by only two other members of the council. The rest, including those supposedly supportive of Arius’s position, signed the creed.

It is generally agreed that this was a triumph for the views of Alexander, and that the primary architect of it was Athanasius, strongly supported by Amphilocius and Didymus in the East and Ambrose and Hilary in the West.

One question that then must be raised, however, pertains to just what the council meant by this statement:

On the one hand, the usual meaning of the word homoousios, as used by Origen, for example, was generic, namely, “of the same nature.” In that sense, it could signify the kind of substance or stuff common to several individuals of a class, as would be true of a collection of humans, for example.

On the other hand, it could connote an individual thing as such.

While a large number of scholars have contended that the council used the term in this latter sense, there are good grounds for questioning such a conclusion. Both J. N. D. Kelly and G. L. Prestige argue that whether that is properly the terms meaning, it was this more modest version that they had in mind. Among their reasons are:

The fact that Arius, prior to the council, objected to the term homoousious, but it is apparent that he was repudiating the Son’s alleged divinity, rather than the unity of God.

Further, the issue before the council, it is virtually universally agreed, was not the unity of the Godhead but rather the coeternity of the Son with the Father, and his full divinity, as contrasted with the creaturehood that the Arians attributed to him.

In addition’ if Eusebius and his allies had thought that homoousios was being used to teach the doctrine of numerical unity of substance, they would have seen this as a concession to Sabellianism and would have vigorously resisted it. Finally, we know that later the most orthodox theologians continued to use the term in the sense of generic unity.”