Eusebius of Caesarea’s explanation of the Nicene Creed

Summary

Eusebius of Caesarea, perhaps the most highly respected theologian at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain certain “objectionable expressions” in the creed. This article discusses that letter. Its main conclusions are as follows:

Three “parties” were present at Nicaea:

      1. Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
      2. The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea; and
      3. Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.

At the meeting, the Lucians first presented their views, which were rejected by both the other groups.

Then Eusebius of Caesarea presented the statement of faith used in his home church in Caesarea. That statement did not include the terms “substance” or “same substance” but was accepted by the meeting.

Eusebius particularly mentions that the emperor approved the statement of faith from Caesarea. For us, it is astounding that Eusebius felt it important to have the emperor’s approval but we need to remember that separation of Church and State did not exist at that time. In the culture of the day, the Christian Roman Emperor was regarded as God’s agent on earth. Church and State were one. Consequently, emperors like Constantine, Constantius, Theodosius, and Justinian had a significant influence on church councils and doctrine.

After Eusebius presented the Creed of Caesarea, the emperor spoke and urged the meeting to accept and support that statement but also asked that the word homoousios be added.

The emperor also explained how he understood the meaning of this word. However, as Hanson wrote, “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 …”

Constantine’s key point in explaining the word homoousios seems to be that the Son (when He was begotten) was not cut off from the Father. I propose we understand this as follows:

In the Logos-Christology of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, God’s Logos (word or mind or wisdom) has always existed inside God but, when it became time to create, was emitted from God to become a separate being. In Biblical language, the Logos was begotten by God to become the Son of God. However, God cannot change. Therefore, His Logos was not separated from Him when the Son was begotten: He always had access to His Logos. It seems as if the emperor was emphasizing this point.

Constantine did not develop these ideas by himself. It was proposed to him by Alexander of Alexandria and the emperor’s advisor Hosius. And, since they had his backing, the emperor proposed the word at the council meeting and was also able to enforce the inclusion of the word.

Following the emperor’s request, the party of Alexander presented a carefully worked out statement – the Nicene Creed as we have it today – which they said was a revised form of the Creed of Caesarea, with certain adjustments to make its rejection of Arianism explicit.

This revised statement included references to the “Father’s substance,” including:

      • “Out of the Father’s substance” and
      • “Of the same substance as the Father.”

Years before, Origen had rejected the term substance for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine. Therefore, Eusebius and his fellow Origenists “resisted to the last moment the introduction of certain objectionable expressions.” But due to the considerable pressure applied by the emperor, the statement was approved by all except three.

Eusebius explains how he understood the disputed terms:

Ousios (substance or essence) implied that the Son is of the Father indeed, but is not part of the Father.

Homoousios (same substance) must not be understood in a material sense. That the Son was begotten by God does not mean that a portion of God’s substance was cut off. Neither did the Father’s substance and power change in any way, for the Father’s substance is “underived” and, therefore, cannot change. That he is homoousios with the Father then simply implies that the Son:

        • Has no resemblance to created things, but resembles the Father is in every respect.
        • Is of no other substance or essence but of the Father’s.

Conclusion

Henry Bettenson wrote, “The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41). The meeting was called to deal with the Arian Controversy but became a dispute between the parties of Alexander and Eusebius of Caesarea. Due to the pressure exerted by the emperor, the formulation presented by the party of Alexander was accepted and became adopted as the Nicene Creed.

The acceptance of these “objectionable expressions” caused the second phase of the Arian Controversy that raged for 50 years after Nicaea. Emperor Constantine, through the Council of Nicaea in 325, attempted to unite Christianity and establish a single, imperially approved version of the faith. But his efforts were the cause of the deep divisions created by the disputes after Nicaea. Homoousios became the object of dissension.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Purpose

Who was Eusebius of Caesarea?

According to Paul Pavao, in his excellent book, Decoding Nicea, at Nicaea, “the bishop who occupied the chief place in the right division of the assembly” is almost universally believed to be Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (AD 260/265 – 339/340).

Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85) mentions Eusebius of Caesarea as the leader of “the Origenists” and as “already highly reputed:”

Among those who were (at Nicaea in 325), three basic “parties” were discernible:
(1) Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
(2) the Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and
(3) Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.

Eusebius left us with the only record of the proceedings and discussions at Nicaea that is available today.

Eusebius of Nicomedia

Eusebius of Caesarea must be distinguished from Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was a leader of “the Lucianists” at Nicaea. Since the infamous Arius was one of them, we may refer to them as the Arians. Lucian was already dead by then, but people like Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia probably learned their Christology at the school of Lucian at Antioch in the late third century.

Purpose of this article

After the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain the decisions at Nicaea.  That letter is recorded in The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus I:8.

This article provides extracts from that letter as well as comments (in blocks and tables), with headings added. The letter reads:

Introduction

You have probably had some intimation, beloved, of the transactions of the great council convened at Nicea in relation to the faith of the Church … we have deemed it necessary to submit to you:

      • In the first place, an exposition of the faith proposed by us in written form, and then
      • a second which has been promulgated, consisting of ours with certain additions to its expression.
Comment: The “us” here seems to refer to the delegation led by Eusebius. As discussed below, at the council meeting, they first proposed a statement of faith. “A second which has been promulgated” refers to the Nicene Creed, as was formally promulgated.

The Creed of Caesarea

The declaration of faith set forth by us, which when read in the presence of our most pious emperor seemed to meet with universal approbation, was thus expressed:

Comment: Emperor Constantine attended the council and had a huge impact on the outcome, as is discussed below. But Eusebius claims that his proposal was generally accepted. Below, I quote sections from Eusebius’ proposed statement of faith that are key to understanding the Nicene Creed:

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

And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Word of God—
God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life—
the only-begotten Son,
born before all creation,
begotten of God the Father before all ages,
by whom also all things were made …

We believe also in one Holy Spirit. …

Comment: Note that Eusebius’ proposed statement of faith does not include the terms substance or “same substance.”

When these articles of faith were proposed, there seemed to be no ground of opposition. No, even our most pious emperor himself was the first to admit that they were perfectly correct and that he himself had entertained the sentiments contained in them. 

Comment: Paul Pavao commented: It is simply astounding that Eusebius felt it important to have the emperor’s approval of the articles of faith, rather than informing the emperor of what the church approved.

I would like to add that it is important to understand that separation of Church and State did not exist at that time. In the culture of the time, the Christian Roman Emperor was regarded as God’s agent on earth. The supreme bishops of the Empire – the spiritual heads of the Christian world – were regarded as acting in harmony with him. Church and State were therefore one. Consequently, emperors Constantine, Constantius, Theodosius, and Justinian had a significant influence on the decisions of church councils. For a discussion, see Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy.

Constantine added homoousios

He (the emperor) exhorted all present to give them their assent and subscribe to these very articles (as proposed by Eusebius), thus agreeing in a unanimous profession of them—with the insertion, however, of that single word, homoousios, an expression which the emperor himself explained as not indicating corporeal affections or properties. Consequently, the Son did not subsist from the Father either by division or by cutting off. For, said he, a nature which is immaterial and incorporeal cannot possibly be subject to any corporeal understanding; hence, our conception of such things can only be in divine and mysterious terms. Such was the philosophical view of the subject taken by our most wise and pious sovereign,

Constantine’s definition of homoousios

It was, therefore, the emperor that proposed the word homousios. He also explained the meaning of this word. But it is a negative explanation; saying what homoousios does NOT mean. It is a bit strange to propose a term and then to say that it is not possible to understand what it means; that “our conception of such things can only be in divine and mysterious terms.”

But Constantine’s key point seems to be that the Son (when He was begotten) was not cut off from the Father. Tatian (c. AD 165) mentioned the same principle:

“He (the Son) came into being by participation, not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], for what is cut off is separated from the original substance.”

Note the word “separated.” The point seems to be that the Son did not become separated from the Father when He was begotten by the Father. Justin Martyr (c. AD 155) wrote similarly:

This Power was begotten from the Father, by his power and will, but not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], as if the essence of the Father were divided.

Tatian and Justin Martyr, like all the other Gentile Christian theologists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, held to a Logos-Christology in which the Logos has always existed inside God but was emitted from God (begotten by God) and became the Son of God when it became time to create. See The Apologists for a further discussion.

So, what Constantine seemed to have said that is the Son is homoousios does not mean that He was separated from God when He was begotten. I propose that we understand this in terms of Logos-Christology in which God cannot change. Therefore, His Logos was not separated from Him when the Son was begotten: God always had access to His Logos. It seems as if the emperor was emphasizing this point.

Where did Constantine get all this?

Constantine did not develop all these ideas by himself. He got it from somewhere. Above, I listed the three parties at Nicaea. Since Constantine did not get these ideas from the Origenists or from the Lucianists, he received it from the party of Alexander of Alexandria:

“Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’. The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios, as suggested to him by Hosius. 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.” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)

The party of Alexander, which includes the emperor’s advisor Hosius, therefore, prior to the council meeting, has already agreed on the word homoousios. And, since they had the backing of the emperor, the emperor proposed the word and was able to enforce the inclusion of the word. “Enforce” may seem like a strong word, but is confirmed by many authors. Bernard Lohse, (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53) stated:

“What seemed especially objectionable to many bishops and theologians of the East was the concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios.”

Substance and Same Substance Added

… and the bishops, because of the word homoousios, drew up this formula of faith:

Eusebius then quotes the Nicene Creed, which is also available from Earlychurchtexts. It is instructive to compare the section of the creed that is key with respect to the Arian Controversy, with the same section in the statement of faith presented by Eusebius:
Eusebius proposed Nicene Creed
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Word of God—
God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life—
the only-begotten Son,
born before all creation,
begotten of God the Father, before all ages,
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Son of God,
begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father,
God from God, light from light, true God from true God,
begotten not made,
of one substance with the Father,
I emphasized the key additions, namely the terms “substance” and “one substance.”

Eusebius asked questions

Now when this declaration of faith was propounded by them, we did not neglect to investigate the distinct sense of the expressions “of the substance of the Father” and “consubstantial with the Father.”

Who are “them?” Above, Eusebius referred to “the bishops” but Erickson identified “them” as “the party of Alexander:”

“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 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.”

Henry Bettenson wrote,

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41).

That Eusebius had to ask questions shows that the Nicene Creed was formulated by a group over which he had no control. It is, therefore, probable that the Nicene Creed was formulated prior to the council meeting itself. 

Ousios (Substance)

When we did, questions and answers were put forth, and the meaning of these terms was clearly defined. At that point it was generally admitted that ousios (substance or essence) simply implied that the Son is of the Father indeed, but does not subsist as a part of the Father. To this interpretation of the sacred doctrine—which declares that the Son is of the Father but is not a part of his substance—it seemed right to us to assent. We ourselves therefore concurred in this exposition.

Steven Wedgeworth stated that “Origen had rejected the term (substance) years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” Eusebius and “the Origenists,” therefore, questioned this term.

Homoousios

Nor do we cavil at the word homoousios, having regard to peace, and fearing to lose a right understanding of the matter.

Paul Pavao commented that it does not appear that Eusebius embraced homoousios with great enthusiasm, remarking in his letter to Caesarea that “we do not cavil” at the word homoousios. This is hardly rousing support.

Begotten, not Made

On the same grounds we admitted also the expression “begotten, not made.” “For ‘made,'” said, “is a term applicable in common to all the creatures which were made by the Son, to whom the Son has no resemblance. Consequently he is no creature like those which were made by him, but is of a substance far excelling any creature. The Divine Oracles teach that this substance was begotten of the Father by such a mode of generation as cannot be explained nor even conceived by any creature.”

Paul Pavao commented that the delegates all agreed that Proverbs 8:22, in the LXX, refers to the Son as created. Therefore they all referred to Him as such, but the council here banned this term.

Consubstantial (homoousios)

Thus also the declaration that “the Son is consubstantial with the Father” having been discussed, it was agreed that this must not be understood in a corporeal sense, or in any way analogous to mortal creatures; inasmuch as it is neither by division of substance, nor by abscission [cutting off], nor by any change of the Father’s substance and power, since the underived nature of the Father is inconsistent with all these things.

That he is consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father then simply implies that the Son of God has no resemblance to created things, but is in every respect like the Father only who begat him; that he is of no other substance or essence but of the Father.

This is an expansion of the emperor’s explanation of this term above. I understand the explanation as follows:

We cannot really understand this concept because there is nothing like it in the created realm.

That the Son was begotten by God does not mean that a portion of God’s substance was cut off. Neither did the Father’s substance and power change in any way, for the Father’s substance is “underived” and, therefore, cannot change.

That he is consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father then simply implies that:

        • The Son of God has no resemblance to created things, but resembles the Father is in every respect.
        • He is of no other substance or essence but of the Father.

Ancients used this term

To this doctrine, explained in this way, it appeared right to assent, especially since we knew that some eminent bishops and learned writers among the ancients have used the term homoousios in their theological discourses concerning the nature of the Father and the Son.

Paul Pavao provides examples in Chapter 15 of Decoding Nicea. Philip Schaff mentioned that Irenæus used the word homousios four times and that Tertullian also uses the expression “of one substance” (unius substantiæ) in two places.

Anathemas

We have also considered the anathema pronounced by them after the declaration of faith inoffensive because it prohibits the use of illegitimate terms, from which almost all the distraction and commotion of the churches have arisen.

Again the “them,” confirms that “the decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Bettenson, quoted above).

The anathemas reflect the typical statements made by Arius and his followers.

Objectionable Expressions

We deemed it incumbent on us, beloved, to acquaint you with the caution which has characterized both our examination of and concurrence in these things and that on justifiable grounds we resisted to the last moment the introduction of certain objectionable expressions as long as these were not acceptable. We received them without dispute when, on mature deliberation as we examined the sense of the words, they appeared to agree with what we had originally proposed as a sound confession of faith.

Generally, Eusebius’ letter gives the impression that consensus was achieved fairly easily, but the phrase “resisted to the last moment” gives us an indication of the struggle within the council. The Nicene Creed was eventually accepted only because “the emperor exerted considerable influence:”

“The Origenists had considerable reservation about references to the ‘Father’s substance’, including ‘out of the Father’s substance’ and ‘of the same substance as the Father’. The emperor exerted considerable influence. Consequently, the statement was approved by all except three. (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons)”

“Certain objectionable expressions” refer particularly to those listed by Erickson. As stated before, Eusebius and his followers were Origenists and “Origen had rejected the term years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” (Steven Wedgeworth)

But these terms were accepted at “the last moment.” However, the acceptance of these “objectionable expressions” resulted in the second phase of the Arian Controversy in which these words were resisted:

The Wikipedia page on the Arian controversy states that Emperor Constantine, through the Council of Nicaea in 325, attempted to unite Christianity and establish a single, imperially approved version of the faith. Ironically, his efforts were the cause of the deep divisions created by the disputes after Nicaea. (Smither, Edward L., ed. (2014-02-14). Rethinking Constantine: History, Theology, and Legacy. p. 65–66)

“Homoousios … in the subsequent strife between orthodoxy and heresy became the object of dissension. ” (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)

As Hanson wrote, “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 a heresy even at that period.”

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