What did homoousios mean to the Nicene Council?

SUMMARY

Introduction

The Nicene Creed of 325 describes the Son of God as homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. That can mean that He has the same type of substance as the Father or that Father and Son are a single substance. 

It is often claimed that the Trinity doctrine teaches that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three Persons but one Being. However, the Trinity doctrine does not teach three Persons. It teaches three modes of one Being. Therefore, it interprets homoousios as ‘one substance’. 

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, homoousios in the Nicene Council also meant ‘one substance’. However, scholars conclude that is not what it meant. It had a much looser, more flexible, indeed less specific meaning. 

The core issue in the Arian Controversy was whether homoousios means one or two substances. If ‘one substance’, the Son is not a distinct Person. 

Before Nicaea

Greek philosophy and Egyptian paganism used the term homoousios to compare distinct things. Emperor Constantine insisted on the term partly because he was familiar with it from Egyptian paganism. 

The Bible never talks about God’s substance and never says that the Son is homoousios with the Father. 

Gnostics used the term, not to say that two beings are one or equal, but that they belong to the same order of being. 

Tertullian nowhere uses a term like homoousios but he did believe that Father and Son are ‘one substance’. 

Sabellians used the term to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (a single Existence). 

Origen did not use the term. He believed that the Son’s substance is different from the Father’s. He was anxious to avoid the idea that the Father and the Son were of the same material. He believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases; three distinct substances and Persons. 

Around the year 260, some Libyan Sabellians described the Son as homoousios with the Father. Dionysius of Alexandria, overseeing the church in Libya, rejected the term as Sabellian. The Libyan Sabellians appealed to the bishop of Rome, who also believed in one hypostasis and accepted the term. Pressurized, the bishop of Alexandria accepted the term but as meaning two substances of the same type. 

A few years later, in 268, a council at Antioch condemned both Paul of Samosata and the term homoousios as Sabellian. This fact caused the fourth-century pro-Nicenes considerable embarrassment. 

In conclusion, before Nicaea, the only Christians who favored the term were the Sabellians. For them, it meant that Father and Son are a single Person. Therefore, when the Arian Controversy began, homoousios was regarded as a Sabellian term. 

At Nicaea

The term homoousios was a surprising innovation in the Nicene Creed: 

      • It is not found in the Holy Scripture but was borrowed from pagan philosophy. 
      • It did not appear in any precious creed and was not part of the standard Christian language of the day. 
      • It was already condemned as Sabellian at an important church council 57 years earlier. 
      • ‘Same substance’ implies that God has a body. 

Given these strong objections, most delegates at Nicaea objected to it. Some powerful force must have caused its inclusion in the Creed. 

That powerful force was the emperor. In the Christian Roman Empire, the emperors were the final arbiters in doctrinal disputes. Emperor Constantine not only proposed but used his influence to enforce the inclusion of the term. 

Constantine also explained the term. The Eusebians objected that the phrases ‘substance of the Father’ and ‘same substance’ imply that God has a material body. To counter such objections, Constantine insisted that these terms must not be understood materially. He explained that these phrases merely mean that the Son is begotten from the Father alone. This explanation enabled the Eusebian majority to accept the Creed. 

Why did Constantine insist on homoousios? The emperor took Alexander’s side in his dispute with Arius. Alexander allied with the Sabellians who, like him, believed that the Father and Son are a single Person. This alliance made the Sabellians influential at the council. Constantine insisted on homoousios because the Sabellians preferred the term.

One of the Creed’s anathemas says that Father and Son are a single Person, which is Sabellianism. This confirms Sabellian domination at the Council.

How did the delegates understand the term? The Sabellians understood homoousios as saying that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis (a single Person). The emperor’s explanation enabled the Eusebians to accept the term but they knew that it fundamentally implies Sabellianism. 

Since homoousios was a known Sabellian term and given the anathema, the Nicene Council must be regarded as a Sabellian victory. 

After Nicaea

Arius and his theology were no longer important after Nicaea. 

In the third century, the main controversy was between Sabellius’ one-hypostasis theology and Origen’s three hypostases. In that century, Sabellianism was defeated. However, in the fourth century, the Sabellians gained a major victory at Nicaea with the emperor’s support. This re-ignited the third-century controversy and caused a few years of intense strife. During those years, all leading Sabellians were exiled. 

This conflict was specifically about the meaning of the term homoousios. The Sabellians claimed that it supports their theology, namely, that the Father and Son are a single Person, meaning that the Son does not have a real distinct existence.

After the Sabellians were exiled, nobody mentioned homoousios for about two decades. For example, the councils in the 340s do not mention homoousios but focus on the more fundamental issue: whether the Father and Son are one or two hypostases (Persons).

Athanasius developed his polemical strategy in the 330s but did not mention homoousios. He only revived homoousios in the 350s; 30 years after Nicaea. He re-introduced the term into the Controversy because he was a Sabellian himself, believing in one hypostasis. 

Basil of Caesarea, the first Cappadocian father, was the first pro-Nicene to explain homoousios as three hypostases. This caused some fierce conflict between Basil and Athanasius. 

Final Conclusion

Throughout the entire Arian Controversy, the only people who favored homoousios were the one-hypostasis (Sabellian) theologians. They interpreted it as saying that Father and Son are one substance, as the Trinity doctrine also claims.

– END OF SUMMARY –


PURPOSE

The purpose is to show how ‘homoousios’ was understood at the Nicene Council.

At the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy, the church adopted the Trinity doctrine. However, over the past century, research and discoveries of ancient documents have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate, casting doubt on its legitimacy. Different articles in this series discuss different errors in the traditional narrative.

The current article discusses how the Nicene Council understood the term ‘homoousios’ in the Nicene Creed. It shows that it was understood very differently from how this term is today usually understood.

The green blocks are summaries. 

The articles in this series quote extensively from leading scholars but not all readers are interested in the technical details. Such readers may prefer to read the summaries first and to read the detailed explanations when the summary is insufficient.

INTRODUCTION

Homoousios in the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed describes the Son of God as homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. 

The Nicene Creed, as formulated at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, which is accepted as official doctrine by most denominations, states that the Son was begotten from the substance (ousia) of the Father and that He is of the same substance (homoousios; from homós = same; ousia = substance) as the Father. (See – The Free Dictionary or GotQuestions.) Via the Latin, homoousios is sometimes translated as ‘consubstantial’.

Means one or two substances.

‘Same substance’ can mean two things have the same type of substance or two things really are one thing. 

‘Same substance’ (homoousios) has two possible meanings because the word “same” has two possible meanings. When I say that John and I drive the same car, it can mean that we drive one and the same car or two different cars of the same type. Similarly, ‘same substance’ can mean:

One substance – This is called numerical sameness because there is only one. Father and Son are a single undivided substance (one Being).

Two distinct substances of the same type – This is qualitative or generic sameness. Like two human beings are of the ‘same substance’, Father and Son are two distinct substances (Beings). 1“A standard connotation of the term homoousios was membership in a class, a generic similarity between things that were, in some sense, co-ordinate [equal in rank or importance]. The term was used loosely to point to markers of commonality and did not at all exclude relationships between realities that were hierarchically distinct in other ways.” (Ayres, p. 94-95)

‘One substance’ can be called ‘unity’. Two substances of the same type mean equality:

“As it stands, the homoousios can be read either as an affirmation of the divine unity or as an affirmation of the equal deity.’” (Hanson, p. 170-1) 2Quoting Person, R. E. The Mode of Theological Decision-Making at the Early Ecumenical Councils (1978) p105

Arius rejected the term homoousios. For him, the Son’s substance is different from the Father’s. Arius is what later in the fourth century became known as a Heter-ousian (different substance):

“No doubt he (Arius) believed that the Father and the Son were of unlike substance, but he did not say so directly.” (Hanson, p. 187)

Since monoousios means ‘one substance’, homoousios primarily refers to two substances

“According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.” (Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A))

For a further discussion of the different meanings of “same,” see Right Reason or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Trinity Doctrine – One Substance

Consider the following definitions of the Trinity doctrine by two leading Catholic scholars: 

“The champions of the Nicene faith … developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word’ Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (Hanson Lecture)

“By the conventions of the late fourth century, first formulated in Greek by the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’, these three constituent members of what God is came to be referred to as hypostases (‘concrete individuals’) or, more misleadingly for us moderns, as prosōpa (‘persons’).” (Anatolios, xiii)

“By the last quarter of the fourth century, halting Christian attempts … had led … to what later generations generally think of as ‘the doctrine of the Holy Trinity’: the formulated idea that the God … is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, as one reality or substance, operating outward in creation always as a unity, yet always internally differentiated by the relationships of origin that Father and Son and Holy Spirit have with one another.” (Anatolios, xiii)

The Trinity doctrine does not teach three Persons or three hypostases. It teaches three modes of one Being.

It is often claimed that the traditional Trinity doctrine teaches that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three Persons but one Being. However, both Hanson and Anatolios above say that the term ‘Persons’ is misleading. The reason is that the term ‘Person’, in normal English, implies a distinct entity with a distinct mind. But in the traditional Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit share a single mind because they are one Being. (See here)

Sometimes the Trinity doctrine is explained, using Greek terms from the fourth century, as one ousia (substance) and three hypostases. But the term hypostasis is also misleading because the definitions above explain the Greek term hypostasis as a “concrete individual.” Elsewhere Hanon explains hypostasis as an “individual existence.” (Hanson, p. 193) In contrast, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit are essentially a single entity. The only difference between them, as Anatolios says above, is their “relationships of origin.” But, as Anatolios also states, that is an internal distinction that is invisible to the created universe.

As quoted, rather than the word ‘Person’, Hanson prefers to explain the Father, Son, and Spirit as three “modes of existing as God.” However, that sounds like Modalism. Anatolios describes the distinction between the ‘Persons’ as invisible.

The point is that the Trinity doctrine interprets homoousios as ‘one substance’ meaning ‘one Being’. 

At Nicaea – not one substance

In the traditional account, homoousios in the Nicene Council meant ‘one substance’ but that is not what it meant

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed from the beginning of that controversy. It would follow that homoousios in the Nicene Council meant that Father and Son are a single substance (Being), which means that the Son is co-equal, co-eternal, and co-immutable with the Father. But homoousios did not mean ‘one substance’:

“The Nicene Creed does not expressly assert the singleness or numerical unity of the divine essence.” 3Philip Schaff. History of the Church volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition. pp.672-673.

“We can therefore be pretty sure that homoousios was not intended to express the numerical identity of the Father and the Son.” (Hanson, p. 202)

“While a large number of scholars have contended that the council used the term in this latter (numerical) sense, there are good grounds for questioning such a conclusion.” Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons – Nicene Creed” p82-85

In the Creed, the term homousios had a much looser, more flexible, indeed less specific significance. 

“Recent studies on the word homoousios have tended to show, not that it can be reduced to two meanings, one identifying two ousiai as one, and the other conveying a ‘generic’ sense of ‘God-stuff’ (Loofs), but that it was of a much looser, more flexible, indeed less specific and therefore less controversial significance.” (Hanson, p. 170) 4“It was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense than has in the past history of scholarship been attached to it.” (Hanson, p. 202)

“Studor … notes that the term homoousios is not used with precision at Nicaea and that later arguments for homoousios always involve constructing accounts of its meaning.” (Ayres, p. 238)

Hanson agrees with Loofs’ statement that “the meaning of homoousios was so fluid that we cannot determine its meaning from its appearance in N alone.” (Hanson, p. 192)

“Eusebius’ discussion nicely demonstrates the extent to which the promulgation of homoousios involved a conscious lack of positive definition of the term.” (Ayres, p. 91)5“Our investigation of the use of homoousios before it was inserted in N, then, should have suggested strongly that it would be unwise to give the word a strictly defined or single meaning.” (Hanson, p. 196)

The Core Issue in the Controversy

The core issue in the Arian Controversy was whether homoousios means one or two substances. 

Contrary to the usual explanation, the core issue in the Arian Controversy was not whether Jesus is God.

“It is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (Ayres, p. 14).

The core issue was whether homoousios must be understood as one single or two distinct substances. In the Greek of the fourth century, the core issue was whether Father, Son, and Spirit are one or three hypostases:

In one-hypostasis theologies, such as Sabellianism and the theology of Alexander and Athanasius, the Son is not a distinct Person. Consequently, homoousios means ‘one substance’.

In three-hypostases theologies, such as those taught by Origen, the so-called Arians, and Basil of Caesarea, the Son is a distinct hypostasis (Person). While the anti-Nicenes rejected the term homoousios, Basil accepted it and interpreted it as meaning two substances of the same type.

In other words, the core issue was whether the Son is a distinct Person. 

The core issue was whether the Father and Son are a single Person with a single mind or two distinct Persons with two distinct minds. (Read More.)

Below, this article analyses what homoousios meant (1) before, (2) during, and (3) after Nicaea.

AUTHORS CITED

Scholars today explain the fourth-century Arian Controversy very differently from 100 years ago. 

Over the last hundred years, certain ancient documents have become more readily available. For example:

“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (Williams, p. 11-12)

Consequently, the scholarly view of the Controversy has changed dramatically:

“The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 11)

Hanson described the traditional account of the Arian Controversy as a complete travesty.

This article series relies on recent books by world-class Catholic scholars. 

This article relies mainly on the following authors:

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988

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

Ayres, Lewis
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Beatrice = An article by Pier Franco Beatrice; Professor of Early Christian Literature at the University of Padua, Italy
The word “homoousios” from Hellenism to Christianity.)

This article was not developed by studying the primary sources but these secondary sources; people who have studied the primary sources for decades and who are regarded as leaders in this field. Therefore, it quotes extensively from them.

BEFORE NICAEA

Pre-Christian – Distinct Realities

Greek philosophy and Egyptian paganism used the term homoousios to compare distinct things. 

They did not use the term to say that two things are really one thing.

Aristotle was known for using the term οὐσία (ousia) to describe his philosophical concept of Primary Substances. (Beatrice) Also in Egyptian paganism, it did not mean ‘one substance: 

“In the theological language of Egyptian paganism the word homoousios meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son, who are two distinct beings, share the same perfection of the divine nature.” (Beatrice

Emperor Constantine insisted on the term partly because he was familiar with it from Egyptian paganism. 

Beatrice argues that Emperor Constantine had a previous connection with Egyptian paganism and, therefore, was familiar with the term (Read More). That partly explains his insistence on the term at Nicaea, as discussed below. Since Constantine also explained the term at the Council (see below), he probably explained Father and Son as two distinct substances. 

The Bible – No Mention

The Bible never talks about God’s substance and never says that the Son is homoousios with the Father. 

Gnostics – Of a similar kind

Gnostics used the term, not to say that two beings are one or equal, but that they belong to the same order of being. 

The second-century Gnostics used the word homoousios but not to say that two beings are really one being. They did not even use the term to say that two beings are equal. They used the term to describe distinct beings as “belonging to the same order of being.” (Beatrice) They used homoousios to say that lower deities are of ‘a similar kind’ as the highest deity from whom they emanated:

“The term was adopted in the second century by Gnostics, probably to indicate ‘same ontological status’ or ‘of a similar kind’.” (Ayres, p. 93)

It meant, “belonging to the same order of being.” (Hanson, p. 191) They did not use the word to mean “identity, nor even equality.” (Hanson, p. 191) 6“Hippolytus quotes Gnostics as using the word homoousios, none of them suggesting identity, nor even equality.” (Hanson, p. 191)

The word homoousios in the Nicene Creed is not the result of a Gnostic influence because “by the fourth century the Gnostic threat to the Christian faith was over” (Hanson, p. 856).

Tertullian – One substance

Tertullian nowhere uses a term like homoousios but he did believe that Father and Son are ‘one substance’. 

Tertullian (155-220), “writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding to (the Greek term) homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 190) 

However, he did use the term “substance.” For him, God has a body (is a substance) and the Son is part of God’s substance:

“Tertullian … had already used the Latin word substantia (substance) of God … For him God … had a body … It was possible for Tertullian to think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sharing this substance.” (Hanson, p. 184)

Furthermore, in his theology, Father and Son are a single substance and a single hypostasis (an “individual existence”). This is an even stronger statement than homoousios (same substance). It specifically means ‘one substance’:

He used “the expression unius substantiae.” “This has led some scholars to see Tertullian as an exponent of Nicene orthodoxy before Nicaea … But this is a far from plausible theory.” (Hanson, p. 184) “The word in Greek translation of Tertullian’s una substantia would not be the word homoousios but mia hypostasis (one hypostasis).” (Hanson, p. 193)

(See here for more on Tertullian’s theology)

Sabellius – One hypostasis

Sabellians used the term to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (a single Existence). 

Sabellianism is named after Sabellius (fl. ca. 215); a theologian from the early 3rd century. He used the term homoousios, not only to mean ‘same substance’ but, specifically, to say that Father and Son are ‘one substance’ (a single hypostasis or Person):

“If we can trust Basil here, it is interesting to observe that Sabellius had apparently used homoousios in a Trinitarian context early in the third century.” (Hanson, p. 192)

According to Basil of Caesarea, “Sabellius used it (homoousios) … in rejecting the distinction of hypostases” (Hanson, p. 192);

He used the term “in the sense of numerical sameness” (Prof Ninan).

As discussed here, according to Von Mosheim, for Sabellius, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three parts of God:

“He considered the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as being three portions of the divine nature.” (Von Mosheim J.L. p220)

By the time of the Nicene Council, the church had already formally rejected Sabellianism.

Origen – Rejected

Origen did not use the term. He believed that the Son’s substance is different from the Father’s. 

It is sometimes claimed that Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 253), the great theologian of the time before Nicaea, was the first theologian to use the word homoousios to describe the relation of the Son to the Father. But Origen did not use the term:

“Origen may have rejected the term.” (Ayres, p. 92) 7“Origen had rejected the term (substance) years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” (Steven Wedgeworth) 

“Origen certainly did not apply the word homoousios to the Son and did not teach that the Son is ‘from the ousia’ of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 185) 8“It is almost certainly right to conclude that Origen could not have spoken of the Son as homoousios with the Father.” (Williams, p. 132) 9“Origen never says that the Son comes from the substance of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 67)

“There is one celebrated fragment … where Origen appears to sanction the use of homoousios. … But in its present form, this seems too closely bound to the specific interests of the post-Nicene period … to come directly from Pamphilus, let alone Origen.” (Williams, p. 132-3) “One famous passage in which he seems to use the term homoousios … may have been adulterated by later writers.” (Ayres, p. 24)

Origen was anxious to avoid the idea that the Father and the Son were of the same material. 

“The likelihood of Origen having described the Son as consubstantial with the Father is very slim” (Hanson, p. 68). The word “consubstantial … would have suggested to him that the Father and the Son were of the same material, an idea which he was anxious to avoid.” (Hanson, p. 68) 10Epiphanius stated that “Origen often declared ‘that the only-begotten God is alien from the Father’s Godhead and substance’ (ousia)” (Hanson, p. 62).

Origen believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases; three distinct substances and Persons. 

In opposition to Tertullian and Sabellius, “he (Origen) taught that there were three hypostases (meaning three distinct substances) within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 184)

“He (Origen) deplores those heretics who confuse the ‘concepts’ of Father and Son and make them out to be one in hupostasis, as if the distinction between Father and Son were only a matter of concepts and of names, a purely mental distinction.” (Williams, Rowan, p132)

The Two Dionysii – Disagreed

In the middle of the third century, the bishops of Rome and Alexandria; both named Dionysius, disagreed about the term.

Around the year 260, some Libyan Sabellians described the Son as homoousios with the Father. 

“Some local Sabellians” described the Son as homoousios with the Father (Ayres, p. 94). 11Both “Dionysius of Rome and Eusebius of Caesarea label” “the accusers of Dionysius of Alexandria” as “Sabellians.” (Beatrice)

“Stead … believes … it was the people in Libya criticized by Dionysius of Alexandria who had introduced the term. Simonetti agrees that it was not Dionysius of Rome who first used the word homoousios in the interchange.” (Hanson, p. 193)

For Sabellians, the Father and Son are a single hypostasis (one Person).

Dionysius of Alexandria, overseeing the church in Libya, rejected the term as Sabellian. 

Dionysius of Alexandria believed in three hypostases. Initially, he rejected the term because Sabellius used it in rejecting the distinction of hypostases.

“It seems … likely that Dionysius of Alexandria, in a campaign against some local Sabellians, had denied the term.” (Ayres, p. 94)

According to Basil of Caesarea, “Dionysius of Alexandria … sometimes rejected homoousios because Sabellius used it … in rejecting the distinction of hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 192)

The Libyan Sabellians appealed to the bishop of Rome, who also believed in one hypostasis and accepted the term. 

The Libyan Sabellians complained to the bishop of Rome (Hanson, p. 191). The latter, similar to the Sabellians, taught that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person) and described the Son as homoousios with the Father.

“Dionysius of Rome … (also) claimed that Father and Son were homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 94)

“Dionysius of Rome … found homoousios acceptable but could not tolerate a division of the Godhead into three hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 192, quoting Loofs) 12He “at least took up or championed it (the term homoousios).” (Hanson, p. 193) 13“Dionysius of Rome harshly condemned those who divided the Trinity into three distinct hypostases.” (Beatrice) 14“Dionysius of Rome … said that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy ‘into three sorts of … separated hypostases and three Godheads’; people who hold this in effect produce three gods.” (Hanson, p. 185)

“His doctrine could only with difficulty be distinguished from that of Sabellius!” (Hanson, p. 193)

Pressurized, the bishop of Alexandria accepted the term but as meaning two substances of the same type. 

Dionysius of Alexandria was “persuaded by his namesake of Rome to accept (the term)” (Ayres, p. 94) but he “only adopted it with reluctance” (Hanson, p. 193) and only “in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature, ‘of similar kind’” (Hanson, p. 192). Or “belonging to the same class” (Ayres, p. 94), “meaning that both had the same kind of nature.” (Hanson, p. 193) This “did not at all exclude relationships between realities that were hierarchically distinct in other ways.” (Ayres, p. 94-95) In other words, for him, the term did not mean that Father and Son are one and the same or even that they are equal. In his view, Father and Son were two distinct hypostases and the Son can still be subordinate to the Father.

Athanasius, disingenuously, claimed that both bishops approved of the word homoousios. He “tried tendentiously to demonstrate that they were all without distinction supporters of homoousios.” (Beatrice). For example, Athanasius “says, somewhat disingenuously, that both the bishops of Rome and of Alexandria approved of the word homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 192)

268 Church Council – Condemned

A few years later, a council at Antioch condemned both Paul of Samosata and the term homoousios as Sabellian

Paul of Samosata used this term to describe Father and Son as a single hypostasis (Person):

“In using the expression ‘of one substance’, Paul declared that Father and Son were a solitary unit;” “a primitive undifferentiated unity.” (Williams, p. 159-160)

“The council that deposed Paul of Samosata in 268 condemned the use of homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 94; cf. Hanson, p. 193-194)

According to Hilary, “Our fathers (the 268-council) … repudiated homoousion” because “the word to them spelt Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 194)

This fact caused the fourth-century pro-Nicenes considerable embarrassment. 

“The condemnation of homoousios by this well-known council” caused “considerable embarrassment to those theologians who wanted to defend its inclusion in an official doctrinal statement in the next century.” (Ayres, p. 94; cf. Hanson, p. 195)

“There was some suspicion of the word homoousios 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.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

Conclusion – A Sabellian Term

before Nicaea, only Sabellians favored the term. For them, it meant that Father and Son are a single Person. 

This includes Sabellius himself, the Libyan Sabellians, Dionysius of Rome, and Paul of Samosata. The only non-Sabellian who accepted the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he accepted it reluctantly and only as meaning that the Father and Son are two distinct substances (two hypostases) of the same type.

Therefore, when the Arian Controversy began, homoousios was regarded as a Sabellian term. 

Homoousios before it was placed in N must have been regarded as a term which carried with it heretical, or at least unsound, overtones to theologians in the Eastern church.” (Hanson, p. 195)

“The word homoousios, at its first appearance in the middle of the third century, was therefore clearly connected with the theology of a Sabellian or monarchian tendency.” (P.F. Beatrice)

“The word homousios had not had … a very happy history. It was probably rejected by the Council of Antioch, and was suspected of being open to a Sabellian meaning. It was accepted by the heretic Paul of Samosata and this rendered it very offensive to many in the Asiatic Churches.” (Philip Schaff)

“We can detect no Greek-speaking writer before Nicaea who unreservedly supports homoousion as applied to the Son.” (Hanson, p. 169)

AT NICAEA

A Surprising Innovation

The term homoousios was a surprising innovation in the Nicene Creed. 

The term homoousios was a surprising innovation in the Nicene Creed. It is not found in the Holy Scripture, was borrowed from pagan philosophy, did not appear in any precious creed, was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, and was already condemned as associated with the heresy of Sabellianism at an important church council 57 years earlier. Furthermore, ‘same substance’ implies that God has a body. For these reasons, the term homoousios seemed especially objectionable to most delegates at Nicaea, most of whom were from the East. Some powerful force must have been working to ensure its inclusion in the Creed.

Borrowed from pagan philosophy:

It is not found in the Holy Scripture but was borrowed from pagan philosophy. 

The term homoousios “is not to be found in the Holy Scripture” (P.F. Beatrice).

“Nobody could pretend that it was Scriptural” (Hanson, p. 167).

“The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they try to show that the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really to be found in Scripture.” (Hanson, p. 846)

Not Traditional Language

It did not appear in any precious creed and was not part of the standard Christian language of the day. 

The term did even appear in the draft creed prepared only a few months before Nicaea:

“To say that the Son was ‘of the substance’ of the Father, and that he was ‘consubstantial’ with him were certainly startling innovations. Nothing comparable to this had been said in any creed or profession of faith before.” (Hanson, p. 166-7)

Rowan Williams described it as “the radical words of Nicaea” (Williams, p. 236) and “conceptual innovation” (Williams, p. 234-5), in contrast to “the lost innocence of pre-Nicene trinitarian language” (p. 234-5). Consequently, anti-Nicenes objected that these words are “untraditional.” (Williams, p. 234-5)

A meeting was held in Antioch a few months before the Nicene Council which formulated a draft creed. “This text makes no use of the ousia language that we see in Nicaea’s creed.” (Ayres, p. 51)

“The word homoousios is not to be found in the extant writings of Alexander of Alexandria.” (Beatrice“We can detect no Greek-speaking writer before Nicaea who unreservedly supports homoousion as applied to the Son.” (Hanson, p. 169)

Already condemned as Sabellian.

It was already condemned as Sabellian at an important church council 57 years earlier. 

As discussed above, before Nicaea, the term was closely associated with Sabellianism and was, for that reason, already condemned in 268 at a Council in Antioch (Hanson, p. 198), the headquarters of the entire church at the time.

“It was impossible to rid the term in the minds of many of Sabellian, if not Gnostic associations.” (Hanson, p. 437)

The Homoiousians rejected “homoousios as leading to Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 439) “To them an acceptance of homoousios … would naturally appear to involve them in pure indiscriminate Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 440)

Athanasius wrote that their objection to the term “homoousios” was that it was considered to be “un-Scriptural, suspicious, and of a Sabellian tendency.” 15Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn 16“The terms aroused opposition, on the grounds that they were unscriptural, novel, tending to Sabellianism” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)

Implies God has a body

Since ‘same substance’ implies that God has a body, most delegates at Nicaea objected to it. 

The Eusebians (often but misleadingly called ‘Arians’ – Read More) were uncomfortable with the term ‘same substance’ because they understood the term as saying that God is material:

“Williams points out that the objection based on the Manichean tendency of the word assumed that it implied that the Son was a component or extension of God, thus representing God as composite, perhaps as material, and suggesting that there is a kind of common ‘God-stuff’ shared by Father and Son.” (Hanson, p. 197) 17“This word (substance) was thought, as it was always thought by Arians, to introduce corporeal notions into the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 346) 18“For Christian writers such notions seemed irredeemably materialist, and made it easy for them to suppose that the mere use of homoousios implies a certain materiality.” (Ayres, p. 93)

The Eusebians argued that we should not understand the terms “Father,” “Son,” and “begotten” in a literal, material sense, as if the Son was begotten like humans are by breaking off a part of the parent.

The vast majority of bishops at Nicaea were from the East19“Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19) and, for the reasons above, the term homoousios “seemed especially objectionable to many bishops and theologians of the East.” 20Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53  21“The Origenists had considerable reservation about homoousios and the other phrases containing the term ousios (substance).” (Erickson) “A majority opposed the Nicene creed. The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!” (Bible.ca22Eusebius accepted homoousion with “obvious reluctance.” (Hanson, p. 165)

Given these strong objections, some powerful force must have caused its inclusion in the Creed. 

The Emperor enforced the term.

The article on the Nicene Council is recommended for pre-reading.

The Emperors determined Church doctrine.

In the Christian Roman Empire, the emperors were the final arbiters in doctrinal disputes. 

That powerful force was the emperor. The Nicene Council, like all general councils during the fourth century, was called and dominated by the emperor. It was his meeting. It was not his goal to find the truth but to prevent this dispute from causing division in his empire:

“The history of the period shows time and time again that … the general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils … were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them.” (Hanson, p. 855)

Furthermore, as astounding as it might sound to people who grew up in a culture of separation of church and state, in the fourth century, the emperor was the final judge in Christian doctrinal disputes:

“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)

Constantine enforced the term.

The emperor not only proposed but used his influence to enforce the inclusion of the term. 

He proposed the term:

The Emperor accepted Eusebius’ creed “and he advised all present to agree to it … with the insertion of the single word ‘consubstantial.’” (Beatrice) (See also – Eusebius’ letter.)

“The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” 23Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53 24“Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” “The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

He enforced the term:

“Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (Hanson, p. 850)

“The Origenists had considerable reservation about homoousios and the other phrases containing the term ousios (substance), but the emperor exerted considerable influence. Consequently, the statement was approved.” (Erickson) 25Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85

“The emperor “himself proposed and insisted on the word homoousios.” (Erickson, Millard J, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

Constantine “pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)

“’Homoousios’ and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were added to the creed by Constantine himself, bearing witness to the extent of his influence at the council.” 26Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15. 27“The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios. ” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53) 28Constantine “himself … insisted upon the word homoousia being included in the creed.” (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997) p 15.) 

Constantine explained the term.

The Eusebians objected that talk of God’s substance implies He has a material body

Emperor Constantine not only imposed, by his authority, the inclusion of the word homoousios, but also dared to explain the word to that assembly of the church’s leading theologians. 29Eusebius of Caesarea “gives the impression throughout this letter that Constantine took the initiative in all the matters that the letter deals with, apparently regarding himself as qualified to deal with any discussion about the profound questions raised by the Christian doctrine of God.” (Hanson, p. 160) 

The Creed says that the Son is homoousios with the Father because He is begotten from the Father’s substance.

“All the theologians … probably saw homoousios as expanding on and secondary to the phrase ‘from the ousia of the Father’.” (Ayres, p. 90-91)[/mfn]

One of the major objections was that these phrases sound as if God has a body and as if the Son was begotten like humans are through a material, bodily process.

“The phrase ‘from the ousia of the Father’ also had a complex history of use before Nicaea, much of which revolved around its seemingly materialistic or inappropriately genetic implications. Origen treats this phrase as implying something like a human birth and thus a materialistic understanding of divine being. … Eusebius of Caesarea, also writing before Nicaea, demonstrates similar worries that the phrase implies a materialistic diminution of the Father’s being in the generation of the Son.” (Ayres, p. 97)

To counter such objections, Constantine insisted that these terms must not be understood materially

To enable the Eusebians to accept the new terms, Constantine insisted that these terms must be understood without material connotation: It simply means that He is not out of any other substance, but out of the Father:

Constantine did his best “to placate Eusebians.” (Ayres, p. 91)

“It seems … that Constantine interceded on behalf of those unhappy with homoousios, insisting on the importance of understanding the term without material connotation.” (Ayres, p. 96)

“Eusebius … writes that Constantine himself spoke, endorsing the term homoousios, but insisting that it did not imply any material division in God.” (Ayres, p. 90-91) 30Eusebius “alleges that the Emperor himself qualified the addition of ‘consubstantial’ by saying that it must not be understood “in the sense of any corporeal experiences.” It also does not mean that the Son “exists as a result of division or any subtraction from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 165) 31“Eusebius directly ascribes to Constantine only an emphasis on understanding homoousios without reference to material division or the sorts of change associated with corporeal existence.” (Ayres, p. 96)

“Eusebius also reports that he himself secured clarity that the phrase ‘from the essence of the Father’ did not mean ‘is part of the Father’s substance’.” (Ayres, p. 90-91)

Constantine explained that these phrases merely mean that the Son is begotten from the Father alone

“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.”32(Erickson, Millard J, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

“Eusebius tells us that once he had been assured that this phrase (from the ousia of the Father) served only to indicate that the Son was truly from the Father he could agree even to homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 96)

This explanation enabled the Eusebian majority to accept the Creed

With that non-literal explanation of the contentious terms, all delegates could agree. But the main point is that these unfamiliar phrases were included in the Creed due to the emperor’s domination of the council. For more detail, see the discussion of Eusebius’ letter.

Why did Constantine insist on homoousios?

Another article argues that Constantine found the term agreeable because he was familiar with it through his contact with Egyptian paganism. Even if that is true, he would not have proposed the term without support from at least some delegates.

The emperor took Alexander’s side in his dispute with Arius.

“Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (Ayres, p. 89)

“This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force.” (Ayres, p. 89)

Alexander allied with the Sabellians who, like him, believed that the Father and Son are a single Person.

Alexander believed in one hypostasis, meaning that Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person with a single mind. (Read More) For example:

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)

Alexander described the Son as “idios to (a property or quality of) the Father (which) is a Sabellian statement.” (Hanson, p. 92)

The one-hypostasis theologians were in the minority because the vast majority of the delegates were from the East and, following Origen, believed in three hypostases, meaning the Father, Son, and Spirit are three Beings with three distinct minds. (See here.)

“Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)

“The Westerners at the Council (of Nicaea) represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) were ultimately disciples of Origen.” 33Frend, WHC: The Rise of Christianity As stated above, Origen believed in three hypostases.

For example, the Dedication Creed declared a belief in three hypostases.

Since his was the minority view, Alexander allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians in the council, namelt the Sabellians, led by Eustathius and Marcellus:

“Eustathius and Marcellus … certainly met at Nicaea and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (Hanson, p. 234)

“Marcellus, Eustathius and Alexander were able to make common cause against the Eusebians.” (Ayres, p. 69)

Eustathius and Marcellus were Sabellians:

Eustathius attended the Nicene Council (Hanson, p. 208) but was deposed soon after Nicaea (“in 330 or 331”) (Hanson, p. 210) “primarily for the heresy of Sabellianism” (Hanson, p. 211).

Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix) Marcellus of Ancyra “cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism” (Hanson’s Lecture). 34“There were present at the Council people, such as Marcellus of Ancyra, who were quite ready to maintain that there is only one hypostasis in the Godhead, and who were later to be deposed for heresy because they believed this.” (Hanson, p. 167)

Consequently, the Sabellians were influential at the council. 

“Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus … Both were influential at the council.” (Ayres, p. 99)

“Marcellus of Ancyra … had been an important figure at the council and may have significantly influenced its wording.” (Ayres, p. 431) 35“Marcellus … played a major role at Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 62)

“Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Alexander must all have been key players in the discussions.” (Ayres, p. 89)

Constantine insisted on homoousios because the Sabellians preferred the term. 

Alexander did not prefer the term. Just a few months earlier, the draft statement prepared by the pro-Alexander council at Antioch did not mention ousia or homoousios:

“Alexander indeed seems to be avoiding homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 139)

“Alexander in his extant utterances never uses homoousios, though there are several places where its application to the Son would have been apt.” (Hanson, p. 140)

The Sabellians endorsed homoousios.

“Marcellus and Eustathius also seem likely to have endorsed homoousios because of the notion of shared being.” (Ayres, p. 95) “Shared being” can be understood as ‘one Person’.

“For him (Marcellus) homoousios, whose presence in N he must have welcomed enthusiastically …” (Hanson, p. 229-230)

Constantine insisted on homousios because, firstly, as explained here, he knew the term from his association with Egyptian paganism and, secondly, because the Sabellians preferred it:

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians [the Sabellians] … were in favour of it (homoousios) … he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)

Alexander accepted the term because he needed the Sabellians’ support. 

“Simonetti estimates the Nicene Council as a temporary alliance for the defeat of Arianism between the tradition of Alexandria led by Alexander and ‘Asiatic’ circles (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) whose thought was at the opposite pole to that of Arius. … Alexander … accepted virtual Sabellianism in order to ensure the defeat of Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 171)36Eusebius of Caesarea put forward a creed that was “revised” by “the party of Alexander,” which was “favored by the emperor,” who “favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Erickson)

In conclusion, the Creed was the work of a Minority.

The emperor’s authority allowed the one-hypostasis minority to include the term homoousios in the Creed, despite the Sabellian history of the term and despite the objections raised by the majority:

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.” 37Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41

The reformed website Bible.ca states: “We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. … The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!”

The Role of Chairperson Ossius

Ossius chaired the Council as the Emperor’s representative or agent. 

Ossius was the emperor’s religious advisor. Constantine appointed him as chair of the Nicene Council “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and as Constantine’s “agent.” (Hanson, p. 190) His humble position in the church, as bishop of the small city of Cordova, did not qualify him as chair of that assembly.

“Ossius … represented the policy of Constantine” (Hanson, p. 170)

He also believed in one hypostasis, similar to Alexander and the Sabellians

“Ossius evidently believed that God is a single hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 870) 38“It also seems possible that Ossius at least believed in only one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 167) For example, eighteen years later, in 343, Ossius helped to compose another creed (at Serdica) (Hanson, p. 201) which had “the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion.” (Hanson, p. xix) That manifesto explicitly confesses a single hypostasis.

Ossius was in all probability the one who advised Constantine to take Alexander’s part.

The Anathema confirms Sabellian domination.

One of the Creed’s anathemas says that Father and Son are a single Person, which is Sabellianism. 

Another indication of Sabellian domination is the anathema in the Creed against all “who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance.” This seems to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person) and substance, which is the hallmark of Sabellianism:

“If we are to take the creed N at its face value, the theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea. That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis. This was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” (Hanson, p. 235) 

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325 … 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.” (Hanson’s Lecture) 39“The condemnation … that the Son is ‘of another hypostasis or ousia’ from the Father … can only have been a highly ambiguous and extremely confusing statement. By the standard of later orthodoxy … it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition.” (Hanson, p. 167) 40“The anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support” Sabellianism. (Hanson Lecture). 41“He (Eustathius) could have replied … that the notorious anathema in N gave him every encouragement to believe that there is only one distinct reality in the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 216)

See here for a further discussion of that anathema.

All understood the term as Sabellian.

Given these facts, how did the delegates to the Council understand the term? 

Sabellians intended ‘One Person’.

The Sabellians understood homoousios as saying that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis (a single Person). 

For example:

“For him (Marcellus) homoousios … meant not merely ‘consubstantial’ or ‘of similar substance’, but ‘of identical being’.” (Hanson, p. 229-230)

“Marcellus and Eustathius also seem likely to have endorsed homoousios because of the notion of shared being that was an accepted part of its semantic range, but not because they thought it implied two distinct eternally co-ordinate realities.” (Ayres, p. 95-96) [“Co-ordinate” here means two distinct but more or less equal entities.]

“It is unlikely that Alexander or Ossius would have chosen the term intending a simple co-ordinate sense.” (Ayres, p. 95) 42“Eusebius’ discussion nicely demonstrates the extent to which the promulgation of homoousios involved a conscious lack of positive definition of the term. Of course, those who were broadly in the same trajectory as Alexander would have easily been able to sign up to Nicaea’s terms but would have read them in a very different manner.” (Ayres, p. 91)

Consequently, as discussed below, after Nicaea, the Sabellians claimed the Creed as support for their doctrine:

“In the controversies which erupted over Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus after Nicaea, both thought their theologies faithful to Nicaea—and they had good grounds for so assuming. Both were influential at the council, and Nicaea’s lapidary formulations were never intended to rule out their theological idiosyncrasies.” (Ayres, p. 99)

Eusebians also understood it as Sabellian.

The emperor’s explanation enabled the Eusebians to accept the term but they knew that it implies Sabellianism. 

The emperor’s explanation that homoousios simply means that the Son is truly from the Father enabled the Eusebian majority to accept the term reluctantly. They were able to square that explanation with their view that the Son is distinct from and subordinate to the Father:

“Eusebius tells us that once he had been assured that this phrase served only to indicate that the Son was truly from the Father he could agree even to homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 96)

With that understanding, it does not mean that Father and Son are one Person or even that they are equal. Like Dionysius of Alexandria, the Eusebians at Nicaea were forced to accept the term but accepted it only with a generic meaning.

However, in reality, they knew this term implies Sabellianism. After Nicaea, that same church mainstream (the Eusebians) opposed the Creed because it implied Sabellianism. For example:

“It was impossible to rid the term in the minds of many of Sabellian, if not Gnostic associations.” (Hanson, p. 437)

“We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. But the opposition was over the use of specific words … they felt the creed could lend support to Sabellianism.” (Bible.ca)

“The language of that creed seemed to offer no prophylactic (prevention) against Marcellan doctrine, and increasingly came to be seen as implying such doctrine.” (Ayres, p. 96, 97)

“To many the creed seemed strongly to favour the unitarian tendency among these existing trajectories.” (Ayres, p. 431)43The term “unitarian” refers to Sabellianism. For example: “A great deal of controversy was caused in the years after the council by some supporters of Nicaea whose theology had strongly unitarian tendencies. Chief among these was Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Ayres, p. 431)

So, the majority also really understood the term as Sabellian.

Was Nicaea a Sabellian victory?

Since homoousios was a known Sabellian term and given the anathema, it must be regarded as a Sabellian victory. 

Our authors say that Nicaea was a drawn battle between the Sabellian one-hypostasis theology and the Eusebian three-hypostases theology:

“The ‘Asiatics’ (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) … were able to include in N a hint of opposition to the three hypostases theory.” (Hanson, p. 171, quoting Simonetti)

It is not “an openly Sabellian creed.” “It is going too far to say that N is a clearly Sabellian document. … It is exceeding the evidence to represent the Council as a total victory for the anti-Origenist opponents of the doctrine of three hypostases. It was more like a drawn battle.” (Hanson, p. 172) Ayres says that his conclusions are close to Hanson’s. (Ayres, p. 92)

However, in the view of this article, since homoousios was known to be a Sabellian term and given the anathema, it was a Sabellian victory.

AFTER NICAEA

Sabellianism and homoousios were rejected.

Arius and his theology were no longer important after Nicaea. 

Nicaea brought an end to the dispute around Arius’ theology:

“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (Ayres, p. 56-57)

As another article explains, the only reason so many people still believe that Arius was important is because Athanasius argued that his opponents were all followers of Arius. For that purpose, he quoted at length from Arius. But Athanasius’ opponents – the anti-Nicenes – did not follow Arius. Arius was insignificant. (Read More)

Alexander died soon after Nicaea. He was not the focus of the dispute after Nicaea either:

“The Index to the Festal Letters of Athanasius dates the death of Alexander firmly to April 27th, 328.” (Hanson, p. 175)[/mfn] 

At Nicaea, the Sabellians gained a major victory, reigniting the third-century controversy. 

In the third century, the main controversy was between Sabellius’ one-hypostasis theology and Origen’s three hypostases. In that century, Sabellianism was defeated. However, in the fourth century at Nicaea, the Sabellians gained a major victory with the emperor’s support. This re-ignited the third-century controversy and caused a few years of severe strife:

“Nicaea has been a catalyst for conflict between pre-existing theological trajectories.” (Ayres, p. 101)

In the years after Nicaea, this war continued between Origen’s followers (the Eusebians, often but misleadingly called ‘Arians’) and Sabellius’ followers.

Within a few years, all leading Sabellians were exiled. 

Origen’s followers were again victorious, and the leading Sabellians were exiled:

“Within ten years of the Council of Nicaea all the leading supporters of the creed of that Council had been deposed or disgraced or exiled – Athanasius, Eustathius and Marcellus, and with them a large number of other bishops who are presumed to have belonged to the same school of thought.” (Hanson, p. 274)

“Eustathius lost this battle and was deposed at some point between 326 and 331.” (Ayres, p. 101)

“The new synod met in the summer of 336 and deposed Marcellus for holding the heresy of Paul of Samosata.” (Williams, p. 80) (Read More)

This conflict was specifically about the meaning of the term homoousios. 

The Sabellians claimed that it supports their theology, namely, that the Father and Son are a single Person, meaning that the Son does not have a real distinct existence. For example, the following is one event during that period “probably in 326 or 327:” (Ayres, p. 101)

“The fifth-century ecclesiastical historian Sozomen reports a dispute immediately after the council, focused not on Arius, but … concerning the precise meaning of the term homoousios.

Some [the Eusebians] thought this term … implied the non-existence of the Son of God; and that it involved the error of Montanus and Sabellius. …

Eustathius accused Eusebius [of Caesarea] of altering the doctrines ratified by the council of Nicaea, while the latter declared that he approved of all the Nicaean doctrines, and reproached Eustathius for cleaving to the heresy of Sabellius.” (Ayres, p. 101)44“This event was only one part of the conflict that now began.” (Ayres, p. 101)

Note in this quote that the Sabellians claimed Nicaea as a victory.

After that, nobody mentions Homoousios.

After the Sabellians were exiled, nobody mentioned homoousios for about two decades. 

Since the controversy was between the Eusebians and Sabellians over the meaning of homoousios, the rejection of the Sabellians after Nicaea was also a rejection of the term homoousios. This site refers to the decade after Nicaea as the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’ because it closed the door to Sabellianism that was opened at Nicaea. (Read More).

“There is a near-fifteen year absence before the creed is mentioned again.” (Ayres, p. 100)

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. …This lack of usage also results from the association of Nicaea with the theology of Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Ayres, p. 97)

“What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.” (Hanson Lecture)

Councils in the 340s do not mention it.

The councils in the 340s do not mention homoousios but focus on the fundamental issue: one or three hypostases.

Respectively 16 and 18 years after Nicaea, two councils met; the Dedication Council in 341 and the Council at Serdica in 343. Since both councils met during the period that homoousios was not mentioned, the creeds from these councils do not mention the term.

However, these councils focused on the more fundamental issue, of which homoousios was only a symptom, namely, the number of hypostases in God:

The Dedication Council was a council of the Eastern Church. Its main purpose was to condemn Sabellianism. It explicitly asserts three hypostases (three Persons or Beings with three distinct minds).

The Serdica Council never met as one. The Western and Eastern delegates met separately and issued two different creeds. While the Eastern creed maintained three hypostases, the Western creed explicitly asserts one hypostasis (one Person with one mind). 

The dispute about the number of hypostases was the main issue of the entire Arian Controversy. It began with the second-century Monarchains and the third-century Sabellians confessing one hypostasis. In opposition to them, Origen taught three hypostases. In the third century, his view dominated and Sabellianism was rejected. In the fourth century, the Sabellians, Alexander, Athanasius, and the West continued to teach one hypostasis. Later in the century, the Cappadocians taught three equal hypostases. Sabellianism was eventually victorious when Emperor Theodosius in 380 made Athanasius’ one-hypostasis theology the official and sole religion of the Roman Empire. (Read More)

Athanasius revived Homoousios in the 350s.

Athanasius developed his polemical strategy in the 330s but did not mention homoousios. 

During the years 335-6, Athanasius and Marcellus were deposed by the Eastern Church. Meeting in Rome, they joined forces. At that time Athanasius also developed his polemical strategy; his “masterpiece of the rhetorical art,” (Ayres, p. 106-7) claiming that:

      • Arius originated a new heresy, causing the Controversy.
      • All opponents of Nicaea are followers of Arius.
      • Athanasius preserves scriptural orthodoxy.
      • An Arian Conspiracy caused him to be exiled for violence but, in reality, he was exiled for opposition to Arianism.

These statements may sound familiar but none of them are true. However, the church has believed Athanasius for more than 1500 years. The truth of the Arian Controversy was only revealed in the last about 100 years.

The point is that, in the 330s and 340s, Athanasius’ polemical strategy did not say anything about homoousios. He did not yet defend it.

Athanasius revived homoousios in the 350s; 30 years after Nicaea. 

By the time Constantius became emperor of the entire Empire in the early 350s, Athanasius had become extremely powerful4545“Towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421) and Constantius attempted to isolate Athanasius. 46For example, at Milan in 355 “almost everybody present acquiesced in the Emperor’s demands, condemned Athanasius, and probably also signed some formula which was not openly Arian but was patient of an Arian interpretation.” (Hanson, p. 333-4) It was in this time of crisis that Athanasius strengthened his polemical strategy by adding homoousios to his arsenal:

“It is not until he (Athanasius) writes the De Decretis (356 or 357) that Athanasius again mentions the word and begins to defend it.” (Hanson, p. 436)

“Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (Ayres, p. 144)

In this way, homoousios came back into the Controversy. As mentioned above, the West was not involved when the Arian Controversy began. By the 350’s, the West had already entered the stage and Athanasius had become their “paragon” (model) (Hanson, p. 304). Following Athanasius, the West also began to support homoousios. (Read More)

Because he was a Sabellian.

Athanasius re-introduced the term into the Controversy because he was a Sabellian, believing in one hypostasis. 

Athanasius is known as the main fourth-century defender of the Nicene Creed and homoousios but, as discussed here, Athanasius also was a Sabellian. He claimed that he was not a Sabellian but, like the Sabellians, he believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (a single Person). Specifically, he believed that the Son is part of the Father. For example:

“In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)

“The Westerners had at Serdica in 343 produced a theological statement which appeared to have the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion, and Athanasius had certainly supported this statement, though he later denied its existence.” (Hanson, p. xix)

There are different forms of one-hypostasis theology. For example:

      • In the second century, Monarchianism stated that Father and Son are two names for the same Person.
      • In the third century, Sabellius proposed that the Son and Father are two parts of the one Person of God.
      • In the fourth, Athanasius said the Son is part of the Father.

But they all believed in one hypostasis, as opposed to Origin’s three-hypostases theology, as maintained by the fourth-century Eusebians. Sabellianism is therefore only one of the one-hypostasis theologies. However, the term ‘Sabellian’ is often used to refer to all one-hypostasis theologies. Used in that way, Athanasius was a Sabellian:

“Just what the Council intended this expression to mean is set forth by St. Athanasius as follows: ‘That the Son is not only like to the Father, but that … he is the same as the Father; that he is of the Father … that the Son is not only like to the Father, but inseparable from the substance of the Father, that he and the Father are one and the same … as the sun and its splendour are inseparable.’” (Schaff)

That Athanasius re-introduced homoousios into the Controversy confirms the one-hypostasis implication of the term.

An anti-homoousios front

The anti-homoousians were divided into factions but were united against Sabellianism. 

In the 350s, after homoousios was re-introduced into the Arian Controversy, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) were divided in how they opposed the term:

      • The Homoiousians said the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s.
      • The Heterousians argued that no being’s substance can be like or similar to the Father’s because the Father alone exists without cause.
      • The Homoians avoided all uses of ousia words, including homoousios.

But they were united against one-hypostasis theologies:

The Homoians “included bishops of different stripes.” What “united” them was “the desire to find a solution to the ongoing controversy that would rule out any theologies seemingly tainted with Marcellan emphases.” (Ayres, p. 138) 

“Basil (of Ancyra – leader of the Homoiousians) made ad hoc alliances with theologians such as Acacius (leader of the Homoians) against Photinus and Marcellus.” (Ayres, p. 150)(Photinus was “perhaps the most visible representative of a Marcellan theology in these years (in the 350s).” (Ayres, p. 134))

That the anti-homoousians also opposed Sabellianism confirms:

    • The Sabellian intent of the term and
    • That Sabellianism remained the main enemy.

Basil of Caesarea

Basil of Caesarea, the first Cappadocian father, was the first pro-Nicene to explain homoousios as three hypostases

Basil of Caesarea, who wrote in the 360s and 370s, did not follow Athanasius and did not base his theology on the Nicene Creed. He began as a Homoiousian but later also accepted the term homoousios. However, while Athanasius and other pro-Nicenes explained homoousios as meaning one hypostasis, Basil taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct substances (three hypostases or Persons or Beings) with exactly the same type of substance:

“Like unalterably according to ousia.” (Hanson, p. 696-7) (Read More)

The problem is, that since their substances are equal, this implies tritheism. Nevertheless, Basil was the first pro-Nicene to explain homoousios as three hypostases.

Basil opposed Athanasius and other one-hypostasis theologians. 

In the 360s and 370s, in what is known as the Meletian Schism, a dispute between two pro-Nicene groups, Basil’s view brought him to oppose Athanasius and other one-hypostasis theologians. While Basil supported Meletius as bishop of Antioch, Athanasius, Damasus of Rome and Athanasius’ successor Peter supported Paulinus (another ‘one-Person’ theologian) for that position. For example:

“The opening of the year 375 saw the ironical situation in which the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic … against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East” (Hanson Lecture)

The Chalcedonian Creed

The Chalcedonian Creed of AD 451 uses homoousios to compare distinct entities. 

The Chalcedonian symbol says that Christ is “consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father as touching the Godhead, and consubstantial with us [and yet individually, distinct from us] as touching the manhood.”  47Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673. In other words, similar to Basil, it interprets homoousios as saying that Father and Son are two distinct substances of the same type.

After the pro-Nicenes, following Basil, used homoousios in a three-hypostasis sense, the Sabellians seemed to have switched to the more specific term monoousios (or synousios):

“According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.” (Beatrice) 48Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A).

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

Before Nicaea, the only Christian theologians who favored the term were the Sabellians.

At Nicaea, a Sabellian minority had the upper hand through their alliance with Alexander and because the emperor took Alexander’s part. Consequently, the term homoousios, which they preferred, was inserted in the Creed, despite the majority’s objections. However, Emperor Constantine appeased the majority’s fears by explaining the ousia-terms highly figuratively, saying that it only means that the Son is truly from the Father. This explanation enabled the Eusebian majority to accept the Creed.

In the third century, the Sabellians lost major battles but Nicaea may be counted as their victory. After the Council, Sabellians claimed that victory, namely, that the term homoousios means that the church had accepted a one-hypostasis theology. This caused a major dispute in the decade after Nicaea, resulting in the exile of all leading Sabellians.

After that, the term homoousios disappeared from the Controversy. The Controversy now focused on the more fundamental disagreement; the number of hypostases in God. In the 350s, however, Athanasius brought the term back into the Controversy, causing the church to divided into various factions:

Athanasius and the West defended homoousios, explaining it as saying that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (one Person).

The Cappadocian fathers accepted homoousios but interpreted it in a generic sense, meaning three hypostases.

The Homoians, who dominated the church for much of the 350s to 370s, rejected all ousia terms, including homoousios.

The Homoiousians said that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.

The Heterousians claimed that the Son’s substance is different from the Father’s.

In conclusion, throughout the entire Arian Controversy, the only people who regarded homoousios as saying that Father and Son are one substance, as the Trinity doctrine also claims, were the one-hypostasis (Sabellian) theologians.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “A standard connotation of the term homoousios was membership in a class, a generic similarity between things that were, in some sense, co-ordinate [equal in rank or importance]. The term was used loosely to point to markers of commonality and did not at all exclude relationships between realities that were hierarchically distinct in other ways.” (Ayres, p. 94-95)
  • 2
    Quoting Person, R. E. The Mode of Theological Decision-Making at the Early Ecumenical Councils (1978) p105
  • 3
    Philip Schaff. History of the Church volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition. pp.672-673.
  • 4
    “It was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense than has in the past history of scholarship been attached to it.” (Hanson, p. 202)
  • 5
    “Our investigation of the use of homoousios before it was inserted in N, then, should have suggested strongly that it would be unwise to give the word a strictly defined or single meaning.” (Hanson, p. 196)
  • 6
    “Hippolytus quotes Gnostics as using the word homoousios, none of them suggesting identity, nor even equality.” (Hanson, p. 191)
  • 7
    “Origen had rejected the term (substance) years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” (Steven Wedgeworth)
  • 8
    “It is almost certainly right to conclude that Origen could not have spoken of the Son as homoousios with the Father.” (Williams, p. 132)
  • 9
    “Origen never says that the Son comes from the substance of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 67)
  • 10
    Epiphanius stated that “Origen often declared ‘that the only-begotten God is alien from the Father’s Godhead and substance’ (ousia)” (Hanson, p. 62).
  • 11
    Both “Dionysius of Rome and Eusebius of Caesarea label” “the accusers of Dionysius of Alexandria” as “Sabellians.” (Beatrice)
  • 12
    He “at least took up or championed it (the term homoousios).” (Hanson, p. 193)
  • 13
    “Dionysius of Rome harshly condemned those who divided the Trinity into three distinct hypostases.” (Beatrice)
  • 14
    “Dionysius of Rome … said that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy ‘into three sorts of … separated hypostases and three Godheads’; people who hold this in effect produce three gods.” (Hanson, p. 185)
  • 15
    Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn
  • 16
    “The terms aroused opposition, on the grounds that they were unscriptural, novel, tending to Sabellianism” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)
  • 17
    “This word (substance) was thought, as it was always thought by Arians, to introduce corporeal notions into the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 346)
  • 18
    “For Christian writers such notions seemed irredeemably materialist, and made it easy for them to suppose that the mere use of homoousios implies a certain materiality.” (Ayres, p. 93)
  • 19
    “Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)
  • 20
    Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53
  • 21
    “The Origenists had considerable reservation about homoousios and the other phrases containing the term ousios (substance).” (Erickson)
  • 22
    Eusebius accepted homoousion with “obvious reluctance.” (Hanson, p. 165)
  • 23
    Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53
  • 24
    “Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” “The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)
  • 25
    Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85
  • 26
    Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.
  • 27
    “The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios. ” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53)
  • 28
    Constantine “himself … insisted upon the word homoousia being included in the creed.” (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997) p 15.)
  • 29
    Eusebius of Caesarea “gives the impression throughout this letter that Constantine took the initiative in all the matters that the letter deals with, apparently regarding himself as qualified to deal with any discussion about the profound questions raised by the Christian doctrine of God.” (Hanson, p. 160)
  • 30
    Eusebius “alleges that the Emperor himself qualified the addition of ‘consubstantial’ by saying that it must not be understood “in the sense of any corporeal experiences.” It also does not mean that the Son “exists as a result of division or any subtraction from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 165)
  • 31
    “Eusebius directly ascribes to Constantine only an emphasis on understanding homoousios without reference to material division or the sorts of change associated with corporeal existence.” (Ayres, p. 96)
  • 32
    (Erickson, Millard J, God in Three Persons, p82-85)
  • 33
    Frend, WHC: The Rise of Christianity
  • 34
    “There were present at the Council people, such as Marcellus of Ancyra, who were quite ready to maintain that there is only one hypostasis in the Godhead, and who were later to be deposed for heresy because they believed this.” (Hanson, p. 167)
  • 35
    “Marcellus … played a major role at Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 62)
  • 36
    Eusebius of Caesarea put forward a creed that was “revised” by “the party of Alexander,” which was “favored by the emperor,” who “favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Erickson)
  • 37
    Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41
  • 38
    “It also seems possible that Ossius at least believed in only one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 167)
  • 39
    “The condemnation … that the Son is ‘of another hypostasis or ousia’ from the Father … can only have been a highly ambiguous and extremely confusing statement. By the standard of later orthodoxy … it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition.” (Hanson, p. 167)
  • 40
    “The anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support” Sabellianism. (Hanson Lecture).
  • 41
    “He (Eustathius) could have replied … that the notorious anathema in N gave him every encouragement to believe that there is only one distinct reality in the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 216)
  • 42
    “Eusebius’ discussion nicely demonstrates the extent to which the promulgation of homoousios involved a conscious lack of positive definition of the term. Of course, those who were broadly in the same trajectory as Alexander would have easily been able to sign up to Nicaea’s terms but would have read them in a very different manner.” (Ayres, p. 91)
  • 43
    The term “unitarian” refers to Sabellianism. For example: “A great deal of controversy was caused in the years after the council by some supporters of Nicaea whose theology had strongly unitarian tendencies. Chief among these was Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Ayres, p. 431)
  • 44
    “This event was only one part of the conflict that now began.” (Ayres, p. 101)
  • 45
    45“Towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421)
  • 46
    For example, at Milan in 355 “almost everybody present acquiesced in the Emperor’s demands, condemned Athanasius, and probably also signed some formula which was not openly Arian but was patient of an Arian interpretation.” (Hanson, p. 333-4)
  • 47
    Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.
  • 48
    Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A).

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