Sabellians inserted homoousios in the Nicene Creed.

PURPOSE

This is a summary of the article on the meaning of the term homoousios in the Nicene Creed produced in AD 325. Since this crucial subject puts a new perspective on the entire fourth-century Arian Controversy, I made this summary a separate post. The Nicene Creed says that the Son:

    • Was begotten of the substance (ousia) of the Father and 
    • is of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father.

The conclusions in this article may seem heterodox but are based on the writings of recent leading scholars on the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Over the last hundred years, certain ancient documents have become more readily available.1“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.2“The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 11) Hanson even describes the traditional account of the Arian Controversy as a complete travesty.

The two meanings of Homoousios

‘Same substance’ has two possible meanings:

One Substance – In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed from the beginning. In it, God is one Being (ousia) but three Persons (hypostases). Trinitarians claim that homoousios means that Father and Son are one single substance (one Being).

Two Substances – Alternatively, it could indicate two substances (two Beings) with equal divinity.

These alternative meanings of homoousios are related to the core issue in the Arian Controversy, which was whether the Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (one Person with one mind) or three:

      • In one-hypostasis theologies, such as Sabellianism, the Son is not a distinct Person with a distinct mind. Consequently, homoousios means one substance (one hypostasis or Person).
      • In three-hypostasis theologies, such as taught by the Basil of Caesarea, the Son is a distinct hypostasis (Person). Consequently, homoousios means two substances of the same type.

Recent scholarship, however, seems to agree that homoousios does not have either of these two meanings but has a looser, more ambiguous meaning.

Before Nicaea, it implied one hypostasis.

In Greek Philosophy, Aristotle used the term οὐσία (ousia) to describe his philosophical concept of Primary Substances.

In Egyptian paganism, the word homoousios meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son – two distinct beings – share the same perfection of the divine nature.

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

Gnostics used homoousios to say that the lower deities are of a similar kind as the highest deity from whom they were derived or emanated. Gnostics were not real Christians and did not use the term to describe the Son’s relationship to the Father.

Tertullian (155-220), writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding exactly to homoousios. He used “the expression unius substantiate,” which means one hypostasis (one Person), which implies ‘one substance’.

Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) used homoousios to say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one Person (one hypostasis). In other words, he used the term to say they are one substance.

Origen (c. 185 – c. 253) did not apply the word homoousios to the Son and did not teach that the Son is ‘from the ousia’ of the Father, despite claims to the contrary. He is famous for his ‘three hypostases’ teaching, opposing Tertullian and Sabellius.

Libyan Sabellians (c. 260) described the Son as homoousios with the Father. They meant that the Father and Son are one substance and one hypostasis (Person).

Dionysius, bishop of Rome (c. 260), agreed with the Libyan Sabellians that Father and Son were homoousios and also understood that to mean one hypostasis. His doctrine is similar to the Sabellians.

Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (c. 260), opposed those Libyan Sabellians and rejected homoousios because Sabellius used it in rejecting the distinction of hypostases. But the Libyan Sabellians complained to the bishop of Rome. The latter persuaded Dionysius of Alexandria to accept the term but he accepted it reluctantly and only in a general sense, meaning ‘of a similar kind’. In other words, for him, the term did not mean that Father and Son are one Person or even that they are equal.

Paul of Samosata was deposed only a few years later in 268. He used the term to say that Father and Son were ‘a primitive undifferentiated unity’. That same council also condemned homoousion because it spelled Sabellianism.

Conclusion

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was used only by the ‘one-hypostasis’ theologians. They used it to say that Father and Son are one single Person (hypostasis). Consequently, the Son is not a distinct Person.

At Nicaea, Sabellians inserted the term.

Homoousios was a surprising innovation.

The inclusion of the term in the Nicene Creed must be regarded as surprising because it is not Biblical, was not part of the standard Christian language at the time, was borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day, and was suspect due to its Sabellian history. For these reasons, some powerful force must have been at work to ensure its adoption.

The Emperor dominated the council.

That powerful force was the emperor. In the fourth century, the general councils (the so-called ecumenical councils) were called and controlled by the emperors and were the tools whereby the emperors governed the church.3“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) In the Roman culture, the emperor had the final say in church doctrine.4“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)

Consistent with this principle, at Nicaea, the emperor not only proposed but also insisted on the term.5Constantine “pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)6“’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.” (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.) Constantine even dared to explain the term.

The Sabellians caused the term to be inserted.

At Nicaea, the Sabellians dominated7“Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus … Both were influential at the council.” (Ayres, p. 99) because they allied with Alexander8“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) and because the emperor took Alexander’s side.9“Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (Ayres, p. 89) Consequently, they were able to cause the insertion of the term, despite the majority’s objections. So, it really means ‘one hypostasis’. Consequently, after Nicaea, the Sabellians claimed the Creed as support for their doctrine. On the other hand, the majority agreed with the Creed because they had accepted the emperor’s explanation that it simply means that the Son is truly from the Father. In reality, they knew it meant ‘one hypostasis’.

After Nicaea

Leading Sabellians were deposed.

After Nicaea, Arius was out of the picture and Alexander died in 328. However, the conflict that began at Nicaea around the term homoousios continued for a few years. The dispute was specifically between the Eusebian majority and the leading Sabellians. As a result of this conflict, many leading Sabellians were deposed: This site calls it the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’ because it corrected the distortions caused at Nicaea by the emperor’s interference. This period, therefore, should be regarded as part of the Nicene event.

After that, homoousios was not mentioned.

After the ‘Post-Nicaea correction’, homoousios was not mentioned again for about 20 years. During this period, two councils were held that revealed the true views of the delegates at Nicaea. Neither of these councils referred to homoousios. These councils focused on the more fundamental issue, of which homoousios was only a symptom, of the number of hypostases in God:

East – At first, the ‘West’ was not part of the Arian Controversy.10“Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170) So, what the delegates to Nicaea really believed when not compelled by the emperor can be seen in the Eastern Dedication Creed formulated in 431. It shows they regarded the Nicene Creed as dangerously Sabellian and explicitly confessed three hypostases.

West – Two years later, in 343, at the council at Serdica, the Western delegates produced a manifesto that explicitly says that Father and Son are one hypostasis (Person), which reveals the Sabellian preference of the West at this time. This is confirmed by their vindication of Marcellus, the main Sabellian at the time, in the year 341.

Homoousios returned to the Controversy in the 350s.

In the 350s, about 30 years after Nicaea, Athanasius brought homoousios back into the Controversy. Athanasius is known as the main defender of the Nicene Creed and homoousios during the years after Nicaea but, as another article shows, Athanasius also was a Sabellian. In his view, Father and Son are one Person. This again shows the Sabellian nature of the term homoousios.

The Eusebians formed an anti-Sabellian Front.

After homoousios had become a key factor in the 350s, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) were divided into several factions with respect to homoousios, but formed a united front against the Sabellian thrust of the Western church. This shows that the main enemy remained Sabellianism.

Basil was the first three-hypostases pro-Nicene.

In the 360s and 370s, in what is known as the Meletian Schism, there were two factions in the pro-Nicene camp:

    • The ‘one hypostasis’ theologians (the Sabellians) were led by bishop Damasus of Rome and by Athanasius.
    • Basil of Caesarea led the ‘three hypostasis’ side. He regarded the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct Beings (substances) and, therefore, three distinct Persons. But he claimed that they have exactly the same type of substance. See – Basil.

After Basil, the pro-Nicenes interpreted homoousios as referring to two distinct Persons (hypostases). But as the Trinity doctrine later developed, it accepted Basil’s terminology of three hypostases but combined it with Athanasius’ principle that Father Son, and Spirit have one single mind. For this purpose, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are three ‘Persons’ but one Being with one mind. In this doctrine, the term ‘Person’ is misleading.11Hanson says: “I refrain from using the misleading word’ Person.” He describes the Three as “three ways of being or modes of existing as God.

Final Conclusions

Before Nicaea, the only Christians who favored the term were Sabellians.

At Nicaea, a Sabellian minority was able to insert the term in the Creed, against the wishes of the majority, because the emperor took Alexander’s part.

Within a few years after Nicaea, the Sabellian drivers of the term homoousios were removed from their positions. After that, the term was not mentioned again until Athanasius brought it back into the dispute about 30 years after Nicaea; not to defend the term as such, but to defend his own Sabellian theology.

The West accepted Athanasius’ explanation because the West was traditionally Sabellian.

Basil of Caesarea accepted homoousios but he opposed Athanasius’ one-hypostasis explanation and explained it as indicating three Persons.

Therefore, before, during, and after Nicaea, the advocates of the term homoousios were Sabellians. It must be understood in a Sabellian sense.


OTHER ARTICLES

CHURCH FATHERS

ARIAN CONTROVERSY

ARIUS

THE NICENE CREED

ARIANISM

    • Athanasius invented the term ‘Arian’. 31The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • The Dedication Creed – AD 341 32This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if Emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • The Long Lines Creed – AD 344 33In contrast to the one-hypostasis view of the Western manifesto at Serdica in 343, the Long Lines Creed reflects a three-hypostasis theology.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 34‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 35In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 36This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 37Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

THE PRO-NICENES

EMPEROR THEODOSIUS

AUTHORS 

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

LATER

TRINITY DOCTRINE – GENERAL

    • Elohim 48Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 49The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

OTHER

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “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)
  • 2
    “The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 11)
  • 3
    “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)
  • 4
    “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)
  • 5
    Constantine “pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)
  • 6
    “’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.” (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)
  • 7
    “Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus … Both were influential at the council.” (Ayres, p. 99)
  • 8
    “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)
  • 9
    “Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (Ayres, p. 89)
  • 10
    “Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)
  • 11
    Hanson says: “I refrain from using the misleading word’ Person.” He describes the Three as “three ways of being or modes of existing as God.
  • 12
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 13
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 14
    Both Sabellius and Tertullian taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are one Person with Father, Son, and Spirit as portions of that one Person.
  • 15
    The Controversy gave us the Trinity doctrine but the traditional account of the Controversy is a complete traversy.
  • 16
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 17
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 18
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 19
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 20
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten by the Father timelessly before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 21
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 22
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 23
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion that he thought best.
  • 24
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 25
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 26
    At Nicaea, Sabellians caused homoousios to be inserted through an alliance with Alexander and because the emperor took Alexander’s side.
  • 27
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 28
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 29
    While the Creed describes Father and Son as one single hypostasis (Person), the Trinity doctrine teaches that they are distinct hypostases.
  • 30
    There was no Arian Conspiracy. It was a campaign against the claim that homoousios identifies Sabellianism as the church’s official theology.
  • 31
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 32
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if Emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 33
    In contrast to the one-hypostasis view of the Western manifesto at Serdica in 343, the Long Lines Creed reflects a three-hypostasis theology.
  • 34
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 35
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 36
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 37
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 38
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 39
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 40
    Many believe that these accusations were false but RPC Hanson shows that Athanasius was justly condemned.
  • 41
    The West deposed Athanasius for violence but the West, which, like Athanasius, preferred a one hypostasis theology, declared him blameless.
  • 42
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 43
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 44
    It was a regional synod of Antioch and attended only by bishops who were friendly to the bishop of Antioch. But the emperor hijacked it.
  • 45
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 46
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 47
    In the fifth century, Arian ‘barbarians’ dominated the Western Empire, but they tolerated and even respected the Trinitarian Roman Church.
  • 48
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 49
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

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