The fourth-century Arian Controversy; An Overview

Table of Contents


Based on research and ancient documents that have become more accessible, scholarship since about 1960 explains the Controversy very differently than before (See – here). 

This article began as a summary and interpretation of the first ten chapters of the book – Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004, by Lewis Ayres. These chapters describe the events of the ‘Arian’ Controversy more or less chronologically.

Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom. His book was recommended to me by a member of the theology faculty at a local university as a highly regarded treatment of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy. It is relatively recent and incorporates recent research findings.

I also quote from:

R.P.C. Hanson, whose book was written a decade or two earlier. Ayres says that his book is “not intended to replace the standard large surveys by Richard Hanson 1The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (1988) and Manlio Simonetti 2La Crisi Ariana nel IV secolo (1975).” (Ayres, p. 5, 12) Ayres’ book “in some measure advances on their texts.” (Ayres, 5) “Richard Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (1988) and Manlio Simonetti’s La Crisi Ariana nel IV secolo (1975) remain essential points of reference.” (Ayres, p. 12)

Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987. 3Revised ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing

Although this overview is largely based on Ayres’ book, the emphases and conclusions are mine.



The fourth-century controversy “produced … the most important creed in the history of Christianity.” (Ayres, p. 1)

“The fundamental problem in understanding … these controversies … (is that) the documentary evidence from this period is … fragmentary.” (Ayres, p. 2)

The Traditional Account

The explanation of the Controversy has changed.

Over the last 100 years, due to ancient documents that have become available and progress in research, scholars have explained the fourth-century Arian Controversy very differently than before.

“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)

“Since the time of Gwatkin and Harnack (at the beginning of the 20th century) … much important work upon the period has been done.” (Hanson, p. xx)

“Schwartz has established much of the chronology of the period more securely. Bell has published the papyrus which throws such a lurid light on the behaviour of Athanasius in his see. … so important for our estimation of Athanasius’ character. … The existence of the Synod of Antioch of 325 has now been brought to light. … A store of Arian literature hitherto unknown or little known has been made available by Turner, Gryson and others.” (Hanson, p. xx)

“The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 11)4And Ayres wrote in 2004: “A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (Ayres, p. 2).

Hanson summarizes this development as follows:

“The study of the Arian problem over the last hundred years has been like a long-distance gun trying to hit a target. The first sighting shots are very wide of the mark, but gradually the shells fall nearer and nearer. The diatribes of Gwatkin and of Harnack, can today be completely ignored.” (These books were written around the year 1900.) (Hanson, p. 95-96)

Ayres’ book summarizes that new perspective and offers “a narrative of … thought between approximately AD 300 and 383.” (Ayres, p. 2)

For reasons such as the following, Richard Hanson described the traditional account of the ‘Arian’ Controversy as “a complete travesty:”

The Trinity doctrine was not orthodox.

In the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was established orthodoxy when the Controversy began and is reflected in the Nicene Creed formulated in AD 325. Consequently, these disputes are “understood as … the Church’s struggle against a heretic and his followers grounded in a clear Nicene doctrine established in the controversy’s earliest stages.” (Ayres, p. 11-12)

However, what we today understand as Nicene theology did not exist when the Controversy began and when the Nicene Creed was formulated in AD 325. The ‘orthodoxy’ as we know it today was worked out through that struggle as one way of interpreting the Nicene Creed:

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

“The conflict that resulted eventually led to the emergence of a series of what I will term pro-Nicene theologies interpreting the Council of Nicaea in ways that provided a persuasive solution to the conflicts of the century.” (Ayres, p. 12)

‘Pro-Nicene’ refers to “those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s … of how the Nicene creed should be understood. … All of these theologies build closely on and adapt themes found earlier in the century, but none is identical with any original ‘Nicene’ theology apparent in the 320s or 330s.” (Ayres, p. 6)

The “Arian Controversy” “was not a history of the defence of an agreed and settled orthodoxy against the assaults of open heresy. … There was not as yet any orthodox doctrine. The accounts of what happened which have come down to us were mostly written by those who belonged to the school of thought which eventually prevailed and have been deeply coloured by that fact. The supporters of this view wanted their readers to think that orthodoxy on the subject under discussion had always existed and that the period was simply a story of the defence of that orthodoxy against heresy and error.” (Hanson, p. xviii-xix)

“This is not the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy.” (Hanson, p. xix-xx)

Arius did not cause the Controversy.

In the older account, Arius provoked the controversy by producing a novel heresy. However:

“A great deal of recent work seeking to understand Arian spirituality has, not surprisingly, helped to demolish the notion of Arius and his supporters as deliberate radicals, attacking a time-honoured tradition.” (Williams, p. 21)

“Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically, a conservative Alexandrian.” (Williams, p. 175)5“In Alexandria he (Arius) represented … a conservative theology.” (Williams, p. 233)6“In the fourth century there came to a head a crisis … which was not created by either Arius or Athanasius.” (Hanson, p. xx)

It continued the Controversy of the third century.

In reality, the Controversy continued the controversy about the nature of Christ that had been raging in the previous century, particularly between Sabellius’ one-hypostasis view (that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Person with one single mind) and Origen’s three-hypostasis view. Arius was the spark that re-ignited a smoldering fire:

The “conflict in Alexandria” occurred and escalated “because of tension between existing theological trajectories.” (Ayres, p. 85)7“The controversy surrounding Arius was an epiphenomenon of widespread existing tensions.” (Ayres, p. 15)8“Many of the issues raised by the controversy were under lively discussion before Arius and Alexander publicly clashed” (Hanson, p. 52).

“This controversy is a complex affair in which tensions between pre-existing theological traditions intensified as a result of dispute over Arius.” (Ayres, p. 11-12)

“We will find pre-existing deep theological tensions at the beginning of the fourth century. Controversy over Arius was the spark that ignited a fire waiting to happen, and the origins of the dispute do not lie simply in the beliefs of one thinker, but in existing tensions that formed his background.” (Ayres, p. 20)9“The views of Arius were such as … to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering. … He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (Hanson, p. xvii)

The dispute was not whether Jesus is God.

It is often said that the main issue in the Controversy was whether Jesus is God. But that was not the issue:

“Many summary accounts present the Arian controversy as a dispute over whether or not Christ was divine.” (Ayres, p. 13) However, “it is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (Ayres, p. 14)10“We should avoid thinking of these controversies as focusing on the status of Christ as ‘divine’ or ‘not divine’.” (Ayres, p. 3)

“A second approach that we need to reject treats the fourth-century debates as focusing on the question of whether to place the Son on either side of a clear God/creation boundary.” (Ayres, p. 4)11“Suggestions that the issue was one of placing Christ (and eventually the Spirit) on either side of a well-established dividing line between created and uncreated are particularly unhelpful.” (Ayres, p. 14) 

One reason is that the anti-Nicenes also described Jesus as divine and as “God.” For example, the Eastern Dedication Creed quotes John 1:1-2 and describes the Son as “God” and as “God from God.” Two years later the same people – the Easterners at Serdica – condemned those who say “that Christ is not God.” (Hanson, p. 298)12As another example, the creed of 357, which is regarded by some as the high point of Arianism, says: “The Son is born from the Father, God from God.” (Hanson, p. 345)

Another reason is that, when the Controversy began, even the pro-Nicenes described the Son as subordinate. For example:

“With the exception of Athanasius, virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy” (Hanson, p. xix).

All theologians regarded both the Father and Son as theos (God) but, while the modern word “God” identifies only one Being (the Ultimate Reality), the word theos was used for beings with different levels of divinity:

Commenting on the statement of the Easterners (the anti-Nicenes) at the Council of Serdica, condemning “those who say … that Christ is not God,” Ayres says: “This “reminds us of the variety of ways in which the term ‘God’ could be deployed at this point.” (Ayres, p. 124)

“In the fourth century the word ‘God’ (theos, deus) had not acquired the significance which in our twentieth-century world it has acquired … viz. the one and sole true God. The word could apply to many gradations of divinity.” (Hanson, p. 456)13“Many fourth-century theologians (including some who were in no way anti-Nicene) made distinctions between being ‘God’ and being ‘true God’ that belie any simple account of the controversy in these terms.” (Ayres, p. 4, 14) 

It was only the late fourth-century theologians who eliminated degrees of divinity and made a clear God/creation boundary:

“At issue until the last decades of the controversy was the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.” (Ayres, p. 14)14“The achievement of a clear distinction between God and creation (such that ‘true God’ is synonymous with God) was the increasing subtlety and clarity with which late fourth-century theologians shaped their basic rules or grammar … (which) admits of no degrees.” (Ayres, p. 4)

For a further discussion, see – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?”

There were no ‘Arians’.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, there were only two sides, the pro-Nicenes and the Arians, with the Arians perpetuating Arius’ views:

“Many summary accounts present the Arian controversy as … a conspiracy of Arians against the Nicene tradition (represented particularly by Athanasius) perpetuated Arius’ views.” (Ayres, p. 13)

However, there was no party perpetuating Arius’ views:

“No clear party sought to preserve Arius’ theology.” (Ayres, p. 14) “It is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius’ specific theology.” (Ayres, p. 2)

Some supported Arius, not because they supported his views, but because they thought that Alexander’s one-hypostasis theology was even more dangerous:

“Many of Arius’ earliest supporters appear to have rallied to him because they, like him, opposed Alexander’s theology.” (Ayres, p. 14) Arius was not “their teacher or main inspiration.” (Ayres, p. 13)

Arius was an insignificant writer. For example, the so-called ‘Arians’ never quote him:

“The people of his (Arius’) day, whether they agreed with him or not, did not regard him as a particularly significant writer. … Neither his supporters nor his opponents thought them (his writings) worth preserving.” (Hanson, p. xvii)

Arius was an extreme member of the Eusebian trajectory.

“My second theological trajectory is the one in which we locate Arius himself. This loose alliance I will term ‘Eusebian’.” (Ayres, p. 52)

“Arius was part of a wider theological trajectory; many of his ideas were opposed by others in this trajectory: he neither originated the trajectory nor uniquely exemplified it.” (Ayres, p. 2)

The anti-Nicenes also opposed Arius’ teachings. For example, the post-Nicaea Eusebian Creeds, such as the Dedication Creed (431) and the Long-Lined Creed (434) explicitly condemn some of Arius’ more extreme views.15“He (Arius) emphasized the transcendence of the Father in ways that distanced him from the others.” (Ayres, p. 57)

The only reason that some people think that Arius was important is that Athanasius quoted him at length. But Athanasius was creating a straw man which he could easily shoot down in flames, all the while claiming that he was shooting down all anti-Nicenes.

Athanasius’ polemical strategy was to call his opponents ‘Arians’ to tar them with the name of an already rejected theology. But that was a false accusation. The church, unfortunately, continued Athanasius’ practice:

“’Arianism’ as a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples, is a fantasy … based on the polemic of Nicene writers, above all Athanasius.” (Williams, p. 82)16“The textbook picture of an Arian system … inspired by the teachings of the Alexandrian presbyter, is the invention of Athanasius’ polemic.” (Williams, p. 234)17“’Arianism’ is the polemical creation of Athanasius above all.” (Williams, p. 247)

“Athanasius … was determined to show that any proposed alternative to the Nicene formula collapsed back into some version of Arius’ teaching, with all the incoherence and inadequacy that teaching displayed.” (Williams, p. 247)

“Such heresiological labels enabled early theologians and ecclesiastical historians to portray theologians to whom they were opposed as distinct and coherent groups and they enabled writers to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute.” “Most famously some participants in the debate described loosely related but clearly distinct thinkers as Arians.” (Ayres, p. 2)

Therefore, the title Arian is misleading:

“Theologians who criticized the Creed of Nicaea had very diverse attitudes to Arius himself.” (Williams, p. 247)

“The expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer.” (Hanson, p. xvii) “This controversy is mistakenly called Arian.” (Ayres, p. 14) “Some scholars now simply refrain from using the term Arian.” (Ayres, p. 14)

“Scholars continue to talk as if there were a clear continuity among non-Nicene theologians by deploying such labels as Arians, semi-Arians, and neo-Arians. Such presentations are misleading.” (Ayres, p. 13)

For a further discussion, see – Athanasius invented Arianism.

There was no Arian Conspiracy.

The traditional account interprets “the events after Nicaea by narrating the emergence of an Arian conspiracy to keep alive his theology, to oppose Athanasius, and to contend against Nicaea and its theology. In fact, little evidence for any Arian conspiracy can be found.” (Ayres, p. 19-20, cf. 13) See – After Nicaea, the church restored proper balance in its doctrine.

Athanasius was a semi-Sabellian.

Athanasius presents himself as “the preserver of … scriptural orthodoxy”18Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (Ayres, p. 107) but he was a one-hypostasis theologian, meaning that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis (one single Person with one single mind.) This was the hallmark of Sabellianism, which the church had already formally rejected during the previous century.

Athanasius was rightly deposed for violence.

In 335, Athanasius was deposed for violence in his see against the Melitians. Athanasius claimed that he was deposed for his theology by an Arian Conspiracy but there is no evidence of such a conspiracy.19“It should be noted that none of the evidence so far considered presents a reliable picture of a systematic campaign by the Eusebian party against known opponents of Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 279)

Athanasius could not have been exiled by an ‘Arian Conspiracy because he was not an obvious target for ‘Arians’. He was not a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea20“He could not possibly have been, as he was later erroneously represented to have been, a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275) and only began to support the Nicene Creed after he had been exiled in 335.21“There was … no reason to regard Athanasius as a zealous supporter of the doctrine of Nicaea until at earliest his second exile (339-346).”

“He was finally deposed at Tyre for reasons which had nothing to do with Arianism, nor with any doctrinal issue, but for misbehaviour in his see, disgraceful and undeniable, and that against Melitians rather than Arians.” (Hanson, p. 275) See – Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against the Melitians.

Homoousios was not important.

In the “centuries-old account of the Council of Nicaea … the whole power of the mysterious dogma is at once established by the one word homoousios … with one pronouncement the Church identified a term (homoousios) that secured its … beliefs against heresy.” But “such older accounts are deeply mistaken.” (Ayres, p. 11) As discussed below the term homoousios fell completely out of the Controversy shortly after Nicaea and was only brought back into the dispute in the mid 350s. See – Homoousios was not mentioned after Nicaea for 30 years.

The East/West divide is exaggerated.

“Some writers still persist in assuming that theologies in the early fourth century can be divided between east and west, the westerners resolutely ‘beginning’ from the unity of God, easterners somehow naturally prone to a more diverse account of Father, Son, and Spirit.” Ayres describes this as “nonsensical.” (Ayres, p. 52) For example, Alexander and Athanasius were Eastern or Greek theologians. There is an East/West divide but is of “far less significance than is usually thought.” (Ayres, p. 6)

Athanasius caused the confused traditional account.

As discussed, in the years 335-6, the Eastern Church deposed Athanasius and Marcellus. 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) but which misrepresents history. Most of the points above, where the traditional account paints a false picture, are based on his polemical strategy.

Athanasius was able to convince the bishop of Rome of his version of the Controversy and that bishop, using Athanasius’ polemical strategy, attacked the Eastern Church. This caused, for the first time, tension between the East and the West. Eventually, the church accepted Athanasius’ polemical strategy for over 1,500 years.22“Athanasius’ engagement with Marcellus in Rome seems to have encouraged Athanasius towards the development of” “an increasingly sophisticated account of his enemies;” “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years.” (Ayres, p. 106-7) “If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis.” (Williams, p. 234). It was only during the last 100 years that scholars were able to describe that Controversy more accurately.


Ayres suggests “that recent Trinitarian theology has engaged the legacy of Nicaea at a fairly shallow level, frequently relying on assumptions about Nicene theology that are historically indefensible.” (Ayres, p. 1) He says that “pro-Nicene theologies” “challenge modern Trinitarian theologians to rethink some of their most cherished assumptions.” (Ayres, p. 2)

Chapter 16 discusses how “modern theological cultures have failed to” “sustain the theological practices” that shaped “pro-Nicene theology.” (Ayres, p. 6) “Modern Trinitarianism … has barely engaged with it (pro-Nicene theology) at all.” (Ayres, p. 7)



Alexander’s Theology

“Alexander taught that God was always Father and that the Son was always Son, thus implying the eternal generation of the Son; as the Father’s Word and Wisdom the Son must always have been with the Father.” (Ayres, p. 16) In other words, the Son is the Father’s only Word and Wisdom. “[Rowan] Williams’ work is most illuminating. Alexander of Alexandria, Williams thinks, had maintained that the Son … is a property or quality of the Father, impersonal and belonging to his substance. … The statement then that the Son is idios to (a property or quality of) the Father is a Sabellian statement.” (Hanson, p. 92) “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) (Eustathius and Marcellus were the leading Sabellians at Nicaea.

“Arius … thought that Alexander compromised the biblical insistence on the Father’s being alone God and alone immortal (1 Tim. 6:16). For Arius, any talk about Father and Son as coeternal ignored the hierarchy involved in the very language of Father and Son.” (Ayres, p. 16) See Alexander for a further discussion of his theology.

Arius’ Theology, History, and Support

“Arius saw the Son as a being distinct from and inferior to the Father.” The Son was “created as a derivative copy of some of the Father’s attributes.” (Ayres, p. 16)

“Alexander and the Alexandrian clergy condemned Arius after he refused to sign a confession of faith presented by Alexander.” (Ayres, p. 17)

“Over the next few years Arius gained support from some bishops in Palestine, Syria, and North Africa, especially Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine and Eusebius of Nicomedia, near Constantinople. … Although these supporters may have been wary of some aspects of Arius’ theology … they joined in opposition to Alexander. For all of them Alexander’s theology seemed to compromise the unity of God and the unique status of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 17) Eusebius was not a follower of Arius. He supported Arius because he “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (Williams, p. 173)

The emperor attempted to end the Controversy.

“In 324 the Emperor Constantine … (who) assumed control of the whole empire, took an interest in the dispute. Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius telling them to stop quarrelling about what seemed to him to be such a small matter. Soon, however, Constantine began to see their dispute as more serious.” (Ayres, p. 17-18)

“Ossius the bishop of Cordoba in Spain … apparently acted in some sort of advisory capacity to Constantine, and perhaps also served as his representative in these events.” (Ayres, p. 18) Ossius presided “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and as Constantine’s “agent.” (Hanson, p. 190)

“Constantine himself summoned the bishops.” (Ayres, p. 18) The meeting was not requested or called by the church.

The Council of Antioch of 325

“Probably early in 325, a council took place in Antioch, possibly under the presidency of Ossius.” (Ayres, p. 18) This was an “anti-Arian Council” (Hanson, p. 131) consisting mainly of those who sympathized with Alexander (Hanson, p. 130), held a few months before the Council of Nicaea. “The meeting produced a statement of belief asserting that the Son is generated from the Father himself in an ineffable manner and that the transcendence and ineffability of this generation forbid us from speaking of the Son as in any way like the creation.”

This meeting formulated a draft creed that “makes no use of the ousia language that we see in Nicaea’s creed.” (Ayres, p. 51) “That this Statement is anti-Arian is overwhelmingly clear. But it is equally clear that it represents the theology of Alexander of Alexandria.” (Hanson, p. 150) By implication, the words ousia and homoousios were not part of Alexander’s vocabulary and were not proposed at Nicaea by him.

“This council also temporarily excommunicated one of Arius’ senior supporters, Eusebius of Caesarea.” (Ayres, p. 18) “Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian and theologian” (Ayres, p. 58) “was the most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” at Nicaea. (Hanson, p. 159) His excommunication at Antioch must have sent a shockwave through the church.

The Council of Nicaea of 325

“Originally Constantine seems to have summoned the council to Ancyra … (where) he would have had the support of Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra, who was either already known to Constantine, or had at least now been indicated as a strong opponent of the views held by Arius.” (Ayres, p. 18-19) “Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus … Both were influential at the council.” (Ayres, p. 99)

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

“The decision of the council against Arius found expression in a short statement of faith, the creed of Nicaea:

We believe in one God, Father Almighty Maker of all things, seen and unseen;

and in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, begotten as only begotten of the Father, that is of the being of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came into existence, both things in heaven and things on earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate and became man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into the heavens, and is coming to judge the living and the dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

But those who say
– ‘there was a time when he did not exist’,
– and ‘before being begotten he did not exist’,
– and that he came into being from non-existence,
– or who allege that the Son of God is from another hypostasis or ousia,
– or is alterable or changeable,
these the Catholic and Apostolic Church condemns.” (Ayres, p. 19)

“Constantine exiled Arius along with two Libyan bishops … The Emperor also exiled Eusebius of Nicomedia. … Within two or three years, however, Arius and the others exiled by Constantine were recalled, it seems at the behest of the Emperor.” (Ayres, p. 19)


Arius did not base his theology on Origen.

“The theology of Origen of Alexandria (c.185–c.251) lies beneath the surface of many early fourth-century theologies. … For some over the last century Arius’ own theology is a direct result of Origen’s ‘subordinationism’.” (Ayres, p. 20) Ayres gives three reasons why “such a view is implausible:”

      1. “Origen exercised influence on all sides in Alexandria.” (Ayres, p. 21)
      2. No theologian adopted Origen’s system wholesale” (Ayres, p. 21) “Even those partial to his work came to it with ideas from other writers.” (Ayres, p. 29)
      3. “Origen’s account of the Son as in some ways subordinate to the Father is in part simply that of his contemporaries.” (Ayres, p. 21)

“Origen was not the direct source of Arius, or even of Arius and his opponents. Origen’s influence was piecemeal.” (Ayres, p. 28)

Similarities between them

“Origen … helped to shape the character of theology and exegesis in the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 21) In the following respects, Origen’s theology seems similar to Arius’:

Three Hypostases – “Father and Son are distinct beings.” (Ayres, p. 22) “Origen does consider the Son to be a distinct being dependent on the Father for his existence.” (Ayres, p. 23) “The Son is not the one power of God, but another distinct power dependent on God’s power for its existence.” (Ayres, p. 24) In contrast, Alexander taught that the Son is the Father’s only Word and Wisdom.23“Alexander taught that … as the Father’s Word and Wisdom the Son must always have been with the Father.” (Ayres, p. 16)

“He (Origen) used the term to indicate ‘real existence’—as opposed to existence only in thought—but also as ‘individual, circumscribed existence’.” (Ayres, p. 25) “He argues against those who distinguish Father and Son only in thought (epinoia), not in hypostasis.” (Ayres, p. 25) This must refer to the Sabellians who taught that the Son is part of the Father.24For the Sabellians, “The Word … eternally is in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63) “Before the world existed the Word was in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63) “The Word was in the Father as a power.” (Ayres, p. 63)

He “speaks of Father and Son as two ‘things (πργματα) in hypostasis, but one in like-mindedness, harmony, and identity of will’.” (Ayres, p. 25) “Origen is searching for a way to argue that Father and Son and Spirit each have a distinct existence.” (Ayres, p. 25)

“Elsewhere … Origen writes that ‘we are persuaded that there are three hypostases, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’.” (Ayres, p. 25)

Ousia – “Origen is constantly concerned to describe the relationship of Father and Son without falling into the (for him) material-sounding language of a shared essence or nature.” “Origen directly denies that the Son can come from the Father’s ousia, as this would imply a material conception of the divine generation.” “Ousia language in most forms seemed to Origen unsuitable for application to the divine existence.” (Ayres, p. 24)

“One famous passage in which he seems to use the term homoousios … may have been adulterated by later writers.” (Ayres, p. 24)

Father Transends – “In a number of places Origen emphasizes the transcendence of the Father over all things, including Son and Spirit.” For example, “He argues … that the Father transcends the Son and Spirit more than they transcend the created world.” (Ayres, p. 25-26)

Subordinate – “Origen’s presentation of the relationship between Father and Son … (is a) shared but graded divine existence.” (Ayres, p. 26) “The Father is superior to the Son.” (Ayres, p. 23)

Knowledge of God – “Origen presents the Son as contemplating the Father uninterruptedly and unmediatedly … And yet, Origen seems also to regard the Father as containing in his own depth, in his true simplicity (which the Son does not share) a mode of contemplation (θεωρία) which is reflected by the Son but not simply shared.” “The Son … knows the Father ‘as an infinite depth never fully to be sounded’.” (Ayres, p. 26)

Will – “In Origen’s insistence that the Son is a product of the Father’s will, not his essence, we might seem to see … a key anti-Nicene argument in the fourth century: if the Son is from the will then he is not from the Father’s essence.” (Ayres, p. 27)

Created – “Origen seems to have spoken of the Son as created.” (Ayres, p. 27)

Are One – “Origen describes the Son as the image of the Father because his will directly mirrors the Father’s.” (Ayres, p. 28) “On the one hand, the Son’s will is so like the Father’s that they can be said to be one; on the other, the Son is generated like the will from the mind.” (Ayres, p. 28)

Differences between them 

In the following respects, Origen’s theology seems different from Arius’:

Eternal – “The Son is eternally generated from the Father.” (Ayres, p. 22) In contrast, Arius said that there was when the Son was not.

The Son’s origin – Origen said that the Son is generated “as will proceeding from mind.” (Ayres, p. 24, 27) “This language serves not only to present the generation as non-material, but also to emphasize” that “the Son has no origin except the Father.” (Ayres, p. 27) In contrast, Arius said that the Son was created out of nothing.

Inseparable Operation – ‘Inseparable Operation’ is a concept that Ayres often associates with the Cappadocians (e.g., Ayres, p. 280) but Origen wrote something similar:

“Origen’s concern is to distinguish Father, Son, and Spirit while maintaining the idea that the latter two reveal and bring to completion the one divine will and action.” (Ayres, p. 27-28)

“As regards the power of his works, then, the Son is in no way whatever separate or different from the Father, nor is his work anything other than the Father’s work, but there is one and the same movement, so to speak, in all they do.” (Ayres, p. 28)

Origen taught that creation always existed.

Ayres briefly mentions some criticism Origen received in the third century:

“Particularly important was the suspicion that Origen’s theology implied the eternal existence of the creation.” (Ayres, p. 29) Ayres refers to “Origen’s perceived belief in the eternity of the creation.” (Ayres, p. 149) (I have never studied Origen myself but it is for me obvious that creation always existed because God always existed and He is always a Creator. Never mind that we cannot understand that. We are surrounded by an infinity that we will never understand.

“Under attack is Origen’s attempt to say both that all the first created spiritual things exist eternally in the Logos and that God is the beginning or arche of all things.” (Ayres, p. 29)


Theology cannot be based on the Bible alone.

I did not summarize this section because, as a Protestant, I fundamentally disagree with it. It begins by referring to the comment by Richard Hanson “that ‘the expounders of the text of the Bible [in the fourth century] are incompetent and ill-prepared to expound it’.” (Ayres, p. 32) As I read it, this section basically says that the Bible cannot be trusted as a basis for theology because it can be read in different ways. For example:

“Patristic exegesis takes as its point of departure the ‘plain’ sense of the text of Scripture.” That is “the sense that a text had for a Christian of the period versed in ancient literary critical skills.” (Ayres, p. 32)

“The plain sense is pluralistic in a number of ways.” (Ayres, p. 32)

“A number of fourth- and fifth-century authors assume that one might understand ‘the way the words run’ in different ways” because the text speaks “about realities that are beyond comprehension.” (Ayres, p. 32, 33)

“For virtually all the flexibility of the plain sense results from its speaking about realities that are beyond comprehension.” (Ayres, p. 32)

Please forgive me if I am wrong but, in my view, Ayres, as a good Catholic, tries to justify the view that the church decrees take precedence over the Bible. For a Protestant, on the other hand, the study of the relation between God and His unique Son should start with an in-depth analysis of the Bible.


The ‘trajectories’ in the early fourth century are:

      • Alexander, Athanasius, and friends (chapter 2.2)
      • The ‘Eusebians’, of which Arius was one (chapter 2.3)
      • Marcellus (chapter 3.1), namely, of a Sabellian type, and
      • Western theology (chapter 3.2).

Note that Ayres refers to the ‘Arians’ as the ‘Eusebians’. Arius was simply an extreme version of the ‘Eusebians’.

The theologians of these ‘trajectories’ often say very similar things. To obtain clarity, we have to identify the key issues. I propose that we classify views as follows:

Subordinate – Some say that the Son is subordinate to the Father and, therefore, distinct from the Father. 

Equal – An alternative is to say that He is equal to but distinct from the Father. However, if they are equal in all respects, then we have two Unbegottens (two Gods).

OneTherefore, the third approach is to say that they are literally one Being with one single Mind, as opposed to one in will.

Below, I classify the four trajectories into those three categories.

The question is who the Word eternally is. Theories of incarnation will not be relevant to this question.


“To understand how the story of Arius and Alexander quickly spread beyond Alexandria we need to get some sense of the existing theological trajectories and tensions present in the early years of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 41)

“By way of introduction we can identify two distinct trends. … In talking about the status of the Son (the Spirit is, at least initially, much less a focus of attention),

      • Some prefer language that emphasizes the sameness of Father and Son, while
      • Others emphasize diversity between the two.” (Ayres, p. 41)

Sameness – “Those who emphasize sameness frequently” say that the Son:

      • Has the same qualities as the Father (Ayres, p. 41)
      • Share “in almost all the Father’s characteristics … not just a ‘mirroring’,” (Ayres, p. 41) “but a real sharing of nature and qualities.” (Ayres, p. 42)
      • Is “one aspect or feature of the Father’s existence; for example, the Son may be conceived as the Father’s Wisdom” Ayres, p. 42); The Logos is the (only) “rational capacity” of the Father. (Ayres, p. 42)

This is very important. The third point says that the Son is part of the Father. The second point says the same when it says “not just a ‘mirroring.” In other words, the Son is the image of the Father, not because He is a distinct Being, but because He is part of the Father. It is difficult to distinguish this view from Sabellianism, but it is also the view that Alexander, Athanasius, and the Western theologians held. 

Difference – “Those who emphasize difference between Father and Son” say:

      • The Son is an image of the Father (LA, 42)
      • “Father and Son language … implies) a relationship of clear hierarchy” (LA, 42)
      • The Logos is “a subordinate and independent (distinct) being.” (LA, 42)

So, the two basic views are:

      • One Being or
      • Two Beings where the one is subordinate to the other.

There is no third alternative where there are two equal Beings.

“When those who emphasize difference between Father and Son attack those who emphasize sameness, they argue that the latter group speaks materially of God, implying a division of God’s being in the Son’s generation. They also criticize what seems to be an envisaging of two eternal principles.” (LA, 42)


“The first trajectory is found in Alexander of Alexandria and in the early Athanasius.” (LA, 43) “Alexander’s theology found its most famous advocate in his successor Athanasius.” (LA, 45)

The Son is part of the Father.

The first conclusion is that Alexander and Athanasius were ‘One hypostasis’-theologians; similar to the Sabellians. For example:

“This trajectory … is also resistant to speaking of three hypostases.” (LA, 43)

“Alexander clearly distinguishes Father and Son, but his terminology for doing so is not precise. … We never find him using hypostasis as a technical term for the individual existence of one of the divine persons, and he never speaks of there being two or three hypostases.” (LA, 45)

“Athanasius’ most basic language and analogies for describing the relationship between Father and Son primarily present the two as intrinsic aspects of one reality or person.” (LA, 46) 

The “clear inference from his (Athanasius’) usage” is that “there is only one hypostasis in God.” (LA, 48)

“Alexander argues that as Word or Wisdom the Son must be eternal or the Father would, nonsensically, have been at one time bereft of both.” (LA, 44) In other words, in his view, the Son is God’s only Word or Wisdom.

Athanasius argued similarly that the Son is “present with Him (the Father) as his Wisdom and his Word.” (LA, 46) The Son is “himself the Father’s own power.” (LA, 47)

Father and Son are one hypostasis.

Alexander and Athanasius, therefore, were ‘One hypostasis’ theologians. They believed that the Son is God’s only Wisdom or Word and that there is only one hypostasis in God. Consequently, they also believed that the Son is immutable and that His substance is ‘simple’:

“Alexander insists … on the immutability of the Logos against Arius’ claim that the Logos was not by nature immune from error or sin.” (LA, 44)

For Athanasius, like God, “His Word also has true existence and is not composite.” (LA, 46)

The Son does not mediate between God and creation.

In what seems like an inconsistency in his theology, Alexander did regard the Son to some extent as subordinate to the Father because “he argues for a ‘great distance’ between the unbegotten Father and the created order, and then describes the nature (φσις) of the only-begotten Word as mediating between these two, ‘holding the middle place’ (μεσιτεουσα).” He did not regard the Son as “unbegotten” (selfexistant). (LA, 44)

“Athanasius played down Alexander’s conception of the Word’s mediating status, and avoided statements that implied an intermediate ontological status.” (LA, 46)

God did not suffer on the Cross.

The Eusebian regarded “the eternal Word” and “the incarnate Word” to be one and the same. Therefore, they were able to “use scriptural texts that refer to the mutability of the incarnate Word to describe the eternal Word as such.” (LA, 44) Since they regarded the Son also as “God,” but subordinate to the one true God, they could say that God suffered and died.

In contrast, Alexander and Athanasius were not able to say that God suffered. For them “the incarnate Word” is a different being from “the eternal Word.”

The Son is eternal.

Alexander wrote that “the characteristic high status must be preserved for the unbegotten Father by saying that no one is the cause of his being. But the befitting honor must be assigned to the Son by ascribing to him generation without beginning from the Father.” (LA, 45) Does this describe the Son as equal to the Father?

Athanasius falsely claimed predecessors.

While Athanasius tarred “enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute” (LA, 2) and called them ‘Arians’, he claimed some ‘orthodox’ theologians as his predecessors. However, they were not really his predecessors:

Dionysius: “Athanasius will point to the theology of Dionysius of Alexandria as a precedent for his own.” (LA, 48) However, according to Hanson, “it is impossible to avoid seeing some influence from his (Dionysius’) work in the theology of Arius.” (RH, 75-6)

Theognostus: “Athanasius also claims Theognostus, who taught in Alexandria in the latter half of the third century, as a predecessor.” (LA, 48) “It is a fascinating question whether Athanasius can fairly make a claim on Theognostus. Theognostus is criticized by other fourthcentury writers (most notably Gregory of Nyssa) for teaching that the Son was created.” (LA, 49)

Created Being: “Both Dionysius of Alexandria and Theognostus use a terminology of ‘creating’ as one among a range of terms, and we simply cannot be certain how this was heard in third-century Alexandria.” (LA, 49)

Like all of us sometimes, Ayres is biased here. As we have seen above, Alexander and Athanasius were Sabellians at heart. Therefore, people such as Sabellius himself and Dionysius of Rome were their real predecessors. This is discussed in Hanson and Williams.


Included Arius.

“My second theological trajectory is the one in which we locate Arius himself. This loose alliance I will term ‘Eusebian’. When I use this term I mean to designate any who would have found common ground with either of Arius’ most prominent supporters, Eusebius of Nicomedia or Eusebius of Caesarea.” (LA, 52) This was a recognized grouping during the early fourth century and was called “those around Eusebius.” (LA, 52)

In other words, Arius was part of an existing ‘trajectory’. The opponents of Nicaea are traditionally called ‘Arians’ only because Athanasius invented the term ‘Arian’ “to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute” (LA, 2):

“’Arianism’ as a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples, is a fantasy … based on the polemic of Nicene writers, above all Athanasius.” (RW, 82)

Were the Majority.

The ’Eusebians’ were the majority in the church:

“Many eastern bishops rallied around the Eusebii even while differing among themselves.” (LA, 52) And the delegates at Nicaea were ”drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (LA, 19)

The two Eusebii were the most influential bishops when Arius wrote:

“Eusebius of Nicomedia was a supporter of Arius and a bishop influential with the Emperors Licinius, Constantine, and Constantius.” (LA, 52)

The ‘Eusebians’ was an alliance against the theology promoted by Alexander:

“The theological positions of Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea are distinct and yet close enough for them to be allied in opposition to Alexander.” (LA, 52)

Ayres briefly discusses the views of four ‘Eusebians’; Eusebius of Nicomedia (EoN), Eusebius of Caesarea (EoC), Asterius and Arius. Eusebius of Caesarea is also a famous historian. (LA, 58) I summarize their views as follows:

The Son was not created but is God.

The Eusebians made a clear distinction between the Son and the created universe:

“Asterius does clearly emphasize the uniqueness of the Son’s status as the first.” He described Him as: “The only begotten Logos (John 1:18) and first born of all creation … the alone … the perfect … the King … the Lord … God, exact image of the being and will and power and glory’.” (LA, 54)

The Eusebians did refer to the Son as “God” (theos) (LA, 54) Arius described the Son as “Mighty God” but also as subordinate to “God.” (LA, 55) In the ancient Greek language, a theos is simply an immortal being with supernatural powers. The Greek word theos did not refer, as “God” does today, to the Ultimate Reality alone. See – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?”

He exists by God’s will.

“Although we cannot describe the Son’s birth in temporal categories, we should not say that the Son is coeternal.” (Arius, LA, 54-55)

In opposition to Alexander’s view that the Son exists eternally and, therefore, by necessity, the Eusebians said that the Son exists by God’s will. The Son “has been called into being by his (the Father’s) will.” (LA, 53) “Generation from the will … emphasize(s) the unique character of the Father as true God.” (LA, 53) “By God’s will he is as great as he is.” (Arius, LA, 55)

He was begotten to mediate.

The Son was begotten for the specific purpose of creating all things and for mediating between God and creation:

“Asterius argues that the Son was generated because the Father foresaw the inability of created nature to bear his direct touch.” (LA, 54)

Begotten as “a mediator for the purpose of creation” (LA, 55)

“The one without beginning established the Son as the beginning of all creatures.” (LA, 55)

He is a distinct hypostasis (Mind).

In opposition to Sabellians, the Eusebians believed that the Father and Son were distinct ‘Persons’:

“Asterius insists also that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases.” (LA, 54)

For Alexander and Athanasius, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one single Being with one single Mind, They argued that the Son is God’s only Wisdom and Power: “In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (LA, 54)

Eusebians, in contrast, taught that Father and Son are two distinct minds because God has His own wisdom and power, apart from the Son:

“God’s own power and wisdom is the source of Christ.”  “The proper power of God Himself … is natural to him and coexistent with him unoriginatedly.” (Asterius, LA, 53-54)

“Arius also talks of two wisdoms and powers, speaking of a Logos that was not distinct from the Father’s hypostasis, after whom the Son is designated Word.” (LA, 55)

He is the Image of God’s will and power.

The Bible says that the (visible) Son is the image of invisible God (e.g., Col 1:15). Eusebians understood the concept of “image” as meaning that the Son is distinct from and subordinate to the Father:

The Son is “in complete likeness” of the Father’s “disposition and power.” (EoN; LA, 53)

“Arius … speaks of the Son as image, reflection (Heb. 1:3).” (LA, 55)

Eusebians understood the Son to be an image of the Father’s will and power, etc. Some Eusebians were even happy to say that the Son is an image of the Father’s substance: 

“Asterius shows himself happy to speak of the Logos as the image of the Father’s ousia, presumably because for him the term image carries a clear sense of difference and subordination. This text reappears at an important council in 341.” (LA, 54)

He is subject to change.

“Arius … continued to insist that the Logos is potentially changeable: only the Father is by nature immutable (1 Tim. 6:16).” (LA, 55)

His substance is different from the Father’s.

The Father transcends all else. “Arius insists that the Father is alone God, simple and immutable.” (LA, 54) The Father alone is “unoriginated.” (LA, 53) For that reason, the Son cannot have the same substance as the Father. The Son does not share in the Father’s “unoriginated nature nor in his substance.” (EoN – LA, 53)25EoN=Eusebius of Nicodemia “He is not equal to God, nor yet is he of the same substance.” “The Father is other than the Son in substance because he is without beginning.” (Arius – LA, 55)

Arius was an extreme Eusebian.

Arius was an extreme subordinationist and said some things that other Eusebians could not agree with, for example:

Knowledge – The Son does not know God fully:

Arius wrote: “He sings the praises of the Higher One with only partial adequacy. … God is inexpressible to the Son . . . For it is impossible to search out the mysteries of the Father, who exists in himself.” (LA, 55)

Ayres comments: “It … seems that he (Arius) emphasized the transcendence of the Father in ways that distanced him from the others: Arius’ teaching that the Son does not know the Father seems to have been at odds with the theologies of other ‘Lucianists’—and with other Eusebians.” (LA, 57)

From nothing – “Arius may also have asserted that the Son is ‘from the things that did not exist ’… He later seems to have retracted such language.” (LA, 55)

The clash in Alexandria, therefore, was between two extreme views; Alexander’s one hypostasis (one Person) theory and Arius’ extreme subordination.

Arius was insignificant.

But Arius was of little significance:

“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century. (after Nicaea) … We … have only sporadic evidence of his texts being used by later ‘Arians’.” (LA, 56-57)

“The Thalia, appears … to have circulated only in Alexandria.” (LA, 56) See – Athanasius invented Arianism.


Theological Trajectories in the Early Fourth Century: Part II


The Son is part of the Father.

Ayres’ “third theological trajectory is primarily associated with Marcellus of Ancyra.” (LA, 62) In this view, similar to Alexander and Athanasius, the Word is “in the Father.” For example:

“The Word … eternally is in the Father.” (LA, 63)

“Before the world existed the Word was in the Father.” (LA, 63)

“To describe the relationship between Word and God he (Marcellus) deploys the analogy of a human person and her reason.” In other words, the Word eternally exists “intrinsic to” the Father’s existence. (LA, 62)

For Marcellus, the Word is an activity or power or reason of the Father:

“As power (of reason) the Word must be intrinsic to God’s existence.” (LA, 64)

“The Word was in the Father as a power.” (LA, 63)

For that reason, while Origen said that the title “Word” must be interpreted “alongside the other scriptural titles,” “Marcellus asserts the primacy of the title ‘Word’ over other scriptural titles.” (LA, 63)

The Holy Spirit is another power of the Father:

“Marcellus speaks of a “monad” expanding “to form a triad while in no way allowing itself to be divided.” (LA, 66)

“The same language of going forth in energy is used for the Spirit as was used in the case of the Son.” (LA, 67)

Father and Son are one hypostasis.

In other words, in this view, similar to Alexander and Athanasius, there is only one hypostasis (Person) in God:

“Marcellus sees any language which separates God and Word as distinct beings either as illogical or as sacrilegious. He is particularly incensed at the use of hypostasis or ousia in the plural.” (LA, 63)

That means that the Son did not exist before the incarnation. While Asterius (a prominent Eusebian) uses “the language of Father and Son to emphasize the subordination of the Son and the distinction of Father from Son,” Marcellus said that Father and Son language only refers to “the incarnate Word.” (LA, 65)

For Marcellus, that also means that the Word will not always exist. Eventually, the Word will return “to its pre-‘going forth’ status.” “He is most concerned to uphold God’s rule as complete and unmediated, and thus the kingdom of Christ must end.” (LA, 66)

He claimed that he was not a Sabellian.

Marcellus insists “that he is not a Sabellian.” (LA, 63) This can be true because there are different ways in which the Father and Son could be described as one single hypostasis (one single Mind):

In Sabellianism, the Father and Son are parts of the one God. See – Sabellius.

As stated, for Marcellus, the Son is “in the Father,” (LA, 63, 64), which is different from Sabellianism but the Son is still not a distinct hypostasis.

In Modalism, the Father and Son are different modes or faces of the same Being.

In my view, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, the Persons do not have real independent existence because they do not each have a distinct Mind. They share one single mind and will. In my view, that means that they are one ‘Person’ in the ordinary sense of that word. In the traditional Trinity doctrine, the only difference between the Persons is their relationships (Father, Son, Spirit of). In my view, these words are empty of meaning.

But the point is that a technical difference between Sabellius and Marcellus exists, but it is not a real difference.

A Variation of Logos-theology

The second-century Christian Apologists theorized that the Word has a two-stage existence: He always existed as part of God but emerged from God when God wanted to create. Marcellus’ view was a variation of the Logos-theology:

“Marcellus’ theology … finds extensive parallels in the second-century Apologists. This is especially so in the case of his understanding of the ‘Word’ being present somehow in the Father eternally but coming forth in connection with the creation. … The basic position has a long history and many contemporary adherents in the early fourth century.” (LA, 67-8)

He was a Monarchian.

“Scholarship has also consistently linked Marcellus with ‘Monarchian’ theologies. Monarchian theologians in the second and third centuries appear to have focused on the unity of God centred in the person of the Father. By their opponents they are accused of teaching that the Son and the Spirit do not have real independent existence and are in fact simply modes of the Father’s being. … Some scholarship has seen this theological tendency as a strong and persistent theological voice, both in Rome and in Asia through the third century, with Marcellus as the last prominent Monarchian voice.” (LA, 69)

This point, combined with the previous, implies interestingly that Monarchianism was a variation or a development of Logos-theology. See – Hanson’s Lecture.

He allied with Alexander and Athanasius.

Similar to Marcelus, Alexander and Athanasius said that the Word is God’s only Wisdom and Power and that Father and Son are one single hypostasis (Person):

“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.“ (LA, 69)


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

“Athanasius and Marcellus could come together in Rome. The perception that these two trajectories held to very similar beliefs would help to shape widespread eastern antipathy to both in the years after Nicaea.” (LA, 69)

He played a major role at Nicaea.

Due to the dominating involvement of the Emperor before and during Nicaea, the ‘One hypostasis’ theologians (Alexander, Athanasius, Marcellus, and Eustathius) were able to formulate what Hanson calls a ‘blatantly’ Sabellian Creed. But after Nicaea, the situation was corrected. Alexander was replaced by Athanasius as bishop of Alexandria two years after Nicaea. But all three the others were deposed:

“Marcellus … played a major role at Nicaea, and was subsequently deposed … His theology was one of the central points of contention in the years following Nicaea.” (LA, 62)

Marcellus became “an object of condemnation in the decades after Nicaea.” (LA, 69)

“Eustathius, bishop of Antioch, was deposed from his see soon after Nicaea, probably in 327.” (LA, 68-69)

Athanasius was exiled five times; not for his theology, but for “violent and arbitrary behaviour in his see” (RH, 297) and “tyrannical behaviour” (LA, 124). If he was not exiled for violence, he probably would have been exiled on theological grounds. Ayres says, “News of Athanasius’ tactics against the Meletians can have been nothing other than music to the ears of the Eusebians.” (LA, 105)


“All three of the trajectories I have so far outlined are found primarily in the eastern half of the empire.” (LA, 70) This section discusses the ‘western’ view; the views of Latin theologians.

“Our knowledge of Latin Christology and Trinitarian theology between 250 and 360 is extremely limited.” (LA, 70) “The main Latin theologians writing in the 250–350 period … are Novatian (fl. c.250) and Lactantius (c.250–c.325).” (LA, 70)

Novation (c. 250) – a Logos theologian

It is usually said that the Latin fathers were ‘orthodox’ as the church today defines orthodoxy, but for Novation, the best known third-century Latin father apart from Tertullian, the Son is subordinate to the Father. For example, the Son:

      • “Receives his being only from the Father who is the one God.” (LA, 71, 72)
      • Is “born” (begotten), and therefore, cannot be “compared with Him who was unborn” (the One who exists without cause). (LA, 72)
      • Has a “beginning,” compared to the Father who is “without beginning” and who is “the beginning of all things.” (LA, 72)
      • Is visible, compared to “the invisible Father.” (LA, 72)
      • Is comprehensible, compared to the Father who is “incomprehensible.” (LA, 72)

The Father, on the other hand, transcends the Son. He “has no origin (and, therefore,) necessarily precedes the Son.” (LA, 71) [This sounds similar to Arius’ there was when He was not.]

The Son “is also God” (LA, 71, 72) but is still subordinate to the “one God:”

“God proceeding from God, causing a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God.” (LA, 72)

For a discussion of the term “God” (theos / deus in Latin), see – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?”

Novation was a standard Logos theologian:

“Novatian does not possess a theology of eternal generation: the Word is eternally ‘in’ the Father and at some stage the Word comes forth from the Father.” (LA, 71)

In my conclusion, Novation was an Eusebian. But Ayres emphasizes that Novation argued for “the unity of God.” Perhaps Ayres wants to interpret that as a physical unity (one Being) but that is not supported by the evidence. The contrasts Novation made between visible and invisible, comprehensible and incomprehensible, born and unborn, speak against a physical unity. Furthermore, Tertullian, to whom Novation is indebted, maintained both that “the Son is second in order” and that “the Godhead is not destroyed” (unity). (LA, 74) For these reasons, we need to interpret Novation’s “unity” as non-physical and as being of one mind and will.

Lactantius (c. 310)

Lactantius wrote around the year 310; 60 years after Novation. (LA, 72)

Lactantius described the Son as “the intelligible Word from the mouth of the Father, representing the mind of the Father.” (LA, 73) He has “no understanding of eternal generation.” (LA, 73) He described Father and Son as inseparable:

“When we speak of God the Father and God the Son, we do not speak of different things and do not separate the two, as neither can the Father be separated from the Son nor the Son from the Father.” (LA, 73)

“Since … the Father makes the Son and the Son the Father, there is one mind in each (una utrique mens), one spirit, one substance.” (LA, 73)

He says:

“The one is as an overflowing fount, the other as though a stream flowing from that, the one a sun, the other a direct ray from the sun.” (LA, 73)

“Whatever is in the Father flows to the Son,
and whatever is in the Son descends from the Father.” (LA, 73)

Different from Novatian, Lactantius described the Son as, like the Father:

      • “Incomprehensible,”
      • “Invisible, and”
      • Unknown; “known only to the Father.” (LA, 73)

We are trying to categorize theologians into the following three categories, namely, that the Son is:

      • Subordinate and, therefore, a distinct hypostasis (Person);
      • Equal, but a distinct hypostasis;
      • Not a distinct hypostasis.

Lactantius sounds very different from Novation but it is difficult to classify him based on the data above. Ayres later says that he was a Logos-theologian (LA, 74), which would mean that He regarded the Son as subordinate.

Tertullian (c. 210) – The Son is subordinate.

For Tertullian, the Son is subordinate to the Father. He:

      • “Is second in order,”
      • “Comes from the Father in connection with the Father’s decision to create,” and
      • “Was always in the Father: the same two-stage conception we find in our two later Latin writers.” (LA, 74)

“Tertullian also describes the relationship between Father and Son as being like that between:

      • A tree and its root,
      • A river and a fountain, or
      • A ray and the sun.” (LA, 74)

Tertullian’s adversaries (The Moaccepted that the Son is divine but rejected His existence as a distinct hypostasis (Person). Novation’s adversaries taught the opposite, namely, they “admit Christ’s personal existence” but not His divinity. So, while Tertullian “argues for the true existence of the Son as a distinct reality,” Novation’s purpose was to prove His “deity.” (LA, 74-75)

Hilary (c. 350)

“Hilary’s early Commentary on Matthew (c. 350) … is very different from his later On the Trinity.” (LA, 75) In his earlier work, Hilary:

“Seems to hold a two-stage Logos theory, rather than a theory of eternal generation,” 

“Is most concerned to argue against those who see the infirmities of Christ’s flesh preventing our according him the true powers of divinity.” (LA, 75)

Conclusion: They were not Trinitarians.

“These Latin theologians have as far to travel towards later pro-Nicene theology as the eastern trajectories.” “Eternal generation … degrees of divine being, and … the very character of divine being are handled in a very different manner from the strategies we will find at the end of the fourth century.” (LA, 75)

“An anti-monarchian, anti-‘modalist’ polemic fundamentally shapes these early Latin theologians.” Since, for “Monarchian theologians … the Word does not exist as a distinct existing thing.” (LA, 74) “Thus, ironically, an anti-monarchian, anti-‘modalist’ polemic fundamentally shapes these early Latin theologians, and that is taken so often to be determining the future course of a unitary western theology!” (LA, 74)


The different views of the Son have implications for His incarnation and for Soteriology (how God saves people). In the fourth century, this question revolved around whether the Incarnated Word has a human soul:

The Eusebians, including Arius, said that He does not have a human soul but that the Logos took the place of a soul. The Logos, therefore, directly suffered and died.

In opposition to them, the ‘one hypostasis’ theologians, such as Paul of Samosata, Eustathius, and Marcellus, taught that, since the Word is not a distinct Reality, He could not really become one with a human person. In other words, the Logos did not really suffer or die. Therefore, in their view, “Christ possessed a human soul” (AL, 76) which absorbed all the pain and which died. They were then criticized for teaching that only a human being suffered and died.

Ayres discusses the views of specific individuals:

Paul of Samosata (who was) deposed by a council in Antioch in 268/9,” “is understood to have seen the Logos as God’s own inner Word and not as a distinct separate being.” Therefore, “he could not … envisage that the Logos really became one with a human person.” (AL, 76)

A few decades later, “Arius seems to be part of a tradition present in Paul’s third-century opponents and also visible in Eusebius of Caesarea.” In this tradition, “the mutability of the Logos enabled union with a human being, any such union involved the Logos replacing the human soul.” (AL, 76) In other words, the Logos really did suffer and die.

Arius’s opponents, the ‘one hypostasis’ theologians “Eustathius of Antioch” and “Marcellus of Ancyra,” believed that Christ has a human soul. (AL, 76-77)

Therefore, for the mainstream church, to say that Christ possessed a human soul was a mark of ‘One hypostasis’-theology:

In the view of Paul’s opponents, “insisting that Christ had a soul meant that the Logos never truly entered into the man” and “could only result from semi-modalism.“ (AL, 76)

“According Christ a human soul seemed to many at the beginning of our period … incompatible with a real distinction between Father and Son.” (AL, 77)

“Thus, strangely to modern ears, there were many at the beginning of the fourth century who thought that confessing Christ to have a soul indicated a semi-modalist theology.” (AL, 77)

Here, I use the term ‘One hypostasis’-theology for theologians who do not believe that the Word has a real distinct existence apart from the Father. This would include Sabellians, Marcellians, and Modalists.


“Many readers will ask if we can identify in or between these four trajectories a Christian ‘orthodoxy’.” (LA, 78)

Not what is ‘orthodox’ today.

The traditional account, in which Arius introduced a novel heresy, divergent from an established orthodoxy, is no longer accepted:

“Older narratives” of the Arian Controversy “tended to assume that” Arius’ theology was a novel creation “divergent from a pre-existing orthodoxy.” What “such narratives” do is to project “back into earlier controversies” “what is later defined as orthodox.” In this way, these narratives assume “an unchanging orthodoxy ever victorious against novel heresies. Thus, for example, we still sometimes find Athanasius presented both as the upholder of the Church’s unchanging tradition.” (LA, 78)

Theology evolved during the Controversy.

Ayres then attempts to explain the correct view with respect to ‘orthodoxy’. Amongst many other things, he says:

“Sets of logical principles concerning unity and differentiation in the Trinity that had emerged … over the 360–80 period. …  Traditional terminologies and favoured scriptural images are now interpreted and understood by pro-Nicene theologians within these new sets of logical principles.” (LA, 80)

“We should perhaps think, instead, of slow and subtle modifications to the structure of a particular cultural vision occurring throughout this period.” (LA, 84).

These few points do not do justice to Ayres’ discussion. But it is clear that that century was one of evolution of theology. What was accepted as orthodox at the end of the century was not orthodox when the Controversy began.

The Eusebian View was ‘orthodox’.

To determine what was orthodox when the Controversy began, we note that Alexander and Athanasius were Marcellian in their thinking while the Western theologians were also essentially ‘Eusebians’. Therefore, we can reduce the four trajectories to two. Furthermore, as Ayres explains, when the Controversy began, the bulk of the church was in the East and most theologians in the East supported the Eusebii:

The delegates at Nicaea were ”drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (LA, 19)

“Many eastern bishops rallied around the Eusebii even while differing among themselves.” (LA, 52)

The orthodox view, therefore, was the one taught by the Eusebii.

4 AD 325–340


The conflict in Alexandria “came to involve many prominent bishops and theologians in the eastern half of the empire … (and) reached its culmination at the Council of Nicaea in 325.” (LA, 85)

Nicaea was not binding.

The Nicene Creed was not intended or regarded as a binding and universal formula of the Christian faith:

“Many modern readers assume that the Nicene creed was intended at its promulgation to stand as a binding and universal formula of Christian faith.” (LA, 85) However, “by the time Nicaea met, Church leaders … had no precedent for the idea of a council that would legislate for the Church as a whole.” (LA, 87) “Councils were not expected to produce precise statements of belief.” (LA, 87)

“The idea that the creed would serve as a universal and precise marker of Christian faith was unlikely to have occurred to anyone at Nicaea.” (LA, 85) “All the bishops at Nicaea would have understood their local ‘baptismal’ creed to be a sufficient definition of Christian belief.” (LA, 85) “The creed stood as a particular statement of faith designed for a particular purpose: any further status it might have would be a subject for argument in the following decades.” (LA, 88)

“Bishops were not expected to sign a universal statement of faith.” (LA, 86)

Nicaea’s position became more clearly established at the beginning of the fifth century:

“The idea that Nicaea would serve as a universal standard of faith, and as one whose precise wording and terminology was itself definitive, evolved through the fourth century, and was still evolving at the century’s end.” (LA, 86)

“Until the beginning of the fifth century, when Nicaea’s position became more clearly established in liturgical contexts, local creeds continued to be used in catechesis.” (LA, 86)

“Prior to Nicaea, there are only two documented uses of credal-type documents being used as conciliar tools for defining right belief. Both of these occurred in Antioch: in 268 … in the action taken against Paul of Samosata, and a few months before Nicaea, we have the Antiochene creed of 325.” (LA, 86) (At the time, Antioch seems to have been the head office of Christianity.)

“Throughout the first forty years of the controversy councils of bishops formulated a number of creeds in words different from those used at Nicaea. While some were constructed by those who opposed Nicaea, others were understood as compatible with it.” (LA, 86)

Constantine was not interested in the truth. 

“Constantine … seems to have promoted Christianity as a unifying religion for the empire (although his personal beliefs will almost certainly remain unclear). Unity of Christians as a body was of as much concern to Constantine as any doctrinal issue involved.” (LA, 87)

For example, before Nicaea, he involved himself in the dispute between Arius and Alexander without understanding the issues. “It initially took the efforts of bishops like Ossius and Alexander of Alexandria to persuade him that anything significant was at issue in Alexandria.” (LA, 87-88) “Constantine’s attitude reflects deeply embedded Roman attitudes about the social function of religion.” (LA, 88)

“Constantine took a deep interest in the council, and issued a number of letters attempting to enforce its decisions.” (LA, 88)


We have very little detail about what happened at the Council. “We have to construct an account of the debate from some surviving scraps of evidence.” (LA, 88)

Emperor Constantine dominated.

One indication is that “Ossius of Cordoba probably chaired the meeting.” (LA, 89) He was the emperor’s advisor and chaired the meeting in that capacity. His inferior position in the church would not have permitted him to chair the meeting.

The Emperor took Alexander’s part.

The Eusebians were under pressure because the emperor had taken Alexander’s part:

Why was “the Nicene creed … agreed with little dissent?” (LA, 88) In other words, if Arius caused such a great controversy that even the two Eusebians – the most influential persons in the church at the time – supported Arius, why did only about 1% of the delegates refuse to sign the creed?

The answer “in older narratives of the fourth century … (is that) only the few ‘heretics’ would refuse such a clear acknowledgement of the Church’s constant faith.” (LA, 88) But “such older accounts are deeply mistaken.” (LA, 11)

“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part and by events at the council of Antioch only a few months before.” (LA, 89) (At that council, the leader of the Eusebians and the most respected theologian of that era (Eusebius of Caesarea), was provisionally excommunicated.)

“We can certainly see that Eusebians … were under pressure and seem to have been on the defensive. … the direction of the council was very clearly in the hands of others.” (LA, 88-89) In whose hands?

Consequently, ‘one hypostasis’ theology dominated.

‘One hypostasis’ theologians had the upper hand:

“Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Alexander must all have been key players in the discussions.” (LA, 89) [As discussed above, their theologies were similar.]

“Despite the prominence of Ossius, Eustathius, Marcellus, and Alexander, Eusebius of Caesarea must still be counted as one of the most senior and influential bishops present” (LA, 89) but his influence was limited because “Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (LA, 89) “This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force.” (LA, 89)

So, it was “imperial pressure” that compelled such a large portion of the delegates to accept the creed.

Eusebius’ Creed was accepted.

“Eusebius reports that he read a creed … to the assembly—which he quotes for us—and he tells us that this was accepted wholeheartedly. The text Eusebius read is in fact extremely cautious and offers very little description of … the Son’s generation.” (LA, 89) (The implications of the Son’s generation was the core issue of dispute.)

“Eustathius of Antioch reports a ‘Eusebius’ reading a text which was then very badly received. … It seems Eustathius must be referring to the other Eusebius, Eusebius of Nicomedia. … Thus, at some point it seems that Eusebius of Nicomedia failed to get approval for his theology.” (LA, 89) [He probably represented Arius’ view.]

It was not an Ecumenical Council.

“Throughout the century large councils such as Nicaea were not constituted as a representative selection of bishops.” (LA, 90) As stated above, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (LA, 19)

Homoousios was chosen to condemn Arius.

“The choice of the term homoousios seems to have been motivated in large part because Arius was known to reject it. Athanasius …  tells us that those running the council originally proposed describing the Son as ‘like’ the Father or ‘exactly like the Father in all things’ and as being ‘from God’. But these terms would not serve because everyone could agree to them. … Hence, homoousios and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were chosen specifically to exclude Arius’ supporters.” (LA, 90)

The meeting knew that the emperor would exile all who refused to sign the Creed and “desired to secure the condemnation of Arius.” (LA, 91)

Ayres agrees with Hanson that “the homoousion was probably not a flag to be nailed to the masthead, a word around which self-conscious schools of theology could rally. But it was an atropopaic formula for resisting Arianism.” (LA, 92) (Atropopaic means to avert evil influences.) In other words, homoousios was not intended as a key word in theology.

Homoousios was understood differently.

“Eusebius’ discussion nicely demonstrates the extent to which the promulgation of homoousios involved a conscious lack of positive definition of the term.” (LA, 91) In other words, it was accepted as a vague term.

“Those who were broadly in the same trajectory as Alexander … would have read them (Nicaea’s terms) in a very different manner.” (LA, 91) [“Broadly in the same trajectory as Alexander” would include Marcellus. In the years after Nicaea, the ‘one hypostasis’ theologians claimed the Nicene Creed as support for their theology.]

The emperor proposed and explained Homoousios.

After Eusebius presented the baptismal creed from his home church, the Emperor spoke and accepted that creed but added homoousios. Ayres wrote that Constantine ‘endorsed’ the term homoousios. (LA, 90). Eusebius himself puts Constantine’s role stronger, saying that Constantine himself proposed and insisted on the term.

Constantine also explained what the term means:

“Eusebius … writes that Constantine himself spoke, endorsing the term homoousios, but insisting that it did not imply any material division in God. 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’.” (LA, 90-91)

It is amazing that Constantine considered himself worthy of explaining these terms: Before him, the emperor had the most senior members of the church who had been wrestling with these concepts for years and who had developed views about what the terms mean. That they had to ‘accept’ his explanation of the terms shows the extent of the “imperial pressure.” (LA, 89) Constantine had dominated both the chairperson and the entire meeting.

The emperor’s explanations are also interesting. Those who opposed these terms objected that these terms mean that God is material and that the Son is a cut-off part of the Father. But the emperor insists that that is not what these terms mean. That is a verbal denial of the apparent meaning of the terms, rendered the terms meaningless, and allowed the delegates to interpret the new terms as consistent with their existing theologies. What the emperor did was “to placate Eusebians.” (LA, 91)

Eusebius read the Creed as subordination.

“In Eusebius’ reading of the text it is still possible to read Nicaea as implying a certain subordinationism” (LA, 91) for, in his explanation:

“The creed’s technical terms are all interpreted to mean that the Son is like the Father, and is truly from the Father.” (LA, 91)

Eusebius explains the anathema in the Creed against those who say ‘before he was begotten he was not’ as that “the Son existed potentially in the Father before his actual begetting.” (LA, 91)

“His text does give us a very plausible account of how someone within his theological trajectory could have interpreted Nicaea’s terms.” (LA, 91)

The Creed wavers between one and three Hypostases.

“Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Alexander must all have been key players in the discussions” at Nicaea. (LA, 89) Richard Hanson noted that Manlio Simonetti (died 2017), a highly regarded Italian scholar on the fourth-century Arian Controversy, proposed that the ‘one hypostasis’ theologians Eustathius and Marcellus, through cooperation with Alexander, “were able to include in N a hint of opposition to the three hypostases theory.” (RH, 171) Ayres says that he agrees with the following comments on this argument made by Richard Hanson:

“It is improbable that all of the people who had previously seen nothing offensive in the doctrine of Arius should have surrendered tamely to an openly Sabellian creed.” (LA, 92) (Meaning, it was not openly Sabellian; only a hint.)

“It is improbable that the heirs of any side of Origen’s thought should have abandoned a doctrine of three hypostases. As N. [sic] does not openly mention the eternal generation of the Son, so it does not openly declare that there is only one hypostasis in the Godhead.” (LA, 92) In other words, it does not openly declare one hypostasis but implies it.

Hanson concluded:

“It is exceeding the evidence to represent the Council as a total victory for the … opponents of the doctrine of three hypostases. It was more like a drawn battle.”

In other words, the Creed generated by the Council implies both one and three hypostases.


Striking innovation in the Creed.

The terms “ousia and hypostasis” are “one of the most striking aspects of Nicaea.” These terms have not appeared in any previous creed. They also do not appear in the draft creed formulated just a few months earlier at Antioch. (LA, 92)

These terms “had been the subject of debate and confusion since the mid-third century. Hence, it is important to understand what” these terms mean in the Creed. (LA, 92) The meaning of these terms cannot be derived from what they meant outside the church. “We need to be attentive to the histories of theological use of these terms prior to Nicaea.” (LA, 92)

The word “ousia” is used in three statements in the Creed:

      • The Son is begotten “of the ousia of the Father,”
      • “Father and Son are subsequently described as homoousios.”
      • The Son is not “of another hypostasis or ousia.” (LA, 93)

Homoousios before Nicaea

The term homoousios in the Creed is today often regarded as saying the Father and Son are one single Being. For that reason, it is often translated as “one substance.” Before Nicaea, the term was used as follows:

Gnostics – The second-century Gnostics used it “probably to indicate” that the “lower deities” are of the “‘same ontological status’ or ‘of a similar kind’” as “the highest deity” from whom they were “derived” or emanated. “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.” (LA, 93)

Manichees – “Nicaea’s supporters are accused of ‘Manichaeism’ even before the council met.” The Manichees (another non-Christian religion) taught that the “creation of deities happens through a semi-materialist division of divine being.” (LA, 92)

Origen – “Origen may have rejected the term.” (LA, 92)

Dionysius – Around the year 260, the bishops of Rome and Alexandria – both named Dionysius – were in dispute about the word homoousios (LA, 93-94):

“Some local Sabellians” in Alexandria used the term. (LA, 94) While the Gnostics and Manichees used the term to describe distinct beings that are of a similar kind, for Sabellians, the Father and Son are one single hypostasis.

In his campaign against them, “Dionysius of Alexandria … denied the term to emphasize the Son’s secondary status.” (LA, 94)

But Dionysius of Rome agreed with the Sabellians “that Father and Son were homoousios.” Ayres says that by this he meant that “the Son shared the divine existence, not that Father and Son were one thing.” (LA, 94)

Dionysius of Alexandria “was then persuaded by his namesake of Rome to accept” the term but “responded … that the term was acceptable … only when it … (means) ‘belonging to the same class‘.’’ For him, the term did not mean that the two things are equal or one and the same.

Dionysius of Alexandria “also seems to have insisted that the term should not be understood to imply any materialist diminution in the Father when the Son is generated.” (LA, 94)

Paul of Samosata – Only a few years later, “the council that deposed Paul of Samosata in 268 condemned the use of homoousios.” It is not clear in what sense Paul used the term. (LA, 94)

The Arians – “In the years immediately before Nicaea” the Arians “rejected the term” “for being inherently materialistic” and because it implies:

        • “A materialistic division in God and”
        • “Two eternal co-ordinate realities” (Two beings who are both eternal and equal in rank or importance.) (LA, 94)

In summary, “a standard connotation of the term homoousios was membership in a class.” (LA, 94) That is how the Gnostics, the Manichees, and the two Dionysii used the term. For them, it indicates a “generic similarity between things that were, in some sense, co-ordinate [equal in rank or importance].” (LA, 95) “The term was used loosely to point to markers of commonality.” (LA, 95) Being members of the same class, such beings are, in some sense, equal in rank or importance but “did not at all exclude relationships between realities that were hierarchically distinct in other ways.” (LA, 94-95) In other words, the term homoousios did not mean, as it is today most often understood, that two beings really are one single being. It was only the Sabellians who used the term as meaning ‘one substance’. For a more complete discussion, see – The Meaning of Homoousios in the Nicene Creed

Homoousios in the Creed

Material Implications – In the Creed, “Homoousios” was probably an expansion or explanation of the phrase ‘from the ousia of the Father’. (LA, 96) These two phrases, therefore, must be read as one. It then means that the Son was materially or genetically begotten from the Father:

In a “Christian contexts … it was inextricably linked with the question of the derivation of the Son from the Father. This derivative or genetic sense derived from a biological or material analogical base.” (LA, 95)

“Thus, for some theologians, the term emphasized that the Father’s generation of the Son was more like the generation of a human son by a human father, than like the creation of all other things.” (LA, 95)

“For their opponents the very genetic and materialistic connotations that rendered the term useful indicated the term’s problematic status.” (LA, 95)

The phrase ‘from the ousia of the Father’ was criticized by Origen, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Arius as “something like a human birth,” as implying a “diminution of the Father’s being in the generation of the Son,” and as “materialistic.” (LA, 97)

Constantine calmed the Eusebians. – However, at the Council, Emperor Constantine did his best “to placate Eusebians” (LA, 91) so that they (the eastern majority) would accept the term. For that reason, he explained these terms as not having any “material connotation” and to be understood “without reference to material division.” In his explanation, “this phrase served only to indicate that the Son was truly from the Father.” (LA, 96)

Intended to mean ‘one’ substance’. – Ayres thinks that at Nicaea, homoousios was included by the authors of the Creed to mean ‘one substance’ (a numerical oneness), saying that Father and Son are one substance and, therefore, one single hypostasis:

“It is unlikely that Alexander or Ossius would have chosen the term intending a simple co-ordinate sense. (two distinct but equal entities) … This would have played into the hands of those arguing that Alexander taught two eternal principles.” (LA, 95) 

Marcellus and Eustathius,” who were both ‘one hypostasis’ theologians and prominent at the Council, “also seem likely to have endorsed homoousios because of the notion of shared being.” (LA, 95)

Note that Ayres implies that Alexander, Ossius, Marcellus, and Eustathius were the main drivers behind the formulation of the Creed. They had the upper hand in the council because, as stated above, “Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (LA, 89).

Furthermore, as discussed, Alexander was an inconsistent ‘one hypostasis’-theologian and, therefore, could find significant common ground with Marcellus. But that implies that the Creed uses the term in a Marcellan ‘one hypostasis’ sense:

After Nicaea, the Creed was associated “with the theology of Marcellus of Ancyra. … The language of that creed seemed to offer no prophylactic (prevention) against Marcellan doctrine, and increasingly came to be seen as implying such doctrine.” (LA, 96, 97)

Homoousios after Nicaea

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. … It was not seen as that useful or important.” (LA, 96)

However, the phrases ‘from the ousia of the Father’ and ‘homoousios’ were “to cause much controversy in the decades which followed.” (LA, 97) [After Nicaea, the Controversy was no longer about Arius. Arius and his theology were no longer relevant. However, after Athanasius brought the term homoousios back into the Controversy in the mid-350s (see – Athanasius introduced Homoousios), it caused “much controversy.” At that time, the word homoousios became very important. (LA, 93)

For a more complete discussion, see – The Meaning of Homoousios in the Nicene Creed.

The Anathema

The Creed includes an anathema of those who say that the Son is “of another hypostasis or ousia.” (LA, 93)

Christopher Stead and Lewis Ayres agree that the anathema is a reinforcement of the phrases “from the ousia of the Father” and “homoousios.” (LA, 98) But which of these two phrases does the anathema specifically emphasize?

      • Does it elaborate on what the Son’s substance (homoousios) or
      • Out of what “from the ousia of the Father” the Son was generated?

For Stead, “the ‘from’ (κ) here provides the key to understanding the anathema” (LA, 88). He interprets the anathema as not saying anything about the substance of the Son but only out of what the Son was generated. In that case, the anathema says that the Son was not generated out of “nothing,” as Arius proposed; neither from some other “divine source” but only from God. That would mean that the terms hypostasis and ousia are used jointly to refer to the being of God.

Ayres does not seem to mention that this anathema seems to use hypostasis or ousia as synonyms. Hanson says much more about it. For example, “the Creed which was the instrument of agreement contained in one of its anathemas a confusion of terms so disastrous as to render its eirenic function virtually worthless.” (RH, xviii)


The Creed can be read as Sabellian.

Both Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus “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.” (LA, 99)

Pro-Nicene theology did not yet exist.

“Original Nicene theology was a fluid and diverse phenomenon, and one that kept evolving.” “It was to be many years before … (it) evolved into what I shall term pro-Nicene theology” (LA, 99)


In summary of this section:

In the years after Nicaea, Arius’ theology was no longer an issue. A new and much greater problem now faced the church, namely, the new terms ousia (substance) and homoousios (same substance) in the Nicene Creed. Specifically, the problem was Sabellians claimed that the wording of the Creed means that the church has adopted a Sabellian ‘one hypostasis’ (one Person) theology.

In the years after Nicaea, the emperor allowed the Eusebians to exile the ‘one hypostasis’ theologians Marcellus and Eustathius, who were main drivers at Nicaea. This website refers to this as the Post-Nicaea Correction; correcting the distortion caused by the emperor’s interference at Nicaea. Thereafter, the Nicene Creed and homoousios were not mentioned for about 20 years. It was only brought back into the Controversy in the mid-350s. To understand what really happened after Nicaea, one has to consider the situation before Nicaea:

Before Nicaea – Two views 

Above, Ayres describes four ‘trajectories’ at the time of Nicaea. As argued above, the Western or Latin trajectory was similar to the Eusebians and Alexander approximates the Sabellians. There were, therefore, only two main trajectories:

        • The ‘three hypostasis’ theology of the Eusebians and
        • The ‘one hypostasis’ theology of the Sabellians.

Arius was an extreme version of the Eusebians. So, another way to describe the ‘sides’ at Nicaea is the mainstream Eusebians and the two extreme groups; the true Arians and the Sabellians:

“Arius … is treated largely as one half of a formal pairing of extremes: ‘orthodoxy’ avoids both Arius and Sabellius.” (LA, 108-9)

At Nicaea, ‘one hypostasis’ dominated.

At Nicaea, however, Alexander and his ‘one hypostasis’ allies had the upper hand in the formulation of the Nicene Creed against the will of the majority:

“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.” (LA, 99)

Ayres implies that “Eustathius, Athanasius, and Marcellus” were “the architects of Nicaea.” (LA, 105)

“Marcellus and Eustathius presented their theologies as the natural context for Nicaea’s creed.” (LA, 105)

Alexander and his friends were able to dominate because “Constantine had taken Alexander’s part” (LA, 89) and because “this imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force.” (LA, 89)

After Nicaea, Arius was no longer important.

“During the years 325–42 … Arius … (was not) at the heart of theological controversy.” (LA, 100) “Late in 335 or early in 336, Arius died … The death of Arius marks, however, no significant turning point in the story of these years. By this time the focus was elsewhere.” (LA, 103) 

The ‘Arians’ were reinstated.

In the years after Nicaea, the Eusebians became dominant again:

Arius and most of his supporters were, at Constantine’s request, readmitted to communion within two or three years of the council.” “The Emperor appears to have instructed a council of bishops (probably of a Eusebian turn of mind) to readmit him.” (LA, 100)

“Unfortunately for him (Arius) Alexander and his successor as bishop, Athanasius … refused to readmit Arius to communion in Alexandria. Arius … made the mistake of writing to the emperor asking for redress and emphasizing the strength of his following in Libya. In 333 Constantine wrote to Arius with the anger he seems to have reserved particularly for those who threatened unity. Constantine also sent an edict with the letter ordering Arius’ works to be burnt.” (LA, 100)

Eusebius of Nicomedia quickly rose again to a position of importance, baptizing Constantine on his death-bed in 337 and becoming bishop of Constantinople.” (LA, 100)

The Sabellians were removed.

The conflict between the Eusebians and the ‘one hypostasis’ theologians after Nicaea was a continuation of a conflict that had raged before Nicaea:

“Conflict between Eusebians and Marcellans in the wake of Nicaea could hardly be unexpected and is not simply an epiphenomenon (a secondary symptom) of the previous conflict in Alexandria.” (LA, 105)

The ‘one hypostasis’ theologians, who were dominant at Nicaea, were removed from their positions:

“Those around whom debate was now to focus had been strong supporters of Nicaea.” (LA, 100) “In the years after Nicaea we see how the theology of Marcellus and Eustathius, which skirted Sabellian and Monarchian waters much more closely than Alexander’s, was able to provoke a strong and sustained reaction from the Eusebians, and one that seems to have gained wide support throughout the east.” (LA, 102)

“The fifth-century ecclesiastical historian Sozomen reports a dispute immediately after the council, focused not on Arius, but on … the precise meaning of the term homoousios. Some thought this term … implied the non-existence of the Son of God; and that it involved the error of Montanus and Sabellius. … Eustathius (Bishop of Antioch) accused Eusebius [of Caesarea] of altering the doctrines ratified by the council of Nicaea, while the latter … reproached Eustathius for cleaving to the heresy of Sabellius. … Arius is not being discussed here: Nicaea has been a catalyst for conflict between pre-existing theological trajectories. Eustathius lost this battle and was deposed.” (LA, 101)

In 336 … Marcellus was condemned and deposed by a meeting of bishops in Constantinople. Unlike Athanasius, Marcellus was clearly deposed for theological reasons.” (LA, 103)

Athanasius was exiled for tyranny.

Alexander died two years after Nicaea and was replaced by Athanasius as bishop of Alexandria. There also was a controversy about Athanasius, not about his theology, but about his behavior:

Hanson and Ayres agree that “Athanasius was indeed elected (as bishop of Alexandria), but not by immediate and unanimous acclamation, and not without suspicion of sharp practice.” “Athanasius seems to have encouraged his supporters to act violently towards Melitians, on occasion barring them from churches, having some arrested, and at least acquiescing in the beating of some.” “In the face of considerable evidence Athanasius earned the opprobrium of many eastern bishops.” (LA, 102)

“Athanasius was summoned with imperial support to Tyre in Palestine in 335.” The council sent “a commission to … Egypt to investigate charges.” “When the commission returned and upheld some charges, Athanasius was deposed.” “Athanasius … fled to Constantinople to press his case directly before the Emperor.” “but when his enemies also charged him with interrupting the grain supply from Egypt Constantine turned against him: Athanasius was exiled to Trier.” (LA, 102-3)

If Athanasius was not found guilty of violence, he probably would also have been removed for that theology.

Nicaea and Homoousios were no longer mentioned.

“Within a few years (after Nicaea – i.e., after the Post-Nicaea correction) there is a near-fifteen year absence before the creed is mentioned again.” (LA, 100) Not even Athanasius mentioned it. “Nicaea’s creed seemed problematic if not useless to many.” (LA, 100)

“In May 337 Constantine died.” “Constantine’s three sons agreed on the division of the empire.” (LA, 103)

5 AD 340–350


Athanasius ‘created’ Arianism to defend himself.

To defend himself against accusations of violence and to retain his authority as bishop, Athanasius ‘created’ ‘Arianism’ as part of his polemical strategy against the Eusebians:

“Athanasius’ engagement with Marcellus in Rome seems to have encouraged Athanasius towards the development of” “an increasingly sophisticated account of his enemies;” “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years;” “a masterpiece of the rhetorical art.” (LA, 106-7)

“The development of Athanasius’ own polemical strategy seems to have begun only after his return from his first short exile (November 335–mid-337).” (LA, 108)

“These various themes emerging in the late 330s find their full expression during and immediately after Athanasius’ time in Rome.” (LA, 108)

Rome accepted Athanasius’ version of history.

Since “these various themes … find their full expression during and immediately after Athanasius’ time in Rome … it is … no accident that Athanasius’ account of ‘Arians’ was of considerable importance in the west.” (LA, 108) “Athanasius appealed to Julius of Rome in 339–40 by using his strategy of narrating a theological conspiracy of ‘Arians’. His success had a profound impact on the next few years of the controversy.” (LA, 108)

Rome vindicated Marcellus and Athanasius.

Julius, bishop of Rome, held a council in Rome which “quickly vindicated Marcellus and Athanasius.” (LA, 109) Both Marcellus and Athanasius were previously deposed by the Eastern Church, which “was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church.” (RH, 170) Marcellus was deposed for Sabellianism and Athanasius for tyranny. Now the Western Church vindicated both. 

Rome attacked the Eastern Church.

Not only that, Julius decided to attack the East: “Julius wrote to the east in 341 in a letter which shows the strong influence of the emerging Athanasian account of ‘Arianism’.” (LA, 109) “The fact that the letter openly invokes the name of Arius to describe the eastern bishops is one indication that an Athanasian account of the conflict had been influential.” (LA, 125)

“Relations between Rome and the Eusebians were shaped for many years by Athanasius’ account of events. Once Julius had acted we begin to see divisions between the Church in the eastern and western halves of the empire emerging,” particularly between “one group of eastern bishops taking their lead from Eusebius of Nicomedia and Julius and his immediate associates.” (LA, 109) It may be true to say that Athanasius’ “masterpiece of the rhetorical art” (LA, 106-7) caused the East/West division.

Furthermore, after Emperor Theodosius in AD 380 made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, Athanasius’ version of history was accepted and taught by the Roman Church (the church of the Roman Empire). Athanasius’ “polemical strategy … was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years.” (LA, 106-7)

The truth was discovered in the 20th century.

Ayres says that Athanasius’ “masterpiece of the rhetorical art” “was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years.” (LA, 106-7) 1,500 years brings us to somewhere in the 19th century. It was only in the 20th century that scholars, who specialize in the Arians Controversy, such as Richard Hanson, Manlio Simonetti, Lewis Ayres, and Rowan Williams, were able to detect and describe the true story.


The following is a brief discussion of Athanasius’ version of the Arian Controversy:

Arius is a radical.

“Athanasius’ account begins by presenting Arius as the originator of a new heresy.” (LA, 107) In reality, Arius did not say anything new. Rowan Williams, who wrote a book specifically about Arius, says, “Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically, a conservative Alexandrian.” (RW, 175) What was new was how he combined the thoughts of his predecessors.

Arius taught an extreme version of subordination, but all theologians at the time taught some version of subordination. RPC Hanson wrote:

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy.” (RH, xix)

Arius also did not cause the Controversy. This Controversy has been smoldering for centuries but has been kept in check by the Roman persecution. As soon as that persecution ended, the dispute between Arius and his bishop was the spark that ignited the fire.

I (Athanasius) am orthodox.

“Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (LA, 107) But Athanasius was not orthodox. Both Alexander and Athanasius were ‘one hypostasis’ theologians, similar to the Sabellians. This is, for example, indicated by their allies:

Marcellus, Eustathius, and Alexander had worked together at Nicaea.” (LA, 106)

Athanasius and Marcellus can and should both be counted as ‘original Nicene’.” (LA, 99) In other words, it is their theology that dominated the Nicene Council. RPC Hanson says: “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.” (RH, 235)

“In Rome during the 339–40 … the exiled Athanasius and Marcellus made common cause against their eastern opponents.” (LA, 106)

Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause again those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (LA, 106) Both believed that “the Son was intrinsic to the Father’s external existence.” “The overlaps (in their theologies) were significant enough for them to be at one on some of the vital issues.” (LA, 106)

Contrary to the traditional account, “it is … no longer clear that Athanasius ever directly repudiated Marcellus, and he certainly seems to have been sympathetic to Marcellus’ followers through into the 360s.” (LA, 106)

As ‘one hypostasis’ theologians, Alexander and Athanasius were part of a minority in this church. Furthermore, since Sabellius’ one hypostasis-theology and the term homoousios were already formally rejected in AD 268 by a council at Antioch – the headquarters of the church at the time – Alexander and Athanasius followed an already discredited theology. It was to counter the accusation that he is a Sabellian that Athanasius began to accuse his opponents of being ‘Arians’:

“Throughout all three Orations Athanasius condemns Asterius’ theology as itself implying some of the very same problems that Asterius sees in Athanasius.” (LA, 116)

For a further discussion, see – Was Athanasius a Sabellian?

My enemies are all followers of Arius.

Athanasius described “his enemies as ‘Arians’ seeking to perpetuate a theology stemming from Arius.” (LA, 106) “To this end Athanasius quotes extensively from Arius’ Thalia.” (LA, 107)

Athanasius’ strategy included insults. He refers to his opponents as “‘Arian madmen’ or ‘Ariomaniacs’.” (LA, 107) Furthermore, he said that they are followers of Arius and not of Christ. Therefore, they are ‘Arians’ and not ‘Christians:

“Athanasius argues, Alexander expelled Arius from the Church he and his followers are no longer Christians but Arians.” (LA, 107)

However, the Eusebians were not followers of Arius. The term ‘Arian’ implies that the opponents of the Nicene Creed were a cohesive group; all following the doctrines of Arius of Alexandria. But this is a fallacy. The Eusebians also rejected Arius’ extreme subordination:

Athanasius uses this tactic “to attack contemporary opponents whose theologies were distinct from Arius’.” (LA, 107)

But this was how Athanasius invented Arianism. He insulted his opponents by calling them names. One of those was the name ‘Arian’. was 

I was deposed due to an Arian Conspiracy.

Athanasius was exiled – not on theological grounds – but for violence. (LA, 102) However, Athanasius claimed that he was deposed on trumped-up charges due to “a conspiracy by the Eusebians against the architects of Nicaea.” (LA, 105)

“The encyclical letter resulting from the council held in Alexandria [where Athanasius was in charge] speaks of a conspiracy by those who deposed Athanasius at Tyre.” “Their conspiracy is motivated solely by theological concerns and by Athanasius’ strong opposition to Arius.” (LA, 108)

However, there was no such ‘conspiracy’. Ayres discusses the possible evidence for a conspiracy and concludes:

“We cannot take his account (of a conspiracy) at face value.” (LA, 105) “The events of these years are not the result of one intentional ‘conspiracy’ by ‘Arians’.” (LA, 106)

Rather, what happened after Nicaea is explained above as the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’ in which the ‘Arians’ were reinstated and the sabellian ‘one hypostasis’ theologians were exiled. It was the expected consequence of the distortion at Nicaea because the emperor had taken the part of the ‘one hypostasis’ theologians.

Nicaea was ecumenical but later councils were not.

Athanasius refers to Nicaea “as the ‘ecumenical’ council in opposition to all subsequent councils, especially those at which Athanasius was condemned.” (LA, 108) However, the subsequent councils were regular.

Ayres says that the meetings after Nicaea “were appropriately constituted.” (RH, 108) He mentions “the difficulties inherent in arguing for the superiority of any one council at this point in the fourth century.” (LA, 108)

The Council of Constantinople in 360, where the terms ousia and homoousios were rejected, was at least as ‘ecumenical’ as the Nicene Council of 325 and, as discussed, the Council of Constantinople of 381 was by no means ‘ecumenical’. Already in the year before 381, the emperor outlawed all non-Trinitarian versions of Christianity and only Trinitarian Christians, who were a minority at the time, were allowed into the Council.

The emperor interfered in the Council of Tyre.

Athanasius described Tyre, where he was found guilty, “as not truly a council because of imperial support and involvement.” (LA, 108) However, emperors controlled all general councils. Ayres says:

“Having seen the story of Nicaea itself,” meaning the significant influence the emperor had at that council, it is difficult to typify Tyre “as not truly a council because of imperial support and involvement.” (LA, 108)

The reality is that, after Christianity was legalized in 313, the emperor effectively became the head of the church and the final authority for doctrine. The church did not call these ‘ecumenical’ councils. The general councils were the instruments through which the emperors controlled the church. For a discussion, see chapter 24.2 of Richard Hanson’s book.


The section discusses Athanasius’ theology as reflected in his ‘The Orations Against the Arians’.

The Son is part of the Father

While the traditional Trinity doctrine proposes three distinct Persons, for Athanasius, the Son is part of the Person of the Father. For example:

“Athanasius’ increasing clarity in treating the Son as intrinsic to the Father’s being.” (LA, 113)

“The Word is intrinsic to the Father’s action.” (LA, 114)

“The Son’s existence is intrinsic to the Father’s nature and flows from the Father’s existence.” (LA, 116)

“Athanasius’ argument speaks not of two realities engaged in a common activity, but develops his most basic sense that the Son is intrinsic to the Father’s being.” (LA, 114)

The Son is the Father’s Wisdom.

Specifically, for Athanasius, Christ is the Father’s one and only wisdom:

He criticized “the idea that Christ is a derivative Wisdom and not God’s own wisdom.” (LA, 116) (Two Wisdoms:)

“The Word is the Father’s will, intrinsic to the divine mode of action.” (LA, 114)

The Son is idios to the Father’s essence.

Athanasius used the Greek term idios, meaning “pertaining to one’s self, one’s own, belonging to one’s self” (biblestudytools), to convey this principle. He wrote:

“The Son is in the Father … because the whole being of the Son is idios to the Father’s essence, as radiance from light and stream from fountain.” (LA, 115)

Ayres comments:

“Initially used to indicate that certain qualities and activities are intrinsic to being human, the use of the term to indicate that the Son is idios to the Father’s ousia serves to reinforce his tendency to present the Father/Son relationship as most like that of a person and their faculties.” (LA, 115)

“It probably served only to reinforce his opponents’ sense that the use of ousia language could only serve to confuse the clear distinction between Father and Son, God and Word.” (LA, 115)

The Father and Son are One Hypostasis.

For Athanasius, therefore, the Father and Son are one single hypostasis (Person, Reality):

He insisted “on the priority of Father and Son language.” (LA, 113) He “argues that the core of the language is to convey a genetic relationship in which the son is ‘from’ the father in a unique sense.” That “unique sense” means that “it should qualify texts that seem to indicate co-operation between Father and Son as distinct entities.” (LA, 112)

In other words, Athanasius did not see Father and Son as two distinct entities. The Son does not have His own distinct existence.

Athanasius was accused of Modalism.

For these reasons, Athanasius was criticized for teaching “only one reality” (LA, 115) or “modalism” (LA, 117). In response, Athanasius wrote:

“They are two, because the Father is Father and is not also Son, and the Son is not also Father.” (LA, 116)

This does not say much because it will be true even if the Son is the Father’s wisdom.

His defense was that we cannot understand God.

Therefore, Athanasius’ second defense is that we cannot understand God:

“He is increasingly clear that, beyond stating the logical distinction of Father from Son, charges of modalism and materialism are most appropriately resisted by focusing attention on the character of the divine existence as unique and beyond comprehension.” (LA, 117)

“It is … characteristic of Athanasius that he does not make use of any technical terms for identifying Father and Son as two” (e.g., hypostasis). (LA, 116)

It is true that we cannot understand God. All theologians accepted that principle. But that is irrelevant. The question is whether an explanation of Christ is consistent with the Bible, and the Bible presents the Son as a distinct Person (hypostasis). 

Athanasius did not yet defend Homoousios.

The word homoousios appears only once in the Orations. This is understood as “evidence of Athanasius’ lack of commitment to Nicaea’s terminology at this stage of his career.” (LA, 115)

“The third Oration is later than the other two … here I assume it was written c. 345.” (LA, 110) Athanasius’ commitment to Nicaea was developed later. Ayres refers to “his growing engagement with Nicaea’s creed.” (LA, 115)

“Athanasius has seen the virtues of ousia language to emphasize the closeness of the Son to the Father, especially the phrase ‘from the ousia of the Father’. It is noticeable, however, that Athanasius never bothers to claim this terminology as credal; such a style of reference did not yet exist.” (LA, 115)


A separate article combines summaries of Ayres’ and RPC Hanson’s discussions of this council. In summary, in the year 341, a council of the Eastern Church met in Antioch and produced what is known as the Dedication Creed.

It shows what the church really believed.

This creed is important because it shows what the church really believed at the time. Emperor Constantine manipulated the Nicene Council and forced the delegates to accept a creed that included the term homoousios. The Nicene Creed, therefore, does not reflect the real view of the church.

The Arian Controversy began as an issue in the Eastern Church. The Eastern Church “was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church.” (RH, 170) At Nicaea, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (LA, 19) Since the Dedication Council was a council of the Eastern Church, its creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if Constantine had not manipulated the outcome.

It was mainly anti-Sabellian.

The Dedication Creed is anti-Arian. It explicitly anathematizes some key aspects of Arius’ theology. But it is mainly anti-Sabellian. This is understandable in the context. As discussed above:

Before Nicaea, the dispute was mainly between the ‘three hypostases’ view of the Sabellians and the ‘one hypostasis’ view of the Sabellians. (See – Post-Nicaea Correction)

At Nicaea, the Sabellians dominated because the emperor had taken the part of Alexander (See Nicene Council), who also was a ‘one hypostasis’ theologian. Hanson says that it was “the [Sabellian] theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea.” (RH, 235)

After Nicaea, the Sabellians claimed the Nicene Creed as support for their view but the Eusebians explained the new terms differently. This resulted in the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction‘ in which the main Sabellians were deposed.

Marcellus and Athanasius both believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one hypostasis (one single Person or Reality with one single Mind), which is the hallmark of Sabellianism. Both were deposed to Rome. There, they allied and Athanasius developed his polemical strategy, which he was able to convince the bishop of Rome of. The West’s “traditional Monarchianism” (RH, 272) allowed them to easily accept Athanasius’ ‘one hypostasis’ theology and he became “their paragon” (model). (RH, 304) 

Bishop Julius of Rome organized a council that declared Marcellus and Athanasius orthodox. (LA, 117) This indicates the Sabellian inclination of the Western Church. Since both Marcellus and Athanasius were Eastern bishops who were deposed by the Eastern Church, Julius’ decision caused much friction between the Western and Eastern Churches.

The bishop of Rome attacked the Eastern Church through a letter. This letter intensified this friction. The Dedication Council was called in response to this letter.

Ayres wrote:

“I left the narrative of events with Julius’ support for Athanasius and Marcellus. Julius’ letter to ‘those around Eusebius’ met with an immediate response:” (LA, 117)

“In 341 a group of bishops present in Antioch ostensibly to dedicate a church built by the Emperor Constantius also considered Julius’ decision to vindicate Athanasius and Marcellus.” (LA, 117)

Since the main threat was specifically the Sabellian tendency of the Western Church, the Dedication Creed is primarily anti-Sabellian. In contrast to the single hypostasis and Mind of Sabellianism, the Dedication Creed explicitly asserts that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “three in hypostasis but one in agreement” (LA, 118). “One in agreement” indicates the existence of three distinct ‘Minds’.

The Son is subordinate to the Father.

The Eastern Church was ‘Eusebian’, meaning followers of Eusebius of Caesarea and of Eusebius of Nicodemia. The Eusebians regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father, and the Dedication Creed states that explicitly. However, “until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism.” 1

The Son is God.

The Creed does refer to the Son as “God.” However, “in the fourth century the word ‘God’ (theos, deus) had not acquired the significance which in our twentieth-century world it has acquired … viz. the one and sole true God. The word could apply to many gradations of divinity.” (RH, 456) See also – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?”


In a separate article, I summarized this section with RPC Hanson’s discussion of this council. In summary:

Continued the conflict at the Dedication Council.

This council was held only two years after the Dedication Council and continued the conflict that led to that council. (See the previous section.) Very briefly, the Eastern Church exiled Marcellus and Athanasius but the Western Church vindicated them, causing severe friction between East and West.

The Western emperor Constans proposed the Council of Serdica to his brother Constantius; emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. These two emperors supported conflicting Christologies and the purpose was to seek reconciliation.

A small group of Western bishops 

An important point is that it was not the bishop of Rome who suggested this council to Constans. The suggestion came from a specific small group of Western bishops who were influential with Constans. Their leader was Ossius. As Aryes says, there was an East/West divide but it is of “far less significance than is usually thought.” (LA, 6)

The Westerners were Sabellians.

More or less the same number of delegates arrived in Serdica from East and West. But, to add insult to injury, the Western delegation included the Eastern bishops who were deposed by the East but vindicated by the West. Consequently, the two groups never met as one. The important additional information from this council is that the Western delegation developed documents that reveal the state of Western theology at that time.

This small group of Western bishops who convinced Emperor Constant to call this meeting were the Sabellians in the Western Empire who found in Athanasius “their paragon.” This is confirmed by the manifesto that they formulated at Serdica, which explicitly states that they believed in only one hypostasis (One Person with one single Mind). For them, the Logos or Son is part of the Father, namely, the Father’s only Wisdom and Word.

They also claimed that their manifesto was an interpretation of the Nicene Creed. In other words, they interpreted that creed as Sabellian.

Only emperors could call general meetings.

The idea of a Council probably did not come from the emperor but originated from his trusted bishops. The Council, however, would not have been possible without the approvals of the emperors. One wonders what purpose Constans and his small band of bishops really had in mind; reconciliation or domination.

5.5 AD 344–350

This section describes the events of the 340s after the failed Council of Serdica in 343 but focuses mostly on the Macrostich (the Long Liner Manifesto) as perhaps the most significant event of that period. It is summarized in a separate article that combines it with chapter 10.4 of Hanson’s book, which deals with the same period.

6 AD 350–360


Constantius pushed for a unified religious policy.

“Over the period AD 351–3, and after a complex civil war, the eastern Emperor Constantius … found himself sole ruler of the Roman world and with the ability to push for a unified religious policy throughout his domains in a way no emperor had been able to do since the death of his father in 337.” (LA, 133)

He was a fairly mild ruler.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, which presents Arian rulers as tyrants and Nicene rulers as saints, “Constantius has frequently been seen as a ruthless and brutal ruler and was painted by later pro-Nicene writers as a persecuter of supporters of Nicaea. The true picture is more complex: within the fourth-century context Constantius was a fairly mild ruler.” (LA, 133)

“He seems to have desired a basic formulation of the theological issues at stake that would (within some bounds) enable as many as possible to agree, and he was not beyond subterfuge and force to achieve public agreement between factions.” (LA, 134)

He wanted all to agree on Sirmium 351.

“Constantius was certainly deeply interested in the affairs of the Church. As his control over the empire grew Constantius pursued a policy of encouraging rapprochement (reconciliation) between ecclesiastical groups, but within the framework of the Eusebian theology that was so influential in the east.” (LA, 134)

“As his control over the west grew Constantius increased his attempts to get bishops to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.” (LA, 135)

Sirmium 351 condemned Ousia Language.

The focus of the council that met at Sirmium in 351 “was the examination and condemnation of Photinus, bishop of Sirmium.” Photinus was “perhaps the most visible representative of a Marcellan theology in these years.” (LA, 134) 

“The creed issued by this council … is largely a copy of the fourth Antiochene creed with a series of anathemas attached. Two of these strongly condemn some uses of ousia language.” (LA, 134) The creed specifically opposes “Uses of ousia language that have materialistic implications” (LA, 135), specifically that “the Father’s being is ‘extended’ in the generation of the Son.” (LA, 134)

It is no coincidence that a Council that condemns Sabellianism also condemns ousia language, for Sabellianism was associated with ousia language. The main feature of Homo-ianism is the condemnation of ousia language because the main enemy of Homoianism was Sabellianism, which remained the greatest threat to the church. The real battle in the fourth century was between ‘one hypostasis’ (Sabellian) and ‘three hypostases’ (Eusebian)-theologies.

The creed also condemns the view “that Father and Son are coeternal or two (equal) Gods. While the Son is ‘before the ages’ he is not unbeginning or without origin and is subordinate to the Father.” (LA, 134) 

In defense, the West turned to Nicaea.

As discussed, after Nicaea, for about 2 or 3 decades, nobody mentioned the Nicene Creed. It was not regarded as important. However, after Constantius came to power and tried to force the West to accept the ‘three hypostasis’-theology of the East, as reflected in Sirmium 351, there arose a movement to use the Nicene Creed as an argument against Constantius’ policy. But this happened only in the 350s:

“In most older presentations, ‘western’ bishops were taken to be natural and stalwart defenders of Nicaea throughout the fourth century. The 350s show how Nicaea only slowly came to be of importance in the west.” (LA, 135)

“Through the 350s … we seem to see a growing opposition to Constantius’ attempts to force western councils to agree to the decrees of Sirmium 351. … It seems unlikely that previous adherence to Nicaea motivated their growing opposition: it is much more likely that events in the second half of the decade prompted a turn to Nicaea as a focus for their already strong opposition.” (LA, 136)

This turn to Nicaea occurred particularly after the 357 council. In the ‘West’ there were, already before 357, “the beginnings of attempts on the part of a few to turn to Nicaea as a standard against the direction of Constantius’ policies. Events of 357 deeply shaped this movement.” (LA, 139)

Since the ‘West’ only turned to Nicaea in the 350s, only in the 350s do we see opposition to Nicaea: 

“There is no single theology of opposition to Nicaea. Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (LA, 139)

A Refinement of Athanasius’ Polemic Strategy

While “the easterners have condemned Athanasius,” the bishop of Rome (Liberius) defended Athanasius and accused the ‘easterners’ of “unwilling to condemn Arius’ views.” (LA, 136) It was not true that the ‘easterners’ were “unwilling to condemn Arius’ views.” They have already done so in the Dedication Creed. But this was part of Athanasius’ “masterpiece of the rhetorical art” (LA, 106-7), which some in the West accepted, and in which he presents all Eusebians as ‘Arians’, meaning, followers of Arius. The turn to Nicaea and homoousios was an addition to of that Polemical Strategy. Some of the ‘Westerners’ agreed with Liberius but others did not. (LA, 136)

Milan 355 condemned one hypostasis theology.

“Liberius (of Rome) … calls on the Emperor to summon a council as his father Constantine had done.” (LA, 136) Constantius granted this request and “summoned all western bishops to Milan for 355.” (LA, 136) That council condemned “Athanasius, Marcellus, and Photinus” and exiled some of their supporters. (LA, 136-7)

My comment: This is a bit amazing. Milan is right in the middle of the West and the council was requested by the Bishop of Rome, but it condemned Athanasius and other one-hypostasis theologians. Or did the emperor (Constantius) influence the outcome? Ayres is a bit meager on details here.

Hilary claimed that it was at Milan in 355 that “he first heard the Nicene creed recited,” perhaps meaning “that he had not heard the creed recited in a public context as an authoritative statement of faith.” (LA, 137)

Sirmium 357 also condemned ousia language.

The “meeting of bishops at Sirmium in 357 … (was) a significant turning point.” (LA, 137) It “was attended by only a few bishops.” (LA, 137) “Under considerable pressure Ossius signed.” (LA, 137) He “may well have been approaching his hundredth year.” (LA, 137)

“Sirmium 351 had not only omitted ousia language, but positively condemned some uses of that language. The confession of 357 even more strongly argues against ousia language, condemning use of it,” saying, “there should be no mention of it whatever, nor should anyone preach it.” (LA, 138)

Homoianism was a response against Sabellianism.

“This text demonstrates … the emergence of ‘Homoian’ theology. … Over the next two or three decades Homoian theologians come in different varieties, but are united in their strong resistance to any theologies that see commonality of essence between Father and Son.” (LA, 138) “Homoians were willing to talk of Son being ‘like’ (homoios) the Father, or ‘like according to the Scriptures’, but all further technical terminology was avoided” (LA, 138)

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.” (LA, 138) In other words, the attack on the term “ousia” implies that they saw it as “tainted with Marcellan emphases.”

“The leadership of this alliance (Homoians) was always diverse. In the east Acacius of Caesarea (bishop from 340 to c.365), the successor of Eusebius of Caesarea, was a powerful figure, and a bishop who had significant influence with Constantius.” (LA, 138)

“Homoians are found in east and west.” (LA, 138)

Heter-ousianism was formed at the same time.

“Even as it (Homoian theology) formed, this group found itself fracturing with the emergence of those who push the subordinationist impulse of Homoian theology even further and increasingly interpret ‘likeness’ as indicating a fundamental distinction in essence (those whom we will term Heterousians).” (LA, 139)


Added Nicaea to his Polemical Strategy in the 350s.

As discussed above, during 339-40, Athanasius and Marcellus were both exiled to Rome and “made common cause against their eastern opponents.” (LA, 106) That stimulated Athanasius to develop “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years;” “a masterpiece of the rhetorical art.” (LA, 106-7)

In the 350s, after Constantius had become emperor of the entire Empire and was trying to get the Western church to accept the creeds formulated in the East, Athanasius refined his polemical strategy by adding “a detailed defence of Nicaea’s terminology.” (LA, 140):

“During the 350s Athanasius honed his polemic,” (LA, 140) including claiming “that Acacius’ own theology is just another version of the theology of Asterius and Arius.” (LA, 141)

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

Interpreted the ousia terms non-materially.

Strangely enough, in his defense of Nicaea, Athanasius accepted the non-material interpretation of the ousia-terms that was proposed by Eusebius, the leader of the anti-Nicenes:

Athanasius wrote that the Son was generated immaterially (LA, 141) and pointed out that “Eusebius of Caesarea had himself interpreted Nicaea’s language in a non-modalist, non-materialist sense.” (LA, 140)

“Athanasius seems not only to allude to, but also to build on, the argument of Eusebius of Caesarea in his Letter to his Diocese written in 326. …  Athanasius actually directly draws on the basic structure of Eusebius’ account of how homoousios is only intended to emphasize that the Son is ‘from God’.” (LA, 143)

Whether an interpretation was ‘material’ or not, therefore, was a major issue in the Controversy. All agreed that God is ‘simple’, meaning that He does not consist of parts. For that reason, the Son cannot be a material part of God or be materially begotten from God.

Described the Son as part of the Father.

“Of course, his adoption of Eusebius’ argument is also a careful adaptation: he has a very different understanding of what ‘from God’ entails.” (LA, 143)

As discussed, for Athanasius, the Son was a part of the Father, namely, the Father’s Word or Wisdom or the only rational capacity. For example:

Athanasius argued that the Son is “present with Him (the Father) as his Wisdom and his Word.” (LA, 46)

“Athanasius’ increasing clarity in treating the Son as intrinsic to the Father’s being.” (LA, 113)

Although Athanasius claims that his interpretation is non-material, saying that the Son is God’s rational capacity does sound as if God consists of parts.

In contrast, for Eusebius, the Son was a distinct hypostasis (a distinct Reality) and the Father has His own rational capacity apart from the Son.

A non-material interpretation is devoid of meaning.

By interpreting the ousia-terms non-materially, they become more or less meaningless. Athanasius said:

“When we speak of God’s essence we do no more than say that God is, (for) we do not know what God is.” (LA, 142) “God’s nature is unknown to us” (LA, 142).

From the essence of the Father” identifies “the Word to be other than the nature of things originate, being alone truly from God’.” (LA, 141)

“Describing the Word as ‘of the essence of God’ is the same as saying that the Word is ‘of God’.” (LA, 142)

For Athanasius, homoousios means inseparable.

For Athanasius, homoousios means that “the Son’s generation is unlike the generation of human beings and does not involve the creation of one thing that may be separated from its originator.” (LA, 141) This is consistent with his teaching that the Son is part of the Father.

And Nicaea teaches One Hypostasis.

Athanasius, therefore, developed a defense of Nicaea’s ousia language by interpreting it as consistent with his own ‘one hypostasis’-theology. For example, the Son is:

      • Inseparable from the Father, as mentioned above.
      • “In [the Father] without division’.” (LA, 141)
      • “Existing everlastingly with the Father, as the radiance of light’.” (LA, 141)
      • Athanasius “fails to offer any terminology for the distinctions between the persons.” (LA, 143)

For him, the Son exists without cause.

While the Eusebians claimed that the Father alone is “ingenerate” (exists without a cause) and that that points to a fundamental distinction between the Father and the begotten Son, “Athanasius spends considerable time arguing against ‘Arian’ use of ‘ingenerate’.” (LA, 144) This “perhaps marks an increased significance ‘ingenerate’ had in the late 340s and early 350s.” (LA, 144) (See the next section for more information.)

While the Eusebians described the Son as begotten, Athanasius distinguishes only between unoriginated and created beings and placed the Son in the “unoriginated” category:

“The Son is truly a Son of the Father and not just the same as any other created thing.” (LA, 142)

“The deployment of such a clear distinction between Creator and creation and the placing of all talk about the Word on the uncreated ‘side’ of the boundary will become a central plank of pro-Nicene theologies in the 360s.” (LA, 143)

Athanasius accused the Eusebians of teaching that the Son is a Created Being:

Athanasius’ “assumption of a complete break between the created and the uncreated undergirds his reading of what is implied when Eusebius and others speak of Christ as ontologically inferior to the Father.” (LA, 143)


Taught that the Son’s substance is different.

During the 350s, the Eusebians were divided between the Homoians, Heterousians, and Homoiousians. This section focuses on the Heterousians.

“One of the most significant signs of the tensions within the Homoian alliance is the emergence of ‘Heterousian’ theology.” (LA, 144)

The theologies of the Homoians and Heterousians were similar. Both regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father. The main difference is that while Homoians refused to talk about God’s substance, “Heterousians emphasized the differences between the ousia of Father and Son.” (LA, 144)

“The two key Heterousian figures were Aetius and Eunomius.” (LA, 145)

Aetius’ theology appeared “during the late 350s.” It appeared “within the Homoian alliance.” (LA, 145)

They were not neo-Arians (followers of Arius).

Of the three views, the Heterousians were perhaps the closest to Arius so that some even refer to them as ‘New-Arians’:

“The habit is still widespread of calling this movement ‘neo-Arian’” (LA, 145)

But Ayres, for the following reasons, explains that the Heterousians were not followers or descendants of Arius:

      • “There are … significant differences between Arius’ theology and that of Aetius and Eunomius.” (LA, 145)
      • Neither Aetius nor Eunomius “ever appears to have made any claim on Arius’ legacy.” (LA, 145)
      • “Their most persistent and important opponents (were) the Cappadocians” and they never refer to “Aetius and Eunomius as new Ariuses.” (LA, 145)

“It is sometimes argued that Heterousian use of ‘ingenerate’ was directly dependent on earlier ‘Arian’ use back to Arius’ own in the Thalia” (LA, 147) but Ayres argues that Alexander of Alexandria also used this term (LA, 147). “Rowan Williams even suggests that use of the term begins with Alexander.” (LA, 147) “It seems best that we imagine a slow development in reflection on the term ‘ingenerate’” (LA, 147)

There was no such thing as an Anomoian.

Ayres also rejects the title Anomoians:

“‘Anomoians’—those who teach the general ‘unlikeness’ of Father and Son. This term was coined by their opponents and both (Aetius and Eunomius) were keen to defend themselves against it, insisting that their concern was to teach ‘unlikeness according to essence’: there were many other ways in which Father and Son were alike.” (LA, 145)

Ayres prefers “the term ‘Heterousian’ because of its precision in indicating exactly where they saw the key difference between Father and Son.” (LA, 145)

Heterousian Rationale

Aetius argued that only a Being who is compound (consists of parts) can generate from his substance another being that is homoousios with him (of the same substance). But God, since He is ingenerate (exists without cause), is not compound. Therefore, the Son is not generated from God’s substance and not homoousios with Him; not even homoi-ousios (of a similar substance):

“For Aetius the essence of God lies in being ingenerate … which also involves not consisting in a compound essence. If God is truly ‘not generated’, he argues, then no logical sense can be given to an act of generation that results in one who is either homoousios or homoiousios with God. All that is generated and all that generates from its own substance must be compound. God, not being compound, cannot generate in this way, but only by God’s will or authority. The Son is thus the product of God’s will.” (LA, 146)

“Eunomius deploys the same argument as Aetius to explain why the Son cannot come from the Father’s essence.” (LA, 147) He “gives great weight to ingenerate as a term summing up the character of God’s essence” (LA, 147) and argues similarly that “it is simply illogical to imagine that any generated thing shares God’s ingenerate nature” (LA, 147) or “the Father’s simplicity” (LA, 146).

“Eunomius was around 25 years younger than Aetius.” (LA, 146) He:

Takes “the term ‘Son’ … to indicate that he is essentially subordinate.” (LA, 146)

“Appeals to Christ’s own confession of the Father’s superiority at John 14:28.” (LA, 146) (“The Father is greater than I.)

“Describes the Son as ‘like [the Father] according to the Scriptures’, a phrasing embodied in the Homoian creed of 360.” (LA, 147)

Argues that “the Son … is the image of the Father’s will … he is the Father’s power only in being an image of his power and activity.” (LA, 148)

The Son is created but distinct from Creation. Eunomius does describe the Son as created, but he is concerned to show that the Son is distinct from the creation we inhabit: the Son is a product unlike other products and stands in the relationship of maker to all other things.” (LA, 148) ”The Son holds a unique status because he is a uniquely direct product of the Father’s will.” (LA, 148)

A possible predecessor of the Heterousians was “Dionysius of Alexandria (in the third century) (who) seems to have held the doctrine” “that ungeneracy defines God’s essence.” (LA, 148)


For a more complete discussion, see – The Rise and Fall of the Homoiousianism.

The emergence of the Homoiousians

This section discusses Homoiousianism, meaning ‘similar substance’, which was the third of the three identifiable views into which the Eusebians divided:

At first, the Eusebians were mostly Homoians (refused to talk about substance), as seen in Sirmium 351. “The creed issued by this council … strongly condemn(s) some uses of ousia language.” (LA, 134)

However, in response to this view, Heterousianism soon developed. And then Homoiousianism developed in response: 

“The emerging shape of Heterousian theology prompted a strong reaction from many who had broadly supported Constantius’ policies. In the winter of 358, soon after the Sirmium 357 meeting, a small council met at Ancyra at the invitation of its bishop Basil.” (LA, 149-150)

Another cause of this formation of Homoiousian theology was the “subordinationist” trend of the “radical Homoians” “shaping Constantius’ policies during the 350s.” (LA, 150)

“From this (Basil’s) gathering at least one extensive letter survives, written by Basil of Ancyra himself.” (LA, 150)

The Eusebians formed a united anti-Sabellan Front.

The main threat remained Sabellian (one hypostasis)-type theologies. The three Eusebian views formed a united front against Marcellan theologies:

“Basil made ad hoc alliances with theologians such as Acacius (Homoians) against Photinus and Marcellus (one hypostasis theologians).” (LA, 150)

Homoianism, Homoiousianism, and Heterousianism, therefore, all three are ‘three hypostases’-theologies.

Homoiousianism emphasized, perhaps more than the other Eusebian theologies, that the Son received from the Father the Father’s own attributes:

“Basil … was heir to a tradition in eastern theology that strongly emphasized the Son’s nature as image and revealer of the Father. Basil himself emphasizes the ineffable depth of the Father’s self-gift in generating the Son. Such a theology found more subordinationist Homoian theologies to be acceptable partners in anti-Marcellan contexts but theologically insufficient in themselves.” (LA, 150)

A Persistent Strand in Earlier Eastern Theology

Some argue that homoiousian (similar substance) theology was an attempt to reconcile the homoousian (same substance) theology with the homoian notion of similarity. However, Homoiousianism was “most prominently associated with … Basil of Ancyra” and “the term homoiousios plays no role in Basil’s surviving texts,” implying that such a compromise was not intended. Lewis Ayres proposes that Homoiousianism was not merely a compromise but “a significant and persistent strand in earlier eastern theology.” (LA, 150)

Ousia Language reflects closeness.

While Homoians refused to talk of the ousia (substance) of God, Basil insisted that, although this may have “corporeal connotations,” substance language is necessary to reflect the closeness of the Father and Son that is expressed by the concepts “Father/Son” and “begotten.” If we “remove the corporeal connotations of the Father/Son relationship then” the Son is a mere creature. (LA, 151)

“Basil argues that if the Father gives the Son to have life in himself (John 5:26),” then the Son must have that same life in His substance and, in that respect at least, the Son’s substance is the same as the Father’s. (LA, 152)

Basil convinced the Emperor.

“Basil’s council sent a delegation to the Emperor Constantius … and this embassy met with success.” The Emperor condemned “Aetius and his teaching” and exiled Aetius and his supporters. This supports the view that this formulation of homoiousian theology was particularly intended to oppose the Neo-Arians. Constantius wrote, “when we first made a declaration of our belief. . .we confessed that our Saviour is the Son of God, and of like substance with the Father’. … Basil’s influence was at its height. (LA, 152-153)

Note that Basil felt the need to convince the emperor and that the emperor then exiled some other Eusebians. As Hanson stated, “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” (RH, 849).

And as Rowan Williams said, “The emperor has the right, like any authoritative teacher, to examine and criticize and, where necessary, discipline or expel his pupils.” (RW, 88) “Simonetti remarks that the Emperor was in fact the head of the church.” (RH, 849)


A bishop without ‘party’ commitment

Ayres discusses “Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem from 348 until his death in 386 or 387,” as an example of the many bishops who were “difficult to place in the standard categories of the fourth century.” “Many bishops would have found themselves without direct ‘party’ commitment and able to shift allegiance.” (LA, 153) Cyril is important because he was bishop for a long and critical period of the ‘Arian’ Controversy.

Cyril was “one of those who held strongly to the emphases we see in many Eusebians … At the same time, his theology also has some strong parallels to that of Alexander of Alexandria, although he never seems to have been a supporter of Athanasius” (LA, 154). 

The One God is the Father.

On the one hand, “Cyril’s doctrine of God is best understood by beginning where he begins: with the unity and transcendence of the one God, the Father. Cyril is insistent that there is one God, ‘alone, unbegotten, without beginning, immutable, unchangeable.” (LA, 154-5) “When Cyril speaks of ‘the one God’ he is very clear that he is speaking of the Father.” (LA, 155)

The Son shares the dignity of the Godhead.

On the other hand, “although the Father is the ‘sole principle’ for Cyril, he consistently speaks of the Son as sharing the ‘dignity of Godhead’ with the Father.” Ayres calls this a “paradox.” (LA, 155) He is “Son by nature … begotten from all eternity” (LA, 155), “like in all things to his Genitor” (LA, 156). “In His Godhead He is subject neither to time nor place.” (LA, 156)

“Since the Father is true God He begot the Son like to Himself, true God” (LA, 156) “The ‘characteristics (χαρακτήρες) of the Godhead are in the Son without variation;” (156) “not simply a derivation of lesser from greater.” (LA, 156) “Cyril tries to prevent the Son from being considered as a second [inferior] God.” (LA, 156)

“Following through his insistence that the Father remains the one principle, Cyril here characterizes the Son as being God because of the Father’s presence or self-gift.” (LA, 156-7)


Cyril was against both “Sabellian accounts that confuse the Father and Son (Cyril probably has Marcellus in mind)” and “accounts that distinguish the two.” “He makes little use of any technical terminology for distinguishing Father and Son.”

6.6 The Events of AD 359–360

“In AD 359 Constantius decided to emulate his father’s action in calling Nicaea and summon a general council.” (LA, 157) “He decided to hold twin councils in east and west.” (LA, 158) This was, therefore, the second ‘ecumenic’ council of the century but is no longer regarded as such.

The Dated Creed

“A small group of bishops met at Sirmium to draw up a draft creed for discussion.” (LA, 158)

“The creed on which they finally agreed asserts, on the one hand, that the Son is ‘like the Father in all respects, as the Holy Scriptures also declare and teach’.” (LA, 158)

“On the other hand, it asserts that all ousia language should be avoided, because it was inserted in the creed of Nicaea ‘though not familiar to the masses’, because it caused ‘disturbance’, and because it is unscriptural.” (LA, 158)

This would, of course, eliminate the Homoiousian view which describes the Son as similar in substance to the Father:

“The creed caused Basil of Ancyra some difficulty and he only signed by adding, after his name, that this ‘likeness’ was also according to ‘being’. Thus, although Basil of Ancyra was influential with the imperial authorities at one point during 358–9, it was not for long, and he never seems fully to have overcome long-standing Homoian influence at court.” (LA, 158)

“This creed is known as the ‘Dated creed’ because the prologue identifies the date of its promulgation.” (LA, 158)

George of Laodicea

Ayres discusses a letter written by one Homoiousian (George of Laodicea – LA, 158-160) to show “how close the Homoiousians had come to the language of pro-Nicene orthodoxy” (LA, 159). In the following, I highlight the problems the Homoiousians identified with ‘same substance’:”

“The Homoiousians could not yet see how the order and distinction of the persons could be maintained if they were the same in essence. They seem to have been worried that ‘sameness’ of essence implies a material notion of division and identity of substance.” (LA, 160).

In other words, they were worried that ‘same substance’ implies:

      • One single Person, like in Sabellianism, and
      • that God is material and consists of parts.

(I am not sure whether “identity” here means one single substance or two substances that are the same in all respects. The context implies the first.]

For these reasons, the homoiousians preferred ‘similar substance’. Nevertheless, similar to the Trinitarian view of three Persons but one Being, “George deploys the language of three hypostases but one divinity.” (LA, 160) He did remain, therefore, a Three Reality-theologian. He stated that “Paul of Samosata and the Sabellians denied the real existence of Father and Son.” (LA, 159)

George sums up the Heterousian view as “’like in will, unlike in essence’ and argues that it is on the basis of this teaching that they seek to remove the word essence from discussion.” (LA, 158-9) “George then argues that this is illogical given that they have signed a creed [the Dated Creed] that describes the Son as ‘like the Father in all respects’.” (LA, 159) The Homoiousians wanted to read “in all respects” as including substance.

One could perhaps say that the different views (same substance, similar substance, different substance, like in all respects) are different interpretations of the Bible’s description of the Son as God’s image.

Western Council

“The two councils met in 359: the eastern council at Seleucia in Cilicia (near Antioch), the western at Ariminum in northern Italy (modern Rimini).” (LA, 160)

“The western council met first, towards the end of May 359.” “A majority of those present voted in favour of retaining the creed of Nicaea and not introducing any new creed.” (LA, 160) Ayres says that this probably was a vote against the Dated Creed rather than a vote for the Nicene Creed. “We should be careful of assuming that this preference reveals a detailed understanding of Nicaea.” (LA, 160)

Both the majority and “the minority party” sent delegations to the Emperor. “Constantius kept this delegation waiting for some weeks.” “After much pressure the delegates of the majority at Ariminum accepted the Dated creed excepting only the phrase ‘in all things’ used to qualify the Son’s likeness to the Father. The delegates returned west and much time was spent convincing the majority to change their minds. After a few weeks the opposition to this creed was very small.” (LA, 161)

Ayres mentions a number of factors that brought about this change, including “imperial pressure.” “Constantius made it clear he was willing to exile those who resisted.” (LA, 161)

Eastern Council

“The eastern council met in September of 359 and was divided between those around Acacius and Eudoxius [Homoians] … and a larger party (if the later historians are to be trusted) sympathetic to those bishops who had recently stood with Basil of Ancyra [Homoiousians].” (LA, 161-2)

Hilary of Poitiers insists “that there were also a number of Egyptian bishops present who favoured the homoousios, and that among the Homoians there were also some with Heterousian sympathies.” (LA, 162)

“In the initial discussion a majority affirmed the Dedication creed of 341.” (LA, 162)

“Acacius himself then presented a creed very much like the Dated creed … (stating) the importance now of moving beyond dispute over ousia terms … Presumably the Dedication creed is seen as unsuitable because of its description of the Son as image of the ousia of the Father.” (LA, 162)

“We also see here the very fluidity of credal formulation in the early fourth century becoming an open point of appeal. Acacius claims that his opponents’ appeal to the Dedication creed as a fixed point of reference makes little sense. Socrates reports Acacius as saying, ‘since the Nicene creed has been altered not once only, but frequently, there is no hindrance to our publishing another at this time’.” (LA, 162)

“Socrates presents the initial discussion as a dispute over Nicaea: while Acacius opposed Nicaea, the other faction concurred ‘in all the decisions of Nicaea, but criticized its adoption of homoousion’.” However, Ayres says that “Socrates’ seems dependent on Athanasius’ very similar description at De synodis 12.” In other words, this might be part of Athanasius’ polemical creation and not to be trusted. (LA, 163)

“Acacius’ creed was ultimately rejected by the majority of those present. The next day one of the imperial officials overseeing the council attempted to dissolve it, to no avail. The majority … deposed Acacius. … Each group sent embassies to the Emperor in Constantinople. The Homoian delegation arrived first and agreed to a modified version of the Dated creed. After much pressure … the Homoiousian delegation finally agreed.” (LA, 164)

The Creed of Niké

“Early in 360 a small council was held in Constantinople to ratify the decisions of Ariminum and Seleucia. This council was presided over by Acacius. … The main act of the meeting beyond ratifying the creed was to depose … those associated with Basil and the Homoiousians.” (LA, 164)

The following are the main points of “the Homoian creed of Niké/Constantinople:”

The “one God” is the “Father Almighty.” All things are from Him. (LA, 164)

The “Son of God” was “begotten from God” “before all ages.” All things were made by Him. (LA, 164) He is the only Being that was begotten from the Father and is “God from God” and “the Lord and the God of us.” (LA, 164)

(I highlighted the word “God” to show that the anti-Nicenes did refer to the Son as theos (God” or “god.”)

We also believe in “the Holy Spirit, whom the only-begotten … promised to send (LA, 164)

“But the word ousiathere should be absolutely no mention of it. … We say that the Son is like the Father as the Holy Scriptures say and teach. … (LA, 165)

7. The Beginnings of Rapprochement

Constantius died suddenly in the year 361 at the age of 44 and was succeeded in 361 by Julian, who repudiated and undermined Christianity. To an extent, the emperor’s anti-Christian stance brought the Controversy temporarily to an end but Julian ruled only for two years. He was succeeded in 363 by Valens (364–78) in the east and Valentinian (364–75) in the west (LA, 169). Particularly Valens upheld Constantius’ Homoian creed.

7.1 Introduction

“The course of theological development during the period from 360–80 is frequently uncertain. Surviving records during this period are particularly unclear and difficult to synthesize.” (LA, 168)

This is made worse by the fact that “later historians present such figures (pro-Nicene theologians such as Basil of Caesarea) as always holding to their mature opinions, even when they leave us enough hints to know that this is not so.” (LA, 168).

“A year after the Homoian triumph of 360 much suddenly changed. Constantius died from a sudden illness. … He was only 44.” (LA, 167)

“But even without Constantius’ death, the architects of Homoian theology do not seem to have had the widespread support that would have enabled them to gain wide-ranging acceptance of the 360 creed.” (LA, 167) 

“We … begin to see an increasing number willing to adopt Nicaea as a standard during the early 360s.” (LA, 167)

“In the period after 360, we also begin to see the emergence of what I have termed throughout the book so far ‘pro-Nicene’ theology: theologies which contain new arguments for or pro Nicaea.” (LA, 167)

7.2 Church and Emperor: AD 360–378


“When Constantius died in 361 his immediate successor was his cousin Julian.” (LA, 168)

“As Emperor, Julian soon became an active non-Christian, repudiating the Christianity that he had earlier professed. In his attempt to undermine the Church Julian tried to foment dissension between groups in the Church—initially by recalling all bishops who had been banished under Constantius.” (LA, 168-9) Presumably, the emperor’s anti-Christian stance brought the Controversy temporarily to an end but Julian ruled only for two years. “Julian had afforded … (the Homoians’) opponents every opportunity to regroup and realign.” (LA, 170)


“After Julian’s death in 363 … Constantius’ most powerful successors emerged: in the east the Emperor Valens (364–78); in the west the Emperor Valentinian (364–75).” (LA, 169)

“Valens, like Constantius, has gone down in history as an ‘Arian’ emperor.” However, “again like Constantius, (he) was a pragmatic ruler prepared to promote Homoians when possible, but not at any great cost to his civil administration.” For example, “his eventual acceptance of Athanasius’ position in Alexandria” and his “accepting Basil’s (Basil of Caesarea – the main driver of pro-Nicene theology) significant role in the Church of Asia Minor.” (LA, 169)

“Valens was considerably more hostile towards Heterousian theology. … While we read the fourth century so easily in terms of a battle between Nicenes and their opponents, it is important to remember that differences between non-Nicenes were equally important.” (LA, 169)

“In 365–6 Valens faced a serious military revolt by one of Julian’s generals, Procopius. During this rebellion Valens recalled bishops that had been exiled (including Athanasius) in the hopes of securing wider support. In such circumstances pragmatism overcame general support for the Homoians.” (LA, 169)

Ayres does not mention any general councils or new creeds in the 360-380 period. Under Valens, “open and large-scale challenge to the Homoian creed would have been impossible in the east: the creed of 359–60 was maintained as a universal standard.” (LA, 169-170).

Homoiousians remain strong.

Already at the eastern council of AD 359 the Homoiousians were a strong force and perhaps even the true majority. It seems from Ayres’ description as if they remained a strong force in the 360-380 period. Ayres mentions provides examples of Homoiousian councils during the 360s, affirming the creeds of 341 and opposing the Homoians and the creed of 359-360. (LA, 170)

“Some Homoiousians were prepared to acknowledge Nicaea to gain friends against the Homoians, but that does not mean they yet saw Nicaea’s terminology as preferable to that of the Dedication creed.” (LA, 170-1)

Pro-Nicene Theology

Ayres does not mention Homoousians as a group. It seems that, at the time, the Homoiousians were the main opposition to the Homoians.

Pro-Nicene’ theology emerged in the 360-380 period. It was a defense of the Nicene Creed but an interpretation of that creed that was significantly different from the intention of the authors of the original Nicene Creed. (LA, 167) The pro-Nicenes remained a minority and Athanasius, Hilary, and Basil of Caesarea all sought alliances with the Homoiousians against the more extreme subordinationists views of the Homoians and Heterousians:

“In … the De synodis Athanasius” claims that he and the Homoiousians “fundamentally teach the same doctrine.” He “reaches out to the Homoiousians by attempting to refute their objections to Nicaea’s two uses of ousia language.” (LA, 171)

“Just as Athanasius saw grounds for a rapprochement between himself and the Homoiousians, Hilary saw the same.” (LA, 184)

As Ayres explains below, Basil of Caesarea’s Pro-Nicene theology grew out of Homoiousianism.

7.3 Athanasius and the Beginnings of Rapprochement

“Over the years 359–61 Athanasius wrote his De synodis,” describing “the twin councils of Ariminum/Seleucia.” (LA, 171) As in his usual version of the Controversy, in which all his opponents are followers of Arius, he described those councils “as the culmination of a story that began with Arius.” (LA, 171)

Explanation of the Nicene Creed

“In … the De synodis, Athanasius” claims that he and the Homoiousians “fundamentally teach the same doctrine.” He “reaches out to the Homoiousians by attempting to refute their objections to Nicaea’s two uses of ousia language, ‘of the Father’s ousia’ and homoousios,” (LA, 171) by explaining those phrases as follows:

The purpose of the phrase “of the Father’s ousia” is to protect “the difference between the generation of the Son … and the creation of all else.” (LA, 171)

“Homoousios is defended as a necessary consequence of the phrase ‘of the Father’s ousia’.” (LA, 171) In other words, the two phrases must be read as one. But he also says that those who accept the Nicene Creed “and doubt only about homoousios’ are not to be condemned as ‘Ariomaniacs’.” (LA, 172) Some people are comfortable with Athanasius’ language.

Athanasius’ Distortions

In order to claim the Homoiousians as supporters of his views, Athanation made several untrue statements about them:

He claims that Homoiousians such as Basil of Ancyra taught that “the Son is from the essence of the Father.” The truth is that Basil “never speaks of the Son being born ‘of the Father’s ousia’.” “Basil … seems consciously to avoid Nicaea’s terminology.” (LA, 172)

Athanasius also claims that Homoiousians taught that “the Son is … His genuine and natural offspring” and “His (only) Word and (only) Wisdom,” which would mean that the Son is part of the Father. But that is not what the Homoiousians taught. (LA, 172) For example, Basil said “Wisdom is Son of the Wise one,” which identifies two Wisdoms and makes a clear distinction between the two Beings. (LA, 173)

Another untrue statement is that the Homoiousian ‘like in essence’ is equivalent to homoousios. “Athanasius studiously avoids commenting on (Basil of Ancyra’s) 358 letter’s direct anathematization of homoousios.” (LA, 172)

Ayres concludes that Athanasius “accurately reads Basil as following a theological path increasingly parallel to his own and is prepared to look beyond the large terminological difference between them.” (LA, 173)

I believe that Ayres is here unduly protecting Athanasius. Athanasius wants to claim Homoiousians as support for himself against the Homoians and Heterousians and was willing to resort to untruth for that purpose. That is similar to the way in which Athanasius falsely claimed certain pre-Nicene fathers (Dionysius and Theognostus of Alexandria) as support for his views. (LA, 48) Ayres comments that “narrative [I read truth] is, as ever, a subtle tool in Athanasius’ hands.” (LA, 173)

Nicene Creed as Norm

Athanasius called an Alexandrian council in 362 to set out “basic rules for re-establishing communion with bishops who had subscribed to the decisions of Ariminum and Seleucia;” (LA, 173) the two AD 359 councils that accepted the Homoian creed.

“The council took the pragmatic decision to set fairly minimum conditions focused around subscription to Nicaea and an acknowledgement of the spirit’s divinity.” (LA, 173) [Does this imply that Nicaea does not acknowledge “the spirit’s divinity?”

One Reality Theology

Athanasius was a ‘One Reality’-theologian. He opposed the concept of “three hypostases” and said: “The phrase is unscriptural and therefore suspicious.” (LA, 174)

The normal implication of “three hypostases” is “three hierarchically ranked beings, of which only one is true God.” Athanasius ascribed this view to “Arian madmen” who believe the “hypostases … (are) alien in essence from one another.” (LA, 174) Note again Athanasius’ insulting language. He did not reflect “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor 10:1).

Athanasius insists that confessing “one hypostasis” is not meant “in the sense of Sabellius, to the negation of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” It does not deny “that Son and Spirit are not truly existent realities” but indicates “that the divine is one reality distinct from the created order.” (LA, 174-5) However, it is not clear at all what the three Persons are. For Athanasius, the Son is the only Wisdom of God. It is difficult to imagine how the three Persons can be distinct if one is part of the other.

Nevertheless, Athanasius’ council was willing to accept “those who confess three hypostases” (LA, 173-4) on condition that they mean “that the persons are truly and eternally distinct” but “God is immaterial and simply God.” The idea is that “God” includes the Father, Son, and Spirit; not the Father alone: Not “three Gods or three beginnings . . . but one Godhead, and one beginning.” (LA, 174) In other words, they must confess that God is one Being but then add that the three Persons are distinct without an explanation of in what sense they are distinct.

Unity at one level and Distinction at another

However, with this requirement, “for the first time we have considered a text that offers the logic of unity at one ‘level’ and distinction at another.” (LA, 175) This seems important. In the previous decades, the Sabellian argument was that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one Reality. Now, in the years 359-361, for the first time, we have the first version of the eventual Trinity doctrine where God is both three and one: Three in one sense but one in another.

The Church in Antioch

Immediately after the Alexandrian council of 362, “Athanasius and others wrote a letter to the Church in Antioch known as the ‘Antiochene Tome’.” (LA, 174) “The Church in Antioch was frequently divided during the fourth century.” (LA, 175) We have evidence of at least three different views in that city:

Sabellian – “In the aftermath of Nicaea,” Eustathius (a Sabellian) was removed from office but he had continued support. (LA, 175)

Homoiousian – “In 361 Meletius … was consecrated bishop of Antioch” but was deposed after delivering “a sermon … that seemed Homoiousian in tone.” “Many of those in the Antiochene Church who had kept faith with the memory of Eustathius would not support Meletius, at least in part because of … his sympathy for the terminology of ‘three hypostases’.” (LA, 175-6)

Homoian – “In Antioch there was also a sizable Homoian community.” (LA, 176)

“Athanasius’ letter to the Antiochenes was almost certainly designed to reconcile the party of Meletius and the party of ‘Eustathians’.” (LA, 176)

7.4 The Pro-Nicene Reaction in the West: AD 360–365

“In the west we can trace a parallel realignment and turn to Nicaea, but one partly rendered easier by the lack of a Homoiousian party.” (LA, 177)

“The gradual rise to power of Julian” created “a political space” “in which open reaction against the Ariminum creed became possible.” (LA, 177)

“At some point in 360, Hilary returned west… and began to act as a standard-bearer for the pro-Nicene cause.” (LA, 177)

Hilary “was an important influence at a council in Paris sometime in 360 or 361. This council issued a statement of faith in favour of Nicaea and the term homoousios.” (LA, 177)

Ayres mentions several other pro-Nicene and anti-Homoian developments in “a letter from Liberius,” “a council of Italian bishops,” and the activities of Hilary. (LA, 178)

“Julian’s lack of support for any one church grouping allowed resistance to the Homoian creed to continue to coalesce.” (LA, 177)

7.5 Hilary’s Theology

Hilary wrote in the late 350s/360s. (LA, 179) At that time, the real debate was in the east and Hilary learned from them:

He exemplifies “the gradual development of Latin theology during these years.” He is “deeply indebted to earlier Latin theology” but with a “growing knowledge of theological debates in the east.” (LA, 179)

“We must be cautious in our assumptions about Tertullian’s influence on fourth-century Latin theology: his terminology of natura and persona was neither assumed as a given nor frequently used.” (LA, 183)


Hilary defended the Homoiousians:

“Hilary is particularly concerned to argue for the orthodoxy of the Homoiousians.” (LA, 179)

“Just as Athanasius saw grounds for a rapprochement between himself and the Homoiousians, Hilary saw the same.” (LA, 184)

Nicene Creed

Hilary’s theology did not begin with the Nicene Creed:

It was at Milan in 355 that “he first heard the Nicene creed recited.” (LA, 137)

“Hilary’s point of departure is … the 357 manifesto. … Hilary offers a genealogy of eastern credal history since the Dedication creed [AD 341].”

Three Realities

Hilary was not a ‘One Reality’-theologian:

“Hilary attempts to show that Father and Son are not one thing.” (LA, 179-180)

“We must confess the two as one and not as one thing” (LA, 184)

“Hilary is … critical of attempts to consider the Son as a property of the divine nature or as an operation—and hence not eternally a subsistent reality.” (LA, 182)


But he regarded the Father and Son as equal:

“Because the Father gives the Son all that the Father is: sharing the incomprehensible divine life the Son is incomprehensibly close to the Father.” (LA, 181)

“Throughout the text Hilary speaks of Father and Son as possessing a likeness that means ‘perfect equality’.” (LA, 179-180)

“Hilary argues that because the Son has the power to carry out the same acts as the Father he must have the same nature.” (LA, 182) “The Son does the same work as the Father and must therefore be considered as equal in nature.” (LA, 182)

Not Two Gods

Due to the equality of Father and Son, Hilary might have been accused of teaching two Gods, but he said:

“The nature of the Godhead is not different in one and in the other … The only-begotten God is from the one unbegotten God. … There are not two unbegotten gods, because he is born from him who is unborn. The one is from the other and is not different in anything, because the life of the living one is in the living one.” (LA, 181)

“The Father is the one from whom all things come, and is … the source of the Son and the Spirit, but at the same time … God is perfect in being a trinity of persons.” (LA, 180)

Functionally Subordinate

Hilary described the Son and the Spirit as functionally subordinate to the Father:

“There is also an order here based on powers and merits. … Son and Spirit are ‘ranked’ by their respective functions.” (LA, 180)


Hilary regarded himself as part of the mainstream between two extremes:

“Hilary is concerned … to resist both:

        • ‘Sabellians’ who do not treat the three names as indicating three realities.
        • and some … who think that the Son was created from nothing” (LA, 180-1)

He condemns “both Sabellius and Arius, with Photinus named as the contemporary Sabellian representative.” (LA, 182)

Athanasian tactics

“Hilary knows … the ‘Athanasian’ tactic of quoting from and refuting Arius as an attack on all non-Nicenes.” (LA, 182)

The Holy Spirit

“Hilary says explicitly that the Spirit is neither generated nor created and that the Spirit exists with the Father.” (LA, 184-5) “Hilary has … virtually nothing to say about the relationship of Spirit to Son and Father in the Godhead. Just about the only thing that Hilary can say is that the Spirit comes from the Father and through the Son.” (LA, 185)

7.6 Conclusion

The Bible describes the Father and Son as both united and distinct. The ‘Arian’ Controversy may be described as a dispute about the sense in which they are united and the sense in which they are distinct:

On the one extreme of the spectrum of views, they are not distinct at all, but one single Reality. In this view, they are distinct only in that they are parts of one single Reality. For example, for Sabellius, the Father and Son are parts of God but for Marcellus, the Father is the whole and the Son is part of the whole. Athanasius was also in this camp. For him, the Son is God’s only Wisdom (rational capacity) and Word.

On the other extreme of the spectrum, for example in Arius, they are two distinct and very different Beings, but with the Son being the exact image of the power and will of God.

In the theology that was proclaimed in 380 as the official religion of the Roman Empire, there is only one substance, Power and Mind. At the same time, it is said that the Persons are distinct. If you would ask in what sense they are distinct, the answer would probably be in a sense that human beings cannot understand:

“The theological shifts that we have seen … have set the scene for the full emergence of pro-Nicene theology … the emergence of clear statements of unity of essence, power, and nature even while the persons are truly distinct.” (LA, 186)

There is some contradiction in this explanation. It is an attempt to explain God but then concludes that God cannot be understood. 

8 Basil of Caesarea and the Development of Pro-Nicene Theology

Why did Nicene theology eventually triumph? Was it because the Cappadocians developed a Trinity doctrine with such convincing power that it overcame all resistance, or did the emperor enforce pro-Nicene theology? Ayres thinks it is a bit of both:

“In some accounts Basil is the architect of the pro-Nicene triumph:” He “develops an account of the distinctions between persons and essence of such power that the final victory of pro-Nicene theology under the Emperor Theodosius is inevitable.” (LA, 187)

[Note: For most of the Arian Controversy, person (hypostasis) and essence (ousia) were used as synonyms.]

“In other presentations the victory of pro-Nicene theology in the 380s is largely the result of secular political moves.”

“The truth lies somewhere in between.” “The accession of Theodosius in 379 was nothing if not providential for pro-Nicenes.” (LA, 187)

“Basil was born around 330” and “was extremely well educated in rhetoric and philosophy” (LA, 187-188) “In 370 … Basil was elected bishop.” (LA, 188)

8.1 Basil’s Early Theology: Problems with Homoousios

In this section, Ayres mainly discusses Basil’s understanding of the term homoousios and shows that he understood Father and Son to be two distinct substances (hypostases).

Understood homoousios like a Homoi-ousian

Basil was initially a Homoi-ousian:

“It has been traditional to speak of Basil as initially a Homoiousian.” (LA, 188)

“We never encounter Basil as a partisan for a distinct Homoiousian party.” (LA, 189) However, “in the early and mid-360s we still find Basil discussing theological topics with those whom we can broadly term ‘Homoiousian’. We may even think of Basil’s major dogmatic work, the Contra Eunomium, as the logical conclusion of one strand of Homoiousian theology.” (LA, 189)

He was not opposed to the term homoousios but he understood it like the Homoi-ousians did:

“Around 360,” “Basil lets us know his preference for the phrase (‘invariably like according to essence’) to describe the relationship of Father and Son.” This is similar to the standard Homoiousian phrase “similar substance,” but with the term “invariably” added. (LA, 189) He has a “preference for Homoiousian-sounding language.” (LA, 189) “Basil still seems to view the relationship between Father and Son in a fundamentally Homoiousian way.” (LA, 190)

A Unitary Shared Nature

In later years, he moved away from the Homoi-ousian view:

“Through the 360s and especially in the 370s we see him gradually … (traveling) his road towards pro-Nicene theology.” (LA, 189)

In contrast to the Sabellians, but similar to the Homoi-ousians, he proposed that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct Persons. But in contrast to the Homoi-ousians, who said that the substances of the Father and Son are similar, he proposed “a unitary shared nature:”

“In Letter 361 … he does not yet articulate his mature distinction between a unitary shared nature at one level, and the personal distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit at another.” (LA, 190) “It is only in the next few years that Basil will move towards the distinctions with which he is often identified.” (LA, 191)

Two Distinct Substances

But Basil did not understand homoousios as meaning that Father and Son are one single substance, as in the traditional Trinity doctrine:

“In his first letter to Apollinaris,” Basil explains his understanding of homoousios as saying “[whatever] the substance of the Father is assumed to be, this must by all means be assumed as also that of the Son.” (LA, 189-190) He wrote: “In such a meaning the phrase ‘like without a difference’ seems to me to accord better than ‘consubstantial’.” (LA, 190)

On pages 189-190, Ayres discusses WHY Basil developed the concept that God is three Persons but “a unitary shared nature.” It was because of “the difficulty of understanding homoousios appropriately.” (LA, 189)

Firstly, Basil did not want homoousios to be understood in a Sabellian way as teaching that God is one single hypostasis (Person, Reality):

“On the one hand, Basil may be expressing an anti-Marcellan concern with homoousios.” (LA, 190) Basil understood the phrase “light from light” to “speak clearly of two realities.” Homoousios, on the other hand, may imply “that Father and Son are the same one light’.” (LA, 190).

One Ultimate Principle

Secondly, that Father and Son have the same substance might be understood that they are two Gods (two Ultimate Principles).

“On the other hand … it may well be that Basil of Caesarea’s concern in Letter 361 is” “that homoousios implies Father and Son are of identical ontological status. (In that case) Homoousios is unacceptable because it implies the existence of two ultimate principles.” (LA, 190) “To speak of Father and Son as simply having the same ousia would be … to present him as logically another God.” (LA, 190)

“This worry about the implications of homoousios has a long pedigree in the fourth century: we first encountered it with Arius’ charge that Alexander’s ‘always Father, always Son’ implies the existence of two principles.” (LA, 190)

This is discussed further in the next section.

8.2 Basil’s Developing Theology: Ἐπίνοια and Iδιώματα

The first part of this section deals with Basil’s epistemology – the theory of knowledge – how one knows things. It then continues with a discussion of how Basil understood homoousios.


Basil wrote three books against the theology of Eunomius, the leading Heter-ousian of his day. “Basil’s Contra Eunomium” “were probably finished in 363 or 364.” (LA, 191)

In those books, Basil attacks Eunomius’ “epistemological and methodological assumptions” (LA, 191) and justifies his own.

Eunomius used ‘ingenerate’ as foundation.

Eunomius emphasized that, while His Son has been generated, God is “ingenerate,” (LA, 194) meaning that He exists without cause. For him, “ingenerate” is “the primary name of God.” In other words, it is what distinguishes the Father from all other beings.

Basil countered that God’s ousia is unknown and that no one characteristic can ever serve to identify God’s existence:

“Basil states that no one name can ever serve to identify God’s existence.” (LA, 191)

He said that ‘ingenerate’ is unimportant because it is merely “a privative term” [the absence of a quality] “and hence unsuitable as the primary name of God.” (LA, 194)

Unlike in Substance

Since God exists alone without cause, Eunomius concluded that Father and Son are unlike in substance:

“Basil … argues that the choice of this term (‘ingenerate’) as primary can serve only to teach that Father and Son are unlike.” (LA, 194)

“For Basil, arguing that Father and Son are ‘unlike’ flies in the face of biblical material such as Col 1:15, Heb 1:3, and Phil 2:6.” As Basil read these texts, they “all … point to a community of essence between the generated and the one who has generated.” (LA, 194) “Basil … explains that this community of essence is the core of his teaching.” (LA, 194)

We know by Contemplation.

Basil said that we know by epinoia, namely, by concepts developed by the human mind; by a process of reflection and abstraction; by an intellectual contemplation of the reality of things.

“We know … by ἐπίνοια (epinoia).” (LA, 194) “By ἐπίνοια we know that there is a unity of ousia between Father and Son.” (LA, 194) Ayres explains epinoia as:

        • “Concepts developed by the human mind,” (LA, 191-2) as
        • “A process of reflection and abstraction” (LA, 192), and as
        • “An intellectual contemplation of the reality of things” (LA, 193)

Strong’s Concordance defines epinoia as “attention of the mind, i.e. (by implication) purpose – thought.”

“Basil gives a theological example. The divine speech [the Scripture] … reveals Christ’s properties of being ‘door, way, bread, light’ (for example), but his simple essence (ousia) remains unknown. Each one of these titles enables us to conceptualize an aspect of Christ’s work and grow in knowledge of him, even while we do not know his essence.” (LA, 192)

“Human knowledge of … is actively shaped by God to draw a wounded humanity back towards its creator through a slow reshaping of human thought and imagination.” (LA, 196)

“By ἐπίνοια we know that there is a unity of ousia between Father and Son.” “At the same time we know the … (the) Father and Son as distinct individuals.” (LA, 194) “The divine essence” is “unknowable” but “the particular characteristics … of Father and Son” are ‘knowable’. (LA, 195).

In other words, the Bible tells us of “the personal particularities” but we only know “the divine essence” by epinoia.

Thus, for Basil, far from being an unreliable mode of knowing, ‘contemplation’ is a necessary feature of any advanced knowledge. But Eunomius dismissed ἐπίνοια as a way of gaining knowledge of God, as unreliable (LA, 191-2) and condemned it. (LA, 193) He argued: “If we know God only according to ἐπίνοια, then our knowledge is insignificant and our faith useless.” (LA, 195)

Overcame Objections

“Basil’s new distinctions have provided him with an understanding of homoousios that overcomes his earlier concerns.” (LA, 195)

His two concerns are described above, namely, that homoousios means either (1) one Being or (2) two First Principles, both of which are unacceptable. Different from the Sabellians, Basil regarded them as two distinct substances or beings. But they are not two First Principles because the Father is the ultimate Source. For example:

“That Father and Son are, indeed, the same in essence, but distinct at another level thus preserving a certain order among the persons.” (LA, 195)

“By the 370s Basil had evolved a formula stating that the activities of God all come from the Father, are worked in the Son, and are completed in the Spirit. In this formula Basil seems … to find a way to speak of the unity of divine action while still preserving the priority of the Father.” (LA, 196)

Homoousios – Qualitative Meaning

The term “co-ordinate realities,” meaning distinct but equal realities, shows that Basil did not think of Father and Son as one substance but as two realities with identical substances:

“Basil thus moves beyond his earlier theology and speaks of unity of essence at one level and differentiation at another level. At one level, the persons are co-ordinate realities, with an identical ontological status.” (LA, 194)

Homoousios – Importance

“Basil can now confess the homoousios, the term does not function as a point of departure for the argument.” (LA, 195)

Will versus Energy

On pages 197-198, Ayres discusses the opposing views of “will or ἐνέργεια [energeia, working, activity]:”

“Throughout the first sixty years of the fourth century we find a number of figures turning to the language of will or ἐνέργεια [energeia, working, activity] when they seek to explain the Son’s generation.” (LA, 197)

These are two opposing concepts:

      • The Sabellians, who taught that Father and Son are one single Person or being, described the Son as the Father’s energy. For example:

“Marcellus of Ancyra uses the language of ἐνέργεια to explain how it is that the Son can come forth and work without God being extended materially.” (LA, 197)

      • The anti-Sabellians taught two distinct Persons (substances, hypostases) and argued that the Son was produced by the Father’s will. For example:

“In an anti-Marcellan context Eusebians and Homoians argued that the Son had substantial existence and was not purely an ἐνέργεια.” (LA, 197)

“Eusebius of Caesarea speaks of the Son as generated by and expressing the will of the Father.” (LA, 197)

“Homoians retained emphasis on the Son as generated by the Father’s will, a position now offered with clear subordinationist intent.” (LA, 197-8)

However, nowhere in this section does Ayres mention Basil of Caesarea. So, I am not sure why Ayres discusses this section here. As stated above, for Basil, Father and Son are two distinct Realities. Basil was not a Sabellian. He opposed the Sabellians

I am also not sure whether will/energy is an appropriate contrast. I would prefer a one hypostasis/three hypostasis contrast.

8.3 Οὐσία and ίδιώματα in Basil’s Theology

In this part of the chapter, Ayres says that Basil obtained his distinction between common diety and the differentiation of persons not from the Bible but from pagan philosophy.

Basil’s theory was that “particularities, being added onto the substance … distinguish what is common by means of individual characteristics … For instance, deity is common, fatherhood and sonship are individualities.” (LA, 198) “This division helps us … speak appropriately of both identity and difference between Father and Son.” (LA, 199)

“We can identify three basic influences on Basil’s account:”

“The first is Stoic terminologies about the relationship between general and individuated existence. … Stoics posited a universal … substrate (or ousia). … At the level of concrete existence individuals are also qualified by further qualities.” (LA, 199-200)

“Basil’s insistence that human beings share in a common substrate as well as in individuating qualities may reflect something of this conception.” (LA, 200)

“Basically Stoic division between general essence and individuating characteristics” (LA, 201)

“Basil’s account is not, however, solely Stoic: he also makes use of Aristotelian language, probably mediated through Neoplatonic writing,” (LA, 200) for example:

        • “The logos/rationale of being and of
        • The rationale of Godhead and of ousia.” (LA, 200)
        • “Basil’s definition of an individual as a bundle of properties” (LA, 201)

Neoplatonic-Aristotelian conceptions are used to interpret a basically Stoic scheme.” (LA, 202)

Thirdly, “we cannot, however, treat Basil’s distinction against a purely philosophical background. … It seems most likely that Basil’s evolution of the distinction occurred within a context where some such distinction was already clearly in the air. Basil developed an existing discussion, adding clarity, detail, and a new acceptance that the three persons are co-ordinate realities.” (LA, 202) “During the 357–64 period similar distinctions had begun to appear across the eastern Mediterranean.” (LA, 204)

8.4 Novelty and Tradition in Basil’s Trinitarian Theology

This part of the chapter provides further evidence that Basil taught that Father and Son are two distinct substances.


Firstly, Basil did not base his theology on the Nicene Creed. He began his theological life as a Homoiousian, and the Homoiousians believed in three Realities:

“Throughout Contra Eunomium 1–2 Basil continues to speak of essential ‘likeness’, and does not yet treat the language of Nicaea as a fundamental point of departure for his theology.” (LA, 204)

Eunomius objected to the Homoiousian view that the Son’s substance is like the Father’s by saying that the substance of generated beings cannot be like the Father’s because the Father alone exists without cause and His substance alone is ‘simple’ (does not have parts). So, the Son’s substance is either totally equal or dissimilar. In response, Basil continues the Homoiousian slogan of “likeness of essence” (LA, 205) and even insists that “the Son, like the Father is simple and uncompound” (LA, 204)

The Meaning of Homoousios

Secondly, Basil understood “homoousios” as describing two distinct realities that have “the same existence:”

He wrote: “[The fathers of Nicaea] rightly declared them homoousios . . . For things which are brothers to one another cannot be homoousios … When both the cause and that which has its existence from the cause are of the same existence, they are said to be homoousios.” (LA, 205)

Identical in Substance

Thirdly, Basil said that the Son is “identical in substance and power” to the Father. (LA, 207) I assume “identical” here means two distinct substances and powers that are the same:

Lewis Ayres says that “in all the previous discussions (before Basil of Caesarea) of the term (homoousios) … a certain ontological subordination is at least implied.” (LA, 206) For example:

        • “Athanasius’ pointed lack of willingness to” say that the Father is homoousios with the Son.
        • And Athanasius always described the Word “as proper to the Father, as the Father’s own wisdom,” namely, as being part of the Father, never the other way round. (LA, 206)

“Athanasius’ theology demonstrates a highly conservative transformation of his predecessors’ thought.” (LA, 206-7) In contrast, “in Basil, the Father’s sharing of his being involves the generation of one identical in substance and power.” (LA, 207)

The Father is the Source.

Fourthly, Basil did not defend against the accusation that he teaches two Gods by saying that they are really one, but by saying that the Father alone is the Source; also of the Son:

“Basil consistently presents the Father as the source of the Trinitarian persons and of the essence that the three share.” (LA, 206) He explains John 14:28 (‘the Father is greater than I’) by saying that “the Father is greater only by being the cause, not at the level of substance.” (LA, 206)

Pro-Nicenes used “the theme of the Father as the source” against accusations that they teach “a plurality of Gods [more than one Being who exists without cause and gave existence to all else] or that the Godhead is divided [when the Son was begotten].” (LA, 206)

“Basil himself eventually adopted” the principle that “homoousios implying the very picture of coordinate realities (equal in rank, quality, or significance) … while a robust conception of the Father as source would protect against unacceptable consequences,” namely, that there are “three equal principles in the universe.“ (LA, 207) Again, Basil taught two or three distinct substances.

8.5 The Unity of God and the Human Person

The question in this part of the chapter is whether “Basil and other pro-Nicenes present the Trinity as sharing a generic or numerical unity:” (LA, 209)

    • “Numerical unity” would mean that they are one Being.
    • Generic unity would mean that there are three distinct Beings that are one in mind and will. 

Ayres mentions several examples where it sounds as if they are a ‘generic’ unity. For example:

“Basil’s possible use of an analogy between the three divine ‘persons’ and three human persons.” (LA, 207)

“Basil discusses the individuation of Peter and Paul as analogous to the individuation of Father and Son.” (LA, 207)

Basil assumed “that human persons are particularly appropriate examples” of “the nature of an individual divine person” (LA, 207-8)

“At On the Holy Spirit 16.38 Basil … speaks of the Father choosing to work through the Son—not needing to. Similarly, the Son chooses to work through the Spirit, but does not need to.” (LA, 208)

At other times, it sounds as if Basil is saying that the Son and the Spirit are part of the Father. For example:

“Basil treats the harmonious, passionless emergence of thought as an analogue for the emergence of Son from Father.” (LA, 207)

“The Spirit’s closeness to Father and Son is dramatically likened to the closeness of a human person’s spirit to the self.” (LA, 208)

But Ayres says that we should not interpret these analogies literally:

“Basil’s concern is not with selecting any primary analogical base, but with articulating a process of thought.” (LA, 208)

8.6 Developments in Technical Terminology

“So far … my (Ayres’) discussion has focused on the first two books of Basil’s Contra Eunomium.” (LA, 209) In this section of the chapter, he explores “two ways in which Basil (later) seems to develop in his technical terminology.” (LA, 209)


“The term hypostasis … does not function as a technical term for the individual divine persons in the early books of the Contra Eunomium. Hypostasis is here synonymous with ousia.” (LA, 209) “After 364 Basil uses hypostasis more regularly to describe the individual persons (although he also continues to use the term in other senses).” (LA, 209)

Basil treats hypostasis and πρσωπον (prosópon) [the face] as synonymous, but he also sees πρσωπον as less appropriate, too close to Sabellianism. Hypostasis indicates a reality of existence that he feels πρσωπον may not.” (LA, 210)

“Even though hypostasis has grown in importance, we should not assume this indicates Basil now has a dense understanding of divine person in the abstract.” (LA, 210) “Basil’s use of hypostasis … brings to prominence a terminology that only much later receives extensive definition.” (LA, 210-211)


“It is during the mid-360s that Basil seems to have abandoned μοιος [homoîos = ‘like’] language.” “In letters from the 370s Basil seems to make increasingly frequent use of homoousios.” (LA, 211)

“The On the Holy Spirit of 375 (discussed below) is notoriously reticent about using homoousios of the Spirit.” (LA, 211)

8.7 On the Holy Spirit and Pro-Nicene Pneumatology

This part of the chapter provides “some more general remarks about the evolving character of pro-Nicene pneumatology.” (LA, 211) Is the Spirit a distinct Reality and how does He relate to the Father and Son?


For the Eusebians, the Spirit is a distinct Reality but subordinate to the Son:

“Eusebius of Caesarea … emphasizes … the Spirit’s status as only first among those things created by the Son.” (LA, 212-3)


For Athanasius, the Spirit is not a created being but the Son is part of the Father and the Spirit is part of the Son and, therefore, not a distinct Reality: 

Athanasius denied that the Spirit is “a creature.” (LA, 213-4)

“Just as his (Athanasius’) account of the Son can rely heavily on the picture of the Father as one person with his intrinsic word, so too he emphasizes the closeness of Spirit to Son by presenting the Spirit as the Son’s ‘energy’.” (LA, 214)

“The language also shows Athanasius trying out formulations that will soon be problematic. … ‘The Cappadocians’ will find the language of νργεια [superhuman activity] used of the Spirit … to be highly problematic, seeming to indicate a lack of real existence.” (LA, 214)

Basil of Caesarea

For Basil of Caesarea, the Spirit is “an intrinsic part of the divine activity” and, therefore, has the same substance.

“Against these uses of νργια language Basil deploys two tactics: The first is to argue that the Spirit participates in all the activities of Father and Son.” (LA, 216) The second, building on the first, is that “common activity demonstrates a common essence.” (LA, 216)

Nevertheless, for Basil, the Spirit is subordinate to the Son, as the Son is subordinate to the Father:

Basil insists “that while the Spirit is third in order and dignity, the Spirit is not third in an order of essences. Basil insists that the Spirit is to be accorded equal worship and honour with the Father and the Son, even if he is not willing to say directly that the Spirit is God in the same terms as Father and Son.” (LA, 216)

“Perhaps the major contribution of pro-Nicene pneumatology is the insistence that the work of the Spirit is inseparable from Father and Son … but on the subject of the Spirit’s place in the Godhead as such little progress is made.” (LA, 217)


“It is vitally important to note that the later question of the filioque is not an issue.” (LA, 217) “Progress will only be made with the study of fourth-century pneumatology when scholars stop summarizing the period by making the question of attitudes towards the filioque an important point of departure (as Hanson still does).” (LA, 218)

8.8 Tradition and Contemplation

Basil “appeals to the Church’s liturgical practice and to ‘unwritten’ tradition as a basis for his pneumatology.” (LA, 218) However, “we miss an important dimension of Basil’s appeal to tradition unless we see how it is intertwined with his understanding of θωρα (‘contemplation’).” (LA, 218)


For Basil, we can only understand the Father, Son, and Spirit through “contemplation.” “Contemplation” is enabled by the Spirit but only available to “Christians who have attained ‘purity of heart’.” Contemplation “throws away the letter:”

Contemplation “throws away the letter and turns to the Lord.” (LA, 219)

“The contemplation of the Spirit necessary to understand the Spirit is itself at the core of Christian life.” (LA, 219) “Through the work of the Spirit in the believer this contemplation is enabled.” (LA, 219)

“The sort of contemplation necessary if we are to ‘see’ the Spirit is identical to that necessary if we are to ‘see’ the Father and Son.” (LA, 219)

That sort of contemplation is only available to “Christians who have attained ‘purity of heart’.” (LA, 219) “Basil’s asceticism at this point directly affects his account of theological practice.” (LA, 220)

“In this passage not only does Basil argue that the Spirit is the subject of the same predicates as Father and Son, but that the Spirit is also the final agent of that contemplation in all cases.” (LA, 219)

Tradition and Contemplation

This ‘contemplation’ has resulted in the unwritten tradition, through which true doctrine is preserved:”

“This argument (of contemplation) interweaves with Basil’s discussions of unwritten tradition.” For Basil, “the Spirit’s divinity has gradually unfolded in the Church.” (LA, 219)

“Basil’s mature appeal to unwritten tradition is part of his appeal to the centrality of true θωρα.” (LA, 220)

“Through the handing down of true θωρα, true doctrine is preserved.” (LA, 221)

8.9 Conclusion

“Modern scholarship has failed to demonstrate with certainty any detailed engagement with Athanasius’ theology on the part of Basil.” “Pro-Nicene theologies emerged in a variety of contexts and from a variety of traditions.” (LA, 221)

“It is important also to place Basil’s theological texts within the context of the political maneuvering and alliance-building that formed a central part of Basil’s life. It is to this task that I now turn.” (LA, 221)

9 The East From Valens To Theodosius

9.1 Basil and His Contemporaries

This sub-chapter shows that Basil worked hard on “alliance-building” but he was not very successful. He did not have the prestige among his contemporaries that he has today.

“In his attempts at alliance-building Basil was creating an audience receptive to his theology.” (LA, 222) “Two constant problems foiled Basil’s attempts at alliance-building.

      • The antipathy of Valens … to pro-Nicenes made it difficult to act openly against Homoians,
      • and … personal antipathies and personal ambitions.” (LA, 222)

“Basil’s willingness to use friends and family as pawns in the service of the pro-Nicene cause sometimes provoked protest and could create tensions in previously close friendships.” (LA, 222)

Meeting with Valens

In 372, Emperor Valens “met with Basil at some length.” Although Basil opposed the imperially supported Homoian creed, Valens did “allow Basil to stay in possession of his see.” “Basil was even entrusted with the ecclesiastical reorganization of Armenia.”

In the traditional account of the ‘Arian’ Controversy, “Basil faces down the Emperor and gains his grudging respect.” (LA, 222-3). But Ayres says that this “episode may better be read as demonstrating Valens’ pragmatism.” (LA, 223) “Valens seems to have accepted that Basil could prove useful in ensuring effective administration. There were times, then, when the dispute between theological parties in the Church could take second place to other concerns.” (LA, 223)

Cappadocia divided

“Basil had previously been Metropolitan of the whole province” of Cappadocia but Valens divided the province into two, reducing Basil’s influence. Although Basil presents this “as the scheming of an Arian emperor, we do not know if this administrative move had anything to do with opposition to Basil.” (LA, 223) “In order to try and increase his authority Basil created new sees in both the old and new provinces and pushed forward his own friends and relatives.” (LA, 223)

Help from the West

Ayres discusses “the struggle of Basil to get help from the west” at length but concludes that it “ended with his death and in failure.” (LA, 229) “This account of Basil’s attempts to build pro-Nicene alliances demonstrates the difficulty of using Basil’s later significance to interpret his effect on his contemporaries.” (LA, 229)

9.2 Ephrem the Syrian

“Ephrem the Syrian” was “another major pro-Nicene figure writing in the mid-360s and early 370s.” (LA, 229) He died in 373. (LA, 230)

“Judging by his renown in the late fourth century and his status in Syriac tradition he must have played a major role in nurturing and strengthening pro-Nicene theology in his region.” (LA, 229)

“We can … clearly trace in his work the lines of an anti-Homoian and possibly anti-Heterousian theology.” (LA, 229) “It has frequently been assumed that Ephrem’s main opponents are Heterousian theologians. It far more likely that the Homoian theology promoted by Valens is his target.” (LA, 230)

“His attacks on the rationalism of his opponents seem primarily directed towards their taking literally scriptural statements which appear to subordinate the Son.” (LA, 231)

“Ephrem’s theology … depends upon an account of the distinction between God and creation. Father, Son, and Spirit are all located on the far side of this boundary.” (LA, 231)

“When Ephrem considers Father, Son, and Spirit,” he “relies heavily on a few cherished analogical resources.” (LA, 233) For example:

“There is a likeness between the sun and the Father, the radiance and the Son, the heat and the Holy Spirit . . . and though it be one, a trinity can be seen in it. That incomprehensible thing, who can explain it? One is many, a one that is a three and a three that is one.” (LA, 233)

He says, “They do not have two wills but they do have two titles.” (LA, 235)

I did not attempt to summarize Ephrem’s theology. Ayres says, “The study of Ephrem’s Trinitarian theology is in its infancy.” (LA, 235) For me, Ephrem’s theology seems similar to Theodosius’ Edict of Thessalonica which is of a more advanced Trinitarian nature than either the Cappadocians or the 381 Creed.

9.3 The Meaning of the Term ‘Pro-Nicene’


Ayres takes “three central principles to identify a theology as fully pro-Nicene:”

1. “Person and nature distinction, entailing the principle that whatever is predicated of the divine nature is predicated of the three persons equally and understood to be one” – “The generation of the Son (and the ‘spiration’ of the Spirit) did not involve a dividing of the divine being.”

Note that Ayres uses the past tense when referring to the generation of the Son. I thought that the ‘eternal generation’ is timeless.

Note also that Ayres says that ‘the divine nature’ is not only equal but also ‘one.’ As discussed above, I did not get the impression that, for Basil, ‘the divine nature’ is ‘one.’ 

2. “The eternal generation of the Son occurs within the unitary and incomprehensible divine being;” “within the unitary and simple Godhead.”

What about the Spirit? I assume that “begotten” refers to the origin or establishment of the Son. Similarly, the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Does that also refer to the origin or establishment of the Spirit or only to the sending forth of the Spirit for a specific mission? Any views? Christianity Stack Exchange

3. “The persons work inseparably.” (LA, 236)


Furthermore, “there was a significant and persistent non-Nicene presence in parts of the west.” (LA, 237) (In other words, it is not true to say that “the west” adopted the “original Nicene theology.”)

Von Harnack

Referring to Adolf von Harnack‘s famous book on the Arian Controversy written at the beginning of the 20th century, Ayres says:

“For Harnack ‘Cappadocian’ theology, which he treats as a unity, is just an adapted Homoiousian theology. Whereas Athanasius argued that homoousios meant unity of substance, ‘Cappadocian’ theology focuses on the three beings who share a common substance, rather than on the divine unity which is mysteriously threefold.” (LA, 237)

So, in von Harnack’s view, while Athanasius taught one single substance and hypostasis, the Cappadocians followed the Homoiousian view of three distinct substances (three hypostases). But while the Homoiousians said that the three substances are similar, the Cappadocians proposed that the three substances are the same, just like the substances of three human beings are the same.

Athanasius’ One Reality Theology

“For Studer [1998], the Cappadocian use of the one ousia, three hypostases formula is an advance on Athanasius’ defence of homoousios because the distinct existence of the persons is better respected while the unity is still preserved. Studer’s account here follows the increasingly prominent scholarly position that Athanasius’ theology offers a strongly unitarian Trinitarian theology whose account of personal differentiation is underdeveloped.” (LA, 238) [Ayres uses the term “unitarian” for ‘One Reality’ theologies, with Marcellus of Ancyra as the prime example. (LA, 431)]


Studer “also 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. Thus, it is a mistake to ask whether or not Cappadocian theology represents a departure from an ‘original’ Nicene theology.” (LA, 238) [Because Homoousios in Nicaea did not have any specific meaning.]

Athanasius’ Nicene Creed

Ayres states:

“Athanasius’ theology in the 340s and 350s is not the ‘original’ Nicene theology, but a development from one of the original theologies that shaped Nicaea.” (LA, 239)

Athanasius developed a theology “in which it (the Nicene Creed) could be interpreted against Homoian and then Heterousian theologies.” (LA, 239)

Theodosian orthodoxy

Ayres refers to “the theologies emerging in the early 360s that came to constitute Theodosian orthodoxy.” (LA, 239) Pro-Nicene theology dominated after emperor Theodosius made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Throughout the fourth century, the Roman Emperor determined the church’s Christology.


Ayres defines Pro-Nicene as follows:

“I use ‘pro-Nicene’ primarily to indicate theologies recognized as orthodox by the Council of Constantinople and by subsequent imperial decrees.” (LA, 239)

“I also use pro-Nicene to refer to theologians who seem to be the direct precursors of that later orthodoxy but whose theology still falls short of it in some respects. The most important Greek example is the later Athanasius while in Latin we might point to Hilary.” (LA, 239)

Neo-Nicene vs Pro-Nicene

“Michel Barnes in particular uses neo-Nicene and pro-Nicene to refer to two stages of development:”

    • In neo-Nicene, the Word is part of God because He is the “one power of God.” “Athanasius being a key example.”
    • In Pro-Nicene, both the Father and the Son possess “the one power of the divine nature:”

“By neo-Nicene … Barnes refers to the first generation of theologians offering an interpretation of Nicaea: Athanasius being a key example. … Barnes typifies a neo-Nicene theology by two marks. First, it is one that presents the Word as the one power of God and argues that the Word is coeternal with the Father because God is never without God’s power.”

“Pro-Nicene theologies are those that argue … that God is one nature or substance: the Son is the power of God in possessing, as does the Father, the one power of the divine nature.” [Barnes, Power of God, 169–72.] The Power of God: Dunamis in Gregory of Nyssa’s Trinitarian Theology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2000). (LA, 239)

The title Neo-Nicene implies that it is not the same as the original Nicene theology. Ayres classified both these categories of theology as Pro-Nicene:

“I have focused only on distinguishing between original Nicene theologies, as explored in Chapter 4, and the slowly emerging pro-Nicene theologies of the 360s onwards.” (LA, 240)

9.4 The Accession of Theodosius

In summary:

The battle of Adrianople in 378 caused great upheaval in church life. In the fourth century, the main division between church groups was with respect to their Christologies; the relationship between the Father and Son. But, throughout that century, the emperor had the final say on the church’s key doctrines; in particular, the church’s Christology. Valens, the eastern emperor, who supported Homoian theology, was killed at Adrianople, along with more than half of the Roman troops. A new eastern emperor (Theodosius) was appointed in 379. The east was the major battleground for the church’s Christology and the church waited to see what Christology he would support. Leaders of the various Christologies worked to reposition themselves to influence the new emperor. Theodosius was convinced of the Trinity doctrine and made it the state religion of the Roman Empire.

“Political events fundamentally shape the controversy.” (LA, 240) In this regard, Ayres refers specifically to the role of emperors. This section of this chapter does not describe the role of an emperor as such, but the period of turmoil after Valens was killed in 378 at “the battle of Adrianople in 378”. (LA, 240)

This was a time of crisis. During that battle, “a large Roman army was defeated and, by some estimates, as many as two-thirds of the troops were wiped out.” (LA, 241) “Theodosius and Gratian managed to contain the threat from the Goths over the next two to three years, but only at the cost of permitting many tribes to settle on Roman land with treaties highly advantageous to the settlers.” (LA, 241)

This period of political uncertainty resulted in “upheaval in ecclesiastical life:” (LA, 242)

“The authority that had promoted Homoian interests (Valens) was now gone.” (LA, 241)

“After Adrianople Gratian issued a decree permitting the return of exiled bishops and freedom of worship to all except Manichees, Eunomians, and the followers of Photinus.” (LA, 241) Given the political crisis, theological disputes become less important.

In this period, various branches of Christianity attempted “to seize the initiative:”

Pro-NicenesAyres mentions “a council called in 379 by Meletius in Antioch.” “We know little about the details of this meeting.” Ayres’ description of the meeting is speculative, mentioning things that are “at least likely,” “seems to,” and “highly probable.” For example, “this council seems to have issued a pro-Nicene statement.” He describes this meeting as “a move on the part of one alliance of pro-Nicenes centred around Meletius and Basil. Tensions between this group and … (other groups) would persist.” (LA, 242)

Heterousians – “This attempt by some pro-Nicenes to seize the initiative was mirrored within other groups.” Ayres mentions some examples, such as, “a Heterousian council” early in 380 in Antioch. (LA, 243)

Homoiousians – “Similar moves can be seen among some looking back to the Homoiousian legacy.” (LA, 243)

Theodosius was “declared Augustus in January 379 at the age of 32 or 33.” (LA, 241) Theodosius was a military officer. His father had been one of the “key military commanders in the west in the late 360s and early 370s. Theodosius himself had been in charge of military operations in Moesia at the age of only 28.” (LA, 241)

“Just as the victories of Constantius in 350–3 created the conditions for the rise of the Homoians, now the rise to power of a new emperor (Theodosius) enabled the victory of the pro-Nicene cause.” (LA, 240) This shows, once again, the decisive influence of the emperor on the Christology of the church.

10 Victory and the Struggle For Definition

10.1 Gregory Nazianzen

In this section, Ayres discusses the theology of Gregory Nazianzen. Perhaps we can summarize it by saying, “the Godhead exists undivided in separate beings” (LA, 247) or “the three who are one.” (LA, 249) 


“Some pro-Nicenes had now come to place the paradox of the divine unity and multiplicity at the front and centre of their theological writing.” (LA, 244) For Gregory, the generative nature of God eternally produces the triunity as the perfection of divine existence. Gregory does not argue for this position, he treats it as a point of departure (LA, 244-5)

“Gregory of Nyssa and Basil’s presentations of the one divine action as constituted by the three, with the Spirit constantly perfecting that action, in part attempts to display how the three together constitute the perfect divine unity.” (245-6)


“Gregory here understands the persons qua persons as continually returning to their source, remaining distinct and yet inseparable.” He uses “the language of ‘convergence’ (σννευσις). … Gregory’s source is probably Plotinus.” (LA, 246) “It is through the adaptation of Plotinus’ non-personalist metaphysical language that Gregory sets out a new dynamism in his account of the Trinity.” (LA, 247)


“It has puzzled commentators for centuries that Gregory seems to present both Father and the Trinity as a whole as the cause of all. (LA, 247)

Ayres also discusses the differences between different Cappadocians. For example, “Gregory of Nyssa seems to have had connections to continuing Marcellan groups in Asia Minor, groups towards whom Basil seems to have been strongly opposed.” And “Gregory Nazianzen’s theology is shaped by different terminologies and concerns.” (LA, 250) Ayres concludes, “The set of familial and geographical connections we find between ‘the Cappadocians’ warrants the common term if used with caution, but caution is of great importance.” (LA, 251)

Political Positioning

“Gregory Nazianzen was sent to Constantinople by the Antiochene council of 379.” (LA, 244) That is a council called by Meletius (LA, 242), the leader of “the party of Meletius” who was supported by Basil of Caesarea (LA, 176, 205). Gregory, therefore, was sent as ambassador of the Pro-Nicenes to the capital of the empire as part of its positioning for power. 

“The pro-Nicene faction in the capital (Constantinople) was small and riven by internal dispute.” Although the pro-Nicenes were “a marginalized group,” it was “also one with some wealthy and aristocratic support.” (LA, 244)

10.2 Imperial Definition

Theodosius’ Theology

In contrast to the previous pro-Homoian emperor Valens, “it was soon clear that Theodosius would pursue a pro-Nicene line.” (LA, 251)

First Decree

In February 380 – only one year after he was declared Augustus and already a year before the ‘ecumenical’ council of Constantinople – Theodosius issued an edict saying:

“We shall believe in the single deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity.” (LA, 251)

That decree claims this as the faith of “Damasus, bishop of Rome, and Peter, Athanasius’ successor in Alexandria.” (LA, 251)

This statement seems very different from the Nicene Creed. While the Nicene Creed begins by identifying the “one God” as the Father Almighty, Theodosius’ decree identifies “the single deity” as the Trinity. Ayres also does not explain who advised Theodosius in these matters.

Second decree

Theodosius issued a second decree a year later in January 381, which was still before the Council of Constantinople, saying:

“Almighty God and Christ the Son of God are one in name …
(we should) not violate by denial the Holy Spirit …
the undivided substance of the incorrupt Trinity” (LA, 252)

By this time, Theodosius was already residing in Constantinople. This decree refers explicitly to the Nicene Creed but within the context of a pro-Nicene or even a clear Trinitarian statement:

“The second text … incorporates a number of allusions to Nicaea itself (‘God from God, Light from Light’; the reference to ousia language) but these references are ordered within a basic statement of a pro-Nicene Trinitarian logic: Son and Spirit are to be understood within the ‘undivided substance of the incorrupt Trinity.’” (LA, 252)

“It is noteworthy that the texts do not invoke the language of homoousios.” (LA, 252)

Non-Trinitarian Christianity Outlawed

This was the first time that the Roman Empire issued decrees to regulate Christian worship.

The first decree was addressed not to Christians but to “the people of Constantinople.” (LA, 251) All citizens were required to adopt this faith. This made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the State religion of the Roman Empire.

The second decree forbids “heretics,” namely, people who do not believe as required by the law, “the right to assemble for worship.” (LA, 252)

In the third decree, issued in 382 in the year after the Council of Constantinople, Theodosius instructed that “all churches shall immediately be surrendered to those bishops who confess that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are of one majesty and power.” (LA, 252) While one may perhaps argue that the first decree was limited to the capital of the Empire, it now seems expanded to the entire empire.

Previous emperors manipulated councils and exiled bishops, but Theodosius took religious persecution to a new level. We can say that the ‘Arian’ Controversy began when persecution came to an end and was brought to an end by the resumption of persecution.

“In 383 Theodosius even summoned a council of all ‘sects’.” “Each party was asked to provide a statement of faith: only those provided by the pro-Nicenes and the Novatianists were found acceptable. Surviving legislation from later in 383 and 384 appears to show Theodosius coming down hard on dissenting groups.” He tolerated “dissenting groups as long as they built their churches outside the walls of cities” (LA, 259)

10.3 The Council Of Constantinople


10.4 The West AD: 365–400

Valentinian and his son Gracian

“Valentinian I (366–75) has gone down in history as a Nicene emperor.” (LA, 260) However, due to “his public policy … of pragmatic non-interference,” “Homoian theology continued to be a potent force” in the west. (LA, 260)

“Ambrose of Milan was a provincial governor and an unbaptized catechumen when he was chosen as successor to the Homoian bishop of Milan Auxentius in 374.” “The prefect Petronius Probus … seems to have done much to secure his election as bishop … in the hope of dislodging Homoian power in Milan.” (LA, 261)

“For the first few years of his episcopate, Ambrose … took little action against Homoians.” (LA, 261) The Homoians remained strong. For example, “by 378 there was considerable pressure on Ambrose from Homoians in Milan. … Ambrose was forced to defend himself and wrote a two-volume On the Faith.” (LA, 262)

However, “the young emperor [emperor Gratian; Valentinian’s son and emperor as from 375) … fell increasingly under the sway of Ambrose. Influenced also by Theodosius’ policies in the east, he began to pursue a much more directly pro-Nicene line.” (LA, 265)

“The high point of this new policy was the small council held at Aquileia … in 381.” Gratian restricted “the number of those present, including a restriction on the numbers of known Homoians invited. … Thus when the council met in September only around 25 bishops were present. … To their surprise the two main Homoian prelates present … found themselves on trial. Under Ambrose’s management they were duly condemned and deposed. … An account from the Homoian side … gives us a clear picture of how Ambrose and his associates engineered the condemnation of these prominent Homoians.” (LA, 265-6)

“The Council of Aquileia does not mark the end of Homoians in the west, but it is an important juncture. After 381 Homoians do not seem to have held any of the major sees in the west. … (However) Latin Homoians produced a great deal of written material over the following decades. … Homoian Christians continued to be an important presence in some areas of the west.” (LA, 266-7)

“In fact, non-Nicene Christianity in the west grew in importance through the fifth century with the breakdown of centralized Roman order. Many of the Germanic peoples who came to control the territory of the Roman west were Homoian in theology.” (LA, 267)


“Damasus, bishop of Rome 366–84 … was resolutely pro-Nicene, kept up relations with Athanasius (and his successor Peter), and wrote on more than one occasion to Basil of Caesarea. … Damasus’ theology … has a pro-Nicene clarity in expressing the unity of the divine being and action.” (LA, 261)

Ambrose’s Theology

Ambrose was a ‘One Reality’ theologian:

In his “On the Faith … Ambrose insists above all on the one divine power evident in Father and Son. He offers no technical vocabulary to distinguish Father and Son.” (LA, 262)

He argues “that Father and Son share the same works and hence the same nature and power.” (LA, 262)

“He can incorporate earlier arguments that present the Son as the Father’s power and therefore as eternally present with the Father” but he also “insists that the Son possesses the one power which stems from the common divine nature,” (LA, 263) which is the later pro-Nicene view.

He wrote: “We know the fact of distinction, we know nothing of the hidden mysteries, we pry not into the causes.” (LA, 263) (In the Bible, the Father, Son, and Spirit appear as distinct. Pro-Nicenes combine them into one and then say they cannot understand how they are distinct.) 

“Like other fourth-century pro-Nicenes, Ambrose has little to say about the place of the Spirit in the Godhead in distinction from the Son.” (LA, 265)

Ambrose used Athanasius’ tactic against the Homoians: He attacked the Homoians by attacking Arius:

“Ambrose does not seem to have tried to counter the specific theology of his Homoian opponents, relying instead on the tactic of condemning Arius in general terms.” (LA, 262)

Ambrose was much dependent on other authors:

“Ambrose draws much here from Didymus and Basil, a borrowing that Jerome was later to cast as plagiarism and which prompted Jerome to translate Didymus’ own treatise into Latin to show up the crime.” (LA, 264)


“Augustine of Hippo … had been in Milan during the tense time of 385–6. Augustine’s Trinitarian theology was formed in this anti-Homoian milieu. … In 418 we know that Augustine engaged in a fierce polemical battle with one Maximinus, and the anti-Homoian texts which date from this period show a continuing engagement with the Latin anti-Homoian tradition. Augustine may thus be read as one of the greatest Latin pro-Nicenes of these years.” (LA, 267)

10.5 On Not Ending the Story

“These controversies arose out of tensions among existing theological trajectories.” Consequently, “it becomes a mistake to identify one temporal point of departure.” (LA, 267)

Similarly, in the “older narratives,” there was “a clear end” to the Controversy. This flies “in the face of evidence that controversy continued into the fifth century.” (LA, 267) 

In this section, Ayres indicates “three more contexts in which pro-Nicene theologies continued to develop.” (LA, 267) However, he does not explain in what sense pro-Nicene theologies continued to develop.

ME: The Father is unbegotten and the Son is begotten. Unless the Son was begotten in a corporeal or material sense, it means that the Father alone exists without cause, which would require His substance to be different.


  • 1
    The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (1988)
  • 2
    La Crisi Ariana nel IV secolo (1975)
  • 3
    Revised ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
  • 4
    And Ayres wrote in 2004: “A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (Ayres, p. 2).
  • 5
    “In Alexandria he (Arius) represented … a conservative theology.” (Williams, p. 233)
  • 6
    “In the fourth century there came to a head a crisis … which was not created by either Arius or Athanasius.” (Hanson, p. xx)
  • 7
    “The controversy surrounding Arius was an epiphenomenon of widespread existing tensions.” (Ayres, p. 15)
  • 8
    “Many of the issues raised by the controversy were under lively discussion before Arius and Alexander publicly clashed” (Hanson, p. 52).
  • 9
    “The views of Arius were such as … to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering. … He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (Hanson, p. xvii)
  • 10
    “We should avoid thinking of these controversies as focusing on the status of Christ as ‘divine’ or ‘not divine’.” (Ayres, p. 3)
  • 11
    “Suggestions that the issue was one of placing Christ (and eventually the Spirit) on either side of a well-established dividing line between created and uncreated are particularly unhelpful.” (Ayres, p. 14)
  • 12
    As another example, the creed of 357, which is regarded by some as the high point of Arianism, says: “The Son is born from the Father, God from God.” (Hanson, p. 345)
  • 13
    “Many fourth-century theologians (including some who were in no way anti-Nicene) made distinctions between being ‘God’ and being ‘true God’ that belie any simple account of the controversy in these terms.” (Ayres, p. 4, 14)
  • 14
    “The achievement of a clear distinction between God and creation (such that ‘true God’ is synonymous with God) was the increasing subtlety and clarity with which late fourth-century theologians shaped their basic rules or grammar … (which) admits of no degrees.” (Ayres, p. 4)
  • 15
    “He (Arius) emphasized the transcendence of the Father in ways that distanced him from the others.” (Ayres, p. 57)
  • 16
    “The textbook picture of an Arian system … inspired by the teachings of the Alexandrian presbyter, is the invention of Athanasius’ polemic.” (Williams, p. 234)
  • 17
    “’Arianism’ is the polemical creation of Athanasius above all.” (Williams, p. 247)
  • 18
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (Ayres, p. 107)
  • 19
    “It should be noted that none of the evidence so far considered presents a reliable picture of a systematic campaign by the Eusebian party against known opponents of Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 279)
  • 20
    “He could not possibly have been, as he was later erroneously represented to have been, a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)
  • 21
    “There was … no reason to regard Athanasius as a zealous supporter of the doctrine of Nicaea until at earliest his second exile (339-346).”
  • 22
    “Athanasius’ engagement with Marcellus in Rome seems to have encouraged Athanasius towards the development of” “an increasingly sophisticated account of his enemies;” “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)
  • 23
    “Alexander taught that … as the Father’s Word and Wisdom the Son must always have been with the Father.” (Ayres, p. 16)
  • 24
    For the Sabellians, “The Word … eternally is in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63) “Before the world existed the Word was in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63) “The Word was in the Father as a power.” (Ayres, p. 63)
  • 25
    EoN=Eusebius of Nicodemia

Table of Contents