Summary of this article
Analysts often claim that the Nicene Creed declares the Son to be equal with the Father. However, the creed starts by saying,
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible,”
This identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father in four ways:
(1) If the Father is the “one God” in which we believe, then the “one God” excludes the Son.
(2) If the Father is Almighty, then the Son is not Almighty, for two Almighty beings are logically impossible.
(3) The description of the one Being as the Father and the other as the Son implies that the Son is subordinate to the other.
(4) The Father is the “Maker of all things,” it implies that the Son is not the Creator. The creed later adds that all things were made “by” the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things. The Son is the Means through or “by” whom the Father made all things.
The creed makes a fundamental distinction between the Son and the created cosmos by saying that the Son is “begotten, not made;” even the “only Begotten.” This also implies that the Son is subordinate to the Father, for He begat (gave birth to) the Son.
The creed describes the “one Lord Jesus Christ” as “very God of very God,” but this is an inappropriate translation. It should read “very god of very god,” for the word in the creed, that is translated “god,” is the common word for the immortal Greek gods. In contrast, the word “God” is a modern invention, with a very different meaning. We use the word “God” as a name for one specific Being.
The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “of one substance with the Father.” This implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality), but that He is subordinate to the Father in all other respects. The Father is the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.
No Trinity Doctrine
The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine, for it does not describe the Holy Spirit as God and there is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The issue before the council was not the unity of God, but merely the nature of the Son, relative to the Father.
The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is “homoousios.” It means “of the same substance:”
In the time before the creed was formulated, this term meant likeness of substance.
Later Catholic theologians interpreted it as ‘identically the same substance.’ In other words, that the Father and Son not only have a similar substance but exactly the same substance. This implies His numerical identity with the Father.
But this article proposes that the council did not agree on the meaning of Homoousios. The emperor himself proposed the term Homoousios and applied pressure on the council to accept this term. For this reason, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways.
– END OF SUMMARY –
The Text of the Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed, according to Wikipedia, reads as follows:
We believe in one God,
the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God,
begotten of the Father
the only-begotten; that is,
of the essence of the Father,
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];
And in the Holy Ghost.
But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and
‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or
‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or
‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—
they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Is the Son Subordinate?
Analysts often claim that this creed declares the Son to be equal with the Father. This section evaluates and qualifies, that statement. The Nicene Creed starts by saying:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible,”
but later adds
“And in one Lord Jesus Christ …
very God of very God”
Does this mean that the Son is EQUAL with the Father?
The difference between “God” and “god”
But first, it is important to note, for the discussion of these phrases, that the original language of the creed did not distinguish between upper and lower case letters. Consequently, the word “God” could actually also be translated as “god.” There is a huge difference between these two words:
God – “God” is a modern word. We use it today as the proper name for the “unbegotten,” as the ancients used to say; that is, the One who exists without cause. The creed (and the New Testament) does not contain any one word that is exactly equivalent to the modern word “God.”
god – The word which the creed uses is the common title for a Greek god (theos). This is the same word as used by the Greek text of the New Testament and simply means a supernatural, immortal being, like the “gods” of the Pantheon of the Greek gods. Unless the context indicates or implies that the Unbegotten is intended, theos should be translated as “god.”
The Almighty Father
The creed identifies the Father as “Almighty.” This means that ONLY the Father is “Almighty,” for two “Almighty” beings are not possible. In other words, the Son is not “Almighty.”
The creed also says that “we believe in one god, the father.” [For the reasons above, to more accurately reflect the meaning of the text, I converted the capital letters into lower caps.]
This statement means that we do not believe in many gods, but in only one god, and that one god is the One to whom Jesus referred as “Father.” It excludes the Son as the “one god” in which we believe. They are both gods, but only the Father is “Almighty.”
The Father is the “Maker of all things visible and invisible.” The New Testament often states that God created all things “through” the Son (John 1:3; Col 1:16; Hebr 1:2). In 1 Corinthians 8:6, the NASB reads that all things are “by” Christ. However, the word in Greek is “di’” and is explained by Strong’s as “a primary preposition denoting the channel of an act, through.” (See Interlinear.) In Young’s Literal Translation, therefore, this verse reads:
through whom [are] the all things,
and we through Him.”
The Nicene Creed similarly says that all things were made “by” the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things. “By whom all things were made” means:
Through The Son, as Word of God,
all things have been created.
As Logos, the Son is the agent and artificer of creation.
(See, St. Peter’s Episcopal)
The Son, therefore, is the Means through Whom the Father made all things.
The Only Begotten Son
The Nicene Creed refers to the Lord Jesus Christ as “the Son of God” while the Almighty is His “Father.” The titles “Son” and “Father” imply that the Lord Jesus Christ is SUBORDINATE to the Father.
To say that the Son is “very god of very god” (or “true god of true god” in other translations) merely says that both the Father and the Son truly are supernatural, immortal beings. For both the Father and the Son, this is a MUCH LOWER CLAIM than the claim to be the Almighty. It does not even mean that they are the only gods. Jesus even referred to humans, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods” (same word – John 10:34-35). [For a discussion, see Did Jesus claim to be God?.]To translate this as “true God of true God” misrepresents the meaning of the creed, for only the Almighty qualifies to be “God” in the modern sense of the word.
The creed describes the Son as “begotten, not made.” The word “of,” in the phrase, “very god of very god,” is related to this concept and also implies that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father, for He begat (gave birth to) the Son.
The creed adds that the Son is the “only Begotten” Son. In other words, God has many other sons, but only one “begotten” Son. No other being was ever “begotten” by the Father. This implies a fundamental difference between the Son and “all things.” All things were “made,” according to the Nicene Creed, but only the Son was “begotten.”
The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “being of one substance with the Father.” This is probably derived from the concept that He is begotten, for the Bible does not discuss the substance of the Father or of the Son.
Made out of Nothing
The creed condemns all who say that “He was made out of nothing.” Since He was begotten, one could perhaps argue that He was made of the substance of the Father. However, such arguments are dangerous because the Bible says nothing about this and this is not something that humans perhaps are even able to understand.
Nevertheless, the implication of the Nicene Council is that all other things were made out of nothing. However, Einstein taught us that things cannot be made out of noting (E=mc2, where E stands for Energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light). The Father, therefore, did not use other materials to make “all things.” Rather, all things are brought forth from His own being. He provided from His own incomprehensible Being the energy which He converted into the material from which He made all things. The claim that the Son is the begotten is humanly incomprehensible but sets the Son apart from all other things.
On the one hand, the creed identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father:
- We believe in only “one god; the Father.”
- Only the Father is “Almighty.”
- The Lord Jesus is called “Son;” in contrast to the Father.
- The Son has been “begotten“ by (born by) the Father.
- The Father made all things through the Son.
On the other hand, the Son is “of one substance with the Father,” which implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality), but He is subordinate to the Father in all other respects. Also, bear in mind that this concept, that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, is an interpretation of the word “begotten” and is not directly stated as such anywhere in the Bible.
We can compare the Father and the Son to a human father and son, who are of the same substance, but this analogy breaks down, for the difference between the Father and the Son is much greater than the difference between a human father and a human son: While the Son was begotten by Him, the Father exists without cause. The Father is also the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.
No Trinity in the Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine. This statement is justified as follows:
Firstly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Holy Spirit is a separate Person, equal with the Father and the Son, but the Nicene Creed merely and very briefly mentions the Holy Spirit together with the Son and the Father, to indicate a belief in the Triad (three Persons) of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. It says nothing about the Holy Ghost being “true God” or being of the same substance.
Secondly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being, but there is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed.
The Athanasian Creed, formulated more than a century later, expresses the trinity concept explicitly, including with the phrase, “the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity:”
Note: Most often today, we use the word “Trinity” as a SINGULAR REFERRING TERM (meaning that it refers to a single being) for, in the Trinity doctrine, God is One Being but three Persons. The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed and in Tertullian and in many other church fathers, in contrast, is actually a PLURAL REFERRING TERM, meaning that it refers to a group of three distinct Beings. It is, rather, the word “Unity,” in the Athanasian Creed that emphasizes their One-ness. The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed, therefore, should be translated with a lower case “t.”
Thirdly, as Millard J. Erickson stated, the issue before the council, it is virtually universally agreed, was not the unity of the Godhead but rather the co-eternity of the Son with the Father, and his full divinity, as contrasted with the creaturehood that the Arians attributed to him (God in Three Persons, p82-85).
Does Homoousios mean One Being?
This section is adapted from Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85).
The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is homoousios (consubstantial in Latin). It means “of the same substance” or “of one being.” The Nicene Creed uses this term to say that the Son is “of one substance” or “of one being” with the Father, namely that He was begotten “from the substance of the Father.” This is often understood to mean that the Son is fully equal to the Father. But what did it actually mean to the council? Three possibilities are considered:
Same Type of Substance
If this was the meaning, then the creed says that the Son is utterly unlike created beings in substance, but it does not mean that they share the same substance (numerically the same substance), as required by the Trinity doctrine. This view is supported by the following:
Firstly, before Nicaea, homoousios meant likeness of substance. This is how Origen and his followers used the term. In that sense, it could signify the kind of substance or stuff common to several individuals of a class. We could say, for example, that all humans are homoousios – consist of similar substance.
Secondly, if homoousios was understood to mean numerical identity of substance, in other words, like three persons with one body, then the Eusebian faction at the council would have identified it as Sabellianism and would have resisted it vigorously. (Sabellianism is the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are THREE DIFFERENT MODES or aspects of God.)
Thirdly, since the great issue at Nicaea was the SON’S FULL DIVINITY and not the unity of the Godhead, the word homoousios would have been understood to signify the Son’s full divinity. Then total unlikeness to creatures in substance and total likeness in substance to the Father would have sufficed.
Lastly, later on—after the numerical identity of substance became a standard part of Christology—some orthodox theologians still used the word homoousios in the sense of the same type of substance.
Exactly the same substance
For later Catholic theologians, Homoousios meant ‘identically the same substance’:
In other words, the Father and Son not only have a similar substance; exactly the same substance of the Father is also the substance of the Son. This implies His numerical identity with the Father, which means that they are the same being; like three persons with one body. Arguments that are used for this view include the following:
(a) It would seem to be unnatural” for monotheists to admit two divine ousiai (substances).
(b) The famous eastern theologian Origen used the word to mean SIMILAR SUBSTANCE, but for Origen, the Son was INFERIOR to the Father, (The Triune God, Edmund J. Fortman, p 66-70). Since the intent of the council was to affirm the Son’s equality with the Father, would they use the word homoousios with the meaning which Origen attached to it?
(c) If Hosius of Cordova influenced the adoption of the term, would he have failed to indicate to the Nicene Fathers that, for him and for the church in the West, it signified ‘identity of substance’?
In recent years, there is a growing tendency to reject the numerical identity view.
As discussed in another article, the emperor himself proposed the term homoousios and exerted pressure on the council to accept the term. Since there were three different factions at the meeting with three different views, and because of the pressure applied by the emperor, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways, depending on their theological tendencies (e.g. Marcellan neo-monarchianism or Eusebian subordinationism). In other words, THE COUNCIL DID NOT AGREE ON THE MEANING OF HOMOOUSIOS.
The creed identified certain people as “condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” However, to condemn people with different views is inconsistent with the Christian principles of love and humility. This is made worse by the fact that the nature of Christ is a humanly incomprehensible subject, and not explicitly taught in the Bible.
Furthermore, people are saved by their faith (trust) in God; not by believing the right doctrines. But this creed makes itself a criterion for true faith. All that the Bible requires from believers is stated in John’s summary of his gospel:
“These have been written
so that you may believe
that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of God;
and that believing
you may have life in His name”
It always amazes me how important Christology became in the fourth century. Why did the church, in the fourth century, elevate the nature of Christ to be the most important doctrine? I would like to venture that, during the first 300 years, the enemy of the faith attacked the church from outside, through persecution. After the church has been legalized in 313, the enemy entered the church. It was now inside the church and saw in this topic fertile ground for causing division in the church. He still today uses this topic very effectively for that purpose.
The condemnations in the creed refer to “the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” The word “catholic,” here, simply means ‘universal’. During the 11th century, the East-West schism permanently divided Church. That schism resulted from a dispute on whether Constantinople or Rome held jurisdiction over the church in Sicily, followed by mutual ex-communications in 1054. Since that event, the Western (Latin) branch of Christianity has become known as the Catholic Church, while the Eastern (Greek) branch is called the Orthodox Church. In this way, the “Catholic Church” became the name of one particular denomination. When used as such, the “c” in both ‘catholic’ and “church’ is capitalized; Catholic Church.
Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine
First 300 years (The persecuted church)
- Justin Martyr – the Son is subordinate to the Father.
- Ignatius – the Son is our God and immortal.
- Irenaeus (died 190) – was he a Trinitarian?
- Tertullian – work in progress
- Origen – work in progress
- Did they refer to Jesus as “our god” or as “our God?
Fourth Century (State Church)
Fifth & Sixth Centuries