The Nicene Creed says that the Son of God is homoousios (of the same substance as) the Father. The word homoousios does not appear in the Bible and was not part of the standard Christian language before Nicaea. The purpose of this article is to determine where this word came from and who added it to the Creed.
The Nicene Creed was intended the term homoousios caused the Arian Controversy to continue for 55 years after Nicaea in 325. In this period, the Controversy was about this word; no longer about Arius’ theology.
The second-century Gnostics used the term homoousios probably meaning ‘belonging to the same order of being’. In other words, for them, it did not mean that two beings are really one being, or even that two beings are equal.
Origin (185 – 253)
In one translation of Origin’s writings, he uses the term to explain how the Son relates to the Father. However, “the likelihood of Origen having described the Son as consubstantial with the Father is very slim” (RH, 68). 1RH = Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381
In the third century, the word homoousios was associated with Sabellians, namely:
Sabellius, who taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are one person as well as one being;
Libyan Sabellians; and
Paul of Samosata, who described Father and Son as a primitive undifferentiated unity.
This was one reason why the Arians objected to the word homoousios. Their worry seems to be confirmed by the anathema in the Creed against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father, for that implies that Father and Son are one single hypostasis (Person).
Who was the term included?
This article discusses the following possible explanations:
- Emperor Constantine insisted on this term.
- It was included to force the Arians to reject the Creed, so that the emperor could banish them.
- Homoousios was adopted at Nicaea because it expressed Western theology.
Reaction from the Delegates
Arians objected to the word homoousios because it seems to say that God has a physical body and because of its Sabellian connotations. However, the pro-Nicenes also disliked this word. For example:
1. Eusebius of Caesarea unambiguously stated that it was Constantine, and nobody else, not even the pro-Nicenes, who wanted the word.
2. After Nicaea, nobody mentions the term for over twenty years (See – Homoousios).
3. At the Council of the Western Bishops at Sardica in the year 343, these pro-Nicene theologians replaced homoousios with “one hypostasis.”
4. Eustathius, pro-Nicene bishop of Antioch, openly expressed his dissatisfaction with the formula approved at Nicaea.
So, since there is no “evidence of a normal, well-established Christian use of the term homoousios in its strictly Trinitarian meaning, either before or during Constantine’s time, where did Constantine get this word?
RPC Hanson wrote that homoousios was “borrowed from the pagan philosophy” (RH, 846).
The mystic doctrine of the Egyptian scribe-priests describes the following divine beings:
- The Nous (Mind) is the supreme God.
- The Logos (Word) proceeds from him and is the Son of God.
- By speaking, the Nous generated a second Nous, the Demiurge … who crafted the sensible world.
The important point is that both the Logos and the Demiurge were described as homoousios. That implies that all three divine beings are homoousios.
The following are indications that the Hermetic tradition had a strong influence on Constantine’s religious thought:
Firstly, Constantine praised Plato for teaching two Gods having the same perfection; the second receives its subsistence from the first and is subordinate to the first. However, this is not what Plato taught. This is Hermeticism.
Secondly, Lactantius, one of Constantine’s advisors, also claimed that “Plato spoke about the first God and the second god” but then adds, “Plato perhaps was following the teaching of Hermes Trismegistus.”
Thirdly, just a few months after the Nicene council, Constantine wrote a letter to the Church of Nicomedia in which he described Jesus by using concepts from Egyptian paganism. For example, he wrote: “Christ is called Father as he eternally begets his Aion.”
Fourthly, it is normally said that Constantine ascribed his victory at the battle of the Milvian Bridge to the Christian God but the inscription on the arch (315 C.E.) attributes his victory to the greatness of the “divine Mind;” a concept from Egyptian paganism.
Fifthly, a document dated 326 AD shows that Constantine remained in close personal contact with “pagan” intellectuals.
The word homoousios is an integral part of the theological terminology of Hellenistic-Roman Egypt. In both Egyptian paganism and in the Nicene Creed, the word meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son, who are two distinct beings, share the same perfection of the divine nature. The theological use of homoousios, therefore, should be traced back to its real pre-Christian Egyptian roots.
– END OF SUMMARY –
This article relies on the following sources:
A 2002 article by Pier Franco Beatrice, professor of Early Christian Literature at the University of Padua, Italy, on the origin of the word homoousios in the Nicene Creed. Unless otherwise stated, all assertions in this article are from Beatrice’s article.
RH = Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381
RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams, Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001
LA = Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004
The Nicene Creed uses the word homoousios to say that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Since the word does not appear in the Bible, the purpose of this article is to determine the origin of this word, who added it to the Nicene Creed, and what it meant at the time.
Not Standard Christian Language
“The word homoousios, though not to be encountered frequently in earlier literature, was being bandied about in theological circles at the start of the controversy” (RH, 25). Arius and his supporters had already rejected the word before the Nicene Council (RH, 10).
However, the words ousia (substance) and homoousios (same substance) in the Nicene Creed were not part of the standard Christian language before Nicaea:
Rowan Williams described it as “the radical words of Nicaea” (RW, 236) and “conceptual innovation” (RW, 234-5).2Rowan Williams – Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001
R.P.C. Hanson calls it “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (RH, 846)3The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
The Arians objected that these words are “untraditional” (RW, 234-5).
In contrast to these “radical words,” Williams refers to “the lost innocence of pre-Nicene trinitarian language” (RW, 234-5).
Cause of the Controversy
It is usually thought that the Arian Controversy was caused by Arius’ theology. That may be true for the first seven years until Nicaea in 325 but that council made a quick end to Arius’ theology. During the main part of the Controversy – the 55 years after Nicaea – the Controversy was about the Creed’s use of these “radical words” to describe the Son; no longer about Arius’ theology. For example:
Williams refers to “the conservative anti-Nicene response” in “the first half of the fourth century” (RW, 236).
And he says, “Arianism,’ throughout most of the fourth century, was in fact a loose and uneasy coalition of those hostile to Nicaea in general and the homoousios in particular” (RW, 166).
Since these words caused the Arian Controversy, that homoousios is often regarded as the most important word in the Creed.
So, how was the word homoousios used before Nicaea?
While Aristotle was known for using the term οὐσία (ousia) to describe his philosophical concept of Primary Substances, scholars agree that the first theologians to use the word homoousios were the second-century Gnostics (Beatrice). The later church theologians were probably made aware of this concept by the Gnostics. For this reason, “by the middle of the third century,” the term had “a suspiciously Gnostic smell about it” (RH, 191).
The Gnostics used the term homoousios “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 (LA, 93). It meant, “belonging to the same order of being” (RH, 191). In other words, they did not use the word to mean “identity, nor even equality” (RH, 191).
“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).
But Hanson adds that the word homoousios in the Nicene Creed is not the result of a Gnostic influence because “by the fourth century the Gnostic threat to the Christian faith was over” (RH, 856).
It is sometimes said that Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 253), the great theologian of the time before Nicaea, was the first theologian to use the word homoousios to describe the relation of the Son to the Father. He wrote:
“Christ … comes into being from the power of God himself as a kind of breath … generated by the very substance of God … the Son has a communion of substance with the Father. For it would seem that an emanation is homoousios, i.e. of one substance, with that body whose … breath it is.” (The first book of the Apology for Origen by Pamphilus and Eusebius)
However, this quote comes from a translation of Origen’s writings and some, including Rowan Williams, believe that the translator altered the text to make it appear consistent with Nicene theology.
Furthermore, for the following reasons, Origen probably did not accept the term homoousios into his theology.
(1) “The victorious party at the Antiochene Council which condemned Paul were in all probability supporters of the views of Origen and were therefore most unlikely to have condemned homoousios had Origen, who had only died little over ten years before, himself used it.” (RH, 195)
(2) Athanasius also never claims that Origen “had applied homoousios to the Son, and the point would have been all in Athanasius’ favour, for Athanasius never shows any hostility to Origen” (RH, 68).
“Origen had rejected the term (substance) years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” (Steven Wedgeworth)
“Origen never says that the Son comes from the substance of the Father.” (RH, 67)
“The likelihood of Origen having described the Son as consubstantial with the Father is very slim” (RH, 68). The word “consubstantial … would have suggested to him that the Father and the Son were of the same material, an idea which he was anxious to avoid.” (RH, 68)
“Origen certainly did not apply the word homoousios to the Son and did not teach that the Son is ‘from the ousia’ of the Father.” (RH, 185)
“Origen may have rejected the term or possibly used it in a carefully analogical sense.” (LA, 93)
The first time that the word homoousios was used in a literal sense to describe the relationship of the Son to the Father was by a small group of Libyan bishops towards the middle of the third century. They used the word to say that Christ and the Father are one and the same God. In other words, they manifested a kind of Sabellian Monarchianism. (A Monarchian is a person who teaches that God is one person as well as one being.)
Basil of Caesarea seems to confirm that the word homoousios was associated with Sabellianism when he writes that Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264) suppressed the word homoousios with the precise intention of opposing Sabellius, who had used the word to abolish the distinction of the three hypostases.
The word homoousios, at its first appearance in the middle of the third century, was therefore connected with the theology of a Sabellian or Monarchian tendency. After the word homo-ousios (same substance) had become the flag of the Nicene party in the fourth century, the Sabellians switched to the more specific term mono-ousios (one substance).
At the synod of Antioch in 268, the bishops who condemned Paul of Samosata also attacked the word homoousios. Hilary wrote:
“In using the expression ‘of one substance’, Paul declared that Father and Son were a solitary unit;” “a primitive undifferentiated unity” (RW, 159-160).
In other words, Paul had also used the word to express his strictly Monarchian conception of the Godhead.
In his letter to his own church in which he attempts to justify himself for having signed the Nicene Creed, Eusebius identified acceptable pre-Nicene uses of homoousios. He wrote:
“It appeared well to assent to the term homoousios ‘since we were aware that even among the ancients some learned and illustrious bishops and writers have used the term ’consubstantial,’ in their theological teaching concerning the Father and Son.”
In writing these words, Eusebius could not have been thinking of anyone other than his two favorite authors; bishop Dionysius of Alexandria and the ecclesiastical writer Origen. They were the only two pre-Nicene theologians who gave him examples of acceptable, that is, non-Monarchian interpretations of the term.”
“The word homoousios was used in the third century only by certain Monarchians to mean the uniqueness of God and the personal identity of the Son with the Father (identification-theology) and, with a different, simply analogical meaning, by Origen and Dionysius of Alexandria” (Beatrice). The anti-Nicenes, therefore, objected to the term, saying that it was “of a Sabellian tendency.”4St. Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn They had grounds for this concern. Richard Hanson stated:
“The anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support” Sabellianism (RH, Marcellus of Ancyra).
Who proposed the word?
So, if the word homoousios is not found in the Holy Scriptures or in the orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea but rather in Sabellianism, how did it get to be included in the Nicene Creed; regarded as the most important of all Christian Creeds?
Scholars do not agree on this matter. There remains significant disagreement about how the word was used before the year 325, why it was included in the Creed, and by whom. The following are possible explanations:
1. Emperor Constantine
Eusebius of Caesarea, who is “universally acknowledged to be the most scholarly bishop of his day” (RH, 46), has already before Nicaea denied that other beings share the same substance of God. He was the leader of the “Originist”-party at Nicaea in 325 (Erickson).
In his letter to his church in Caesarea, written immediately after the Nicene Council in 325, Eusebius attempted to justify the fact that he had subscribed to the Creed of Nicaea containing the word homoousios. One of the things he wrote is that the word homoousios was inserted into the Nicene Creed solely at the insistence of Emperor Constantine. Since Eusebius wrote this immediately after the end of the council and given his high status, it would seem impossible to deny that his report is substantially reliable.
Given the modern culture of religious freedom, the reader might find it strange that an emperor is able to insist on the inclusion of a key word in a church decree. However, as RPC Hanson stated:
“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine (during the Arian Controversy), there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority” (RH, 849).
We also need to remember that the so-called ‘ecumenical’ church councils of the fourth century were “the very invention and creation of the Emperor” (RH, 855). “Everybody recognised the right of an Emperor to call a council, or even to veto or quash its being called” (RH, 849-50). “The Emperor was expected to dominate and control them” (RH, 855).
2. Eusebius Of Caesarea
Rowan Williams has a different proposal. He argues that Eusebius of Caesarea managed to develop an understanding of homoousios that was acceptable to almost everybody and that he coached the emperor to provide that explanation. He he describes that explanation in his letter to his home church (RW, 69-70).
But, if Eusebius of Caesarea fundamentally disagreed with the word homoousios, unless the emperor already insisted on the word, what would motivate Eusebius to develop an ‘acceptable’ understanding? Is it not better to accept the word of the highly respected Eusebius, namely that the emperor enforced the formula?
3. To Repel The Arians
“Ambrose adds that … the bishops decided to include the word in the creed, seeing how strongly the Arians disliked it” (RW, 69). In other words, they included the word in the Creed simply to repel the Arians who had already rejected it as heretical; not because it was regarded as an important Christian word or concept.
However, Ambrose did not attend the council at Nicaea and had no direct contact with its delegates. He only wrote in the second half of the fourth century and Beatrice states that Ambrose does not seem to be well-informed about the details of the council.
4. Western Theology
Some modern German scholars have claimed that homoousios was adopted at Nicaea because it expressed the Western theology of the Spanish bishop Ossius.
Supporters of this view point out that Tertullian was the first Western theologian to use the expression “unius substantiae” (one substance) in a Trinitarian context. They then propose that the word homoousios was the Greek equivalent of the Latin unius substantiae and that its introduction into the Nicene Creed was a victory for the Western tradition.
However, for the following reasons, Beatrice concludes that this thesis is to be rejected.
Firstly, other scholars do not share this view. For example, RPC Hanson stated: “We have no satisfactory evidence that it [i.e. homoousios] was a term at home in Western theology” (RH, 201).
Secondly, at the council of the ‘Western’ bishops held at Sardica in 343, where Ossius could freely express his thoughts, the word homoousios was ignored. The western bishops wrote: “We … teach, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost have one hypostasis.”
Thirdly, Tertullian translated the word homoousios, which was used before his time by the Gnostics, as “consubstantialis” and not as “unius substantiae.” He, therefore, did not regard homoousios, at least as it was used by the Gnostics, to be the Greek equivalent of the Latin unius substantiate.
5. The Delegates
Athanasius wrote that the delegates to the council decided to include the word.
However, the Arian historian Philostorgius wrote that one of the parties at the council, under the leadership of Ossius of Cordova, formulated a draft creed before the meeting and that Ossius presented that creed at the council in his capacity as chairperson (RW, 69). In other words, it was not proposed from the floor.
By exclusion, the only explanation that remains is the one provided by Eusebius of Caesarea, namely that the word homoousios was included in the creed because Emperor Constantine insisted on it.
Response from the Delegates
The Arians opposed the word homoousios for several reasons, including that:
It gives the impression that God has a physical body, which everybody denied. Arius specifically connected the word homoousios with the “materialistic” theology of Mani.
They regarded the word to be Sabellian and, therefore, that it confounds the Persons of the Trinity. For example, Hanson noted that “the Arians always accuse the pro-Nicenes of confounding the Persons of the Trinity” (RH, 102).
However, it is important to understand that the anti-Arians also disliked this word. Beatrice says that they were “strikingly reticent [cagy] about homoousios, in a way that reminds us of Dionysius of Rome.” The following confirms this:
1. Eusebius of Caesarea unambiguously stated that it was Constantine, and nobody else, not even the anti-Arians, who wanted the word homoousios.
2. After Nicaea, the word falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years (See – Homoousios). “Even Athanasius for about twenty years after Nicaea is strangely silent about this adjective (homoousios) which had been formally adopted into the creed of the Church in 325” (RH, 58-59).
3. At the Council of the Western bishops at Sardica in the year 343, where they reformulated the Nicene Creed, the pro-Nicene theologians Ossius of Cordova and Marcellus of Ancyra omitted the word. This was, beyond any doubt, an intentional omission
4. At the end of his long life, spent fighting against the Arian heresy, “blasphemy” of Sirmium (AD 357), which states that neither homoousios nor homoiousios are Biblical and that inquiries about God’s essence are beyond human understanding.5Sozomen, Hist. eccl. IV,12,6 (SC 418, 242) This seems to be decisive proof that Ossius had no responsibility at all for the introduction of homoousios in the Creed of Nicaea.
5. Eustathius, archbishop of Antioch in the 4th century, whose anti-Arian polemic against Eusebius of Nicomedia made him unpopular among his fellow bishops in the East, openly expressed his dissatisfaction with the formula approved at Nicaea, complaining that he and his anti-Arian fellows had been reduced to silence to preserve peace.
Since the anti-Arians also disliked this word, it could not have been ‘suggested’ to Constantine by his “orthodox” advisers. Homoousios was a stumbling block for all attendees to the council, without distinction; Arians and anti-Arians.
So, since there is no “evidence of a normal, well-established Christian use of the term homoousios in its strictly Trinitarian meaning” either before or during Constantine’s time, why did he insist on the inclusion of the word? Where did Constantine get this word that the Arians openly rejected and the anti-Arians viewed with suspicion if not with hostility? And what was the meaning of this word in Constantine’s mind, that compelled him to challenge both parties in this way?
Hanson described homoousios as a new term “borrowed from the pagan philosophy” (RH, 846) but he does not elaborate. Beatrice agrees that, since Christian tradition does not answer these questions, we turn to the pagan world.
The only pagan text known so far that uses homoousios in a discussion specifically and exclusively concerned with the nature of God is the Poimandres, the first tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum. This is the mystic doctrine of the Egyptian scribe-priests. It describes the following divine beings:
- The Nous (Mind) is the supreme God.
- The Logos (Word) proceeds from him and is the Son of God.
- By speaking, the Nous generated a second Nous, the Demiurge … who crafted the sensible world.
The important point is that the Poimandres states that the Logos and the Demiurge are homoousios (of the same substance). Consequently, it may be deduced that all these divine beings are homoousios.
It is possible that the writer of the Poimandres borrowed the word homoousios from Christian theology. However, Beatrice argues that, although the Poimandres uses Hellenistic philosophical terminology, it reflects the genuinely pagan doctrine of the Egyptian priests. In other words, the concept of homoousios characterizes the overall Hermetic conception of the Godhead, making it likely that the word originates from the mystic doctrine of the Egyptian scribe-priests.
Beatrice also quotes from the Theosophia, but this is a sixth-century document and has many similarities to the Trinity doctrine. For example:
“There was a unique Nous, more intelligent than all …
from him the intelligent Logos, creator of the universe, eternally incorruptible Son … one with the Father. Distinct from the Father only by name … being from the glory of the Father, consubstantial (homoousios) …
with the prime holy Pneuma and beginning of life.”
“They are three, but they are only one nature.”
“They are a pure trinity, being the one in the other.”
“The Son-Logos is God as is the Father, since his substance is derived from the substance of the Father.”
Because of these similarities to the Trinity doctrine, I believe that the Theosophia are “forgeries” fabricated with the aim of demonstrating harmony between pagan wisdom and the Christianity of that day. In support of this view, Beatrice mentions that the Theosophia at times report some blatantly bogus oracles.
Constantine and Hermeticism
So, was Constantine familiar with the Hermetic tradition? Beatrice argues that Constantine was not only familiar with it but that the Hermetic tradition had a strong influence on Constantine’s religious thought. Beatrice argues as follows:
Firstly, in his youth, Constantine certainly had contact with pagan philosophers at Diocletian’s court.
Secondly, in Constantine’s so-called Speech to the Assembly of the Saints, Constantine praises Plato for having said many true things about God, including that Plato taught:
- Two Gods having the same perfection;
- The second receives its subsistence from the first and is subordinate to the first;
- The first works through the second.
Beatrice argues that this statement with its two gods has no relation at all with Plato’s real doctrine but that it is similar to Hermeticism.
Thirdly, Lactantius, one of Constantine’s advisors, also claimed that “Plato spoke about the first God and the second god” but then adds, “Plato perhaps was following the teaching of Hermes Trismegistus.” Although Lactantius recognizes two distinct gods, he still thinks that the Father and the Son have in common one Mind, one Spirit, and one Substance, according to the Hermetic doctrine of “consubstantiality.” So, perhaps Lactantius influenced Constantine to interpret Plato’s theology as Hermetic.
Fourthly, just a few months after the Nicene council, Constantine wrote a disconcerting letter to the Church of Nicomedia in which he described Jesus by using concepts from Egyptian paganism. He wrote: “Christ is called Father as he eternally begets his Aion, and that he is called Son as he is the Will of the Father.” This confirms Constantine’s involvement with Egyptian paganism, for Aion is also the name of the Son of the virgin Kore, whose birth was celebrated in Egyptian rituals. And the notion of the creative will of God is found again in the Poimandres and in the Asclepius.
Fifthly, it is normally said that Constantine ascribed his victory to the Christian God but the anonymous pagan panegyrist of Trier in the year 313 identified the divine Mind (the Hermetic Nous) as the source of the emperor’s inspiration. And the inscription on the arch (315 C.E.) attributes the victory of Constantine at the battle of the Milvian Bridge to the inspiration of the Divinity and the greatness of the “divine Mind.”
Sixthly, in a document dated 326 AD, Nicagoras, torchbearer of the Eleusinian Mysteries, thanked Constantine for allowing him to visit the underground passages of the Valley of the Kings near Thebes in Upper Egypt–many centuries after the “divine” Plato visited the same places. This shows that Constantine maintained close personal contact with “pagan” intellectuals such as Nicagoras. It is also important that the word homoousios has been preserved in those underground passages, as recorded by the Theosophia.
Particularly, the Poimandres shows that the word homoousios is an integral part of the theological terminology of Hellenistic-Roman Egypt. In both Egyptian paganism and in the Nicene Creed, the word meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son, who are two distinct beings, share the same perfection of the divine nature. The theological use of homoousios, therefore, should be traced back to its real Egyptian, pre-Christian roots.
But what did the word mean for Constantine? Beatrice concludes that Constantine:
Fully shared the concern of the Fathers of Nicaea in sustaining the divine nature of the Logos-Son against the threat of Arian subordinationism. He imposed homoousios in order to place the Logos-Son unequivocally on the side of the transcendent Father.
Did not adopt the word with the sole “political” aim of isolating Arius.
Did not support Sabellian or Monarchian theology because, in his thought, consistent with the ancient Egyptian theology, the word homoousios did not contradict the distinction of two divine ousiai.
- 1RH = Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381
- 2Rowan Williams – Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001
- 3The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
- 4St. Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn
- 5Sozomen, Hist. eccl. IV,12,6 (SC 418, 242)