The Real Main Issue of the fourth-century Arian Controversy

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OVERVIEW

Traditionally, it is said that the Arian Controversy was about whether Jesus is God. That is not true. The so-called Arians also place Jesus on the God side of the God-creation barrier.

One may object and say, yes, the ‘Arians’ described Him as God but they also described him as subordinate to the Father. That statement would also be misleading because all, including the pro-Nicenes and even Athanasius, regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.

Below, this article identifies the Real Main Issue by providing an overview of the Controversy. It shows that the Real Main Issue was whether Jesus is a distinct Person. While some claimed that the Father and Son are a single Person with a single mind, others believed He is distinct from the Father

The fourth century continued the controversy about the nature of Christ that raged during the third century. (See here) For example:

“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)[/mfn] .

For this reason, this overview of the Cintroversy begins in the preceding centuries.

Since this article provides an overview of several other articles, it contains many links to such other articles:

Jewish Church – The first-century Jewish-dominated church regarded the Son as distinct from and subordinate to the Father. See – here. For example, it professed “one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person.”1The Jewish church did not use the terms that the later Gentile-dominated church borrowed from Greek philosophy but simply repeated the words of Scripture.

Logos-Theology – In the second century, after the church became Gentile-dominated, Logos-theology dominated. They described the Son as the Logos of Greek philosophy, who always existed as part of God but became a distinct Being when God decided to create. In this view, the Son is distinct from and subordinate to the Father. (see here) For example:

Logos-theologians explained Him as “the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy, and also borrowed some traits from the divine Logos of Stoicism (including its name).” (Hanson Lecture)

Monarchians – In opposition to the Logos-theologians, the Monarchians claimed that ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are two names for one and the same Entity. In other words, only one hypostasis exists and the Son is not a distinct Person. (see here) For example:

“This ‘monarchian’ view was … suggesting the Father and Son were different expressions of the same being, without any personal distinctions between them. In other words, the Father is himself the Son, and therefore experiences the Son’s human frailties.” (Litfin)

Tertullian – Tertullian wrote at the beginning of the third century. He was a Logos-theologian. However, since the Monarchians criticized the Logos-theologians for teaching two Gods, Tertullian revised the standard Logos-theology and said that the Son remained part of the Father. Tertullian, therefore, also taught that Father and Son are a single Person (hypostasis). However, since the Son is part of the Father, Tertullian described the Son as subordinate to the Father. See here

Tertullian is highly esteemed, not because he taught anything similar to the Trinity doctrine but because he used the right words: He spoke about three ‘persons’ and one ‘substance’. 

Also at the beginning of the third century, Sabellius refined Monarchianism. He still maintained that Father and Son are a single Person but, while the Monarchians said that Father and Son are two names for the same Entity, Sabellius said Father and Son are two parts of the same Entity.

Sabellius was opposed by Origen, who said that Father, Son and Spirit are three Persons. The Greek term used was hypostasis. He said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases.

This controversy between one-hypostasis and three-hypostasis views continued for the rest of the century.

In the middle of the century, the bishops of Rome and Alexandria, both named Dionysius, disagreed about the term homoousios. While the bishop of Rome supported a single hypostasis, the bishop of Alexandria taught three.

A few years later, in 268, Paul of Somasata was denounced at a council in Antioch, a major city for the Christian movement, for teaching Sabellianism.

All of the above happened while Christianity was illegal and persecuted. In 313, however, Emperor Constantine himself became a Christian and legalized Christianity.

Five years later, the Controversy over the number of hypostases in God erupted again with a dispute between Arius and his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. While Arius, following Origen, taught three hypostases, Alexander said Father and Son are one Person. Specifically, he said that the Son is the Father’s one and only wisdom. In other words, the Son is part of the Father and Father and Son only have a single mind (consciousness).

This dispute culminated in the Nicene Council. Emperor Constantine called the Council and took Alexander’s side in the dispute. Alexander allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians in the Council, Eustathius and Marcellus. This alliance and the emperor’s support gave the Savbellians much power in the Council and allowed them to influence the Creed significantly. One can see this, for example, in the term homoousios which, before Nicaea, was preferred only by Sabellians. Another example is the anathemas, which explicitly states that father and Son are a single hypostasis.

The Nicene Council put an end to Arius and his theology. Arius did not play a role in Controversy after Nicaea, except that Athanasius accused his opponents of following Arius, which they did not.

However, the Nicene Creed seems to say that the church had adopted a one-hypostasis theology. Consequently, in te decade after Nicaea, in the post-Nicaea Correction, all leading Sabellians were exiled. After that, there was no more controversy and the term homoousios was not mentioned for more than two decades.

In 335, Athanasius was deposed for violence in his see. He met the exiled Sabellian Marcellus in Rome. Since Athanasius, similar to his predecessor Alexander and the Sabellians, believed in one hypostasis, he joined forces with Marcellus, just like Alexander did at Nicaea. They developed a polemical strategy in which Athanasius was deposed for his opposition to Arius, not for violence, and all opponents of Nicaea were followers of Arius. Neither of these claims were true.

Up to this point, the West was not involved in the Controversy, but Athanasius and Alexander appealed to the bishop of Rome. Since the Latin West traditionally followed Tertullian, they believed on one hypostasis. Consequently, a council in Rome in 340 declared that Athanasius and Marcellus are orthodox in their theology.

Since both men were deposed by the Eastern church, this decision caused friction between the Eastern and Western churches. The bishop of Rome also wrote a letter to ‘those around Eusebius’ (the group that is traditionally known as ‘Arians’), accusing them of following Arius.

The Eastern church then held the dedication Council in 341. Since the main threat was Sabellianism; one-hypostasis theologies, the Dedication Creed mainly opposes Sabellianism.

Two years later, at the Council of Serdica (343), the Western delegation formulated a statement which explicitly declares belief in one hypostasis. Athanasius was part of the Western delegation and signed this statement.

The next year (344), the East answered with the Microstich.

In this decade, the Eastern and Western Roman Empire was divided between two emperors. Consequently, despite some efforts at reconciliation, the two parts of the church remained divided.

At the beginning of the 350, Constantius became emperor of the entire empire and began to work for unity in the church. Since he was previously the Eastern emperor, he favoured the three-hypostasis view of the Eastern church. Several councils were held in that decade. The 351 council was critical of the term ousia (substance, same substance, homoousios) and the Western 357-council said that these terms must not be used.

 

Reading only the green blocks should provide an adequate overview of this article.

PURPOSE

It is usually said that the main issue was whether Jesus is God. This article shows that this is not true and that the real issue was whether the Son is a distinct Being; distinct from the Father.

The fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy ended when the church adopted the Trinity doctrine. However, discoveries of ancient documents and research since the 20th century have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The current article addresses the false belief that the core issue was whether Christ is God. The truth is that all agreed that He is ‘God’. The main issue was also not whether He is subordinate to the Father. All agreed that He is. This article shows that the real main issue was whether the Son is a distinct Person or whether the Father and Son are a single Person.

AUTHORS QUOTED

This article series is based on the latest available books on this subject, all by world-class Catholic scholars.

Following the last full-scale book on the Arian Controversy, written in English by Gwatkin at the beginning of the 20th century,2“Gwatkin nearly a century ago in the last full-scale book written in English on the Arian Controversy” (Hanson Lecture) R.P.C. Hanson in 1988 published perhaps the most influential modern book on the Arian Controversy.3Bishop Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988 This was followed in 2004 by a book by Lewis Ayres.4Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004 Ayres confirmed the importance of Hanson’s book.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) Ayres’ book is based on the books by Hanson and Simonetti and “in some measure advances on their texts.” (Ayres, p. 5) I also quote from the book by Rowan Williams, focusing specifically on Arius.6Williams, Rowan (24 January 2002) [1987]. Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-4969-4.

The conclusions in this article might appear unorthodox. However, drawing on discoveries of ancient documents and research over the past 100 years, scholars have concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. The books on which this article is based reflect the revised account of that Controversy.

The Arian Controversy was the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced. However, the traditional account of it is fundamentally flawed because it is history according to the winner.

THE FALSE MAIN ISSUE

The term ‘real main issue’ implies that a false main issue exists, which this article first discusses:

Whether Jesus is God.

In the traditional account, the main issue was whether Jesus is God. It is often claimed that Arius taught that the Son is a created being. However, that was not the issue. The ‘Arians’ agreed that He is God.

For example:

“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)

“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)

“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)

All debate participants, including those who opposed the Nicene Creed, the so-called Arians – placed the Son on the ‘God’-side of the ‘God/creation’ boundary and described Him as God. For example:

The Dedication Creed, which opposed the Nicene Creed, describes the Son as “God” and as “God from God.”

Two years later the same people – the Easterners (the anti-Nicenes) at Serdica – condemned those who say, “Christ is not God.” (Hanson, p. 298)

The ‘Arian’ creed of 357, which some regard as the high point of Arianism, describes the Son as “born from the Father, God from God.” (Hanson, p. 345)

‘Theos’ does not mean ‘God’.

The modern word “God” identifies one specific Being; the Ultimate Reality. The Greek of the Bible and the fourth century did not have a word exactly equivalent to it. It only had the word theos, used for beings with different levels of divinity. Originally, it was the word for the Greek gods; immortal beings with supernatural powers. In that sense, all agreed that Jesus is theos.

For example:

Commenting on the Council of Serdica in 343, where the Easterners (anti-Nicenes) issued a statement 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)

“At issue until the last decades of the controversy was the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.” (Ayres, p. 14)

“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)7“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)

The same principle applies to the Bible. When Thomas said, my Lord and my God,” he used the same flexible Greek word ‘theos’. For more detail, see – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?” or Did Thomas, in John 20:28, address Jesus as “God”?

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

“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) (Ayres here refers to the Cappadocian fathers.)

Whether the Son is subordinate

The issue was also not whether the Son is subordinate to the Father. Until Basil of Caesarea, all debate participants, including the pro-Nicenes, even Athanasius, agreed that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

One might object and say:

Granted, all regarded both the Father and the Son as divine. However, while the pro-Nicenes regarded the Father and Son as equally divine, the Arians claimed that the Son is less divine and subordinate to the Father. Both were on the “God” side of the God/creation boundary but they were not equal.

However, that statement is not simply true. Firstly, before Nicaea, all church fathers described the Son as subordinate:

“’Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy” (Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.)

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god … a second, created god lower than the High God” (Hanson Lecture).

Secondly, during the Controversy, both pro- and anti-Nicenes continued to regard the Son as subordinate to the Father:

“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.” (Hanson, p. xix)

“Until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism.” 8RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.

Lewis Ayres argued that even Athanasius described the Son as subordinate to the Father. For example:

      • Athanasius said that the Son is homoousios with the Father but was not willing to say that the Father is homoousios with the Son.
      • He always described the Son “as proper to the Father, as the Father’s own wisdom,” meaning that the Son is part of the Father, never the other way round. (Ayres, p. 206) See here for Athanasius’ view of Christ.

Basil of Caesarea was the first to proclaim full equality:

“In all the previous discussions (before Basil of Caesarea) of the term (homoousios) … a certain ontological subordination is at least implied.” (Ayres, p. 206)

“In Basil, the Father’s sharing of his being involves the generation of one identical in substance and power.” (Ayres, p. 207)

So, whether the Son was subordinate to the Father was also not the real main issue in the Arian Controversy.

Nicaea also believed the Son is subordinate.

Almost all delegates to the Council of Nicaea came from the East and the Eastern church believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father. The Nicene Creed preaches equality because Emperor Constantine ensured that Nicaea concluded what he thought best (see here).

Almost all delegates to the Council of Nicaea came from the East:

The delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (Ayres, p. 19).

“The Council was overwhelmingly Eastern, and only represented the Western Church in a meagre way.” (Hanson, p. 156)

The Eastern church believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father:

Almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was in some sense subordinated to the Father before the Incarnation,” (Hanson, p. xix)

Almost everybody in the East at that period would have agreed that there was a subordination of some sort within the Trinity.” (Hanson, p. 287)

These quotes refer to the Eastern theologians. At Nicaea, since the delegates were drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire, if almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was subordinated to the Father, then that is what almost all delegates at Nicaea believed.

Other indications of the views of the Delegates to Nicaea are the Dedication and the Long-Lined (Macrostich) creeds, formulated respectively 16 and 19 years later by more or less the same Eastern constituency, describing the Son as subordinate to the Father.

While the delegates believed the Son is subordinate, parts of the Nicene Creed seem to preach equality. That is due to Emperor Constantine’s interference. He ensured that Nicaea concluded what he thought best (see here). For example:

“The production of N … must have been deeply disturbing for many who could not seriously be described as Arian in sympathy but … could not suddenly at the bidding of an unbaptized Emperor … abandon completely a subordinationism which had been hallowed by long tradition.” (Hanson, p. 274)

Some may find it strange that an emperor could determine the outcome of an ‘ecumenical’ council. However, the Roman Empire was not a democracy. It was a military dictatorship. The emperors decided which religions are legal and they governed the legal religions closely. Consequently, in the Christian Roman Empire, the emperor was the ultimate arbiter and judge in Christian religious disputes:

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

Whether He shares the Father’s Being.

The core issue was also not whether the Son shared the Father’s being. The so-called Arians (the Eusebians) agreed that the Son was begotten from the very being of the Father.

One of Arius’ extreme statements was that the Son was made from nothing. Other Eusebians disagreed with that statement:

“Many participants supposedly on different sides … (insisted) that one must speak of the Son’s incomprehensible generation from the Father as a sharing of the Father’s very being.” (Ayres, p. 4-5)

In summary, all agreed that the Son is God but subordinate to the Father, and that He was begotten from the very Being of the Father.

THE REAL MAIN ISSUE

Whether the Son is a distinct Person

Below, this article identifies the Real Main Issue by providing an overview of the Controversy, beginning in the second century. It shows that the Real Main Issue was whether Jesus is a distinct Person. While some claimed that the Father and Son are a single Person with a single mind, others believed He is distinct from the Father.

Beginning in the preceding centuries.

The fourth-century Arian Controversy continued the controversy that raged during the preceding centuries. For that reason, this analysis begins in the second century.

“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)

To a large extent, this article summarizes other articles in this series.

HYPOSTASES

In the language of the fourth-century debate, the real main issue was whether Father, Son, and Spirit are one or three hypostases.

The ancients used the Greek term hypostasis (plural hypostases) to indicate a distinct being. For example, Hanson defines a hypostasis as an “individual existence” (Hanson, p. 193). You and I are hypostases. Unfortunately, the Trinity doctrine uses the term ‘hypostasis’ differently. (see here)  Therefore, we need to establish how the ancients understood the terms

One Hypostasis means one mind.

Theologians who believed that only one hypostasis exists in God can be subdivided into classes but they all believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person with a single mind.

There were variations of this view:

      • One and the same – Some, like the second-century Monarchians, said that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three names for the same one God.
      • Three Parts – Others, like Sabellius in the third-century, taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three parts of the one hypostasis (Person). The most prominent fourth-century Sabellian was Marcellus.
      • Part of the Father – A third view maintained that the Son is part of the Father. For example, Alexander and Athanasius believed that the Son is the Father’s only Wisdom. 9“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54) Athanasius wrote: “There is no need to postulate two Logoi” (Hanson, p. 431), meaning two minds. They possibly followed Tertullian, who said similarly that the Father is the whole, and the Son is part of the whole.

But the important point is that, in all three views, there is only one hypostasis (Person), meaning that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit share one single mind or consciousness. Consequently, the Son does not have a distinct existence.

Three hypostases mean three minds.

In the opposing three-hypostases view, held by the anti-Nicenes (the Arians, or more correctly, the Eusebians), the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct Persons with three distinct minds. The Cappadocian fathers were the first pro-Nicenes to teach three hypostases, also meaning three distinct minds.

There were also variations of the ‘three hypostases’ view. In the 350s, after Athanasius had re-introduced the Nicene term homoousios (same substance) in the Controversy (see here), the Eusebians divided into various views:

Unlike substance – Some said the Father’s and Son’s substances are unlike (heterousios).

Similar substance – Others said their substances are similar (homoiousios).

No substance – Still others – the dominant view in the 350s to 370s – refused to talk about substance (the Homoians).

As discussed here, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians or the anti-Nicenes, including Arius – see here) taught three Minds (three centers of consciousness or rational faculties). For example, the Dedication Creed of 431 says, “They are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.” (Hanson, p. 286) “Agreement” implies distinct minds.

Athanasius and the West believed in one hypostasis. The Cappadocian fathers were the first pro-Nicenes to teach three hypostases. In their view, Father, Son, and Spirit are three equal hypostases or substances (three beings) (see here), meaning three distinct minds. For example:

Basil of Caesarea said that the Son’s statements that he does the will of the Father “is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation” but because “His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father.” 10“When then He says, ‘I have not spoken of myself,’ and again, ‘As the Father said unto me, so I speak,’ and ‘The word which ye hear is not mine. but [the Father’s] which sent me,’ and in another place, ‘As the Father gave me commandment, even so I do,’ it is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation, nor yet because He has to wait for the preconcerted key-note, that he employs language of this kind. His object is to make it plain that His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father. Do not then let us understand by what is called a ‘commandment’ a peremptory mandate delivered by organs of speech, and giving orders to the Son, as to a subordinate, concerning what He ought to do. Let us rather, in a sense befitting the Godhead, perceive a transmission of will, like the reflection of an object in a mirror, passing without note of time from Father to Son.” (Basil in his treatise, “De Spiritu Sancto”)

In the same treatise (De Spiritu Sancto), he indicates the existence of two wills: “The Father, who creates by His sole willthe Son too wills.” In other words, the Father has a “sole will” that He does not share with the others. 

While, in the anti-Nicene ‘three hypostases’-view, the Son is subordinate to the Father, in the Cappadocian view, the three hypostases are equal. However, this view is open to the criticism of Tritheism.

Hypostases in the Trinity doctrine

Formally, the Trinity doctrine teaches three hypostases (three Persons) but that is misleading. They are not real ‘persons’ as the term is used in modern English because Father, Son, and Spirit share a single mind.

The Trinity doctrine claims that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God existing as three hypostases (three Persons), implying three distinct Entities with three distinct minds. However, in the Trinity doctrine, the terms hypostases and Persons are misleading. In that doctrine, they are a single Entity with one single mind (see here). We must, therefore, not derive the meaning of the term hypostasis from the Trinity doctrine. In the fourth century, each hypostasis had a unique mind.

The traditional Trinity doctrine, as taught by the Roman Church, retained Basil of Caesarea’s verbal formula of three hypostases but without Basil’s idea of three distinct minds. In reality, the Trinity doctrine continues Athanasius’ one-hypostasis theology, describing the Father, Son, and Spirit as one single Being (see here).

FIRST THREE CENTURIES

The Jewish Church

The Jewish-dominated church of the first century professed “one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person.” See – here. In other words, they are two distinct Beings with the Son subordinate to the Father.

The Jewish church did not use the terms that the later Gentile-dominated church borrowed from Greek philosophy but simply repeated the words of Scripture.

Logos-theology vs Monarchianism

In the second century, after the church became Gentile-dominated, the Logos theologians dominated. They identified the Logos as a distinct hypostasis. In opposition to them, the Monarchians claimed that ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are two names for one and the same Person or hypostasis. In other words, the basic disagreement was whether the Son has real distinct existence.

We have the writings of some of the early church fathers available to us. Whether they fairly represent what the church believed is open for debate. These writers were perhaps the most educated class of the church and, therefore, more familiar with Greek philosophy than the average Christian. At the time, Greek philosophy still dominated the Roman education system.

If we judge by what these early church fathers wrote, the Gentile church did not replace its pre-existing philosophical Gentile thoughts with the Bible but, to an extent at least, absorbed the Bible into their existing system of beliefs.

The main dispute was whether the Son has a real distinct existence:

Concerning the nature of Christ, following Justin Martyr, the Gentile church explained Him as “the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy, and also borrowed some traits from the divine Logos of Stoicism (including its name).” (Hanson Lecture) Therefore, in this view, also known as Logos-theology, the Son is a hypostasis, meaning a Being distinct from the Father. In this view, the Son had always existed as part of God but became a separate and subordinate Being (hypostasis) when God decided to create.

The Monarchians opposed the Logos-theologians and claimed that the Logos is not a separate hypostasis but that Father and Son are two names for one and the same Person. In other words, only one hypostasis exists.

“This ‘monarchian’ view was … suggesting the Father and Son were different expressions of the same being, without any personal distinctions between them. In other words, the Father is himself the Son, and therefore experiences the Son’s human frailties.” (Litfin)

The important point, for this article, is that this was a clash between one- and three-hypostases views. 

Tertullian vs Monarchians

Tertullian was also a Logos-theologian but, to counter the Monarchian criticism that Logos-theologians teach two Gods, he revised the standard Logos-theology and said that the Son remained part of the Father. Therefore, he also taught one hypostasis.

The Latin theologian Tertullian wrote at the beginning of the third century. As discussed here, he was also a Logos-theologist. As such, he believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father and that the Father was not always Father. Today, Tertullian is highly esteemed, not because he taught anything similar to the Trinity doctrine but because he used the right words: He spoke about three ‘persons’ and one ‘substance’. 

As a Logos-theologist, he opposed the Monarchians. Since the Monarchians criticized the Logos-theologians for teaching two Gods, Tertullian revised the standard Logos-theology and said that the Son remained part of the Father after He became separated. He said, for example:

“For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole” (Against Praxeas, Chapter 9).

In other words, similar to the Monarchians, he taught one hypostasis. The difference between him and the Monarchians was that, while Tertullian distinguished between Father and Son within that hypostasis, the Monarchians did not. For more on Tertullian’s theology, see – here.

Origen vs Sabellianism

Also at the beginning of the third century, the famous African theologian Origen expanded Logos-theology to say that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, meaning three distinct Persons with three distinct minds.

For example:

“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) “Father and Son are distinct beings.” (Ayres, p. 22)

“He taught that there were three hypostases within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 184) (For detail, see – Origen)

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) “Like-mindedness” speaks of two distinct minds united in agreement.

More or less at the same time, in opposition to Origen, Sabellius refined Monarchianism but still taught one hypostasis. See here

 For example, take as an example one of the fourth-century Sabellians:

“Paulinus was a rival of Basil’s friend and ally Meletius. … Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis‘ … rendered him suspect.” (Hanson, p. 801)

However, like Tertullian, Sabellius distinguished between Father and Son within that one hypostasis.

He said: Just like man is body, soul, and spirit, the Father, Son, and Spirit are three parts of one Person.

During the remainder of the third century, the main controversy remained between Origen’s three hypostases and Sabellius’ one hypostasis.

For example, in the middle of the third century, the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (both named Dionysius) were involved in a skirmish over the word homoousios:

Some Libyan Sabellians used the term homoousios. For them, it meant ‘one substance’ (one Being). But the bishop of Alexander, under whose jurisdiction they fell, condemned the term.

The Sabellians appealed to the bishop of Rome, who also had a one-hypostasis theology and who also accepted the term homoousios. He put pressure on the bishop of Alexandria to adopt the term.

Under duress, the bishop of Alexandria accepted the term but only in a general sense as meaning ‘same type of substance’. In other words, he held to a three-hypostases theology. (For more detail, see – the Dionysii)

A few years later, in 268, a council at Antioch condemned both Paul of Samosata’s one-hypostasis-theology and the term homoousios. (See – Antioch 268)

“The Council of Antioch of 268 …  did repudiate the word homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 694)

All the while, the church was persecuted by the Roman Empire. Many lost their lives. The most intense phase of persecution was the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of the fourth century.

FOURTH CENTURY

Arius vs Alexander

The dispute between Arius and Alexander was a continuation of the third-century controversy.

The Eastern emperor Constantine became a Christian and legalized Christianity in 313. Only five years later, in 318, a dispute broke out between bishop Alexander of Alexandria and Arius, one of his presbyters. This was not a new controversy but continued the controversy of the third century:

“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)

Similar to the Sabellians, Alexander believed that the Son is a property or quality of the Father, namely, God’s only Wisdom or Word. He explained Father and Son as a single hypostasis; a single Person with a single Mind, with the Son being that single Mind or Wisdom of God.

Alexander’s theology is discussed in more detail here. For example, for him:

The Son is a property or quality of the Father:

“[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) (See – Alexander)

The Son is the Father’s only and intrinsic Wisdom and Logos:

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

There is only one hypostasis:

“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)

In contrast to Alexander but similar to Origen, Arius taught three hypostases. He said that Father and Son have two distinct minds, united in agreement.

For example:

Arius had a “strong commitment to belief in three distinct divine hypostases.” (Williams, p. 97)

He spoke about a second Wisdom and Word. In other words, the Son is not the Father’s only Wisdom and Word:

“There are … two Wisdoms, one God’s own who has existed eternally with God, the other the Son who was brought into existence. … There is another Word in God besides the Son” (Hanson, p. 13). In other words, Arius assumed that each Person has a distinct mind. Father and Son have two distinct minds (rational faculties). They are two distinct Centres of Consciousness. For more detail, see – Arius’ Theology.

As a three-hypostases theologian, Arius enjoyed the support of the Eusebians against Alexander’s one-hypostasis theology. However, the Eusebians did not agree with Arius’ more extreme views. His real followers were limited.

Council of Nicaea

Emperor Constantine involved himself in the dispute between Alexander and Arius because he was concerned for the unity of his empire.

After he had become emperor of the entire Empire in 324, Emperor Constantine involved himself in the dispute. He did not understand the issues but was concerned that the dispute might cause his empire to split. This dispute in Africa had already begun to divide the church in other parts of his empire. Constantine (not the church) called the Nicene Council to force the church to a consensus position. 

On the advice of his religious advisor Ossius, Constantine took Alexander’s side in the dispute.

For example:

“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.” (Ayres, p. 89)

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

A few months before the Council of Nicaea, his religious advisor Ossius chaired an anti-Arius council in Antioch. This council issued a pro-Alexander statement of faith that does not include the term homoousios (Hanson, p. 146), implying that that was not a term Alexander regarded as important.

A few months before the Council of Nicaea, “early in 325,” an “anti-Arian Council” (Hanson, p. 131) was held in Antioch (Hanson, p. 149, 147), consisting mainly of those who sympathized with Alexander. (Hanson, p. 130)

“This council also temporarily excommunicated one of Arius’ senior supporters, Eusebius of Caesarea.” (Ayres, p. 18)

“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)

The Western Church was not represented at the Nicene Council.

For example:

“The Council was overwhelmingly Eastern, and only represented the Western Church in a meagre way.” (Hanson, p. 156)

“Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

At Nicaea, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19) 11“The Western bishops … had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 272) 12“The most important of the Eastern bishops were present (at Nicaea), but the West was poorly represented” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85).

Since the vast majority of the delegates were from the East, and since the Eastern Church followed the two Eusebii, the majority of the delegates at Nicaea believed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Persons with three distinct Minds.

The Eastern Church followed the two Eusebians. For example:

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

“My second theological trajectory … 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.” (Ayres, p. 52) See – Ayres’ discussion.

Another article shows that the Eusebians believed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct Persons) with three distinct Minds. For example:

“Asterius (a leading Eusebian) insists also that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases.” (Ayres, p. 54)

He also made a distinction between God’s wisdom and Christ, implying distinct minds. He wrote: “God’s own power and wisdom is the source of Christ.” (Ayres, p. 53-54)

In the Council, Alexander allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians; the Sabellians.

Since the delegates to the Council came almost exclusively from the East and believed in three hypostases, Alexander’s one-hypostasis view was in the minority. For that reason, he allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians at the council, namely the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, and their followers.

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

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

“Simonetti estimates the Nicene Council as a temporary alliance for the defeat of Arianism between the tradition of Alexandria led by Alexander and ‘Asiatic’ circles (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) whose thought was at the opposite pole to that of Arius. … Alexander … accepted virtual Sabellianism in order to ensure the defeat of Arianism.” (Manlio Simonetti. La Crisi Ariana nel IV secolo (1975)) (Hanson, p. 171)

Their alliance with Alexander and Constantine’s support for Alexander enabled the Sabellians to influence the Creed significantly.

For example:

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

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

Consequently, the Nicene Creed professes only one hypostasis in God.

One of the anathemas explicitly says that Father and Son are a single hypostasis. Our authors conclude:

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

“The production of N … must have been deeply disturbing for many who could not seriously be described as Arian in sympathy but could not believe that God had only one hypostasis, as the creed apparently professed.” (Hanson, p. 274)

If we use the term ‘Sabellian’ to describe a one-hypostasis theology, we can say that the Creed appears to be Sabellian.

For example:

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325 … ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.” (Hanson’s Lecture)

“By the standard of later orthodoxy, as achieved in the Creed of Constantinople of 381, it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition, because the Son must be of a different hypostasis (i.e. ‘Person’) from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 167)

The Dedication Creed “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop who was no admirer of the extreme views of Arius but who had been shocked and disturbed by the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed].” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

It is not clearly Sabellian

“It is going too far to say that N is a clearly Sabellian document. … It is exceeding the evidence to represent the Council as a total victory for the anti-Origenist opponents of the doctrine of three hypostases. It was more like a drawn battle.” (Hanson, p. 172) Ayres says that his conclusions are close to Hanson’s in this regard (Ayres, p. 92).

For a further discussion, see – The Council of Nicaea and How Homoousios became accepted at Nicaea.

HOMOOUSIOS BEFORE NICAEA

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was only preferred by Sabellians.

Some claim that Origen and Tertullian used the term but they never did.

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

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was preferred only by Sabellians, including Sabellius himself, the Libyan Sabellians, Dionysius of Rome, and Paul of Samosata. They used it to say that Father and Son are one single Person. The only non-Sabellian Christian who used the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he “only adopted it with reluctance” (Hanson, p. 193) and only “in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature’.” (Hanson, p. 192)

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

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

For a detailed discussion, see – The Meaning of Homoousios.

HOMOOUSIOS – INSISTED

Homoousios was included in the Creed because the Sabellians preferred it and because the emperor insisted on the term.

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

“’Homoousios’ and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were added to the creed by Constantine himself, bearing witness to the extent of his influence at the council.” 13(Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.) 14

“The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios.” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53)

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

“Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)

 

NICAEA AND POST-NICAEA CORRECTION

AFTER NICAEA, REVERSED

In the decade after Nicaea, all exiled Arians were allowed to return and all main supporters of the Nicene Creed were exiled.

“Arius and most of his supporters were, at Constantine’s request, readmitted to communion within two or three years of the council.” (Ayres, p. 100)

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

NO CONSPIRACY

Athanasius claimed that this was due to a secret Arian Conspiracy, but there is not evidence of a conspiracy.

After discussing the evidence, Hanson concludes:

“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. … All that we can say is that a number of bishops were deposed between 328 and 336 for various reasons, and that Eusebius of Nicomedia or some of his party had a hand in most, or all, of these depositions. They were perhaps controlling events, but not controlling them in the interests of forwarding Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 279)

ATHANASIUS EXILE FOR VIOLENCE

Athanasius was exiled for violence. He claimed that he was exiled for his support for Nicaea but that was a false claim.

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 Nicaea:

“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)

He only began his zealous support of the Nicene Creed after he had been exiled in 335:

“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 not until much later in his career an obvious target for those who were anxious either to limit or to undo the achievement of the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)

Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against Melitians in his see:

“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.

CORRECTION – ONVOLLEDIG

What really happened after Nicaea is that the Sabellians claimed Nicaea as a victory but the church

After Nicaea there was an intense struggle between the Eusebians and the Sabellians in which the leading Sabellians were exiled.

After Nicaea, based on the Nicene Creed, the Sabellians claimed that the church has formally adopted a one-hypostasis theology. This caused an intense struggle during the decade after Nicaea in which the leading Sabellians were removed from their positions. See – Post-Nicaea Correction.

the situation was corrected.

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.” (Ayres, p. 96, 97)

HOMOOUSIOS NOT MENTIONED

After this ‘post-Nicaea Correction’, the term homoousios was not mentioned for about 20 years.

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

“During the years 326–50 the term homoousios is rarely if ever mentioned.” (Ayres, p. 431)

“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.” (Hanson, p. 58-59)

Homoousios was brought back into the Controversy in the mid-350s when Athanasius began to use this term to defend himself.

“He began to use it first in the De Deeretis … in 356 or 357.” (Hanson, p. 438)

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

m“Only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

m“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.” (Ayres, p. 135)

For that reason, the creeds of the 340s (Dedication, the Council of Serdica, and Macrostich Councils) do not mention the term. It simply was not an issue. For a detailed discussion, see – Nobody mentioned Homoousios.

THE DIVIDED EMPIRE – THE 340S

DIVIDING THE EMPIRE

Constantine became emperor for the entire empire in 324. When he died in 337, his sons divided the empire between them. As from 340, Constans ruled the West and Constantius the East.

After the post-Nicaea Correction, while Constantine was still alive, he was able to maintain a level of harmony in the church. “Constantine died in May 337.” (Hanson, p. 315) Later that same year, his three sons, “Constantius II, Constantine II and Constans,” “parcelled out the Empire among themselves.” (Hanson, p. 316) This allowed the church in the different parts of the empire to develop in different directions. One of the three brothers died in 340. This left the empire in the hands of Constans in the West and Constantius in the East.

WEST NOT PART, ATHA APPEALED

Initially, the West was not part of the Arian Controversy. It was essentially an Eastern affair. But Athanasius appealed to the West, after which the West entered the Controversy.

As stated above, although Nicaea is considered an ecumenical council, the West was not represented.

“Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

But Athanasius appealed to the West.

“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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

ATHANASIUS ONE-HYPOSTASIS

Athanasius had a one-hypostasis theology, similar to the Sabellians.

Similar to the Sabellians, for Athanasius, the Son is part of the Father.

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

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

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

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

“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)

“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. xix)

For a detailed discussion, see– Athanasius was a Sabellian.

BOTH EXILED

During Constantine’s reign, the Eastern church exiled Marcellus for Sabellianism and Athanasius for violence.

“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix)

“Marcellus was deposed for Sabellian leanings.” (Hanson, p. 228)

As mentioned above, more or less at the same time, the Eastern church exiled Athanasius for violence.

JOINED FORCES

Since both professed one hypostasis (Person), when they met in Rome after exile, they joined forces against the East.

For example:

“They considered themselves allies.” (Ayres, p. 106

“Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (Ayres, p. 106)

POLEMICAL STRATEGY.

With Marcellus’ help, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy, claiming all anti-Nicenes are followers of Arius and that he was exiled for opposing the Arians:

“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.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

Note that Ayres says Athanasius’ polemical strategy shaped the traditional account of the Arian Controversy. For most of history, the church had accepted Athanasius’ false version of history.  

For a detailed discussion, see – Ayres chapter 5.1 or Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy.

THE WEST ACCEPTED ATHANASIUS.

The West accepted Athanasius and his explanation of what happened.

Marcellus and Athanasius appealed to the bishop Julius of Rome. The West was traditionally Monarchian one-hypostasis theologians, similar to the Sabellians. Therefore, the Council of Rome in 340 vindicated both Marcellus and Athanasius:

“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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

“The Western bishops made no serious attempt to analyse the complexity of the situation which faced them; they had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy; their traditional Monarchianism could square well enough with the little they knew of the Council of Nicaea; by an oversimplification they were able to see Marcellus as orthodox.” (Hanson, p. 272)14Hanson refers to “the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

 

as well as Athanasius, who also had a one-hypostasis theology.

DEDICATION CREED

In response to the West’s acceptance of these two prominent men, who both maintained one-hypostasis theologies, the East formulated the Dedication Creed which is primarily anti-Sabellian and explicitly confesses three hypostases.

The West’s acceptance of these two prominent men, who were already condemned by the East, caused major friction between East and West.

Using Athanasius’ polemical strategy, Julius wrote in 341 to the leaders in the East, accusing them of being followers of Arius. The East responded with the Dedication Creed in the same year.

m“There can be little doubt that this Council of Antioch was conceived by those who organized it as an answer to Julius’ Council of Rome and the letter which he wrote to the Eusebian party after it.” (Hanson, p. 285)

It condemns some of Arius’ extreme statements but since the main threat was the Sabellian tendency of the Western Church, the Dedication Creed is primarily anti-Sabellian, explicitly proclaiming three hypostases:

The creed says: “They are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.”

The Dedication Creed’s “chief bête noire [the thing that it particularly dislikes] is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 287)

“The creed has a clear anti-Sabellian and anti-Marcellan thrust.” (Ayres, p. 119)

mIt is “strongly anti-Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. 287)

In contrast, the Dedication Creed says that they are three hypostases with three distinct minds.

In contrast to the single hypostasis of Sabellianism, the Dedication Creed explicitly asserts that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “three in hypostasis but one in agreement (συμφωνία)” (Ayres, p. 118)

It says that they are “three in hypostasis but one in agreement (συμφωνία)” (Ayres, p. 118). “One in agreement” indicates the existence of three distinct ‘Minds’.

 

The Dedication Creed “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop who was no admirer of the extreme views of Arius but who had been shocked and disturbed by the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

Julius’ letter followed Athanasius’ polemical strategy and accused the Eusebians of being ‘Arians’, meaning, followers of Arius. The council denied this:

“We have not been followers of Arius.” (Ayres, p. 117-8) “We have rather approached him as investigators and judges of his belief than followed him.’” (Hanson, p. 285)

COUNCIL OF SERDICA

This was followed by the failed Council of Serdica in 343. This was supposed to be a joint council of East and West but the two groups never met as one because of their disagreement about Athanasius and Marcellus. But, at the council, the Western delegation produced a manifesto which explicitly confesses one hypostasis:

“We have received and have been taught this … tradition: that there is one hypostasis, which the heretics (also) call ousia, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 301)

Athanasius signed this manifesto.

“The Westerners had at Serdica in 343 produced a theological statement which appeared to have the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion, and ‘Athanasius had certainly supported this statement, though he later denied its existence.. … Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. xix)

For example, the Western manifesto at Serdica described the Son as “the Father’s ‘true’ Wisdom and Power and Word.” (Ayres, p. 125), meaning He is the Father’s only Wisdom and Word.

THE MACROSTICH

The East answered the next year (344) with another creed, the Macrostich or Long-Lined Creed, confessing three hypostases. Attempting to avoid all the new terms borrowed from Greek philosophy, it does not mention “three hypostases” explicitly (Hanson, p. 311) but uses the phrase ‘three realities or persons’.

There were some other attempts at reconciliation in that decade but they all failed. The East and West remained divided,15“This period of rapprochement resolved nothing: the tensions remained.” (Ayres, p. 130) basically about the number of hypostases in God.

 

350S CONSTANTIUS

HOMOIAN DOMINANCE

“The Homoian group came to dominance in the church in the 350s” (Hanson, p. 558–559.) “Homoian Arianism is a much more diverse phenomenon (than Neo-Arianism), more widespread and in fact more longlasting.” Than heterousians?

THE MELETIAN SCHISM

“Paulinus was a rival of Basil’s friend and ally Meletius. … Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis‘ … rendered him suspect.” (Hanson, p. 801)

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

“Basil goes on to defend the application of homoousios to the Son (as we shall see, he never applies this term to the Holy Spirit).” (Hanson, p. 694)

“This expression (homoousios) also corrects the fault of Sabellius for … (it keeps) … the Persons (prosopon) intact, for nothing is consubstantial with itself.” (Hanson, p. 694-5) Note that Basil here interprets homoousion generically.

“Basil uses hypostasis to mean ‘Person of the Trinity’ as distinguished from ‘substance’ which is usually expressed as either ousia or ‘nature’ (physis) or ‘substratum’.” (Hanson, p. 690-691)

“In the DSS he discusses the idea that the distinction between the Godhead and the Persons is that between an abstract essence, such as humanity, and its concrete manifestations, such as man.” (Hanson, p. 698)

 

THEODOSIUS

Majority

“The very wide spectrum of non-Nicene believers thought of themselves as mainstream Christians, and regarded Athanasius and his allies as isolated extremists – though increasingly they also looked on the more aggressive anti-Nicenes (Aetius, Eunomius, and the like) as no less alien to the mainstream of Catholic tradition.” (Williams, p. 82)

TRINITY DOCTRINE

Must be effected by Affected

The Controversy is misleadingly called ‘Arian’. Arius was not the real problem. Since the second century, the real problem was Sabellianism, a version of which was defended by Athanasius and, in the year 380, became the official State religion of the Roman Empire, after which all other versions of Christianity within the Roman Empire were ruthlesslessly exterminated. So, the ‘Sabellian’ Controversy should be a more apt description. However, since a version of Sabellianism was the eventual winner and became what is known as the Trinity doctrine, this fact is carefully hidden from believers.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    The Jewish church did not use the terms that the later Gentile-dominated church borrowed from Greek philosophy but simply repeated the words of Scripture.
  • 2
    “Gwatkin nearly a century ago in the last full-scale book written in English on the Arian Controversy” (Hanson Lecture)
  • 3
  • 4
    Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004
  • 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)
  • 6
    Williams, Rowan (24 January 2002) [1987]. Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-4969-4.
  • 7
    “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)
  • 8
    RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.
  • 9
    “In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54) Athanasius wrote: “There is no need to postulate two Logoi” (Hanson, p. 431), meaning two minds.
  • 10
    “When then He says, ‘I have not spoken of myself,’ and again, ‘As the Father said unto me, so I speak,’ and ‘The word which ye hear is not mine. but [the Father’s] which sent me,’ and in another place, ‘As the Father gave me commandment, even so I do,’ it is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation, nor yet because He has to wait for the preconcerted key-note, that he employs language of this kind. His object is to make it plain that His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father. Do not then let us understand by what is called a ‘commandment’ a peremptory mandate delivered by organs of speech, and giving orders to the Son, as to a subordinate, concerning what He ought to do. Let us rather, in a sense befitting the Godhead, perceive a transmission of will, like the reflection of an object in a mirror, passing without note of time from Father to Son.” (Basil in his treatise, “De Spiritu Sancto”)
  • 11
    “The Western bishops … had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 272)
  • 12
    “The most important of the Eastern bishops were present (at Nicaea), but the West was poorly represented” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85).
  • 13
    (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)
  • 14


    “The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios.” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53)

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

    “Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

    The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)

     

    NICAEA AND POST-NICAEA CORRECTION

    AFTER NICAEA, REVERSED

    In the decade after Nicaea, all exiled Arians were allowed to return and all main supporters of the Nicene Creed were exiled.

    “Arius and most of his supporters were, at Constantine’s request, readmitted to communion within two or three years of the council.” (Ayres, p. 100)

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

    NO CONSPIRACY

    Athanasius claimed that this was due to a secret Arian Conspiracy, but there is not evidence of a conspiracy.

    After discussing the evidence, Hanson concludes:

    “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. … All that we can say is that a number of bishops were deposed between 328 and 336 for various reasons, and that Eusebius of Nicomedia or some of his party had a hand in most, or all, of these depositions. They were perhaps controlling events, but not controlling them in the interests of forwarding Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 279)

    ATHANASIUS EXILE FOR VIOLENCE

    Athanasius was exiled for violence. He claimed that he was exiled for his support for Nicaea but that was a false claim.

    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 Nicaea:

    “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)

    He only began his zealous support of the Nicene Creed after he had been exiled in 335:

    “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 not until much later in his career an obvious target for those who were anxious either to limit or to undo the achievement of the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)

    Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against Melitians in his see:

    “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.

    CORRECTION – ONVOLLEDIG

    What really happened after Nicaea is that the Sabellians claimed Nicaea as a victory but the church

    After Nicaea there was an intense struggle between the Eusebians and the Sabellians in which the leading Sabellians were exiled.

    After Nicaea, based on the Nicene Creed, the Sabellians claimed that the church has formally adopted a one-hypostasis theology. This caused an intense struggle during the decade after Nicaea in which the leading Sabellians were removed from their positions. See – Post-Nicaea Correction.

    the situation was corrected.

    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.” (Ayres, p. 96, 97)

    HOMOOUSIOS NOT MENTIONED

    After this ‘post-Nicaea Correction’, the term homoousios was not mentioned for about 20 years.

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

    “During the years 326–50 the term homoousios is rarely if ever mentioned.” (Ayres, p. 431)

    “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.” (Hanson, p. 58-59)

    Homoousios was brought back into the Controversy in the mid-350s when Athanasius began to use this term to defend himself.

    “He began to use it first in the De Deeretis … in 356 or 357.” (Hanson, p. 438)

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

    m“Only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

    m“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.” (Ayres, p. 135)

    For that reason, the creeds of the 340s (Dedication, the Council of Serdica, and Macrostich Councils) do not mention the term. It simply was not an issue. For a detailed discussion, see – Nobody mentioned Homoousios.

    THE DIVIDED EMPIRE – THE 340S

    DIVIDING THE EMPIRE

    Constantine became emperor for the entire empire in 324. When he died in 337, his sons divided the empire between them. As from 340, Constans ruled the West and Constantius the East.

    After the post-Nicaea Correction, while Constantine was still alive, he was able to maintain a level of harmony in the church. “Constantine died in May 337.” (Hanson, p. 315) Later that same year, his three sons, “Constantius II, Constantine II and Constans,” “parcelled out the Empire among themselves.” (Hanson, p. 316) This allowed the church in the different parts of the empire to develop in different directions. One of the three brothers died in 340. This left the empire in the hands of Constans in the West and Constantius in the East.

    WEST NOT PART, ATHA APPEALED

    Initially, the West was not part of the Arian Controversy. It was essentially an Eastern affair. But Athanasius appealed to the West, after which the West entered the Controversy.

    As stated above, although Nicaea is considered an ecumenical council, the West was not represented.

    “Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

    But Athanasius appealed to the West.

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

    ATHANASIUS ONE-HYPOSTASIS

    Athanasius had a one-hypostasis theology, similar to the Sabellians.

    Similar to the Sabellians, for Athanasius, the Son is part of the Father.

    “In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

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

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

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

    “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)

    “Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. xix)

    For a detailed discussion, see– Athanasius was a Sabellian.

    BOTH EXILED

    During Constantine’s reign, the Eastern church exiled Marcellus for Sabellianism and Athanasius for violence.

    “Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix)

    “Marcellus was deposed for Sabellian leanings.” (Hanson, p. 228)

    As mentioned above, more or less at the same time, the Eastern church exiled Athanasius for violence.

    JOINED FORCES

    Since both professed one hypostasis (Person), when they met in Rome after exile, they joined forces against the East.

    For example:

    “They considered themselves allies.” (Ayres, p. 106

    “Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (Ayres, p. 106)

    POLEMICAL STRATEGY.

    With Marcellus’ help, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy, claiming all anti-Nicenes are followers of Arius and that he was exiled for opposing the Arians:

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

    Note that Ayres says Athanasius’ polemical strategy shaped the traditional account of the Arian Controversy. For most of history, the church had accepted Athanasius’ false version of history.  

    For a detailed discussion, see – Ayres chapter 5.1 or Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy.

    THE WEST ACCEPTED ATHANASIUS.

    The West accepted Athanasius and his explanation of what happened.

    Marcellus and Athanasius appealed to the bishop Julius of Rome. The West was traditionally Monarchian one-hypostasis theologians, similar to the Sabellians. Therefore, the Council of Rome in 340 vindicated both Marcellus and Athanasius:

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

    “The Western bishops made no serious attempt to analyse the complexity of the situation which faced them; they had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy; their traditional Monarchianism could square well enough with the little they knew of the Council of Nicaea; by an oversimplification they were able to see Marcellus as orthodox.” (Hanson, p. 272)14Hanson refers to “the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)
  • 15
    “This period of rapprochement resolved nothing: the tensions remained.” (Ayres, p. 130)

3 Replies to “The Real Main Issue of the fourth-century Arian Controversy”

  1. Thank you for your time to reply . We appreciate your answer. We read and reread your explanations of Daniel and Revelation and it gives us a better understanding of these 2 bible books. God bless your ministry.

  2. Dear Andries , about the sabbath. In Exodus 31 verse 12 and again in verse 17 it says : it will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever . ( gentiles are exempt .) ?

    1. Hi
      I think that depends on what the New Testament says. We should always allow the newer testament to explain the older testament. One day, I want to do proper research on the Sabbath matter, but in my current view, the Church is a continuation of the (true) Israel of the Old Testament.

      On a practical level, the Sabbath probably was regarded as the most important of the Jewish commandment. The church originated as a sect of Judaism, keeping all the Jewish laws. See Early Church. If the Church abrogated Sabbath-keeping during the lifetime of the apostles, it would have been recorded as a massive controversy be in the Bible, but we see none of it.

Your comment is important.

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