Richard Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God

This is my summary of the book, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1981, by bishop R.P.C. Hanson. “RH” in the quotes below refers to this book. I sometimes also quote from:

LA – Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004

I just started this project.

Introduction 1I summarized the Introduction in a separate article.

5 Events Leading to Nicaea

6 The Council of Nicaea

8 Eustathius and Marcellus

9 The behaviour of Athanasius

10 Attempts at Creed Making . Phase 1, 341 -349

11 Attempts at Creed-Making: Phase 2: 350-357

14 The Doctrine of Athanasius

15 The Western Pro-Nicenes I


23 The Council of Constantinople of 381

24: The Development of Doctrine

Arians or Eusebians

The anti-Nicenes are usually called ‘Arians’ by Hanson but other major scholars agree that that is an inappropriate title. See – Athanasius invented Arianism. Arius was a member, albeit a somewhat extreme member, of the Eusebian camp. For that reason, Ayres refers to the anti-Nicene as ‘Eusebians’. When not quoting, I will follow that practice.

Table of Contents

5.1 From the outbreak of the controversy to the Council of Antioch 325

When the Controversy Begin – “The traditional date for the outbreak of the dispute is the year 318.” (RH, 130) However, Boularand “makes quite a good case for the year 320 as the correct date for the start of the dispute.” (RH, 132)

Arius excommunicated – “Alexander summons a council of bishops which results in his putting a Confession of Qrthodoxy before Arius and requiring him to sign it. He refuses to do so and he, along with many, including bishops, who followed his example, is excommunicated.” (RH, 134)

The Thalia – Arius produced his Thalia in Alexandria in 318 or 319 before he left that city for Nicomedia and Palestine. (RH, 138)

Retreated – “The condemned men retreated to Nicomedia and later to Palestine.” (RH, 130)

Success – “Arius’ activity achieves success; many bishops beyond Egypt join his side, including Eusebius of Caesarea.” (RH, 135)

Eusebius of Nicomedia – “A council of bishops inspired by Eusebius of Nicomedia met in Bithynia, and vindicated the orthodoxy of Arius and his supporters.” (RH, 130) It “declares Arius’ views orthodox and demands his restoration by Alexander.” (RH, 135)

Eusebius of Caesarea – “Another council met afterwards in Caesarea in Palestine, chaired no doubt by Eusebius of Caesarea, which again acquitted the accused Arians of heresy, but urged them to submit themselves to Alexander and seek reconciliation with him.” (RH, 130) “Eusebius of Caesarea, having had conversations with Arius, wrote to Alexander protesting at the way in which Arius had been treated.” (RH, 135)

Persecution in the East – “Licinius took measures against the Christians between 322 and late 323.” (RH, 132) “The Eastern Church was undergoing pressure or even a minor persecution from Licinius.” (RH, 131)

Constantine victorious – “Two decisive battles took place between Constantine and Licinius’ in 324” (RH, 133), after which Constantine became emperor of the entire empire.

Constantine’s letter – “At the end of 324” (RH, 137), “Constantine sent a letter to both Arius’ and Alexander dismissing the controversy as trivial and commanding them to be reconciled. This letter was carried to Alexandria by Ossius bishop of Cordova, Constantine’s chief adviser and agent in matters concerning the Christian church.” (RH, 130, 137)

Council at Antioch – A council was held in Antioch very early in the year 325 mainly consisting of those who sympathised with Alexander. (RH, 130) Hanson refers to it as “the anti-Arian Council in Antioch.” (RH, 131)

Date Nicaea – “The only absolutely firm date in this whole series of events is that of the Council of Nicaea which met in May 325.” (RH, 131)

5.3 The Council of Antioch of 325

Discovered – The existence of the Council of Antioch of 325 was rediscovered only in the year 1905. (RH, 146) In 1909 and 1958, two further documents were published that provide further information about that council. (RH, 147)

325 – The list of bishops attending suggested that this council must be placed early in the history of the controversy. For example, the name of Eustathius of Antioch, who attended the Nicene Council, appears immediately after that of the chairperson Ossius. (RH, 146) Hanson dates this Council to early in 325. (RH, 149)

Ossius chaired – Ossius signed first. As the Emperor Constantine’s personal representative, he presided. (RH, 148)

Homoousios – The Statement of Faith endorsed by the Council does not mention the term homoousios or the ousia of God. (RH, 146) If, as Philostorgius says, Alexander and Ossius were a very short time later to concoct a plan to introduce homoousios into the Creed, no such thought had entered their minds at this stage. (RH, 150)

A note at the end of this document remarks that it is strange that the bishops in this Antiochene synod though clearly champions of orthodoxy and destined, most of them, to take part in the Nicene Council, did not remember the homoousion. (RH, 146-7)

Anti-Arian – The Statement from this council is overwhelmingly anti-Arian. This is indicated by the following:

(a) Alexander’s theology – Alexander of Alexandria was not present at this Council but the doctrine promulgated in the Statement represents the theology of Alexander of Alexandria. (RH, 149-150) For example, it says that the Son:

        • Is immutable by nature as the Father is (RH, 150),
        • Is not a creature (‘creatures’ being defined as those things that have come into existence) (RH, 150),
        • Has always existed (RH, 150),
        • Was not begotten from non-existence, but from the Father” (RH, 149),
        • Was not begotten by will (RH, 149).

This is the only anti-Arian and pre-Nicene statement of doctrine that we possess besides the writings of Alexander himself. (RH, 149)

(b) Arius’ supporters – Two bishops from that area who have been prominent supporters of Arius, who normally should have attended the council, did not attend. (RH, 149) It consisted mainly of those who sympathised with Alexander. (RH, 130)

(c) Eusebius excommunicated – 59 bishops attended but 3 refused to accept the Statement of Faith. One of the three was Eusebius of Caesarea. They were provisionally excommunicated in view of the near approach of ‘the great and holy’ council at Nicaea. (RH, 146) “The excommunication of a man so universally respected for his scholarship as Eusebius of Caesarea must have given him (the emperor) a shock.” (RH, 153)

(d) Alexander of Alexandria is mentioned in the letter in complimentary terms as the victim of Arian heretics. (RH, 146)

Ousia and Hypostasis – Hanson mentions an incident, which he thinks happened at this council, where Ossius asked Narcissus if, like Eusebius of Caesarea, he taught that there were two ousiai. Narcissus answered that he believed that there were three ousiai. Hanson says, no doubt Narcissus and Eusebius of Caesarea used the term ousia for a distinct reality (‘Person’) within the Godhead. Today, we typically associate the concept of a ‘Person’ with the term hypostasis, but at that time ousia and hypostasis were synonyms. (RH, 150)

Holy Spirit – The reference to the Holy Spirit in the Statement for this council is very meagre. (RH, 150) Eusebius’ estimate of the Holy Spirit was so low that he would not have included him within the Godhead, and so would only recognize two hypostases. (RH, 151)

6 The Council of Nicaea

6.1 The Calling of the Council

Constantine Called – “The Council of Nicaea met from May to the end of July 325.” “It was the first time that any attempt had been made to summon a general council of the whole church at which, at least in theory, the church in every part of the Roman Empire should be represented.” (RH, 152)

“It was then certainly Constantine who convoked the Council of Nicaea.” (RH, 153-4) “Religious partisanship has in the past led some scholars to suggest that Silvester, bishop of Rome, convoked the Council of Nicaea, but modem Roman Catholic scholars honourably dismiss this idea.” (RH, 154)

“The presence of the Emperor Constantine was inevitable. … He had summoned the Council, had paid all its expenses.” (RH, 157)

Constantine’s Motive – “The Emperor, rightly or wrongly, thought himself called to foster and protect the Church, and therefore to prevent as far as he could the damage that was caused by controversy and schism.” (RH, 153)

“The excommunication of a man so universally respected for his scholarship as Eusebius of Caesarea must have given him (the emperor) a shock. He wanted to be in a position to see that the anti-Arian party at the Council did not do anything that would further exasperate the division already existing in the Church … but rather heal it.” (RH, 153)

Presiding Officer – “The evidence weighs strongly in favour of the view that Ossius, as the Emperor’s representative, presided at Nicaea.” (RH, 154) Ossius was “a bishop of as obscure a see as Cordova.” (RH, 155) Ossius of Cordova was “representing the Emperor’s interest.” (RH, 156)

“In normal circumstances the Metropolitan of the area in which the Council met would have presided, and in this case it would have been Eusebius of Nicomedia. But Constantine’s representative, Ossius, took precedence on this occasion.” (RH, 155)

Delegates – “We cannot calculate the number of bishops present at the Council with complete accuracy.” (RH, 155) “By about 370 the conventional number of 318, the same number as the men of Abraham’s household whom he led out to rescue Lot (Gen. 14:14), had been accepted everywhere, and this became traditional.” (RH, 156) “All that we can say is that the number of bishops at the Council of Nicaea probably fell between 250 and 300.” (RH, 156)

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

Athanasius – “Athanasius was certainly present as a deacon accompanying Alexander of Alexandria. … But it is equally certain that he can have taken no prominent nor active part, in spite of later legends to this effect and the conviction of some scholars that he was the moving spirit in the Council.” (RH, 157)

6.2 The Proceedings of the Council

Uncertain – “We cannot reconstruct with any confidence the course which the Council of Nicaea took.” (RH, 157)

Eusebius’ Creed – “In his Letter to the Church of Caesarea, Eusebius, writing immediately after the Council, gives first the Creed which he says that he presented to the Council in the presence of the Emperor; it ran thus:

 – ‘We believe in one God, Father, Almighty,
maker of all things seen and unseen;

 – And in one Lord Jesus Christ
 – the Word of God,
 – God from God, Light from Light, Life from Life,
 – only-begotten Son,
 – first-born of all creation,
 – begotten from the Father before all ages,
 – through whom all things have come into being,
 – who was incarnate for our salvation …

 – And we believe in one Holy Spirit.” (RH, 159)

Eusebius’ Creed Accepted – “Eusebius was the most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” at Nicaea (RH, 159) but “he had recently been accused of heresy at a synod of the great church of Antioch and had been provisionally condemned and excommunicated.” (RH, 159-160)

“Certainly his profession of faith … was of a blameless orthodoxy according to the standards of 325.” (RH, 160) “Eusebius’ Creed was accepted, and therefore his orthodoxy presumably vindicated and excommunication lifted” (RH, 162)

Constantine took the initiative – “He (Eusebius of Caesarea) gives the impression throughout this letter that Constantine took the initiative in all the matters that the letter deals with, apparently regarding himself as qualified to deal with any discussion about the profound questions raised by the Christian doctrine of God.” (RH, 160)

“Eustathius [Sabellian and hostile anti-Arian] says nothing of any intervention by Constantine in the debates. He also hints that his party could have said more but did not” (RH, 161)

Eusebius of Nicodemia rejected – “Eustathius of Antioch” referred to “the blasphemous document of Eusebius” that shocked the participants and was “was torn up before the eyes of all.” (RH, 160) “There can in fact be little doubt that Eustathius is here referring to Eusebius of Nicomedia.” (RH, 161)

Why Homoousios? – “Ambrose says ‘When this letter (of Eusebius of Nicomedia) was read at the Council of Nicaea, the Fathers placed … (the term homoousios) in the Statement of Faith, because they saw that it caused alarm to their opponents.” (RH, 161)

Athanasius also stated that “the term homoousion was inserted in the Creed of Nicaea” because it was the only term which “the Arians” could not accept. (RH, 162) For the same reason, “’from God’ which he said … was acceptable to the Arians, was rejected in favour of ‘from the substance’” (RH, 162)

Exiled – “Two bishops who refused to sign the Creed … were deposed by the Council and exiled by the Emperor. Arius himself was exiled.” (RH, 162-3)

6.3 The Creed of Nicaea

The Text – “The Creed which was drawn up at the Council of Nicaea … ran … as follows:” (RH, 163)

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

And in one Lord Jesus Christ
the Son of God, (the Word of God,)
begotten as only begotten of the Father,
that is of the substance (ousia) of the Father,
God of God, Light of Light,
true God of true God, (Life from Life)
begotten not made,
consubstantial with the Father,
through whom all things came into existence,
both things in heaven and things on earth;
who for us men and for our salvation
came down and was incarnate …

And in the Holy Spirit.

But those who say,
“there was a time when he did not exist” and
“Before being begotten he did not exist”, and
that he came into being from non-existence,
or who allege that
the Son of God is of another hypostasis or ousia,
or is alterable or changeable,
these the Catholic and Apostolic Church condemns.” (RH, 163)

Compared to Eusebius’ Creed – “What Eusebius is really saying is that the Council and Emperor approved of his own Creed, and then went on to produce another similar in content except for the word homoousion” (RH, 164) However, the two creeds “are quite different.” (RH, 164)

Anti-Arian – The Creed “was constructed as a deliberately anti-Arian document.” (RH, 164) “All the more obnoxious doctrines of Arius and his followers are struck at in N in the most impressive way.” (RH, 165)

How Eusebius understood the Creed – Eusebius “alleges that the Emperor himself qualified the addition of ‘consubstantial’ by saying that it must not be understood “in the sense of any corporeal experiences.” It also does not mean that the Son “exists as a result of division or any subtraction from the Father.” (RH, 165)

Eusebius explained that he accepts “’Consubstantial’ and ‘of the substance’ (to) mean that the Son is from the Father, but not a part of him nor a part of his ousia.” (RH, 165) Eusebius accepted homoousion with “obvious reluctance.” (RH, 165)

“He defends his acceptance of homoousion … also because … the Son of God bears no likeness to creatures … but that he is likened in all things only to the Father … and that he is of no other hypostasis and ousia but only of the Father’.” (RH, 165)

“Eusebius … defends the condemnation of ‘before he was begotten he did not exist’ … on the grounds that … before he was begotten in act he was in the Father potentially ingenerately.” (RH, 166) In other words, Eusebius did not accept that the Son was eternally generated.” (RH, 166)

Eusebius’ “account confirms the impression that in the doctrinal discussions the opponents of Arius took the lead from the beginning and held it all the way through.” (RH, 166)

Startling Innovation – “To say that the Son was ‘of the substance’ of the Father, and that he was ‘consubstantial’ with him were certainly startling innovations. Nothing comparable to this had been said in any creed or profession of faith before.” (RH, 166-7)

Why Homoousios? – The word homoousion “probably had a looser and less specific meaning than scholars till recently have attributed to it. “The most satisfactory explanation of why it was put there is that it was certainly a word … which serious and wholehearted Arians could not stomach; Arius in his Thalia had specifically rejected it.” (RH, 167)

Another Hypostasis or Ousia – “The condemnation … that the Son is ‘of another hypostasis or ousia’ from the Father … can only have been a highly ambiguous and extremely confusing statement. By the standard of later orthodoxy … it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition. … And in fact there were present at the Council people, such as Marcellus of Ancyra, who were quite ready to maintain that there is only one hypostasis in the Godhead, and who were later to be deposed for heresy because they believed this.” (RH, 167)

“It also seems possible that Ossius at least believed in only one hypostasis.” (RH, 167)

The anathema probably does not mean that Father and Son are only one hypostasis, for that would be “rankly Sabellian.”

“It is much more likely that to the Easterners this highly equivocal expression meant that the Son came from the Father’s ‘Person’ … but also that the Son was not of a different nature … or substance from the Father. … Only by such an interpretation can this anathema be exculpated (freed) from manifest heresy.”

“It might be taken to mean that hypostasis and ousia were different words for the same thing, i.e. substance. But the word ‘or’ does not favour this view; the Creed had already used the word ousia for ‘substance’ without producing hypostasis as a synonym for it.”

“However we regard it, the Creed produced by the Council of Nicaea was a mine of potential confusion and consequently most unlikely to be a means of ending the Arian Controversy.”

Did Ossius propose homoousios? – “The debate upon … the question of who proposed the term homoousion” “has … been lively.” (RH, 169)

“The view that it was Ossius who was responsible for introducing homoousion into N has long been popular. (The argument was that) the Western theological tradition which Ossius represented at the Council … was largely dependent upon Tertullian. Tertullian had certainly taught a doctrine in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit shared a common substance … and the Father and the Son could therefore be described as unius substantiae, ‘of one substance’. (Therefore) … homoousion … could well be regarded as a Greek translation of or counterpart to Tertullian’s ‘of one substance’ (unius substantiae).” (RH, 169)

This theory “has been considerably damaged by recent studies of the subject. (RH, 169)

Firstly, Latin translation of the Nicene Creed do not for the most part translate homoousion by unius substantiae nor by consubstantialis, but usually leave the Greek terms transliterated into Latin. (RH, 169-170)

Secondly, “the evidence for strong Western influence is lacking. Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council. 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.” (RH, 169-170)

“Ossius … represented the policy of Constantine.” (RH, 170)

Homoousios – Meaning – “Recent studies on the word homoousios have tended to show, not that it can be reduced to two meanings, one identifying two ousiai as one, and the other conveying a ‘generic’ sense of ‘God-stuff’ (Loofs), but that it was of a much looser, more flexible, indeed less specific and therefore less controversial significance.” (RH, 170)

“Person says of it: ‘As it stands, the homoousios can be read either as an affirmation of the divine unity or as an affirmation of the equal deity of the Son, and it is difficult in the light of theological discussions which took place prior to the Council to believe that the ambiguity was accidental. (Person, R. E. The Mode of Theological Decision-Making at the Early Ecumenical Councils (1978) p105)” (RH, 170-1)

“For nearly twenty years after Nicaea nobody mentions homoousios, not even Athanasius. This may be because it was much less significant than either later historians of the ancient Church or modern scholars thought that it was.” (RH, 170)

“The homoousion was probably not a flag to be nailed to the masthead, a word round which selfconscious theological schools of thought could rally. But it was an apotropaic [intended to ward off evil] formula for resisting Arianism. It is obvious that the result was intended to condemn the views of Arius.” (RH, 172)

Emperor’s Role – “The role of the Emperor Constantine in the Council has been variously interpreted. If we are to take Eusebius’ words au pied de la lettre, Constantine dominated all the proceedings. … Certainly Constantine played some part, and perhaps at one or two critical moments a decisive part, intervening to support some suggestion which he thought likely to bring about reconciliation among the contending parties. But it is going too far to think of him as dominating the debates of the Council.” (RH, 171)

Sabellian Creed? – “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. … The ‘Asiatics’ … were able to include in N a hint of opposition to the three hypostases theory.” (RH, 171)

Hanson seems to agree with the idea of a “hint” when he comments as follows:

“It is improbable that all the people who had previously seen nothing offensive in the doctrines of Arius should have surrendered tamely to an openly Sabellian creed.

It is improbable that the heirs of any side of Origen’s thought should have abandoned a doctrine of three hypostases. As N does not openly mention the eternal generation of the Son, so it does not openly declare that there is only one hypostasis in the Godhead.” (RH, 172)

“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.” (RH, 172)

6.4 The Immediate Repercussions of the Council

Exiled and Restored – “Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarike, both Libyan sees, refused to sign N, were deposed by the Council and exiled by Constantine. Arianism was strong in Libya. … They were both restored to their sees by Constantine at some time impossible to fix accurately but before 335.” (RH, 172)

“Arius too was banished by Constantine.” (RH, 173)

“Shortly after the Council … Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea were also banished by Constantine. … Constantine … declares that their fault was to have received and communicated with some Arian presbyters in Nicomedia.” (RH, 173)

“Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea” wrote “a very humble epistle,” “not … to Constantine but to some unnamed bishops, who are asked to petition Constantine for their recall.” (RH, 175) “Sozomenus says that after this they were recalled and replaced in their sees.” (RH, 175-6)

“There is also extant a letter of Arius and Euzoius from exile to Constantine petitioning for their return.” (RH, 176)

Alexander’s death – “The Index to the Festal Letters of Athanasius dates the death of Alexander firmly to April 27th, 328.” (RH, 175)

Second Session – Hanson and several other scholars believe that there was “a second session of the Council of Nicaea” (RH, 176) a few years after 325. He uses the following quote as one of the proofs, but it is quoted here because it shows the nature of Constantine’s involvement at Nicaea:

“He surrounded the Fathers (of the Council), or rather the prophets of God, with every honour and called them a second time and again acted patiently as a mediator to the same people and again distinguished them by gifts, and he offered board and lodging in a letter and confirmed and put his seal to the decisions of the synod.” (RH, 175)

“The question has divided scholars. Schwartz, of course, and Opitz accepted that a second session of the Council of Nicaea took place.” (RH, 177)

Donatists – “In dealing with Donatists Constantine had previously exiled bishops and afterwards recalled them for a parley.” (RH, 178)

The End or the Beginning? – “As far as outward appearances went, the Arian Controversy was over. But the search for the Christian doctrine of God was by no means finished.” (RH, 178)

8 Eustathius and Marcellus

8.1 Eustathius of Antioch

Marcellus of Ancyra and Eustathius of Antioch “enter prominently into the story of the search for the Christian doctrine of God soon after the Council of Nicaea.” (RH, 208)

Eustathius “was clearly a vigorous opponent of Arius and Arianism.” (RH, 208) He “thought that the point of view of own his party had not been given sufficient expression at the Council.” (RH, 208)


Eustathius was “deposed from the see of Antioch by a council and exiled by Constantine.  The date cannot have been later than 331.” (RH, 209)

“The real motive (for Eustathius’ deposition) was of course his championing of the Nicene formula and his opposition to those who disliked it and the theology it seemed to represent.” (RH, 210-1) “It seems most likely that Eustathius was primarily deposed for the heresy of Sabellianism.” (RH, 211)


“The man whom the Logos assumed was a complete man: ‘he consists of soul and body. … God wholly clothed himself with a complete man.” (RH, 213) “The Logos dwells in him, as in a Temple.” (RH, 215) “The human being absorbs all the human experiences attributed to Christ in the Gospels, leaving the divine element untouched.” (RH, 215) “This soul was able to endure the human experiences which it was unfitting for the divine element in Christ to endure, in opposition to the Arians who taught that the Son suffered.” (RH, 212) Eustathius does not want “to attribute human experience (pathos) to the Divine” (RH, 213)

“God hid the knowledge of the day of the Second Coming from the man, but the divine element in Jesus Christ was omniscient.” (RH, 213-4)

“He distinguishes between ‘the Logos who is God who is begotten by him’ (i.e. the Father) and ‘Christ’s man’ who was raised from the dead and is exalted and glorified.” (RH, 213) “It is the man who sits at God’s right hand.” (RH, 214)

One Hypostasis

“There is one hypostasis of the Godhead” “This ‘one hypostasis’ of the Godhead was to become the slogan and rallying-cry of the continuing Eustathians.” (RH, 213)

“His weakest point is his incapacity to distinguish between the Father and the Son in the Godhead. … ‘the Logos for Eustathius,’ says Loofs, … has or is no proper hypostasis.” (RH, 215)

“It would seem that Eustathius … holds that the Logos is but an attribute of the one Divinity, which when put forth becomes the divine energy … dwelling as an ‘energy’ in Jesus.” (RH, 215)


“His theology appears very like that of Marcellus, and only differs from his in minor respects.” (RH, 216)

“It is not surprising, however, that Eustathius was condemned for Sabellianism. His insistence that there is only one distinct reality (hypostasis) in the Godhead, and his confusion about distinguishing Father, Son and Holy Spirit laid him open to such a charge. He could have replied (and, for all we know, did reply) that the notorious anathema in N gave him every encouragement to believe that there is only one distinct reality in the Godhead. He certainly would have had no difficulty in accepting the homoousios.” (RH, 216)


This description of Eustathius sounds very much like the modern Trinity doctrine but he was a Sabellian. Hanson comments: “In this medley of opinions it is quite unrealistic to indulge in the business of labelling some as ‘heretical’ and some as ‘orthodox’.” (RH, 216)

8.2 Marcellus of Ancyra

One Hypostasis

For Marcellus, there is only one hypostasis (Person) in God. Consequently, for him, homoousios does not mean “same substance” but “one substance” (one Being):

“The point’ which was to them (Marcellus’ followers) crucial, that there was one hypostasis with one ousia only.” (RH, 223-4)

“The Logos … was one and the same thing as God, called by the distinct names of Father and Son, but one in ousia and hypostasis.’” (RH, 224)

“Eusebius declares that what Marcellus really believes is ‘that there are three Names to be found in one hypostasis.” (RH, 226)

“One point about Marcellus which is unequivocally clear is that he believed that God constituted only one hypostasis, as he had only one ousia. For him homoousios, whose presence in N he must have welcomed enthusiastically, meant not merely ‘consubstantial’ or ‘of similar substance’, but ‘of identical being’. For him the anathema of N which forbade Catholics to teach that the Son was of a different hypostasis or ousia from the Father had precisely the full Sabellian force which it appeared to have. There was for him in God only one ‘Person’ in the later Trinitarian sense of that word.” (RH, 229-230)

Activities of God

Consequently, for Marcellus, the Logos and the Holy Spirit are not separate hypostases (Beings) but mere activities of God:

“The Spirit remains inseparably in God, but goes forth as activity from the Father and the Logos.” (RH, 229)

“The Son was a mere word and testified that he was only a word … immanent [inherent] during the time that the Father was silent, but active in fashioning the creation, just as one’s speech is inactive when we are silent, but active when we speak.” (RH, 224)

“The Logos was one and the same thing with God. But if we were to examine the additional fact of the Incarnation in the case of the Saviour the Godhead would appear to be extended simply by activity so that in all likelihood the Monad is genuinely indivisible.” (RH, 228)

God’s only Logos

While the Eusebians taught that the Son is God’s Word and Wisdom and Logos, but that God also has His own Word and Wisdom, Marcellus, since he taught that the Logos is an activity of God, said that the Son is “the proper and true Logos of God.” In other words, there is not “another Logos and another Wisdom and Power.” (RH, 230) Alexander and Athanasius said the same thing.


“After reading this, we cannot be surprised that Marcellus was deposed for Sabellian leanings.” (RH, 228)

“In spite of the fact that this is almost a quotation from N, Eusebius regards this doctrine as outright Sabellianism, that is a failure to distinguish Father and Son.” (RH, 224)

“At the Council of Jerusalem (AD 335) he agreed to destroy his book, which was accused of favouring the ideas of Paul of Samosata.” (RH, 217) (This Paul was one of the prominent Sabellians of the third century.)


Marcellus was deposed in the East (Constantinople) but vindicated as orthodox in the West (Rome). In the beginning, the West was not involved in the Arian Controversy. For example, the delegates at Nicaea were almost entirely from the East. The East failed to properly understand the issues:

“About ten years after the Council of Nicaea he (Marcellus) was deposed by a council held in Constantinople.” Exactly when and “the exact reason for it (his deposition) are disputed.” (RH, 217)

“Julius (bishop of Rome), in the year 341, summoned a council to Rome, which vindicated the orthodoxy of Marcellus, as well as that of Athanasius who had reached Rome after Marcellus in the course of his second exile.” (RH, 218)

“Pope Julius and his associates who declared Marcellus’ doctrine to be orthodox can have never met the works of Origen nor known anything of the theology of the Eastern Church.” (RH, 231)

Triumphed at Nicaea

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

“Eustathius and Marcellus clearly stem from the same theological tradition. They certainly met at Nicaea. and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (RH, 234)


“At the Council of Jerusalem and the Council of Tyre in the same year he (Marcellus) had supported Athanasius.” (RH, 217)

“Athanasius … continued to defend the orthodoxy of Marcellus.” (RH, 220) “Though he (Athanasius) may temporarily at this period, when he was preparing to return from his second exile, have wished to place a distance between himself and Marcellus, he had no intention of making a final break with him. It is doubtful if he ever did this.” (RH, 220)


“His doctrine that the Logos was first ‘silent’ in God and later was put forth to become ‘articulate’ … is not really identical with the earlier (originally Stoic) doctrine of Word immanent and Word proceeding.” (RH, 227)


For Marcellus, “the only-begotten Son” was equal to “Logos + assumed flesh.” (RH, 227) We usually say that the Son was “begotten” in eternity past. But, for Marcellus, the term “begotten” refers to the event, 2000 years ago, when the Logos assumed flesh. Before that event, the “Son” did not exist; only the Logos:

“It was not the Logos that was begotten, but the Son.” (RH, 224) “The Logos was only called Son or Jesus or Christ after the Incarnation.” (RH, 225)

No Human Soul

“There is no reason to conclude that Marcellus saw the necessity of postulating a human psyche in the flesh assumed by the Logos at the Incarnation. … In the extracts quoted by Eusebius the Logos appears to be the subject of all the human experiences of Jesus Christ.” (RH, 229) “might cause us to consider again the conjecture discussed above’ 55, that Marcellus did in his middle or later period admit a human soul to Christ” (RH, 238)

Return to the Father

Marcellus seemed to have later changed his view on this, but in the beginning, he taught that “’this ‘Son’ would, in accordance with 1 Cor 15:28, eventually separate from the Logos and the Logos would return to the Father.” (RH, 225)

“Marcellus set a limit to this period of Christ’s reign. At the end of this reign the flesh of Christ was to be abandoned, the body deserted, and the Logos would return to God from whom he had (before the creation of the world) come forth.” (RH, 226-7) “he played down his more eccentric earlier ideas” (RH, 238)

8.3 Photinus

“Photinus, bishop of Sirmium, is more famous for his tenacity in holding on to his see than for his theological views. He came from Ancyra, was a devoted disciple of Marcellus of Ancyra, and was very popular as a bishop and as an orator.” (RH, 235-6)

He was “censured” and “condemned” in 344, 345, and 347, “but was only ousted and exiled finally … in 351.” (RH, 236)

Human Mind

“He certainly taught that the human body of Jesus had a human mind or soul.” (RH, 236)

One Hypostasis

“The Logos for him was simply a mode of manifestation of the Father, a power or aspect of him not in any serious sense distinct from him.” (RH, 237) “Like Marcellus, he favoured the analogy of a man and his thought for the relation of the Father to the Son.” (RH, 237)

“The Son did not come into existence until the Incarnation and was defined as the whole human being who was born of Mary; Christ had no pre-existence.” (RH, 237)

“Everybody in the ancient world accuses Photinus of reducing Christ to a mere man adopted by God, i.e. the union between Logos and man was one of inspiration and moral agreement only.” (RH, 237)

“He wanted … to avoid saying that the Logos was God as a distinct hypostasis. He may have taught that Christ was only Son of God in the sense that all Christians are.” (RH, 238)

“He was adopted a Son by the Father on account of the pre-eminence of his holy behaviour.” (RH, 238)

Photinus displayed “what could happen to those who insisted rigorously that there was only one hypostasis in the Godhead and how near they were to falling over the precipice of Sabellianism.” (RH, 238)

9 The Behaviour of Athanasius

9.1 Estimates of Athanasius’ Character

A man of Superior Character

The 18th century historian, Edmund Gibbon wrote of Athanasius:

“The Archbishop of Alexandria was patient of labour, jealous of fame, careless of safety; and although his mind was tainted by the contagion of fanaticism, Athanasius displayed a superiority of character and abilities.” (RH, 239)

“The historians of the 19th century were even more laudatory:” (RH, 239)

“Bright mentions ‘the affectionateness which made him so tender and generous as a friend, so patient and equitable as a peacemaker … a truly loveable man.” (RH, 239)

“Gwatkin said of him, ‘Athanasius … was philosopher, statesman and saint in one. Few great men have been so free from littleness or weakness’.” (RH, 240)

A political power-broker

“The twentieth century, however, has in many instance altered the favourable verdict:”

“Schwartz described Athanasius as ‘an obstinate fanatic’ … a political power-broker and not that of a theologian.” (RH, 240)

“Piganiol … evinces a strong prejudice against Athanasius, accusing him of organizing pogroms.” (RH, 240)

“Barnes … charges him with organizing ‘an ecclesiastical mafia.” (RH, 240)

“Klein … points to Athanasius stirring up trouble wherever he went on his return from his first exile, and to his instant resumption of highhanded methods against his opponents.” (RH, 240)

Athanasius’ Bright Side

Brave – “That he had courage, nobody could possibly deny. … He had twice resisted successfully direct orders from the Emperor Constantine” (RH, 241)

Powerful – “At the end of his life he had reached a position when the threats and measures of Julian and Valens, Emperors though they were, could do him little damage.” (RH, 241)

Tenacity – “And as far as tenacity of purpose goes, his career speaks for itself.” (RH, 241-2)

Attractive – “he must have been a singularly attractive personality when he chose to appear so, because on more’ than one occasion he disarmed the hostility of Constantine in a personal interview, and he had no difficulty in winning the Emperor Constans over to his cause in personal contact with him.” (RH, 242)

Athanasius’ Darker Side

“There is, however, a darker side to Athanasius’ character:” (RH, 242)

Religiously Intolerant – “He refused to allow Arians or Melitians to meet for worship wherever he could prevent them. This contrasts with the tolerance of the Arian bishop of Antioch, Euzoius, who allowed both Melitians and continuing Eustathians in Antioch churches to worship in.” (RH, 242)

Abusive – “Athanasius’ abuse of his opponents … sometimes reaches almost the point of hysteria.” For example, in letters, he violently denigrated “Gregory his rival in Alexandria.” “In his De Sententia Dionysii he tries to buttress a weak case by more than usually ferocious language about his opponents; amid a chapter ‘consisting of sheer abuse devoid of argument, he reaches a climax of vituperation: ‘Who could possibly then call these, whose leader is the devil, Christians, and not rather agents of the devil?’” (RH, 243)

Hatred – “In one of his later Festal Letters, while formally urging his flock not to indulge in hate, he expresses a venomous hatred of Jews and Arians.” (RH, 243)

Mix Church and State – Athanasius complained about the emperors’ interference when they opposed him but “Athanasius himself never refused Imperial support when he could obtain it from Constantine, from Constantius and from Jovian. Indeed at the Council of Tyre in 335 he directly appealed from an ecclesiastical court to the emperor.” (RH, 243-4)

Deception – “It is difficult to acquit Athanasius from the charge of having on occasion used equivocation [evasion], not to say mendacity [deception].” (RH, 244) For example:

“His constant attempts to represent the case against him as a thinly-disguised doctrinal opposition when in fact it was invariably founded, not on his theological views, but on the manner in which he administered his see.” (RH, 244)

“The Westerners at Sardica (AD 343) had … unequivocally stated that there is only one hypostasis in God.” (RH, 245) “At the Council of Alexandria of 362,” however, Athanasius stated “that ‘the Council made no such statement’. … Athanasius was … present at the Council of Serdica in 343, and he must have known that this statement was untrue.” (RH, 244-5) “Athanasius … for several years after 343 held this belief (there is only one hypostasis in God). But by 362 he had realized that to maintain a doctrine of one hypostasis only without qualification would be to antagonize unnecessarily a large section of basically orthodox opinion in the Eastern Church … He therefore made this unblushing misstatement.” (RH, 245)

“A not dissimilar unscrupulousness is evidenced when Athanasius accuses the Arians of depriving the Father of both Logos and Wisdom and of honouring the locust more than the Saviour.” (RH, 245)

9.2 Athanasius’ Career to the Council of Tyre

Separate article – Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against the Melitians.

9.3 From the Council of Tyre to the Council of Rome

Separate article – Athanasius was deposed by the East but vindicated by the West

10.3 The Council of Serdica – AD 343

In a separate article, I summarized this section with Lewis Ayres’ discussion of this council.

11 Attempts at Creed-Making: Phase 2: 350-357

11.1 Constantius II

Emperor’s role:

The 350s were “dominated by the figure of the Emperor Constantius II.” (RH, 315) “In the year 350 a political revolution … resulted within a few years in his being undisputed master of the whole Roman Empire and alone responsible for the policy exercised by the Roman government towards the Christian church and its warring factions.” (RH, 315)

“Constantine died in May 337.” (RH, 315) His three sons, “Constantius II, Constantine II and Constans,” “parcelled out the Empire among themselves” in September 337. (RH, 316) Constantius received the eastern part of the empire. (RH, 316)

“In the year 350 … Magnentius, a general of barbarian ancestry … engineered a coup d’etat in which his troops hailed him as Emperor; he succeeded in capturing and killing Constans.” (RH, 316) “By the end of the year (Magnentius) had gained control of the whole Western Empire.” (RH, 316-7)

“In the summer of 351 he (Constantius) was able to gain a decisive victory over the army of Magnentius.” (RH, 317) After some further setbacks, “in August 353 (Magnentius) was compelled to commit suicide. Constantius was now in control of the whole Roman Empire.” (RH, 317)

“The character of Constantius has mostly been painted by historians in dark colours.” (RH, 318) He was described as weak and cruel, “a full-blooded Arian,” ruling the church with “brutal despotism.” (RH, 318) (Travesty:)

Hanson discusses Constantius’ “atrocities” on several pages; particularly in the writings of Athanasius, Hilary, and “Lucifer of Calaris,” who was “the most ferocious accuser of Constantius.” (RH, 319-321)

Hanson also discusses several indications “that Constantius was, by the standard of the late Roman Emperors, tolerant and even at times merciful” (RH, 321) and concludes “that Constantius had a reputation for mildness.” (RH, 322) “Constantius was remarkably tolerant to Hilary.” (RH, 322) “The most remarkable instance of Constantius’ mildness is, however, his treatment of Lucifer of Calads.” (RH, 322) Lucifer openly defied Constantius’ “dignity and authority” (RH, 323). Constantius’ response was “mild.” (RH, 323)

“Constantius’ conduct did indeed rouse some pro-Nicene writers, such as Athanasius and Ossius, to protest … that the Emperor had no authority over the church, and that people should be permitted to worship as they chose without interference from the State. But Ossius did not protest when Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea were exiled for doctrinal reasons, nor did Athanasius for a moment permit Arians freedom to worship as they chose, and both were quite ready to invoke imperial aid when it suited them.” (RH, 321-2)

“It is even possible to contrast Constantius’ relative mildness with the ferocious coercion more than twenty years later of the Emperor Theodosius.” (RH, 322) (Theodosius:)

Some describe Constantius as “waging war against the homoousios.” Others see “his motives as rather political than doctrinal, formed by a desire to obtain unity in the church.” “Constantius was a devout man.” (RH, 324) “Constantius was not lacking in integrity.” “We must credit him with sincerely desiring the welfare both of the church and of the Empire.” (RH, 324)

“He favoured one solution to the problem of the Christian doctrine of God, that which is best called Homoian, and … he rejected others.” (RH, 324)

11.2 The First Sirmian Creed (351)

Sirmium 351:

Emperor’s role: “The centre of interest as far as doctrine was concerned had shifted, with the Emperor, farther west (than Antioch), first to Sirmium and then to Aries and Milan. While Constantius was in Sirmium in the winter of 351, a Council was held there.” (RH, 325) (By implication, this council was subject to Constantius’ control.)

“For the fifth time Photinus was condemned after a debate held between him and Basil of Ancyra. … Constantius then banished Photinus, and he now ceased to figure in the Arian Controversy.” (RH, 325)

“This Council produced a creed. … The main body of the creed was precisely the same as the Fourth Creed of Antioch of 341. … In the First Sirmian Creed, however, twenty-six more anathemas were added.” (RH, 326) Hanson lists them and then concludes:

One Reality: “Much of this statement … certainly reflects the argument between Basil and Photinus.” (RH, 328) For example, apparently, Photinus argued that, before He was born of Mary, He existed only in the Father’s foreknowledge. (V & IX) In opposition, Basil pointed to statements such as the following to show that the Son had a real existence, distinct from the Father:

        • God said, “Let us make man” (Gen 1:26) (XIV)
        • Yahweh appeared to Abraham. (e.g., Gen 17, 18) (XV)
        • Jacob wrestled with God (Gen 32:24-32). (XVI)
        • The LORD rained from the LORD out of heaven the LORD (Gen 19:24). (XVII)
        • The Lord rained down fire from himself. (Gn 19:24) (XVII)
        • The LORD sits at the right hand of the LORD (Ps 110:1). (XVIII)

[One Reality: Just a personal note: I have associated Photinus with a ‘mere man’ theology. I realize now that a ‘mere man’ theology fits quite well with a “One Reality” theology. In a “One Reality” theology, the Logos does not have a real existence distinct from the Father. It follows that the Logos cannot ‘become flesh’.]

Subordinate: In response, Photinus counters that that implies two Gods (XVIII, XXIII). Basil responded that we do not have two Gods because the Logos is “subordinated to the Father.” (XVIII) (RH, 327)

One Reality: The “main weight” of the anathemas “certainly is directed towards stamping out the doctrines of Photinus and beyond him those of Marcellus and beyond him of Sabellianism generally. (RH, 328) For example, apparently, Photinus argued that:

        • “The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one Person.” (XIX-XXII)
        • “The Son is the immanent (inherent) or proceeding Logos of God.” (VIII)
        • The son born from Mary is nothing more than a normal human being. (IX)

[Comment from me: Photinus, Marcellus, and Sabellius were three versions of One Reality’ theology.]

Hanson continues: “Three could be said to strike at extreme Arianism (XIV, XII, XIV).” (RH, 328) (Here, Hanson got his numbers wrong.) For example:

        • “The Son of God came into existence … like one of the things made.” (XXIV)

Homoousios Unimportant: “Most significant of all, perhaps, is the appearance of anathemas directly and explicitly aimed at N, which had introduced the term ousia and its cognates into discourse about the doctrine of God (III, VI, VII, XXV, XXVI).” (RH, 328) “This creed marks a definite shift towards a more sharply anti-Nicene doctrine.” (RH, 328)

Hanson does not say who attended the council or compiled the creed but he says that “the authors of this creed may have hoped to persuade the Western bishops ….” (RH, 328) This implies that the council was at least ‘eastern’ dominated. This is supported by the prominent role that Basil of Ancyra had. 

11.3 The Councils of Aries (353) and of Milan (355)


“Constantius found himself committed to spending an indefinite period governing the Western Empire.” “He inaugurated a policy of persuading or coercing the churches of the West into agreement, or a semblance of agreement, with those of the East.” (RH, 329)

“It has been much debated whether at this point he contented himself with attempting to induce the western bishops to renounce their support of Athanasius, or whether he demanded from them acceptance of some doctrinal formula as well as renunciation of Athanasius.” (RH, 329)

Hanson quotes “some formulae put forward by Eastern bishops” from Hilary’s writings:

“There is one ingenerate God the Father and one only Son, God from God, Light from Light, first-born of all creation, and the Holy Spirit the Comforter.” (RH, 330-1)

While “Constantius was at Aries in the autumn of 353,” he called a council “attended by several Western bishops.” At this council “Paulinus of Treves alone refused to sign, and was exiled.” (RH, 332) Weet nie wat

“Liberius, bishop of Rome” WAS Constantius’ “most formidable opponent” (RH, 334)

14 The Doctrine of Athanasius

14.4 The Incarnation

‘Space-suit Christology

In Athanasius’ view:

“The Logos determined to take to himself a human body.    He appropriated the body as an instrument … living in it. He delivered this body to death. … Just as some great monarch … live in one of its houses …. so the Logos by dwelling in this body …” (RH, 446)

“The Logos … did not suffer and remained impassible in a passible body.” (RH, 455)

“The Logos takes to himself a body (whose mind or soul, we shall see, is virtually ignored) … permitting the body to endure normal human experiences … but himself unaffected by these experiences.” (RH, 447-8)

“The Logos is by nature incapable of human experience. … He himself remains what he is; impassible by nature.” (RH, 448)

Hanson says:

“We can properly describe this doctrine as a ‘Space-suit Christology. … His relation to the body is no closer that than an astronaut to his space-suit.” (RH, 447-8)

What is inside that body?

A Human Mind

“All the weaknesses and apparent deficiencies of Christ incarnate, cowardice, ignorance, etc, are to be described to Christ’s human body.” (RH, 448)

This sounds as if that body does have a human mind.

“The limitations and weaknesses of the incarnate Christ” Athanasius explained as caused by “the human body.” “Even the ‘highly exalted’ of Phil 2:9 must refer to the flesh of Jesus, which was glorified.” (RH, 449)

That is exactly what Eustathius said: “It is the man who sits at God’s right hand.” (RH, 214)

“Logically Athanasius ought to have said that the human body was capable of making human decisions. But Athanasius will not allow this, he will not admit that Jesus Christ was ‘alterable’. … His failure to recognize the existence of a human mind in Jesus lands him in an absurd and impossible situation. … He was in effect saying that Jesus Christ was not human.” (RH, 449)

“The chief reason for Athanasius’ picture of Jesus being so completely unconvincing is of course that, at least till the year 362, it never crossed his mind that there was any point in maintaining that Jesus had a human soul or mind.” (RH, 451)

“In his Tomus ad Antiochenos 7 (PG 26:804-5) he did formally acknowledge that Christ’s human body was not soulless.” (RH, 451-2)

“But it is now widely admitted that this realization of the necessity of allowing a human soul to Jesus came to Athanasius only late and had no effect at all on his thinking before the year 362. Before that date it does not occur to him to admit such a thing.” (RH, 452)

“When his opponents cite examples of Jesus asking questions in apparent want of information, Athanasius admits that it is the property of the flesh to be ignorant, as of the Godhead to be omniscient, but he will not follow the logical consequences of his admission [namely, that Jesus had a human mind], and tries to show that Jesus was not really ignorant.” (RH, 453)

“Dealing with Mark 13:32 (‘About that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son; only the Father) Athanasius labours to show that the text does not mean what it quite obviously does mean.” (RH, 454)

“Does Athanasius think that Christ was really afraid? Only minds can fear, not mindless bodies. It seems likely that what he really thought was that Christ could not have been afraid; his divine mind cast out all fear which his human part might be thought to experience. He only pretended to fear just as he only pretended to be ignorant.” (RH, 455)

“Even in this work, where he appears to acknowledge formally the existence of a human mind in Jesus, when it comes to the crux he will not do so.” (RH, 455)

“Stead suggests that he avoided the subject because Marcellus had allowed Jesus a human soul.” (RH, 453)

Not a Human Being

Athanasius wrote: “’He was not subject to moral law, he did not weigh two choices, preferring one, rejecting another … as one with freewill’.” (RH, 449)

“Athanasius involves hlmself in the most far-fetched explanations to explain away some of the texts which obviously represents Jesus as having faith.” (RH, 450)

“We must conclude that whatever else the Logos incarnate is in Athanasius’ account of him, he is not a human being.” (RH, 451)

M Richard wrote: “’It must therefore be frankly acknowledged that his [Athanasius’] authority as a theologian of the Incarnation has been exaggerated. As far as the human psychology of Christ is concerned, it evidently does not exist’” (RH, 452)

Other Points

“When Christ was anointed with the Spirit at his baptism, ‘he was giver and receiver, giving as God the Logos, receiving as man’.” (RH, 449)

“One of the curious results of this theology of the Incarnation is that it almost does away with a doctrine of the Atonement … rendered it unnecessary. … Of course Athanasius believes in the Atonement, in Christ’s death as saving, but he cannot really explain why Christ should have died.” (RH, 450)

“Athanasius does not actually reach the point of envisaging two natures in Jesus Christ.  A wholly divine Being inhabiting as a space-suit, or even as if dwelling in a house, a human body whose mind or soul is not brought into play cannot really be said to be subsisting in two natures.” (RH, 456)

23 The Council of Constantinople of 381

This chapter describes the conditions leading up to the Council of Constantinople in 381.

15.1 Hilary of Poitiers: His Career and Works

“We must now turn our attention to those in the Latin-speaking West who also undertook the defence of that creed, and among them indisputably the greatest was Hilary of Poitiers.” “He was made bishop of Poitiers about the year 353.” (RH, 459)

At first, he was not aware of the Controversy.

“It is most unlikely that he took any part either in the Council of Arles of 353 or in the Council of Milan of 355. Indeed he does not seem to have been aware of the issues which were agitating the minds of his contemporaries in the East. … It is well known that in one of the works written in the middle of his career as a bishop he tells us that he did not know N until he was about to go into exile.” (RH, 460)

Saturninus of Arles

“He publicly excommunicated the chief executor of Constantinus’ policy in Gaul, Saturninus bishop of Arles” (RH, 461) “It is likely that the Council of Biterrae was convened partly at least to enable other bishops to hear why Hilary had taken the drastic step of excommunicating Saturninus. … All that Biterrae can have done, then, was to refuse to support Hilary in his excommunication of Saturninus and to reverse the sentence which he had passed on him” (461-2)

“Some little time later, however, Saturninus, whom Hilary consistently regarded as his enemy, informed Constantius of Hilary’s conduct, and this resulted in a sentence of exile being passed on him.” (RH, 462-3)

“After the Council of Constantinople early in 360 Hilary was allowed to return from exile to his own see. … This is just one more example of Constantius’ tolerance.” (RH, 464)

Measures against Arianism

“On returning to Gaul, Hilary occupied himself with active measures to combat Arianism in Gaul. The Western Empire … was now under the control of Julian … who was in no mood to act as if he was subordinate to his Augustus, Constantius. It is probable that he at least put no obstacle in the way of the efforts of Hilary … and to reverse the effect of the Council of Ariminum which Constantius had called.” (RH, 465)

A Letter

“Hilary gives us the text of a letter sent by this council (Paris, 360 or 361) … to the Eastern bishops.” (RH, 465)

“They deplore the fact that several bishops in the East are as a result of the councils of Ariminum and Nice compelled to eschew (avoid)  the use of the word ousia.” (RH, 465)

“They disown Sabellianism which teaches a union (unio) of Father and Son, but they profess a unity (unitas) instead.” (RH, 465)

“They do not think of the Son as part of the Father.” (RH, 465)

“They insist on the use of the term unius usiae vel substantiae (of one ousia or substance) … ‘because he must be from (God) himself, as a Son from a Father, a God from God.” (RH, 465)

“We must realize not a union but a unity of Godhead, because a union signifies singularity (sit singularis) but unity the fullness of him who is born according to the truth of his birth’.” (RH, 465-6)

“They also reject ‘he did not exist before he was born’, and yet do not regard the only-begotten God as ingenerate (innascibilem). (RH, 466)

Auxentius of Milan

“In the year 364 he (Hilary) attempted to have Auxentius, bishop of Milan, deposed for heresy. His attempt was unsuccessful. A new Emperor, Valentinian I, was now in control of the West. His ecclesiastical policy was as far as possible to remain neutral without involving himself in controversy. … It was to him that Hilary appealed. … The Emperor ordered a quaestor and a magister with ten bishops to investigate.” (RH, 466)

“Valentinus dismissed the case … and ordered Hilary to return to Gaul (and cease to make a nuisance of himself). … His interference in a see and a province of the church quite removed from his must have roused resentment.” (RH, 467)

“Under the rule of Julian and in the years immediately succeeding his death, now that Constantius’ hand was removed … a regime favourable to the proNicene cause was established everywhere west of the Balkan provinces.” (RH, 467)

In the remainder of this section, Hanson discusses “what precisely Hilary wrote” (RH, 468) and fixing the dates” (RH, 469). I did not attempt to summarise this discussion.

15.2 Hilary’s Theology: Introduction

Philosophy – Hilary was “wholly divorced from philosophical speculation. He was no Platonist.” (RH, 471) “He rejected and suspected all pagan philosophy … and regarded the Scriptures as the source of all true philosophy.” (RH, 472)

Reason – “He regarded Christianity as ‘a liberation from the limits of pure reason … and he thought of the Arians as unhappily restricted within these limits’.” (RH, 472)

Tertullian vs Origen – “Hilary relies constantly on Tertullian: he followed him in almost every detail.” (RH, 472) “At least till he went into exile, then, Hilary’s sources were all Latin.” (RH, 472) “Influence of Origen … is not at all visible in his interpretation of Scripture.” (RH, 472)

Arianism – “He certainly knew something about Arian teaching when he wrote his Commentary on Matthew, but was equally certainly not aware of the full implications of the issue at stake in the controversy.” (RH, 472-3)

Athanasius – “It is difficult to see any clear influence of Athanasius’ thought on Hilary.” (RH, 473) “It is perhaps wisest to assume that Hilary did not have any first-hand acquaintance with Athanasius’ works.” (RH, 473)

Allegory – “He allegorizes, of-course, but in a mode quite different from that of Origen.” (RH, 473) “There are places in the Commentary on Matthew where Hilary directly repudiates the literal sense.” (RH, 474)

“In short, then, the intellectual influences which formed Hilary’s mind were more Latin than Greek.” (RH, 475)


23.1 Imperial Policy before the Council

This first section discusses the views and influence of the emperors preceding Theodosius:


“Valens (364-378) … was a convinced Homoian Arian. … When he thought it feasible he used his power to promote his favourite doctrine and suppress others.” For example, “he banished Gregory from Nyssa” but “did not dislodge Basil in Caesarea nor Athanasius in Alexandria.” (RH, 791) “His chosen ecclesiastical advisers … were no friends to Neo-Arianism.” (RH, 791-2) “But his efforts at persecution were sporadic and unpredictable.” (RH, 792)

“A particular target of Valens’ harassment was Meletius, that Benedict Arnold (betrayer) of the Homoian party.” (RH, 792) “In 370 or 371, under pressure from a renewed policy of enforcing theological uniformity on the part of Valens, Meletius again retired from Antioch to his estate in Armenia, where we have met him already conferring with Basil and Theodotus.” (RH, 792) Hanson refers to “Basil’s friendship with Meletius.” (RH, 792-3) “Meletius returned from his last exile in 378.” (RH, 793)


“Valentinian (364-375), the brother and co-emperor of Valens, tried not to involve himself … in quarrels among the Christians.” (RH, 793)

“If we are to trust Theodoret, Valentinian committed himself strenuously to the pro-Nicene cause when he presided over a church council somewhere in Illyricum … which produced a resoundingly pro-Homoousian statement. … But … it seems preferable … (to) dismiss the whole passage as wholly untrustworthy” (RH, 793-4)


“Gratian was formally made Augustus when he was eight years old, in 367, but he only exercised power from 375 onwards, on the death of his father Valentinian, when he was sixteen. … Until 379 he followed the policy of non-intervention in ecclesiastical affairs practised by his father. In 378, he … issued an Edict declaring toleration for all the diverse views of Christian parties except Manichees, Photinians and Eunomians.” (RH, 794)

“But next year (379) … he was perhaps influenced by the series of sermons which Ambrose was … delivering against those who deny the divinity of the Holy Spirit.” (RH, 795) “Gratian had come to regard Ambrose as his guide, philosopher and friend. … It is … likely that, despite his admiration for Ambrose, he continued broadly his policy of tolerating within wide limits differences within Christianity at this period.” (RH, 795)

So, in conclusion, the emperors before the time of Theodosius were fairly tolerant of differing views. This is in contrast to Theodosius’ approach, discussed below.

23.2 Abortive Attempts at Agreement

This section discusses developments in the Pro-Nicene camp during the years before Theodosius. This is important because, already in the year before the Council of Constantinople in 381, emperor Theodosius made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire and outlawed all other forms of Christianity. The question arises, which theologian advised Theodosius? Clearly, it was a Pro-Nicene theologian but Hanson describes two factions in the pro-Nicene camp leading up to Theodosius’ edicts. The question is, which of those two factions advised Theodosius?


Liberius, bishop of Rome (died 366), on returning to his see after his … exile, remained quiescent, as far as we know, until Constantius was dead (361) and the Homoian Arian party no longer securely in control of ecclesiastical affairs, before he made any important move.” (RH, 795-6)

In “the year 362 or 363 … he issued a Letter to the Bishops of Italy … inviting them to return to the true faith and accept N. It regarded the Council of Ariminum as a disastrous lapse into heresy.” (RH, 796)


“Liberius died in 366. He was succeeded by Damasus, an adherent of the party of Felix, not of Liberius, and he only succeeded after fierce fighting between the two factions. He reached the see of Rome by walking over the corpses of the faction-fighters.” (RH, 796)

“Damasus … was a convinced, indeed an aggressive, supporter of Nicene doctrine. He quickly began to devote his energies to suppressing Arianism and promoting the cause of the proponents of N.” (RH, 796)

“Within a few years (after Nicaea) there is a near-fifteen year absence before the creed is mentioned again.” (LA, 100) But it was brought back into the debate as part of what Ayres calls Athanasius’ “masterpiece of the rhetorical art.” (LA, 106-7) See Ayres 5.1 The Creation of ‘Arianism’. The fact that Damasus defends the Nicene Creed indicates Athanasius’ influence.

Damasus, however, was not able to eliminate all opposition to the Nicene Creed. For example, he “never succeeded in deposing these three bishops (Auxentius, Ursacius, and Valens) who continued to hold their sees serenely until their deaths.” (RH, 797)

Factions within the Pro-Nicene Camp

“Determined, but sadly ineffectual efforts were made by Basil of Caesarea to bring about reconciliation and consensus in the East and between the East and the West between the years 371 and 377.” (RH, 797)

However, that was not limited to disagreements between Pro-Nicene and Anti-Nicenes. Hanson’s focus is specifically on two factions within the Pro-Nicene camp. He spends a few pages on what he calls an “apparently fruitless interchange between these two eminent men (Damasus and Basil).” (RH, 800) Both of them were pro-Nicene.

The leaders of the one faction were mainly Damasus, bishop of Rome, and Athanasius. On the other side was mainly Basil, bishop of Caesarea.


Hanson says that the dispute between Damasus and Basil was partly due to personalities:

“We have already had occasion to remark upon at once the resemblance and the incompatibility of their temperaments.” Basil described Damasus as “a haughty man.” “Simonetti says of Damasus, ‘authoritarian and superficial.” (RH, 800)

But I will show below that the main reason for this split within the Pro-Nicene camp was that Damasus and Athanasius were one hypostasis (One Reality or Person) theologians while Basil believed in three hypostases (three Realities or Persons).

Evidence of Conflict

The following confirms that Damasus and Basil opposed one another:

Damasus stated “that Basil’s letters addressed to the West were returned as unacceptable.” (RH, 798)

“A confession of faith (was sent) from Damasus which Basil was to sign without altering a single word.” “Basil replied to this demand in a polite but biting letter.” (RH, 798)

Basil and Athanasius also opposed one another:

“Basil writes letters to Athanasius asking him to approach Damasus and assist Basil’s overtures. None of them was answered and nothing came of them.” (RH, 797)

Three Hypostases

The following shows that, while Damasus was a one hypostasis theologian, Basil and his friend Meletius believed in three hypostases:

In a letter to Basil, “Damasus sent a very cool reply … deliberately avoided making any statement about the three hypostases. It was the adhesion of Basil, Meletius and their followers to this doctrine of the hypostases which caused Damasus … to suspect them of heresy.” (RH, 798)

The Bishop of Antioch

The two factions disagreed about who the rightful bishop of Antioch was. This also reveals that the dispute was primarily about the number of hypostases in the Godhead. Damasus and Athanasius supported Paulinus because he was a ‘one hypostasis’ theologian, while Basil opposed Paulinus for that same reason.

Damasus’ support for Paulinus:

In 375, Damasus wrote a letter which “constituted also an official recognition of Paulinus, not Meletius, as bishop of Antioch.” (RH, 799) Paulinus was “Marcellan/Sabellian.” (RH, 799) He derived “his tradition in continuity from Eustathius who had been bishop about forty years before” (RH, 800-1).

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (LA, 69)

Athanasius’ support for Paulinus:

Basil and Athanasius also disputed over who the rightful bishop of Antioch was; Meletius or Paulinus:

“Basil would not desert Meletius and Athanasius would not recognize him (Meletius) as bishop of Antioch.” (RH, 797)

Paulinus “was recognized as legitimate bishop of Antioch by Athanasius. Later, Athanasius’ successor Peter extended the same recognition to him and persuaded Damasus to do the same.” (RH, 801)

Damasus was a generation younger than Athanasius but note the link in the previous quote between them through Athanasius’ successor Peter. This is confirmed by the following quote:

“In May 373 Athanasius died, Peter his successor was driven out, fled to Rome, and proceeded to poison the mind of Damasus against Basil and Meletius.” (RH, 798)

Basil opposed Paulinus

But Basil opposed Paulinus because Paulinus taught only one hypostasis:

“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.” (RH, 801)

This quote also confirms that Basil believed in three hypostases. See also my question – Did the Cappadocians teach one or two substances?

Support for Marcellans

The theologies of Damasus, Athanasius, and Basil are also reflected in their support or opposition to the Marcellans. The ”watch-word” of “these disciples of Marcelius … had always been ‘only one hypostasis in the Godhead’.” (RH, 802)

Since they believed in only one hypostasis, Damasus and Athanasius supported the Marcellans:

Basil wrote a letter that “contained some shafts directed at Damasus because of his toleration of Eustathius and the Marcellans.” (RH, 799)

“Basil was never sure in his own mind that Athanasius had abandoned Marcellus of Ancyra and his followers.” (RH, 797)

“In a letter written to Athanasius he (Basil of Caesarea) complains that the Westerners have never brought any accusation against Marcellus.” (RH, 802)

“About the year 371 adherents of Marcellus approached Athanasius, presenting to him a statement of faith. … He accepted it and gave them a document expressing his agreement with their doctrine.” (RH, 801)

The Question

So, given these two factions within the Pro-Nicene camp; one supporting three hypostases (Basil and Meletius) and one supporting only one hypostasis (Athanasius and Damasus), on which of these two factions did Theodosius rely for his theology? Given Theodosius’ description of the Trinity doctrine in the imperial edicts, was Theodosius’ theology similar to Damasus’ one hypostasis theology or Basil’s three hypostasis theology?

Hanson closes the section by saying, finally, “he (Basil) finally accepted them (the Marcellans) as orthodox.” (RH, 802) Did Basil later accept a ‘one hypostasis’-theology?

23.3 The Beginning of a Consensus

“Damasus had held several councils in Rome in the decade 370-380 … and finally that which produced the Tomus Damasi in 377 or 378. Though he never lost an opportunity in his official utterances to make a hit at Meletius, Damasus’ doctrine in fact was far from uncongenial to the minds of pro-Nicene bishops in the East.” (RH, 802-3)

Our sources for “the council which Meletius convened at Antioch in 379 … are curiously meagre.” (RH, 803) “We do not know what statement this council promulgated, but it must have been one favouring the cause of the Council of Nicaea and indicating that the Western bishops were in agreement with this policy. It certainly was intended to indicate to the newly-created Eastern Emperor Theodosius the way in which many influential people in the East hoped that he would move.” (RH, 803-4) 

[In the previous section, Hanson described the rivalry between Damasus and Meletius. The previous paragraph implies that Theodosius learned his theology from Meletius.

Theodosius’ father, “also called Theodosius, had been a general in the imperial army who had given distinguished service in suppressing rebellions and restoring order.” (RH, 804)

Theodosius “was declared Emperor and Augustus (i.e. equal with, not subordinate to, Gratian) on January 19th 379.” (RH, 804)

“In February 380, when he was residing in Thessalonica, he issued an edict known as Cunetos Populos which declared the proNicene doctrine of the Trinity to be the official doctrine of the Roman Empire, and named Damasus of Rome and Peter of Alexandria as the two episcopal norms of doctrine. … His subjects were ordered to believe ‘the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within (sub) an equal majesty and an orthodox (pia) Trinity’. Heretics would be punished.” (RH, 804)

“On November 24th 380 he entered Constantinople and instantly … the Arian bishop of that city … Demophilus … was driven out of the city. At about the same time the Arian Lucius was chased out of Alexandria.” (RH, 804-5)

“In January 381 Meletius … entered Constantinople. It seems likely that he had already concerted a plan with Theodosius.” (RH, 805) [Again, the implication of a link between Meletius and Theodosius)

“On January 10th Theodosius issued an edict … known as Nullis haereticis. No church was to be occupied for worship by any heretics, no heretics were to gather together for worship within the walls of any town.” (RH, 805)

“The correct Nicene faith was described … as: ‘He who professes the Nicene faith … who confesses God Almighty and Christ his Son in one Name … who does not blaspheme the Holy Spirit … by denying him … the undivided substance … of the pure Trinity” (RH, 805)

Hanson does not say who prepared these statements for Theodosius. In the previous section (chapter 23.2), Hanson describes the rivalry between two groups in the Pro-Nicene camp, with Damasus of Rome and Meletius of Antioch as the leaders of the two factions. For the following reasons, I believe that Theodosius’ theology was derived from Athanasius via Damasus:

Theodosius’ theology seems ‘One Reality’ in form. It refers to “’the single divinity” and “the undivided substance.” It does not offer any language to distinguish between the Father, Son, and Spirit. So, this is not Basil’s ‘Three Reality’-theology.

Theodosius explicitly refers to “Damasus of Rome and Peter of Alexandria as the two episcopal norms of doctrine.” I assume, therefore, that Theodosius learned his theology from them and both of them were influenced by Athanasius.

Theodosius’ statement “does not require … an acceptance of a belief in the divinity of the Holy Spirit” = Basil or both?

In the next section, the meeting began with Meletius as chair but he soon ‘died’. In his place as bishop of Antioch, Gregory, who the emperor accepted as bishop of Constantinople, proposed Paulinus, who was the leader of the ‘one hypostasis’ party in Antioch

“Perhaps the most remarkable point about this statement is that it does not require, at least on the surface, an acceptance of a belief in the divinity of the Holy Spirit.” (RH, 805)

“The Emperor next summoned a council of the Eastern Church (not including Egypt) to meet in May in Constantinople.” (RH, 805)

23.4 The Council of Constantinople

It was a local council; not ecumenical.

“The Council of Constantinople met during May, June and July 381.” (RH, 805) “Only about 150 bishops attended and they appear to have been carefully chosen from areas which would be friendly to Meletius, who was its president, that is areas under the influence of the see of Antioch.” (RH, 806) Hanson refers to the “tenuous contact which the council might have been thought to have with the see of Rome.” (RH, 807)

“Negotiations with the Macedonians … were undertaken but no agreement could be reached and the Macedonian bishops, about 30 in number, left the council.” (RH, 807)

NOTE: In other words, it was not an ecumenical council, as usually claimed. It was a regional council of Antioch.

The emperor controlled the meeting.

“Theodosius welcomed the participants in his magnificent throne-room in the Imperial palace, but the Council did not meet there. … After receiving the bishops, Theodosius did not appear at any session of the Council, but remained in the wings, as it were, holding a watching brief.” (RH, 806)

“The first act of the Council was to affirm that Gregory of Nazianzus was the Catholic and legitimate bishop of Constantinople.” (RH, 806)

NOTE: Already in the previous year. Theodosius exiled the Arian bishop and accepted Gregory as bishop.

Bishop of Antioch

“During the council Meletius suddenly died, and Gregory of Constantinople was chosen to succeed him as president of the council. Gregory wanted the council to elect Paulinus in place of Meletius as bishop of Antioch, but it preferred to choose Flavian. … Exasperated … Gregory resigned both as president of the council and as bishop of Constantinople.” (RH, 807)

Paulinus had been for years steadily supported by Damasus and Peter against Meletius, the leader of the party of the Easterners at the council. Considerable antagonism between him and the followers of Meletius must have been aroused.” (RH, 810) Flavian was “a prominent presbyter of the party of Paulinus.” (RH, 810)

NOTE: It is interesting that Gregory proposed Paulinus because they were on the opposing sides of the Meletian Schism. Perhaps it was an instruction from the emperor. His Edict of Thessalonica took Paulinus’ part of that schism.

“It is wholly improbable that the bishop of Alexandria would have attended the council as long as Meletius was presiding over it, and if the bishop of Thessalonica regarded himself as in any sense representing the bishop of Rome (and he may have done so), it is not likely that he would have been content to attend a council with Meletius at the head of it either.” (RH, 808-9)

NOTE: This relates to the Meletian Schism; a schism within the Pro-Nicene camp. While the bishops of Alexandria and Rome taught one Rational Faculty, Meletius and Basil of Caesarea taught three.

Considering the previous sections, it seems as if the ‘one hypostasis’ faction won the day and that Meletius chaired the meeting under duress.


In the place of Gregory, “the bishops of the council chose an unbaptised catechumen, an imperial civil servant, Nectarius, who then became president of the council.” (RH, 807)

“The Council found itself in a quandary over the choice of a new bishop of the capital city. … They finally picked … an unbaptised layman, Nectarius, who had been praetor urbanus in Constantinople. It was as if today the cardinals had chosen as Pope … the mayor of Rome. The Egyptians and Westerners could not object because they had acquiesced seven years ago at the choice for the important see of Milan of an unbaptised officer in the imperial service, Ambrose. Nectarius was … the protege of Diodore … supporting the Eustathian cause in Antioch. … The bishop-elect was hastily baptised and ordained.” (RH, 811)

NOTE: That the Council elected a civil servant as chairperson shows the unity of church and state. It shows the control which the emperor had on the council.

Note also that Nectarius was a supporter of “the Eustathian cause.” Eustathius was the most senior Sabellian at Nicaea. 

“The council re-affirmed N but also produced the creed C. … All this lasted three months from May to July 381.” (RH, 807)

The council agreed that “the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy precedence in honour next after the bishop of Rome because it is the New Rome’.” (RH, 808)


23.5 The Creed Of Constantinople

“What Apollinaris denied was that the incarnate Son possessed a human soul or mind.” (RH, 817)

24: The Development of Doctrine

24.1 The Influence of Scripture

Hanson says that he refuses to take sides because “the subject of the Arian controversy has suffered from a great deal too much partisanship at the hands of those who have written about it.” (RH, 824) For example, Gwatkin’s statement “that the Arians were morally deficient because most of their extant literature is purely polemical” is “a remark whose silliness needs no comment.” (RH, 824)

Concerning “the forces playing upon the actors in this sixty-year-long drama,” this section examines the influence of the Bible. (RH, 825)

Practices Applicable to All

All sides in the Controversy “expected to find direct prophecies of Christ in all parts of the Old Testament. The key text, Prov 8:22, for instance, was allowed by everybody to refer to Christ, whereas we today would hesitate to regard it as more than, on the most liberal interpretation, a possible faint foreshadowing of him.” (RH, 825)

“All parties regarded the Bible as inerrant as far as it was possible to do so.” (RH, 825)

“All parties tend to read the ideas and doctrine of their own day into the earliest period of Christianity.” For example, “This is as clear in the statement of Hilary that all the apostles taught the eternity of the Son.” (RH, 826)

“There were … some positively grotesque interpretation.” Hanson mentions examples from Ambrose, Cyril, Athanasius and Hilary. (RH, 826)

Arians emphasized Soteriology.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, “the Arians were so much interested in metaphysics … that they ignored soteriology (the Doctrine of Salvation), whereas the pro-Nicenes … paid more attention to the doctrine of salvation. Simonetti has rightly rejected this theory.” The opposite is true. “The Arians … made a serious effort to meet the evidence of the Bible that God suffers, whereas the ”general impression which the writings of the pro-Nicenes produces is that this is the last admission which they wish to make.” (RH, 826-7)

Arians kept to the literal sense of the Bible.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, “the Arians clung blindly and woodenly to Scripture whereas the pro-Nicenes were ready to accept Scripture within the context of tradition and a broad philosophical outlook. There is some truth in this assertion, but it must be modified by several exceptions. The pro-Nicenes often remark on the invariable demand of the Arians for Scriptural proof. … But the pro-Nicene writers are equally insistent upon the unique position of Scripture as a norm of faith.” (RH, 827)

“The pro-Nicenes did indeed appeal to ‘the tradition of the Fathers’, very often meaning the creed N. … It must, however, be remembered that the Arians also appealed to tradition.” (RH, 826)

“Nobody rejected allegorization altogether.” (RH, 826) Allegorizing “tends to read meanings into the text which are good in themselves but are simply not present in the text.” (RH, 829)

“A number of passages from pro-Nicene writers can be produced which make them seem as devout observers of the text of the Bible as any Arian.” For example, “earnest but futile attempts are made to prove that the Bible really does use the word ousia or substantia.” (RH, 829)

“But when all is said and done, it must be conceded that the Arians are less inclined to use allegory than the pro-Nicenes.” Hanson thinks that allegorization is good and that only “less intellectual and less sophisticated” people do not use allegorize the text of the Bible. (RH, 830) The Arians “take refuge again and again in the literal sense of the Holy Scriptures’ says Athanasius.” (RH, 830) “’We do not call the Holy Spirit God’ says an Arian writer, ‘because the Bible does not say so, but subservient to God the Father and obedient in all things to the commands of the Son as the Son is to the Father’.” (RH, 830) “The Arians did certainly tend to regard themselves as the party who kept to the Bible in contrast to the pro-Nicenes who added to it or distorted it.” (RH, 830-1)

Controverted Texts

Hanson gives a list of passages that were “interpreted in different ways by different sides:” (RH, 831-4)

Gn 19:24
‘The Lord rained down … from the Lord’:
Who were these two Lords?”

John 1:14
(‘glory as of the only Son from the Father’)”
What does it mean to be a son? Cf. Isa 1:2; Mal 2:10; Job 38:28

Gn. 1:26
“The First Sirmian Creed also insists that at Gn. 1:26 God is talking to himself and not to his Son.”

Jn 10:30
(The Father and I are one) and Jn 14:7,9, 10, 11, 12.
Is this literal unity or “moral and voluntary solidarity?” Cf. Acts 4:32; 1 Cor 3:8; Jn 17:20 and 21.52.”

Proverbs 8:22 and following:
Was the Son created?

Amos 4:12, 13
Was the Holy Spirit created?

Isaiah 53:8
‘His generation who shall declare?’.
“The Arians use it to deplore attempts to define the Son’s generation in terms of ousia and cognates.”

Ps 45:7 (44:7-8)
(‘ God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows’)
Is the Father the God of God the Son?

Ps 110:1, 3 (109)
‘The Lord said to my Lord’,
“The Father and the Son were two distinct hypostases.”

John 1:1
is naturally the great resort of the pro-Nicenes, but it is used by Eusebius of Caesarea (the leader of the early anti-Nicenes) to express his doctrine of the Logos before the outbreak of the dispute.” (RH, 835) “Arians … argued … that the Logos could not represent ultimate metaphysical reality (‘He who is’) because ‘He who is’ cannot be ‘with’ Him who is.” (RH 835)

John 10:30
(‘I and the Father are One’),
at first sight this looks like a straight-forward pro-Nicene text, but closer investigation shows a rather different picture:”

“Asterius and the Second (‘Dedication’) Creed of 341 … interpret the text as indicating a purely moral unity of consent and will.”

Marcellus, the leading Sabellian, as well as the “Western bishops after Serdica in 343,” Hilary, and Athanasius “applied it to the ontological unity, indeed identity, of the Father and his Logos … and to deny the existence of two hypostases.” (RH, 835)

NOTE: The last quote indicates that Athanasius denied the “existence of two hypostases.” The traditional Trinity doctrine, however, teaches three hypostases. To explain this anomaly:

Hypostasis is a concept from Greek philosophy meaning the fundamental Reality. The core of the dispute in the fourth century was the number of hypostases:

            • The pro-Nicenes, including Alexander, Athanasius, the Westerners, and Sabellians such as Marcellus, taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis, meaning one single Being and one single Rational Faculty.
            • The anti-Nicenes taught three hypostases with three distinct Rational Faculties.
            • Basil of Caesarea and the Cappadocians also taught three hypostases (three Beings) but, while the Arians said that the Son is subordinate ontologically (in terms of substance), Basil said that the Son is ontologically equal to the Father. Basil’s view of three hypostases, while Athanasius and Damasus (bishop of Rome) supported only one, resulted in the Meletian Schism.

The traditional Trinity doctrine, however, uses hypostasis in a different sense. It says that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Being with one single Rational Faculty but three hypostases (or Persons). So, in this doctrine, each hypostasis is no longer a distinct Rational Faculty. The “Persons” are neither hypostases in the fourth-century sense nor Persons in the ordinary sense of that term.

Because of the confusion about the meanings of these terms, this website avoids the terms hypostasis and Person. It rather categorizes views simply in terms of the number of Rational Faculties. In that way, both Athanasius and the traditional Trinity doctrine teach one single Rational Faculty.

John 14:9, 10
(‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ and ‘I am in the Father and the Father in me’).
Those two texts were crucial and capital to Athanasius.” (RH, 835) But the Arians countered that humans are also “in” God: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). All Christians “are ‘in’ Christ, e.g. Jn 4:30; 14:30; 17:11.”

John 14:28
(‘The Father is greater than 1’). …
Marcellus was apparently the first pro-Nicene to apply Jn 14:28 to the incarnate rather than the pre-existent Logos. Athanasius and Hilary follow his example. … Gregory of Nyssa … says that the Father is greater as cause of the Son, but equal in nature. Epiphanius suggests that Christ uttered these words only out of filial respect, not making a statement about the ontological status of either. Arians of course use the text to show the inferiority of the Son.” (RH, 836)

NOTE: Hanson refers to Marcellus, the main Sabellian at the Nicene Council, as a pro-Nicene. He supported the Creed strongly and read the term homoousios as saying that Father and Son are one single substance (Being, Rational Faculty). The ‘Arians’ signed the Creed reluctantly but gave the term homoousios a very different meaning. 

John 17:3
(‘This is eternal life, that they should know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent’).
This is one of the texts most strongly exploited by the Arians. The Logos was certainly God (theos) but not true God. … Against this Athanasius and Hilary and Epiphanius produce an array of texts showing that in other places and in other ways the Bible witnesses to Christ being true God (e.g. ‘I am the way the truth and the life’ (Jn 14:6) and ‘this is the true God and life eternal’ (1 John 5:20). (RH, 836)

Note the negative term “exploited.” Although Hanson claims to be independent, he finds it difficult.

John 20:17
(‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’). …
God the Father is the God of the Son; this was a constantly-repeated doctrine of the Arians. … Athanasius does not pay much attention to it.” Several pro-Nicenes said that “God the Father was the Father and the God of Jesus Christ as man.” (RH, 837)

1 Cor 15:28
(Then all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to everyone’).
This is a text which appears to provide good ground for Arian doctrine.” Hilary and Ambrose “interpret it of the human nature of Christ.” Pro-Nicenes “interpretations here are sometimes far-fetched.” (RH, 837-8)

1 Cor 8:6 and 2 Cor 15:18
Arians claimed that, “where God is named along with Christ and the word ‘through’ is applied to Christ … the Person to whom ‘through’ is applied must be inferior.” (RH, 838)

Incomparability of God

“Arian exegesis also emphasised strongly the uniqueness and incomparability of God the Father.” (E.g., Rom 16:25, Isa 65:16, Jn 17:3, Ex 3:14) (RH, 839)

The Arians used “the Synoptic Gospels so as to bring out the imperfections and limitations of the incarnate Logos, which they attributed to his divine nature, a nature fitted, as they saw it, for becoming incarnate by its very limitations.” (RH, 840) For example:

      • Mk 13:32 – “The Son does not know the hour when heaven and earth are to pass away.”
      • Matt 20:23 – “Jesus confesses his inability to determine who are to occupy the positions of honour near him when his Kingdom comes.” (RH, 841)

Arians had a “strong penchant [liking] … for the Epistle to the Hebrews. This is understandable, because this book represents Jesus as in a sense working out his own salvation and learning obedience through suffering (Heb 5:8).” (RH, 841)

Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory of Nazianzus, dealing with the subordination of the Son, said that “Christ is subordinated … in us who are subordinate … as he is said to be a curse and sin (Gal 3:13; 2 Cor 5:21), because we are so.” And, “the cry of dereliction on the Cross (Matt 27:46) means that we are abandoned for our sins and that Christ is thus far abandoned in us. But he is not really abandoned and does not really dread suffering.” (RH, 846)

In other words, he allegorized away the testimony of Scripture.

Both Gregory and Basil admitted that “the Godhead of the Holy Spirit” is not clearly stated in the Scripture. (RH 846)


“The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they try to show that the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really to be found in Scripture. The Greek speakers cannot pretend that ousia appears in either Septuagint or New Testament, but they rack the Bible to find examples of hypostasis, and when they find it do their best to make the context appear relevant.” (RH, 846) “The best that can be said for this kind of juggling is that it showed the almost desperate desire of the theologians to base their doctrine on Scripture.” (RH, 847)

“The pro-Nicenes were always a little apprehensive of entering the ground of Scripture in encounter with the Arians. … The pro-Nicenes were in consequence much readier to appeal to tradition.” (RH, 847)

“The defenders of the creed of Nicaea … were themselves engaged in forming dogma. … It was only very slowly … that any pro-Nicenes recognized that in forming their doctrine of God they could not possibly confine themselves to the words of Scripture, because the debate was about the meaning of the Bible. (RH, 848)

“The expounders of the text of the Bible are incompetent and ill-prepared to expound it. This applies as much to the wooden and unimaginative approach of the Arians as it does to the fixed determination of their opponents to read their doctrine into the Bible by hook or by crook.” (RH, 848) “The very reverence with which they honoured the Bible as a sacred book stood in the way of their understanding it.” (RH, 849)

NOTE: This sounds important to me. The pro-Nicenes deviated from the Scriptures but attempted to reconcile their views with the Bible. Hanson, as a devout Catholic, seems to say that it is okay to deviate from the Bible: You do not have to reconcile your views with the Bible.

“If the long and involved dispute resulted in leading figures like Athanasius to some extent standing back from the Bible and asking what was its intention, its drift (or skopos), instead of plunging into a discussion of its details based on an imperfect understanding of them, this was a gain and not an unworthy attempt to evade the strict meaning of Scripture.” (RH, 849)


  • 1
    I summarized the Introduction in a separate article.
  • 2
    From the outbreak of the controversy to the Council of Antioch 325
  • 3
    A council of the party of Alexander a few months before Nicaea.
  • 4
    Eustathius was condemned for Sabellianism.
  • 5
    The theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea.
  • 6
    Everybody in the ancient world accuses Photinus of reducing Christ to a mere man adopted by God.
  • 7
    Separate article – Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against the Melitians.
  • 8
    Separate article – Athanasius was deposed by the East but vindicated by the West.
  • 9
    A separate article in which I combined summaries of Ayres’ and RPC Hanson’s discussions of this council.
  • 10
    The views and influence of the emperors at that time
  • 11
    Factions in the Pro-Nicene camp
  • 12
    Emperor Theodosius made an end to the Controversy.
  • 13
    Not ecumenical
  • 14
    While the Pro-Nicenes relied on tradition and allegorization of the Bible, the Arians kept to the literal meaning.

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