Who was Arius?

Overview

The Great Persecution of AD 303-313 was Rome’s final attempt to get rid of Christianity. Only 5 years later, in 318 AD, the Arian Controversy began. That was the church’s most dramatic struggle. It was only brought to an end 62 years later when emperor Theodosius made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire and brutally exterminated all opposition.

Thereafter, Arius became more and more regarded as some kind of Antichrist. However, over the last 100 years, due to new information that has become available, the scholarly view of the Controversy has significantly revised.

Arius’ following was limited to Africa but he had the support of the two most important church leaders of the time: Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea. However, it is perhaps truer to say that his supporters opposed Alexander rather than that they supported Arius. They thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.

Emperor Constantine attempted to restore unity, not because he was interested in ‘the truth’, but because he was worried that the controversy might split his empire apart.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arius was a deliberate radical who created a novel heresy and defective theology. Recently, however, based on ancient documents that have become more readily available, scholars conclude that Arius was a conservative and an exegete of sharpness and originality.

Furthermore, in the traditional account, Arius was an important person. But not even his own supporters thought of him as important. He was not the founder of Arianism nor the leader of a movement. He did not leave a school of disciples. His theology was only relevant in the first 7 years of the controversy. The second and main phase of the Controversy was a dispute, particularly about the word homoousios in the Nicene Creed. In that phase, Arius’ theology were irrelevant.

The reason that Arius is still misunderstood is that so little of his writings survived. Most of what we know about Arius comes from the writings of his enemies, but they misrepresented him.


The Arian Controversy

The Great Persecution (AD 303-313)

During the first three centuries, the Roman Empire persecuted Christianity. The Great Persecution, only the 2nd empire-wide persecution and easily the longest, was led by Diocletian and was Rome’s final attempt to limit the expansion of Christianity across the empire. Beginning around 303, Diocletian’s first edict commanded churches and holy sites razed to the ground, sacred articles burned, and believers jailed.

That persecution of Christians came to an end when Christianity was legalized through Galerius’ Edict of Toleration in 311 followed by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, after Emperor Constantine himself had become a Christian.

Beginning of the Controversy

The Arian Controversy began only 5 years later in 318 when Arius, who was in charge of one of the churches in Alexandria, publicly criticized his bishop Alexander for “carelessness in blurring the distinction of nature between the Father and the Son by his emphasis on eternal generation” 1Lyman, J. Rebecca (2010). “The Invention of ‘Heresy’ and ‘Schism'”. The Cambridge History of Christianity. and of Sabellianism (Legal History Sources).

End of the Controversy

The Controversy around the word homo-ousios in the Nicene Creed divided the church into a number of viewpoints. The pro-Nicenes defended the term, but others said that we should not talk about God’s substance (the Homo-ians), or that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s (the Homoi-ousians), and still said that the Son’s substance is different from the Fathers (the Heter-ousians).

That controversy was brought to an end 62 years after it began by emperor Theodosius who, in the year 380, through the edict of Thessalonica, made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. He wrote that all must:

“Believe in the one deity of the Father,
the Son and the Holy Spirit,

in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.”

End of Arianism

That edict threatened all other Christians with “the punishment of our authority.” This threat was brutally implemented. Opponents to the Trinity doctrine were forbidden to meet and preach and their places of worship were given to those bishops who accepted the Trinity doctrine. Through the Roman Army, Theodosius eliminated all opposition to the Trinity doctrine within the Empire. For a further discussion, see – Theodosius.

That eliminated ‘Arianism’ among the Roman citizens but the Germanic nations – both inside and outside the empire – remained ‘Arian’.

The most dramatic struggle

That entire period of 62 years, from 318 to 380, is known as “the Arian Controversy” and is described as “the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced” (RW, 1).

The doctrine of God is the church’s most fundamental doctrine. So, perhaps this controversy will flame up again in the end-time, when “the image of the beast” will kill those who “do not worship (obey) the image of the beast.” (Rev 13:15)

Purpose

This is an article in the series on the Arian Controversy. This article explains who Arius was and why it is important to learn about him.

Authors

This article series is largely based on three books:

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987 2Trevor Hart wrote about this book: “While contributions have not been wanting, nothing comparable in either scale or erudition exists in the English language … treating in considerable detail … the so-called ‘Arian controversy’ which dominated the fourth century theological agenda.” 3Kermit Zarley described Hanson as “the preeminent authority on the development of the church doctrine of God in the 4th century.” 4Lewis Ayres, Emory University, wrote that this book “has been the standard English scholarly treatment of the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century and the triumph of Nicene theology.

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987 5Lewis Ayres wrote that Williams’ book “offers one of the best recent discussions of the way scholarship on this controversy has developed. (LA, 12)

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

These are world-class scholars and Trinitarians who have made in-depth studies of the Arian Controversy of the fourth century and are regarded as specialists in this field.

Revised Scholarly View

“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (RW, 11-12) Consequently, scholars have come to realize that the traditional textbook account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. For example:

“The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century” (LA, 11). 6“A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years (i.e., as from 1970) has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century.” (LA, 2)

Hanson summarizes this development as follows:

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

The three books listed above reflect this ‘revised’ scholarly view.

Arius’ History

Arius was about 60 years old when the Controversy began (RH, 3, 5; cf. RW, 30). Epiphanius described him as follows:

“He was very tall in stature, with downcast countenance … always garbed in a short cloak and sleeveless tunic; he spoke gently, and people found him persuasive and flattering.” (RW, 32)

A student of Lucian?

Hanson says that “Arius very probably had at some time studied with Lucian of Antioch” because he refers to somebody else as “truly a fellow-disciple of Lucian.” (RH, 5, cf. 29) But Williams questions whether “we should assume from the one word in Arius’ letter that he had actually been Lucian’s student.” (RW, 30)

Involved in the Melitian Schism?

In the past, many writers have assumed that our Arius is the same as the Arius who was involved in the Melitian schism, “who had an outward appearance of piety, and … was eager to be a teacher.” (RW, 34, 32-40) However, after several pages of detailed analysis, Williams concludes that “the Melitian Arius … melt(s) away under close investigation.” (RW, 40)

Arius’ Support

Limited to Africa.

In the traditional account of the Controversy, Arius had wide support in the Roman Empire. The reality is that Arius’ following was limited to Africa. For example:

“The controversy had spread from Alexandria into almost all the African regions and was considered a disturbance of the public order by the Roman Empire.” (Eusebius of Caesarea in The Life of Constantine)

“The Thalia appears … to have circulated only in Alexandria; what is known of him elsewhere seems to stem from Athanasius’ quotations.” (LA, 56-57)

The two Eusebii

The two Eusebii supported Arius:

Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia “was a supporter of Arius as long as Arius lived.” (RH, 30-31)

Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea “was certainly an early supporter of Arius” (RH, 46).

At the time, the two Eusebii were perhaps the two most important church leaders (LA, 52). For example:

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

Eusebius of Nicomedia

Eusebius of Nicomedia was the ‘top executive’ of the church:

“The conventional picture of Eusebius (of Nicomedia) is of an unscrupulous intriguer.” (RH, 27) “This is of course because our knowledge of Eusebius derives almost entirely from the evidence of his bitter enemies.“ (RH, 27)

Hanson lists several examples where Eusebius displayed integrity and courage (RH, 28) and then concludes that this Eusebius:

“Virtually took charge of the affairs of the Greek-speaking Eastern Church from 328 until his death.” (RH, 29) (At that time, the bulk of the church was in the east. “The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (RH, 170))

“Was … influential with the Emperors Licinius, Constantine, and Constantius.” (LA, 52) It was this Eusebius who baptized Emperor Constantine on his deathbed.

“Certainly was a man of strong character and great ability.” (RH, 29)

Encouraged the spread of the Christian faith beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire. (The version of the Christian faith that the missionaries spread was that favored by Eusebius and not by Athanasius. This is evidence of his zeal. (RH, 29))

Eusebius of Caesarea

“Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian and theologian” (LA, 58) “was made bishop of Caesarea about 313 (and) attended the Council of Nicaea in 325.” (RH, 47) He was:

“Universally acknowledged to be the most scholarly bishop of his day.” (RH, 46; cf. 153)

“One of the most influential authors of the fourth century.” (RH, 860)

“The most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” at the Nicene Council (RH, 159).

“Neither Arius nor anti-Arians speak evil of him.” (RH, 46)

The Eusebii did not follow Arius.

The two Eusebii supported Arius but they did not follow Arius as if they were students of Arius. They supported Arius because they also opposed Alexander’s theology:

Eusebius of Caesarea “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (RW, 173)

“Holger Strutwolf (1999) … concludes that Eusebius initially misunderstood Arius as saying something similar to himself, and then distanced himself more and more from the Alexandrian as he realized his error, while still opposing the theology … advanced by Alexander” (RW, 261).

Socrates wrote that Eusebius opposed Arius by saying:

“Anyone could justly censure those who have presumed to affirm that he is a Creature made of nothing, like the rest of the creatures; for how then would he be a Son?”

Arius’ real followers were limited to a small number of people in Egypt. The Eusebii were the real theological leaders of the anti-Nicene movement. They agreed with Arius in many respects because they all belonged to the same school:

“Arius … represents a school … and the school was to some extent independent of him. Arianism did not look back on him later with respect and awe as its founder.” (RH, 97)

“If some of these … agreed with him, then the explanation is to be sought rather in the fact that both he and they were drawing upon a common theological heritage.” (Dr. Hart)

It is, therefore, truer to say that they opposed Alexander than that they supported Arius.

Before Nicaea (318-325)

Arius Excommunicated

In AD 321, three years after the dispute arose and four years before the Council of Nicea, Alexander removed Arius from office and also excommunicated him [i.e.; banned him from the communion table].

Constantine’s Motive

Emperor Constantine became involved as well. It is important to understand his motive. Constantine was not concerned about ‘the truth’.  His only interest was the unity of his empire. Since religion had such a huge hold on the people, religious conflict could cause the empire to split Boyd wrote: 7W.K. Boyd, The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code (1905)

“Constantine desired that the church should contribute to the social and moral strength of the empire.”

Therefore, “religious dissension was (regarded as) a menace to the public welfare.”

Constantine interceded “for the settlement of the Arian controversy,” not for “the protection of any creed or interpretation of Christian doctrine,” but “to preserve unity within the church.”

Constantine did not understand.

Constantine sent a letter to both parties rebuking them for quarreling about ‘minute distinctions’, as he believed them to be doing.8Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, Constantine, Vol. 6, p. 386 He dismissed the theological question of the relationship of Father and Son as “intrinsically trifling and of little moment” and as “small and very insignificant questions.”9Drake, 4. Constantine and Consensus He told the opposing parties that they are “not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that so large a portion of God’s people which belong to your jurisdiction should be thus divided.”10Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55

Arius’ Writings

Very little of Arius’ writings have survived until today. As explained here, the reason is that “the people of his day, whether they agreed with him or not, did not regard him (Arius) as a particularly significant writer.” (RH, xvii) “He did not write anything worth preserving.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

Given that so little of Arius’ writings survived, we need to reconstruct what Arius taught mostly from the writings of his enemies, which are not always a reliable source.

Why is Arius important?

The church demonized Arius.

Why should we learn about Arius? ‘Arianism’ “has often been regarded as … aimed at the very heart of the Christian confession.” (RW, 1) Athanasius implied that Arius is the devil’s pupil (RW, 101). After Emperor Theodosius in AD 380 made Trinitarian Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire and, thereafter, brutally eliminated all opposition to the Trinity doctrine,

“Arius … came more and more to be regarded as a kind of Antichrist among heretics, a man whose superficial austerity and spirituality cloaked a diabolical malice.” (RW, 1)

“By the early medieval period, we find him represented alongside Judas in ecclesiastical art.” (RW, 1)

“No other heretic has been through so thoroughgoing a process of ‘demonization’.” (RW, 1)

Arius was not important.

Arius’ own supporters did not regard him as particularly important:

Since the Arian Controversy is named after Arius, it may seem as if Arius was important; the leader of the Arians and the cause of the Arian Controversy.

But Arius was not regarded by his fellow ‘Arians’ as a great theologian. He was not the founder of Arianism nor the leader of a movement. He did not leave a school of disciples and his following was limited to Africa. “He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)

The reason we today refer to the fourth-century crisis today as the ‘Arian’ Controversy is that Athanasius referred to his opponents as Arians to tar them with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church. But Athanasius’ opponents were not followers of Arius. After Nicaea, the controversy around the word Homoousios divided the church into four main camps and, in that context, Arius was irrelevant.

For a further discussion, see – Athanasius invented Arianism.

An important dimension in Christianity.

There is another and more valid reason for learning about Arius.

Defective Theology

Arius’ views have always been “represented as … some hopelessly defective form of belief.” (RW, 2) For example:

Harnack (1909) describes Arius’ teaching as “novel, self-contradictory and, above all, religiously inadequate.” (RW, 7)

“Gwatkin (c. 1900) characterizes Arianism as … a crude and contradictory system.” (RW, 10)

An exegete of sharpness and originality

Contrary to the traditional view, after writing a recent book specifically about Arius, Rowan Williams concluded that Arius had already early on produced a consistent position on almost all points under debate (RW, 2). In his view:

Arius is “a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness and originality.” (RW, 116)

“Arius … is confronted with a bewildering complexity of conventions in Scripture for naming the mediator … and he seeks to reduce this chaos … to some kind of order.” (RW, 111)

“Arius may stand for an important dimension in Christian life that was disedifyingly and unfortunately crushed.” (RW, 91)

Hanson concurs:

“Arianism was not, as some of its critics have claimed, a juxtaposition of incongruous doctrines.” (RH, 99)

The point is that we need to study Arius, not because we agree with him, but to understand the core issues of that dispte.

Arius only explains the Nicene Creed.

As explained here, the Arian Controversy had two clear phases:

The first was the dispute between Arius and Alexander. That dispute was concluded when Arius was rejected at the Nicene Council in the year 325.

The second phase was about the word homoousios. That article explains that Arius and his theology had no role in the second and main phase of the controversy from 325 to 380. Lewis Ayres confirms:

“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (LA, 56-57)

Therefore, a study of Arius will only help us to understand the first phase of the Controversy, culminating in the Nicene Creed.

Arius was a conservative.

Another false accusation that the traditional account levies against Arius is that he is a deliberate radical, breaking away from the ‘orthodoxy’ of the church fathers. But the opposite is true:

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

“Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically, a conservative Alexandrian.” (RW, 175) 11“In Alexandria he (Arius) represented … a conservative theology.” (RW, 233)

“The theology of the Thalia (Arius’ book) … is conservative in the sense that there is almost nothing in it that could not be found in earlier writers; it is radical and individual in the way it combines and reorganizes traditional ideas and presses them to their logical conclusions.” (RW, 177)

Arius defended the tradition:

“Arius had perceived the necessity … of a critical and logical defence of tradition in the face of increasingly dangerous theological ambiguities in the teaching of his day [i.e., Alexander].” (RW, 235)

Why is Arius misunderstood?

If the evaluation of Arius by these scholars is correct, why do so many people still regard Arius and his theology as “crude and contradictory?” Williams is surprised by “the way in which the modern study of Arius and ‘Arianism’ has often continued to accept … the image of this heresy as the radically ‘Other’.” (RW, 2)

Little of his writings survived.

One major reason is, as already stated, that very little of his writings have survived. Arius’ letters that we have today only provide his summary conclusions. There are no explanations of how he came to those conclusions:

“The Arian controversy is essentially about hermeneutics … the principles of exegesis … Unfortunately, however, we have very little evidence for Arius’ own exegesis.” (RW, 108)

Athanasius misrepresents Arius.

Secondly, most of what we know about Arius are critiques of his theology in the writings of his enemies – particularly Athanasius and that is not reliable:

The extracts in the writings of Arius’ enemies “are … very far from presenting to us the systematic thought of Arius.” (RW, 92)

“Athanasius, a fierce opponent of Arius, certainly would not have stopped short of misrepresenting what he said.” (RH, 10)

“The quotations from the Thalia in Orationes con. Arianos I.5-6 are full of derogatory and hostile editorial corrections clearly emanating from Athanasius.” (RH, 11)

“Athanasius is paraphrasing rather than quoting directly, and in places may be suspected of pressing the words maliciously rather further than Arius intended.” (RH, 15)

This is the main reason why scholars still misunderstand Arius:

“Elliger argues that the consensus of earlier scholarship has radically misunderstood Arius, largely as a result of reading him through the spectacles of his opponents.” (Walter Elliger, 1931) (RW, 12)

“Once we stopped looking at him from Athanasius’ perspective, we shall have a fairer picture of his strength.” (RW, 12-13)

Subordination was orthodox.

Arius is often accused of introducing a ‘new’ teaching that the Son is subordinate to the Father. That accusation results from a lack of understanding of his context. In Logos-Theology, which was ‘orthodoxy’ when the Arian Controversy began, the Logos is subordinate to the supreme Being. Therefore, when Arius wrote, all Christians regarded the Son to be subordinate to the Father:

“There is no theologian in the Eastern or the Western Church before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy, who does not in some sense regard the Son as subordinate to the Father.” (RH, 63)

“The initial debate was not about the rightness or wrongness of hierarchical models of the Trinity, which were common to both sides.” (RW, 109)

“Subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy.” (RH, xix)

The subordination of the Son to the Father, therefore, was an idea that Arius shared with his opponents; not a new idea proposed by Arius.

Demonized for a long time.

Rowan Williams adds two more reasons why Arius is misunderstood. The first is “Nicaea’s traditional and liturgical importance.” The second is “the long history of what I have called the ‘demonizing’ of Arius is extraordinarily powerful” (RW, 2).


Other Articles in this Series

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 29The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 30‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 31In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 32This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 33Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

The Pro-Nicenes

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Extracts from the writings of scholars who have studied the ancient documents for themselves:

Trinity Doctrine – General

    • Elohim 38Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 39The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

All articles on this Site

 

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Lyman, J. Rebecca (2010). “The Invention of ‘Heresy’ and ‘Schism'”. The Cambridge History of Christianity.
  • 2
    Trevor Hart wrote about this book: “While contributions have not been wanting, nothing comparable in either scale or erudition exists in the English language … treating in considerable detail … the so-called ‘Arian controversy’ which dominated the fourth century theological agenda.”
  • 3
    Kermit Zarley described Hanson as “the preeminent authority on the development of the church doctrine of God in the 4th century.”
  • 4
    Lewis Ayres, Emory University, wrote that this book “has been the standard English scholarly treatment of the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century and the triumph of Nicene theology.
  • 5
    Lewis Ayres wrote that Williams’ book “offers one of the best recent discussions of the way scholarship on this controversy has developed. (LA, 12)
  • 6
    “A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years (i.e., as from 1970) has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century.” (LA, 2)
  • 7
    W.K. Boyd, The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code (1905)
  • 8
    Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, Constantine, Vol. 6, p. 386
  • 9
    Drake, 4. Constantine and Consensus
  • 10
    Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55
  • 11
    “In Alexandria he (Arius) represented … a conservative theology.” (RW, 233)
  • 12
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 13
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 14
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 15
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 16
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 17
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 18
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 19
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 20
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 21
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 22
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 23
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 24
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 25
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 26
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 27
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 28
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 29
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 30
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 31
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 32
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 33
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 34
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 35
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 36
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 37
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 38
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 39
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

Eusebius of Caesarea’s explanation of the Nicene Creed

Summary

R.P.C. Hanson, who arguably made the most thorough investigation of the Arian Controversy available to us today, states that Eusebius of Caesarea was “the most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. (RH, 159)1The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, p159

Immediately after the council meeting, Eusebius wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted certain “objectionable expressions” in the creed. This article discusses that letter. Its main conclusions are as follows:

Three “parties” were present at Nicaea:

      1. Arius and his supporters, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
      2. The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea; and
      3. Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.

At the meeting, Arius’ theology was first presented but was rejected by both other “parties.”

Then Eusebius of Caesarea presented the statement of faith used at his home church in Caesarea. That statement did not include the terms “substance” or “same substance” and was accepted by the meeting.

Eusebius particularly mentions that the emperor approved of the statement of faith from Caesarea. For us, it is surprising that Eusebius felt it important to have the emperor’s approval but we need to remember that separation of Church and State did not exist at that time. In the culture of the day, the Christian Roman Emperor was regarded as God’s agent on earth. Church and State were one. Consequently, emperors like Constantine, Constantius, Theodosius, and Justinian had a significant influence on church councils, decisions, and even doctrines.

After Eusebius presented the Creed of Caesarea, the emperor spoke and urged the meeting to accept and support that statement but he also insisted that the word homoousios be added.

The emperor also explained how he understood the meaning of this word. However, as Hanson wrote:

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, it ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous …”

Constantine explained the word homoousios as that it does not mean that the Son (when He was begotten) was cut off from the Father. I propose we understand this as follows:

The Bible maintains a clear distinction between the Son and God (e.g., Rev 21:22) but also has an extremely high view of the Son. For that reason, from the earliest time, the church found it difficult to explain the relationship between the Father and the Son.

The Apologists (the pre-Nicene Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries) were all non-Jews and familiar with Greek philosophy. Therefore, they found it convenient to explain the Son as the Logos of Greek philosophy.

In that philosophy, God’s Logos (Word or Mind or Wisdom) always existed inside God but, when it became time to create, God’s Logos was emitted from God to become a separate Reality. It was like a part of God that began to exist externally from Him. The Logos remained God’s only Logos and remained constantly connected with God. God always had access to His one and only Logos.

The Apologists identified the Logos’ coming out of God in Greek philosophy as equivalent to the Bible’s statement that God begat His Son. It seems as if the emperor was emphasizing this point.

Constantine did not develop these ideas by himself. They were proposed to him by Alexander of Alexandria and the emperor’s advisor Hosius. With their support, the emperor proposed the word homoousios at the council meeting and also enforced the inclusion of the word.

Following the emperor’s request, the party of Alexander presented a carefully worked out statement – the Nicene Creed of 325 as we have it today – which they said was a revised form of the Creed of Caesarea, with certain adjustments to make its rejection of Arianism explicit.

This revised statement included references to the “Father’s substance,” including:

      • “Out of the Father’s substance” and
      • “Of the same substance as the Father.”

Years before, the great theologian Origen had rejected the term substance for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine. Therefore, Eusebius and his fellow Origenists “resisted to the last moment the introduction of certain objectionable expressions.” But due to the considerable pressure applied by the emperor, the statement was approved by all delegates except three.

Eusebius explains as follows how he understood (justified?) the disputed terms:

Ousios (substance or essence) implied that the Son is of the Father indeed, but is not part of the Father.

Homoousios (same substance) must not be understood in a material sense. That the Son was begotten by God does not mean that a portion of God’s substance was cut off. Neither did the Father’s substance and power change in any way, for the Father’s substance is “underived” and, therefore, cannot change. That he is homoousios with the Father then simply implies that the Son:

        • Has no resemblance to created things, but resembles the Father in every respect.
        • Is of no other substance or essence but of the Father’s.

Conclusion

Henry Bettenson wrote, “The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.”2Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41

The meeting was called to deal with the Arian Controversy but that dispute was quickly settled through the rejection of the Lucian ()Arius’) view. However, the meeting caused a second controversy:

At the meeting, there was a dispute between the parties of Alexander and Eusebius of Caesarea. Due to the pressure exerted by the emperor, the formulation presented by the party of Alexander was accepted and became adopted as the Nicene Creed.

But the expressions which the Origenists found “objectionable” caused the second phase of the Arian Controversy that raged for the next 50 years. Emperor Constantine, through the Council of Nicaea in 325, attempted to unite Christianity and establish a single, imperially approved version of the faith. But his efforts caused the deep divisions that existed after Nicaea. The word homoousios became the object of dissension.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

PURPOSE

Who was Eusebius of Caesarea?

According to Paul Pavao, in his excellent book, Decoding Nicea, at Nicaea, “the bishop who occupied the chief place in the right division of the assembly” is almost universally believed to be Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (AD 260/265 – 339/340).

Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85) mentions Eusebius of Caesarea as the leader of “the Origenists” and as “already highly reputed:”

Among those who were (at Nicaea in 325), three basic “parties” were discernible:
(1) Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
(2) the Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and
(3) Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.

Eusebius left us with the only record of the proceedings and discussions at Nicaea that is available today.

Eusebius of Nicomedia

Eusebius of Caesarea must be distinguished from Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was a leader of “the Lucianists” at Nicaea. Since the infamous Arius was one of them, we may refer to them as the Arians. Lucian was already dead by then, but people like Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia probably learned their Christology at the school of Lucian at Antioch in the late third century.

Purpose of this article

After the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain the decisions at Nicaea.  That letter is recorded in The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus I:8.

This article provides extracts from that letter as well as comments (in blocks and tables), with headings added. The letter reads:

INTRODUCTION

You have probably had some intimation, beloved, of the transactions of the great council convened at Nicea in relation to the faith of the Church … we have deemed it necessary to submit to you:

      • In the first place, an exposition of the faith proposed by us in written form, and then
      • a second which has been promulgated, consisting of ours with certain additions to its expression.
Comment: The “us” here seems to refer to the delegation led by Eusebius. As discussed below, at the council meeting, they first proposed a statement of faith. “A second which has been promulgated” refers to the Nicene Creed, as was formally promulgated.

The Creed of Caesarea

The declaration of faith set forth by us, which when read in the presence of our most pious emperor seemed to meet with universal approbation, was thus expressed:

Comment: Emperor Constantine attended the council and had a huge impact on the outcome, as is discussed below. But Eusebius claims that his proposal was generally accepted. Below, I quote sections from Eusebius’ proposed statement of faith that are key to understanding the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Word of God—
God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life—
the only-begotten Son,
born before all creation,
begotten of God the Father before all ages,
by whom also all things were made …

We believe also in one Holy Spirit. …

Comment: Note that Eusebius’ statement of faith does not mention the terms substance or “same substance.”

When these articles of faith were proposed, there seemed to be no ground for opposition. No, even our most pious emperor himself was the first to admit that they were perfectly correct and that he himself had entertained the sentiments contained in them. 

Comment: Paul Pavao commented: It is simply astounding that Eusebius felt it important to have the emperor’s approval of the articles of faith, rather than informing the emperor of what the church approved.

I would like to add that it is important to understand that no separation of Church and State existed at that time. In the culture of the time, the Christian Roman Emperor was regarded as God’s agent on earth. The supreme bishops of the Empire – the spiritual heads of the Christian world – were regarded as acting in harmony with him. Church and State were therefore one. Consequently, emperors Constantine, Constantius, Theodosius, and Justinian had a significant influence on the decisions of church councils. For a discussion, see Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy.

Constantine added homoousios

He (the emperor) exhorted all present to give them their assent and subscribe to these very articles (as proposed by Eusebius), thus agreeing in a unanimous profession of them—with the insertion, however, of that single word, homoousios, an expression which the emperor himself explained as not indicating corporeal affections or properties. Consequently, the Son did not subsist from the Father either by division or by cutting off. For, said he, a nature that is immaterial and incorporeal cannot possibly be subject to any corporeal understanding; hence, our conception of such things can only be in divine and mysterious terms. Such was the philosophical view of the subject taken by our most wise and pious sovereign,

Constantine’s definition of homoousios

It was, therefore, the emperor that proposed the word homousios. He also explained the meaning of this word. But it is a negative explanation; saying what homoousios does NOT mean. It is a bit strange to propose a term and then to say that it is not possible to understand what it means; that “our conception of such things can only be in divine and mysterious terms.”

But Constantine’s key point seems to be that the Son (when He was begotten) was not cut off from the Father. Tatian (c. AD 165) mentioned the same principle:

“He (the Son) came into being by participation, not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], for what is cut off is separated from the original substance.”

Note the word “separated.” The point seems to be that the Son did not become separated from the Father when He was begotten by the Father. Justin Martyr (c. AD 155) wrote similarly:

This Power was begotten from the Father, by his power and will, but not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], as if the essence of the Father were divided.

Tatian and Justin Martyr, like all the other Gentile Christian theologists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, held to a Logos-Christology in which the Logos has always existed inside God but was emitted from God (begotten by God) and became the Son of God when it became time to create. See The Apologists for further discussion.

So, what Constantine seemed to have meant is that the term homoousios does not mean that He was separated from God when He was begotten. I propose that we understand this in terms of Logos-Christology according to which God cannot change. Therefore, His Logos was not separated from Him when the Son was begotten: God always had access to His Logos. It seems as if the emperor was emphasizing this point.

Where did Constantine get all this?

Constantine did not develop all these ideas by himself. He got it from somewhere. Above, I listed the three parties at Nicaea. Since Constantine did not get these ideas from the Origenists or from the Lucianists, he received them from the party of Alexander of Alexandria:

“Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’. The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios, as suggested to him by Hosius. The emperor at first gave the council a free hand, but was prepared to step in if necessary to enforce the formula that his advisor Hosius had agreed on with Alexander of Alexandria.” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)

The party of Alexander, which includes the emperor’s advisor Hosius, therefore, before the council meeting, has already agreed on the word homoousios. And, since they had the backing of the emperor, the emperor proposed the word and was able to enforce the inclusion of the word. “Enforce” may seem like a strong word, but is confirmed by many authors. Bernard Lohse, (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53) stated:

“What seemed especially objectionable to many bishops and theologians of the East was the concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios.”

Substance and Same Substance Added

… and the bishops, because of the word homoousios, drew up this formula of faith:

Eusebius then quotes the Nicene Creed, which is also available from Earlychurchtexts. It is instructive to compare the section of the creed that is key concerning the Arian Controversy, with the same section in the statement of faith presented by Eusebius:
Eusebius proposed Nicene Creed
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Word of God—
God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life—
the only-begotten Son,
born before all creation,
begotten of God the Father, before all ages,
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Son of God,
begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father,
God from God, light from light, true God from true God,
begotten not made,
of one substance with the Father,
I emphasized the key additions, namely the terms “substance” and “one substance.”

Eusebius asked questions

Now when this declaration of faith was propounded by them, we did not neglect to investigate the distinct sense of the expressions “of the substance of the Father” and “consubstantial with the Father.”

Who are “them?” Above, Eusebius referred to “the bishops” but Erickson identified “them” as “the party of Alexander:”

“Those of the party of Alexander, however, were not fully satisfied. They were favored by the emperor, and followed the strategy of accepting the Creed of Caesarea while demanding a more precise definition of some of its key terms. … The Alexandrian party then presented a carefully worked out statement, which they said was a revised form of the Creed of Caesarea, with certain steps taken to close loopholes that could be interpreted in Arian fashion.”

Henry Bettenson wrote,

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41).

That Eusebius had to ask questions shows that the Nicene Creed was formulated by a group over which he had no control. It is, therefore, probable that the Nicene Creed was formulated before the council meeting itself. 

Ousios (Substance)

When we did, questions and answers were put forth, and the meaning of these terms was clearly defined. At that point it was generally admitted that ousios (substance or essence) simply implied that the Son is of the Father indeed, but does not subsist as a part of the Father. To this interpretation of the sacred doctrine—which declares that the Son is of the Father but is not a part of his substance—it seemed right to us to assent. We ourselves, therefore, concurred in this exposition.

Steven Wedgeworth stated that “Origen had rejected the term (substance) years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” Eusebius and “the Origenists,” therefore, questioned this term.

Homoousios

Nor do we cavil at the word homoousios, having regard to peace, and fearing to lose a right understanding of the matter.

Paul Pavao commented that it does not appear that Eusebius embraced homoousios with great enthusiasm, remarking in his letter to Caesarea that “we do not cavil” at the word homoousios. This is hardly rousing support.

Begotten, not Made

On the same grounds, we admitted also the expression “begotten, not made.” “For ‘made,'” said, “is a term applicable in common to all the creatures which were made by the Son, to whom the Son has no resemblance. Consequently, he is no creature like those which were made by him but is of a substance far excelling any creature. The Divine Oracles teach that this substance was begotten of the Father by such a mode of generation as cannot be explained nor even conceived by any creature.”

Paul Pavao commented that the delegates all agreed that Proverbs 8:22, in the LXX, refers to the Son as created. Therefore they all referred to Him as such, but the council here banned this term.

Consubstantial (homoousios)

Thus also the declaration that “the Son is consubstantial with the Father” having been discussed, it was agreed that this must not be understood in a corporeal sense, or in any way analogous to mortal creatures; inasmuch as it is neither by division of substance, nor by abscission [cutting off], nor by any change of the Father’s substance and power, since the underived nature of the Father is inconsistent with all these things.

That he is consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father then simply implies that the Son of God has no resemblance to created things, but is in every respect like the Father only who begat him; that he is of no other substance or essence but of the Father.

This is an expansion of the emperor’s explanation of this term above. I understand the explanation as follows:

We cannot understand this concept because there is nothing like it in the created realm.

That the Son was begotten by God does not mean that a portion of God’s substance was cut off. Neither did the Father’s substance and power change in any way, for the Father’s substance is “underived” and, therefore, cannot change.

That he is consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father then simply implies that:

        • The Son of God has no resemblance to created things but resembles the Father in every respect.
        • He is of no other substance or essence but of the Father.

Ancients used this term

To this doctrine, explained in this way, it appeared right to assent, especially since we knew that some eminent bishops and learned writers among the ancients have used the term homoousios in their theological discourses concerning the nature of the Father and the Son.

Paul Pavao provides examples in Chapter 15 of Decoding Nicea. Philip Schaff mentioned that Irenæus used the word homousios four times and that Tertullian also uses the expression “of one substance” (unius substantiæ) in two places.

Anathemas

We have also considered the anathema pronounced by them after the declaration of faith inoffensive because it prohibits the use of illegitimate terms, from which almost all the distraction and commotion of the churches have arisen.

Again the “them,” confirms that “the decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Bettenson, quoted above).

The anathemas reflect the typical statements made by Arius and his followers.

Objectionable Expressions

We deemed it incumbent on us, beloved, to acquaint you with the caution which has characterized both our examination of and concurrence in these things and that on justifiable grounds we resisted to the last moment the introduction of certain objectionable expressions as long as these were not acceptable. We received them without dispute when, on mature deliberation as we examined the sense of the words, they appeared to agree with what we had originally proposed as a sound confession of faith.

Generally, Eusebius’ letter gives the impression that consensus was achieved fairly easily, but the phrase “resisted to the last moment” gives us an indication of the struggle within the council. The Nicene Creed was eventually accepted only because “the emperor exerted considerable influence:”

“The Origenists had considerable reservation about references to the ‘Father’s substance’, including ‘out of the Father’s substance’ and ‘of the same substance as the Father’. The emperor exerted considerable influence. Consequently, the statement was approved by all except three. (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons)”

“Certain objectionable expressions” refer particularly to those listed by Erickson. As stated before, Eusebius and his followers were Origenists and “Origen had rejected the term years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” (Steven Wedgeworth)

But these terms were accepted at “the last moment.” However, the acceptance of these “objectionable expressions” resulted in the second phase of the Arian Controversy in which these words were resisted:

The Wikipedia page on the Arian controversy states that Emperor Constantine, through the Council of Nicaea in 325, attempted to unite Christianity and establish a single, imperially approved version of the faith. Ironically, his efforts were the cause of the deep divisions created by the disputes after Nicaea. (Smither, Edward L., ed. (2014-02-14). Rethinking Constantine: History, Theology, and Legacy. p. 65–66)

“Homoousios … in the subsequent strife between orthodoxy and heresy became the object of dissension. ” (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)

As Hanson wrote, “The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, it ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.”

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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, p159
  • 2
    Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41