What were the issues in the Fourth-Century Arian Controversy?

The greatest controversy in the church of all time – the Arian Controversy of the fourth century – was a dispute over the identity of Jesus Christ: Is He God or is He subordinate to God?

The controversy began in AD 318 when presbyter Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ.

After this dispute spread over a large part of the Roman Empire, emperor Constantine called a church council in Nicaea in the year 325 where the famous Nicene Creed was formulated.

However, that creed failed to end the controversy. It continued for another 56 years until AD 381 when the Nicene Creed was revised at the Council of Constantinople. So, the controversy lasted from 318 to 381. When it came to an end, all the initial participants in that controversy were already dead.

The purpose of this article is to identify the main issues in that controversy. It addresses the following questions:

    1. What was the orthodox view of Christ when the controversy began?
    2. Why did the Nicene Creed of AD 325 fail to end the controversy?
    3. Did that creed describe God as a Trinity?
    4. What were the competing views?
    5. What role did the emperors play in the controversy?
    6. What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?
    7. How was the Controversy brought to an end?

This article relies, to a great extent, on the writings of RPC Hanson, a bishop and a trinitarian, who made the most extensive investigation of the Arian Controversy available to us today.

1. What was the orthodox view of Christ?

It is often said that Arius and his supporters, motivated by Greek philosophy rather than by the Bible, proposed a dangerous deviation from the orthodox view.

But Hanson stated that, at the beginning of the controversy, nobody knew the right answer and “there was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?”

But that is not entirely true either. There was a kind of orthodoxy on this question:

During the second century, after Christianity became Gentile-dominated, but while Christianity still was outlawed and persecuted by the Roman Empire, it became standard practice in the church to use Greek philosophy to explain who the Son is (see – The Apologists):

Greek philosophy postulated an intermediary between the high God and the physical world. This intermediary was known as the Nous or the Logos. The Apologists – the church theologians in the time before it was legalized in AD 313 – identified the Son of God as the Logos of Greek philosophy. As such, they explained Him as “begotten or produced or put forward by the Father” as His agent for creating the world. 

But that identification of Christ also meant that they described the Son as “a subordinate though essential divine agent.” In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God.

Hanson does not describe this as the orthodox view at the time but as:

The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century,” and as

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century.”

This was, therefore, the standard explanation of Christ when the Arian Controversy began.

“The second-rate or third-rate writers of the period,” Hanson added, even “present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God.” So, Arius’ view of Christ, as a created Being subordinate to the Father, was not a new development, but it was a minority view before the Arian Controversy began.

Arius’ view of Christ was indeed based on Greek philosophy, but that was also not something new: It was the standard practice of all the main Christian authors of the previous two centuries.

In contrast, the Nicene Creed of 325, which emphasizes the equality of the Son to the Father, was a deviation from the “tradition,” which viewed Christ as subordinate to the high God.

2. Why did the Nicene Creed Fail?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the creed of 325 failed to end the controversy because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.”

But Hanson explains that the creed failed because it “ultimately confounded the confusion.” The creed introduced words from Greek philosophy (homoousion and hypostasis) and used these words in such a way as to imply that the Father and the Son are one and the same Reality or Person (hypostasis in the Greek). This is explained below. See – Nicene Creed.

At the council, Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including these concepts from Greek philosophy, the creed created a new and different problem. The controversy continued after 325 because the church had to find a solution to this new problem.

3. Does the Creed of 325 describe God as a Trinity?

No, that creed does not describe God as a Trinity. For example:

Firstly, the creed begins by identifying the Father as the “one God” in whom we believe.

Secondly, the emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son to the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being.

Thirdly, “until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians” (see – Spirit).

Fourthly, “the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity” (see – No Precise formulae), and all three of them were born after AD 325.

4. What were the competing views?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and ‘Arian’. But Hanson describes that as “a grave misunderstanding” (see – Two views). There were at least four competing views:

The pro-Nicenes taught that the Son is of the same substance (homo-ousian) as the Father, as indicated by the Nicene Creed.

Arius and his supporters held that the Son is of a different substance (Hetero-ousian).

Another group that became quite dominant during the controversy rejected “same substance” but argued that Christ is of a similar substance (Homo-i-ousian). 

The view that was finally accepted in the Council of Constantinople in AD 359 (not 381) claimed that it is utter arrogance and sin to speculate about the substance of God (Homo-ians).

The post-325-Arian controversy, therefore, was specifically about the word Homoousion (same substance) in the Creed; not about the entire Nicene Creed.

5. What was the role of the emperors in the controversy?

In this debate, the emperors always had the final say. When the emperor was an Arian, the church was Arian but when the emperor supported the Nicene side, the church followed. The relationship between church and state was very different from what it is today. For all practical purposes, the emperor was the head or Pope of the church. (See Boyd.) For example:

Emperor Constantius (337-361) was an Arian. When a church council in AD 359 did not adopt a view that he supported, he banished some of the delegates. Thereafter, the council adopted a Homoian creed, which the emperor supported.

Emperor Valens (364-378) also was an Arian. He ensured that an Arian is installed as archbishop, banished and imprisoned some pro-Nicene clergy, put them to forced labor, and subjected them to taxes from which Arian clergy were exempt.

Emperor Theodosius (379-395) was a Trinitarian. He took persecution to a different level and made an end to Arianism in the Roman Empire. He issued an edict stating that all Roman citizens must believe in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” He banished the Arian bishops of the main cities in the empire and made laws making it illegal for Arians to preach and to meet. He instructed his soldiers to give all Arian church buildings to Trinitarian bishops.

6. What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into its doctrine of God. But that is not true. The theology of Arius and other Arians was indeed heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. But that was not because they deviated from the tradition: They inherited this reliance on Greek philosophy from the Apologists of the previous two centuries. (see – Divine)

It was Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church by reducing the reliance on Greek philosophy: “What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (see – Destroyed).

But that does not mean that Nicene theology was or is free from the influence of Greek philosophy. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and homoousion, the Nicene theologians also thought Greek thoughts (see – Greek Thoughts).

Furthermore, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism developed to remove all traces of Greek philosophy from itself. Finally, in AD 359, at a council in Constantinople, Arianism adopted the Homoian view according to which we should not say more about the nature of God and of Christ than what we find in the Bible.

The Trinity doctrine, on the other hand, roughly speaking, is that God is three Persons but one Being. That concept of one “Being” comes from the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed, which says that the Son is homoousion (of the same substance) as the Father. This idea is directly borrowed from Greek philosophy.

So, while Arianism eventually was able to rid itself of Greek philosophy, the Trinity doctrine of today is based on Greek philosophy.

7. How was the Controversy brought to an end?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the council of Constantinople in AD 381 made an end to that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius:

Already in the previous year, in February 380, he made the Trinity doctrine law and outlawed Arianism (see – the Edict of Thessalonica).

In November 380, he exiled the Arian bishops of the main centers of the empire.1The Search – pages 804-5

In January 381, he banned all Arian church meetings.2The Search – page 805

Then he called a council to meet in Constantinople but only Trinitarians were allowed to attend.3The Search – pages 805-6

Boyd mentions another decree that was issued later in 381, which stipulated that all churches must be delivered to the bishops who profess the doctrine prescribed by the State.

The Arian Controversy, therefore, was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius. This reflects the absence of separation between church and state. As discussed, in practice, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church.

Conclusions

Firstly, as Hanson stated, the “conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is … a complete travesty.”

Secondly, the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by a church council but by a Roman Emperor and enacted as a Roman law. As such, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church that has accepted that law, has thereby become part of the Roman Empire. Consequently, it received great authority from the Roman Empire but it also served the purposes of the Roman Empire.

Today, the Roman Empire no longer exists but the spiritual children of that church that became part of the Roman Empire still exist. Since that church received its authority from the Roman Empire, its children today continue the authority of that ancient empire.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Purpose

The book, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, by RPC Hanson – a bishop and a trinitarian – first published in 1988, is still considered by many scholars to be the finest work on the Arian Controversy of the fourth century (e.g., Hart).

This article, to a large degree, is based on a lecture that Hanson gave in 1981 in which he explained the Arian Controversy. A copy of that lecture is available on this website. Hanson’s main point in this lecture is that the traditional account of that controversy, to be found till very recently in virtually all textbooks, is a “complete travesty” (see – Travesty). The current article frequently quotes from Hanson’s lecture but it also quotes from his book.

This article provides an overview of the history that begins with the first-century Christian view of Christ and the views of the Christian Apologists in the second and third centuries when Christianity was still outlawed and persecuted by the Roman authorities. Christianity was legalized in the year 313. The controversy began five years later.

This article compares the traditional account of this controversy to actual history.

In this article, I refer to the Nicene view as the view reflected in the creed of 325, as revised in the creed of 381, and as it was later developed further in the subsequent decades, for example, by the two natures theory of the Creed of Chalcedon of 451. Hanson describes the final outcome of this view as follows:

“They developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word ‘Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (See – Destroyed)

In the traditional account (see – Traditional):

    • When the controversy began in AD 318, an orthodox view of the nature of God and Christ already existed.
    • But Arius and his supporters, motivated by Greek philosophy rather than by the Bible, proposed a dangerous deviation from that orthodox view.
    • Emperor called for a church council to meet in Nicaea in AD 325 to end the controversy. But that failed to bring the controversy to an end because of crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.
    • Supporters of the orthodoxy, particularly Athanasius of Alexandria, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile.
    • Ultimately, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end to that controversy; right prevailed, and the forces of error and wickedness represented by the Arians were defeated.

First Century

During the first century, Christianity professed “the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum.” The church professed one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person (see Jewish). In other words, at that time, the church simply repeated the words of the New Testament.

The Apologists

During the second century, Christianity became Gentile-dominated. At that time, Greek philosophy still dominated the intellectual world of the Roman Empire, and this intellectual culture required Christianity (and all other religions) to give a rational account of itself and its god (see – Gentile).

During those centuries, while Christianity still was outlawed and persecuted by the Roman Empire, the group of writers whom we call the Apologists accepted the responsibility of explaining the God of the Bible to the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire (see Apologists). Some of them had to pay with their lives, e.g. Justin Martyr and Origen.

A Divine Logos

These Apologists were themselves very familiar with Greek philosophy and (unfortunately?)  used Greek philosophy to explain who Christ is; often without reference to the Bible. Hanson explains:

“They were writing mostly for non-Jews and non-Christians. Such a public demanded philosophical consistency but no very great attention … to the witness of the Bible” (see – Not Bible Based)

A fundamental principle in Greek philosophy is that God is “immutable” and, therefore, unable to communicate directly with “our world of change and decay” (see – Apologists). For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis (a divine logos) as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world (see – Greek Philosophy).

The Apologists used this concept and “identified the pre-existent Christ … with the nous” of Greek philosophy (see – Greek Philosophy). As such, they explained Him as the agent for creating the world and also as the means through which the supreme Divinity revealed himself in the world. Hanson explains that the Apologists had “the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (see – Destroyed).

Subordinate

But that identification of Christ also meant that they described the Son as a subordinate divine agent of the high God. In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God.

Iranaeus and Tertullian put relatively less emphasis on Greek philosophy and “paid much more attention to Scripture … but their fundamental theological structure was the same as that of the Apologists. The Logos was begotten or produced or put forward by the Father as his instrument or tool for communicating with the world, a subordinate though essential divine agent” (see – Irenaeus).

“Origen produced something like a theological revolution … but … he still envisaged the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father” and as “the means whereby the supreme God, the Father, was protected from embarrassingly close relation to the world” (see – Origen).

This does not refer to the Son after His incarnation: In this theory, the pre-existent Son always was subordinate to the High God:

“This … Christian doctrine of God … made Christ … not by reason of his incarnation but by reason of his very nature apart from the incarnation, a defused, depotentiated version of God” (see – Divine).

Theos and Deus

Readers who are familiar with the writings of the Apologists will know that such writings refer to Jesus as “God” and may recognize that that is inconsistent with the Apologists’ view of the pre-existent Son as “a created god lower than the High God.” The words which the Apologists used, which are sometimes translated as “God,” are the Greek word theos and its Latin equivalent deus. Hanson explains:

“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought” (see – Theos).

When theos (or deus) is used to describe the Almighty, it should be translated as “God.” However, since it has “a wide variety of meanings,” when it refers to lower-level beings, it must be translated as “god.”

When translators come across the words theos and deus in the writings of the Apologists and are ignorant of the views of the Apologists as explained above, and read such references through the lens of the later developed Trinity doctrine, in which the Son is equal with the Almighty, they tend to translate such instances of theos as “God.” But that would be an application of the Trinity doctrine and inconsistent with the intention of the Apologists. In their thinking; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God. For further discussion, see – the dedicated article Theos.

The Beginning of the Controversy

In the traditional account:

The controversy began in AD 318 when a presbyter called Arius “was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ” (see – Traditional).

This statement implies that an agreed correct doctrine did exist at that time. In contrast, Hanson stated:

“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?” (see – Beginning)

Nevertheless, Hanson does describe the view of the Apologists as:

The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was, in differing form, the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted” (see – Lasted into the Fourth).

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

The phrases such as “traditional … doctrine of God” and “conventional Trinitarian doctrine” imply substantial consensus. There was no agreement on HOW divine Christ is, but there was agreement that He is subordinate to the Father. If we define “orthodoxy” as “generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice,” then the view of the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father was orthodox at that time.

“The second-rate or third-rate writers of the period,” Hanson added, even “present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God.” So, Arius’ view of Christ, as a created Being subordinate to the Father, was consistent with the lower end of the spectrum of views before the Arian Controversy began.

Arius’ view of Christ was indeed based on Greek philosophy, but that was not something he did: It was the general view of all the main Christian authors of the previous two centuries.

In contrast, the Nicene Creed of 325, which emphasized the equality of the Son to the Father, was a deviation from ‘orthodoxy’.

The Creed of 325

Emperor Constantine called a General Council at Nicaea in 325 which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy. However, after the creed was accepted in ecumenical council, the controversy continued unabated.

Why did the creed fail?

In the traditional account, the creed of 325 failed to bring the controversy to an end because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians” (see – Traditional).

But Hanson stated that the creed failed because 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” (see – Nicene Creed).

To explain the reference to Sabellianism: The creed anathematizes all “who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance.” In other words, the Son and the Father are one single hypostasis. Hypostasis is often translated as “person” but, to use Hanson’s explanation of the word, the creed implies that the Son and the Father are one single “reality.” This is Modalism, namely, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simply are three modes in which the one God appears. This would mean, for example, that Jesus prayed to Himself. This idea has been proposed and rejected a century before the Arian Controversy began. For further discussion, see Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

So, what happened at the council is that Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including these words from Greek philosophy in the creed, the council created a new and different problem. The Post-325 controversy had to deal with this new problem; not with the Arius-problem.

Why did the creed use such non-Biblical words?

The words ousia, hypostasis, and homoousios originate from Greek philosophy; not from the Bible. One may ask why the council used this terminology:

Firstly, it was standard practice in the church during the previous centuries to explain Christ in terms of Greek philosophy. In other words, the delegates to the council were familiar with these terms.

Secondly, in another article, the most respected theologian at the council (Eusebius of Caesarea) explains that the council accepted these words because the emperor Constantine was present in the meeting, proposed the word homoousios and insisted on its inclusion.

Thirdly, Athanasius explained that the term homoousion was inserted in the Creed – not because it is necessarily the best word – but as a means to force the Arians to reject the Creed.4The Search … p162

The keyword in the 325 Creed is homoousion which means “same substance.” The creed uses it to say that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Hanson states that this word falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after 325 and is not heard of for over twenty years. This implies that this was not a word that the theologians generally were using before 325 and supports the evidence that Constantine proposed and insisted on this word. Most of the delegates were distinctly uncomfortable with this and the other words sourced from Greek philosophy. (See, Eusebius of Caesarea.)

Does the Creed of 325 describe God as a Trinity?

Consistent with the notion that the “orthodoxy” was clear from the start of the Arian Controversy, some assume that the Nicene Creed of 325 described God as a Trinity. But that is not the case:

Firstly, the creed begins by identifying the Father as the “one God” in whom we believe:

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of all things visible and invisible

Secondly, the emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son to the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being.

Thirdly, the creed does not describe the Holy Spirit as God or equal to God. Hanson stated (see – Spirit):

“Of course the theologians of the side which was ultimately victorious included the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In a sense this was an afterthought, because the theme of the Son occupied the screen, so to speak, right up to the year to the year 360.”

“Until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians.”

Hanson also stated that “the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity” (see – No Precise formulae), and all three of them were born after AD 325.

What were the competing views?

As stated, the controversy continues for another 56 years after Nicaea in AD 325. In the traditional account, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and ‘Arian’. But Hanson states that this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs” (see – Two views). There were at least four competing views:

Same Substance – The pro-Nicenes are called Homoousians, from the word “homo-ousion” in the Nicene Creed, which means the “same substance.” They taught that the Son is of the same substance as the Father.

Different Substance – The Hetero-ousians were the extreme Arians, saying that Christ is of a “different substance” than the Father. This is perhaps what Arius had taught. It was rejected in the Nicene Council of 325 but continued as a minority view afterward.

Similar Substance – The Homo-i-ousians were somewhere between the Homo-ousians and Hetero-ousians. They also rejected the word Homo-ousion and maintained that Christ is of a “similar substance” rather than of the “same substance.”

Like the Father – The Homo-ians claimed that it is utter arrogance and sin to speculate about the substance of God because the Bible does not say anything about His substance. The most that they were willing to say is that the Son is like the Father because that is what the Scripture teaches (Col 1:15), but they were not willing to refer to the substance of God.

As indicated by how often the word ousia (substance) appears in the names of these “sides,” the post-325-Arian controversy was not about the entire Nicene Creed. The controversy was specifically about the relationship between the substance of God and the substance of His Son. As such, it was a dispute about the key word in the creed: Homoousion. 

For these reasons, as Hanson indicated (See – Traditional Account), it is not quite accurate to refer to it as the Arian Controversy. The word “Arian” comes from the name of the man Arius and he represented only one of the four parties listed above, namely, the Hetero-ousion party. Furthermore, his party was a minority view.

Nevertheless, this article continues to use the term Arianism as including all “sides” other than the “same substance” side.

What was the role of the emperors in the controversy?

Hanson stated that, as succeeding Emperors joined the anti-Nicenes later in the controversy, the Nicene side of the controversy was almost completely eclipsed (see – Traditional Account). This implies the impact of the emperors on the controversy. In reality, the emperors always had the final say in this debate. When the emperor was an Arian, the church was Arian but when the emperor supported the Nicene side, the church followed. For all practical purposes, the emperor was the head or Pope of the church. For example:

Constantius (337-361)

In 359, the western bishops met in Ariminum and accepted a Homoian creed. At the same time, the eastern bishops met in Seleucia and accepted a Homoiousian creed. Emperor Constantius (Constantine’s son) did not accept this outcome and called for another council in the same year in Constantinople where both the eastern and western bishops were present. In the initial debate, the Heteroousians defeated the Homoiousians. However, Constantius did not accept this outcome either and banished some of the delegates. Thereafter the council agreed to the Homoian creed that was agreed to at Ariminum, with minor modifications.

Valens (364-378)

In his book, Hanson explains that emperor Valens was a convinced Homoian Arian and that he used the power of the state to promote his favorite doctrine and suppress others. Hanson mentions several incidents. Valens made sure that the right person is installed as archbishop, banished and imprisoned pro-Nicene clergy, put them to forced labor, and subjected them to taxes from which other clergies were exempt. But, Hanson states, “his efforts at persecution were sporadic and unpredictable.”5The Search, pages 791-792

Theodosius (379-395)

Theodosius succeeded Valens. Theodosius was declared Emperor and Augustus (i.e. equal with, not subordinate to, Gratian) on January 19th 379. In February 380, while residing in Thessalonica, he issued an edict that declared the Trinity to be the official doctrine of the Roman Empire. This edict (not a church council) ordered ALL Roman citizens to believe in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The edict commanded that heretics be punished. On November 24th 380, Theodosius entered Constantinople (the capital of the empire) and instantly drove the Arian bishop of that city out of the city. At about the same time, he also chased the Arian Lucius out of Alexandria. (Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople were the main cities of the empire.) On January 10th 381, Theodosius issued an edict saying that no church was to be occupied for worship by any heretics, and no heretics were to gather together for worship within the walls of any town. These instructions were executed efficiently. For further discussion, see – Theodosius.

Almost Completely Eclipsed

Secondly, note that Hanson states that, eventually, the Nicene side was almost completely eclipsed. In his book (see Table of Contents), Hanson mentions a whole series of councils from 351-359; all trying to find alternatives for the word homo-ousion:

      • Antioch – 341
      • Serdica – 343
      • Sirmium – 351
      • Aries – 353
      • Milan – 355
      • Sirmium – 357
      • Sirmium – 358
      • The ‘Dated’ Creed – 359

In addition, in the year 359, emperor Constantius called three councils and manipulated these councils to formally adopt a Homoian creed (no reference to the substance of God). This brought to an end two decades of creed-making. For the next 22 years, until the Council of Constantinople of 381, no further creeds were made. This does not mean that other views continued to be held and developed, but these views were not discussed or accepted by formal church councils during those two decades.

Mistakes and Faults

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy:

Supporters of the orthodox point of view, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile. Orthodoxy was everywhere attacked and, as succeeding Emperors joined the heretical side, almost completely eclipsed.

This refers particularly to Athanasius, who is regarded by many as the hero of the Arian Controversy. He was exiled five times by four different emperors, spending almost half of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile (see – Blue Letter).

However, Hanson reported:

“The most serious initial fault was the misbehavior of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. Evidence that has turned up in the sands of Egypt in the form of letters written on papyrus has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt which justly earned the disgust and dislike of the majority of Eastern bishops.” (see – Faults)

Furthermore, in the traditional account, the controversy was between orthodoxy and a serious error. But Hanson states:

“Mistakes and faults were not confined to the upholders of anyone particular doctrine, and cannot all be grouped under the heading of a wicked Arian conspiracy” (see – Mistakes).

“The Church of the fourth century, after much travail answered this question … in a manner which can best be described as a process of trial-and-error in which the error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.” (see – The Creed)

“Maurice Wiles has suggested that as far as grotesque misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible goes the pro-Nicenes were as distant from accurate interpretation as the Arians” (see –The Scriptures).

The role of Greek Philosophy

What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?

Arianism

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into its doctrine of God. But that is not true. As already stated, the theology of Arius and other Arians was indeed heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. However, that was not because they deviated from the tradition: As shown above, Arius inherited his reliance on Greek philosophy from the Apologists of the previous two centuries. Hanson stated:

“The Arianism of Ulfilas, of Palladius at the Council of Aquileia of 381, of Eunomius, does present the Son as in effect a demi-god, even though the antecedents of this doctrine are not to be found in pagan religion nor directly in Greek philosophy but in various theological strands to be detected in Christian theology before the fourth century.” (see – Divine)

In other words, Arianism presented the Son as subordinate to the Father because it was a continuation of the pre-Nicene orthodoxy as developed by the Apologists.

Nicene Theology

In contrast, Nicene theology, by describing Christ as equal to the Father, pushed back on the Apologists’ reliance on Greek philosophy. As Hanson stated (see – Destroyed):

“What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device … In this respect at least … they rejected the allurements of Greek philosophy.”

In the place of this old but inadequate Trinitarian tradition the champions of the Nicene faith substituted another which was more in accordance with the pressure towards monotheism … and that also did justice to the ancient practice of worshipping Christ.”

In other words, it was Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church by reducing the reliance on Greek philosophy.

But that does not mean that Nicene theology was or is free from Greek philosophy. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and homoousion, the Nicene theologians also thought Greek thoughts. As Hanson stated:

“The development of the doctrine of the Trinity was carried out in terms which were almost wholly borrowed from the vocabulary of late Greek: hypostasis, ousia … and so on” (see – Greek Thoughts).

“The fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy” (see – Inconsistent Terminology).

“One of the lessons learnt by the bitter experience of the Arian Controversy was that you cannot interpret the Bible simply in biblical terms. … The only alternative language available for interpreting the Bible was that of Greek philosophy.” (see – Greek Thoughts)

“This borrowing from Greek philosophy … exacted a price. The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts.”

More than Arianism

Furthermore, while Arianism began the fourth century as an adaption of Greek philosophy, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism developed to remove all traces of Greek philosophy from itself. To explain:

While the church still was Jewish dominated in the first century, it described Christ simply in terms of what the Bible says about Him. After the church became Gentile dominated in the second century, it began to explain Christ as the nous or logos of Greek philosophy. After the Nicene Council of 325, much further thought and discussion was generated. Eventually, in AD 359, at a council in Constantinople, Arianism adopted the Homoian view according to which we should not say more about the nature of God and of Christ than what we find in the Bible.

The Trinity doctrine, on the other hand, roughly speaking, is that God is three Persons but one Being. That concept of one “Being” comes from the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed. The Creed says that the Son is homoousion (of the same substance) as the Father. This idea of substance (ousia) is directly borrowed from Greek philosophy.

So, eventually, while Arianism eventually was able to rid itself of Greek philosophy, the Nicene view and the Trinity doctrine of today are based on principles from Greek philosophy.

What made an End to the Controversy?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the council of Constantinople in AD 381 made an end to that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius:

In the year before the church council, in February 380, Theodosius made the Trinity doctrine law. He issued the Edict of Thessalonica which required ALL his subjects, whether Christian or not, “to believe ‘the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within … an equal majesty and … Trinity’” (The Search – p804). That edict also prescribed punishment for ‘heretics’. In this way, he outlawed Arianism. 

On November 24th 380, he entered Constantinople and instantly exiled the Arian bishop of that city. At about the same time, the Arian Lucius was chased out of another main city of the empire; Alexandria.6The Search – pages 804-5

On January 10th 381, he issued an edict stating that no church was to be occupied for worship by any heretics, and no heretics were to gather together for worship within the walls of any town.7The Search – page 805

It was only after these edicts that the Emperor summoned a council of the Eastern Church to meet in Constantinople. The 150 bishops who attended appear to have been carefully chosen to be friendly to Meletius, who was its president. The Council met during May, June, and July 381.8The Search – pages 805-6

It amazes me that some people regard this as a valid and important church council, even after non-Trinitarian clergies have been outlawed and exiled and the participants have carefully chosen to support the Trinitarian doctrine of the State.

Compare the wording of Theodosius’ decree with the Creed of Constantinople of the year 381. While the decree still begins with the traditional unitarian opening, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,” the decree prescribes belief in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Theodosius’ decree was much closer to the full Trinity doctrine than that creed was.

Boyd mentions another decree that was issued later in 381, which stipulated that all churches must be delivered to the bishops who profess the doctrine prescribed by the State.

The Arian Controversy, therefore, was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius. As Hanson wrote (see – End of the Controversy):

“Throughout the controversy, everybody … assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor.”

This reflects the absence of separation between church and state. In practice, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church.

Why was Theodosius successful?

Hanson added:

“The end was at last gained when an Emperor had secured a genuine consensus for one point of view and was able to enforce it.”

“Constantine, Constans, Constantius, and Valens … failed (to end the controversy) because … they in fact were not supported by a consensus in the Church at large.” “Theodosius (succeeded) because … the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church. … It succeeded, not because it was coercion but because it was coercion backed by general assent.”

In his book, on pages 802-804, Hanson explains this “consensus.” He relies on a “council which Meletius convened at Antioch in 379.” However, as Hanson noted, “none of the ecclesiastical historians mentions” this council and “we do not know what statement this council promulgated,” but Hanson still thinks that this council “must have been of great significance.” So, Hanson’s evidence for this “consensus” is very weak.

As mentioned, in two of the main centers of the empire (Constantinople and Alexandria), Arianism dominated when Theodosius became emperor. It would, therefore, be fair to say that Arianism dominated the entire empire in general, which argues against Hanson’s idea that Theodosius was backed by a consensus.

Furthermore, if Theodosius was backed by a consensus, why was it necessary for him to eradicate the nonconformists with such brute force and ruthless persecution? Boyd mentions people who were executed as a consequence of Theodosius’ decree. Were those murders also backed by a consensus? For further discussion, see – Theodosius.

In any case, it does not matter whether there was a consensus or not. The main point of this article is that the emperor, as the real head or pope of the church, made the final decisions; irrespective of any consensus. This can best be seen by reading Hanson’s book: The emperors called the councils, appointed the right people to chair the meetings, and intimidated the councils by their physical presence. Afterward, the councils reported back to the emperors, and the emperors accepted or rejected the council decisions.

We conclude that Theodosius was able to make an end to the controversy because, as Boyd stated, “a far more drastic policy toward heresy was pursued by Theodosius.”

Conclusions

Firstly, as Hanson stated, the “conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is … a complete travesty.”

Secondly, the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by a church council but by a Roman Emperor and enacted as a Roman law. As such, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church that has accepted that law, has thereby become part of the Roman Empire. Consequently, it received great authority from the Roman Empire but it also served the purposes of the Roman Empire.

Today, the Roman Empire no longer exists but the spiritual children of that church that became part of the Roman Empire still exist. Since that church received its authority from the Roman Empire, its children today continue the authority of that ancient empire.


Other Articles

  • 1
    The Search – pages 804-5
  • 2
    The Search – page 805
  • 3
    The Search – pages 805-6
  • 4
    The Search … p162
  • 5
    The Search, pages 791-792
  • 6
    The Search – pages 804-5
  • 7
    The Search – page 805
  • 8
    The Search – pages 805-6

The real dispute and main meaning of the Nicene Creed of AD 325

Summary of this article

Purpose

It is often said that the Council of Nicaea was called to determine whether Jesus is God. But that does not accurately describe the dispute prior to Nicaea or the meaning of the creed. The purpose of this article is to identify the fundamental point of disagreement that led to the Nicene Creed of AD 325 and to establish what the attendees at the council understood the creed to say.

The Two Phases of the Arian Controversy

The Arian Controversy of the fourth century consisted of two phases:

The first phase began around AD 318 in Alexandria and came to an end during the Nicene Council when Arius’ Christology was presented but rejected.

The second phase began during the Nicene Council and lasted for another about 50 years after the meeting. It was not a dispute between the Arius-faction and the rest, but a dispute between four different views of the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son:

        1. Same substance (homoousian)
        2. Different substance (The Arius view)
        3. Similar substance (homoiousian)
        4. God’s substance is not revealed. Therefore, we should not formulate doctrines that refer to God’s substance. This was the majority view in the decades after Nicaea.

How the delegates in 325 understood the creed

This point is that, through the debates of that long second phase of the Arian Controversy and even after that second phase was brought to an end, many new concepts were developed, for example with respect to the Holy Spirit and the meaning of the word hypostasis. Therefore, to read the Nicene Creed of 325 using concepts and definitions that were developed later will fail to reveal its true meaning. It is only possible to grasp the meaning of the creed of AD 325 when one understands how the delegates in 325 understood the creed. For this reason, this article focuses on the development of the doctrine of God prior to the Nicene Creed of 325.

The Apostolic Church

The Bible associates the Son with God in many ways but also describe Him as subordinate to the Father. In the view of many, the Bible’s description of the relationship between God and His Son is inadequate and we need to develop a more advanced description.

But in the Apostolic Church of the first century, while Jews remained the majority in the church, Christians did not attempt to explain the relationship between God and His unique Son in more detail. 

Logos-Christology

Somewhere during the second century, Gentiles became the majority in the church. The Gentile Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (also called the Apologists) identified the Son of God of the New Testament as the Logos of Greek philosophy. In this Logos-Christology:

Created substances, including spirit beings, did not always exist and exist only by God’s grace. Uncreated substances, in contrast, are inherently eternal; always existed and must necessarily always exist.

The Logos existed inside God from the “beginning.”

That the Logos was emitted from God when God decided to create was interpreted as that the Son of God was begotten.

This, however, did not leave God without His wisdom; God and His Logos always remained integrated.

Since the Logos was part of the uncreated substance of God from “the beginning,” He:

        • Is of the same uncreated substance as the Father.
        • Always existed and
        • Must necessarily always exist.
        • Is subordinate to the Father. As B.B. Warfield noted, “The dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels.” (cf. Irenaeus and Tertullian or Origen.)

Sabellianism

Sabellianism (Modalism) was the first challenge to Logos-Christology. Due to Logos-Christology, Christianity was often accused of having two or three gods. Sabellianism was one attempt to explain how God might be three and one at the same time (Kevin Giles). However, the church fathers rejected this Christology early in the third century. 

The Christology of the Nicene Fathers

With Modalism formally condemned, Logos-Christology was the theology with which the church entered the fourth century.

At Nicaea, there were three parties:

The Arius-group taught that the Son was created from nothing. In other words, they rejected Logos-Christology which taught that the Son is the Logos that always was inside God. After Sabellianism, Arius’ Christology was the second great challenge to Logos-Christology.

The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea were the majority at Nicaea and maintained the traditional Logos-theology.

The third group was led by Alexander of Alexandria. A letter in which Alexander explained Arius’ ex-communication shows that Alexander also continued the traditional Logos theology of the previous century.

In conclusion:

All the delegates at Nicaea, except the Arius-group, maintained the traditional Logos-Christology. 

This means that, at the time, the Nicene Creed was formulated and interpreted on the basis of Logos-Christology.

This further means that the word “begotten” in the creed must be understood as that the Logos, who always was inside God, was begotten (emitted) from God and became the Son of God.

The Nicene Creed – Four issues

This analysis allows us to read the Nicene Creed from the perspective of the delegates at Nicaea.

Since more than 80% of the words in the creed are about Jesus Christ, the issue before the council was about Him; not about the Father or about the Holy Spirit.

Analyzing the creed, including the anathemas, shows that it addresses four issues about the Son:

(1) HOW He was generated in eternity past, namely that He was not made from nothing, as Arius claimed but that He is the only being ever “begotten” of the essence of the Father;

(2) WHAT His nature now is, namely, of the same substance (homoousion) as the Father.

(3) Whether He always existed, and

(4) Whether He is mutable (subject to change)

It is proposed that, of those four issues, the primary issue of dispute was how the Son was generated, namely, whether He was generated out of nothing (as Arius said) or out of the substance of God, as the creed suggests. This is justified as follows:

(a) Most of the words that were added in response to the Arian controversy are about this.

(b) After the meeting, Eusebius, the leader of the majority Eastern Greek delegation, identified this as the foundational matter.

(c) All the other differences (whether He always existed, what His substance is, and whether He is mutable) are consequences of this fundamental difference.

(d) That He always existed and that He is immutable are only mentioned in the anathemas, implying that these are not fundamental issues.

Homoousios

The word homoousios does not represent the main idea in the creed because the Origenists, who were in the majority at Nicaea, resisted this word to the last and only accepted it because of the pressure applied by the emperor. (See Eusebius’ explanation for more detail.)

The Son is God.

The creed does not identify the Son as “God” in the sense of the Ultimate Reality because the delegates to Nicaea held to the traditional Logos-Christology in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. This is confirmed by the creed itself which identifies the “one God” of Christianity as the Father alone.

Conclusion

The main point of the creed, with respect to the controversy with Arius, is that the Son was begotten out of the eternal, uncreated substance of the Father. That principle is foundational to everything else the creed says about the Son.

– END OF SUMMARY –

Purpose of this article

In his excellent book, Decoding Nicea, Paul Pavao wrote:

“It is commonly said that the Council of Nicea was called to determine whether Jesus was God. … But if we really want to understand Nicea, then that description will not suffice. It would be more accurate to say that the Council of Nicea met to determine what the Son of God was made of.”

The purpose of this article is to explain this somewhat strange statement by identifying the fundamental point of disagreement that led to the Nicene Creed of AD 325 and by establishing what the attendees at the council understood the creed to say.

The Two Phases of the Arian Controversy

The Arian Controversy of the fourth century consisted of two phases:

The first phase began around AD 318 in Alexandria with a dispute between elder Arius and his bishop Alexander. After this dispute spread over a large part of his empire, Constantine the Great called the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to address this controversy. At the Council, Arius’ Christology was presented but soon rejected. 

However, after Arius’ Christology was rejected, the council meeting evolved into a dispute between the two other parties at Nicaea over how the creed must be formulated. As Eusebius of Caesarea explained, the minority party of Alexander of Alexandria, because they enjoyed the protection of the emperor, was able to add the terms ousia (substance) and homoousion (same substance) to the Nicene creed even though the majority was uncomfortable with these terms. As Bettenson stated, “The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41). As the reformed website Bible.ca states:

“We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. … The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!”

That dispute, which arose during the council meeting, became the second phase of the Arian Controversy, continued after the meeting and lasted for another about 50 years.

While the first phase of the Arian Controversy was between the Arius-faction and everybody else, the second phase of the controversy was a dispute between four different views of the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son:

      1. Same substance (homoousian – as per the Nicene Creed)
      2. Different substance (heteroousian – the view which Arius maintained)
      3. Similar substance (homo-i-ousian – attempted to find a view midway between the homoousians and the heteroousians.)
      4. God’s substance is not revealed. Therefore, we should not formulate doctrines that refer to God’s substance. This is known as the homoian (or homoean) view which simply taught that the Son is similar to the Father.

During the 50 years of the second phase of the Controversy a string of further church councils considered and approved various alternatives for homoousion, but the homoian view became the dominant view. Hanson lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith (Hanson RPC 2005, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 AD. pp. 558–559).

At the Council of Constantinople in 360, 21 years before the council of 381, the homoian view was finally accepted as the official creed of the Christian Church. Its creed rejected the term homoousion and banned all use of ousia in theological discussions. (Steven Wedgeworth)

With the homoian creed, the church returned to the theology of Origen, who warned against attempts to overly define God:

“If then, it is once rightly understood that the only-begotten Son of God is his Wisdom existing in substance, I do not know whether our curiosity ought to advance beyond this.” (De Principiis. I:2:1-2. c. AD 230.)

The Doctrine of God evolved after Nicaea.

Through the debates of that second phase of the Arian Controversy, many new concepts were developed, for example:

The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “God,” p. 568, states that the teaching of the three Cappadocian Fathers “made it possible for the Council of Constantinople (AD 381) to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which up to that point had nowhere been clearly stated, not even in Scripture.

“Finally, following the authoritative example of St. Basil the Great, it became accepted to understand by the word Hypostasis the Personal attributes in the Triune Divinity.” (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p. 94-95) (To understand what this means, see Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

Many other Trinitarian concepts were developed even after the Creed of Constantinople in 381. For example:

A German theologian named Gieseler stated that the first person who asserted “the numerical sameness of nature in the three divine persons” was Augustine. [Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 reprint) p. 463.] (For an explanation, see Should homoousion in the Nicene Creed be translated as “same substance” or as “one substance?”)

How the delegates in 325 understood the creed

Given the significant development of the Trinity doctrine, during the fourth and fifth centuries, to read the Nicene Creed of 325 using concepts and definitions that were developed later will fail to reveal its true meaning. It is only possible to grasp the meaning of the creed of AD 325 when one understands the nature of the controversy at that time and what the delegates in 325 understood the creed to say.

Furthermore, the Nicene Creed of 325 was formulated by a minority and only accepted by the majority due to the pressure applied by the emperor. And, as we see in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, the majority defined the terms “substance” and “same substance” is a way that made it possible for them to accept the creed. Therefore, we need to determine what meaning that majority assigned to the creed because it is on that basis that they accepted the creed.

For this reason, this article focuses on the development of the doctrine of God prior to the Nicene Creed of 325. It will discuss, in brief, the Christology of:

      • The Bible,
      • The Apostolic Church,
      • The Gentile Church, namely Logos-Christology, and
      • Sabellianism,
      • The Nicene Fathers, and 
      • The Lucians (Arius’ Christology).

The Bible

The Bible associates the Son with God. For example:

The church is commanded to baptize believers “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).

He will be honored equal with the Father, has life in Himself like the Father, and in Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form (John 5:23; 26; Col 2:9). These things seem to indicate divinity.

But the Bible also describes Him as subordinate to the Father. For example:

He received honor equal with the Father, life in Himself, and the fullness of Deity the Father (John 5:22; 26; Col 1:19).

The Bible describes the Father as His God (e.g., Eph 1:3; Rev 3:12) and as His Head (e.g.,1 Cor 11:3).

This creates the challenge to explain the tension between the divinity and subordination of the Son. 

R.P.C. Hanson stated, “the Bible does not give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God.” It almost seems as if Hanson is saying that the Bible’s description of the relationship between God and His Son is inadequate and we need to develop a more advanced description.

The renowned ecclesiastical historian, Philip Schaff (1819 – 1893) stated:

“At the beginning of the fourth century the problem of how to preserve the Godhood of Christ and at the same time his subordination to the Father … had not been solved.”
(Prolegomena: “The Outbreak of the Arian Controversy. The Attitude of Eusebius.” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series II. Vol. I.)

If Schaff could say that with respect to the fourth century, he would have said the same of the first century.

Development within the Bible

While the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not clearly state the divinity or even only the pre-existence of Christ, John and Paul present a much higher Christology. Perhaps the reason is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written earlier and only describe the literal historical events as seen from the perspective of people on earth, while John and Paul, who wrote later, were assisted by the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-13) to understand more clearly who the Son is relative to the “one God” of the Bible. In other words, even in the New Testament, we see a development of thought on the question of the relationship between the God of the Bible and His only-begotten Son. 

Apostolic Church

In the Apostolic Church of the first century, while Jews remained the majority in the church, Christians did not attempt to explain the relationship between God and His unique Son in more detail. They were simply repeated the verbal accounts of the disciples and the written gospels and letters, once these have become available. (For a further discussion, see Jewish Dominated Church)

Gentile Church

Somewhere during the second century, Gentiles became the majority in the church. Gentile Christians, in order to explain their religion to their fellow Gentiles people of the empire, needed an explanation of the God of the Bible. Greek philosophy was still a dominant force in the culture of the Roman empire and the Gentile Christians were themselves very familiar with that philosophy. In that Greek philosophy, God’s Logos (word, mind, wisdom, or reason) existed through two stages:

      1. First, inside of the high God but
      2. When God determined to create, God’s Logos was emitted and became a separate being through whom God created all things and communicated with the creation.

Based particularly on the “wisdom” of Proverbs 8 and the “word” of John 1, the Gentile Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (also known as the Apologists) thought and explained that the Son of God of the New Testament is the same as the Logos of Greek philosophy. As B. B. Warfield, stated:

“In the 2nd century, the dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels, and produced what is known as the Logos-Christology.” (Warfield, Benjamin B. “Trinity, 2.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.)

Logos-Christology

This section provides an overview of the Logos-Christology of the 2nd and 3rd centuries:

Uncreated Substances

Logos-Christology distinguished between created and uncreated substances. Created substances, including spirit beings, did not always exist and exist only by God’s grace. Uncreated substances, in contrast, is inherently eternal. Uncreated substances, therefore, always existed and must necessarily always exist. For example:

“The Deity is uncreated and eternal … while matter is created and perishable.” (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians. 4. AD 177)

Inside God

On the basis of John 1:1, Logos-Christology agreed that the Logos existed inside God from the “beginning.” For example:

“God was in the beginning … was alone, but … the Logos … was in him” (Tatian, c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.)

“’ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God’, showing that at first God was alone, and the Word was in him.” (Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, To Autolycus. II:22. c. AD 168)

Begotten Son

As stated, in Greek philosophy, the Logos was emitted from God to become a separate being. In Logos-Christology, this event was described as that the Logos was begotten of God to become a distinct being; identified as “the only-begotten Son of God” who later became the man Jesus Christ. For example:

“But when God wished to make all that he determined, he begot this Logos, uttered, the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15)” (Theophilus, c. AD 168)

As Biblical proof, they used verses such as, “My heart has emitted a good Word” (Psm 45:1) and “I begat you out of my bosom before the dawn” (Psm 110:3).

“The only-begotten Son of God is his Wisdom existing in substance.” (Origen. De Principiis. I:2:1-2. c. AD 230)

Integrated

This, however, did not leave God without His wisdom; God and His Logos always remained integrated. For example:

“The Father has not divested him … of the Logos power” (Tatian, c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.).

“Always conversing with his Reason” (Theophilus, c. AD 168. To Autolycus. II:22.).

Same Substance

Since the Son was begotten from the uncreated substance of God, He is of the same uncreated substance as the Father. It is not clear whether the Logos theologians used the exact word homoousios which we find in the Nicene Creed, but the concept is similar. For example:

“The Logos … came into being … not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], for what is cut off is separated from the original substance” (Tatian, c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.). (In other words, the Son has not been separated from the uncreated substance of the Father.)

“We employ language which makes a distinction between God and matter … For we acknowledge a God and a Son, his Logos, and a Holy Spirit, united in essence.” (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians. 24. Emphasis mine.)

In an analogy, Tertullian stated that, like the sun and a sunbeam, the Father and the Son are “two forms of one undivided substance(Tertullian, Against Praxeas. 13)

“For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as [the Son] himself acknowledges: ‘My Father is greater than I’” [Jn. 14:28]. (Tertullian, Against Praxeas. 9)

Always Existed

Since the Logos was part of the uncreated substance of God “in the beginning,” He always existed and must necessarily always exist. There never was a time that He did not exist. For example:

“The Son of God is the Logos of the Father … He is the first product of the Father, not as though he was being brought into existence, for from the beginning God, who is the eternal Mind, had the Logos in himself.” (Athenagoras, AD 177 – A Plea for the Christians. 10.)

Subordinate

Since, in Logos-Christology, the Son is part of the substance of the Father, Father and Son have the same substance qualitatively but the Son is ontologically (in terms of substance) subordinate to the Father. It follows that the Son is subordinate to the Father in all respects. As B.B. Warfield (quoted above) noted:

“The dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels.”

R.P.C. Hanson wrote:

“The conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … (made) the Son into a demi-god” (Hanson).

And as Philp Schaff stated:

“The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality. But we must distinguish between a subordination of essence (ousia) and a subordination of hypostasis.” (Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. III. Section 130.)

In other words, Schaff stated that, while Father and Son were regarded as equal in essence (substance), the hypostasis (Person) of the Son is subordinate to the hypostasis of the Father.

For a further discussion of Logos Christology, see The Apologists by R.P.C. Hanson. 

Sabellianism

Due to Logos-Christology, Christianity was often accused of having two or three gods. Tertullian stated:

They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods. (Tertullian. Against Praxeas. 3. c. AD 210.)

Sabellianism (Modalism) was the first challenge to Logos-Christology. Sabellianism was an attempt to defend Christianity against the accusation of polytheism.

Kevin Giles (The Academic Journal of CBE International) stated:

“One of the first suggestions as to how God might be three and one at the same time was that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were merely successive modes of revelation of the one God. … This error, which was called modalism, was rejected by the Church Fathers.” 

Wikipedia states that Modalism has been mainly associated with Sabellius, who taught a form of it in Rome in the 3rd century. This had come to him via the teachings of Noetus and Praxeas.

Tertullian condemned Modalism (c. 213, Tertullian Against Praxeas 1, in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 3). Sabellius was excommunicated in AD 220. (GotQuestions). 

The Christology of the Nicene Fathers

With Modalism formally condemned, Logos-Christology was the theology with which the church entered the fourth century.

“Among those who were, three basic “parties” were discernible: Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia; the Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.” (Erickson) (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)

Arius and the Lucianists

The quote from Erickson above refers to “Arius and the Lucianists.” Arius was the main spokesperson of this Christology, but he did not invent it. Pavao noted, “all the major players of the early Arian Controversy were trained in the school of Lucian.” (Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 273). Kindle Edition.) And Boer (A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, p113) described Arius as “a disciple of Lucian.” Lucian was martyred in 311 or 312; at the very end of the Great Persecution.

While Logos-Christology taught that the Son is the Logos that always was inside God, “Arius and the Lucianists” taught that the Son was created from nothing. In other words, the Arius-delegation rejected Logos-Christology. The first great challenge to the Logos-Christology of the Apologists was Sabellianism. The second great challenge was the Lucian Christology which Arius proclaimed.

The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea

This group was the majority at Nicaea and maintained the traditional Logos-theology:

“The most important of the Eastern bishops were present, but the West was poorly represented” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85).

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of Origen. Future generations have tended to dub them “Semi-Arian.” In fact they were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church” (Frend, W.H.C. The Rise of Christianity. see also, Bible.ca).

Alexander of Alexandria, with his following

Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, where the dispute with Arius began, explained Arius’ ex-communication in a letter (The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus. I:6.). In that letter, he explains what Arius taught and why his views were rejected. But it is also clear from that letter that Alexander continued the traditional Logos theology of the previous century. For example:

He stated that “the Son is the Word and Wisdom of God.”

And he used verses that were often used by Logos theologists, but which we would not necessarily today associate with the Son:

          • “My heart has dictated a good Word,” and,
          • “I begat thee out of my bosom before the dawn”? [45:1; 110:3, LXX]

Conclusion

All the delegates at Nicaea, except the Arius-group, maintained the traditional Logos-Christology. R.P.C. Hanson, a great authority on the Arian Controversy, wrote:

“The theological structure provided by the Apologists lasted as the main, widely-accepted, one might almost say traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was, in differing form, the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted.” (link)

This means that the Nicene Creed was formulated and interpreted at the time on the basis of Logos-Christology. This further means that the word “begotten” in the creed must be understood as that the Logos, who always was inside God – part of God’s uncreated substance – was emitted from God (when God wanted to create) and became the Son of God.

Nicene Creed

This analysis allows us to read the Nicene Creed from the perspective of the delegates at Nicaea.

Since more than 80% of the words in the creed are about Jesus Christ, the issue before the council was about Him; not about the Father or about the Holy Spirit. The question is, what did they dispute about the Son?

Compared with 1 Corinthians 8:6

The first part of the creed seems to be based on 1 Corinthians 8:6, but notice the section inserted to describe the Son. It is proposed that this additional section specifically affirms what Arius disputed: 

1 Corinthians 8:6 Nicene Creed (AD 325)
For us there is but one God, the Father We believe in one God, the Father Almighty
From whom are all things and we exist for Him Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And one Lord, Jesus Christ, And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, 
consubstantial with the Father;
By whom are all things, and we exist through Him By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;

This added section may be divided into two subjects:

Firstly, how the Son was generated in eternity past, namely that He is the only being ever to be begotten of the essence of the Father;

Secondly, what His nature now is, namely, of the same substance (homoousion) as the Father.

This phrase “God from God, light from light, true God from true God” indicates both HOW He was generated and WHAT His nature now is. However, the part of the added section that begins with “begotten” and ends with “begotten not made” seems to form an inclusio, indicating that this part is a unit with the word “begotten” pointing to its main meaning, namely the generation of the Son from the being or substance of the Father.

Compared with the Anathemas

In addition to this added section, which described the Council’s agreed view of Christ, the creed of AD 325 also includes a list of statements that are categorized as heretical, and all of these statements are about Christ. These statements reflect Arius’ Christology. The following table compares the affirmations with Arius’ view:

  Council’s view:
(Affirmations)
Arius’ view:
(Anathemas)
Before He was generated There was when He was not – Before being born He was not
How He was generated 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, He was created out of nothing.
His substance of one substance with the Father of a different hypostasis or substance
His nature subject to alteration or change (mutable)

The Nicene Creed, therefore, basically says 4 things about the Son, namely that He:

      • Always existed.
      • Was begotten from the substance of the Father.
      • Is of the same substance as the Father.
      • Is not subject to change.

The main point of dispute

It is proposed that, of those four issues, the primary issue of dispute was how the Son was generated, namely, whether He was generated out of nothing (as Arius said) or out of the substance of God, as the creed suggests. This is justified as follows:

Firstly, the previous table shows that most of the words that were added in response to the Arian controversy are about HOW He was generated; repeating the word “begotten” three times.

Secondly, all the other differences are consequences of this fundamental difference.

If the Son was created out of nothing, as Arius claimed, then, (a) He did not exist before He was begotten, (b) He consist of created substances, which is a different substance from the Father’s uncreated substance, and (c) He is mutable.

Given how the Council understood “begotten,” namely that the Son is the uncreated Logos that always was inside God but that was emitted from the essence of God to become God’s only begotten Son, means that (a) He always existed, (b) is of the same uncreated substance as the Father and (c) is as unchangeable as God.

Thirdly, that He always existed and that He is immutable are not mentioned in the affirmations; only in the anathemas, implying that these are not fundamental issues.

Fourthly, after the meeting, Eusebius, the leader of the majority Eastern Greek delegation, explained the dispute with Arius and identified Arius’ main argument as that the Son was created out of nothing. It also shows that Eusebius’ response was that, because the Son was begotten from the Father, He came out of the being of the Father and was not created from nothing. (See The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus – Book II (mb-soft.com))

Homoousios

That He is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father is also mentioned in the affirmations of the creed. For that reason, that may indicate that this was the main point of the creed.

However, the word homoousios was proposed and enforced by the emperor. Eusebius and the other Origenists resisted this word to the last and, in the end, accepted this word only because of the pressure applied by the emperor. (See Eusebius of Caesarea’s explanation of Nicaea for more detail.) In other words, at least from the perspective of the majority at the council, this word does not reflect what they wanted to say in response to Arius’ Christology. For that reason, this word was the cause of the second phase of the Arian Controversy during the 50 years after Nicaea.

The Son is God

It is often stated that that creed identifies Jesus as God (e.g., Bible.ca) but, as R.P.C. Hanson – who studied the Arian Controversy of 20 years – stated, the traditional account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. In fact, the issue was decidedly not whether Jesus is God. As discussed above, all the delegates to Nicaea, except the Arius-group, held to the traditional Logos-Christology in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. As Philip Schaff noted with respect to perhaps the most respected theologian at Nicaea:

“That Eusebius [of Caesarea] was a decided subordinationist must be plain to every one that reads his works with care” (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series II, Vol. 1)

As quoted above, Philip Schaff also stated that, while Father and Son were regarded as equal in essence (substance), the Nicene Fathers regarded the hypostasis (Person) of the Son as subordinate to the hypostasis of the Father (Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. III. Section 130. Emphasis mine, parentheses his. (pp. 251-252).

The Arius-group denied that the Son always existed and, therefore, had an even lower Christology. Therefore, if we use the word “God” for the Ultimate Reality, then none of the delegates thought of Christ as such. All of them regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.

This is confirmed by the creed itself which identifies the “one God” of Christianity as the Father alone:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty …
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God …
And in the Holy Ghost. (cf. 1 Tim 2:5; cf. 1 Cor 8:6; John 5:44)

Whereas the Apostles’ Creed declared only that Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, and our Lord, the Nicene Creed added the following declaration dealing with eternal subordination:

“and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into being.”

As Schaff makes clear, these statements reflected a belief in the eternal subordination of the Son. The idea that the Son is begotten and the Father unbegotten means that the Father is primary and Sonship secondary. Schaff declares that “all important scholars since Petavius admit subordination in the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III (311–600) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950) 683.

Conclusion

Out of what

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that Paul Pavao wrote that the main point of the Nicene Creed was “what the Son of God was made of.” I propose that that is not entirely correct. What the Son of God was made of is only a consequence of the question out of what He was generated; out of God or out of nothing.

I propose, therefore, that the main point of the creed is that the Son was begotten out of the eternal, uncreated substance of the Father. That principle is foundational to everything else in the creed. Consistently, the Nicene Creed states three times that the Son was “begotten.”