Is Homoousios the main word in the Nicene Creed?

The Key Word in the Creed

The Nicene Creed of AD 325 says that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, homoousios is “the key word of the Creed.” (Beatrice)

In the “centuries-old account of the Council of Nicaea,” “the whole power of the mysterious dogma is at once established by the one word homoousios;” “with one pronouncement the Church identified a term that secured its … beliefs against heresy.” (LA, 11)

Not mentioned for 25+ years

But this traditional view is in startling contrast to the views of the delegates at Nicaea. Referring specifically to the view that homoousios was of fundamental importance, Ayres says that “such older accounts are deeply mistaken.” (LA, 11) For about 25 years after Nicaea, nobody mentions homoousios:

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

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

Not even Athanasius, who is traditionally regarded as the great hero of the Arian Controversy and defender of the Nicene Creed, mentions the term:

“Even Athanasius for about twenty years after Nicaea is strangely silent about this adjective (homoousios) which had been formally adopted into the creed of the Church in 325.” (RH, 58-59)

“In most older presentations, ‘western’ bishops were taken to be natural and stalwart defenders of Nicaea throughout the fourth century.” (LA, 135) However:

“Even the Western bishops at Serdica in 343 did not mention the word.” (RH, 436) That council, 18 years after Nicaea, “opted clearly for Una substantia meaning one hypostasis, (rather than consubstantial).” (RH, 201)

The events of the Council of Serdica in AD 343 show that the main drivers of the Nicene Creed, “such as Ossius, Athanasius, and Marcellus” were “willing to turn to an alternative statement of faith, just as many of their eastern counterparts had done at Antioch two years before.” (LA, 126)

Even a decade later, “the 350s show how Nicaea only slowly came to be of importance in the west.” (LA, 135)

The word homoousios “has left no traces at all in the works of … the leaders of the anti-Arian party such as Alexander of Alexandria, Ossius of Cordova, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Eustathius of Antioch, who are usually considered Constantine’s theological advisers and the strongest supporters of the council.” (P.F. Beatrice)

“It is not until he (Athanasius) writes the De Decretis (356 or 357) that Athanasius again mentions the word and begins to defend it.” (RH, 436)

Nobody attacked homoousios.

Since nobody defended homoousios, nobody attacked it during those 25 years after Nicaea:

“Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (LA, 139)


The purpose of this article is two-fold:

      • Why was the term not mentioned during the decades after Nicaea, and
      • How and why did it become part of the Controversy 30 years later?


The main authors quoted in this article are:

LA = Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

RH = Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

Beatrice – Pier Franco Beatrice is a professor of Early Christian Literature at the University of Padua, Italy.

Why Not Mentioned

Not Important

This absence of the term homoousios in the 20 or more years after Nicaea means that the term was not regarded as important:

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

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. … It was not seen as that useful or important.” (LA, 96)

In fact, some even say that the term was a problem for most delegates:

“Homoousios was in fact a foreign body or stumbling block for all the people attending the council, without distinction, Arians and anti-Arians, and for this very reason it soon disappeared in the following debates.” (P.F. Beatrice)

To Oust Arius

“The choice of the term homoousios seems to have been motivated in large part because Arius was known to reject it. Athanasius …  tells us that those running the council originally proposed describing the Son as ‘like’ the Father or ‘exactly like the Father in all things’ and as being ‘from God’. But these terms would not serve because everyone could agree to them. … Hence, homoousios and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were chosen specifically to exclude Arius’ supporters.” (LA, 90)

Hanson concludes similarly that “the most satisfactory explanation of why it was put there is that it was certainly a word … which serious and wholehearted Arians could not stomach.” (RH, 167; cf. RH, 172)

Ayres agrees with Hanson that “the homoousion was probably not a flag to be nailed to the masthead, a word around which self-conscious schools of theology could rally. But it was an atropopaic formula for resisting Arianism.” (LA, 92) (Atropopaic means to avert evil influences.)

In other words, the term homoousion was inserted in the Creed, not because it was considered to be an important Christian word or concept, but merely as a means to force Arius and his supporters to reject the Creed. The meeting knew that the emperor would exile all who refused to sign the Creed and “desired to secure the condemnation of Arius.” (LA, 91)

The Work of a Minority

The delegates to the Nicene Council of 325 were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (LA, 19), and the Dedication Creed of 341 “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop.” (RH, 290-1) “Loofs comes nearest to the truth when he says that it (the Dedication Creed) is both anti-Marcellan and anti-homoousian.” (RH, 287-8) The dedication Creed also “deliberately excludes the kind of Arianism professed by Arius.” (RH, 290)

So, the Nicene Creed did not reflect die views of the majority. The majority was anti-Marcellan, anti-homoousian, and anti-Arius:

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

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

“Homoousios was … (a) stumbling block for all the people attending the council, without distinction, Arians and anti-Arians.” (Beatrice)

Constantine Insisted

A minority was able to dominate the proceedings because Constantine had taken Alexander’s part:

“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (LA, 89) “This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force.” (LA, 89)

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians (extreme anti-Arians) were in favour of it [the term homoousios], and that, when he had insisted that it did not have the objectionable meaning which Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia had attached to it, the favourers of Arius in the Council could accept it, he pressed for its inclusion.” (RH, 202)

Did Ossius propose the term?

“According to the Arians … the Nicene Creed was presented by Ossius of Cordova in his capacity as president of the assembly.” (P.F. Beatrice) However, Ossius did not preside because of his position in the church. He was the bishop of the “obscure” see of Cordova (RH, 155). He presided in his capacity “as the Emperor’s representative” (RH, 154) and represented “the Emperor’s interest.” (RH, 156) If he did propose the term, he did it on the instruction of the Emperor.

Constantine Explained

Emperor Constantine not only imposed, by his authority, the inclusion of the word homoousios; he also had the audacity to explain what the word meant. He did his best to overcome the objection of Arians that the word implies that God has a material body. He said:

“The Son subsisted from the Father
neither according to division, nor severance:
for the immaterial, and intellectual, and incorporeal nature could not be the subject of any bodily affection,
but … in a divine and ineffable manner.’ (P.F. Beatrice)

The Final Authority

Given the modern culture of religious freedom, the reader might find it strange that an emperor is able to insist on the inclusion of a keyword in a church decree. However, as RPC Hanson stated:

“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine (during the Arian Controversy), there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (RH, 849)

The so-called ‘ecumenical’ church councils of the fourth century were “the very invention and creation of the Emperor” (RH, 855). “Everybody recognised the right of an Emperor to call a council, or even to veto or quash its being called” (RH, 849-50). “The Emperor was expected to dominate and control them” (RH, 855).

In conclusion, religious freedom did not exist. Since the Nicene Creed was the work of a minority under the protection of the emperor, the majority was uncomfortable with this term. It was for that reason that the term was not mentioned for some decades after Nicaea.

Nicaea not Binding

Furthermore, at the time, the Nicene Creed was not regarded as binding:

“Many modern readers assume that the Nicene creed was intended at its promulgation to stand as a binding and universal formula of Christian faith.” (LA, 85) However, “by the time Nicaea met, Church leaders … had no precedent for the idea of a council that would legislate for the Church as a whole.” (LA, 87) “Councils were not expected to produce precise statements of belief.” (LA, 87) “All the bishops at Nicaea would have understood their local ‘baptismal’ creed to be a sufficient definition of Christian belief.” (LA, 85)

For a further discussion of this point, see Ayres – 4.1 The Nicene Creed as a Standard of Faith.

Objections to Homoousios

The previous section explains that the Eusebians were uncomfortable with the term homoousios. This section explains why they opposed it:

Not in the Bible

First, the term homoousios “is not to be found in the Holy Scripture” (P.F. Beatrice). “Nobody could pretend that it was Scriptural” (RH, 167). The Bible does not say anything about the substance of God or of His Son.


Second, the Eusebians understood the term as saying that God is material:

“Williams points out that the objection based on the Manichean tendency of the word assumed that it implied that the Son was a component or extension of God, thus representing God as composite, perhaps as material, and suggesting that there is a kind of common ‘God-stuff’ shared by Father and Son.” (RH, 197)

The Eusebians argued that we should not understand the terms “Father,” “Son,” and “begotten” in a literal, material sense, as if the Son was begotten like humans are by breaking off a part of the parent.


Third, Eusebius of Nicomedia rejected the term homoousios because, if one says that the Son has the same substance as the Father, then one is saying that the Son has the same unoriginated substance as the Father, which contradicts the statement that the Son is begotten. (RH, 197)


Fourth, during the preceding century, the term was used by the Sabellians. Therefore:

“It was impossible to rid the term in the minds of many of Sabellian, if not Gnostic associations.” (RH, 437)

The Homoiousians rejected “homoousios as leading to Sabellianism.” (RH, 439) “To them an acceptance of homoousios … would naturally appear to involve them in pure indiscriminate Sabellianism.” (RH, 440)

Athanasius wrote that their objection to the term “homoousios” was that it was considered to be “un-Scriptural, suspicious, and of a Sabellian tendency.” 1Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn


Fifth, that the term was not used during the decades after Nicaea also means that it was not used during the decades before Nicaea:

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

Rowan Williams described it as “the radical words of Nicaea” (RW, 236) and “conceptual innovation” (RW, 234-5).

The Arians objected that these words are both “unscriptural” and “untraditional” (RW, 234-5).

A meeting was held in Antioch a few months before the Nicene Council which formulated a draft creed. “This text makes no use of the ousia language that we see in Nicaea’s creed.” (LA, 51)

“The word homoousios is not to be found in the extant writings of Alexander of Alexandria.” (Beatrice)

“We can detect no Greek-speaking writer before Nicaea who unreservedly supports homoousion as applied to the Son.” (RH, 169)


Sixth, the terms ousia and homoousion were borrowed from pagan philosophy:

“The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they try to show that the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really to be found in Scripture.” (RH, 846)

Already Condemned

Last, the fathers of Antioch (the headquarters of the entire church at the time) who condemned Paul of Samosata during the preceding century also condemned the use of homoousios, to describe the Son’s relation to the Father, as heretical (RH, 198).

How the Controversy Began

So, if the term was not regarded as important before, at, or after Nicaea, how did it become part of the ‘Arian’ Controversy? This section explains the history chronologically and shows that the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios were introduced into the Controversy in the 350s; about 30 years after Nicaea:

The West not part of the Controversy

At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. For example, at Nicaea in 325, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (LA, 19)

“The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” “The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church.” (RH, 170)

No Controversy after Nicaea

As discussed, for more than 25 years after Nicaea, the Nicene Creed and Homoousios were not part of the Controversy. In fact, there was no controversy:

“At some times there was almost no controversy at all. If there was any controversy from 330 to 341, it was a controversy about the behaviour of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria.” (RH, xviii)

“There was a long period of confusion and uncertainty from 341 to 357 when it was far from clear what the controversy was about, if there was a controversy.” (RH, xviii)

In other words, the dispute between Arius and his bishop Alexander came to an end at Nicaea. The Real Controversy began only decades later, as explained below:

Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy

During those decades after Nicaea, while nobody thinks about homoousios, Athanasius and Marcellus were both exiled from the East and sent to the West (Rome). There they met and joined forces against the East:

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

In Rome, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy:

“Athanasius’ engagement with Marcellus in Rome seems to have encouraged Athanasius towards the development of” “an increasingly sophisticated account of his enemies;” “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years;” “a masterpiece of the rhetorical art.” (LA, 106-7)

What was his polemical strategy?

“Athanasius’ account begins by presenting Arius as the originator of a new heresy.” (LA, 107) In contrast, “Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (LA, 107)

Athanasius described “his enemies as ‘Arians’ seeking to perpetuate a theology stemming from Arius.” (LA, 106) “To this end Athanasius quotes extensively from Arius’ Thalia.” (LA, 107) See also – Athanasius invented Arianism.

This polemical strategy is discussed further in – The Creation of ‘Arianism’. It presents a misleading picture of that Controversy:

“If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis.” (RW, 234)

“Once we begin to grasp the problems with Athanasius’ rhetorical unmasking of ‘Arians’ then we need to look beyond the Athanasian terminology of an ‘Arian’ conspiracy to get a more accurate sense of how to understand non-Marcellan and non-Athanasian eastern theologies during this period.” (LA, 432)

Rome accepted Athanasius’ Polemics.

“Athanasius appealed to Julius of Rome in 339–40 by using his strategy of narrating a theological conspiracy of ‘Arians’. His success had a profound impact on the next few years of the controversy.” (LA, 108)

Julius of Rome held a council in Rome which “quickly vindicated Marcellus and Athanasius.” (LA, 109)

“Julius wrote to the east in 341 in a letter which shows the strong influence of the emerging Athanasian account of ‘Arianism’.” (LA, 109)

At this stage, homoousios was not yet part of this strategy.

Caused division between East and West

It is traditionally thought that the West has always supported Nicaea, just as it is traditionally taught that Athanasius has always supported Nicaea. However, in Ayres’ discussion of the Western (Latin) Theologists at the time of Nicaea, he concludes that they believed more or less the same as the theologians in the East:

“These Latin theologians have as far to travel towards later pro-Nicene theology as the eastern trajectories.” (LA, 75)

“Ironically, an anti-monarchian, anti-‘modalist’ polemic fundamentally shapes these early Latin theologians, and that is taken so often to be determining the future course of a unitary western theology!” (LA, 74)

This last quote is important. It says that the West opposed the idea that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one Being.

So, at this stage, there was unanimity between East and West. It was only the acceptance of Athanasius’ polemical strategy that caused division between East and West:

“Once Julius had acted we begin to see divisions between the Church in the eastern and western halves of the empire emerging.” (LA, 109)

This was the real beginning of the ‘Arian’ Controversy; beginning after Rome, at the beginning of the 340s, had accepted Athanasius’ polemical strategy. However, the bishop of Rome’s acceptance of Athanasius’ strategy did not mean that the entire West accepted it.

“We should … be cautious in our reading of these divisions. The divisions we initially observe are between one group of eastern bishops taking their lead from Eusebius of Nicomedia and Julius and his immediate associates. We must be wary of reading this as reflecting a simple division between eastern and western theology. Even when just such a division appears to come clearly into the open at the Council of Serdica in 343, even there the participants cannot usefully be divided in purely geographic terms.” (LA, 109-110)

Note also that, as explained below, the Nicene Creed and homoousios were not yet part of the Controversy.  

Opposition to Constantius

In the same year that Julius wrote his letter to the East (AD 341), the East formulated the Dedication Creed which says that the Father, Son, and Spirit “are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.” Two years later the West formulated a Creed at Serdica in 343 which “opted clearly for Una substantia meaning one hypostasis.” (RH, 201) The two parts of the empire continued to oppose one another but they were ruled by different emperors. So, there was not much impetus to reconcile these differing views.

However, in the early 350s, Constantius became emperor of the entire Roman Empire:

“Over the period AD 351–3, and after a complex civil war, the eastern Emperor Constantius achieved complete control of the whole empire.” (LA, 133)

“At this point Constantius found himself sole ruler of the Roman world and with the ability to push for a unified religious policy throughout his domains in a way no emperor had been able to do since the death of his father in 337.” (LA, 133)

“As his control over the west grew Constantius increased his attempts to get bishops to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.” (LA, 135)

Constantius’ greatest enemy politically and ecclesiastically was Athanasius:

“Athanasius had a desire for power; he suppressed ruthlessly whenever he could any opposition to him within his diocese … towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (RH, 421)

Therefore, the emperor “attempted to get the condemnation of Athanasius and probably some sort of theological statement accepted throughout the west.” (LA, 135) With that double goal in mind, “the council of Sirmium in 351 set the trend for a series of councils.” (LA, 135) But the West resisted:

“Through the 350s … we seem to see a growing opposition to Constantius’ attempts to force western councils to agree to the decrees of Sirmium 351.” (LA, 136)

For a discussion of the Creed of 351, see – 6.1 Constantius and the Rise of the Homoians.

Athanasius introduced Homoousios.

It was in response to the emperor’s attack on him that Athanasius took the significant step of incorporating the Nicene Creed and homoousios into his polemical strategy. Since that polemical strategy was the basis for the dispute between the East and the West, by incorporating homoousios into his polemical strategy, homoousios also became part of the dispute between the East and the West. But only happened in the mid-350s:

“He began to use it first in the De Deeretis and thereafter regularly in his theological works, defending it fiercely against all criticism of it. If we place De Deeretis in 356 or 357, we can perhaps see the reason for this change of policy. By then it had become abundantly clear not only that Constantius was everywhere trying to isolate Athanasius himself from ecclesiastical support both in the East and the West, but, if we assume, as seems likely, that at Aries in 353 and Milan in 355 a doctrinal formula which did nothing at all to forward the doctrine of the unity of Father and Son regarded by Athanasius as the only orthodox one, was forced upon those who attended these councils, we can imagine that Athanasius decided that he must begin a policy of defending the very words of N as a slogan or banner round which to gather.” (RH, 438)

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

“In most older presentations, ‘western’ bishops were taken to be natural and stalwart defenders of Nicaea throughout the fourth century. The 350s show how Nicaea only slowly came to be of importance in the west.” (LA, 135)

A Turn to Nicaea

Athanasius and the West did not defend Nicaea because they have always defended Nicaea. Rather, to strengthen themselves in their resistance to the emperor’s efforts, they turned to Nicaea:

“It seems unlikely that previous adherence to Nicaea motivated their (the West’s) growing opposition (to Constantius’ efforts): it is much more likely that events in the second half of the decade prompted a turn to Nicaea as a focus for their already strong opposition.” (LA, 136)

In the ‘West’ there were, already before 357, “the beginnings of attempts on the part of a few to turn to Nicaea as a standard against the direction of Constantius’ policies. Events of 357 deeply shaped this movement.” (LA, 139)

Athanasius’ Own Theology

But it is also important to understand that Athanasius did not defend the Nicene Creed as such, but used Nicaea to defend his own theology, which was different:

“Athanasius’ theology in the 340s and 350s is not the ‘original’ Nicene theology, but a development from one of the original theologies that shaped Nicaea.” (LA, 239)

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

Anti-Nicene Accounts Emerged.

Anti-Nicene theologies emerged in the late 350s; only after Athanasius introduced homoousios into his polemical strategy:

Homoian theology is specifically anti-Nicene. Particularly, it opposes ousia-language. For example, they were “refusing to allow ousia-terms of any kind into professions of faith.” (RW, 234)

“Though Homoian Arianism derived from the thought both of Eusebius of Caesarea and of Arius, we cannot with confidence detect it before the year 357, when it appears in the Second Sirmian Creed.” (RH, 558)

“Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (LA, 139)

The Sides in the Controversy

As a result of the introduction of homoousios into the Controversy, the church divided into various factions:

‘One Reality’ Homo-ousians (Sabellians), such as Athanasius and Marcellus, interpreted homoousios as “one substance,” namely, as saying that Father and Son are one Being. See above the council of Sardica in 343, where they used the term ‘one hypostasis’.

Three Reality’ Homo-ousians, such as Basil of Caesarea and Meletius of Antioch interpreted homoousios as “same substance,” namely, that Father and Son are two beings with the same type of substance. See – Basil’s Early Theology: Problems With Homoousios.

The Homoi-ousians said that the Father’s substance is like the Father’s, but not the same.

The Heter-ousians said that the Son is like the Father but His substance is unlike the Father’s.

The Homo-ians, who remained the dominant emperor-supported faction, rejected all use of ousia-terms. They held that Jesus Christ is like the Father, without reference to ousia (essence or substance).


When the Nicene Creed was formulated, the term homoousios was not regarded as important. Arius had already said that he rejected that term and the Council included the term in the Creed merely to force the true Arians to reject the Creed so that the emperor could exile them.

The Nicene Creed was the work of a minority, supported by the emperor. After Christianity became legalized in 313, the emperor became the ultimate authority in doctrine. Religious freedom did not exist.

A majority objected to the term homoousios because it:

    • Is not in the Bible,
    • Represents God as composite, perhaps as material,
    • Implies that the Son was not begotten but has the same unoriginated substance as the Father,
    • Was a Sabellian term,
    • Was not part of the standard Christian language before Nicaea, but
    • Was borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day, and
    • Was already condemned as heretical during the previous century.

Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy distorts the nature of the Arian Controversy. Since it later became accepted by the church, scholars maintain that the traditional account of the Arian Controversy is a Complete Travesty.

At first, there was no schism between East and West. Such a division only developed after Rome had accepted Athanasius’ polemical strategy, around the year 340.

The term homoousios was not part of the Arian Controversy during the first 30 years after Nicaea. Homoousios only became part of that controversy after Athanasius, in the 350s, made it part of his polemical strategy.

Related Articles

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy


The Nicene Creed


    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 15The 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? 16‘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 17In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 18This 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? 19Forget 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 24Elohim (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 25The 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

  • 1
    Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn
  • 2
    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.
  • 3
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 4
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 5
    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.
  • 6
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 7
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 8
    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?
  • 9
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 10
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 11
    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.
  • 12
    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.
  • 13
    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.
  • 14
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 15
    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.
  • 16
    ‘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.
  • 17
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 18
    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.
  • 19
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 20
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 21
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 22
    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.
  • 23
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 24
    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?
  • 25
    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.

What was the stance of Arius on John 1:1?

Did Arius believe that Jesus was a creature, a created god? What did he write about John 1:1? Or if there is no such extant manuscript, how would he have interpreted “the Word was God” in John 1:1 based on his Christology?

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1 (ESV)

Created Being

It is not true to say that “Arius believed that Jesus was a creature, a created god,” as if He is one among many.

“Many summary accounts present the Arian controversy as a dispute over whether or not Christ was divine.” (LA, 13) However, “it is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (LA, 14) 

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

“A second approach that we need to reject treats the fourth-century debates as focusing on the question of whether to place the Son on either side of a clear God/creation boundary.” (LA, 4)

If Arius described the Son as a created being, so did many of his ‘orthodox’ predecessors. For example:

H. R. Boer (A Short History of the Early Church, p108-110) states that “Justin and the other Apologists therefore taught that the Son is a creature. He is a high creature, a creature powerful enough to create the world but, nevertheless, a creature.”

“Both Dionysius of Alexandria and Theognostus use a terminology of ‘creating’ as one among a range of terms, and we simply cannot be certain how this was heard in third-century Alexandria.” (LA, 49)

For a further discussion, see – Christ’s Divinity

 Arian View

With respect to the Son, ‘Arians’ believed as follows:

      • He is the only being ever to be begotten directly by the Father.
      • As the Mediator between God and man, He is the only being able to come directly into God’s presence, as all other beings would disintegrate.
      • He created all things.
      • Therefore, He is God of all things and worshiped by all things. He is our God; just like the Father is His God.

It was Arius’ enemies who, distorting Arius’ writings, claimed that Arius taught that the Son is a created being. See – Did Arius describe Jesus Christ as a Created Being?

Arius Not Important

We only have about five pages of Arius’ own writings (about 3 letters). Consequently, we do not have anything about what he himself wrote on John 1:1 specifically.

One possible reference is where Arius wrote: The Father “gave him existence alongside himself” (RH, 7). Perhaps this refers to John 1:1, which says, “The Word was with God.”

RH Bishop R.P.C. Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

However, Arius was not important. Contrary to what is popularly believed, Arius was not the leader of the anti-Nicenes of the fourth century. For example, these anti-Nicenes never quoted him. Again, it was the pro-Nicenes who distorted the truth by tarnishing their opponents as “Arians,” claiming that anti-Nicenes were followers of Arius.

Eusebian View

Eusebius of Caesarea “was universally acknowledged as the most scholarly bishop of his day” (RH, 46). He “was certainly an early supporter of Arius” (RH, 46) but he was not a follower of Arius. In the fourth century, he was the real theological leader of the anti-Nicenes. We may, therefore, appropriately refer to the anti-Nicenes as ‘Eusebians’.

This might surprise the reader, but “John 1:1 … is used by Eusebius of Caesarea to express his doctrine of the Logos before the outbreak of the dispute.” (RH, 835)

In Eusebian thinking, John 1:1 describes two distinct Persons; God and the Logos (“and the Word was with God”). And since there cannot be two Ultimate Realities; only one of them is the Ultimate Reality:

“The Logos could not represent ultimate metaphysical reality (‘He who is’) because ‘He who is’ cannot be ‘with’ Him who is; they cannot both represent ultimate reality” (RH, 835). Or, “the two (God and the Logos) are placed side by side” (RH, 390).

The Beginning

For the Arians, the “beginning” refers to the creation of all things. Firstly, God had no beginning. Therefore, it cannot refer to God’s beginning. Secondly, John 1:2-3 explicitly refers to the creation of all things, which links these verses to the creation account in Genesis 1.

God and theos

Similar to John 1:1, Arius and the other Eusebians did refer to the Son as theos. For example:

The ‘Dedication’ Creed

In 341 a group of bishops present in Antioch “to dedicate a church built by the Emperor Constantius” (RH, 290) formulated what is known as the Dedication Creed. This creed refers explicitly to John 1:1 and refers to the Son as “God” (theos in Greek). It described Him as:

“God from God …
who was in the beginning with God,
God the Word according to the text in the Gospel,
‘and the Word was God’,
by whom all things were made,
and in whom all things exist

Richard Hanson wrote:

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

But this creed also describes the Son as subordinate to the Father. Athanasius coined the term ‘Arian’ to tar his opponents, who were not followers of Arius, as followers of a theology that the church already rejected. See Athanasius invented Arianism or The Creation of ‘Arianism’.

The Council of Serdica

As another example, at the Council of Serdica (AD 343), the ‘easterners’ (those whom Athanasius identified as ‘Arians’) issued a statement that anathematizes “those who say. . .that Christ is not God.”

The term theos

Since the ‘easterners’ regarded the Son both as “God” and as subordinate to the Father, Lewis Ayres says:

This “reminds us of the variety of ways in which the term ‘God’ could be deployed at this point.” (LA, 124) (LA = Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004)

Hanson agrees:

“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.” (Hanson Lecture)

God and theos

In the Bible and in the early Greek writers, theos is NOT equivalent to the modern word “God:”

The word theos was used for beings with different levels of divinity. The term theos was originally used for the Greek gods and goddesses and describes an immortal being with supernatural power. The Son of God, therefore, may most certainly be described as “theos.” In English, therefore, when not referring to the Father or the Son, theos is translated as “god.”

In contrast, in English, the word “God” is used only for the Ultimate Reality. Ancient Greek did not have an equivalent word.

John 1:1

The translation of John 1:1 “and the Word was God,” with a capital “G,” therefore ASSUMES that the Son is the Ultimate Reality. Given the meaning of theos as described, this is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of the Trinity doctrine.

I would not translate John 1:1 as “and the Word was God” but would definitely also not translate it as “the Word was a god” because that would imply He is one among many. Unfortunately, the Trinity doctrine has determined the vocabulary of the English language in this regard. It only has the words “God” and “god.” English does not have a word for a Being like the Son, who was begotten from the being of Father to have many of God’s attributes, such as to have life in Himself and to maintain all things by the word of God’s power.

See – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?”

His God

So, there are two called theos in John 1:1. We see the same in John 20 and Hebrews 1:8-9. In both those passages, the Son is called theos but the Father is called His theos (His God). Despite this, the standard translation, because it assumes the Trinity doctrine, translates theos in these two instances, when referring to the Son, as “God.”

Other Articles

  • 1
    For the first more than 300 years, the church fathers believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father. The Trinity Doctrine was developed by the Cappadocian fathers late in the fourth century but the decision to adopt it was not taken by the church. This is a list of all articles on the Arian Controversy.
  • 2
    Who was he? What did he believe?
  • 3
    Who created it? What does it say?
  • 4
    What does it mean?
  • 5
    The conclusion that Jesus is ‘God’ forms the basis of the Trinity Doctrine.
  • 6
    Including Modalism, Eastern Orthodoxy view of the Trinity, Elohim, and Eternal Generation