After Nicaea, the church restored proper balance in its doctrine.

INTRODUCTION

The True Origin of the Trinity Doctrine

The Trinity doctrine originated in the fourth-century Arian Controversy. However, based on new discoveries of ancient documents and progress in research over the past century, historians now say that the traditional account of that controversy presents history from the perspective of the winner and is a complete travesty.. This is one of the articles that explains the true origin of the Trinity doctrine. (See the list below.) Each article explains a different aspect of that ‘travesty’. This article describes the ten years after the Council of Nicaea.

These articles may seem complex and even unimportant but they are important for understanding the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.

‘Eusebians’ is a better name for the ‘Arians’.

This article sometimes refers to the ‘Eusebians’. This refers to the followers of the two Eusebii of the early fourth century; Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia. They were Athanasius’ opponents and he intended to insult them by falsely naming them ‘Arians’, meaning followers of Arius, which they were not. See – Athanasius invented Arianism.

Authors quoted

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

Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2002

These are three of the most important books recent books on the Arian Controversy.

AFTER NICAEA

Arians were reinstated.

In the years after Nicaea, the ‘Arians’ who were exiled after Nicaea, were all reinstated. 1“Arius and most of his supporters were, at Constantine’s request, readmitted to communion within two or three years of the council.” (Ayres, p. 100) 2“Eusebius of Nicomedia quickly rose again to a position of importance, baptizing Constantine on his death-bed in 337 and becoming bishop of Constantinople.” (Ayres, p. 100)

Pro-Nicenes were deposed.

Alexander was the leader of the pro-Nicenes at Nicaea but died soon after Nicaea (in 328). With respect to the other leading pro-Nicenes, “within ten years of the Council of Nicaea all the leading supporters of the creed of that Council had been deposed or disgraced or exiled – Athanasius, Eustathius and Marcellus, and with them a large number of other bishops who are presumed to have belonged to the same school of thought.” Hanson provides a list of such people. (Hanson, p. 274)

THE TRADITIONAL ACCOUNT

It was an evil Arian Conspiracy.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, this was the result of a wicked ‘Arian Conspiracy’, namely, some followers of Arius who secretly conspired to manipulate church councils, aiming to depose all supporters of the Nicene Creed to counter the influence of the Nicene Creed:

“The usual explanation (of the resistance to the Nicene Creed after Nicaea) … describes the favourers of Arianism as setting themselves with deliberate craft and malignant intrigue to depose and replace every and any bishop who was known to be particularly favourable to N.” (Hanson, p. 274)

HOWEVER, IN REALITY

After Nicaea, Arius was irrelevant.

Conceptually, the Nicene Creed may be divided into three parts:

      1. The traditional statements that were also found in previous creeds,
      2. The negations or condemnations of aspects of Arius’ theology, 
      3. The new affirmations, namely that:
        1. The Son is from the substance (ousia) of the Father,
        2. The Son is of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father, and
        3. The Son is the same hypostasis (Person) as the Father (in the anathemas).

After Nicaea, the first two parts (the traditional affirmations and the condemnations of Arius) remained generally accepted and were not disputed. The conflict during the decade after Nicaea after Nicaea was specifically about the new affirmations. Arius was no longer an issue:

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

“Arius evidently made converts to his views … but he left no school of disciples.” (Williams, p. 233) 3“Late in 335 or early in 336, Arius died … The death of Arius marks, however, no significant turning point in the story of these years. By this time the focus was elsewhere.” (Ayres, p. 103)

For a discussion, see – After Nicaea, Arius was irrelevant.

The ‘conspirators’ were not Arian.

In the year 341, the anti-Nicenes of the Eastern Church (the Eusebians or ‘Arians’) formulated the Dedication Creed which explicitly condemns aspects of Arius’ theology. The so-called Conspirators, therefore, were not followers of Arius:

“Nor must we assume that what Eusebius and his party were aiming at was to substitute for the Creed of Nicaea a nakedly Arian formula. What precisely they wanted to establish as doctrine became quite clear when they showed their hand at the Council of Antioch in 341.” (Hanson, p. 284)

There is no evidence of a conspiracy.

After a discussion of several specific individuals, Hanson concludes that we do not see “a systematic campaign by the Eusebian party against known opponents of Arianism. … All that we can say is that a number of bishops were deposed between 328 and 336 for various reasons.” (Hanson, p. 279) 4“It should be noted that none of the evidence so far considered presents a reliable picture of a systematic campaign by the Eusebian party against known opponents of Arianism. … All that we can say is that a number of bishops were deposed between 328 and 336 for various reasons, and that Eusebius of Nicomedia or some of his party had a hand in most, or all, of these depositions. They were perhaps controlling events, but not controlling them in the interests of forwarding Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 279)

Eusebius did not engineer all exiles.

“It is usually asserted that the leader of this remarkably successful conspiracy was Eusebius of Nicomedia (later of Constantinople). That Eusebius was the leader of a party, and that he was recognized as such by his contemporaries, there can be no doubt at all. ‘The party of Eusebius’, is an expression used by Eustathius, by Julius and by Athanasius. But to see his hand active in every case of a bishop being deposed … is more than the evidence warrants.” Hanson, p. 275) “We cannot lay all depositions of all bishops between 328 and 431 at his door.” (Hanson, p. 284)

Athanasius was not exiled for anti-Arianism.

Athanasius could not have been exiled by an ‘Arian Conspiracy because he was not an obvious target for ‘Arians’. He was not a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea 5“He could not possibly have been, as he was later erroneously represented to have been, a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275) and only began his zealous support of the Nicene Creed after he had been exiled in 335. 6“There was … no reason to regard Athanasius as a zealous supporter of the doctrine of Nicaea until at earliest his second exile (339-346).” He had no love for the Arians but “he was not until much later in his career an obvious target for those who were anxious either to limit or to undo the achievement of the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)

Athanasius was deposed for violence against Melitians in his see. “He was finally deposed at Tyre for reasons which had nothing to do with Arianism, nor with any doctrinal issue, but for misbehaviour in his see, disgraceful and undeniable, and that against Melitians rather than Arians.” (Hanson, p. 275) See – Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against the Melitians.

The target was specifically the Sabellians.

Origen taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three ‘Persons’ with three distinct minds). In opposition to him, ‘one hypostasis’ theologians taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis (one single Person with one single Mind). In other words, in ‘one hypostasis’ theology, the Son does not have real distinct existence. There were variations of that theory:

      • The Monarchians and Modalists said that the Father, Son, and Spirit are the three faces of the one God. See – The Monarchians.
      • The Sabellians taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three parts of the one hypostasis (Person). See – Sabellius.
      • Alexander and Athanasius held that the Son and the Spirit are parts of the Father, but there still is only one hypostasis. See – Athanasius.

Apart from Athanasius, the other two important theologians who were deposed more or less at the same time as him were Eustathius and Marcellus. Both of them were strong supporters of the Nicene Creed but both of them were Sabellianism:

“We can be sure that both of these men had been strong supporters of the homoousian line at Nicaea. But both also had put forward views which were open to the charge of Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 276) 7The theology of “Marcellus and Eustathius” “was able to provoke a strong and sustained reaction from the Eusebians, and one that seems to have gained wide support throughout the east.” (Ayres, p. 102) 8“Marcellus of Ancyra was certainly deposed for unorthodoxy in 336.” “The new synod met in the summer of 336 and deposed Marcellus for holding the heresy of Paul of Samosata.” (Williams, p. 80) (This Paul was a well-known Sabellian of the third century.) “Eustathius of Antioch was deposed in all probability for similar reasons earlier.” (Hanson, p. 276)

So, the conflict after Nicaea was not specifically a pro-Arius initiative but anti-Sabellian. Sabellians were targeted and removed from their positions.

The dispute was about homoousios.

The conflict was specifically about the meaning of the term homoousios. For example:

“The fifth-century ecclesiastical historian Sozomen reports a dispute immediately after the council, focused not on Arius, but … concerning the precise meaning of the term homoousios. Some thought this term … implied the non-existence of the Son of God; and that it involved the error of Montanus and Sabellius. … Eustathius accused Eusebius [of Caesarea] of altering the doctrines ratified by the council of Nicaea, while the latter declared that he approved of all the Nicaean doctrines, and reproached Eustathius for cleaving to the heresy of Sabellius.” (Ayres, p. 101)

“This event was only one part of the conflict that now began.” (Ayres, p. 101) It occurred “probably in 326 or 327” (Ayres, p. 101)

In other words, the Eusebians understood the Sabellians as teaching that homoousios means that Father and Son are one single hypostasis so that the Son does not have a real distinct existence. Eusebius of Caesarea has signed the Nicene Creed but with the understanding that homoousios means that Father and Son are two distinct Beings of the same class. See – The Meaning of Homoousios in the Nicene Creed.

The rest of this article explains why the Sabellians specifically were targeted after Nicaea.

WHY SABELLIANS WERE TARGETED

‘One hypostasis’ dominated at Nicaea.

The ‘one hypostasis’ theologians had the upper hand in the Nicene Council because “(emperor) Constantine had taken Alexander’s part” in his quarrel with Arius (Ayres, p. 89) and because Alexander, who also had a ‘one hypostasis’ theology, allied with the Sabellians. 9“This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force” (Ayres, p. 89).

“Alexander … accepted virtual Sabellianism in order to ensure the defeat of Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 171)

Ayres implies that “Eustathius, Athanasius, and Marcellus” were “the architects of Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 105)

The Nicene Creed implies one hypostasis.

Since ‘one hypostasis’ theologians dominated at Nicaea, the Creed implies that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (one ‘Person’ with one single mind):

“Simonetti estimates the Nicene Council as a temporary alliance for the defeat of Arianism between the tradition of Alexandria led by Alexander and ‘Asiatic’ circles (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) … The ‘Asiatics’ were rootedly opposed to the thought of Origen, and were able to include in N a hint of opposition to the three hypostases theory.” (Hanson, p. 171)

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

“We can readily imagine that people such as Eusebius of Caesarea who were not whole-hearted supporters of the doctrines of Arius but who saw in N, if it were pushed to its logical conclusions, a serious threat to the proper distinction of Persons within the Trinity, would think it right to impugn (question) the orthodoxy and reduce the influence of Eustathius and Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. 276) 10“In the controversies which erupted over Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus after Nicaea, both thought their theologies faithful to Nicaea—and they had good grounds for so assuming. Both were influential at the council, and Nicaea’s lapidary formulations were never intended to rule out their theological idiosyncrasies.” (Ayres, p. 99) 11“Marcellus and Eustathius presented their theologies as the natural context for Nicaea’s creed.” (Ayres, p. 105)

The Sabellians claimed Nicaea as support.

After Nicaea, with the extremities of Arius’ theology formally rejected, a new and perhaps much greater problem faced the church, namely, the claim that the wording of the Creed, particularly the term homoousios, means that the church has adopted a Sabellian ‘one hypostasis’ theology. It was to root out this ‘evil’ that the Sabellians were targeted. 

CONCLUSION

It was a campaign against Sabellianism.

After Nicaea, ‘Arians’ were reinstated and Pro-Nicenes deposed. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, this was the work of a wicked ‘Arian Conspiracy’ against the Nicene Creed. However, what happened in the decade after Nicaea was not the work of an evil ‘Arian Conspiracy’ but a campaign against Sabellians who explained the term homoousios as meaning that Father and Son are one single hypostasis and that Sabellianism, therefore, is now the church’s official theology.

Since ‘one hypostasis’ theology was already rejected by the church during the third century in church councils that condemned Sabellius and Paul of Somasata, the Eusebians, in targeting these Sabellians, were resisting a known error. Hanson concludes:

“They would have said that they were not conducting a persecution in the interests of Arianism but trying to restore proper balance to the Church’s understanding of its doctrine of God.” (Hanson, p. 276)

This website refers to the events of the decade after Nicaea as the Post-Nicaea Correction. After the Sabellians were removed from their positions, the term homoousios was not mentioned for about 20 years. It was only brought back into the Controversy in the mid-350s.

Athanasius was not exiled for his theology but for violence against the Melitians.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “Arius and most of his supporters were, at Constantine’s request, readmitted to communion within two or three years of the council.” (Ayres, p. 100)
  • 2
    “Eusebius of Nicomedia quickly rose again to a position of importance, baptizing Constantine on his death-bed in 337 and becoming bishop of Constantinople.” (Ayres, p. 100)
  • 3
    “Late in 335 or early in 336, Arius died … The death of Arius marks, however, no significant turning point in the story of these years. By this time the focus was elsewhere.” (Ayres, p. 103)
  • 4
    “It should be noted that none of the evidence so far considered presents a reliable picture of a systematic campaign by the Eusebian party against known opponents of Arianism. … All that we can say is that a number of bishops were deposed between 328 and 336 for various reasons, and that Eusebius of Nicomedia or some of his party had a hand in most, or all, of these depositions. They were perhaps controlling events, but not controlling them in the interests of forwarding Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 279)
  • 5
    “He could not possibly have been, as he was later erroneously represented to have been, a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)
  • 6
    “There was … no reason to regard Athanasius as a zealous supporter of the doctrine of Nicaea until at earliest his second exile (339-346).”
  • 7
    The theology of “Marcellus and Eustathius” “was able to provoke a strong and sustained reaction from the Eusebians, and one that seems to have gained wide support throughout the east.” (Ayres, p. 102)
  • 8
    “Marcellus of Ancyra was certainly deposed for unorthodoxy in 336.” “The new synod met in the summer of 336 and deposed Marcellus for holding the heresy of Paul of Samosata.” (Williams, p. 80) (This Paul was a well-known Sabellian of the third century.)
  • 9
    “This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force” (Ayres, p. 89).
  • 10
    “In the controversies which erupted over Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus after Nicaea, both thought their theologies faithful to Nicaea—and they had good grounds for so assuming. Both were influential at the council, and Nicaea’s lapidary formulations were never intended to rule out their theological idiosyncrasies.” (Ayres, p. 99)
  • 11
    “Marcellus and Eustathius presented their theologies as the natural context for Nicaea’s creed.” (Ayres, p. 105)
  • 12
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy

Introduction to the fourth-century Arian Controversy

SUMMARY

The fourth-century Arian Controversy is important because it produced the Trinity doctrine. By way of introduction, this article provides an overview of some aspects of that Controversy.

The fundamental problem in understanding the Controversy is that a limited number of the ancient documents survived. Particularly very little of the writings of the anti-Nicenes survived. The traditional account of the Controversy developed from the writings of the pro-Nicenes. However, after further documents became accessible and some groundbreaking research over the last 100 years, some scholars now describe that traditional account as a ‘complete travesty’. (Hanson Lecture) For example:

1. There were no ‘Arians’. The term ‘Arian’ was derived from Arius’ name and implies that he developed a new heresy in contrast to an existing orthodoxy and was able to convince many Christians of his views. In reality:

Arius was an insignificant writer, did not say anything new, did not leave behind a school of disciples, was part of a wider theological trajectory, and did not cause the Controversy. The fourth-century Controversy continued the controversy that raged during the third.

The name ‘Arian’ was invented by Athanasius to insult his opponents by tarring them as followers of a discredited theology. But Athanasius’ opponents did not follow Arius. The term Arian is a serious misnomer.

2. For much of that period, there was no controversy. Furthermore, controversy raged about different things at different times. After Nicaea, the term homoousios disappeared from the debate and came back into Controversy only in the 350s when Athanasius began using the Nicene Creed and homoousios to defend his position.

3. Athanasius was a Sabellian. He is often acclaimed as the great defender of the Nicene Creed, which he was. However, a study of his theology reveals that, in his view, the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis, meaning one Person with one single mind; similar to Sabellianism.

4. Subordination was orthodox. In the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began. But the opposite is true. The orthodoxy was that the Son is distinct from the Father and subordinate to Him.

5. The core issue was whether Jesus is a distinct Person. In the traditional account, it is often stated that the dispute was whether Christ is God. But that was not the issue. All sides agreed that He is God. The real main issue was whether the Son is part of the Father or a real Person with a distinct mind, distinct from the Father.

6. The church inherited the Trinity doctrine from the Roman Empire. An important conclusion of this series is that the church never decided to adopt the Trinity doctrine. What happened was that the church was divided into several factions. However, the Empire could not afford a split in the church because it put the Empire at risk. For that reason, the emperors selected one of those factions, which happened to be the Trinitarian version of Christianity, made it the state religion of the Roman empire, and persecuted all other versions out of existence.1“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)2“The history of the period shows time and time again that … the general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils … were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them.” (Hanson, p. 855)

These are just a few of the false claims of the traditional account. Since the Trinity doctrine is the most fundamental doctrine of the church, and since the Arian Controversy gave us that doctrine, every Christian should study that Controversy. It is critical for understanding Revelation’s Mark of the Beast.

– END OF SUMMARY –


INTRODUCTION

Authors Quoted

Published in 1988, RPC Hanson wrote perhaps the most influential modern book on the Arian Controversy.3Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988 This was followed in 2004 by another important book by Lewis Ayres.4Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004 Ayres confirmed the importance of Hanson’s book.5“Richard Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (1988) and Manlio Simonetti’s La Crisi Ariana nel IV secolo (1975) remain essential points of reference.” (Ayres, p. 12) I also quote from another important book by Rowan Williams, which focused specifically on Arius.6Williams, Rowan (24 January 2002) [1987]. Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-4969-4.

Revisionary Accounts

The main problem in understanding this Controversy is that the documentary evidence is fragmented.7“The fundamental problem in understanding the course of these controversies stems from the nature of our sources. … The documentary evidence from this period is, in many cases, fragmentary.” (Ayres, p. 2) These two books oppose several aspects of the traditional account of the Arian Controversy. The reason is that many ancient documents have become accessible during the 20th century and recent research explains that Controversy differently:

“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (Williams, p. 11-12)

Hanson provides examples of such additional documents:

“Schwartz has established much of the chronology of the period more securely. Bell has published the papyrus which throws such a lurid light on the behaviour of Athanasius in his see. … so important for our estimation of Athanasius’ character. … The existence of the Synod of Antioch of 325 has now been brought to light. … A store of Arian literature hitherto unknown or little known has been made available by Turner, Gryson and others.” (Hanson, p. xx)

Consequently, the scholarly view of the Arian Controversy has changed dramatically over the past 100 years:

Ayres wrote around 2000: “A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (Ayres, p. 2).

Hanson says his book exists because of this new perspective on the Arian Controversy.8“It is because this manner of presenting the ‘Arian Controversy’ has not hitherto been found in textbooks that this work should be thought to have its raison d’2tre.” (Hanson, p. xx)

Purpose of this article

This article is a summary and discussion of the introductions in these two books, which highlight some of the false conclusions of the traditional account. These conclusions and many others are discussed in much more detail in other articles in this series.  

THE NAME ‘ARIAN’

“The expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer.” (Hanson, p. xvii)

“’Arianism’ as a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples, is a fantasy … based on the polemic of Nicene writers, above all Athanasius.” (Williams, p. 82)9Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. (2002)

Arius was an insignificant writer.

The term ‘Arian’ is a misnomer because it was derived from Arius’ name and implies that he was an important person, the leader of those who opposed the Nicene Creed, and the developer of a new heresy. In reality, Arius was an insignificant writer. He did not say anything new and he did not leave behind a school of disciples:

“The people of his (Arius’) day, whether they agreed with him or not, did not regard him as a particularly significant writer. … Neither his supporters nor his opponents thought them (his writings) worth preserving. … He virtually disappears from the controversy at an early stage in its course.” (Hanson, p. xvii)

“Arius was part of a wider theological trajectory; many of his ideas were opposed by others in this trajectory: he neither originated the trajectory nor uniquely exemplified it.” (Ayres, p. 2)

Arius had no followers.

To call somebody an Arian implies that that person is a follower of Arius, but Arius had no followers:

“Most famously some participants in the debate [i.e., Athanasius] described loosely related but clearly distinct thinkers as Arians. In fact, it is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius’ specific theology, and certainly impossible to show that even a bare majority of Arians had any extensive knowledge of Arius’ writing.” (Ayres, p. 2)

Arius was not a radical.

To call it the ‘Arian’ Controversy implies also that Arius caused it by creating a new heresy that opposed the existing orthodoxy. But that is also false. Arius was not a radical:

“A great deal of recent work … helped to demolish the notion of Arius and his supporters as deliberate radicals, attacking a time-honoured tradition.” (Williams, p. 21)

“Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically, a conservative Alexandrian.” (Williams, p. 175)

Arius did not cause the Controversy.

Rather, the Controversy was the continuation of a controversy about the nature of Christ that had been raging in the previous century:

“Many of the issues raised by the controversy were under lively discussion before Arius and Alexander publicly clashed” (Hanson, p. 52).

“The views of Arius were such as in a peculiar manner to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering … He was the spark that started the explosion. but in himself he was of no great significance.” (Hanson, p. xvii-xviii)

What was different in the fourth century is not that Arius introduced a new heresy but that the emperor had legalized Christianity, intended to use Christianity to help keep the empire united, and was determined to end the controversy because it put the unity of the empire at risk. For that purpose, the emperors called general councils to force the church towards a consensus. 

The name Arian was invented to insult.

The reason that the Controversy is named after Arius is that Athanasius accused his opponents of being followers of Arius, and, therefore, followers of a theology that was already condemned:

“The textbook picture of an Arian system … inspired by the teachings of the Alexandrian presbyter, is the invention of Athanasius’ polemic.” (Williams, p. 234)

“Heresiological labels enabled early theologians and ecclesiastical historians to portray theologians to whom they were opposed as distinct and coherent groups and they enabled writers to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute.” (Ayres, p. 2)

But Athanasius’ opponents were not followers of Arius. Unfortunately, the church has traditionally believed Athanasius. For further reading, see – Athanasius invented Arianism.

THE TERM ‘CONTROVERSY’

The term is also a misnomer.

Hanson explains that the term “Controversy” is also a misnomer:

“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. … 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.” (Hanson, p. xviii)

After Nicaea, Homoousios disappears.

One indication of the lack of ‘controversy’ is that the key term from the Nicene Creed (homoousios) was not mentioned for several decades after Nicaea:

By supporting the Sabellian faction in the Nicene Council, Emperor Constantine forced that council to include the term in the Creed. (See – Nicene Council)

In the years after that council, the Sabellians claimed that the church, through the Creed, had officially adopted Sabellianism. However, the church then deposed the main Sabellians. (See –  Post-Nicaea Correction.)

After that, homoousios was not mentioned for two decades. During that period, there was no controversy around this term. (See – here)

“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)

The controversy around homoousios began again in the 350s when Athanasius began to use the term to defend his own one-hypostasis (one-Person) theology (see below).

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

Athanasius was a powerful man; both religiously and politically.10“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.” (Hanson, p. 421) He was the “paragon” of the West (Hanson, p. 304) and, following him, the ‘West’ also began to defend homoousios.

ORTHODOXY

At first, there was no Orthodoxy.

In the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was established orthodoxy when the Controversy began and this is reflected in the Nicene Creed of 325. However, that is another piece of fiction. Our authors explain:

The “Arian Controversy” “was not a history of the defence of an agreed and settled orthodoxy against the assaults of open heresy. … There was not as yet any orthodox doctrine. The accounts of what happened which have come down to us were mostly written by those who belonged to the school of thought which eventually prevailed and have been deeply coloured by that fact. The supporters of this view wanted their readers to think that orthodoxy on the subject under discussion had always existed and that the period was simply a story of the defence of that orthodoxy against heresy and error.” (Hanson, p. xviii-xix)

“This is not the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy.” (Hanson, p. xix-xx) That is why Hanson named his book, ‘The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God’.

Subordination was ‘orthodoxy’.

But this is also not the full story. There was an ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began. What later became ‘orthodox’ was not ‘orthodox’ when the Controversy began. While the Nicene Creed presents the Son as equal to the Father, when the Controversy began, the ‘orthodoxy’ was that the Son is subordinate to the Father:

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

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy.” (Hanson, p. xix)

“’Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy11Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.

In the first quote, Hanson refers to “the Eastern theologians.” Remember that at Nicaea, the delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (Ayres, p. 19). So, if almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was subordinated to the Father, then almost all delegates at Nicaea believed the same.

Pro-Nicene Theology developed after 360.

‘Pro-Nicene’, namely, what we today understand as Nicene theology, has only been developed in the years 360-380 and is not the same as the theology of the Nicene Creed of AD 325:

The century must be understood as “one of evolution in doctrine.”  (Ayres, p. 13)

“By ‘pro-Nicene’ I mean those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s … of how the Nicene creed should be understood. … These theologies build closely on and adapt themes found earlier in the century, but none is identical with any original ‘Nicene’ theology apparent in the 320s or 330s.” (Ayres, p. 6)

THE CORE ISSUE

Is Christ God?

In the traditional account of the ‘Arian’ Controversy, the main issue was “whether or not Christ was divine.” (Ayres, p. 3) But that was not the issue. Even the so-called Arians described Christ as God. For example, the ‘Arian’ creed of 357 describes the Son as “God from God.” (Hanson, p. 345)

The issue was also not “whether to place the Son on either side of a clear God/creation boundary.” All participants in the debate placed both the Father and Son on the Creator’s side of that boundary. 

Until the last decades of the controversy, the term ‘God’ was used with a high level of flexibility.12“At issue until the last decades of the controversy was the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.” (Ayres, p. 14)13“Many fourth-century theologians (including some who were in no way anti-Nicene) made distinctions between being ‘God’ and being ‘true God’ that belie any simple account of the controversy in these terms.” (Ayres, p. 4) Although the Eusebians described both the Father and the Son as “God” (theos or deus), they still described the Son as subordinate to the Father. Both were on the “God” side of the boundary but they were not seen as equal. (See – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as God?)

It was the “late fourth-century theologians” who, by removing the distinction between ‘true God’ and ‘God’, and by admitting “no degrees” created “a clear distinction between God and creation.” (Ayres, p. 4)

Does the Son share the Father’s being?

The core issue was also not whether the Son shared the Father’s being:

“Many participants supposedly on different sides … (insisted) that one must speak of the Son’s incomprehensible generation from the Father as a sharing of the Father’s very being.” (Ayres, p. 4-5)14“For some the position entailed recognizing the coeternity of the Son, for many it did not.” (Ayres, p. 5)

Is the Son a distinct Person?

The core issue was whether the Son is a distinct Person.

The Sabellians of the Third Century

Already in the third century, the main dispute was whether the Son has a real distinct existence:

The Sabellians taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis, meaning one single ‘Person’ with one single mind. In this view, the Logos (Christ) is somehow part of the Father and does not have a distinct existence.

But the majority view, as taught, for example, by Origen, was that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, meaning three distinct Persons with three distinct minds united in agreement. Consequently, more than one church council in the third century declared Sabellianism a heresy.

Sabellians dominated at Nicaea.

Sabellianism nevertheless continued into the fourth century. At Nicaea, the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus had the upper hand15“Marcellus of Ancyra … had been an important figure at the council and may have significantly influenced its wording.” (Ayres, p. 431)16“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians … were in favour of it (homoousios) … he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211) because they joined forces with Alexander,17“Eustathius and Marcellus … certainly met at Nicaea. and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (Hanson, p. 234) who also taught one single hypostasis,18“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69) and because the emperor had taken Alexander’s part in the dispute.“19“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part and by events at the council of Antioch only a few months before.” (Ayres, p. 89) For details, see – Nicaea. Consequently, the Sabellians significantly influenced the wording of the Nicene Creed.20“If we are to take the creed N at its face value, the theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea. That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis. This was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” (Hanson, p. 235)

Athanasius also taught one hypostasis.

After Nicaea, Athanasius and the Western church defended the Nicene Creed. What is less well known is that Athanasius and the Western Church were one-hypostasis theologians, similar to the Sabellians:

A separate article discusses Athanasius’ theology. It shows that, for Athanasius, the Son is part of the Father.21In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426) For Athanasius, Father and Son are one hypostasis.“22The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)

Concerning the Western Church, Hanson refers to their “traditional Monarchianism.” (Hanson, p. 272) The Monarchians of the second century believed that ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are two names for the same Person.23“This ‘monarchian’ view was … suggesting the Father and Son were different expressions of the same being, without any personal distinctions between them. In other words, the Father is himself the Son, and therefore experiences the Son’s human frailties.” (Litfin)

One indication of the Western one-hypostasis theology is that they, in 341, vindicated Marcellus, who was already exiled by the East for Sabellianism,24“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix) “Marcellus was deposed for Sabellian leanings.” (Hanson, p. 228) as well as Athanasius, who also had a one-hypostasis theology.

Furthermore, at the Council of Serdica in 343, the Westerners produced a statement of faith that explicitly claims one hypostasis.25“We have received and have been taught this … tradition: that there is one hypostasis, which the heretics (also) call ousia, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 301)

MISTAKES AND FAULTS

All sides made mistakes.

Traditionally, it is stated that the so-called ‘Arians’ proposed a defective theology. But Hanson says that all sides made mistakes. Concerning the pro-Nicene, for example, Hanson wrote:

“Hilary in order to defend his Trinitarian theology plunges wildly into Docetism. Pope Liberius signs a doctrinal formula which was widely believed in the West to be rankly Arian and certainly was not in accordance with pro-Nicene orthodoxy. Ambrose supports the Apollinarian Vitalian for some time after his unorthodoxy has been evident to Eastern theologians, and Damasus supports the near Sabellian Paulinus of Antioch.” (Hanson, p. xix)

PHILOSOPHY

All sides used philosophy.

In the past, Arius and the ‘Arians’ were often accused of using philosophy. The fact is that all sides used philosophy:

“It would of course be absurd to deny that discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy. … The theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself.” (Hanson, p. xxi)

Actually, the shoe is on the other foot. The theologians who were most indebted to philosophy were the three pro-Nicene Cappadocian Fathers.


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)
  • 2
    “The history of the period shows time and time again that … the general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils … were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them.” (Hanson, p. 855)
  • 3
  • 4
    Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004
  • 5
    “Richard Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (1988) and Manlio Simonetti’s La Crisi Ariana nel IV secolo (1975) remain essential points of reference.” (Ayres, p. 12)
  • 6
    Williams, Rowan (24 January 2002) [1987]. Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-4969-4.
  • 7
    “The fundamental problem in understanding the course of these controversies stems from the nature of our sources. … The documentary evidence from this period is, in many cases, fragmentary.” (Ayres, p. 2)
  • 8
    “It is because this manner of presenting the ‘Arian Controversy’ has not hitherto been found in textbooks that this work should be thought to have its raison d’2tre.” (Hanson, p. xx)
  • 9
    Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. (2002)
  • 10
    “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.” (Hanson, p. 421)
  • 11
    Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.
  • 12
    “At issue until the last decades of the controversy was the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.” (Ayres, p. 14)
  • 13
    “Many fourth-century theologians (including some who were in no way anti-Nicene) made distinctions between being ‘God’ and being ‘true God’ that belie any simple account of the controversy in these terms.” (Ayres, p. 4)
  • 14
    “For some the position entailed recognizing the coeternity of the Son, for many it did not.” (Ayres, p. 5)
  • 15
    “Marcellus of Ancyra … had been an important figure at the council and may have significantly influenced its wording.” (Ayres, p. 431)
  • 16
    “Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians … were in favour of it (homoousios) … he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)
  • 17
    “Eustathius and Marcellus … certainly met at Nicaea. and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (Hanson, p. 234)
  • 18
    “The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)
  • 19
    “Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part and by events at the council of Antioch only a few months before.” (Ayres, p. 89)
  • 20
    “If we are to take the creed N at its face value, the theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea. That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis. This was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” (Hanson, p. 235)
  • 21
    In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)
  • 22
    The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)
  • 23
    “This ‘monarchian’ view was … suggesting the Father and Son were different expressions of the same being, without any personal distinctions between them. In other words, the Father is himself the Son, and therefore experiences the Son’s human frailties.” (Litfin)
  • 24
    “Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix) “Marcellus was deposed for Sabellian leanings.” (Hanson, p. 228)
  • 25
    “We have received and have been taught this … tradition: that there is one hypostasis, which the heretics (also) call ousia, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 301)
  • 26
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy