The Real Main Issue of the fourth-century Arian Controversy

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OVERVIEW

Traditionally, it is said that the Arian Controversy was about whether Jesus is God. That is not true. The so-called Arians also place Jesus on the God side of the God-creation barrier.

One may object and say, yes, the ‘Arians’ described Him as God but they also described him as subordinate to the Father. That statement would also be misleading because all, including the pro-Nicenes and even Athanasius, regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.

Below, this article identifies the Real Main Issue by providing an overview of the Controversy. It shows that the Real Main Issue was whether Jesus is a distinct Person. While some claimed that the Father and Son are a single Person with a single mind, others believed He is distinct from the Father

The fourth century continued the controversy about the nature of Christ that raged during the third century. (See here) For example:

“We will find pre-existing deep theological tensions at the beginning of the fourth century. Controversy over Arius was the spark that ignited a fire waiting to happen, and the origins of the dispute do not lie simply in the beliefs of one thinker, but in existing tensions that formed his background.” (Ayres, p. 20)[/mfn] .

For this reason, this overview of the Cintroversy begins in the preceding centuries.

Since this article provides an overview of several other articles, it contains many links to such other articles:

Jewish Church – The first-century Jewish-dominated church regarded the Son as distinct from and subordinate to the Father. See – here. For example, it professed “one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person.”1The Jewish church did not use the terms that the later Gentile-dominated church borrowed from Greek philosophy but simply repeated the words of Scripture.

Logos-Theology – In the second century, after the church became Gentile-dominated, Logos-theology dominated. They described the Son as the Logos of Greek philosophy, who always existed as part of God but became a distinct Being when God decided to create. In this view, the Son is distinct from and subordinate to the Father. (see here) For example:

Logos-theologians explained Him as “the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy, and also borrowed some traits from the divine Logos of Stoicism (including its name).” (Hanson Lecture)

Monarchians – In opposition to the Logos-theologians, the Monarchians claimed that ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are two names for one and the same Entity. In other words, only one hypostasis exists and the Son is not a distinct Person. (see here) For example:

“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)

Tertullian – Tertullian wrote at the beginning of the third century. He was a Logos-theologian. However, since the Monarchians criticized the Logos-theologians for teaching two Gods, Tertullian revised the standard Logos-theology and said that the Son remained part of the Father. Tertullian, therefore, also taught that Father and Son are a single Person (hypostasis). However, since the Son is part of the Father, Tertullian described the Son as subordinate to the Father. See here

Tertullian is highly esteemed, not because he taught anything similar to the Trinity doctrine but because he used the right words: He spoke about three ‘persons’ and one ‘substance’. 

Also at the beginning of the third century, Sabellius refined Monarchianism. He still maintained that Father and Son are a single Person but, while the Monarchians said that Father and Son are two names for the same Entity, Sabellius said Father and Son are two parts of the same Entity.

Sabellius was opposed by Origen, who said that Father, Son and Spirit are three Persons. The Greek term used was hypostasis. He said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases.

This controversy between one-hypostasis and three-hypostasis views continued for the rest of the century.

In the middle of the century, the bishops of Rome and Alexandria, both named Dionysius, disagreed about the term homoousios. While the bishop of Rome supported a single hypostasis, the bishop of Alexandria taught three.

A few years later, in 268, Paul of Somasata was denounced at a council in Antioch, a major city for the Christian movement, for teaching Sabellianism.

All of the above happened while Christianity was illegal and persecuted. In 313, however, Emperor Constantine himself became a Christian and legalized Christianity.

Five years later, the Controversy over the number of hypostases in God erupted again with a dispute between Arius and his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. While Arius, following Origen, taught three hypostases, Alexander said Father and Son are one Person. Specifically, he said that the Son is the Father’s one and only wisdom. In other words, the Son is part of the Father and Father and Son only have a single mind (consciousness).

This dispute culminated in the Nicene Council. Emperor Constantine called the Council and took Alexander’s side in the dispute. Alexander allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians in the Council, Eustathius and Marcellus. This alliance and the emperor’s support gave the Savbellians much power in the Council and allowed them to influence the Creed significantly. One can see this, for example, in the term homoousios which, before Nicaea, was preferred only by Sabellians. Another example is the anathemas, which explicitly states that father and Son are a single hypostasis.

The Nicene Council put an end to Arius and his theology. Arius did not play a role in Controversy after Nicaea, except that Athanasius accused his opponents of following Arius, which they did not.

However, the Nicene Creed seems to say that the church had adopted a one-hypostasis theology. Consequently, in te decade after Nicaea, in the post-Nicaea Correction, all leading Sabellians were exiled. After that, there was no more controversy and the term homoousios was not mentioned for more than two decades.

In 335, Athanasius was deposed for violence in his see. He met the exiled Sabellian Marcellus in Rome. Since Athanasius, similar to his predecessor Alexander and the Sabellians, believed in one hypostasis, he joined forces with Marcellus, just like Alexander did at Nicaea. They developed a polemical strategy in which Athanasius was deposed for his opposition to Arius, not for violence, and all opponents of Nicaea were followers of Arius. Neither of these claims were true.

Up to this point, the West was not involved in the Controversy, but Athanasius and Alexander appealed to the bishop of Rome. Since the Latin West traditionally followed Tertullian, they believed on one hypostasis. Consequently, a council in Rome in 340 declared that Athanasius and Marcellus are orthodox in their theology.

Since both men were deposed by the Eastern church, this decision caused friction between the Eastern and Western churches. The bishop of Rome also wrote a letter to ‘those around Eusebius’ (the group that is traditionally known as ‘Arians’), accusing them of following Arius.

The Eastern church then held the dedication Council in 341. Since the main threat was Sabellianism; one-hypostasis theologies, the Dedication Creed mainly opposes Sabellianism.

Two years later, at the Council of Serdica (343), the Western delegation formulated a statement which explicitly declares belief in one hypostasis. Athanasius was part of the Western delegation and signed this statement.

The next year (344), the East answered with the Microstich.

In this decade, the Eastern and Western Roman Empire was divided between two emperors. Consequently, despite some efforts at reconciliation, the two parts of the church remained divided.

At the beginning of the 350, Constantius became emperor of the entire empire and began to work for unity in the church. Since he was previously the Eastern emperor, he favoured the three-hypostasis view of the Eastern church. Several councils were held in that decade. The 351 council was critical of the term ousia (substance, same substance, homoousios) and the Western 357-council said that these terms must not be used.

 

Reading only the green blocks should provide an adequate overview of this article.

PURPOSE

It is usually said that the main issue was whether Jesus is God. This article shows that this is not true and that the real issue was whether the Son is a distinct Being; distinct from the Father.

The fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy ended when the church adopted the Trinity doctrine. However, discoveries of ancient documents and research since the 20th century have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The current article addresses the false belief that the core issue was whether Christ is God. The truth is that all agreed that He is ‘God’. The main issue was also not whether He is subordinate to the Father. All agreed that He is. This article shows that the real main issue was whether the Son is a distinct Person or whether the Father and Son are a single Person.

AUTHORS QUOTED

This article series is based on the latest available books on this subject, all by world-class Catholic scholars.

Following the last full-scale book on the Arian Controversy, written in English by Gwatkin at the beginning of the 20th century,2“Gwatkin nearly a century ago in the last full-scale book written in English on the Arian Controversy” (Hanson Lecture) R.P.C. Hanson in 1988 published perhaps the most influential modern book on the Arian Controversy.3Bishop Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988 This was followed in 2004 by a 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) Ayres’ book is based on the books by Hanson and Simonetti and “in some measure advances on their texts.” (Ayres, p. 5) I also quote from the book by Rowan Williams, focusing 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.

The conclusions in this article might appear unorthodox. However, drawing on discoveries of ancient documents and research over the past 100 years, scholars have concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. The books on which this article is based reflect the revised account of that Controversy.

The Arian Controversy was the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced. However, the traditional account of it is fundamentally flawed because it is history according to the winner.

THE FALSE MAIN ISSUE

The term ‘real main issue’ implies that a false main issue exists, which this article first discusses:

Whether Jesus is God.

In the traditional account, the main issue was whether Jesus is God. It is often claimed that Arius taught that the Son is a created being. However, that was not the issue. The ‘Arians’ agreed that He is God.

For example:

“Many summary accounts present the Arian controversy as a dispute over whether or not Christ was divine.” (Ayres, p. 13)

However, “it is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (Ayres, p. 14)

“We should avoid thinking of these controversies as focusing on the status of Christ as ‘divine’ or ‘not divine’.” (Ayres, p. 3)

“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.” (Ayres, p. 4)

“Suggestions that the issue was one of placing Christ (and eventually the Spirit) on either side of a well-established dividing line between created and uncreated are particularly unhelpful.” (Ayres, p. 14)

All debate participants, including those who opposed the Nicene Creed, the so-called Arians – placed the Son on the ‘God’-side of the ‘God/creation’ boundary and described Him as God. For example:

The Dedication Creed, which opposed the Nicene Creed, describes the Son as “God” and as “God from God.”

Two years later the same people – the Easterners (the anti-Nicenes) at Serdica – condemned those who say, “Christ is not God.” (Hanson, p. 298)

The ‘Arian’ creed of 357, which some regard as the high point of Arianism, describes the Son as “born from the Father, God from God.” (Hanson, p. 345)

‘Theos’ does not mean ‘God’.

The modern word “God” identifies one specific Being; the Ultimate Reality. The Greek of the Bible and the fourth century did not have a word exactly equivalent to it. It only had the word theos, used for beings with different levels of divinity. Originally, it was the word for the Greek gods; immortal beings with supernatural powers. In that sense, all agreed that Jesus is theos.

For example:

Commenting on the Council of Serdica in 343, where the Easterners (anti-Nicenes) issued a statement condemning “those who say … that Christ is not God,” Ayres says: “This “reminds us of the variety of ways in which the term ‘God’ could be deployed at this point.” (Ayres, p. 124)

“At issue until the last decades of the controversy was the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.” (Ayres, p. 14)

“In the fourth century the word ‘God’ (theos, deus) had not acquired the significance which in our twentieth-century world it has acquired … viz. the one and sole true God. The word could apply to many gradations of divinity.” (Hanson, p. 456)7“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)

The same principle applies to the Bible. When Thomas said, my Lord and my God,” he used the same flexible Greek word ‘theos’. For more detail, see – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?” or Did Thomas, in John 20:28, address Jesus as “God”?

It was the late fourth century theologians who eventually eliminated degrees of divinity and made a clear God/creation boundary.

“The achievement of a clear distinction between God and creation (such that ‘true God’ is synonymous with God) was the increasing subtlety and clarity with which late fourth-century theologians shaped their basic rules or grammar … (which) admits of no degrees.” (Ayres, p. 4) (Ayres here refers to the Cappadocian fathers.)

Whether the Son is subordinate

The issue was also not whether the Son is subordinate to the Father. Until Basil of Caesarea, all debate participants, including the pro-Nicenes, even Athanasius, agreed that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

One might object and say:

Granted, all regarded both the Father and the Son as divine. However, while the pro-Nicenes regarded the Father and Son as equally divine, the Arians claimed that the Son is less divine and subordinate to the Father. Both were on the “God” side of the God/creation boundary but they were not equal.

However, that statement is not simply true. Firstly, before Nicaea, all church fathers described the Son as subordinate:

“’Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy” (Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.)

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” (Hanson Lecture).

Secondly, during the Controversy, both pro- and anti-Nicenes continued to regard the Son as subordinate to the Father:

“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)

“Until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism.” 8RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.

Lewis Ayres argued that even Athanasius described the Son as subordinate to the Father. For example:

      • Athanasius said that the Son is homoousios with the Father but was not willing to say that the Father is homoousios with the Son.
      • He always described the Son “as proper to the Father, as the Father’s own wisdom,” meaning that the Son is part of the Father, never the other way round. (Ayres, p. 206) See here for Athanasius’ view of Christ.

Basil of Caesarea was the first to proclaim full equality:

“In all the previous discussions (before Basil of Caesarea) of the term (homoousios) … a certain ontological subordination is at least implied.” (Ayres, p. 206)

“In Basil, the Father’s sharing of his being involves the generation of one identical in substance and power.” (Ayres, p. 207)

So, whether the Son was subordinate to the Father was also not the real main issue in the Arian Controversy.

Nicaea also believed the Son is subordinate.

Almost all delegates to the Council of Nicaea came from the East and the Eastern church believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father. The Nicene Creed preaches equality because Emperor Constantine ensured that Nicaea concluded what he thought best (see here).

Almost all delegates to the Council of Nicaea came from the East:

The delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (Ayres, p. 19).

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

The Eastern church believed 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)

Almost everybody in the East at that period would have agreed that there was a subordination of some sort within the Trinity.” (Hanson, p. 287)

These quotes refer to the Eastern theologians. At Nicaea, since the delegates were drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire, if almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was subordinated to the Father, then that is what almost all delegates at Nicaea believed.

Other indications of the views of the Delegates to Nicaea are the Dedication and the Long-Lined (Macrostich) creeds, formulated respectively 16 and 19 years later by more or less the same Eastern constituency, describing the Son as subordinate to the Father.

While the delegates believed the Son is subordinate, parts of the Nicene Creed seem to preach equality. That is due to Emperor Constantine’s interference. He ensured that Nicaea concluded what he thought best (see here). For example:

“The production of N … must have been deeply disturbing for many who could not seriously be described as Arian in sympathy but … could not suddenly at the bidding of an unbaptized Emperor … abandon completely a subordinationism which had been hallowed by long tradition.” (Hanson, p. 274)

Some may find it strange that an emperor could determine the outcome of an ‘ecumenical’ council. However, the Roman Empire was not a democracy. It was a military dictatorship. The emperors decided which religions are legal and they governed the legal religions closely. Consequently, in the Christian Roman Empire, the emperor was the ultimate arbiter and judge in Christian religious disputes:

“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)

Whether He shares the Father’s Being.

The core issue was also not whether the Son shared the Father’s being. The so-called Arians (the Eusebians) agreed that the Son was begotten from the very being of the Father.

One of Arius’ extreme statements was that the Son was made from nothing. Other Eusebians disagreed with that statement:

“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)

In summary, all agreed that the Son is God but subordinate to the Father, and that He was begotten from the very Being of the Father.

THE REAL MAIN ISSUE

Whether the Son is a distinct Person

Below, this article identifies the Real Main Issue by providing an overview of the Controversy, beginning in the second century. It shows that the Real Main Issue was whether Jesus is a distinct Person. While some claimed that the Father and Son are a single Person with a single mind, others believed He is distinct from the Father.

Beginning in the preceding centuries.

The fourth-century Arian Controversy continued the controversy that raged during the preceding centuries. For that reason, this analysis begins in the second century.

“We will find pre-existing deep theological tensions at the beginning of the fourth century. Controversy over Arius was the spark that ignited a fire waiting to happen, and the origins of the dispute do not lie simply in the beliefs of one thinker, but in existing tensions that formed his background.” (Ayres, p. 20)

To a large extent, this article summarizes other articles in this series.

HYPOSTASES

In the language of the fourth-century debate, the real main issue was whether Father, Son, and Spirit are one or three hypostases.

The ancients used the Greek term hypostasis (plural hypostases) to indicate a distinct being. For example, Hanson defines a hypostasis as an “individual existence” (Hanson, p. 193). You and I are hypostases. Unfortunately, the Trinity doctrine uses the term ‘hypostasis’ differently. (see here)  Therefore, we need to establish how the ancients understood the terms

One Hypostasis means one mind.

Theologians who believed that only one hypostasis exists in God can be subdivided into classes but they all believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person with a single mind.

There were variations of this view:

      • One and the same – Some, like the second-century Monarchians, said that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three names for the same one God.
      • Three Parts – Others, like Sabellius in the third-century, taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three parts of the one hypostasis (Person). The most prominent fourth-century Sabellian was Marcellus.
      • Part of the Father – A third view maintained that the Son is part of the Father. For example, Alexander and Athanasius believed that the Son is the Father’s only Wisdom. 9“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54) Athanasius wrote: “There is no need to postulate two Logoi” (Hanson, p. 431), meaning two minds. They possibly followed Tertullian, who said similarly that the Father is the whole, and the Son is part of the whole.

But the important point is that, in all three views, there is only one hypostasis (Person), meaning that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit share one single mind or consciousness. Consequently, the Son does not have a distinct existence.

Three hypostases mean three minds.

In the opposing three-hypostases view, held by the anti-Nicenes (the Arians, or more correctly, the Eusebians), the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct Persons with three distinct minds. The Cappadocian fathers were the first pro-Nicenes to teach three hypostases, also meaning three distinct minds.

There were also variations of the ‘three hypostases’ view. In the 350s, after Athanasius had re-introduced the Nicene term homoousios (same substance) in the Controversy (see here), the Eusebians divided into various views:

Unlike substance – Some said the Father’s and Son’s substances are unlike (heterousios).

Similar substance – Others said their substances are similar (homoiousios).

No substance – Still others – the dominant view in the 350s to 370s – refused to talk about substance (the Homoians).

As discussed here, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians or the anti-Nicenes, including Arius – see here) taught three Minds (three centers of consciousness or rational faculties). For example, the Dedication Creed of 431 says, “They are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.” (Hanson, p. 286) “Agreement” implies distinct minds.

Athanasius and the West believed in one hypostasis. The Cappadocian fathers were the first pro-Nicenes to teach three hypostases. In their view, Father, Son, and Spirit are three equal hypostases or substances (three beings) (see here), meaning three distinct minds. For example:

Basil of Caesarea said that the Son’s statements that he does the will of the Father “is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation” but because “His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father.” 10“When then He says, ‘I have not spoken of myself,’ and again, ‘As the Father said unto me, so I speak,’ and ‘The word which ye hear is not mine. but [the Father’s] which sent me,’ and in another place, ‘As the Father gave me commandment, even so I do,’ it is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation, nor yet because He has to wait for the preconcerted key-note, that he employs language of this kind. His object is to make it plain that His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father. Do not then let us understand by what is called a ‘commandment’ a peremptory mandate delivered by organs of speech, and giving orders to the Son, as to a subordinate, concerning what He ought to do. Let us rather, in a sense befitting the Godhead, perceive a transmission of will, like the reflection of an object in a mirror, passing without note of time from Father to Son.” (Basil in his treatise, “De Spiritu Sancto”)

In the same treatise (De Spiritu Sancto), he indicates the existence of two wills: “The Father, who creates by His sole willthe Son too wills.” In other words, the Father has a “sole will” that He does not share with the others. 

While, in the anti-Nicene ‘three hypostases’-view, the Son is subordinate to the Father, in the Cappadocian view, the three hypostases are equal. However, this view is open to the criticism of Tritheism.

Hypostases in the Trinity doctrine

Formally, the Trinity doctrine teaches three hypostases (three Persons) but that is misleading. They are not real ‘persons’ as the term is used in modern English because Father, Son, and Spirit share a single mind.

The Trinity doctrine claims that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God existing as three hypostases (three Persons), implying three distinct Entities with three distinct minds. However, in the Trinity doctrine, the terms hypostases and Persons are misleading. In that doctrine, they are a single Entity with one single mind (see here). We must, therefore, not derive the meaning of the term hypostasis from the Trinity doctrine. In the fourth century, each hypostasis had a unique mind.

The traditional Trinity doctrine, as taught by the Roman Church, retained Basil of Caesarea’s verbal formula of three hypostases but without Basil’s idea of three distinct minds. In reality, the Trinity doctrine continues Athanasius’ one-hypostasis theology, describing the Father, Son, and Spirit as one single Being (see here).

FIRST THREE CENTURIES

The Jewish Church

The Jewish-dominated church of the first century professed “one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person.” See – here. In other words, they are two distinct Beings with the Son subordinate to the Father.

The Jewish church did not use the terms that the later Gentile-dominated church borrowed from Greek philosophy but simply repeated the words of Scripture.

Logos-theology vs Monarchianism

In the second century, after the church became Gentile-dominated, the Logos theologians dominated. They identified the Logos as a distinct hypostasis. In opposition to them, the Monarchians claimed that ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are two names for one and the same Person or hypostasis. In other words, the basic disagreement was whether the Son has real distinct existence.

We have the writings of some of the early church fathers available to us. Whether they fairly represent what the church believed is open for debate. These writers were perhaps the most educated class of the church and, therefore, more familiar with Greek philosophy than the average Christian. At the time, Greek philosophy still dominated the Roman education system.

If we judge by what these early church fathers wrote, the Gentile church did not replace its pre-existing philosophical Gentile thoughts with the Bible but, to an extent at least, absorbed the Bible into their existing system of beliefs.

The main dispute was whether the Son has a real distinct existence:

Concerning the nature of Christ, following Justin Martyr, the Gentile church explained Him as “the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy, and also borrowed some traits from the divine Logos of Stoicism (including its name).” (Hanson Lecture) Therefore, in this view, also known as Logos-theology, the Son is a hypostasis, meaning a Being distinct from the Father. In this view, the Son had always existed as part of God but became a separate and subordinate Being (hypostasis) when God decided to create.

The Monarchians opposed the Logos-theologians and claimed that the Logos is not a separate hypostasis but that Father and Son are two names for one and the same Person. In other words, only one hypostasis exists.

“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)

The important point, for this article, is that this was a clash between one- and three-hypostases views. 

Tertullian vs Monarchians

Tertullian was also a Logos-theologian but, to counter the Monarchian criticism that Logos-theologians teach two Gods, he revised the standard Logos-theology and said that the Son remained part of the Father. Therefore, he also taught one hypostasis.

The Latin theologian Tertullian wrote at the beginning of the third century. As discussed here, he was also a Logos-theologist. As such, he believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father and that the Father was not always Father. Today, Tertullian is highly esteemed, not because he taught anything similar to the Trinity doctrine but because he used the right words: He spoke about three ‘persons’ and one ‘substance’. 

As a Logos-theologist, he opposed the Monarchians. Since the Monarchians criticized the Logos-theologians for teaching two Gods, Tertullian revised the standard Logos-theology and said that the Son remained part of the Father after He became separated. He said, for example:

“For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole” (Against Praxeas, Chapter 9).

In other words, similar to the Monarchians, he taught one hypostasis. The difference between him and the Monarchians was that, while Tertullian distinguished between Father and Son within that hypostasis, the Monarchians did not. For more on Tertullian’s theology, see – here.

Origen vs Sabellianism

Also at the beginning of the third century, the famous African theologian Origen expanded Logos-theology to say that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, meaning three distinct Persons with three distinct minds.

For example:

“Origen does consider the Son to be a distinct being dependent on the Father for his existence.” (Ayres, p. 23) “The Son is not the one power of God, but another distinct power dependent on God’s power for its existence.” (Ayres, p. 24) “Father and Son are distinct beings.” (Ayres, p. 22)

“He taught that there were three hypostases within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 184) (For detail, see – Origen)

He “speaks of Father and Son as two ‘things (πργματα) in hypostasis, but one in like-mindedness, harmony, and identity of will’.” (Ayres, p. 25) “Like-mindedness” speaks of two distinct minds united in agreement.

More or less at the same time, in opposition to Origen, Sabellius refined Monarchianism but still taught one hypostasis. See here

 For example, take as an example one of the fourth-century Sabellians:

“Paulinus was a rival of Basil’s friend and ally Meletius. … Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis‘ … rendered him suspect.” (Hanson, p. 801)

However, like Tertullian, Sabellius distinguished between Father and Son within that one hypostasis.

He said: Just like man is body, soul, and spirit, the Father, Son, and Spirit are three parts of one Person.

During the remainder of the third century, the main controversy remained between Origen’s three hypostases and Sabellius’ one hypostasis.

For example, in the middle of the third century, the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (both named Dionysius) were involved in a skirmish over the word homoousios:

Some Libyan Sabellians used the term homoousios. For them, it meant ‘one substance’ (one Being). But the bishop of Alexander, under whose jurisdiction they fell, condemned the term.

The Sabellians appealed to the bishop of Rome, who also had a one-hypostasis theology and who also accepted the term homoousios. He put pressure on the bishop of Alexandria to adopt the term.

Under duress, the bishop of Alexandria accepted the term but only in a general sense as meaning ‘same type of substance’. In other words, he held to a three-hypostases theology. (For more detail, see – the Dionysii)

A few years later, in 268, a council at Antioch condemned both Paul of Samosata’s one-hypostasis-theology and the term homoousios. (See – Antioch 268)

“The Council of Antioch of 268 …  did repudiate the word homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 694)

All the while, the church was persecuted by the Roman Empire. Many lost their lives. The most intense phase of persecution was the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of the fourth century.

FOURTH CENTURY

Arius vs Alexander

The dispute between Arius and Alexander was a continuation of the third-century controversy.

The Eastern emperor Constantine became a Christian and legalized Christianity in 313. Only five years later, in 318, a dispute broke out between bishop Alexander of Alexandria and Arius, one of his presbyters. This was not a new controversy but continued the controversy of the third century:

“We will find pre-existing deep theological tensions at the beginning of the fourth century. Controversy over Arius was the spark that ignited a fire waiting to happen, and the origins of the dispute do not lie simply in the beliefs of one thinker, but in existing tensions that formed his background.” (Ayres, p. 20)

Similar to the Sabellians, Alexander believed that the Son is a property or quality of the Father, namely, God’s only Wisdom or Word. He explained Father and Son as a single hypostasis; a single Person with a single Mind, with the Son being that single Mind or Wisdom of God.

Alexander’s theology is discussed in more detail here. For example, for him:

The Son is a property or quality of the Father:

“[Rowan] Williams’ work is most illuminating. Alexander of Alexandria, Williams thinks, had maintained that the Son … is a property or quality of the Father, impersonal and belonging to his substance. … The statement then that the Son is idios to (a property or quality of) the Father is a Sabellian statement.” (Hanson, p. 92) (See – Alexander)

The Son is the Father’s only and intrinsic Wisdom and Logos:

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

There is only one hypostasis:

“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)

In contrast to Alexander but similar to Origen, Arius taught three hypostases. He said that Father and Son have two distinct minds, united in agreement.

For example:

Arius had a “strong commitment to belief in three distinct divine hypostases.” (Williams, p. 97)

He spoke about a second Wisdom and Word. In other words, the Son is not the Father’s only Wisdom and Word:

“There are … two Wisdoms, one God’s own who has existed eternally with God, the other the Son who was brought into existence. … There is another Word in God besides the Son” (Hanson, p. 13). In other words, Arius assumed that each Person has a distinct mind. Father and Son have two distinct minds (rational faculties). They are two distinct Centres of Consciousness. For more detail, see – Arius’ Theology.

As a three-hypostases theologian, Arius enjoyed the support of the Eusebians against Alexander’s one-hypostasis theology. However, the Eusebians did not agree with Arius’ more extreme views. His real followers were limited.

Council of Nicaea

Emperor Constantine involved himself in the dispute between Alexander and Arius because he was concerned for the unity of his empire.

After he had become emperor of the entire Empire in 324, Emperor Constantine involved himself in the dispute. He did not understand the issues but was concerned that the dispute might cause his empire to split. This dispute in Africa had already begun to divide the church in other parts of his empire. Constantine (not the church) called the Nicene Council to force the church to a consensus position. 

On the advice of his religious advisor Ossius, Constantine took Alexander’s side in the dispute.

For example:

“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)

“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)

A few months before the Council of Nicaea, his religious advisor Ossius chaired an anti-Arius council in Antioch. This council issued a pro-Alexander statement of faith that does not include the term homoousios (Hanson, p. 146), implying that that was not a term Alexander regarded as important.

A few months before the Council of Nicaea, “early in 325,” an “anti-Arian Council” (Hanson, p. 131) was held in Antioch (Hanson, p. 149, 147), consisting mainly of those who sympathized with Alexander. (Hanson, p. 130)

“This council also temporarily excommunicated one of Arius’ senior supporters, Eusebius of Caesarea.” (Ayres, p. 18)

“That this Statement is anti-Arian is overwhelmingly clear. But it is equally clear that it represents the theology of Alexander of Alexandria.” (Hanson, p. 150)

The Western Church was not represented at the Nicene Council.

For example:

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

“Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

At Nicaea, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19) 11“The Western bishops … had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 272) 12“The most important of the Eastern bishops were present (at Nicaea), but the West was poorly represented” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85).

Since the vast majority of the delegates were from the East, and since the Eastern Church followed the two Eusebii, the majority of the delegates at Nicaea believed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Persons with three distinct Minds.

The Eastern Church followed the two Eusebians. For example:

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

“My second theological trajectory … I will term ‘Eusebian’. When I use this term I mean to designate any who would have found common ground with either of Arius’ most prominent supporters, Eusebius of Nicomedia or Eusebius of Caesarea.” (Ayres, p. 52) See – Ayres’ discussion.

Another article shows that the Eusebians believed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct Persons) with three distinct Minds. For example:

“Asterius (a leading Eusebian) insists also that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases.” (Ayres, p. 54)

He also made a distinction between God’s wisdom and Christ, implying distinct minds. He wrote: “God’s own power and wisdom is the source of Christ.” (Ayres, p. 53-54)

In the Council, Alexander allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians; the Sabellians.

Since the delegates to the Council came almost exclusively from the East and believed in three hypostases, Alexander’s one-hypostasis view was in the minority. For that reason, he allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians at the council, namely the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, and their followers.

“Eustathius and Marcellus (the Eusebians) … certainly met at Nicaea. and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (Hanson, p. 234)

“Marcellus, Eustathius and Alexander were able to make common cause against the Eusebians.” (Ayres, p. 69)

“Simonetti estimates the Nicene Council as a temporary alliance for the defeat of Arianism between the tradition of Alexandria led by Alexander and ‘Asiatic’ circles (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) whose thought was at the opposite pole to that of Arius. … Alexander … accepted virtual Sabellianism in order to ensure the defeat of Arianism.” (Manlio Simonetti. La Crisi Ariana nel IV secolo (1975)) (Hanson, p. 171)

Their alliance with Alexander and Constantine’s support for Alexander enabled the Sabellians to influence the Creed significantly.

For example:

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians [the Sabellians] … were in favour of it (homoousios) … he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)

“Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus … Both were influential at the council.” (Ayres, p. 99)

Consequently, the Nicene Creed professes only one hypostasis in God.

One of the anathemas explicitly says that Father and Son are a single hypostasis. Our authors conclude:

“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)

“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)

If we use the term ‘Sabellian’ to describe a one-hypostasis theology, we can say that the Creed appears to be Sabellian.

For example:

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325 … 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.” (Hanson’s Lecture)

“By the standard of later orthodoxy, as achieved in the Creed of Constantinople of 381, it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition, because the Son must be of a different hypostasis (i.e. ‘Person’) from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 167)

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 N [the Nicene Creed].” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

It is not clearly Sabellian

“It is going too far to say that N is a clearly Sabellian document. … It is exceeding the evidence to represent the Council as a total victory for the anti-Origenist opponents of the doctrine of three hypostases. It was more like a drawn battle.” (Hanson, p. 172) Ayres says that his conclusions are close to Hanson’s in this regard (Ayres, p. 92).

For a further discussion, see – The Council of Nicaea and How Homoousios became accepted at Nicaea.

HOMOOUSIOS BEFORE NICAEA

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was only preferred by Sabellians.

Some claim that Origen and Tertullian used the term but they never did.

“One famous passage in which he (Origen) seems to use the term homoousios … may have been adulterated by later writers.” (Ayres, p. 24)

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was preferred only by Sabellians, including Sabellius himself, the Libyan Sabellians, Dionysius of Rome, and Paul of Samosata. They used it to say that Father and Son are one single Person. The only non-Sabellian Christian who used the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he “only adopted it with reluctance” (Hanson, p. 193) and only “in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature’.” (Hanson, p. 192)

“The word homoousios, at its first appearance in the middle of the third century, was therefore clearly connected with the theology of a Sabellian or monarchian tendency.” (P.F. Beatrice)

“The word homousios had not had … a very happy history. It was probably rejected by the Council of Antioch, and was suspected of being open to a Sabellian meaning. It was accepted by the heretic Paul of Samosata and this rendered it very offensive to many in the Asiatic Churches.” (Philip Schaff)

For a detailed discussion, see – The Meaning of Homoousios.

HOMOOUSIOS – INSISTED

Homoousios was included in the Creed because the Sabellians preferred it and because the emperor insisted on the term.

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians … were in favour of it (homoousios) … he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)

“’Homoousios’ and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were added to the creed by Constantine himself, bearing witness to the extent of his influence at the council.” 13(Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.) 14

“The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios.” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53)

The Emperor accepted Eusebius’ creed “and he advised all present to agree to it … with the insertion of the single word ‘consubstantial.’” (Beatrice) (See also – Eusebius’ letter.)

“Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)

 

NICAEA AND POST-NICAEA CORRECTION

AFTER NICAEA, REVERSED

In the decade after Nicaea, all exiled Arians were allowed to return and all main supporters of the Nicene Creed were exiled.

“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)

“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)

NO CONSPIRACY

Athanasius claimed that this was due to a secret Arian Conspiracy, but there is not evidence of a conspiracy.

After discussing the evidence, Hanson concludes:

“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)

ATHANASIUS EXILE FOR VIOLENCE

Athanasius was exiled for violence. He claimed that he was exiled for his support for Nicaea but that was a false claim.

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:

“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)

He only began his zealous support of the Nicene Creed after he had been exiled in 335:

“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 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 justly 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.

CORRECTION – ONVOLLEDIG

What really happened after Nicaea is that the Sabellians claimed Nicaea as a victory but the church

After Nicaea there was an intense struggle between the Eusebians and the Sabellians in which the leading Sabellians were exiled.

After Nicaea, based on the Nicene Creed, the Sabellians claimed that the church has formally adopted a one-hypostasis theology. This caused an intense struggle during the decade after Nicaea in which the leading Sabellians were removed from their positions. See – Post-Nicaea Correction.

the situation was corrected.

After Nicaea, the Creed was associated “with the theology of Marcellus of Ancyra. … The language of that creed seemed to offer no prophylactic (prevention) against Marcellan doctrine, and increasingly came to be seen as implying such doctrine.” (Ayres, p. 96, 97)

HOMOOUSIOS NOT MENTIONED

After this ‘post-Nicaea Correction’, the term homoousios was not mentioned for about 20 years.

“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.” (Ayres, p. 431)

“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.” (Hanson, p. 58-59)

Homoousios was brought back into the Controversy in the mid-350s when Athanasius began to use this term to defend himself.

“He began to use it first in the De Deeretis … in 356 or 357.” (Hanson, p. 438)

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

m“Only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

m“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.” (Ayres, p. 135)

For that reason, the creeds of the 340s (Dedication, the Council of Serdica, and Macrostich Councils) do not mention the term. It simply was not an issue. For a detailed discussion, see – Nobody mentioned Homoousios.

THE DIVIDED EMPIRE – THE 340S

DIVIDING THE EMPIRE

Constantine became emperor for the entire empire in 324. When he died in 337, his sons divided the empire between them. As from 340, Constans ruled the West and Constantius the East.

After the post-Nicaea Correction, while Constantine was still alive, he was able to maintain a level of harmony in the church. “Constantine died in May 337.” (Hanson, p. 315) Later that same year, his three sons, “Constantius II, Constantine II and Constans,” “parcelled out the Empire among themselves.” (Hanson, p. 316) This allowed the church in the different parts of the empire to develop in different directions. One of the three brothers died in 340. This left the empire in the hands of Constans in the West and Constantius in the East.

WEST NOT PART, ATHA APPEALED

Initially, the West was not part of the Arian Controversy. It was essentially an Eastern affair. But Athanasius appealed to the West, after which the West entered the Controversy.

As stated above, although Nicaea is considered an ecumenical council, the West was not represented.

“Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

But Athanasius appealed to the West.

“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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

ATHANASIUS ONE-HYPOSTASIS

Athanasius had a one-hypostasis theology, similar to the Sabellians.

Similar to the Sabellians, for Athanasius, the Son is part of the Father.

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

“In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)

“Athanasius’ increasing clarity in treating the Son as intrinsic to the Father’s being” (Ayres, p. 113)

The “clear inference from his (Athanasius’) usage” is that “there is only one hypostasis in God.” (Ayres, p. 48)

“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)

“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. xix)

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

BOTH EXILED

During Constantine’s reign, the Eastern church exiled Marcellus for Sabellianism and Athanasius for violence.

“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 mentioned above, more or less at the same time, the Eastern church exiled Athanasius for violence.

JOINED FORCES

Since both professed one hypostasis (Person), when they met in Rome after exile, they joined forces against the East.

For example:

“They considered themselves allies.” (Ayres, p. 106

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

POLEMICAL STRATEGY.

With Marcellus’ help, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy, claiming all anti-Nicenes are followers of Arius and that he was exiled for opposing the Arians:

“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.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

Note that Ayres says Athanasius’ polemical strategy shaped the traditional account of the Arian Controversy. For most of history, the church had accepted Athanasius’ false version of history.  

For a detailed discussion, see – Ayres chapter 5.1 or Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy.

THE WEST ACCEPTED ATHANASIUS.

The West accepted Athanasius and his explanation of what happened.

Marcellus and Athanasius appealed to the bishop Julius of Rome. The West was traditionally Monarchian one-hypostasis theologians, similar to the Sabellians. Therefore, the Council of Rome in 340 vindicated both Marcellus and Athanasius:

“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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

“The Western bishops made no serious attempt to analyse the complexity of the situation which faced them; they had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy; their traditional Monarchianism could square well enough with the little they knew of the Council of Nicaea; by an oversimplification they were able to see Marcellus as orthodox.” (Hanson, p. 272)14Hanson refers to “the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

 

as well as Athanasius, who also had a one-hypostasis theology.

DEDICATION CREED

In response to the West’s acceptance of these two prominent men, who both maintained one-hypostasis theologies, the East formulated the Dedication Creed which is primarily anti-Sabellian and explicitly confesses three hypostases.

The West’s acceptance of these two prominent men, who were already condemned by the East, caused major friction between East and West.

Using Athanasius’ polemical strategy, Julius wrote in 341 to the leaders in the East, accusing them of being followers of Arius. The East responded with the Dedication Creed in the same year.

m“There can be little doubt that this Council of Antioch was conceived by those who organized it as an answer to Julius’ Council of Rome and the letter which he wrote to the Eusebian party after it.” (Hanson, p. 285)

It condemns some of Arius’ extreme statements but since the main threat was the Sabellian tendency of the Western Church, the Dedication Creed is primarily anti-Sabellian, explicitly proclaiming three hypostases:

The creed says: “They are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.”

The Dedication Creed’s “chief bête noire [the thing that it particularly dislikes] is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 287)

“The creed has a clear anti-Sabellian and anti-Marcellan thrust.” (Ayres, p. 119)

mIt is “strongly anti-Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. 287)

In contrast, the Dedication Creed says that they are three hypostases with three distinct minds.

In contrast to the single hypostasis of Sabellianism, the Dedication Creed explicitly asserts that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “three in hypostasis but one in agreement (συμφωνία)” (Ayres, p. 118)

It says that they are “three in hypostasis but one in agreement (συμφωνία)” (Ayres, p. 118). “One in agreement” indicates the existence of three distinct ‘Minds’.

 

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 N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

Julius’ letter followed Athanasius’ polemical strategy and accused the Eusebians of being ‘Arians’, meaning, followers of Arius. The council denied this:

“We have not been followers of Arius.” (Ayres, p. 117-8) “We have rather approached him as investigators and judges of his belief than followed him.’” (Hanson, p. 285)

COUNCIL OF SERDICA

This was followed by the failed Council of Serdica in 343. This was supposed to be a joint council of East and West but the two groups never met as one because of their disagreement about Athanasius and Marcellus. But, at the council, the Western delegation produced a manifesto which explicitly confesses one hypostasis:

“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)

Athanasius signed this manifesto.

“The Westerners had at Serdica in 343 produced a theological statement which appeared to have the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion, and ‘Athanasius had certainly supported this statement, though he later denied its existence.. … Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. xix)

For example, the Western manifesto at Serdica described the Son as “the Father’s ‘true’ Wisdom and Power and Word.” (Ayres, p. 125), meaning He is the Father’s only Wisdom and Word.

THE MACROSTICH

The East answered the next year (344) with another creed, the Macrostich or Long-Lined Creed, confessing three hypostases. Attempting to avoid all the new terms borrowed from Greek philosophy, it does not mention “three hypostases” explicitly (Hanson, p. 311) but uses the phrase ‘three realities or persons’.

There were some other attempts at reconciliation in that decade but they all failed. The East and West remained divided,15“This period of rapprochement resolved nothing: the tensions remained.” (Ayres, p. 130) basically about the number of hypostases in God.

 

350S CONSTANTIUS

HOMOIAN DOMINANCE

“The Homoian group came to dominance in the church in the 350s” (Hanson, p. 558–559.) “Homoian Arianism is a much more diverse phenomenon (than Neo-Arianism), more widespread and in fact more longlasting.” Than heterousians?

THE MELETIAN SCHISM

“Paulinus was a rival of Basil’s friend and ally Meletius. … Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis‘ … rendered him suspect.” (Hanson, p. 801)

“The opening of the year 375 saw the ironical situation in which the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic … against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East” (Hanson Lecture) For a further discussion, see – Meletian Schism.

“Basil goes on to defend the application of homoousios to the Son (as we shall see, he never applies this term to the Holy Spirit).” (Hanson, p. 694)

“This expression (homoousios) also corrects the fault of Sabellius for … (it keeps) … the Persons (prosopon) intact, for nothing is consubstantial with itself.” (Hanson, p. 694-5) Note that Basil here interprets homoousion generically.

“Basil uses hypostasis to mean ‘Person of the Trinity’ as distinguished from ‘substance’ which is usually expressed as either ousia or ‘nature’ (physis) or ‘substratum’.” (Hanson, p. 690-691)

“In the DSS he discusses the idea that the distinction between the Godhead and the Persons is that between an abstract essence, such as humanity, and its concrete manifestations, such as man.” (Hanson, p. 698)

 

THEODOSIUS

Majority

“The very wide spectrum of non-Nicene believers thought of themselves as mainstream Christians, and regarded Athanasius and his allies as isolated extremists – though increasingly they also looked on the more aggressive anti-Nicenes (Aetius, Eunomius, and the like) as no less alien to the mainstream of Catholic tradition.” (Williams, p. 82)

TRINITY DOCTRINE

Must be effected by Affected

The Controversy is misleadingly called ‘Arian’. Arius was not the real problem. Since the second century, the real problem was Sabellianism, a version of which was defended by Athanasius and, in the year 380, became the official State religion of the Roman Empire, after which all other versions of Christianity within the Roman Empire were ruthlesslessly exterminated. So, the ‘Sabellian’ Controversy should be a more apt description. However, since a version of Sabellianism was the eventual winner and became what is known as the Trinity doctrine, this fact is carefully hidden from believers.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    The Jewish church did not use the terms that the later Gentile-dominated church borrowed from Greek philosophy but simply repeated the words of Scripture.
  • 2
    “Gwatkin nearly a century ago in the last full-scale book written in English on the Arian Controversy” (Hanson Lecture)
  • 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
    “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)
  • 8
    RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.
  • 9
    “In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54) Athanasius wrote: “There is no need to postulate two Logoi” (Hanson, p. 431), meaning two minds.
  • 10
    “When then He says, ‘I have not spoken of myself,’ and again, ‘As the Father said unto me, so I speak,’ and ‘The word which ye hear is not mine. but [the Father’s] which sent me,’ and in another place, ‘As the Father gave me commandment, even so I do,’ it is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation, nor yet because He has to wait for the preconcerted key-note, that he employs language of this kind. His object is to make it plain that His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father. Do not then let us understand by what is called a ‘commandment’ a peremptory mandate delivered by organs of speech, and giving orders to the Son, as to a subordinate, concerning what He ought to do. Let us rather, in a sense befitting the Godhead, perceive a transmission of will, like the reflection of an object in a mirror, passing without note of time from Father to Son.” (Basil in his treatise, “De Spiritu Sancto”)
  • 11
    “The Western bishops … had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 272)
  • 12
    “The most important of the Eastern bishops were present (at Nicaea), but the West was poorly represented” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85).
  • 13
    (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)
  • 14


    “The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios.” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53)

    The Emperor accepted Eusebius’ creed “and he advised all present to agree to it … with the insertion of the single word ‘consubstantial.’” (Beatrice) (See also – Eusebius’ letter.)

    “Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

    The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)

     

    NICAEA AND POST-NICAEA CORRECTION

    AFTER NICAEA, REVERSED

    In the decade after Nicaea, all exiled Arians were allowed to return and all main supporters of the Nicene Creed were exiled.

    “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)

    “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)

    NO CONSPIRACY

    Athanasius claimed that this was due to a secret Arian Conspiracy, but there is not evidence of a conspiracy.

    After discussing the evidence, Hanson concludes:

    “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)

    ATHANASIUS EXILE FOR VIOLENCE

    Athanasius was exiled for violence. He claimed that he was exiled for his support for Nicaea but that was a false claim.

    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:

    “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)

    He only began his zealous support of the Nicene Creed after he had been exiled in 335:

    “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 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 justly 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.

    CORRECTION – ONVOLLEDIG

    What really happened after Nicaea is that the Sabellians claimed Nicaea as a victory but the church

    After Nicaea there was an intense struggle between the Eusebians and the Sabellians in which the leading Sabellians were exiled.

    After Nicaea, based on the Nicene Creed, the Sabellians claimed that the church has formally adopted a one-hypostasis theology. This caused an intense struggle during the decade after Nicaea in which the leading Sabellians were removed from their positions. See – Post-Nicaea Correction.

    the situation was corrected.

    After Nicaea, the Creed was associated “with the theology of Marcellus of Ancyra. … The language of that creed seemed to offer no prophylactic (prevention) against Marcellan doctrine, and increasingly came to be seen as implying such doctrine.” (Ayres, p. 96, 97)

    HOMOOUSIOS NOT MENTIONED

    After this ‘post-Nicaea Correction’, the term homoousios was not mentioned for about 20 years.

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 431)

    “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.” (Hanson, p. 58-59)

    Homoousios was brought back into the Controversy in the mid-350s when Athanasius began to use this term to defend himself.

    “He began to use it first in the De Deeretis … in 356 or 357.” (Hanson, p. 438)

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

    m“Only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

    m“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.” (Ayres, p. 135)

    For that reason, the creeds of the 340s (Dedication, the Council of Serdica, and Macrostich Councils) do not mention the term. It simply was not an issue. For a detailed discussion, see – Nobody mentioned Homoousios.

    THE DIVIDED EMPIRE – THE 340S

    DIVIDING THE EMPIRE

    Constantine became emperor for the entire empire in 324. When he died in 337, his sons divided the empire between them. As from 340, Constans ruled the West and Constantius the East.

    After the post-Nicaea Correction, while Constantine was still alive, he was able to maintain a level of harmony in the church. “Constantine died in May 337.” (Hanson, p. 315) Later that same year, his three sons, “Constantius II, Constantine II and Constans,” “parcelled out the Empire among themselves.” (Hanson, p. 316) This allowed the church in the different parts of the empire to develop in different directions. One of the three brothers died in 340. This left the empire in the hands of Constans in the West and Constantius in the East.

    WEST NOT PART, ATHA APPEALED

    Initially, the West was not part of the Arian Controversy. It was essentially an Eastern affair. But Athanasius appealed to the West, after which the West entered the Controversy.

    As stated above, although Nicaea is considered an ecumenical council, the West was not represented.

    “Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

    But Athanasius appealed to the West.

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

    ATHANASIUS ONE-HYPOSTASIS

    Athanasius had a one-hypostasis theology, similar to the Sabellians.

    Similar to the Sabellians, for Athanasius, the Son is part of the Father.

    “In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

    “In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)

    “Athanasius’ increasing clarity in treating the Son as intrinsic to the Father’s being” (Ayres, p. 113)

    The “clear inference from his (Athanasius’) usage” is that “there is only one hypostasis in God.” (Ayres, p. 48)

    “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)

    “Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. xix)

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

    BOTH EXILED

    During Constantine’s reign, the Eastern church exiled Marcellus for Sabellianism and Athanasius for violence.

    “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 mentioned above, more or less at the same time, the Eastern church exiled Athanasius for violence.

    JOINED FORCES

    Since both professed one hypostasis (Person), when they met in Rome after exile, they joined forces against the East.

    For example:

    “They considered themselves allies.” (Ayres, p. 106

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

    POLEMICAL STRATEGY.

    With Marcellus’ help, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy, claiming all anti-Nicenes are followers of Arius and that he was exiled for opposing the Arians:

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

    Note that Ayres says Athanasius’ polemical strategy shaped the traditional account of the Arian Controversy. For most of history, the church had accepted Athanasius’ false version of history.  

    For a detailed discussion, see – Ayres chapter 5.1 or Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy.

    THE WEST ACCEPTED ATHANASIUS.

    The West accepted Athanasius and his explanation of what happened.

    Marcellus and Athanasius appealed to the bishop Julius of Rome. The West was traditionally Monarchian one-hypostasis theologians, similar to the Sabellians. Therefore, the Council of Rome in 340 vindicated both Marcellus and Athanasius:

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

    “The Western bishops made no serious attempt to analyse the complexity of the situation which faced them; they had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy; their traditional Monarchianism could square well enough with the little they knew of the Council of Nicaea; by an oversimplification they were able to see Marcellus as orthodox.” (Hanson, p. 272)14Hanson refers to “the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)
  • 15
    “This period of rapprochement resolved nothing: the tensions remained.” (Ayres, p. 130)

RPC Hanson – A lecture on the Arian Controversy

A lecture delivered at the Colloquium in commemoration of the Nicene Creed at New College, University of Edinburgh, 2nd May 1981.

Dr. Hart, lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen, wrote that nothing exists in the English language, treating the so-called “Arian Controversy,” which dominated the fourth-century theological agenda, that is comparable to RPC Hanson’s book – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – in either scale or erudition (Hart).

This article is a lecture by R.P.C. Hanson that I found at Doctrine of Trinity. I post it here to preserve it for public use. I corrected spelling errors, added headings, and divided the text into more readable paragraphs, but otherwise, I did not change the text in any way:

A Long Way from Mark’s Gospel

WHEN we read the Creed of Constantinople of the year 381, which is generally called the Nicene Creed, we gain the unmistakable impression that we have travelled a long way from the opening verses of St. Mark’s Gospel. This paper will consist of an attempt to answer the question, Was this journey really necessary?

A number of negatives have been given to this question:

It has been asserted that the doctrine of this creed was reached because the spirit of useless intellectual curiosity and of metaphysical speculation had gripped the theologians of the Church, so that the creed became only a stage towards ‘the bankruptcy of Patristic theology’ which was to be reached by the middle of the next century.

It has been suggested, perhaps as a variant of the same argument, that this creed represents the capture of the original Judaeo-Christian message or gospel of primitive Christianity by a process of Hellenisation, a gradual approximation to late Greek, mainly Platonic, philosophy.

The theory has even been put forward with a wholly misplaced confidence that the doctrine of the Trinity was produced in order to guarantee a celestial order and security corresponding to and supporting the order and security represented by the Christian Emperor himself.

These are all explanations of the doctrinal journey which in one way or another see it as a superfluity or a deviation.

The Conventional Account …

This doctrine and the creed which represents the official and dogmatic justification for the doctrine were achieved, as is well known, as the result of a controversy known conventionally but not quite accurately as the Arian Controversy. The version of events connected with this controversy, which lasted from 318 to 381, to be found till very recently in virtually all the text-books runs something like this:

In the year 318 a presbyter called Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ, to the effect that Christ was a created and inferior god.

When the controversy spread because Arius was supported by wicked and designing bishops such as Eusebius of Nicomedia and his namesake of Caesarea, the Emperor Constantine called a general Council at Nicaea which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy.

But owing to the crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians, this pious design was frustrated.

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

But Athanasius resolutely and courageously sustained the battle for orthodoxy, almost alone, until in the later stages of the controversy he was joined by other standard-bearers of orthodoxy such as Hilary of Poitiers, Pope Damasus, and the three Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa.

Ultimately, by the aid of the Emperor Theodosius, right prevailed, the forces of error and wickedness represented by the Arians were defeated and crushed, and the formulation at Constantinople in 381 of the revised Nicene Creed crowned the triumph of the true faith.

Is a Complete Travesty

This conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is now recognised by a large number of scholars to be a complete travesty. To see this it is only necessary to read that weighty and magisterial recent work upon the subject, Ia Crisi Ariana del Qarto Secolo by M. Siinonetti, a Roman Catholic scholar whose integrity is as unexceptionable as his orthodoxy.

No Orthodoxy at the Beginning

At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’, certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople.

It is a priori implausible to suggest that a controversy raged for no less than sixty years in the Church, so that every single one of the original contestants was dead by the time the controversy was settled, over a doctrine whose orthodox form was perfectly well known to everybody concerned and had been well known for centuries past.

Arius’ Doctrines

Arius’ particular doctrines, as far as we can reconstruct them, seem to have been almost uniquely calculated to arouse both agreement and dissension without giving any serious prospect of providing ground for a solution of the dispute. That is his main claim to fame.

The Nicene Creed Confounded the Confusion.

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

Homoousios is not mentioned after Nicaea.

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.

There were more than just two sides.

To regard the bishops and theologians taking part in the controversy as falling simply into two groups, ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’, immediately after the Council of Nicaea of 325, and to interpret the course of that Controversy as a straightforward struggle between these two points view, with sub-groups forming themselves from time to time within the two clearly-defined camps, is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.

All sides made mistakes.

The dispute was indeed aggravated and clouded by a number of extraneous factors and a number of dangerous mistakes and serious faults committed by those who were parties to it. But these mistakes and faults were not confined to the upholders of any one particular doctrine, and cannot all be grouped under the heading of a wicked Arian conspiracy.

The Misbehavior of Athanasius

The most serious initial fault was the misbehavior of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. Evidence which 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 for at least the first twenty years of his long episcopate.

There was no Arian conspiracy.

It is of course true that Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had supported Arius, displayed ambition and craft in forwarding the interests of his own party and in his relations with Western bishops, but the depositions of his opponents cannot all be attributed to an Arian plot.

Eustathius of Antioch

It seems highly likely that Eustathius of Antioch was guilty of some misconduct, because it is only long after his deposition, and perhaps after his death, that he begins to rank as a martyr in the cause of orthodoxy. The Westerners at Sardica in 343 significantly fail to mention him in their roll-call of the innocent injured.

Paul of Constantinople

Paul of Byzantium/Constantinople appears to have become embroiled in a domestic quarrel unconnected with the Arian Controversy and, like Eustathius, to have been the subject of pro-Nicene hagiography only at a comparatively late date.

Julius of Rome

Julius of Rome I was in Eastern eyes irresponsible to the point of mischievousness in championing the deposed Eastern bishops, Athanasius, Marcellus and Asclepas, in assuming that they must have been the victims of injustice and in branding as Arian all those who disagreed with them; and we can sympathize with the Easterners resentment here.

Marcellus cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism.

The views of Marcellus of Ancyra were eccentric by any standards of orthodoxy recognized in the fourth century. Marcellus in some respects displayed a discernment in interpreting Scripture which others lacked, but he cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism. The fact that he could sign the baptismal creed of Rome was no proof at all of his orthodoxy, because it constituted no sort of test of Trinitarian doctrine.

That Julius and later the Westerners at Sardica should have declared him orthodox was bound to appear to the Eastern theologians to be a condoning of Sabellianism, a doctrine which the anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support.

Confused Terminology

The repeated confusion caused by the use of the same terms by different writers in different senses, right up to the very end, well after the Council of Alexandria of 362 which on the conventional view is supposed to have cleared up the confusion, added its own exasperation to the whole dispute.

Up to the year 357, the East could label the West as Sabellian and the West could label the East as Arian with equal lack of discrimination and accuracy. In the year 357, Arianism as a relatively clearly thought out doctrinal position emerged for the first time, and for the first time those Eastern theologians who were not Arian were in a position to distinguish their own views and confess them. This is the point at which the solution to the controversy begins very faintly to dawn, though its full realisation was delayed for twenty-four years.

Emperor Theodosius ended the Controversy 

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.

Throughout the controversy everybody with rare and occasional exceptions assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor. Several Emperors had attempted to fulfil this role, Constantine, Constans, Constantius, and Valens when in intervals of fussing ineffectively about administrative affairs he began fussing about ecclesiastical matters. All had failed because though the measures which they took might for a time appear to have been successful they in fact were not supported by a consensus in the Church at large.

Theodosius succeeded because, at the time he came to Imperial power the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church. In the past Imperial coercion had been freely applied but had failed. Now it succeeded, not because it was coercion but because it was coercion backed by general assent.

The solution did not come from Rome.

But even here we must dissent from the conventional account of the end of the Arian Controversy.

The solution did not emanate directly either from Rome or from Alexandria.

On the contrary: the opening of the year 375 saw the ironical situation in which the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic, and Vitalis, an Apollinarian heretic, against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East, later to be acknowledged universally as a great Doctor of the Church, who never during a single minute of his existence was formally in communion with the see of Rome!

The direct source of the solution of the Arian Controversy, and the great articulators of the doctrine of the Trinity, were the three Cappadocian fathers whose origins were undoubtedly from that Homoeousian party whom Epiphanius, that unsubtle but useful preserver of the views of others, had the impudence to call ‘Semi-Arians’.

II The Need to Formulate Doctrine

Doctrine of God in the Bible

But we must delve deeper than this if we are to understand the reasons for the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity. We must ask, not what was the immediate occasion of its development, but what was the original urge or need or dynamic which made it seem necessary to those who formed it?

The answer lies in the necessity for finding a specifically Christian doctrine of God. The Bible does not give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God, though it gives us the raw material for this. When the NT was canonized, in effect by the middle of the third century, even those parts of it which were devoted to a consideration of the person rather than of the function of Christ, such as the first chapters of the Gospel according to St. John and the Epistle to the Colossians and the Epistle to the Hebrews, did not supply anything more than some hints towards the formation of a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

Jewish dominated church

Before the writing of the NT, the church professed to all appearances the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum. To say that Christians believed in one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person was not to state a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

I may perhaps illustrate the point by relating an experience which I had recently. I was invited to a lunch in Manchester along with the representatives of several other religions and after lunch our genial host required of us to state our religious views in two sentences. The Sikh representative (who I do not for a moment believe was capable of giving us the authentic doctrine of Sikhism) said that his fellow-worshipers believed in one God and that Sikhs should not be required to wear helmets when they rode motorcycles. The doctrine of primitive Christians would have appeared, at least to the non-Jew, not much less disproportionate in its parts than that. The NT made some closer approach to an integrated doctrine of God, but was still far from achieving anything more than a sub-variant of the Jewish doctrine of God.

There certainly were forces within Christianity even before it emerged from its Jewish milieu or matrix moving towards an integrated doctrine of God:

There was the fundamental Jewish urge towards monotheism, its rejection of lesser deities or any qualification or diminution of the concept of God.

There was the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ which can be traced back to a very early period.

There was the practice of praying to Jesus Christ as well as praying through him.

There were the theological trajectories (to use current theological jargon) pointing to a doctrine of incarnation in Matthew, in Paul, in Hebrews and above all in John.

There was, in fine, the ineradicably Christocentric nature of Christianity, the concept of Christ as the Last Act of God, the eschatological pressure, so to speak, that his figure exerted on Christian thought.

But as long as Christianity remained in a Jewish environment none of these factors was strong enough to constitute on its own a movement towards the development of a specifically Christian doctrine of God, the enterprise of determining what difference the career of Jesus Christ must have in forming the Church’s thought, not just about what God had done, but what God is.

Gentile dominated Church

It was when Christianity emerged during the second century into a non-Jewish, largely Gentile milieu that the pressure to produce a specifically Christian doctrine of God became unavoidable.

The intellectual world of the Late Roman Empire, enjoying under a series of enlightened Emperors chosen on an adoptive rather than hereditary principle its last St. Luke’s summer of peace and prosperity before the storms and disasters of the next three centuries, was dominated by the inheritance and the practice of Greek philosophy.

The Greek intellectual tradition had of course altered since its great days in the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ. Its Platonism was not exactly the Platonism of Plato; Stoicism had arisen as a distinct and attractive alternative; Aristotelianism, though studied by some, was under eclipse. Greek philosophy had become more eclectic than in Plato’s day, and also much more religious and theistic. What J.B. Bury in all the confidence of Victorian rationalism has called a ‘loss of nerve’ had taken place.

But philosophy was still full of vitality and was actively studied or at least acquired in a general way by the great majority of those who called themselves intellectuals or who had received a higher education in that age.

And Greek philosophy required of any religion which aspired to be a universal religion, as Christianity did, that it should give a rational account of itself. If it had a teaching about God, the intellectual tradition of the Late Roman Empire insisted that that teaching should be rational (not necessarily rationalist), consistent, defensible, intellectually acceptable. If Christianity was to be more than an enthusiastic or moralizing sect making no pretensions to intellectual respectability, more than just an ethnic religion, more than a barbaric cult or a sub-variety of Judaism, in short, if it was to capture the mind as well as the heart of the society in which it existed, it was bound to produce a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

This was not an unreasonable demand, not the requirement of a futile speculative Greek curiosity, but a plain necessity if Christianity was to be a genuinely missionary religion, a religion capable of sustaining the daring claim that it was a faith for all races and all classes and all minds, a religion for the whole world.

The Apologists

The first attempt at this task was made by the group of writers whom we call the Apologists, and it was made, significantly enough, to a large degree in independence of the thought of the Fourth Gospel.

This group had nothing in common, if we except the connection between Justin Martyr and Tatian, apart from a common purpose and a common pattern of thought. They did not all live in the same place or at the same time. But their common aim resulted in a common pattern of theology.

They used to great effect several features of contemporary Greek philosophy to enable them to construct their doctrines of God. They identified the pre-existent Christ, thought of as manifesting himself on critical occasions throughout the history of the Jewish people, with the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy, and also borrowed some traits from the divine Logos of Stoicism (including its name).

They thereby solved for those who accepted their doctrine a difficult contemporary philosophical problem: how was the supreme being …  to communicate in his immutable, abstract, immaterial condition with our world of change and decay, transitoriness and matter? The answer was, the divine Logos or nous identified with Christ both pre-existent and incarnate in his earthly ministry. He was the agent for creating the world of the supreme Divinity and also the means of the Divinity revealing himself in the world, both in the history of the Jews and in the earthly career of Jesus.

No Trinity

They felt some obligation to fit the Holy Spirit into this scheme, but were less successful here. They could hardly be said to have developed a recognisably Trinitarian scheme, but they certainly had produced the first specifically Christian doctrine of God.

Not Bible-based

They were writing mostly for non-Jews and non-Christians. Such a public demanded philosophical consistency but no very great attention to historical detail nor to the witness of the Bible.

Lasted into the Fourth Century

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.

Irenaeus and Tertullian

The doctrine was given a better balance and proportion by both Irenaeus and Tertullian. They redressed the tendency of the Apologists to fall into Gnostic doctrine of an unknown, inaccessible High God whom the lesser god, the Logos, brings communications. They paid much more attention to Scripture, and especially to the Fourth Gospel. They made more room for the Holy Spirit in their doctrine of God, and brought out the significance of the earthly career of Jesus, which all the Apologists apart from Justin had ignored. 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.

Origen

Origen produced something like a theological revolution without completely demolishing this theological structure. He extended it and diversified it, but he did not alter most of its main features. In his brilliant search for common ground between Christianity and the kind of philosophy which appealed to him, late Middle Platonism laced with some Stoicism, he introduced some new and enduring features and made some daring speculations. He launched the doctrine of the eternal, not merely economic, Trinity; he produced a neat and ingenious account of how the Son/Logos could be, as incarnate, both divine and human. He taught the eternal pre-existence of souls, and a pre-mundane fall, and he demythologized eschatology as radically as ever Bultmann did. But, he still envisaged the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father and still treated him as an ingenious philosophical device, indeed he enhanced this feature in his Trinitarian doctrine.

How divine is Christ?

Even when greatly altered and given a much more sophisticated appearance by Origen, this form of the Christian doctrine of God had serious flaws. The chief flaw was that which the Apologists had regarded as its greatest merit. It made Christ into a convenient philosophical device. He was the means whereby the supreme God, the Father, was protected from embarrassingly close relation to the world. He was, not by reason of his incarnation but by reason of his very nature apart from the incarnation, a defused, depotentiated version of God suitable for encounter with such compromising things as history and humanity and transitoriness. He was the safeguard against a too close acquaintance with our existence on the part of the supreme God.

This Logos-doctrine was not the Logos-doctrine of the Fourth Gospel, where the incarnate Logos is the guarantee that the supreme God has in fact communicated himself to and in our world, where the fact that the Son is accessible in the flesh means that the Father is accessible to us too, where the veil or restriction imposed on himself by God is not his Son but the Son’s humanity, where the contrast is between sight and faith, not between incorruptibility and the corruptible. Whatever the theological or philosophical effect of the conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century may have been, its religious effect, once granted the worship of Christ, was to make the Son into a demi-god.

This can be observed by looking at the second-rate or third-rate writers of the period, not at the successors of Origen, Theognostus, Methodius, Eusebius of Caesarea, but at Lactantius, Arnobius, Victorinus of Pettau, Dionsysius of Alexandria. They present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God and capable of incarnation.

Continued into Arianism

When Gwatkin nearly a century ago in the last full-scale book written in English on the Arian Controversy branded Arianism as ‘heathen to the core’ and as a watered-down version of Christianity suitable for imperfectly converted pagan polytheists, he was writing vague imperfectly substantiated rhetoric, based on an inadequate examination of Arius’ background, but he was not talking complete nonsense. 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.

Theos and Deus

The ancient world did not disdain demi-gods. 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.

This is a fact which is often forgotten by those who are anxious to read the later doctrine of Christ’s divinity incontinently into the NT. This is why Christians found it quite possible to hold the kind of conception of Christ’s divinity which was widespread in Christian thought as the third century gave way to the fourth. Of course Christ was divine. But how divine, and what exactly did ‘divine’ mean in that context? It was with this question that the Arian Controversy started and it found nobody in a position to give an immediately satisfying answer.

The Answer in the Creed

But once the question was raised – and Arius’ teaching had raised it in such a way that it could not now be ignored – it could only be answered by the formulation of a more detailed and thorough Christian doctrine of God.

The Church of the fourth century, after much travail answered this question. The answer was only reached after long controversy, heart- searching, confusion and vicissitude 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.

Its results in the Nicene Creed was to reduce the meanings of the word “God” from a very large selection of alternatives to one only, so that today it is part of the bloodstream of European culture. When Western man today says ‘God’ he means the one, sole exclusive God and nothing else. Even when he denies the existence of God he does not even pause to disbelieve in gods. Even when he blasphemes, he swears profanely by the sole God. This is why the theologians of the Eastern Orthodox Church who use the word ‘god’ to describe the divinized human nature of Christ and the final state of man in glory can only cause bewilderment and dissent in the minds of Westerners.

Destroyed the Tradition.

What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device, of Christ, as the Cappadocian fathers put it, existing for the sake of us instead of our existing for his sake. The Cappadocians, following in the footsteps of Athanasius, put a firm ‘No Thoroughfare’ notice in front of this theological track, a track which must have seemed to many a hopeful and useful one.

In this respect at least they fought an example of the Hellenisation of the gospel, they rejected the allurements of Greek philosophy.

Indeed if we want a beautiful example of Hellenisation of Christianity we can turn to the most extreme of the Arians, Eunomius, who would have agreed heartily with the title of Toland’s famous book, Christianity not Mysterious, and who had an unbounded confidence in the capacity of Greek metaphysics to solve all theological problems and to scale all the heights of knowledge of the divine. In the course of refuting his teaching Gregory of Nyssa has quite often to pause and protest against his indiscriminate use of philosophical jargon.

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 that is part of the inner nature of Christianity and that also did justice to the ancient practice of worshipping Christ. They were forced through the exigencies of controversy to realize that Christ is either ultimately irrelevant to Christianity, a paradigm, an example, a supremely obedient and godly man, but no more; or he must be a mediator, and therefore authentically God and not a second-class deity. The dispute was about the necessity, the centrality, the indispensability of Christ.

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. This doctrine which finally emerged with the result of assimilating the indispensability of Christ to the monotheism which Christianity inherited from Judaism and which it would not abandon.

The Holy 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. It was only when the battle for the recognition of the Son’s full divinity was in a fair way to being won that the Spirit moved to the centre of the stage.

It has been suggested that this pneumatological development was a kind of lame epilogue or un-happy corollary to the development concerning the Son. Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of the French, Emperor in fact and in form. His brother Joseph was for a period by a kind of creaking imperial logic King of Spain, in form if not in fact. Was this the kind of process by which the Holy Spirit became deified?

It is certainly true that until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians. I do not believe those historians of doctrine who tell us that people like Novatian and Victorinus of Pettau were really Binitarians, but certainly nobody for the first four centuries had seen the necessity of working out a theology of the Spirit and when Athanasius in his Letters to Serapion set out to do so he was not wholly successful.

Further, two of the Cappadocians, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, admit silently that the Scriptural evidence for the Spirit as a distinct hypostasis within the Godhead is inadequate. Basil in his De Spirilu Sancto tries to take refuge in a most unsatisfactory doctrine of secret, unscriptural tradition on the subject. Gregory, though he tacitly rejects Basil’s device, in effect appeals to the experience and practice of the Church to supplement Scripture at this point. It was not that the Scriptures did not declare the Spirit to be divine, but in the matter of their witnessing to his existence as an hypostasis, a distinctly recognizable reality, within the Godhead, they were not contradictory, but insufficient.

Certain points can, however, help us to understand the Cappadocians’ decision that the Holy Spirit must be included in the Trinity and why they wrote of him as they did.

In the first place, Christians have always found it difficult to write about the Holy Spirit, just because he is God as we encounter him. It is always difficult to write about our own religious experience, to stand outside ourselves sufficiently to convey what we know to be true in ourselves.

In the second place the Spirit is God sovereign over time, God overcoming the limits of history and space and time. He is in the NT an eschatological figure. He is Lord of history and his appearance heralds of the ages. It is therefore improper or inconsistent to expect the historical witness which we have in the Bible to his advent to be entirely adequate. Historical documents cannot adequately witness to him who is beyond history as well as in it, who makes past history present for us, who has not yet finished unfolding the history of salvation.

Finally when the Cappadocians decided that having been committed to drastic theological decisions about the Spirit they were being true to the NT. The Holy Spirit is bound up with, inseparable from, Jesus Christ, and if we decided that Christ is divine we cannot in the end withhold divinity from the Spirit. The Cappadocians therefore boldly included the Spirit in their Trinitarian theology.

They resisted a formidable movement to reject the Spirit’s divinity, led not by the shadowy Macedonius, but by that extraordinary and unpredictable character Eustathius of Sebaste. They formulated a full-blooded Trinitarian doctrine and went some distance towards defining the relations of the Persons within the Trinity. The revised Nicene creed of 381 enshrined the conclusions to which they had come without canonizing any one Trinitarian formula.

III Greek Vocabulary and Thought

The last section of this paper must be devoted to comment upon the achievement of the fourth-century theologians. It must be noted that 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, homoeousious, tautousios, heterousios, hyparxis, prosopon, perichoresis, and so on.

In this matter the ancient theologians had in fact no choice. Once the theologians of the early period had, under the influence of the Christian Platonists of Alexandria, abandoned the illusion that Christianity was itself a philosophy rivalling the others, and had realised that their faith needed the aid of philosophy in order to express itself in contemporary and comprehensible terms, then the Church was committed to the necessity of explaining its beliefs in the terminology of Greek philosophy.

One of the lessons learnt by the bitter experience of the Arian Controversy was that you cannot interpret the Bible simply in biblical terms. If your intention is to explain the Bible’s meaning, then on crucial points you must draw your explanation from some other vocabulary apart from that of the Bible. Otherwise you will be left with the old question in another form still unanswered.

The only alternative language available for interpreting the Bible was that of Greek philosophy. Roman philosophy was no more than a pale imitation of Greek. There was no philosophical language available in the tradition of Syriac-speaking Christianity, even had it been comprehensible to the majority of ancient theologians. Indian philosophy, though not wholly unknown, was too remote and too strange to serve their purpose. No other intellectual tools were at their disposal.

This borrowing from Greek philosophy, like all borrowing, exacted a price. The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts. Many of the fundamental assumptions which they made in all their theological writing were those of Greek philosophy, not those of the Old and New Testaments.

Psychology

Their psychology and anthropology were, with few exceptions, largely Stoic or (less frequently) Platonist.

Ethics

Their ethics were for the most part not the ethics of the Bible, involved as these are in particular situations and rule-of-thumb of expressions, not easily detected or identified. The Stoics had developed a consistent and attractive ethical system, and the Christian theologians found it impossible to resist the temptation (if temptation it was) to read this system into the biblical text.

Ontological Immutability

More important was their unanimous assumption that ontological immutability is an essential attribute of God, that under no circumstances could God ever be thought of as coming in contact with the transitory and corruptible or mortal; a concept which is quite alien to the conception of God to be found in the Old and New Testaments.

This axiom had far-reaching effects on their theology. It troubled Athanasius when he had to face the undeniable fact that the Bible represents God as acting in history. He had to fall back on the lame explanation that all the events of salvation history had been eternally predestined by God before the foundation of the world.

The same axiom produced extraordinary results when the pro-Nicene theologians came to envisage the earthly life of Jesus. Almost all the orthodox theologians say that while the Word of course took human flesh, it was not human flesh like ours, but a different sort of purer, sanctified human flesh.

Hilary of Poitiers plunges wildly into Docetism at this point: Christ felt the effect of the blow when he was struck, but not its pain, and so on.

Another consequence of this axiom is that very few theologians of the fourth century appreciate the full force of the dynamic, eschatological language which the NT uses of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. They flatten and blunt this language, transposing it into ontological categories. For Athanasius, as has frequently been observed, the divinity of Christ means his ontological stability.

Inconsistent use – Variety of meanings

But though the fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy, they were by no means consistent in using them. The study of ousia by G.C. Stead in his book Divine Substance has shown how large was the variety of meanings which the Fathers attached to that word, and E.P. Meijering has demonstrated that even in so apparently precise a term as ‘beyond being’, epekeina tes ousias, different writers could attach different meanings to it.

Tension between Philosophy and the Bible

In such obviously unplatonic subjects as the resurrection of the body, the creation of matter out of nothing, and the possibility of an incarnation of God, the Fathers recognized clearly that Christianity manifestly diverged from philosophy and said so. Perhaps the best way to express the situation would be to say that in all their theology there is a tension between the ideas of Greek philosophy and those of the tradition of Christian truth which they inherited, a tension sometimes explicitly realized but more often not, and that in none of them is this tension completely resolved.

While, for instance, they believe that Christ’s humanity could not have been exactly like ours because he was born of a virgin without male human parentage, they also reject the Arian doctrine that incarnation necessarily implies inferiority in the God who is incarnate. Here the tension becomes very visible.

Two Natures Theory

It is perhaps worth noting incidentally, on the subject of consistency, that the Nicene dogma does not entail the Chalcedonian dogma with an iron necessity. On the contrary, the two-nature scheme of Chalcedon might be regarded as drawing back from the full drastic consequences of the Nicene Creed under the influence of a Greek fear of compromising God with human experiences.

Faithfulness to Scripture

How much of faithfulness to Scripture did the Fathers of the fourth century sacrifice? 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.

Certainly all exegetes of whatever color in that period shared common ideas about the Bible which are impossible for us,

Julian the Arian on Job as well as Didymus the Blind on Zechariah; For them most of the Psalms were tape-recordings made by David of conversations held between God the Father, God the Son and the Church.

Very large numbers of passages in the OT spoke to them directly of Christian doctrine which to us are wholly devoid of such reference, e.g. Prov 8:22 which might be called the key-text of the Arian Controversy, and Amos 4:13 which was much adduced by the Macedonians.

The Antiochene preference for eschewing allegory in handling Scripture had scarcely yet appeared in the fourth century; the irresponsible use of allegory abounded, perhaps more among the pro-Nicenes than among the Arians. Julian in his Commentary on Job uses it very little.

But though in detail Patristic interpretation of the Bible can be utterly different from ours today, in several of the points where what one might call the weight or what Athanasius calls the skopos, the main burden or message of Scripture, is concerned they discern clearly enough the true facts.

They recognise at least in theory, as an intellectual proposition, the humanity of Christ, they resist Apollinarianism.

They know that the OT witnesses to God revealing himself in history.

They acknowledge consistently that God can only be known in faith.

They do some justice to the thought of St. Paul, to Augustine almost full justice.

John’s Gospel

Above all, they are deeply influenced by the Fourth Gospel, whereas the Arians are not. This is the crucial point of interpretation where Athanasius has a deeper appreciation of the thought of the NT than his opponents. 

For the Arians, God cannot communicate himself to man, he can only send a well-accredited messenger, because incarnation is a reduction, a diminution of Godhead.

Athanasius accepts the full significance of the doctrine of that Gospel, though he expresses it in terms of Greek ontological thought and though, like all the pro-Nicene theologians, he assumes erroneously that St. John is laying out pre-fabricated Trinitarian doctrine in his pages. But here he shows a vitally important insight into the significance of the NT which the Arians, preoccupied as they were with the incomparability of God, failed to see.

No Precise Formulae

We must also realize that when the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity they did not present it with a formula designed to express that doctrine permanently. There is no universally recognised formula expressing the doctrine of the Trinity, for the Athanasian Creed, which has such a formula, is not an ecumenical creed.

The theologians of the fourth century, though they were quite ready to countenance creeds, did not have the same intense addiction to precise formulae as later ages had, nor the same insistence on precise accuracy as we have.

Auxentius of Milan could say that the creed which he had probably met for the first time when he became bishop of Milan was what he had learnt from his youth up; he was referring to the content, not to the words.

The fact that the members of the council of Constantinople of 381 could regard themselves as reproducing in the creed which they adopted the original formula of 325, which we would regard as a very different document, speaks for itself.

At one point Gregory of Nazianzus, in a letter defending Basil against the charge of refusing to acknowledge openly the divinity of the Holy Spirit, states explicitly that it is not the words that count but the meaning which they convey.

The Cappadocians cannot be accused of spinning theological formulations simply for the sake of creating ever new Greek metaphysical instructions. They were very well aware, as was Athanasius, of the inadequacy of language to express thought about God. It was one of the lessons learnt during the course of the controversy. What the Cappadocians contended for was the shape of Trinitarian doctrine, not for a particular formulation of it. They were emphatically not fighting for a creed, but for a doctrine. That doctrine has since been expressed in different ways by later theologians, by, for instance, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory Palamas, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, but it remains the same doctrine.

Interpretation of Development?

Last of all, we must ask whether this doctrine of the Holy Trinity, achieved after so long and trying an experience of controversy, heart-searching and vicissitude, was an interpretation of the Bible, or whether it should rather be regarded as a development.

If, as I think, we can answer the question originally asked in this paper by saying that the journey was necessary, we must decide what sort of a journey it was.

Of course the doctrine of the Trinity was in a sense an interpretation of the Bible. It began as an attempt to answer the question, how divine is Jesus Christ?, and went on to decide whether God has communicated himself or not. Neither of these questions lie directly on the surface of the Bible, though they are both raised if the Bible’s contents are studied with care and in depth; the Bible does not directly answer either.

The question we deal with here is ultimately that which Newman raised, but did not find an answer, in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I think that a consideration of the whole history of the gradual formation of this doctrine must convince students of the subject that the doctrine of the Trinity is a development, and a development which in its shape, is true and authentic. Christians can honestly worship Jesus Christ and also honestly declare that they are monotheists, but only if they adopt a concept of God which has a Trinitarian shape.

When they profess this doctrine they are not saying precisely what Mark in his first chapter and Paul in the first of Romans were saying, though in different words, just that and nothing more. Time and trial and long thought and ventures into speculation and even into error, both aided and hindered by non-biblical thought, have taught the Church something about the implications of its faith, have assisted towards the gradual unfolding and uncovering of the basic drive and genius and spirit of Christianity here. Development has meant discovery.

R. P. C. HANSON
University of Manchester


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