This is an article on a series that explains the historical development of the Trinity doctrine. The main purpose of this series is to show the decisive influence that Roman Emperors had on the church’s acceptance of the Trinity doctrine. A previous article that discussed the Council of Nicaea showed that Constantine manipulated that council. He:
- Called the meeting,
- Presided over it,
- Actively guided the discussions,
- Proposed and insisted on the key word Homoousios, and
- Exiled all bishops that did not sign the creed.
The current article shows that the emperors after Constantine were Arian and crushed the Nicene party.
The Council of Nicaea discussed and soon rejected Arius’ theology. But then the Council created a new problem and a new controversy. Constantine’s influence allowed a minority at the council to make the final edits to the Creed and to include the word homoousios. The controversy during the 50 years after Nicaea was about this word. Since there was no unanimity at Nicaea, the bishops went on teaching as they had before.
Sentiments against homoousios
Soon after Nicaea, while Constantine was still emperor, the consensus shifted away from support of this term to opposition to it. When Constantine accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from an ‘Arian’ bishop.
Constantine himself convened a gathering of Church leaders in AD 335 to discuss various charges against Athanasius; the chief advocate for the Nicene Creed and now bishop of Alexandria. After this meeting, Constantine banished Athanasius. Over his career, Athanasius was exiled no fewer than five times.
Arius and other bishops, who were condemned and exiled at the Council of Nicaea, regained imperial favor and were readmitted to communion.
Constantine’s son Constantius II became the sole ruler of the empire by 353. He actively encouraged the church to reverse the Nicene Creed, forced the Western bishops to abandon Athanasius, and exiled bishops adhering to the Nicene Creed. Constantius largely crushed the Nicene party.
Third Council of Sirmium
The Third Council of Sirmium in 357 was the high point of Arianism. It held that homoousios (of one substance) does not appear in the Bible, that it is “above men’s understanding” and that “there ought to be no mention of any of these at all.”
Constantius’ successor was Julian. He was a devotee of Rome’s pagan gods and did not favor one church faction above another. But he reigned only for three years.
Emperor Valens (364–378) succeeded Julian and revived Constantius’ policy. Similar to Constantine and Constantius before him, he exiled Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used force.
Note in these examples the decisive influence that the emperors had on the church’s Christology the church accepted.
– END OF SUMMARY –
Nicaea did not end the Controversy.
The Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. Karen Armstrong explains:
“In fact, there was no unanimity at Nicaea. After the council, the bishops went on teaching as they had before, and the Arian crisis continued for another sixty years. Arius and his followers fought back and managed to regain imperial favor. Athanasius was exiled no fewer than five times.” (A History of God – pp. 110-111)
Homoousios is the central term of the Nicene Creed. Many bishops of the Eastern provinces disputed this term, for it does not appear in the Bible and had already been condemned at a Synod in Antioch in 269.
Furthermore, the Bible is clear that only one Being exists without cause, and that is the Father. Like all the ancient creeds, even the Nicene Creed begins with a standard unitarian statement:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible.”
To say that Jesus is “very God of very God … being of one substance with the Father,” while there is only one God, seems like a contradiction; even polytheism. However, the contradiction is only in the translation. See – The church fathers described Jesus as “our god” but it is translated as “our God.”
Constantine turned against homoousios.
Soon after Nicaea, while Constantine was still the head of the empire, the consensus in the church shifted away from the Homoousian view towards Arianism, as indicated by the following:
Ten years after Nicaea, the same emperor, Constantine the Great, convened another gathering of Church leaders at the regional First Synod of Tyre in 335 (attended by 310 bishops) to address various charges against Athanasius. He now was the bishop of Alexandria, the most vocal opponent of Arianism and the chief advocate for the Nicene Creed. These charges include “murder, illegal taxation, sorcery, and treason.” He was convicted of conspiracy and Constantine banished Athanasius.
In 336 the Synod of Jerusalem, under Constantine’s direction, readmitted Arius to communion. Arius died on the way to Constantinople.
Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis were condemned and exiled at the Council of Nicaea. Constantine allowed them to return once they had signed an ambiguous statement of faith.
When Constantine accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from the same Eusebius of Nicomedia (Gonzalez, Justo (1984). The Story of Christianity Vol.1. Harper Collins. p. 176). This implies that Constantine converted to Arianism. (Constantine’s deathbed baptism does not mean that he was not a Christian before. It was common for rulers to put off baptism to avoid accountability for things like torture and executing criminals (The Early Church, 1993, p. 127). Constantine himself had his wife and son killed in the year after Nicaea.)
Constantine died in 337. His three sons inherited the empire:
Constantine II received the far western part: Britain, Gaul, and Spain.
Constantius received the far eastern part: Macedonia, Greece, Thrace, Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. Constantius II ACTIVELY ENCOURAGED THE ARIANS to reverse the Nicene Creed. His advisor in these affairs was still Eusebius of Nicomedia, who already at the Council of Nicaea was the head of the Arian party. But he was now made the bishop of the capital city of the Roman Empire; Constantinople. Constantius exiled Nicene bishops, especially Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius fled to Rome in the west, where Constantius did not rule.
Constans received the area lying in between, namely Italy, North Africa, and Illyricum.
Both Constantine II and Constans took the western position with respect to the Arian controversy and supported Athanasius.
In 340, Constantine II was killed in battle with the forces of Constans. This left the empire divided between Constans in the West and Constantius in the East. In 350, Constans was assassinated by the rebel German emperor Magnentius. Three years later, Constantius defeated and killed the latter. Thus, by 353, Constantius was the sole ruler of the entire empire.
Constantius crushed the Nicene party.
After Constantius became emperor of the entire empire, he extended his pro-Arian policy toward the western provinces. In councils held in the West at Arles and Milan, he forced the western bishops to abandon Athanasius, and he exiled some of the leaders of the Nicene party. For example, he exiled Pope Liberius and installed Antipope Felix II. Athanasius was exiled several times:
Although Nicaea spoke against Arianism, Constantine in later life leaned toward it, and his successor, Constantius II, was openly Arian (Britannica).
Under Constantius’ leadership the Nicene party was largely crushed. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Arianism, Vol. I, p.509)
In 357 a council held in Sirmium forbade the use of ousia (nature or substance) when speaking of the relationship between the Father and the Son. This was a complete victory [for the Arians]. (A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, p117)
The Third Council of Sirmium in 357 was the high point of Arianism. It resulted in the Second Creed of Sirmium which held that both homoousios (of same substance) and homoiousios (of similar substance) do not appear in the Bible, “are above … men’s understanding,” and “there ought to be no mention of any of these at all.” It concluded that the Father is greater than the Son. After the Trinity doctrine became generally accepted in the church—in later centuries—this confession became known as the Blasphemy of Sirmium.
Jerome (c. 347–420) is best known for his translation of most of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate). He remarked that “the term Usia was abolished: the Nicene Faith stood condemned. The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian” (The Dialogue Against the Luciferians).
Emperor Valens was an ‘Arian’.
Constantius died 361. His successor was Julian. He was a devotee of Rome’s pagan gods. He no longer favored one church faction over another but allowed all exiled bishops to return. However, he reigned only for three years.
Emperor Valens (364–378) succeeded Julian, revived Constantius’ policy and supported the “Homoian” party (the Son is like the Father). Similar to Constantine and Constantius, he EXILED Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used FORCE. The main purpose of this article is to show the DECISIVE influence which the emperors had on whether the church was Arian or Nicene.
What did the church believe?
The article Arianism explains what the church believed in this period. The Nicene Creed of 325 makes the Son equal to the Father. The word “God” is a modern invention. We use it as the proper name of the One who exists without a cause. In Arianism, THEOS, when it describes Jesus, or to any being other than the Father, should be translated as “god.” The Father is the only God, the Son is our god, but the Father is His god and the Holy Spirit is not a person, but as a power; subject to the Son.