The ‘orthodox’ view of God when the Arian Controversy began

Steven Wedgeworth wrote an interesting article that discusses the large number of creeds that were formulated in the decades after the Nicene Creed was accepted in 325, culminating in the Homoean creed that was accepted, under the ‘guidance” (insistence) of Emperor Constantius, at the Council of Constantinople in AD 360.

(The Homoeans or Homoians were the people that maintained that the Bible does not reveal anything about the substance (ousia) of God and, therefore, to speculate about His substance is arrogance. This view opposes to the Nicene Creed that claimed that the Son is of the same substance as the Father.)

The creed of the Council of Constantinople in AD 360 became the official creed of the Christian Church. All uses of ousia were forbidden and it seemed as if this form of ‘Arianism’ has triumphed.

Some still regard RPC Hanson as our greatest authority on the Arian Controversy (e.g., Hart). Hanson and Wedgeworth present the same interesting historical facts, such as:

    • The decisive influence emperors had on the decisions of the church councils,
    • The violence committed by Athanasius,
    • The extent to which the Arian Controversy was a dispute between the East and the West, and
    • That, in 358, the ‘Arians’ divided into two factions:
      • The Homoiousians (saying that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s) and
      • The Homoeans (those who refused to talk about substance).

But there is one matter where Hanson and Wedgeworth seem to disagree:

While Hanson claimed that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed when the controversy began and that the orthodoxy as we know it today was only created through that controversy,

Wedgeworth speaks of Orthodoxy as something already existing when the Arian Controversy began.

There was an orthodoxy when the Controversy began.

For example, Wedgeworth refers to:

      • “The orthodoxy of Athanasius,”
      • “The orthodox bishops” and “the defeat of Orthodoxy” in the year 360 at the Homoean Synod of Constantinople, and
      • The “early church historians” defended “the orthodoxy” at the Western council at Arminium in 360

Wedgeworth also refers to “supposed orthodox arguments (that) could perhaps be made against using “substance” language in regards to the godhead.” In this regard, he mentions Origen who have already rejected the term a century before, and Paul of Samatosota who had been condemned in the previous century for his use of homoousios, which the Church condemned as a Sabellian theology.

(Sabellianism is the teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts of the one God, however, in a different way than in Modalism. See – Was Sabellius the first Trinitarian?)

In opposition to the ‘orthodox’, Wedgeworth referred to the “heretics.“ He said, for example, that “the heretics typically took pre-existing Christian or Jewish tradition, combined it with certain philosophical rhetoric.”

There was no orthodoxy.

R.P.C. Hanson, in contrast to Wedgeworth, wrote (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.”

Hanson adds that the controversy raged for no less than sixty years. It is highly unlikely that a controversy will last that long if the orthodox form was perfectly well known when it began.

The orthodoxy was ‘Subordinationism’.

There is a third option, namely that orthodoxy did exist when the controversy began, but it was not what we know today as orthodoxy. Specifically, there was a general agreement in the church that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Hanson explains as follows:

During the first three centuries, Greek philosophy was still a strong force in the Roman Empire. In that philosophy, God is immutable and is only able to communicate with our world of change and decay through an intermediary. For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world. (Greek Philosophy)

During those centuries, while Christians were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire, the Apologists (the pre-Nicene fathers) defended Christianity before the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire. For this purpose, they found it effective to identify “the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis.” (Greek Philosophy) Since the nous of Greek philosophy was “a second, created god lower than the High God,” (Divine) the pre-Nicene fathers described Christ as “a subordinate though essential divine agent.” (Irenaeus) Therefore, as Hanson explains, going into the controversy, the orthodoxy was that Christ is subordinate to the Father:

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god.” (Divine)

The word Theos had a wide range of meanings.

The pre-Nicene fathers did regard Christ as divine, but as Hanson noted:

“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.” (theos)

In the thinking of the pre-Nicene fathers, “of course Christ was divine,” but since they assumed that many levels of divinity exist, the question that started the Arian Controversy was: “How divine, and what exactly did ‘divine’ mean in that context?” (theos)

(Theos is the Greek word that is translated as “god” or “God,” depending on the context. Its Latin equivalent is Deus.)


So, my question is: What was the ‘orthodox’ view of God and Christ when the Arian Controversy began?:

      • The Trinity doctrine as per Wedgeworth;
      • None, as per Hanson, or
      • The Subordinationism of Logos-theology?

Why would Hanson state that the pre-Nicene fathers believed that Christ is subordinate to the Father but still say there was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’

And why would Wedgeworth talk about ‘orthodoxy’ as if it is the present-day Trinity doctrine, already existing in 360 AD? Did he use the term ‘orthodoxy’ proleptically (the representation of a thing as existing before it actually does)?

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