What was ‘orthodox’ when the Arian Controversy began?


The fourth-century Arian Controversy began as a disagreement about who the Son of God is, relative to God. Later in the fourth century, the Holy Spirit was included in the debate. In the next (fifth) century, church councils made decisions about the nature of the Son after His incarnation. But the purpose of this article is to ask what the ‘orthodox’ view was when the Controversy began in the year 318, if there was any ‘orthodox’ view at the time.

Overview of History

In the year 325, a church council at Nicaea accepted a creed we refer to as the Nicene Creed. For the next 55 years, the majority sentiment in the church was against that Creed; primarily against the word homoousios. The Creed uses that term to say that the Son is of the same ‘substance’ as the Father.

During those 55 years, a string of alternative creeds was formulated. Some said that the Son’s substance was similar to the Father’s (homo-i-ousians), others that His substance is different from the Father’s (hetero-ousios), and still others that, since the word and concept of the substance of God are not in Bible, Christian Creeds should not refer to God’s substance at all.

However, in the year 380, Emperor Theodosius made an end to the Controversy when he made one of the strands of Christianity, namely, Trinitarian Christology, the official religion of the Roman Empire. That strand was by no means the dominant strand, but the Imperial Forces ruthlessly suppressed the other strands of Christianity. The Nicene Creed was somewhat revised at the 381 Council at Constantinople, which Emperor Theodosius called and dominated.

When the Western Roman Empire divided into the nations of Europe in the fifth and later centuries, the official religion of the Roman Empire became the Roman Church. With the support of Emperor Justinian and the Eastern Roman Empire, the Roman Church grew in strength and dominated during the Middle Ages. Continuing the spirit of its origin – the Roman Empire – it cruelly suppressed all opposition.

During the Reformation, the Protestants rejected many of the practices of the Roman Church but retained the Nicene Creed. Consequently, today, that creed is accepted by almost all denominations.  

Was Nicene Christology ‘orthodox’?

For example, Steven Wedgeworth published an article in 2013 that speaks of Nicene theology as orthodoxy, implying that that theology already existed when the Arian Controversy began. For example, he refers to:

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

He refers to anti-Nicens as ‘heretics’.

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.” (See – Did Arius mix theology with pagan philosophy?)

He described anti-Nicene theology as supposedly ‘orthodox’. For example, he 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 homoousios a century before, and

The Church Council in the previous century that condemned the word homoousios as Sabellian. That same council condemned Paul of Samatosota as a heretic.1Sabellianism 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.

The term “supposed” in the phrase “supposed orthodox arguments” indicates that these arguments are not really ‘orthodox’.


So, Wedgeworth seems to say that Nicene theology was the standard teaching with respect to Christ when the Controversy began.

Others say there was no orthodoxy.

Trevor Hart wrote an article in which he evaluated the book – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – by R.P.C. Hanson. Hart says that this book is the distillation of some twenty years of careful research and that nothing comparable in either scale or erudition exists in the English language. Hart wrote:

The main point Hanson wishes to make throughout the book is that what took place in the fourth century was not, as many accounts have suggested, a conflict between an ancient and established orthodoxy on the one hand and an emergent Christological heresy on the other.

For example:

What was ‘orthodox’ before the Controversy is heterodox today.

Much of what the Church Fathers taught “in the first three centuries … would have been forbidden as heterodox from 381AD onwards.” For example, as already stated, a church council in the third century rejected the term homoousios as Sabellian. And, as shown below, all of these church fathers described the Son as Subordinate to the Father.

Arius was a Conservative. He did not create something new.

The view which Arius himself represented had long since co-existed alongside others within the church. While the church traditionally describes Arius as an innovator, scholarship now agrees that Arius was a conservative. His theology was not an emergent Christological heresy.

Nicene Christology was not ‘orthodox’ when the Controversy began.

Hanson described the word homoousios and related words as “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846). For this reason, the claim is made that Nicene theology is an innovation. But Hart defends the Nicene view as “one strand of the ancient interpretative tradition over against others, and not to be misconstrued, therefore, as a discovery, or as an essentially novel doctrinal departure.”

It would be important to understand who taught the homoousian view before the Arian Controversy began. But the point is that Nicene Christology was not ‘orthodox’ when the Controversy began.

There were no clear boundaries.

When the controversy began, there were no “clearly defined groups and boundaries.” “Clear definition is just what was lacking, and was, in fact, what gradually came to be established as the century wore on.” Rowan Williams, in a 2001 book on Arius, agrees:

“Nicene apologists thus turn ‘Arianism’ into a self-conscious sect – as if the boundaries of Catholic identity were firmly and clearly drawn in advance. But the whole history of Arius and of Arianism reminds us that this was not so.” (RW, 83)

Lewis Ayres, in his 2004 book, wrote similarly:

“Original Nicene theology was a fluid and diverse phenomenon, and one that kept evolving.” Athanasius attempted to “offer a convincing version of that original Nicene theology” but “it was to be many years before those attempts evolved into what I shall term pro-Nicene theology.” (LA, 99)

It was a search for orthodoxy; not a defense of orthodoxy.

For these reasons, Hanson “replaces the language of controversy … with that of the metaphor of a search:

‘This is not the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy’ (RH, xix-xx).

Arius’s dispute with his bishop prompted a search for the truth rather than a simple restatement of something which ‘all Christians everywhere had always believed’.

“Orthodoxy on the subject of the Christian doctrine of God did not exist at first. The story is the story of how orthodoxy was reached, found, not of how it was maintained.” (RH, 870)

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:

The Logos of Greek Philosophy

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)

The Apologists identified the Son as that Logos.

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. 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)

“Indeed, until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism. It could, about the year 300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic theology.”2RPC 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.

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355.” (RH, xix)3RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988, p. xix.

“Subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy” (RH, xix).

Theos had a wide range of meanings.

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

The pre-Nicene fathers did regard Christ as divine and described Him as theos, 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)


A Complete Travesty

Hanson describes the conventional account of the Arian Controversy as a complete travesty. This current article discusses one aspect of that ‘travesty,’ namely that in the past, many writers have assumed that:

“Arianism … had been from the outset an easily recognised heresy in contrast to a known and universally recognised orthodoxy.” (95)

Consequently, the Arian Controversy was a struggle of an established orthodoxy against a newly developed heresy.

Furthermore, Athanasius defended the ‘orthodoxy’ as we know it today.

As this article shows, and as Hanson states, this “is far from being the case” (RH, 95). Hanson wrote:

“At the outset nobody had a single clear answer to the question raised” (RH, 870).

“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.” (Beginning)

The orthodoxy as we know it today, did not yet exist. It was only created through that ‘search’ or ‘controversy’, particularly by the Cappadocian Fathers in the period AD 360-380.

Logos-theology was orthodox.

If there was an ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began, it was the Logos-theology of the Apologists, in which the Son is a subordinate Intermediary between the High God and His creation:

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) … were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church.”4The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend

Other Articles


  • 1
    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.
  • 2
    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.
  • 3
    RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988, p. xix.
  • 4
    The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend
  • 5
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy