In the Nicene Creed, homoousios meant ‘one Person’.

Purpose

The church adopted the Trinity doctrine at the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, discoveries of ancient documents and research over the past century have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate, casting doubt on its legitimacy. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The present article addresses the misconception that the term homoousios in the Nicene Creed always meant, as it is interpreted by the Trinity doctrine, that Father and Son are a single Being existing as two Persons. Before Nicaea, homoousios was closely linked with Sabellianism. and was adopted at Nicaea because Alexander allied with Sabellians. Consequently, at Nicaea, homoousios implied that Father and Son are one single Person.

ABSTRACT: The Nicene Creed describes the Son of God as homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. ‘Same substance’ can either mean ‘one and the same substance’, meaning that Father and Son are a single substance or two substances of the same type. The Trinity doctrine explains homoousios as ‘one substance’. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, homoousios always meant that Father and Son are a single substance. However, scholars now propose that, at Nicaea, the term had a less specific meaning. The core issue in the entire Arian Controversy was how homoousios must be understood; as one single or two distinct substances:

Before Nicaea, this term was strongly associated with Sabellianism, which is the theory that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (a single Person) with a single mind. Consequently, homoousios was understood as meaning ‘one substance’.

At Nicaea, the Sabellians dominated because they allied with Alexander and because the emperor took Alexander’s side. Consequently, they were able to cause the inclusion of the term.

After Nicaea, based on the word homoousios, Sabellians claimed that the church at Nicaea had formally adopted one-hypostasis (one Person) theology. This caused significant conflict. In the decade after Nicaea, all leading Sabellians were deposed.

After that, homoousios disappeared from the Controversy for about 20 years. The Controversy now raged around the more basic question of whether Father, Son, and Spirit are one or three hypostases (Persons).

In the 350s, Athanasius brought homoousios back into the Controversy. Since Athanasius and the West believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis, meaning one Person, they explained the homoousios as ‘one substance’.

In the 360s and 370s, in what is known as the Meletian Schism, Basil of Caesarea opposed Athanasius and explained homoousios as meaning three hypostases (three Persons) with the same type of substance. This theory, however, may be accused of being tritheism.

Since this is a highly controversial subject, these articles quote extensively from leading scholars. Therefore, the green blocks have been designed to sufficiently summarize the concepts in this article without the need to read all these quotes.

INTRODUCTION

Homoousios in the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed describes the Son of God as homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father.

The Nicene Creed, as formulated at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, which is accepted as official doctrine by most denominations, states that the Son was begotten from the substance (ousia) of the Father and that He is of the same substance (homoousios; from homós = same; ousia = substance) as the Father. (See – The Free Dictionary or GotQuestions.) Via the Latin, homoousios is often translated as ‘consubstantial’.

Means either one or two substances.

‘Same substance’ means either ‘one and the same substance’, i.e., that the Father and Son are a single substance, or two substances of the same type.

‘Same substance’ (homoousios) has two possible meanings because the word “same” has two possible meanings. When I say that John and I drive the same car, it can mean that we drive one and the same car or two different cars of the same type. Similarly, ‘same substance’ can mean:

One substance – This is called numerical sameness because there is only one. Father and Son are a single undivided substance (one Being).

Two distinct substances of the same type – This is qualitative or generic sameness. Like two human beings are of the ‘same substance’, Father and Son are two distinct substances (Beings).

Since ‘one substance’ is expressed by the more specific terms ‘monoousios’, the primary meaning of ‘homoousios’ is “two distinct substances of the same type”. 1“According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.” (Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A))

Scholars also refer to the two alternative meanings as ‘unity’ versus ‘equality’. For example:

“As it stands, the homoousios can be read either as an affirmation of the divine unity or as an affirmation of the equal deity.’” (Hanson, p. 170-1)

One theological objection to the “equal deity” option is that it presents two Gods; two First Principles (two Beings who exist without cause and caused all else to exist). For a further discussion of the different meanings of “same,” see Right Reason or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Arius did not accept the term homoousios. For him, the Son’s substance is different from the Father’s:

“No doubt he (Arius) believed that the Father and the Son were of unlike substance, but he did not say so directly.” (Hanson, p. 187)

Arius is what later in the fourth century became known as a Heter-ousian (different substance).

Means ‘one substance’ in the Trinity Doctrine.

The Trinity doctrine explains homoousios as ‘one substance’.

The traditional Trinity doctrine teaches that the three Persons (hypostases) are one Being. Consequently, it interprets homoousios as ‘one substance’. For example:

“The champions of the Nicene faith … 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.” (Hanson Lecture)

In this quote, Hanson says the word ‘Person’ is misleading. The reason is that, in normal English, each ‘person’ has his own mind. In contrast, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit share a single mind because they are one Being. (See here) As quoted, rather than the word ‘Person’, Hanson prefers to explain the hypostases in the Trinity doctrine as three “modes of existing as God,” which sounds like Modalism.

Did not mean ‘One Substance’ at Nicaea.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, homoousios always meant that Father and Son are a single substance. However, scholars now propose that, at Nicaea, the term had a less specific meaning.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed from the beginning of that controversy. It would follow that homoousios always meant that Father and Son are a single substance (Being), which means that the Son is co-equal, co-eternal, and co-immutable with the Father.

However, recent scholarship agrees that, at Nicaea, homoousios did not mean one substance:

“The Nicene Creed does not expressly assert the singleness or numerical unity of the divine essence.” 2Philip Schaff. History of the Church volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition. pp.672-673.

“We can therefore be pretty sure that homoousios was not intended to express the numerical identity of the Father and the Son.” (Hanson, p. 202)

Scholars conclude now that homousios must NOT be interpreted EITHER numerically or qualitatively:

“Recent studies on the word homoousios have tended to show, not that it can be reduced to two meanings, one identifying two ousiai as one, and the other conveying a ‘generic’ sense of ‘God-stuff’ (Loofs), but that it was of a much looser, more flexible, indeed less specific and therefore less controversial significance.” (Hanson, p. 170) 3“It was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense than has in the past history of scholarship been attached to it.” (Hanson, p. 202)

“Studor … notes that the term homoousios is not used with precision at Nicaea and that later arguments for homoousios always involve constructing accounts of its meaning.” (Ayres, p. 238)

Hanson agrees with Loofs’ statement that “the meaning of homoousios was so fluid that we cannot determine its meaning from its appearance in N alone.” (Hanson, p. 192)

This was the Core Issue in the Controversy.

Contrary to the usual explanation, the core issue in the Arian Controversy was not whether Jesus is God. The core issue was whether homoousios must be understood as one single or two distinct substances. In different words, the core issue was whether the Son is part of the Father or whether He is a distinct Person with a distinct mind. (See here.)

These two possible meanings of homoousios relate to the core issue in the Arian Controversy. Contrary to the usual explanation, the core issue was not whether Jesus is God. 4“It is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (LA, 14). The core issue was whether the Son is part of the Father or whether He is a distinct Person with a distinct mind. In the words used during the fourth century, the core issue was whether Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (one Person with one mind) or three hypostases:

In one-hypostasis theologies, such as Sabellianism and the theology of Alexander and Athanasius, the Son is not a distinct Person. Consequently, homoousios means ‘one substance’.

In three-hypostases theologies, such as those taught by Origen, the so-called Arians,5There was no such thing as an Arian. and Basil of Caesarea, the Son is a distinct hypostasis (Person). While the anti-Nicenes rejected the term homoousios, Basil accepted it and interpreted it as two substances of the same type.

For more details, see – What was the real main issue in the Arian Controversy?

This article analyses what homoousios meant (1) before, (2) during, and (3) after Nicaea.

AUTHORS CITED

The conclusions in this article may seem heterodox but, based on discoveries and research over the past 100 years, leading scholars explain the fourth-century Arian Controversy very differently from scholars in preceding centuries.

This article relies mainly on the following authors:

Hanson, Bishop RPC
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988

Williams, Archbishop Rowan
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

Ayres, Lewis
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Beatrice = An article by Pier Franco Beatrice; Professor of Early Christian Literature at the University of Padua, Italy
The word “homoousios” from Hellenism to Christianity.)

The conclusions in this article may seem heterodox but these are leading scholars on the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Over the last hundred years, certain ancient documents have become more readily available. For example:

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

Consequently, the scholarly view of the Controversy has changed dramatically. “The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 11) Hanson even describes the traditional account of the Arian Controversy as a complete travesty.

I do not study the primary sources but I study these secondary sources; people who have studied the primary sources for decades and who are regarded as leaders in this field. Therefore, I quote extensively from them.

BEFORE NICAEA

Pre-Christian uses

Greek philosophy and Egyptian paganism used the term homoousios for distinct substances. 

Aristotle was known for using the term οὐσία (ousia) to describe his philosophical concept of Primary Substances. (Beatrice)

“In the theological language of Egyptian paganism the word homoousios meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son, who are two distinct beings, share the same perfection of the divine nature.” (Beatrice) In other words, it did not mean ‘one substance.

These pre-Christian uses of the term are not important for deciding how Christians used it. However, Beatrice argues that Emperor Constantine had a connection with Egyptian paganism, and that at least partly explains his insistence on the term at Nicaea, as discussed below.

The Bible does not mention the term.

The Bible never talks about God’s substance and never says that the Son is homoousios with the Father.

Gnostics – of a similar kind

The second-century Gnostics used the word homoousios to describe distinct beings as of the same kind.

The second-century Gnostics used the word homoousios (Beatrice) but they were not real Christians and did not use the term to describe Christ.6“Gnosticism is a very general term applied to a wide variety of groups that would have called themselves Christian but who held to beliefs very different than anything we know as Christian today.” (Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 18). Kindle Edition.)

They used homoousios to say that lower deities are of ‘a similar kind’ as the highest deity from whom they emanated:

“The term was adopted in the second century by Gnostics, probably to indicate ‘same ontological status’ or ‘of a similar kind’.” (Ayres, p. 93)

It meant, “belonging to the same order of being.” (Hanson, p. 191) They did not use the word to mean “identity, nor even equality.” (Hanson, p. 191)

In other words, they did not use the term to say that two beings are one being or that two beings have the exact same type of substance.

Tertullian – implied ‘one substance’

Tertullian (155-220), writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding exactly to the Greek word homoousios. However, in his theology, Father and Son are a single substance and a single hypostasis. That implies not only homoousios (same substance) but, more specifically, ‘one substance’.

Although he did not use a term equivalent to homoousios, to say the Father and Son are one hypostasis is an even stronger statement. It  (See here for more on Tertullian’s theology)

Tertullian, “writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding to homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 190)

He did use the term “substance.” For him, God has a body (is a substance) and the Son is part of God’s substance:

“Tertullian … had already used the Latin word substantia (substance) of God … For him God … had a body … It was possible for Tertullian to think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sharing this substance.” (Hanson, p. 184)

He also used the term “unius substantiate” which means, in his theology, ‘one hypostasis’:

He used “the expression unius substantiae.” “This has led some scholars to see Tertullian as an exponent of Nicene orthodoxy before Nicaea … But this is a far from plausible theory.” (Hanson, p. 184) “The word in Greek translation of Tertullian’s una substantia would not be the word homoousios but mia hypostasis (one hypostasis).” (Hanson, p. 193)

Although he did not use a term equivalent to homoousios, to say the Father and Son are one hypostasis is an even stronger statement. It implies not only homoousios (same substance) but, more specifically, ‘one substance’. (See here for more on Tertullian’s theology)

Sabellius – one hypostasis

Sabellius did indeed use the term and he used it to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis. In other words, he used the term not only to mean ‘same substance’ but, specifically, ‘one substance’.

Sabellianism is named after Sabellius (fl. ca. 215); a theologian from the early 3rd century. He used the term homoousios to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person):

According to Basil of Caesarea, “Sabellius used it (homoousios) … in rejecting the distinction of hypostases” (Hanson, p. 192); “in the sense of numerical sameness” (Prof Ninan).

In other words, he used the term not only to mean ‘same substance’ but, specifically, ‘one substance’.

As discussed here, according to Von Mosheim, for Sabellius, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three parts of God:

“He considered the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as being three portions of the divine nature.” (Von Mosheim J.L. p220)

By the time of the Nicene Council, the church had already formally rejected Sabellianism.

Origen did not use the term.

Origen did not use the term. In opposition to Tertullian and Sabellius, he believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, meaning three distinct substances.

In opposition to Tertullian and Sabellius, “he (Origen) taught that there were three hypostases within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 184)

It is sometimes claimed that Origen (c. 185 – c. 253) described the Son as homoousios. If he did accept homoousios, he would have understood that to mean the same type of substance. But he did not use the term:

“Origen may have rejected the term.” (Ayres, p. 92)

“Origen certainly did not apply the word homoousios to the Son and did not teach that the Son is ‘from the ousia’ of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 185)

The word “consubstantial … would have suggested to him that the Father and the Son were of the same material, an idea which he was anxious to avoid.” (Hanson, p. 68)

“There is one celebrated fragment … where Origen appears to sanction the use of homoousios. … But in its present form, this seems too closely bound to the specific interests of the post-Nicene period … to come directly from Pamphilus, let alone Origen.” (Williams, p. 132-3) “One famous passage in which he seems to use the term homoousios … may have been adulterated by later writers.” (Ayres, p. 24)

The Two Dionysii disagreed.

Around the year 260, the bishops of Rome and Alexandria; both named Dionysius, disagreed about the term. Some Sabellians in Libya as well as Dionysius of Rome believed in one hypostasis and used homoousios to say that. In contrast, Dionysius of Alexandria believed in three hypostases and, initially, denied the term. He later accepted it but only after the bishop of Rome applied pressure on him and only in a general sense of meaning ‘the same type of substance’.

“Some local Sabellians” described the Son as homoousios with the Father (Ayres, p. 94).

“Stead … believes … it was the people in Libya criticized by Dionysius of Alexandria who had introduced the term. Simonetti agrees that it was not Dionysius of Rome who first used the word homoousios in the interchange.” (Hanson, p. 193)

For Sabellians, the Father and Son are a single hypostasis (one Person).

Dionysius of Alexandria, overseeing the church in Libya, initially rejected the term due to its association with Sabellianism.

“It seems … likely that Dionysius of Alexandria, in a campaign against some local Sabellians, had denied the term.” (Ayres, p. 94)

According to Basil of Caesarea, “Dionysius of Alexandria … sometimes rejected homoousios because Sabellius used it … in rejecting the distinction of hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 192)

The Libyan Sabellians complained to the bishop of Rome (Hanson, p. 191) who also had accepted the term homoousios and who, similar to the Sabellians, taught that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person):

“Dionysius of Rome … (also) claimed that Father and Son were homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 94)

“Dionysius of Rome … found homoousios acceptable but could not tolerate a division of the Godhead into three hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 192, quoting Loofs)

“His doctrine could only with difficulty be distinguished from that of Sabellius!” (Hanson, p. 193)

Dionysius of Alexandria was “persuaded by his namesake of Rome to accept (the term)” (Ayres, p. 94) but he “only adopted it with reluctance” (Hanson, p. 193) and only “in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature, ‘of similar kind’” (Hanson, p. 192). Or “belonging to the same class” (Ayres, p. 94), “meaning that both had the same kind of nature.” (Hanson, p. 193) This “did not at all exclude relationships between realities that were hierarchically distinct in other ways.” (Ayres, p. 94-95) In other words, for him, the term did not mean that Father and Son are one and the same or even that they are equal. In his view, Father and Son were two distinct hypostases.

In 268, the church rejected homoousios.

More or less at the same time, Paul of Samosata used the term to say that Father and Son are a single substance, a single hypostasis or Person. But, in the year 268, a council at Antioch condemned both Paul and the term homoousios.

A few years later, “the council that deposed Paul of Samosata in 268 condemned the use of homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 94; cf. Hanson, p. 193-194) Paul used this term to describe Father and Son as a single hypostasis (Person):

“In using the expression ‘of one substance’, Paul declared that Father and Son were a solitary unit;” “a primitive undifferentiated unity.” (Williams, p. 159-160)

According to Hilary, “Our fathers (the 268-council) … repudiated homoousion” because “the word to them spelt Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 194)

“The condemnation of homoousios by this well-known council” caused “considerable embarrassment to those theologians who wanted to defend its inclusion in an official doctrinal statement in the next century.” (Ayres, p. 94; cf. Hanson, p. 195)

Conclusion – a Sabellian term

In conclusion, before Nicaea, homoousios was preferred only by Sabellians, including Sabellius himself, the Libyan Sabellians, Dionysius of Rome, and Paul of Samosata. For them, Father and Son are a single Person with a single mind.

There are different forms of one-hypostasis theology, such as:

Technically, Sabellianism is one of the one-hypostasis theologies but the term is often used to refer to all one-hypostasis theologies. Used in that way, we can say that only Sabellians used the term:

“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)

The only non-Sabellian who accepted the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he accepted it reluctantly and only as meaning that the Father and Son are two distinct substances of the same type.

“We can detect no Greek-speaking writer before Nicaea who unreservedly supports homoousion as applied to the Son.” (Hanson, p. 169)

AT NICAEA

A Surprising Innovation

The term homoousios was a surprising innovation in the Nicene Creed. It is not to be found in the Holy Scripture, was borrowed from pagan philosophy, was not used in any previous creed, was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, and was already condemned as associated with the heresy of Sabellianism at an important church council 57 years earlier. Furthermore, ‘same substance’ implies that God has a body. For these reasons, the term homoousios seemed especially objectionable to the delegates at Nicaea, the vast majority of whom were from the East. Some powerful force must have been working to ensure its inclusion in the Creed.

Not Biblical

The Bible never says anything about God’s substance:

The term homoousios “is not to be found in the Holy Scripture” (P.F. Beatrice).

“Nobody could pretend that it was Scriptural” (Hanson, p. 167).

Borrowed from pagan philosophy:

“The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they try to show that the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really to be found in Scripture.” (Hanson, p. 846)

Not Traditional Language

It was not part of the standard Christian language of the day. The term did not appear in any precious creed; not even in the draft creed prepared only a few months before Nicaea:

“To say that the Son was ‘of the substance’ of the Father, and that he was ‘consubstantial’ with him were certainly startling innovations. Nothing comparable to this had been said in any creed or profession of faith before.” (Hanson, p. 166-7)

Rowan Williams described it as “the radical words of Nicaea” (Williams, p. 236) and “conceptual innovation” (Williams, p. 234-5), in contrast to “the lost innocence of pre-Nicene trinitarian language” (p. 234-5). Consequently, anti-Nicenes objected that these words are “untraditional.” (Williams, p. 234-5)

A meeting was held in Antioch a few months before the Nicene Council which formulated a draft creed. “This text makes no use of the ousia language that we see in Nicaea’s creed.” (Ayres, p. 51)

“The word homoousios is not to be found in the extant writings of Alexander of Alexandria.” (Beatrice“We can detect no Greek-speaking writer before Nicaea who unreservedly supports homoousion as applied to the Son.” (Hanson, p. 169)

Already condemned as Sabellian.

As discussed above, before Nicaea, the term was closely associated with Sabellianism and was, for that reason, already condemned in 268 at a Council in Antioch (Hanson, p. 198), the headquarters of the entire church at the time.

“It was impossible to rid the term in the minds of many of Sabellian, if not Gnostic associations.” (Hanson, p. 437)

The Homoiousians rejected “homoousios as leading to Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 439) “To them an acceptance of homoousios … would naturally appear to involve them in pure indiscriminate Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 440)

Athanasius wrote that their objection to the term “homoousios” was that it was considered to be “un-Scriptural, suspicious, and of a Sabellian tendency.” 7Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn

Implies God has a body

The Eusebians were uncomfortable with the term ‘same substance’ because they understood the term as saying that God is material:

“Williams points out that the objection based on the Manichean tendency of the word assumed that it implied that the Son was a component or extension of God, thus representing God as composite, perhaps as material, and suggesting that there is a kind of common ‘God-stuff’ shared by Father and Son.” (Hanson, p. 197)

The Eusebians argued that we should not understand the terms “Father,” “Son,” and “begotten” in a literal, material sense, as if the Son was begotten like humans are by breaking off a part of the parent.

Why was it included?

The vast majority of bishops at Nicaea were from the East8“Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19) and, for the reasons above, the term homoousios “seemed especially objectionable to many bishops and theologians of the East.” 9Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53  10“The Origenists had considerable reservation about homoousios and the other phrases containing the term ousios (substance).” (Erickson) “A majority opposed the Nicene creed. The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!” (Bible.ca11Eusebius accepted homoousion with “obvious reluctance.” (Hanson, p. 165) Given these strong objections, powerful forces must have been working to ensure its inclusion in the Creed.

The Emperor enforced the term.

The article on the Nicene Council is recommended for pre-reading.

The Emperors determined Church Doctrine.

That powerful force was the emperor. The Nicene Council, like all general councils during the fourth century, was called and dominated by the emperor. Constantine ensured that the council reached the decision he thought best. In the Christian Roman Empire, the emperors were the final arbiters in doctrinal disputes and they used those general councils, misleadingly called ecumenical councils, to establish the church’s doctrine according to their preferences. 

This council was not called by the church but by the emperor. It was his meeting. It was not his goal to find the truth but to prevent this dispute from causing division in his empire:

“The history of the period shows time and time again that … the general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils … were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them.” (Hanson, p. 855)

Furthermore, as astounding as it might sound to people who grew up in a culture of separation of church and state, in the fourth century, the emperor was the final judge in Christian doctrinal 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)

Constantine enforced the term.

The emperor not only proposed but used his influence to enforce the inclusion of the term. “Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (Hanson, p. 850)

He proposed the term:

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.)

“The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” 12Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53 13“Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” “The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

He enforced the term:

“The Origenists had considerable reservation about homoousios and the other phrases containing the term ousios (substance), but the emperor exerted considerable influence. Consequently, the statement was approved.” (Erickson) 14Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85

“The emperor “himself proposed and insisted on the word homoousios.” (Erickson, Millard J, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

Constantine “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.” 15Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15. 16“The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios. ” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53) 17Constantine “himself … insisted upon the word homoousia being included in the creed.” (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997) p 15.) 

Constantine explained the term.

One of the major objections was that the phrases ‘homoousios’ and ‘begotten from the substance of God’ sound as if God has a body and as if the Son was begotten like humans are through a material, corporeal process. Constantine insisted that the term has no material connotations. The fact that the council allowed Constantine to explain the term’s meaning and that the delegates had to accept his explanation also illustrated his domination of the council.

Emperor Constantine not only imposed, by his authority, the inclusion of the word homoousios; he also dared to explain what the word meant to that assembly of the church’s leading theologians. 18Eusebius of Caesarea “gives the impression throughout this letter that Constantine took the initiative in all the matters that the letter deals with, apparently regarding himself as qualified to deal with any discussion about the profound questions raised by the Christian doctrine of God.” (Hanson, p. 160) Constantine did his best “to placate Eusebians” (Ayres, p. 91) to enable them to accept the term:

“It seems … that Constantine interceded on behalf of those unhappy with homoousios, insisting on the importance of understanding the term without material connotation.” (Ayres, p. 96)

“Eusebius … writes that Constantine himself spoke, endorsing the term homoousios, but insisting that it did not imply any material division in God.” (Ayres, p. 90-91) 19“Eusebius directly ascribes to Constantine only an emphasis on understanding homoousios without reference to material division or the sorts of change associated with corporeal existence.” (Ayres, p. 96) 20“This term, however, upon which Constantine insisted, was given a special turn of meaning here. What was being affirmed and insisted upon was that the Son is different, utterly different, from any of the created beings. He is not out of any other substance, but out of the Father.” (Erickson, Millard J, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

The emperor also explained the related phrase, ‘from the substance of the Father’ as merely saying that the Son was truly from the Father. With that non-literal explanation of the contentious terms, all delegates could agree.

“The phrase ‘from the ousia of the Father’ also had a complex history of use before Nicaea, much of which revolved around its seemingly materialistic or inappropriately genetic implications. Origen treats this phrase as implying something like a human birth and thus a materialistic understanding of divine being. … Eusebius of Caesarea, also writing before Nicaea, demonstrates similar worries that the phrase implies a materialistic diminution of the Father’s being in the generation of the Son.” (Ayres, p. 97)

“All the theologians … probably saw homoousios as expanding on and secondary to the phrase ‘from the ousia of the Father’. … Eusebius tells us that once he had been assured that this phrase (from the ousia of the Father) served only to indicate that the Son was truly from the Father he could agree even to homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 96) 21“Eusebius also reports that he himself secured clarity that the phrase ‘from the essence of the Father’ did not mean ‘is part of the Father’s substance’.” (Ayres, p. 90-91)

Following Eusebius’ lead, the Eusebians accepted Constantine’s explanation. For more detail, see the discussion of Eusebius’ letter.

Sabellians drove the term.

This section explains that Constantine insisted on homoousios because he took Alexander’s side and because Alexander allied with the Sabellians, who preferred the term.

So, these unfamiliar phrases were included in the Creed due to the emperor’s domination of the council. Another article argues that Constantine found the term agreeable because he was familiar with it through his contact with Egyptian paganism. However, he would not have proposed the term without support from at least some delegates.

Alexander allied with the Sabellians.

Similar to the Sabellians, Alexander was a one-hypostasis theologian (see here), meaning that Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person with a single mind. Since the three-hypostasis view was in the majority, Alexander allied with other one-hypostasis theologians in the Council, the Sabellians. 

Alexander was a one-hypostasis theologian (see here). For example:

“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)

Alexander described the Son as “idios to (a property or quality of) the Father (which) is a Sabellian statement.” (Hanson, p. 92)

Alexander’s opponents at Nicaea, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians), following Origen, believed in three hypostases with three distinct minds. (See here.) For example, the Dedication Creed, declared a belief in three hypostases. At Nicaea, the three-hypostases view was in the majority:

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) were ultimately disciples of Origen.” 22Frend, WHC: The Rise of Christianity

“Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)

“The Westerners at the Council (of Nicaea) represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

Eustathius and Marcellus were Sabellians:

Eustathius attended the Nicene Council (Hanson, p. 208) but was deposed soon after Nicaea (“in 330 or 331”) (Hanson, p. 210) “primarily for the heresy of Sabellianism” (Hanson, p. 211).

“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix) Marcellus of Ancyra “cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism” (Hanson’s Lecture).

Since the three-hypostasis view was in the majority, Alexander allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians; the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, and their supporters:

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

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

Constantine took Alexander’s part.

The emperor took Alexander’s side in his dispute with Arius:

“Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (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)

Constantine took Alexander’s side probably because his religious advisor, Ossius, also believed in one hypostasis.

Ossius, the chairperson, presided “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and Constantine’s “agent.” (Hanson, p. 190)23His humble position in the church, as bishop of the small city of Cordova, did not qualify him as chair of that assembly. He also believed in a single hypostasis.“24Ossius evidently believed that God is a single hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 870) For example, eighteen years later, in 343, Ossius helped to compose another creed (Serdica) (Hanson, p. 201) which had “the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion” (Hanson, p. xix) That manifesto explicitly confesses a single hypostasis. In all probability, Ossius was the one who advised Constantine to take Alexander’s part.

The Sabellians were influential.

Since the emperor had taken Alexander’s side, and since the Sabellians joined forces with Alexander, they were influential at the council:

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

“Marcellus of Ancyra … had been an important figure at the council and may have significantly influenced its wording.” (Ayres, p. 431)

“Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Alexander must all have been key players in the discussions.” (Ayres, p. 89)

The Sabellians proposed homoousios.

Alexander did not propose the term homoousios.

Just a few months earlier, the draft statement prepared by the pro-Alexander council at Antioch did not mention ousia or homoousios:

“Alexander indeed seems to be avoiding homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 139)

“Alexander in his extant utterances never uses homoousios, though there are several places where its application to the Son would have been apt.” (Hanson, p. 140)

Constantine proposed the term because the Sabellians favored it.

“Marcellus and Eustathius also seem likely to have endorsed homoousios because of the notion of shared being.” (Ayres, p. 95) “Shared being” can be understood as ‘one Person’.

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

Ossius, the chairperson, as the emperor’s agent, was instrumental in that process:

Ossius presided “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and as Constantine’s “agent.” (Hanson, p. 190) “Ossius … represented the policy of Constantine” (Hanson, p. 170)

“Athanasius, who was certainly present at Nicaea … says that Ossius composed the Creed of Nicaea” (Hanson, p. 154-155

Alexander accepted the term because, as a one-hypostasis theologian, he might have found the term agreeable and because he needed the support of the Sabellians

“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.” (Hanson, p. 171)25Eusebius of Caesarea put forward a creed that was “revised” by “the party of Alexander,” which was “favored by the emperor,” who “favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Erickson)

The Eusebians reluctantly accepted due to the emperor’s strong influence on the council, and based on the emperor’s non-material explanation of the term.

The Anathema confirms Sabellian domination.

One of the anathemas in the Creed says that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis and a single substance (ousia), which is Sabellianism.

Another indication of Sabellian domination is the anathema in the creed against all “who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance.” This seems to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person), which is the hallmark of Sabellianism:

“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 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)

For a further discussion of that anathema, see here.

The Nicene Creed was the work of a Minority.

In conclusion, the emperor’s authority allowed the one-hypostasis minority to include the term homoousios in the Creed, despite the Sabellian history of the term and despite the objections raised by the majority in the council.

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.” 26Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41

The reformed website Bible.ca states: “We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. … The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!”

All understood the term as Sabellian.

Given these facts, how did the delegates to the Council understand the term?

Sabellians intended ‘One Person’.

The Sabellians understood homoousios as saying that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis (one Person).

For example:

“Marcellus and Eustathius also seem likely to have endorsed homoousios because of the notion of shared being that was an accepted part of its semantic range, but not because they thought it implied two distinct eternally co-ordinate realities.” (Ayres, p. 95-96) [“Co-ordinate” here means two distinct but more or less equal entities.]

“It is unlikely that Alexander or Ossius would have chosen the term intending a simple co-ordinate sense.” (Ayres, p. 95) 

Consequently, as discussed below, after Nicaea, the Sabellians claimed the Creed as support for their doctrine:

“In the controversies which erupted over Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus after Nicaea, both thought their theologies faithful to Nicaea—and they had good grounds for so assuming. Both were influential at the council, and Nicaea’s lapidary formulations were never intended to rule out their theological idiosyncrasies.” (Ayres, p. 99)

Eusebians understood it as Sabellian.

The majority was forced to accept the term and accepted it with the vague meaning the emperor attached to it, but in reality, they knew this was a Sabellian term.

The majority agreed to the Creed because they had accepted the emperor’s explanation that it simply means that the Son is truly from the Father:

“Eusebius tells us that once he had been assured that this phrase served only to indicate that the Son was truly from the Father he could agree even to homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 96)

With that understanding, it does not mean that Father and Son are one Person or even that they are equal. Like Dionysius of Alexandria, who was forced by Dionysius of Rome to accept the term but accepted it only with a generic meaning, they accepted it because the emperor forced them to but they accepted it only with a generic meaning.

However, after Nicaea, that same church mainstream opposed the Creed because they thought it implied Sabellianism. For example:

“We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. But the opposition was over the use of specific words … they felt the creed could lend support to Sabellianism.” (Bible.ca)

“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)

“To many the creed seemed strongly to favour the unitarian tendency among these existing trajectories.” (Ayres, p. 431)27The term “unitarian” refers to Sabellianism. For example: “A great deal of controversy was caused in the years after the council by some supporters of Nicaea whose theology had strongly unitarian tendencies. Chief among these was Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Ayres, p. 431)

So, the majority also really understood the term as Sabellian.

Was Nicaea a Sabellian victory?

Our authors say that Nicaea was a drawn battle between the Sabellian one-hypostasis theology and the Eusebian three-hypostases theology. However, since homoousios was known to be a Sabellian term and given the anathema, it was a Sabellian victory.

“It is … likely … that the word homoousios when it was inserted in N did not have the crucial importance in the eyes of people of that time which it was later supposed to have…. It was impossible to rid the term in the minds of many of Sabellian, if not Gnostic associations.” (Hanson, p. 437)

“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. … The ‘Asiatics’ … were able to include in N a hint of opposition to the three hypostases theory.” (Hanson, p. 171)

It is not “an openly Sabellian creed.” “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. (Ayres, p. 92)

AFTER NICAEA

Sabellianism and homoousios were rejected.

After Nicaea, Arius was no longer an issue and Alexander died soon after Nicaea.

Nicaea brought an end to the dispute around Arius’ theology. 28“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (Ayres, p. 56-57) (For detail, see – Arius.) Alexander died in 328.29“The Index to the Festal Letters of Athanasius dates the death of Alexander firmly to April 27th, 328.” (Hanson, p. 175) He was not the focus of the dispute.

However, the inclusion in the Creed of terms borrowed from Greek philosophy caused a new controversy which continued in the years immediately after Nicaea. This conflict was specifically between the Eusebian majority and the Sabellians and resulted in the exile of all leading Sabellians.

“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, p. 274)

“Eustathius lost this battle and was deposed at some point between 326 and 331.” (Ayres, p. 101)

“The new synod met in the summer of 336 and deposed Marcellus for holding the heresy of Paul of Samosata.” (Williams, p. 80)

This conflict was specifically about the meaning of the term homoousios. The Sabellians claimed that it supports their theology, namely, that the Father and Son are a single Person so that the Son does not have a real distinct existence.

As an example, the following is one event during that period “probably in 326 or 327:” (Ayres, p. 101)

“The fifth-century ecclesiastical historian Sozomen reports a dispute immediately after the council, focused not on Arius, but … concerning the precise meaning of the term homoousios.

Some [must be the Eusebians] thought this term … implied the non-existence of the Son of God; and that it involved the error of Montanus and Sabellius. …

Eustathius accused Eusebius [of Caesarea] of altering the doctrines ratified by the council of Nicaea, while the latter declared that he approved of all the Nicaean doctrines, and reproached Eustathius for cleaving to the heresy of Sabellius.” (Ayres, p. 101)30“This event was only one part of the conflict that now began.” (Ayres, p. 101)

Therefore, the rejection of the Sabellians after Nicaea was also a rejection of the term homoousios. This site refers to the decade after Nicaea as the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’ because it closed the door to Sabellianism that was opened at Nicaea.

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

After that, nobody mentions Homoousios.

For about two after the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’, nobody mentions homoousios.

“There is a near-fifteen year absence before the creed is mentioned again.” (Ayres, p. 100)

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. …This lack of usage also results from the association of Nicaea with the theology of Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Ayres, p. 97)

“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)

Councils in the 340s do not mention it.

Respectively 16 and 18 years after Nicaea, two councils met; the Dedication Council in 341 and the Council at Serdica in 343. Since both councils met during the period that homoousios was not mentioned, the creeds from these councils do not mention the term. These councils focused on the more fundamental issue, of which homoousios was only a symptom, namely, the number of hypostases in God.

The Dedication Council was a council of the Eastern Church. Its main purpose was to condemn Sabellianism. It explicitly asserts three hypostases (three Persons or Beings with three distinct minds).

The Serdica Council never met as one. The Western and Eastern delegates met separately and issued two different creeds. While the Eastern creed maintained three hypostases, the Western creed explicitly asserts one hypostasis (one Person with one mind). 

As discussed here, the dispute about the number of hypostases was the main issue of the entire Arian Controversy. It began with the second-century Monarchains and the third-century Sabellians confessing one hypostasis. But Origen taught three hypostases. His view dominated and Sabellianism was rejected. In the fourth century, Alexander, Athanasius, and the West continued to teach one hypostasis but were opposed by the three-hypostases Eusebians.

Athanasius revived Homoousios in the 350s.

That would have been the end of homoousios, had Athanasius not brought the term back into the Controversy in the 350s.

During the years 335-6, Athanasius and Marcellus were deposed by the Eastern Church. Meeting in Rome, they joined forces. At that time Athanasius also developed his polemical strategy; his “masterpiece of the rhetorical art,” (Ayres, p. 106-7) saying:

      • Arius originated a new heresy.
      • That heresy caused the Controversy.
      • All opponents of Nicaea are followers of Arius.
      • Athanasius preserves scriptural orthodoxy.
      • An Arian Conspiracy worked against the Nicene Creed.
      • Athanasius was deposed for his theology.

None of these statements were true. However, the church believed Athanasius for more than 1500 years. The truth of the Arian Controversy was only revealed in the last about 100 years.

But the point is that, in the 330s and 340s, Athanasius’ polemical strategy said nothing about homoousios. He did not yet defend it.

By the time Constantius became emperor of the entire Empire in the early 350s, Athanasius had become extremely powerful3131“Towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421) and Constantius attempted to isolate Athanasius. 32For example, at Milan in 355 “almost everybody present acquiesced in the Emperor’s demands, condemned Athanasius, and probably also signed some formula which was not openly Arian but was patient of an Arian interpretation.” (Hanson, p. 333-4) It was at this time that Athanasius strengthened his polemical strategy by adding the Nicene Creed and homoousios to his arsenal:

“It is not until he (Athanasius) writes the De Decretis (356 or 357) that Athanasius again mentions the word and begins to defend it.” (Hanson, p. 436)

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

In this way, homoousios came back into the Controversy. As discussed above, the West was not involved when the Arian Controversy began. By the 350’s, the West had entered the stage and Athanasius had become the “paragon” (model) of the West (Hanson, p. 304).

Because he was a Sabellian.

Athanasius was a one-hypostasis theologian, similar to the Sabellians. That he re-introduced homoousios into the Controversy confirms the one-hypostasis implication of the term.

Athanasius is known as the main defender of the Nicene Creed and homoousios but, as discussed here, Athanasius also was a Sabellian. He claimed that he is not a Sabellian but, like the Sabellians, he believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (a single Person). Specifically, he believed that the Son is part of the Father. For example:

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

“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)

“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.” (Hanson, p. xix)

There were different forms of one-hypostasis theology. Some believed that the Son is another name for the Father. Others, like Athanasius, said that the Son is part of the Father. Still others, like Sabellius himself, said that Father and Son are two parts of God. But they all believed in one hypostasis, as opposed to the three-hypostases theology of Origen and the Eusebians. If we define Sabellianism as belief in only one hypostasis, then Athanasius was a Sabellian.

An anti-homoousios front

After homoousios had again become a disputed point in the Controversy, the Eusebians were divided into several factions concerning this term. However, they united against homoousios and Sabellianism, showing that one-hypostasis theologies remained the main enemy.

In the 350s, after homoousios was re-introduced into the Arian Controversy, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) were divided into several factions concerning this term:

      • The Homoiousians said the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s.
      • The Heterousians argued that no being’s substance can be like or similar to the Father’s, who alone exists without cause.
      • The Homoians avoided all uses of ousia words, including homoousios.

But they joined forces against homoousios and the one-hypostasis theologies that underlie the term:

The Homoians “included bishops of different stripes.” What “united” them was “the desire to find a solution to the ongoing controversy that would rule out any theologies seemingly tainted with Marcellan emphases.” (Ayres, p. 138) 

“Basil (of Ancyra – leader of the Homoiousians) made ad hoc alliances with theologians such as Acacius (leader of the Homoians) against Photinus and Marcellus.” (Ayres, p. 150)(Photinus was “perhaps the most visible representative of a Marcellan theology in these years (in the 350s).” (Ayres, p. 134))

Basil explained homoousios as three hypostases.

Basil of Caesarea, the first of the Cappadocian fathers, was the first Pro-Nicene to believe in three hypostases.

Another article shows that Basil of Caesarea, the first of the Cappadocian fathers, who wrote in the 360s and 370s, did not follow Athanasius and did not base his theology on the Nicene Creed. He began as a Homoiousian. However, he also later accepted the term homoousios. But, while Athanasius and other pro-Nicenes explained homoousios as meaning one hypostasis, Basil interpreted it as teaching that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct substances (three hypostases or Persons or Beings) with exactly the same type of substance:

“Like unalterably according to ousia.” (Hanson, p. 696-7)

The problem is that, since their substances are equal, this implies tritheism. Nevertheless, he was the first Pro-Nicene to believe in three hypostases.

In the 360s and 370s, in what is known as the Meletian Schism, a dispute between two pro-Nicene groups in Antioch, Basil’s view brought him to oppose Athanasius and other one-hypostasis theologians.

While Basil supported Meletius as bishop of Antioch, Athanasius, Damasus of Rome and Athanasius’ successor Peter supported Paulinus (another ‘one-Person’ theologian) for that position. For example:

“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)

The Chalcedonian Creed of AD 451 uses homoousios in the same way as Basil.

The Chalcedonian symbol says Christ is “consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father as touching the Godhead, and consubstantial with us [and yet individually, distinct from us] as touching the manhood.”  33Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673. In other words, similar to Basi, it interprets homoousios as saying that Father and Son are two distinct substances of the same type.

The Sabellians seemed to have switched to the more specific term monoousios (or synousios) after the pro-Nicenes, following Basil, used homoousios in a three-hypostasis sense.34“According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.” (Beatrice) Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A).

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

Before Nicaea, the only Christian theologians who favored the term were the Sabellians.

At Nicaea, a Sabellian minority had the upper hand because they allied with Alexander and because the emperor took Alexander’s part. Consequently, the term homoousios, which they preferred, was inserted in the Creed, despite the objections of the majority. However, Emperor Constantine appeased the majority fears by explaining the ousia-terms highly figuratively, saying that it only means that the Son is truly from the Father. This explanation enabled the Eusebian majority to accept the Creed.

However, after the Council, the Sabellians claimed that the term homoousios means that the church had accepted a one-hypostasis theology. This caused a major dispute in the decade after Nicaea during which all leading Sabellians were deposed.

After that, the term homoousios disappeared from the Controversy. The Controversy now focused on the more fundamental disagreement; the number of hypostases in God. In the 350s, however, Athanasius brought the term back into the Controversy:

Athanasius and the West explained the term as saying that Father and Son are one hypostasis (one Person).

The Cappadocian fathers and some later pro-Nicenes opposed Athanasius and interpreted homoousios in a generic sense, meaning three hypostases.

In conclusion, throughout the entire Arian Controversy, the only people who regarded homoousios as saying that Father and Son are one substance, as in the Trinity doctrine, were the one-hypostasis (Sabellian) theologians.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.” (Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A))
  • 2
    Philip Schaff. History of the Church volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition. pp.672-673.
  • 3
    “It was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense than has in the past history of scholarship been attached to it.” (Hanson, p. 202)
  • 4
    “It is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (LA, 14).
  • 5
    There was no such thing as an Arian.
  • 6
    “Gnosticism is a very general term applied to a wide variety of groups that would have called themselves Christian but who held to beliefs very different than anything we know as Christian today.” (Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 18). Kindle Edition.)
  • 7
    Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn
  • 8
    “Around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)
  • 9
    Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53
  • 10
    “The Origenists had considerable reservation about homoousios and the other phrases containing the term ousios (substance).” (Erickson)
  • 11
    Eusebius accepted homoousion with “obvious reluctance.” (Hanson, p. 165)
  • 12
    Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53
  • 13
    “Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” “The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)
  • 14
    Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85
  • 15
    Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.
  • 16
    “The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios. ” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53)
  • 17
    Constantine “himself … insisted upon the word homoousia being included in the creed.” (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997) p 15.)
  • 18
    Eusebius of Caesarea “gives the impression throughout this letter that Constantine took the initiative in all the matters that the letter deals with, apparently regarding himself as qualified to deal with any discussion about the profound questions raised by the Christian doctrine of God.” (Hanson, p. 160)
  • 19
    “Eusebius directly ascribes to Constantine only an emphasis on understanding homoousios without reference to material division or the sorts of change associated with corporeal existence.” (Ayres, p. 96)
  • 20
    “This term, however, upon which Constantine insisted, was given a special turn of meaning here. What was being affirmed and insisted upon was that the Son is different, utterly different, from any of the created beings. He is not out of any other substance, but out of the Father.” (Erickson, Millard J, God in Three Persons, p82-85)
  • 21
    “Eusebius also reports that he himself secured clarity that the phrase ‘from the essence of the Father’ did not mean ‘is part of the Father’s substance’.” (Ayres, p. 90-91)
  • 22
    Frend, WHC: The Rise of Christianity
  • 23
    His humble position in the church, as bishop of the small city of Cordova, did not qualify him as chair of that assembly.
  • 24
    Ossius evidently believed that God is a single hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 870)
  • 25
    Eusebius of Caesarea put forward a creed that was “revised” by “the party of Alexander,” which was “favored by the emperor,” who “favored the inclusion of the word homoousios.” (Erickson)
  • 26
    Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41
  • 27
    The term “unitarian” refers to Sabellianism. For example: “A great deal of controversy was caused in the years after the council by some supporters of Nicaea whose theology had strongly unitarian tendencies. Chief among these was Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Ayres, p. 431)
  • 28
    “Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (Ayres, p. 56-57)
  • 29
    “The Index to the Festal Letters of Athanasius dates the death of Alexander firmly to April 27th, 328.” (Hanson, p. 175)
  • 30
    “This event was only one part of the conflict that now began.” (Ayres, p. 101)
  • 31
    31“Towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421)
  • 32
    For example, at Milan in 355 “almost everybody present acquiesced in the Emperor’s demands, condemned Athanasius, and probably also signed some formula which was not openly Arian but was patient of an Arian interpretation.” (Hanson, p. 333-4)
  • 33
    Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.
  • 34
    “According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.” (Beatrice) Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A).

Constantine ensured that Nicaea concluded what he thought best.

PURPOSE: At the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy, the church adopted the Trinity doctrine. However, over the past century, scholars have uncovered that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted the Trinity doctrine is grossly inaccurate, casting doubt on its legitimacy. In this series, different articles discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The present article shows that the so-called first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 was actually the emperor’s meeting. He called and controlled it to achieve his own purpose.

Emperor standing before the bishops

“The Council of Nicaea met from May to the end of July 325.” (Hanson, p. 152) “The Nicene Creed is the most famous and influential creed in the history of the church.” (Justin Holcomb) For most Christian churches, it represents official doctrine.

The purpose of this article is to describe the influence that Emperor Constantine had at the Council of Nicaea, and on the Nicene Creed.

SUMMARY

Legalized Christianity – Religious freedom did not exist in the Roman Empire. The emperors decided which religions were allowed. After three centuries of persecution by the Roman authorities, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the year 313.

Wrote to Alexander and Arius – Even before Constantine understood the matter, he wrote to Alexander and Arius to stop their quarreling. This shows that he did not get involved because of a desire for right doctrine, but because he could not afford, for political reasons, a split in the church.

Approved the Council at Antioch – A few months before the Council of Nicaea, an “anti-Arian Council” was held in Antioch, consisting mainly of people who sympathized with Alexander. (Hanson, p. 130-1, 147, 149) It provisionally excommunicated Eusebius of Caesarea, one of Arius’ main supporters, but also the most respected theologian of that time. Since Constantine’s religious advisor (Ossius) chaired this meeting, that meeting was approved by Constantine. In other words, even before Nicaea, Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.

Called the Nicene Council – Constantine called the Nicene Council. Nobody asked him to do it. He did it on his own initiative for his own purposes. It was Constantine’s meeting in his capacity as emperor.

Invented the General Council – In fact, Constantine invented the concept of a general council for the church. The church had never before such a meeting of representatives from all parts of the empire. Neither did it have the ability to call such a council. Only the emperor was able to call such a meeting.

Assigned the chairperson – To ensure that the Nicene Council remains under his control, the emperor appointed his religious advisor (Ossius) as chairperson. Ossius acted as Constantine’s agent.

Sided with Alexander – It is often correctly stated that Arius had considerable support. Why then was the Nicene Creed, which was constructed as a deliberately anti-Arian document, rejected by only 2 of the 250-300 bishops? The reason was that Arius’ support was not support for him but support AGAINST Alexander. However, Alexander was victorious at Nicaea because the emperor had taken his part. If Constantine had not taken Alexander’s part, the meeting would have condemned Alexander; not Arius.

Enforced the term homoousios – At the time, the term homoousios (same substance) seemed especially objectionable to many people. It is not a Biblical term, was not part of the standard Christian language, but was borrowed from pagan philosophy and associated with Sabellianism. Therefore, Constantine’s domination of the Nicene Council is particularly revealed by the fact that he was able to force the inclusion of the term. He personally proposed, explained, and enforced the term.

Exile – The emperor was the only person who could exile a bishop and who could restore a bishop to his see. The emperor functioned as the real head of the church. The bishops knew the emperor would exile them to a different part of the empire if they did not accept the Creed. How many bishops would have voted against the Nicene Creed if exile was not hanging over their heads?

Enforced the Council’s decisions – After Nicaea, Constantine issued several letters attempting to enforce the Council’s decisions.

To Reconcile – Although Constantine took Alexander’s part and insisted on the term homoousios, his ultimate goal was to reconcile the quarreling parties.

To protect the Empire – As his letter to Arius and Alexander shows, Constantine did not call the Nicene Council because of a concern about right doctrine. He called the Council because a split in the church could also split the empire. His ultimate goal was also NOT to reconcile the schism in the church but to protect his empire. Constantine, therefore, invented and called the general council as a means of governing the church in the interest of the empire.

Conclusion – “Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (Hanson, p. 850) The Emperor was in fact the head of the church.

– END OF SUMMARY –


AUTHORS QUOTED

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

The main authors quoted in this article are:

Ayres – Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Hanson – Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

Williams – Archbishop Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

CONSTANTINE

Legalized Christianity.

Religious freedom did not exist in the Roman Empire. The emperors decided which religions were allowed. After three centuries of persecution by the Roman authorities, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the year 313. 

During the first three centuries, the Roman authorities persecuted Christianity. The Diocletianic Persecution of 303-313 was the most severe persecution of Christians up to that point in history. Diocletian’s first edict commanded churches and holy sites razed to the ground, sacred articles burned, and believers jailed.

However, in 313, the Western Roman Emperor Constantine (306–337) legalized Christianity through the Edict of Milan. He granted Christians “the right of open and free observance of their worship.” 1Ehler, Sidney Zdeneck; Morrall, John B (1967). Church and State Through the Centuries: A Collection of Historic Documents with Commentaries. p. 6-7.

Wrote to Arius and Alexander.

Even before Constantine understood the matter, he wrote to Alexander and Arius to stop their quarreling. This shows that he did not get involved because of a desire for right doctrine, but because he could not afford, for political reasons, a split in the church.

However, only a few years after Christianity was legalized, a disagreement broke out in Alexandria of Egypt between Arius (c. 250–336), a minister (presbyter or priest), and his bishop Alexander, about the nature of Christ. This was centuries before the rise of Islam, and Alexandria was one of the main centers of Christianity. 

Alexander removed Arius from office, and in 321 a synod at Alexandria denounced Arius. But that did not end the Controversy. Consequently, before the Council of Nicaea, the emperor attempted to intervene:

“In 324 the Emperor Constantine … (who recently) assumed control of the whole empire, took an interest in the dispute. Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius telling them to stop quarrelling about what seemed to him to be such a small matter.” (Ayres, p. 17-18) 2“At the end of 324,” “Constantine sent a letter to both Arius’ and Alexander dismissing the controversy as trivial and commanding them to be reconciled.” (Hanson, p. 130, 137) 3Constantine dismissed the theological question of the relationship of Father and Son as “intrinsically trifling and of little moment” (Drake, 4. Constantine and Consensus) 4Constantine wrote: “For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions, I believe it indeed to be not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that so large a portion of God’s people which belong to your jurisdiction should be thus divided.” (Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55)

Therefore, Constantine attempted to intervene even before he understood this dispute. “It initially took the efforts of bishops like Ossius and Alexander of Alexandria to persuade him that anything significant was at issue in Alexandria.” (Ayres, p. 87-88) 5“Constantine had basically no understanding whatsoever of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology.” (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)

This shows that he got involved in this dispute because a split in the church could also split the empire; not because of a concern for right doctrine.

Approved the Council at Antioch.

A few months before the Council of Nicaea, an “anti-Arian Council” was held in Antioch, consisting mainly of people who sympathized with Alexander. (Hanson, p. 130-1, 147, 149) It provisionally excommunicated Eusebius of Caesarea, one of Arius’ main supporters, but also the most respected theologian of that time. Since Constantine’s religious advisor (Ossius) chaired this meeting, that meeting was approved by Constantine. In other words, even before Nicaea, Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.

That meeting drafted a Statement of Faith. “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)

At the meeting, “Eusebius of Palestinian Caesarea,” the most respected theologian at the time but a supporter of Arius, was provisionally “excommunicated.” (Hanson, p. 146) Eusebius was not a follower of Arius. He supported Arius because he “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (Williams, p. 173)

This Eusebius previously “acquitted the accused Arians [including Arius] of heresy” and “wrote to Alexander protesting at the way in which Arius had been treated.” (Hanson, p. 130, 135) Now Alexander’s party hits back by excommunicating the leader of the Eusebian party.

“In normal circumstances the Metropolitan of the area in which the Council met would have presided … But Constantine’s representative, Ossius, took precedence … over Eustathius.” (Hanson, p. 155) This implies that the meeting took place with the approval of the emperor, which means that, even before Nicaea, Constantine had taken Alexander’s part in his dispute with Arius.

It is important to notice that the statement of faith from this council does not mention the term homoousios or the ousia of God. (Hanson, p. 146) This shows that this was not a word which Alexander regarded as important. For a further discussion of this council, see – here.

Called the Nicene Council.

Constantine called the Nicene Council. Nobody asked him to do it. He did it on his own initiative for his own purposes. It was Constantine’s meeting in his capacity as emperor.

Constantine’s letter failed to unite the warring factions. Consequently. In the year 325, “Constantine himself summoned the bishops” (Ayres, p. 18) to end this dispute. The council was not called by a church official and nobody asked Constantine to call it. It was his initiative.

“It was then certainly Constantine who convoked the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 153-4)

“Religious partisanship has in the past led some scholars to suggest that Silvester, bishop of Rome, convoked the Council of Nicaea, but modern Roman Catholic scholars honourably dismiss this idea.” (Hanson, p. 154)

It was, therefore, the emperor’s meeting in his capacity as emperor. It was a meeting of bishops, but Constantine called the meeting to serve his own purposes.

Invented the General Council.

In fact, Constantine invented the concept of a general council for the church. The church had never before such a meeting of representatives from all parts of the empire. Neither did it have the ability to call such a council. Only the emperor was able to call such a meeting.

A ‘general’ or ‘ecumenical’ council, in theory, is a meeting of representatives from all of Christendom. However, “by the time Nicaea met Church leaders … had no precedent for the idea of a council that would legislate for the Church as a whole.” (Ayres, p. 87)

Nicaea “was the first time that any attempt had been made to summon a general council of the whole church at which, at least in theory, the church in every part of the Roman Empire should be represented.” (Hanson, p. 152)

It is, therefore, not valid to say that the emperors became involved in the general church councils. The reality is that Constantine invented the concept of a general council.

“The procedures of a council modelled on methods of Roman governance would have been familiar to Constantine, and we can assume that he saw it as the natural means to achieve consensus within the Church.” (Ayres, p. 87)

Furthermore, without the assistance of the emperor, the church was unable to call a general council. Only the emperor could call a general council:

“Even Damasus [a later bishop of Rome] would have admitted that he could not call a general council on his own authority.” (Hanson, p. 855)

“Everybody recognised the right of an Emperor to call a council, or even to veto or quash its being called.” (Hanson, p. 849-50)

Assigned the chairperson.

To ensure that the Nicene Council remains under his control, the emperor appointed his religious advisor (Ossius) as chairperson. Ossius acted as Constantine’s agent.

“The evidence weighs strongly in favour of the view that Ossius … presided at Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 154) 6“Ossius of Cordoba probably chaired the meeting.” (Ayres, p. 89)

But Ossius was the bishop of the “obscure” see of Cordova (Hanson, p. 155). His inferior position in the church would not have allowed him to chair.

“In normal circumstances the Metropolitan of the area in which the Council met would have presided, and in this case it would have been Eusebius of Nicomedia.” (Hanson, p. 155)

Ossius presided “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and as Constantine’s “agent.” (Hanson, p. 190) “Ossius … represented the policy of Constantine” (Hanson, p. 170) He was “Constantine’s chief adviser and agent in matters concerning the Christian church.” (Hanson, p. 130, 137) 7“Ossius the bishop of Cordoba in Spain … apparently acted in some sort of advisory capacity to Constantine, and perhaps also served as his representative in these events.” (Ayres, p. 18) 8“He had recently presided in a similar capacity over the Council of Antioch.” (Hanson, p. 154)

Similarly, in the 381 Council of Constantinople, Emperor Theodosius assigned one of his unbaptized civil servants as chairperson and as bishop of Constantinople.9“It is even possible to contrast Constantius’ relative mildness with the ferocious coercion more than twenty years later of the Emperor Theodosius, and not least with his part in choosing an unbaptised layman, Nectarius, as bishop of Constantinople.” (Hanson, p. 322) That was one of the ways in which the emperors managed the meetings to ensure the ‘right’ outcome.

Sided with Alexander.

It is often correctly stated that Arius had considerable support. Why then was the Nicene Creed, which was constructed as a deliberately anti-Arian document, rejected by only 2 of the 250-300 bishops? The reason was that Arius’ support was not support for him but support AGAINST Alexander. However, Alexander was victorious at Nicaea because the emperor had taken his part. If Constantine had not taken Alexander’s part, the meeting would have condemned Alexander; not Arius.

Why was Arius defeated so easily?

“It became evident very early on that the condemnation of Arius was practically inevitable” (Williams, p. 68). The Nicene Creed “was constructed as a deliberately anti-Arian document.” (Hanson, p. 164) “All the more obnoxious doctrines of Arius and his followers are struck at in N in the most impressive way.” (Hanson, p. 165)

But if Arius had so much support as is often claimed, why was “the Nicene creed … agreed with little dissent?” (Ayres, p. 88). Why did only two of the nearly 300 bishops reject the creed? 10Only Arius and two of his friends refused to sign, for which they were excommunicated.” Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53 (cf. RW, 70; 71) 11“Two bishops who refused to sign the Creed … were deposed by the Council and exiled by the Emperor. Arius himself was exiled.” (Hanson, p. 162-3) “In older narratives of the fourth century it was reasonably easy to understand why the Nicene creed was agreed with little dissent: only the few ‘heretics’ would refuse such a clear acknowledgement of the Church’s constant faith. Without this older narrative, matters are more complex.” (Ayres, p. 88)

Arius was defeated so totally for two reasons:

    • He did not have many supporters, and
    • The Emperor sided with Alexander.

Arius had few followers.

The reality is that Arius had only a limited number of true followers. Another article argues that there were two broad camps in the fourth-century Controversy:

One-hypostasis theologians believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis (one single Person with one single Mind). This includes the Sabellians but another article shows that Alexander and Athanasius believed something similar. However, Sabellianism was already declared as heresy in the third century.

Three-hypostases theologians regarded the Father, Son, and Spirit to be three distinct Persons with three distinct Minds, united in agreement. See here for a discussion. 

Within these two broad camps, there were several sub-categories. The three-hypostasis theologians supported Arius because he also believed in three hypostases. They did not agree with Arius’ more extreme views but supported him AGAINST Alexander’s one-hypostasis theology. Arius’ followers were limited. See here for more details.

Constantine sided with Alexander.

But the main reason that Arius was rejected so completely at Nicaea is that the emperor took Alexander’s part 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) 12“We can certainly see that Eusebians … were under pressure and seem to have been on the defensive. … the direction of the council was very clearly in the hands of others.” (Ayres, p. 88-89)

It was the support of the emperor that enabled a minority party (Alexander’s party) to dominate the council and compelled the vast majority of the delegates to accept Arius’ rejection. 13“The decisions of the Council of Nicaea were really the work of a minority, and they were misunderstood and disliked by many who were not adherents of Arius. In particular, the terms aroused opposition, on the grounds that they were unscriptural, novel and tending to Sabellianism.” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)

If Constantine had not taken Alexander’s part, the meeting might have condemned Alexander’s theology; not Arius’.

Enforced the term homoousios.

At the time, the term homoousios (same substance) seemed especially objectionable to many people. It is not a Biblical term, was not part of the standard Christian language, but was borrowed from pagan philosophy and associated with Sabellianism. Therefore, Constantine’s domination of the Nicene Council is particularly revealed by the fact that he was able to force the inclusion of the term. He personally proposed, explained, and enforced the term.

A Surprising Inclusion – Homoousios (same substance) was a surprising innovation in the Nicene Creed. Most delegates at the Council had considerable concerns about the term because it was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, is not a Biblical term but was borrowed from Greek philosophy, and was associated with the heresy of Sabellianism. (See here.)

“’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.” 14(Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.) See here for more detail.

Explained – Constantine’s domination of that council is also revealed by the fact that the council allowed him to explain the term’s meaning and that they accepted his explanation. A major concern was that it implies that God has a body and that the Son was begotten through a material process. Constantine insisted that the term has no material connotations. (See – here)

Enforced – Emperor Constantine not only proposed but used his influence to enforce the inclusion of the term. He “pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211) (See – here)

Conclusion – That Constantine was able to convince the meeting to accept this highly suspicious term reflects his dominant role:

“Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination.” 15Britannica, 1971 edition, Vol. 6, “Constantine,” p. 386

Exiled those who refused to sign.

The emperor was the only person who could exile a bishop and who could restore a bishop to his see. The emperor functioned as the real head of the church. The bishops knew the emperor would exile them to a different part of the empire if they did not accept the Creed. How many bishops would have voted against the Nicene Creed if exile was not hanging over their heads?

That only two bishops refused to accept the Nicene Creed is often mentioned as a great victory for Nicene Christology, but few mention that the bishops knew that they would lose their jobs and be exiled if they did not accept the Creed. The question is, how many bishops would have voted against the Nicene Creed if exile were not hanging over their heads and if the emperor did not employ his considerable position and interpersonal skills to bring the meeting to unanimity?

In the Roman Empire, the standard penalty for bishops for deviant teachings was exile but only the emperor was able to exile the bishops. For example:

“Two bishops who refused to sign the Creed … were deposed by the Council and exiled by the Emperor. Arius himself was exiled.” (Hanson, p. 162-3)

“Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarike, both Libyan sees, refused to sign N, were deposed by the Council and exiled by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 172) 16“Arius too was banished by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 173) 17“Constantine exiled Arius along with two Libyan bishops … The Emperor also exiled Eusebius of Nicomedia.” (Ayres, p. 19) 18“Shortly after the Council … Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea were also banished by Constantine. … Constantine … declares that their fault was to have received and communicated with some Arian presbyters in Nicomedia.” (Hanson, p. 173)

Since the emperor was the only person who could exile a bishop, the emperor was also the only person who could restore a bishop to his see. For example, the bishops asked Constantine – not the church – to restore them:

“The third letter of Arius is … sent to the Emperor Constantine by Arius and Euzoius who are in exile and are in this letter pleading for a return from exile and a re-admission to the Church (which they presumably imagine that Constantine can effect).” (Hanson, p. 8) 19“Arius and Euzoius returned from exile and presented a rather non-committal creed to the emperor.” “It satisfied Constantine, who wrote to Alexander, pressing him to accept Arius and Euzoius back in Alexandria.” Thereafter, “the local Bithynian synod … readmitted Arius to communion.” (Williams, p. 75) 20“There is also extant a letter of Arius and Euzoius from exile to Constantine petitioning for their return” (Hanson, p. 176)

In a letter, “Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea” asked “some unnamed bishops … to petition Constantine for their recall.” (Hanson, p. 175)

“Within two or three years, however, Arius and the others exiled by Constantine were recalled, it seems at the behest of the Emperor.” (Ayres, p. 19) 21The two bishops whom Constantine exiled after Nicaea “were both restored to their sees by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 172)

Since it was the emperor who had the right to decide who should be exiled and who should be restored, the emperor, in this regard, functioned as the real head of the church.

Enforced the council’s decisions.

After Nicaea, Constantine issued several letters attempting to enforce the Council’s decisions.

After Nicaea, “Constantine … issued a number of letters attempting to enforce its decisions.” (Ayres, p. 88) “Constantine in other respects behaved despotically towards the church when he thought it necessary. He writes to the churches after Nicaea like a mediaeval Pope.” (Hanson, p. 850)

CONSTANTINE’S PURPOSE

To reconcile the opposing parties.

Although Constantine took Alexander’s part and insisted on the term homoousios, his ultimate goal was to reconcile the quarreling parties.

“The Emperor, rightly or wrongly, thought himself called to foster and protect the Church, and therefore to prevent as far as he could the damage that was caused by controversy and schism.” (Hanson, p. 153)

We see evidence of the emperor’s desire for reconciliation in a number of ways. For example:

Eusebius of Caesarea “was the most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” (Hanson, p. 159) but he had recently been provisionally excommunicated by the “anti-Arian Council” in Antioch (Hanson, p. 131). “The excommunication of a man so universally respected for his scholarship as Eusebius of Caesarea must have given him (the emperor) a shock. He wanted to be in a position to see that the anti-Arian party at the Council did not do anything that would further exasperate the division already existing in the Church … but rather heal it.” (Hanson, p. 153) Therefore, after Eusebius had read his creed, the “Emperor himself was the first to witness that it was entirely orthodox.” (Hanson, p. 160)

Eustathius mentioned that his radical anti-Arius party, after an Arian document was read, was reduced to silence “using the cause of reconciliation as a pretext.” (Hanson, p. 160) In other words, although the emperor sided with Alexander, he did not allow Alexander’s party unlimited power.

As discussed, Constantine did his best to explain homoousios in such a way that even the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) could accept the term.

He paid all expenses and surrounded the delegates with honor. This includes the honor of the personal presence of the emperor of the entire empire.

Eusebius of Caesarea described the emperor as genuinely seeking for reconciliation:

“He surrounded the Fathers (of the Council), or rather the prophets of God, with every honour and called them a second time and again acted patiently as a mediator to the same people and again distinguished them by gifts, and he offered board and lodging in a letter and confirmed and put his seal to the decisions of the synod.” (Hanson, p. 175)

To protect the Empire.

As his letter to Arius and Alexander shows, Constantine did not call the Nicene Council because of a concern about right doctrine. He called the Council because a split in the church could also split the empire. His ultimate goal was also NOT to reconcile the schism in the church but to protect his empire. Constantine, therefore, invented and called the general council as a means of governing the church in the interest of the empire.

The Roman Empire was very large and consisted of many different and diverse nations. The main task of the emperors was to keep the empire united. In this regard, religion was a powerful force. Religion had a strong power over the people. Religious diversity could split the empire apart. State-supported religious uniformity, on the other hand, could help to unite the empire. The Roman emperors, therefore, used religion to help them to keep the empire united.

For example, as already mentioned, the emperors decided which religions were allowed.

As another example, in 380, Emperor Theodosius commanded ALL Roman citizens to believe in the Trinity. He made Trinitarian Christianity the State Religion of the Roman Empire.

That was why, before Christianity was legalized, the empire persecuted Christians and why, after Trinitarian Christianity was made the State Religion, the persecution of Christians resumed.

For the same reason, the emperors could not afford disunity in the authorized religion. Therefore, after Christianity was legalized in 313, the Christian emperors controlled it. By maintaining control over the church, the emperors maintained control over the people.

“Constantine’s attitude reflects deeply embedded Roman attitudes about the social function of religion.” (Ayres, p. 88)

Constantine, therefore, called the council because he was concerned that the controversy in the church may threaten the unity of the empire. He invented and called the general council as a means of managing the church:

“The Council of Nicea was first and foremost an attempt by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great to keep his empire from splitting.” (Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 3). Kindle Edition.) 22“Constantine himself of course neither knew nor cared anything about the matter in dispute.” (McGiffert A.C. A History of Christian Thought, 1954, Vol. 1, p. 258)

“Constantine himself had become sole emperor only in 324 (after having ruled the western half since 310–12), and he seems to have promoted Christianity as a unifying religion for the empire.” (Ayres, p. 87)

“The same desire to preserve unity within the church, rather than the protection of any creed or interpretation of Christian doctrine, led Constantine to intercede for the settlement of the Arian controversy. … Believing ‘disunity in the church’ a danger to the state ‘more grievous than any kind of war’.” (Boyd, p37 or The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code, p37)

“Since Constantine desired that the church should contribute to the social and moral strength of the empire, religious dissension was a menace to the public welfare.” (Boyd, p34). 23(The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code)

CONCLUSIONS

“Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (Hanson, p. 850) The Emperor was in fact the head of the church.

Constantine sided with the Alexander-faction, called the Council on his own initiative, strategically positioned the council at Nicaea so he could participate, 24(Drake, H. A. “The Impact of Constantine on Christianity.” Cambridge University Press, 2005. 111) paid all expenses, 25“The bishops were allowed to travel by the imperial postal service … and were entertained in Nicaea at the emperor’s expense.” (Williams, p. 67) 26“The Emperor Constantine … he had summoned the Council, had paid all its expenses.” (Hanson, p. 157) appointed his religious advisor as chairperson, welcomed the delegates, surrounded them with every honour, opened the Council with an address, actively guided the discussions, proposed and enforced the key word Homoousios despite great resistance, actively sought reconciliation between the factions, warned them that those who do not accept the Creed will be exiled, exiled those who refused the Creed, and enforced the Council’s decisions.

Consequently, the Nicene Creed, particularly its more controversial aspects, does not reflect the view of the church majority at the time but specifically what the emperor thought best:

“Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (Hanson, p. 850)

This established the pattern for the rest of the century. The church made and implemented its ‘ecumenical’ decisions through the civil government of the Roman Empire, represented by the emperors:

“Before Constantine, the Church was simply not in a position to make universally binding and enforceable decisions. From Nicaea onwards the Church decided, and communicated its decisions, through the official network of the empire.” (Williams, p. 90)

In that respect, church and state were united. “Simonetti remarks that the Emperor was in fact the head of the church” (Hanson, p. 849).


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
  • 2
    “At the end of 324,” “Constantine sent a letter to both Arius’ and Alexander dismissing the controversy as trivial and commanding them to be reconciled.” (Hanson, p. 130, 137)
  • 3
    Constantine dismissed the theological question of the relationship of Father and Son as “intrinsically trifling and of little moment” (Drake, 4. Constantine and Consensus)
  • 4
    Constantine wrote: “For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions, I believe it indeed to be not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that so large a portion of God’s people which belong to your jurisdiction should be thus divided.” (Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55)
  • 5
    “Constantine had basically no understanding whatsoever of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology.” (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)
  • 6
    “Ossius of Cordoba probably chaired the meeting.” (Ayres, p. 89)
  • 7
    “Ossius the bishop of Cordoba in Spain … apparently acted in some sort of advisory capacity to Constantine, and perhaps also served as his representative in these events.” (Ayres, p. 18)
  • 8
    “He had recently presided in a similar capacity over the Council of Antioch.” (Hanson, p. 154)
  • 9
    “It is even possible to contrast Constantius’ relative mildness with the ferocious coercion more than twenty years later of the Emperor Theodosius, and not least with his part in choosing an unbaptised layman, Nectarius, as bishop of Constantinople.” (Hanson, p. 322)
  • 10
    Only Arius and two of his friends refused to sign, for which they were excommunicated.” Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53 (cf. RW, 70; 71)
  • 11
    “Two bishops who refused to sign the Creed … were deposed by the Council and exiled by the Emperor. Arius himself was exiled.” (Hanson, p. 162-3)
  • 12
    “We can certainly see that Eusebians … were under pressure and seem to have been on the defensive. … the direction of the council was very clearly in the hands of others.” (Ayres, p. 88-89)
  • 13
    “The decisions of the Council of Nicaea were really the work of a minority, and they were misunderstood and disliked by many who were not adherents of Arius. In particular, the terms aroused opposition, on the grounds that they were unscriptural, novel and tending to Sabellianism.” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)
  • 14
    (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)
  • 15
    Britannica, 1971 edition, Vol. 6, “Constantine,” p. 386
  • 16
    “Arius too was banished by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 173)
  • 17
    “Constantine exiled Arius along with two Libyan bishops … The Emperor also exiled Eusebius of Nicomedia.” (Ayres, p. 19)
  • 18
    “Shortly after the Council … Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea were also banished by Constantine. … Constantine … declares that their fault was to have received and communicated with some Arian presbyters in Nicomedia.” (Hanson, p. 173)
  • 19
    “Arius and Euzoius returned from exile and presented a rather non-committal creed to the emperor.” “It satisfied Constantine, who wrote to Alexander, pressing him to accept Arius and Euzoius back in Alexandria.” Thereafter, “the local Bithynian synod … readmitted Arius to communion.” (Williams, p. 75)
  • 20
    “There is also extant a letter of Arius and Euzoius from exile to Constantine petitioning for their return” (Hanson, p. 176)
  • 21
    The two bishops whom Constantine exiled after Nicaea “were both restored to their sees by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 172)
  • 22
    “Constantine himself of course neither knew nor cared anything about the matter in dispute.” (McGiffert A.C. A History of Christian Thought, 1954, Vol. 1, p. 258)
  • 23
    (The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code)
  • 24
    (Drake, H. A. “The Impact of Constantine on Christianity.” Cambridge University Press, 2005. 111)
  • 25
    “The bishops were allowed to travel by the imperial postal service … and were entertained in Nicaea at the emperor’s expense.” (Williams, p. 67)
  • 26
    “The Emperor Constantine … he had summoned the Council, had paid all its expenses.” (Hanson, p. 157)