The True Origin of the Trinity Doctrine

Purpose

The Trinitarian and renowned scholar on the Arian Controversy, Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, stated:

The “conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is now recognised by a large number of scholars to be a complete travesty.”

Another prominent scholar and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology, Lewis Ayres, confirms that the “older accounts (of the Arian Controversy) are deeply mistaken” (LA, 11).

Since the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy gave birth to the Trinity doctrine, it is the conventional explanation of the Origin of the Trinity doctrine that is “a complete travesty” and “deeply mistaken”. This article highlights several aspects that are “deeply mistaken.”

New Information

As discussed elsewhere, these new insights are based on ancient documents that have become more readily available during the 20th century:

“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.” (RW, 11-12)

“A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century.” (LA, 2)

On page xx of his book, Hanson lists several source documents that became accessible.

Sources

This article is largely based on the following recent writings of world-class scholars on the fourth-century Arian Controversy:

Hanson – A lecture by R.P.C. Hanson in 1981 on the Arian Controversy.

RH Bishop R.P.C. Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Overview of the Arian Controversy

The ‘Arian’ Controversy of the fourth century was the greatest controversy in the church of all time. It was a dispute mainly about the identity of Jesus Christ: Is He God or is He subordinate to God?

The controversy began in the year 318 when “Arius, a presbyter in charge of the church and district of Baucalis in Alexandria, publicly criticized the Christological doctrine of his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria.” (RH, 3)

Seven years later, in 325, after the controversy had spread from Alexandria into almost all the African regions, Emperor Constantine called a church council in Nicaea where Arius’ theology was rejected and the famous Nicene Creed formulated.

However, that Creed failed to end the controversy. The dispute continued for another 55 years until AD 380 when Emperor Theodosius, through the Edict of Thessalonica, made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. The emperor wrote:

“Let us believe in the one deity
of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.”

When Theodosius came to power, the Homoian version of Christianity dominated but that same edict outlawed it and all other versions of Christianity.

So, in total, the Controversy lasted for 62 years. When it came to an end, all those who took part at the beginning were already dead.

1. The Orthodox View

In the conventional account, “a clear Nicene doctrine (was) established in the controversy’s earliest stages.” (LA, 11-12) In other words, the Trinity Doctrine already existed at least in a rudimentary form.

No Orthodoxy

But Hanson stated:

“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?” (Hanson)

Lewis Ayres states similarly that the ‘orthodoxy’ as we know it today did not exist at the beginning but was worked out through that struggle. (LA, 11-12) “The century is understood as one of evolution in doctrine.” (LA, 13)

Subordination was orthodox.

But it is not entirely true to say that there was no orthodoxy. Note that Hanson said that nobody knew “how divine is Jesus Christ.” When the Controversy began, it was generally agreed that He is divine but it was also generally agreed that the Son is subordinate to the Father. To explain:

During the second century, after Christianity became Gentile-dominated, while Christianity was still outlawed and persecuted by the Roman authorities, the Christian Apologists identified the Son of God with the Logos or Nous of Greek philosophy. In that philosophy, the Logos was a subordinate Intermediary between the high God and the physical world. As such, the Apologists explained the Son as “a subordinate though essential divine agent” of the Father. In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God. (For more detail, see – The Apologists.)

In the third century, this Logos-theology had to combat Sabellianism but it remained the standard teaching of the church right into the fourth century. Hanson describes it as:

The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century … the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted” (Hanson).

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god … a second, created god lower than the High God” (Hanson).

So, ‘subordination’ was the ‘orthodox’ or general view of Christ when the Arian Controversy began:

“With the exception of Athanasius, virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy” (RH, xix).

“’Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy”1Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.

In Summary: In the conventional account, when the Controversy began, the Trinity doctrine was already generally accepted. In reality, following the Apologists of the previous centuries, when the Controversy began, the church regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.

2. Arius deviated from orthodoxy.

In the conventional account, Arius was an innovator who deviated from the standard teaching of the church. That is true but in a different sense than normally thought:

It is usually said that Arius deviated from Nicene theology but, as explained, the ‘orthodoxy’ at the time was that the Son is the Father’s “subordinate though essential divine agent.” Arius did not deviate from that teaching.

But he did deviate from the tradition because he taught an extreme version of subordination. While the Apologists taught that the Son was begotten from the being of the Father and, before that, always existed as part of the Father, Arius said that He did not always exist and that He was generated out of nothing. Arius possibly attempted to reduce the influence of Greek philosophy on church theology but, in the process, he effectively denied the Biblical revelation that the Son was “begotten” from the Father.

“The second-rate or third-rate writers of the period (before Nicaea)” even “present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God.” (Hanson) So, Arius’ view of Christ, as a created Being, was consistent with the lower end of the spectrum of views before the Arian Controversy. He was an extremist under the overall umbrella of subordination. For that reason, Rowan Williams, who wrote a recent book about Arius, concluded:

“Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically, a conservative Alexandrian.” (RW, 175)

In Summary: In the conventional account, Arius deviated from tradition. This is true. There was no pre-existing Nicene theology, but while the subordinationist mainstream of the previous centuries regarded the Son as subordinate but “divine,” Arius described Him as a created being.

3. The Cause of the Controversy

In the conventional account, Arius caused the ‘Arian’ Controversy. It assumes that Arius was the founder and leader of a large and dangerous sect, and that “the controversy spread because Arius was supported by wicked and designing bishops.”

Arius was insignificant.

But Arius did not cause the Controversy. As discussed in another article, Arius was irrelevant. “In himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii) Arius was only of some relevance for the first 7 of the 62 years of Controversy. The so-called ‘Arians’ did not regard him as a particularly significant writer. They never quote him. In fact, the so-called ‘Arians’ even opposed Arius. He left no school of disciples and he was not the leader of the ‘Arians’. He was an extreme example of a wider theological trajectory.

Since Arius took subordination to an extreme, most of his fellow theologians disagreed with him. But they regarded the views of bishop Alexander as even more dangerous:

Eusebius of Caesarea “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (RW, 173)

It was for that reason, namely, because they had a common enemy, that many people supported Arius; not because they fully agreed with his views.

Caused by existing tensions

The Controversy was caused by “tensions between pre-existing theological traditions:”

“There came to a head a crisis … which was not created by … Arius.” (RH, XX).

In the older account, it was “the Church’s struggle against a heretic and his followers.” Now we know that it was “tensions between pre-existing theological traditions (which) intensified as a result of dispute over Arius.” (RW, 11)

“The views of Arius were such as … to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering. … He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)

The following illustrates these existing tensions:

Tertullian (155-220) said: “The Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole” (Against Praxeas, Chapter 9).

At the beginning of the third century, Sabellius taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts of God, like man’s body, soul, and spirit.

In the middle of the third century, there was a squabble between the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (both called Dionysius). This dispute was caused by some Sabellians in Libya who claimed that the Son is homoousios to the Father.

A church council in 268 in Antioch condemned Paul of Samasota, apparently for teaching that the Son did not exist before His human birth, and also condemned the use of the word homoousios. For a further discussion, see – The Origin of the word Homoousios.

Note that the Controversy began only 5 years after the end of the Great Persecution. This implies that persecution kept these tensions in check.

This also explains why the Controversy spread so quickly. In the conventional account, “the controversy spread because Arius was supported by wicked and designing bishops.” In reality, the Controversy spread so quickly because of these “tensions between pre-existing theological traditions” (RW, 11).

In Summary: In the conventional account, Arius was the founder of a sect and the cause of the Controversy. But Arius, in himself, was of no great significance. The Controversy was caused by existing tensions between theological traditions that were ignited by the dispute between bishop Alexander and Arius.

4. Were the anti-Nicenes Arians?

As stated, the controversy continues for another 55 years after Nicaea in AD 325. In the conventional account, “the bishops and theologians taking part in the controversy as falling simply into two groups, ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’.” Since the term ‘Arian’ is derived from Arius’ name, this implies that all opponents of Nicene theology all followers of Arius. But Hanson states that this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.” (Two views)

There was no one single Arian movement.

The reality is that most of those who opposed the Nicene Creed also opposed Arius’ theology. There were at least four main competing views:

Same Substance – The pro-Nicenes are called Homoousians, from the word “homo-ousion” in the Nicene Creed, which means the “same substance.” They taught that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Following the Cappadocians, this later became understood as ‘one substance’. 

Different Substance – The Hetero-ousians were the extreme Arians or Neo-Arians. They claimed that the Son is of a “different substance” than the Father. This is also what Arius had taught but the Neo-Arians developed this into a much more sophisticated theology.

Similar Substance – The Homoi-ousians were somewhere between the Homo-ousians and Hetero-ousians. They became fairly dominant during the Controversy. They rejected the view that the Son’s substance is the same as the Father, for the Father alone exists without cause. But they also argued that if the Son was “begotten” from the Father, His substance must be similar to the Father’s.

Like the Father – The Homo-ians, like good Protestants, maintained that it is arrogance to speculate about the substance of God because the Bible does not say anything about His substance. The most that they were willing to say is that the Son is like the Father because that is what the Scripture teaches (e.g., Col 1:15). This view was accepted at the Council of Constantinople in AD 359 (not 381) and, when Theodosius became emperor in AD 380, the bishop of the capital was a Homoian.

Consequently, “Arianism,’ throughout most of the fourth century, was in fact a loose and uneasy coalition of those hostile to Nicaea in general and the homoousios in particular” (RW, 166). For this reason, and since Arius’ theology was fairly insignificant in the whole affair, Hanson stated that “the expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer” (RH, xvii-xviii) Lewis Ayres stated similarly: “This controversy is mistakenly called Arian.” (LA, 13)

In summary: In the conventional account, all those who opposed the Nicene Creed were followers of Arius and may be called ‘Arians’. In reality, the anti-Nicene were divided into several branches and none of them were followers of Arius. The term ‘Arian’, therefore, is a serious misnomer.

5. Athanasius invented Arianism.

But then the question arises, why does the conventional account of the Controversy cluster all anti-Nicenes under the term ‘Arian’? The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church. This was probably in defense of the accusation that the pro-Nicenes were Sabellians:

“At the Council of Serdica in 343 one half of the Church accused the other half of being ‘Arian’, while in its turn that half accused the other of being ‘Sabellian’.” (RH, xvii)

And, after Emperor Theodosius in AD 380 made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Roman Church continued Athanasius’ practice.

This practice continues even to this day. There are currently several alternative views among anti-Trinitarians, but they are all often clustered under the derogatory term ‘Arian’.

(For more detail, see – Athanasius invented Arianism.)

6. Why did Nicaea fail?

In the conventional account, the “pious design” of Emperor Constantine, who “called a general Council at Nicaea which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy,” was frustrated “owing to the crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.” (Hanson).

In reality, the Creed failed because there was no real consensus. At the council, Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including into the Creed “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846) (ousia and hypostasis), the Council created a new and different problem. It was, therefore, the Creed of 325 itself that caused the Controversy to continue for another 55 years. During that period, Arius and his theology were irrelevant.

The different ‘sides’ in the Controversy are described above. They show that the post-325 Controversy was specifically about the word Homoousion (same substance) in the Creed; not about the entire Nicene Creed and not about Arius’ theology. Rowan Williams confirms this when he says that “Arianism … was … (an) uneasy coalition of those hostile to … the homoousios in particular” (RW, 166).

In Summary: In the conventional account, Nicaea failed to end the Controversy owing to the crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians. In reality, the new terms included in the Creed borrowed from the pagan philosophy caused a new Controversy.

7. The key word in the Creed

Homoousion means “same substance.” The Nicene Creed uses this term to say that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. In the conventional account, homoousios is “the key word of the Creed” and “one of the most important words in the Christian theological vocabulary.” (Beatrice) For example:

In the “centuries-old account of the Council of Nicaea: … with one pronouncement the Church identified a term (homoousios) that secured its … beliefs against heresy. (LA, 11)     

C.H. Turner stated that “the very existence of Christianity … was at stake over the Homoousion—” (Merriam-Webster).

Wikipedia says that “homoousios represents one of the most important theological concepts within the Trinitarian doctrinal understanding of God.”

The term homoousios was unimportant.

This traditional view is in staggering contrast to the views of the delegates to the Nicene Council:

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. … It was not seen as that useful or important.” (LA, 96)

“For nearly twenty years after Nicaea nobody mentions homoousios, not even Athanasius. This may be because it was much less significant than either later historians of the ancient Church or modern scholars thought that it was.” (RH, 170)

“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)

“Homoousios was in fact a foreign body or stumbling block for all the people attending the council, without distinction, Arians and anti-Arians, and for this very reason it soon disappeared in the following debates.” (P.F. Beatrice)

This also implies that this was not a word that the theologians generally used before 325. Most of the delegates were distinctly uncomfortable with what Hanson calls, “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846). For example, see how Eusebius of Caesarea, writing to his home church after Nicaea, struggled to explain why he accepted these “new terms.”

Furthermore, Athanasius explained that the term homoousion was inserted in the Creed – not because it is necessarily a good word – but merely as a means to force the Arius and his supporters to reject the Creed (RH, 162) so that the Emperor could exile them.

In Summary: In the conventional account, homoousios is the key word of the Creed. But, after Nicaea, the term was not mentioned for 20 years, meaning that it was not important. It was probably included only to force the Arians to reject the Creed.

7. Ecumenical Councils

In the conventional account, the councils of 325 and 381 were ecumenical, meaning that they were meetings of church authorities from the whole ‘world’ (oikoumene) that secures the approval of the whole Church.

Ultimate Authority in Doctrine

However, in the Roman Empire, after Christianity was legalized, the emperor was the ultimate authority in doctrine:

“The truth is that in the Christian church of the fourth century there was no alternative authority comparable to that of the Emperor.” (RH, 854)

“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.” (RH, 849)

General Councils

The so-called ecumenical councils were the tools by which the emperors ruled over the church:

“The general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils, or councils aspiring to be general, were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them. Even Damasus (bishop of Rome) would have admitted that he could not call a general council on his own authority.” (RH, 855)

Presiding Officers

One indication of this is that, at both ‘ecumenical’ councils, representatives of the emperor presided over the meetings:

“Ossius, as the Emperor’s representative, presided at Nicaea.” (RH, 154, cf. 148, 156) He was a bishop, but he presided in his capacity as the emperor’s “agent.” (RH, 190)

When Theodosius came to power, he immediately exiled the ruling Homoian bishop of the capital city and appointed Gregory of Nazianzus in his place. Gregory presided over the 381-council but, for some unknown reason, resigned. Thereafter Emperor Theodosius assigned Nectarius, an unbaptized civil official, as presiding officer.

Head of the Church

Consequently, the emperor effectively was the head of the church:

“Simonetti remarks that the Emperor was in fact the head of the church.” (RH, 849)

Rowan Williams explains that the fourth-century church “did not regard Constantine’s authority as secular.” Rather, it regarded Constantine as its “’bishop’ and pastor.” (RW, 88)

Why does the Creed include “new terms borrowed from pagan philosophy?”

Conclusion

Therefore, the Nicene Council adopted the term homoousios due to the influence of the emperor:

“Constantine had taken Alexander’s part” (LA, 89)

Constantine “pressed for its (homoousios’) inclusion.” (RH, 202)

In his letter to his church in Caesarea, written immediately after the Nicene Council in 325, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote that the word homoousios was inserted into the Nicene Creed solely at the insistence of Emperor Constantine.

It is even proposed that Constantine had a preference for the term homoousios “We may ask why the .

 

7. Did Arianism deviate from Orthodoxy?

As a corollary to the previous points, in the conventional account, ‘Arianism’, meaning the entire movement that dominated the church during the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy, deviated from the tradition.

In reality, it is the other way around: while ‘Arianism’ was consistent with the tradition, Nicene theology deviated from the tradition. To explain:

Arianism was ‘orthodox’.

We must make a distinction between Arius and ‘Arianism’. While Arius was an extremist, Arianism, as reflected, for example, in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, was a continuation of the tradition. For example, Hanson explains:

The Logos-theology of the Apologists was “the main, widely-accepted, one might almost say traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was … the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted.” (Hanson)

“Arianism … does present the Son as in effect a demi-god” but “the antecedents of this doctrine are not to be found in pagan religion nor directly in Greek philosophy but in various theological strands to be detected in Christian theology before the fourth century.” (Hanson)

Nicene theology deviated.

It was Nicene theology, therefore, claiming that the Son is equal to the Father, that deviated from the “tradition” of the pre-Nicene Christian church. For example, Hanson stated:

“What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device … In this respect at least … they rejected the allurements of Greek philosophy.” (Hanson)

“In the place of this old but inadequate Trinitarian tradition the champions of the Nicene faith substituted another.” (Hanson)

 

 

10. Does the Creed describe a Trinity?

Consistent with the notion that a “Nicene doctrine” was clear from the beginning, in the conventional account, the Nicene Creed of 325 describes God as a Trinity. This is not true. For example:

(a) The Father is the One God.

The Creed begins, similar to many previous creeds, by identifying the Father as the “one God” in contrast to Jesus Christ, who is identified as the “one Lord:”

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of all things visible and invisible
And in one Lord Jesus Christ
the Son of God

(b) No One Being

The core of the Trinity doctrine is that God is one Being (substance; ousia in Greek) but three Persons (hypostases). But the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms. At that time, these two terms still had pretty well the same meaning; both meaning ‘Person’. The concept of three Persons but one Being was first proposed by the Cappadocians; about 40 years after Nicaea. To assist with that concept, they proposed a distinction in meaning between ousia and hypostasis. In this way, ousia came to mean ‘substance’ or ‘Being’. But the concept of one Being did not yet exist at Nicaea. For more detail, see Ousia and Hypostasis in the Nicene Creed. Hanson says:

“We can therefore be pretty sure that homoousios was not intended to express the numerical identity of the Father and the Son.” (“Numerical identity” would mean that Father and Son are one Being (the selfsame Being).)

“It was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense than has in the past history of scholarship been attached to it.” (RH, 202)

(c) No Holy Spirit

The Creed does not describe the Holy Spirit as God or as equal to God or as one substance with God. Hanson stated (Hanson):

“Of course the theologians of the side which was ultimately victorious included the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In a sense this was an afterthought, because the theme of the Son occupied the screen, so to speak, right up to the year to the year 360.”

For these and other reasons, Hanson says, “The Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity.” (Hanson). Since all three Cappadocians were born after AD 325, the doctrine of the Trinity did not yet exist in 325 and the Nicene Creed does not describe God as a Trinity.

11. Was Athanasius falsely accused?

Athanasius, who is regarded by many as the hero of the ‘Arian’ Controversy, was exiled five times by four different emperors, spending almost half of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile (Blue Letter). In the conventional account, “supporters of the orthodox point of view such as Athanasius of Alexandria … were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile.”

But Hanson stated:

“The most serious initial fault was the misbehavior of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. Evidence which has turned up in the sands of Egypt in the form of letters written on papyrus has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt which justly earned the disgust and dislike of the majority of Eastern bishops for at least the first twenty years of his long episcopate.” (Hanson)

10. Is Arianism a contradictory system?

In the conventional account, ‘Arianism” is “a crude and contradictory system.” (Gwatkin (c. 1900) – RW, 10). Harnack (1909) describes Arius’ teaching as “novel, self-contradictory and, above all, religiously inadequate.” (RW, 7)

But Hanson states:

“Mistakes and faults were not confined to the upholders of anyone particular doctrine, and cannot all be grouped under the heading of a wicked Arian conspiracy” (Hanson).

“The Church of the fourth century, after much travail answered this question … in a … process of trial-and-error in which the error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.” (Hanson)

“Maurice Wiles has suggested that as far as grotesque misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible goes the pro-Nicenes were as distant from accurate interpretation as the Arians.” (Hanson)

“The irresponsible use of allegory abounded, perhaps more among the pro-Nicenes than among the Arians.” (Hanson)

Archbishop Rowan Williams, after writing a recent book about Arius, concluded:

Arius is “a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness and originality.” (RW, 116)

For more detail, see – Who was Arius and why is he important?

11. Is Nicene theology distinct from Sabellianism?

In the conventional account, there always was a clear distinction between Nicene theology and Sabellianism. However, there are several indications that the pro-Nicenes were Sabelians or skirted Sabellianism:

“Marcellus of Ancyra (a strong opponent of ‘Arianism’) … cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism.” (Hanson)

“That Julius and later the Westerners at Sardica … have declared him (Marcellus of Ancyra) orthodox” … “was bound to appear to the Eastern theologians to be a condoning of Sabellianism.” (Hanson)

“The anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support” “a condoning of Sabellianism.” (Hanson)

“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)

“Up to the year 357, the East could label the West as Sabellian and the West could label the East as Arian with equal lack of discrimination and accuracy.” (Hanson) In other words, Sabellianism and Arius’ theology were the two extremes of the spectrum of views in the years after Nicaea. The “West” was more on the ‘Sabellian’ side of the spectrum and the “East” was more towards Arius’ side.

In the year 375 “the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic. (Hanson)

The battle against Sabellianism was clearly not fully won at the time of Nicaea and Nicaea may be seen as a win for the sabellians.

12. The solution came from Semi-Arians.

In the traditional account, the final solution, as reflected in the Constantinople Creed of 381, emanated “directly either from Rome or from Alexandria.”

But that is not true. The ‘solution’ came from the so-called Semi-Arians:

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

In fact, in the year 375 “the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic, and Vitalis, an Apollinarian heretic, against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East!” (Basil was the first of the three Cappadocians.) (Hanson)

13. Did Arius corrupt theology with Philosophy?

In the conventional account, Arius and ‘Arianism’ were almost as much motivated by Greek philosophy than by the Bible. For example:

Gwatkin (1900) described Arianism as the result of “irreverent philosophical speculation” and “almost as much a philosophy as a religion.” (RW, 9)

Arius inherited a theology based on pagan philosophy.

Arius’ view of Christ was indeed influenced by Greek philosophy, but he did not introduce philosophy into theology: He and all Christians of that time inherited reliance on Greek philosophy from the Christian Apologists of the preceding centuries. As discussed, these Apologists explained the Son of God as the Logos of Greek philosophy. As Hanson stated:

“Arianism … does present the Son as in effect a demi-god, even though the antecedents of this doctrine are not to be found in pagan religion nor directly in Greek philosophy but in various theological strands to be detected in Christian theology before the fourth century.” (Hanson)

Arianism opposed philosophy.

In fact, Arius resisted the reliance on philosophy. For example, as mentioned, while Greek philosophy taught that the Logos always existed as part of the High God, Arius claimed that the Son was begotten out of nothing. Therefore:

“We misunderstand him completely … if we see him as primarily a self-conscious philosophical speculator. … Arius was by profession an interpreter of the Scriptures.” (RW, 107-108)

“He is not a philosopher, and it would be a mistake to accuse him of distorting theology to serve the ends of philosophical tidiness. On the contrary: the strictly philosophical issues are of small concern to Arius.” (RW, 230)

Furthermore, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism further pushed back the influence of Greek philosophy. For example, in AD 359, at a council in Constantinople, the church accepted adopted a Homoian creed in which the words from Greek philosophy (ousia, homoousios, and hypostasis) are forbidden. This version of Christianity dominated the church until Theodosius became emperor.

Nicene Theology relies on Greek philosophy.

While Arianism is often accused of corrupting theology with philosophy, the shoe is on the other foot. Pro-Nicene theology was developed in the period 360-380 by essentially the three Cappadocian fathers, and they were deeply influenced by philosophy:

This is indicated by the following:

The terms ousia (substance) and hypostasis (separate reality) were borrowed from Greek philosophy. These terms are used to say that God is one Being but three Persons, which is the core of the Trinity doctrine.

“Before the advent of the Cappadocian theologians there are two clear examples only of Christian theologians being deeply influenced by Greek philosophy.” (RH, 862) “The Cappadocians, however, present us with a rather different picture. … They were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863)

“Gregory of Nazianzus (one of the Cappadocians) … certainly was deeply influenced by Platonism” (RH, 867).

“Gregory of Nyssa … was more concerned than they (the other two Cappadocians) to build a consistent philosophical account of Christianity. He had therefore much more need of philosophy than they. … It is impossible to deny that he was influenced by the work of Plotinus.” (RH, 868)

Hanson, therefore, stated that Nicene theology was based both on the terms and thoughts of Greek philosophy:

“The development of the doctrine of the Trinity was carried out in terms which were almost wholly borrowed from the vocabulary of late Greek: hypostasis, ousia … and so on” (Greek Thoughts).

“The fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy” (Terminology).

“The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts.”

For a further discussion, see – Did Arius corrupt theology with pagan philosophy?

Were there only two sides in the Controversy?

As stated, the controversy continues for another 55 years after Nicaea in AD 325. In the conventional account, “the bishops and theologians taking part in the controversy as falling simply into two groups, ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’.” But Hanson states that this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.” (Two views)

The reality is that most of those who opposed the Nicene Creed also opposed Arius’ theology. There were at least four main competing views:

Same Substance – The pro-Nicenes are called Homoousians, from the word “homo-ousion” in the Nicene Creed, which means the “same substance.” They taught that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Following the Cappadocians, this became later to be understood as ‘one substance’. 

Different Substance – The Hetero-ousians were the extreme Arians, saying that Christ is of a “different substance” than the Father. This is perhaps what Arius had taught. It was rejected in the Nicene Council of 325 but continued as a minority view.

Similar Substance – The Homoi-ousians were somewhere between the Homo-ousians and Hetero-ousians. They became fairly dominant during the Controversy. They rejected the view that the Son’s substance is the same as the Father, for the Father alone exists without cause. But they also argued that if the Son was “begotten” from the Father, His substance must be similar to the Father’s.

Like the Father – The Homo-ians, like good Protestants, maintained that it is arrogance to speculate about the substance of God because the Bible does not say anything about His substance. The most that they were willing to say is that the Son is like the Father because that is what the Scripture teaches (e.g., Col 1:15). This view was accepted at the Council of Constantinople in AD 359 (not 381) and, when Theodosius became emperor in AD 380, the bishop of the capital was a Homoian.

As can be seen by these ‘sides’, the post-325 Controversy was specifically about the word Homoousion (same substance) in the Creed; not about the entire Nicene Creed and not about Arius’ theology. This confirms the point above that it was the Creed itself, specifically the “new terms borrowed from pagan philosophy’, that caused the Controversy to continue after 325. 

Did an Ecumenic Council bring an end to the Controversy?

In the conventional account, the Council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end to that Controversy.

In reality, the Controversy was brought to an end by the strong arm of the Roman Empire in the person of Emperor Theodosius:

He was declared Emperor and Augustus (i.e. equal with, not subordinate to, Gratian) on January 19th 379.

Already in the year before that church council, in February 380, Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica which made the Trinity doctrine the official religion of the Roman Empire. This edict (not a church council) ordered “all the various nations:”

“To believe ‘the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within … an equal majesty and … Trinity’” (RH, 804).

That same edict described all who do not conform as “foolish madmen.” “They will suffer … the punishment of our authority.”

In this way, Theodosius outlawed all other versions of Christianity.

In November of the same year, he entered Constantinople (the capital of the empire) and instantly drove out the ruling Homoian bishop of the city, appointed one of the three Cappadocians, and also chased the ‘Arian’ Lucius out of Alexandria. (RH, 804-5)

In January 381, Theodosius issued an edict saying that no church was to be occupied for worship by any heretics, and no heretics were to gather together for worship within the walls of any town. These instructions were executed efficiently by his soldiers. For further discussion, see – Theodosius. (RH, 805)

Only after these events did he summon the so-called ‘ecumenical’ Council of Constantinople of the year 381. But only pro-Nicenes were allowed to attend (RH, 805-6) and the emperor appointed a government official to chair the meeting.

It amazes me that people regard this as a valid and important church council, even after non-Trinitarian clergies have been outlawed and exiled.

Later in 381, he decreed that all non-Trinitarian churches must be delivered to Trinitarian bishops. (Boyd)

The Arian Controversy, therefore, was brought to an end by the strong arm of the Roman Empire under the leadership of the 23-year-old emperor.

The Role of Emperors

This brings us to the role of the emperors more generally. In the conventional account, the emperors during the 50 years after Nicaea forced the church to oppose the Nicene Creed (Traditional Account):

“Orthodoxy was everywhere attacked and, as later in the controversy succeeding Emperors joined the heretical side, almost completely eclipsed.”

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

This is true, but what this omits is that, throughout the Controversy, the emperor always had the final say with respect to the doctrine of the church. The Controversy began and ended with emperors who forced the church to accept Nicene theology but, between them, the emperors were ‘Arians’:

Constantine, in AD 325, insisted on the inclusion of the word homoousios in the Creed but softened towards Arianism. He was baptized on his deathbed by the leader of the Arians at Nicaea; Eusebius of Nicomedia. 

Constantius (Constantine’s son – 337-361) was an Homoian. In 359, the Western bishops met in Ariminum and accepted a Homo-ian creed. But the eastern bishops, who met in Seleucia, accepted a Homoi-ousian creed. Emperor Constantius did not accept this outcome and called for another council in the same year in Constantinople where both the eastern and western bishops were present. In the initial debate, the Hetero-ousians defeated the Homoi-ousians. However, Constantius rejected this decision as well and exiled some of the delegates. Thereafter the council agreed to the Homo-ian creed that was agreed to at Ariminum, with minor modifications.

Valens (364-378) also was a Homoian. He used the power of the state to promote his theology. He made sure that the right person is installed as archbishop, banished and imprisoned pro-Nicene clergy, put them to forced labor, and subjected them to taxes from which anti-Nicenes were exempt. But, Hanson states, “his efforts at persecution were sporadic and unpredictable.” (RH, 791-792)

Theodosius (379-395), as already discussed, was a Trinitarian. He was the first to create law requiring conformance to a Christian practice and took persecution to a different level. He brutally eliminated all other versions of Christianity from the empire.

Germanic nations took control of the Western Roman Empire during the fifth century. These nations were evangelized before the time of Theodosius and, therefore, were non-Trinitarian Christians.

Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire, in the sixth century, subjected those ‘Arian’ Christian nations and set up the Byzantine Papacy through which the Eastern Emperors ruled the ‘Arians’ in the west for two centuries. Through the Byzantine Papacy, eventually, the Roman Empire eliminated all non-Nicene versions of Christianity outside the Roman Empire. (See – Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy.)

Conclusion

In the Roman Empire, the emperor always had the final say with respect to the doctrine of the church. When the emperor was an Arian, the church was Arian but when the emperor supported the Nicene side, the church followed. For all practical purposes, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church. Church and state were united. (Boyd) In practice, the emperor was more than the head of the church for he was the ultimate authority with respect to doctrine:

“Throughout the controversy, everybody … assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor.” (Hanson)

Conclusions

A Complete Travesty

Firstly, as Hanson stated, the “conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is … a complete travesty.”

“If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis” (RW, 234).

This message, however, has not yet reached the level of preachers and ordinary Christians because, as Williams indicated, the prejudice caused by the long history of ‘demonizing’ Arius is extraordinarily powerful (RW, 2).

The Religion of the Roman Empire

Secondly, the decision that the church would adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by a church council but by a Roman Emperor and enacted as a Roman law. In this way, Trinitarian Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. As such, Trinitarian Christianity became part of the Roman Empire. Consequently, it received its great authority from the Roman Empire but it also served the purposes of the Roman Empire. It was one of the means by which the emperors retained control over the nations under their command.

Still exists today

That religion of the Empire, with military support, centuries later became the church of the Middle Ages, which is symbolized as the eleventh horn of Daniel 7 and as the Beast of Revelation. See:

Today, the Roman Empire no longer exists but its official religion – a symbol of its authority – continues to dominate Christianity. It is regarded as the most important doctrine of the church and non-Trinitarians are regarded as non-Christians.

Since that church received its authority from the Roman Empire, her children today continue the authority of that ancient empire.

The church never adopted the Trinity Doctrine. It was the other way round. The Roman Empire adopted the Trinity Doctrine and systematically exterminated all opposition.


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.

Emperor Theodosius eliminated Arianism from the Roman Empire.

The Arian Controversy

The emperor Theodosius put an end to the Arian Controversy. However, the traditional account of that Controversy has been described as a complete travesty:

The Traditional Account is Wrong.

For example:

There were not just two sides.

In the traditional account, there were just two sides in the Arian Controversy; the Trinity doctrine and Arianism. In reality, there were several ‘sides’, including:

One SubstanceThe Council of Nicene in 325 agreed that Christ is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. Athanasius and the Sabellians understood this to say one single substance (Being) with one single Mind. (See Athanasius)

Two Substances – Basil and the Cappadocians, on the other hand, understood homoousios as saying that Father and Son are two distinct substances (two Beings with two distinct Minds) that are the same in all respects. (See – Basil) See also the discussion of the meaning of the term homoousios.

No mention of God’s Substance – The Council of Ariminum in July 359 concluded that the Son was “like the Father,” without reference to substance. In this view, the Bible does not reveal whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, and we, therefore, should not speculate about such things. This is the Homoian view.

Similar Substance – The council of Seleucia agreed in 359 that the Son was “similar in substance” to the Father but not necessarily of the “same substance,” as per the Nicene Creed. This is called Homoi-ousian view.

Different Substance – The council of Constantinople in 359 at first accepted that the substance of the Son was different from the Father’s. See Heter-ousian or Arian controversy. This is similar to what Arius taught.

The Trinity doctrine was not Orthodox.

In the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was established as orthodoxy when the Controversy began. However, while the Trinity doctrine presents Christ as co-equal with the Father, the article on the Nicene Creed lists several indications that Christ is subordinate to the Father. For example, it describes the Father as the “one God” who alone is Almighty. 

This should not be surprising. ‘Orthodoxy’ as we know it today, did not exist when that Controversy began. It was worked out through that Controversy. (See – Revised Scholarly View) If anything was orthodox when the Controversy began, it was that the Son is subordinate to the Father. For example, RPC Hanson, one of the top modern scholars on the Fourth Century Controversy, wrote:

“Indeed, until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism. It could, about the year 300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic theology.” 1RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153. 

The term ‘Arian’ is a serious Misnomer.

The term ‘Arianism’ comes from the name of Arius, a priest from Alexandria in the fourth century, whose dispute with his bishop Alexander sparked the Arian Controversy. This term implies that Arius developed a new theology and that he had many followers. In reality, Arius was insignificant. He did not leave behind a school of followers. He was only the spark that ignited the fire, but the fuel for that fire had been gathering for centuries before him. It was the legalization of Christianity that allowed that Controversy to burst open.

Arius was not a Radical.

Contrary to what we are often told, Arius did not develop anything new. Everything he said was said by people before him. He might have packaged it differently, but, in reality, Arius was a conservative.

Alexander was a Sabellian.

Neither did Arius’ opponent (Alexander) develop anything new. he just rehashed the theology of the previous century. But what people do not realize is that Alexander was a Sabellian, meaning that he said that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Being with one single Rational Faculty. Sabellianism was rejected in the third century but remained strong.

The term hypostasis is confusing.

The ancients used the term hypostasis (distinct reality) and the core of the Arian Controversy was whether Father, Son, and Spirit are one or three hypostases. However, the traditional Trinity doctrine uses hypostasis in a different sense:

      • In the fourth century, each hypostasis was a distinct Rational Faculty.
      • In the traditional Trinity doctrine, the three hypostases (Persons) share one single Rational Capacity. It says that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Being with one single Rational Faculty but three hypostases (or Persons).

Given this confusion, this website avoids the terms hypostasis and Person.

Conclusion

The point is this: This article shows that Emperor Theodosius I, when he came to power, crushed Arianism. However, what he really crushed was all resistance to the teaching of the Nicene Creed that the Father and Son have the same ousia.

Summary

Constantine had a decisive influence on the formulation of the Nicene Creed but later rejected the Homoousion Christology of the Nicene Creed. The emperors who succeeded Constantine crushed the church leaders who taught the homoousion principle in the Nicene Creed. When emperor Valens died in 378, the imperial capital was solidly Arian.

Theodosius I succeeded Valens. He was a passionate supporter of Homoousion Christology. Commentators often refer to the Council of Constantinople of 381 as the turning point where Arianism was replaced by Nicene Christology, but that council was a mere formality. Already prior to the council, Theodosius outlawed all other forms of Christianity and exiled Arian bishops.2Theodosian Code 16:2, 1 Friell, G., Williams, S., Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, London, 1994 – See, Homoousion – Wikipedia Furthermore, ‘Arians’ were not allowed to attend the Council of 381.

Since the 381 Council was simply a formality, the real decisions were taken by the Roman Emperor. Theodosius, with the strong arm of the empire, effectively wiped out ‘Arianism’ among the ruling class and elite of the Eastern Empire. This supports again the main thesis of this article series, namely that the emperors had a decisive influence on the Christology of the church.

The 381 Creed does not contain the Trinity concept, namely that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons with three minds or wills in one Being. But Theodosius’ Edict of Thessalonica of 380 does prescribe Trinitarian theology. In other words, the State laws were Trinitarian while the church decreed lagged behind. This also supports the thesis that the Christology of the church was determined by the emperors.

In the centuries after Theodosius, the church formulated the doctrines that Christ had two separate natures, namely that He had both a divine and a human nature, and that Mary is the Mother of God.

– END OF SUMMARY –


OVERVIEW OF HISTORY

After the church became Gentile-dominated, all sorts of abominations entered. Concerning Christology, in the second century, the church began to explain the Son of God as the Logos of Greek philosophy. Monarchainism also developed in the second century and explained that the Father and Son are one single Being. This was refined by the Sabellianism of the third century, which explained Father and Son as two faces of one single Being. However, the church formally rejected Sabellianism and entered the fourth century with the traditional Logos-theology, but as refined by Origen, with the Son as the subordinated agent of the Father.

In the second and third centuries, the church, as a persecuted entity, had no way of making and enforcing empire-wide decisions. But after Christianity was legalized in 313, the controversy that had been seething underground burst into the open. The spark that ignited the fire was the dispute between Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and Arius, one of his presbyters (priests).

Alexander, similar to the Sabellians before him, taught that Father and Son are one single Person with one single Rational Faculty. Arius, similar to most bishops before him, taught that they are two distinct Beings with two distinct Rational Faculties.

But Arius also has some extreme views. While the tradition said that the Son was born from the Being of the Father, Arius said that He was made out of nothing. And while Origen said that the Son always existed, Arius said that ‘there was’ when the Son ‘was not’.

This dispute spread to most of Egypt. Many bishops supported Arius; not because they supported his views but because they regarded Alexander’s as destructive.

Emperor Constantine, seeking unity in the church to support the unity of the empire, wrote to Arius and Alexander to end their quarrel, but to no avail. His religious advisor (Ossius) advised him to take Alexander’s side in the dispute. Ossius then chaired a meeting in Antioch early in 325 where Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian and the most respected theologian of the time, and Arius’ most famous supporter, was provisionally excommunicated.

Constantine then called the Nicene Council and installed his religious advisor as presiding officer. Alexander allied with the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus and, through his intimidating presence, forced that meeting to accept the word homoousios which, in the previous century, was only preferred by Sabellians.

However, in the years after Nicaea, Constantine allowed the church to remove the main drivers of the Nicene Creed, the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, from their positions. After this, the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios were not mentioned for about 20-30 years.

Alexander died a few years after Nicaea and was replaced by Athanasius as bishop of Alexandria, but he was also exiled; not for theology but for “tyrannical behaviour.” (LA, 124) Constantine also allowed the exiled ‘Arian’ bishops to return. And, shortly before his death, he was baptized by an ‘Arian’ bishop. So, it seemed as if all decisions at Nicaea were made null and void.

But trouble was brewing in the West. At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. “The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council (of Nicaea) represented a tiny minority.” (RH, 170) However, both Athanasius and Marcellus were exiled to Rome, where they joined forces against the Eastern Church.

At that time, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy, in which he claimed himself to be innocent of tyranny, put the blame for his exile on an ‘Arian Conspiracy’, claimed that he was really exiled for his theology (just like Marcellus), and labeled the Eastern Church followers of Arius (from which we got the term ‘Arian’). Athanasius was able to convince the pope (the bishop of Rome) of his version of reality, causing friction and division between the Eastern and Western Churches.

This happened in the period after Constantine died in 337 when his three sons divided the empire between themselves. While Emperor Constants in the West supported the views of the Western Church, Emperor Constantius in the East supported the Eastern Church

However, by the year 353, after his brothers had both been killed, Constantius ruled the entire empire. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, “Constantius has frequently been seen as a ruthless and brutal ruler and was painted by later pro-Nicene writers as a persecuter of supporters of Nicaea. The true picture is more complex: within the fourth-century context Constantius was a fairly mild ruler.” (LA, 133) “As his control over the west grew Constantius increased his attempts to get bishops to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.” (LA, 135) “He was not beyond subterfuge and force to achieve public agreement between factions.” (LA, 134)

“When Constantius died in 361 his immediate successor was his cousin Julian.” (LA, 168) “As Emperor, Julian soon became an active non-Christian, repudiating the Christianity that he had earlier professed. In his attempt to undermine the Church Julian tried to foment dissension between groups in the Church—initially by recalling all bishops who had been banished under Constantius.” (LA, 168-9)

The next emperor (Julian) did not choose sides, but he ruled only for three years.

Valens (364–378) succeeded Julian and revived Constantius’ anti-Nicene policy. He also exiled Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used force against them. Consequently, when Valens died in the year 378, the imperial capital of the empire (Constantinople), which by then has existed for 50 years, was solidly ‘Arian’.

Theodosius wiped Arianism out.

Theodosius I succeeded Valens. He and his wife Flacilla were passionate supporters of the Nicene Creed. Flacilla was instrumental in Theodosius’ campaign to end Arianism. Sozomen reports an incident where she prevented a meeting between Theodosius and Eunomius of Cyzicus, who served as figurehead of the most radical sect of Arians. Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa praised her Christian virtues (Roman Catholic Encyclopedia (1909), article “Ælia Flaccilla” by J.P. Kirsch).

Commentators often refer to the First Council of Constantinople, which Theodosius convened in the spring of 381, as the turning point where Arianism was replaced by Nicene Christology, but that council was a mere formality:

Firstly, Theodosius already on 27 February 380, with the Edict of Thessalonica decreed that Trinitarian Christianity would be the only legal religion of the Roman Empire and that Christians teaching contrary views would be punished. Through this edict, Theodosius outlawed all other versions of Christianity.

Secondly, the incumbent bishop of Constantinople was an Arian (a Homoian). Two days after Theodosius arrived in Constantinople, on 24 November 380, and therefore also before the First Council of Constantinople in the spring of 381, he exiled this bishop and appointed Gregory of Nazianzus, the leader of the rather small Nicene community in the city, as bishop over the churches of that city.

Thirdly, only supporters of the Nicene Creed were allowed into the Council of 381. The previous Arian bishop and leaders were already banished and Arians arriving to attend the council were denied admission.

The 381 Council, therefore, was simply a formality. Theodosius, with the strong arm of the empire, effectively wiped out Arianism from the Roman Empire.

Edict of Thessalonica

This edict states:

According to the apostolic teaching
and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in
the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.

We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment, they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles (places of worship) the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict. — Edict of Thessalonica (Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, editor, 1967, p. 22)

The term “Catholic” in this quote means ‘universal’. The word “Catholic” only became part of the name of the Catholic Church in 1054, at the East-West schism.

Summarized, Church historian Sozomen reports as follows on the Edict of Thessalonica:

Gratian bestowed the government of Illyria and of the Eastern provinces upon Theodosius. The parents of Theodosius were Christians and were attached to the Nicene doctrines. Theodosius made known by law his intention of leading all his subjects to the reception of that faith which was professed by Damasus, bishop of ROME, and by Peter, bishop of ALEXANDRIA. He enacted that the title of “Catholic Church” should be exclusively confined to those who rendered EQUAL HOMAGE to the Three Persons of the Trinity and that those individuals who entertained opposite opinions should be treated as heretics, regarded with contempt, and delivered over to PUNISHMENT. (Sozomen’s Church History VII.4)

The First Council of Constantinople was a mere formality.

It was customary, in the fourth century, for emperors, as the real heads of the church, to appoint church leaders and convene church councils. Similarly, Theodosius convened the First Council of Constantinople in the spring of 381. It is also known as the Second Ecumenical Council. ‘Ecumenical’ means it represents all Christian Churches and perspectives, but that was certainly not the case in this instance:

Theodosius already outlawed Arianism in the previous year, with the threat of punishment for people that teach anything different.

Gregory of Nazianzus—the leader of the Nicene party in the city—presided over part of the Council and vehemently opposed any compromise with the Homoiousians (those who believed that the Son’s substance is “similar” to the Father’s). 3Lewis Ayres – Nicaea and its legacy – Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-875505-0. Retrieved 21 October 2011

Arians were not admitted into the council. Theodosius already banished the previous Homoian bishop and leaders. And 36 Pneumatomachians arrived to attend the council but were denied admission when they refused to accept the Nicene Creed.

Gregory resigned from his office and Nectarius, an unbaptized civil official, was chosen to succeed Gregory as president of the council. Nectarius, as a civil servant, was fully under Theodosius’ control.

The Council, not surprisingly, confirmed Theodosius’ installation of Gregory Nazianzus as Bishop of Constantinople, accepted the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 and dogmatically condemned of all shades of Arianism as heresy. 

Contents of the Creed of 381

The Holy Spirit

The 325 Creed merely mentions the Holy Spirit in connection with the Father and Son. It does not refer to the Holy Spirit as theos (“god” or “God”) or that the Spirit is of the same substance as the Father. 

The 381 Creed goes much further. The 5 words about the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed of 325 became 33 words in the Creed of Constantinople, saying that:

      • The Holy Ghost is “the Lord and Giver of life,”
      • He proceeds from the Father and
      • He is worshiped together with the Father and the Son.

The 381 Creed, therefore, describes the Holy Spirit much clearer as a separate Person and as God.

The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “God,” p. 568, states that the teaching of the three Cappadocian Fathers “made it possible for the Council of Constantinople (381) to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which up to that point had nowhere been clearly stated, not even in Scripture.

Note: Catholics are not concerned if their doctrines are not found in the Bible because they believe in continued revelation through the church.

The Trinity

As discussed in the article on the Nicene Creed, the present writer does not find the Trinity concept, namely that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one Being with one single Mind, in the Nicene Creed. It is also absent from the creed of 381.

However, the Edict of Thessalonica of 380, quoted above, which was an act of law by the emperor, made Trinitarian theology law. Compare the opening phrases of the Edict of Thessalonica of 380:

“Let us believe in
the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

With the opening phrase of the Creed of 381:

“We believe in
one God, the Father Almighty …
And in one Lord Jesus Christ …
And in the Holy Ghost”

An edict which Theodosius issued after the Council of 381 is also clearly Trinitarian:

“We now order that all churches are to be handed over to the bishops who profess Father, Son and Holy Spirit of a single majesty, of the same glory, of one splendour” (quoted by Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 1999, p. 223).

In other words, the State laws were Trinitarian while the church creeds lagged behind. The first clear Trinitarian church statement is the Athanasian Creed which was not formulated by a Church Council and originated perhaps 100 years later. The contents of Theodosius’s decrees, when compared to the church decrees, support the main thesis of these articles, namely that the decisions, with respect to which Christology the church will adopt, was made by the emperors; not by ecumenical councils.

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.
  • 2
    Theodosian Code 16:2, 1 Friell, G., Williams, S., Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, London, 1994 – See, Homoousion – Wikipedia
  • 3
    Lewis Ayres – Nicaea and its legacy – Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-875505-0. Retrieved 21 October 2011