What were the issues in the Fourth-Century Arian Controversy?

The greatest controversy in the church of all time – the Arian Controversy of the fourth century – was a dispute over the identity of Jesus Christ: Is He God or is He subordinate to God?

The controversy began in AD 318 when presbyter Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ.

After this dispute spread over a large part of the Roman Empire, emperor Constantine called a church council in Nicaea in the year 325 where the famous Nicene Creed was formulated.

However, that creed failed to end the controversy. It continued for another 56 years until AD 381 when the Nicene Creed was revised at the Council of Constantinople. So, the controversy lasted from 318 to 381. When it came to an end, all the initial participants in that controversy were already dead.

The purpose of this article is to identify the main issues in that controversy. It addresses the following questions:

    1. What was the orthodox view of Christ when the controversy began?
    2. Why did the Nicene Creed of AD 325 fail to end the controversy?
    3. Did that creed describe God as a Trinity?
    4. What were the competing views?
    5. What role did the emperors play in the controversy?
    6. What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?
    7. How was the Controversy brought to an end?

This article relies, to a great extent, on the writings of RPC Hanson, a bishop and a trinitarian, who made the most extensive investigation of the Arian Controversy available to us today.

1. What was the orthodox view of Christ?

It is often said that Arius and his supporters, motivated by Greek philosophy rather than by the Bible, proposed a dangerous deviation from the orthodox view.

But Hanson stated that, at the beginning of the controversy, nobody knew the right answer and “there was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?”

But that is not entirely true either. There was a kind of orthodoxy on this question:

During the second century, after Christianity became Gentile-dominated, but while Christianity still was outlawed and persecuted by the Roman Empire, it became standard practice in the church to use Greek philosophy to explain who the Son is (see – The Apologists):

Greek philosophy postulated an intermediary between the high God and the physical world. This intermediary was known as the Nous or the Logos. The Apologists – the church theologians in the time before it was legalized in AD 313 – identified the Son of God as the Logos of Greek philosophy. As such, they explained Him as “begotten or produced or put forward by the Father” as His agent for creating the world. 

But that identification of Christ also meant that they described the Son as “a subordinate though essential divine agent.” In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God.

Hanson does not describe this as the orthodox view at the time but as:

The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century,” and as

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century.”

This was, therefore, the standard explanation of Christ when the Arian Controversy began.

“The second-rate or third-rate writers of the period,” Hanson added, even “present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God.” So, Arius’ view of Christ, as a created Being subordinate to the Father, was not a new development, but it was a minority view before the Arian Controversy began.

Arius’ view of Christ was indeed based on Greek philosophy, but that was also not something new: It was the standard practice of all the main Christian authors of the previous two centuries.

In contrast, the Nicene Creed of 325, which emphasizes the equality of the Son to the Father, was a deviation from the “tradition,” which viewed Christ as subordinate to the high God.

2. Why did the Nicene Creed Fail?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the creed of 325 failed to end the controversy because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.”

But Hanson explains that the creed failed because it “ultimately confounded the confusion.” The creed introduced words from Greek philosophy (homoousion and hypostasis) and used these words in such a way as to imply that the Father and the Son are one and the same Reality or Person (hypostasis in the Greek). This is explained below. See – Nicene Creed.

At the council, Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including these concepts from Greek philosophy, the creed created a new and different problem. The controversy continued after 325 because the church had to find a solution to this new problem.

3. Does the Creed of 325 describe God as a Trinity?

No, that creed does not describe God as a Trinity. For example:

Firstly, the creed begins by identifying the Father as the “one God” in whom we believe.

Secondly, the emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son to the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being.

Thirdly, “until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians” (see – Spirit).

Fourthly, “the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity” (see – No Precise formulae), and all three of them were born after AD 325.

4. What were the competing views?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and ‘Arian’. But Hanson describes that as “a grave misunderstanding” (see – Two views). There were at least four competing views:

The pro-Nicenes taught that the Son is of the same substance (homo-ousian) as the Father, as indicated by the Nicene Creed.

Arius and his supporters held that the Son is of a different substance (Hetero-ousian).

Another group that became quite dominant during the controversy rejected “same substance” but argued that Christ is of a similar substance (Homo-i-ousian). 

The view that was finally accepted in the Council of Constantinople in AD 359 (not 381) claimed that it is utter arrogance and sin to speculate about the substance of God (Homo-ians).

The post-325-Arian controversy, therefore, was specifically about the word Homoousion (same substance) in the Creed; not about the entire Nicene Creed.

5. What was the role of the emperors in the controversy?

In this debate, the emperors always had the final say. When the emperor was an Arian, the church was Arian but when the emperor supported the Nicene side, the church followed. The relationship between church and state was very different from what it is today. For all practical purposes, the emperor was the head or Pope of the church. (See Boyd.) For example:

Emperor Constantius (337-361) was an Arian. When a church council in AD 359 did not adopt a view that he supported, he banished some of the delegates. Thereafter, the council adopted a Homoian creed, which the emperor supported.

Emperor Valens (364-378) also was an Arian. He ensured that an Arian is installed as archbishop, banished and imprisoned some pro-Nicene clergy, put them to forced labor, and subjected them to taxes from which Arian clergy were exempt.

Emperor Theodosius (379-395) was a Trinitarian. He took persecution to a different level and made an end to Arianism in the Roman Empire. He issued an edict stating that all Roman citizens must believe in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” He banished the Arian bishops of the main cities in the empire and made laws making it illegal for Arians to preach and to meet. He instructed his soldiers to give all Arian church buildings to Trinitarian bishops.

6. What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into its doctrine of God. But that is not true. The theology of Arius and other Arians was indeed heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. But that was not because they deviated from the tradition: They inherited this reliance on Greek philosophy from the Apologists of the previous two centuries. (see – Divine)

It was Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church by reducing the reliance on Greek philosophy: “What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (see – Destroyed).

But that does not mean that Nicene theology was or is free from the influence of Greek philosophy. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and homoousion, the Nicene theologians also thought Greek thoughts (see – Greek Thoughts).

Furthermore, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism developed to remove all traces of Greek philosophy from itself. Finally, in AD 359, at a council in Constantinople, Arianism adopted the Homoian view according to which we should not say more about the nature of God and of Christ than what we find in the Bible.

The Trinity doctrine, on the other hand, roughly speaking, is that God is three Persons but one Being. That concept of one “Being” comes from the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed, which says that the Son is homoousion (of the same substance) as the Father. This idea is directly borrowed from Greek philosophy.

So, while Arianism eventually was able to rid itself of Greek philosophy, the Trinity doctrine of today is based on Greek philosophy.

7. How was the Controversy brought to an end?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the council of Constantinople in AD 381 made an end to that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius:

Already in the previous year, in February 380, he made the Trinity doctrine law and outlawed Arianism (see – the Edict of Thessalonica).

In November 380, he exiled the Arian bishops of the main centers of the empire.1The Search – pages 804-5

In January 381, he banned all Arian church meetings.2The Search – page 805

Then he called a council to meet in Constantinople but only Trinitarians were allowed to attend.3The Search – pages 805-6

Boyd mentions another decree that was issued later in 381, which stipulated that all churches must be delivered to the bishops who profess the doctrine prescribed by the State.

The Arian Controversy, therefore, was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius. This reflects the absence of separation between church and state. As discussed, in practice, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church.

Conclusions

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.”

Secondly, the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by a church council but by a Roman Emperor and enacted as a Roman law. As such, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church that has accepted that law, has thereby become part of the Roman Empire. Consequently, it received great authority from the Roman Empire but it also served the purposes of the Roman Empire.

Today, the Roman Empire no longer exists but the spiritual children of that church that became part of the Roman Empire still exist. Since that church received its authority from the Roman Empire, its children today continue the authority of that ancient empire.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Purpose

The book, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, by RPC Hanson – a bishop and a trinitarian – first published in 1988, is still considered by many scholars to be the finest work on the Arian Controversy of the fourth century (e.g., Hart).

This article, to a large degree, is based on a lecture that Hanson gave in 1981 in which he explained the Arian Controversy. A copy of that lecture is available on this website. Hanson’s main point in this lecture is that the traditional account of that controversy, to be found till very recently in virtually all textbooks, is a “complete travesty” (see – Travesty). The current article frequently quotes from Hanson’s lecture but it also quotes from his book.

This article provides an overview of the history that begins with the first-century Christian view of Christ and the views of the Christian Apologists in the second and third centuries when Christianity was still outlawed and persecuted by the Roman authorities. Christianity was legalized in the year 313. The controversy began five years later.

This article compares the traditional account of this controversy to actual history.

In this article, I refer to the Nicene view as the view reflected in the creed of 325, as revised in the creed of 381, and as it was later developed further in the subsequent decades, for example, by the two natures theory of the Creed of Chalcedon of 451. Hanson describes the final outcome of this view as follows:

“They 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.” (See – Destroyed)

In the traditional account (see – Traditional):

    • When the controversy began in AD 318, an orthodox view of the nature of God and Christ already existed.
    • But Arius and his supporters, motivated by Greek philosophy rather than by the Bible, proposed a dangerous deviation from that orthodox view.
    • Emperor called for a church council to meet in Nicaea in AD 325 to end the controversy. But that failed to bring the controversy to an end because of crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.
    • Supporters of the orthodoxy, particularly Athanasius of Alexandria, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile.
    • Ultimately, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end to that controversy; right prevailed, and the forces of error and wickedness represented by the Arians were defeated.

First Century

During the first century, Christianity professed “the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum.” The church professed one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person (see Jewish). In other words, at that time, the church simply repeated the words of the New Testament.

The Apologists

During the second century, Christianity became Gentile-dominated. At that time, Greek philosophy still dominated the intellectual world of the Roman Empire, and this intellectual culture required Christianity (and all other religions) to give a rational account of itself and its god (see – Gentile).

During those centuries, while Christianity still was outlawed and persecuted by the Roman Empire, the group of writers whom we call the Apologists accepted the responsibility of explaining the God of the Bible to the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire (see Apologists). Some of them had to pay with their lives, e.g. Justin Martyr and Origen.

A Divine Logos

These Apologists were themselves very familiar with Greek philosophy and (unfortunately?)  used Greek philosophy to explain who Christ is; often without reference to the Bible. Hanson explains:

“They were writing mostly for non-Jews and non-Christians. Such a public demanded philosophical consistency but no very great attention … to the witness of the Bible” (see – Not Bible Based)

A fundamental principle in Greek philosophy is that God is “immutable” and, therefore, unable to communicate directly with “our world of change and decay” (see – Apologists). For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis (a divine logos) as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world (see – Greek Philosophy).

The Apologists used this concept and “identified the pre-existent Christ … with the nous” of Greek philosophy (see – Greek Philosophy). As such, they explained Him as the agent for creating the world and also as the means through which the supreme Divinity revealed himself in the world. Hanson explains that the Apologists had “the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (see – Destroyed).

Subordinate

But that identification of Christ also meant that they described the Son as a subordinate divine agent of the high God. In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God.

Iranaeus and Tertullian put relatively less emphasis on Greek philosophy and “paid much more attention to Scripture … but their fundamental theological structure was the same as that of the Apologists. The Logos was begotten or produced or put forward by the Father as his instrument or tool for communicating with the world, a subordinate though essential divine agent” (see – Irenaeus).

“Origen produced something like a theological revolution … but … he still envisaged the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father” and as “the means whereby the supreme God, the Father, was protected from embarrassingly close relation to the world” (see – Origen).

This does not refer to the Son after His incarnation: In this theory, the pre-existent Son always was subordinate to the High God:

“This … Christian doctrine of God … made Christ … not by reason of his incarnation but by reason of his very nature apart from the incarnation, a defused, depotentiated version of God” (see – Divine).

Theos and Deus

Readers who are familiar with the writings of the Apologists will know that such writings refer to Jesus as “God” and may recognize that that is inconsistent with the Apologists’ view of the pre-existent Son as “a created god lower than the High God.” The words which the Apologists used, which are sometimes translated as “God,” are the Greek word theos and its Latin equivalent deus. Hanson explains:

“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought” (see – Theos).

When theos (or deus) is used to describe the Almighty, it should be translated as “God.” However, since it has “a wide variety of meanings,” when it refers to lower-level beings, it must be translated as “god.”

When translators come across the words theos and deus in the writings of the Apologists and are ignorant of the views of the Apologists as explained above, and read such references through the lens of the later developed Trinity doctrine, in which the Son is equal with the Almighty, they tend to translate such instances of theos as “God.” But that would be an application of the Trinity doctrine and inconsistent with the intention of the Apologists. In their thinking; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God. For further discussion, see – the dedicated article Theos.

The Beginning of the Controversy

In the traditional account:

The controversy began in AD 318 when a presbyter called Arius “was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ” (see – Traditional).

This statement implies that an agreed correct doctrine did exist at that time. In contrast, 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?” (see – Beginning)

Nevertheless, Hanson does describe the view of the Apologists as:

The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was, in differing form, 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” (see – Lasted into the Fourth).

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” (see – Divine).

The phrases such as “traditional … doctrine of God” and “conventional Trinitarian doctrine” imply substantial consensus. There was no agreement on HOW divine Christ is, but there was agreement that He is subordinate to the Father. If we define “orthodoxy” as “generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice,” then the view of the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father was orthodox at that time.

“The second-rate or third-rate writers of the period,” Hanson added, even “present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God.” So, Arius’ view of Christ, as a created Being subordinate to the Father, was consistent with the lower end of the spectrum of views before the Arian Controversy began.

Arius’ view of Christ was indeed based on Greek philosophy, but that was not something he did: It was the general view of all the main Christian authors of the previous two centuries.

In contrast, the Nicene Creed of 325, which emphasized the equality of the Son to the Father, was a deviation from ‘orthodoxy’.

The Creed of 325

Emperor Constantine called a General Council at Nicaea in 325 which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy. However, after the creed was accepted in ecumenical council, the controversy continued unabated.

Why did the creed fail?

In the traditional account, the creed of 325 failed to bring the controversy to an end because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians” (see – Traditional).

But Hanson stated that the creed failed because it:

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” (see – Nicene Creed).

To explain the reference to Sabellianism: The creed anathematizes all “who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance.” In other words, the Son and the Father are one single hypostasis. Hypostasis is often translated as “person” but, to use Hanson’s explanation of the word, the creed implies that the Son and the Father are one single “reality.” This is Modalism, namely, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simply are three modes in which the one God appears. This would mean, for example, that Jesus prayed to Himself. This idea has been proposed and rejected a century before the Arian Controversy began. For further discussion, see Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

So, what happened at the council is that Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including these words from Greek philosophy in the creed, the council created a new and different problem. The Post-325 controversy had to deal with this new problem; not with the Arius-problem.

Why did the creed use such non-Biblical words?

The words ousia, hypostasis, and homoousios originate from Greek philosophy; not from the Bible. One may ask why the council used this terminology:

Firstly, it was standard practice in the church during the previous centuries to explain Christ in terms of Greek philosophy. In other words, the delegates to the council were familiar with these terms.

Secondly, in another article, the most respected theologian at the council (Eusebius of Caesarea) explains that the council accepted these words because the emperor Constantine was present in the meeting, proposed the word homoousios and insisted on its inclusion.

Thirdly, Athanasius explained that the term homoousion was inserted in the Creed – not because it is necessarily the best word – but as a means to force the Arians to reject the Creed.4The Search … p162

The keyword in the 325 Creed is homoousion which means “same substance.” The creed uses it to say that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Hanson states that this word falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after 325 and is not heard of for over twenty years. This implies that this was not a word that the theologians generally were using before 325 and supports the evidence that Constantine proposed and insisted on this word. Most of the delegates were distinctly uncomfortable with this and the other words sourced from Greek philosophy. (See, Eusebius of Caesarea.)

Does the Creed of 325 describe God as a Trinity?

Consistent with the notion that the “orthodoxy” was clear from the start of the Arian Controversy, some assume that the Nicene Creed of 325 described God as a Trinity. But that is not the case:

Firstly, the creed begins by identifying the Father as the “one God” in whom we believe:

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of all things visible and invisible

Secondly, the emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son to the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being.

Thirdly, the creed does not describe the Holy Spirit as God or equal to God. Hanson stated (see – Spirit):

“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.”

“Until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians.”

Hanson also stated that “the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity” (see – No Precise formulae), and all three of them were born after AD 325.

What were the competing views?

As stated, the controversy continues for another 56 years after Nicaea in AD 325. In the traditional account, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided 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” (see – Two views). There were at least four 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.

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 afterward.

Similar Substance – The Homo-i-ousians were somewhere between the Homo-ousians and Hetero-ousians. They also rejected the word Homo-ousion and maintained that Christ is of a “similar substance” rather than of the “same substance.”

Like the Father – The Homo-ians claimed that it is utter arrogance and sin 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 (Col 1:15), but they were not willing to refer to the substance of God.

As indicated by how often the word ousia (substance) appears in the names of these “sides,” the post-325-Arian controversy was not about the entire Nicene Creed. The controversy was specifically about the relationship between the substance of God and the substance of His Son. As such, it was a dispute about the key word in the creed: Homoousion. 

For these reasons, as Hanson indicated (See – Traditional Account), it is not quite accurate to refer to it as the Arian Controversy. The word “Arian” comes from the name of the man Arius and he represented only one of the four parties listed above, namely, the Hetero-ousion party. Furthermore, his party was a minority view.

Nevertheless, this article continues to use the term Arianism as including all “sides” other than the “same substance” side.

What was the role of the emperors in the controversy?

Hanson stated that, as succeeding Emperors joined the anti-Nicenes later in the controversy, the Nicene side of the controversy was almost completely eclipsed (see – Traditional Account). This implies the impact of the emperors on the controversy. In reality, the emperors always had the final say in this debate. 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 or Pope of the church. For example:

Constantius (337-361)

In 359, the western bishops met in Ariminum and accepted a Homoian creed. At the same time, the eastern bishops met in Seleucia and accepted a Homoiousian creed. Emperor Constantius (Constantine’s son) 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 Heteroousians defeated the Homoiousians. However, Constantius did not accept this outcome either and banished some of the delegates. Thereafter the council agreed to the Homoian creed that was agreed to at Ariminum, with minor modifications.

Valens (364-378)

In his book, Hanson explains that emperor Valens was a convinced Homoian Arian and that he used the power of the state to promote his favorite doctrine and suppress others. Hanson mentions several incidents. Valens 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 other clergies were exempt. But, Hanson states, “his efforts at persecution were sporadic and unpredictable.”5The Search, pages 791-792

Theodosius (379-395)

Theodosius succeeded Valens. Theodosius was declared Emperor and Augustus (i.e. equal with, not subordinate to, Gratian) on January 19th 379. In February 380, while residing in Thessalonica, he issued an edict that declared the Trinity to be the official doctrine of the Roman Empire. This edict (not a church council) ordered ALL Roman citizens to believe in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The edict commanded that heretics be punished. On November 24th 380, Theodosius entered Constantinople (the capital of the empire) and instantly drove the Arian bishop of that city out of the city. At about the same time, he also chased the Arian Lucius out of Alexandria. (Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople were the main cities of the empire.) On January 10th 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. For further discussion, see – Theodosius.

Almost Completely Eclipsed

Secondly, note that Hanson states that, eventually, the Nicene side was almost completely eclipsed. In his book (see Table of Contents), Hanson mentions a whole series of councils from 351-359; all trying to find alternatives for the word homo-ousion:

      • Antioch – 341
      • Serdica – 343
      • Sirmium – 351
      • Aries – 353
      • Milan – 355
      • Sirmium – 357
      • Sirmium – 358
      • The ‘Dated’ Creed – 359

In addition, in the year 359, emperor Constantius called three councils and manipulated these councils to formally adopt a Homoian creed (no reference to the substance of God). This brought to an end two decades of creed-making. For the next 22 years, until the Council of Constantinople of 381, no further creeds were made. This does not mean that other views continued to be held and developed, but these views were not discussed or accepted by formal church councils during those two decades.

Mistakes and Faults

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy:

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. Orthodoxy was everywhere attacked and, as succeeding Emperors joined the heretical side, almost completely eclipsed.

This refers particularly to Athanasius, who is regarded by many as the hero of the Arian Controversy. He was exiled five times by four different emperors, spending almost half of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile (see – Blue Letter).

However, Hanson reported:

“The most serious initial fault was the misbehavior of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. Evidence that 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.” (see – Faults)

Furthermore, in the traditional account, the controversy was between orthodoxy and a serious error. 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” (see – Mistakes).

“The Church of the fourth century, after much travail answered this question … in a manner which can best be described as a process of trial-and-error in which the error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.” (see – The Creed)

“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” (see –The Scriptures).

The role of Greek Philosophy

What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?

Arianism

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into its doctrine of God. But that is not true. As already stated, the theology of Arius and other Arians was indeed heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. However, that was not because they deviated from the tradition: As shown above, Arius inherited his reliance on Greek philosophy from the Apologists of the previous two centuries. Hanson stated:

“The Arianism of Ulfilas, of Palladius at the Council of Aquileia of 381, of Eunomius, 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.” (see – Divine)

In other words, Arianism presented the Son as subordinate to the Father because it was a continuation of the pre-Nicene orthodoxy as developed by the Apologists.

Nicene Theology

In contrast, Nicene theology, by describing Christ as equal to the Father, pushed back on the Apologists’ reliance on Greek philosophy. As Hanson stated (see – Destroyed):

“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.”

In the place of this old but inadequate Trinitarian tradition the champions of the Nicene faith substituted another which was more in accordance with the pressure towards monotheism … and that also did justice to the ancient practice of worshipping Christ.”

In other words, it was Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church by reducing the reliance on Greek philosophy.

But that does not mean that Nicene theology was or is free from Greek philosophy. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and homoousion, the Nicene theologians also thought Greek thoughts. As Hanson stated:

“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” (see – Greek Thoughts).

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

“One of the lessons learnt by the bitter experience of the Arian Controversy was that you cannot interpret the Bible simply in biblical terms. … The only alternative language available for interpreting the Bible was that of Greek philosophy.” (see – Greek Thoughts)

“This borrowing from Greek philosophy … exacted a price. The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts.”

More than Arianism

Furthermore, while Arianism began the fourth century as an adaption of Greek philosophy, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism developed to remove all traces of Greek philosophy from itself. To explain:

While the church still was Jewish dominated in the first century, it described Christ simply in terms of what the Bible says about Him. After the church became Gentile dominated in the second century, it began to explain Christ as the nous or logos of Greek philosophy. After the Nicene Council of 325, much further thought and discussion was generated. Eventually, in AD 359, at a council in Constantinople, Arianism adopted the Homoian view according to which we should not say more about the nature of God and of Christ than what we find in the Bible.

The Trinity doctrine, on the other hand, roughly speaking, is that God is three Persons but one Being. That concept of one “Being” comes from the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed. The Creed says that the Son is homoousion (of the same substance) as the Father. This idea of substance (ousia) is directly borrowed from Greek philosophy.

So, eventually, while Arianism eventually was able to rid itself of Greek philosophy, the Nicene view and the Trinity doctrine of today are based on principles from Greek philosophy.

What made an End to the Controversy?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the council of Constantinople in AD 381 made an end to that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius:

In the year before the church council, in February 380, Theodosius made the Trinity doctrine law. He issued the Edict of Thessalonica which required ALL his subjects, whether Christian or not, “to believe ‘the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within … an equal majesty and … Trinity’” (The Search – p804). That edict also prescribed punishment for ‘heretics’. In this way, he outlawed Arianism. 

On November 24th 380, he entered Constantinople and instantly exiled the Arian bishop of that city. At about the same time, the Arian Lucius was chased out of another main city of the empire; Alexandria.6The Search – pages 804-5

On January 10th 381, he issued an edict stating 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.7The Search – page 805

It was only after these edicts that the Emperor summoned a council of the Eastern Church to meet in Constantinople. The 150 bishops who attended appear to have been carefully chosen to be friendly to Meletius, who was its president. The Council met during May, June, and July 381.8The Search – pages 805-6

It amazes me that some people regard this as a valid and important church council, even after non-Trinitarian clergies have been outlawed and exiled and the participants have carefully chosen to support the Trinitarian doctrine of the State.

Compare the wording of Theodosius’ decree with the Creed of Constantinople of the year 381. While the decree still begins with the traditional unitarian opening, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,” the decree prescribes belief in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Theodosius’ decree was much closer to the full Trinity doctrine than that creed was.

Boyd mentions another decree that was issued later in 381, which stipulated that all churches must be delivered to the bishops who profess the doctrine prescribed by the State.

The Arian Controversy, therefore, was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius. As Hanson wrote (see – End of the Controversy):

“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.”

This reflects the absence of separation between church and state. In practice, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church.

Why was Theodosius successful?

Hanson added:

“The end was at last gained when an Emperor had secured a genuine consensus for one point of view and was able to enforce it.”

“Constantine, Constans, Constantius, and Valens … failed (to end the controversy) because … they in fact were not supported by a consensus in the Church at large.” “Theodosius (succeeded) because … the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church. … It succeeded, not because it was coercion but because it was coercion backed by general assent.”

In his book, on pages 802-804, Hanson explains this “consensus.” He relies on a “council which Meletius convened at Antioch in 379.” However, as Hanson noted, “none of the ecclesiastical historians mentions” this council and “we do not know what statement this council promulgated,” but Hanson still thinks that this council “must have been of great significance.” So, Hanson’s evidence for this “consensus” is very weak.

As mentioned, in two of the main centers of the empire (Constantinople and Alexandria), Arianism dominated when Theodosius became emperor. It would, therefore, be fair to say that Arianism dominated the entire empire in general, which argues against Hanson’s idea that Theodosius was backed by a consensus.

Furthermore, if Theodosius was backed by a consensus, why was it necessary for him to eradicate the nonconformists with such brute force and ruthless persecution? Boyd mentions people who were executed as a consequence of Theodosius’ decree. Were those murders also backed by a consensus? For further discussion, see – Theodosius.

In any case, it does not matter whether there was a consensus or not. The main point of this article is that the emperor, as the real head or pope of the church, made the final decisions; irrespective of any consensus. This can best be seen by reading Hanson’s book: The emperors called the councils, appointed the right people to chair the meetings, and intimidated the councils by their physical presence. Afterward, the councils reported back to the emperors, and the emperors accepted or rejected the council decisions.

We conclude that Theodosius was able to make an end to the controversy because, as Boyd stated, “a far more drastic policy toward heresy was pursued by Theodosius.”

Conclusions

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.”

Secondly, the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by a church council but by a Roman Emperor and enacted as a Roman law. As such, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church that has accepted that law, has thereby become part of the Roman Empire. Consequently, it received great authority from the Roman Empire but it also served the purposes of the Roman Empire.

Today, the Roman Empire no longer exists but the spiritual children of that church that became part of the Roman Empire still exist. Since that church received its authority from the Roman Empire, its children today continue the authority of that ancient empire.


Other Articles

  • 1
    The Search – pages 804-5
  • 2
    The Search – page 805
  • 3
    The Search – pages 805-6
  • 4
    The Search … p162
  • 5
    The Search, pages 791-792
  • 6
    The Search – pages 804-5
  • 7
    The Search – page 805
  • 8
    The Search – pages 805-6

Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms

Purpose of this article

The original Nicene Creed, formulated in the year 325 AD, in the condemnations at the end of it, denounces:

“Those who say … that the Son of God is
of a different hypostasis (ὑποστάσεως)
or substance (οὐσιάς)” (Early Church Texts).

CONSTANTINE THE GREAT

“Substance” (οὐσιάς) is transliterated as ousia. In other words, according to the creed, the words hypostasis and ousia are synonyms and the Son of God is both of the same hypostasis as the Father and of the same ousia or substance as the Father. This causes the following anomalies:

(1) While, in the Creed, the Son is of the same hypostasis as the Father, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father and the Son are different hypostases (Persons).

(2) While the Creed uses hypostasis and ousia as synonyms, in the Trinity doctrine, hypostasis and ousia differ in meaning: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three hypostases (Persons) but in one ousia (substance or being).

(3) By describing the Father and the Son as the same hypostasis and as the same ousía, the creed seems to teach Sabellianism (modalism), in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one Person (one mind and one will) wearing three faces or masks, like a single person playing three characters in a theatre. However, Sabellianism has already been rejected before the Nicene Creed was formulated.

To address these anomalies, this article discusses the original meanings of these words and how the meanings changed over time.

Summary

Etymology

Etymologically, ὑποστάσεως (hypostasis) is a direct cognate of οὐσιάς (ousia), just like the English father, German Vater, and Latin pater are cognates. Originally, therefore, hypostasis and ousia had the same meaning.

Greek philosophers

Etymologically, both words meant “that which stands under.” The ancient Greek philosophers used these terms to describe real entities as having substance – “the fundamental reality that supports all else,” in contrast to imaginary entities.

Hebrews 1:3

Hypostasis appears only once in the Bible (Hebrews 1:3), where it has the same meaning as it had for the ancient Greeks, and is translated as “substance” (ASV) or “nature” (NASB).

How did the meaning change?

Since hypostasis originally meant substance, nature, or essence, to explain how and why its meaning changed to “person,” we need to trace this word through history:

First three centuries

In the first three centuries, Christian writers still used hypostasis in the same way as the Greek philosophers did before them, namely to denote “being” or “substantive reality” and as a synonym for ousia (substance).

Nicene Creed

As discussed above, the Nicene Creed used hypostasis in the same way.

Meaning changed to prevent Sabellianism

The council at Nicaea added the word homo-ousios (same substance) to the Nicene Creed on the insistence of Emperor Constantine (Erickson). As indicated by the large number of creeds which the church fathers formulated in the 50 years after Nicaea (see Arian creeds – Wikipedia), particularly to find alternatives for the word homo-ousios, the church reacted quite strongly against the word homo-ousios. One great objection, as explained above, was that the description of the Son as of the same hypostasis and as of the same ousia as the Father teaches Sabellianism.

It was explicitly to neutralize the objection that the creed teaches Sabellianism that Basil of Caesarea (in AD 375) and Gregory of Nyssa (in AD 380) proposed a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía, and that hypostasis be understood to mean person

Theodosius

In 380, through the Edict of Thessalonica and by replacing bishops with people who support his views, and, in the next few years, by exiling and sometimes killing people who opposed the edict, by forbidding them to remain in the cities, to meet, to ordain priests, or to spread their beliefs, and by confiscating their churches, Roman emperor Theodosius eradicated all opposition to his theology, which the edict stated as:

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

This is how the Trinity doctrine was established, namely through the Edict of Thessalonica and the strong arm of the Roman Empire. There-after, the interpretation of hypostasis as meaning “person,” became official church doctrine. 

Conclusions

(1) The meaning of hypostasis did not change over time as a natural process of evolution in how the word was used. Rather, the meaning was changed as a result of an explicit proposal by one theologian that became generally accepted in the church as a means to interpret the Nicene Creed as to not teach Sabellianism.

(2) However, this does not take away the fact that the Nicene Creed describes Jesus Christ and the Father as one hypostasis (person), which implies Sabellianism.

– END OF SUMMARY –

Original Meaning of Hypostasis

Etymology

Etymologically (i.e., relating to the origin and historical development of words and their meanings), ὑποστάσεως (hypostasis) is a direct cognate of οὐσιάς (substance) (See, Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils). This means that these two words have the same linguistic derivation. Examples of other cognates are the English father, German Vater, and Latin pater. Originally, therefore, ὑποστάσεως (hypostasis) and οὐσιάς (substance) had the same meaning.

In Greek Philosophy

Both ousía and hypostasis, originally, meant “that which stands under.” The ancient Greek philosophers used these terms to describe real entities as having substance – “the fundamental reality that supports all else,” in contrast to imaginary entities:

“Hypostasis is the underlying state or underlying substance and is the fundamental reality that supports all else” (Hypostasis – Wikipedia)

In Hebrews 1:3

Hypostasis appears only once in the Bible, namely in Hebrews 1:3;

His Son … is the exact representation
of His
(God’s) υποστασις (hypostasis).”

Although hypostasis, today, is commonly interpreted to mean “Person,” in this verse, it is translated as “substance” (ASV) or as “nature” (NASB). In this verse, therefore, hypostasis has the same meaning as it had for the ancient Greeks. Similarly, Strong’s Greek: 5287 – ὑπόστασις (hupostasis) explains it as meaning “a support, substance, steadiness, hence assurance.”

How did the meaning change?

Since hypostasis originally meant “substance, nature, or essence,” how and why did its meaning change to “person?”

The meaning of hypostasis did not change over time as a natural process of evolution in how the word was used. Rather, the meaning was changed as a result of an explicit proposal by one theologian that became generally accepted in the church as a means to interpret the Nicene Creed as to not teach Sabellianism. To explain this, we need to trace the history of this word:

First Three Centuries

In the first three centuries, Origen and other Christian writers used hypostasis in the same way as the Greek philosophers did before them, namely to denote “being” or “substantive reality.” They used hypostasis as a synonym for ousia (substance). (Ramelli, Ilaria (2012). “Origen, Greek Philosophy, and the Birth of the Trinitarian Meaning of Hypostasis”. The Harvard Theological Review. 105 (3): 302–350.doi:10.1017/S0017816012000120.JSTOR 23327679, p. 302-350.)

For a definition of ousia, see, for example, Homoousion – definition of Homoousion by The Free Dictionary or οὐσία in Liddell & Scott.

Nicene Creed – 325

As discussed above, this is also how hypostasis was used in the anathemas appended to the Nicene Creed.

Five decades after Nicaea

The meaning of hypostasis was changed during the five decades after Nicaea. The council added the word homo-ousios (same substance) on the insistence of Emperor Constantine (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997), p15) God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85.

As indicated by the large number of creeds which the church fathers formulated in the 50 years after Nicaea (see Arian creeds – Wikipedia), particularly to find alternatives for the word homo-ousios (see Fourth Century Arianism or Arianism – Wikipedia), the church reacted quite strongly against the word homo-ousios:

At the time, one main argument against the word homo-ousios was, with respect to words such as “Latin substantia, but in Greek ousia,” “that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them and that they are above men’s knowledge and above men’s understanding” (Fourth Century Christianity – Second Creed of Sirmium – 358). This is called Homo-ianism (see Acacians – Wikipedia). RPC Hanson lists twelve creeds from the fourth century that reflect the Homoian faith (Hanson R. P. C. 2005, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 AD. A&C Black. ISBN 978-0-567-03092-4, pp. 558–559)

But another great objection, as explained above, was that the description of the Son as of the same hypostasis and of the same ousia as the Father teaches modalism. It was explicitly to counter the suspicion that the creed teaches modalism that supporters of the Nicene Creed proposed a new meaning for hypostasis:

Basil of Caesarea (AD 375)

The first person to propose a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía, and for using hypostasis as a synonym of person, was Basil of Caesarea, namely in his letters 214 (AD 375 – Letter 214) and 236 (AD 376 – Letter 236) (See also Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils or Turcescu, Lucian (1997). “Prosopon and Hypostasis in Basil of Caesarea’s “Against Eunomius” and the Epistles”. Vigiliae Christianae. 51 (4), JSTOR 1583868, p. 374-395.) In both letters, his main motive was to neutralize the objection of the opponents of the Nicene Creed that, to speak of the Father and the Son as one hypostasis, is Sabellianism (modalism).

Gregory of Nyssa (AD 380)

After Basil of Caesarea, in c. 380, Gregory of Nyssa devotes his letter 35 to the difference between ousía and hypostasis (Letter-35).

Emperor Theodosius (AD 380)

As stated, during the five decades after Nicaea, the church opposed the Nicene Creed and formulated various alternative creeds, each proposing alternatives for the word homo-ousios in the Nicene Creed (See Arian creeds – Wikipedia). In 380, Emperor Theodosius made an abrupt end to all resistance to the Nicene Creed.

Before Theodosius became emperor, as indicated by the contents of the creeds of that period (See, Arian creeds – Wikipedia), the Nicene supporters were in the minority. When he became emperor, “Arianism was widespread in the eastern half of the Empire” (Williams, Stephen; Friell, Gerard (1994). Theodosius: The Empire at Bay. B.T. Batsford Ltd. ISBN 0-300-06173-0, pp. 46–53).

In February 380, the 23-year-old emperor, through the Edict of Thessalonica, declared:

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

“This edict was the first known secular Roman law to positively define a religious orthodoxy” (Errington, R. Malcolm (2006). Roman Imperial Policy from Julian to Theodosius. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-3038-0, p. 217.)

Enforcement

The Edict of Thessalonica authorized imperial punishment for those who oppose it.

On 26 November 380, two days after he had arrived in Constantinople, Theodosius expelled the Homo-ian bishop (See Theodosius I – Wikipedia). (The Homo-ians are the people who refused to get involved in the debate about the substance of God because His substance is not revealed in the Bible. See Acacians – Wikipedia.)

Through persecution, Theodosius destroyed all resistance to the Trinity doctrine:

“In January of the following year (381), another edict forbade the heretics to settle in the cities.” (Boyd, The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code, page 45) (cf. Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 1999, p. 223).

“In the same year, after the reformulation of the Nicene doctrine by the Council of Constantinople … the procouncil of Asia was ordered to deliver all churches to these bishops ‘who profess that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one majesty and virtue'” (Boyd, pages 45-46 or Rubenstein).

In 383, the Emperor ordered the various non-Nicene sects (Arians, AnomoeansMacedonians, and Novatians) to submit written creeds to him, which he prayerfully reviewed and then burned, save for that of the Novatians, who also supported Nicene Christianity. The other sects lost the right to meet, ordain priests, or spread their beliefs (Boyd, page 47).

“The execution of Priscillian and his followers may be cited as typical of the treatment of heretics conditions in that time.” In 384, Priscillian was condemned by the synod of Bordeaux, found guilty of magic in a secular court, and put to death by the sword with a number of his followers (Boyd, pages 60-61 or The Edict of Thessalonica | History Today)

382 Synod Letter

After Theodosius destroyed all resistance, the interpretation of hypostasis as meaning “person,” became official church doctrine:

In 382, the bishops in Constantinople, to argue that their belief is not Sabellianism, sent a letter to the western bishops in which they used the phrase, “three most perfect Hypostases, or three perfect Persons” (Papal Encyclicals).

Overview of the Historical Development
of the Trinity Doctrine

This topic is addressed through a series of articles on this website. The current article is one of the links in the chain:

Arian or Unitarian?

Strictly speaking, Arianism refer to the teachings of Arius (e.g., Definition of Arianism by The Free Dictionary). But his was only one of many views during the Arian controversy of the fourth century (AD 318-381). Nevertheless, Trinitarians often refer to anything that opposes the Trinity doctrine as Arian. Due to this ambiguity, I avoid the term Arian.

Rather than Arianism, I prefer the term Unitarianism (from Latin unitas “unity, onenes). This term is often defined negatively, for example, “a part of the Christian Church that does not believe in the Trinity” (Cambridge Dictionary). But I like to define this term as the teaching that only the Father is God Almighty. As I read the Bible, God created all things through His Son (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6), maintains the universe through His Son (e.g., Heb 1:3), gave His Son to have life in Himself (John 5:26) and to have the fullness of deity (Col 1:19). However, in my view, in the Bible, only the Father is Almighty (e.g., Rev 21:22). (See, for example, the articles Subordinate and Almighty.) (By the way, I do not belong to any church or religious group. That means that I am a bit freer to form and express independent views.)

The Nicene Creed is Unitarian.

The Trinitarian concept, in a rudimentary form, was one of the views presented at Nicaea and became the basis for the Nicene Creed. However, on the insistence of emperor Constantine (see Erickson or The role of Constantine at Nicaea), words related to the substance of God (homo-ousios and ousia) were added to the decree. However, in spite of the claims of Trinitarians, the Nicene Creed is not Trinitarian. (See the article Nicene Creed.) Consistent with the views of the church fathers of the first three centuries, it still is a Unitarian statement of belief. For example, it begins as follows:

We believe in one God,
the Father Almighty, …

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God

The term homo-ousios does not mean that the Son share the same substance (being) as the Father (numerical sameness). Rather, it means that the Son has a different substance (being) that is exactly equivelent to the Father’s substance (numerical sameness) Philip Schaff (History of the Church volume 3, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition, pp.672-673) stated:

The term homoousion … differs from monoousion. .. and signifies not numerical identity, but equality of essence or community of nature among several beings. It is clearly used thus in the Chalcedonian symbol, where it is said that Christ is “homoousios with the Father as touching the Godhead, and homoousios with us [and yet individually distinct from us] as touching the manhood.” The Nicene Creed does not expressly assert the singleness or numerical unity of the divine essence … the main point with the Nicene fathers was to urge … the strict divinity and essential equality of the Son … with the Father.[Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.]

But even qualitative sameness does not mean that the Son is equal with the Father for, as the article on the Nicene Creed shows, there are a number of indications in the creed itself that shows that it views the Son as subordinate to the Father. To explain this in analogy to human beings: We are homo-ousios (of the same substance) but we are not equal.

Arian or Homo-ousian controversy?

People often refer to the great controversy of the fourth century as the Arian controversy. I do not agree with this term either because, as stated, Arius’ view was only one of a number of alternative views of the nature of Christ. It also was not the dominant view. The dominant view was Homoian. For example, the creeds formulated at the councils of Sirmium in 358, Ariminum in 359 and the key council at Constantinople in 359 / 360 were homoian, which is that it is inappropriate for us to speculate about the substance of God. 

Particularly during the 50 years after Nicaea, I prefer to refer to the controversy as the homo-ousian controversy because the controversy was particular about the word homo-ousios. This can be seen from the many creeds formulated in that period. (See Arian creeds – Wikipedia.) In that period, various views were proposed with respect to the nature of Christ (Christology) which divided the church – similar to the way that the church is today divided into denominations.

Branches of Christianity

These views were:

(1) Father and Son share one single ousia (substance). – This aligns with the Trinity doctrine as it later developed. 

(2) The Son has His own substance, but His substance was exactly equivalent to the Father’s (qualitative sameness). – This might imply 

(3) The Son has His own substance, which is very similar to the Father’s (Homo-i-ousian – Wikipedia), but different.

(4) Jesus is hetero-i-ousios with the Father (different substance). (See Anomoeanism – Wikipedia.) This, more or less, was Arius’ view.

(5) He is homo-ian (or homo-ean), which means similar to the Father without reference to substance. It is this view that held that it is inappropriate for us to speculate about the substance of God. (See Homo-eanism.)

For a discussion of these views, see, Homoousion – Wikipedia or my article Arianism.

Blasphemy of Sirmium

Perhaps the high point of this rejection of Nicaea was the Second Creed of Sirmium which Trinitarians refer to as the Blasphemy of Sirmium, This was a homo-ian statement which concluded:

“Many persons are disturbed by questions concerning what is called … in Greek ousia (substance). … There ought to be no mention of any of these at all … for this reason … that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them.”

Of the various views during the 50 years after Nicaea, Homo-eanism seems to have been dominant. RPC Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God) lists twelve creeds from that period that reflect the Homoean faith. And when Theodosius came to power, the bishop in the Capital of the empire (Constantinople) was Homoean (as the current author is also). 

Theodosius

But, as discussed above, as from the year 380, the 23-year old emperor Theodosius not only supported the Nicene Creed; he supported the Trinitarian interpretation of the Nicene Creed and made it law through the Edict of Thessalonica. By the strong of the empire, he ensured compliance within the Empire. This eradicated all opposition the Trinity doctrine among the elite in the Empire, but the Germanic peoples remained Unitarians. (See also Theodosius.)

Fifth Century

In the next (fifth) century, the Germanic people, who remained Unitarian, took control of the Western Empire, including Rome. Now the Western Empire was again Unitarian dominated but the Eastern Empire, with Constantinople as capital, remained Trinitarian. See Fall of the Western Roman Empire and Fifth Century Arianism

Sixth Century

In the sixth century, the eastern emperor Justinian sent troops to the West, significantly weakened the Unitarian Germanic nations, and established control over the West through the Byzantine Papacy, a period of about two centuries during which the eastern emperors effectively ruled the West through the Papacy. (See Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy.) In this way, Unitarianism was eventually eradicated also among the Germanic peoples and the Trinity doctrine established.

The role of the Emperors

In conclusion, from the above and the other articles in this series, it should be clear that the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by the church; it was made by the Roman Emperors.

Why the emperors controlled the church

It is important to understand that the empire consisted of a very large number of diverse nations and that the main task of the emperors was to keep the empire united.

One should also appreciate that religion has a terrible power over people. For the emperors, religion, potentially, was both an asset and a liability. Religion can split the empire but an universal religion with strong links to state could help to keep the empire united.

That helps to explain why the emperors persecuted Christianity during the first three centuries and why, when they realised that Christianity is here to stay, they legalised it but also maintained control over it. The emperors used religion (both paganism and Christianity) to control the people but they not afford a split in the church. Their decisions to adopt one or the other doctrine, were at least partly motivated by their desire to maintain unity in the empire.

“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, and if necessary, secular authority might be exercised for its suppression” (Boyd, p34).

“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).

How the emperors governed the church

Emperors called church councils and even presided over some of the councils; for example, Constantine and the council at Niceaea.

Emperors maniupulated the decisions of the councils. For example, Constantine insisted on the inclusion of the term homo-ousios in the Nicene Creed. As another example, Constantius

“Constantine established the precedent for imperial intervention in ecclesiastical affairs … while Gratian and Theodosius finally and decisively fixed the alliance of the state with ecclesial creed and persecution” (Boyd, p33).Emperors issued .

With this background, consider the role which the emperors played:

The Emperors and the Trinity Doctrine

The emperors took the decision for the church to adopt the Trinity doctrine. In brief:

The Nicene Creed, basically was a Unitarian document, but the references to the substance of God (homo-ousios and ousia), on which Constantine insisted, were inspired by views that are aligned to the Trinity doctrine.

Later, Constantine changed his view and allowed the .

Constantine did not understand must about the debate, describing it as “small and very insignificant questions” (Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55). Nevertheless, he called the Council at Nicaea (325), chaired the meeting, participated in the debate, proposed the controversial phrase homo-ousios, insisted on its inclusion and exiled the bishops who refused to sign the decree (Useful resources include: (a) Britannica, (b) Bible.ca, (c) Erickson (d) Graham).

“In 350 Constantius became sole ruler of the empire, and under his leadership the Nicene party was largely crushed” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Arianism, Vol. I, p.509 (Bible.ca – search for Constantius). According to the Wiki page on Arian controversy, at the 359 council in Constantinople, the voting did not go to Constantius’ liking. Constantius simply banished one of the leaders of the winning group (Aëtius). After that, the council agreed the homoian creed.

Constantius did not support the Trinity doctrine, but his example shows the decisive impact of emperors on the debate in the church.

Above, we described how the young man Theodosius declared, through the Edict of Thessalonica, the Trinity doctrine as the only legal religion, and with the power of the Roman Empire behind him, eradicated all opposition.

This is the information age. Through internet and other sources, information is available as never before. Through research, people are rolling back the clouds of darkness that built up during the Middle Ages.

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries

Extract from important books