The conventional account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty.

Purpose

This article is intended as a summary of a lecture that RPC Hanson gave in May 1981.

Hanson is the author of the 1988 book, ‘The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God’, which is still regarded by many scholars to be the finest work on the Arian Controversy of the fourth century. For example, Dr. Hart, lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen, wrote that nothing exists in the English language, treating the so-called Arian Controversy, that is comparable to RPC Hanson’s book, in either scale or erudition (See Hart).

In the lecture, Hanson states:

“This 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.”

By summarizing his lecture, the purpose of this article is to explain why Hanson described the conventional account of the Arian Controversy as a “complete travesty.” Applicable links in this article will take the reader to the relevant parts of that lecture.

Summary of this Article

The Orthodoxy when the Controversy began

In the conventional account, the controversy began when Arius taught “erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ” (link). This implies that an agreed correct doctrine already existed. 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?’, certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople.” (link)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Holy Spirit

Consistent with the notion that the “orthodoxy” was clear from the start of the Arian Controversy, the conventional account regards the Nicene Creed of 325 as a Trinitarian document.

But that is not true. The emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son with the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being. One indication of this is the lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit in that creed. As Hanson stated, “Until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians.” (link)

Why the Creed of 325 failed

In the conventional account, the controversy continued for another five or six decades after the Nicene Creed of 325 was formulated because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians” (link)

In reality, the controversy continued because 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.” (link)

Simply Two Groups

In the conventional account, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’. But this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.” (link) There was a wide range of views. Essentially, the Arian Controversy was a dispute about the substance of the Son. The range of views included:

      1. Homo-ousians – “Same substance” as the Father;
      2. Hetero-ousians – “Different substance;”
      3. Homo-i-ousians – “Similar substance;” and
      4. Homo-ians – To speculate about the substance of God is arrogance because this is not revealed in the Bible.

Mistakes and Error

In the conventional account, error was confined to the so-called heretics, teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ. In reality, “error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.” (link) “As far as grotesque misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible goes the pro-Nicenes were as distant from accurate interpretation as the Arians.” (link)

In the traditional account, Athanasius is the hero of the orthodoxy. But Hanson noted, “Evidence which has turned up … has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt” (link).

Break with Tradition

In the conventional account of the Arian controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy and incorporated Greek philosophy into their doctrine of God. Actually, it was the other way round: It was Nicene theology that broke away from tradition:

While the pre-Nicene fathers presented Christ as the divine Logos or nous of Greek philosophy; subordinate to the “high God,” Nicene theology elevated Christ to the level of the Father. In this way, Nicene theology broke away from the tradition of Christ as subordinate to the Father and of reliance on Greek philosophy.

Arianism, on the other hand, continued that tradition. As Hanson stated:

“The Arianism of Ulfilas … 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.” (link)

End of the Controversy

In the conventional account of the Arian controversy, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end of that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius already in 380 through the Edict of Thessalonica, which outlawed all forms of Christianity that do not profess the Trinity doctrine.

As Hanson wrote (link):

“Everybody … assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor. …

Theodosius succeeded because … the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church.”

Interpretation of Development?

The principle of Sola Scriptura forces Protestants to prove their beliefs from the Bible. Consequently, in their version of the conventional account of the Arian controversy, Protestants argue that the Nicene Creed is an interpretation of the Bible. In reality, as Hanson stated:

“We must ask whether this doctrine of the Holy Trinity … was an interpretation of the Bible, or whether it should rather be regarded as a development. … I think that a consideration of the whole history of the gradual formation of this doctrine must convince students of the subject that the doctrine of the Trinity is a development …” (link)

END OF SUMMARY

The Conventional Account

The Creed of Constantinople of the year 381 is generally called the Nicene Creed, for it was a revision of the creed formulated at Nicaea in 325 AD. This creed was the answer to the Arian Controversy, which lasted from 318 to 381. Until very recently, in virtually all the text-books, this controversy was described as something like the following:

In AD 318 a presbyter called Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ, to the effect that Christ was a created and inferior god.

When the controversy spread because Arius was supported by wicked and designing bishops such as Eusebius of Nicomedia and his namesake of Caesarea, Emperor Constantine called a general Council at Nicaea which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy.

But owing to the crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians, the controversy continued unabated even after this creed was accepted in ecumenical council.

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.

But Athanasius resolutely and courageously sustained the battle for orthodoxy, almost alone, until in the later stages of the controversy he was joined by other standard-bearers of orthodoxy such as Hilary of Poitiers, Pope Damasus, and the three Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa.

Ultimately, by the aid of 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.

The Orthodoxy when the Controversy began

In the conventional account, “Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ” (link). This implies that an agreed correct doctrine did exist. In reality, as 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?’, certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople” (link).

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

Hanson’s explanation of the pre-Nicene development of the Christian doctrine of God is most informative. He describes this as follows:

The Bible

“The Bible does not give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God, though it gives us the raw material for this” (link).

The Jewish Dominated Church

During the first century, the church was Jewish dominated and professed “the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum.” Consequently, the church did not yet develop “a specifically Christian doctrine of God.” (link)

The Gentile Dominated Church

During the second century, the church became Gentile-dominated. In the Roman culture, Greek “philosophy was still full of vitality and was actively studied … by the great majority of those who called themselves intellectuals.” However, “Greek philosophy required of any religion … that it should give a rational account of itself. If it had a teaching about God, the intellectual tradition of the Late Roman Empire insisted that that teaching should be rational, … consistent, defensible, intellectually acceptable.” Now, “the pressure to produce a specifically Christian doctrine of God became unavoidable.” (link)

The Apologists

“The first attempt at this task was made by the group of writers whom we call the Apologists” (link).

(Since the word “apologist” also has a general meaning, I like to refer to the Apologists of the first three centuries as the pre-Nicene fathers. They are the theologians who had to defend Christianity while it still was being persecuted by the Roman Empire and often had to pay with their lives, e.g. Justin Martyr and Origen.)

“They did not all live in the same place or at the same time. But their common aim resulted in a common pattern of theology” (link).

The Apologists were themselves trained in Greek philosophy and used philosophical terms to explain Christianity; often without reference to the Bible. As Hanson stated:

“They were writing mostly for non-Jews and non-Christians. Such a public demanded philosophical consistency but no very great attention to historical detail nor to the witness of the Bible” (link)

For that reason, similar to the way in which Paul used the altar to the “unknown god” to explain the God of the Bible (Acts 17:23-24), the pre-Nicene fathers “used to great effect several features of contemporary Greek philosophy … to construct their doctrines of God. They identified the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy” (link).

But, for the same reason, they gave “no very great attention … to the witness of the Bible” (link).

Iranaeus and Tertullian “paid much more attention to Scripture … (and) made more room for the Holy Spirit in their doctrine of God … 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” (link).

“Origen produced something like a theological revolution … but he did not alter most of its main features. … 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” (Origen).

This picture of God was 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” (link).

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.” The effect of this “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.” (link)

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

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

Conclusion

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

“They could hardly be said to have developed a recognisably Trinitarian scheme” (link).

In conclusion, although Hanson says that, at the beginning of the controversy, there was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine Jesus is, he does use phrases such as “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God” and “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century.” In other words, there was no agreement on how divine Christ is, but there was agreement that He is not as divine as the Father.

Why the Creed of 325 failed

In the conventional account, the controversy continued for another five or six decades after the Nicene Creed was formulated in AD 325 because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.”

In reality, the controversy continued because 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” (link). For a discussion, see Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

The Holy Spirit

Consistent with the notion that the “orthodoxy” was clear from the start of the Arian Controversy, the conventional account assumes that the Nicene Creed of 325 is a Trinitarian document. But that is not the case. The emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son with the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being. One indication of this is the lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit in that creed. As Hanson stated (link):

“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. … Certainly nobody for the first four centuries had seen the necessity of working out a theology of the Spirit.”

Simply Two Groups

In the conventional account, the bishops and theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’. But this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.” (link)

The Arian Controversy was not only a struggle between two sides: There was a wide range of views. The Wikipedia page on the Arian controversy lists various “sides:”

Homoousians, from the word “homo-ousion” in the Nicene Creed, taught that the Son is of the “same substance” as the Father.

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 early on in the controversy.

The Homo-i-ousians were somewhere midway between the Homoousians and Heteroousians. They also rejected the word Homoousian and maintained that Christ is of a “similar substance” rather than of the “same substance.”

But perhaps the Homoians were the people that rebelled most against the word homoousion, because they claimed that it is utter arrogance to speculate about the substance of God because this is not revealed in the Bible. They demanded Sola Scriptura. The moist that they were willing to say is that the Son is similar to the Father, but without referring to the substance of God.

As indicated by how often the word ousia (substance) appear the names of these “sides,” the Arian controversy was not about the entire Nicene Creed, but specifically about the key word in the creed: Homoousion, meaning same substance. In other words, essentially, it was a controversy about the relationship between the substance of God and the substance of His Son.

End of the Controversy

In the conventional account of the Arian controversy, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end of that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end in the preceding year by Emperor Theodosius through the Edict of Thessalonica, in which he outlawed all forms of Christianity that do not profess the Trinity doctrine. As Hanson wrote (link):

“Everybody … assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor. … 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 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.”

With respect to this “consensus,” Hanson stated:

“The solution did not emanate directly either from Rome or from Alexandria.” “The great articulators of the doctrine of the Trinity, were the three Cappadocian fathers“ (link).

To support this last statement, Hanson mentions an incident in the year 375 where the Pope of Rome and the archbishop of Alexandria opposed Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East. (link)

Mistakes and Serious Faults

In the conventional account, error was confined to the so-called heretics; wicked and designing bishops, teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ. In reality:

“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” (link).

“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.” (link)

“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.” (link)

“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” (link).

Confused Terminology

In the conventional account, the battle lines were clear from the start. In reality (link):

“The repeated confusion caused by the use of the same terms by different writers in different senses … added its own exasperation to the whole dispute.”

”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.”

“In the year 357, Arianism as a relatively clearly thought out doctrinal position emerged for the first time.”

With regard to Hanson’s comment about East” and “West:”

The West, with Rome as main centre, was generally in support of the Nicene creed. However, the easterners described that creed as Sabellian, which is a form of modalism, where the Father and the Son are mere two different faces of one single Person.

The East, where Christianity originated, generally opposed the Nicene Creed and were, for that reason, criticised as Arians by the West.

However, as Hanson pointed out, these views were based on an “equal lack of discrimination and accuracy.” Nevertheless, to an extent, the Arian controversy was a struggle between the East and the West.

As further evidence of confused terminology, Hanson stated:

“But though the fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy, they were by no means consistent in using them. The study of ousia by G.C. Stead in his book Divine Substance has shown how large was the variety of meanings which the Fathers attached to that word” (link).

Break with Tradition / Orthodoxy

In the conventional account of the Arian controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into their doctrine of God. Actually, it was the other way round: It was Nicene theology that deviated from tradition. To explain:

The Tradition

“A major principle in Greek philosophy was that God is immutable … and is only able to communicate with our world of change and decay … through an intermediary.” For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis (a divine logos) as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world.

As discussed above:

The pre-Nicene fathers used this concept to explain Christ to the Gentile world as the divine Logos or nous of Greek philosophy. Hanson explains this as that the pre-Nicene fathers had “the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (link).

As a consequence of this approach, the pre-Nicene Fathers were all subordinationists. Even Tertullian and Origen, who described the Son as of the same substance as the Father, regarded Christ as subordinate to the Father.

Nicene theology

Nicene theology, by elevating Christ to the level of the Father, broke with the tradition of Christ as subordinate to the Father and pushed back on this reliance on Greek philosophy by the pre-Nicene fathers. As Hanson stated (link):

“What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device … In this respect at least they fought an example of the Hellenisation of the gospel, 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.”

However, this means that it was the Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church; not the Arians. (See also: What was the ‘orthodox’ view of God and Christ when the Arian Controversy began?)

Arianism

While Nicene theology pushed back on notions of Greek philosophy, Arianism continued the traditional teaching of the pre-Nicene Fathers of Christ as subordinate to the Father and their reliance on Greek philosophy. As Hanson stated:

“Indeed if we want a beautiful example of Hellenisation of Christianity we can turn to the most extreme of the Arians, Eunomius … who had an unbounded confidence in the capacity of Greek metaphysics … to scale all the heights of knowledge of the divine” (link).

“For the Arians, God cannot communicate himself to man, he can only send a well-accredited messenger” (link)

“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.” (link)

In other words, the subordinationist views of Arianism did not originate from Greek philosophy or from paganism but was a continuation of the pre-Nicene orthodoxy.

Nicene theology still uses Greek thought.

However, to say that Nicene theology was a complete break with Greek Philosophy would not be correct. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and ousia, they also thought Greek thoughts. A key example of this is the Greek notion that God could never come into contact with this corruptible or mortal world. Since this is contrary to the idea that Jesus is God, this Greek notion resulted in strange conceptual maneuvering by the pro-Nicene theologians. As Hanson stated (link):

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

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

“Their ethics were for the most part not the ethics of the Bible … The Stoics had developed a consistent and attractive ethical system, and the Christian theologians found it impossible to resist the temptation … to read this system into the biblical text.” (link)

“More important was their unanimous assumption that ontological immutability is an essential attribute of God, that under no circumstances could God ever be thought of as coming in contact with the transitory and corruptible or mortal; a concept which is quite alien to the conception of God to be found in the Old and New Testaments.” (link)

“This axiom … produced extraordinary results when the pro-Nicene theologians came to envisage the earthly life of Jesus. Almost all the orthodox theologians say that while the Word of course took human flesh, it was not human flesh like ours, but a different sort of purer, sanctified human flesh. Hilary of Poitiers plunges wildly into Docetism at this point: Christ felt the effect of the blow when he was struck, but not its pain, and so on.” (link)

Two Natures Theory

“The Nicene dogma does not entail the Chalcedonian dogma with an iron necessity. On the contrary, the two-nature scheme of Chalcedon might be regarded as drawing back from the full drastic consequences of the Nicene Creed under the influence of a Greek fear of compromising God with human experiences.” (link)

This shows that, even in the year 451, the pro-Nicene fathers were still subject to the principles and thoughts of Greek philosophy.

Interpretation of Development?

In the Protestant version of the conventional account of the Arian controversy, where Sola Scriptura forces Protestants to prove their beliefs from the Bible, the Nicene Creed is claimed to be an interpretation of the Bible. In reality, as Catholics are freer to admit, the creed, for example when it talks about the substance of God, deals with things that have not been revealed in the Bible. As Hanson stated (link):

“The doctrine of the Trinity … began as an attempt to answer the question, how divine is Jesus Christ?, and went on to decide whether God has communicated himself or not. … the Bible does not directly answer either.”

“We must ask whether this doctrine of the Holy Trinity … was an interpretation of the Bible, or whether it should rather be regarded as a development. … I think that a consideration of the whole history of the gradual formation of this doctrine must convince students of the subject that the doctrine of the Trinity is a development …”

“When they profess this doctrine they are not saying precisely what Mark in his first chapter and Paul in the first of Romans were saying, though in different words, just that and nothing more.”

In Hanson’s opinion, not even the high Christology passages of the Bible “give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God” (link).

Inclusion of the Holy Spirit – a development

Modalism (Sabellianism) merged the Persons of the Father and the Son into one Person, but that idea was already evaluated and rejected prior to the Arian Controversy. The debate during the Arian Controversy, with respect to the Son, was how divine He is.

In contrast, with respect to the Holy Spirit, the debate was not whether He/It is divine, but whether He/It is a separate Person. Nicene theology makes Him a separate Person but, as the Cappadocians admitted, that is not clear in the Bible:

“Further, two of the Cappadocians, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, admit silently that the Scriptural evidence for the Spirit as a distinct hypostasis within the Godhead is inadequate. … It was not that the Scriptures did not declare the Spirit to be divine, but in the matter of their witnessing to his existence as an hypostasis, a distinctly recognizable reality, within the Godhead, they were not contradictory, but insufficient.” (link)

This supports the idea that Nicene theology is development, rather than simply an interpretation of the Bible.

Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine
– Available Articles –

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Nicene Creed – AD 325

Fourth Century Arianism

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Fifth Century Arianism

Sixth Century

Later developments

Trinity – General

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