Was the creed of AD 381 an update of the Nicene Creed of 325?



I found this question on Stackexchange and posted a response to it. I copy my response below because I believe it is important to understand how thoughts developed during the Arian Controversy.

The question correctly stated that when people talk about “the Nicene Creed,” they often mean the creed formulated at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. 

But the question also quoted Britannica, saying that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 “was probably … an independent document and not an enlargement of the Creed of Nicaea.

My Answer

The Arian Controversy

As the other answers already indicate, the description of the Son as homoousion (of the same substance) with the Father, is found for the first time in the Nicene Creed of 325. After Nicaea followed a period of intense controversy. As indicated by the following names of the sides in that controversy, the dispute was not about the entire creed, but specifically about the word homoousion:

    1. Homoousian = Same Substance,
    2. Homoiousian = Similar Substance,
    3. Heteroousian = Different Substance,
    4. Homoian = In this view, we should not talk about God’s substance because that is not revealed in the Scriptures.

(See the Wikipedia page on the Arian Controversy for more detail.)

Since that same controversial and unscriptural word appears in the creed of 381, that creed was an update of the 325-creed. As the question also noted, the Wikipedia page on the Nicene Creed compares the two creeds and shows huge similarities.

However, rather than saying that Britannica is wrong, I propose we understand the quote from Britannica differently. To explain:

Confounded the confusion

The 325-creed was formulated near the beginning of the Arian Controversy but it only served to increase the confusion:

“The creed of Nicaea, sanctioned by imperial decree … only added increased confusion and complication to the problem it was intended to solve.” (Boyd, p38)

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, 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 heresy even at that period.” (Hanson)

50 Year Arian Controversy

This resulted, then, in that huge controversy for the next 50 years when the church rejected the Nicene Creed and proposed various alternatives. For example:

“A string of councils began to be called in which the formula of Nicaea was called into question and even drastically modified.” (Steven Wedgeworth)

“In 357 a council held in Sirmium in Illyria forbade the use of ousia (nature) in speaking of the relationship between the Father and the Son. With this, the homoousios of Nicaea became a dead confession.” (A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, p117)

That 357-creed stated:

“No one can doubt that the Father is greater in honor and dignity and Godhead, and in the very name of Father, the Son Himself testifying, ‘The Father that sent me is greater than I’ (John 10:29, 14:28) … the Father is greater, and the Son subordinated to the Father.”

At another council at Seleucia in 359, the majority accepted a “similar substance” (Homo-i-ousian) creed, saying that the substance of the Son is similar to the substance of the Father.

But emperor Constantius requested a third council, at Constantinople, of both the eastern and western bishops, to resolve the split at Seleucia. At first, that council accepted a Heteroousion (different substance) creed, but after the emperor exiled some of the leaders of that view, the council reverted to a homoian creed.

For more information, see Arian controversy – Wikipedia.

Cappadocian Fathers

My point is that, during that 50-year period, while the Nicene Creed was rejected by the church, Athanasius kept on working vigorously in defense of the Nicene Creed. At the end of his life, his cause was taken up by the three Cappadocian fathers, who were all born after the Nicene Creed of 325 was formulated. However, they did more than just to defend the Nicene Creed. Rather, they developed new theories.

Firstly, they redefined the word hypostasis in order to deal with the confusion caused by the Nicene Creed:

“It was mainly under the influence of the Cappadocian Fathers that the terminology was clarified and standardized so that the formula “three hypostases in one ousia” came to be accepted as an epitome of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.” (González, Justo L. (1987). A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. p. 307.) (Hypostasis)

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


I propose, therefore, that although the creed of 381 reads very similar to the creed of 325, we understand the Brittanica-statement to say that the Arian Controversy stimulated a huge jump in the development of the Trinity doctrine and that, what the authors of the 381 creed meant by that creed is significantly different from what the authors of the 325 creed meant.

Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine
– List of articles in the series –

Nicene Creed: The meaning of: “He is of another substance or essence”


In the 325 Nicene Creed, what is the meaning of the phrase:

“He is of another substance or essence?”

The Anathemas

The views that are condemned in the last part of the Nicene Creed may be divided as follows:

      1. There was a time when he was not (Wikipedia). Or probably more literally, “There was when He was not” (Earlychurchtexts).
      2. He was not before he was made.
      3. He was made out of nothing.
      4. He is of another substance or essence,
      5. The Son of God is created, or changeable, or alterable.

The first two anathemas are about WHEN He began to exist. The affirmations earlier in the creed do not say anything specific in this regard but do state that all things came to be through Him. If we assume time is included in “all things,” then that would affirm that there was no “time when he was not.”

The third anathema is about OUT OF WHAT He came to exist. Rather than “out of nothing,” as in the anathemas, the affirmations say that He is “begotten of the Father … that is, of the essence (ousia) of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.”

My question relates to the fourth anathema. What is the meaning of the Greek word or phrase in this phrase that is translated as “of?” Stated differently, is this condemnation also about OUT OF WHAT substance He came to be, or is it about the substance HE CONSISTS OF?

Just reading the English, the following seems to indicate that this condemnation is about OUT OF WHAT substance He came to be:

(a) Just like the first two anathemas form a pair, it seems as if the third and fourth anathemas also form a pair.

(b) The phrase “He is of another substance” seems to be the opposite of the affirmation, He is “begotten … of the essence of the Father.”

(c) Earlier in the creed, it is said that the Son is “God of God” (Wikipedia). In this phrase, “God” describes WHAT the Son is and “of” describes OUT OF WHAT He came to exist. If the word “of” has the same meaning in the fourth anathema, then that anathema may be about OUT OF WHAT He came to exist.

Alternatively, this anathema could relate to the word homoousion in the body of the creed. In that case, it would be a statement about the substance HE CONSISTS OF.

Why do I ask this question?

I ask this question because I am trying to work out what exactly the main issue of the debate was at Nicaea.

Given that 80% of the words of the creed are about Christ, they did not argue about the Father or about the Holy Spirit. The dispute was only about Christ. But what was the main dispute?

Firstly, the anathemas state that He ALWAYS EXISTED, but that is not explicitly mentioned in the body of the creed. So, I assume that that was not the main point of dispute.

Secondly, most of the text about Christ in the affirmations are about HOW HE CAME TO EXIST,  namely:

“Begotten from the Father,
that is, from the substance of the Father,
God from God,
light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten not made.”

I do not think that this quote refers to Christ’s substance. It only refers to the substance out of which He was begotten. The third anathema contains a similar statement, namely that He did not come into existence out of nothing. Given the emphasis on this point in the creed, I would assume that this was the main matter of dispute.

Thirdly, the affirmations contain the statement that He is homoousion with the Father. This now refers to His own substance; not to the substance out of which He was begotten. But this statement seems quite isolated. Unless the fourth condemnation relates to the word homoousion, nothing else in the creed refers directly to His own substance. It is for that reason that I am trying to work out what the statement, that “He is (not) of another substance or essence,” means:

    • That He is begotten out of the substance of the Father, or
    • That he has the same substance as the Father.

Is this a stupid question?

Many people would regard this as a meaningless question and simply read the creed in terms of how it was later explained. But, as Hanson stated, the Nicene creed, at the time:

“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.”

Boyd also stated that:

“The creed of Nicaea … only added increased confusion and complication to the problem it was intended to solve.”

As discussed in my answer on the question, Why ousia and hypostasis were synonymous in the Nicene Creed:

Before the Christian era, ousia and hypostasis had the same meaning. Ancient Greek philosophers used these terms for the fundamental reality that supports all else. (link)

In contrast, in the Trinity doctrine, hypostasis means person and ousia means substance or essence. This change in the meaning of hypostasis did not occur over time as a natural process of evolution. Rather, it was explicitly to counter the suspicion that the creed teaches modalism that supporters of the Nicene Creed proposed a new meaning for hypostasis. (link)

For that reason, it is appropriate for us to analyze and interpret the Nicene Creed of 325 in the context of the meanings that words had at that time.


This is a question I posted on Stackexchange. This is really a question about the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed. It is known that that word was inserted into that creed on the insistence of Emperor Constantine. For example:

Jörg Ulrich wrote:

“Homoousious” and “from the essence of the Father” were added to the creed by Constantine himself, bearing witness to the extent of his influence at the council. (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)

And the pro-Trinitarian site Bible.CA Trinity: The role of Constantine in the Nicene creed admits:

Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term “homoousios“. The emperor favored the inclusion of the word homoousios, as suggested to him by Hosius. The emperor at first gave the council a free hand, but was prepared to step in if necessary to enforce the formula that his advisor Hosius had agreed on with Alexander of Alexandria. (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)

What I suspect is that a proper analysis of the 325 creed will show that the word homoousion does not fit in the creed. The reader may want to follow the responses to my question and even also respond on Stackexchange.

Notice that this phrase, “He is of another substance or essence” is also the phrase that uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.