An Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity – Fr. Thomas Hopko

Purpose

This is a summary of a well-known talk on the Trinity by a well-known Eastern Orthodox theologian, Father Thomas Hopko. I added some comments. I do not agree with everything which Hopko says, but I think he did a brilliant job of reconciling the ancient creeds with the Bible. The reader is advised to listen to that podcast before reading this article. But first, I would like to argue why we should listen to the Eastern Orthodox Christians:

The Eastern Orthodox Church

The beliefs of Eastern Orthodoxy is important because Christianity originated in the Eastern Roman Empire (in Judea) and because most of the Christian theologians of the first centuries, like Athanasius, Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine of Hippo were from the Eastern Roman Empire, including Africa. For that reason also, most of the delegates at Nicaea in 325 AD were from the Eastern Roman Empire (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85). However, the Muslim conquests of the seventh century and later significantly weakened the church in the east. At the same time, the church in the Western Roman Empire – the Church of Rome – became a powerful force in Europe. For that reason, the theology of the church in the Western world today has been inherited, largely, from the Church of Rome.

There always were theological differences between the east and the west. For example, over the day on which Passover should be celebrated and the filioque controversy. As another example, at the Council of Sardica, somewhere in 342 to 347, many Eastern bishops left the meeting to hold another council in Philippopolis because they were fearing domination of the council by Western bishops (Pavao, p120). Pavao claimed that “Arianism was exclusively an eastern phenomenon even prior to Nicea” (Decoding Nicea, p115). Consequently, the development of theology in the east followed a different path than in the west. Furthermore, the persecution that the church in the east suffered over the centuries stifled the development of doctrines. The church in the east, for that reason, retained the theology of the early church to a greater extent.

For these reasons, I propose, it is important that we understand how the Eastern Orthodox Church understands the Trinity.

Summary

In this section, I summarize Hopko’s talk. According to Hopko:

The Trinity

The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity or Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.

Jesus Christ

synagogue official came and bowed downJesus of Nazareth is “the Christ; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). He is not created but begotten timelessly of the Father before all ages. Therefore, He is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. As the Nicene Creed says, “God from God, true God from true God … homoousios” with the Father. The term homoousios might be better translated as “who is of the same divinity as the one God who is His Father.”

He is the Logos (Word) and Wisdom and Icon (Image) of God. Since John 1:1c means that the Word is divine with the same divinity as God, it should be translated as “and the Word was divine.”

The One God

The one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. To say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity is Modalism. We may use the terms tri-personal or tri-hypostatic divinity but there is no tri-personal God.

Of God

As the Son is the Logos and Wisdom OF God and the Spirit OF God, the Son and the Spirit belong to the Father.

Never Separated

The one true and living God, who is the Father Almighty, has never been and will never be separated from His Son and His Spirit. He would be God without the hundred billion galaxies but He would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit. He has with Him eternally His Son and His Holy Spirit.

One divinity

The church fathers would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. As there is one God – the Father, there is one divine nature. Since the Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed), His divinity is the Father’s divinity (or nature). The divinity of the Holy Spirit is also the Father’s divinity.

Hopko never explicitly describes the Son as part of God but he does quote Irenaeus saying that the Son and the Spirit are the two hands of God. And at another point, he implies that the Son is “an element of the divinity and being of God.”

Act as One

The Father, Son, and Spirit act as one. Every activity of God (creation, sanctification, redemption, etc.) comes from the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit comes forth from God by the manner of procession; He proceeds from Him. He is not another Son.

The Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father AND the Son together; He proceeds from the Father alone. The Spirit is also the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. Everything that the Son has, divinely or humanly, He has received from the Father. From the Son, the Spirit then proceeds to us. The Son is the agent of all of the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit.

Hypostases

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.

Incarnation

Jesus as human babyThis very one who is begotten of the Father is born as a man (as a human being) from the virgin Mary. The Logos is NOT so perfectly divine, as some say, that He cannot become flesh; that He cannot become man. As the Nicene Creed says, He became flesh (incarnate) AND He became human (was made man). He is a real human being but He is not a mere human being. He is the divine Son of God who is also Mary’s son, who is a real human being just like we are.

He is divine with the same divinity as the one and true living God AND He is human with the humanity which all men and women have.

That is why He has two natures, meaning that He is fully divine but also fully and completely, truly human.

While the Godhead are three divine hypostases (Persons) with one divine nature, Jesus Christ is one hypostasis (one Person) with two natures because divine.

Conclusion

The Holy Trinity is the tri-personal Godhead; the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ, and the one Holy Spirit in perfect unity.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Hopko’s Talk

In this section, I provide a summarized transcript of Hopko’s talk which I typed myself. Perhaps the reader will be able to listen to the talk while reading this. I added headings, comments, and text references.

The Trinity

The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity – the tri-personal Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.

Importance of the Trinity

The dogma of the Holy Trinity is often called the dogma of dogmas, like the Lord of Lords, or King of kings.

Saint Gregory, the theologian, said that, when it comes to various other doctrines, not to get it completely totally accurate is not supremely dangerous for the salvation of souls, but when it comes to God – how the one God and Father relates to the only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit, if you don’t get that right, everything else is skewed, for all the other doctrines are rooted and grounded in the right understanding of the relationship and the communion that exists between the one God and Father, and His one only-begotten Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The word Trinity

“Trinity” is not a Biblical word. It is a word that emerged in Christian history – very early – in the second and third centuries.

Who is Jesus?

The Trinity can only be properly understood when we begin with contemplating the Person of Jesus. The Trinity doctrine is the elaboration or outgrowth of the confession of who and what Jesus is.

Who Jesus is, is rooted and grounded in the gospel itself. The main question of the gospel is, “Who do you say I am?” That is the main question which Jesus asks in the gospels. After preaching, teaching, doing His miraculous signs – after He does all the things that the Scriptures said that the Messiah would do when he came, namely to bring the kingdom of God to the world and to bring all created beings in perfect harmony with the uncreated (God), Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?

COMMENT: Here, Hopko says much more than what I typed. I think his argument is that God, through Jesus, when “the end” comes, will restore perfect peace in all the universe (1 Cor 1:24) and that the world had a foretaste of this when He was on earth. We see that in how He healed people and how He controlled the winds and the waves of nature.

In response, Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the messianic prophet, priest and king; the Christ; the Son of the living God; the Lord. Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnate Word of God; the Logos and wisdom of God in human flesh. He is the Son of God; begotten of the Father before all ages and born of the theotokos Mary; the birth giver of God on earth. He is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. In the language of the Nicene Creed, He is “God from God, true God from true God; begotten of the Father; not created, of one very same essence (ousia) – one same being or divinity with God the Father Himself.”

All of that is the result of the confession of who Jesus is. The question is given by Jesus Himself: “Who do you say I am?” And that is where Peter confessed, in what may be called the fundamental Christian Creed: “You are the Christ; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).

The Rock

Jesus then said to Peter, “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:17). He added that the whole foundation of the covenant church – the ultimate final church on the planet earth would be those who believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God.

COMMENT: This is an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ words: “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church” (Matt 16:18).

God is not the Trinity

It is critically important to note that, in the Bible and, therefore, in the creeds, such as the Nicene Creed (325) and Creed of Constantinople (381), the one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is God the Father. In the Bible, the one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Father who sends His only begotten Son into the world.

And Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In a parallel manner, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and, because the Christ is the Son of God on whom God the Father sends and affirms His Holy Spirit, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ – the Messiah. This is very important because there are wrong understandings of the Holy Trinity.

Unitarianism

These are those who deny that there is a trinity of divine Persons – of divine hypostasies. Unitarians would say that God is just a unipersonal nomad and that He has no Son; the divinity is His and His alone, and everything that exists in addition to the one God is a creature – has been created by God – has been brought into being out of nothing – not an element of the divinity and being of God Himself.

COMMENT: The Nicene Creed also uses the phrase “out of nothing.” It refers to things that have been created, in contrast to the Son and the Spirit that are “out of” the uncreated being of God.

COMMENT: The phrase “not an element of the divinity and being of God Himself” implies that, in Hopko’s theology, the Son and the Spirit are elements of the divinity and being of God. That is similar to the pre-Nicene Fathers, who thought of Christ as “a derivation and portion of the whole” (Tertullian (AD 165-225), in Against Praxeas 9 “Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III : Against Praxeas”)

Here the orthodox Christian would say that that is just plain wrong. It is an incorrect understanding of what it means that Jesus is THE Son of God, THE Wisdom of God, and THE Icon of God. To say that the Word of God is a creature would be a wrong interpretation of both the New and Old Testaments. To say that the Spirit of God is a created being would just be totally wrong.

Modalism

The other terrible error is usually called Modalism. This is where people say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity. They say, ‘He who is the Trinity’.

COMMENT: With this, I think, Hopko classifies the western understanding of the Trinity as Modalism (Sabellianism).

We orthodox Christians, following Scripture and the credal statements, can never say this. We say, there is the one God who is the Father, and He has with Him eternally, whom He begets timelessly before all ages, His only begotten Son, who is also His Logos (His Word) and His Wisdom and His Icon (Image), but this only begotten Son is divine with the very same divinity as the one true and living God. He is another (different?) Who from the Father.

Three Instances of Divine Life

There are three ‘Whos’; He who is the Father, He who is the Son and He who is the Holy Spirit. They are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.

The Son of God

But it is important to remember that the one God is the Father of Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God. As the Nicene Creed says, Jesus is “God from God; true God from true God.”

God’s Son, who is of the same divinity as the Father and who is born from Him; comes forth from Him. And this one true and living God also has with Him His Spirit who proceeds from Him – who comes forth from Him.

Begetting versus Proceeding

According to the Scriptures, the Son comes forth from God by means of begetting; He is a Son as a son is to a father. That is who and what the Son is.

And the Holy Spirit comes forth from God by the manner of procession. He is not another Son. It is a different kind of relationship.

The Son is the Son of God because He is begotten of the Father, meaning that He has no human begetter. He has no human father. His Father, literally, is God. God, who is His Father, begets Him before all ages.

Begetting versus Born

And then this very one who is God’s Son is born as a man (as a human being) from the virgin Mary. In Greek, the same verb, when it applies to the Father, is “beget.” When it applies to a mother, it is “born.” So, we would not say that Jesus was begotten of Mary humanly; He was “born” of Mary humanly. But we would also not say that He was born of the Father; He was begotten of the Father.

John 1

In John’s gospel, in the beginning, the Logos was with God, and the Logos was divine. All things came to be through Him (John 1:1-2). Orthodox Christians interpret these sentences to show that the Logos is really divine with the same divinity as the Father.

And then in the prologue of John’s gospel, it says that “the logos became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). As the Nicene Creed would say:

the only-begotten …
Who for us men, and for our salvation,
came down and was incarnate and was made man

You have those two words; that He became flesh (incarnate) and He became human (was made man), born of the virgin Mary. So, He who was divine became human.

If we ask who He is, He is the divine Son of God who is also Mary’s son, who is a real human being just like we are. That is why Eastern Orthodox Christians reject Nestorianism.

Arianism

We not only deny Arianism which says that the Logos – the Son of God was a creature. No, He is not a creature. He belongs to the being of God and His being is divine.

Nestorianism

But we also deny the Nestorians who say that the one born of Mary is NOT the same one as the One begotten of the Father; that the Logos is so perfectly divine that He cannot become flesh; that He cannot become man. The Nestorians say that He can be enjoined to or united with a man but He cannot really be born of a woman. Eastern Orthodox Christians say, o yes, He can and He did. Truly divine and truly human. That is why the council of Chalcedon would say that He is divine with the same divinity as the one and true living God – the One who is the one God – AND He is human with the humanity which all men and women have. That is why we say He is of two natures or has two natures, meaning that He is truly divine and truly human.

Jesus is called God.

And when He is divine, we can call Him God.

Thomas did call Him God. He exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Some of the sentences of Paul can be read as if Jesus is called God. It depends a little bit on punctuation, but like “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Even certain Old Testament terms, like calling Him Lord in a divine manner, such as, “The LORD (YHVH) says to my Lord, Sit at My right hand” (Psm 110:1). He is using the same term for the one who sits at His right hand as for God Himself, for “the LORD” mean Yahweh and Yahweh is God.

And Jesus in John’s gospel even uses the “I am,” for example, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). That is a divine name. So, here, the confession is that the man Jesus is the divine Son of God.

Homoousios

And that is what the council of Nicaea defended. The Nicene Creed used one non-Biblical term to make this point, and that term is homoousios, which can be translated “of one essence” or “of the same essence” or “substance.” Sometimes to be clearest, we might better translate it into English as “who is of the same divinity as the one God who is His Father.” And that is how the Bible speaks.

The Trinity in the Bible

Many years ago, I went to my professor of theology and I said to Him, Prof, I do not find the Trinity in the Bible.

Of course, in those days I had a very skewed idea of the Trinity. I thought of the Trinity as one God who is somehow three, like three-leave clover or water could be liquid or steam or ice. In fact, I have come to learn that those symbolisms are modalistic. They are not accurate. You can speak of God as fountain and stream or something like fire and heat and warmth as emanating from God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ and His Spirit, but not all analogies are apt.

To understand the Trinity properly, you begin with Jesus and you read the Scriptures. Then you can contemplate how the one God is God the Father WITH His Son and WITH His Spirit. Very often the preposition “with” is used but “and” is also used. For example, in the baptismal formula, we baptize in the name of the Father and, therefore, also of the Son because there is no Father without the Son and, therefore, also the Holy Spirit because there is no Holy Spirit without the Father and the Son. And there is no Son without the Father and the Spirit. And there are no Son and Spirit without the Father.

The church fathers of the fourth century, like Gregory the theologian, would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. The reason is that the Son’s divinity is the Father’s divinity. The Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed). He is a divine Person “from” the one God.

In the Old Testament, there is also the “word” of God and the “Spirit of God” who is not God but is “of” God and divine with the same divinity as God. The Spirit of God inspired the prophets. You will read texts like; the heavens were made by the Word of the LORD; all the earth by the breath of His lips.” You will find sentences about the son of man that is presented to the Father (Dan 7:13).

You cannot read the New Testament without God, who is clearly God, who is not Jesus and who is not the Holy Spirit. And you can’t read the New Testament without Jesus Christ who is not God the Father and who is not the Holy Spirit. And you can’t read the Scriptures without meeting at every page the Holy Spirit, who is not the Son and who is not the Father. But when you read the text, you see that the Son and the Spirit are OF the Father – FROM the Father – BELONGING TO the Father.

Yet, they are divine. They present themselves as fully divine and like the two hands of God (quoting Irenaeus). God is not without His hands. He never works with only one hand. When God speaks His word, He breaths, and when He breaths, He speaks. You cannot even think of God without His Son. Then you come to the conclusion that the one true and living God is the Father. The one true and living God is not the Creator. God would be God without the hundred billion galaxies. But God would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit; without the Word of God and the Breath of God.

So, even if you would speak to a good orthodox Jew and ask, is God ever devoid of His wisdom? A good orthodox Jew would say, never! Is God ever without His word? Never! Is God ever without His breath? No, no, He is the living God; the Spirit of God is divine. So, we Christians could say, see, you believe in the Holy Trinity because you cannot conceive of God without His Word and without His Spirit.

The Son of God is a real human being but He is not a mere human being. He is the human being that the Son of God has become when He was born of Mary.

John is the great theological gospel that shows the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But if you just take Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

When they speak of the birth of Jesus, they say He would be called the Holy One, the Son of the Most High; that He will establish the kingdom of God, His Father is God.

He has no human father. He is conceived of the Holy Spirit. Just like the Spirit of God brooded over the emptiness at the beginning of creation, so the same the Holy Spirit brooded over the barren womb of Mary and then God speaks His Word and His Word is incarnate in Mary’s womb. The Word becomes flesh in Mary’s womb.

When He goes to the temple, He says He must be about His Father’s work and He is filled with the Holy Spirit.

At His baptism, The Father speaks and says, “this is my beloved Son” and the Spirit rests on Him in the form of a dove.

The Spirit is the Spirit of God who is His Father, but then He says that the Spirit is His own Spirit because everything that He has, divinely of humanly, He has received from the Father.

In Hebrews, it even said that it was the Spirit of God who led the Son of God to be crucified in the flesh for the salvation of the world. In John’s gospel, He says the Father is always with Him (John 8:29; 16:32).

So, as a Christian, you cannot contemplate God without immediately and necessarily contemplating the Son and the Holy Spirit. The minute I think about God, I think about Christ and the Spirit. You cannot think about one without thinking about all three.

Filioque

The Spirit is the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. That is why we orthodox is against the filioque in the creed (“and the Son” – Athanasian Creed). There was a break with the West. We claim that the Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father and the Son together. We believe that He proceeds from the Father alone. And He rests on the Son from all eternity and does the same thing when the Son becomes man. He rests upon Him as a man too. We can say that the Spirit proceeds to us from the Father THROUGH the Son. That is true. The Son is the agent of all of the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father” (John 15:26).

Three in Perfect Unity

So, you always have these three in perfect unity. Therefore, when I think of one, I immediately think of all three together.

There is one God because there is one Father. And there is one God because there is one divine nature of the Father, which is the nature of the Son and the nature of the Holy Spirit too. So, the Son and the Spirit are of the same essence as the Father. That is what Scripture teaches us, if you put it in philosophical terms. That is what the Bible teaches. They needed that word (homoousios) to defend the Bible.

And when you contemplate the activities of God, you see that every activity proceeds from the Father. The Source of every divine activity – creation, sanctification, redemption, whatever God is doing, it comes from the Father – it is God’s. But the Agent is always the Son. God creates through His Son. He speaks through His Son. He redeems through His Son. So, the Son is His Word. The Son is the Savior, but then, all these activities are accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, every activity of God is from the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. Or, you can say from the Father, AND the Son AND the Spirit.

So, we worship the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit – the Trinity; one in essence; undivided. We pray to thee, o one God and Father, AND thy only-begotten Son AND thy Holy Spirit.

The Son is incarnate and crucified, but the Father is in Him at all time. He is never separated from the Father. Even when He experiences in His humanity the abandonment of God to die the death, He is not separated from the Father. God is in Him. The Holy Spirit is in Him. God, the Father, is raising the dead through Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, when we think of the one God and Father, who is never devoid of His Son and Spirit, we think of the one divinity.

No Triune God

In eastern orthodoxy, the term triune God is not a traditional formula. You find the term tri-personal or tri-hypostatic divinity. There is no tri-personal God. There is the one God and Father Almighty. That is the one God. But then that one God is Father eternally with His Son who is God from God, and with His Holy Spirit.

Is the Spirit called theos?

The Nicene Creed did not call the Holy Spirit theos (God). Gregory, the theologian, was the first one to do that – late in the fourth century. The Bible never calls the Holy Spirit theos. The Nicene Creed called the Son “God from God” but it did not call the Spirit “God from God.” The closest thing in the Bible is when it says that Ananias and Saphira lied to “God.”

Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit … You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).

And then Jesus said that the one sin that is unforgivable is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. And blasphemy can only be done against God – a divine Person.

Three Persons with one divine nature

What we say is that the Godhead are three divine hypostases (Persons) with one divine nature. There is one God and Father, whose nature also belongs to the Son and Spirit and there is one divine activity with three who act; the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then we say that Jesus is one hypostasis (one Person) with two natures because He is fully divine but, because He is also born of Mary, He is fully and completely, truly human.

So, we have, the Godhead being three Persons in one nature, and then we have Jesus Christ being one Person in two natures.

Conclusion

So, how must we think about the Trinity? We begin with the Scriptures, we contemplate Christ, then we contemplate how Christ relates to the one God and Father, how He relates to the one Holy Spirit. We see how the unity of the divine divinity belongs to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is what we must always remember and never forget – it begins with Christ and it begins with the Scriptures. It begins with the activity of God in saving the world in the Person of Jesus. It begins with the question, “Who do you say I am?” And when we say, “You are the Christ, the Son of God,” the result will be the dogma of the Holy Trinity – the tri-personal Godhead; the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ and the one Holy Spirit in perfect unity.

Article Series on this Website

Jesus Christ and the Trinity

Daniel

      • Is Daniel a Fraud? – It is claimed by liberal theologians that Daniel was written in the second century before Christ, presenting history as if it is a prophecy. 
      • Daniel 2, 7, and 11 – These prophecies should be read together. 
      • Daniel 9 – Discussion of the Four Major Interpretations of the 490 years

Revelation

Other

The real dispute and main meaning of the Nicene Creed of AD 325

Summary of this article

Purpose

It is often said that the Council of Nicaea was called to determine whether Jesus is God. But that does not accurately describe the dispute prior to Nicaea or the meaning of the creed. The purpose of this article is to identify the fundamental point of disagreement that led to the Nicene Creed of AD 325 and to establish what the attendees at the council understood the creed to say.

The Two Phases of the Arian Controversy

The Arian Controversy of the fourth century consisted of two phases:

The first phase began around AD 318 in Alexandria and came to an end during the Nicene Council when Arius’ Christology was presented but rejected.

The second phase began during the Nicene Council and lasted for another about 50 years after the meeting. It was not a dispute between the Arius-faction and the rest, but a dispute between four different views of the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son:

        1. Same substance (homoousian)
        2. Different substance (The Arius view)
        3. Similar substance (homoiousian)
        4. God’s substance is not revealed. Therefore, we should not formulate doctrines that refer to God’s substance. This was the majority view in the decades after Nicaea.

How the delegates in 325 understood the creed

This point is that, through the debates of that long second phase of the Arian Controversy and even after that second phase was brought to an end, many new concepts were developed, for example with respect to the Holy Spirit and the meaning of the word hypostasis. Therefore, to read the Nicene Creed of 325 using concepts and definitions that were developed later will fail to reveal its true meaning. It is only possible to grasp the meaning of the creed of AD 325 when one understands how the delegates in 325 understood the creed. For this reason, this article focuses on the development of the doctrine of God prior to the Nicene Creed of 325.

The Apostolic Church

The Bible associates the Son with God in many ways but also describe Him as subordinate to the Father. In the view of many, the Bible’s description of the relationship between God and His Son is inadequate and we need to develop a more advanced description.

But in the Apostolic Church of the first century, while Jews remained the majority in the church, Christians did not attempt to explain the relationship between God and His unique Son in more detail. 

Logos-Christology

Somewhere during the second century, Gentiles became the majority in the church. The Gentile Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (also called the Apologists) identified the Son of God of the New Testament as the Logos of Greek philosophy. In this Logos-Christology:

Created substances, including spirit beings, did not always exist and exist only by God’s grace. Uncreated substances, in contrast, are inherently eternal; always existed and must necessarily always exist.

The Logos existed inside God from the “beginning.”

That the Logos was emitted from God when God decided to create was interpreted as that the Son of God was begotten.

This, however, did not leave God without His wisdom; God and His Logos always remained integrated.

Since the Logos was part of the uncreated substance of God from “the beginning,” He:

        • Is of the same uncreated substance as the Father.
        • Always existed and
        • Must necessarily always exist.
        • Is subordinate to the Father. As B.B. Warfield noted, “The dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels.” (cf. Irenaeus and Tertullian or Origen.)

Sabellianism

Sabellianism (Modalism) was the first challenge to Logos-Christology. Due to Logos-Christology, Christianity was often accused of having two or three gods. Sabellianism was one attempt to explain how God might be three and one at the same time (Kevin Giles). However, the church fathers rejected this Christology early in the third century. 

The Christology of the Nicene Fathers

With Modalism formally condemned, Logos-Christology was the theology with which the church entered the fourth century.

At Nicaea, there were three parties:

The Arius-group taught that the Son was created from nothing. In other words, they rejected Logos-Christology which taught that the Son is the Logos that always was inside God. After Sabellianism, Arius’ Christology was the second great challenge to Logos-Christology.

The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea were the majority at Nicaea and maintained the traditional Logos-theology.

The third group was led by Alexander of Alexandria. A letter in which Alexander explained Arius’ ex-communication shows that Alexander also continued the traditional Logos theology of the previous century.

In conclusion:

All the delegates at Nicaea, except the Arius-group, maintained the traditional Logos-Christology. 

This means that, at the time, the Nicene Creed was formulated and interpreted on the basis of Logos-Christology.

This further means that the word “begotten” in the creed must be understood as that the Logos, who always was inside God, was begotten (emitted) from God and became the Son of God.

The Nicene Creed – Four issues

This analysis allows us to read the Nicene Creed from the perspective of the delegates at Nicaea.

Since more than 80% of the words in the creed are about Jesus Christ, the issue before the council was about Him; not about the Father or about the Holy Spirit.

Analyzing the creed, including the anathemas, shows that it addresses four issues about the Son:

(1) HOW He was generated in eternity past, namely that He was not made from nothing, as Arius claimed but that He is the only being ever “begotten” of the essence of the Father;

(2) WHAT His nature now is, namely, of the same substance (homoousion) as the Father.

(3) Whether He always existed, and

(4) Whether He is mutable (subject to change)

It is proposed that, of those four issues, the primary issue of dispute was how the Son was generated, namely, whether He was generated out of nothing (as Arius said) or out of the substance of God, as the creed suggests. This is justified as follows:

(a) Most of the words that were added in response to the Arian controversy are about this.

(b) After the meeting, Eusebius, the leader of the majority Eastern Greek delegation, identified this as the foundational matter.

(c) All the other differences (whether He always existed, what His substance is, and whether He is mutable) are consequences of this fundamental difference.

(d) That He always existed and that He is immutable are only mentioned in the anathemas, implying that these are not fundamental issues.

Homoousios

The word homoousios does not represent the main idea in the creed because the Origenists, who were in the majority at Nicaea, resisted this word to the last and only accepted it because of the pressure applied by the emperor. (See Eusebius’ explanation for more detail.)

The Son is God.

The creed does not identify the Son as “God” in the sense of the Ultimate Reality because the delegates to Nicaea held to the traditional Logos-Christology in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. This is confirmed by the creed itself which identifies the “one God” of Christianity as the Father alone.

Conclusion

The main point of the creed, with respect to the controversy with Arius, is that the Son was begotten out of the eternal, uncreated substance of the Father. That principle is foundational to everything else the creed says about the Son.

– END OF SUMMARY –

Purpose of this article

In his excellent book, Decoding Nicea, Paul Pavao wrote:

“It is commonly said that the Council of Nicea was called to determine whether Jesus was God. … But if we really want to understand Nicea, then that description will not suffice. It would be more accurate to say that the Council of Nicea met to determine what the Son of God was made of.”

The purpose of this article is to explain this somewhat strange statement by identifying the fundamental point of disagreement that led to the Nicene Creed of AD 325 and by establishing what the attendees at the council understood the creed to say.

The Two Phases of the Arian Controversy

The Arian Controversy of the fourth century consisted of two phases:

The first phase began around AD 318 in Alexandria with a dispute between elder Arius and his bishop Alexander. After this dispute spread over a large part of his empire, Constantine the Great called the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to address this controversy. At the Council, Arius’ Christology was presented but soon rejected. 

However, after Arius’ Christology was rejected, the council meeting evolved into a dispute between the two other parties at Nicaea over how the creed must be formulated. As Eusebius of Caesarea explained, the minority party of Alexander of Alexandria, because they enjoyed the protection of the emperor, was able to add the terms ousia (substance) and homoousion (same substance) to the Nicene creed even though the majority was uncomfortable with these terms. As Bettenson stated, “The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41). As the reformed website Bible.ca states:

“We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. … The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!”

That dispute, which arose during the council meeting, became the second phase of the Arian Controversy, continued after the meeting and lasted for another about 50 years.

While the first phase of the Arian Controversy was between the Arius-faction and everybody else, the second phase of the controversy was a dispute between four different views of the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son:

      1. Same substance (homoousian – as per the Nicene Creed)
      2. Different substance (heteroousian – the view which Arius maintained)
      3. Similar substance (homo-i-ousian – attempted to find a view midway between the homoousians and the heteroousians.)
      4. God’s substance is not revealed. Therefore, we should not formulate doctrines that refer to God’s substance. This is known as the homoian (or homoean) view which simply taught that the Son is similar to the Father.

During the 50 years of the second phase of the Controversy a string of further church councils considered and approved various alternatives for homoousion, but the homoian view became the dominant view. Hanson lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith (Hanson RPC 2005, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 AD. pp. 558–559).

At the Council of Constantinople in 360, 21 years before the council of 381, the homoian view was finally accepted as the official creed of the Christian Church. Its creed rejected the term homoousion and banned all use of ousia in theological discussions. (Steven Wedgeworth)

With the homoian creed, the church returned to the theology of Origen, who warned against attempts to overly define God:

“If then, it is once rightly understood that the only-begotten Son of God is his Wisdom existing in substance, I do not know whether our curiosity ought to advance beyond this.” (De Principiis. I:2:1-2. c. AD 230.)

The Doctrine of God evolved after Nicaea.

Through the debates of that second phase of the Arian Controversy, many new concepts were developed, for example:

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 (AD 381) to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which up to that point had nowhere been clearly stated, not even in Scripture.

“Finally, following the authoritative example of St. Basil the Great, it became accepted to understand by the word Hypostasis the Personal attributes in the Triune Divinity.” (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p. 94-95) (To understand what this means, see Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

Many other Trinitarian concepts were developed even after the Creed of Constantinople in 381. For example:

A German theologian named Gieseler stated that the first person who asserted “the numerical sameness of nature in the three divine persons” was Augustine. [Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 reprint) p. 463.] (For an explanation, see Should homoousion in the Nicene Creed be translated as “same substance” or as “one substance?”)

How the delegates in 325 understood the creed

Given the significant development of the Trinity doctrine, during the fourth and fifth centuries, to read the Nicene Creed of 325 using concepts and definitions that were developed later will fail to reveal its true meaning. It is only possible to grasp the meaning of the creed of AD 325 when one understands the nature of the controversy at that time and what the delegates in 325 understood the creed to say.

Furthermore, the Nicene Creed of 325 was formulated by a minority and only accepted by the majority due to the pressure applied by the emperor. And, as we see in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, the majority defined the terms “substance” and “same substance” is a way that made it possible for them to accept the creed. Therefore, we need to determine what meaning that majority assigned to the creed because it is on that basis that they accepted the creed.

For this reason, this article focuses on the development of the doctrine of God prior to the Nicene Creed of 325. It will discuss, in brief, the Christology of:

      • The Bible,
      • The Apostolic Church,
      • The Gentile Church, namely Logos-Christology, and
      • Sabellianism,
      • The Nicene Fathers, and 
      • The Lucians (Arius’ Christology).

The Bible

The Bible associates the Son with God. For example:

The church is commanded to baptize believers “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).

He will be honored equal with the Father, has life in Himself like the Father, and in Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form (John 5:23; 26; Col 2:9). These things seem to indicate divinity.

But the Bible also describes Him as subordinate to the Father. For example:

He received honor equal with the Father, life in Himself, and the fullness of Deity the Father (John 5:22; 26; Col 1:19).

The Bible describes the Father as His God (e.g., Eph 1:3; Rev 3:12) and as His Head (e.g.,1 Cor 11:3).

This creates the challenge to explain the tension between the divinity and subordination of the Son. 

R.P.C. Hanson stated, “the Bible does not give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God.” It almost seems as if Hanson is saying that the Bible’s description of the relationship between God and His Son is inadequate and we need to develop a more advanced description.

The renowned ecclesiastical historian, Philip Schaff (1819 – 1893) stated:

“At the beginning of the fourth century the problem of how to preserve the Godhood of Christ and at the same time his subordination to the Father … had not been solved.”
(Prolegomena: “The Outbreak of the Arian Controversy. The Attitude of Eusebius.” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series II. Vol. I.)

If Schaff could say that with respect to the fourth century, he would have said the same of the first century.

Development within the Bible

While the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not clearly state the divinity or even only the pre-existence of Christ, John and Paul present a much higher Christology. Perhaps the reason is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written earlier and only describe the literal historical events as seen from the perspective of people on earth, while John and Paul, who wrote later, were assisted by the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-13) to understand more clearly who the Son is relative to the “one God” of the Bible. In other words, even in the New Testament, we see a development of thought on the question of the relationship between the God of the Bible and His only-begotten Son. 

Apostolic Church

In the Apostolic Church of the first century, while Jews remained the majority in the church, Christians did not attempt to explain the relationship between God and His unique Son in more detail. They were simply repeated the verbal accounts of the disciples and the written gospels and letters, once these have become available. (For a further discussion, see Jewish Dominated Church)

Gentile Church

Somewhere during the second century, Gentiles became the majority in the church. Gentile Christians, in order to explain their religion to their fellow Gentiles people of the empire, needed an explanation of the God of the Bible. Greek philosophy was still a dominant force in the culture of the Roman empire and the Gentile Christians were themselves very familiar with that philosophy. In that Greek philosophy, God’s Logos (word, mind, wisdom, or reason) existed through two stages:

      1. First, inside of the high God but
      2. When God determined to create, God’s Logos was emitted and became a separate being through whom God created all things and communicated with the creation.

Based particularly on the “wisdom” of Proverbs 8 and the “word” of John 1, the Gentile Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (also known as the Apologists) thought and explained that the Son of God of the New Testament is the same as the Logos of Greek philosophy. As B. B. Warfield, stated:

“In the 2nd century, the dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels, and produced what is known as the Logos-Christology.” (Warfield, Benjamin B. “Trinity, 2.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.)

Logos-Christology

This section provides an overview of the Logos-Christology of the 2nd and 3rd centuries:

Uncreated Substances

Logos-Christology distinguished between created and uncreated substances. Created substances, including spirit beings, did not always exist and exist only by God’s grace. Uncreated substances, in contrast, is inherently eternal. Uncreated substances, therefore, always existed and must necessarily always exist. For example:

“The Deity is uncreated and eternal … while matter is created and perishable.” (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians. 4. AD 177)

Inside God

On the basis of John 1:1, Logos-Christology agreed that the Logos existed inside God from the “beginning.” For example:

“God was in the beginning … was alone, but … the Logos … was in him” (Tatian, c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.)

“’ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God’, showing that at first God was alone, and the Word was in him.” (Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, To Autolycus. II:22. c. AD 168)

Begotten Son

As stated, in Greek philosophy, the Logos was emitted from God to become a separate being. In Logos-Christology, this event was described as that the Logos was begotten of God to become a distinct being; identified as “the only-begotten Son of God” who later became the man Jesus Christ. For example:

“But when God wished to make all that he determined, he begot this Logos, uttered, the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15)” (Theophilus, c. AD 168)

As Biblical proof, they used verses such as, “My heart has emitted a good Word” (Psm 45:1) and “I begat you out of my bosom before the dawn” (Psm 110:3).

“The only-begotten Son of God is his Wisdom existing in substance.” (Origen. De Principiis. I:2:1-2. c. AD 230)

Integrated

This, however, did not leave God without His wisdom; God and His Logos always remained integrated. For example:

“The Father has not divested him … of the Logos power” (Tatian, c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.).

“Always conversing with his Reason” (Theophilus, c. AD 168. To Autolycus. II:22.).

Same Substance

Since the Son was begotten from the uncreated substance of God, He is of the same uncreated substance as the Father. It is not clear whether the Logos theologians used the exact word homoousios which we find in the Nicene Creed, but the concept is similar. For example:

“The Logos … came into being … not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], for what is cut off is separated from the original substance” (Tatian, c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.). (In other words, the Son has not been separated from the uncreated substance of the Father.)

“We employ language which makes a distinction between God and matter … For we acknowledge a God and a Son, his Logos, and a Holy Spirit, united in essence.” (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians. 24. Emphasis mine.)

In an analogy, Tertullian stated that, like the sun and a sunbeam, the Father and the Son are “two forms of one undivided substance(Tertullian, Against Praxeas. 13)

“For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as [the Son] himself acknowledges: ‘My Father is greater than I’” [Jn. 14:28]. (Tertullian, Against Praxeas. 9)

Always Existed

Since the Logos was part of the uncreated substance of God “in the beginning,” He always existed and must necessarily always exist. There never was a time that He did not exist. For example:

“The Son of God is the Logos of the Father … He is the first product of the Father, not as though he was being brought into existence, for from the beginning God, who is the eternal Mind, had the Logos in himself.” (Athenagoras, AD 177 – A Plea for the Christians. 10.)

Subordinate

Since, in Logos-Christology, the Son is part of the substance of the Father, Father and Son have the same substance qualitatively but the Son is ontologically (in terms of substance) subordinate to the Father. It follows that the Son is subordinate to the Father in all respects. As B.B. Warfield (quoted above) noted:

“The dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels.”

R.P.C. Hanson wrote:

“The conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … (made) the Son into a demi-god” (Hanson).

And as Philp Schaff stated:

“The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality. But we must distinguish between a subordination of essence (ousia) and a subordination of hypostasis.” (Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. III. Section 130.)

In other words, Schaff stated that, while Father and Son were regarded as equal in essence (substance), the hypostasis (Person) of the Son is subordinate to the hypostasis of the Father.

For a further discussion of Logos Christology, see The Apologists by R.P.C. Hanson. 

Sabellianism

Due to Logos-Christology, Christianity was often accused of having two or three gods. Tertullian stated:

They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods. (Tertullian. Against Praxeas. 3. c. AD 210.)

Sabellianism (Modalism) was the first challenge to Logos-Christology. Sabellianism was an attempt to defend Christianity against the accusation of polytheism.

Kevin Giles (The Academic Journal of CBE International) stated:

“One of the first suggestions as to how God might be three and one at the same time was that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were merely successive modes of revelation of the one God. … This error, which was called modalism, was rejected by the Church Fathers.” 

Wikipedia states that Modalism has been mainly associated with Sabellius, who taught a form of it in Rome in the 3rd century. This had come to him via the teachings of Noetus and Praxeas.

Tertullian condemned Modalism (c. 213, Tertullian Against Praxeas 1, in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 3). Sabellius was excommunicated in AD 220. (GotQuestions). 

The Christology of the Nicene Fathers

With Modalism formally condemned, Logos-Christology was the theology with which the church entered the fourth century.

“Among those who were, three basic “parties” were discernible: Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia; the Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.” (Erickson) (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)

Arius and the Lucianists

The quote from Erickson above refers to “Arius and the Lucianists.” Arius was the main spokesperson of this Christology, but he did not invent it. Pavao noted, “all the major players of the early Arian Controversy were trained in the school of Lucian.” (Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 273). Kindle Edition.) And Boer (A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, p113) described Arius as “a disciple of Lucian.” Lucian was martyred in 311 or 312; at the very end of the Great Persecution.

While Logos-Christology taught that the Son is the Logos that always was inside God, “Arius and the Lucianists” taught that the Son was created from nothing. In other words, the Arius-delegation rejected Logos-Christology. The first great challenge to the Logos-Christology of the Apologists was Sabellianism. The second great challenge was the Lucian Christology which Arius proclaimed.

The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea

This group was the majority at Nicaea and maintained the traditional Logos-theology:

“The most important of the Eastern bishops were present, but the West was poorly represented” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85).

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of Origen. Future generations have tended to dub them “Semi-Arian.” In fact they were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church” (Frend, W.H.C. The Rise of Christianity. see also, Bible.ca).

Alexander of Alexandria, with his following

Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, where the dispute with Arius began, explained Arius’ ex-communication in a letter (The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus. I:6.). In that letter, he explains what Arius taught and why his views were rejected. But it is also clear from that letter that Alexander continued the traditional Logos theology of the previous century. For example:

He stated that “the Son is the Word and Wisdom of God.”

And he used verses that were often used by Logos theologists, but which we would not necessarily today associate with the Son:

          • “My heart has dictated a good Word,” and,
          • “I begat thee out of my bosom before the dawn”? [45:1; 110:3, LXX]

Conclusion

All the delegates at Nicaea, except the Arius-group, maintained the traditional Logos-Christology. R.P.C. Hanson, a great authority on the Arian Controversy, wrote:

“The theological structure provided by the Apologists lasted as the main, widely-accepted, one might almost say 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 means that the Nicene Creed was formulated and interpreted at the time on the basis of Logos-Christology. This further means that the word “begotten” in the creed must be understood as that the Logos, who always was inside God – part of God’s uncreated substance – was emitted from God (when God wanted to create) and became the Son of God.

Nicene Creed

This analysis allows us to read the Nicene Creed from the perspective of the delegates at Nicaea.

Since more than 80% of the words in the creed are about Jesus Christ, the issue before the council was about Him; not about the Father or about the Holy Spirit. The question is, what did they dispute about the Son?

Compared with 1 Corinthians 8:6

The first part of the creed seems to be based on 1 Corinthians 8:6, but notice the section inserted to describe the Son. It is proposed that this additional section specifically affirms what Arius disputed: 

1 Corinthians 8:6 Nicene Creed (AD 325)
For us there is but one God, the Father We believe in one God, the Father Almighty
From whom are all things and we exist for Him Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And one Lord, Jesus Christ, And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, 
consubstantial with the Father;
By whom are all things, and we exist through Him By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;

This added section may be divided into two subjects:

Firstly, how the Son was generated in eternity past, namely that He is the only being ever to be begotten of the essence of the Father;

Secondly, what His nature now is, namely, of the same substance (homoousion) as the Father.

This phrase “God from God, light from light, true God from true God” indicates both HOW He was generated and WHAT His nature now is. However, the part of the added section that begins with “begotten” and ends with “begotten not made” seems to form an inclusio, indicating that this part is a unit with the word “begotten” pointing to its main meaning, namely the generation of the Son from the being or substance of the Father.

Compared with the Anathemas

In addition to this added section, which described the Council’s agreed view of Christ, the creed of AD 325 also includes a list of statements that are categorized as heretical, and all of these statements are about Christ. These statements reflect Arius’ Christology. The following table compares the affirmations with Arius’ view:

  Council’s view:
(Affirmations)
Arius’ view:
(Anathemas)
Before He was generated There was when He was not – Before being born He was not
How He was generated Begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, He was created out of nothing.
His substance of one substance with the Father of a different hypostasis or substance
His nature subject to alteration or change (mutable)

The Nicene Creed, therefore, basically says 4 things about the Son, namely that He:

      • Always existed.
      • Was begotten from the substance of the Father.
      • Is of the same substance as the Father.
      • Is not subject to change.

The main point of dispute

It is proposed that, of those four issues, the primary issue of dispute was how the Son was generated, namely, whether He was generated out of nothing (as Arius said) or out of the substance of God, as the creed suggests. This is justified as follows:

Firstly, the previous table shows that most of the words that were added in response to the Arian controversy are about HOW He was generated; repeating the word “begotten” three times.

Secondly, all the other differences are consequences of this fundamental difference.

If the Son was created out of nothing, as Arius claimed, then, (a) He did not exist before He was begotten, (b) He consist of created substances, which is a different substance from the Father’s uncreated substance, and (c) He is mutable.

Given how the Council understood “begotten,” namely that the Son is the uncreated Logos that always was inside God but that was emitted from the essence of God to become God’s only begotten Son, means that (a) He always existed, (b) is of the same uncreated substance as the Father and (c) is as unchangeable as God.

Thirdly, that He always existed and that He is immutable are not mentioned in the affirmations; only in the anathemas, implying that these are not fundamental issues.

Fourthly, after the meeting, Eusebius, the leader of the majority Eastern Greek delegation, explained the dispute with Arius and identified Arius’ main argument as that the Son was created out of nothing. It also shows that Eusebius’ response was that, because the Son was begotten from the Father, He came out of the being of the Father and was not created from nothing. (See The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus – Book II (mb-soft.com))

Homoousios

That He is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father is also mentioned in the affirmations of the creed. For that reason, that may indicate that this was the main point of the creed.

However, the word homoousios was proposed and enforced by the emperor. Eusebius and the other Origenists resisted this word to the last and, in the end, accepted this word only because of the pressure applied by the emperor. (See Eusebius of Caesarea’s explanation of Nicaea for more detail.) In other words, at least from the perspective of the majority at the council, this word does not reflect what they wanted to say in response to Arius’ Christology. For that reason, this word was the cause of the second phase of the Arian Controversy during the 50 years after Nicaea.

The Son is God

It is often stated that that creed identifies Jesus as God (e.g., Bible.ca) but, as R.P.C. Hanson – who studied the Arian Controversy of 20 years – stated, the traditional account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. In fact, the issue was decidedly not whether Jesus is God. As discussed above, all the delegates to Nicaea, except the Arius-group, held to the traditional Logos-Christology in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. As Philip Schaff noted with respect to perhaps the most respected theologian at Nicaea:

“That Eusebius [of Caesarea] was a decided subordinationist must be plain to every one that reads his works with care” (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series II, Vol. 1)

As quoted above, Philip Schaff also stated that, while Father and Son were regarded as equal in essence (substance), the Nicene Fathers regarded the hypostasis (Person) of the Son as subordinate to the hypostasis of the Father (Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. III. Section 130. Emphasis mine, parentheses his. (pp. 251-252).

The Arius-group denied that the Son always existed and, therefore, had an even lower Christology. Therefore, if we use the word “God” for the Ultimate Reality, then none of the delegates thought of Christ as such. All of them regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.

This is confirmed by the creed itself which identifies the “one God” of Christianity as the Father alone:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty …
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God …
And in the Holy Ghost. (cf. 1 Tim 2:5; cf. 1 Cor 8:6; John 5:44)

Whereas the Apostles’ Creed declared only that Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, and our Lord, the Nicene Creed added the following declaration dealing with eternal subordination:

“and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into being.”

As Schaff makes clear, these statements reflected a belief in the eternal subordination of the Son. The idea that the Son is begotten and the Father unbegotten means that the Father is primary and Sonship secondary. Schaff declares that “all important scholars since Petavius admit subordination in the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III (311–600) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950) 683.

Conclusion

Out of what

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that Paul Pavao wrote that the main point of the Nicene Creed was “what the Son of God was made of.” I propose that that is not entirely correct. What the Son of God was made of is only a consequence of the question out of what He was generated; out of God or out of nothing.

I propose, therefore, that the main point of the creed is that the Son was begotten out of the eternal, uncreated substance of the Father. That principle is foundational to everything else in the creed. Consistently, the Nicene Creed states three times that the Son was “begotten.”