Is Homoousios the main word in the Nicene Creed?

The Key Word in the Creed

The Nicene Creed of AD 325 says that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, homoousios is “the key word of the Creed.” (Beatrice)

In the “centuries-old account of the Council of Nicaea,” “the whole power of the mysterious dogma is at once established by the one word homoousios;” “with one pronouncement the Church identified a term that secured its … beliefs against heresy.” (LA, 11)

Not mentioned for 25+ years

But this traditional view is in startling contrast to the views of the delegates at Nicaea. Referring specifically to the view that homoousios was of fundamental importance, Ayres says that “such older accounts are deeply mistaken.” (LA, 11) For about 25 years after Nicaea, nobody mentions homoousios:

“What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.” (Hanson Lecture)

“During the years 326–50 the term homoousios is rarely if ever mentioned.” (LA, 431)

Not even Athanasius, who is traditionally regarded as the great hero of the Arian Controversy and defender of the Nicene Creed, mentions the term:

“Even Athanasius for about twenty years after Nicaea is strangely silent about this adjective (homoousios) which had been formally adopted into the creed of the Church in 325.” (RH, 58-59)

“In most older presentations, ‘western’ bishops were taken to be natural and stalwart defenders of Nicaea throughout the fourth century.” (LA, 135) However:

“Even the Western bishops at Serdica in 343 did not mention the word.” (RH, 436) That council, 18 years after Nicaea, “opted clearly for Una substantia meaning one hypostasis, (rather than consubstantial).” (RH, 201)

The events of the Council of Serdica in AD 343 show that the main drivers of the Nicene Creed, “such as Ossius, Athanasius, and Marcellus” were “willing to turn to an alternative statement of faith, just as many of their eastern counterparts had done at Antioch two years before.” (LA, 126)

Even a decade later, “the 350s show how Nicaea only slowly came to be of importance in the west.” (LA, 135)

The word homoousios “has left no traces at all in the works of … the leaders of the anti-Arian party such as Alexander of Alexandria, Ossius of Cordova, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Eustathius of Antioch, who are usually considered Constantine’s theological advisers and the strongest supporters of the council.” (P.F. Beatrice)

“It is not until he (Athanasius) writes the De Decretis (356 or 357) that Athanasius again mentions the word and begins to defend it.” (RH, 436)

Nobody attacked homoousios.

Since nobody defended homoousios, nobody attacked it during those 25 years after Nicaea:

“Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (LA, 139)


The purpose of this article is two-fold:

      • Why was the term not mentioned during the decades after Nicaea, and
      • How and why did it become part of the Controversy 30 years later?


The main authors quoted in this article are:

LA = Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

RH = Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

Beatrice – Pier Franco Beatrice is a professor of Early Christian Literature at the University of Padua, Italy.

Why Not Mentioned

Not Important

This absence of the term homoousios in the 20 or more years after Nicaea means that the term was not regarded as important:

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

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

In fact, some even say that the term was a problem for most delegates:

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

To Oust Arius

“The choice of the term homoousios seems to have been motivated in large part because Arius was known to reject it. Athanasius …  tells us that those running the council originally proposed describing the Son as ‘like’ the Father or ‘exactly like the Father in all things’ and as being ‘from God’. But these terms would not serve because everyone could agree to them. … Hence, homoousios and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were chosen specifically to exclude Arius’ supporters.” (LA, 90)

Hanson concludes similarly that “the most satisfactory explanation of why it was put there is that it was certainly a word … which serious and wholehearted Arians could not stomach.” (RH, 167; cf. RH, 172)

Ayres agrees with Hanson that “the homoousion was probably not a flag to be nailed to the masthead, a word around which self-conscious schools of theology could rally. But it was an atropopaic formula for resisting Arianism.” (LA, 92) (Atropopaic means to avert evil influences.)

In other words, the term homoousion was inserted in the Creed, not because it was considered to be an important Christian word or concept, but merely as a means to force Arius and his supporters to reject the Creed. The meeting knew that the emperor would exile all who refused to sign the Creed and “desired to secure the condemnation of Arius.” (LA, 91)

The Work of a Minority

The delegates to the Nicene Council of 325 were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (LA, 19), and the Dedication Creed of 341 “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop.” (RH, 290-1) “Loofs comes nearest to the truth when he says that it (the Dedication Creed) is both anti-Marcellan and anti-homoousian.” (RH, 287-8) The dedication Creed also “deliberately excludes the kind of Arianism professed by Arius.” (RH, 290)

So, the Nicene Creed did not reflect die views of the majority. The majority was anti-Marcellan, anti-homoousian, and anti-Arius:

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)

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

“Homoousios was … (a) stumbling block for all the people attending the council, without distinction, Arians and anti-Arians.” (Beatrice)

Constantine Insisted

A minority was able to dominate the proceedings because Constantine had taken Alexander’s part:

“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (LA, 89) “This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force.” (LA, 89)

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians (extreme anti-Arians) were in favour of it [the term homoousios], and that, when he had insisted that it did not have the objectionable meaning which Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia had attached to it, the favourers of Arius in the Council could accept it, he pressed for its inclusion.” (RH, 202)

Did Ossius propose the term?

“According to the Arians … the Nicene Creed was presented by Ossius of Cordova in his capacity as president of the assembly.” (P.F. Beatrice) However, Ossius did not preside because of his position in the church. He was the bishop of the “obscure” see of Cordova (RH, 155). He presided in his capacity “as the Emperor’s representative” (RH, 154) and represented “the Emperor’s interest.” (RH, 156) If he did propose the term, he did it on the instruction of the Emperor.

Constantine Explained

Emperor Constantine not only imposed, by his authority, the inclusion of the word homoousios; he also had the audacity to explain what the word meant. He did his best to overcome the objection of Arians that the word implies that God has a material body. He said:

“The Son subsisted from the Father
neither according to division, nor severance:
for the immaterial, and intellectual, and incorporeal nature could not be the subject of any bodily affection,
but … in a divine and ineffable manner.’ (P.F. Beatrice)

The Final Authority

Given the modern culture of religious freedom, the reader might find it strange that an emperor is able to insist on the inclusion of a keyword in a church decree. However, as RPC Hanson stated:

“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine (during the Arian Controversy), there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (RH, 849)

The so-called ‘ecumenical’ church councils of the fourth century were “the very invention and creation of the Emperor” (RH, 855). “Everybody recognised the right of an Emperor to call a council, or even to veto or quash its being called” (RH, 849-50). “The Emperor was expected to dominate and control them” (RH, 855).

In conclusion, religious freedom did not exist. Since the Nicene Creed was the work of a minority under the protection of the emperor, the majority was uncomfortable with this term. It was for that reason that the term was not mentioned for some decades after Nicaea.

Nicaea not Binding

Furthermore, at the time, the Nicene Creed was not regarded as binding:

“Many modern readers assume that the Nicene creed was intended at its promulgation to stand as a binding and universal formula of Christian faith.” (LA, 85) However, “by the time Nicaea met, Church leaders … had no precedent for the idea of a council that would legislate for the Church as a whole.” (LA, 87) “Councils were not expected to produce precise statements of belief.” (LA, 87) “All the bishops at Nicaea would have understood their local ‘baptismal’ creed to be a sufficient definition of Christian belief.” (LA, 85)

For a further discussion of this point, see Ayres – 4.1 The Nicene Creed as a Standard of Faith.

Objections to Homoousios

The previous section explains that the Eusebians were uncomfortable with the term homoousios. This section explains why they opposed it:

Not in the Bible

First, the term homoousios “is not to be found in the Holy Scripture” (P.F. Beatrice). “Nobody could pretend that it was Scriptural” (RH, 167). The Bible does not say anything about the substance of God or of His Son.


Second, the Eusebians understood the term as saying that God is material:

“Williams points out that the objection based on the Manichean tendency of the word assumed that it implied that the Son was a component or extension of God, thus representing God as composite, perhaps as material, and suggesting that there is a kind of common ‘God-stuff’ shared by Father and Son.” (RH, 197)

The Eusebians argued that we should not understand the terms “Father,” “Son,” and “begotten” in a literal, material sense, as if the Son was begotten like humans are by breaking off a part of the parent.


Third, Eusebius of Nicomedia rejected the term homoousios because, if one says that the Son has the same substance as the Father, then one is saying that the Son has the same unoriginated substance as the Father, which contradicts the statement that the Son is begotten. (RH, 197)


Fourth, during the preceding century, the term was used by the Sabellians. Therefore:

“It was impossible to rid the term in the minds of many of Sabellian, if not Gnostic associations.” (RH, 437)

The Homoiousians rejected “homoousios as leading to Sabellianism.” (RH, 439) “To them an acceptance of homoousios … would naturally appear to involve them in pure indiscriminate Sabellianism.” (RH, 440)

Athanasius wrote that their objection to the term “homoousios” was that it was considered to be “un-Scriptural, suspicious, and of a Sabellian tendency.” 1Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn


Fifth, that the term was not used during the decades after Nicaea also means that it was not used during the decades before Nicaea:

“To say that the Son was ‘of the substance’ of the Father, and that he was ‘consubstantial’ with him were certainly startling innovations. Nothing comparable to this had been said in any creed or profession of faith before.” (RH, 166-7)

Rowan Williams described it as “the radical words of Nicaea” (RW, 236) and “conceptual innovation” (RW, 234-5).

The Arians objected that these words are both “unscriptural” and “untraditional” (RW, 234-5).

A meeting was held in Antioch a few months before the Nicene Council which formulated a draft creed. “This text makes no use of the ousia language that we see in Nicaea’s creed.” (LA, 51)

“The word homoousios is not to be found in the extant writings of Alexander of Alexandria.” (Beatrice)

“We can detect no Greek-speaking writer before Nicaea who unreservedly supports homoousion as applied to the Son.” (RH, 169)


Sixth, the terms ousia and homoousion were borrowed from pagan philosophy:

“The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they try to show that the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really to be found in Scripture.” (RH, 846)

Already Condemned

Last, the fathers of Antioch (the headquarters of the entire church at the time) who condemned Paul of Samosata during the preceding century also condemned the use of homoousios, to describe the Son’s relation to the Father, as heretical (RH, 198).

How the Controversy Began

So, if the term was not regarded as important before, at, or after Nicaea, how did it become part of the ‘Arian’ Controversy? This section explains the history chronologically and shows that the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios were introduced into the Controversy in the 350s; about 30 years after Nicaea:

The West not part of the Controversy

At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. For example, at Nicaea in 325, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (LA, 19)

“The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” “The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church.” (RH, 170)

No Controversy after Nicaea

As discussed, for more than 25 years after Nicaea, the Nicene Creed and Homoousios were not part of the Controversy. In fact, there was no controversy:

“At some times there was almost no controversy at all. If there was any controversy from 330 to 341, it was a controversy about the behaviour of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria.” (RH, xviii)

“There was a long period of confusion and uncertainty from 341 to 357 when it was far from clear what the controversy was about, if there was a controversy.” (RH, xviii)

In other words, the dispute between Arius and his bishop Alexander came to an end at Nicaea. The Real Controversy began only decades later, as explained below:

Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy

During those decades after Nicaea, while nobody thinks about homoousios, Athanasius and Marcellus were both exiled from the East and sent to the West (Rome). There they met and joined forces against the East:

“Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (LA, 106)

In Rome, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy:

“Athanasius’ engagement with Marcellus in Rome seems to have encouraged Athanasius towards the development of” “an increasingly sophisticated account of his enemies;” “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years;” “a masterpiece of the rhetorical art.” (LA, 106-7)

What was his polemical strategy?

“Athanasius’ account begins by presenting Arius as the originator of a new heresy.” (LA, 107) In contrast, “Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (LA, 107)

Athanasius described “his enemies as ‘Arians’ seeking to perpetuate a theology stemming from Arius.” (LA, 106) “To this end Athanasius quotes extensively from Arius’ Thalia.” (LA, 107) See also – Athanasius invented Arianism.

This polemical strategy is discussed further in – The Creation of ‘Arianism’. It presents a misleading picture of that Controversy:

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

“Once we begin to grasp the problems with Athanasius’ rhetorical unmasking of ‘Arians’ then we need to look beyond the Athanasian terminology of an ‘Arian’ conspiracy to get a more accurate sense of how to understand non-Marcellan and non-Athanasian eastern theologies during this period.” (LA, 432)

Rome accepted Athanasius’ Polemics.

“Athanasius appealed to Julius of Rome in 339–40 by using his strategy of narrating a theological conspiracy of ‘Arians’. His success had a profound impact on the next few years of the controversy.” (LA, 108)

Julius of Rome held a council in Rome which “quickly vindicated Marcellus and Athanasius.” (LA, 109)

“Julius wrote to the east in 341 in a letter which shows the strong influence of the emerging Athanasian account of ‘Arianism’.” (LA, 109)

At this stage, homoousios was not yet part of this strategy.

Caused division between East and West

It is traditionally thought that the West has always supported Nicaea, just as it is traditionally taught that Athanasius has always supported Nicaea. However, in Ayres’ discussion of the Western (Latin) Theologists at the time of Nicaea, he concludes that they believed more or less the same as the theologians in the East:

“These Latin theologians have as far to travel towards later pro-Nicene theology as the eastern trajectories.” (LA, 75)

“Ironically, an anti-monarchian, anti-‘modalist’ polemic fundamentally shapes these early Latin theologians, and that is taken so often to be determining the future course of a unitary western theology!” (LA, 74)

This last quote is important. It says that the West opposed the idea that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one Being.

So, at this stage, there was unanimity between East and West. It was only the acceptance of Athanasius’ polemical strategy that caused division between East and West:

“Once Julius had acted we begin to see divisions between the Church in the eastern and western halves of the empire emerging.” (LA, 109)

This was the real beginning of the ‘Arian’ Controversy; beginning after Rome, at the beginning of the 340s, had accepted Athanasius’ polemical strategy. However, the bishop of Rome’s acceptance of Athanasius’ strategy did not mean that the entire West accepted it.

“We should … be cautious in our reading of these divisions. The divisions we initially observe are between one group of eastern bishops taking their lead from Eusebius of Nicomedia and Julius and his immediate associates. We must be wary of reading this as reflecting a simple division between eastern and western theology. Even when just such a division appears to come clearly into the open at the Council of Serdica in 343, even there the participants cannot usefully be divided in purely geographic terms.” (LA, 109-110)

Note also that, as explained below, the Nicene Creed and homoousios were not yet part of the Controversy.  

Opposition to Constantius

In the same year that Julius wrote his letter to the East (AD 341), the East formulated the Dedication Creed which says that the Father, Son, and Spirit “are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.” Two years later the West formulated a Creed at Serdica in 343 which “opted clearly for Una substantia meaning one hypostasis.” (RH, 201) The two parts of the empire continued to oppose one another but they were ruled by different emperors. So, there was not much impetus to reconcile these differing views.

However, in the early 350s, Constantius became emperor of the entire Roman Empire:

“Over the period AD 351–3, and after a complex civil war, the eastern Emperor Constantius achieved complete control of the whole empire.” (LA, 133)

“At this point Constantius found himself sole ruler of the Roman world and with the ability to push for a unified religious policy throughout his domains in a way no emperor had been able to do since the death of his father in 337.” (LA, 133)

“As his control over the west grew Constantius increased his attempts to get bishops to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.” (LA, 135)

Constantius’ greatest enemy politically and ecclesiastically was Athanasius:

“Athanasius had a desire for power; he suppressed ruthlessly whenever he could any opposition to him within his diocese … towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (RH, 421)

Therefore, the emperor “attempted to get the condemnation of Athanasius and probably some sort of theological statement accepted throughout the west.” (LA, 135) With that double goal in mind, “the council of Sirmium in 351 set the trend for a series of councils.” (LA, 135) But the West resisted:

“Through the 350s … we seem to see a growing opposition to Constantius’ attempts to force western councils to agree to the decrees of Sirmium 351.” (LA, 136)

For a discussion of the Creed of 351, see – 6.1 Constantius and the Rise of the Homoians.

Athanasius introduced Homoousios.

It was in response to the emperor’s attack on him that Athanasius took the significant step of incorporating the Nicene Creed and homoousios into his polemical strategy. Since that polemical strategy was the basis for the dispute between the East and the West, by incorporating homoousios into his polemical strategy, homoousios also became part of the dispute between the East and the West. But only happened in the mid-350s:

“He began to use it first in the De Deeretis and thereafter regularly in his theological works, defending it fiercely against all criticism of it. If we place De Deeretis in 356 or 357, we can perhaps see the reason for this change of policy. By then it had become abundantly clear not only that Constantius was everywhere trying to isolate Athanasius himself from ecclesiastical support both in the East and the West, but, if we assume, as seems likely, that at Aries in 353 and Milan in 355 a doctrinal formula which did nothing at all to forward the doctrine of the unity of Father and Son regarded by Athanasius as the only orthodox one, was forced upon those who attended these councils, we can imagine that Athanasius decided that he must begin a policy of defending the very words of N as a slogan or banner round which to gather.” (RH, 438)

“Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (LA, 144)

“In most older presentations, ‘western’ bishops were taken to be natural and stalwart defenders of Nicaea throughout the fourth century. The 350s show how Nicaea only slowly came to be of importance in the west.” (LA, 135)

A Turn to Nicaea

Athanasius and the West did not defend Nicaea because they have always defended Nicaea. Rather, to strengthen themselves in their resistance to the emperor’s efforts, they turned to Nicaea:

“It seems unlikely that previous adherence to Nicaea motivated their (the West’s) growing opposition (to Constantius’ efforts): it is much more likely that events in the second half of the decade prompted a turn to Nicaea as a focus for their already strong opposition.” (LA, 136)

In the ‘West’ there were, already before 357, “the beginnings of attempts on the part of a few to turn to Nicaea as a standard against the direction of Constantius’ policies. Events of 357 deeply shaped this movement.” (LA, 139)

Athanasius’ Own Theology

But it is also important to understand that Athanasius did not defend the Nicene Creed as such, but used Nicaea to defend his own theology, which was different:

“Athanasius’ theology in the 340s and 350s is not the ‘original’ Nicene theology, but a development from one of the original theologies that shaped Nicaea.” (LA, 239)

For a further discussion, see – Athanasius was a Sabellian.

Anti-Nicene Accounts Emerged.

Anti-Nicene theologies emerged in the late 350s; only after Athanasius introduced homoousios into his polemical strategy:

Homoian theology is specifically anti-Nicene. Particularly, it opposes ousia-language. For example, they were “refusing to allow ousia-terms of any kind into professions of faith.” (RW, 234)

“Though Homoian Arianism derived from the thought both of Eusebius of Caesarea and of Arius, we cannot with confidence detect it before the year 357, when it appears in the Second Sirmian Creed.” (RH, 558)

“Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (LA, 139)

The Sides in the Controversy

As a result of the introduction of homoousios into the Controversy, the church divided into various factions:

‘One Reality’ Homo-ousians (Sabellians), such as Athanasius and Marcellus, interpreted homoousios as “one substance,” namely, as saying that Father and Son are one Being. See above the council of Sardica in 343, where they used the term ‘one hypostasis’.

Three Reality’ Homo-ousians, such as Basil of Caesarea and Meletius of Antioch interpreted homoousios as “same substance,” namely, that Father and Son are two beings with the same type of substance. See – Basil’s Early Theology: Problems With Homoousios.

The Homoi-ousians said that the Father’s substance is like the Father’s, but not the same.

The Heter-ousians said that the Son is like the Father but His substance is unlike the Father’s.

The Homo-ians, who remained the dominant emperor-supported faction, rejected all use of ousia-terms. They held that Jesus Christ is like the Father, without reference to ousia (essence or substance).


When the Nicene Creed was formulated, the term homoousios was not regarded as important. Arius had already said that he rejected that term and the Council included the term in the Creed merely to force the true Arians to reject the Creed so that the emperor could exile them.

The Nicene Creed was the work of a minority, supported by the emperor. After Christianity became legalized in 313, the emperor became the ultimate authority in doctrine. Religious freedom did not exist.

A majority objected to the term homoousios because it:

    • Is not in the Bible,
    • Represents God as composite, perhaps as material,
    • Implies that the Son was not begotten but has the same unoriginated substance as the Father,
    • Was a Sabellian term,
    • Was not part of the standard Christian language before Nicaea, but
    • Was borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day, and
    • Was already condemned as heretical during the previous century.

Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy distorts the nature of the Arian Controversy. Since it later became accepted by the church, scholars maintain that the traditional account of the Arian Controversy is a Complete Travesty.

At first, there was no schism between East and West. Such a division only developed after Rome had accepted Athanasius’ polemical strategy, around the year 340.

The term homoousios was not part of the Arian Controversy during the first 30 years after Nicaea. Homoousios only became part of that controversy after Athanasius, in the 350s, made it part of his polemical strategy.

Related Articles

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy


The Nicene Creed


    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 15The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 16‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 17In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 18This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 19Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

The Pro-Nicenes

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Extracts from the writings of scholars who have studied the ancient documents for themselves:

Trinity Doctrine – General

    • Elohim 24Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 25The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

All articles on this Site

  • 1
    Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn
  • 2
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 3
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 4
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 5
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 6
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 7
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 8
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 9
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 10
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 11
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 12
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 13
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 14
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 15
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 16
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 17
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 18
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 19
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 20
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 21
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 22
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 23
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 24
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 25
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

The Rise and Fall of the Homoiousianism


After Nicaea, the ‘Arian’ Controversy raged for another 55 years. During that period, ‘Arianism’ dominated the church. But ‘Arianism’ consisted of several strands. This article explains the theology of the Homoiousians, which was one of those strands. Homoiousian means ‘similar substance’ and was used to say that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s.


This article series is largely based on two books:

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

A Compromise

It is often claimed that Homo-i-ousianism (similar substance theology) arose as an attempt to reconcile two opposing teachings, namely: and Homo-ianism:

Homo-ousianism, which comes from the word homo-ousios in the Nicene Creed of the year 325. It means “same substance” and was used to say that the Son’s substance is the ‘same’ (ὁμός, homós) as the Father’s.  If the Son’s substance is the same as the Father’s, then the Son must be co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

Homo-ianism, on the other hand, refused to use the term substance (οὐσία, ousía). It believes that the Son is “like” (ὅμοιος, hómoios) the Father but subordinate to Him.

It is then proposed that similar substance theology (Homo-i-ousian) was an attempt to reconcile the same substance theology (Homo-ousian) theology with the Homoian notion of similarity. For example, “Gwatkin described the group as a ‘Semi-Arian position modified by an Athanasian influence.” (RH, 349) (Athanasius was the great defender of the same substance theology.)

A Persistent Strand

However, recent scholarship does not accept that Homo-i-ousianism was an attempt to reconcile the two other theologies. Homo-i-ousianism was “most prominently associated with … Basil of Ancyra” (RH, 349) and “the term homoiousios plays no role in Basil’s surviving texts” (LA, 150). This implies that such a compromise was not the purpose. More recently, Lewis Ayres proposed that Homo-i-ousianism was not merely a compromise but “a significant and persistent strand in earlier eastern theology.” (LA, 150)

There are indications that this theology was a restatement or development of the theology of Eusebius of Caesarea, as stated in the letter he wrote to his home church after the Nicene Council, to explain why he accepted that Creed:

Ritter described Homoiousianism “as the right wing of the Eusebian party.” (RH, 349)

“Basil … prefers the term ‘image of the ousia’ to define the Son’s relationship to the Father; it is worth noting that this term was favoured by Eusebius of Caesarea … and also is found in the Second (‘Dedication’) Creed of Antioch 341.” (RH, 353)

Eusebius was “universally acknowledged to be the most scholarly bishop of his day.” (RH, 46) Eusebius was the most influential theologian present at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.

A Response to Neo-Arianism

Both Lewis Ayres and R.P.C. Hanson stated that the formulation of Homoiousian theology in 358 by a council of bishops called by Basil of Ancyra was a response to, what Ayres calls, “the emerging shape of Heterousian theology” in the form of the creed of “Sirmium 357,” which was based on the teachings of Aetius. Hanson refers to this as “Neo-Arianism” and as “a new and radical theology” that appears for the first time in the extant ancient records in the form of the “Second Creed of Sirmium of 357,” afterward approved by a larger synod at Antioch (probably in AD 358). ‘Neo-Arianism’ may be an appropriate name because it was “a development” of Arius’ theology. (RH, 348; LA, 149-150)

“Basil’s council sent a delegation to the Emperor Constantius … and this embassy met with success.” The Emperor condemned “Aetius and his teaching” and exiled Aetius and his supporters. This supports the view that this formulation of homo-i-ousianism was particularly intended to oppose the Neo-Arians. (LA, 152-153)

Homo-i-ousian Theology

“The statement which emerged from this council … marks the emergence of a new and coherent theological point of view. This is the theology of those whom Epiphanius, quite undeservedly, calls ‘Semi-Arians’, but who are usually today thought of as Homoiousians, a designation which is more accurate.” (RH, 348-9)

This statement was written by Basil of Ancyra himself (LA, 150) and “is of the highest importance for an understanding of Homoiousian theology.” (RH, 350) It includes “nineteen anathemas which reveal more clearly the position which Basil is attacking.” (RH, 355)

Against Homoian Theology

Homoianism was a dominant Christology during the mid-fourth century. For example, the creeds of the councils of Sirmium in 358, Ariminum in 359, and the key council at Constantinople in 359 / 360 were homoian. It refused to use ousia (substance) language in the formulation of any statement of faith because the Bible does not say anything about God’s substance. Against them, Basil insisted that substance language is necessary to reflect the closeness of the Father and Son expressed by the concepts “Father/Son” and “begotten.” He wrote:

“God must be both Father and creator” (of His Son) (RH, 353). “If we remove this resemblance of ousia,” the Son is merely a created being; “not a Son.” (RH, 353, 354)

Since human sons are like their fathers, the Son of God is like His Father (RH, 352). “The salient irreducible element” in a father/son relationship is “the begetting of a living being that is like in ousia.” (RH, 352-3)

“If the Father gives the Son to have life in himself (John 5:26) … then the Son must have the same life and thus have ‘everything according to essence and absolutely as does the Father’.” (LA, 152)“

Against Homoousian Theology

It is often claimed that the term homo-ousios in the Nicene Creed means “one substance,” namely, that the substance of the Son is one and the same as the Father’s substance. It is on this basis alone that we can argue that the Son is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father. However:

Hanson concluded that “we can … be pretty sure that homoousios was not intended to express the numerical identity of the Father and the Son.” (RH, 202)

Philip Schaff 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.”1Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.

The idea of “one substance,” therefore, developed later. In the Homo-ousianism of the Nicene Creed, the Son’s substance is identical with the Father’s, meaning two substances that are identical. 

This is based on a material interpretation of the terms “Father,” Son,” and “only-begotten,” as if God has a body and bodily gave existence to the Son, comparable to how human sons are brought forth. Consequently, the Son’s substance is identical to the Father’s. For example:

“Anathema 13 links the error of thinking of the Father/Son relationship in corporeal terms with that of making the Son identical with the Father.” (RH, 356)

Homo-i-ousianism did not accept this notion. (RH, 352-3) In Homo-i-ousianism, the Son is subordinate to the Father. (RH, 355) If this is true, then the Son’s substance cannot be identical to the Father’s. Basil explained:

“The Son is like the Father in ousia but not identical with him.” (RH, 352-3). 

“As He … was in the likeness of men (John 1:14) … yet not a man in all respects;” “not identical with human nature,” for example. He was not born through natural conception, “so the Son … is God in that he is Son of God,” was “in the form of God,” and is “equal to God (Phil 2:6, 7),” “but not identical with the God and Father.” (RH, 354)

Anathema 13 “damns him who declares … that the Son is identical with the Father … This is manifestly directed against N (the Nicene Creed).” (RH, 355)

Against Sabellian Theology

In Sabellianism, the Son is not a distinct Person. Rather, the Father and Son are parts of one Person. Basil responded:

“This argument that God must be both Father and creator and that the likeness in ousia is necessary … as a safeguard against Sabellianism: that which is like can never be the same as that to which it is like’.” (RH, 353)

The anathemas also attack the apparent Sabellianism of Marcellus of Ancyra. (RH, 355)

Against Neo-Arian Theology

In Neo-Arianism, which was “a new and radical” (RH, 348) adaptation of Arius’ theology, the terms “Father,” Son,” and “only-begotten” symbolize that the Son is the very image of the Father, but not in a corporeal (material) sense. For that reason, in this view, “the Son is ‘unlike(anhomoios) in ousia to the Father” Ayres refers to this as “Heterousian (different substance) theology.” (LA, 149) For example, Basil’s “Anathema 12 strikes him who declares that the Son’s likeness to the Father consists in power but not in ousia.” (RH, 355)

Homo-i-ousianism was somewhere between the Homoousian (same substance) view and the Neo-Arian (different substance) view. 

The End of this Theology

“In AD 359 Constantius decided to emulate his father’s action in calling Nicaea and summon a general council. … A small group of bishops met at Sirmium to draw up a draft creed for discussion. Those present included not only Basil, but also some who were far more suspicious of ousia language. The creed on which they finally agreed … asserts that all ousia language should be avoided. … … Thus, although Basil of Ancyra was influential with the imperial authorities at one point during 358–9, it was not for long, and he never seems fully to have overcome long-standing Homoian influence at court. (LA, 157-8)

Constantius was becoming somewhat hostile to the influence of all of the new movements which had sprung up after the Nicene council. The result was that the Homoiousians disappeared from the stage of history and the struggle to define Church dogma became a two-sided battle between the Homo-ousians and the Homo-ians.


The 55 years of Controversy after the Nicene Creed of 325 revolved specifically around the word homoousios. Since, in the Nicene Creed, this term was an interpretation of the term “begotten,” the differences between the various Christological views are essentially different interpretations of the terms “Father,” “Son,” and “only-begotten.” These interpretations result in different views with respect to the substance of the Son, on the basis of which the five views may be summarized:

      • Sabellianism = One and the same substance
      • Homoousian = Distinct but identical substance
      • Homoiousian = Similar in substance
      • Neo-Arianism or Heteroousians = Unlike in substance
      • Homo-ianism refuses to refer to substance.

Other Articles

  • 1
    Philip Schaff, History of the Church volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition) pp.672-673.