Eusebius of Caesarea’s explanation of the Nicene Creed

Summary

R.P.C. Hanson, who arguably made the most thorough investigation of the Arian Controversy available to us today, states that Eusebius of Caesarea was “the most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. (RH, 159)1The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, p159

Immediately after the council meeting, Eusebius wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted certain “objectionable expressions” in the creed. This article discusses that letter. Its main conclusions are as follows:

Three “parties” were present at Nicaea:

      1. Arius and his supporters, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
      2. The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea; and
      3. Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.

At the meeting, Arius’ theology was first presented but was rejected by both other “parties.”

Then Eusebius of Caesarea presented the statement of faith used at his home church in Caesarea. That statement did not include the terms “substance” or “same substance” and was accepted by the meeting.

Eusebius particularly mentions that the emperor approved of the statement of faith from Caesarea. For us, it is surprising that Eusebius felt it important to have the emperor’s approval but we need to remember that separation of Church and State did not exist at that time. In the culture of the day, the Christian Roman Emperor was regarded as God’s agent on earth. Church and State were one. Consequently, emperors like Constantine, Constantius, Theodosius, and Justinian had a significant influence on church councils, decisions, and even doctrines.

After Eusebius presented the Creed of Caesarea, the emperor spoke and urged the meeting to accept and support that statement but he also insisted that the word homoousios be added.

The emperor also explained how he understood the meaning of this word. However, as Hanson wrote:

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, it ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous …”

Constantine explained the word homoousios as that it does not mean that the Son (when He was begotten) was cut off from the Father. I propose we understand this as follows:

The Bible maintains a clear distinction between the Son and God (e.g., Rev 21:22) but also has an extremely high view of the Son. For that reason, from the earliest time, the church found it difficult to explain the relationship between the Father and the Son.

The Apologists (the pre-Nicene Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries) were all non-Jews and familiar with Greek philosophy. Therefore, they found it convenient to explain the Son as the Logos of Greek philosophy.

In that philosophy, God’s Logos (Word or Mind or Wisdom) always existed inside God but, when it became time to create, God’s Logos was emitted from God to become a separate Reality. It was like a part of God that began to exist externally from Him. The Logos remained God’s only Logos and remained constantly connected with God. God always had access to His one and only Logos.

The Apologists identified the Logos’ coming out of God in Greek philosophy as equivalent to the Bible’s statement that God begat His Son. It seems as if the emperor was emphasizing this point.

Constantine did not develop these ideas by himself. They were proposed to him by Alexander of Alexandria and the emperor’s advisor Hosius. With their support, the emperor proposed the word homoousios at the council meeting and also enforced the inclusion of the word.

Following the emperor’s request, the party of Alexander presented a carefully worked out statement – the Nicene Creed of 325 as we have it today – which they said was a revised form of the Creed of Caesarea, with certain adjustments to make its rejection of Arianism explicit.

This revised statement included references to the “Father’s substance,” including:

      • “Out of the Father’s substance” and
      • “Of the same substance as the Father.”

Years before, the great theologian Origen had rejected the term substance for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine. Therefore, Eusebius and his fellow Origenists “resisted to the last moment the introduction of certain objectionable expressions.” But due to the considerable pressure applied by the emperor, the statement was approved by all delegates except three.

Eusebius explains as follows how he understood (justified?) the disputed terms:

Ousios (substance or essence) implied that the Son is of the Father indeed, but is not part of the Father.

Homoousios (same substance) must not be understood in a material sense. That the Son was begotten by God does not mean that a portion of God’s substance was cut off. Neither did the Father’s substance and power change in any way, for the Father’s substance is “underived” and, therefore, cannot change. That he is homoousios with the Father then simply implies that the Son:

        • Has no resemblance to created things, but resembles the Father in every respect.
        • Is of no other substance or essence but of the Father’s.

Conclusion

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

The meeting was called to deal with the Arian Controversy but that dispute was quickly settled through the rejection of the Lucian ()Arius’) view. However, the meeting caused a second controversy:

At the meeting, there was a dispute between the parties of Alexander and Eusebius of Caesarea. Due to the pressure exerted by the emperor, the formulation presented by the party of Alexander was accepted and became adopted as the Nicene Creed.

But the expressions which the Origenists found “objectionable” caused the second phase of the Arian Controversy that raged for the next 50 years. Emperor Constantine, through the Council of Nicaea in 325, attempted to unite Christianity and establish a single, imperially approved version of the faith. But his efforts caused the deep divisions that existed after Nicaea. The word homoousios became the object of dissension.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

PURPOSE

Who was Eusebius of Caesarea?

According to Paul Pavao, in his excellent book, Decoding Nicea, at Nicaea, “the bishop who occupied the chief place in the right division of the assembly” is almost universally believed to be Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (AD 260/265 – 339/340).

Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85) mentions Eusebius of Caesarea as the leader of “the Origenists” and as “already highly reputed:”

Among those who were (at Nicaea in 325), three basic “parties” were discernible:
(1) Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia;
(2) the Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and
(3) Alexander of Alexandria, with his following.

Eusebius left us with the only record of the proceedings and discussions at Nicaea that is available today.

Eusebius of Nicomedia

Eusebius of Caesarea must be distinguished from Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was a leader of “the Lucianists” at Nicaea. Since the infamous Arius was one of them, we may refer to them as the Arians. Lucian was already dead by then, but people like Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia probably learned their Christology at the school of Lucian at Antioch in the late third century.

Purpose of this article

After the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain the decisions at Nicaea.  That letter is recorded in The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus I:8.

This article provides extracts from that letter as well as comments (in blocks and tables), with headings added. The letter reads:

INTRODUCTION

You have probably had some intimation, beloved, of the transactions of the great council convened at Nicea in relation to the faith of the Church … we have deemed it necessary to submit to you:

      • In the first place, an exposition of the faith proposed by us in written form, and then
      • a second which has been promulgated, consisting of ours with certain additions to its expression.
Comment: The “us” here seems to refer to the delegation led by Eusebius. As discussed below, at the council meeting, they first proposed a statement of faith. “A second which has been promulgated” refers to the Nicene Creed, as was formally promulgated.

The Creed of Caesarea

The declaration of faith set forth by us, which when read in the presence of our most pious emperor seemed to meet with universal approbation, was thus expressed:

Comment: Emperor Constantine attended the council and had a huge impact on the outcome, as is discussed below. But Eusebius claims that his proposal was generally accepted. Below, I quote sections from Eusebius’ proposed statement of faith that are key to understanding the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Word of God—
God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life—
the only-begotten Son,
born before all creation,
begotten of God the Father before all ages,
by whom also all things were made …

We believe also in one Holy Spirit. …

Comment: Note that Eusebius’ statement of faith does not mention the terms substance or “same substance.”

When these articles of faith were proposed, there seemed to be no ground for opposition. No, even our most pious emperor himself was the first to admit that they were perfectly correct and that he himself had entertained the sentiments contained in them. 

Comment: Paul Pavao commented: It is simply astounding that Eusebius felt it important to have the emperor’s approval of the articles of faith, rather than informing the emperor of what the church approved.

I would like to add that it is important to understand that no separation of Church and State existed at that time. In the culture of the time, the Christian Roman Emperor was regarded as God’s agent on earth. The supreme bishops of the Empire – the spiritual heads of the Christian world – were regarded as acting in harmony with him. Church and State were therefore one. Consequently, emperors Constantine, Constantius, Theodosius, and Justinian had a significant influence on the decisions of church councils. For a discussion, see Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy.

Constantine added homoousios

He (the emperor) exhorted all present to give them their assent and subscribe to these very articles (as proposed by Eusebius), thus agreeing in a unanimous profession of them—with the insertion, however, of that single word, homoousios, an expression which the emperor himself explained as not indicating corporeal affections or properties. Consequently, the Son did not subsist from the Father either by division or by cutting off. For, said he, a nature that is immaterial and incorporeal cannot possibly be subject to any corporeal understanding; hence, our conception of such things can only be in divine and mysterious terms. Such was the philosophical view of the subject taken by our most wise and pious sovereign,

Constantine’s definition of homoousios

It was, therefore, the emperor that proposed the word homousios. He also explained the meaning of this word. But it is a negative explanation; saying what homoousios does NOT mean. It is a bit strange to propose a term and then to say that it is not possible to understand what it means; that “our conception of such things can only be in divine and mysterious terms.”

But Constantine’s key point seems to be that the Son (when He was begotten) was not cut off from the Father. Tatian (c. AD 165) mentioned the same principle:

“He (the Son) came into being by participation, not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], for what is cut off is separated from the original substance.”

Note the word “separated.” The point seems to be that the Son did not become separated from the Father when He was begotten by the Father. Justin Martyr (c. AD 155) wrote similarly:

This Power was begotten from the Father, by his power and will, but not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], as if the essence of the Father were divided.

Tatian and Justin Martyr, like all the other Gentile Christian theologists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, held to a Logos-Christology in which the Logos has always existed inside God but was emitted from God (begotten by God) and became the Son of God when it became time to create. See The Apologists for further discussion.

So, what Constantine seemed to have meant is that the term homoousios does not mean that He was separated from God when He was begotten. I propose that we understand this in terms of Logos-Christology according to which God cannot change. Therefore, His Logos was not separated from Him when the Son was begotten: God always had access to His Logos. It seems as if the emperor was emphasizing this point.

Where did Constantine get all this?

Constantine did not develop all these ideas by himself. He got it from somewhere. Above, I listed the three parties at Nicaea. Since Constantine did not get these ideas from the Origenists or from the Lucianists, he received them from the party of Alexander of Alexandria:

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

The party of Alexander, which includes the emperor’s advisor Hosius, therefore, before the council meeting, has already agreed on the word homoousios. And, since they had the backing of the emperor, the emperor proposed the word and was able to enforce the inclusion of the word. “Enforce” may seem like a strong word, but is confirmed by many authors. Bernard Lohse, (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53) stated:

“What seemed especially objectionable to many bishops and theologians of the East was the concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios.”

Substance and Same Substance Added

… and the bishops, because of the word homoousios, drew up this formula of faith:

Eusebius then quotes the Nicene Creed, which is also available from Earlychurchtexts. It is instructive to compare the section of the creed that is key concerning the Arian Controversy, with the same section in the statement of faith presented by Eusebius:
Eusebius proposed Nicene Creed
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Word of God—
God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life—
the only-begotten Son,
born before all creation,
begotten of God the Father, before all ages,
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Son of God,
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,
of one substance with the Father,
I emphasized the key additions, namely the terms “substance” and “one substance.”

Eusebius asked questions

Now when this declaration of faith was propounded by them, we did not neglect to investigate the distinct sense of the expressions “of the substance of the Father” and “consubstantial with the Father.”

Who are “them?” Above, Eusebius referred to “the bishops” but Erickson identified “them” as “the party of Alexander:”

“Those of the party of Alexander, however, were not fully satisfied. They were favored by the emperor, and followed the strategy of accepting the Creed of Caesarea while demanding a more precise definition of some of its key terms. … The Alexandrian party then presented a carefully worked out statement, which they said was a revised form of the Creed of Caesarea, with certain steps taken to close loopholes that could be interpreted in Arian fashion.”

Henry Bettenson wrote,

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

That Eusebius had to ask questions shows that the Nicene Creed was formulated by a group over which he had no control. It is, therefore, probable that the Nicene Creed was formulated before the council meeting itself. 

Ousios (Substance)

When we did, questions and answers were put forth, and the meaning of these terms was clearly defined. At that point it was generally admitted that ousios (substance or essence) simply implied that the Son is of the Father indeed, but does not subsist as a part of the Father. To this interpretation of the sacred doctrine—which declares that the Son is of the Father but is not a part of his substance—it seemed right to us to assent. We ourselves, therefore, concurred in this exposition.

Steven Wedgeworth stated that “Origen had rejected the term (substance) years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” Eusebius and “the Origenists,” therefore, questioned this term.

Homoousios

Nor do we cavil at the word homoousios, having regard to peace, and fearing to lose a right understanding of the matter.

Paul Pavao commented that it does not appear that Eusebius embraced homoousios with great enthusiasm, remarking in his letter to Caesarea that “we do not cavil” at the word homoousios. This is hardly rousing support.

Begotten, not Made

On the same grounds, we admitted also the expression “begotten, not made.” “For ‘made,'” said, “is a term applicable in common to all the creatures which were made by the Son, to whom the Son has no resemblance. Consequently, he is no creature like those which were made by him but is of a substance far excelling any creature. The Divine Oracles teach that this substance was begotten of the Father by such a mode of generation as cannot be explained nor even conceived by any creature.”

Paul Pavao commented that the delegates all agreed that Proverbs 8:22, in the LXX, refers to the Son as created. Therefore they all referred to Him as such, but the council here banned this term.

Consubstantial (homoousios)

Thus also the declaration that “the Son is consubstantial with the Father” having been discussed, it was agreed that this must not be understood in a corporeal sense, or in any way analogous to mortal creatures; inasmuch as it is neither by division of substance, nor by abscission [cutting off], nor by any change of the Father’s substance and power, since the underived nature of the Father is inconsistent with all these things.

That he is consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father then simply implies that the Son of God has no resemblance to created things, but is in every respect like the Father only who begat him; that he is of no other substance or essence but of the Father.

This is an expansion of the emperor’s explanation of this term above. I understand the explanation as follows:

We cannot understand this concept because there is nothing like it in the created realm.

That the Son was begotten by God does not mean that a portion of God’s substance was cut off. Neither did the Father’s substance and power change in any way, for the Father’s substance is “underived” and, therefore, cannot change.

That he is consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father then simply implies that:

        • The Son of God has no resemblance to created things but resembles the Father in every respect.
        • He is of no other substance or essence but of the Father.

Ancients used this term

To this doctrine, explained in this way, it appeared right to assent, especially since we knew that some eminent bishops and learned writers among the ancients have used the term homoousios in their theological discourses concerning the nature of the Father and the Son.

Paul Pavao provides examples in Chapter 15 of Decoding Nicea. Philip Schaff mentioned that Irenæus used the word homousios four times and that Tertullian also uses the expression “of one substance” (unius substantiæ) in two places.

Anathemas

We have also considered the anathema pronounced by them after the declaration of faith inoffensive because it prohibits the use of illegitimate terms, from which almost all the distraction and commotion of the churches have arisen.

Again the “them,” confirms that “the decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Bettenson, quoted above).

The anathemas reflect the typical statements made by Arius and his followers.

Objectionable Expressions

We deemed it incumbent on us, beloved, to acquaint you with the caution which has characterized both our examination of and concurrence in these things and that on justifiable grounds we resisted to the last moment the introduction of certain objectionable expressions as long as these were not acceptable. We received them without dispute when, on mature deliberation as we examined the sense of the words, they appeared to agree with what we had originally proposed as a sound confession of faith.

Generally, Eusebius’ letter gives the impression that consensus was achieved fairly easily, but the phrase “resisted to the last moment” gives us an indication of the struggle within the council. The Nicene Creed was eventually accepted only because “the emperor exerted considerable influence:”

“The Origenists had considerable reservation about references to the ‘Father’s substance’, including ‘out of the Father’s substance’ and ‘of the same substance as the Father’. The emperor exerted considerable influence. Consequently, the statement was approved by all except three. (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons)”

“Certain objectionable expressions” refer particularly to those listed by Erickson. As stated before, Eusebius and his followers were Origenists and “Origen had rejected the term years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine.” (Steven Wedgeworth)

But these terms were accepted at “the last moment.” However, the acceptance of these “objectionable expressions” resulted in the second phase of the Arian Controversy in which these words were resisted:

The Wikipedia page on the Arian controversy states that Emperor Constantine, through the Council of Nicaea in 325, attempted to unite Christianity and establish a single, imperially approved version of the faith. Ironically, his efforts were the cause of the deep divisions created by the disputes after Nicaea. (Smither, Edward L., ed. (2014-02-14). Rethinking Constantine: History, Theology, and Legacy. p. 65–66)

“Homoousios … in the subsequent strife between orthodoxy and heresy became the object of dissension. ” (A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53)

As Hanson wrote, “The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, it ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.”

Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, p159
  • 2
    Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41

In the Nicene Creed, is the Son to EQUAL to the Father?

Summary of this article

Analysts often claim that the Nicene Creed describes the Son as equal with the Father. However, the creed begins as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible

In four ways, this identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father:

(1) “We believe in one God” means that we do not believe in many gods, but in only one god. The quote above continues to identify that “one God” as the Father. That excludes the Son as the “one god” in which we believe.

(2) The creed identifies the Father as “Almighty.” Nothing similar is said of the Son in the remainder of the Creed. Consequently, the Son is not Almighty.

(3) The titles “Father” and “Son” also imply that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

(4) The Father is the “Maker of all things,” it implies that the Son is not the Creator. The creed later adds that all things were made “by” the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things “through” or “by” the Son.

Another indication that the Son is subordinate to the Father is when the creed says that the Son is “begotten, not made.” This statements makes a fundamental distinction between the Son and the created cosmos, but if the Father begat (gave birth to) the Son, then the Son is not the original Source of all things; the Father is.

Very God

The creed describes the “one Lord Jesus Christ” as “very God of very God,” but this is not the only possible translation:

The word in the creed, that is translated “god,” is the common word for the immortal Greek gods. When the Jewish community began to use Greek, they began to use this same word for the Almighty God and even for exalted people.

The word “God,” in contrast, is a modern invention, with a very different meaning. Namely, we use the word “God” as a name for one specific Being – the omnipotent originator of the universe (Merriam-Webster).

The phrase “very God of very God,” therefore, could also be translated “very god of very god.” The translation “God” would only be appropriate if the creed describes the Son as such. However, as already stated, the creed present the Son as subordinate to the Father.

Homoousios

The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “of one substance with the Father.” This implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality). However, as discussed, the creed presents the Son as subordinate to the Father in other respects. The Father is the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.

No Trinity Doctrine

The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine:

      • It does not describe the Holy Spirit as God and
      • There is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The issue before the council was not the unity of God, but merely the nature of the Son, relative to the Father.

The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is “homoousios.” Although it is often translated as “one substance,” it means “of the same substance:” 

Before the creed was formulated, this term meant likeness of substance. (Qualitative sameness of substance)

After AD 325, Catholic theologians interpreted it as ‘identically the same substance‘ or “one substance.” In other words, that the Father and Son not only have a similar substance but share one single substance. (Numerical sameness of substance)  

But this article proposes that the council did not agree on the meaning of homoousios. The emperor himself presided over the meeting and proposed and insisted on the term homoousios. Because of this pressure, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways.

– END OF SUMMARY –

The Text of the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed, according to Wikipedia, reads as follows:

We believe in one God,
the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible.

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, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];

And in the Holy Ghost.

But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and
‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or
‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or
‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—
they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Is the Son Subordinate?

Analysts often claim that, according to this creed, the Son is equal with the Father. This section evaluates and qualifies, this statement. The Nicene Creed starts by saying:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible
,”

but later adds:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ …
very God of very God.

Does this mean that the Son is EQUAL with the Father?

The difference between “God” and theos

First, it is important to note, for the discussion of these phrases, the significant difference between the title “God” and the word used in the original Greek text of the creed:

“God” is a modern word; made possible by the distinction between upper- and lower-case letters, which did not yet exist when the creed was formulated in the year 325. We use “God” today as the proper name for the “unbegotten,” as the ancients used to say; that is, the One who exists without cause. The creed (and the New Testament) does not contain any one word that is exactly equivalent to the modern word “God.” 

Theos – The word which the creed uses is theos. This is the same word as used by the Greek text of the New Testament and, as discussed in the article on theos, has a wide range of meanings. It was used for the “gods” of the Greek Pantheon, who were believed to be immortal beings with supernatural powers over nature and mankind. But theos was also used for exalted people. Consequently, it approximates the meaning of the English word “god” and, unless the context indicates or implies that theos refers to the Unbegotten, it should be translated as “god.”

Against this background, the wording of the creed is discussed below:

The Almighty Father

The creed identifies the Father as “Almighty.” Nothing similar is said of the Son in the remainder of the Creed. Consequently, the Son is not Almighty.

One God

The creed also says that “we believe in one god, the father.” [Since the distinction between upper- and lower-case letters did not yet exist when the creed was formulated, to more accurately reflect the meaning of the text, I converted the capital letters into lower caps.]

We believe in one God” means that we do not believe in many gods, but in only one god. The quote above continues to identify that “one God” as the Father. That excludes the Son as the “one god” in which we believe. 

The Father is the “Maker of all things visible and invisible.”  The New Testament often states that God created all things “through” the Son (John 1:3; Col 1:16; Hebr 1:2). In 1 Corinthians 8:6, the NASB reads that all things are “by” Christ. However, the word in Greek is “di’” and is explained by Strong’s as “a primary preposition denoting the channel of an act, through.” (See Interlinear.) In Young’s Literal Translation, therefore, this verse reads:

Jesus Christ,
through whom [are] the all things,
and we through Him
.”

The Nicene Creed similarly says that all things were made “by” the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things. “By whom all things were made” means:

Through The Son, as Word of God,
all things have been created.
As Logos, the Son is the agent and artificer of creation.
(See, St. Peter’s Episcopal)

The Son, therefore, is the Means through Whom the Father made all things.

The Only Begotten Son

The Nicene Creed refers to the Lord Jesus Christ as “the Son of God” while the Almighty is His “Father.” The titles “Son” and “Father” imply that the Lord Jesus Christ is SUBORDINATE to the Father.

To say that the Son is “very god of very god” (or “true god of true god” in other translations) merely says that both the Father and the Son truly are supernatural, immortal beings. For both the Father and the Son, this is a MUCH LOWER CLAIM than the claim to be the Almighty. It does not even mean that they are the only gods. Jesus even referred to humans, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods” (same word – John 10:34-35). [For a discussion, see Did Jesus claim to be God?.]To translate this as “true God of true God” misrepresents the meaning of the creed, for only the Almighty qualifies to be “God” in the modern sense of the word.

The creed describes the Son as “begotten, not made.”  The word “of,” in the phrase, “very god of very god,” is related to this concept and also implies that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father, for He begat (gave birth to) the Son. 

The creed adds that the Son is the “only Begotten” Son. In other words, God has many other sons, but only one “begotten” Son. No other being was ever “begotten” by the Father. This implies a fundamental difference between the Son and “all things.” All things were “made,” according to the Nicene Creed, but only the Son was “begotten.”

The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “being of one substance with the Father.” This is probably derived from the concept that He is begotten, for the Bible does not discuss the substance of the Father or of the Son. 

Made out of Nothing

The creed condemns all who say that “He was made out of nothing.”  Since He was begotten, one could perhaps argue that He was made of the substance of the Father. However, such arguments are dangerous because the Bible says nothing about this and this is not something that humans perhaps are even able to understand.

Nevertheless, the implication of the Nicene Council is that all other things were made out of nothing. However, Einstein taught us that things cannot be made out of noting (E=mc2, where E stands for Energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light). The Father, therefore, did not use other materials to make “all things.”  Rather, all things are brought forth from His own being. He provided from His own incomprehensible Being the energy which He converted into the material from which He made all things. The claim that the Son is the begotten is humanly incomprehensible but sets the Son apart from all other things.

Conclusion

On the one hand, the creed identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father:

      1. We believe in only “one god; the Father.”
      2. Only the Father is “Almighty.”
      3. The Lord Jesus is called “Son;” in contrast to the Father.
      4. The Son has been “begotten“ by (born by) the Father.
      5. The Father made all things through the Son.

On the other hand, the Son is “of one substance with the Father,” which implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality), but He is subordinate to the Father in all other respects. Also, bear in mind that this concept, that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, is an interpretation of the word “begotten” and is not directly stated as such anywhere in the Bible.

We can compare the Father and the Son to a human father and son, who are of the same substance, but this analogy breaks down, for the difference between the Father and the Son is much greater than the difference between a human father and a human son: While the Son was begotten by Him, the Father exists without cause. The Father is also the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.

No Trinity in the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine. This statement is justified as follows: 

Firstly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Holy Spirit is a separate Person, equal with the Father and the Son, but the Nicene Creed merely and very briefly mentions the Holy Spirit together with the Son and the Father, to indicate a belief in the Triad (three Persons) of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. It says nothing about the Holy Ghost being “true God” or being of the same substance.

Secondly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being, but there is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed. 

The Athanasian Creed, formulated more than a century later, expresses the trinity concept explicitly, including with the phrase, “the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity:”

Note: Most often today, we use the word “Trinity” as a SINGULAR REFERRING TERM (meaning that it refers to a single being) for, in the Trinity doctrine, God is One Being but three Persons. The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed and in Tertullian and in many other church fathers, in contrast, is actually a PLURAL REFERRING TERM, meaning that it refers to a group of three distinct Beings. It is, rather, the word “Unity,” in the Athanasian Creed that emphasizes their One-ness. The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed, therefore, should be translated with a lower case “t.”

Thirdly, as Millard J. Erickson stated, the issue before the council, it is virtually universally agreed, was not the unity of the Godhead but rather the co-eternity of the Son with the Father, and his full divinity, as contrasted with the creaturehood that the Arians attributed to him (God in Three Persons, p82-85).

Does Homoousios mean One Being?

This section is adapted from Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85).

The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is homoousios (consubstantial in Latin). It means “of the same substance” or “of one being.” The Nicene Creed uses this term to say that the Son is “of one substance” or “of one being” with the Father, namely that He was begotten “from the substance of the Father.” This is often understood to mean that the Son is fully equal to the Father.  But what did it actually mean to the council? Three possibilities are considered:

Same Type of Substance

If this was the meaning, then the creed says that the Son is utterly unlike created beings in substance, but it does not mean that they share the same substance (numerically the same substance), as required by the Trinity doctrine. This view is supported by the following:

Firstly, before Nicaea, homoousios meant likeness of substance. This is how Origen and his followers used the term. In that sense, it could signify the kind of substance or stuff common to several individuals of a class. We could say, for example, that all humans are homoousios – consist of similar substance.

Secondly, if homoousios was understood to mean numerical identity of substance, in other words, like three persons with one body, then the Eusebian faction at the council would have identified it as Sabellianism and would have resisted it vigorously. (Sabellianism is the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are THREE DIFFERENT MODES or aspects of God.)

Thirdly, since the great issue at Nicaea was the SON’S FULL DIVINITY and not the unity of the Godhead, the word homoousios would have been understood to signify the Son’s full divinity. Then total unlikeness to creatures in substance and total likeness in substance to the Father would have sufficed.

Lastly, later on—after the numerical identity of substance became a standard part of Christology—some orthodox theologians still used the word homoousios in the sense of the same type of substance.

Exactly the same substance

For later Catholic theologians, Homoousios meant ‘identically the same substance’:

The Cappadocian Fathers “made extensive use of the formula “one substance (ousia) in three persons (hypostaseis)” (McGrath, Alister (1998), Historical Theology). 

In other words, the Father and Son not only have a similar substance; exactly the same substance of the Father is also the substance of the Son. This implies His numerical identity with the Father, which means that they are the same being; like three persons with one body.  Arguments that are used for this view include the following:

(a) It would seem to be unnatural” for monotheists to admit two divine ousiai (substances).

(b) The famous eastern theologian Origen used the word to mean SIMILAR SUBSTANCE, but for Origen, the Son was INFERIOR to the Father, (The Triune God, Edmund J. Fortman, p 66-70). Since the intent of the council was to affirm the Son’s equality with the Father, would they use the word homoousios with the meaning which Origen attached to it?

(c) If Hosius of Cordova influenced the adoption of the term, would he have failed to indicate to the Nicene Fathers that, for him and for the church in the West, it signified ‘identity of substance’?

In recent years, there is a growing tendency to reject the numerical identity view. 

No Agreement

As discussed in another article, the emperor himself proposed the term homoousios and exerted pressure on the council to accept the term.  Since there were three different factions at the meeting with three different views, and because of the pressure applied by the emperor, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways, depending on their theological tendencies (e.g. Marcellan neo-monarchianism or Eusebian subordinationism).  In other words, THE COUNCIL DID NOT AGREE ON THE MEANING OF HOMOOUSIOS.

Condemnations

The creed identified certain people as “condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” However, to condemn people with different views is inconsistent with the Christian principles of love and humility. This is made worse by the fact that the nature of Christ is a humanly incomprehensible subject, and not explicitly taught in the Bible.

Furthermore, people are saved by their faith (trust) in God; not by believing the right doctrines. But this creed makes itself a criterion for true faith. All that the Bible requires from believers is stated in John’s summary of his gospel:

These have been written
so that you may believe

that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of God
;
and that believing
you may have life in His name

(John 20:31).

It always amazes me how important Christology became in the fourth century. Why did the church, in the fourth century, elevate the nature of Christ to be the most important doctrine? I would like to venture that, during the first 300 years, the enemy of the faith attacked the church from outside, through persecution. After the church has been legalized in 313, the enemy entered the church. It was now inside the church and saw in this topic fertile ground for causing division in the church. He still today uses this topic very effectively for that purpose.

Catholic Church

The condemnations in the creed refer to “the holy catholic and apostolic Church.” The word “catholic,” here, simply means ‘universal’.  During the 11th century, the East-West schism permanently divided Church. That schism resulted from a dispute on whether Constantinople or Rome held jurisdiction over the church in Sicily, followed by mutual ex-communications in 1054. Since that event, the Western (Latin) branch of Christianity has become known as the Catholic Church, while the Eastern (Greek) branch is called the Orthodox Church. In this way, the “Catholic Church” became the name of one particular denomination. When used as such, the “c” in both ‘catholic’ and “church’ is capitalized; Catholic Church.

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries