The doctrine of the Trinity deviates from the Nicene Creed.

PURPOSE

Hypostasis and ousia in the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed of 325 uses the terms hypostasis and ousia to describe the Son of God. These terms were not used in any previous Christian creed. A pro-Alexander pre-meeting was held in Antioch just a few months before Nicaea and not even the draft creed produced by this meeting used these terms. (Ayres, p. 92)

This article aims to explain the meanings of these terms as they were understood at the Council of Nicaea. The Creed uses these terms in three statements:

      • The Son is begotten “of the ousia of the Father.”
      • Father and Son are homoousios,” meaning ‘same ousia’ (same substance). 
      • The Son is not “of another hypostasis or ousia.” (Ayres, p. 93) This is one of the anathemas in the Creed. With the double negative removed, it says that the Son is of the same hypostasis and ousia as the Father.

Homoousios was not important.

Today, many regard homoousios as the key term in the Creed. In the decade after Nicaea, there was a dispute between the Eusebians and Sabellians about this term. After that, however, nobody mentioned the term, not even Athanasius, until he began to use the term to defend his theology. But that was only in the mid-350s. So, at Nicaea, the term did not have the importance we often assign to it today. It was only inserted in the Creed to compel the true Arians to renounce it so that the emperor could exile them. For a further discussion, see:

The Trinity doctrine deviates from the Creed.

This article is not about the term homoousios. Rather, it analyzes the statement that the Son is not “of another hypostasis or ousia,” meaning, the Son is of the same hypostasis and ousia as the Father. This seems to contradict the Trinity doctrine because it uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms and because it seems to say that Father and Son are one hypostasis. To explain:

Trinity doctrine: Three hypostases in one ousia

In the traditional Trinity doctrine, God is one ousia (one substance or Being) existing in three hypostases; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For example:

“The champions of the Nicene faith … developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word’ Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (Hanson Lecture)

Hanson says that the word “Person” is misleading. The reason is that, in normal English, each person has his or her own mind. In contrast, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one Being with one single mind.1In contrast to the traditional Trinity doctrine, some modern theologians propose that the Trinity is “three Centres of Consciousness” (Hanson, p. 737), i.e., three ‘minds’, but that view is not considered here. Rather than the word ‘Person’, Hanson prefers to explain hypostasis in the Trinity doctrine as “realities or entities.”

Creed: Uses ousia and hypostases as synonyms.

Contrary to the Trinity doctrine, the statement in the Creed that the Son is of the same hypostasis and ousia as the Father seems to use the terms ousia and hypostases as synonyms:

“But as for those … who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance … these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.” (Early Church Texts)

        • Ayres refers to “the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis. (Ayres, p. 88)
        • R.P.C. Hanson says the Nicene Creed “apparently (but not quite certainly) identifies hypostasis and ousia.” (Hanson, p. 188)

Creed: Claims Father and Son are one hypostasis.

Furthermore, that anathema seems to say that Father and Son are one single ousia (substance) and one hypostasis (‘Person’). It is consistent with the Trinity doctrine to say that they are one ousia but would contradict the Trinity doctrine to say that they are one single hypostasis. In fact, to say that Father and Son are one single hypostasis is Sabellianism, which was already rejected in the third century. The Creed, therefore, seems to teach Sabllianism:

“By the standard of later orthodoxy, as achieved in the Creed of Constantinople of 381, it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition, because the Son must be of a different hypostasis (i.e. ‘Person’) from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 167)

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325 … ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.” (Hanson’s Lecture)

That anathema does not mention the Holy Spirit, just as the Creed does not say that the Holy Spirit is “God” or that the Spirit is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. In its AD 325 form, the Nicene Creed focused on the Son. This article does likewise.

Purpose of this article

Therefore, the purpose of this article is to determine:

      • Whether the Creed uses those terms as synonyms.
      • If used as synonyms, whether they mean ‘Person’ (a distinct individual) or ‘substance’ (the material an entity consists of). If both mean ‘substance’, then the Creed agrees with the doctrine of the Trinity. However, if both mean ‘Person,’ this would contradict the doctrine of the Trinity.
      • Whether the Creed describes Father and Son as one single hypostasis (Person).

For this purpose, this article first discusses how those terms were used during the centuries before Nicaea and when the Arian Controversy began.

AUTHORS

This article is largely based on the following recent writings of world-class scholars who are regarded as specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy:

Hanson – A 1981 lecture by R.P.C. Hanson on the Arian Controversy.

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

Ayres, Lewis
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

BEFORE NICAEA

Etymologically, they are synonyms.

Etymologically (i.e., relating to the origin and historical development of words and their meanings), hypostasis and ousia are direct cognates (See – Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils). That means they have the same linguistic derivation, just like the English father, the German Vater and the Latin pater are cognates. In other words, originally, hypostasis and ousia had the same meaning.

Philosophy: Synonyms for Fundamental Reality

The authors of the Nicene Creed derived these terms from Greek philosophy. Hanson refers to “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (Hanson, p. 846)2Hypostasis … became a key-word in Platonism.” (Hanson, p. 182) In Greek Philosophy:

Hypostasis is the underlying state or underlying substance and is the fundamental reality that supports all else” (Wikipedia)

Note that both hypostasis and ousia (substance) appear in this definition. In philosophy, one hypostasis was one substance. Ancient Greek philosophers used these terms as synonyms for “the fundamental reality that supports all else,” namely, the primary, fundamental kind of being, in contrast to the objects in the sensible world which are mere shadows. In a Christian context, we might refer to “the fundamental reality” as the Ultimate Reality or ‘God’.

The Bible: Only used once.

The Bible never refers to God’s ousia. For a definition of the term, see – The Free Dictionary or Liddell & Scott.

The word hypostasis “occurs five times in the New Testament.” (Hanson, p. 182) Four instances do NOT refer to God and is translated as ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ (2 Cor 9:4; 11:17; Heb 3:14; 11:1). The only place where the term hypostasis describes God is Hebrews 1:3. (Hanson, p. 182) In it, “the Son is described as the impression [exact image] of the Father’s hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 187, 182) The following are some of the translations (BibleHub):

      • The exact representation of his being (NIV);
      • The exact imprint of his nature (ESV);
      • The express image of his person (King James & New King James);
      • The exact representation of His nature (NASB);
      • The very image of his substance (ASV);
      • The exact likeness of God’s own being (Good News)
      • The exact likeness of his being (ISV)
      • The very imprint of his being (New American)
      • The exact imprint of God’s very being (NRSV)

The three instances in red translate hypostasis as a characteristic or aspect of God but most translate it as referring to God as a distinct Individual or Person, meaning, the Son is the exact image of God, rather than of an aspect of God.

Hypostasis also occurs twenty times in the LXX (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), but only one instance uses this term to describe God. “At Wisdom 16:21 the writer speaks of God’s hypostasis … and no doubt this is why Hebrews uses the term ‘impression of his nature’.” (Hanson, p. 182)

Since the Bible never refers to God’s ousia and only once refers to His hypostasis, the use of the terms ousia and hypostasis in the Nicene Creed was not based on the Bible:

“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.” (Hanson, p. 846)

Tertullian did not use these terms.

Tertullian at the turn of the second to the third centuries had already used the Latin word substantia (substance) of God … God therefore had a body and indeed was located at the outer boundaries of space. … It was possible for Tertullian to think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sharing this substance, so that the relationship of the Three is, in a highly refined sense, corporeal. … He can use the expression Unius substantiae (‘of one substance’). This has led some scholars to see Tertullian as an exponent of Nicene orthodoxy before Nicaea … But this is a far from plausible theory. Tertullian’s materialism is … a totally different thing from any ideas of ousia or homoousios canvassed during the fourth century.” (Hanson, p. 184)

Elsewhere, Tertullian wrote:

“For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole” (Against Praxeas, Chapter 9).

In other words, for Tertullian, the Son is part of the Father, similar to Sabellianism. See – Was Tertullian a Sabellian?

Origen: Synonyms for distinct Individual

Origen wrote at the beginning of the third century. He was the most influential writer of the first three centuries. “The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of Origen.” (Bible.ca, quoting W.H.C. Frend)

Origen used these terms as synonyms. While ousia is understood today as “substance,” Origen used both terms for the Persons of the Trinity as distinct Individuals, as opposed to their substance. For example:

“He taught that there were three hypostases within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 184)

He “used hypostasis and ousia freely as interchangeable terms to describe the Son’s distinct reality within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 185)3“He can say … that the Son is ‘different in ousia’ from the Father, meaning that he is a distinct entity from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 66-67)

“For Origen the words hypostasis … and ousia are … synonyms for … distinct individual entity.” (Hanson, p. 66-67)

The phrases in blue bold give Hanson’s understanding of how Origen used the terms hypostasis and ousia. ‘Person’ is often used as shorthand for such phrases.

While Origen wrote that the Son is “separate in hypostasis or ousia from the Father” (Hanson, p. 66-67), the Nicene Creed states the exact opposite and condemns those who say that He “is of a different hypostasis or substance.”

Conclusion

In the time before the Arian Controversy, the two terms were synonyms for the Persons of the Trinity as individual Entities.4Williams refers to “the respectable pre-Nicene usage of ousia for primary (individual) substance.” (Williams, p. 164) If that is also how the Nicene Creed uses the term, and not for the substance of God, then ‘begotten from the ousia of God’ simply means ‘begotten from the being of God’, a statement with which the Eusebians could agree. Arius would have disagreed because he maintained that the Son was begotten out of nothing (from non-existence).

WHEN THE CONTROVERSY BEGAN

Different people used these terms differently.

Hanson discusses the use of these terms by several ancient theologians. The question is, did they use these terms for the Father and Son as Individuals (Persons) or for their substance?5“When at last the confusion was cleared up and these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words,” hypostasis and ousia respectively meant “’person’ and ‘substance’.” (Hanson, p. 181)

      • “Eusebius of Nicomedia” used ousia to mean Person. He said, “there are two ousiai and two facts.” (Hanson, p. 185)
      • “Eusebius of Caesarea … uses ousia to mean substance.” (Hanson, p. 185)
      • “Alexander of Alexandria … does not use the word ousia, but instead uses hypostasis for both ‘Person’ and ‘substance’.” (Hanson, p. 186)
      • Arius used hypostasis for Person. He “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 186)
      • Asterius, a leading anti-Nicene, “said that there were three hypostases. But he also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father. Once again we find a writer who clearly did not confuse ousia and hypostasis.” (187)

Hanson concludes that “considerable confusion existed about the use of the terms hypostasis and ousia at the period when the Arian Controversy broke out.” (Hanson, p. 181)6“Several alternative ways of treating these terms were prevalent.” (Hanson, p. 184)7“That continuing terminological confusion is reflected in the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis.” (Ayres, p. 98)

For most, the terms were synonyms.

Although different people used these terms differently, most used these terms as synonyms:

“For many people at the beginning of the fourth century the word hypostasis and the word ousia had pretty well the same meaning.” (Hanson, p. 181) Athanasius also used them as synonyms.8“Clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (Hanson, 440)

“For at least the first half of the period 318-381, and in some cases considerably later, ousia and hypostasis are used as virtual synonyms.” (Hanson, p. 183)

“It is only much later in the century that the two are more clearly distinguished by some.” (Ayres, p. 98)

This implies that the Nicene Creed also uses these terms as synonyms. Therefore, our first conclusion is that the Nicene Creed, by using these terms as synonyms, does contradict the Trinity doctrine, in which Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases but one ousia.

In the Nicene Creed, these two terms “did not mean, and should not be translated, ‘person’ and ‘substance’, as they were used when at last … these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words.” (Hanson, p. 181)

The Creed teaches only one hypostasis.

The second question was whether the Nicene Creed contradicts the Trinity doctrine by claiming that Father and Son are one single hypostasis. Since it says, with the double negatives removed, that the Son is of the same hypostasis or substance as the Father, Hanson concludes that it does:

“If we are to take the creed N at its face value, the theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea. That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis. This was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” (Hanson, p. 235)

“The production of N … must have been deeply disturbing for many who could not seriously be described as Arian in sympathy but could not believe that God had only one hypostasis, as the creed apparently professed.” (Hanson, p. 274)

Sabellians dominated at Nicaea.

During the Arian Controversy, theologians were divided into ‘one hypostasis’ and ‘three hypostasis’ camps. Following Origen, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct Persons), each with his distinct ousia. On the other hand, Sabellians said that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis (Person). The fourth-century Sabellians Eustathian and Marcellus were famous for this teaching:

The “’one hypostasis’ of the Godhead was to become the slogan and rallying-cry of the continuing Eustathians.” (Hanson, p. 213)

“One point about Marcellus which is unequivocally clear is that he believed that God constituted only one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 229-230)

Sabellianism originated in the second century as Monarchianism, was refined in the third by Sabellius, and had many followers. For example, among the pre-Nicene church fathers, Bishop Dionysius of Rome (in the middle of the third century) “said that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy ‘into three … separated hypostases and three Godheads’; people who hold this in effect produce three gods.” (Hanson, p. 185)

As discussed in another article, Alexander and Athanasius also maintained that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis. For example:

The “clear inference from his (Athanasius’) usage” is that “there is only one hypostasis in God.” (Ayres, p. 48)

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)

What Alexander and Athanasius believed might be slightly different from the Sabellians but they were able to join forces at Nicaea with the Sabellians because they all maintained one hypostasis. And, as discussed, since Emperor Constantine took Alexander’s side in the controversy, the Sabellians had the upper hand at Nicaea. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Nicene Creed presents Father and Son as one single hypostasis.

CONCLUSIONS

Different people used these terms differently but, generally, most used hypostasis and ousia as synonyms. Ousia did not mean ‘substance’, as we use the term today. Rather, for many theologians, both hypostasis and ousia meant “person.”

The Nicene Creed indeed uses the two terms as synonyms. Therefore, since the distinction between ousia and hypostases is foundational in the Trinity doctrine, the Trinity doctrine deviates from the Nicene Creed. As confirmation that the Nicene Creed does not teach the Trinity doctrine, Lewis Ayres distinguishes between ‘pro-Nicene’ and ‘Nicene theology’:

“By ‘pro-Nicene’ I mean those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s … of how the Nicene creed should be understood. … These theologies build closely on and adapt themes found earlier in the century, but none is identical with any original ‘Nicene’ theology apparent in the 320s or 330s.” (Ayres, p. 6)

The Creed seems to teach that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis, which was the hallmark of Sabellianism. “It is going too far to say that N is a clearly Sabellian document. … It is exceeding the evidence to represent the Council as a total victory for the anti-Origenist opponents of the doctrine of three hypostases. It was more like a drawn battle.” (Hanson, p. 172)

This is a technical analysis of the Creed. Different people, however, preferred to read it differently. The Eusebians glossed the technical terms to fit their views. See – Eusebius’ explanation. They signed the Creed but certainly did not explain the Creed as Sabellian.

THE CHANGE

Who changed the meaning?

“When at last the confusion was cleared up and these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words,” hypostasis and ousia respectively meant “’person’ and ‘substance’.” (Hanson, p. 181)

When and by whom were these changes made? 

Arians were the first.

The Eusebians, the so-called Arians, taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases. Some of them, right at the beginning of the Controversy, already made a distinction between hypostasis and ousia and used ousia for ‘substance’; the material a Being consists of:

Arius used hypostasis for ‘Person’.9He “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Hanson, p. 187)” For example, he said that the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit “were different in kind and in rank.” (Hanson, p. 187) And he used ousia for “substance.“ He wrote, for example: “The Logos is alien and unlike in all respects to the Father’s ousia.” (Hanson, p. 186) “It seems likely that he was one of the few during this period who did not confuse the two.” (Hanson, p. 187)

Asterius, another leading ‘Arian’, “clearly did not confuse ousia and hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 187) He used hypostasis for ‘Person’10He “said that there were three hypostases” and “certainly taught that the Father and the Son were distinct and different in their hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 187) and ousia for ‘substance’.11“He also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 187)

The Cappadocians were the first pro-Nicenes.

The pro-Nicenes were one-hypostasis theologians (See Athanasius), meaning that they thought of Father, Son, and Spirit as one hypostasis (one Person) and one ousia (substance). They had no reason to distinguish between hypostasis and ousia.

However, more than 40 years after Nicaea, the Cappadocians were (the first?) three-hypostasis pro-Nicenes (See – Basil). For that reason, they were in dispute with Athanasius and his followers (Damasus of Rome, Peter of Alexandria) in what is known as the Meletian Schism. But since they were three-hypostases theologians, the Cappadocians distinguished between hypostasis meaning Person, and ousia meaning substance. They are therefore traditionally credited for being the first to make that distinction:

“The first person to propose a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía … was Basil of Caesarea.”12Johannes, “Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils”

“Basil’s most distinguished contribution towards the resolving of the dispute about the Christian doctrine of God was in his clarification of the vocabulary.” (Hanson, p. 690)

Basil “is often identified” with the “distinction between a unitary shared nature at one level, and the personal distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit at another.” (Ayres, p. 190-191)

Basil taught three Beings.

However, Basil did not understand God as one undivided ousia (substance or Being), as in the Trinity doctrine. As another article explains, Basil’s innovation was to propose three distinct substances that are the same type of substance in all respects. He proposed, just like Peter, Paul, and John were three instances of humanity, that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three instances of divinity. In his view, there is only one type of substance. The Son does not have a lower form of divinity or substance, but all three Persons have the same type of substance.

The Trinity doctrine does not use ousia for substance

Another difference between Basil and the traditional Trinity doctrine is that that doctrine does not use ousia for substance. In reality, it still uses, similar to Athanasius and the earlier pro-Nicenes, ousia and hypostasis as synonyms meaning ‘Person’. To explain:

The core distinction between the pro-Nicene and the ‘Arians’ was that, while the ‘Arians’ said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three Persons with three distinct minds), the pro-Nicenes maintained that they are one hypostasis with one single mind. (See – Athanasius)

In contrast, the later developed Trinity doctrine describes God BOTH as One and Three. It says that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (Persons) but one ousia (Being). The key point is that it does not employ ‘ousia’ to mean substance (the material that constitutes a Being) as Basil did. Rather, it uses ‘ousia’ to say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God with one single mind. So, effectively, the Trinity doctrine still uses ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostasis’ as synonyms for Person. It uses different words for what God is as one and what He is as three but looking beyond the words to the essence of the matter, it suggests that God is simultaneously a single individual entity (Being or Person) and three distinct individual entities.

So, despite considerable discussion regarding the evolution of the terms ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostasis,’ the doctrine of the Trinity continues to employ their original meanings.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    In contrast to the traditional Trinity doctrine, some modern theologians propose that the Trinity is “three Centres of Consciousness” (Hanson, p. 737), i.e., three ‘minds’, but that view is not considered here.
  • 2
    Hypostasis … became a key-word in Platonism.” (Hanson, p. 182)
  • 3
    “He can say … that the Son is ‘different in ousia’ from the Father, meaning that he is a distinct entity from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 66-67)
  • 4
    Williams refers to “the respectable pre-Nicene usage of ousia for primary (individual) substance.” (Williams, p. 164)
  • 5
    “When at last the confusion was cleared up and these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words,” hypostasis and ousia respectively meant “’person’ and ‘substance’.” (Hanson, p. 181)
  • 6
    “Several alternative ways of treating these terms were prevalent.” (Hanson, p. 184)
  • 7
    “That continuing terminological confusion is reflected in the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis.” (Ayres, p. 98)
  • 8
    “Clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (Hanson, 440)
  • 9
    He “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Hanson, p. 187)”
  • 10
    He “said that there were three hypostases” and “certainly taught that the Father and the Son were distinct and different in their hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 187)
  • 11
    “He also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 187)
  • 12
    Johannes, “Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils”
  • 13
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy

The Sabellians of the Fourth Century

OVERVIEW

This article discusses the views of the three main Sabellian theologians of the fourth century:

      • Eustathius of Antioch,
      • Marcellus of Ancyra, and
      • Photinus of Sirmium.

The first two attended Nicaea, joined forces with Alexander, vigorously opposed the Arians, and had a significant role in formulating the Nicene Creed. However, both were deposed for Sabellianism within about ten years after Nicaea. Photinus lived a little later and was deposed in 351.

After the Eastern Church deposed Marcellus, the Western Church vindicated him. Athanasius, who was found guilty of violence and tyranny by the Eastern Church, was also declared orthodox and innocent of crimes by the Western Church.

Alexander and Athanasius were similar enough in their theology to the Sabellians to join forces with them, both at Nicaea and during the decades after Nicaea.

In Sabellian theology, the Logos is not a distinct Person and does not have a real distinct existence. The Logos or Son is God’s only Logos and is “in” the Father. Consequently, Father and Son are one single hypostasis (one single Person with one single mind). The Son and Holy Spirit are simply attributes or activities of the one God. The Logos is merely a word spoken by God or God’s thought. This has some important implications:

(1) Christ did not exist before He was born from Mary.

(2) Christ is a complete human being with a human soul (mind). In other words, it was a mere human being who suffered, died, was resurrected, and now sits at God’s right hand. The Logos or Son did not suffer or die.

(3) The eternal Logos dwells in the man Jesus as an Energy, an Activity, Inspiration, and Moral agreement.

INTRODUCTION

Authors quoted:

In this article, the main authors quoted are:

Hanson RPC,
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 (1988(

Williams, Rowan,
Arius: Heresy and Tradition (2002/1987)

Ayres, Lewis,
Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (2004)

Based on ancient documents that have become available during the previous century1“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (Williams, p. 11-12) and based on significant progress in research,2Ayres wrote in 2004: “A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (Ayres, p. 2). modern scholarship has concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy is history written from the winner’s perspective and a complete travesty. These books reflect the revised account of that Controversy.

The three prominent Sabellians

In chapter 8 of his book, RPC Hanson discusses the three Sabellian bishops who were prominent during the fourth-century Arian Controversy. They are:

    • Eustathius of Antioch
    • Marcellus of Ancyra, and
    • Photinus of Sirmium. (Sirmium was one of the four main centers of the Roman Empire. For example, Emperor Constans made “Sirmium his Head Quarters.” (Hanson, p. 316))

Ayres, in chapter 3.1 of his book, discusses Marcellus as one of the four “trajectories” in the church when the Arian Controversy began. The current article summarizes these two sections in these two books.

The theologies of the three Sabellians were similar. Marcellus learned his theology from Eustathius and Photinus was a devoted disciple of Marcellus. They continued the tradition of the second-century Monarchians.3“Marcellus learnt the main lines of his theology from Eustathius.” (Hanson, p. 234) Their theologies only differ “in minor respects” (Hanson, p. 216) and “stem from the same theological tradition.” (Hanson, p. 234)4“Photinus, bishop of Sirmium … came from Ancyra, was a devoted disciple of Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Hanson, p. 235-6)

OVERVIEW OF HISTORY

The Nicene Council

Both Eustathius and Marcellus attended Nicaea. There, they joined forces with Alexander5“Marcellus, Eustathius and Alexander were able to make common cause against the Eusebians.” (Ayres, p. 69)6“Eustathius and Marcellus … certainly met at Nicaea and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (Hanson, p. 234) (Ossius presided over the meeting as the emperor’s agent.) and were some of the most vocal opponents of Arius.7Eustathius “was clearly a vigorous opponent of Arius and Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 208)

Through their alliance with Alexander, and since the emperor had taken Alexander’s part in his dispute with Arius,8“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part and by events at the council of Antioch only a few months before.” (Ayres, p. 89) Eustathius and Marcellus were able to influence the wording of the Nicene Creed:

“Marcellus … played a major role at Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 62)

“If we are to take the creed N at its face value, the theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea. That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis. This was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” (Hanson, p. 235)

In the previous quote, note that “one ousia and one hypostasis … was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” This means that Father and Son are one single Person with one single mind, meaning that the Son does not have a distinct existence.

After Nicaea

Deposed for Sabellianism

Both Eustatius and Marcellus were deposed within about ten years after Nicaea. Photinus lived a little later and was deposed in 351.9Eustathius was “deposed from the see of Antioch by a council and exiled by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 209) Ayres says that this was “soon after Nicaea, probably in 327.” (Ayres, p. 68-69). Hanson says it “cannot have been later than 331.” (Hanson, p. 209)10“About ten years after the Council of Nicaea he (Marcellus) was deposed by a council held in Constantinople.” (Hanson, p. 217)11Photinus was “censured” and “condemned” in 344, 345, and 347, “but was only ousted and exiled finally … in 351.” (Hanson, p. 236) Eustathius and Marcellus were deposed for Sabellianism:

“It seems most likely that Eustathius was primarily deposed for the heresy of Sabellianism.” (Hanson, p. 211)

“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix)12Marcellus of Ancyra “cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism.” (Hanson Lecture) “Marcellus was deposed for Sabellian leanings.” (Hanson, p. 228)

Marcellus’ book “was accused of favouring the ideas of Paul of Samosata.” (Hanson, p. 217). (This Paul was a prominent third-century Sabellian who had been condemned at a council in Antioch in 268.)

Eusebius regards Marcellus’ “doctrine as outright Sabellianism, that is a failure to distinguish Father and Son.” (Hanson, p. 224)

In the last quote, note again that Sabellianism is defined as “a failure to distinguish Father and Son.” They are regarded as one single Person. 

Vindicated in the West

While Marcellus was deposed in the East (Constantinople), he was vindicated as orthodox in the West (Rome):

“Julius (bishop of Rome), in the year 341, summoned a council to Rome, which vindicated the orthodoxy of Marcellus, as well as that of Athanasius.” (Hanson, p. 218)

Note that the West also vindicated Athanasius. His theology was similar to the Sabellians:

“Athanasius and Marcellus could come together in Rome. The perception that these two trajectories held to very similar beliefs would help to shape widespread eastern antipathy to both in the years after Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 69)

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)

The similarity of their theologies is also shown by their alliance:

“At the Council of Jerusalem and the Council of Tyre in the same year he (Marcellus) had supported Athanasius.” (Hanson, p. 217)

“Athanasius … continued to defend the orthodoxy of Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. 220) “Though he (Athanasius) may temporarily at this period, when he was preparing to return from his second exile, have wished to place a distance between himself and Marcellus, he had no intention of making a final break with him. It is doubtful if he ever did this.” (Hanson, p. 220)

Another article provides further evidence of the Sabellian leaning of the theologies of Alexander and Athanasius. For example, “Studer’s account here follows the increasingly prominent scholarly position that Athanasius’ theology offers a strongly unitarian Trinitarian theology whose account of personal differentiation is underdeveloped.” (Ayres, p. 238) The question is, why did the West vindicate these two Sabellians?

One possible answer is that the West did not understand the issues. At first, the West was not involved in the Arian Controversy. For example, the delegates at Nicaea were “drawn entirely from the East. almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19) Hanson concludes that the East failed to properly understand the issues:

“Pope Julius and his associates who declared Marcellus’ doctrine to be orthodox can have never met the works of Origen nor known anything of the theology of the Eastern Church.” (Hanson, p. 231)

An alternative answer is that the West was also Sabellian. Hanson comments: “In this medley of opinions it is quite unrealistic to indulge in the business of labelling some as ‘heretical’ and some as ‘orthodox’.” (Hanson, p. 216)

THEOLOGY

The Son is in the Father.

These Sabellians described the Logos, not only as in “God,” but as in “the Father.” With respect to Marcellus, for example:

“The Word … eternally is in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63) “Before the world existed the Word was in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63) “The Word was in the Father as a power.” (Ayres, p. 63)

“To describe the relationship between Word and God he (Marcellus) deploys the analogy of a human person and her reason.” In other words, the Word eternally exists “intrinsic to” the Father’s existence. (Ayres, p. 62)

Father, Son, and Spirit are one Hypostasis.

Hanson defines Sabellianism above as “a failure to distinguish Father and Son.” (Hanson, p. 224) Since the Logos is “in” the Father, it follows that God is only One Hypostasis (Reality). In later Trinitarian language, these Sabellians believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one single ‘Person’. The Son and Holy Spirit are simply attributes or activities of the one God. For example:

Hanson refers to Eustathius’ “insistence that there is only one distinct reality (hypostasis) in the Godhead, and his confusion about distinguishing Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 216) The “’one hypostasis’ of the Godhead was to become the slogan and rallying-cry of the continuing Eustathians.” (Hanson, p. 213)

“One point about Marcellus which is unequivocally clear is that he believed that God constituted only one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 229-230) “The point’ which was to them (Marcellus’ followers) crucial, that there was one hypostasis with one ousia.” (Hanson, p. 223-4) “Marcellus … is particularly incensed at the use of hypostasis or ousia in the plural.” (Ayres, p. 63)

The Logos has no real existence.

It follows that the Logos does not have a real distinct existence. For that reason, Ayres also refers to them as Unitarians (Ayres, p. 431). For example:

“’The Logos for Eustathius,’ says Loofs, … ‘has or is no proper hypostasis’.” (Hanson, p. 215) In other words, the Logos does not have an existence distinct from the Father.

Eusebius of Caesarea “accuses Marcellus of Ancyra of rejecting the hypostasis i.e. the distinct individuality, of the Son.” (Hanson, p. 53) 13Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987 For Marcellus, the Logos was only a temporary word spoken by God: “The Son was a mere word … immanent [inherent] during the time that the Father was silent, but active in fashioning the creation, just as one’s speech is inactive when we are silent, but active when we speak.” (Hanson, p. 224)

For Photinus, “The Logos … was simply a mode of manifestation of the Father, a power or aspect of him not in any serious sense distinct from him.” (Hanson, p. 237) “Like Marcellus, he favoured the analogy of a man and his thought for the relation of the Father to the Son.” (Hanson, p. 237)

They claimed they are not Sabellians.

Marcellus insists “that he is not a Sabellian.” (Ayres, p. 63) Technically, this may be true. In Sabellianism, the Father and Son are parts of the one God. See – Sabellius. In contrast, as stated, for Marcellus, the Son is “in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63, 64) Nevertheless, in both views, the Father and Son are one single hypostasis (Reality) and the Son is not a distinct reality. This article, therefore, uses the term “Sabellian” for any view in which God is only one hypostasis.

WHO IS JESUS?

The discussion above pertains only to the nature of God apart from the incarnation. But the more important issue is what ‘one hypostasis’ theology means for the question of who Jesus Christ is or was. That, after all, was the big question in the Arian Controversy.

Christ had no pre-existence.

All three theologians made a distinction between the Logos and the Son:

      • The Logos is eternal and an attribute of God.
      • The Son came into existence when He was born from Mary.

For example, for Marcellus, “the only-begotten Son” was equal to “Logos + assumed flesh.” (Hanson, p. 227) We usually say that the Son was “begotten” in eternity past. But, for Marcellus, the term “begotten” refers to the event, 2000 years ago, when the Logos assumed flesh. Before that event, the “Son” did not exist:

“It was not the Logos that was begotten, but the Son.” (Hanson, p. 224)

“The Logos was only called Son or Jesus or Christ after the Incarnation.” (Hanson, p. 225)

Eustathius, similarly, “distinguishes between ‘the Logos … and ‘Christ’s man’ who was raised from the dead and is exalted and glorified.” (Hanson, p. 213) “It is the man who sits at God’s right hand.” (Hanson, p. 214)

And Photinus wrote: “The Son did not come into existence until the Incarnation and was defined as the whole human being who was born of Mary; Christ had no pre-existence.” (Hanson, p. 237)

Christ has a Human Mind.

The fourth-century Eusebians (the so-called Arians) said that Christ does not have a human soul: God gave Him a body without a human soul or mind so that the Logos may function as Christ’s soul and mind. In that way, the Logos suffered all the pain and insult of the Cross. The Eusebians described the Son as God (divine) but with a lower form of divinity that is able to suffer and even die. They, therefore, were able to say that God suffered and God died. 

In contrast, the Sabellians said that the Son has a human soul (mind) and that that soul absorbed all human experiences. The underlying principle is that the Logos is God and God cannot suffer. For example:

Eustathius wrote:

“The man whom the Logos assumed was a complete man: ‘he consists of soul and body.” (Hanson, p. 213)

“The human being absorbs all the human experiences attributed to Christ in the Gospels, leaving the divine element untouched.” (Hanson, p. 215)

“This soul was able to endure the human experiences which it was unfitting for the divine element in Christ to endure.” (Hanson, p. 212)

So, in this theology, it was only a human person that suffered and died.

With respect to Marcellus, Hanson at first says:

“There is no reason to conclude that Marcellus saw the necessity of postulating a human psyche in the flesh assumed by the Logos at the Incarnation.” (Hanson, p. 229)

But he later mentions factors that: “might cause us to consider again the conjecture discussed above, that Marcellus did in his middle or later period admit a human soul to Christ.” (Hanson, p. 238)

Photinus “certainly taught that the human body of Jesus had a human mind or soul.” (Hanson, p. 236)

Christ is Limited.

Since Christ has a human mind, He is limited. For example:

Eustathius said: “God hid the knowledge of the day of the Second Coming from the man, but the divine element in Jesus Christ was omniscient.” (Hanson, p. 213-4)

And Photinus argued: “Christ was only Son of God in the sense that all Christians are.” (Hanson, p. 238)

The Logos dwells as an Energy in Jesus.

So, the question is, in what sense was God in this man? For the Sabellians, the eternal Logos dwells in the man Jesus as an Energy or an Activity or as Inspiration and Moral agreement:

“It would seem that Eustathius … holds that the Logos is … dwelling as an ‘ENERGY’ in Jesus.” (Hanson, p. 215)

For Marcellus, with respect to “the Incarnation … the Godhead would appear to be extended simply by ACTIVITY so that in all likelihood the Monad is genuinely indivisible.” (Hanson, p. 228)

“Everybody in the ancient world accuses Photinus of reducing Christ to a mere man adopted by God, i.e. the union between Logos and man was one of INSPIRATION AND MORAL AGREEMENT” (Hanson, p. 237)

There is only one Logos.

Marcellus described the Logos as “the proper and true Logos of God.” (Hanson, p. 230). He said: There is not “another Logos and another Wisdom and Power.” (Hanson, p. 230) This is an attack aimed at the Eusebians who said that Jesus Christ is the Logos of God but God also has His own Logos. The Sabellians, therefore, found it ‘surprising’ that the Eusebians spoke of two Logoi. For the Sabellians, God only has one Logos, and that Logos works in Jesus as an activity.

Eventually, Jesus will be no more.

If the Logos is only an activity of God in the man Jesus, then that activity might end when the goal is accomplished. “Marcellus set a limit to this period of Christ’s reign. At the end of this reign the flesh of Christ was to be abandoned, the body deserted, and the Logos would return to God from whom he had (before the creation of the world) come forth.” (Hanson, p. 226-7) “He is most concerned to uphold God’s rule as complete and unmediated, and thus the kingdom of Christ must end.” (Ayres, p. 66)

Marcellus seemed to have later changed his view on this. “He played down his more eccentric earlier ideas” (Hanson, p. 238)

THE HOLY SPIRIT

An activity of or an energy from God

In the same way, the Holy Spirit is merely an activity of or an energy from God. For Marcellus: “The Spirit remains inseparably in God, but goes forth as activity from the Father and the Logos.” (Hanson, p. 229) “The same language of going forth in energy is used for the Spirit as was used in the case of the Son.” (Ayres, p. 67)

ANTECEDENTS

The Monarchians

“Scholarship has also consistently linked Marcellus with ‘Monarchian’ theologies. Monarchian theologians in the second and third centuries appear to have focused on the unity of God centred in the person of the Father. By their opponents they are accused of teaching that the Son and the Spirit do not have real independent existence and are in fact simply modes of the Father’s being. … Some scholarship has seen this theological tendency as a strong and persistent theological voice, both in Rome and in Asia through the third century, with Marcellus as the last prominent Monarchian voice.” (Ayres, p. 69)

CONCLUSIONS

The perhaps surprising conclusion is that the Arian (Eusebian) view of Jesus Christ is infinitely higher than the Sabellian view.

Another perhaps surprising conclusion is that the Socianians or so-called Biblical Unitarians are the continuation of the ancient Sabellians.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (Williams, p. 11-12)
  • 2
    Ayres wrote in 2004: “A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (Ayres, p. 2).
  • 3
    “Marcellus learnt the main lines of his theology from Eustathius.” (Hanson, p. 234) Their theologies only differ “in minor respects” (Hanson, p. 216) and “stem from the same theological tradition.” (Hanson, p. 234)
  • 4
    “Photinus, bishop of Sirmium … came from Ancyra, was a devoted disciple of Marcellus of Ancyra.” (Hanson, p. 235-6)
  • 5
    “Marcellus, Eustathius and Alexander were able to make common cause against the Eusebians.” (Ayres, p. 69)
  • 6
    “Eustathius and Marcellus … certainly met at Nicaea and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (Hanson, p. 234) (Ossius presided over the meeting as the emperor’s agent.)
  • 7
    Eustathius “was clearly a vigorous opponent of Arius and Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 208)
  • 8
    “Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part and by events at the council of Antioch only a few months before.” (Ayres, p. 89)
  • 9
    Eustathius was “deposed from the see of Antioch by a council and exiled by Constantine.” (Hanson, p. 209) Ayres says that this was “soon after Nicaea, probably in 327.” (Ayres, p. 68-69). Hanson says it “cannot have been later than 331.” (Hanson, p. 209)
  • 10
    “About ten years after the Council of Nicaea he (Marcellus) was deposed by a council held in Constantinople.” (Hanson, p. 217)
  • 11
    Photinus was “censured” and “condemned” in 344, 345, and 347, “but was only ousted and exiled finally … in 351.” (Hanson, p. 236)
  • 12
    Marcellus of Ancyra “cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism.” (Hanson Lecture)
  • 13
    Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
  • 14
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy