Did Philo influence the Bible’s description of the Son of God?

Purpose

The Old Testament (OT) presents only one God. But then Jesus Christ appeared and claimed to be the “only-begotten Son” of God (John 3:16; 10:36), to have received all authority in heaven and on earth (John 17:2; Matt 28:18), and even implied to be the “I am” of the OT (John 8:58). This “I am” may be understood as “the angel of the LORD” who appeared to Moses “in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush,” who is also called “God” and who said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exo 3:2, 4, 14).

So, the writers of the New Testament (NT) had to figure out who Jesus is relative to God. They wrote things of Jesus that Jesus never said of Himself, such as that:

    • He is the “Logos” (John 1:1), the image of God (Col 1:15), and the “mediator … between God and men” (1 Tim 2:5).
    • He was “in the beginning with God” (John 1:1).
    • God created and still maintains all things through Him (e.g., John 1:3; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2-3; 1 Cor 8:6).
    • God gave Him all authority in heaven and on earth (John 17:2; Matt 28:18).

As Christians, we like to think that this message of the only begotten Son of God is unique to the New Testament. It is then a little disquieting to discover that, before the NT was written, Greek philosophy, as interpreted by Philo, also spoke about a Logos who always existed, through whom God created all things, who is the image of God and the mediator between the Uncreated and created.

Given these similarities, the Internet Encyclopaedia article on Philo (IE) claims that the NT descriptions of Jesus are derived from Greek philosophy via Philo and therefore that Christianity is based on Greek philosophy. The purpose of this article is to evaluate this claim. For this purpose, this article discusses the similarities and differences between Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ and attempts to explain why such concepts existed even before the New Testament was written.

Summary

Philo

Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher who wrote a few decades before the NT was written. “Philo was thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy. … He had a deep reverence for Plato and referred to him as ‘the most holy Plato’.” But Philo was also committed to the Jewish faith. By using “an allegorical technique for interpretation of the Hebrew (Bible),” he produced a synthesis of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy.

Foundations of Christianity

Philo is not important for Judaism. “Philo’s primary importance is in the development of the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity.”

IE claims that the Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (the Apologists) used Philo’s synthesis of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy to formulate the Logos theology. To explain:

The church began as a Jewish-dominated movement. After the church became Gentile-dominated in the second century, Logos Theology became the standard explanation of who Jesus Christ is and of His relationship with God. We cannot deny that that theology was substantially influenced by Greek philosophy.

But IE goes much further and even claims that Philo may have influenced the New Testament itself, particularly the writings of Paul, the gospel of John, and the epistle to the Hebrews.

By reading the Greek philosophy of his day into the Old Testament, Philo gave Greek philosophy a Biblical appearance. Therefore, what IE effectively claims is that Christianity grew out of Greek philosophy via Philo.

God

First, consider some of Philo’s views concerning God, namely:

      • No other being, not even the Logos, is able to fully understand the One who exists without cause: Only God is able to fully understand God.
      • God also created time and, therefore, for Him, “nothing is past and nothing is future, but everything is present only.”
      • “There never was a time when he did not create.”

The Logos

Philo’s most important doctrine

When Philo lived, “the notion of the Logos was deeply ingrained in Greek philosophy” and Philo included the Logos in his interpretation of the Old Testament. Philo’s entire philosophical system hinges on his doctrine of the Logos. The Logos was his means of synthesizing the Old Testament and Greek philosophy. Furthermore, IE claims that it was also Philo’s doctrine of the Logos that created “the foundation for Christianity, first in the development of (Paul’s letters) and (the books) of John, later in the Hellenistic Christian Logos and Gnostic doctrines of the second century.”

The Logos in the Old Testament

Philo found the Logos in the Old Testament in:

      • “The Word of the LORD” that is often said to come to the prophets and by which “the heavens were made,”
      • The personified “Wisdom” (Proverbs), and in
      • The Angel of the Lord.

A Personal Being

“Logos” is the common Greek word for “word,” “speech,” “principle,” or “thought.” But, in Greek philosophy, the word Logos had a very specialized meaning, namely, “a rational, intelligent and thus vivifying principle of the universe.”

IE claims that Philo, by introducing the concept of the Logos into Judaism, has transformed the Logos from a metaphysical theoretical entity into a humanlike being and mediator between God and men.

Other prominent scholars (Ronald Nash, RPC Hanson, Rowan Williams) disagree. They say that “Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle … a metaphysical abstraction.” The descriptions in Philo of “an individually subsistent Logos, distinct from the Father” are not literal but metaphorical.

My understanding is that Philo illogically describes the Logos as both a “metaphysical abstraction,” as in Greek philosophy, and as a Personal Being, as he interprets the Logos in the Old Testament to be. Rowan Williams adds, “To look for a clear definition or identification of the Logos in his writings would be … fruitless” (RW, 124)1Rowan Williams – Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001.

Has always existed.

Both Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ have always existed:

Philo holds that “the Logos … constitutes the manifestation of God’s thinking, acting.” Consequently, the Logos has been brought into existence by God but always existed (because God has always existed and never began to think or do).

Similarly, in the NT, the Son was “begotten,” meaning that He has been brought into existence by God. At the same time, the Son “was” in “the beginning” (John 1:1-2) and is “the First and the Last” (Rev 1:17), implying that He has always existed.

Literally first in time

Since, in both Philo and the NT, the Logos has always existed, the Logos has existed first in time. For that reason, Philo described the Logos as “the first-begotten Son of the Uncreated Father.” Jesus Christ, similarly, is “the ‘first-born’ of God” (Col 1:15; Heb 1:6), although this might also be interpreted symbolically

Uniquely Generated

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has been uniquely generated:

Philo used “begotten” and “created” as synonyms but he says that the Logos is neither uncreated as God nor created as men. In other words, He was generated differently from created beings.

The NT, by saying that the Son is “the only begotten” and not only “the first begotten” as in Philo, makes a distinction between “begotten” and “created” and indicates that the Son was uniquely generated.

Direct Agent of Creation

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is the direct Agent of creation:

In Philo, “the direct agent of creation is not God himself … but the Logos. … the Logos … was used as an instrument and a pattern of all creation.”

In the NT also, God created all things through the Logos (John 1:1-3; cf. Col 1:16; Heb 1:2; 1 Cor 8:6).

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos maintains the universe:

In Philo, “the Logos is the bond holding together all the parts of the world” and “produces a harmony … between various parts of the universe.”

Similarly, in the NT, God maintains all things through His Son (Heb 1:3; Col 1:17).

Subordinate

Both Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ are subordinate to God:

In Philo, the Logos is “inferior to God” (Davis). “The supreme being is God and the next is Wisdom or the Logos of God” (IE).

In the NT, the Father sent the Son and Jesus said, “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). See – The subordination of the Son.

However, the orthodox teaching of the church accepts that the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father. The real question is whether the Son is also ontologically subordinate to the Father:

In Philo, “the ontology of the Logos would most closely resemble an emanation from the divine essence” (Davis). Therefore, He is also ontologically subordinate to the High God.

The Bible nowhere explicitly teaches anything about the substance of God or ontological equality.

Mediator

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is the mediator between God and man:

Philo described the Logos as the “mediator between God and the world,” “continually a suppliant (pleading) to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race,” “to procure forgiveness of sins, and a supply of unlimited blessings.”

Similarly, in the NT, “there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5; cf. Heb 8:6; 9:15).

The Light of the World

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos illuminates the soul. In Philo, “the Logos … in the mind of a wise man … allows preservation of virtues” (IE). Similarly, John wrote: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.”

The Logos in our God.

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is our God:

In Philo, “God is revealed to His creation through the Logos.” Due to “the utter transcendence of the First Principle [the One who exists without cause],” “man’s highest union with God is limited to God’s manifestation as the Logos.” For Philo, the Logos is the only experience of God that man will have. Effectively, therefore, the Logos is our God.

Similarly, in the NT, God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” but the Son is “the (visible) image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). As the direct Agent of our creation and our continued existence, and since we will never be able to “see” or directly experience God, the Son is effectively the God of all created things. 

Cannot become Flesh

Philo would never have accepted that the Logos “became flesh” (John 1:14) because “Philo disdained the material world and physical body. The body was for Philo … ‘an evil and a dead thing’.”

Philo also taught that “a wise man … should be free of … pleasure, desire, sorrow, and fear.” But Jesus suffered sorrow and fear. Philo would never have tolerated such thinking.

Man’s Mind

For Philo, “the reasoning capacity of a human mind is” an indivisible part of the Logos. For this reason, the “Logos is apportioned into an infinite number of parts.” For that reason also, the human mind is imperishable and has the power of free will.

Did Philo influence the NT?

The following support the view that Philo influenced the NT:

1) The NT says things about Christ that Christ never said of Himself but which Philo did say about the Logos, for example, that God created and maintains all things through Him.

2) Since the word Logos had a very specialized meaning in Greek philosophy, and given the pervasive influence of Greek philosophy at the time, John’s description of Jesus Christ as “the Logos,” must mean that John identified the Son of God as the Logos of Greek Philosophy.

3) There are many other similarities between Philo’s Logos and the Biblical Son of God. For example, both have an origin, have always existed, are the direct Agent of creation, are subordinate to God, have been uniquely generated, and are the mediator between God and man.

The differences between them do not take away the astounding similarities or our duty to explain these similarities.

Possible Explanations

So, how do we explain the similarities?

The Bible is not inspired.

In the view of Critical Scholars (theologians who do not believe in the supernatural), the NT is simply the result of the evolution of human thought and the reliance on Philo is proof thereof.

A Different Logos

An alternative is to argue that the differences between Philo’s Logos and the NT’s Son of God are great and that Philo, consequently, did not influence the NT writers. However, the similarities between them are too substantial and too specific to deny the influence of Greek philosophy.

Teaching Mechanism

A fourth possibility is that the writers of the NT used concepts from Philo to explain Jesus Christ to Greek readers in their own language. However, the similarities are too extraordinary (out of the ordinary, e.g., eternal, creator) to be simply explaining truths in Greek thought forms.

To oppose pagan theology

Nash proposes that the significant number of similarities between Philo and the letter to the Hebrews can be explained as that the writer of Hebrews uses the language of philosophy to describe the Christian message as better than philosophy; not bring philosophy into Christianity.

This may be part of the answer but it is very far from explaining all the similarities. For example, the description of the Logos in both as the direct Agent of creation cannot simply be an argument that Christ is a better mediator than the mediators of pagan philosophy.

Therefore, I propose that:

Greek Philosophy was inspired.

Observations:

1) The large number of significant conceptual similarities between Philo and the NT means that Philo was right in some respects about the Logos. Since Philo’s writings were based on Greek philosophy, it means that Greek philosophy was right in some respects.

2) God elected Israel to take His message to the nations of the world. So, God worked particularly and extraordinarily with the Jewish nation. But that does not mean that the Holy Spirit was not working with and inspiring people from other nations as well.

3) In contrast to the multiplicity of gods in the Greek pantheon, Greek philosophy is monotheistic. Where did the Greek philosophers get this?

I propose as follows:

Firstly, to prepare the non-Jewish world to receive “the kingdom of God” from the Jews, God, through His Holy Spirit, inspired Greek philosophers, either through contact with Judaism or directly through the Holy Spirit, to move away from Greek polytheism to monotheism and with many truths concerning the nature of God.

Secondly, to make it easier for the writers of the NT to understand who Jesus is, God inspired Philo to harmonize Greek philosophy with the Old Testament.

Thirdly, through His Holy Spirit, God inspired the writers of the NT to selectively accept Philo’s teachings and to explain Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy, as harmonized with the Old Testament by Philo.

I would like to support this proposal as follows:

Firstly, nothing prevents the Holy Spirit from using Pagan philosophers for revealing truths to the people of the world.

Secondly, the Logos Theology that the second-century church fathers developed explicitly explains Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy. See – The Apologists. That implies that they assumed that Greek philosophy was inspired.

Thirdly, the Nicene Creed is influenced by Greek philosophy. RPC Hanson described words substance (ousia), same substance (homoousios), and hypostasis as “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH2RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 846). These concepts do not appear in the Bible.

Fourthly, since the Arian Controversy was caused by objection to these pagan concepts in the Nicene Creed, the “discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy” (RH, xxi)3RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381.

Fifthly, even today many philosophical concepts from ancient Greek philosophy, such as that God is immanent, transcendent, simple, immutable, impassable, and timeless, are generally accepted by church theologians even though NOT stated in the Bible. This is called Classical Theism.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Who is Philo?

Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC to 40 AD), also called Judaeus Philo, was a Jew who lived and wrote in Alexandria, Egypt at the same time as when Jesus lived in Judea. Philo, therefore, wrote a few decades before the New Testament was written. At the time, Alexandria had the largest Jewish community outside of Palestine.

Compared to Greek philosophy, Roman philosophy was relatively poorly developed. Consequently, the intellectual world in the Roman Empire generally, and the Jewish community in Alexandria specifically, held Greek philosophy in high regard. “Philo was thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy as can be seen from his superb knowledge of classical Greek literature. … He had a deep reverence for Plato and referred to him as ‘the most holy Plato’” (The Internet Encyclopaedia article on Philo). [The remainder of this article refers to this article as IE.]

But Philo was also a committed Jew. Consequently, through his writings, he attempted to justify Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy. To do this, he interpreted the Old Testament through the eyes of Greek philosophy. “Philo uses an allegorical technique for interpretation of the Hebrew (Bible). … Using this allegorical method, Philo seeks out the hidden message beneath the surface of any particular text and tries to read back a new doctrine into the work of the past” (IE).

In this way, he produced “a synthesis of” the Old Testament and Greek philosophy. He “fused Greek philosophical concepts with Hebrew religious thought” (IE).

He thought that this would be appropriate because he regarded Moses as a philosopher. In fact, in his view, “Moses … ‘had reached the very summit of philosophy’” (IE). He, therefore, presents Moses as “the teacher of … all Greek philosophers.” “For Philo, Greek philosophy [with its monotheistic view of God] was a natural development of the revelatory teachings of Moses” (IE). He describes “the philosophical Platonic or Stoic ideas (as) nothing but the deductions made from the biblical verses of Moses” (IE).

[In this article, I use square brackets when I insert an explanation in a quote.]

Foundations of Christianity

Philo is not important for Judaism. “Jewish tradition was uninterested in philosophical speculation and did not preserve Philo’s thought” (IE). “Philo’s primary importance is in the development of the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity” (IE).

Logos Theology

IE claims that, by producing a synthesis of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy, Philo developed concepts that were used by Christian theologians (the Apologists) in the second century to formulate Logos Theology. The church began as a Jewish-dominated movement but after the church became Gentile-dominated in the second century, Logos Theology became the standard explanation of Jesus Christ relative to God. IE mentions “Clement of Alexandria, Christian Apologists like Athenagoras, Theophilus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen” as Christian theologists who used Philo’s concepts. In support of this, IE notes that “the church preserved the Philonic writings … Eusebius also promoted the legend that Philo met Peter in Rome. Jerome (345-420 C.E.) even lists him as a church father.”

Adam Davis (The Logos of Philo and John – A Comparative Sketch) confirms that “one cannot deny that the Philonic Logos … influenced the early church. … Important figures such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Justin Martyr all incorporate threads of Philo into their work.”

RPC Hanson wrote: “Ever since the work of Justin Martyr, Christian theologians had tended to use the identification of the pre-existent Son with some similar concept in contemporary Middle Platonism” (RH, 22-23).

The Bible

But IE goes much further and claims that Philo may have also influenced the New Testament itself:

“He may have influenced Paul, his contemporary, and perhaps the authors of the Gospel of John … and the Epistle to the Hebrews” (IE).

“By developing this doctrine (of the Logos), (Philo) … provided the foundation for Christianity, first in the development of (Paul’s letters) and (the books) of John, later in the Hellenistic Christian Logos and Gnostic doctrines of the second century” (IE).

Trinity Doctrine

Since IE claims that Philo “laid the foundations for the development of Christianity … as we know it today,” we can assume that IE implies that Philo also laid the foundation for the Trinity doctrine that was developed in the fourth and fifth centuries. Regarding that period, RPC Hanson stated:

“All Greek-speaking writers in the fourth century were to a greater or lesser degree indebted to Greek philosophy. … If any writer had had a higher education … he … would have sucked in certain fundamental assumptions in the process.” (RH, 858-9)

“It would of course be absurd to deny that discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy” (RH, xxi).

“Until we reach the Cappadocians, acceptance of philosophy by the theologians is eclectic and opportunist” (RH, 860). “The Cappadocians, however, present us with a rather different picture. They had all probably had an intenser education in philosophy than other theologians of the fourth century. They were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863)

Based on Greek philosophy

By reading the Greek philosophy of his day into the Old Testament, Philo gave Greek philosophy a Biblical cloak. What IE effectively claims is that Christianity grew out of Greek philosophy. Many scholars hold the same view still today. For example:

“In his history of philosophy textbook that is still widely used, even in some evangelical colleges, W. T. Jones claims that the “mysticism of the Fourth Gospel was grounded in the Platonism of Hellenistic Alexandria.” (Ronald Nash – Professor of Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary-Orlando)

Philo’s view of God

First, consider some of Philo’s views concerning God:

Only God knows Himself.

For Philo, “God’s essence is beyond any human … cognition” (IE). We cannot say what God is. We can only say “what God is not” (IE) [e.g., immortal, invisible, immaterial]. “Strictly speaking, we cannot make any positive or negative statements about God: ‘He alone can utter a positive assertion respecting himself, since he alone has an accurate knowledge of his own nature’” (IE). “It is not possible for God to be comprehended by any being but himself” (IE).

This is perhaps comparable to the NT’s description of “the invisible God” (Col 1:15), “who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16; cf. Rom 1:20).

God exists outside time.

Philo also argued that “God is the creator of time also … (for God) nothing is past and nothing is future, but everything is present only” (IE).

Creator Eternally

Philo argued that the world was created but has no beginning: “According to Philo, (God) did not begin to create the world at a certain moment” (IE) but has always been creating: “God is continuously ordering matter by his thought … there never was a time when he did not create” (IE). “Philo contends that … any description of creation in temporal terms, e.g., by Moses, is not to be taken literally, but rather is an accommodation to the biblical language” (IE).

The ancients had no inkling of the universe as we understand it today. For them, this world was the universe. Therefore, whenever we read of “the world” in Philo’s writings, we must think of the universe.

Note that these philosophers could argue that things (such as the ‘world’ in the example above) can have an origin, meaning to be caused by something else, but, at the same time, have always existed. Origen, for example, argued this way about God’s unique Son. In contrast, Arius stated that “there was when He (the Son of God) was not.”

Philo’s view of the Logos

Philo’s most important doctrine

When Philo lived, “the notion of the Logos was deeply ingrained in Greek philosophy” (Davis). Philo included the Logos in his interpretation of the Old Testament:

The pivotal … doctrine in Philo’s writings on which hinges his entire philosophical system, is his doctrine of the Logos. … (On this,) all other doctrines of Philo hinge” (IE).

As stated above, Philo’s purpose was to synthesize the Old Testament with Greek philosophy. He did that through his description of the Logos:

“By developing this doctrine (of the Logos), he fused Greek philosophical concepts with Hebrew religious thought” (IE).

Furthermore, IE claims that it was “by developing this doctrine (of the Logos) (that Philo) … provided the foundation for Christianity, first in the development of (Paul’s letters) and (the books) of John, later in the Hellenistic Christian Logos and Gnostic doctrines of the second century.”

The Logos in the Old Testament

Philo obtained the idea of the Logos from Greek philosophy. But where did he find the Logos in the OT?

Firstly, he found it in the often-used phrase, “the Word of the LORD.” For example, the Old Testament often says that “the Word of the LORD” came to a prophet (e.g. Jer 1:2; Ezek 1:3; and Jonah 1:1), or that something was done by “the Word of the LORD.” For example: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made” (Psa 33:6; cf. Gen 1:3, 6,9; 3:9, 11; Psa 32:9; Psa 106:20; Psa 147:15; Zech 5:1-4; Jer 1:4-19, 2:1-7; Ezek 1:3; Amos 3:1).

Secondly, “in the so-called Jewish wisdom literature, we find the concept of Wisdom … which could be to some degree interpreted as a separate personification … (hypostatization)” (IE).

We may agree that these were simply figures of speech and poetic language describing God’s words, actions, or wisdom, but Philo’s allegorical methods allowed him to identify these with the Logos of Greek philosophy.

Thirdly, Philo identified the Logos as the Old Testament Angel of the Lord (Gen 31:13; 16:8; etc.). Philo described “the Logos (as) the first-born and the eldest and chief of the angels” and as the Father’s “archangel.”

Philo also saw the Logos as referred to as theos in the Old Testament. He says, “when the scripture uses the Greek term for God ho theos, it refers to the true God, but when it uses the term theos, without the article ho, it refers not to the God, but to his most ancient Logos.” However, “Philo … explains that to call the Logos ‘God’ is not a correct appellation.”

Does the New Testament describe the Son as ‘the word of the Lord’, ‘the Wisdom of God’, or as the ‘Angel of the Lord’? Perhaps

Revelation, which John has also written, says of Jesus Christ, “His name is called The Word of God” (Rev 19:13).

The NT says that “we preach … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24) but we should not necessarily interpret that literally.

I am not aware of any direct identification in the NT of Jesus Christ as the Old Testament Angel of the Lord.

A Personal Being

“Logos” is the common Greek word for “word,” “speech,” “principle,” or “thought.” But, in Greek philosophy, the word Logos had a very specialized meaning. “Through most schools of Greek philosophy, this term was used to designate a rational, intelligent and thus vivifying principle of the universe. This principle was deduced from an understanding of the universe as a living reality and by comparing it to a living creature.” (IE)

But IE claims that Philo, by introducing the concept of the Logos into Judaism, has transformed “the Logos … from a metaphysical [theoretical] entity into … (a) anthropomorphic [humanlike] being and mediator between God and men:” For Philo, “the Logos is thus more than a quality, power, or characteristic of God; it is an entity eternally generated” (IE).

In contrast, Ronald Nash states that “Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle … a metaphysical abstraction.” In this, Nash is supported by RPC Hanson4The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381 (RH) and Rowan Williams5Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001 (RW):

After a longish and involved discussion, RW states that the descriptions in Philo of “an individually subsistent Logos, distinct from the Father” are not literal but metaphorical (RW, 122).

Similarly, RH states that Philo “does not make the same division between the Logos and God as did the Arians” (RH, 60).

My own understanding is that Philo illogically describes the Logos as both a “metaphysical abstraction,” as in Greek philosophy, and as a Personal Being, as he interprets the Logos in the Old Testament to be. This understanding is supported by the following:

Nash states: “It is impossible … to find any clear or consistent use of the word (Logos) in his many writings. For example, he used the word to refer to:

        • Plato’s ideal world of the forms, …
        • The mind of God, …
        • A principle that existed somewhere between the realms of God and creation, … (and to)
        • Any of several mediators between God and man, such as the angels, Moses, Abraham, and even the Jewish high priest.”

RPC Hanson confirms, “Philo’s Logos-doctrine is confused and obscure(RH, 60).

Rowan Williams adds, “To look for a clear definition or identification of the Logos in his writings would be … fruitless” (RW, 124)

Does not exist without a cause.

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has an origin:

In Greek philosophy, the Logos is God’s thinking, which is also His acting. Philo seems to say more or less the same thing:

“The Logos … constitutes the manifestation of God’s thinking, acting” (IE).

He similarly describes the Logos as “the Divine Mind.” But then he creates a little distance between God and the Logos by saying that the Logos is “the expression of this act of God (to create), which is at the same time his thinking” (IE).

Since Philo describes the Logos as the “manifestation of God’s thinking-acting,” “the Logos has an origin,” meaning that He does not exist without cause but exists because the Father has brought Him into existence.

Similarly, in the NT, the Son was “begotten,” meaning that He does not exist without a cause.

Has always existed.

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has always existed:

In Philo, since God has always existed and has always thought and acted, the Logos has “eternal generation,” meaning that He has always existed.

Similarly, in the NT, the Son “was” in “the beginning” (John 1:1-2) and is “the First and the Last” (Rev 1:17). “His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2). And the Arians liked to add, “From everlasting I was established” (Prov 8:23).

Ontologically Subordinate

Both Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ are subordinate to God:

In Philo, the Logos is “inferior to God” (Davis). “The supreme being is God and the next is Wisdom or the Logos of God” (IE).

Here I need to divert a little. Some regard any kind of order or hierarchy among the persons of the Trinity as heresy. But that is not the orthodox teaching. The NT also provides clear indications of the subordination of the Son. For example:

    • The Father created all things through the Son.
    • The Father sent the Son.
    • The miracles which Jesus performed were performed by God “through Him” (Acts 2:22).
    • Jesus said, “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
    • After His ascension, God “seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph 1:17-21).
    • After sin and the consequences of sin have been vanquished, “the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Therefore, the orthodox teaching of the church accepts functional subordination but prohibits that the Son be described as ontologically inferior to the Father. For that reason, several theological dictionaries define “subordinationism” with respect to ontology only. For example:

Subordinationism is “the doctrine that in essence and status the Son is inferior to the Father” (Millard Erickson, “Subordinationism,” in Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986) 161.)

Augustus Strong stated that “the subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father is perfectly consistent with equality” (See Glenn Peoples).

So, this section will only concern itself with the question of whether the Son is ontologically equal to the Father:

In Philo, “the ontology of the Logos would most closely resemble an emanation from the divine essence” (Davis), and “an extension of a divine being” (IE). Therefore, He is also ontologically subordinate to the High God.

The Bible nowhere teaches anything about the substance of God or ontological equality, except if we interpret “only-begotten” literally. That is what the Nicene Creed does. It interprets “begotten” as that He came from the substance of the Father and, therefore, that creed concludes, He is of the same substance as God. This idea, however, originates from “pagan philosophy” (RH, 846); not from the Bible. The anti-Nicenes of the fourth century warned that humans must not assume to understand what “begotten of God” means, that we should not interpret this literally as if God begat a Son like human beings begat children and that we should not introduce non-Biblical words or thoughts.

So, in Philo, the Logos is ontologically inferior compared to the Trinity doctrine, in which He is ontologically equal. But that is a difference between Philo and the Trinity doctrine; not between Philo and the NT.

Literally first in time

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos literally existed first in time:

It was already shown above that Philo described the Logos as eternal. Therefore, He “exists … before everything else.” For that reason, Philo described the Logos as the ‘first-born’ and as “the first-begotten Son of the Uncreated Father.”

Jesus Christ, similarly, is “the ‘first-born’ of God” (Col 1:15; Heb 1:6), although this might also be interpreted symbolically. Revelation 3:14 refers to Jesus as “the Beginning of the creation of God,” which also implies that He was the first being that God brought forth.

Uniquely Generated

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has been uniquely generated:

Philo describes the Logos as both “eternally begat” and “eternally created.” In other words, Philo used “begotten” and “created” as synonyms. In another place, similarly, he describes the Logos as “neither unbegotten nor begotten as are sensible things.” In other words, all created things are “begotten.” Therefore, he described the Logos as “the first-begotten” and not as “the only begotten,” as we find in the New Testament.

However, Philo does describe the Son’s origin as unique but uses different words to do that. He says, namely, that the Logos is neither uncreated as God nor created as men.

The NT, by saying that the Son is “the only begotten,” makes a distinction between “begotten” and “created” and indicates that the Son was uniquely generated.

Direct Agent of Creation

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is the direct Agent of creation:

In Philo, “the direct agent of creation is not God himself … but the Logos. … the Logos … was used as an instrument and a pattern of all creation.” “God … orders and shapes the formless matter through the agency of his Logos into the objects of the sensible world.” (The idea that the Logos is a “pattern of all creation” is a remnant from the Greek philosophy. At another place, Philo similarly states that “the sensible universe … is the image of the Logos.”)

The NT also describes Jesus Christ as God’s direct Agent of creation, namely, God created all things through the Logos (John 1:1-3; cf. Col 1:16; Heb 1:2; 1 Cor 8:6).

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos maintains the universe:

In Philo, “the Logos is the bond holding together all the parts of the world” and “produces a harmony … between various parts of the universe.” (This still relates to the idea that the Logos (the Word) is the thoughts of God through which all things are created and maintained.)

Similarly, in the NT, God maintains all things through His Son (Heb 1:3; Col 1:17).

The Light of the World

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos illuminates the soul:

In Philo, the Logos illuminates the human soul and nourishes it with a higher spiritual food (Wikipedia). “The Logos … in the mind of a wise man … allows preservation of virtues” (IE).

Similarly, Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness” (John 8:12). And John wrote: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.” “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (John 1:4, 9).

Mediator

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is the mediator between God and man:

Philo described the Logos as “neither being uncreated as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities.” His role is appropriate for that position, for “the Philonic Logos is the bridge between the infinite God and finite creation” (Davis); “mediator between God and the world” (IE). As mediator:

When interacting with God, He is “a paraclete;” “continually a suppliant (pleading) to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race,” “to procure forgiveness of sins, and a supply of unlimited blessings” (IE).

When interacting with the human race, He is “the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race” (IE), “a messenger” (IE), and the source of hope and wisdom for mankind. [For Philo, that the Logos was sent to the human race does not mean that He literally became a human being as in the New Testament, but that God sends a ‘stream of his own wisdom’ to men. “Through the Logos of God, men learn … everlasting wisdom.”]

Similarly, in the New Testament, “there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5; cf. Heb 8:6; 9:15). Everything that the creation receives from God, including existence, sustenance, knowledge, and salvation, flows through His Son. Also, through Christ, we draw near to God and worship Him. But this does not mean that the Son has to plead with the Father for us:

“I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you” (John 16:26-27).

The Logos in our God.

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is our God:

In Philo, “though God is hidden, his reality is made manifest by the Logos that is God’s image and by the sensible universe” (IE). “God is revealed to His creation through the Logos” (Davis).

“Philo believed that man’s final goal and ultimate bliss is in the ‘knowledge of the true and living God’” (IE). However, due to “the utter transcendence of the First Principle [the One who exists without cause],” “man’s highest union with God is limited to God’s manifestation as the Logos” (IE).

For the same reason – “the utter transcendence of the First Principle” – when the Bible says that man was made “in the image of God” (Gen 9:6), Philo argues that it is not possible that man is made after “the preeminent and transcendent Divinity.” Therefore, man was made after the image of “the second deity, the Divine Logos of the Supreme being”.

One could say that, for Philo, the Logos is the only experience of God that man will have. The Logos, therefore, is effectively our God.

Similarly, in the New Testament, God “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” but the Son is “the exact representation” of God’s nature (Heb 1:3); “the (visible) image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Therefore, Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). As the direct Agent of our creation and ur continued existence, and since we will never be able to “see” or directly experience God, the Son is effectively our God.

Cannot become Flesh

Philo does not have a concept of the incarnation as we find in the New Testament. On the contrary, “Philo disdained the material world and physical body. The body was for Philo as for Plato, ‘an evil and a dead thing’, wicked by nature and a plotter against the soul.” “He belittled the body as a tomb of the soul” (Nash). Philo, therefore, would never have accepted that the Logos “became flesh” (John 1:14).

This is confirmed in that “Philo adopts the Stoic wise man as a model for human behavior. Such a wise man … should be free of irrational emotions (passions), pleasure, desire, sorrow, and fear, and should replace them by rational … emotions; joy, will, compunction, and caution.” But Jesus suffered both sorrow and fear. Jesus “not only becomes man but participates in a full range of all that is human, including that He suffered, was tempted to sin, and died. Philo would never have tolerated such thinking.” (Nash)

In support of this point, C.H. Dodd noted6The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, page 10 that Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), one of the most prominent theologians of the early church, wrote7The Confessions vii. 9 that he read John 1:1-5, 10 and 13 in “some books of the Platonists,” “not in so many words, but in substance” but that he found nothing in these books about the incarnation of the Logos (John 1:10-12, 14).

Man’s Mind

For Philo, “the reasoning capacity of a human mind is but a portion of the all-pervading Divine Logos.” It is “indivisible from the Divine Logos.” For this reason, “this Logos is apportioned into an infinite number of parts in humans.” Consequently, the human mind “has divine essence … (and) is imperishable. By receiving this, humans received … the power of spontaneous will free from necessity.”

I would say that this is an aspect where the NT deviates from Philo.

Did Philo influence the New Testament?

The question is: Does the New Testament say things about Christ that Christ never said of Himself but which Philo did say about his Logos? Considering the discussion of Philo’s theology above, the answer must be “Yes!”

For example, Jesus never said that He created all things or that He maintains all things, but Philo made these claims about the Logos and these claims eventually found a prominent place in the New Testament.

Since the word Logos had a very specialized meaning in Greek philosophy, and given the pervasive influence of Greek philosophy at the time, John’s description of Jesus Christ as “the Logos,” coupled with His description of the Logos as existing with God “in the beginning” and as the direct Agent of creation (John 1:1-3), all of which are consistent with Philo’s logos as discussed above, must mean that John identified the Son of God as the Logos of Greek Philosophy. Furthermore, since Philo has “numerous expressions implying that the Logos is a being in its own right” (RW, 117), John, in all likelihood, specifically had Philo’s Logos in mind. This conclusion is made undeniable by the many similarities between Philo’s Logos and the Biblical Son of God:

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has an origin, has always existed, is subordinate to God, has existed first in time, has been uniquely generated, is the direct Agent of creation, maintains the universe, illuminates the soul, and is the mediator between God and man.

It is also possible to argue, in both Philo and the NT, that the Logos is a personal Being, and is “our God.”

There are also many important differences between Philo’s Logos and the NT’s Son of God, such as that Philo’s theology does not allow for the incarnation of the Logos, that “the reasoning capacity of a human mind is but a portion of the … Logos,” and many others not discussed above, but these differences do not take away the astounding similarities or our duty to explain these similarities.

Possible Explanations

So, how do we explain the similarities? Why did such concepts exist before the New Testament was written?

The Bible is not inspired.

Critical Scholars (theologians who do not believe in the supernatural or miracles but who, unfortunately, dominate the academic world) believe that the NT is simply the result of the evolution of human thought. Consequently, they claim that the writers of the NT were not really inspired in this regard but simply found Philo’s speculations a good explanation of who Christ is. Nash states:

“Various writers have attempted to undermine the authority of the New Testament by affirming that some of its teachings were borrowed from pagan philosophical systems of the day.”

A Different Logos

An alternative is to argue that the differences between Philo’s Logos and the NT’s Son of God are great and that Philo, consequently, did not influence the NT writers.

Ronald Nash adopts this approach. He proposes, for the following reasons, that “Philo’s Logos could not possibly function as a direct influence on the biblical concept of Logos:”

(1) “The Logos of the New Testament is a specific, individual, historical person. Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle … a metaphysical abstraction.”

(2) “It is impossible … to find any clear or consistent use of the word (Logos) in his many writings.”

(3) Philo could never have believed in anything like the Incarnation of the Logos.

(4) “Philo’s Logos could never be described as the Book of Hebrews pictures Jesus: suffering, being tempted to sin, and dying.”

(5) “The repeated stress in Hebrews of Jesus’ compassionate concern for His brethren (i.e., Christians) is incompatible with Philo’s view of the emotions.

Based on these differences, Nash sees “no need to postulate a conscious relationship between Philo (or Alexandrian Judaism) and the New Testament use of logos.”

I cannot support this argument: Yes, the Logos in the NT is very different from that described by Greek philosophy or by Philo, but, as discussed, the description of the Son as the Logos, who was with God in the beginning, through whom God created all things (John 1:1-3) is too specific and too similar to that of Philo to deny the influence of Greek philosophy.

Both are based on the Old Testament.

A third possible explanation is that Philo and the New Testament came to the same conclusions because they used the same source, namely, the Old Testament.

However, it is very unlikely that the NT could have derived these truths simply by interpreting the Old Testament. The NT is a quantum leap from the Old Testament. It cannot simply be an interpretation of it. And it was a quantum leap and a leap in the direction of the Logos of Greek philosophy.

And Philo did not derive these truths merely by interpreting the Old Testament. He derived his thoughts on the Logos explicitly from Greek philosophy.

Teaching Mechanism

A fourth possibility is that the writers of the NT used concepts from Philo to explain Jesus Christ to Greek readers in their own language. GotQuestions, following this approach, states that “John’s Gospel begins by using the Greek idea of a ‘divine reason’ or ‘the mind of God’ as a way to connect with the readers of his day.” However, the similarities between Philo and the NT, as discussed above, are too specific and of too extraordinary a nature to be simply explaining truths in Greek thought forms. These are major conceptual similarities.

To oppose pagan theology

Nash notes “a number of fascinating connections between the author of the Book of Hebrews (whom he takes to be Apollos) and Alexandrian Judaism.” He proposes that both the author and his audience were trained in Philo’s philosophy before their Christian conversion and that “the writer argues that … Christ is a better Logos (or mediator) than any of the mediators available to them in their former beliefs.” In other words, “the writer of Hebrews does not use this philosophical background to introduce Alexandrian philosophy into Christian thinking; rather he uses Christian thinking to reject his former views.”

Nash concludes that the Christian community’s “application of the concept of logos to Jesus Christ did not amount to an introduction of pagan thinking into Christianity. On the contrary, their Christian use of Logos was developed in conscious opposition to every relevant aspect of Philo’s philosophy.”

Nash implies that John refers to Jesus Christ as the logos for the same reason.

This may be part of the answer but it is very far from explaining all the similarities. For example, the description of the Logos in both as the direct Agent of creation cannot simply be an argument that Christ is a better mediator than the mediators of pagan philosophy.

Therefore, I propose that:

Greek Philosophy was inspired.

Observations:

1) The large number of significant conceptual similarities between Philo and the NT means that Philo was right in some respects about the Logos. Philo did not develop new ideas. He largely read the ideas of Greek philosophy into the Old Testament. So, when we say that Philo was right in some respects, then we are really saying that Greek philosophy was right in some respects.

2) God elected Israel to take His message to the nations of the world. So, God worked particularly and extraordinarily with the Jewish nation. But that does not mean that the Holy Spirit was not working with and inspiring people from other nations as well. God is always working with all peoples and all nations. He has prophets in other nations as well. For example, at the time of Christ, the wise men came from the east.

3) In contrast to the multiplicity of gods in the Greek pantheon, Greek philosophy is monotheistic. That was a quantum leap. Where did the Greek philosophers get this? It is not impossible that he learned this from contact with Judaism.

Proposal:

I propose as follows:

Firstly, to prepare the non-Jewish world to receive ‘the kingdom of God’ from the Jews, God, through His Holy Spirit, inspired Greek philosophers, either through contact with Judaism or directly through the Holy Spirit, to move away from Greek polytheism to monotheism and with many truths concerning the nature of God. Greek philosophy, therefore, was a combination of revealed truth and human wisdom.

Secondly, to make it easier for the writers of the NT to understand who Jesus is, God inspired Philo to harmonize Greek philosophy with the Old Testament.

Thirdly, through His Holy Spirit, God inspired the writers of the NT to selectively accept Philo’s teachings and to explain Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy, as harmonized with the Old Testament by Philo.

Justifications:

I would like to support this proposal as follows:

Firstly, many of the teachings of the NT, for example, that God created all things through His Son, did not come from the Old Testament or from anything that Jesus said. We would assume, therefore, that, after Christ’s ascension, God’s Holy Spirit inspired the Bible writers to understand these things (John 16:12). The pagan philosophers were earnestly trying to understand the nature of reality. Nothing prevents the Holy Spirit from using them to reveal truths to the people of the world.

Secondly, the Logos Theology which the second-century church fathers developed went beyond what the Bible teaches and explicitly explains Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy:

For example, they taught that the Logos is the ‘mind’ or ‘wisdom’ of God that always was part of God. However, God is unable to interact directly with physical matter. Therefore, when God decided to create the physical universe, His Logos became a separate reality (hypostasis) through whom God could create and maintain all things. See – The Apologists.

RPC Hanson states: “Ever since the work of Justin Martyr, Christian theologians had tended to use the identification of the pre-existent Son with some similar concept in contemporary Middle Platonism” (RH, 22-23).

Their development of Logos Theology implies that these church fathers assumed that Greek philosophy was inspired. If these Gentile church fathers, who lived in the same Greek culture as the Jewish writers of the NT, assumed that Greek philosophy was inspired, then it is possible that the writers of the NT did the same.

Thirdly, the Nicene Creed is influenced by Greek philosophy. RPC Hanson described the words substance (ousia), same substance (homoousios), and hypostasis as “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846). These words and concepts do not appear in the Bible.

Fourthly, since the Arian Controversy was caused by objection to these pagan concepts in the Nicene Creed, the “discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy” (RH, xxi).

Fifthly, even today many philosophical concepts from ancient Greek philosophy, such as that God is immanent, transcendent, simple, immutable, impassable, and timeless, are generally accepted by church theologians even though NOT stated in the Bible. This is called Classical Theism.


Abbreviations

RH = RPC Hanson, RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381

RW = Rowan Williams – Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001

Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Rowan Williams – Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001
  • 2
    RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381
  • 3
    RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381
  • 4
    The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381
  • 5
    Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001
  • 6
    The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, page 10
  • 7
    The Confessions vii. 9

The Real Main Issue of the fourth-century Arian Controversy

This article series quotes extensively from leading scholars. Since not all readers are interested in detail, the green blocks summarize the longer sections. 

PURPOSE

The fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy ended when the church adopted the Trinity doctrine. However, discoveries of ancient documents and research since the 20th century have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The current article addresses the false belief that the core issue was whether Christ is God. All agreed that He is. The main issue was also not whether He is subordinate to the Father. All agreed that He is. This article shows that the real main issue was whether the Son is a distinct Person. In the alternative view, the Father and Son are a single Person.

INTRODUCTION

Authors quoted

This article quotes mainly from the recent writings of three world-class Catholic scholars, specializing in the fourth-century Arian Controversy, R.P.C. Hanson, Rowan Williams, and Lewis Ayres.

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988

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

The Traditional Account is a Travesty.

The conclusions in this article might appear unorthodox; however, drawing on discoveries of ancient documents and research over the past 100 years, leading scholars have concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. These books reflect the revised account of that Controversy.

The Arian Controversy was the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced. However, the traditional account of the Controversy is fundamentally flawed because it is history according to the winner.

THE FALSE MAIN ISSUE

The term ‘real main issue’ implies the existence of a false main issue, which this article first discusses:

Whether Jesus is God.

In the traditional account, the main issue was whether Jesus is God. It is often claimed that Arius taught that the Son is a created being. However, that was not the issue. All agreed that He is God.

For example:

“Many summary accounts present the Arian controversy as a dispute over whether or not Christ was divine.” (Ayres, p. 13)

However, “it is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (Ayres, p. 14)

“We should avoid thinking of these controversies as focusing on the status of Christ as ‘divine’ or ‘not divine’.” (Ayres, p. 3)

“A second approach that we need to reject treats the fourth-century debates as focusing on the question of whether to place the Son on either side of a clear God/creation boundary.” (Ayres, p. 4)1“Suggestions that the issue was one of placing Christ (and eventually the Spirit) on either side of a well-established dividing line between created and uncreated are particularly unhelpful.” (Ayres, p. 14)

All debate participants, including those who opposed the Nicene Creed, the so-called Arians – placed the Son on the ‘God’-side of the ‘God/creation’ boundary and described Him as God. For example:

The Dedication Creed, which opposed the Nicene Creed, describes the Son as “God” and as “God from God.”

Two years later the same people – the Easterners (the anti-Nicenes) at Serdica – condemned those who say, “Christ is not God.” (Hanson, p. 298)

The ‘Arian’ creed of 357, which some regard as the high point of Arianism, describes the Son as “born from the Father, God from God.” (Hanson, p. 345)

‘Theos’ does not mean ‘God’.

The modern word “God” identifies one specific Being; the Ultimate Reality. The Greek of the Bible and the fourth century did not have a word exactly equivalent to the modern word “God.” It only had the word theos but this term was used for beings with different levels of divinity. Originally, it was the word for the Greek gods; immortal beings with supernatural powers. Therefore, all agreed that Jesus is theos.

For example:

Commenting on the Council of Serdica in 343, where the Easterners (anti-Nicenes) issued a statement condemning “those who say … that Christ is not God,” Ayres says: “This “reminds us of the variety of ways in which the term ‘God’ could be deployed at this point.” (Ayres, p. 124)

“At issue until the last decades of the controversy was the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.” (Ayres, p. 14)

“In the fourth century the word ‘God’ (theos, deus) had not acquired the significance which in our twentieth-century world it has acquired … viz. the one and sole true God. The word could apply to many gradations of divinity.” (Hanson, p. 456)2“Many fourth-century theologians (including some who were in no way anti-Nicene) made distinctions between being ‘God’ and being ‘true God’ that belie any simple account of the controversy in these terms.” (Ayres, p. 4, 14)

The same principle applies to the Bible. When Thomas said, my Lord and my God,” he used the same flexible Greek word ‘theos’. For more detail, see – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?” or Did Thomas, in John 20:28, address Jesus as “God”?

It was in the late fourth century that theologians eventually eliminated degrees of divinity and made a clear God/creation boundary.

“The achievement of a clear distinction between God and creation (such that ‘true God’ is synonymous with God) was the increasing subtlety and clarity with which late fourth-century theologians shaped their basic rules or grammar … (which) admits of no degrees.” (Ayres, p. 4) (Ayres here refers to the Cappadocian fathers. See the next section.)

Whether the Son is subordinate

The issue was also not whether the Son is subordinate to the Father. Until Basil of Caesarea, all debate participants, including the pro-Nicenes, even Athanasius, agreed that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

One might object and say:

Granted, all regarded both the Father and the Son as divine. However, while the pro-Nicenes regarded the Father and Son as equally divine, the Arians claimed that the Son is less divine and subordinate to the Father. Both were on the “God” side of the boundary but were not equal.

However, that statement is not simply true. Firstly, before Nicaea, all church fathers described the Son as subordinate:

“’Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy” (Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.)

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god … a second, created god lower than the High God” (Hanson Lecture).

Secondly, during the Controversy, pro-Nicenes continued to regard the Son as subordinate to the Father:

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy.” (Hanson, p. xix)

“Until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism.” 3RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.

Lewis Ayres says that even Athanasius described the Son as subordinate to the Father. For example:

      • Athanasius said that the Son is homoousios with the Father but was not willing to say that the Father is homoousios with the Son.
      • He always described the Son “as proper to the Father, as the Father’s own wisdom,” meaning that the Son is part of the Father, never the other way round. (Ayres, p. 206) See here for Athanasius’ view of Christ.

Ayres says that Basil of Caesarea was the first to proclaim full equality:

“In all the previous discussions (before Basil of Caesarea) of the term (homoousios) … a certain ontological subordination is at least implied.” (Ayres, p. 206)

“In Basil, the Father’s sharing of his being involves the generation of one identical in substance and power.” (Ayres, p. 207)

So, whether the Son was subordinate to the Father was also not the real main issue in the Arian Controversy.

Nicaea also believed the Son is subordinate.

Almost all delegates to the Council of Nicaea came from the East and the Eastern church believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father. The Nicene Creed preaches equality because Emperor Constantine ensured that Nicaea concluded what he thought best (see here).

For example, the delegates to Nicaea:

The delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (Ayres, p. 19).

“The Council was overwhelmingly Eastern, and only represented the Western Church in a meagre way.” (Hanson, p. 156)

The Eastern church believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father:

Almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was in some sense subordinated to the Father before the Incarnation,” (Hanson, p. xix) – This quote refers to “the Eastern theologians.” At Nicaea, the delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (Ayres, p. 19). So, if almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was subordinated to the Father, then almost all delegates at Nicaea believed the same.

Almost everybody in the East at that period would have agreed that there was a subordination of some sort within the Trinity.” (Hanson, p. 287)

Other indications of the views of the Delegates to Nicaea are the Dedication and the Long-Lined (Macrostich) creeds, formulated respectively 16 and 19 years later by more or less the same Eastern constituency, describing the Son as subordinate to the Father.

The Nicene Creed preaches equality because Emperor Constantine ensured that Nicaea concluded what he thought best (see here). For example:

“The production of N … must have been deeply disturbing for many who could not seriously be described as Arian in sympathy but … could not suddenly at the bidding of an unbaptized Emperor … abandon completely a subordinationism which had been hallowed by long tradition.” (Hanson, p. 274)

Some may find it strange that an emperor could determine the outcome of an ‘ecumenical’ council. However, the Roman Empire was not a democracy. It was a military dictatorship. The emperors decided which religions are legal and they governed the legal religions closely. Consequently, in the Christian Roman Empire, the emperor was the ultimate arbiter and judge in Christian religious disputes:

“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)

Whether He shares the Father’s Being.

The core issue was also not whether the Son shared the Father’s being. The so-called Arians (the Eusebians) agreed that the Son was begotten from the very being of the Father.

One of Arius’ extreme statements was that the Son was made from nothing. Other Eusebians did not agree with that statement:

“Many participants supposedly on different sides … (insisted) that one must speak of the Son’s incomprehensible generation from the Father as a sharing of the Father’s very being.” (Ayres, p. 4-5)

In summary, all agreed that the Son is God but subordinate to the Father, and that He was begotten from the very Being of the Father.

THE REAL MAIN ISSUE

Whether the Son is a distinct Person

Below, this article identifies the Real Main Issue by noting the common denominator in the different phases of the Controversy, beginning in the second century. It shows that the Real Main Issue was whether Jesus is a distinct Person. The opposing view was that He and the Father are a single Person.

The fourth-century Arian Controversy continued the controversy that raged during the preceding centuries:

“We will find pre-existing deep theological tensions at the beginning of the fourth century. Controversy over Arius was the spark that ignited a fire waiting to happen, and the origins of the dispute do not lie simply in the beliefs of one thinker, but in existing tensions that formed his background.” (Ayres, p. 20)

For that reason, this analysis begins in the second century. To a large extent, this article summarizes various other articles on this site.

Whether the Son is a hypostasis

In the language of the fourth-century debate, the real main issue was whether Father, Son, and Spirit are one or three hypostases.

The ancients used the Greek term hypostasis (plural hypostases) to indicate a being who exists distinctly from others. For example, Hanson defines a hypostasis as an “individual existence” (Hanson, p. 193). You and I are hypostases. Unfortunately, the Trinity doctrine uses the term ‘hypostasis’ differently. Therefore, we need to establish how the ancients understood it:

MEANING OF HYPOSTASIS

One Hypostasis means one mind.

The theologians who believed that only one hypostasis exists in God can be subdivided into classes but they all believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person with a single mind.

In other words, the Son does not have a distinct existence. There were variations of this view:

      • One and the same – Some, like the second-century Monarchians, said that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three names for the same one God.
      • Three Parts – Others, like the third-century Sabellians, taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three parts of the one hypostasis (Person). The most prominent fourth-century Sabellian was Marcellus.
      • Part of the Father – Still others maintained that the Son is part of the Father. For example, Alexander and Athanasius believed that the Son is the Father’s only Wisdom. They possibly followed Tertullian, who said similarly that the Father is the whole, and the Son is part of the whole.

But the important point is that, in all three views, there is only one hypostasis (Person), meaning that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit share one single mind or consciousness.

For example, the Western manifesto at Serdica described the Son as “the Father’s ‘true’ Wisdom and Power and Word.” (Ayres, p. 125), meaning He is the Father’s only Wisdom and Word.

Alexander and Athanasius similarly described the Son as the Father’s only Wisdom:

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

Athanasius wrote: “There is no need to postulate two Logoi” (Hanson, p. 431), meaning two minds.

See here for a discussion of Athanasius’ and Alexander’s theology.

Three hypostases mean three minds.

In the opposing three-hypostases view, held by the anti-Nicenes (the Arians, or more correctly, the Eusebians), the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct Persons with three distinct minds. The Cappadocian fathers were the first pro-Nicenes to teach three hypostases, also meaning three distinct minds.

There were also variations of the ‘three hypostases’ view. In the 350s, after Athanasius had re-introduced the Nicene term homoousios (same substance) in the Controversy (see here), the Eusebians divided into various views:

      • Unlike substance – Some said the Father’s and Son’s substances are unlike (heterousios).
      • Similar substance – Others said their substances are similar (homoiousios).
      • No substance – Still others – the dominant view in the 350s to 370s – refused to talk about substance (the Homoians).

As discussed here, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians or the anti-Nicenes, including Arius – see here) taught three Minds (three Centres of Consciousness, Rational Faculties). For example, the Dedication Creed of 431 says, “They are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.” (Hanson, p. 286) “Agreement” implies distinct minds.

Athanasius and the West believed in one hypostasis. The Cappadocian fathers were the first pro-Nicenes to teach three hypostases. In their view, Father, Son, and Spirit are three equal hypostases or substances (three beings) (see here), meaning three distinct minds. For example:

Basil of Caesarea said that the Son’s statements that he does the will of the Father “is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation” but because “His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father.” 4“When then He says, “I have not spoken of myself,” and again, “As the Father said unto me, so I speak,” and” The word which ye hear is not mine. but [the Father’s] which sent me,” and in another place, “As the Father gave me commandment, even so I do,” it is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation, nor yet because He has to wait for the preconcerted key-note, that he employs language of this kind. His object is to make it plain that His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father. Do not then let us understand by what is called a “commandment” a peremptory mandate delivered by organs of speech, and giving orders to the Son, as to a subordinate, concerning what He ought to do. Let us rather, in a sense befitting the Godhead, perceive a transmission of will, like the reflexion of an object in a mirror, passing without note of time from Father to Son.” (Basil in his treatise, “De Spiritu Sancto”)

In the same treatise (De Spiritu Sancto), he indicates the existence of two wills: “The Father, who creates by His sole willthe Son too wills.” In other words, the Father has a “sole will” that He does not share with the others. 

While, in the anti-Nicene ‘three hypostases’-view, the Son is subordinate to the Father, in the Cappadocian view, the three substances are equal. However, the Cappadocian view is open to the criticism of Tritheism.

Hypostases in the Trinity doctrine

Formally, the Trinity doctrine teaches three hypostases (three Persons) but that is misleading. They are not real ‘persons’ as the term is used in modern English. Nor are they real hypostases, as the term was used in ancient Greek.

While the Cappadocians taught three minds, note that the Trinity doctrine teaches that the Father, Son, and Spirit share one single mind (see here). The Trinity doctrine claims that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God existing as three hypostases (three Persons), implying three distinct Entities with three distinct minds. However, in the Trinity Doctrine, the terms hypostases and Persons are misleading. In the Doctrine, they are a single Entity with one single mind. We must, therefore, not derive the meaning of the term hypostasis from the Trinity doctrine. In the fourth century, each hypostasis had a unique mind.

The traditional Trinity doctrine, as taught by the Roman Church, retained Basil of Caesarea’s verbal formula of three hypostases but without Basil’s idea of three distinct minds. In reality, the Trinity doctrine continues Athanasius’ one-hypostasis theology, describing the Father, Son, and Spirit as one single Being (see here).

FIRST THREE CENTURIES

The Jewish Church

The Jewish-dominated church of the first century simply repeated the words of Scripture. It did not use the terms that the later Gentile-dominated church borrowed from Greek philosophy; ousia, homoousios, and hypostasis. 

The first-century church presented Father and Son as two distinct Beings with the Son subordinate to the Father. See – Jewish-dominated church.

Logos-theology vs Monarchianism

After the church became Gentile-dominated in the second century, the Logos theologians identified the Logos as a distinct hypostasis. In opposition to them, the Monarchians claimed that ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are two names for one and the same Person or hypostasis.

We have the writings of some of the early church fathers available to us. Whether they fairly represent what the church believed is open for debate. These writers were perhaps the most educated class of the church and, therefore, more familiar with Greek philosophy than the average Christian. At the time, Greek philosophy still dominated the Roman education system.

If we judge by what these early church fathers wrote, the Gentile church did not replace its philosophical Gentile thoughts with the Bible but, to an extent at least, absorbed the Bible into their existing system of beliefs.

The main dispute was whether the Son has a real distinct existence:

Concerning the nature of Christ, following Justin Martyr, the Gentile church explained Him as “the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy, and also borrowed some traits from the divine Logos of Stoicism (including its name).” (Hanson Lecture) Therefore, in this view, also known as Logos-theology, the Son is a hypostasis, meaning a Being distinct from the Father. In this view, the Son had always existed as part of God but became a separate and subordinate Being (hypostasis) when God decided to create.

The Monarchians opposed the Logos-theologians and claimed that the Logos is not a separate hypostasis but that Father and Son are two names for one and the same Person. In other words, only one hypostasis exists.

“This ‘monarchian’ view was … suggesting the Father and Son were different expressions of the same being, without any personal distinctions between them. In other words, the Father is himself the Son, and therefore experiences the Son’s human frailties.” (Litfin)

The important point, for this article, is that this was a clash between one- and three-hypostases views. 

Tertullian vs Monarchians

Tertullian was also a Logos-theologian but, to counter the Monarchian criticism that Logos-theologians teach two Gods, he revised the standard Logos-theology and said that the Son remained part of the Father. Therefore, he also taught one hypostasis.

The Latin theologian Tertullian wrote at the beginning of the third century. As discussed here, he was also a Logos-theologist. As such, he believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father and that the Father was not always Father. Today, Tertullian is highly esteemed, not because he taught anything similar to the Trinity doctrine but because he used the right words: He spoke about three ‘persons’ and one ‘substance’. 

As a Logos-theologist, he opposed the Monarchians. Since the Monarchians criticized the Logos-theologians for teaching two Gods, Tertullian revised the standard Logos-theology and said that the Son remained part of the Father after He became separated. He said, for example:

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

As such, similar to the Monarchians, he taught one hypostasis. The difference between him and the Monarchians was that, while Tertullian distinguished between Father and Son within that hypostasis, the Monarchians did not. For more on Tertullian’s theology, see – here.

Origen vs Sabellianism

Also at the beginning of the third century, the famous African theologian Origen expanded Logos-theology to say that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, meaning three distinct Persons with three distinct minds.

For example:

“Origen does consider the Son to be a distinct being dependent on the Father for his existence.” (Ayres, p. 23) 5“The Son is not the one power of God, but another distinct power dependent on God’s power for its existence.” (Ayres, p. 24) 6“Father and Son are distinct beings.” (Ayres, p. 22)

“He taught that there were three hypostases within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 184) (For detail, see – Origen)

He “speaks of Father and Son as two ‘things (πργματα) in hypostasis, but one in like-mindedness, harmony, and identity of will’.” (Ayres, p. 25) “like-mindedness” speaks of two distinct minds united in agreement.

More or less at the same time, in opposition to Origen, Sabellius taught a refined Monarchianism. He still taught one hypostasis. 

 For example, take as an example one of the fourth-century Sabellians:

“Paulinus was a rival of Basil’s friend and ally Meletius. … Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis‘ … rendered him suspect.” (Hanson, p. 801)

However, like Tertullian, Sabellius distinguished between Father and Son within that one hypostasis.

He said that just like man is body, soul, and spirit, the Father, Son, and Spirit are three parts of one Person.

During the remainder of that century, the main controversy remained between Origen’s three hypostases and Sabellius’ one hypostasis.

For example, in the middle of the third century, the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (both named Dionysius) were involved in a skirmish over the word homoousios:

Some Libyan Sabellians used the term homoousios. For them, it meant ‘one substance’ (one Being). But the bishop of Alexander, under whose jurisdiction they fell, condemned the term.

The Sabellians appealed to the bishop of Rome, who also had a one-hypostasis theology and who also accepted the term homoousios. He put pressure on the bishop of Alexandria to adopt the term.

Under duress, the bishop of Alexandria accepted the term but only in a general sense as meaning ‘same type of substance’. In other words, he held to a three-hypostases theology.

(For more detail, see – the Dionysii)

A few years later, in 268, a council at Antioch condemned both Paul of Samosata’s one-hypostasis-theology and the term homoousios. (See – Antioch 268)

“The Council of Antioch of 268 …  did repudiate the word homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 694)

All the while, the church was persecuted by the Roman Empire. Many lost their lives. The most intense phase of persecution was the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of the fourth century.

FOURTH CENTURY

Despite being condemned by church councils in the third century, Sabellianism continued into the fourth.

ARIUS VS ALEXANDER

The dispute between Arius and Alexander continued to controversy during the third century.

The Eastern emperor Constantine became a Christian and legalized Christianity in 313. Only five years later, in 318, a dispute arose between bishop Alexander of Alexandria and one of his presbyters Arius about the nature of Christ. This was not a new controversy but continued the controversy of the third century:

“We will find pre-existing deep theological tensions at the beginning of the fourth century. Controversy over Arius was the spark that ignited a fire waiting to happen, and the origins of the dispute do not lie simply in the beliefs of one thinker, but in existing tensions that formed his background.” (Ayres, p. 20)

Alexander believed that the Son is a property or quality of the Father, namely, God’s only Wisdom or Word, and explained Father and Son as a single hypostasis; a single Person with a single Mind, with the Son being that single Mind or Wisdom of God.

Alexander’s theology is discussed in more detail here. For example:

The Son is the Father’s only and intrinsic Wisdom and Logos:

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

The Son is a property or quality of the Father:

“[Rowan] Williams’ work is most illuminating. Alexander of Alexandria, Williams thinks, had maintained that the Son … is a property or quality of the Father, impersonal and belonging to his substance. … The statement then that the Son is idios to (a property or quality of) the Father is a Sabellian statement.” (Hanson, p. 92) (See – Alexander)

There is only one hypostasis:

“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)

In contrast, Arius taught three hypostases and that Father and Son have distinct minds, united in agreement.

For example:

Arius had a “strong commitment to belief in three distinct divine hypostases.” (Williams, p. 97)

He spoke about a second Wisdom and Word; that the Son is not the Father’s only Wisdom and Word:

“There are … two Wisdoms, one God’s own who has existed eternally with God, the other the Son who was brought into existence. … There is another Word in God besides the Son” (Hanson, p. 13). In other words, Arius assumed that each Person has a distinct mind. 

In other words, Father and Son have two distinct minds (rational faculties). They are two distinct Centres of Consciousness. For more detail, see – Arius’ Theology.

As a three-hypostases theologian, Arius enjoyed the support of the Eusebians against Alexander’s one-hypostasis theology. However, the Eusebians did not agree with Arius’ more extreme views. His real followers were limited.

NICAEA

Emperor Constantine involved himself in the dispute between Alexander and Arius because he was concerned for the unity of his empire.

After he had become emperor of the entire Empire in 324, Emperor Constantine involved himself in the dispute. He did not understand the issues but was concerned that the dispute might cause his empire to split. This dispute in Africa had already begun to divide the church in other parts of his empire. Constantine (not the church) called the Nicene Council to force the church to a consensus position. 

On the advice of his religious advisor Ossius, Constantine took Alexander’s side in the dispute.

For example:

“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)

“This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force.” (Ayres, p. 89)

A few months before the Council of Nicaea, his religious advisor Ossius chaired an anti-Arius council in Antioch. This council issued a pro-Alexander statement of faith that does not include the term homoousios (Hanson, p. 146), implying that that was not a term Alexander regarded as important.

A few months before the Council of Nicaea, “early in 325,” an “anti-Arian Council” (Hanson, p. 131) was held in Antioch (Hanson, p. 149, 147), consisting mainly of those who sympathized with Alexander. (Hanson, p. 130)

“This council also temporarily excommunicated one of Arius’ senior supporters, Eusebius of Caesarea.” (Ayres, p. 18)

“That this Statement is anti-Arian is overwhelmingly clear. But it is equally clear that it represents the theology of Alexander of Alexandria.” (Hanson, p. 150)

The Western Church was not represented at the Nicene Council.

For example:

“The Council was overwhelmingly Eastern, and only represented the Western Church in a meagre way.” (Hanson, p. 156)

“Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

At Nicaea, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19) 7“The Western bishops … had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 272) 8“The most important of the Eastern bishops were present (at Nicaea), but the West was poorly represented” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85).

Since the vast majority of the delegates were from the East, and since the Eastern Church followed the two Eusebii, the majority of the delegates at Nicaea believed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Persons with three distinct Minds.

The Eastern Church followed the two Eusebians. For example:

“Many eastern bishops rallied around the Eusebii even while differing among themselves.” (Ayres, p. 52)

“My second theological trajectory … I will term ‘Eusebian’. When I use this term I mean to designate any who would have found common ground with either of Arius’ most prominent supporters, Eusebius of Nicomedia or Eusebius of Caesarea.” (Ayres, p. 52) See – Ayres’ discussion.

Another article shows that the Eusebians believed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct Persons) with three distinct Minds. For example:

“Asterius (a leading Eusebian) insists also that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases.” (Ayres, p. 54)

He also made a distinction between God’s wisdom and Christ, implying distinct minds. He wrote: “God’s own power and wisdom is the source of Christ.” (Ayres, p. 53-54)

In the Council, Alexander allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians; the Sabellians.

Since the delegates to the Council came almost exclusively from the East and believed in three hypostases, Alexander’s one-hypostasis view was in the minority. For that reason, he allied with the other one-hypostasis theologians at the council, namely the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, and their followers.

“Eustathius and Marcellus (the Eusebians) … certainly met at Nicaea. and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (Hanson, p. 234)

“Marcellus, Eustathius and Alexander were able to make common cause against the Eusebians.” (Ayres, p. 69)

“Simonetti estimates the Nicene Council as a temporary alliance for the defeat of Arianism between the tradition of Alexandria led by Alexander and ‘Asiatic’ circles (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) whose thought was at the opposite pole to that of Arius. … Alexander … accepted virtual Sabellianism in order to ensure the defeat of Arianism.” (Manlio Simonetti. La Crisi Ariana nel IV secolo (1975)) (Hanson, p. 171)

Their alliance with Alexander and Constantine’s support for Alexander enabled the Sabellians to influence the Creed significantly.

For example:

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians [the Sabellians] … were in favour of it (homoousios) … he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)

“Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus … Both were influential at the council.” (Ayres, p. 99)

Consequently, the Nicene Creed professes only one hypostasis in God.

One of the anathemas explicitly says that Father and Son are a single hypostasis. Our authors conclude:

“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)

If we use the term ‘Sabellian’ to describe a one-hypostasis theology, we can say that the Creed appears to be Sabellian.

For example:

“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)

“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 Dedication Creed “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop who was no admirer of the extreme views of Arius but who had been shocked and disturbed by the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed].” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

It is not clearly Sabellian

“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) Ayres says that his conclusions are close to Hanson’s in this regard (Ayres, p. 92).

For a further discussion, see – The Council of Nicaea and How Homoousios became accepted at Nicaea.

HOMOOUSIOS BEFORE NICAEA

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was only preferred by Sabellians.

Some claim that Origen and Tertullian used the term but they never did.

“One famous passage in which he (Origen) seems to use the term homoousios … may have been adulterated by later writers.” (Ayres, p. 24)

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was preferred only by Sabellians, including Sabellius himself, the Libyan Sabellians, Dionysius of Rome, and Paul of Samosata. They used it to say that Father and Son are one single Person. The only non-Sabellian Christian who used the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he “only adopted it with reluctance” (Hanson, p. 193) and only “in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature’.” (Hanson, p. 192)

“The word homoousios, at its first appearance in the middle of the third century, was therefore clearly connected with the theology of a Sabellian or monarchian tendency.” (P.F. Beatrice)

“The word homousios had not had … a very happy history. It was probably rejected by the Council of Antioch, and was suspected of being open to a Sabellian meaning. It was accepted by the heretic Paul of Samosata and this rendered it very offensive to many in the Asiatic Churches.” (Philip Schaff)

For a detailed discussion, see – The Meaning of Homoousios.

HOMOOUSIOS – INSISTED

Homoousios was included in the Creed because the Sabellians preferred it and because the emperor insisted on the term.

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians … were in favour of it (homoousios) … he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 211)

“’Homoousios’ and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were added to the creed by Constantine himself, bearing witness to the extent of his influence at the council.” 9(Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.) 10

“The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios.” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53)

The Emperor accepted Eusebius’ creed “and he advised all present to agree to it … with the insertion of the single word ‘consubstantial.’” (Beatrice) (See also – Eusebius’ letter.)

“Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)

 

NICAEA AND POST-NICAEA CORRECTION

AFTER NICAEA, REVERSED

In the decade after Nicaea, all exiled Arians were allowed to return and all main supporters of the Nicene Creed were exiled.

“Arius and most of his supporters were, at Constantine’s request, readmitted to communion within two or three years of the council.” (Ayres, p. 100)

“Within ten years of the Council of Nicaea all the leading supporters of the creed of that Council had been deposed or disgraced or exiled – Athanasius, Eustathius and Marcellus, and with them a large number of other bishops who are presumed to have belonged to the same school of thought.” Hanson provides a list of such people. (Hanson, p. 274)

NO CONSPIRACY

Athanasius claimed that this was due to a secret Arian Conspiracy, but there is not evidence of a conspiracy.

After discussing the evidence, Hanson concludes:

“It should be noted that none of the evidence so far considered presents a reliable picture of a systematic campaign by the Eusebian party against known opponents of Arianism. … All that we can say is that a number of bishops were deposed between 328 and 336 for various reasons, and that Eusebius of Nicomedia or some of his party had a hand in most, or all, of these depositions. They were perhaps controlling events, but not controlling them in the interests of forwarding Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 279)

ATHANASIUS EXILE FOR VIOLENCE

Athanasius was exiled for violence. He claimed that he was exiled for his support for Nicaea but that was a false claim.

Athanasius could not have been exiled by an ‘Arian Conspiracy because he was not an obvious target for ‘Arians’. He was not a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea:

“He could not possibly have been, as he was later erroneously represented to have been, a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)

He only began his zealous support of the Nicene Creed after he had been exiled in 335:

“There was … no reason to regard Athanasius as a zealous supporter of the doctrine of Nicaea until at earliest his second exile (339-346).”

“He was not until much later in his career an obvious target for those who were anxious either to limit or to undo the achievement of the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)

Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against Melitians in his see:

“He was finally deposed at Tyre for reasons which had nothing to do with Arianism, nor with any doctrinal issue, but for misbehaviour in his see, disgraceful and undeniable, and that against Melitians rather than Arians.” (Hanson, p. 275) See – Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against the Melitians.

CORRECTION – ONVOLLEDIG

What really happened after Nicaea is that the Sabellians claimed Nicaea as a victory but the church

After Nicaea there was an intense struggle between the Eusebians and the Sabellians in which the leading Sabellians were exiled.

After Nicaea, based on the Nicene Creed, the Sabellians claimed that the church has formally adopted a one-hypostasis theology. This caused an intense struggle during the decade after Nicaea in which the leading Sabellians were removed from their positions. See – Post-Nicaea Correction.

the situation was corrected.

After Nicaea, the Creed was associated “with the theology of Marcellus of Ancyra. … The language of that creed seemed to offer no prophylactic (prevention) against Marcellan doctrine, and increasingly came to be seen as implying such doctrine.” (Ayres, p. 96, 97)

HOMOOUSIOS NOT MENTIONED

After this ‘post-Nicaea Correction’, the term homoousios was not mentioned for about 20 years.

“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.” (Ayres, p. 431)

“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.” (Hanson, p. 58-59)

Homoousios was brought back into the Controversy in the mid-350s when Athanasius began to use this term to defend himself.

“He began to use it first in the De Deeretis … in 356 or 357.” (Hanson, p. 438)

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

m“Only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

m“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.” (Ayres, p. 135)

For that reason, the creeds of the 340s (Dedication, the Council of Serdica, and Macrostich Councils) do not mention the term. It simply was not an issue. For a detailed discussion, see – Nobody mentioned Homoousios.

THE DIVIDED EMPIRE – THE 340S

DIVIDING THE EMPIRE

Constantine became emperor for the entire empire in 324. When he died in 337, his sons divided the empire between them. As from 340, Constans ruled the West and Constantius the East.

After the post-Nicaea Correction, while Constantine was still alive, he was able to maintain a level of harmony in the church. “Constantine died in May 337.” (Hanson, p. 315) Later that same year, his three sons, “Constantius II, Constantine II and Constans,” “parcelled out the Empire among themselves.” (Hanson, p. 316) This allowed the church in the different parts of the empire to develop in different directions. One of the three brothers died in 340. This left the empire in the hands of Constans in the West and Constantius in the East.

WEST NOT PART, ATHA APPEALED

Initially, the West was not part of the Arian Controversy. It was essentially an Eastern affair. But Athanasius appealed to the West, after which the West entered the Controversy.

As stated above, although Nicaea is considered an ecumenical council, the West was not represented.

“Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

But Athanasius appealed to the West.

“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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

ATHANASIUS ONE-HYPOSTASIS

Athanasius had a one-hypostasis theology, similar to the Sabellians.

Similar to the Sabellians, for Athanasius, the Son is part of the Father.

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

“In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)

“Athanasius’ increasing clarity in treating the Son as intrinsic to the Father’s being” (Ayres, p. 113)

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)

“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. xix)

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

BOTH EXILED

During Constantine’s reign, the Eastern church exiled Marcellus for Sabellianism and Athanasius for violence.

“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix)

“Marcellus was deposed for Sabellian leanings.” (Hanson, p. 228)

As mentioned above, more or less at the same time, the Eastern church exiled Athanasius for violence.

JOINED FORCES

Since both professed one hypostasis (Person), when they met in Rome after exile, they joined forces against the East.

For example:

“They considered themselves allies.” (Ayres, p. 106

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

POLEMICAL STRATEGY.

With Marcellus’ help, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy, claiming all anti-Nicenes are followers of Arius and that he was exiled for opposing the Arians:

“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.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

Note that Ayres says Athanasius’ polemical strategy shaped the traditional account of the Arian Controversy. For most of history, the church had accepted Athanasius’ false version of history.  

For a detailed discussion, see – Ayres chapter 5.1 or Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy.

THE WEST ACCEPTED ATHANASIUS.

The West accepted Athanasius and his explanation of what happened.

Marcellus and Athanasius appealed to the bishop Julius of Rome. The West was traditionally Monarchian one-hypostasis theologians, similar to the Sabellians. Therefore, the Council of Rome in 340 vindicated both Marcellus and Athanasius:

“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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

“The Western bishops made no serious attempt to analyse the complexity of the situation which faced them; they had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy; their traditional Monarchianism could square well enough with the little they knew of the Council of Nicaea; by an oversimplification they were able to see Marcellus as orthodox.” (Hanson, p. 272)10Hanson refers to “the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

 

as well as Athanasius, who also had a one-hypostasis theology.

DEDICATION CREED

In response to the West’s acceptance of these two prominent men, who both maintained one-hypostasis theologies, the East formulated the Dedication Creed which is primarily anti-Sabellian and explicitly confesses three hypostases.

The West’s acceptance of these two prominent men, who were already condemned by the East, caused major friction between East and West.

Using Athanasius’ polemical strategy, Julius wrote in 341 to the leaders in the East, accusing them of being followers of Arius. The East responded with the Dedication Creed in the same year.

m“There can be little doubt that this Council of Antioch was conceived by those who organized it as an answer to Julius’ Council of Rome and the letter which he wrote to the Eusebian party after it.” (Hanson, p. 285)

It condemns some of Arius’ extreme statements but since the main threat was the Sabellian tendency of the Western Church, the Dedication Creed is primarily anti-Sabellian, explicitly proclaiming three hypostases:

The creed says: “They are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.”

The Dedication Creed’s “chief bête noire [the thing that it particularly dislikes] is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 287)

“The creed has a clear anti-Sabellian and anti-Marcellan thrust.” (Ayres, p. 119)

mIt is “strongly anti-Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. 287)

In contrast, the Dedication Creed says that they are three hypostases with three distinct minds.

In contrast to the single hypostasis of Sabellianism, the Dedication Creed explicitly asserts that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “three in hypostasis but one in agreement (συμφωνία)” (Ayres, p. 118)

It says that they are “three in hypostasis but one in agreement (συμφωνία)” (Ayres, p. 118). “One in agreement” indicates the existence of three distinct ‘Minds’.

 

The Dedication Creed “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop who was no admirer of the extreme views of Arius but who had been shocked and disturbed by the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

Julius’ letter followed Athanasius’ polemical strategy and accused the Eusebians of being ‘Arians’, meaning, followers of Arius. The council denied this:

“We have not been followers of Arius.” (Ayres, p. 117-8) “We have rather approached him as investigators and judges of his belief than followed him.’” (Hanson, p. 285)

COUNCIL OF SERDICA

This was followed by the failed Council of Serdica in 343. This was supposed to be a joint council of East and West but the two groups never met as one because of their disagreement about Athanasius and Marcellus. But, at the council, the Western delegation produced a manifesto which explicitly confesses one hypostasis:

“We have received and have been taught this … tradition: that there is one hypostasis, which the heretics (also) call ousia, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 301)

Athanasius signed this manifesto.

“The Westerners had at Serdica in 343 produced a theological statement which appeared to have the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion, and ‘Athanasius had certainly supported this statement, though he later denied its existence.. … Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. xix)

THE MACROSTICH

The East answered the next year (344) with another creed, the Macrostich or Long-Lined Creed, confessing three hypostases. Attempting to avoid all the new terms borrowed from Greek philosophy, it does not mention “three hypostases” explicitly (Hanson, p. 311) but uses the phrase ‘three realities or persons’.

There were some other attempts at reconciliation in that decade but they all failed. The East and West remained divided,11“This period of rapprochement resolved nothing: the tensions remained.” (Ayres, p. 130) basically about the number of hypostases in God.

 

350S CONSTANTIUS

HOMOIAN DOMINANCE

“The Homoian group came to dominance in the church in the 350s” (Hanson, p. 558–559.) “Homoian Arianism is a much more diverse phenomenon (than Neo-Arianism), more widespread and in fact more longlasting.” Than heterousians?

THE MELETIAN SCHISM

“Paulinus was a rival of Basil’s friend and ally Meletius. … Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis‘ … rendered him suspect.” (Hanson, p. 801)

“The opening of the year 375 saw the ironical situation in which the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic … against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East” (Hanson Lecture) For a further discussion, see – Meletian Schism.

“Basil goes on to defend the application of homoousios to the Son (as we shall see, he never applies this term to the Holy Spirit).” (Hanson, p. 694)

“This expression (homoousios) also corrects the fault of Sabellius for … (it keeps) … the Persons (prosopon) intact, for nothing is consubstantial with itself.” (Hanson, p. 694-5) Note that Basil here interprets homoousion generically.

“Basil uses hypostasis to mean ‘Person of the Trinity’ as distinguished from ‘substance’ which is usually expressed as either ousia or ‘nature’ (physis) or ‘substratum’.” (Hanson, p. 690-691)

“In the DSS he discusses the idea that the distinction between the Godhead and the Persons is that between an abstract essence, such as humanity, and its concrete manifestations, such as man.” (Hanson, p. 698)

 

THEODOSIUS

Majority

“The very wide spectrum of non-Nicene believers thought of themselves as mainstream Christians, and regarded Athanasius and his allies as isolated extremists – though increasingly they also looked on the more aggressive anti-Nicenes (Aetius, Eunomius, and the like) as no less alien to the mainstream of Catholic tradition.” (Williams, p. 82)

TRINITY DOCTRINE

Must be effected by Affected

The Controversy is misleadingly called ‘Arian’. Arius was not the real problem. Since the second century, the real problem was Sabellianism, a version of which was defended by Athanasius and, in the year 380, became the official State religion of the Roman Empire, after which all other versions of Christianity within the Roman Empire were ruthlesslessly exterminated. So, the ‘Sabellian’ Controversy should be a more apt description. However, since a version of Sabellianism was the eventual winner and became what is known as the Trinity doctrine, this fact is carefully hidden from believers.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “Suggestions that the issue was one of placing Christ (and eventually the Spirit) on either side of a well-established dividing line between created and uncreated are particularly unhelpful.” (Ayres, p. 14)
  • 2
    “Many fourth-century theologians (including some who were in no way anti-Nicene) made distinctions between being ‘God’ and being ‘true God’ that belie any simple account of the controversy in these terms.” (Ayres, p. 4, 14)
  • 3
    RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.
  • 4
    “When then He says, “I have not spoken of myself,” and again, “As the Father said unto me, so I speak,” and” The word which ye hear is not mine. but [the Father’s] which sent me,” and in another place, “As the Father gave me commandment, even so I do,” it is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation, nor yet because He has to wait for the preconcerted key-note, that he employs language of this kind. His object is to make it plain that His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father. Do not then let us understand by what is called a “commandment” a peremptory mandate delivered by organs of speech, and giving orders to the Son, as to a subordinate, concerning what He ought to do. Let us rather, in a sense befitting the Godhead, perceive a transmission of will, like the reflexion of an object in a mirror, passing without note of time from Father to Son.” (Basil in his treatise, “De Spiritu Sancto”)
  • 5
    “The Son is not the one power of God, but another distinct power dependent on God’s power for its existence.” (Ayres, p. 24)
  • 6
    “Father and Son are distinct beings.” (Ayres, p. 22)
  • 7
    “The Western bishops … had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 272)
  • 8
    “The most important of the Eastern bishops were present (at Nicaea), but the West was poorly represented” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85).
  • 9
    (Jörg Ulrich. Nicaea and the West. Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)
  • 10


    “The concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios.” (Bernard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, 1966, p51-53)

    The Emperor accepted Eusebius’ creed “and he advised all present to agree to it … with the insertion of the single word ‘consubstantial.’” (Beatrice) (See also – Eusebius’ letter.)

    “Constantine did put forth the Nicene creed term ‘homoousios’.” (Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons, p82-85)

    The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios, comes from … the emperor himself.” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)

     

    NICAEA AND POST-NICAEA CORRECTION

    AFTER NICAEA, REVERSED

    In the decade after Nicaea, all exiled Arians were allowed to return and all main supporters of the Nicene Creed were exiled.

    “Arius and most of his supporters were, at Constantine’s request, readmitted to communion within two or three years of the council.” (Ayres, p. 100)

    “Within ten years of the Council of Nicaea all the leading supporters of the creed of that Council had been deposed or disgraced or exiled – Athanasius, Eustathius and Marcellus, and with them a large number of other bishops who are presumed to have belonged to the same school of thought.” Hanson provides a list of such people. (Hanson, p. 274)

    NO CONSPIRACY

    Athanasius claimed that this was due to a secret Arian Conspiracy, but there is not evidence of a conspiracy.

    After discussing the evidence, Hanson concludes:

    “It should be noted that none of the evidence so far considered presents a reliable picture of a systematic campaign by the Eusebian party against known opponents of Arianism. … All that we can say is that a number of bishops were deposed between 328 and 336 for various reasons, and that Eusebius of Nicomedia or some of his party had a hand in most, or all, of these depositions. They were perhaps controlling events, but not controlling them in the interests of forwarding Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 279)

    ATHANASIUS EXILE FOR VIOLENCE

    Athanasius was exiled for violence. He claimed that he was exiled for his support for Nicaea but that was a false claim.

    Athanasius could not have been exiled by an ‘Arian Conspiracy because he was not an obvious target for ‘Arians’. He was not a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea:

    “He could not possibly have been, as he was later erroneously represented to have been, a leading figure at the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)

    He only began his zealous support of the Nicene Creed after he had been exiled in 335:

    “There was … no reason to regard Athanasius as a zealous supporter of the doctrine of Nicaea until at earliest his second exile (339-346).”

    “He was not until much later in his career an obvious target for those who were anxious either to limit or to undo the achievement of the Council of Nicaea.” (Hanson, p. 275)

    Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against Melitians in his see:

    “He was finally deposed at Tyre for reasons which had nothing to do with Arianism, nor with any doctrinal issue, but for misbehaviour in his see, disgraceful and undeniable, and that against Melitians rather than Arians.” (Hanson, p. 275) See – Athanasius was justly deposed for violence against the Melitians.

    CORRECTION – ONVOLLEDIG

    What really happened after Nicaea is that the Sabellians claimed Nicaea as a victory but the church

    After Nicaea there was an intense struggle between the Eusebians and the Sabellians in which the leading Sabellians were exiled.

    After Nicaea, based on the Nicene Creed, the Sabellians claimed that the church has formally adopted a one-hypostasis theology. This caused an intense struggle during the decade after Nicaea in which the leading Sabellians were removed from their positions. See – Post-Nicaea Correction.

    the situation was corrected.

    After Nicaea, the Creed was associated “with the theology of Marcellus of Ancyra. … The language of that creed seemed to offer no prophylactic (prevention) against Marcellan doctrine, and increasingly came to be seen as implying such doctrine.” (Ayres, p. 96, 97)

    HOMOOUSIOS NOT MENTIONED

    After this ‘post-Nicaea Correction’, the term homoousios was not mentioned for about 20 years.

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 431)

    “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.” (Hanson, p. 58-59)

    Homoousios was brought back into the Controversy in the mid-350s when Athanasius began to use this term to defend himself.

    “He began to use it first in the De Deeretis … in 356 or 357.” (Hanson, p. 438)

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

    m“Only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

    m“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.” (Ayres, p. 135)

    For that reason, the creeds of the 340s (Dedication, the Council of Serdica, and Macrostich Councils) do not mention the term. It simply was not an issue. For a detailed discussion, see – Nobody mentioned Homoousios.

    THE DIVIDED EMPIRE – THE 340S

    DIVIDING THE EMPIRE

    Constantine became emperor for the entire empire in 324. When he died in 337, his sons divided the empire between them. As from 340, Constans ruled the West and Constantius the East.

    After the post-Nicaea Correction, while Constantine was still alive, he was able to maintain a level of harmony in the church. “Constantine died in May 337.” (Hanson, p. 315) Later that same year, his three sons, “Constantius II, Constantine II and Constans,” “parcelled out the Empire among themselves.” (Hanson, p. 316) This allowed the church in the different parts of the empire to develop in different directions. One of the three brothers died in 340. This left the empire in the hands of Constans in the West and Constantius in the East.

    WEST NOT PART, ATHA APPEALED

    Initially, the West was not part of the Arian Controversy. It was essentially an Eastern affair. But Athanasius appealed to the West, after which the West entered the Controversy.

    As stated above, although Nicaea is considered an ecumenical council, the West was not represented.

    “Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council (of Nicaea). The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (Hanson, p. 170)

    But Athanasius appealed to the West.

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

    ATHANASIUS ONE-HYPOSTASIS

    Athanasius had a one-hypostasis theology, similar to the Sabellians.

    Similar to the Sabellians, for Athanasius, the Son is part of the Father.

    “In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54)

    “In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)

    “Athanasius’ increasing clarity in treating the Son as intrinsic to the Father’s being” (Ayres, p. 113)

    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)

    “Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. xix)

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

    BOTH EXILED

    During Constantine’s reign, the Eastern church exiled Marcellus for Sabellianism and Athanasius for violence.

    “Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix)

    “Marcellus was deposed for Sabellian leanings.” (Hanson, p. 228)

    As mentioned above, more or less at the same time, the Eastern church exiled Athanasius for violence.

    JOINED FORCES

    Since both professed one hypostasis (Person), when they met in Rome after exile, they joined forces against the East.

    For example:

    “They considered themselves allies.” (Ayres, p. 106

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

    POLEMICAL STRATEGY.

    With Marcellus’ help, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy, claiming all anti-Nicenes are followers of Arius and that he was exiled for opposing the Arians:

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

    Note that Ayres says Athanasius’ polemical strategy shaped the traditional account of the Arian Controversy. For most of history, the church had accepted Athanasius’ false version of history.  

    For a detailed discussion, see – Ayres chapter 5.1 or Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy.

    THE WEST ACCEPTED ATHANASIUS.

    The West accepted Athanasius and his explanation of what happened.

    Marcellus and Athanasius appealed to the bishop Julius of Rome. The West was traditionally Monarchian one-hypostasis theologians, similar to the Sabellians. Therefore, the Council of Rome in 340 vindicated both Marcellus and Athanasius:

    “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.” (Ayres, p. 108)

    “The Western bishops made no serious attempt to analyse the complexity of the situation which faced them; they had hitherto [AD 335] remained on the periphery of the controversy; their traditional Monarchianism could square well enough with the little they knew of the Council of Nicaea; by an oversimplification they were able to see Marcellus as orthodox.” (Hanson, p. 272)10Hanson refers to “the apparent Sabellianism of N [the Nicene Creed], and the insensitiveness of the Western Church to the threat to orthodoxy which this tendency represented.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)
  • 11
    “This period of rapprochement resolved nothing: the tensions remained.” (Ayres, p. 130)