Nicene Creed: The meaning of: “He is of another substance or essence”

Question

In the 325 Nicene Creed, what is the meaning of the phrase:

“He is of another substance or essence?”

The Anathemas

The views that are condemned in the last part of the Nicene Creed may be divided as follows:

      1. There was a time when he was not (Wikipedia). Or probably more literally, “There was when He was not” (Earlychurchtexts).
      2. He was not before he was made.
      3. He was made out of nothing.
      4. He is of another substance or essence,
      5. The Son of God is created, or changeable, or alterable.

The first two anathemas are about WHEN He began to exist. The affirmations earlier in the creed do not say anything specific in this regard but do state that all things came to be through Him. If we assume time is included in “all things,” then that would affirm that there was no “time when he was not.”

The third anathema is about OUT OF WHAT He came to exist. Rather than “out of nothing,” as in the anathemas, the affirmations say that He is “begotten of the Father … that is, of the essence (ousia) of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.”

My question relates to the fourth anathema. What is the meaning of the Greek word or phrase in this phrase that is translated as “of?” Stated differently, is this condemnation also about OUT OF WHAT substance He came to be, or is it about the substance HE CONSISTS OF?

Just reading the English, the following seems to indicate that this condemnation is about OUT OF WHAT substance He came to be:

(a) Just like the first two anathemas form a pair, it seems as if the third and fourth anathemas also form a pair.

(b) The phrase “He is of another substance” seems to be the opposite of the affirmation, He is “begotten … of the essence of the Father.”

(c) Earlier in the creed, it is said that the Son is “God of God” (Wikipedia). In this phrase, “God” describes WHAT the Son is and “of” describes OUT OF WHAT He came to exist. If the word “of” has the same meaning in the fourth anathema, then that anathema may be about OUT OF WHAT He came to exist.

Alternatively, this anathema could relate to the word homoousion in the body of the creed. In that case, it would be a statement about the substance HE CONSISTS OF.

Why do I ask this question?

I ask this question because I am trying to work out what exactly the main issue of the debate was at Nicaea.

Given that 80% of the words of the creed are about Christ, they did not argue about the Father or about the Holy Spirit. The dispute was only about Christ. But what was the main dispute?

Firstly, the anathemas state that He ALWAYS EXISTED, but that is not explicitly mentioned in the body of the creed. So, I assume that that was not the main point of dispute.

Secondly, most of the text about Christ in the affirmations are about HOW HE CAME TO EXIST,  namely:

“Begotten from the Father,
only-begotten,
that is, from the substance of the Father,
God from God,
light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten not made.”

I do not think that this quote refers to Christ’s substance. It only refers to the substance out of which He was begotten. The third anathema contains a similar statement, namely that He did not come into existence out of nothing. Given the emphasis on this point in the creed, I would assume that this was the main matter of dispute.

Thirdly, the affirmations contain the statement that He is homoousion with the Father. This now refers to His own substance; not to the substance out of which He was begotten. But this statement seems quite isolated. Unless the fourth condemnation relates to the word homoousion, nothing else in the creed refers directly to His own substance. It is for that reason that I am trying to work out what the statement, that “He is (not) of another substance or essence,” means:

    • That He is begotten out of the substance of the Father, or
    • That he has the same substance as the Father.

Is this a stupid question?

Many people would regard this as a meaningless question and simply read the creed in terms of how it was later explained. But, as Hanson stated, the Nicene creed, at the time:

“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.”

Boyd also stated that:

“The creed of Nicaea … only added increased confusion and complication to the problem it was intended to solve.”

As discussed in my answer on the question, Why ousia and hypostasis were synonymous in the Nicene Creed:

Before the Christian era, ousia and hypostasis had the same meaning. Ancient Greek philosophers used these terms for the fundamental reality that supports all else. (link)

In contrast, in the Trinity doctrine, hypostasis means person and ousia means substance or essence. This change in the meaning of hypostasis did not occur over time as a natural process of evolution. Rather, it was explicitly to counter the suspicion that the creed teaches modalism that supporters of the Nicene Creed proposed a new meaning for hypostasis. (link)

For that reason, it is appropriate for us to analyze and interpret the Nicene Creed of 325 in the context of the meanings that words had at that time.

Conclusion

This is a question I posted on Stackexchange. This is really a question about the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed. It is known that that word was inserted into that creed on the insistence of Emperor Constantine. For example:

Jörg Ulrich wrote:

“Homoousious” 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. (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997): 10-24. 15.)

And the pro-Trinitarian site Bible.CA Trinity: The role of Constantine in the Nicene creed admits:

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

What I suspect is that a proper analysis of the 325 creed will show that the word homoousion does not fit in the creed. The reader may want to follow the responses to my question and even also respond on Stackexchange.

Notice that this phrase, “He is of another substance or essence” is also the phrase that uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

What is the difference between the Trinity theory and modalism?

Modalism

In Modalism, the distinction between the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are mere “modes” of how a singular, unitarian godhead interacts with creation. Consequently, in Modalism, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are but one Person with three faces. This would mean that God the Father appears on earth as the Son and the Father suffered and died.

Trinity Doctrine

Under the orthodox catholic understanding of the Trinity:

To maintain the three-ness of the Father, Son, and Spirit, they are declared to be three distinct Persons.

But to maintain the one-ness of God, so that it does not teach tri-theism (three Gods), the Father, Son, and Spirit, share one undivided divine “nature” or being or substance.

What makes the persons distinct from one another? What makes the distinction real? For three reasons, I fail to see the difference between the orthodox Trinity doctrine and Modalism.

Same Essence

Firstly, the notion of divine simplicity, namely that God does not have parts, requires that the three persons are not three parts of God, but each of them is the full Divine essence. In other words, each of the three Persons is the entire God. Therefore:

God = the Father = the Son = the Holy Spirit.

Aquinas confirmed:

“It cannot be said that the divine Persons are distinguished from each other in any absolute sense; for it would follow that there would not be one essence of the three persons.” [Summa 1036]

Same Mind

Secondly, in normal English, a person is a self, a thinker, with his own will and mind. But the orthodox Trinity doctrine is that the Father, Son, and Spirit share one single mind and will.

Relations do not make a difference.

Thirdly, the orthodox catholic understanding of the Trinity, the only difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is in their relations, namely that the Son is the Son of the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Son (in Western catholic thinking). To quote Aquinas:

“The divine persons are distinguished from each other only by the relations.”  [Summa 1036]

This thinking is illustrated by Aquinas’ argument that the Spirit must proceed from the Son, for, he says, if the Spirit proceeds from the Father then the Spirit is the same as the Son because they have the same relation with the Father.  [Summa 1036]

Moreover, in the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the difference in relations has no practical implications:

As Aquinas argued, these relations between persons exist within the divine essence as essential attributes of God, as opposed to “accidental.” [Summa 1039] In other words, there never was a time or situation in which the Son was not the Son and there never was a time or situation in which the Spirit did not proceed. Consequently, always and under all conditions, the Father, Son, and Spirit shared one and the same substance, mind, and will.

Eternal Generation

According to the Wikipedia page on the Nicene Creed, the Arian controversy began when Arius, a clergyman of Alexandria, “objected to Alexander’s (the bishop of the time) apparent carelessness in blurring the distinction of nature between the Father and the Son by his emphasis on eternal generation”. (Lyman, J. Rebecca (2010). “The Invention of ‘Heresy’ and ‘Schism'” (PDF). The Cambridge History of Christianity. Retrieved 30 November 2015.)

If this is true, then it is interesting that “eternal generation” was already on the table at this early stage. Arius and the pre-Nicene fathers often claimed that the Son was begotten before all ages and before the creation, but “eternal generation” is a bit more advanced concept, for it means that there never was a time or state of condition when the Father was not Father. Lyman might be guilty of an anachronism.

Nevertheless, my point is that “eternal generation” is another way of saying that the “relations” exist as essential attributes of God. And, as Lyman stated, this blurs the distinction between the Father and the Son.

Conclusion

While some people put the emphasis on the three-ness of God, often resulting in tri-theism, in the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the theory that the Father, Son and Spirit ‘share’ one and the same substance, mind and will, and have always done so, implies that the difference in relation (in their origins) is relegated to words with no practical consequence. The emphasis is fully on the one-ness of God. Consequently, I fail to see the difference between the three Persons, in spite of the standard disclaimer in the Trinity doctrine that it is not Modalism.

This article has been posted as a question on Stackexchange. Readers may want to read to responses of other people.

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries

Extract from important books