Homoousios – What does it mean?

This is a summary of my article on the meaning of the term homoousios. That article is already very long and involved. And since this is, in my view, a crucial subject that puts a new perspective on the entire fourth-century Arian Controversy, I decided to make this summary a separate post.

These conclusions will seem heterodox to the average Christian but they’re based entirely on the writings of recent world-class scholars. Over the last century, after ancient documents have become more readily available, scholars have realized that the traditional textbook account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. For a discussion, see – The Revised Scholarly View.

The Nicene Creed was first formulated at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). It says that the Son

    • Was begotten of the substance (ousia) of the Father and that
    • He is of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father.

Alternative Meanings  

‘Same substance’ has two possible meanings:

One Substance – In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed right from the beginning. In the Trinity doctrine, God is one Being (ousia) but three Persons (hypostases). Therefore Trinitarians claim that the word homoousios in the Creed means that Father and Son are one single substance (one Being).

Two Substances – The alternative meaning is two substances (two Beings) with equal divinity.

But recent scholarship, however, seems to agree that homoousios does not have either of these two meanings. They say that it was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense.

Two Views at Nicaea

A minority was able to dominate the Nicene Council because they had the support of the emperor. Consequently, they were able to put the term homoousios in the Creed, despite the objections of the majority. So, we must distinguish between two meanings:

    • The meaning the minority intended with the term and
    • The meaning the majority assigned to it that enabled them to accept the Creed.

To determine those meanings, consider what homoousios meant (1) before, (2) during, and (3) after Nicaea:

Homoousios before Nicaea

In Greek Philosophy, Aristotle used the term οὐσία (ousia) to describe his philosophical concept of Primary Substances.

In Paganism, particularly in the theological language of Egyptian paganism, the word homoousios meant that the Nous-Father and the Logos-Son, who are two distinct beings, share the same perfection of the divine nature.

The Bible never talks about God’s ousia and never says that the Son is homoousios with the Father.

Gnostics used the term homoousios to indicate that the lower deities are of the ‘same ontological status’ or ‘of a similar kind’ as the highest deity from whom they were derived or emanated. But Gnostics were not really Christians and they did not use the term to describe the Son’s relationship to the Father.

Tertullian (155-220), writing in Latin, nowhere uses any term corresponding to homoousios. He used “the expression unius substantiae.” In the past, it was often claimed that this is equivalent to homoousios but it means ‘mia hypostasis’ (one hypostasis).

Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) used the term homoousios in his theory in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one and the same Person (hypostasis). In other words, he said there is only one substance.

Origen (c. 185 – c. 253) did not apply the word homoousios to the Son and did not teach that the Son is ‘from the ousia’ of the Father, despite claims in the past to the contrary. There is one celebrated fragment where Origen appears to sanction the use of homoousios, but the translator probably altered the text to make it appear consistent with Nicene theology.

Libyan Sabellians, around the year 260, described the Son as homoousios with the Father. They were meaning that the Father and Son are one single hypostasis (Person). Consequently, the Son does not have a real distinct existence.

Dionysius, bishop of Rome, agreed with the Libyan Sabellians that Father and Son were homoousios. He, effectively, was a Sabellian. His doctrine could only with difficulty be distinguished from that of Sabellius.

Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, opposed those Libyan Sabellians and rejected the term because Sabellius used it in rejecting the distinction of hypostases. But those ‘Sabellians’ in Libya complained to the bishop of Rome who persuaded Dionysius of Alexandria to accept the term. However, the latter only adopted it with reluctance and only in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar kind’. In other words, for him, the term did not mean that Father and Son are one and the same or even that they are equal.

Paul of Samosata was deposed only a few years later in 268. Paul used the term to say that Father and Son were ‘a primitive undifferentiated unity’. That same council also condemned homoousion because it spelt to them Sabellianism.

Conclusion

Before Nicaea, the term homoousios was used only by Sabellians. They used it to say that Father and Son are one single Person. In their view, the Son has no real distinct existence. The only non-Sabellian to use the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he only adopted it with reluctance and only in a general sense, meaning ‘of similar nature’.

Therefore, to determine the meaning of the term in the Nicene Creed, one needs to identify the theology of the party that was able to force the inclusion of the term in the Creed.

Homoousios at Nicaea

A Surprising Innovation

The inclusion of the term in the Nicene Creed must be regarded as a surprising innovation because it is not a Biblical term, was not part of the standard Christian language at the time, but was borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day. Furthermore, the Sabellian history of the term rendered it particularly suspect. For these reasons, some very powerful force must have been at work to ensure its inclusion.

The Emperor’s Role

That powerful force was the emperor. In the fourth century, the general councils (the so-called ecumenical councils) were called and controlled by the emperors. They were the tools by which the Emperor ruled the church. In the Roman culture, the emperor had the final say in church doctrine.

Consistent with this principle, at Nicaea, the emperor not only proposed but also insisted the inclusion of the term. Constantine even dared to explain the meaning of the term.

Alexander’s Party

However, Constantine did not come up with the term homoousios by himself. The term was favored by the minority party of Alexander. That party was able to dominate and insert the term in the Creed because the emperor took their side.

The leaders of that party were:

    • Alexander himself,
    • Ossius – the chairperson, as the emperor’s representative, and
    • the two leading Sabellians, Eustathius and Marcellus.

However, all four of them were Sabellians. The Nicene Creed, therefore, was the work of a Sabellian minority.

How was Homoousios understood?

How, then, did the delegates to the Council understand the term homoousios?

The Sabellians intended to term to mean that the Father and Son are one single Person (one hypostasis). Consequently, after Nicaea, the Sabellians claimed the Creed as support for their doctrine.

The majority, on the other hand, was able to agree to the Creed because they had accepted the emperor’s explanation that it simply means that the Son is truly from the Father. With that understanding, it does not mean that Father and Son are one Person or even that they are equal. However, after the council meeting, that same majority opposed the Creed because they thought it taught Sabellianism.

So, in conclusion, all parties understood the term homoousios in a Sabellian sense.

Homoousios after Nicaea

Post-Nicaea Correction

After Nicaea, the conflict over the term homoousios continued for a few years. I refer to it as the ‘Post-Nicaea Correction’ because it corrected the distortions caused at Nicaea by the sway of the emperor. This ‘correction’, therefore, should be regarded as part of the Nicene event.

By this time, Arius was out of the picture. Alexander also retired a year after Nicaea. The conflict was specifically between the Eusebian majority and the two leading Sabellians; Eustathius and Marcellus. As a result of this conflict, both of them were deposed for Sabellianism:

Not Mentioned

After the ‘Post-Nicaea correction’, Nicaea and homoousios were mentioned again for about 20 years. It was not regarded as useful or important.

During this period when homoousios was not mentioned, two councils were held that are important because they reveal the true views of the delegates at Nicaea.

East – At first, the ‘West’ was on the fringes of the Arian Controversy. For example, the delegates at Nicaea were drawn almost entirely from the East. So, what the delegates to Nicaea really believed when not compelled by the emperor can be seen in the Eastern Dedication Creed formulated in 431. It shows that they regarded the Nicene Creed as dangerously Sabellian.

West – Two years later, in 343, the West held a council at Sardica. The ‘West’ is generally known for being defenders of Nicaea, but the creed from that council explicitly says that Father and Son are one Person, which reveals the Sabellian preference of the West at this time. This is confirmed by their vindication of Marcellus, the main Sabellian at the time, in the year 431.

Neither of these councils used the term homoousios.

Athanasius re-invented Homoousios.

That would have been the end of homoousios. However, in the 350s – 30 years after Nicaea, Athanasius brought it back into the Controversy. Athanasius is known as the main defender of the Nicene Creed and homoousios during the years after Nicaea but, as another article shows, Athanasius also was a Sabellian. In his view, the Son is part of the Father. Athanasius, therefore, re-invented homoousios to defend his Sabellian theology; not to defend the Nicene Creed.

Anti-Sabellian Front

In the 350s, after homoousios had become a key factor in the Controversy, and the West attacked the East with it, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) were divided into several factions with respect to homoousios, but they formed a united front against the Sabellian thrust of the Western church. This shows that the main enemy remained Sabellianism.

Meletian Schism

In the 360s and 370s, in what is known as the Meletian Schism, there were two factions in the pro-Nicene camp:

    • The ‘one hypostasis’-side (the Sabellians) was led by bishop Damasus of Rome and by Athanasius.
    • The ‘three hypostasis’-side was led by Basil of Caesarea. He regarded the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be three distinct Beings (substances) but he claimed that they have exactly the same type of substance. See – Basil.

Final Conclusions

Before Nicaea, the only Christians who favored the term were Sabellians.

At Nicaea, a Sabellian minority was able to insert the term in the Creed, against the wishes of the majority, because the emperor took Alexander’s part.

During the decade after Nicaea, the main drivers of the term homoousios were removed from their positions. There-after, the term was not mentioned again until Athanasius brought it back into the dispute about 30 years after Nicaea; not to defend the term as such, but to defend his own Sabellian theology.

The West accepted Athanasius’ explanation because the West was traditionally Sabellian.

Basil of Caesarea later accepted homoousios. However, he opposed Athanasius’ understanding of the term and explained it in a generic sense.

Therefore, before, during, and after Nicaea, the advocates of the term homoousios were Sabellians. It must be understood in a Sabellian sense.


Other Articles in this Series

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 18The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 19‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 20In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 21This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 22Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

The Pro-Nicenes

Authors on the Arian Controversy

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

Trinity Doctrine – General

    • Elohim 27Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 28The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

All articles on this Site

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 2
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 3
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 4
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 5
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 6
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 7
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 8
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 9
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 10
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 11
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 12
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 13
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 14
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 15
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 16
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 17
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 18
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 19
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 20
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 21
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 22
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 23
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 24
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 25
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 26
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 27
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 28
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

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

Summary of this article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very God

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

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

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

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

Homoousios

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

No Trinity Doctrine

The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine:

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

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

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

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

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

– END OF SUMMARY –

The Text of the Nicene Creed

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

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

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God,
begotten of the Father
the only-begotten; that is,
of the essence of the Father,

God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];

And in the Holy Ghost.

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

Is the Son Subordinate?

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

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

but later adds:

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

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

The difference between “God” and theos

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

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

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

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

The Almighty Father

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

One God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Only Begotten Son

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

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

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

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

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

Made out of Nothing

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

No Trinity in the Nicene Creed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Homoousios mean One Being?

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

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

Same Type of Substance

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly the same substance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Agreement

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

Condemnations

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

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

These have been written
so that you may believe

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

(John 20:31).

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

Catholic Church

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

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries