After the Fall of Rome, Arianism dominated.

ABSTRACT: In 380, Emperor Theodosius made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. This was the birth of the Roman Church. In the fifth century, Arian Germanic immigrants dominated the Western Empire and the West was Arian once again. But they tolerated the Roman Church and it actually grew in strength.

This is an article in the series that explains how the Trinity doctrine became established in the Church. The current article considers the events of the Fifth Century.

FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

The Origin of the Roman Church

In the year 379, Theodosius became emperor. One year later, in 380, he issued an edict that made the Trinity doctrine the sole state religion of the Roman Empire. In this way, the Trinity doctrine became the identifying mark of the Roman Church, understood as the Church of the Roman Empire.

While the Nicene Creed still identifies the “one God” as the Father, Theodosius’ edict identified the “one God” as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was, therefore, a significant ‘advance’ on the Nicene Creed. As discussed, when the Arian Controversy began, the ‘orthodoxy’ was that the Son is distinct from and subordinate to the Father. What is declared as ‘orthodox’ in Theodosius’ edict was not orthodox when the Controversy began:

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine was orthodoxy when the Controversy began. However, we know today that the traditional account is a complete travesty. The 20th century has produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (LA, 11) 1LA = Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

One year later, the Council of Constantinople in 381 issued a creed that is very similar to the creed of 325 but still identifies the “one God” as the Father.

Nevertheless, in 380, Theodosius outlawed all non-Trinitarian forms of Christianity and ruthlessly exterminated all opposition to the Trinity doctrine. He expelled their bishops, forbade them to meet and preach, and gave their churches to Trinitarian congregations. He was responsible for the first official executions of Christian ‘heretics’. [Jones 1964, p. 164] Religious persecution was part of the Roman culture. Roman emperors always used religion to strengthen the unity of their vast empire and persecuted religions that threatened unity.

The West became Germanic-dominated.

However, the Germanic peoples (called ‘barbarians’ by the Romans) remained anti-Trinitarian. Huge numbers of Germanic peoples migrated into the territory of the Empire over the previous century. Many of them were recruited into the Roman army, to such an extent that the Imperial forces became dependent on Germanic soldiers. They were also appointed to top positions in the military. Since Roman generals always were very influential in the Roman Empire, this put these ‘barbarians’ in a very strong position.

Theodosius was the last Roman emperor to rule the entire Empire. Soon after he died in 395, Germanic people effectively had control of the Western Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the Graeco-Roman population still treated them as second-class citizens. Therefore, to demand equal rights and permanent residency in the empire, the Germanic people revolted against the severe conditions of their tenure in the Roman Empire. They sacked Rome in 410 and again in 455. (See Fall of the Roman Empire.)

Although they dominated the Western Empire already from the beginning of the 400s (the fifth century), they tolerated figurehead Western Roman Emperors until 476, when Odoacer—an Arian Germanic chieftain—deposed the last Western Roman Empire and soon conquered the whole of Italy.

They then divided the territory of the Western Empire between the Germanic tribes. However, these tribes continued to function as part of the Roman Empire. In name at least, they were subject to the Emperor in Constantinople. For these reasons, historians today prefer to refer to the Transformation of the Western Roman Empire; rather than to its Fall. It was a slow process over decades and even centuries during which the Germanic people wrestled control of the Western Empire from the Romans. 

The ‘Germans’ were ‘Arians’.

Theodosius had exterminated opposition to the Trinitarian doctrine from among the Roman people. But the Germanic nations were converted by the efforts of the church in the time before Theodosius when the church majority was ‘Arian’. These Germanic people, therefore, were ‘Arian’. Consequently, the Western Roman Empire was once again ‘Arian’. dominated.

The term ‘Arian’ is a serious misnomer because Arius was an insignificant theologian. He did not leave a school of disciples. Today, we use the term ‘Arian’ for all opposition to the Trinity doctrine because Athanasius invented to term to insult his opponents by labelling them with an already discredited theology. This article continues to use the term ‘Arian’, not to refer to the theology of Arius, which was one specific anti-Trinitarian theology, but to refer to all opposition to the Trinity doctrine.

THE ROMAN CHURCH

United with the Roman Empire.

The Roman Church survived throughout this period. There are at least two reasons why we might have expected the Church in Rome to perish with the demise of the Western Empire. Firstly, as stated, while the Roman Church was Trinitarian, the Germanic peoples were ‘Arian’. 

Secondly, the Church in Rome was part of the government of the Roman Empire. After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 AD, the church became united with the state. Division of church and state was not a reality. The emperors decided which religions were legal and they effectively became the head of the church. He had the final say concerning controversies in the church and with respect to whether bishops should be exiled and re-admitted. The view of the emperor, and whoever had the ear of the emperor, determined the theology of the church. For example:

Emperor Constantine had a huge role in the decisions of the Council of Nicaea. He called the council, presided over it, guided the discussions, proposed and enforced the important word Homoousios, and exiled all bishops who refused to sign the Creed. The preference of the emperor allowed the inclusion of the term homoousios.

When Theodosius I became emperor in 379, the imperial capital was solidly Arian. But he almost immediately outlawed all non-Trinitarian forms of Christianity, exiled Arian bishops, and excluded Arians from the Council of 381. (See Theodosius.)

As a consequence of the elevated status of the church, Christianity became wealthy and the religion of any ambitious civil official.

The ‘Germans’ tolerated the Roman Church.

Given the unity of the Roman Church and the Roman Empire, one might have expected the Germanic peoples to oppose the Roman Church in the West. However, the Roman Church survived in the West. The new Arian rulers in the Western Empire allowed the Roman Church (the Church of the Roman Empire) to co-exist unimpeded. The Germanic people, after they took control of the Western Empire, intended to remain part of the Roman Empire and tolerated the Roman Church because it was an official part of the Roman system of government; accountable to the emperor. The Germanic people voluntarily—in name at least—subjected themselves to the Roman Emperor, who reigned from the east. Consequently, Arianism and the Trinitarian Church of the Roman people existed side by side. The Jewish Encyclopaedia describes the situation:

“Most Germanic peoples—such as the eastern and western Goths, as also the Franks, the Lombards, the Suevi, and the Vandals—were baptized into Arian Christianity. These tribes settled in widely spread districts of the old Roman empire. A large number of Jews, already resident in those lands, fell under Arian domination. In contrast with the domination of the orthodox church, the Arian was distinguished by a wise tolerance and a mild treatment of the population of other faiths. This conduct was traceable to some degree to certain points of agreement between the Arian doctrine and Judaism. The very insistence upon the more subordinate relationship of the Son to the God-father is much nearer to the Jewish doctrine of the Messiah than to the conception of the full divinity of the Son, as enunciated at Nicaea.” (Kohler, Kaufmann; Krauss, Samuel. “ARIANISM”. Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation.)

The tolerance of the Arian tribes towards other religions resulted in entirely distinct Arian and Trinitarian systems of churches and bishops in the previous Western Empire. 

Although the Arian Germanic tribes were generally tolerant towards Nicene Christians, the Vandals in North Africa tried to force their Arian beliefs on their North African Nicene subjects, exiling Nicene clergy, dissolving monasteries, and exercising heavy pressure on non-conforming Nicene Christians. This matter will become important when we read of Emperor Justinian’s efforts in the sixth century to regain control of the Western Empire, for the first ‘barbarian’ nation that he attacked was the Vandals.

The Roman Church became stronger.

Actually, instead of perishing, the Church in Rome grew in strength after the ‘barbarians’ wrestled control of the western provinces from the original Graeco-Roman population (Britannica). The reasons include the following:

(A) The Church had a strong, centralized organization: The pope in Rome is the head of the Church. All clergy, including bishops and priests, fell under his authority. Bishops supervised priests; the lowest-ranking members of the clergy. For most people, local priests served as the main contact with the Church.

(B) At the same time, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there was no single state or government that united all people who lived on the European continent. The transformation of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century was a time of great political chaos and warfare and the well-organized church became the only stabilizing force. As secular governments came and went, the Papacy remained. The church was a stable force during an era of constant warfare and political turmoil.

(C) The Church also bonded people together. It gave a sense of communal identity. At the local level, the village church was a unifying force in the lives of most people. It served as a religious and social center. Religious holidays, especially Christmas and Easter, were occasions for festive celebrations.

Arians converted to the Roman Church.

One consequence of the growing strength of the Roman Church was that the Germanic peoples converted to the Trinity doctrine, rather than to Arianism. The Franks were the first to convert.

The Franks and the Anglo-Saxons also were Germanic peoples but never were Arians. They entered the Western Roman Empire as Pagans.

The Franks were the first to convert. In 496, Clovis, king of the Franks, converted to Nicene Christianity—as opposed to the Arianism of most other Germanic tribes. Consequently, sometime between 496 and 508, Clovis I forcibly converted the Franks to Christianity. (So much for religious freedom!) This led to widespread conversion among the Frankish peoples across what is now modern-day France, Belgium, and Germany.

Æthelberht of Kent did the same for the Anglo-Saxons (see also Christianity in Gaul and Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England). 

Visigothic Spain was Arian until 589. 

The Lombards were Arians until the 7th century.

CONCLUSIONS

The religious preferences of the Roman Emperors determined the Christology of the church. The current article refers to the roles which Constantine and Theodosius played. As the next article will show, in the sixth century, Emperor Justinian gave Arianism a death wound and it died during the subsequent Byzantine Papacy. The fact that the church today is dominated by the Trinity doctrine is the direct result of decisions taken by Roman Emperors.

OTHER ARTICLES

Origin of the Trinity Doctrine

CHURCH FATHERS

ARIAN CONTROVERSY

ARIUS

THE NICENE CREED

ARIANISM

    • The Dedication Creed 21This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 22The 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? 23‘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 24In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 25This 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? 26Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

LATER

THE PRO-NICENES

AUTHORS 

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

TRINITY DOCTRINE – GENERAL

    • Elohim 34Elohim (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 35The 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.

Other Articles

All articles on this Site

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    LA = Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004
  • 2
    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.
  • 3
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 4
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 5
    The Controversy gave us the Trinity doctrine but the traditional account of the Controversy is a complete traversy.
  • 6
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 7
    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.
  • 8
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 9
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 10
    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?
  • 11
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 12
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 13
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.
  • 14
    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.
  • 15
    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.
  • 16
    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
  • 17
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 18
    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.
  • 19
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 20
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 21
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 22
    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.
  • 23
    ‘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.
  • 24
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 25
    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.
  • 26
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 27
    In the fifth century, Arian ‘barbarians’ dominated the Western Empire, but they tolerated and even respected the Trinitarian Roman Church.
  • 28
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 29
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 30
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 31
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 32
    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.
  • 33
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 34
    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?
  • 35
    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.

Emperor Theodosius eliminated Arianism from the Roman Empire.

Introduction

In the fourth century, various theories of the ontology (the nature and relations of being – Merriam-Webster) of Christ competed for domination in the church. Commentators often describe this as a dispute between the Nicene Creed and Arianism, but this reflects a superficial understanding of the situation. For example:

(1) The article on the Nicene Creed lists several indications that it describes Christ as subordinate to the Father. For example, it describes the Father alone as Almighty. In the Trinity doctrine, Christ is co-equal with the Father. Since the term ‘Arianism’ is often used to refer to any theory that is contrary to the Trinity doctrine, if the Nicene Creed describes the Son as subordinate to the Father, then that Creed may also be regarded as Arianism.

(2) The term Arianism comes from the name of Arius, a priest from Alexandria in the fourth century, whose dispute with his bishop Alexander sparked the Arian Controversy. During the 55 years after Arius’ teachings were rejected by the Nicene Council, various theories of the nature of Christ prevailed that were different from both Arius’s teachings and the Trinity doctrine.

A more precise delineation of these competing theories is as follows:

Same Substance

The Council of Nicene in 325 agreed that Christ is Homoousionof the same substance” as the Father. This was later ratified by the First Council of Constantinople (381).

No mention of Substance

In July 359, the Council of Ariminum concluded that the Son was “like the Father,” without reference to substance. In this view, the Bible does not reveal whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, and we, therefore, should not speculate about such things. See Homoian or Homoeanism.

Similar Substance

The council of Seleucia agreed in 359 that the Son was “similar in substance” to the Father but not necessarily of the “same substance,” as per the Nicene Creed. See Homoi-ousian or Arian Controversy.

Different Substance

The council of Constantinople in 359 at first accepted that the substance of the Son was different from the Father’s. See Heteroousian or Arian controversy. This is similar to what Arius taught.

One Substance

Sometimes homoousios (same substance) is translated as “one substance.” Literally, homoousios means “same substance.” Therefore, it may be understood as saying that the Father and Son have the same substance like people have the same substance. In contrast, “one substance” implies that they share one common substance; like two Persons sharing one body or being, as in the Trinity doctrine, where the Father and Son are three Persons but one Being. “One substance,” therefore, is a Trinitarian translation of homoousios.

“According to an anonymous Expositio fidei, in the fourth century the Sabellians made use of the more specific term monoousios, no longer of homoousios, the word which in the meanwhile had become the flag of the Nicene party.”1Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A) Perhaps monoousios could be translated as “one substance.” 

Trinity Doctrine

The Nicene Creed (AD 325) forms the basis of the Trinity Doctrine, but the language of three distinct and infinite hypostases (divine persons), the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that possess the very same (numerically the same, as opposed to qualitatively the same) divine ousia, was only developed in the period 360-380 by the three Cappadocians (See, Pro-Nicene) and only became universally accepted after the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381. (See, Homoousion – Wikipedia or Lienhard, Joseph T. Ousia and Hypostasis.)

Conclusion

The point is this: This article shows that Emperor Theodosius I, when he came to power, crushed Arianism. However, what he really crushed was all resistance to the teaching of the Nicene Creed that the Father and Son have the same ousia.

Summary

Constantine had a decisive influence on the formulation of the Nicene Creed but later rejected the Homoousion Christology of the Nicene Creed. The emperors who succeeded Constantine crushed the church leaders who taught the homoousion principle in the Nicene Creed. When emperor Valens died in 378, the imperial capital was solidly Arian.

Theodosius I succeeded Valens. He was a passionate supporter of Homoousion Christology. Commentators often refer to the Council of Constantinople of 381 as the turning point where Arianism was replaced by Nicene Christology, but that council was a mere formality. Already prior to the council, Theodosius outlawed all other forms of Christianity and exiled Arian bishops.2Theodosian Code 16:2, 1 Friell, G., Williams, S., Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, London, 1994 – See, Homoousion – Wikipedia Furthermore, ‘Arians’ were not allowed to attend the Council of 381.

Since the 381 Council was simply a formality, the real decisions were taken by the Roman Emperor. Theodosius, with the strong arm of the empire, effectively wiped out ‘Arianism’ among the ruling class and elite of the Eastern Empire. This supports again the main thesis of this article series, namely that the emperors had a decisive influence on the Christology of the church.

The 381 Creed does not contain the Trinity concept, namely that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons with three minds or wills in one Being. But Theodosius’ Edict of Thessalonica of 380 does prescribe Trinitarian theology. In other words, the State laws were Trinitarian while the church decreed lagged behind. This also supports the thesis that the Christology of the church was determined by the emperors.

In the centuries after Theodosius, the church formulated the doctrines that Christ had two separate natures, namely that He had both a divine and a human nature, and that Mary is the Mother of God.

– END OF SUMMARY –


The Empire was solidly Arian.

As discussed in the article on Fourth-Century Arianism, Constantine had a decisive influence on the formulation of the Nicene Creed. He forced the Council of Nicaea to accept the key term Homoousios and to condemn Arianism. However, just a few years later, Constantine reversed his position, banished the main promotor of the Nicene Creed (Athanasius), and allowed the ‘Arian’ bishops who were exiled after Nicaea, to return. 

Constantine’s son and successor, Constantius II, was openly Arian. At first, Constantius only ruled in the east but, by the year 353, he became the sole ruler of the entire empire. He crushed the Nicene party, forcing the western bishops to abandon Athanasius and exiled leaders of the Nicene party.

The next emperor (Julian) did not choose sides, but he ruled only for three years.

Valens (364–378) succeeded Julian and revived Constantius’ anti-Nicene policy. He also exiled Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used force against them. Consequently, when Valens died in the year 378, the imperial capital of the empire (Constantinople), which by then has existed for 50 years, was solidly ‘Arian’.

Theodosius wiped Arianism out.

Theodosius I succeeded Valens. He and his wife Flacilla were passionate supporters of the Nicene Creed. Flacilla was instrumental in Theodosius’ campaign to end Arianism.  Sozomen reports an incident where she prevented a meeting between Theodosius and Eunomius of Cyzicus, who served as figurehead of the most radical sect of Arians. Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa praised her Christian virtues (Roman Catholic Encyclopedia (1909), article “Ælia Flaccilla” by J.P. Kirsch).

Commentators often refer to the First Council of Constantinople, which Theodosius convened in the spring of 381, as the turning point where Arianism was replaced by Nicene Christology, but that council was a mere formality:

Firstly, Theodosius already on 27 February 380, with the Edict of Thessalonica (see Definition of orthodoxy in Theodosius I) decreed that Homoousian Christianity (the Nicene Creed) will be the only legal religion of the Roman Empire and that Christians teaching contrary views will be punished. By means of this edict, Theodosius outlawed all other versions of Christianity.

Secondly, the incumbent bishop of Constantinople was an Arian. Two days after Theodosius arrived in Constantinople, on 24 November 380, and therefore also prior to the First Council of Constantinople in the spring of 381, he exiled this bishop and appointed Gregory of Nazianzus, the leader of the rather small Nicene community in the city, as bishop over the churches of that city.

Thirdly, only supporters of the Nicene Creed were allowed into the Council of 381. The previous Arian bishop and leaders were already banished and Arians arriving to attend the council were denied admission.

The 381 Council, therefore, was simply a formality. Theodosius, with the strong arm of the empire, effectively wiped out Arianism from the Roman Empire.  

Edict of Thessalonica

This edict states:

According to the apostolic teaching
and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in
the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.

We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment, they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles (places of worship) the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict. — Edict of Thessalonica (Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, editor, 1967, p. 22)

The term “Catholic” in this quote means ‘universal’.  The word “Catholic” only became part of the name of the Catholic Church in 1054, at the East-West schism.

Summarized, Church historian Sozomen reports as follows on the Edict of Thessalonica:

Gratian bestowed the government of Illyria and of the Eastern provinces upon Theodosius. The parents of Theodosius were Christians and were attached to the Nicene doctrines. Theodosius made known by law his intention of leading all his subjects to the reception of that faith which was professed by Damasus, bishop of ROME, and by Peter, bishop of ALEXANDRIA. He enacted that the title of “Catholic Church” should be exclusively confined to those who rendered EQUAL HOMAGE to the Three Persons of the Trinity and that those individuals who entertained opposite opinions should be treated as heretics, regarded with contempt, and delivered over to PUNISHMENT. (Sozomen’s Church History VII.4)

The First Council of Constantinople was a mere formality.

It was customary, in the fourth century, for emperors, as the real heads of the church, to appoint church leaders and convene church councils. Similarly, Theodosius convened the First Council of Constantinople in the spring of 381. It is also known as the Second Ecumenical Council. ‘Ecumenical’ means it represents all Christian Churches and perspectives, but that was certainly not the case in this instance:

Theodosius already outlawed Arianism in the previous year, with the threat of punishment for people that teach anything different.

Gregory of Nazianzus—the leader of the Nicene party in the city—presided over part of the Council and vehemently opposed any compromise with the Homoiousians (those who believed that the Son’s substance is “similar” to the Father’s). (Lewis Ayres – Nicaea and its legacy – Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-875505-0. Retrieved 21 October 2011)

Arians were not admitted into the council. Theodosius already banished the previous Homoiousian bishop and leaders. And 36 Pneumatomachians arrived to attend the council but were denied admission when they refused to accept the Nicene Creed.

Gregory resigned from his office and Nectarius, an unbaptized civil official, was chosen to succeed Gregory as president of the council (Wikipedia, also note 17). Nectarius, as a civil servant, was fully under Theodosius’ control.

The Council, not surprisingly, confirmed Theodosius’ installation of Gregory Nazianzus as Bishop of Constantinople, accepted the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 and dogmatically condemned of all shades of Arianism as heresy. 

Contents of the Creed of 381

The Holy Spirit

The 325 Creed merely mentions the Holy Spirit in connection with the Father and Son. It does not refer to the Holy Spirit as theos (“god” or “God”) or that the Spirit is of the same substance as the Father. 

The 381 Creed goes much further. The 5 words about the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed of 325 became 33 words in the creed of Constantinople, saying:

    • That the Holy Ghost is “the Lord and Giver of life,”
    • That He proceeds from the Father and
    • That He is worshiped together with the Father and the Son.

The 381 Creed, therefore, describes the Holy Spirit much clearer as a separate Person and as God.

The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “God,” p. 568, states that the teaching of the three Cappadocian Fathers “made it possible for the Council of Constantinople (381) to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which up to that point had nowhere been clearly stated, not even in Scripture.

Note: Catholics are not concerned if their doctrines are not found in the Bible because they believe in continued revelation through the church.

The Trinity

As discussed in the article on the Nicene Creed, the present writer does not find the Trinity concept (namely that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit three Persons with three minds in one Being) in the Nicene Creed. It is also absent from the creed of 381. (See the Comparison between the creed of 325 and 381.) 

However, the Edict of Thessalonica of 380, quoted above, which was an act of law by the emperor, made Trinitarian theology law. Compare the opening phrases of the Edict of Thessalonica of 380:

“Let us believe in
the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

With the opening phrase of the Creed of 381:

“We believe in
one God, the Father Almighty …
And in one Lord Jesus Christ …
And in the Holy Ghost”

An edict which Theodosius issued after the Council of 381 is also clearly Trinitarian:

“We now order that all churches are to be handed over to the bishops who profess Father, Son and Holy Spirit of a single majesty, of the same glory, of one splendour” (quoted by Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 1999, p. 223).

In other words, the State laws were Trinitarian while the church creeds lagged behind. The first clear Trinitarian church statement is the Athanasian Creed which was not formulated by a Church Council and originated perhaps 100 years later. The contents of Theodosius’s decrees, when compared to the church decrees, support the main thesis of these articles, namely that the decisions, with respect to which Christology the church will adopt, was made by the emperors; not by ecumenical councils.

Post-381 Trinity Development

Mother of God

Relatively soon after Theodosius crushed Arianism, the church formulated the doctrine of Mary as the Mother of God. Britannica reports:

Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, taught that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, may not properly be called the mother of God (Greek Theotokos, or “God-bearer”), because she was the mother only of the human Jesus, not of the preexistent Word of God. The Council of Ephesus (431) condemned this teaching. 

This matter, and its relationship with the Trinity doctrine, has not been further investigated for this article. According to the 381 Creed, the “Lord Jesus Christ” has been “begotten of the Father.” How Mary may the called mother of God and how this relates to the Trinity doctrine has not been investigated by me.

The Two Natured of Christ

The Arians objected to the creeds of 325 and 381 by asking, if the Son is of the same substance as the Father, why did He say that He does not know the day and hour of His return? Why does only the Father know that (Matt 24:36)? And why did Jesus say that He only do and say what the Father gave Him to do and say (e.g. John 5:30; 8:28).  Do such statements not imply that He is subordinate to the Father? 

In response to such questions, the church developed the teaching that Christ had two natures:

This council (of Ephesus) gave rise to monophysitism, which taught that Christ only had one nature. It emphasized Christ’s divine nature to such an extent that it effectively negated Christ’s humanity. It compared the relationship between Christ’s humanity and his divinity to a single grain of sugar in the ocean. Pope Leo I (reigned 440–461) led a reaction against this monophysite doctrine that culminated in the Council of Chalcedon (451). This council concluded that Christ had two distinct natures that were neither commingled nor divided and that were equally present in one person. (Britannica)

See also the Wikipedia article on the Council of Chalcedon

The key word in the quote from Britannica is perhaps “equally.”  The argument is that Christ’s subordination statements in the New Testament must be understood as Him speaking from His human nature. 

Most Christians today accept the dual nature theory. Opponents of this theory point out that this does not solve the problem, but makes it worse, for it means that Jesus was not telling the truth when He said that He does not know, for in His divine nature He actually knew.

Chalcedonian Schism

The decisions at Chalcedon led to the Chalcedonian Schism. The patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem accepted the decisions of the council but the Egyptian (Coptic) and Syrian, Ethiopian, and Armenian Christians rejected the Chalcedonian formula:

They declared that Christ’s human and divine natures, while distinct, were equally present through the mystery of the Incarnation in a single person. (Britannica)

In other words, while the Chalcedonian Creed declared that the two natures “were neither commingled,” the opposing party maintained that divinity and humanity were united in one undivided nature in Jesus Christ.

Athanasian Creed

It was the Athanasian Creed—formulated around the year 500, give or take 50 years—which became the standard formulation of the Trinity theory throughout the middle ages. It is still used today by many denominations in liturgy and confessions. This creed was not written by Athanasius. He died more than a century earlier. Neither was this creed produced by any known church council.

The problem with all previous creeds is that they define the Father alone as God, but then proceed to elevate the Son and the Holy Spirit to the same level as the Father. This may mean that we have three Gods (polytheism), while the Bible is strictly monotheistic. The Athanasian Creed, for the first time, strongly and repeatedly emphasizes the oneness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a single Being. It declares that they together are the one God of the Bible. For example:

So the Father is God;
the Son is God;
and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods; but one God
.”

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Ps.-Athanasius, Exp. fid. 2 (PG 25, 204 A)
  • 2
    Theodosian Code 16:2, 1 Friell, G., Williams, S., Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, London, 1994 – See, Homoousion – Wikipedia