What were the issues in the Fourth-Century Arian Controversy?

The greatest controversy in the church of all time – the Arian Controversy of the fourth century – was a dispute over the identity of Jesus Christ: Is He God or is He subordinate to God?

The controversy began in AD 318 when presbyter Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ.

After this dispute spread over a large part of the Roman Empire, emperor Constantine called a church council in Nicaea in the year 325 where the famous Nicene Creed was formulated.

However, that creed failed to end the controversy. It continued for another 56 years until AD 381 when the Nicene Creed was revised at the Council of Constantinople. So, the controversy lasted from 318 to 381. When it came to an end, all the initial participants in that controversy were already dead.

The purpose of this article is to identify the main issues in that controversy. It addresses the following questions:

    1. What was the orthodox view of Christ when the controversy began?
    2. Why did the Nicene Creed of AD 325 fail to end the controversy?
    3. Did that creed describe God as a Trinity?
    4. What were the competing views?
    5. What role did the emperors play in the controversy?
    6. What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?
    7. How was the Controversy brought to an end?

This article relies, to a great extent, on the writings of RPC Hanson, a bishop and a trinitarian, who made the most extensive investigation of the Arian Controversy available to us today.

1. What was the orthodox view of Christ?

It is often said that Arius and his supporters, motivated by Greek philosophy rather than by the Bible, proposed a dangerous deviation from the orthodox view.

But Hanson stated that, at the beginning of the controversy, nobody knew the right answer and “there was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?”

But that is not entirely true either. There was a kind of orthodoxy on this question:

During the second century, after Christianity became Gentile-dominated, but while Christianity still was outlawed and persecuted by the Roman Empire, it became standard practice in the church to use Greek philosophy to explain who the Son is (see – The Apologists):

Greek philosophy postulated an intermediary between the high God and the physical world. This intermediary was known as the Nous or the Logos. The Apologists – the church theologians in the time before it was legalized in AD 313 – identified the Son of God as the Logos of Greek philosophy. As such, they explained Him as “begotten or produced or put forward by the Father” as His agent for creating the world. 

But that identification of Christ also meant that they described the Son as “a subordinate though essential divine agent.” In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God.

Hanson does not describe this as the orthodox view at the time but as:

The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century,” and as

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century.”

This was, therefore, the standard explanation of Christ when the Arian Controversy began.

“The second-rate or third-rate writers of the period,” Hanson added, even “present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God.” So, Arius’ view of Christ, as a created Being subordinate to the Father, was not a new development, but it was a minority view before the Arian Controversy began.

Arius’ view of Christ was indeed based on Greek philosophy, but that was also not something new: It was the standard practice of all the main Christian authors of the previous two centuries.

In contrast, the Nicene Creed of 325, which emphasizes the equality of the Son to the Father, was a deviation from the “tradition,” which viewed Christ as subordinate to the high God.

2. Why did the Nicene Creed Fail?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the creed of 325 failed to end the controversy because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.”

But Hanson explains that the creed failed because it “ultimately confounded the confusion.” The creed introduced words from Greek philosophy (homoousion and hypostasis) and used these words in such a way as to imply that the Father and the Son are one and the same Reality or Person (hypostasis in the Greek). This is explained below. See – Nicene Creed.

At the council, Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including these concepts from Greek philosophy, the creed created a new and different problem. The controversy continued after 325 because the church had to find a solution to this new problem.

3. Does the Creed of 325 describe God as a Trinity?

No, that creed does not describe God as a Trinity. For example:

Firstly, the creed begins by identifying the Father as the “one God” in whom we believe.

Secondly, the emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son to the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being.

Thirdly, “until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians” (see – Spirit).

Fourthly, “the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity” (see – No Precise formulae), and all three of them were born after AD 325.

4. What were the competing views?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and ‘Arian’. But Hanson describes that as “a grave misunderstanding” (see – Two views). There were at least four competing views:

The pro-Nicenes taught that the Son is of the same substance (homo-ousian) as the Father, as indicated by the Nicene Creed.

Arius and his supporters held that the Son is of a different substance (Hetero-ousian).

Another group that became quite dominant during the controversy rejected “same substance” but argued that Christ is of a similar substance (Homo-i-ousian). 

The view that was finally accepted in the Council of Constantinople in AD 359 (not 381) claimed that it is utter arrogance and sin to speculate about the substance of God (Homo-ians).

The post-325-Arian controversy, therefore, was specifically about the word Homoousion (same substance) in the Creed; not about the entire Nicene Creed.

5. What was the role of the emperors in the controversy?

In this debate, the emperors always had the final say. When the emperor was an Arian, the church was Arian but when the emperor supported the Nicene side, the church followed. The relationship between church and state was very different from what it is today. For all practical purposes, the emperor was the head or Pope of the church. (See Boyd.) For example:

Emperor Constantius (337-361) was an Arian. When a church council in AD 359 did not adopt a view that he supported, he banished some of the delegates. Thereafter, the council adopted a Homoian creed, which the emperor supported.

Emperor Valens (364-378) also was an Arian. He ensured that an Arian is installed as archbishop, banished and imprisoned some pro-Nicene clergy, put them to forced labor, and subjected them to taxes from which Arian clergy were exempt.

Emperor Theodosius (379-395) was a Trinitarian. He took persecution to a different level and made an end to Arianism in the Roman Empire. He issued an edict stating that all Roman citizens must believe in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” He banished the Arian bishops of the main cities in the empire and made laws making it illegal for Arians to preach and to meet. He instructed his soldiers to give all Arian church buildings to Trinitarian bishops.

6. What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into its doctrine of God. But that is not true. The theology of Arius and other Arians was indeed heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. But that was not because they deviated from the tradition: They inherited this reliance on Greek philosophy from the Apologists of the previous two centuries. (see – Divine)

It was Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church by reducing the reliance on Greek philosophy: “What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (see – Destroyed).

But that does not mean that Nicene theology was or is free from the influence of Greek philosophy. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and homoousion, the Nicene theologians also thought Greek thoughts (see – Greek Thoughts).

Furthermore, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism developed to remove all traces of Greek philosophy from itself. Finally, in AD 359, at a council in Constantinople, Arianism adopted the Homoian view according to which we should not say more about the nature of God and of Christ than what we find in the Bible.

The Trinity doctrine, on the other hand, roughly speaking, is that God is three Persons but one Being. That concept of one “Being” comes from the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed, which says that the Son is homoousion (of the same substance) as the Father. This idea is directly borrowed from Greek philosophy.

So, while Arianism eventually was able to rid itself of Greek philosophy, the Trinity doctrine of today is based on Greek philosophy.

7. How was the Controversy brought to an end?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the council of Constantinople in AD 381 made an end to that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius:

Already in the previous year, in February 380, he made the Trinity doctrine law and outlawed Arianism (see – the Edict of Thessalonica).

In November 380, he exiled the Arian bishops of the main centers of the empire.1The Search – pages 804-5

In January 381, he banned all Arian church meetings.2The Search – page 805

Then he called a council to meet in Constantinople but only Trinitarians were allowed to attend.3The Search – pages 805-6

Boyd mentions another decree that was issued later in 381, which stipulated that all churches must be delivered to the bishops who profess the doctrine prescribed by the State.

The Arian Controversy, therefore, was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius. This reflects the absence of separation between church and state. As discussed, in practice, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church.

Conclusions

Firstly, as Hanson stated, the “conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is … a complete travesty.”

Secondly, the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by a church council but by a Roman Emperor and enacted as a Roman law. As such, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church that has accepted that law, has thereby become part of the Roman Empire. Consequently, it received great authority from the Roman Empire but it also served the purposes of the Roman Empire.

Today, the Roman Empire no longer exists but the spiritual children of that church that became part of the Roman Empire still exist. Since that church received its authority from the Roman Empire, its children today continue the authority of that ancient empire.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Purpose

The book, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, by RPC Hanson – a bishop and a trinitarian – first published in 1988, is still considered by many scholars to be the finest work on the Arian Controversy of the fourth century (e.g., Hart).

This article, to a large degree, is based on a lecture that Hanson gave in 1981 in which he explained the Arian Controversy. A copy of that lecture is available on this website. Hanson’s main point in this lecture is that the traditional account of that controversy, to be found till very recently in virtually all textbooks, is a “complete travesty” (see – Travesty). The current article frequently quotes from Hanson’s lecture but it also quotes from his book.

This article provides an overview of the history that begins with the first-century Christian view of Christ and the views of the Christian Apologists in the second and third centuries when Christianity was still outlawed and persecuted by the Roman authorities. Christianity was legalized in the year 313. The controversy began five years later.

This article compares the traditional account of this controversy to actual history.

In this article, I refer to the Nicene view as the view reflected in the creed of 325, as revised in the creed of 381, and as it was later developed further in the subsequent decades, for example, by the two natures theory of the Creed of Chalcedon of 451. Hanson describes the final outcome of this view as follows:

“They developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word ‘Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (See – Destroyed)

In the traditional account (see – Traditional):

    • When the controversy began in AD 318, an orthodox view of the nature of God and Christ already existed.
    • But Arius and his supporters, motivated by Greek philosophy rather than by the Bible, proposed a dangerous deviation from that orthodox view.
    • Emperor called for a church council to meet in Nicaea in AD 325 to end the controversy. But that failed to bring the controversy to an end because of crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.
    • Supporters of the orthodoxy, particularly Athanasius of Alexandria, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile.
    • Ultimately, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end to that controversy; right prevailed, and the forces of error and wickedness represented by the Arians were defeated.

First Century

During the first century, Christianity professed “the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum.” The church professed one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person (see Jewish). In other words, at that time, the church simply repeated the words of the New Testament.

The Apologists

During the second century, Christianity became Gentile-dominated. At that time, Greek philosophy still dominated the intellectual world of the Roman Empire, and this intellectual culture required Christianity (and all other religions) to give a rational account of itself and its god (see – Gentile).

During those centuries, while Christianity still was outlawed and persecuted by the Roman Empire, the group of writers whom we call the Apologists accepted the responsibility of explaining the God of the Bible to the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire (see Apologists). Some of them had to pay with their lives, e.g. Justin Martyr and Origen.

A Divine Logos

These Apologists were themselves very familiar with Greek philosophy and (unfortunately?)  used Greek philosophy to explain who Christ is; often without reference to the Bible. Hanson explains:

“They were writing mostly for non-Jews and non-Christians. Such a public demanded philosophical consistency but no very great attention … to the witness of the Bible” (see – Not Bible Based)

A fundamental principle in Greek philosophy is that God is “immutable” and, therefore, unable to communicate directly with “our world of change and decay” (see – Apologists). For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis (a divine logos) as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world (see – Greek Philosophy).

The Apologists used this concept and “identified the pre-existent Christ … with the nous” of Greek philosophy (see – Greek Philosophy). As such, they explained Him as the agent for creating the world and also as the means through which the supreme Divinity revealed himself in the world. Hanson explains that the Apologists had “the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (see – Destroyed).

Subordinate

But that identification of Christ also meant that they described the Son as a subordinate divine agent of the high God. In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God.

Iranaeus and Tertullian put relatively less emphasis on Greek philosophy and “paid much more attention to Scripture … but their fundamental theological structure was the same as that of the Apologists. The Logos was begotten or produced or put forward by the Father as his instrument or tool for communicating with the world, a subordinate though essential divine agent” (see – Irenaeus).

“Origen produced something like a theological revolution … but … he still envisaged the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father” and as “the means whereby the supreme God, the Father, was protected from embarrassingly close relation to the world” (see – Origen).

This does not refer to the Son after His incarnation: In this theory, the pre-existent Son always was subordinate to the High God:

“This … Christian doctrine of God … made Christ … not by reason of his incarnation but by reason of his very nature apart from the incarnation, a defused, depotentiated version of God” (see – Divine).

Theos and Deus

Readers who are familiar with the writings of the Apologists will know that such writings refer to Jesus as “God” and may recognize that that is inconsistent with the Apologists’ view of the pre-existent Son as “a created god lower than the High God.” The words which the Apologists used, which are sometimes translated as “God,” are the Greek word theos and its Latin equivalent deus. Hanson explains:

“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought” (see – Theos).

When theos (or deus) is used to describe the Almighty, it should be translated as “God.” However, since it has “a wide variety of meanings,” when it refers to lower-level beings, it must be translated as “god.”

When translators come across the words theos and deus in the writings of the Apologists and are ignorant of the views of the Apologists as explained above, and read such references through the lens of the later developed Trinity doctrine, in which the Son is equal with the Almighty, they tend to translate such instances of theos as “God.” But that would be an application of the Trinity doctrine and inconsistent with the intention of the Apologists. In their thinking; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God. For further discussion, see – the dedicated article Theos.

The Beginning of the Controversy

In the traditional account:

The controversy began in AD 318 when a presbyter called Arius “was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ” (see – Traditional).

This statement implies that an agreed correct doctrine did exist at that time. In contrast, Hanson stated:

“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?” (see – Beginning)

Nevertheless, Hanson does describe the view of the Apologists as:

The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was, in differing form, the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted” (see – Lasted into the Fourth).

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” (see – Divine).

The phrases such as “traditional … doctrine of God” and “conventional Trinitarian doctrine” imply substantial consensus. There was no agreement on HOW divine Christ is, but there was agreement that He is subordinate to the Father. If we define “orthodoxy” as “generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice,” then the view of the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father was orthodox at that time.

“The second-rate or third-rate writers of the period,” Hanson added, even “present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God.” So, Arius’ view of Christ, as a created Being subordinate to the Father, was consistent with the lower end of the spectrum of views before the Arian Controversy began.

Arius’ view of Christ was indeed based on Greek philosophy, but that was not something he did: It was the general view of all the main Christian authors of the previous two centuries.

In contrast, the Nicene Creed of 325, which emphasized the equality of the Son to the Father, was a deviation from ‘orthodoxy’.

The Creed of 325

Emperor Constantine called a General Council at Nicaea in 325 which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy. However, after the creed was accepted in ecumenical council, the controversy continued unabated.

Why did the creed fail?

In the traditional account, the creed of 325 failed to bring the controversy to an end because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians” (see – Traditional).

But Hanson stated that the creed failed because it:

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” (see – Nicene Creed).

To explain the reference to Sabellianism: The creed anathematizes all “who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance.” In other words, the Son and the Father are one single hypostasis. Hypostasis is often translated as “person” but, to use Hanson’s explanation of the word, the creed implies that the Son and the Father are one single “reality.” This is Modalism, namely, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simply are three modes in which the one God appears. This would mean, for example, that Jesus prayed to Himself. This idea has been proposed and rejected a century before the Arian Controversy began. For further discussion, see Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

So, what happened at the council is that Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including these words from Greek philosophy in the creed, the council created a new and different problem. The Post-325 controversy had to deal with this new problem; not with the Arius-problem.

Why did the creed use such non-Biblical words?

The words ousia, hypostasis, and homoousios originate from Greek philosophy; not from the Bible. One may ask why the council used this terminology:

Firstly, it was standard practice in the church during the previous centuries to explain Christ in terms of Greek philosophy. In other words, the delegates to the council were familiar with these terms.

Secondly, in another article, the most respected theologian at the council (Eusebius of Caesarea) explains that the council accepted these words because the emperor Constantine was present in the meeting, proposed the word homoousios and insisted on its inclusion.

Thirdly, Athanasius explained that the term homoousion was inserted in the Creed – not because it is necessarily the best word – but as a means to force the Arians to reject the Creed.4The Search … p162

The keyword in the 325 Creed is homoousion which means “same substance.” The creed uses it to say that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Hanson states that this word falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after 325 and is not heard of for over twenty years. This implies that this was not a word that the theologians generally were using before 325 and supports the evidence that Constantine proposed and insisted on this word. Most of the delegates were distinctly uncomfortable with this and the other words sourced from Greek philosophy. (See, Eusebius of Caesarea.)

Does the Creed of 325 describe God as a Trinity?

Consistent with the notion that the “orthodoxy” was clear from the start of the Arian Controversy, some assume that the Nicene Creed of 325 described God as a Trinity. But that is not the case:

Firstly, the creed begins by identifying the Father as the “one God” in whom we believe:

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of all things visible and invisible

Secondly, the emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son to the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being.

Thirdly, the creed does not describe the Holy Spirit as God or equal to God. Hanson stated (see – Spirit):

“Of course the theologians of the side which was ultimately victorious included the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In a sense this was an afterthought, because the theme of the Son occupied the screen, so to speak, right up to the year to the year 360.”

“Until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians.”

Hanson also stated that “the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity” (see – No Precise formulae), and all three of them were born after AD 325.

What were the competing views?

As stated, the controversy continues for another 56 years after Nicaea in AD 325. In the traditional account, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and ‘Arian’. But Hanson states that this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs” (see – Two views). There were at least four competing views:

Same Substance – The pro-Nicenes are called Homoousians, from the word “homo-ousion” in the Nicene Creed, which means the “same substance.” They taught that the Son is of the same substance as the Father.

Different Substance – The Hetero-ousians were the extreme Arians, saying that Christ is of a “different substance” than the Father. This is perhaps what Arius had taught. It was rejected in the Nicene Council of 325 but continued as a minority view afterward.

Similar Substance – The Homo-i-ousians were somewhere between the Homo-ousians and Hetero-ousians. They also rejected the word Homo-ousion and maintained that Christ is of a “similar substance” rather than of the “same substance.”

Like the Father – The Homo-ians claimed that it is utter arrogance and sin to speculate about the substance of God because the Bible does not say anything about His substance. The most that they were willing to say is that the Son is like the Father because that is what the Scripture teaches (Col 1:15), but they were not willing to refer to the substance of God.

As indicated by how often the word ousia (substance) appears in the names of these “sides,” the post-325-Arian controversy was not about the entire Nicene Creed. The controversy was specifically about the relationship between the substance of God and the substance of His Son. As such, it was a dispute about the key word in the creed: Homoousion. 

For these reasons, as Hanson indicated (See – Traditional Account), it is not quite accurate to refer to it as the Arian Controversy. The word “Arian” comes from the name of the man Arius and he represented only one of the four parties listed above, namely, the Hetero-ousion party. Furthermore, his party was a minority view.

Nevertheless, this article continues to use the term Arianism as including all “sides” other than the “same substance” side.

What was the role of the emperors in the controversy?

Hanson stated that, as succeeding Emperors joined the anti-Nicenes later in the controversy, the Nicene side of the controversy was almost completely eclipsed (see – Traditional Account). This implies the impact of the emperors on the controversy. In reality, the emperors always had the final say in this debate. When the emperor was an Arian, the church was Arian but when the emperor supported the Nicene side, the church followed. For all practical purposes, the emperor was the head or Pope of the church. For example:

Constantius (337-361)

In 359, the western bishops met in Ariminum and accepted a Homoian creed. At the same time, the eastern bishops met in Seleucia and accepted a Homoiousian creed. Emperor Constantius (Constantine’s son) did not accept this outcome and called for another council in the same year in Constantinople where both the eastern and western bishops were present. In the initial debate, the Heteroousians defeated the Homoiousians. However, Constantius did not accept this outcome either and banished some of the delegates. Thereafter the council agreed to the Homoian creed that was agreed to at Ariminum, with minor modifications.

Valens (364-378)

In his book, Hanson explains that emperor Valens was a convinced Homoian Arian and that he used the power of the state to promote his favorite doctrine and suppress others. Hanson mentions several incidents. Valens made sure that the right person is installed as archbishop, banished and imprisoned pro-Nicene clergy, put them to forced labor, and subjected them to taxes from which other clergies were exempt. But, Hanson states, “his efforts at persecution were sporadic and unpredictable.”5The Search, pages 791-792

Theodosius (379-395)

Theodosius succeeded Valens. Theodosius was declared Emperor and Augustus (i.e. equal with, not subordinate to, Gratian) on January 19th 379. In February 380, while residing in Thessalonica, he issued an edict that declared the Trinity to be the official doctrine of the Roman Empire. This edict (not a church council) ordered ALL Roman citizens to believe in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The edict commanded that heretics be punished. On November 24th 380, Theodosius entered Constantinople (the capital of the empire) and instantly drove the Arian bishop of that city out of the city. At about the same time, he also chased the Arian Lucius out of Alexandria. (Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople were the main cities of the empire.) On January 10th 381, Theodosius issued an edict saying that no church was to be occupied for worship by any heretics, and no heretics were to gather together for worship within the walls of any town. These instructions were executed efficiently. For further discussion, see – Theodosius.

Almost Completely Eclipsed

Secondly, note that Hanson states that, eventually, the Nicene side was almost completely eclipsed. In his book (see Table of Contents), Hanson mentions a whole series of councils from 351-359; all trying to find alternatives for the word homo-ousion:

      • Antioch – 341
      • Serdica – 343
      • Sirmium – 351
      • Aries – 353
      • Milan – 355
      • Sirmium – 357
      • Sirmium – 358
      • The ‘Dated’ Creed – 359

In addition, in the year 359, emperor Constantius called three councils and manipulated these councils to formally adopt a Homoian creed (no reference to the substance of God). This brought to an end two decades of creed-making. For the next 22 years, until the Council of Constantinople of 381, no further creeds were made. This does not mean that other views continued to be held and developed, but these views were not discussed or accepted by formal church councils during those two decades.

Mistakes and Faults

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy:

Supporters of the orthodox point of view, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile. Orthodoxy was everywhere attacked and, as succeeding Emperors joined the heretical side, almost completely eclipsed.

This refers particularly to Athanasius, who is regarded by many as the hero of the Arian Controversy. He was exiled five times by four different emperors, spending almost half of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile (see – Blue Letter).

However, Hanson reported:

“The most serious initial fault was the misbehavior of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. Evidence that has turned up in the sands of Egypt in the form of letters written on papyrus has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt which justly earned the disgust and dislike of the majority of Eastern bishops.” (see – Faults)

Furthermore, in the traditional account, the controversy was between orthodoxy and a serious error. But Hanson states:

“Mistakes and faults were not confined to the upholders of anyone particular doctrine, and cannot all be grouped under the heading of a wicked Arian conspiracy” (see – Mistakes).

“The Church of the fourth century, after much travail answered this question … in a manner which can best be described as a process of trial-and-error in which the error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.” (see – The Creed)

“Maurice Wiles has suggested that as far as grotesque misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible goes the pro-Nicenes were as distant from accurate interpretation as the Arians” (see –The Scriptures).

The role of Greek Philosophy

What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?

Arianism

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into its doctrine of God. But that is not true. As already stated, the theology of Arius and other Arians was indeed heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. However, that was not because they deviated from the tradition: As shown above, Arius inherited his reliance on Greek philosophy from the Apologists of the previous two centuries. Hanson stated:

“The Arianism of Ulfilas, of Palladius at the Council of Aquileia of 381, of Eunomius, does present the Son as in effect a demi-god, even though the antecedents of this doctrine are not to be found in pagan religion nor directly in Greek philosophy but in various theological strands to be detected in Christian theology before the fourth century.” (see – Divine)

In other words, Arianism presented the Son as subordinate to the Father because it was a continuation of the pre-Nicene orthodoxy as developed by the Apologists.

Nicene Theology

In contrast, Nicene theology, by describing Christ as equal to the Father, pushed back on the Apologists’ reliance on Greek philosophy. As Hanson stated (see – Destroyed):

“What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device … In this respect at least … they rejected the allurements of Greek philosophy.”

In the place of this old but inadequate Trinitarian tradition the champions of the Nicene faith substituted another which was more in accordance with the pressure towards monotheism … and that also did justice to the ancient practice of worshipping Christ.”

In other words, it was Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church by reducing the reliance on Greek philosophy.

But that does not mean that Nicene theology was or is free from Greek philosophy. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and homoousion, the Nicene theologians also thought Greek thoughts. As Hanson stated:

“The development of the doctrine of the Trinity was carried out in terms which were almost wholly borrowed from the vocabulary of late Greek: hypostasis, ousia … and so on” (see – Greek Thoughts).

“The fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy” (see – Inconsistent Terminology).

“One of the lessons learnt by the bitter experience of the Arian Controversy was that you cannot interpret the Bible simply in biblical terms. … The only alternative language available for interpreting the Bible was that of Greek philosophy.” (see – Greek Thoughts)

“This borrowing from Greek philosophy … exacted a price. The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts.”

More than Arianism

Furthermore, while Arianism began the fourth century as an adaption of Greek philosophy, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism developed to remove all traces of Greek philosophy from itself. To explain:

While the church still was Jewish dominated in the first century, it described Christ simply in terms of what the Bible says about Him. After the church became Gentile dominated in the second century, it began to explain Christ as the nous or logos of Greek philosophy. After the Nicene Council of 325, much further thought and discussion was generated. Eventually, in AD 359, at a council in Constantinople, Arianism adopted the Homoian view according to which we should not say more about the nature of God and of Christ than what we find in the Bible.

The Trinity doctrine, on the other hand, roughly speaking, is that God is three Persons but one Being. That concept of one “Being” comes from the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed. The Creed says that the Son is homoousion (of the same substance) as the Father. This idea of substance (ousia) is directly borrowed from Greek philosophy.

So, eventually, while Arianism eventually was able to rid itself of Greek philosophy, the Nicene view and the Trinity doctrine of today are based on principles from Greek philosophy.

What made an End to the Controversy?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the council of Constantinople in AD 381 made an end to that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius:

In the year before the church council, in February 380, Theodosius made the Trinity doctrine law. He issued the Edict of Thessalonica which required ALL his subjects, whether Christian or not, “to believe ‘the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within … an equal majesty and … Trinity’” (The Search – p804). That edict also prescribed punishment for ‘heretics’. In this way, he outlawed Arianism. 

On November 24th 380, he entered Constantinople and instantly exiled the Arian bishop of that city. At about the same time, the Arian Lucius was chased out of another main city of the empire; Alexandria.6The Search – pages 804-5

On January 10th 381, he issued an edict stating that no church was to be occupied for worship by any heretics, and no heretics were to gather together for worship within the walls of any town.7The Search – page 805

It was only after these edicts that the Emperor summoned a council of the Eastern Church to meet in Constantinople. The 150 bishops who attended appear to have been carefully chosen to be friendly to Meletius, who was its president. The Council met during May, June, and July 381.8The Search – pages 805-6

It amazes me that some people regard this as a valid and important church council, even after non-Trinitarian clergies have been outlawed and exiled and the participants have carefully chosen to support the Trinitarian doctrine of the State.

Compare the wording of Theodosius’ decree with the Creed of Constantinople of the year 381. While the decree still begins with the traditional unitarian opening, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,” the decree prescribes belief in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Theodosius’ decree was much closer to the full Trinity doctrine than that creed was.

Boyd mentions another decree that was issued later in 381, which stipulated that all churches must be delivered to the bishops who profess the doctrine prescribed by the State.

The Arian Controversy, therefore, was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius. As Hanson wrote (see – End of the Controversy):

“Throughout the controversy, everybody … assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor.”

This reflects the absence of separation between church and state. In practice, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church.

Why was Theodosius successful?

Hanson added:

“The end was at last gained when an Emperor had secured a genuine consensus for one point of view and was able to enforce it.”

“Constantine, Constans, Constantius, and Valens … failed (to end the controversy) because … they in fact were not supported by a consensus in the Church at large.” “Theodosius (succeeded) because … the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church. … It succeeded, not because it was coercion but because it was coercion backed by general assent.”

In his book, on pages 802-804, Hanson explains this “consensus.” He relies on a “council which Meletius convened at Antioch in 379.” However, as Hanson noted, “none of the ecclesiastical historians mentions” this council and “we do not know what statement this council promulgated,” but Hanson still thinks that this council “must have been of great significance.” So, Hanson’s evidence for this “consensus” is very weak.

As mentioned, in two of the main centers of the empire (Constantinople and Alexandria), Arianism dominated when Theodosius became emperor. It would, therefore, be fair to say that Arianism dominated the entire empire in general, which argues against Hanson’s idea that Theodosius was backed by a consensus.

Furthermore, if Theodosius was backed by a consensus, why was it necessary for him to eradicate the nonconformists with such brute force and ruthless persecution? Boyd mentions people who were executed as a consequence of Theodosius’ decree. Were those murders also backed by a consensus? For further discussion, see – Theodosius.

In any case, it does not matter whether there was a consensus or not. The main point of this article is that the emperor, as the real head or pope of the church, made the final decisions; irrespective of any consensus. This can best be seen by reading Hanson’s book: The emperors called the councils, appointed the right people to chair the meetings, and intimidated the councils by their physical presence. Afterward, the councils reported back to the emperors, and the emperors accepted or rejected the council decisions.

We conclude that Theodosius was able to make an end to the controversy because, as Boyd stated, “a far more drastic policy toward heresy was pursued by Theodosius.”

Conclusions

Firstly, as Hanson stated, the “conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is … a complete travesty.”

Secondly, the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by a church council but by a Roman Emperor and enacted as a Roman law. As such, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church that has accepted that law, has thereby become part of the Roman Empire. Consequently, it received great authority from the Roman Empire but it also served the purposes of the Roman Empire.

Today, the Roman Empire no longer exists but the spiritual children of that church that became part of the Roman Empire still exist. Since that church received its authority from the Roman Empire, its children today continue the authority of that ancient empire.


Other Articles

  • 1
    The Search – pages 804-5
  • 2
    The Search – page 805
  • 3
    The Search – pages 805-6
  • 4
    The Search … p162
  • 5
    The Search, pages 791-792
  • 6
    The Search – pages 804-5
  • 7
    The Search – page 805
  • 8
    The Search – pages 805-6

An Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity – Fr. Thomas Hopko

Purpose

This is a summary of a well-known talk on the Trinity by a well-known Eastern Orthodox theologian, Father Thomas Hopko. I added some comments. I do not agree with everything which Hopko says, but I think he did a brilliant job of reconciling the ancient creeds with the Bible. The reader is advised to listen to that podcast before reading this article. But first, I would like to argue why we should listen to the Eastern Orthodox Christians:

The Eastern Orthodox Church

The beliefs of Eastern Orthodoxy is important because Christianity originated in the Eastern Roman Empire (in Judea) and because most of the Christian theologians of the first centuries, like Athanasius, Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine of Hippo were from the Eastern Roman Empire, including Africa. For that reason also, most of the delegates at Nicaea in 325 AD were from the Eastern Roman Empire (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85). However, the Muslim conquests of the seventh century and later significantly weakened the church in the east. At the same time, the church in the Western Roman Empire – the Church of Rome – became a powerful force in Europe. For that reason, the theology of the church in the Western world today has been inherited, largely, from the Church of Rome.

There always were theological differences between the east and the west. For example, over the day on which Passover should be celebrated and the filioque controversy. As another example, at the Council of Sardica, somewhere in 342 to 347, many Eastern bishops left the meeting to hold another council in Philippopolis because they were fearing domination of the council by Western bishops (Pavao, p120). Pavao claimed that “Arianism was exclusively an eastern phenomenon even prior to Nicea” (Decoding Nicea, p115). Consequently, the development of theology in the east followed a different path than in the west. Furthermore, the persecution that the church in the east suffered over the centuries stifled the development of doctrines. The church in the east, for that reason, retained the theology of the early church to a greater extent.

For these reasons, I propose, it is important that we understand how the Eastern Orthodox Church understands the Trinity.

Summary

In this section, I summarize Hopko’s talk. According to Hopko:

The Trinity

The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity or Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.

Jesus Christ

synagogue official came and bowed downJesus of Nazareth is “the Christ; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). He is not created but begotten timelessly of the Father before all ages. Therefore, He is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. As the Nicene Creed says, “God from God, true God from true God … homoousios” with the Father. The term homoousios might be better translated as “who is of the same divinity as the one God who is His Father.”

He is the Logos (Word) and Wisdom and Icon (Image) of God. Since John 1:1c means that the Word is divine with the same divinity as God, it should be translated as “and the Word was divine.”

The One God

The one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. To say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity is Modalism. We may use the terms tri-personal or tri-hypostatic divinity but there is no tri-personal God.

Of God

As the Son is the Logos and Wisdom OF God and the Spirit OF God, the Son and the Spirit belong to the Father.

Never Separated

The one true and living God, who is the Father Almighty, has never been and will never be separated from His Son and His Spirit. He would be God without the hundred billion galaxies but He would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit. He has with Him eternally His Son and His Holy Spirit.

One divinity

The church fathers would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. As there is one God – the Father, there is one divine nature. Since the Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed), His divinity is the Father’s divinity (or nature). The divinity of the Holy Spirit is also the Father’s divinity.

Hopko never explicitly describes the Son as part of God but he does quote Irenaeus saying that the Son and the Spirit are the two hands of God. And at another point, he implies that the Son is “an element of the divinity and being of God.”

Act as One

The Father, Son, and Spirit act as one. Every activity of God (creation, sanctification, redemption, etc.) comes from the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit comes forth from God by the manner of procession; He proceeds from Him. He is not another Son.

The Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father AND the Son together; He proceeds from the Father alone. The Spirit is also the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. Everything that the Son has, divinely or humanly, He has received from the Father. From the Son, the Spirit then proceeds to us. The Son is the agent of all of the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit.

Hypostases

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.

Incarnation

Jesus as human babyThis very one who is begotten of the Father is born as a man (as a human being) from the virgin Mary. The Logos is NOT so perfectly divine, as some say, that He cannot become flesh; that He cannot become man. As the Nicene Creed says, He became flesh (incarnate) AND He became human (was made man). He is a real human being but He is not a mere human being. He is the divine Son of God who is also Mary’s son, who is a real human being just like we are.

He is divine with the same divinity as the one and true living God AND He is human with the humanity which all men and women have.

That is why He has two natures, meaning that He is fully divine but also fully and completely, truly human.

While the Godhead are three divine hypostases (Persons) with one divine nature, Jesus Christ is one hypostasis (one Person) with two natures because divine.

Conclusion

The Holy Trinity is the tri-personal Godhead; the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ, and the one Holy Spirit in perfect unity.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Hopko’s Talk

In this section, I provide a summarized transcript of Hopko’s talk which I typed myself. Perhaps the reader will be able to listen to the talk while reading this. I added headings, comments, and text references.

The Trinity

The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity – the tri-personal Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.

Importance of the Trinity

The dogma of the Holy Trinity is often called the dogma of dogmas, like the Lord of Lords, or King of kings.

Saint Gregory, the theologian, said that, when it comes to various other doctrines, not to get it completely totally accurate is not supremely dangerous for the salvation of souls, but when it comes to God – how the one God and Father relates to the only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit, if you don’t get that right, everything else is skewed, for all the other doctrines are rooted and grounded in the right understanding of the relationship and the communion that exists between the one God and Father, and His one only-begotten Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The word Trinity

“Trinity” is not a Biblical word. It is a word that emerged in Christian history – very early – in the second and third centuries.

Who is Jesus?

The Trinity can only be properly understood when we begin with contemplating the Person of Jesus. The Trinity doctrine is the elaboration or outgrowth of the confession of who and what Jesus is.

Who Jesus is, is rooted and grounded in the gospel itself. The main question of the gospel is, “Who do you say I am?” That is the main question which Jesus asks in the gospels. After preaching, teaching, doing His miraculous signs – after He does all the things that the Scriptures said that the Messiah would do when he came, namely to bring the kingdom of God to the world and to bring all created beings in perfect harmony with the uncreated (God), Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?

COMMENT: Here, Hopko says much more than what I typed. I think his argument is that God, through Jesus, when “the end” comes, will restore perfect peace in all the universe (1 Cor 1:24) and that the world had a foretaste of this when He was on earth. We see that in how He healed people and how He controlled the winds and the waves of nature.

In response, Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the messianic prophet, priest and king; the Christ; the Son of the living God; the Lord. Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnate Word of God; the Logos and wisdom of God in human flesh. He is the Son of God; begotten of the Father before all ages and born of the theotokos Mary; the birth giver of God on earth. He is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. In the language of the Nicene Creed, He is “God from God, true God from true God; begotten of the Father; not created, of one very same essence (ousia) – one same being or divinity with God the Father Himself.”

All of that is the result of the confession of who Jesus is. The question is given by Jesus Himself: “Who do you say I am?” And that is where Peter confessed, in what may be called the fundamental Christian Creed: “You are the Christ; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).

The Rock

Jesus then said to Peter, “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:17). He added that the whole foundation of the covenant church – the ultimate final church on the planet earth would be those who believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God.

COMMENT: This is an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ words: “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church” (Matt 16:18).

God is not the Trinity

It is critically important to note that, in the Bible and, therefore, in the creeds, such as the Nicene Creed (325) and Creed of Constantinople (381), the one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is God the Father. In the Bible, the one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Father who sends His only begotten Son into the world.

And Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In a parallel manner, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and, because the Christ is the Son of God on whom God the Father sends and affirms His Holy Spirit, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ – the Messiah. This is very important because there are wrong understandings of the Holy Trinity.

Unitarianism

These are those who deny that there is a trinity of divine Persons – of divine hypostasies. Unitarians would say that God is just a unipersonal nomad and that He has no Son; the divinity is His and His alone, and everything that exists in addition to the one God is a creature – has been created by God – has been brought into being out of nothing – not an element of the divinity and being of God Himself.

COMMENT: The Nicene Creed also uses the phrase “out of nothing.” It refers to things that have been created, in contrast to the Son and the Spirit that are “out of” the uncreated being of God.

COMMENT: The phrase “not an element of the divinity and being of God Himself” implies that, in Hopko’s theology, the Son and the Spirit are elements of the divinity and being of God. That is similar to the pre-Nicene Fathers, who thought of Christ as “a derivation and portion of the whole” (Tertullian (AD 165-225), in Against Praxeas 9 “Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III : Against Praxeas”)

Here the orthodox Christian would say that that is just plain wrong. It is an incorrect understanding of what it means that Jesus is THE Son of God, THE Wisdom of God, and THE Icon of God. To say that the Word of God is a creature would be a wrong interpretation of both the New and Old Testaments. To say that the Spirit of God is a created being would just be totally wrong.

Modalism

The other terrible error is usually called Modalism. This is where people say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity. They say, ‘He who is the Trinity’.

COMMENT: With this, I think, Hopko classifies the western understanding of the Trinity as Modalism (Sabellianism).

We orthodox Christians, following Scripture and the credal statements, can never say this. We say, there is the one God who is the Father, and He has with Him eternally, whom He begets timelessly before all ages, His only begotten Son, who is also His Logos (His Word) and His Wisdom and His Icon (Image), but this only begotten Son is divine with the very same divinity as the one true and living God. He is another (different?) Who from the Father.

Three Instances of Divine Life

There are three ‘Whos’; He who is the Father, He who is the Son and He who is the Holy Spirit. They are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.

The Son of God

But it is important to remember that the one God is the Father of Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God. As the Nicene Creed says, Jesus is “God from God; true God from true God.”

God’s Son, who is of the same divinity as the Father and who is born from Him; comes forth from Him. And this one true and living God also has with Him His Spirit who proceeds from Him – who comes forth from Him.

Begetting versus Proceeding

According to the Scriptures, the Son comes forth from God by means of begetting; He is a Son as a son is to a father. That is who and what the Son is.

And the Holy Spirit comes forth from God by the manner of procession. He is not another Son. It is a different kind of relationship.

The Son is the Son of God because He is begotten of the Father, meaning that He has no human begetter. He has no human father. His Father, literally, is God. God, who is His Father, begets Him before all ages.

Begetting versus Born

And then this very one who is God’s Son is born as a man (as a human being) from the virgin Mary. In Greek, the same verb, when it applies to the Father, is “beget.” When it applies to a mother, it is “born.” So, we would not say that Jesus was begotten of Mary humanly; He was “born” of Mary humanly. But we would also not say that He was born of the Father; He was begotten of the Father.

John 1

In John’s gospel, in the beginning, the Logos was with God, and the Logos was divine. All things came to be through Him (John 1:1-2). Orthodox Christians interpret these sentences to show that the Logos is really divine with the same divinity as the Father.

And then in the prologue of John’s gospel, it says that “the logos became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). As the Nicene Creed would say:

the only-begotten …
Who for us men, and for our salvation,
came down and was incarnate and was made man

You have those two words; that He became flesh (incarnate) and He became human (was made man), born of the virgin Mary. So, He who was divine became human.

If we ask who He is, He is the divine Son of God who is also Mary’s son, who is a real human being just like we are. That is why Eastern Orthodox Christians reject Nestorianism.

Arianism

We not only deny Arianism which says that the Logos – the Son of God was a creature. No, He is not a creature. He belongs to the being of God and His being is divine.

Nestorianism

But we also deny the Nestorians who say that the one born of Mary is NOT the same one as the One begotten of the Father; that the Logos is so perfectly divine that He cannot become flesh; that He cannot become man. The Nestorians say that He can be enjoined to or united with a man but He cannot really be born of a woman. Eastern Orthodox Christians say, o yes, He can and He did. Truly divine and truly human. That is why the council of Chalcedon would say that He is divine with the same divinity as the one and true living God – the One who is the one God – AND He is human with the humanity which all men and women have. That is why we say He is of two natures or has two natures, meaning that He is truly divine and truly human.

Jesus is called God.

And when He is divine, we can call Him God.

Thomas did call Him God. He exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Some of the sentences of Paul can be read as if Jesus is called God. It depends a little bit on punctuation, but like “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Even certain Old Testament terms, like calling Him Lord in a divine manner, such as, “The LORD (YHVH) says to my Lord, Sit at My right hand” (Psm 110:1). He is using the same term for the one who sits at His right hand as for God Himself, for “the LORD” mean Yahweh and Yahweh is God.

And Jesus in John’s gospel even uses the “I am,” for example, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). That is a divine name. So, here, the confession is that the man Jesus is the divine Son of God.

Homoousios

And that is what the council of Nicaea defended. The Nicene Creed used one non-Biblical term to make this point, and that term is homoousios, which can be translated “of one essence” or “of the same essence” or “substance.” Sometimes to be clearest, we might better translate it into English as “who is of the same divinity as the one God who is His Father.” And that is how the Bible speaks.

The Trinity in the Bible

Many years ago, I went to my professor of theology and I said to Him, Prof, I do not find the Trinity in the Bible.

Of course, in those days I had a very skewed idea of the Trinity. I thought of the Trinity as one God who is somehow three, like three-leave clover or water could be liquid or steam or ice. In fact, I have come to learn that those symbolisms are modalistic. They are not accurate. You can speak of God as fountain and stream or something like fire and heat and warmth as emanating from God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ and His Spirit, but not all analogies are apt.

To understand the Trinity properly, you begin with Jesus and you read the Scriptures. Then you can contemplate how the one God is God the Father WITH His Son and WITH His Spirit. Very often the preposition “with” is used but “and” is also used. For example, in the baptismal formula, we baptize in the name of the Father and, therefore, also of the Son because there is no Father without the Son and, therefore, also the Holy Spirit because there is no Holy Spirit without the Father and the Son. And there is no Son without the Father and the Spirit. And there are no Son and Spirit without the Father.

The church fathers of the fourth century, like Gregory the theologian, would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. The reason is that the Son’s divinity is the Father’s divinity. The Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed). He is a divine Person “from” the one God.

In the Old Testament, there is also the “word” of God and the “Spirit of God” who is not God but is “of” God and divine with the same divinity as God. The Spirit of God inspired the prophets. You will read texts like; the heavens were made by the Word of the LORD; all the earth by the breath of His lips.” You will find sentences about the son of man that is presented to the Father (Dan 7:13).

You cannot read the New Testament without God, who is clearly God, who is not Jesus and who is not the Holy Spirit. And you can’t read the New Testament without Jesus Christ who is not God the Father and who is not the Holy Spirit. And you can’t read the Scriptures without meeting at every page the Holy Spirit, who is not the Son and who is not the Father. But when you read the text, you see that the Son and the Spirit are OF the Father – FROM the Father – BELONGING TO the Father.

Yet, they are divine. They present themselves as fully divine and like the two hands of God (quoting Irenaeus). God is not without His hands. He never works with only one hand. When God speaks His word, He breaths, and when He breaths, He speaks. You cannot even think of God without His Son. Then you come to the conclusion that the one true and living God is the Father. The one true and living God is not the Creator. God would be God without the hundred billion galaxies. But God would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit; without the Word of God and the Breath of God.

So, even if you would speak to a good orthodox Jew and ask, is God ever devoid of His wisdom? A good orthodox Jew would say, never! Is God ever without His word? Never! Is God ever without His breath? No, no, He is the living God; the Spirit of God is divine. So, we Christians could say, see, you believe in the Holy Trinity because you cannot conceive of God without His Word and without His Spirit.

The Son of God is a real human being but He is not a mere human being. He is the human being that the Son of God has become when He was born of Mary.

John is the great theological gospel that shows the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But if you just take Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

When they speak of the birth of Jesus, they say He would be called the Holy One, the Son of the Most High; that He will establish the kingdom of God, His Father is God.

He has no human father. He is conceived of the Holy Spirit. Just like the Spirit of God brooded over the emptiness at the beginning of creation, so the same the Holy Spirit brooded over the barren womb of Mary and then God speaks His Word and His Word is incarnate in Mary’s womb. The Word becomes flesh in Mary’s womb.

When He goes to the temple, He says He must be about His Father’s work and He is filled with the Holy Spirit.

At His baptism, The Father speaks and says, “this is my beloved Son” and the Spirit rests on Him in the form of a dove.

The Spirit is the Spirit of God who is His Father, but then He says that the Spirit is His own Spirit because everything that He has, divinely of humanly, He has received from the Father.

In Hebrews, it even said that it was the Spirit of God who led the Son of God to be crucified in the flesh for the salvation of the world. In John’s gospel, He says the Father is always with Him (John 8:29; 16:32).

So, as a Christian, you cannot contemplate God without immediately and necessarily contemplating the Son and the Holy Spirit. The minute I think about God, I think about Christ and the Spirit. You cannot think about one without thinking about all three.

Filioque

The Spirit is the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. That is why we orthodox is against the filioque in the creed (“and the Son” – Athanasian Creed). There was a break with the West. We claim that the Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father and the Son together. We believe that He proceeds from the Father alone. And He rests on the Son from all eternity and does the same thing when the Son becomes man. He rests upon Him as a man too. We can say that the Spirit proceeds to us from the Father THROUGH the Son. That is true. The Son is the agent of all of the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father” (John 15:26).

Three in Perfect Unity

So, you always have these three in perfect unity. Therefore, when I think of one, I immediately think of all three together.

There is one God because there is one Father. And there is one God because there is one divine nature of the Father, which is the nature of the Son and the nature of the Holy Spirit too. So, the Son and the Spirit are of the same essence as the Father. That is what Scripture teaches us, if you put it in philosophical terms. That is what the Bible teaches. They needed that word (homoousios) to defend the Bible.

And when you contemplate the activities of God, you see that every activity proceeds from the Father. The Source of every divine activity – creation, sanctification, redemption, whatever God is doing, it comes from the Father – it is God’s. But the Agent is always the Son. God creates through His Son. He speaks through His Son. He redeems through His Son. So, the Son is His Word. The Son is the Savior, but then, all these activities are accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, every activity of God is from the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. Or, you can say from the Father, AND the Son AND the Spirit.

So, we worship the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit – the Trinity; one in essence; undivided. We pray to thee, o one God and Father, AND thy only-begotten Son AND thy Holy Spirit.

The Son is incarnate and crucified, but the Father is in Him at all time. He is never separated from the Father. Even when He experiences in His humanity the abandonment of God to die the death, He is not separated from the Father. God is in Him. The Holy Spirit is in Him. God, the Father, is raising the dead through Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, when we think of the one God and Father, who is never devoid of His Son and Spirit, we think of the one divinity.

No Triune God

In eastern orthodoxy, the term triune God is not a traditional formula. You find the term tri-personal or tri-hypostatic divinity. There is no tri-personal God. There is the one God and Father Almighty. That is the one God. But then that one God is Father eternally with His Son who is God from God, and with His Holy Spirit.

Is the Spirit called theos?

The Nicene Creed did not call the Holy Spirit theos (God). Gregory, the theologian, was the first one to do that – late in the fourth century. The Bible never calls the Holy Spirit theos. The Nicene Creed called the Son “God from God” but it did not call the Spirit “God from God.” The closest thing in the Bible is when it says that Ananias and Saphira lied to “God.”

Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit … You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).

And then Jesus said that the one sin that is unforgivable is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. And blasphemy can only be done against God – a divine Person.

Three Persons with one divine nature

What we say is that the Godhead are three divine hypostases (Persons) with one divine nature. There is one God and Father, whose nature also belongs to the Son and Spirit and there is one divine activity with three who act; the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then we say that Jesus is one hypostasis (one Person) with two natures because He is fully divine but, because He is also born of Mary, He is fully and completely, truly human.

So, we have, the Godhead being three Persons in one nature, and then we have Jesus Christ being one Person in two natures.

Conclusion

So, how must we think about the Trinity? We begin with the Scriptures, we contemplate Christ, then we contemplate how Christ relates to the one God and Father, how He relates to the one Holy Spirit. We see how the unity of the divine divinity belongs to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is what we must always remember and never forget – it begins with Christ and it begins with the Scriptures. It begins with the activity of God in saving the world in the Person of Jesus. It begins with the question, “Who do you say I am?” And when we say, “You are the Christ, the Son of God,” the result will be the dogma of the Holy Trinity – the tri-personal Godhead; the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ and the one Holy Spirit in perfect unity.

Article Series on this Website

Jesus Christ and the Trinity

Daniel

      • Is Daniel a Fraud? – It is claimed by liberal theologians that Daniel was written in the second century before Christ, presenting history as if it is a prophecy. 
      • Daniel 2, 7, and 11 – These prophecies should be read together. 
      • Daniel 9 – Discussion of the Four Major Interpretations of the 490 years

Revelation

Other