Emperor Theodosius eliminated Arianism from the Roman Empire.

The Arian Controversy

The emperor Theodosius put an end to the Arian Controversy. However, the traditional account of that Controversy has been described as a complete travesty:

The Traditional Account is Wrong.

For example:

There were not just two sides.

In the traditional account, there were just two sides in the Arian Controversy; the Trinity doctrine and Arianism. In reality, there were several ‘sides’, including:

One SubstanceThe Council of Nicene in 325 agreed that Christ is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. Athanasius and the Sabellians understood this to say one single substance (Being) with one single Mind. (See Athanasius)

Two Substances – Basil and the Cappadocians, on the other hand, understood homoousios as saying that Father and Son are two distinct substances (two Beings with two distinct Minds) that are the same in all respects. (See – Basil) See also the discussion of the meaning of the term homoousios.

No mention of God’s Substance – The Council of Ariminum in July 359 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. This is the Homoian view.

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. This is called Homoi-ousian view.

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

The Trinity doctrine was not Orthodox.

In the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was established as orthodoxy when the Controversy began. However, while the Trinity doctrine presents Christ as co-equal with the Father, the article on the Nicene Creed lists several indications that Christ is subordinate to the Father. For example, it describes the Father as the “one God” who alone is Almighty. 

This should not be surprising. ‘Orthodoxy’ as we know it today, did not exist when that Controversy began. It was worked out through that Controversy. (See – Revised Scholarly View) If anything was orthodox when the Controversy began, it was that the Son is subordinate to the Father. For example, RPC Hanson, one of the top modern scholars on the Fourth Century Controversy, wrote:

“Indeed, until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism. It could, about the year 300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic theology.” 1RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153. 

The term ‘Arian’ is a serious Misnomer.

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. This term implies that Arius developed a new theology and that he had many followers. In reality, Arius was insignificant. He did not leave behind a school of followers. He was only the spark that ignited the fire, but the fuel for that fire had been gathering for centuries before him. It was the legalization of Christianity that allowed that Controversy to burst open.

Arius was not a Radical.

Contrary to what we are often told, Arius did not develop anything new. Everything he said was said by people before him. He might have packaged it differently, but, in reality, Arius was a conservative.

Alexander was a Sabellian.

Neither did Arius’ opponent (Alexander) develop anything new. he just rehashed the theology of the previous century. But what people do not realize is that Alexander was a Sabellian, meaning that he said that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Being with one single Rational Faculty. Sabellianism was rejected in the third century but remained strong.

The term hypostasis is confusing.

The ancients used the term hypostasis (distinct reality) and the core of the Arian Controversy was whether Father, Son, and Spirit are one or three hypostases. However, the traditional Trinity doctrine uses hypostasis in a different sense:

      • In the fourth century, each hypostasis was a distinct Rational Faculty.
      • In the traditional Trinity doctrine, the three hypostases (Persons) share one single Rational Capacity. It says that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Being with one single Rational Faculty but three hypostases (or Persons).

Given this confusion, this website avoids the terms hypostasis and Person.

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 –


OVERVIEW OF HISTORY

After the church became Gentile-dominated, all sorts of abominations entered. Concerning Christology, in the second century, the church began to explain the Son of God as the Logos of Greek philosophy. Monarchainism also developed in the second century and explained that the Father and Son are one single Being. This was refined by the Sabellianism of the third century, which explained Father and Son as two faces of one single Being. However, the church formally rejected Sabellianism and entered the fourth century with the traditional Logos-theology, but as refined by Origen, with the Son as the subordinated agent of the Father.

In the second and third centuries, the church, as a persecuted entity, had no way of making and enforcing empire-wide decisions. But after Christianity was legalized in 313, the controversy that had been seething underground burst into the open. The spark that ignited the fire was the dispute between Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and Arius, one of his presbyters (priests).

Alexander, similar to the Sabellians before him, taught that Father and Son are one single Person with one single Rational Faculty. Arius, similar to most bishops before him, taught that they are two distinct Beings with two distinct Rational Faculties.

But Arius also has some extreme views. While the tradition said that the Son was born from the Being of the Father, Arius said that He was made out of nothing. And while Origen said that the Son always existed, Arius said that ‘there was’ when the Son ‘was not’.

This dispute spread to most of Egypt. Many bishops supported Arius; not because they supported his views but because they regarded Alexander’s as destructive.

Emperor Constantine, seeking unity in the church to support the unity of the empire, wrote to Arius and Alexander to end their quarrel, but to no avail. His religious advisor (Ossius) advised him to take Alexander’s side in the dispute. Ossius then chaired a meeting in Antioch early in 325 where Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian and the most respected theologian of the time, and Arius’ most famous supporter, was provisionally excommunicated.

Constantine then called the Nicene Council and installed his religious advisor as presiding officer. Alexander allied with the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus and, through his intimidating presence, forced that meeting to accept the word homoousios which, in the previous century, was only preferred by Sabellians.

However, in the years after Nicaea, Constantine allowed the church to remove the main drivers of the Nicene Creed, the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, from their positions. After this, the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios were not mentioned for about 20-30 years.

Alexander died a few years after Nicaea and was replaced by Athanasius as bishop of Alexandria, but he was also exiled; not for theology but for “tyrannical behaviour.” (LA, 124) Constantine also allowed the exiled ‘Arian’ bishops to return. And, shortly before his death, he was baptized by an ‘Arian’ bishop. So, it seemed as if all decisions at Nicaea were made null and void.

But trouble was brewing in the West. At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. “The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council (of Nicaea) represented a tiny minority.” (RH, 170) However, both Athanasius and Marcellus were exiled to Rome, where they joined forces against the Eastern Church.

At that time, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy, in which he claimed himself to be innocent of tyranny, put the blame for his exile on an ‘Arian Conspiracy’, claimed that he was really exiled for his theology (just like Marcellus), and labeled the Eastern Church followers of Arius (from which we got the term ‘Arian’). Athanasius was able to convince the pope (the bishop of Rome) of his version of reality, causing friction and division between the Eastern and Western Churches.

This happened in the period after Constantine died in 337 when his three sons divided the empire between themselves. While Emperor Constants in the West supported the views of the Western Church, Emperor Constantius in the East supported the Eastern Church

However, by the year 353, after his brothers had both been killed, Constantius ruled the entire empire. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, “Constantius has frequently been seen as a ruthless and brutal ruler and was painted by later pro-Nicene writers as a persecuter of supporters of Nicaea. The true picture is more complex: within the fourth-century context Constantius was a fairly mild ruler.” (LA, 133) “As his control over the west grew Constantius increased his attempts to get bishops to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.” (LA, 135) “He was not beyond subterfuge and force to achieve public agreement between factions.” (LA, 134)

“When Constantius died in 361 his immediate successor was his cousin Julian.” (LA, 168) “As Emperor, Julian soon became an active non-Christian, repudiating the Christianity that he had earlier professed. In his attempt to undermine the Church Julian tried to foment dissension between groups in the Church—initially by recalling all bishops who had been banished under Constantius.” (LA, 168-9)

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 decreed that Trinitarian Christianity would be the only legal religion of the Roman Empire and that Christians teaching contrary views would be punished. Through this edict, Theodosius outlawed all other versions of Christianity.

Secondly, the incumbent bishop of Constantinople was an Arian (a Homoian). Two days after Theodosius arrived in Constantinople, on 24 November 380, and therefore also before 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). 3Lewis 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 Homoian 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. 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,”
      • He proceeds from the Father and
      • 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 are one Being with one single Mind, in the Nicene Creed. It is also absent from the creed of 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.

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.
  • 2
    Theodosian Code 16:2, 1 Friell, G., Williams, S., Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, London, 1994 – See, Homoousion – Wikipedia
  • 3
    Lewis Ayres – Nicaea and its legacy – Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-875505-0. Retrieved 21 October 2011

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

Summary of this article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very God

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

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

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

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

Homoousios

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

No Trinity Doctrine

The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine:

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

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

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

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

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

– END OF SUMMARY –

The Text of the Nicene Creed

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

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

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

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

And in the Holy Ghost.

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

Is the Son Subordinate?

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

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

but later adds:

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

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

The difference between “God” and theos

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

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

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

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

The Almighty Father

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

One God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Only Begotten Son

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

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

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

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

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

Made out of Nothing

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

No Trinity in the Nicene Creed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Homoousios mean One Being?

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

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

Same Type of Substance

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly the same substance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Agreement

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

Condemnations

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

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

These have been written
so that you may believe

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

(John 20:31).

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

Catholic Church

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

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries