The doctrine of the Trinity deviates from the Nicene Creed.

This article series quotes extensively from leading scholars. Since not all readers are interested in detail, the green blocks summarize the longer sections. 

PURPOSE

The church adopted the Trinity doctrine at the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, discoveries of ancient documents and research over the past century have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The current article addresses the false belief that the Trinity doctrine is consistent with the Nicene Creed of 325. For example, while the Creed uses hypostasis and ousia as synonyms, the Doctrine uses these terms for contrasting concepts; Person and Being. And while the Creed asserts that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis, the Doctrine proclaims three hypostases.

The New Terms in the Nicene Creed

To describe the Son of God, the Nicene Creed of 325 uses the terms hypostasis and ousia in three statements:

      • The Son is begotten “of the ousia of the Father,”
      • Father and Son are “homoousios,” meaning ‘same ousia’, and 
      • The Son is not “of another hypostasis or ousia.” (Ayres, p. 93)

These terms were not used in any previous Christian creed. A pro-Alexander pre-meeting was held in Antioch just a few months earlier and not even the draft creed produced at that meeting used these terms. (Ayres, p. 92)

The Anathema …

This article focuses on the third instance, one of the Creed’s anathemas. Early Church Texts translates it as:

“But as for those … who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance [ousia] … these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.”

With the double negative removed, it says that the Son is of the same hypostasis and ousia as the Father. This seems to deviate from the Trinity doctrine in two ways:

Uses Hypostasis and Ousia as Synonyms.

Firstly, while the traditional Trinity doctrine makes a distinction between the terms ousia and hypostasis, saying that God is one ousia (one Being) existing in three hypostases (three Persons); the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Anathema seems to use ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

Scholars confirm that the Anathema seems to use ousia and hypostases as synonyms.

        • Ayres refers to “the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis. (Ayres, p. 88)
        • R.P.C. Hanson says the Nicene Creed “apparently (but not quite certainly) identifies hypostasis and ousia.” (Hanson, p. 188)

In contrast, the Doctrine makes a distinction between the two terms. For example, the following is one possible definition of the Doctrine:

“The champions of the Nicene faith … 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.” (Hanson Lecture)

Says that Father and Son are One Person.

A second difference between the Anathema and the Trinity doctrine is that, while the Anathema seems to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis, the Doctrine says they are three hypostases. 

Scholars confirm that the Anathema seems to teach a single hypostasis:

“The production of N … must have been deeply disturbing for many who could not seriously be described as Arian in sympathy but could not believe that God had only one hypostasis, as the creed apparently professed.” (Hanson, p. 274)

“That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 235)

A hypostasis is something that exists distinctly. When used for intelligent beings, it is often translated as ‘person’.

Purpose of this article

Therefore, the purpose of this article is to determine whether the Anathema:

    • Uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms and 
    • Describes Father and Son as a single hypostasis.

Both the translation of the Anathema above and the definition of the Trinity doctrine quoted above explain ousia as ‘substance’. Today, we generally understand ‘substance’ as “the real physical matter of which a person or thing consists.” However, the purpose of the current article is to determine whether that was how the compilers of the Nicene Creed understood the term.

AUTHORS

This article is largely based on the following recent writings of world-class catholic scholars who are regarded as specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy:

Hanson – A 1981 lecture by R.P.C. Hanson on the Arian Controversy.

Hanson, Bishop RPC
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

Williams, Archbishop Rowan
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

Ayres, Lewis
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Anatolios, Khaled,
Retrieving Nicaea, 2011
Ebook edition

BEFORE NICAEA

Etymologically, they are synonyms.

In the earliest uses of these words known to scholars today, ousia and hypostasis were synonyms. 

Etymologically (i.e., relating to the origin and historical development of words and their meanings), hypostasis and ousia are direct cognates (See – Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils). That means they have the same linguistic derivation, just like the English father, the German Vater and the Latin pater are cognates. In other words, originally, hypostasis and ousia had the same meaning.

Philosophy: Synonyms for Fundamental Reality

The compilers of the Nicene Creed borrowed these terms from Greek philosophy and that philosophy used these terms as synonyms for the fundamental reality that supports all else.

The authors of the Nicene Creed derived these terms from Greek philosophy. For example, Hanson refers to “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (Hanson, p. 846)1Hypostasis … became a key-word in Platonism.” (Hanson, p. 182) In Greek Philosophy:

Hypostasis is the underlying state or underlying substance and is the fundamental reality that supports all else.” (Wikipedia)

Note that both the terms hypostasis and ousia (substance) appear in this definition. In philosophy, a hypostasis was also a substance. Ancient Greek philosophers used these terms as synonyms for the primary, fundamental kind of being, in contrast to the objects in the sensible world which are mere shadows. In a Christian context, we might refer to “the fundamental reality” or Ultimate Reality as ‘God’.

Only one instance in the Bible

The compilers of the Creed did not obtain these terms from the Bible. The Bible never refers to God’s ousia and only once to God’s hypostasis. In that one instance, it is not clear whether hypostasis refers to God’s nature or His entire ‘Person’ (hypostasis). 

The word hypostasis “occurs five times in the New Testament.” (Hanson, p. 182) Four instances do NOT refer to God and are translated as ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ (2 Cor 9:4; 11:17; Heb 3:14; 11:1). The only instance where the term hypostasis describes God is Hebrews 1:3. 2“The only strictly theological use (of the word hypostasis) is that of Hebrews 1:3, where the Son is described as ‘the impression of the nature’ [hypostasis] of God.” (Hanson, p. 182) 3“The word also occurs twenty times in the LXX (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), but only one of them can be regarded as theologically significant. … At Wisdom 16:21 the writer speaks of God’s hypostasis, meaning his nature; and no doubt this is why Hebrews uses the term ‘impression of his nature’.” (Hanson, p. 182) In Hebrews 1:3, “the Son is described as the impression [exact image] of the Father’s hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 187, 182) This is variously translated (BibleHub):

      • The exact representation of his being (NIV);
      • The exact imprint of his nature (ESV);
      • The express image of his person (King James & New King James);
      • The exact representation of His nature (NASB);
      • The very image of his substance (ASV);
      • The exact likeness of God’s own being (Good News)
      • The exact likeness of his being (ISV)
      • The very imprint of his being (New American)
      • The exact imprint of God’s very being (NRSV)

The three instances in red translate hypostasis as a characteristic or aspect of God but most versions translate it as referring to God as a distinct Individual or Person, meaning that the Son is the exact image of the Person of God, rather than of an aspect of God.

Hypostasis also occurs twenty times in the LXX (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), but only one instance uses this term to describe God. “At Wisdom 16:21 the writer speaks of God’s hypostasis … and no doubt this is why Hebrews uses the term ‘impression of his nature’.” (Hanson, p. 182)

Since the Bible never refers to God’s ousia and only once refers to His hypostasis, the use of the terms ousia and hypostasis in the Nicene Creed was not based on the Bible:

“The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they try to show that the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really to be found in Scripture.” (Hanson, p. 846)

Origen: Synonyms for distinct Individual

Origen wrote at the beginning of the third century. He used these terms as synonyms. While ousia is today often understood as “substance,” Origen used both terms for the Persons of the Trinity as distinct Individuals, as opposed to their substance.

For example:

He “used hypostasis and ousia freely as interchangeable terms to describe the Son’s distinct reality within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 185) “He can say … that the Son is ‘different in ousia’ from the Father, meaning that he is a distinct entity from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 66-67)

“For Origen the words hypostasis … and ousia are … synonyms for … distinct individual entity.” (Hanson, p. 66-67)

While Origen wrote that the Son is “separate in hypostasis or ousia from the Father” (Hanson, p. 66-67), the Nicene Creed states the exact opposite and condemns those who say that He “is of a different hypostasis or substance.”

The vast majority of the delegates to Nicaea were from the Eastern church and were followers of Origen, implying that they used these terms in the same way.

For example:

At Nicaea, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy [at Nicaea] were ultimately disciples of Origen.” (Bible.ca, quoting W.H.C. Frend)

This implies that most delegates to Nicaea regarded these terms as synonyms for the ‘Person’ of God.

Williams refers to “the respectable pre-Nicene usage of ousia for primary (individual) substance.” (Williams, p. 164)

WHEN THE CONTROVERSY BEGAN

Used differently by different people

When the Controversy began, considerable confusion existed as different people used these terms differently.

Hanson discusses how several ancient theologians used these terms. Did they use these terms to describe the Father and Son as Individuals (Persons) or their substance?

      • “Eusebius of Nicomedia” used ousia to mean Person. He said, “there are two ousiai and two facts.” (Hanson, p. 185)
      • “Eusebius of Caesarea … uses ousia to mean substance.” (Hanson, p. 185)
      • “Alexander of Alexandria … does not use the word ousia, but instead uses hypostasis for both ‘Person’ and ‘substance’.” (Hanson, p. 186)
      • Arius used hypostasis for Person. He “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 186)
      • Asterius, a leading anti-Nicene, “said that there were three hypostases.” In other words, he used hypostasis for ‘Person’. “But he also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father.” In other words, he used ousia for substance. “Once again we find a writer who clearly did not confuse ousia and hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 187) What Hanson means is that Asterius made a distinction between the two terms and used them as we use them today.

Therefore, considerable confusion existed.

“Considerable confusion existed about the use of the terms hypostasis and ousia at the period when the Arian Controversy broke out.” (Hanson, p. 181)

“Several alternative ways of treating these terms were prevalent.” (Hanson, p. 184)

“That continuing terminological confusion is reflected in the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis [in the Nicene Creed].” (Ayres, p. 98)

Synonyms for many

Although different people used these terms differently, many used these terms as synonyms.

For example:

“For many people at the beginning of the fourth century the word hypostasis and the word ousia had pretty well the same meaning.” (Hanson, p. 181)

Importantly, Athanasius, the paragon of the West, also used these terms as synonyms: “Clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (Hanson, 440)

“For at least the first half of the period 318-381, and in some cases considerably later, ousia and hypostasis are used as virtual synonyms.” (Hanson, p. 183)

MEANING CHANGED

Much later in the Century

The fourth century was a search for orthodoxy; not the defense of orthodoxy. The outcome of that Controversy, the Trinity doctrine, did not yet exist when the Nicene Creed was formulated. As a key part of that search for the doctrine of God, theologians changed the meanings of the terms ousia and hypostasis.

As confirmation that the Nicene Creed does not teach the Trinity doctrine, Lewis Ayres explains that ‘pro-Nicene theology’, which is what we today understand as the Trinity doctrine, was developed later in that century and differs from the theology of the Nicene Creed:

“By ‘pro-Nicene’ I mean those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s … of how the Nicene creed should be understood. … These theologies build closely on and adapt themes found earlier in the century, but none is identical with any original ‘Nicene’ theology apparent in the 320s or 330s.” (Ayres, p. 6)

Consistent with the idea that theology evolved over the fourth century, the meanings of these two terms changed over that period:

“It is only much later in the century that the two are more clearly distinguished by some.” (Ayres, p. 98)

“When at last the confusion was cleared up and these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words,” hypostasis and ousia respectively meant “’person’ and ‘substance’.” (Hanson, p. 181)

By the Cappadocians

Some of the ‘Arians’ were the first to distinguish between hypostasis and ousia but the Cappadiocian fathers were the first pro-Nicenes to make that distinction. Based on their authority, the distinction became accepted in the Trinitarian church.

The Cappadocian fathers are traditionally credited for being the first to make a clear distinction between ousia and hypostasis:

“The first person to propose a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía … was Basil of Caesarea.”4Johannes, “Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils”

“Basil’s most distinguished contribution towards the resolving of the dispute about the Christian doctrine of God was in his clarification of the vocabulary.” (Hanson, p. 690)

Basil “is often identified” with the “distinction between a unitary shared nature at one level, and the personal distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit at another.” (Ayres, p. 190-191)

In reality, some of the Eusebians, the so-called Arians, right at the beginning of the Controversy, already made a distinction between hypostasis and ousia and used ousia for ‘substance’; the material a Being consists of:

Arius used hypostasis for ‘Person’. For example, he “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And he said that the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit “were different in kind and in rank.” (Hanson, p. 187) But he used ousia for “substance.“ He wrote, for example, “The Logos is alien and unlike in all respects to the Father’s ousia.” (Hanson, p. 186) “It seems likely that he was one of the few during this period who did not confuse the two.” (Hanson, p. 187)

Asterius, another leading ‘Arian’, “clearly did not confuse ousia and hypostasis.” He used hypostasis for ‘Person’. For example, he “said that there were three hypostases” and “certainly taught that the Father and the Son were distinct and different in their hypostases.” But he used ousia for ‘substance’. For example, “he also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 187)

What we can say is that the Cappadocians were the first pro-Nicenes to make that distinction. While Basil was a three-hypostasis theologian (see here), Athanasius and the earlier pro-Nicene theologians believed in one hypostasis (see here) and did not need a distinction between hypostasis and ousia.

THE CREED

Uses these terms as synonyms.

The fact that, at the time, many people used the two terms as synonyms supports our conclusion above that the Anathema uses them as synonyms. That confirms that the Nicene Creed deviates from the Trinity doctrine in which the distinction between ousia and hypostases is foundational, saying that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases but one ousia.

It would furthermore mean that, in the Nicene Creed, these two terms “did not mean, and should not be translated, ‘person’ and ‘substance’, as they were used when at last … these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words.” (Hanson, p. 181) In other words, the translation of the Anathema as quoted above mistakenly translates ousia as ‘substance’. 

Teaches only one hypostasis.

Since the Anathema, with the double negatives removed, says that the Son is of the same hypostasis or substance as the Father, it claims that Father and Son are one single hypostasis. This deviates from the Trinity doctrine which asserts three hypostases.

Is Sabellian.

However, to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (a single Person) is Sabellianism.

Sabellianism was already condemned as heresy in the third century. Scholars confirm that the Anathema implies Sabellianism:

“By the standard of later orthodoxy, as achieved in the Creed of Constantinople of 381, it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition, because the Son must be of a different hypostasis (i.e. ‘Person’) from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 167)

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325 … 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.” (Hanson’s Lecture)

“If we are to take the creed N at its face value, the theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea. That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis. This was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” (Hanson, p. 235) Eustathius and Marcellus were the most famous Sabellians of the fourth century. (See here.)

Confirmed by Sabellian domination

A Sabellian statement was included in the Creed because Sabellians dominated at Nicaea through their alliance with Alexander and through the emperor’s support for Alexander.

The reader may question why the Creed would include a Sabellian statement. This is explained in the article on the meaning of the term Homoousios. (See here.) In brief:

During the Arian Controversy, theologians were divided into ‘one hypostasis’ and ‘three hypostasis’ camps. Following Origen, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct Persons), each with his distinct ousia. In opposition to them, Sabellians said that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis (Person).

Alexander and Athanasius, similar to the Sabellians, maintained that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis. (See here.) For that reason, at Nicaea, they were able to join forces with the Sabellians. Emperor Constantine took Alexander’s side in his dispute with Arius. This gave the Sabellians the upper hand at Nicaea.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the Creed presents Father and Son as one single hypostasis. However:

“It is going too far to say that N is a clearly Sabellian document. … It is exceeding the evidence to represent the Council as a total victory for the anti-Origenist opponents of the doctrine of three hypostases. It was more like a drawn battle.” (Hanson, p. 172)

AGREES WITH THE ANATHEMA

However, if one goes beyond the formal wording of the Trinity doctrine to its essence, it does agree with the Anathema in two respects. Firstly, both describe the Father and the Son as a single hypostasis. Secondly, both use the terms ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.  

1. A Single Hypostasis

1a ‘Hypostases’ (Persons) are misleading.

Formally, the Doctrine confesses the Father, Son, and Spirit to be three hypostases (Persons). However, that is misleading. A hypostasis is a distinct being with a unique mind but, in the Doctrine, the Trinity is a single Being with a single mind.

The Trinity doctrine says that the Father, Son, and Spirit are “one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases [Persons].” This leads the reader to think of three distinct Entities because, in normal English, each ‘person’ is a distinct entity with his or her own mind. A hypostasis is also defined as an “individual existence” (Hanson, p. 193) or “distinct existences” (Litfin); something that exists distinctly from other things.  

However, in the Doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit do not exist distinctly. They are a single Being with a single mind. For example, the leading Catholic scholar Karl Rahner (The Trinity) wrote:

“The element of consciousness … does not belong to it [the Person] in our context [the official doctrine of the {Catholic} Church].” “But there exists in God only one power, one will, only one self-presence. … Hence self-awareness is not a moment which distinguishes the divine “persons” one from the other.”

“When today we speak of person in the plural, we think almost necessarily, because of the modern meaning of the word, of several spiritual centers of activity [minds], of several subjectivities [biases, views] and liberties [freedoms]. But there are not three of these in God. … There are not three consciousnesses; rather the one consciousness subsists in a threefold way. There is only one real consciousness in God, which is shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit, by each in his own proper way.”

In other words, the Father, Son, and Spirit share one single will, consciousness, and self-awareness.

“Each Person shares the Divine will … that come from a mind. … Each Person’s self-awareness and consciousness is not inherent to that Person (by nature of that Person being that Person) but comes from the shared essence.” (Rahner) 5“We must, of course, say that Father, Son, and Spirit possess self-consciousness and that each one is aware of the other two ‘persons’. But precisely this self-consciousness … comes from the divine essence, is common as one to the divine persons.” (Rahner) 

If the traditional Trinity doctrine taught three equal Minds, that would have been Tritheism. Rahner and other Catholic scholars confirm that the term ‘Person’ is misleading:

“When today we speak of person in the plural, we think almost necessarily, because of the modern meaning of the word, of several spiritual centers of activity [minds], of several subjectivities [biases, views] and liberties [freedoms]. But there are not three of these in God. … There are not three consciousnesses; rather the one consciousness subsists in a threefold way. There is only one real consciousness in God, which is shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit, by each in his own proper way.”

“The champions of the Nicene faith … 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.” (Hanson Lecture)

“By the conventions of the late fourth century, first formulated in Greek by the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’, these three constituent members of what God is came to be referred to as hypostases (‘concrete individuals’) or, more misleadingly for us moderns, as prosōpa (‘persons’).” (Anatolios, xiii) 6In contrast to the traditional Trinity doctrine, some modern theologians propose a ‘Social Trinity’ with “three Centres of Consciousness” (Hanson, p. 737), i.e., three ‘minds’, but this article only considered the standard, traditional Doctrine.

Rather than the word ‘Person’, Hanson above explains the hypostases in the Trinity doctrine as “three ways of being or modes of existing” of the same one God. This reminds us of Modalism, the name Von Harnack gave to second-century Monarchianism; the teaching that Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three names for the same Entity.

1b Origins do not make them distinct.

In the Doctrine, the only distinction between the ‘Persons’ is their origins, but that is an internal and invisible distinction within the one Being. It does not make them three ‘Persons’. So, the three-ness of God is a verbal formula without any practical implications. For us, in the Doctrine, God is only one Person.

In the Doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit differ only in their “relationships of origin;” the Son is begotten from the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and from the Son in Western theology). 7 For example, Karl Rahner, a leading Catholic scholar, in his book – The Trinity – says: “It follows that we must say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are identical with the one godhead and are ‘relatively’ distinct from one another. These three as distinct are constituted only by their relatedness to one another … in God everything is one except where there is relative opposition.”

However, that does not mean that they exist distinctly because, firstly, the Son did not separate from the Father when He was begotten and the Spirit also does not separate when He proceeds:

“The eternal generation of the Son occurs within the unitary and incomprehensible divine being;” “within the unitary and simple Godhead.” (Ayres, p. 236)

Secondly, that distinction is invisible to created beings:

“By the last quarter of the fourth century, halting Christian attempts … had led … to … ‘the doctrine of the Holy Trinity’: the formulated idea that the God … is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, as one reality or substance, operating outward in creation always as a unity, yet always internally differentiated by the relationships of origin that Father and Son and Holy Spirit have with one another.” (Anatolios, xiii)

Therefore, in the Doctrine, from the perspective of the created universe, the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Being. That agrees with the Anathema.

We also see the one-ness of God reflected in how the Doctrine interprets the term homoousios. Literally, it means ‘same substance’, implying two Entities with the same kind of substance. (See here.) But the Doctrine interprets it as ‘one substance’, which depicts Father and Son God as a single Entity, which we can describe as one hypostasis or one Person.

1c Conclusion

So, despite the evolution of theology in the fourth century and despite the change in the meanings of the terms ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostasis,’ in reality, the Doctrine of the Trinity continues to explain God as the Anathema and Athanasius explained Him; a single hypostasis.

As discussed here, Athanasius believed in one hypostasis. Above we concluded that the Anathema also implies one hypostasis. In its essence, despite its formal wording, the Trinity doctrine is still one-hypostasis theology.

2. Ousia and Hypostasis as synonyms

The Doctrine does not interpret the term ousia in the Creed as ‘substance’ but as referring to the Being of God. In other words, similar to the Anathema, it interprets ‘ousia’ as an individual existence, which is what hypostasis means.

We argued above that the Anathema uses hypostasis and ousia as synonyms. 8Ayres refers to “the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis. (Ayres, p. 88) We also noted that Athanasius used them as synonyms. 9“Clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (Hanson, 440)

The Doctrine uses the same two terms but, as already stated, by asserting three hypostases (three Persons) and one ousia (one Being), the Doctrine seems to give different meanings to the two terms. 

However, if ‘substance’ means “the real physical matter of which a person or thing consists,” note that the Doctrine does not interpret ousia as ‘substance’. It interprets it as a ‘Being’ – an individual existence, another way of saying Person or hypostasis.

In other words, similar to Athanasius and the Anathema, the Doctrine uses hypostasis and ousia as synonyms; both meaning an individual existence.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Hypostasis … became a key-word in Platonism.” (Hanson, p. 182)
  • 2
    “The only strictly theological use (of the word hypostasis) is that of Hebrews 1:3, where the Son is described as ‘the impression of the nature’ [hypostasis] of God.” (Hanson, p. 182)
  • 3
    “The word also occurs twenty times in the LXX (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), but only one of them can be regarded as theologically significant. … At Wisdom 16:21 the writer speaks of God’s hypostasis, meaning his nature; and no doubt this is why Hebrews uses the term ‘impression of his nature’.” (Hanson, p. 182)
  • 4
    Johannes, “Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils”
  • 5
    “We must, of course, say that Father, Son, and Spirit possess self-consciousness and that each one is aware of the other two ‘persons’. But precisely this self-consciousness … comes from the divine essence, is common as one to the divine persons.” (Rahner)
  • 6
    In contrast to the traditional Trinity doctrine, some modern theologians propose a ‘Social Trinity’ with “three Centres of Consciousness” (Hanson, p. 737), i.e., three ‘minds’, but this article only considered the standard, traditional Doctrine.
  • 7
    For example, Karl Rahner, a leading Catholic scholar, in his book – The Trinity – says: “It follows that we must say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are identical with the one godhead and are ‘relatively’ distinct from one another. These three as distinct are constituted only by their relatedness to one another … in God everything is one except where there is relative opposition.”
  • 8
    Ayres refers to “the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis. (Ayres, p. 88)
  • 9
    “Clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (Hanson, 440)

Homoousios was not regarded as important at Nicaea.

PURPOSE

The church adopted the Trinity doctrine at the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, discoveries of ancient documents and research over the past century have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate, casting doubt on its legitimacy. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The present article challenges the common belief that ‘homoousios’ was the key term in the Nicene Creed of 325. It shows that the term was not mentioned by anybody for about 25 years after the Nicene Council. It wasn’t until the 350s, some 30 years later, that it again became part of the controversy. This article explains why a term, that was regarded as unimportant, was accepted at Nicaea, and how and why it became part of the Controversy 30 years later.

SUMMARY

Why was the term included?

The Nicene Creed of AD 325 says that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance as / consubstantial with) the Father. It was inserted in the Creed, not because it was regarded as an important term but, because Arius had already rejected it, it was included merely to force Arius and his supporters to reject the Creed so that the emperor could exile them.

But it was not the entire council that agreed to the term. The majority at Nicaea strongly objected to it because it is not Biblical, was borrowed from pagan philosophy, was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, and was already condemned by an important church council as associated with the heresy of Sabellianism. Furthermore, ‘same substance’ implies that God has a body. However, a minority-dominated the Council of Nicaea because Constantine had taken Alexander’s part. Following this minority, Constantine insisted on the inclusion of the term.

Given the modern culture of religious freedom, the reader might find it strange that an emperor could insist on including a keyword in a church creed. However, the Roman Empire was not a democracy and religious freedom did not exist. The empire was ruled by the general who commanded the strongest army. Consequently, the emperors decided which religions were allowed. Furthermore, in the Christian Roman Empire, the emperors were the final judge in religious disputes.

How was homoousios revived?

As stated above, the term homoousios was re-introduced into the Controversy in the 350s; about 30 years after Nicaea. This section explains the history chronologically.

At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. For example, the Westerners at the Nicene Council represented a tiny minority.

The term homoousios caused an intense struggle during the years immediately after Nicaea. Sabellians claimed homoousios as a victory for their side. However, that struggle resulted in the exile of all leading Sabellians. After that, homoousios disappears from the debate.

After he was exiled for violence against the Melitians in 335, ten years after Nicaea, Athanasius developed a masterful polemical strategy to explain why he was exiled. He claimed that Arius developed a novel heresy, that he (Athanasius) represents scriptural orthodoxy and really was exiled for his opposition to Arianism, and that his opponents, the Eastern bishops, are ‘Arians’, meaning followers of Arius’ already condemned theology. None of these points are true but the important point is that homoousios was not yet part of his polemical strategy.

Using this strategy, Athanasius appealed to the bishop of Rome. The bishop accepted Athanasius’ version of reality, called a council in Rome in 340, and declared both Athanasius and Marcellus orthodox, causing division between the Eastern and Western churches.

In the 340s, while the empire remained divided East and West, the division between the church in the East and West also remained. However, after Constantius became emperor of the entire empire in the early 350s, he sought unity in the church. For this purpose, he attempted to get the Western church to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.

Since Athanasius was Constantius’ greatest enemy, his primary goal was to isolate Athanasius. In response to the emperor’s attack on him, Athanasius incorporated homoousios into his polemical strategy. Athanasius was very influential in the Western church. Therefore, the church in the West also slowly came to accept the term. In this way, beginning in the mid-350s, homoousios became part of the dispute.

As a result of the introduction of homoousios into the Controversy, the church divided into various factions. Those who accepted homoousios were divided between one-hypostasis and three-hypostases views. Those who rejected homoousios were divided between those who rejected all ousia (substance) language (the Homoians) and those who did use the term in their theologies (the Heterousians and the Homoiousians).

INTRODUCTION

Recommended Prior Reading

Two articles should be read before this one:

Since this is a highly controversial subject, these articles quote extensively from leading scholars. Therefore, the green blocks have been designed to sufficiently summarize the concepts in this article without the need to read all these quotes.

Thought to be the Key Word

The Nicene Creed of AD 325 says that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance as / consubstantial with) the Father. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, this term is the key word of the Creed:

In the “centuries-old account of the Council of Nicaea,” “the whole power of the mysterious dogma is at once established by the one word homoousios;” “with one pronouncement the Church identified a term that secured its … beliefs against heresy.” (Ayres, p. 11) 1“The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios …” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)

But was not mentioned for 25 years.

The view that homoousios was of fundamental importance is deeply mistaken. For about 25 years after Nicaea, nobody mentioned the term, not even those who defended the term at Nicaea, nor Athanasius, the main defender of the term, nor the Western church, which is often described as the stalwart defender of Nicaea throughout the fourth century.

Referring specifically to the view that homoousios was of fundamental importance, Ayres says that “such older accounts are deeply mistaken.” (Ayres, p. 11) For about 25 years after Nicaea, nobody mentions homoousios:

“What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.” (Hanson Lecture)

“During the years 326–50 the term homoousios is rarely if ever mentioned.” (Ayres, p. 431)

Not even Athanasius, who is traditionally regarded as the great hero of the Arian Controversy and defender of the Nicene Creed, mentioned the term:

“Even Athanasius for about twenty years after Nicaea is strangely silent about this adjective (homoousios) which had been formally adopted into the creed of the Church in 325.” (Hanson, p. 58-59)

“In most older presentations, ‘western’ bishops were taken to be natural and stalwart defenders of Nicaea throughout the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 135) However:

“Even the Western bishops at Serdica in 343 did not mention the word.” (Hanson, p. 436) That council, 18 years after Nicaea, “opted clearly for Una substantia meaning one hypostasis, (rather than consubstantial).” (Hanson, p. 201)

The events of the Council of Serdica in AD 343 show that the main drivers of the Nicene Creed, “such as Ossius, Athanasius, and Marcellus” were “willing to turn to an alternative statement of faith.” (Ayres, p. 126)

The word homoousios “has left no traces at all in the works of … the leaders of the anti-Arian party such as Alexander of Alexandria, Ossius of Cordova, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Eustathius of Antioch, who are usually considered Constantine’s theological advisers and the strongest supporters of the council.” (P.F. Beatrice) For example, the draft creed formulated at the Council of Antioch just a few months before Nicaea, which was an anti-Arian, pro-Alexander council, does not mention the term. (See here.)

It only became important in the 350s.

Athanasius re-introduced the term into the debate in the 350s, some 30 years after Nicaea, but it took some time before the Western church adopted it.

“It is not until he (Athanasius) writes the De Decretis (356 or 357) that Athanasius again mentions the word and begins to defend it.” (Hanson, p. 436)

“Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (Ayres, p. 144)

“The 350s show how Nicaea only slowly came to be of importance in the west.” (Ayres, p. 135) (For more detail, see here.)

Since homoousios was first defended in the 350s, we see attacks on it only in the 350s:

“Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Authors Quoted

Based on discoveries and research over the past century, leading scholars explain the fourth-century Arian Controversy very differently from scholars in preceding centuries.

The main authors quoted in this article are:

Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Hanson, Bishop R.P.C., The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

Williams, Archbishop Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

Beatrice – Pier Franco, Professor of Early Christian Literature at the University of Padua, Italy.

WHY NOT MENTIONED

It was not important.

This absence of the term homoousios in the 20 or more years after Nicaea means that it was not regarded as important.

“For nearly twenty years after Nicaea nobody mentions homoousios, not even Athanasius. This may be because it was much less significant than either later historians of the ancient Church or modern scholars thought that it was.” (Hanson, p. 170)

“After Nicaea homoousios is not mentioned again in truly contemporary sources for two decades. … It was not seen as that useful or important.” (Ayres, p. 96)

“It is … likely … that the word homoousios when it was inserted in N did not have the crucial importance in the eyes of people of that time which it was later supposed to have.” (Hanson, p. 437)

The term was a problem even for anti-Arians:

“Homoousios was in fact a foreign body or stumbling block for all the people attending the council, without distinction, Arians and anti-Arians, and for this very reason it soon disappeared in the following debates.” (P.F. Beatrice)

It was simply used to oust Arius.

The term homoousion was inserted in the Creed, not because it was an important concept, but merely to force Arius and his supporters to reject the Creed so that the emperor could exile them.

“The choice of the term homoousios seems to have been motivated in large part because Arius was known to reject it. Athanasius … tells us that those running the council originally proposed describing the Son as ‘like’ the Father or ‘exactly like the Father in all things’ and as being ‘from God’. But these terms would not serve because everyone could agree to them. … Hence, homoousios and ‘from the essence of the Father’ were chosen specifically to exclude Arius’ supporters.” (Ayres, p. 90) 2Arius and his supporters had already rejected the word before the Nicene Council (Hanson, p. 10).

Hanson concludes similarly that “the most satisfactory explanation of why it was put there is that it was certainly a word … which serious and wholehearted Arians could not stomach.” (Hanson, p. 167; cf. Hanson, p. 172)

Ayres agrees with Hanson that “the homoousion was probably not a flag to be nailed to the masthead, a word around which self-conscious schools of theology could rally. But it was an atropopaic formula for resisting Arianism.” (Ayres, p. 92) (Atropopaic means to avert evil influences.)

The meeting knew that the emperor would exile all who refused to sign the Creed and “desired to secure the condemnation of Arius.” (Ayres, p. 91)

The majority opposed homoousios.

Even though homoousios was inserted in the Creed to get Arius exiled, most delegates strongly objected to the concept. As discussed here, the Eusebians opposed the term because it is not Biblical, was borrowed from pagan philosophy, was not part of the standard Christian language of the day, and was already condemned as associated with the heresy of Sabellianism. Furthermore, ‘same substance’ implies that God has a body. The Dedication Creed of 341 shows what the majority at Nicaea really believed, when not compelled by an emperor. They opposed both Arius and the term homoousios. The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.

More or less the same people who attended Nicaea, 16 years later formulated the Dedication Creed:

The delegates to the Nicene Council of 325 were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (Ayres, p. 19), and the Dedication Creed of 341 “represents the nearest approach we can make to discovering the views of the ordinary educated Eastern bishop.” (Hanson, p. 290-1)

They opposed both Arius and also the term homoousios:

“Loofs comes nearest to the truth when he says that it (the Dedication Creed) is both anti-Marcellan and anti-homoousian.” (Hanson, p. 287-8)

The Dedication Creed also “deliberately excludes the kind of Arianism professed by Arius.” (Hanson, p. 290)

So, the Nicene Creed did not reflect die views of the majority:

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41)

“We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. … The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!” (bible.ca)

Constantine insisted on homoousios.

A minority dominated at Nicaea because Constantine had taken Alexander’s part. Therefore, Constantine insisted on the inclusion of the term.

“Tension among Eusebian bishops was caused by knowledge that Constantine had taken Alexander’s part.” (Ayres, p. 89) “This imperial pressure coupled with the role of his advisers in broadly supporting the agenda of Alexander must have been a powerful force.” (Ayres, p. 89)

“Once he (Constantine) discovered that the Eustathians (extreme anti-Arians) were in favour of it [the term homoousios], and that, when he had insisted that it did not have the objectionable meaning which Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia had attached to it, the favourers of Arius in the Council could accept it, he pressed for its inclusion.” (Hanson, p. 202)

Did Ossius propose the term?

If Ossius, the chairperson, proposed the term, as some think, then it was on instruction of the emperor, for he was the emperor’s agent.

“According to the Arians … the Nicene Creed was presented by Ossius of Cordova in his capacity as president of the assembly.” (P.F. Beatrice) However, Ossius did not preside because of his position in the church. He was the bishop of the “obscure” see of Cordova (Hanson, p. 155). He presided in his capacity “as the Emperor’s representative” (Hanson, p. 154) and represented “the Emperor’s interest.” (Hanson, p. 156) 

The emperor was the final authority.

Given the modern culture of religious freedom, the reader might find it strange that an emperor was able to insist on the inclusion of a keyword in a church creed. However, the Roman Empire was not a democracy and religious freedom did not exist. The empire was ruled by the general who commanded the strongest army. Consequently, the emperors decided which religions were allowed and also acted as the final judge in religious disputes.

“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine (during the Arian Controversy), there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)

The so-called ‘ecumenical’ church councils of the fourth century were “the very invention and creation of the Emperor” (Hanson, p. 855). “Everybody recognised the right of an Emperor to call a council, or even to veto or quash its being called” (Hanson, p. 849-50). “The Emperor was expected to dominate and control them” (Hanson, p. 855).

Conclusion

The term was not mentioned for some decades after Nicaea because the Nicene Creed was the work of a minority under the protection of the emperor, while the majority was most uncomfortable with this term.

Nicaea was not regarded as binding.

Furthermore, at the time, the Nicene Creed was not regarded as binding. It was a temporary solution to an immediate problem. 

“Many modern readers assume that the Nicene creed was intended at its promulgation to stand as a binding and universal formula of Christian faith.” (Ayres, p. 85) However, “by the time Nicaea met, Church leaders … had no precedent for the idea of a council that would legislate for the Church as a whole.” (Ayres, p. 87) “Councils were not expected to produce precise statements of belief.” (Ayres, p. 87)

“All the bishops at Nicaea would have understood their local ‘baptismal’ creed to be a sufficient definition of Christian belief.” (Ayres, p. 85)

For a further discussion of this point, see Ayres – 4.1 The Nicene Creed as a Standard of Faith.

HOW WAS HOMOOUSIOS REVIVED?

As stated above, the term homoousios was re-introduced into the Controversy in the 350s; about 30 years after Nicaea. This section explains the history chronologically.

The West was not at Nicaea.

At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. For example, the Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.

At Nicaea in 325, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)

“The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” “The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church.” (Hanson, p. 170)

Post-Nicaea Correction

The inclusion of the term homoousios caused an intense struggle during the years immediately after Nicaea. Sabellians claimed the homoousios in the Creed as a victory for their side but that struggle resulted in the exile of all leading Sabellians. After that, homoousios disappears from the debate. (See here.)

Period of no Controversy

As already mentioned, after the post-Nicaea Correction, the Nicene Creed and Homoousios were not part of the Controversy for more than 25 years. In fact, there was no controversy.

“At some times there was almost no controversy at all. If there was any controversy from 330 to 341, it was a controversy about the behaviour of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria.” (Hanson, p. xviii)

“There was a long period of confusion and uncertainty from 341 to 357 when it was far from clear what the controversy was about, if there was a controversy.” (Hanson, p. xviii)

In other words, the Council of Nicaea brought the dispute between Arius and his bishop Alexander to an end. The Real Controversy began only decades later:

Athanasius’ Polemical Strategy

After he was exiled in 335, Athanasius developed a masterful polemical strategy to explain why he was exiled. He claimed that:

      • Arius developed a novel heresy.
      • He (Athanasius) represents scriptural orthodoxy.
      • He was exiled for his opposition to Arianism.
      • An Arian Conspiracy manipulated the council of Tyre to exile him for violence, of which he was innocent.
      • His opponents are ‘Arians’, meaning followers of Arius’ condemned theology.

None of these points are true but the important point for the current article is that homoousios was not yet part of his polemical strategy.

During those decades after Nicaea, while nobody thinks about homoousios, Athanasius and Marcellus were both exiled from the East and sent to the West (Rome). There they met and joined forces against the East:

“Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (Ayres, p. 106)

In Rome, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy:

“Athanasius’ engagement with Marcellus in Rome seems to have encouraged Athanasius towards the development of” “an increasingly sophisticated account of his enemies;” “the full flowering of a polemical strategy that was to shape accounts of the fourth century for over 1,500 years;” “a masterpiece of the rhetorical art.” (Ayres, p. 106-7)

What was his polemical strategy?

“Athanasius’ account begins by presenting Arius as the originator of a new heresy.” (Ayres, p. 107) In contrast, “Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of the one theological tradition that is equivalent with scriptural orthodoxy.” (Ayres, p. 107)

Athanasius described “his enemies as ‘Arians’ seeking to perpetuate a theology stemming from Arius.” (Ayres, p. 106) “To this end Athanasius quotes extensively from Arius’ Thalia.” (Ayres, p. 107) See also – Athanasius invented Arianism.

This polemical strategy is discussed further in – The Creation of ‘Arianism’. It presents a misleading picture of that Controversy:

“If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis.” (Williams, p. 234)

“Once we begin to grasp the problems with Athanasius’ rhetorical unmasking of ‘Arians’ then we need to look beyond the Athanasian terminology of an ‘Arian’ conspiracy to get a more accurate sense of how to understand non-Marcellan and non-Athanasian eastern theologies during this period.” (Ayres, p. 432)

Rome accepted Athanasius.

Using his polemical strategy, Athanasius appealed to the bishop of Rome. The bishop accepted his version of reality, called a council, and vindicated both him and Marcellus.

The subsequent events are described in more detail here. In brief:

“Athanasius appealed to Julius of Rome in 339–40 by using his strategy of narrating a theological conspiracy of ‘Arians’. His success had a profound impact on the next few years of the controversy.” (Ayres, p. 108)

Julius of Rome held a council in Rome which “quickly vindicated Marcellus and Athanasius.” (Ayres, p. 109)

“Julius wrote to the east in 341 in a letter which shows the strong influence of the emerging Athanasian account of ‘Arianism’.” (Ayres, p. 109)

Caused division between East and West

It is traditionally thought that the West had always supported Nicaea. In reality, similar to the East, most in the West believed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Beings. However, after the West had declared Athanasius and Marcellus orthodox, cracks in that unity began to appear. That was the real beginning of the ‘Arian’ Controversy.

In Ayres’ discussion of the Western (Latin) Theologists at the time of Nicaea, he concludes that they believed more or less the same as the theologians in the East:

“These Latin theologians have as far to travel towards later pro-Nicene theology as the eastern trajectories.” (Ayres, p. 75)

“Ironically, an anti-monarchian, anti-‘modalist’ polemic fundamentally shapes these early Latin theologians, and that is taken so often to be determining the future course of a unitary western theology!” (Ayres, p. 74)

This last quote says that the West opposed the idea that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one Being.

So, around the time of Nicaea, there was harmony between East and West. It was the West’s acceptance of Athanasius’ polemical strategy that first caused division between East and West:

“Once Julius had acted we begin to see divisions between the Church in the eastern and western halves of the empire emerging.” (Ayres, p. 109)

This, in the early 340s, was the real beginning of the ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, the bishop of Rome’s acceptance of Athanasius’ strategy did not mean that the entire West accepted it.

“We should … be cautious in our reading of these divisions. The divisions we initially observe are between one group of eastern bishops taking their lead from Eusebius of Nicomedia and Julius and his immediate associates. We must be wary of reading this as reflecting a simple division between eastern and western theology. Even when just such a division appears to come clearly into the open at the Council of Serdica in 343, even there the participants cannot usefully be divided in purely geographic terms.” (Ayres, p. 109-110)

Constantius strived for unity.

In the 340s, while the empire remained divided East and West, the division between the church in the East and West remained. However, after Constantius became emperor of the entire empire in the early 350s, he attempted to get the Western church to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.

In the same year that Julius wrote his letter to the East (AD 341), the East formulated the Dedication Creed which says that the Father, Son, and Spirit “are three in hypostasis but one in agreement.” Two years later, in 343, the West formulated a Manifesto at Serdica which “opted clearly for Una substantia meaning one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 201) There-after. the Western and Eastern churches continued to oppose one another. Since they were ruled by different emperors, there was little incentive to reconcile these opposing views.

However, in the early 350s, Constantius became emperor of the entire Roman Empire:

“Over the period AD 351–3, and after a complex civil war, the eastern Emperor Constantius achieved complete control of the whole empire.” (Ayres, p. 133)

“At this point Constantius found himself sole ruler of the Roman world and with the ability to push for a unified religious policy throughout his domains in a way no emperor had been able to do since the death of his father in 337.” (Ayres, p. 133)

He attempted to get the Western church to agree to the eastern Creeds:

“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.” (Ayres, p. 135)

“Through the 350s … we seem to see a growing opposition to Constantius’ attempts to force western councils to agree to the decrees of Sirmium 351.” (Ayres, p. 136)

He attempted to isolate Athanasius.

Since Constantius’ greatest enemy, both politically and in the church, was Athanasius, his primary goal was to isolate Athanasius.

“Athanasius had a desire for power; he suppressed ruthlessly whenever he could any opposition to him within his diocese … towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421)

Therefore, the emperor “attempted to get the condemnation of Athanasius and probably some sort of theological statement accepted throughout the west.” (Ayres, p. 135) With that double goal in mind, “the council of Sirmium in 351 set the trend for a series of councils.” (Ayres, p. 135) For here for a discussion of the Creed of 351.

Athanasius re-introduced Homoousios.

In response to the emperor’s attack on him, Athanasius incorporated homoousios into his polemical strategy, which was the basis for the schism between the East and West. Therefore, homoousios became part of the dispute. As argued above, that was in the mid-350s.

“He began to use it [homoousios] first in the De Deeretis and thereafter regularly in his theological works, defending it fiercely against all criticism of it. If we place De Deeretis in 356 or 357, we can perhaps see the reason for this change of policy. By then it had become abundantly clear not only that Constantius was everywhere trying to isolate Athanasius himself from ecclesiastical support both in the East and the West … Athanasius decided that he must begin a policy of defending the very words of N as a slogan or banner round which to gather.” (Hanson, p. 438)

It was a turn to Nicaea.

Athanasius and the West did not oppose Constantius because they defended Nicaea. Rather, they turned to Nicaea to strengthen their resistance to the emperor’s efforts.

“It seems unlikely that previous adherence to Nicaea motivated their (the West’s) growing opposition (to Constantius’ efforts): it is much more likely that events in the second half of the decade prompted a turn to Nicaea as a focus for their already strong opposition.” (Ayres, p. 136)

In the ‘West’ there were, already before 357, “the beginnings of attempts on the part of a few to turn to Nicaea as a standard against the direction of Constantius’ policies.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Anti-Nicene Accounts Emerged.

As stated above, anti-Nicene theologies, particularly Homoianism, emerged in the late 350s; only after Athanasius introduced homoousios into his polemical strategy.

For example, Homoian theology is specifically anti-Nicene. Particularly, it opposes ousia-language. For example, they were “refusing to allow ousia-terms of any kind into professions of faith.” (Williams, p. 234) It appeared only in the 350s:

“Though Homoian Arianism derived from the thought both of Eusebius of Caesarea and of Arius, we cannot with confidence detect it before the year 357, when it appears in the Second Sirmian Creed.” (Hanson, p. 558)

“Many of the theologies we have considered so far are non-Nicene more than anti-Nicene: only in the 350s do we begin to trace clearly the emergence of directly anti-Nicene accounts.” (Ayres, p. 139)

Homoousios divided the church.

As a result of the introduction of homoousios into the Controversy, the church divided into various factions. Those who accepted homoousios were divided between one-hypostasis and three-hypostases views. Those who rejected homoousios were divided between those who rejected all ousia (substance) language and those who did use the term in their theologies.

One-hypostasis Homo-ousians (Sabellians), such as Athanasius and Marcellus, interpreted homoousios as “one substance,” namely, as saying that Father and Son are one Being. See above the Council of Serdica in 343, where the Western delegates asserted ‘one hypostasis’.

Three-hypostases Homo-ousians, such as Basil of Caesarea and Meletius of Antioch, interpreted homoousios as “same substance,” namely, that Father and Son are two beings with the same type of substance. (See – Basil.)

The Homoi-ousians (from ὅμοιος, hómoios, “similar”) maintained that the Son’s substance is like the Father’s, but not the same.

The Heter-ousians said that the Son is like the Father but His substance is unlike the Father’s.

The Homo-ians, who remained the dominant emperor-supported faction, rejected all use of ousia-terms. They held that Jesus Christ is like the Father, without referencing ousia (essence or substance).


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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “The decisive catchword of the Nicene confession, namely, homoousios …” (Bernard Lohse, in ‘A Short History of Christian Doctrine’, 1966, p51-53)
  • 2
    Arius and his supporters had already rejected the word before the Nicene Council (Hanson, p. 10).