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The greatest controversy in the church of all time – the Arian Controversy of the fourth century – was a dispute over the identity of Jesus Christ: Is He God or is He subordinate to God?
The controversy began in AD 318, when a presbyter called Arius allegedly was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ.
This was followed by a church council in Nicaea in the year 325 where the famous Nicene Creed was formulated. However, that creed failed to end the controversy. It continued for another 56 years until AD 381 when the Nicene Creed was revised at the Council of Constantinople. So, the controversy lasted from 318 to 381. When it came to an end, all the initial participants in that controversy were already dead.
The purpose of this article is to identify the main issues in that controversy. It addresses the following questions:
- Did Arius deviate from orthodoxy?
- Why did the Nicene Creed Fail to end the controversy?
For that purpose, this article relies to a great extent on the writings of RPC Hanson, a bishop and a trinitarian, who made what is probably the most extensive investigation of the Arian Controversy that is available to us today.
Did Arius deviate from orthodoxy?
It is often said that Arius and his supporters, motivated by Greek philosophy rather than by the Bible, proposed a dangerous deviation from the orthodox view.
In reality, as Hanson stated, at the beginning of the controversy, nobody knew the right answer. Hanson states that there was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?”
But that is also not entirely true either. There was a kind of orthodoxy on this question: During the second century, after Christianity became Gentile dominated, but while Christianity still was outlawed and persecuted by the Roman Empire, the church used Greek philosophy to explain who the Son is:
A fundamental principle in Greek philosophy is that God is unable to deal directly with “our world of change and decay.” For that reason, Greek philosophy postulated an intermediary between the high God and the physical world whom they called the Nous or the Logos. The Apologists – the church theologians in the time before it was legalised – identified the Son as that Logos. As such, they explained Him as the agent for creating the world.
But the identification of Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy also means that they described the Son as was a second, created god; subordinate to the High God. In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God.
Hanson does not describe this as the orthodox view at the time but as:
The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century,” and as
The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century.”
This was the view of all the main authors, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. This was, therefore, the standard explanation of Christ – the ‘orthodoxy’ – when the Arian Controversy began. As Hanson stated, it described the Son is “a second, created god lower than the High God.”
Consequently, Arius’ description of Christ, as a created Being subordinate to the Father, was fairly consistent with this ‘orthodoxy’. In contrast, it was the Nicene Creed of 325, which emphasized the equality of the Son to the Father, which deviated from ‘orthodoxy’.
It is true that Arius’ view of Christ was based on Greek philosophy, but that was not because of something he did: It was the general view of all the Christian authors of the previous two centuries.
Why did the Nicene Creed Fail?
In the traditional account, the creed of 325 failed to end the controversy because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.”
But Hanson explains that the creed failed because it “ultimately confounded the confusion.” The creed introduced words from Greek philosophy (ousia, homoousion, and hypostasis). Furthermore, it used these words in such a way as to imply that the Father and the Son are one and the same Reality or Person (hypostasis in the Greek).
So, what happened at the council is that Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including these concepts from Greek philosophy, the creed created a new and different problem. The controversy continued after 325 because the church had to deal with this new problem.
This article is a summary of a lecture that RPC Hanson delivered in May 1981.
First published in 1988, the book, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, by Bishop RPC Hanson, is still considered by many scholars to be the finest work on the Arian Controversy of the fourth century (e.g., Hart).
Hanson’s main point in that lecture is that the traditional account of this controversy, to be found till very recently in virtually all the text-books, is the account “by the victorious party” and is a “complete travesty” (see here). This article summarizes Hanson arguments.
Summary of this Article
The Orthodoxy when the Controversy began
In the conventional account, the controversy began when Arius taught “erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ” (see here). This implies that an agreed correct doctrine already existed. In contrast, Hanson stated:
“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’, certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople.” (link)
Actually, there was an orthodoxy of some sort. During the first three centuries, Greek philosophy was still a strong force in the Roman Empire. In that philosophy, God is immutable … and is only able to communicate with our world of change and decay through an intermediary. For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world. (link)
During those centuries, Christians were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire. The Apologists (the pre-Nicene fathers) defended Christianity before the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire. For this purpose, they found it effective to identify “the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis.” (link) Since the nous of Greek philosophy was “a second, created god lower than the High God,” (link) the pre-Nicene fathers described Christ as “a subordinate though essential divine agent” (link). Therefore, as Hanson explains, going into the controversy, the orthodoxy was that Christ is subordinate to the Father:
The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god” (link)
The pre-Nicene Father did regard Christ as divine, but Hanson noted:
“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.” (link)
In the thinking of the pre-Nicene fathers, “of course Christ was divine,” but since they assumed that many levels of divinity exist, the question that started the Arian Controversy was: “How divine, and what exactly did ‘divine’ mean in that context?” (link)
(Theos is the Greek word that is translated as “god” or “God,” depending on the context. Deus is its Latin equivalent.)
The Holy Spirit
Consistent with the notion that the “orthodoxy” was clear from the start of the Arian Controversy, the conventional account regards the Nicene Creed of 325 as a Trinitarian document.
But that is not true. The emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son with the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being. One indication of this is the lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit in that creed. As Hanson stated, “Until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians.” (link)
Why the Creed of 325 failed
In the conventional account, the controversy continued for another five or six decades after the Nicene Creed of 325 was formulated because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians” (link)
In reality, the controversy continued because 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.” (link)
Simply Two Groups
In the conventional account, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’. But this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.” (link) There was a wide range of views. Essentially, the Arian Controversy was a dispute about the substance of the Son. The range of views included:
Mistakes and Error
In the conventional account, error was confined to the so-called heretics, teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ. In reality, “error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.” (link) “As far as grotesque misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible goes the pro-Nicenes were as distant from accurate interpretation as the Arians.” (link)
In the traditional account, Athanasius is the hero of the orthodoxy. But Hanson noted, “Evidence which has turned up … has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt” (link).
Break with Tradition
In the conventional account of the Arian controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy and incorporated Greek philosophy into their doctrine of God. Actually, it was the other way round: It was Nicene theology that broke away from tradition:
While the pre-Nicene fathers presented Christ as the divine Logos or nous of Greek philosophy; subordinate to the “high God,” Nicene theology elevated Christ to the level of the Father. In this way, Nicene theology broke away from the tradition of Christ as subordinate to the Father and of reliance on Greek philosophy.
Arianism, on the other hand, continued that tradition. As Hanson stated:
“The Arianism of Ulfilas … does present the Son as in effect a demi-god, even though the antecedents of this doctrine are not to be found in pagan religion nor directly in Greek philosophy but in various theological strands to be detected in Christian theology before the fourth century.” (link)
End of the Controversy
In the conventional account of the Arian controversy, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end of that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius already in 380 through the Edict of Thessalonica, which outlawed all forms of Christianity that do not profess the Trinity doctrine.
As Hanson wrote (link):
“Everybody … assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor. …
Theodosius succeeded because … the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church.”
Interpretation of Development?
The principle of Sola Scriptura forces Protestants to prove their beliefs from the Bible. Consequently, in their version of the conventional account of the Arian controversy, Protestants argue that the Nicene Creed is an interpretation of the Bible. In reality, as Hanson stated:
“We must ask whether this doctrine of the Holy Trinity … was an interpretation of the Bible, or whether it should rather be regarded as a development. … I think that a consideration of the whole history of the gradual formation of this doctrine must convince students of the subject that the doctrine of the Trinity is a development …” (link)
– END OF SUMMARY –
The book, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, by RPC Hanson – a bishop and a trinitarian – first published in 1988, is still considered by many scholars to be the finest work on the Arian Controversy of the fourth century (e.g., Hart).
This article, to a large degree, is based a lecture which Hanson gave 1981 in which he explained the Arian Controversy. A copy of that lecture is available on this website. Hanson’s main point in this lecture is that the traditional account of that controversy, to be found till very recently in virtually all text-books, is a “complete travesty” (see – Travesty). The current article frequently quotes from Hanson’s lecture but it also quotes from his book.
This article provides an overview of the history that begins with the first century Christian view of Christ and the views of the Christian Apologists in the second and third centuries when Christianity was still outlawed and persecuted by the Roman authorities. Christianity was legalized in the year 313. The controversy began five years later.
This article compares the traditional account of this controversy to actual history.
In this article, I refer to the Nicene view as the view reflected in the creed of 325, as revised in the creed of 381, and as it was later developed further in the subsequent decades, for example, by the two natures theory of the Creed of Chalcedon of 451. Hanson describes the final outcome of this view as follows:
“They developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word ‘Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (See – Destroyed)
In the traditional account (see – Traditional):
- When the controversy began in AD 318, an orthodox view of the nature of God and Christ already existed.
- But Arius and his supporters, motivated by Greek philosophy rather than by the Bible, proposed a dangerous deviation from that orthodox view.
- Emperor called for a church council to meet in Nicaea in AD 325 to end the controversy. But that failed to bring the controversy to an end because of crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.
- Supporters of the orthodoxy, particularly Athanasius of Alexandria, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile.
- Ultimately, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end of that controversy; right prevailed, the forces of error and wickedness represented by the Arians were defeated.
During the first century, Christianity professed “the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum.” The church professed one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person (see Jewish). In other words, at that time, the church simply repeated the words of the New Testament.
During the second century, Christianity became Gentile dominated. At that time, Greek philosophy still dominated the intellectual world of the Late Roman Empire and this intellectual culture required of Christianity (and all other religions) to give a rational account of itself and its god (see – Gentile).
During those centuries, while Christianity still was outlawed and Christians were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire, the group of writers whom we call the Apologists accepted the responsibility of explaining the god of the Bible to the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire (see Apologists). Some of them had to pay with their lives, e.g. Justin Martyr and Origen.
A Divine Logos
However, these Apologists were themselves very familiar with Greek philosophy and used Greek philosophy to explain who Christ is; often without reference to the Bible. Hanson explains:
“They were writing mostly for non-Jews and non-Christians. Such a public demanded philosophical consistency but no very great attention … to the witness of the Bible” (see – Not Bible Based)
A fundamental principle in Greek philosophy is that God is “immutable” and, therefore, unable to communicate directly with “our world of change and decay” (see – Apologists). For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis (a divine logos) as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world (see – Greek Philosophy).
The Apologists used this concept and “identified the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy” (see – Greek Philosophy). As such, they explained Him as the agent for creating the world and also as the means through which the supreme Divinity revealed himself in the world. Hanson explains that the Apologists had “the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (see – Destroyed).
But this means that they described Christ as was “a second, created god lower than the High God” (see – Divine).
Iranaeus and Tertullian put relatively less emphasis on Greek philosophy and “paid much more attention to Scripture … but their fundamental theological structure was the same as that of the Apologists. The Logos was begotten or produced or put forward by the Father as his instrument or tool for communicating with the world, a subordinate though essential divine agent” (see – Irenaeus).
“Origen produced something like a theological revolution … but … he still envisaged the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father” and as “the means whereby the supreme God, the Father, was protected from embarrassingly close relation to the world” (see – Origen).
This does not refer to the Son after His incarnation: In this theory, the pre-existent Son always was subordinate to the High God:
“This … Christian doctrine of God … made Christ … not by reason of his incarnation but by reason of his very nature apart from the incarnation, a defused, depotentiated version of God” (see – Divine).
Theos and Deus
Readers who familiar with the writings of the Apologists will know that such writings refer to Jesus as “God” and may recognize that that is inconsistent with the Apologists’ view of the pre-existent Son as “a created god lower than the High God.” The words which the Apologists used, which are sometimes translated as “God,” are the Greek word theos and its Latin equivalent deus. Hanson explains:
“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought” (see – Theos).
When theos (or deus) is used to describe the Almighty, it should be translated as “God.” However, since it has “a wide variety of meanings,” when it refers to lower-level beings, it must be translated as “god.”
When translators come across the words theos and deus in the writings of the Apologists and are ignorant of the views of the Apologists as explained above, and read such references through the lens of the later developed Trinity doctrine, in which the Son is equal with the Almighty, they tend to translate such instances of theos as “God.” But that would be an application of the Trinity doctrine and inconsistent with the intension of the Apologists. In their thinking; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God. For further discussion, see – the dedicated article Theos.
The Beginning of the Controversy
In the traditional account:
The controversy began in AD 318, when a presbyter called Arius “was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ” (see – Traditional).
This statement implies that an agreed correct doctrine did exist at that time. In contrast, Hanson stated:
“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?” (see – Beginning)
Although Hanson says that, at the beginning of the controversy, there was no ‘orthodoxy‘ on the subject of ‘how divine Jesus is, he does describe the view of the Apologists as:
The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was, in differing form, the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted” (see – Lasted into the Fourth).
The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god … a second, created god lower than the High God” (see – Divine).
The phrases such as “traditional … doctrine of God” and “conventional Trinitarian doctrine” imply substantial consensus. There was no agreement on HOW divine Christ is, but there was agreement that He is subordinate to the Father. If we define “orthodoxy” as “generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice,” then the view of the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father was orthodox at that time.
Since the “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into … a second, created god lower than the High God” (see – Divine), Arius’ description of Christ, as a created Being subordinate to the Father, was substantially consistent with this ‘orthodoxy’.
In contrast, the Nicene Creed of 325, which emphasized the equality of the Son to the Father, was a deviation from ‘orthodoxy’.
The Creed of 325
Emperor Constantine called a General Council at Nicaea in 325 which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy. However, after the creed was accepted in ecumenical council, the controversy continued unabated.
Why did the creed fail?
In the traditional account, the creed of 325 failed to bring the controversy to an end because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians” (see – Traditional).
Buyt Hanson stated that the creed failed because it:
“Ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period” (see Nicene Creed).
To explain the reference to Sabellianism: The creed anathemizes all “who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance.” In other words, the Son and the Father are one single hypostasis. Hypostasis is often translated as “person” but, to use Hanson’s explanation of the word, the creed implies that the Son and the Father are one single “reality.” This is Modalism, namely, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simply are three modes in which the one God appears. This would mean, for example, that Jesus prayed to Himself. This idea has been proposed and rejected a century before the Arian Controversy began. For a further discussion, see Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.
Why did the creed use such non-Biblical words?
The words ousia, hypostasis, and homoousios originate from Greek philosophy; not from the Bible. One may ask why the council used this terminology:
One contributing factor is that it as standard practice in the church during the previous centuries to explain Christ in terms of Greek philosophy.
In another article, the most important theologian at the council (Eusebius of Caesarea) explains that the council accepted these words because the emperor Constantine was present in the meeting, proposed the word homoousios and pressurized the meeting to accept it.
Athanasius explained that the term homoousion was inserted in the Creed – not because it is necessarily the best word – but as a means to force the Arians to reject the Creed.1The Search … p162
The key-word in the 325 Creed is homoousion and means “same substance.” The creed uses it to say that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Hanson states that this word falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after 325 and is not heard of for over twenty years. This shows that this was not a word which the theologians were using before 325 and supports the evidence that Constantine proposed and insisted on this word. Most of the delegates were distinctly uncomfortable with this and the words sourced from Greek philosphy. (See, Eusebius of Caesarea.)
So, what happened at the council is that Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including these unBiblical words in the creed, the council created a new and different problem. The Post-325 controversy had to deal with this new problem; not with the Arius-propblem.
Not a Trinitarian document
Consistent with the notion that the “orthodoxy” was clear from the start of the Arian Controversy, some assume that the Nicene Creed of 325 is a Trinitarian document. But that is not the case:
The emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son to the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being.
One indication of this is the lack of emphasis in that creed on the Holy Spirit. As Hanson stated (see – Spirit):
“Of course the theologians of the side which was ultimately victorious included the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In a sense this was an afterthought, because the theme of the Son occupied the screen, so to speak, right up to the year to the year 360.”
“Until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians.”
“The Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity” (See, No Precise formulae), and all three of them were born aftr the Nicene Creed was formulated in the year 325.
Only Two Groups
As stated, the controversy continues for another more than 50 years after Nicaea in 325.
In the traditional account, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and ‘Arian’. But Hanson states that this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs” (see Two views). There was a wider range of views:
Same Substance – The pro-Nicenes are called Homoousians, from the word “homo-ousion” in the Nicene Creed, which means the “same substance.” They taught that the Son is of the same substance as the Father.
Different Substance – The Hetero-ousians were the extreme Arians, saying that Christ is of a “different substance” than the Father. This is perhaps what Arius had taught. It was rejected in the Nicene Council of 325 but continued as a minority view afterwards.
Similar Substance – The Homo-i-ousians were somewhere between the Homo-ousians and Hetero-ousians. They also rejected the word Homo-ousion and maintained that Christ is of a “similar substance” rather than of the “same substance.”
Like the Father – The Homo-ians claimed that it is utter arrogance and sin to speculate about the substance of God because the Bible does not say anything about His substance. The most that they were willing to say is that the Son is like the Father because that is what the Scipture teaches (Col 1:15), but they were not willing to refer to the substance of God.
As indicated by how often the word ousia (substance) appears in the names of these “sides,” the post 325-Arian controversy was not a dispute about the entire Nicene Creed. The controversy was specifically about the relationship between the substance of God and the substance of His Son. As such, it was a dispute about the key word in the creed: Homoousion. That word which the emperor proposed caused the continuation of the controversy for 50 years after 325.
For these reasons, as Hanson indicated (See – Traditional Account), it is not quite accurate to refer to it as the Arian Controversy. The word “Arian” comes from the name of the man Arius and he was a representative of the Hetero-ousion party which is only one of the four parties listed above, and it was not even the dominant non-Nicene party.
Nevertheless, this article continues to use the term Arianism as including all “sides” other than the “same substance” side.
Hanson stated that, as succeeding Emperors joined the anti-Nicenes later in the controversy, the Nicene side of the controversy was almost completely eclipsed (see – Traditional Account). This reveals two principles:
Impact of the Emperors
Firstly, it shows the impact of the emperors on the controversy. In reality, the emperors always had the final say in this debate. When the emperor was an Arian, the church was Arian but when the emperor supported the Nicene side, the church followed. For all practical purposes, the emperor was the head or Pope of the church. For example:
In 359, the western bishops met in Ariminum and accepted a Homoian creed. At the same time, the eastern bishops met in Seleucia and accepted a Homoiousian creed. Emperor Constantius (Constantine’s son) did not accept this outcome and called for another council in the same year in Constantinople where both the eastern and western bishops were present. In the initial debate, the Heteroousians defeated the Homoiousians. However, Constantius did not accept this outcome either and banished some of the delegates. There-after the council agreed to the Homoian creed that was agreed to at Ariminum, with minor modifications.
In his book, Hanson explains that emperor Valens was a convinced Homoian Arian and that he used the power of the state to promote his favourite doctrine and suppress others. Hanson mentions several incidents. Valens made sure the right person is installed as archbishop, banished pro-Nicene clergy, imprisoned, them, put them to forced labour, and enrolled them for taxes from which other clergy were exempt. But, Hanson states, “his efforts at persecution were sporadic and unpredictable.” (On pages 791-792 of “the Search,”)
Theodosius succeeded Valens. Theodosius was declared Emperor and Augustus (i.e. equal with, not subordinate to, Gratian) on January 19th 379. In February 380, while residing in Thessalonica, he issued an edict which declared the Trinity to be the official doctrine of the Roman Empire. This edict (not a church council meeting) ordered all His subjects to believe “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit” with “equal majesty.”
The edict commanded that heretics be punished. On November 24th 380, Theodosius entered Constantinople (the capital of the empire) and instantly drove the Arian bishop of that city out of the city. At about the same time, he also chased the Arian Lucius out of Alexandria. (Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople were the main cities of the empire.) On January 10th 381, Theodosius issued an edict saying that no church was to be occupied for worship by any heretics, no heretics were to gather together for worship within the walls of any town. These instructions were executed efficiently. For further discussion, see – Theodosius.
Almost Completely Eclipsed
Secondly, note that Hanson states that, eventually, the Nicene side was almost completely eclipsed. In his book, Hanson mentions a series of councils (see Table of Contents) from 351-359:
- Antioch – 341
- Serdica – 343
- Sirmium – 351
- Aries – 353
- Milan – 355
- Sirmium – 357
- Sirmium – 358
- ‘Dated’ Creed – 359
However, in the year 359, emperor Constantius called three councils and manipulated these councils to formally adopt a “the Son is like the Father” (Homoian) creed. This brought two an end two decades of creed making. For the next two decades, until the Council of Constantinople of 381 no further creeds were made. This does not mean that other views continued to be held and developed, but these views were not discussed or accepted by formal church councils during those two decades.
In the traditional account:
Supporters of the orthodox point of view, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile. Orthodoxy was everywhere attacked and, as succeeding Emperors joined the heretical side, almost completely eclipsed.
Athanasius, in particular, was exiled from the church five times by four Roman emperors, spending almost half of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile (see Blue Letter).
However, Hanson reported:
“The most serious initial fault was the misbehavior of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. Evidence which has turned up in the sands of Egypt in the form of letters written on papyrus has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt which justly earned the disgust and dislike of the majority of Eastern bishops.” (see – Fault)
In the traditional account, the controversy was between the orthodoxy and a serious error. In reality
“Mistakes and faults were not confined to the upholders of anyone particular doctrine, and cannot all be grouped under the heading of a wicked Arian conspiracy” (see – Mistakes).
“The Church of the fourth century, after much travail answered this question … in a manner which can best be described as a process of trial-and-error in which the error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.” (see – The Creed)
“Maurice Wiles has suggested that as far as grotesque misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible goes the pro-Nicenes were as distant from accurate interpretation as the Arians” (see –The Scriptures).
In the traditional account of the Arian controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into its doctrine of God.
It is true that the theology of Arius and other Arians, even after the council of Nicaea, was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. However, that was not because they deviated from the tradition: As shown above, Arius inherited his reliance on Greek philosophy from the Apologists of the previous two centuries. As Hanson stated:
“The Arianism of Ulfilas, of Palladius at the Council of Aquileia of 381, of Eunomius, does present the Son as in effect a demi-god, even though the antecedents of this doctrine are not to be found in pagan religion nor directly in Greek philosophy but in various theological strands to be detected in Christian theology before the fourth century.” (see – Divine)
In other words, Arianism presented the Son as subordinate to the Father because it was a continuation of the pre-Nicene orthodoxy as developed by the Apologists.
In contrast, Nicene theology, by describing Christ as equal to the Father, pushed back on this reliance on Greek philosophy by the Apologists. As Hanson stated (see – Destroyed):
“What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device … In this respect at least … they rejected the allurements of Greek philosophy.”
“In the place of this old but inadequate Trinitarian tradition the champions of the Nicene faith substituted another which was more in accordance with the pressure towards monotheism … and that also did justice to the ancient practice of worshipping Christ.”
In other words, it was Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church; not the Arians. (See also – The ‘orthodox’ view when the Arian Controversy began)
??The purpose of this section is to show further that, finally, it was Nicene theology that incorporated Greek philosophy into its doctrine of God.
Adopted Greek Philosophy
But that does not mean that Nicene theology was or is free from the influence of Greek philosophy. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and ousia, the Nicene theologians also thought Greek thoughts. As Hanson stated:
“The development of the doctrine of the Trinity was carried out in terms which were almost wholly borrowed from the vocabulary of late Greek: hypostasis, ousia … and so on” (see – Greek Thoughts).
“The fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy” (see – Inconsistent Terminology).
“One of the lessons learnt by the bitter experience of the Arian Controversy was that you cannot interpret the Bible simply in biblical terms. … The only alternative language available for interpreting the Bible was that of Greek philosophy.” (see – Greek Thoughts)
“This borrowing from Greek philosophy … exacted a price. The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts.”
More than Arianism
However, while Arianism began the fourth century as an adaption of Greek philosophy, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism developed to remove all traces of Greek philosophy from itself. To explain:
While the church still was Jewish dominated in the first century, it described Christ simply in terms of what the Bible says about Him. After the church became Gentile dominated in the second century, it began to explain Christ as the nous of Greek philosophy. After the Nicene Council of 325, much further thought and discussion were generated. Eventually, in the year 359, at a council in Constantinople, Arianism adopted the Homoian view according to which we should not say more about the nature of God and of Christ than what we find in the Bible.
The Trinity doctrine, on the other hand, roughly speaking, is that God is three Persons but one Being. That concept of one “Being” is stated in the Nicene Creed as that the Son is homoousion (of the same substance) as the Father. This idea of substance (ousia) is directly borrowed from Greek philosophy. So, eventually, it is the Nicene view that is guilty of adopting principles of Greek philosophy.
The End of the Controversy
In the traditional account of the Arian controversy, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end of that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end in the preceding year by Emperor Theodosius:
In February 380 he issued the Edict of Thessalonica which required ALL his subjects, whether Christian or not, “to believe ‘the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within … an equal majesty and … Trinity’” (The Search – p804). That edict also prescribed punishment for heretics. In this way, he outlawed all branches of Christianity that do not confess the Trinity doctrine.
On November 24th 380, he entered Constantinople and instantly exiled the Arian bishop of that city. At about the same time, the Arian Lucius was chased out of another main city of the empire; Alexandria. (The Search – p804-5)
On January 10th 381 Theodosius issued an edict stating that no church was to be occupied for worship by any heretics, no heretics were to gather together for worship within the walls of any town. (The Search – p805)
Next, the Emperor next summoned a council of the Eastern Church to meet in Constantinople. The 150 bishops attended appear to have been carefully chosen to be friendly to Meletius, who was its president. The Council met during May, June and July 381. (The Search – 805-6) It amazes me that some people still regard this as a valid and important church council, after non-conforming clergy have been outlawed and exiled and the participants carefully chosen to support the doctrine of the State.
Boyd mentions another decree that wat issued later in 381, which stipulated that all churches must be delivered to the bishops who profess the teaching prescribed by the State.
As Hanson wrote (see – End of the Controversy):
“Throughout the controversy, everybody … assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor.”
This reflects the absence of separation between church and state. In practice, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church.
It is interesting to compare the wording of Theodosius’ decree with the Creed of Constantinople of the year 381. While the decree still begins with the traditional unitarian opening, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,” the decree refers to “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The decree was much closer to the full Trinity doctrine than the decree was.
Why was Theodosius successful?
“The end was at last gained when an Emperor had secured a genuine consensus for one point of view and was able to enforce it.”
“Constantine, Constans, Constantius, and Valens … failed (to end the controversy) because … they in fact were not supported by a consensus in the Church at large.” “Theodosius (succeeded) because … the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church. … It succeeded, not because it was coercion but because it was coercion backed by general assent.”
In his book, on pages 802-804, Hanson explains this “consensus.” He relies on a “council which Meletius convened at Antioch in 379.” However, as Hanson noted, “none of the ecclesiastical historians mentions” this council and “we do not know what statement this council promulgated,” but Hanson still thinks that this council “must have been of great significance.” So, Hanson’s evidence for this “consensus” is very weak.
As mentioned, in two of the main centres of the empire (Constantinople and Alexandria), Arianism dominated when Theodosius became emperor. It would, therefore, be fair to say that Arianism dominated in the entire empire in general, which argue against Hanson’s idea that Theodosius was backed by a consensus.
Furthermore, if Theodosius was backed by a consensus, why was it necessary for him to eradicate the nonconformists with such brute force and ruthless persecution? Boyd mentions people who were executed as a consequence of Theodosius’ decree. Were those murders also backed by a consensus? For further discussion, see – Theodosius.
Boyd states that “a far more drastic policy toward heresy was pursued by Theodosius” (compared to his predecessor emperors).
The Marriage Gift
In any case, it does not matter whether there was a consensus or not. The point of this article is that the emperors, as the head or pope of the church, made the final decisions; irrespective of any consensus. This can best be seen by reading Hanson’s book: The emperors called the councils, appointed the right people to chair the meetings, and intimidated the council members by their physical presence. The councils reported back to the emperors, and the emperors accepted or rejected the council decisions.
It should not escape us that the church became Trinitarian at the same time as when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The emperor brought the controversy to an end by making Trinitarian Christianity the only legal religion and outlawing all Arian branches of Christianity. All clergy supporting Arian views lost their positions and churches and were forbid to preach. If you want to preach the word of God, you must accept the Trinity doctrine. In a sense, the Trinity doctrine was the marriage gift which the church received from the State for marrying the Roman Empire.
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine
– Available Articles –
First 300 years (The persecuted church)
Nicene Creed – AD 325
Fourth Century Arianism
Authors on the Arian Controversy
- RPC Hanson
- Edmund J. Fortman, The Triune God – Nicene Creed
- Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons
- William Boyd, The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code
Fifth Century Arianism
Trinity – General
- What is the difference between the Trinity theory and modalism?
- A response to GotQuestions’ article.
- Elohim, translated God, is plural. Is God more than one Person?
- 1The Search … p162