What was ‘orthodox’ when the Arian Controversy began?


The fourth-century Arian Controversy began as a disagreement about who the Son of God is, relative to God. Later in the fourth century, the Holy Spirit was included in the debate. In the next (fifth) century, church councils made decisions about the nature of the Son after His incarnation. But the purpose of this article is to ask what the ‘orthodox’ view was when the Controversy began in the year 318, if there was any ‘orthodox’ view at the time.

Overview of History

In the year 325, a church council at Nicaea accepted a creed we refer to as the Nicene Creed. For the next 55 years, the majority sentiment in the church was against that Creed; primarily against the word homoousios. The Creed uses that term to say that the Son is of the same ‘substance’ as the Father.

During those 55 years, a string of alternative creeds was formulated. Some said that the Son’s substance was similar to the Father’s (homo-i-ousians), others that His substance is different from the Father’s (hetero-ousios), and still others that, since the word and concept of the substance of God are not in Bible, Christian Creeds should not refer to God’s substance at all.

However, in the year 380, Emperor Theodosius made an end to the Controversy when he made one of the strands of Christianity, namely, Trinitarian Christology, the official religion of the Roman Empire. That strand was by no means the dominant strand, but the Imperial Forces ruthlessly suppressed the other strands of Christianity. The Nicene Creed was somewhat revised at the 381 Council at Constantinople, which Emperor Theodosius called and dominated.

When the Western Roman Empire divided into the nations of Europe in the fifth and later centuries, the official religion of the Roman Empire became the Roman Church. With the support of Emperor Justinian and the Eastern Roman Empire, the Roman Church grew in strength and dominated during the Middle Ages. Continuing the spirit of its origin – the Roman Empire – it cruelly suppressed all opposition.

During the Reformation, the Protestants rejected many of the practices of the Roman Church but retained the Nicene Creed. Consequently, today, that creed is accepted by almost all denominations.  

Was Nicene Christology ‘orthodox’?

For example, Steven Wedgeworth published an article in 2013 that speaks of Nicene theology as orthodoxy, implying that that theology already existed when the Arian Controversy began. For example, he refers to:

      • “The orthodoxy of Athanasius,”
      • “The orthodox bishops,”
      • “The defeat of Orthodoxy” in the year 360 at the Homoean Synod of Constantinople, and
      • Some defended “the orthodoxy” at the Western council at Arminium in 360.

He refers to anti-Nicens as ‘heretics’.

In opposition to the ‘orthodox’, Wedgeworth referred to the ‘heretics’. He said, for example, that “the heretics typically took pre-existing Christian or Jewish tradition, combined it with certain philosophical rhetoric.” (See – Did Arius mix theology with pagan philosophy?)

He described anti-Nicene theology as supposedly ‘orthodox’. For example, he refers to “supposed orthodox arguments (that) could perhaps be made against using ‘substance’ language in regards to the godhead.” In this regard, he mentions:

Origen, who have already rejected the term homoousios a century before, and

The Church Council in the previous century that condemned the word homoousios as Sabellian. That same council condemned Paul of Samatosota as a heretic.1Sabellianism is the teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts of the one God, however, in a different way than in Modalism.

The term “supposed” in the phrase “supposed orthodox arguments” indicates that these arguments are not really ‘orthodox’.


So, Wedgeworth seems to say that Nicene theology was the standard teaching with respect to Christ when the Controversy began.

Others say there was no orthodoxy.

Trevor Hart wrote an article in which he evaluated the book – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – by R.P.C. Hanson. Hart says that this book is the distillation of some twenty years of careful research and that nothing comparable in either scale or erudition exists in the English language. Hart wrote:

The main point Hanson wishes to make throughout the book is that what took place in the fourth century was not, as many accounts have suggested, a conflict between an ancient and established orthodoxy on the one hand and an emergent Christological heresy on the other.

For example:

What was ‘orthodox’ before the Controversy is heterodox today.

Much of what the Church Fathers taught “in the first three centuries … would have been forbidden as heterodox from 381AD onwards.” For example, as already stated, a church council in the third century rejected the term homoousios as Sabellian. And, as shown below, all of these church fathers described the Son as Subordinate to the Father.

Arius was a Conservative. He did not create something new.

The view which Arius himself represented had long since co-existed alongside others within the church. While the church traditionally describes Arius as an innovator, scholarship now agrees that Arius was a conservative. His theology was not an emergent Christological heresy.

Nicene Christology was not ‘orthodox’ when the Controversy began.

Hanson described the word homoousios and related words as “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846). For this reason, the claim is made that Nicene theology is an innovation. But Hart defends the Nicene view as “one strand of the ancient interpretative tradition over against others, and not to be misconstrued, therefore, as a discovery, or as an essentially novel doctrinal departure.”

It would be important to understand who taught the homoousian view before the Arian Controversy began. But the point is that Nicene Christology was not ‘orthodox’ when the Controversy began.

There were no clear boundaries.

When the controversy began, there were no “clearly defined groups and boundaries.” “Clear definition is just what was lacking, and was, in fact, what gradually came to be established as the century wore on.” Rowan Williams, in a 2001 book on Arius, agrees:

“Nicene apologists thus turn ‘Arianism’ into a self-conscious sect – as if the boundaries of Catholic identity were firmly and clearly drawn in advance. But the whole history of Arius and of Arianism reminds us that this was not so.” (RW, 83)

Lewis Ayres, in his 2004 book, wrote similarly:

“Original Nicene theology was a fluid and diverse phenomenon, and one that kept evolving.” Athanasius attempted to “offer a convincing version of that original Nicene theology” but “it was to be many years before those attempts evolved into what I shall term pro-Nicene theology.” (LA, 99)

It was a search for orthodoxy; not a defense of orthodoxy.

For these reasons, Hanson “replaces the language of controversy … with that of the metaphor of a search:

‘This is not the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy’ (RH, xix-xx).

Arius’s dispute with his bishop prompted a search for the truth rather than a simple restatement of something which ‘all Christians everywhere had always believed’.

“Orthodoxy on the subject of the Christian doctrine of God did not exist at first. The story is the story of how orthodoxy was reached, found, not of how it was maintained.” (RH, 870)

The orthodoxy was ‘Subordinationism’.

There is a third option, namely that orthodoxy did exist when the controversy began, but it was not what we know today as orthodoxy. Specifically, there was a general agreement in the church that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Hanson explains:

The Logos of Greek Philosophy

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. (Greek Philosophy)

The Apologists identified the Son as that Logos.

During those centuries, while 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. They found it effective to identify “the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis.” (Greek Philosophy)

Since the nous of Greek philosophy was “a second, created god lower than the High God” (Divine), the pre-Nicene fathers described Christ as “a subordinate though essential divine agent.” (Irenaeus) 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.” (Divine)

“Indeed, until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism. It could, about the year 300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic theology.”2RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355.” (RH, xix)3RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988, p. xix.

“Subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy” (RH, xix).

Theos had a wide range of meanings.

Theos is the Greek word that is translated as “god” or “God,” depending on the context. Its Latin equivalent is Deus.

The pre-Nicene fathers did regard Christ as divine and described Him as theos, but as 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.” (theos)

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?” (theos)


A Complete Travesty

Hanson describes the conventional account of the Arian Controversy as a complete travesty. This current article discusses one aspect of that ‘travesty,’ namely that in the past, many writers have assumed that:

“Arianism … had been from the outset an easily recognised heresy in contrast to a known and universally recognised orthodoxy.” (95)

Consequently, the Arian Controversy was a struggle of an established orthodoxy against a newly developed heresy.

Furthermore, Athanasius defended the ‘orthodoxy’ as we know it today.

As this article shows, and as Hanson states, this “is far from being the case” (RH, 95). Hanson wrote:

“At the outset nobody had a single clear answer to the question raised” (RH, 870).

“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.” (Beginning)

The orthodoxy as we know it today, did not yet exist. It was only created through that ‘search’ or ‘controversy’, particularly by the Cappadocian Fathers in the period AD 360-380.

Logos-theology was orthodox.

If there was an ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began, it was the Logos-theology of the Apologists, in which the Son is a subordinate Intermediary between the High God and His creation:

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) … were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church.”4The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend

Other Articles


  • 1
    Sabellianism is the teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts of the one God, however, in a different way than in Modalism.
  • 2
    RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.
  • 3
    RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988, p. xix.
  • 4
    The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend
  • 5
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy

Historical Development of the Trinity doctrine in the first centuries

I am busy editing this article. Sorry for the mess.


Nicene Creed
Emperor standing behind the church fathers

The church adopted the Trinity doctrine at the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, over the past 100 years, scholars discovered that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate. The purpose of this article series is to explain the true origin of the Trinity doctrine. This series emphasizes the fourth century, but it is also important to consider the views of the pre-Nicene church fathers and key events in the fifth and later centuries that established the Trinity doctrine in the church.

This first article:

    • Discusses the different views of God and
    • Explains the conceptual and historical development of the Trinity Doctrine.


One Definition

Matt Slick, a prominent Trinitarian apologist, defined the Trinity, in summary, as follows:

God is one, but is a Trinity of three distinct persons; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Each has a will and is self-aware, but they are not three beings. They consist of one substance.

Each person is the one God and is eternal, equal to the others and equally powerful.  

Jesus, as a man, has both a divine and human nature.

Arian or Sabellian Controversy?


It would be much more appropriate to call it the Sabellian Controversy:

The Nicene Council was forced to accept the term homoousios because Emperor Constantine supported the Sabellians and because the Sabellians preferred the term. (See here) For example:

        • “Simonetti estimates (that) … Alexander … accepted virtual Sabellianism in order to ensure the defeat of Arianism.” (Hanson, p. 171)
        • “N [the Nicene Creed] appeared to favour the near-Sabellianism of Marcellus.” (Hanson, p. 272)

In the decade after Nicaea, the church corrected the distortion caused at Nicaea by exiling all leading Sabellians. (See here)

In the 340’s the Western church supported a Sabellian (one mind) theology. (See here) For example, Hanson refers to the Western bishops’ “traditional Monarchianism.” (Hanson, p. 272)

Athanasius was extremely influential in the West and also had a ‘one hypostasis’ (meaning one Person with one mind) theology. (See here) For example, “In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)

The key focus of the anti-Nicenes, also called the Eusebians, was to oppose Sabellianism. For example:

“More recent and more thorough examination of Arianism has brought a more realistic estimate of it. Simonetti sees it as an extreme reaction against a Sabellianism which was at the time rife in the East.” (Hanson, p. 95)

Referring to the Dedication creed, Hanson says: “Its chief bête noire is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 287)

One Substance

Slick also says “They consist of one substance.”

In Slick’s definition, “each person is the one God.” In other words:

God = the Father = the Son = the Holy Spirit

This sounds like Modalism, where the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three different Persons, but three modes of the same Person. But then Slick adds that they are “three distinct persons.”

In Slick’s definition:

The three-ness of God is expressed as three separate wills and minds.

The one-ness of God is expressed as a single substance, understood as a single Being.

Historical and Conceptual Development

The Trinity doctrine has been developed over about 400 years:

The early parts of the New Testament, such as the Gospel of Mark present Jesus mostly as simply an inspired man to whom God granted authority to forgive sins and authority over nature.

The later parts of the Scriptures, such as the writings of Paul and John, have a much higher Christology, listing many of His divine attributes, but also maintain a distinction between God and Jesus and present Jesus as subordinate to God.

Before Christianity was legalized in the year 313, different theologians proposed different theories attempting to explain the relationship between God and Jesus. However, Christian were more concerned about staying alive than to have a uniform understanding

the church simply The conceptual progression and historical development of the Trinity theory can be described as follows:

Jesus is God.

Worship JesusBased on the High Christological statements in the Bible, Trinitarians believe that Jesus is God as much as the Father is God. This was the main point of the Nicene Creed of the year 325, which identified the Son as “true God from true God.”

One Being

This Nicene Creed caused much dispute and controversy in the church for the next 50 years, for the Bible is clear that only one God exists (monotheism). Trinitarians, therefore, developed the concept that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are a single Being; that together they are the one God of the Bible.

Three Persons

However, since there are differences between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, such as that the one is begotten and the other not, the thought developed that they are three different Persons within the one single Being. This concept was reflected in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers, late in the fourth century.

The word Trinity has two possible meanings. With a lower case, “trinity” simply means a group of three. Some early Christians used the word in that sense. They did not yet differentiate between upper case and lower case letters, but that was the meaning they attached to the Greek and Latin equivalents of the word. But, today, we do differentiate between upper and lower case, and we use the word “Trinity,” with a capital “T,” as a proper name for the single Being who consists of three divine Persons.

Two Natures

But then, Christ Jesus, when He was on earth, did not know the day and hour of His return, and said that only the Father knows that (Matt 24:36). And, in many other ways, He indicated that He is subordinate to the Father. For example, He was sent by the Father and the Father gave Him what to say and what to do. 

Trinitarians, therefore, developed the thought that Jesus had both a human and a divine nature. In His human nature, He did not know the day or die hour, but in His divine nature, He knows all things. This “two natures” theory was formulated at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451.

The foundation on which the Trinity theory rests is, therefore, the conclusion that the Son is God as much as the Father is God is. The other aspects of the doctrine, namely that God is one Being but three Persons, and the theory that Jesus has two natures, are attempts to reconcile the Bible with the conclusion that the Son is God. 

The concepts in this section will be brought out in more clarity in the articles that will follow.




The foundation on which the Trinity doctrine rests is that Jesus is God as much as the Father is God.

To reconcile this with the monotheism of the Bible, namely, that we only have one God, the next step was to argue that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are a one single Being.

But since there are many obvious differences between them, such as that the Son prayed to the Father, the thought was added that they are three different Persons within one single Being.

However, Jesus said and His disciples believed that He is subordinate to the Father. He said, for example, that of the “day and hour” of His return “no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matt 24:36). And Paul referred to “God” as “the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3). To address this challenge, the church developed the theory that Jesus had both a human and a divine nature. In His human nature, He is limited and only on earth, but in His divine nature, He is omniscient and omnipresent. In other word, He said in His human nature that He does not know but in His divine nature, He knew all things.

These formulations of the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were developed over a period of about 400 years.


In the year 325, the Council of Nicaea concluded that the Lord Jesus Christ has the same substance as the Father (homoousios) and is co-equal with the Father. The purpose of the first articles is to determine what Christians believed about Christ and the Trinity in the three centuries before Nicaea.


Matt Slick is a prominent Trinitarian apologist.  To prove that Christians did believe in the Trinity during the first three centuries, his brief post, “Early Trinitarian Quotes,” provides a collection of proof-texts from prominent second and third centuries theologians.

Sean Finnegan—a Unitarian (believing that the Father alone is God)—responded to Slick’s article with an article titled Trinity before Nicaea.  His purpose was to show that Christians in the first three centuries did not believe in the Trinity. He discussed Slick’s articles but added further quotes. Dr. Tuggy’s podcast 262 presents his response. Dr. Tuggy is a well know Socinian Unitarian, which means that he believes that Christ did not exist before His human birth.  

The current article series analyzes the quotes from both these articles to determine what the Christian authors believed in the first three centuries about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The purpose is not to determine whether those early Christians were correct in what they taught, but, rather, to understand whether the Nicene and later creeds were consistent with the teachings of the early Christians.

To simplify these articles, many of the quotes below are summarized.  For the full quotes, refer to Finnegan’s article.



AriusIn the fifty years after Nicaea, The Nicene Creed was generally rejected by the church. Several other views were proposed. One of these views is the view as reflected by the Nicene Creed, but other views include that the Son  and various other creeds were developed during those years in an attempt to find the right answer. In all of these views, the 

to Arianism was the main competitor for the Trinity theory and dominated the church until the year 380. Arianism is explained in a later article.  In summary, Arianism argues that the Son is not equal to the Father, but was begotten by the Father before time and that God created all things through the Son.  In other words, in the infinity beyond time, the Father was before the Son, but then we use the word “before” metaphorically. 


The articles below discuss the Christologies of Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), Tertullian and Origen. Origen was the greatest and most influential Christian theologian before Augustine. The purpose is to evaluate the following aspects from the definition of the Trinity against their works:

1. The Son is God.
2. The three Persons are equal.
3. The Holy Spirit is self-aware.
4. The three Persons consist of one substance.
5. Jesus has both a divine and a human nature.

List of all articles on this website