The ‘orthodox’ view of God when the Arian Controversy began

In response to my question of why Theodosius was successful in bringing the Arian Controversy to a close, Anne gave me references to some articles. I have read one by Steven Wedgeworth. It is a very interesting article (for people with such morbid interests). It discusses the large number of creeds that were formulated in the decades after the Nicene Creed was accepted in 325, culminating in the Homoean creed that was accepted, under the ‘guidance” of Emperor Constantius, at the Council of Constantinople in AD 360.

(The Homoeans or Homoians were the people that maintained that the Bible does not reveal anything about the substance (ousia) of God and, therefore, to speculate about His substance is arrogance. This is in contrast to the Nicene Creed that claimed that the Son is of the same substance as the Father.)

The creed of the Council of Constantinople in AD 360 became the official creed of the Christian Church. All use of ousia was forbidden and it seemed as if Arianism has triumphed.

I am also currently reading RPC Hanson on the Arian Controversy. Some regard him as our greatest authority on that controversy (e.g., Hart). Hanson and Wedgeworth present the same interesting historical facts, such as:

    • The decisive influence which the emperors had on the decisions of the church councils,
    • That Athanasius was guilty of violence,
    • That the Arian Controversy, to an extent, was a dispute between the East and the West, and
    • That, in 358, the anti-Nicene party split between the Homoiousians (similar substance) and the Homoeans (those who refused to talk about substance).

But there is one contextual matter where Hanson and Wedgeworth seem to disagree: While Hanson claimed that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed when the controversy began and that orthodoxy was only created through that controversy, Wedgeworth speaks of Orthodoxy as something that already existed when the Arian Controversy began. To illustrate the difference in more detail:

Steven Wedgeworth

Wedgeworth refers to “the orthodoxy of Athanasius,” “the orthodox bishops” in the year 360, and the “early church historians” who defended “the orthodoxy” at the Western council at Arminium in 360. He describes the Homoean synod of Constantinople in 360 as “the defeat of Orthodoxy.”

Wedgeworth also 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 years before, and Paul of Samatosota who had been condemned for his use of homoousios, which the Church condemned as a Sabellian theology.

(Sabellianism is the teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three faces of one single Person. For a discussion, see my question on the difference between Modalism and the traditional understanding of the Trinity doctrine.)

In opposition to the orthodox writers and bishops, 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.”

RPC Hanson

Hanson, in contrast to Wedgeworth, wrote (link):

“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.”

Hanson adds that the controversy raged for no less than sixty years. It is highly unlikely that a controversy will last that long if the orthodox form was perfectly well known when it began.


There is a third option, namely that, when the controversy began, there was a general agreement in the church that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Hanson explains the build-up to the Arian Controversy as follows:

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 fathers did regard Christ as divine, 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.” (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.)

So, my question is: What was the ‘orthodox’ view of God and Christ when the Arian Controversy began?:

      • The Trinity doctrine as per Wedgeworth;
      • None, as per Hanson, or
      • Subordinationism?

Or am I making a category error? Why would Hanson state that the pre-Nicene fathers believed that Christ is subordinate to the Father but still say there was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’

And why would Wedgeworth talk about ‘orthodoxy’ as if it is the present-day Trinity doctrine, already existing in 360 AD? Did he use the term ‘orthodoxy’ proleptically (the representation of a thing as existing before it actually does)?


This is a copy of a question that I posted on Stackexchange to see how people would respond. 

Articles in this Series:
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries

Extract from specific authors

Historical Development of the Trinity doctrine in the first six centuries


Nicene Creed
Emperor standing behind the church fathers

The purpose of this article series is to trace the development of the Trinity doctrine through the centuries, commencing with the pre-Nicene fathers, through the tumultuous events of the fourth century and into the subsequent centuries. This first brief article explains the conceptual and historical development of the Trinity Doctrine.

The Trinity Defined

Matt Slick is a prominent Trinitarian apologist.  He 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.

Slick claims that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each has a separate will and mind. That, however, is not the orthodox view. In orthodox Christianity, they share one single mind and will.

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