The True Origin of the Trinity Doctrine

Purpose

The Trinitarian and renowned scholar on the Arian Controversy, Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, stated:

The “conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is now recognised by a large number of scholars to be a complete travesty.”

Another prominent scholar and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology, Lewis Ayres, confirms that the “older accounts (of the Arian Controversy) are deeply mistaken” (LA, 11).

Since the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy gave birth to the Trinity doctrine, it is the conventional explanation of the Origin of the Trinity doctrine that is “a complete travesty” and “deeply mistaken”. This article highlights several aspects that are “deeply mistaken.”

New Information

As discussed elsewhere, these new insights are based on ancient documents that have become more readily available during the 20th century:

“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (RW, 11-12)

“A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century.” (LA, 2)

On page xx of his book, Hanson lists several source documents that became accessible.

Sources

This article is largely based on the following recent writings of world-class scholars on the fourth-century Arian Controversy:

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

RH Bishop R.P.C. Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Overview of the Arian Controversy

The ‘Arian’ Controversy of the fourth century was the greatest controversy in the church of all time. It was a dispute mainly about the identity of Jesus Christ: Is He God or is He subordinate to God?

The controversy began in the year 318 when “Arius, a presbyter in charge of the church and district of Baucalis in Alexandria, publicly criticized the Christological doctrine of his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria.” (RH, 3)

Seven years later, in 325, after the controversy had spread from Alexandria into almost all the African regions, Emperor Constantine called a church council in Nicaea where Arius’ theology was rejected and the famous Nicene Creed formulated.

However, that Creed failed to end the controversy. The dispute continued for another 55 years until AD 380 when Emperor Theodosius, through the Edict of Thessalonica, made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. The emperor wrote:

“Let us believe in the one deity
of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.”

When Theodosius came to power, the Homoian version of Christianity dominated but that same edict outlawed it and all other versions of Christianity.

So, in total, the Controversy lasted for 62 years. When it came to an end, all those who took part at the beginning were already dead.

1. The Orthodox View

In the conventional account, “a clear Nicene doctrine (was) established in the controversy’s earliest stages.” (LA, 11-12) In other words, the Trinity Doctrine already existed at least in a rudimentary form.

No Orthodoxy

But 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?” (Hanson)

Lewis Ayres states similarly that the ‘orthodoxy’ as we know it today did not exist at the beginning but was worked out through that struggle. (LA, 11-12) “The century is understood as one of evolution in doctrine.” (LA, 13)

Subordination was orthodox.

But it is not entirely true to say that there was no orthodoxy. Note that Hanson said that nobody knew “how divine is Jesus Christ.” When the Controversy began, it was generally agreed that He is divine but it was also generally agreed that the Son is subordinate to the Father. To explain:

During the second century, after Christianity became Gentile-dominated, while Christianity was still outlawed and persecuted by the Roman authorities, the Christian Apologists identified the Son of God with the Logos or Nous of Greek philosophy. In that philosophy, the Logos was a subordinate Intermediary between the high God and the physical world. As such, the Apologists explained the Son as “a subordinate though essential divine agent” of the Father. In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God. (For more detail, see – The Apologists.)

In the third century, this Logos-theology had to combat Sabellianism but it remained the standard teaching of the church right into the fourth century. Hanson describes it as:

The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century … 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” (Hanson).

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” (Hanson).

So, ‘subordination’ was the ‘orthodox’ or general view of Christ when the Arian Controversy began:

“With the exception of Athanasius, virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy” (RH, xix).

“’Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy”1Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.

In Summary: In the conventional account, when the Controversy began, the Trinity doctrine was already generally accepted. In reality, following the Apologists of the previous centuries, when the Controversy began, the church regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.

2. Arius deviated from orthodoxy.

In the conventional account, Arius was an innovator who deviated from the standard teaching of the church. That is true but in a different sense than normally thought:

It is usually said that Arius deviated from Nicene theology but, as explained, the ‘orthodoxy’ at the time was that the Son is the Father’s “subordinate though essential divine agent.” Arius did not deviate from that teaching.

But he did deviate from the tradition because he taught an extreme version of subordination. While the Apologists taught that the Son was begotten from the being of the Father and, before that, always existed as part of the Father, Arius said that He did not always exist and that He was generated out of nothing. Arius possibly attempted to reduce the influence of Greek philosophy on church theology but, in the process, he effectively denied the Biblical revelation that the Son was “begotten” from the Father.

“The second-rate or third-rate writers of the period (before Nicaea)” even “present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God.” (Hanson) So, Arius’ view of Christ, as a created Being, was consistent with the lower end of the spectrum of views before the Arian Controversy. He was an extremist under the overall umbrella of subordination. For that reason, Rowan Williams, who wrote a recent book about Arius, concluded:

“Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically, a conservative Alexandrian.” (RW, 175)

In Summary: In the conventional account, Arius deviated from tradition. This is true. There was no pre-existing Nicene theology, but while the subordinationist mainstream of the previous centuries regarded the Son as subordinate but “divine,” Arius described Him as a created being.

3. The Cause of the Controversy

In the conventional account, Arius caused the ‘Arian’ Controversy. It assumes that Arius was the founder and leader of a large and dangerous sect, and that “the controversy spread because Arius was supported by wicked and designing bishops.”

Arius was insignificant.

But Arius did not cause the Controversy. As discussed in another article, Arius was irrelevant. “In himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii) Arius was only of some relevance for the first 7 of the 62 years of Controversy. The so-called ‘Arians’ did not regard him as a particularly significant writer. They never quote him. In fact, the so-called ‘Arians’ even opposed Arius. He left no school of disciples and he was not the leader of the ‘Arians’. He was an extreme example of a wider theological trajectory.

Since Arius took subordination to an extreme, most of his fellow theologians disagreed with him. But they regarded the views of bishop Alexander as even more dangerous:

Eusebius of Caesarea “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (RW, 173)

It was for that reason, namely, because they had a common enemy, that many people supported Arius; not because they fully agreed with his views.

Caused by existing tensions

The Controversy was caused by “tensions between pre-existing theological traditions:”

“There came to a head a crisis … which was not created by … Arius.” (RH, XX).

In the older account, it was “the Church’s struggle against a heretic and his followers.” Now we know that it was “tensions between pre-existing theological traditions (which) intensified as a result of dispute over Arius.” (RW, 11)

“The views of Arius were such as … to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering. … He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)

The following illustrates these existing tensions:

Tertullian (155-220) said: “The Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole” (Against Praxeas, Chapter 9).

At the beginning of the third century, Sabellius taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts of God, like man’s body, soul, and spirit.

In the middle of the third century, there was a squabble between the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (both called Dionysius). This dispute was caused by some Sabellians in Libya who claimed that the Son is homoousios to the Father.

A church council in 268 in Antioch condemned Paul of Samasota, apparently for teaching that the Son did not exist before His human birth, and also condemned the use of the word homoousios. For a further discussion, see – The Origin of the word Homoousios.

Note that the Controversy began only 5 years after the end of the Great Persecution. This implies that persecution kept these tensions in check.

This also explains why the Controversy spread so quickly. In the conventional account, “the controversy spread because Arius was supported by wicked and designing bishops.” In reality, the Controversy spread so quickly because of these “tensions between pre-existing theological traditions” (RW, 11).

In Summary: In the conventional account, Arius was the founder of a sect and the cause of the Controversy. But Arius, in himself, was of no great significance. The Controversy was caused by existing tensions between theological traditions that were ignited by the dispute between bishop Alexander and Arius.

4. Were the anti-Nicenes Arians?

As stated, the controversy continues for another 55 years after Nicaea in AD 325. In the conventional account, “the bishops and theologians taking part in the controversy as falling simply into two groups, ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’.” Since the term ‘Arian’ is derived from Arius’ name, this implies that all opponents of Nicene theology all followers of Arius. But Hanson states that this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.” (Two views)

There was no one single Arian movement.

The reality is that most of those who opposed the Nicene Creed also opposed Arius’ theology. There were at least four main competing 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. Following the Cappadocians, this later became understood as ‘one substance’. 

Different Substance – The Hetero-ousians were the extreme Arians or Neo-Arians. They claimed that the Son is of a “different substance” than the Father. This is also what Arius had taught but the Neo-Arians developed this into a much more sophisticated theology.

Similar Substance – The Homoi-ousians were somewhere between the Homo-ousians and Hetero-ousians. They became fairly dominant during the Controversy. They rejected the view that the Son’s substance is the same as the Father, for the Father alone exists without cause. But they also argued that if the Son was “begotten” from the Father, His substance must be similar to the Father’s.

Like the Father – The Homo-ians, like good Protestants, maintained that it is arrogance 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 Scripture teaches (e.g., Col 1:15). This view was accepted at the Council of Constantinople in AD 359 (not 381) and, when Theodosius became emperor in AD 380, the bishop of the capital was a Homoian.

Consequently, “Arianism,’ throughout most of the fourth century, was in fact a loose and uneasy coalition of those hostile to Nicaea in general and the homoousios in particular” (RW, 166). For this reason, and since Arius’ theology was fairly insignificant in the whole affair, Hanson stated that “the expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer” (RH, xvii-xviii) Lewis Ayres stated similarly: “This controversy is mistakenly called Arian.” (LA, 13)

In summary: In the conventional account, all those who opposed the Nicene Creed were followers of Arius and may be called ‘Arians’. In reality, the anti-Nicene were divided into several branches and none of them were followers of Arius. The term ‘Arian’, therefore, is a serious misnomer.

5. Athanasius invented Arianism.

But then the question arises, why does the conventional account of the Controversy cluster all anti-Nicenes under the term ‘Arian’? The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church. This was probably in defense of the accusation that the pro-Nicenes were Sabellians:

“At the Council of Serdica in 343 one half of the Church accused the other half of being ‘Arian’, while in its turn that half accused the other of being ‘Sabellian’.” (RH, xvii)

And, after Emperor Theodosius in AD 380 made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Roman Church continued Athanasius’ practice.

This practice continues even to this day. There are currently several alternative views among anti-Trinitarians, but they are all often clustered under the derogatory term ‘Arian’.

(For more detail, see – Athanasius invented Arianism.)

6. Why did Nicaea fail?

In the conventional account, the “pious design” of Emperor Constantine, who “called a general Council at Nicaea which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy,” was frustrated “owing to the crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.” (Hanson).

In reality, the Creed failed because there was no real consensus. At the council, Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including into the Creed “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846) (ousia and hypostasis), the Council created a new and different problem. It was, therefore, the Creed of 325 itself that caused the Controversy to continue for another 55 years. During that period, Arius and his theology were irrelevant.

The different ‘sides’ in the Controversy are described above. They show that the post-325 Controversy was specifically about the word Homoousion (same substance) in the Creed; not about the entire Nicene Creed and not about Arius’ theology. Rowan Williams confirms this when he says that “Arianism … was … (an) uneasy coalition of those hostile to … the homoousios in particular” (RW, 166).

In Summary: In the conventional account, Nicaea failed to end the Controversy owing to the crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians. In reality, the new terms included in the Creed borrowed from the pagan philosophy caused a new Controversy.

7. The key word in the Creed

Homoousion means “same substance.” The Nicene Creed uses this term to say that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. In the conventional account, homoousios is “the key word of the Creed” and “one of the most important words in the Christian theological vocabulary.” (Beatrice) For example:

In the “centuries-old account of the Council of Nicaea: … with one pronouncement the Church identified a term (homoousios) that secured its … beliefs against heresy. (LA, 11)     

C.H. Turner stated that “the very existence of Christianity … was at stake over the Homoousion—” (Merriam-Webster).

Wikipedia says that “homoousios represents one of the most important theological concepts within the Trinitarian doctrinal understanding of God.”

The term homoousios was unimportant.

This traditional view is in staggering contrast to the views of the delegates to the Nicene Council:

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

“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.” (RH, 170)

“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)

“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)

This also implies that this was not a word that the theologians generally used before 325. Most of the delegates were distinctly uncomfortable with what Hanson calls, “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846). For example, see how Eusebius of Caesarea, writing to his home church after Nicaea, struggled to explain why he accepted these “new terms.”

Furthermore, Athanasius explained that the term homoousion was inserted in the Creed – not because it is necessarily a good word – but merely as a means to force the Arius and his supporters to reject the Creed (RH, 162) so that the Emperor could exile them.

In Summary: In the conventional account, homoousios is the key word of the Creed. But, after Nicaea, the term was not mentioned for 20 years, meaning that it was not important. It was probably included only to force the Arians to reject the Creed.

7. Ecumenical Councils

In the conventional account, the councils of 325 and 381 were ecumenical, meaning that they were meetings of church authorities from the whole ‘world’ (oikoumene) that secures the approval of the whole Church.

Ultimate Authority in Doctrine

However, in the Roman Empire, after Christianity was legalized, the emperor was the ultimate authority in doctrine:

“The truth is that in the Christian church of the fourth century there was no alternative authority comparable to that of the Emperor.” (RH, 854)

“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (RH, 849)

General Councils

The so-called ecumenical councils were the tools by which the emperors ruled over the church:

“The general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils, or councils aspiring to be general, were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them. Even Damasus (bishop of Rome) would have admitted that he could not call a general council on his own authority.” (RH, 855)

Presiding Officers

One indication of this is that, at both ‘ecumenical’ councils, representatives of the emperor presided over the meetings:

“Ossius, as the Emperor’s representative, presided at Nicaea.” (RH, 154, cf. 148, 156) He was a bishop, but he presided in his capacity as the emperor’s “agent.” (RH, 190)

When Theodosius came to power, he immediately exiled the ruling Homoian bishop of the capital city and appointed Gregory of Nazianzus in his place. Gregory presided over the 381-council but, for some unknown reason, resigned. Thereafter Emperor Theodosius assigned Nectarius, an unbaptized civil official, as presiding officer.

Head of the Church

Consequently, the emperor effectively was the head of the church:

“Simonetti remarks that the Emperor was in fact the head of the church.” (RH, 849)

Rowan Williams explains that the fourth-century church “did not regard Constantine’s authority as secular.” Rather, it regarded Constantine as its “’bishop’ and pastor.” (RW, 88)

Why does the Creed include “new terms borrowed from pagan philosophy?”

Conclusion

Therefore, the Nicene Council adopted the term homoousios due to the influence of the emperor:

“Constantine had taken Alexander’s part” (LA, 89)

Constantine “pressed for its (homoousios’) inclusion.” (RH, 202)

In his letter to his church in Caesarea, written immediately after the Nicene Council in 325, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote that the word homoousios was inserted into the Nicene Creed solely at the insistence of Emperor Constantine.

It is even proposed that Constantine had a preference for the term homoousios “We may ask why the .

 

7. Did Arianism deviate from Orthodoxy?

As a corollary to the previous points, in the conventional account, ‘Arianism’, meaning the entire movement that dominated the church during the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy, deviated from the tradition.

In reality, it is the other way around: while ‘Arianism’ was consistent with the tradition, Nicene theology deviated from the tradition. To explain:

Arianism was ‘orthodox’.

We must make a distinction between Arius and ‘Arianism’. While Arius was an extremist, Arianism, as reflected, for example, in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, was a continuation of the tradition. For example, Hanson explains:

The Logos-theology of the Apologists was “the main, widely-accepted, one might almost say traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was … 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.” (Hanson)

“Arianism … does present the Son as in effect a demi-god” but “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.” (Hanson)

Nicene theology deviated.

It was Nicene theology, therefore, claiming that the Son is equal to the Father, that deviated from the “tradition” of the pre-Nicene Christian church. For example, Hanson stated:

“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.” (Hanson)

“In the place of this old but inadequate Trinitarian tradition the champions of the Nicene faith substituted another.” (Hanson)

 

 

10. Does the Creed describe a Trinity?

Consistent with the notion that a “Nicene doctrine” was clear from the beginning, in the conventional account, the Nicene Creed of 325 describes God as a Trinity. This is not true. For example:

(a) The Father is the One God.

The Creed begins, similar to many previous creeds, by identifying the Father as the “one God” in contrast to Jesus Christ, who is identified as the “one Lord:”

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of all things visible and invisible
And in one Lord Jesus Christ
the Son of God

(b) No One Being

The core of the Trinity doctrine is that God is one Being (substance; ousia in Greek) but three Persons (hypostases). But the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms. At that time, these two terms still had pretty well the same meaning; both meaning ‘Person’. The concept of three Persons but one Being was first proposed by the Cappadocians; about 40 years after Nicaea. To assist with that concept, they proposed a distinction in meaning between ousia and hypostasis. In this way, ousia came to mean ‘substance’ or ‘Being’. But the concept of one Being did not yet exist at Nicaea. For more detail, see Ousia and Hypostasis in the Nicene Creed. Hanson says:

“We can therefore be pretty sure that homoousios was not intended to express the numerical identity of the Father and the Son.” (“Numerical identity” would mean that Father and Son are one Being (the selfsame Being).)

“It was intended to have a looser, more ambiguous sense than has in the past history of scholarship been attached to it.” (RH, 202)

(c) No Holy Spirit

The Creed does not describe the Holy Spirit as God or as equal to God or as one substance with God. Hanson stated (Hanson):

“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.”

For these and other reasons, Hanson says, “The Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity.” (Hanson). Since all three Cappadocians were born after AD 325, the doctrine of the Trinity did not yet exist in 325 and the Nicene Creed does not describe God as a Trinity.

11. Was Athanasius falsely accused?

Athanasius, who is regarded by many as the hero of the ‘Arian’ Controversy, was exiled five times by four different emperors, spending almost half of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile (Blue Letter). In the conventional 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.”

But Hanson stated:

“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 for at least the first twenty years of his long episcopate.” (Hanson)

10. Is Arianism a contradictory system?

In the conventional account, ‘Arianism” is “a crude and contradictory system.” (Gwatkin (c. 1900) – RW, 10). Harnack (1909) describes Arius’ teaching as “novel, self-contradictory and, above all, religiously inadequate.” (RW, 7)

But Hanson states:

“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” (Hanson).

“The Church of the fourth century, after much travail answered this question … in a … process of trial-and-error in which the error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.” (Hanson)

“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.” (Hanson)

“The irresponsible use of allegory abounded, perhaps more among the pro-Nicenes than among the Arians.” (Hanson)

Archbishop Rowan Williams, after writing a recent book about Arius, concluded:

Arius is “a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness and originality.” (RW, 116)

For more detail, see – Who was Arius and why is he important?

11. Is Nicene theology distinct from Sabellianism?

In the conventional account, there always was a clear distinction between Nicene theology and Sabellianism. However, there are several indications that the pro-Nicenes were Sabelians or skirted Sabellianism:

“Marcellus of Ancyra (a strong opponent of ‘Arianism’) … cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism.” (Hanson)

“That Julius and later the Westerners at Sardica … have declared him (Marcellus of Ancyra) orthodox” … “was bound to appear to the Eastern theologians to be a condoning of Sabellianism.” (Hanson)

“The anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support” “a condoning of Sabellianism.” (Hanson)

“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)

“Up to the year 357, the East could label the West as Sabellian and the West could label the East as Arian with equal lack of discrimination and accuracy.” (Hanson) In other words, Sabellianism and Arius’ theology were the two extremes of the spectrum of views in the years after Nicaea. The “West” was more on the ‘Sabellian’ side of the spectrum and the “East” was more towards Arius’ side.

In the year 375 “the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic. (Hanson)

The battle against Sabellianism was clearly not fully won at the time of Nicaea and Nicaea may be seen as a win for the sabellians.

12. The solution came from Semi-Arians.

In the traditional account, the final solution, as reflected in the Constantinople Creed of 381, emanated “directly either from Rome or from Alexandria.”

But that is not true. The ‘solution’ came from the so-called Semi-Arians:

“The direct source of the solution of the Arian Controversy, and the great articulators of the doctrine of the Trinity, were the three Cappadocian fathers whose origins were undoubtedly from that Homoeousian party whom Epiphanius … had the impudence to call ‘Semi-Arians’.” 

In fact, in the year 375 “the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic, and Vitalis, an Apollinarian heretic, against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East!” (Basil was the first of the three Cappadocians.) (Hanson)

13. Did Arius corrupt theology with Philosophy?

In the conventional account, Arius and ‘Arianism’ were almost as much motivated by Greek philosophy than by the Bible. For example:

Gwatkin (1900) described Arianism as the result of “irreverent philosophical speculation” and “almost as much a philosophy as a religion.” (RW, 9)

Arius inherited a theology based on pagan philosophy.

Arius’ view of Christ was indeed influenced by Greek philosophy, but he did not introduce philosophy into theology: He and all Christians of that time inherited reliance on Greek philosophy from the Christian Apologists of the preceding centuries. As discussed, these Apologists explained the Son of God as the Logos of Greek philosophy. As Hanson stated:

“Arianism … 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.” (Hanson)

Arianism opposed philosophy.

In fact, Arius resisted the reliance on philosophy. For example, as mentioned, while Greek philosophy taught that the Logos always existed as part of the High God, Arius claimed that the Son was begotten out of nothing. Therefore:

“We misunderstand him completely … if we see him as primarily a self-conscious philosophical speculator. … Arius was by profession an interpreter of the Scriptures.” (RW, 107-108)

“He is not a philosopher, and it would be a mistake to accuse him of distorting theology to serve the ends of philosophical tidiness. On the contrary: the strictly philosophical issues are of small concern to Arius.” (RW, 230)

Furthermore, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism further pushed back the influence of Greek philosophy. For example, in AD 359, at a council in Constantinople, the church accepted adopted a Homoian creed in which the words from Greek philosophy (ousia, homoousios, and hypostasis) are forbidden. This version of Christianity dominated the church until Theodosius became emperor.

Nicene Theology relies on Greek philosophy.

While Arianism is often accused of corrupting theology with philosophy, the shoe is on the other foot. Pro-Nicene theology was developed in the period 360-380 by essentially the three Cappadocian fathers, and they were deeply influenced by philosophy:

This is indicated by the following:

The terms ousia (substance) and hypostasis (separate reality) were borrowed from Greek philosophy. These terms are used to say that God is one Being but three Persons, which is the core of the Trinity doctrine.

“Before the advent of the Cappadocian theologians there are two clear examples only of Christian theologians being deeply influenced by Greek philosophy.” (RH, 862) “The Cappadocians, however, present us with a rather different picture. … They were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863)

“Gregory of Nazianzus (one of the Cappadocians) … certainly was deeply influenced by Platonism” (RH, 867).

“Gregory of Nyssa … was more concerned than they (the other two Cappadocians) to build a consistent philosophical account of Christianity. He had therefore much more need of philosophy than they. … It is impossible to deny that he was influenced by the work of Plotinus.” (RH, 868)

Hanson, therefore, stated that Nicene theology was based both on the terms and thoughts of Greek philosophy:

“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” (Greek Thoughts).

“The fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy” (Terminology).

“The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts.”

For a further discussion, see – Did Arius corrupt theology with pagan philosophy?

Were there only two sides in the Controversy?

As stated, the controversy continues for another 55 years after Nicaea in AD 325. In the conventional account, “the bishops and theologians taking part in the controversy as falling 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.” (Two views)

The reality is that most of those who opposed the Nicene Creed also opposed Arius’ theology. There were at least four main competing 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. Following the Cappadocians, this became later to be understood as ‘one substance’. 

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.

Similar Substance – The Homoi-ousians were somewhere between the Homo-ousians and Hetero-ousians. They became fairly dominant during the Controversy. They rejected the view that the Son’s substance is the same as the Father, for the Father alone exists without cause. But they also argued that if the Son was “begotten” from the Father, His substance must be similar to the Father’s.

Like the Father – The Homo-ians, like good Protestants, maintained that it is arrogance 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 Scripture teaches (e.g., Col 1:15). This view was accepted at the Council of Constantinople in AD 359 (not 381) and, when Theodosius became emperor in AD 380, the bishop of the capital was a Homoian.

As can be seen by these ‘sides’, the post-325 Controversy was specifically about the word Homoousion (same substance) in the Creed; not about the entire Nicene Creed and not about Arius’ theology. This confirms the point above that it was the Creed itself, specifically the “new terms borrowed from pagan philosophy’, that caused the Controversy to continue after 325. 

Did an Ecumenic Council bring an end to the Controversy?

In the conventional account, the Council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end to that Controversy.

In reality, the Controversy was brought to an end by the strong arm of the Roman Empire in the person of Emperor Theodosius:

He was declared Emperor and Augustus (i.e. equal with, not subordinate to, Gratian) on January 19th 379.

Already in the year before that church council, in February 380, Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica which made the Trinity doctrine the official religion of the Roman Empire. This edict (not a church council) ordered “all the various nations:”

“To believe ‘the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within … an equal majesty and … Trinity’” (RH, 804).

That same edict described all who do not conform as “foolish madmen.” “They will suffer … the punishment of our authority.”

In this way, Theodosius outlawed all other versions of Christianity.

In November of the same year, he entered Constantinople (the capital of the empire) and instantly drove out the ruling Homoian bishop of the city, appointed one of the three Cappadocians, and also chased the ‘Arian’ Lucius out of Alexandria. (RH, 804-5)

In January 381, Theodosius issued an edict saying that no church was to be occupied for worship by any heretics, and no heretics were to gather together for worship within the walls of any town. These instructions were executed efficiently by his soldiers. For further discussion, see – Theodosius. (RH, 805)

Only after these events did he summon the so-called ‘ecumenical’ Council of Constantinople of the year 381. But only pro-Nicenes were allowed to attend (RH, 805-6) and the emperor appointed a government official to chair the meeting.

It amazes me that people regard this as a valid and important church council, even after non-Trinitarian clergies have been outlawed and exiled.

Later in 381, he decreed that all non-Trinitarian churches must be delivered to Trinitarian bishops. (Boyd)

The Arian Controversy, therefore, was brought to an end by the strong arm of the Roman Empire under the leadership of the 23-year-old emperor.

The Role of Emperors

This brings us to the role of the emperors more generally. In the conventional account, the emperors during the 50 years after Nicaea forced the church to oppose the Nicene Creed (Traditional Account):

“Orthodoxy was everywhere attacked and, as later in the controversy succeeding Emperors joined the heretical side, almost completely eclipsed.”

“Ultimately, by the aid of the Emperor Theodosius, right prevailed, the forces of error and wickedness represented by the Arians were defeated and crushed, and the formulation at Constantinople in 381 of the revised Nicene Creed crowned the triumph of the true faith.”

This is true, but what this omits is that, throughout the Controversy, the emperor always had the final say with respect to the doctrine of the church. The Controversy began and ended with emperors who forced the church to accept Nicene theology but, between them, the emperors were ‘Arians’:

Constantine, in AD 325, insisted on the inclusion of the word homoousios in the Creed but softened towards Arianism. He was baptized on his deathbed by the leader of the Arians at Nicaea; Eusebius of Nicomedia. 

Constantius (Constantine’s son – 337-361) was an Homoian. In 359, the Western bishops met in Ariminum and accepted a Homo-ian creed. But the eastern bishops, who met in Seleucia, accepted a Homoi-ousian creed. Emperor Constantius 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 Hetero-ousians defeated the Homoi-ousians. However, Constantius rejected this decision as well and exiled some of the delegates. Thereafter the council agreed to the Homo-ian creed that was agreed to at Ariminum, with minor modifications.

Valens (364-378) also was a Homoian. He used the power of the state to promote his theology. He made sure that the right person is installed as archbishop, banished and imprisoned pro-Nicene clergy, put them to forced labor, and subjected them to taxes from which anti-Nicenes were exempt. But, Hanson states, “his efforts at persecution were sporadic and unpredictable.” (RH, 791-792)

Theodosius (379-395), as already discussed, was a Trinitarian. He was the first to create law requiring conformance to a Christian practice and took persecution to a different level. He brutally eliminated all other versions of Christianity from the empire.

Germanic nations took control of the Western Roman Empire during the fifth century. These nations were evangelized before the time of Theodosius and, therefore, were non-Trinitarian Christians.

Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire, in the sixth century, subjected those ‘Arian’ Christian nations and set up the Byzantine Papacy through which the Eastern Emperors ruled the ‘Arians’ in the west for two centuries. Through the Byzantine Papacy, eventually, the Roman Empire eliminated all non-Nicene versions of Christianity outside the Roman Empire. (See – Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy.)

Conclusion

In the Roman Empire, the emperor always had the final say with respect to the doctrine of the church. 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 of the church. He made all key decisions for the church. Church and state were united. (Boyd) In practice, the emperor was more than the head of the church for he was the ultimate authority with respect to doctrine:

“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.” (Hanson)

Conclusions

A Complete Travesty

Firstly, as Hanson stated, the “conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is … a complete travesty.”

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

This message, however, has not yet reached the level of preachers and ordinary Christians because, as Williams indicated, the prejudice caused by the long history of ‘demonizing’ Arius is extraordinarily powerful (RW, 2).

The Religion of the Roman Empire

Secondly, the decision that the church would adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by a church council but by a Roman Emperor and enacted as a Roman law. In this way, Trinitarian Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. As such, Trinitarian Christianity became part of the Roman Empire. Consequently, it received its great authority from the Roman Empire but it also served the purposes of the Roman Empire. It was one of the means by which the emperors retained control over the nations under their command.

Still exists today

That religion of the Empire, with military support, centuries later became the church of the Middle Ages, which is symbolized as the eleventh horn of Daniel 7 and as the Beast of Revelation. See:

Today, the Roman Empire no longer exists but its official religion – a symbol of its authority – continues to dominate Christianity. It is regarded as the most important doctrine of the church and non-Trinitarians are regarded as non-Christians.

Since that church received its authority from the Roman Empire, her children today continue the authority of that ancient empire.

The church never adopted the Trinity Doctrine. It was the other way round. The Roman Empire adopted the Trinity Doctrine and systematically exterminated all opposition.


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.

RPC Hanson – A lecture on the Arian Controversy

A lecture delivered at the Colloquium in commemoration of the Nicene Creed at New College, University of Edinburgh, 2nd May 1981.

Dr. Hart, lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen, wrote that nothing exists in the English language, treating the so-called “Arian Controversy,” which dominated the fourth-century theological agenda, that is comparable to RPC Hanson’s book – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – in either scale or erudition (Hart).

This article is a lecture by R.P.C. Hanson that I found at Doctrine of Trinity. I post it here to preserve it for public use. I corrected spelling errors, added headings, and divided the text into more readable paragraphs, but otherwise, I did not change the text in any way:

A Long Way from Mark’s Gospel

WHEN we read the Creed of Constantinople of the year 381, which is generally called the Nicene Creed, we gain the unmistakable impression that we have travelled a long way from the opening verses of St. Mark’s Gospel. This paper will consist of an attempt to answer the question, Was this journey really necessary?

A number of negatives have been given to this question:

It has been asserted that the doctrine of this creed was reached because the spirit of useless intellectual curiosity and of metaphysical speculation had gripped the theologians of the Church, so that the creed became only a stage towards ‘the bankruptcy of Patristic theology’ which was to be reached by the middle of the next century.

It has been suggested, perhaps as a variant of the same argument, that this creed represents the capture of the original Judaeo-Christian message or gospel of primitive Christianity by a process of Hellenisation, a gradual approximation to late Greek, mainly Platonic, philosophy.

The theory has even been put forward with a wholly misplaced confidence that the doctrine of the Trinity was produced in order to guarantee a celestial order and security corresponding to and supporting the order and security represented by the Christian Emperor himself.

These are all explanations of the doctrinal journey which in one way or another see it as a superfluity or a deviation.

The Conventional Account …

This doctrine and the creed which represents the official and dogmatic justification for the doctrine were achieved, as is well known, as the result of a controversy known conventionally but not quite accurately as the Arian Controversy. The version of events connected with this controversy, which lasted from 318 to 381, to be found till very recently in virtually all the text-books runs something like this:

In the year 318 a presbyter called Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ, to the effect that Christ was a created and inferior god.

When the controversy spread because Arius was supported by wicked and designing bishops such as Eusebius of Nicomedia and his namesake of Caesarea, the Emperor Constantine called a general Council at Nicaea which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy.

But owing to the crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians, this pious design was frustrated.

Supporters of the orthodox point of view such as Athanasius of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch and later Paul of Constantinople, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile. Orthodoxy was everywhere attacked and, as later in the controversy succeeding Emperors joined the heretical side, almost completely eclipsed.

But Athanasius resolutely and courageously sustained the battle for orthodoxy, almost alone, until in the later stages of the controversy he was joined by other standard-bearers of orthodoxy such as Hilary of Poitiers, Pope Damasus, and the three Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa.

Ultimately, by the aid of the Emperor Theodosius, right prevailed, the forces of error and wickedness represented by the Arians were defeated and crushed, and the formulation at Constantinople in 381 of the revised Nicene Creed crowned the triumph of the true faith.

Is a Complete Travesty

This conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is now recognised by a large number of scholars to be a complete travesty. To see this it is only necessary to read that weighty and magisterial recent work upon the subject, Ia Crisi Ariana del Qarto Secolo by M. Siinonetti, a Roman Catholic scholar whose integrity is as unexceptionable as his orthodoxy.

No Orthodoxy at the Beginning

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.

It is a priori implausible to suggest that a controversy raged for no less than sixty years in the Church, so that every single one of the original contestants was dead by the time the controversy was settled, over a doctrine whose orthodox form was perfectly well known to everybody concerned and had been well known for centuries past.

Arius’ Doctrines

Arius’ particular doctrines, as far as we can reconstruct them, seem to have been almost uniquely calculated to arouse both agreement and dissension without giving any serious prospect of providing ground for a solution of the dispute. That is his main claim to fame.

The Nicene Creed Confounded the Confusion.

The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, 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.

Homoousios is not mentioned after Nicaea.

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.

There were more than just two sides.

To regard the bishops and theologians taking part in the controversy as falling simply into two groups, ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’, immediately after the Council of Nicaea of 325, and to interpret the course of that Controversy as a straightforward struggle between these two points view, with sub-groups forming themselves from time to time within the two clearly-defined camps, is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.

All sides made mistakes.

The dispute was indeed aggravated and clouded by a number of extraneous factors and a number of dangerous mistakes and serious faults committed by those who were parties to it. But these mistakes and faults were not confined to the upholders of any one particular doctrine, and cannot all be grouped under the heading of a wicked Arian conspiracy.

The Misbehavior of Athanasius

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 for at least the first twenty years of his long episcopate.

There was no Arian conspiracy.

It is of course true that Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had supported Arius, displayed ambition and craft in forwarding the interests of his own party and in his relations with Western bishops, but the depositions of his opponents cannot all be attributed to an Arian plot.

Eustathius of Antioch

It seems highly likely that Eustathius of Antioch was guilty of some misconduct, because it is only long after his deposition, and perhaps after his death, that he begins to rank as a martyr in the cause of orthodoxy. The Westerners at Sardica in 343 significantly fail to mention him in their roll-call of the innocent injured.

Paul of Constantinople

Paul of Byzantium/Constantinople appears to have become embroiled in a domestic quarrel unconnected with the Arian Controversy and, like Eustathius, to have been the subject of pro-Nicene hagiography only at a comparatively late date.

Julius of Rome

Julius of Rome I was in Eastern eyes irresponsible to the point of mischievousness in championing the deposed Eastern bishops, Athanasius, Marcellus and Asclepas, in assuming that they must have been the victims of injustice and in branding as Arian all those who disagreed with them; and we can sympathize with the Easterners resentment here.

Marcellus cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism.

The views of Marcellus of Ancyra were eccentric by any standards of orthodoxy recognized in the fourth century. Marcellus in some respects displayed a discernment in interpreting Scripture which others lacked, but he cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism. The fact that he could sign the baptismal creed of Rome was no proof at all of his orthodoxy, because it constituted no sort of test of Trinitarian doctrine.

That Julius and later the Westerners at Sardica should have declared him orthodox was bound to appear to the Eastern theologians to be a condoning of Sabellianism, a doctrine which the anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support.

Confused Terminology

The repeated confusion caused by the use of the same terms by different writers in different senses, right up to the very end, well after the Council of Alexandria of 362 which on the conventional view is supposed to have cleared up the confusion, added its own exasperation to the whole dispute.

Up to the year 357, the East could label the West as Sabellian and the West could label the East as Arian with equal lack of discrimination and accuracy. In the year 357, Arianism as a relatively clearly thought out doctrinal position emerged for the first time, and for the first time those Eastern theologians who were not Arian were in a position to distinguish their own views and confess them. This is the point at which the solution to the controversy begins very faintly to dawn, though its full realisation was delayed for twenty-four years.

Emperor Theodosius ended the Controversy 

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.

Throughout the controversy everybody with rare and occasional exceptions assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor. Several Emperors had attempted to fulfil this role, Constantine, Constans, Constantius, and Valens when in intervals of fussing ineffectively about administrative affairs he began fussing about ecclesiastical matters. All had failed because though the measures which they took might for a time appear to have been successful they in fact were not supported by a consensus in the Church at large.

Theodosius succeeded because, at the time he came to Imperial power the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church. In the past Imperial coercion had been freely applied but had failed. Now it succeeded, not because it was coercion but because it was coercion backed by general assent.

The solution did not come from Rome.

But even here we must dissent from the conventional account of the end of the Arian Controversy.

The solution did not emanate directly either from Rome or from Alexandria.

On the contrary: the opening of the year 375 saw the ironical situation in which the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic, and Vitalis, an Apollinarian heretic, against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East, later to be acknowledged universally as a great Doctor of the Church, who never during a single minute of his existence was formally in communion with the see of Rome!

The direct source of the solution of the Arian Controversy, and the great articulators of the doctrine of the Trinity, were the three Cappadocian fathers whose origins were undoubtedly from that Homoeousian party whom Epiphanius, that unsubtle but useful preserver of the views of others, had the impudence to call ‘Semi-Arians’.

II The Need to Formulate Doctrine

Doctrine of God in the Bible

But we must delve deeper than this if we are to understand the reasons for the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity. We must ask, not what was the immediate occasion of its development, but what was the original urge or need or dynamic which made it seem necessary to those who formed it?

The answer lies in the necessity for finding a specifically Christian doctrine of God. The Bible does not give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God, though it gives us the raw material for this. When the NT was canonized, in effect by the middle of the third century, even those parts of it which were devoted to a consideration of the person rather than of the function of Christ, such as the first chapters of the Gospel according to St. John and the Epistle to the Colossians and the Epistle to the Hebrews, did not supply anything more than some hints towards the formation of a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

Jewish dominated church

Before the writing of the NT, the church professed to all appearances the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum. To say that Christians believed in one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person was not to state a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

I may perhaps illustrate the point by relating an experience which I had recently. I was invited to a lunch in Manchester along with the representatives of several other religions and after lunch our genial host required of us to state our religious views in two sentences. The Sikh representative (who I do not for a moment believe was capable of giving us the authentic doctrine of Sikhism) said that his fellow-worshipers believed in one God and that Sikhs should not be required to wear helmets when they rode motorcycles. The doctrine of primitive Christians would have appeared, at least to the non-Jew, not much less disproportionate in its parts than that. The NT made some closer approach to an integrated doctrine of God, but was still far from achieving anything more than a sub-variant of the Jewish doctrine of God.

There certainly were forces within Christianity even before it emerged from its Jewish milieu or matrix moving towards an integrated doctrine of God:

There was the fundamental Jewish urge towards monotheism, its rejection of lesser deities or any qualification or diminution of the concept of God.

There was the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ which can be traced back to a very early period.

There was the practice of praying to Jesus Christ as well as praying through him.

There were the theological trajectories (to use current theological jargon) pointing to a doctrine of incarnation in Matthew, in Paul, in Hebrews and above all in John.

There was, in fine, the ineradicably Christocentric nature of Christianity, the concept of Christ as the Last Act of God, the eschatological pressure, so to speak, that his figure exerted on Christian thought.

But as long as Christianity remained in a Jewish environment none of these factors was strong enough to constitute on its own a movement towards the development of a specifically Christian doctrine of God, the enterprise of determining what difference the career of Jesus Christ must have in forming the Church’s thought, not just about what God had done, but what God is.

Gentile dominated Church

It was when Christianity emerged during the second century into a non-Jewish, largely Gentile milieu that the pressure to produce a specifically Christian doctrine of God became unavoidable.

The intellectual world of the Late Roman Empire, enjoying under a series of enlightened Emperors chosen on an adoptive rather than hereditary principle its last St. Luke’s summer of peace and prosperity before the storms and disasters of the next three centuries, was dominated by the inheritance and the practice of Greek philosophy.

The Greek intellectual tradition had of course altered since its great days in the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ. Its Platonism was not exactly the Platonism of Plato; Stoicism had arisen as a distinct and attractive alternative; Aristotelianism, though studied by some, was under eclipse. Greek philosophy had become more eclectic than in Plato’s day, and also much more religious and theistic. What J.B. Bury in all the confidence of Victorian rationalism has called a ‘loss of nerve’ had taken place.

But philosophy was still full of vitality and was actively studied or at least acquired in a general way by the great majority of those who called themselves intellectuals or who had received a higher education in that age.

And Greek philosophy required of any religion which aspired to be a universal religion, as Christianity did, that it should give a rational account of itself. If it had a teaching about God, the intellectual tradition of the Late Roman Empire insisted that that teaching should be rational (not necessarily rationalist), consistent, defensible, intellectually acceptable. If Christianity was to be more than an enthusiastic or moralizing sect making no pretensions to intellectual respectability, more than just an ethnic religion, more than a barbaric cult or a sub-variety of Judaism, in short, if it was to capture the mind as well as the heart of the society in which it existed, it was bound to produce a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

This was not an unreasonable demand, not the requirement of a futile speculative Greek curiosity, but a plain necessity if Christianity was to be a genuinely missionary religion, a religion capable of sustaining the daring claim that it was a faith for all races and all classes and all minds, a religion for the whole world.

The Apologists

The first attempt at this task was made by the group of writers whom we call the Apologists, and it was made, significantly enough, to a large degree in independence of the thought of the Fourth Gospel.

This group had nothing in common, if we except the connection between Justin Martyr and Tatian, apart from a common purpose and a common pattern of thought. They did not all live in the same place or at the same time. But their common aim resulted in a common pattern of theology.

They used to great effect several features of contemporary Greek philosophy to enable them to construct their doctrines of God. They identified the pre-existent Christ, thought of as manifesting himself on critical occasions throughout the history of the Jewish people, with the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy, and also borrowed some traits from the divine Logos of Stoicism (including its name).

They thereby solved for those who accepted their doctrine a difficult contemporary philosophical problem: how was the supreme being …  to communicate in his immutable, abstract, immaterial condition with our world of change and decay, transitoriness and matter? The answer was, the divine Logos or nous identified with Christ both pre-existent and incarnate in his earthly ministry. He was the agent for creating the world of the supreme Divinity and also the means of the Divinity revealing himself in the world, both in the history of the Jews and in the earthly career of Jesus.

No Trinity

They felt some obligation to fit the Holy Spirit into this scheme, but were less successful here. They could hardly be said to have developed a recognisably Trinitarian scheme, but they certainly had produced the first specifically Christian doctrine of God.

Not Bible-based

They were writing mostly for non-Jews and non-Christians. Such a public demanded philosophical consistency but no very great attention to historical detail nor to the witness of the Bible.

Lasted into the Fourth Century

The theological structure provided by the Apologists lasted as the main, widely-accepted, one might almost say 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.

Irenaeus and Tertullian

The doctrine was given a better balance and proportion by both Irenaeus and Tertullian. They redressed the tendency of the Apologists to fall into Gnostic doctrine of an unknown, inaccessible High God whom the lesser god, the Logos, brings communications. They paid much more attention to Scripture, and especially to the Fourth Gospel. They made more room for the Holy Spirit in their doctrine of God, and brought out the significance of the earthly career of Jesus, which all the Apologists apart from Justin had ignored. 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.

Origen

Origen produced something like a theological revolution without completely demolishing this theological structure. He extended it and diversified it, but he did not alter most of its main features. In his brilliant search for common ground between Christianity and the kind of philosophy which appealed to him, late Middle Platonism laced with some Stoicism, he introduced some new and enduring features and made some daring speculations. He launched the doctrine of the eternal, not merely economic, Trinity; he produced a neat and ingenious account of how the Son/Logos could be, as incarnate, both divine and human. He taught the eternal pre-existence of souls, and a pre-mundane fall, and he demythologized eschatology as radically as ever Bultmann did. But, he still envisaged the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father and still treated him as an ingenious philosophical device, indeed he enhanced this feature in his Trinitarian doctrine.

How divine is Christ?

Even when greatly altered and given a much more sophisticated appearance by Origen, this form of the Christian doctrine of God had serious flaws. The chief flaw was that which the Apologists had regarded as its greatest merit. It made Christ into a convenient philosophical device. He was the means whereby the supreme God, the Father, was protected from embarrassingly close relation to the world. He was, not by reason of his incarnation but by reason of his very nature apart from the incarnation, a defused, depotentiated version of God suitable for encounter with such compromising things as history and humanity and transitoriness. He was the safeguard against a too close acquaintance with our existence on the part of the supreme God.

This Logos-doctrine was not the Logos-doctrine of the Fourth Gospel, where the incarnate Logos is the guarantee that the supreme God has in fact communicated himself to and in our world, where the fact that the Son is accessible in the flesh means that the Father is accessible to us too, where the veil or restriction imposed on himself by God is not his Son but the Son’s humanity, where the contrast is between sight and faith, not between incorruptibility and the corruptible. Whatever the theological or philosophical effect of the conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century may have been, its religious effect, once granted the worship of Christ, was to make the Son into a demi-god.

This can be observed by looking at the second-rate or third-rate writers of the period, not at the successors of Origen, Theognostus, Methodius, Eusebius of Caesarea, but at Lactantius, Arnobius, Victorinus of Pettau, Dionsysius of Alexandria. They present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God and capable of incarnation.

Continued into Arianism

When Gwatkin nearly a century ago in the last full-scale book written in English on the Arian Controversy branded Arianism as ‘heathen to the core’ and as a watered-down version of Christianity suitable for imperfectly converted pagan polytheists, he was writing vague imperfectly substantiated rhetoric, based on an inadequate examination of Arius’ background, but he was not talking complete nonsense. 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.

Theos and Deus

The ancient world did not disdain demi-gods. 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.

This is a fact which is often forgotten by those who are anxious to read the later doctrine of Christ’s divinity incontinently into the NT. This is why Christians found it quite possible to hold the kind of conception of Christ’s divinity which was widespread in Christian thought as the third century gave way to the fourth. Of course Christ was divine. But how divine, and what exactly did ‘divine’ mean in that context? It was with this question that the Arian Controversy started and it found nobody in a position to give an immediately satisfying answer.

The Answer in the Creed

But once the question was raised – and Arius’ teaching had raised it in such a way that it could not now be ignored – it could only be answered by the formulation of a more detailed and thorough Christian doctrine of God.

The Church of the fourth century, after much travail answered this question. The answer was only reached after long controversy, heart- searching, confusion and vicissitude 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.

Its results in the Nicene Creed was to reduce the meanings of the word “God” from a very large selection of alternatives to one only, so that today it is part of the bloodstream of European culture. When Western man today says ‘God’ he means the one, sole exclusive God and nothing else. Even when he denies the existence of God he does not even pause to disbelieve in gods. Even when he blasphemes, he swears profanely by the sole God. This is why the theologians of the Eastern Orthodox Church who use the word ‘god’ to describe the divinized human nature of Christ and the final state of man in glory can only cause bewilderment and dissent in the minds of Westerners.

Destroyed the Tradition.

What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device, of Christ, as the Cappadocian fathers put it, existing for the sake of us instead of our existing for his sake. The Cappadocians, following in the footsteps of Athanasius, put a firm ‘No Thoroughfare’ notice in front of this theological track, a track which must have seemed to many a hopeful and useful one.

In this respect at least they fought an example of the Hellenisation of the gospel, they rejected the allurements of Greek philosophy.

Indeed if we want a beautiful example of Hellenisation of Christianity we can turn to the most extreme of the Arians, Eunomius, who would have agreed heartily with the title of Toland’s famous book, Christianity not Mysterious, and who had an unbounded confidence in the capacity of Greek metaphysics to solve all theological problems and to scale all the heights of knowledge of the divine. In the course of refuting his teaching Gregory of Nyssa has quite often to pause and protest against his indiscriminate use of philosophical jargon.

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 that is part of the inner nature of Christianity and that also did justice to the ancient practice of worshipping Christ. They were forced through the exigencies of controversy to realize that Christ is either ultimately irrelevant to Christianity, a paradigm, an example, a supremely obedient and godly man, but no more; or he must be a mediator, and therefore authentically God and not a second-class deity. The dispute was about the necessity, the centrality, the indispensability of Christ.

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. This doctrine which finally emerged with the result of assimilating the indispensability of Christ to the monotheism which Christianity inherited from Judaism and which it would not abandon.

The Holy 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. It was only when the battle for the recognition of the Son’s full divinity was in a fair way to being won that the Spirit moved to the centre of the stage.

It has been suggested that this pneumatological development was a kind of lame epilogue or un-happy corollary to the development concerning the Son. Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of the French, Emperor in fact and in form. His brother Joseph was for a period by a kind of creaking imperial logic King of Spain, in form if not in fact. Was this the kind of process by which the Holy Spirit became deified?

It is certainly true that until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians. I do not believe those historians of doctrine who tell us that people like Novatian and Victorinus of Pettau were really Binitarians, but certainly nobody for the first four centuries had seen the necessity of working out a theology of the Spirit and when Athanasius in his Letters to Serapion set out to do so he was not wholly successful.

Further, two of the Cappadocians, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, admit silently that the Scriptural evidence for the Spirit as a distinct hypostasis within the Godhead is inadequate. Basil in his De Spirilu Sancto tries to take refuge in a most unsatisfactory doctrine of secret, unscriptural tradition on the subject. Gregory, though he tacitly rejects Basil’s device, in effect appeals to the experience and practice of the Church to supplement Scripture at this point. It was not that the Scriptures did not declare the Spirit to be divine, but in the matter of their witnessing to his existence as an hypostasis, a distinctly recognizable reality, within the Godhead, they were not contradictory, but insufficient.

Certain points can, however, help us to understand the Cappadocians’ decision that the Holy Spirit must be included in the Trinity and why they wrote of him as they did.

In the first place, Christians have always found it difficult to write about the Holy Spirit, just because he is God as we encounter him. It is always difficult to write about our own religious experience, to stand outside ourselves sufficiently to convey what we know to be true in ourselves.

In the second place the Spirit is God sovereign over time, God overcoming the limits of history and space and time. He is in the NT an eschatological figure. He is Lord of history and his appearance heralds of the ages. It is therefore improper or inconsistent to expect the historical witness which we have in the Bible to his advent to be entirely adequate. Historical documents cannot adequately witness to him who is beyond history as well as in it, who makes past history present for us, who has not yet finished unfolding the history of salvation.

Finally when the Cappadocians decided that having been committed to drastic theological decisions about the Spirit they were being true to the NT. The Holy Spirit is bound up with, inseparable from, Jesus Christ, and if we decided that Christ is divine we cannot in the end withhold divinity from the Spirit. The Cappadocians therefore boldly included the Spirit in their Trinitarian theology.

They resisted a formidable movement to reject the Spirit’s divinity, led not by the shadowy Macedonius, but by that extraordinary and unpredictable character Eustathius of Sebaste. They formulated a full-blooded Trinitarian doctrine and went some distance towards defining the relations of the Persons within the Trinity. The revised Nicene creed of 381 enshrined the conclusions to which they had come without canonizing any one Trinitarian formula.

III Greek Vocabulary and Thought

The last section of this paper must be devoted to comment upon the achievement of the fourth-century theologians. It must be noted that 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, homoeousious, tautousios, heterousios, hyparxis, prosopon, perichoresis, and so on.

In this matter the ancient theologians had in fact no choice. Once the theologians of the early period had, under the influence of the Christian Platonists of Alexandria, abandoned the illusion that Christianity was itself a philosophy rivalling the others, and had realised that their faith needed the aid of philosophy in order to express itself in contemporary and comprehensible terms, then the Church was committed to the necessity of explaining its beliefs in the terminology of Greek philosophy.

One of the lessons learnt by the bitter experience of the Arian Controversy was that you cannot interpret the Bible simply in biblical terms. If your intention is to explain the Bible’s meaning, then on crucial points you must draw your explanation from some other vocabulary apart from that of the Bible. Otherwise you will be left with the old question in another form still unanswered.

The only alternative language available for interpreting the Bible was that of Greek philosophy. Roman philosophy was no more than a pale imitation of Greek. There was no philosophical language available in the tradition of Syriac-speaking Christianity, even had it been comprehensible to the majority of ancient theologians. Indian philosophy, though not wholly unknown, was too remote and too strange to serve their purpose. No other intellectual tools were at their disposal.

This borrowing from Greek philosophy, like all borrowing, exacted a price. The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts. Many of the fundamental assumptions which they made in all their theological writing were those of Greek philosophy, not those of the Old and New Testaments.

Psychology

Their psychology and anthropology were, with few exceptions, largely Stoic or (less frequently) Platonist.

Ethics

Their ethics were for the most part not the ethics of the Bible, involved as these are in particular situations and rule-of-thumb of expressions, not easily detected or identified. The Stoics had developed a consistent and attractive ethical system, and the Christian theologians found it impossible to resist the temptation (if temptation it was) to read this system into the biblical text.

Ontological Immutability

More important was their unanimous assumption that ontological immutability is an essential attribute of God, that under no circumstances could God ever be thought of as coming in contact with the transitory and corruptible or mortal; a concept which is quite alien to the conception of God to be found in the Old and New Testaments.

This axiom had far-reaching effects on their theology. It troubled Athanasius when he had to face the undeniable fact that the Bible represents God as acting in history. He had to fall back on the lame explanation that all the events of salvation history had been eternally predestined by God before the foundation of the world.

The same axiom produced extraordinary results when the pro-Nicene theologians came to envisage the earthly life of Jesus. Almost all the orthodox theologians say that while the Word of course took human flesh, it was not human flesh like ours, but a different sort of purer, sanctified human flesh.

Hilary of Poitiers plunges wildly into Docetism at this point: Christ felt the effect of the blow when he was struck, but not its pain, and so on.

Another consequence of this axiom is that very few theologians of the fourth century appreciate the full force of the dynamic, eschatological language which the NT uses of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. They flatten and blunt this language, transposing it into ontological categories. For Athanasius, as has frequently been observed, the divinity of Christ means his ontological stability.

Inconsistent use – Variety of meanings

But though the fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy, they were by no means consistent in using them. The study of ousia by G.C. Stead in his book Divine Substance has shown how large was the variety of meanings which the Fathers attached to that word, and E.P. Meijering has demonstrated that even in so apparently precise a term as ‘beyond being’, epekeina tes ousias, different writers could attach different meanings to it.

Tension between Philosophy and the Bible

In such obviously unplatonic subjects as the resurrection of the body, the creation of matter out of nothing, and the possibility of an incarnation of God, the Fathers recognized clearly that Christianity manifestly diverged from philosophy and said so. Perhaps the best way to express the situation would be to say that in all their theology there is a tension between the ideas of Greek philosophy and those of the tradition of Christian truth which they inherited, a tension sometimes explicitly realized but more often not, and that in none of them is this tension completely resolved.

While, for instance, they believe that Christ’s humanity could not have been exactly like ours because he was born of a virgin without male human parentage, they also reject the Arian doctrine that incarnation necessarily implies inferiority in the God who is incarnate. Here the tension becomes very visible.

Two Natures Theory

It is perhaps worth noting incidentally, on the subject of consistency, that the Nicene dogma does not entail the Chalcedonian dogma with an iron necessity. On the contrary, the two-nature scheme of Chalcedon might be regarded as drawing back from the full drastic consequences of the Nicene Creed under the influence of a Greek fear of compromising God with human experiences.

Faithfulness to Scripture

How much of faithfulness to Scripture did the Fathers of the fourth century sacrifice? 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.

Certainly all exegetes of whatever color in that period shared common ideas about the Bible which are impossible for us,

Julian the Arian on Job as well as Didymus the Blind on Zechariah; For them most of the Psalms were tape-recordings made by David of conversations held between God the Father, God the Son and the Church.

Very large numbers of passages in the OT spoke to them directly of Christian doctrine which to us are wholly devoid of such reference, e.g. Prov 8:22 which might be called the key-text of the Arian Controversy, and Amos 4:13 which was much adduced by the Macedonians.

The Antiochene preference for eschewing allegory in handling Scripture had scarcely yet appeared in the fourth century; the irresponsible use of allegory abounded, perhaps more among the pro-Nicenes than among the Arians. Julian in his Commentary on Job uses it very little.

But though in detail Patristic interpretation of the Bible can be utterly different from ours today, in several of the points where what one might call the weight or what Athanasius calls the skopos, the main burden or message of Scripture, is concerned they discern clearly enough the true facts.

They recognise at least in theory, as an intellectual proposition, the humanity of Christ, they resist Apollinarianism.

They know that the OT witnesses to God revealing himself in history.

They acknowledge consistently that God can only be known in faith.

They do some justice to the thought of St. Paul, to Augustine almost full justice.

John’s Gospel

Above all, they are deeply influenced by the Fourth Gospel, whereas the Arians are not. This is the crucial point of interpretation where Athanasius has a deeper appreciation of the thought of the NT than his opponents. 

For the Arians, God cannot communicate himself to man, he can only send a well-accredited messenger, because incarnation is a reduction, a diminution of Godhead.

Athanasius accepts the full significance of the doctrine of that Gospel, though he expresses it in terms of Greek ontological thought and though, like all the pro-Nicene theologians, he assumes erroneously that St. John is laying out pre-fabricated Trinitarian doctrine in his pages. But here he shows a vitally important insight into the significance of the NT which the Arians, preoccupied as they were with the incomparability of God, failed to see.

No Precise Formulae

We must also realize that when the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity they did not present it with a formula designed to express that doctrine permanently. There is no universally recognised formula expressing the doctrine of the Trinity, for the Athanasian Creed, which has such a formula, is not an ecumenical creed.

The theologians of the fourth century, though they were quite ready to countenance creeds, did not have the same intense addiction to precise formulae as later ages had, nor the same insistence on precise accuracy as we have.

Auxentius of Milan could say that the creed which he had probably met for the first time when he became bishop of Milan was what he had learnt from his youth up; he was referring to the content, not to the words.

The fact that the members of the council of Constantinople of 381 could regard themselves as reproducing in the creed which they adopted the original formula of 325, which we would regard as a very different document, speaks for itself.

At one point Gregory of Nazianzus, in a letter defending Basil against the charge of refusing to acknowledge openly the divinity of the Holy Spirit, states explicitly that it is not the words that count but the meaning which they convey.

The Cappadocians cannot be accused of spinning theological formulations simply for the sake of creating ever new Greek metaphysical instructions. They were very well aware, as was Athanasius, of the inadequacy of language to express thought about God. It was one of the lessons learnt during the course of the controversy. What the Cappadocians contended for was the shape of Trinitarian doctrine, not for a particular formulation of it. They were emphatically not fighting for a creed, but for a doctrine. That doctrine has since been expressed in different ways by later theologians, by, for instance, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory Palamas, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, but it remains the same doctrine.

Interpretation of Development?

Last of all, we must ask whether this doctrine of the Holy Trinity, achieved after so long and trying an experience of controversy, heart-searching and vicissitude, was an interpretation of the Bible, or whether it should rather be regarded as a development.

If, as I think, we can answer the question originally asked in this paper by saying that the journey was necessary, we must decide what sort of a journey it was.

Of course the doctrine of the Trinity was in a sense an interpretation of the Bible. It began as an attempt to answer the question, how divine is Jesus Christ?, and went on to decide whether God has communicated himself or not. Neither of these questions lie directly on the surface of the Bible, though they are both raised if the Bible’s contents are studied with care and in depth; the Bible does not directly answer either.

The question we deal with here is ultimately that which Newman raised, but did not find an answer, in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. 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, and a development which in its shape, is true and authentic. Christians can honestly worship Jesus Christ and also honestly declare that they are monotheists, but only if they adopt a concept of God which has a Trinitarian shape.

When they profess this doctrine they are not saying precisely what Mark in his first chapter and Paul in the first of Romans were saying, though in different words, just that and nothing more. Time and trial and long thought and ventures into speculation and even into error, both aided and hindered by non-biblical thought, have taught the Church something about the implications of its faith, have assisted towards the gradual unfolding and uncovering of the basic drive and genius and spirit of Christianity here. Development has meant discovery.

R. P. C. HANSON
University of Manchester


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