The conventional account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty.

Purpose

This article is intended as a summary of a lecture that RPC Hanson gave in May 1981.

Hanson is the author of the 1988 book, ‘The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God’, which is still regarded by many scholars to be the finest work on the Arian Controversy of the fourth century. For example, 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, that is comparable to RPC Hanson’s book, in either scale or erudition (See Hart).

In the lecture, Hanson states:

“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.”

By summarizing his lecture, the purpose of this article is to explain why Hanson described the conventional account of the Arian Controversy as a “complete travesty.” Applicable links in this article will take the reader to the relevant parts of that lecture.

Summary of this Article

The Orthodoxy when the Controversy began

In the conventional account, the controversy began when Arius taught “erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ” (link). This implies that an agreed correct doctrine already existed. In contrast, Hanson stated:

“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’, certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople.” (link)

Actually, there was an orthodoxy of some sort. During the first three centuries, Greek philosophy was still a strong force in the Roman Empire. In that philosophy, God is immutable … and is only able to communicate with our world of change and decay through an intermediary. For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world. (link)

During those centuries, Christians were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire. The Apologists (the pre-Nicene fathers) defended Christianity before the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire. For this purpose, they found it effective to identify “the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis.” (link) Since the nous of Greek philosophy was “a second, created god lower than the High God,” (link) the pre-Nicene fathers described Christ as “a subordinate though essential divine agent” (link). Therefore, as Hanson explains, going into the controversy, the orthodoxy was that Christ is subordinate to the Father:

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god” (link)

The pre-Nicene Father did regard Christ as divine, but Hanson noted:

“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.” (link)

In the thinking of the pre-Nicene fathers, “of course Christ was divine,” but since they assumed that many levels of divinity exist, the question that started the Arian Controversy was: “How divine, and what exactly did ‘divine’ mean in that context?” (link)

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

The Holy Spirit

Consistent with the notion that the “orthodoxy” was clear from the start of the Arian Controversy, the conventional account regards the Nicene Creed of 325 as a Trinitarian document.

But that is not true. The emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son with the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being. One indication of this is the lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit in that creed. As Hanson stated, “Until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians.” (link)

Why the Creed of 325 failed

In the conventional account, the controversy continued for another five or six decades after the Nicene Creed of 325 was formulated because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians” (link)

In reality, the controversy continued because the Creed of Nicaea of 325 “ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.” (link)

Simply Two Groups

In the conventional account, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’. But this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.” (link) There was a wide range of views. Essentially, the Arian Controversy was a dispute about the substance of the Son. The range of views included:

      1. Homo-ousians – “Same substance” as the Father;
      2. Hetero-ousians – “Different substance;”
      3. Homo-i-ousians – “Similar substance;” and
      4. Homo-ians – To speculate about the substance of God is arrogance because this is not revealed in the Bible.

Mistakes and Error

In the conventional account, error was confined to the so-called heretics, teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ. In reality, “error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.” (link) “As far as grotesque misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible goes the pro-Nicenes were as distant from accurate interpretation as the Arians.” (link)

In the traditional account, Athanasius is the hero of the orthodoxy. But Hanson noted, “Evidence which has turned up … has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt” (link).

Break with Tradition

In the conventional account of the Arian controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy and incorporated Greek philosophy into their doctrine of God. Actually, it was the other way round: It was Nicene theology that broke away from tradition:

While the pre-Nicene fathers presented Christ as the divine Logos or nous of Greek philosophy; subordinate to the “high God,” Nicene theology elevated Christ to the level of the Father. In this way, Nicene theology broke away from the tradition of Christ as subordinate to the Father and of reliance on Greek philosophy.

Arianism, on the other hand, continued that tradition. As Hanson stated:

“The Arianism of Ulfilas … does present the Son as in effect a demi-god, even though the antecedents of this doctrine are not to be found in pagan religion nor directly in Greek philosophy but in various theological strands to be detected in Christian theology before the fourth century.” (link)

End of the Controversy

In the conventional account of the Arian controversy, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end of that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius already in 380 through the Edict of Thessalonica, which outlawed all forms of Christianity that do not profess the Trinity doctrine.

As Hanson wrote (link):

“Everybody … assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor. …

Theodosius succeeded because … the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church.”

Interpretation of Development?

The principle of Sola Scriptura forces Protestants to prove their beliefs from the Bible. Consequently, in their version of the conventional account of the Arian controversy, Protestants argue that the Nicene Creed is an interpretation of the Bible. In reality, as Hanson stated:

“We must ask whether this doctrine of the Holy Trinity … was an interpretation of the Bible, or whether it should rather be regarded as a development. … I think that a consideration of the whole history of the gradual formation of this doctrine must convince students of the subject that the doctrine of the Trinity is a development …” (link)

END OF SUMMARY

The Conventional Account

The Creed of Constantinople of the year 381 is generally called the Nicene Creed, for it was a revision of the creed formulated at Nicaea in 325 AD. This creed was the answer to the Arian Controversy, which lasted from 318 to 381. Until very recently, in virtually all the text-books, this controversy was described as something like the following:

In AD 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, 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, the controversy continued unabated even after this creed was accepted in ecumenical council.

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

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 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.

The Orthodoxy when the Controversy began

In the conventional account, “Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ” (link). This implies that an agreed correct doctrine did exist. In reality, as Hanson stated:

“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’, certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople” (link).

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 (link).

Hanson’s explanation of the pre-Nicene development of the Christian doctrine of God is most informative. He describes this as follows:

The Bible

“The Bible does not give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God, though it gives us the raw material for this” (link).

The Jewish Dominated Church

During the first century, the church was Jewish dominated and professed “the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum.” Consequently, the church did not yet develop “a specifically Christian doctrine of God.” (link)

The Gentile Dominated Church

During the second century, the church became Gentile-dominated. In the Roman culture, Greek “philosophy was still full of vitality and was actively studied … by the great majority of those who called themselves intellectuals.” However, “Greek philosophy required of any religion … 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, … consistent, defensible, intellectually acceptable.” Now, “the pressure to produce a specifically Christian doctrine of God became unavoidable.” (link)

The Apologists

“The first attempt at this task was made by the group of writers whom we call the Apologists” (link).

(Since the word “apologist” also has a general meaning, I like to refer to the Apologists of the first three centuries as the pre-Nicene fathers. They are the theologians who had to defend Christianity while it still was being persecuted by the Roman Empire and often had to pay with their lives, e.g. Justin Martyr and Origen.)

“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” (link).

The Apologists were themselves trained in Greek philosophy and used philosophical terms to explain Christianity; often without reference to the Bible. As Hanson stated:

“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” (link)

For that reason, similar to the way in which Paul used the altar to the “unknown god” to explain the God of the Bible (Acts 17:23-24), the pre-Nicene fathers “used to great effect several features of contemporary Greek philosophy … to construct their doctrines of God. They identified the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy” (link).

But, for the same reason, they gave “no very great attention … to the witness of the Bible” (link).

Iranaeus and Tertullian “paid much more attention to Scripture … (and) made more room for the Holy Spirit in their doctrine of God … 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” (link).

“Origen produced something like a theological revolution … but he did not alter most of its main features. … He still envisaged the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father” and as “the means whereby the supreme God, the Father, was protected from embarrassingly close relation to the world” (Origen).

This picture of God was the “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was, in differing form, the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted” (link).

This … Christian doctrine of God … made Christ … not by reason of his incarnation but by reason of his very nature apart from the incarnation, a defused, depotentiated version of God.” The effect of this “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.” (link)

The pre-Nicene Father did regard Christ as divine, but Hanson noted:

“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.” (link)

Conclusion

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)

“They could hardly be said to have developed a recognisably Trinitarian scheme” (link).

In conclusion, although Hanson says that, at the beginning of the controversy, there was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine Jesus is, he does use phrases such as “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God” and “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century.” In other words, there was no agreement on how divine Christ is, but there was agreement that He is not as divine as the Father.

Why the Creed of 325 failed

In the conventional account, the controversy continued for another five or six decades after the Nicene Creed was formulated in AD 325 because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.”

In reality, the controversy continued because the Creed of Nicaea of 325 “ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period” (link). For a discussion, see Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

The Holy Spirit

Consistent with the notion that the “orthodoxy” was clear from the start of the Arian Controversy, the conventional account assumes that the Nicene Creed of 325 is a Trinitarian document. But that is not the case. The emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son with the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being. One indication of this is the lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit in that creed. As Hanson stated (link):

“Of course the theologians of the side which was ultimately victorious included the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In a sense this was an afterthought, because the theme of the Son occupied the screen, so to speak, right up to the year to the year 360.”

“Until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians. … Certainly nobody for the first four centuries had seen the necessity of working out a theology of the Spirit.”

Simply Two Groups

In the conventional account, the bishops and theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’. But this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.” (link)

The Arian Controversy was not only a struggle between two sides: There was a wide range of views. The Wikipedia page on the Arian controversy lists various “sides:”

Homoousians, from the word “homo-ousion” in the Nicene Creed, taught that the Son is of the “same substance” as the Father.

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 early on in the controversy.

The Homo-i-ousians were somewhere midway between the Homoousians and Heteroousians. They also rejected the word Homoousian and maintained that Christ is of a “similar substance” rather than of the “same substance.”

But perhaps the Homoians were the people that rebelled most against the word homoousion, because they claimed that it is utter arrogance to speculate about the substance of God because this is not revealed in the Bible. They demanded Sola Scriptura. The moist that they were willing to say is that the Son is similar to the Father, but without referring to the substance of God.

As indicated by how often the word ousia (substance) appear the names of these “sides,” the Arian controversy was not about the entire Nicene Creed, but specifically about the key word in the creed: Homoousion, meaning same substance. In other words, essentially, it was a controversy about the relationship between the substance of God and the substance of His Son.

End of the Controversy

In the conventional account of the Arian controversy, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end of that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end in the preceding year by Emperor Theodosius through the Edict of Thessalonica, in which he outlawed all forms of Christianity that do not profess the Trinity doctrine. As Hanson wrote (link):

“Everybody … assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor. … The end was at last gained when an Emperor had secured a genuine consensus for one point of view and was able to enforce it.”

“Constantine, Constans, Constantius, and Valens … failed because … they in fact were not supported by a consensus in the Church at large. … Theodosius succeeded because … the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church. … It succeeded, not because it was coercion but because it was coercion backed by general assent.”

With respect to this “consensus,” Hanson stated:

“The solution did not emanate directly either from Rome or from Alexandria.” “The great articulators of the doctrine of the Trinity, were the three Cappadocian fathers“ (link).

To support this last statement, Hanson mentions an incident in the year 375 where the Pope of Rome and the archbishop of Alexandria opposed Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East. (link)

Mistakes and Serious Faults

In the conventional account, error was confined to the so-called heretics; wicked and designing bishops, teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ. In reality:

“Mistakes and faults were not confined to the upholders of anyone particular doctrine, and cannot all be grouped under the heading of a wicked Arian conspiracy” (link).

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

“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.” (link)

“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” (link).

Confused Terminology

In the conventional account, the battle lines were clear from the start. In reality (link):

“The repeated confusion caused by the use of the same terms by different writers in different senses … 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.”

With regard to Hanson’s comment about East” and “West:”

The West, with Rome as main centre, was generally in support of the Nicene creed. However, the easterners described that creed as Sabellian, which is a form of modalism, where the Father and the Son are mere two different faces of one single Person.

The East, where Christianity originated, generally opposed the Nicene Creed and were, for that reason, criticised as Arians by the West.

However, as Hanson pointed out, these views were based on an “equal lack of discrimination and accuracy.” Nevertheless, to an extent, the Arian controversy was a struggle between the East and the West.

As further evidence of confused terminology, Hanson stated:

“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” (link).

Break with Tradition / Orthodoxy

In the conventional account of the Arian controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into their doctrine of God. Actually, it was the other way round: It was Nicene theology that deviated from tradition. To explain:

The Tradition

“A major principle in Greek philosophy was that 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 (a divine logos) as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world.

As discussed above:

The pre-Nicene fathers used this concept to explain Christ to the Gentile world as the divine Logos or nous of Greek philosophy. Hanson explains this as that the pre-Nicene fathers had “the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (link).

As a consequence of this approach, the pre-Nicene Fathers were all subordinationists. Even Tertullian and Origen, who described the Son as of the same substance as the Father, regarded Christ as subordinate to the Father.

Nicene theology

Nicene theology, by elevating Christ to the level of the Father, broke with the tradition of Christ as subordinate to the Father and pushed back on this reliance on Greek philosophy by the pre-Nicene fathers. As Hanson stated (link):

“What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device … In this respect at least they fought an example of the Hellenisation of the gospel, they rejected the allurements of Greek philosophy.”

“In the place of this old but inadequate Trinitarian tradition the champions of the Nicene faith substituted another which was more in accordance with the pressure towards monotheism … and that also did justice to the ancient practice of worshipping Christ.”

However, this means that it was the Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church; not the Arians. (See also: What was the ‘orthodox’ view of God and Christ when the Arian Controversy began?)

Arianism

While Nicene theology pushed back on notions of Greek philosophy, Arianism continued the traditional teaching of the pre-Nicene Fathers of Christ as subordinate to the Father and their reliance on Greek philosophy. As Hanson stated:

“Indeed if we want a beautiful example of Hellenisation of Christianity we can turn to the most extreme of the Arians, Eunomius … who had an unbounded confidence in the capacity of Greek metaphysics … to scale all the heights of knowledge of the divine” (link).

“For the Arians, God cannot communicate himself to man, he can only send a well-accredited messenger” (link)

“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.” (link)

In other words, the subordinationist views of Arianism did not originate from Greek philosophy or from paganism but was a continuation of the pre-Nicene orthodoxy.

Nicene theology still uses Greek thought.

However, to say that Nicene theology was a complete break with Greek Philosophy would not be correct. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and ousia, they also thought Greek thoughts. A key example of this is the Greek notion that God could never come into contact with this corruptible or mortal world. Since this is contrary to the idea that Jesus is God, this Greek notion resulted in strange conceptual maneuvering by the pro-Nicene theologians. As Hanson stated (link):

“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.”

“One of the lessons learnt by the bitter experience of the Arian Controversy was that you cannot interpret the Bible simply in biblical terms. … The only alternative language available for interpreting the Bible was that of Greek philosophy.”

“This borrowing from Greek philosophy … exacted a price. The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts.”

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

“Their ethics were for the most part not the ethics of the Bible … The Stoics had developed a consistent and attractive ethical system, and the Christian theologians found it impossible to resist the temptation … to read this system into the biblical text.” (link)

“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.” (link)

“This 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.” (link)

Two Natures Theory

“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.” (link)

This shows that, even in the year 451, the pro-Nicene fathers were still subject to the principles and thoughts of Greek philosophy.

Interpretation of Development?

In the Protestant version of the conventional account of the Arian controversy, where Sola Scriptura forces Protestants to prove their beliefs from the Bible, the Nicene Creed is claimed to be an interpretation of the Bible. In reality, as Catholics are freer to admit, the creed, for example when it talks about the substance of God, deals with things that have not been revealed in the Bible. As Hanson stated (link):

“The doctrine of the Trinity … 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. … the Bible does not directly answer either.”

“We must ask whether this doctrine of the Holy Trinity … was an interpretation of the Bible, or whether it should rather be regarded as a development. … I think that a consideration of the whole history of the gradual formation of this doctrine must convince students of the subject that the doctrine of the Trinity is a development …”

“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.”

In Hanson’s opinion, not even the high Christology passages of the Bible “give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God” (link).

Inclusion of the Holy Spirit – a development

Modalism (Sabellianism) merged the Persons of the Father and the Son into one Person, but that idea was already evaluated and rejected prior to the Arian Controversy. The debate during the Arian Controversy, with respect to the Son, was how divine He is.

In contrast, with respect to the Holy Spirit, the debate was not whether He/It is divine, but whether He/It is a separate Person. Nicene theology makes Him a separate Person but, as the Cappadocians admitted, that is not clear in the Bible:

“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. … 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.” (link)

This supports the idea that Nicene theology is development, rather than simply an interpretation of the Bible.

Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine
– Available Articles –

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Nicene Creed – AD 325

Fourth Century Arianism

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Fifth Century Arianism

Sixth Century

Later developments

Trinity – General

Church fathers described Jesus as “our god” but it is translated “our God.”

Introduction

A number of the Christian writers of the first 300 years referred to Jesus as “our God,” including Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus. Trinitarian apologists use such phrases to argue that the church fathers, even before Nicene, believed that Jesus is God. To prevent a repetition of the explanation of this practice in various articles, this article focuses on this topic.

This article focuses specifically on the early church fathers, but various other articles are available on this site that discuss the references to Jesus as God in the New Testament, including, Is Jesus called God?, Romans 9:5, Hebrews 1:8, John 1:1, John 1:18, John 20:28, and Is Jesus called God in John?       

Jesus is our God

IGNATIUS

Ignatius of Antioch describes the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God.”

Irenaeus, similarly, referred to Christ Jesus as “our God” but also wrote:

We received the faith in “One God, the Father Almighty.”

Lord God of Abraham …
who art the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God … who rulest over all, who art the only and the true God, above whom there is none other God (Against Heresies 3.6.4)

He, the Father, is the only God and Lord, who alone is God and ruler of all… (Against Heresies 3.9.1)

This confusion does not exist in the original text but is caused by the translations. To explain:

The modern word “God”

The term “God” is defined as “the supreme or ultimate reality” (Merriam-Webster), as “a being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe” (The Free Dictionary) and as “the Supreme Being; the Creator and Ruler of all that is; the Self-existent One who is perfect in power, goodness, and wisdom” (GotQuestions.org).

As such, in modern English, we use the word “God” to identify one specific Being. It functions as a proper name for the Almighty; the One who exists without Cause (unconditionally).

The ancient word theos

The ancient languages did not have the modern differentiation between lower- and upper-case letters. And since the Old Testament name of God (YHVH) does not appear in the New Testament, the New Testament Greek and the ancient church fathers did not have a word that is equivalent to the modern word “God.” They only had words (theos in Greek) that are equivalent to our word “god.” The word “god” does not identify one specific being, but is used for a category of beings. Greek philosophers did have a sense of a supreme Being, that is the Origin of all else, and to whom we would refer as God, but did the Greeks not have a special word for that Being.

For example, in the Graeco-Roman world, they had a plethora of gods. Even the emperors were called gods. Paul confirmed, “indeed there are many gods and many lords” (1 Cor 8:5). Given this meaning of theos, the God of the Bible is one of the “gods” beings identified as theos (.

Describes many different beings

Words such as theos and the Hebrew equivalents, therefore, had a much broader range of meaningd than the modern word “God.” In additional to the gods of the nations, for example, the Bible refers to the following as “god:”

Moses at the burning bush

● Moses (Exodus 7.1),
● Angels (Psalm 8.5; cf. Hebrews 2.7),
● The divine council (Psalm 82: 1, 6),
● Israel’s judges (Exo 21:6, 22:8),
● The Davidic king (Psalm 45:6),
● Appetite (Phil 3:19),
● Those who receive the word of God (John 10:34-35) (see the article in this verse), and
● Satan (2 Cor 4.4).

Outside the Bible, the ancients also applied theos and similar words to exalted people and to the pagan gods, such as Zeus, the god of the sky, Apollo, god of the sun, Hermes, god of the roadways, and Hades, the god of the underworld. 

Theos in the Bible

Since theos was used to refer to a wide variety of beings, the writers of the New Testament used a variety of techniques to refer to the one true theos. The main technique is simply the context. Very frequently, they added the definite article (the – ho in Greek) to indicate that the only true theos is intended. Sometimes they described Him as the “only true theos” (John 17:3) or as “the one and only theos” (John 5:44) or as the “one theos” (1 Cor 8:6).

Given that the ancient word theos (god) basically means a powerful, immortal being, it was quite natural and appropriate for the Bible writers and the first Christian apologists to refer to the Son as theos. Nevertheless, for them, the Father remained the only true god. 

Translations cause confusion

So the original text is clear. All we have in the Greek Bible is the word theos which has a broad range of meanings. Literally translated, Ignatius wrote that the Father is “the only true god” and the Son is “our god.” Virtually all orthodox theologians prior to the Arian controversy in the latter half of the fourth century were subordinationists to some extent (Badcock, Gary D. (1997), Light of Truth and Fire of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 43.) Origen, arguably the greatest theologists before the fourth century, was a subordinationist, meaning he believed that the Father was superior to the Son (La Due, William J. (2003), Trinity Guide to the Trinity, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, p. 38) (Olson, Roger E.; Hall, Christopher A. (2002), The Trinity, p. 25.) 

The translations cause the confusion:

When translators understand, given the context, that the Almighty is intended, they translate theos as “God.”

The Trinity doctrine, which describes Jesus as co-equal with the Almighty Father; the Unconditional Cause of all things, is generally accepted in the church. Given this doctrine, when theos refers to Jesus, translators also translate it as “God” rather than as “god.”

Whether that is correct depends on whether the Trinity doctrine is valid. But the point is that translations are driven by a doctrine of the church rather than by the literal meaning of the text.

To translate John 17:3, where Jesus identifies the Father as “the only true theos,” as the only true God” is illogical because the word “God” is not a category name. It would have been more logical to translate this as “the only true god.” Alternatively, since there is but one true god, the phrase “the only true theos” may be translated simply as “God.”

Is Jesus God or god?

Whether we should translate theos, when it describes Jesus, as “God” or as “god” depends on what we mean by the word “God” and by whom we understand Jesus to be. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, described the Father as the only true god. If he lived today,

I think he would have preferred to translate his reference to Jesus as “god.”

Nevertheless, Ignatius also described Jesus Christ in very elevated terms:

He is “the only-begotten Son.” This sets Him infinitely above all other beings, for it means that He came forth from the being of the Father.

He was begotten “before time began” and Himself was “being life.”

Ignatius described the Father alone as “unbegotten.” In other words, only the Father exists unconditionally without cause. But still, Jesus is extremely close to the Father. It is therefore quite possible to define the modern word “God” to include “the only-begotten Son.” Then we can translate theos, when it refers to Jesus, as “God.” That, however, would not make us Trinitarians, for the Father and the Son are not equal and they are not one Being.  

Perhaps this is all very confusing and complex. I guess my simple main point is this:

The fact that the translator capitalized the “G” cannot be used to support the Trinity doctrine for it is an interpretation that assumes the Trinity doctrine. For a further explanation, see The Meanings of the Word THEOS.

Summary

The word “God” did not exist in ancient Greek texts. We use the modern word “God” as the proper name for the One who exists without cause. 

The ancients did not have such a word. They only had the word “god” (theos in Greek). This word was used for a wide variety of beings, such as Moses, angels, Israel’s judges, appetite, those who receive the word of God, Satan, and also for the only true god. 

The ancient writers described Jesus as “our god” and the Father as “the only true god.”  The translators capitalize the “G,” when theos refers to Jesus, but that is an interpretation. It is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of it. It must not be used to support the Trinity doctrine.

Articles in this series

Christology of the persecuted church (First 300 years)
 – Introduction
 – Polycarp
 – Justin Martyr 
 – Ignatius of Antioch
 – Irenaeus
 – Tertullian – work in progress

 – Origen – work in progress
 – Jesus is our god. – Current Article

Fourth Century (State Church)
 – Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
 – The Nicene Creed Interpreted 
 – Fourth Century Arianism 

 – What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
 – Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
 – Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius

Fifth Century
 – Fall of the Western Roman Empire
 – Why the Roman Empire fell 
 – The Fall of Rome proves Daniel as a true prophecy.

Middle Ages
 – The massacres of the Waldensians