What were the issues in the Fourth-Century Arian Controversy?

The greatest controversy in the church of all time – the Arian Controversy of the fourth century – was a dispute over the identity of Jesus Christ: Is He God or is He subordinate to God?

The controversy began in AD 318 when presbyter Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ.

After this dispute spread over a large part of the Roman Empire, emperor Constantine called a church council in Nicaea in the year 325 where the famous Nicene Creed was formulated.

However, that creed failed to end the controversy. It continued for another 56 years until AD 381 when the Nicene Creed was revised at the Council of Constantinople. So, the controversy lasted from 318 to 381. When it came to an end, all the initial participants in that controversy were already dead.

The purpose of this article is to identify the main issues in that controversy. It addresses the following questions:

    1. What was the orthodox view of Christ when the controversy began?
    2. Why did the Nicene Creed of AD 325 fail to end the controversy?
    3. Did that creed describe God as a Trinity?
    4. What were the competing views?
    5. What role did the emperors play in the controversy?
    6. What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?
    7. How was the Controversy brought to an end?

This article relies, to a great extent, on the writings of RPC Hanson, a bishop and a trinitarian, who made the most extensive investigation of the Arian Controversy available to us today.

1. What was the orthodox view of Christ?

It is often said that Arius and his supporters, motivated by Greek philosophy rather than by the Bible, proposed a dangerous deviation from the orthodox view.

But Hanson stated that, at the beginning of the controversy, nobody knew the right answer and “there was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?”

But that is not entirely true either. There was a kind of orthodoxy on this question:

During the second century, after Christianity became Gentile-dominated, but while Christianity still was outlawed and persecuted by the Roman Empire, it became standard practice in the church to use Greek philosophy to explain who the Son is (see – The Apologists):

Greek philosophy postulated an intermediary between the high God and the physical world. This intermediary was known as the Nous or the Logos. The Apologists – the church theologians in the time before it was legalized in AD 313 – identified the Son of God as the Logos of Greek philosophy. As such, they explained Him as “begotten or produced or put forward by the Father” as His agent for creating the world. 

But that identification of Christ also meant that they described the Son as “a subordinate though essential divine agent.” In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God.

Hanson does not describe this as the orthodox view at the time but as:

The “traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century,” and as

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century.”

This was, therefore, the standard explanation of Christ when the Arian Controversy began.

“The second-rate or third-rate writers of the period,” Hanson added, even “present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God.” So, Arius’ view of Christ, as a created Being subordinate to the Father, was not a new development, but it was a minority view before the Arian Controversy began.

Arius’ view of Christ was indeed based on Greek philosophy, but that was also not something new: It was the standard practice of all the main Christian authors of the previous two centuries.

In contrast, the Nicene Creed of 325, which emphasizes the equality of the Son to the Father, was a deviation from the “tradition,” which viewed Christ as subordinate to the high God.

2. Why did the Nicene Creed Fail?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the creed of 325 failed to end the controversy because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.”

But Hanson explains that the creed failed because it “ultimately confounded the confusion.” The creed introduced words from Greek philosophy (homoousion and hypostasis) and used these words in such a way as to imply that the Father and the Son are one and the same Reality or Person (hypostasis in the Greek). This is explained below. See – Nicene Creed.

At the council, Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including these concepts from Greek philosophy, the creed created a new and different problem. The controversy continued after 325 because the church had to find a solution to this new problem.

3. Does the Creed of 325 describe God as a Trinity?

No, that creed does not describe God as a Trinity. For example:

Firstly, the creed begins by identifying the Father as the “one God” in whom we believe.

Secondly, the emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son to the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being.

Thirdly, “until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians” (see – Spirit).

Fourthly, “the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity” (see – No Precise formulae), and all three of them were born after AD 325.

4. What were the competing views?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and ‘Arian’. But Hanson describes that as “a grave misunderstanding” (see – Two views). There were at least four competing views:

The pro-Nicenes taught that the Son is of the same substance (homo-ousian) as the Father, as indicated by the Nicene Creed.

Arius and his supporters held that the Son is of a different substance (Hetero-ousian).

Another group that became quite dominant during the controversy rejected “same substance” but argued that Christ is of a similar substance (Homo-i-ousian). 

The view that was finally accepted in the Council of Constantinople in AD 359 (not 381) claimed that it is utter arrogance and sin to speculate about the substance of God (Homo-ians).

The post-325-Arian controversy, therefore, was specifically about the word Homoousion (same substance) in the Creed; not about the entire Nicene Creed.

5. What was the role of the emperors in the controversy?

In this debate, the emperors always had the final say. When the emperor was an Arian, the church was Arian but when the emperor supported the Nicene side, the church followed. The relationship between church and state was very different from what it is today. For all practical purposes, the emperor was the head or Pope of the church. (See Boyd.) For example:

Emperor Constantius (337-361) was an Arian. When a church council in AD 359 did not adopt a view that he supported, he banished some of the delegates. Thereafter, the council adopted a Homoian creed, which the emperor supported.

Emperor Valens (364-378) also was an Arian. He ensured that an Arian is installed as archbishop, banished and imprisoned some pro-Nicene clergy, put them to forced labor, and subjected them to taxes from which Arian clergy were exempt.

Emperor Theodosius (379-395) was a Trinitarian. He took persecution to a different level and made an end to Arianism in the Roman Empire. He issued an edict stating that all Roman citizens must believe in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” He banished the Arian bishops of the main cities in the empire and made laws making it illegal for Arians to preach and to meet. He instructed his soldiers to give all Arian church buildings to Trinitarian bishops.

6. What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into its doctrine of God. But that is not true. The theology of Arius and other Arians was indeed heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. But that was not because they deviated from the tradition: They inherited this reliance on Greek philosophy from the Apologists of the previous two centuries. (see – Divine)

It was Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church by reducing the reliance on Greek philosophy: “What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (see – Destroyed).

But that does not mean that Nicene theology was or is free from the influence of Greek philosophy. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and homoousion, the Nicene theologians also thought Greek thoughts (see – Greek Thoughts).

Furthermore, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism developed to remove all traces of Greek philosophy from itself. Finally, in AD 359, at a council in Constantinople, Arianism adopted the Homoian view according to which we should not say more about the nature of God and of Christ than what we find in the Bible.

The Trinity doctrine, on the other hand, roughly speaking, is that God is three Persons but one Being. That concept of one “Being” comes from the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed, which says that the Son is homoousion (of the same substance) as the Father. This idea is directly borrowed from Greek philosophy.

So, while Arianism eventually was able to rid itself of Greek philosophy, the Trinity doctrine of today is based on Greek philosophy.

7. How was the Controversy brought to an end?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the council of Constantinople in AD 381 made an end to that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius:

Already in the previous year, in February 380, he made the Trinity doctrine law and outlawed Arianism (see – the Edict of Thessalonica).

In November 380, he exiled the Arian bishops of the main centers of the empire.1The Search – pages 804-5

In January 381, he banned all Arian church meetings.2The Search – page 805

Then he called a council to meet in Constantinople but only Trinitarians were allowed to attend.3The Search – pages 805-6

Boyd mentions another decree that was issued later in 381, which stipulated that all churches must be delivered to the bishops who profess the doctrine prescribed by the State.

The Arian Controversy, therefore, was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius. This reflects the absence of separation between church and state. As discussed, in practice, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church.

Conclusions

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.”

Secondly, the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by a church council but by a Roman Emperor and enacted as a Roman law. As such, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church that has accepted that law, has thereby become part of the Roman Empire. Consequently, it received great authority from the Roman Empire but it also served the purposes of the Roman Empire.

Today, the Roman Empire no longer exists but the spiritual children of that church that became part of the Roman Empire still exist. Since that church received its authority from the Roman Empire, its children today continue the authority of that ancient empire.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Purpose

The book, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381, by RPC Hanson – a bishop and a trinitarian – first published in 1988, is still considered by many scholars to be the finest work on the Arian Controversy of the fourth century (e.g., Hart).

This article, to a large degree, is based on a lecture that Hanson gave in 1981 in which he explained the Arian Controversy. A copy of that lecture is available on this website. Hanson’s main point in this lecture is that the traditional account of that controversy, to be found till very recently in virtually all textbooks, is a “complete travesty” (see – Travesty). The current article frequently quotes from Hanson’s lecture but it also quotes from his book.

This article provides an overview of the history that begins with the first-century Christian view of Christ and the views of the Christian Apologists in the second and third centuries when Christianity was still outlawed and persecuted by the Roman authorities. Christianity was legalized in the year 313. The controversy began five years later.

This article compares the traditional account of this controversy to actual history.

In this article, I refer to the Nicene view as the view reflected in the creed of 325, as revised in the creed of 381, and as it was later developed further in the subsequent decades, for example, by the two natures theory of the Creed of Chalcedon of 451. Hanson describes the final outcome of this view as follows:

“They developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word ‘Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (See – Destroyed)

In the traditional account (see – Traditional):

    • When the controversy began in AD 318, an orthodox view of the nature of God and Christ already existed.
    • But Arius and his supporters, motivated by Greek philosophy rather than by the Bible, proposed a dangerous deviation from that orthodox view.
    • Emperor called for a church council to meet in Nicaea in AD 325 to end the controversy. But that failed to bring the controversy to an end because of crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians.
    • Supporters of the orthodoxy, particularly Athanasius of Alexandria, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile.
    • Ultimately, the council of Constantinople in the year 381 made an end to that controversy; right prevailed, and the forces of error and wickedness represented by the Arians were defeated.

First Century

During the first century, Christianity professed “the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum.” The church professed one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person (see Jewish). In other words, at that time, the church simply repeated the words of the New Testament.

The Apologists

During the second century, Christianity became Gentile-dominated. At that time, Greek philosophy still dominated the intellectual world of the Roman Empire, and this intellectual culture required Christianity (and all other religions) to give a rational account of itself and its god (see – Gentile).

During those centuries, while Christianity still was outlawed and persecuted by the Roman Empire, the group of writers whom we call the Apologists accepted the responsibility of explaining the God of the Bible to the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire (see Apologists). Some of them had to pay with their lives, e.g. Justin Martyr and Origen.

A Divine Logos

These Apologists were themselves very familiar with Greek philosophy and (unfortunately?)  used Greek philosophy to explain who Christ is; often without reference to the Bible. Hanson explains:

“They were writing mostly for non-Jews and non-Christians. Such a public demanded philosophical consistency but no very great attention … to the witness of the Bible” (see – Not Bible Based)

A fundamental principle in Greek philosophy is that God is “immutable” and, therefore, unable to communicate directly with “our world of change and decay” (see – Apologists). For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis (a divine logos) as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world (see – Greek Philosophy).

The Apologists used this concept and “identified the pre-existent Christ … with the nous” of Greek philosophy (see – Greek Philosophy). As such, they explained Him as the agent for creating the world and also as the means through which the supreme Divinity revealed himself in the world. Hanson explains that the Apologists had “the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device” (see – Destroyed).

Subordinate

But that identification of Christ also meant that they described the Son as a subordinate divine agent of the high God. In their view; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God.

Iranaeus and Tertullian put relatively less emphasis on Greek philosophy and “paid much more attention to Scripture … but their fundamental theological structure was the same as that of the Apologists. The Logos was begotten or produced or put forward by the Father as his instrument or tool for communicating with the world, a subordinate though essential divine agent” (see – Irenaeus).

“Origen produced something like a theological revolution … but … he still envisaged the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father” and as “the means whereby the supreme God, the Father, was protected from embarrassingly close relation to the world” (see – Origen).

This does not refer to the Son after His incarnation: In this theory, the pre-existent Son always was subordinate to the High God:

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

Theos and Deus

Readers who are familiar with the writings of the Apologists will know that such writings refer to Jesus as “God” and may recognize that that is inconsistent with the Apologists’ view of the pre-existent Son as “a created god lower than the High God.” The words which the Apologists used, which are sometimes translated as “God,” are the Greek word theos and its Latin equivalent deus. Hanson explains:

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

When theos (or deus) is used to describe the Almighty, it should be translated as “God.” However, since it has “a wide variety of meanings,” when it refers to lower-level beings, it must be translated as “god.”

When translators come across the words theos and deus in the writings of the Apologists and are ignorant of the views of the Apologists as explained above, and read such references through the lens of the later developed Trinity doctrine, in which the Son is equal with the Almighty, they tend to translate such instances of theos as “God.” But that would be an application of the Trinity doctrine and inconsistent with the intention of the Apologists. In their thinking; of course the Son is divine; but not as divine as the high God. For further discussion, see – the dedicated article Theos.

The Beginning of the Controversy

In the traditional account:

The controversy began in AD 318 when a presbyter called Arius “was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ” (see – Traditional).

This statement implies that an agreed correct doctrine did exist at that time. In contrast, Hanson stated:

“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?” (see – Beginning)

Nevertheless, Hanson does describe the view of the Apologists as:

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

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god … a second, created god lower than the High God” (see – Divine).

The phrases such as “traditional … doctrine of God” and “conventional Trinitarian doctrine” imply substantial consensus. There was no agreement on HOW divine Christ is, but there was agreement that He is subordinate to the Father. If we define “orthodoxy” as “generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice,” then the view of the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father was orthodox at that time.

“The second-rate or third-rate writers of the period,” Hanson added, even “present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God.” So, Arius’ view of Christ, as a created Being subordinate to the Father, was consistent with the lower end of the spectrum of views before the Arian Controversy began.

Arius’ view of Christ was indeed based on Greek philosophy, but that was not something he did: It was the general view of all the main Christian authors of the previous two centuries.

In contrast, the Nicene Creed of 325, which emphasized the equality of the Son to the Father, was a deviation from ‘orthodoxy’.

The Creed of 325

Emperor Constantine called a General Council at Nicaea in 325 which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy. However, after the creed was accepted in ecumenical council, the controversy continued unabated.

Why did the creed fail?

In the traditional account, the creed of 325 failed to bring the controversy to an end because of “crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians” (see – Traditional).

But Hanson stated that the creed failed because it:

Ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period” (see – Nicene Creed).

To explain the reference to Sabellianism: The creed anathematizes all “who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance.” In other words, the Son and the Father are one single hypostasis. Hypostasis is often translated as “person” but, to use Hanson’s explanation of the word, the creed implies that the Son and the Father are one single “reality.” This is Modalism, namely, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simply are three modes in which the one God appears. This would mean, for example, that Jesus prayed to Himself. This idea has been proposed and rejected a century before the Arian Controversy began. For further discussion, see Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

So, what happened at the council is that Arius was heard but soon rejected. But then, by including these words from Greek philosophy in the creed, the council created a new and different problem. The Post-325 controversy had to deal with this new problem; not with the Arius-problem.

Why did the creed use such non-Biblical words?

The words ousia, hypostasis, and homoousios originate from Greek philosophy; not from the Bible. One may ask why the council used this terminology:

Firstly, it was standard practice in the church during the previous centuries to explain Christ in terms of Greek philosophy. In other words, the delegates to the council were familiar with these terms.

Secondly, in another article, the most respected theologian at the council (Eusebius of Caesarea) explains that the council accepted these words because the emperor Constantine was present in the meeting, proposed the word homoousios and insisted on its inclusion.

Thirdly, Athanasius explained that the term homoousion was inserted in the Creed – not because it is necessarily the best word – but as a means to force the Arians to reject the Creed.4The Search … p162

The keyword in the 325 Creed is homoousion which means “same substance.” The creed uses it to say that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Hanson states that this word falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after 325 and is not heard of for over twenty years. This implies that this was not a word that the theologians generally were using before 325 and supports the evidence that Constantine proposed and insisted on this word. Most of the delegates were distinctly uncomfortable with this and the other words sourced from Greek philosophy. (See, Eusebius of Caesarea.)

Does the Creed of 325 describe God as a Trinity?

Consistent with the notion that the “orthodoxy” was clear from the start of the Arian Controversy, some assume that the Nicene Creed of 325 described God as a Trinity. But that is not the case:

Firstly, the creed begins by identifying the Father as the “one God” in whom we believe:

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of all things visible and invisible

Secondly, the emphasis of that creed was only the equality of the Son to the Father; not the notion of three Persons but one Being.

Thirdly, the creed does not describe the Holy Spirit as God or equal to God. Hanson stated (see – Spirit):

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

“Until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians.”

Hanson also stated that “the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity” (see – No Precise formulae), and all three of them were born after AD 325.

What were the competing views?

As stated, the controversy continues for another 56 years after Nicaea in AD 325. In the traditional account, the theologians taking part in the controversy are divided simply into two groups; ‘orthodox’ and ‘Arian’. But Hanson states that this “is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs” (see – Two views). There were at least four 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.

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 afterward.

Similar Substance – The Homo-i-ousians were somewhere between the Homo-ousians and Hetero-ousians. They also rejected the word Homo-ousion and maintained that Christ is of a “similar substance” rather than of the “same substance.”

Like the Father – The Homo-ians claimed that it is utter arrogance and sin to speculate about the substance of God because the Bible does not say anything about His substance. The most that they were willing to say is that the Son is like the Father because that is what the Scripture teaches (Col 1:15), but they were not willing to refer to the substance of God.

As indicated by how often the word ousia (substance) appears in the names of these “sides,” the post-325-Arian controversy was not about the entire Nicene Creed. The controversy was specifically about the relationship between the substance of God and the substance of His Son. As such, it was a dispute about the key word in the creed: Homoousion. 

For these reasons, as Hanson indicated (See – Traditional Account), it is not quite accurate to refer to it as the Arian Controversy. The word “Arian” comes from the name of the man Arius and he represented only one of the four parties listed above, namely, the Hetero-ousion party. Furthermore, his party was a minority view.

Nevertheless, this article continues to use the term Arianism as including all “sides” other than the “same substance” side.

What was the role of the emperors in the controversy?

Hanson stated that, as succeeding Emperors joined the anti-Nicenes later in the controversy, the Nicene side of the controversy was almost completely eclipsed (see – Traditional Account). This implies the impact of the emperors on the controversy. In reality, the emperors always had the final say in this debate. When the emperor was an Arian, the church was Arian but when the emperor supported the Nicene side, the church followed. For all practical purposes, the emperor was the head or Pope of the church. For example:

Constantius (337-361)

In 359, the western bishops met in Ariminum and accepted a Homoian creed. At the same time, the eastern bishops met in Seleucia and accepted a Homoiousian creed. Emperor Constantius (Constantine’s son) did not accept this outcome and called for another council in the same year in Constantinople where both the eastern and western bishops were present. In the initial debate, the Heteroousians defeated the Homoiousians. However, Constantius did not accept this outcome either and banished some of the delegates. Thereafter the council agreed to the Homoian creed that was agreed to at Ariminum, with minor modifications.

Valens (364-378)

In his book, Hanson explains that emperor Valens was a convinced Homoian Arian and that he used the power of the state to promote his favorite doctrine and suppress others. Hanson mentions several incidents. Valens 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 other clergies were exempt. But, Hanson states, “his efforts at persecution were sporadic and unpredictable.”5The Search, pages 791-792

Theodosius (379-395)

Theodosius succeeded Valens. Theodosius was declared Emperor and Augustus (i.e. equal with, not subordinate to, Gratian) on January 19th 379. In February 380, while residing in Thessalonica, he issued an edict that declared the Trinity to be the official doctrine of the Roman Empire. This edict (not a church council) ordered ALL Roman citizens to believe in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The edict commanded that heretics be punished. On November 24th 380, Theodosius entered Constantinople (the capital of the empire) and instantly drove the Arian bishop of that city out of the city. At about the same time, he also chased the Arian Lucius out of Alexandria. (Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople were the main cities of the empire.) On January 10th 381, Theodosius issued an edict saying that no church was to be occupied for worship by any heretics, and no heretics were to gather together for worship within the walls of any town. These instructions were executed efficiently. For further discussion, see – Theodosius.

Almost Completely Eclipsed

Secondly, note that Hanson states that, eventually, the Nicene side was almost completely eclipsed. In his book (see Table of Contents), Hanson mentions a whole series of councils from 351-359; all trying to find alternatives for the word homo-ousion:

      • Antioch – 341
      • Serdica – 343
      • Sirmium – 351
      • Aries – 353
      • Milan – 355
      • Sirmium – 357
      • Sirmium – 358
      • The ‘Dated’ Creed – 359

In addition, in the year 359, emperor Constantius called three councils and manipulated these councils to formally adopt a Homoian creed (no reference to the substance of God). This brought to an end two decades of creed-making. For the next 22 years, until the Council of Constantinople of 381, no further creeds were made. This does not mean that other views continued to be held and developed, but these views were not discussed or accepted by formal church councils during those two decades.

Mistakes and Faults

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy:

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.

This refers particularly to Athanasius, who is regarded by many as the hero of the Arian Controversy. He was exiled five times by four different emperors, spending almost half of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile (see – Blue Letter).

However, Hanson reported:

“The most serious initial fault was the misbehavior of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. Evidence that has turned up in the sands of Egypt in the form of letters written on papyrus has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt which justly earned the disgust and dislike of the majority of Eastern bishops.” (see – Faults)

Furthermore, in the traditional account, the controversy was between orthodoxy and a serious error. 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” (see – Mistakes).

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

“Maurice Wiles has suggested that as far as grotesque misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible goes the pro-Nicenes were as distant from accurate interpretation as the Arians” (see –The Scriptures).

The role of Greek Philosophy

What role did Greek philosophy play in the controversy?

Arianism

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arianism deviated from the pre-Nicene orthodoxy by incorporating Greek philosophy into its doctrine of God. But that is not true. As already stated, the theology of Arius and other Arians was indeed heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. However, that was not because they deviated from the tradition: As shown above, Arius inherited his reliance on Greek philosophy from the Apologists of the previous two centuries. Hanson stated:

“The Arianism of Ulfilas, of Palladius at the Council of Aquileia of 381, of Eunomius, does present the Son as in effect a demi-god, even though the antecedents of this doctrine are not to be found in pagan religion nor directly in Greek philosophy but in various theological strands to be detected in Christian theology before the fourth century.” (see – Divine)

In other words, Arianism presented the Son as subordinate to the Father because it was a continuation of the pre-Nicene orthodoxy as developed by the Apologists.

Nicene Theology

In contrast, Nicene theology, by describing Christ as equal to the Father, pushed back on the Apologists’ reliance on Greek philosophy. As Hanson stated (see – Destroyed):

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

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

In other words, it was Nicene theology that deviated from the “tradition” (or orthodoxy) of the pre-Nicene Christian church by reducing the reliance on Greek philosophy.

But that does not mean that Nicene theology was or is free from Greek philosophy. Nicene theology was not only stated in the language of Greek philosophy, such as hypostasis and homoousion, the Nicene theologians also thought Greek thoughts. As Hanson stated:

“The development of the doctrine of the Trinity was carried out in terms which were almost wholly borrowed from the vocabulary of late Greek: hypostasis, ousia … and so on” (see – Greek Thoughts).

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

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

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

More than Arianism

Furthermore, while Arianism began the fourth century as an adaption of Greek philosophy, after the Nicene Creed of 325, Arianism developed to remove all traces of Greek philosophy from itself. To explain:

While the church still was Jewish dominated in the first century, it described Christ simply in terms of what the Bible says about Him. After the church became Gentile dominated in the second century, it began to explain Christ as the nous or logos of Greek philosophy. After the Nicene Council of 325, much further thought and discussion was generated. Eventually, in AD 359, at a council in Constantinople, Arianism adopted the Homoian view according to which we should not say more about the nature of God and of Christ than what we find in the Bible.

The Trinity doctrine, on the other hand, roughly speaking, is that God is three Persons but one Being. That concept of one “Being” comes from the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed. The Creed says that the Son is homoousion (of the same substance) as the Father. This idea of substance (ousia) is directly borrowed from Greek philosophy.

So, eventually, while Arianism eventually was able to rid itself of Greek philosophy, the Nicene view and the Trinity doctrine of today are based on principles from Greek philosophy.

What made an End to the Controversy?

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the council of Constantinople in AD 381 made an end to that controversy. In reality, the controversy was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius:

In the year before the church council, in February 380, Theodosius made the Trinity doctrine law. He issued the Edict of Thessalonica which required ALL his subjects, whether Christian or not, “to believe ‘the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit within … an equal majesty and … Trinity’” (The Search – p804). That edict also prescribed punishment for ‘heretics’. In this way, he outlawed Arianism. 

On November 24th 380, he entered Constantinople and instantly exiled the Arian bishop of that city. At about the same time, the Arian Lucius was chased out of another main city of the empire; Alexandria.6The Search – pages 804-5

On January 10th 381, he issued an edict stating 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.7The Search – page 805

It was only after these edicts that the Emperor summoned a council of the Eastern Church to meet in Constantinople. The 150 bishops who attended appear to have been carefully chosen to be friendly to Meletius, who was its president. The Council met during May, June, and July 381.8The Search – pages 805-6

It amazes me that some people regard this as a valid and important church council, even after non-Trinitarian clergies have been outlawed and exiled and the participants have carefully chosen to support the Trinitarian doctrine of the State.

Compare the wording of Theodosius’ decree with the Creed of Constantinople of the year 381. While the decree still begins with the traditional unitarian opening, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,” the decree prescribes belief in “the single divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Theodosius’ decree was much closer to the full Trinity doctrine than that creed was.

Boyd mentions another decree that was issued later in 381, which stipulated that all churches must be delivered to the bishops who profess the doctrine prescribed by the State.

The Arian Controversy, therefore, was brought to an end by Emperor Theodosius. As Hanson wrote (see – End of the Controversy):

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

This reflects the absence of separation between church and state. In practice, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church.

Why was Theodosius successful?

Hanson added:

“The end was at last gained when an Emperor had secured a genuine consensus for one point of view and was able to enforce it.”

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

In his book, on pages 802-804, Hanson explains this “consensus.” He relies on a “council which Meletius convened at Antioch in 379.” However, as Hanson noted, “none of the ecclesiastical historians mentions” this council and “we do not know what statement this council promulgated,” but Hanson still thinks that this council “must have been of great significance.” So, Hanson’s evidence for this “consensus” is very weak.

As mentioned, in two of the main centers of the empire (Constantinople and Alexandria), Arianism dominated when Theodosius became emperor. It would, therefore, be fair to say that Arianism dominated the entire empire in general, which argues against Hanson’s idea that Theodosius was backed by a consensus.

Furthermore, if Theodosius was backed by a consensus, why was it necessary for him to eradicate the nonconformists with such brute force and ruthless persecution? Boyd mentions people who were executed as a consequence of Theodosius’ decree. Were those murders also backed by a consensus? For further discussion, see – Theodosius.

In any case, it does not matter whether there was a consensus or not. The main point of this article is that the emperor, as the real head or pope of the church, made the final decisions; irrespective of any consensus. This can best be seen by reading Hanson’s book: The emperors called the councils, appointed the right people to chair the meetings, and intimidated the councils by their physical presence. Afterward, the councils reported back to the emperors, and the emperors accepted or rejected the council decisions.

We conclude that Theodosius was able to make an end to the controversy because, as Boyd stated, “a far more drastic policy toward heresy was pursued by Theodosius.”

Conclusions

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.”

Secondly, the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by a church council but by a Roman Emperor and enacted as a Roman law. As such, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church that has accepted that law, has thereby become part of the Roman Empire. Consequently, it received great authority from the Roman Empire but it also served the purposes of the Roman Empire.

Today, the Roman Empire no longer exists but the spiritual children of that church that became part of the Roman Empire still exist. Since that church received its authority from the Roman Empire, its children today continue the authority of that ancient empire.


Other Articles

  • 1
    The Search – pages 804-5
  • 2
    The Search – page 805
  • 3
    The Search – pages 805-6
  • 4
    The Search … p162
  • 5
    The Search, pages 791-792
  • 6
    The Search – pages 804-5
  • 7
    The Search – page 805
  • 8
    The Search – pages 805-6

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