An Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity – Fr. Thomas Hopko

Purpose

This is a summary of a well-known talk on the Trinity by a well-known Eastern Orthodox theologian, Father Thomas Hopko. I added some comments. I do not agree with everything which Hopko says, but I think he did a brilliant job of reconciling the ancient creeds with the Bible. The reader is advised to listen to that podcast before reading this article. But first, I would like to argue why we should listen to the Eastern Orthodox Christians:

The Eastern Orthodox Church

The beliefs of Eastern Orthodoxy is important because Christianity originated in the Eastern Roman Empire (in Judea) and because most of the Christian theologians of the first centuries, like Athanasius, Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine of Hippo were from the Eastern Roman Empire, including Africa. For that reason also, most of the delegates at Nicaea in 325 AD were from the Eastern Roman Empire (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85). However, the Muslim conquests of the seventh century and later significantly weakened the church in the east. At the same time, the church in the Western Roman Empire – the Church of Rome – became a powerful force in Europe. For that reason, the theology of the church in the Western world today has been inherited, largely, from the Church of Rome.

There always were theological differences between the east and the west. For example, over the day on which Passover should be celebrated and the filioque controversy. As another example, at the Council of Sardica, somewhere in 342 to 347, many Eastern bishops left the meeting to hold another council in Philippopolis because they were fearing domination of the council by Western bishops (Pavao, p120). Pavao claimed that “Arianism was exclusively an eastern phenomenon even prior to Nicea” (Decoding Nicea, p115). Consequently, the development of theology in the east followed a different path than in the west. Furthermore, the persecution that the church in the east suffered over the centuries stifled the development of doctrines. The church in the east, for that reason, retained the theology of the early church to a greater extent.

For these reasons, I propose, it is important that we understand how the Eastern Orthodox Church understands the Trinity.

Summary

In this section, I summarize Hopko’s talk. According to Hopko:

The Trinity

The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity or Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.

Jesus Christ

synagogue official came and bowed downJesus of Nazareth is “the Christ; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). He is not created but begotten timelessly of the Father before all ages. Therefore, He is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. As the Nicene Creed says, “God from God, true God from true God … homoousios” with the Father. The term homoousios might be better translated as “who is of the same divinity as the one God who is His Father.”

He is the Logos (Word) and Wisdom and Icon (Image) of God. Since John 1:1c means that the Word is divine with the same divinity as God, it should be translated as “and the Word was divine.”

The One God

The one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. To say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity is Modalism. We may use the terms tri-personal or tri-hypostatic divinity but there is no tri-personal God.

Of God

As the Son is the Logos and Wisdom OF God and the Spirit OF God, the Son and the Spirit belong to the Father.

Never Separated

The one true and living God, who is the Father Almighty, has never been and will never be separated from His Son and His Spirit. He would be God without the hundred billion galaxies but He would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit. He has with Him eternally His Son and His Holy Spirit.

One divinity

The church fathers would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. As there is one God – the Father, there is one divine nature. Since the Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed), His divinity is the Father’s divinity (or nature). The divinity of the Holy Spirit is also the Father’s divinity.

Hopko never explicitly describes the Son as part of God but he does quote Irenaeus saying that the Son and the Spirit are the two hands of God. And at another point, he implies that the Son is “an element of the divinity and being of God.”

Act as One

The Father, Son, and Spirit act as one. Every activity of God (creation, sanctification, redemption, etc.) comes from the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit comes forth from God by the manner of procession; He proceeds from Him. He is not another Son.

The Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father AND the Son together; He proceeds from the Father alone. The Spirit is also the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. Everything that the Son has, divinely or humanly, He has received from the Father. From the Son, the Spirit then proceeds to us. The Son is the agent of all of the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit.

Hypostases

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.

Incarnation

Jesus as human babyThis very one who is begotten of the Father is born as a man (as a human being) from the virgin Mary. The Logos is NOT so perfectly divine, as some say, that He cannot become flesh; that He cannot become man. As the Nicene Creed says, He became flesh (incarnate) AND He became human (was made man). He is a real human being but He is not a mere human being. He is the divine Son of God who is also Mary’s son, who is a real human being just like we are.

He is divine with the same divinity as the one and true living God AND He is human with the humanity which all men and women have.

That is why He has two natures, meaning that He is fully divine but also fully and completely, truly human.

While the Godhead are three divine hypostases (Persons) with one divine nature, Jesus Christ is one hypostasis (one Person) with two natures because divine.

Conclusion

The Holy Trinity is the tri-personal Godhead; the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ, and the one Holy Spirit in perfect unity.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Hopko’s Talk

In this section, I provide a summarized transcript of Hopko’s talk which I typed myself. Perhaps the reader will be able to listen to the talk while reading this. I added headings, comments, and text references.

The Trinity

The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity – the tri-personal Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.

Importance of the Trinity

The dogma of the Holy Trinity is often called the dogma of dogmas, like the Lord of Lords, or King of kings.

Saint Gregory, the theologian, said that, when it comes to various other doctrines, not to get it completely totally accurate is not supremely dangerous for the salvation of souls, but when it comes to God – how the one God and Father relates to the only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit, if you don’t get that right, everything else is skewed, for all the other doctrines are rooted and grounded in the right understanding of the relationship and the communion that exists between the one God and Father, and His one only-begotten Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The word Trinity

“Trinity” is not a Biblical word. It is a word that emerged in Christian history – very early – in the second and third centuries.

Who is Jesus?

The Trinity can only be properly understood when we begin with contemplating the Person of Jesus. The Trinity doctrine is the elaboration or outgrowth of the confession of who and what Jesus is.

Who Jesus is, is rooted and grounded in the gospel itself. The main question of the gospel is, “Who do you say I am?” That is the main question which Jesus asks in the gospels. After preaching, teaching, doing His miraculous signs – after He does all the things that the Scriptures said that the Messiah would do when he came, namely to bring the kingdom of God to the world and to bring all created beings in perfect harmony with the uncreated (God), Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?

COMMENT: Here, Hopko says much more than what I typed. I think his argument is that God, through Jesus, when “the end” comes, will restore perfect peace in all the universe (1 Cor 1:24) and that the world had a foretaste of this when He was on earth. We see that in how He healed people and how He controlled the winds and the waves of nature.

In response, Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the messianic prophet, priest and king; the Christ; the Son of the living God; the Lord. Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnate Word of God; the Logos and wisdom of God in human flesh. He is the Son of God; begotten of the Father before all ages and born of the theotokos Mary; the birth giver of God on earth. He is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. In the language of the Nicene Creed, He is “God from God, true God from true God; begotten of the Father; not created, of one very same essence (ousia) – one same being or divinity with God the Father Himself.”

All of that is the result of the confession of who Jesus is. The question is given by Jesus Himself: “Who do you say I am?” And that is where Peter confessed, in what may be called the fundamental Christian Creed: “You are the Christ; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).

The Rock

Jesus then said to Peter, “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:17). He added that the whole foundation of the covenant church – the ultimate final church on the planet earth would be those who believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God.

COMMENT: This is an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ words: “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church” (Matt 16:18).

God is not the Trinity

It is critically important to note that, in the Bible and, therefore, in the creeds, such as the Nicene Creed (325) and Creed of Constantinople (381), the one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is God the Father. In the Bible, the one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Father who sends His only begotten Son into the world.

And Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In a parallel manner, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and, because the Christ is the Son of God on whom God the Father sends and affirms His Holy Spirit, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ – the Messiah. This is very important because there are wrong understandings of the Holy Trinity.

Unitarianism

These are those who deny that there is a trinity of divine Persons – of divine hypostasies. Unitarians would say that God is just a unipersonal nomad and that He has no Son; the divinity is His and His alone, and everything that exists in addition to the one God is a creature – has been created by God – has been brought into being out of nothing – not an element of the divinity and being of God Himself.

COMMENT: The Nicene Creed also uses the phrase “out of nothing.” It refers to things that have been created, in contrast to the Son and the Spirit that are “out of” the uncreated being of God.

COMMENT: The phrase “not an element of the divinity and being of God Himself” implies that, in Hopko’s theology, the Son and the Spirit are elements of the divinity and being of God. That is similar to the pre-Nicene Fathers, who thought of Christ as “a derivation and portion of the whole” (Tertullian (AD 165-225), in Against Praxeas 9 “Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III : Against Praxeas”)

Here the orthodox Christian would say that that is just plain wrong. It is an incorrect understanding of what it means that Jesus is THE Son of God, THE Wisdom of God, and THE Icon of God. To say that the Word of God is a creature would be a wrong interpretation of both the New and Old Testaments. To say that the Spirit of God is a created being would just be totally wrong.

Modalism

The other terrible error is usually called Modalism. This is where people say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity. They say, ‘He who is the Trinity’.

COMMENT: With this, I think, Hopko classifies the western understanding of the Trinity as Modalism (Sabellianism).

We orthodox Christians, following Scripture and the credal statements, can never say this. We say, there is the one God who is the Father, and He has with Him eternally, whom He begets timelessly before all ages, His only begotten Son, who is also His Logos (His Word) and His Wisdom and His Icon (Image), but this only begotten Son is divine with the very same divinity as the one true and living God. He is another (different?) Who from the Father.

Three Instances of Divine Life

There are three ‘Whos’; He who is the Father, He who is the Son and He who is the Holy Spirit. They are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.

The Son of God

But it is important to remember that the one God is the Father of Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God. As the Nicene Creed says, Jesus is “God from God; true God from true God.”

God’s Son, who is of the same divinity as the Father and who is born from Him; comes forth from Him. And this one true and living God also has with Him His Spirit who proceeds from Him – who comes forth from Him.

Begetting versus Proceeding

According to the Scriptures, the Son comes forth from God by means of begetting; He is a Son as a son is to a father. That is who and what the Son is.

And the Holy Spirit comes forth from God by the manner of procession. He is not another Son. It is a different kind of relationship.

The Son is the Son of God because He is begotten of the Father, meaning that He has no human begetter. He has no human father. His Father, literally, is God. God, who is His Father, begets Him before all ages.

Begetting versus Born

And then this very one who is God’s Son is born as a man (as a human being) from the virgin Mary. In Greek, the same verb, when it applies to the Father, is “beget.” When it applies to a mother, it is “born.” So, we would not say that Jesus was begotten of Mary humanly; He was “born” of Mary humanly. But we would also not say that He was born of the Father; He was begotten of the Father.

John 1

In John’s gospel, in the beginning, the Logos was with God, and the Logos was divine. All things came to be through Him (John 1:1-2). Orthodox Christians interpret these sentences to show that the Logos is really divine with the same divinity as the Father.

And then in the prologue of John’s gospel, it says that “the logos became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). As the Nicene Creed would say:

the only-begotten …
Who for us men, and for our salvation,
came down and was incarnate and was made man

You have those two words; that He became flesh (incarnate) and He became human (was made man), born of the virgin Mary. So, He who was divine became human.

If we ask who He is, He is the divine Son of God who is also Mary’s son, who is a real human being just like we are. That is why Eastern Orthodox Christians reject Nestorianism.

Arianism

We not only deny Arianism which says that the Logos – the Son of God was a creature. No, He is not a creature. He belongs to the being of God and His being is divine.

Nestorianism

But we also deny the Nestorians who say that the one born of Mary is NOT the same one as the One begotten of the Father; that the Logos is so perfectly divine that He cannot become flesh; that He cannot become man. The Nestorians say that He can be enjoined to or united with a man but He cannot really be born of a woman. Eastern Orthodox Christians say, o yes, He can and He did. Truly divine and truly human. That is why the council of Chalcedon would say that He is divine with the same divinity as the one and true living God – the One who is the one God – AND He is human with the humanity which all men and women have. That is why we say He is of two natures or has two natures, meaning that He is truly divine and truly human.

Jesus is called God.

And when He is divine, we can call Him God.

Thomas did call Him God. He exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Some of the sentences of Paul can be read as if Jesus is called God. It depends a little bit on punctuation, but like “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Even certain Old Testament terms, like calling Him Lord in a divine manner, such as, “The LORD (YHVH) says to my Lord, Sit at My right hand” (Psm 110:1). He is using the same term for the one who sits at His right hand as for God Himself, for “the LORD” mean Yahweh and Yahweh is God.

And Jesus in John’s gospel even uses the “I am,” for example, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). That is a divine name. So, here, the confession is that the man Jesus is the divine Son of God.

Homoousios

And that is what the council of Nicaea defended. The Nicene Creed used one non-Biblical term to make this point, and that term is homoousios, which can be translated “of one essence” or “of the same essence” or “substance.” Sometimes to be clearest, we might better translate it into English as “who is of the same divinity as the one God who is His Father.” And that is how the Bible speaks.

The Trinity in the Bible

Many years ago, I went to my professor of theology and I said to Him, Prof, I do not find the Trinity in the Bible.

Of course, in those days I had a very skewed idea of the Trinity. I thought of the Trinity as one God who is somehow three, like three-leave clover or water could be liquid or steam or ice. In fact, I have come to learn that those symbolisms are modalistic. They are not accurate. You can speak of God as fountain and stream or something like fire and heat and warmth as emanating from God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ and His Spirit, but not all analogies are apt.

To understand the Trinity properly, you begin with Jesus and you read the Scriptures. Then you can contemplate how the one God is God the Father WITH His Son and WITH His Spirit. Very often the preposition “with” is used but “and” is also used. For example, in the baptismal formula, we baptize in the name of the Father and, therefore, also of the Son because there is no Father without the Son and, therefore, also the Holy Spirit because there is no Holy Spirit without the Father and the Son. And there is no Son without the Father and the Spirit. And there are no Son and Spirit without the Father.

The church fathers of the fourth century, like Gregory the theologian, would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. The reason is that the Son’s divinity is the Father’s divinity. The Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed). He is a divine Person “from” the one God.

In the Old Testament, there is also the “word” of God and the “Spirit of God” who is not God but is “of” God and divine with the same divinity as God. The Spirit of God inspired the prophets. You will read texts like; the heavens were made by the Word of the LORD; all the earth by the breath of His lips.” You will find sentences about the son of man that is presented to the Father (Dan 7:13).

You cannot read the New Testament without God, who is clearly God, who is not Jesus and who is not the Holy Spirit. And you can’t read the New Testament without Jesus Christ who is not God the Father and who is not the Holy Spirit. And you can’t read the Scriptures without meeting at every page the Holy Spirit, who is not the Son and who is not the Father. But when you read the text, you see that the Son and the Spirit are OF the Father – FROM the Father – BELONGING TO the Father.

Yet, they are divine. They present themselves as fully divine and like the two hands of God (quoting Irenaeus). God is not without His hands. He never works with only one hand. When God speaks His word, He breaths, and when He breaths, He speaks. You cannot even think of God without His Son. Then you come to the conclusion that the one true and living God is the Father. The one true and living God is not the Creator. God would be God without the hundred billion galaxies. But God would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit; without the Word of God and the Breath of God.

So, even if you would speak to a good orthodox Jew and ask, is God ever devoid of His wisdom? A good orthodox Jew would say, never! Is God ever without His word? Never! Is God ever without His breath? No, no, He is the living God; the Spirit of God is divine. So, we Christians could say, see, you believe in the Holy Trinity because you cannot conceive of God without His Word and without His Spirit.

The Son of God is a real human being but He is not a mere human being. He is the human being that the Son of God has become when He was born of Mary.

John is the great theological gospel that shows the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But if you just take Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

When they speak of the birth of Jesus, they say He would be called the Holy One, the Son of the Most High; that He will establish the kingdom of God, His Father is God.

He has no human father. He is conceived of the Holy Spirit. Just like the Spirit of God brooded over the emptiness at the beginning of creation, so the same the Holy Spirit brooded over the barren womb of Mary and then God speaks His Word and His Word is incarnate in Mary’s womb. The Word becomes flesh in Mary’s womb.

When He goes to the temple, He says He must be about His Father’s work and He is filled with the Holy Spirit.

At His baptism, The Father speaks and says, “this is my beloved Son” and the Spirit rests on Him in the form of a dove.

The Spirit is the Spirit of God who is His Father, but then He says that the Spirit is His own Spirit because everything that He has, divinely of humanly, He has received from the Father.

In Hebrews, it even said that it was the Spirit of God who led the Son of God to be crucified in the flesh for the salvation of the world. In John’s gospel, He says the Father is always with Him (John 8:29; 16:32).

So, as a Christian, you cannot contemplate God without immediately and necessarily contemplating the Son and the Holy Spirit. The minute I think about God, I think about Christ and the Spirit. You cannot think about one without thinking about all three.

Filioque

The Spirit is the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. That is why we orthodox is against the filioque in the creed (“and the Son” – Athanasian Creed). There was a break with the West. We claim that the Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father and the Son together. We believe that He proceeds from the Father alone. And He rests on the Son from all eternity and does the same thing when the Son becomes man. He rests upon Him as a man too. We can say that the Spirit proceeds to us from the Father THROUGH the Son. That is true. The Son is the agent of all of the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father” (John 15:26).

Three in Perfect Unity

So, you always have these three in perfect unity. Therefore, when I think of one, I immediately think of all three together.

There is one God because there is one Father. And there is one God because there is one divine nature of the Father, which is the nature of the Son and the nature of the Holy Spirit too. So, the Son and the Spirit are of the same essence as the Father. That is what Scripture teaches us, if you put it in philosophical terms. That is what the Bible teaches. They needed that word (homoousios) to defend the Bible.

And when you contemplate the activities of God, you see that every activity proceeds from the Father. The Source of every divine activity – creation, sanctification, redemption, whatever God is doing, it comes from the Father – it is God’s. But the Agent is always the Son. God creates through His Son. He speaks through His Son. He redeems through His Son. So, the Son is His Word. The Son is the Savior, but then, all these activities are accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, every activity of God is from the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. Or, you can say from the Father, AND the Son AND the Spirit.

So, we worship the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit – the Trinity; one in essence; undivided. We pray to thee, o one God and Father, AND thy only-begotten Son AND thy Holy Spirit.

The Son is incarnate and crucified, but the Father is in Him at all time. He is never separated from the Father. Even when He experiences in His humanity the abandonment of God to die the death, He is not separated from the Father. God is in Him. The Holy Spirit is in Him. God, the Father, is raising the dead through Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, when we think of the one God and Father, who is never devoid of His Son and Spirit, we think of the one divinity.

No Triune God

In eastern orthodoxy, the term triune God is not a traditional formula. You find the term tri-personal or tri-hypostatic divinity. There is no tri-personal God. There is the one God and Father Almighty. That is the one God. But then that one God is Father eternally with His Son who is God from God, and with His Holy Spirit.

Is the Spirit called theos?

The Nicene Creed did not call the Holy Spirit theos (God). Gregory, the theologian, was the first one to do that – late in the fourth century. The Bible never calls the Holy Spirit theos. The Nicene Creed called the Son “God from God” but it did not call the Spirit “God from God.” The closest thing in the Bible is when it says that Ananias and Saphira lied to “God.”

Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit … You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).

And then Jesus said that the one sin that is unforgivable is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. And blasphemy can only be done against God – a divine Person.

Three Persons with one divine nature

What we say is that the Godhead are three divine hypostases (Persons) with one divine nature. There is one God and Father, whose nature also belongs to the Son and Spirit and there is one divine activity with three who act; the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then we say that Jesus is one hypostasis (one Person) with two natures because He is fully divine but, because He is also born of Mary, He is fully and completely, truly human.

So, we have, the Godhead being three Persons in one nature, and then we have Jesus Christ being one Person in two natures.

Conclusion

So, how must we think about the Trinity? We begin with the Scriptures, we contemplate Christ, then we contemplate how Christ relates to the one God and Father, how He relates to the one Holy Spirit. We see how the unity of the divine divinity belongs to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is what we must always remember and never forget – it begins with Christ and it begins with the Scriptures. It begins with the activity of God in saving the world in the Person of Jesus. It begins with the question, “Who do you say I am?” And when we say, “You are the Christ, the Son of God,” the result will be the dogma of the Holy Trinity – the tri-personal Godhead; the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ and the one Holy Spirit in perfect unity.

Article Series on this Website

Jesus Christ and the Trinity

Daniel

      • Is Daniel a Fraud? – It is claimed by liberal theologians that Daniel was written in the second century before Christ, presenting history as if it is a prophecy. 
      • Daniel 2, 7, and 11 – These prophecies should be read together. 
      • Daniel 9 – Discussion of the Four Major Interpretations of the 490 years

Revelation

Other

What did Fourth Century Arianism believe?

Summary of this article

In the first three centuries after Christ, the Roman Empire persecuted the church. In the fourth century, the church was first legalized (AD 313) and later became the official religion of the Roman Empire (AD 380). During that period, a controversy raged in the church with respect to the nature of Christ. The emperors could not allow disunity in the church because a split in the church could split the entire empire. The emperors, therefore, forced the church to formulate creeds, and, true to the nature of the empire, banish church leaders who were not willing to accept the creeds.

Arianism was named after Arius.

We are not sure what Arius taught, for his books were destroyed after Nicaea, and we cannot trust what his opponents wrote about him. For example, Athanasius claimed that Arius said that “there was a time when the Son was not,” but below we quote Arius saying that the Son existed “before time.” 

‘Arianism’ dominated the church for 50 years.

Many erroneously understand the Nicene Creed of 325 to say that the Son is equal to the Father but, after 325, the consensus in the church was that the Son is subordinate to the Father. What the church believed at the time was different from what Arius believed, but it is practice today to describe anything that is not perfectly consistent with the Trinity doctrine as Arianism. Therefore, since, in the Trinity doctrine, the Son is co-equal to the Father, it is common for people to the refer to the belief in the fourth century, that the Son is subordinate to the Father, as Arianism.

This ‘Arianism’ remained the dominant view in the church for the next 50 years. During those fifty years, this ‘Arianism’ evolved and divided into a number of branches. It is, therefore, important to understand what the church believed after the intense debates of those years.

God and theos

Today, we use the modern word “God” as the proper name of the One who exists without a cause. The ancient Greek word, in the Bible and other ancient documents, such as the Nicene Creed, that is translated as “God” is theos. But theos is the common name for the Greek gods and means “god” in Eglish. When it refers to the One who exists without a cause, it is correctly translated as “God.” In instances where theos refers to Jesus, it can be translated as “God” only if one assumes the Trinity doctrine. In Arianism, in which only the Father is the One who exists without a cause, theos, when it describes Jesus, or to any being other than the Father, must be translated as “god.” See the article – theos – for a further discussion.

What the Arian church believed

In Arianism:

The Father is the “only one God.” In contrast to the Son who is the “begotten,” the Father is “the unbegotten,” which means that He exists without a cause and, therefore, is the ultimate Cause of all else. 

The Son is our god, but the Father is His god. God created all things through the Son. Since the Son was begotten” by the Father, which is understood to mean that He was born of the Being of the Father, He was not created but, nevertheless, subordinate to the Father.

The Holy Spirit is not a Person, but as a power; subject to the Son.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Purpose of this article

The Metamorphosis of the Church

The fourth century was a remarkable period in which the church changed from being PERSECUTED to being the OFFICIAL STATE RELIGION of the Roman Empire. For all practical purposes, the church became part of the state and, as will be explained, the emperor became the head of the church. Adopting the character of the empire, the church changed from being persecuted to persecuting church leaders who do not accept the official church decrees.

Arian Controversy

Emperor Constantine standing before the bishops

In that fourth century, a huge controversy raged with respect to the NATURE OF CHRIST. The Nicene Creed—formulated in the year 325 at the city of Nicaea—described the Son as “true theos from true theos” and as of the “same substance” as the Father. Many today interpret these phrases as that the Son is EQUAL to the Father. The article on the Nicene Creed shows that this interpretation is wrong and that that Creed described the Son as subordinate to the Father.

After the creed was formulated in the year 325, for the next 50 years, the church was dominated by teachings in which the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father. This Arian period was brought abruptly to an end when Theodosius became emperor in the year 380. He was an ardent supporter of Nicene Christology and, on ascending the throne, IMMEDIATELY declared Arianism to be illegal and Nicene Christology to be THE ONLY religion of the empire. He then replaced the Arian church leadership with Nicene leaders.

Purpose of this article

The purpose of this article is to analyze what Arianism believed in the fourth century. Some of the historical facts mentioned in this article are described in more detail in other articles.

Conflicting evidence in the Bible

To understand the war between Nicene Christology and Arianism, we must appreciate the seemingly conflicting evidence in the Bible about the nature of Christ. Many Bible statements describe Him as equal with the Father, but many others imply that He is subordinate to God, for example:

EQUAL SUBORDINATE
He “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb 1:3) has “life in Himself” (John 5:26) sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples (Luke 24:49), is “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17) and owns everything which the Father has (Matt 11:27). “All things have been created through Him” (Col 1:16) and “all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23). In Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form (Col 2:9). “At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow” (Phil 2:10). Only He knows the Father. (Matt 11:27) Only the Father knows the “day and hour” of His return (Matt 24:26). Everything which the Son has, He received from the Father, including to have “life in Himself” (John 5:22, 26). The Father sent Him and told Him what to say and do (John 7:16). The NT consistently makes a distinction between Jesus and God (e.g., Philemon 1:3). For example, Jesus is today at the right hand of God. The “one God” and “the only true God” is always the Father (1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 4:4-6; John 17:3). The Father is His God and He prayed to the Father. (Rev 3:12; John 17; Acts 7:56).

What Arius believed about Christ

Arius

The words Arian and Arianism are derived from the name of Arius (c. 250–336); a church leader who had significant influence at the beginning of the fourth century. His teachings initiated the Arian controversy and Emperor Constantine called the council at Nicaea specifically to denounce His teachings. 

We are not sure what Arius taught. After Nicaea in 325, the emperor gave orders that all of Arius’ books be destroyed and that all people who hide Arius’ writings, be killed. Very little of Arius’ writings survived, and much of what did survive are quotations selected for polemical purposes in the writings of his opponents. Reconstructing WHAT Arius actually taught, and—even more important—WHY, is, therefore, a formidable task. There is no certainty about the extent to which his teachings continued those of church fathers in previous centuries.

Letter to Eusebius

We have a brief statement of what Arius believed in a letter to the Arian archbishop of Constantinople; Eusebius of Nicomedia (died 341). He wrote as follows:

We say and believe …
that the Son is not unbegotten,
nor in any way part of the unbegotten;
and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter;
but that by his own will and counsel
he has subsisted (existed) before time
and before ages as perfect as God,
only begotten and unchangeable,
and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not.
For he was not unbegotten.
We are persecuted because we say
that the Son has a beginning
but that God is without beginning.

(Theodoret: Arius’s Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, translated in Peters’ Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, p. 41)

Brief reflections on Arius’ view

The Son is not unbegotten,
nor in any way part of the unbegotten.

Unbegotten” is how the ancients described the Being who exists without a cause (the Father). Since the Son is begotten, Arius argued that He is not part of that which exists without a cause. For Arius, only the Father is unbegotten.

He does not derive his subsistence from any matter.

ARIUS INTERPRETATION
NOT UNBEGOTTEN
The Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten.
Unbegotten” is how the ancients described the Being who exists without a cause. Since the Son is begotten, Arius reasoned that He is not part of that which exists without a cause. For Arius, only the Father is unbegotten. 
ONLY BEGOTTEN
He does not derive his subsistence from any matter.
The phrase “only begotten” identifies the Son as unique. There is no other like Him. “Begotten” indicates that His being came from the being of the Father. He was not created from other matter.
BEFORE TIME
By his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before age.
He existed as an independent Person with His own will; distinct from the will of God. He was begotten by God before time began.
PERFECT
as perfect as God … unchangeable
This shows the extremely high view which Arius had of the Son. Created beings change over time due to influences, but God and the Son are “unchangeable.”
HE WAS NOT.
Before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. The Son has a beginning but God is without beginning.
Firstly, here, Arius indicates that he does not know what it means that the Son was begotten. Nevertheless, since He was is begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, He exists by the will of God (the Father) and “was not” before He was “begotten.”

Arius seems to contradict himself. Above, he wrote that the Son “subsisted before time.” But he also wrote that the Son “was not” before He was begotten and that the Son “has a beginning.” It is a pity that we do not have Arius’ book that he can explain himself. Below, I propose how these statements can be reconciled.

A time when the Son was not

In the fourth century, Athanasius was the arch-enemy of Arianism and the great advocate of the homoousian (Nicene) theology. He quoted Arius as saying:

“If the Father begat the Son,
then he who was begotten
had a beginning in existence,

and from this, it follows
there was a time when the Son was not.”

Today, this quote by Athanasius is quite famous and is still used to characterize Arius’ teaching. But Arius wrote to Eusebius—in the quote above—that the Son existed “before time.” This seems to contradict what Athanasius wrote. We do not know whether Arius really wrote “there was a time when the Son was not” or whether this was a straw man created by Athanasius.

Today, Trinitarians regard Athanasius of Alexandria as a hero who stood for ‘the truth’ when ‘the whole world’ was Arian. Athanasius is counted as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church in the Catholic Church.

But in his day, he was a highly controversial character in his day. The church accused him of horrible crimes and exiled no less than five times. We are not able to judge either way today, but Athanasius was a prolific writer, and we can judge his spirit by his writings. For this purpose, listen to the following podcasts:

Assessing Athanasius and his Arguments
Athanasius’s On the Nicene Council

The Son had a beginning.

Eternal generation

In the Trinity doctrine today, the Son had no beginning but always existed with the Father. The Bible is clear that He is begotten by the Father but that is explained with the concept of eternal generation, namely that the Father always was the Father, that there never was a time that the Father was not the Father.

Arius, as quoted above, wrote that “the Son has a beginning but … God is without beginning.” But in the same statement, he wrote that the Son existed “before time and before ages.” Did Arius contradict himself? I wish we had Arius’ book to explain his own words but would like to propose the following explanation:

God created time. God is that which exists without a cause, and time exists because God exists. God, therefore, exists outside time, cannot be defined by time and is not subject to time. We cannot say that God existed ‘before time’, for the word “before” implies the existence of time, and there is no such thing as time before time. Therefore, I prefer to say that God exists ‘outside time’.

Since God created time, time had a beginning and is finite.

God created all things through the Son (e.g. 1 Col 8:6). Therefore, God created time through the Son. It follows that there never was a time when the Son did not exist. Arius, therefore, could validly write that the Son existed “BEFORE TIME.”

But, there exists an infinity beyond the boundaries of time. All the power and wisdom that we see reflected in this physical universe, comes out of that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, space and matter. In that infinity beyond time, Arius wrote, “THE SON HAS A BEGINNING.” But this is not a beginning in time, for there is no such thing as time in infinity.

This explains why Arius could both claim that the Son existed before time and had a beginning. If this was Arius’ thinking, he could not that written that “there was a time when the Son was not,” as Athanasius claimed.

Arianism evolved after Nicaea.

Forced unity

Under the stern supervision of the emperors, who demanded unity in the church to prevent a split in the empire, the fourth-century church fathers would not allow different views about Christ to co-exist within the church. The church’s view of Christ changed from time to time, but, nevertheless, it always formulated a view of Christ and, through persecution, forced all Christians to abide by the formal church doctrine.

Numerous synods

The fifty-year Arian period after Nicaea resulted in numerous synods, including at Serdica in 343, Sirmium in 358 and Rimini and Seleucia in 359. The pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus commented sarcastically: “The highways were covered with galloping bishops.”

Numerous creeds

The best-known creed today is the Nicene Creed, but no fewer than fourteen further creeds were formulated between 340 and 360, depicting the Son as subordinate on the Father, e.g. the Long Lines Creed. Historian RPC Hanson lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith—one of the variants of Arianism—including the creeds of Sirmian (AD 357), Nice (Constantinople – 360), Akakius (359), Ulfilas (383), Eudoxius, Auxentius of Milan (364), Germinius, Palladius’ rule of faith (1988. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 558–559).

Arianism evolved.

During the fifty years between Constantine and Theodosius, Arianism was refined and nuanced, relative to what Arius believed. Consequently, although Arius’ views are important, it is far more important to understand what version of Arianism the church adopted after Arius’ views and the Nicene Creed were intensely debated in the decades following Nicaea.

The word “GOD” is ambiguous.

Before we discuss what Ulfilas wrote, we need to explain the difference between the word “God” and the words used in the New Testament:

Modern English

In modern languages, we differentiate between the words “god” and “God:”

When we use a word as a proper name, we capitalize the first letter. The word “God,” therefore, has a very specific usage: It is the PROPER NAME of one specific being; the One who exists without cause.

The word “god,” on the other hand, is a general category name used for all supernatural beings. It is even for human beings with super-human qualities.

Ancient Greek

The capital “G,” therefore, makes a huge difference. But, when the Bible was written, and also in the fourth century, there were no capital letters. Or, more precisely, the ancients wrote only in capital letters. The distinction between upper and lower case letters did not yet exist. According to the article on the timeline of writing in Western Europe, the ancients used Greek majuscule (capital letters only) from the 9th to the 3rd century BC. In the following centuries, up until the 12th century AD, they used the uncial script, which still was only capital letters. Greek minuscule was only used in later centuries.

Te Greek word theos

Since the word “God” is a name for one specific Being, the original New Testament does not contain any one word with the same meaning as “God.” The New Testament writers used the word theos, which is the same word that was used for the pantheon of Greek gods. The word theos, therefore, is equivalent in meaning to our modern word “god.”  The word theos was also used for beings other than the one true God, even for “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4) and for human judges (John 10:35). Therefore, by describing the Father and the Son as “god,” the Bible and the fourth-century writers only indicated that the Father and the Son are immortal beings; similar to the immortal Greek gods. Consequently, the word “god” does not elevate the Father or the Son above the pagan gods.

The word “God,” in the translations of the New Testament and other ancient Greek writings, therefore, is an INTERPRETATION. When the translator believes that theos refers to the One who exists without a cause, theos is rendered as “God.”  But when Paul wrote spoke about the theos of the pagan nations, the New Testament translates that as “god.” And when it translates theos, when it refers to Jesus, as “God,” it does that on the assumption of the Trinity doctrine.

True god

To indicate that the Unique Being is intended, the Bible writers added words such as “only,” or “true” or “one” to theos. But most often they simply added the definite article “the” to theos to indicate that the God of the Bible is intended. 

In the Nicene Creed, both the Father and the Son are described as “true god.” The Bible never identifies the Son as “true god.” In the Bible, the “true god” is always the Father.  For example:

You, the only true God, and
Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3)

You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God,
and to wait for His Son from heaven” (I Thess 1:9-10).

So that we may know Him who is true;
and we are in Him who is true,
in His Son Jesus Christ.
This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).

But then translators translate the Greek equivalent of “true god” as “true God.” Not only is this faulty translation, the word “true” in the phrase “true God” is SUPERFLUOUS, for there is only one “true God.”  Since “God” already indicates the only true god, “true theos” should be translated either as “true god” or as “God.” 

Ulfilas’ Christology

Germanic missionary – The Goth Ulfilas (c. 311–383) was ordained as bishop by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia and returned to his Gothic people to work as a missionary. He translated the New Testament into the Gothic language and is credited with the conversion of the Gothic peoples, which resulted in the wide-scale conversion of the Germanic peoples. 

Ulfilas’ Arianism – What he believed is perhaps a good reflection of the Arianism that was generally accepted in the church between Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). He wrote:

I, Ulfila … believe in
only one God the Father,

the unbegotten and invisible,

and in his only-begotten Son,
our lord/master and God,
the designer and maker of all creation,
having none other like him.

Therefore, there is one God of all,
who is also God of our God;

and in one Holy Spirit,
the illuminating and sanctifying power …
Neither God nor lord/master,
but the faithful minister of Christ;
not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.

And I believe
the Son to be subject and obedient in all things
to God the Father

(Heather and Matthews. Goths in the Fourth Century. p. 143 –  Auxentius on Wulfila).

Discussion of Ulfilas’ Christology

The Father – Ultimate Cause of all else

Only one God

Ulfilas believed in “only one God,” who he identified as the Father.  Actually, this was the standard opening phrase of all ancient creeds. The Nicene Creed also starts as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible
.”

But then it continues to perhaps contradict this opening phrase by adding that the Son is “true god from true god“.

The unbegotten

Ulfilas identified the Father as “the unbegotten.” Arius also mentioned “the unbegotten,” which is that which exists without a cause. That means that the Father is the ultimate Cause of all else.  

Invisible

Ulfilas added that the Father is invisible. This is also stated a number of times in the New Testament (e.g. Col 1:15). Certainly, in the past, God appeared to people (theophanies), but an appearance is vastly different from God Himself. An appearance does not contain God in His fullness. It is not possible for God in His fullness to be seen, for He exists outside this visible realm.

Only-begotten Son

Ulfilas also believed in:

His only-begotten Son,
our lord/master and God,
the designer and maker of all creation,
having none other like him
.”

Our God

In this translation of Ulfilas’ statement, the Son is “our … God,” but this is faulty translation. It should be rendered “our god,” with a small “g.”  As explained above, the Greek of the New Testament does not have a name for the God of the Bible. It uses theos; the common word for the pagan gods but added words such as “the” or “only” or “true” to identify “the only true god” (John 17:3). To say that the Son is “god” simply means that He is a immortal being, like the pagan gods. Consequently, Ulfilas followed up His description of the Son with the following explanation:

Therefore, there is one God of all,
who is also God of our God;

In this phrase, “our God” again refers to Jesus. This is similar to Hebrews 1:8-9, which also refers to Jesus as theos, but then says that the Father is His theos.

The phrases “only-begotten” and “none other like him” identify the Son as utterly unique. 

Maker of all creation

Ulfilas described Son as the “designer and maker of all creation.” If He made all things, presumably, He was not made Himself.  

Arius wrote that the Son was “begotten, or created, or purposed, or established.” In other words, Arius did not make a clear distinction between begotten and created. But after Nicaea, Arianism emphasized that the phrase only begotten” means that the Son was not created. See, for example, the Long Lines Creed.

Only-Begotten

Ulfilas described the Son as the “only-begotten Son” of the “only one God the Father, the unbegotten.” The word “begotten,” which means that the Father gave birth to the Son, implies that the Son came from the being or substance of the Father. “Only-begotten” means that He is the only being that ever was born of God. 

Because He was “begotten” of the being or substance of God, the Nicene Creed described the Son as homoousios with the Father. This word comes from homós (same) and ousía (being or essence) and means “same substance.” In Latin, it is consubstantial. In other words, the Nicene claimed that the Son is of the “same substance” as the Father.

In Arianism, this means that the Father and the Son have the “same substance,” just like we as people have the “same substance,” but remain different persons with different skills and capacities.

Trinitarian theology replaces the word “same” with “one” and understands homoousian as that the Father and Son have “one substance;” like three Persons with one body.

In his description of the Father and the Son, Ulfilas does not mention substance at all, which is a good thing, for that concept is not revealed in the Bible (Deut 29:29). It was an unfortunate addition to the Nicene Creed, probably due to the insistence of the emperor, who presided over the proceedings. (Listen to Kegan Chandler on the term “homoousios.”)

Subordinate

In Trinitarian theology, the Son is in all respects equal with the Father. In contrast, in Arianism, “begotten” means that the Son’s existence was caused by the Father, and that He is dependent on the Father, who alone is the uncaused Cause of all things. Arianism claims that the Bible reveals Him as subordinate to the Father; both before and after His existence as a human being. See the article – Subordinate.

The Father is God of our God.

What really sets Him apart from the pagan gods is not the title “god,” but that He is “the designer and maker of all creation.”

God, the Father – All instances of the word “God” in the quote from Ulfilas should be translated “god;” even when referring to the Father.  Ulfilas made a distinction between the Father and the Son and the pagan gods in HOW he described Him, namely as the “only one god” who is “god of all” and also “god of our god.” 

God of our God – As Ulfilas wrote, “there is one God of all, who is also GOD OF OUR GOD.”  In other words, the Father is the Son’s god.  The Bible similarly describes Jesus as “only-begotten god” (John 1:18) and “mighty god” (Isaiah 9:6); the Lord of the universe (1 Cor. 8:6), but the Father as Jesus’ “God” (e.g. Rev. 3:2, 12; Heb. 1:8-9; John 20:17).  Paul described the Father is the Head of Christ. 

Subordinate – Ulfilas closed by saying, “I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.” 

The Holy Spirit is not a person.

Subject and obedient – Ulfilas furthermore believed “in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power … Neither God nor lord/master, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.” That the Holy Spirit is “neither God nor lord” implies that Ulfilas did not think of the Holy Spirit as a Person, but as a power, and a power that is subject and obedient in all things to the Son.

Therefore, the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father and the Holy Spirit is SUBORDINATE to the Son. 

No Trinity in the first four centuries

Ulfilas did not believe is the Trinity.  For him:

The Father alone was God. 
The Holy Spirit is not a Person.
There is no mention of three Persons in one Being.

It is often said that Arians do not believe in the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, which is true.  However, the concept of the Trinity, as we know it today, did not yet exist in Arius’ day. 

First 300 years – In the first three centuries, the church fathers did not think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three Persons in one Being.  Tertullian did use the word “trinity,” but he used it to refer to a group of three distinct beings; not use in the sense of a single being. 

Nicene Creed – Neither does the Nicene Creed contain the Trinity concept, as a careful reading of that creed will show.  The purpose of that creed was to say that the Son is equal to the Father; not say that they are one Being; the same God.  It does say that they are homoousios (of the same substance), but that does not mean that they are one being.  We may argue that human beings are of the same substance, and that does not make us all one being. 

The Trinity doctrine was formulated later in the fourth century, perhaps by the Cappadocian Fathers, probably in response to the Arian criticism that the Nicene Creed creates the impression of two gods and can be accused of polytheism.

Three Forms of Arianism

In fact, as debates raged during the five decades after Nicaea, in an attempt to come up with a new formula, different forms of Arianism evolved. Three camps are identified by scholars among the opponents of the Nicene Creed:

Different Substance

One group, similar to Arius, maintained that the Son is of a different substance than the Father. They described the Son as unlike (anhomoios) the Father.

Similar Substance

The Homoiousios Christians (only an “i” added to “homoousios”) accepted the equality and co-eternality of the persons of the Trinity, as per the Nicene Creed, but rejected the Nicene term homoousios. They preferred the term homoiousios (similar substance). This is very close to the different substance view of the Arians. Therefore, they were called “semi-Arians” by their opponents. (See homoousia.)

No speculation about Substance

Homoian Arianism maintained that the Bible does not reveal whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, and we, therefore, should not speculate about such things. They avoided the word ousia (substance) altogether and described the Son as homoios = like the Father. Although they avoided invoking the name of Arius, in large part they followed Arius’ teachings. RPC Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 557–559) lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith in the years 357 to 383.

None of these groups, therefore, adopted the Trinitarian approach of “one substance.”

In the fourth century, these differences were taken quite seriously and divided the church; similar to the denominations in Christianity we know today. Depending on the interpretation supported by Emperor Constantius, for example, wavered in his support between the first and the second party, while harshly persecuting the third.

Historians, unfortunately, categorize all three positions as Arianism, but there are important differences between these views.