The True Origin of the Trinity Doctrine

Purpose

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

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

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

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

New Information

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Overview of the Arian Controversy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Orthodox View

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

No Orthodoxy

But Hanson stated:

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

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

Subordination was orthodox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Arius deviated from orthodoxy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Cause of the Controversy

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

Arius was insignificant.

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

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

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

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

Caused by existing tensions

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

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

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

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

The following illustrates these existing tensions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Were the anti-Nicenes Arians?

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

There was no one single Arian movement.

The reality is that most of those who opposed the Nicene Creed also opposed Arius’ theology. There were at least four main competing views:

Same Substance – The pro-Nicenes are called Homoousians, from the word “homo-ousion” in the Nicene Creed, which means the “same substance.” They taught that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Following the Cappadocians, this later became understood as ‘one substance’. 

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

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

Like the Father – The Homo-ians, like good Protestants, maintained that it is arrogance to speculate about the substance of God because the Bible does not say anything about His substance. The most that they were willing to say is that the Son is like the Father because that is what the Scripture teaches (e.g., Col 1:15). This view was accepted at the Council of Constantinople in AD 359 (not 381) and, when Theodosius became emperor in AD 380, the bishop of the capital was a Homoian.

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

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

5. Athanasius invented Arianism.

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

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

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

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

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

6. Why did Nicaea fail?

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

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

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

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

7. The key word in the Creed

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

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

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

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

The term homoousios was unimportant.

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

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

“For nearly twenty years after Nicaea nobody mentions homoousios, not even Athanasius. This may be because it was much less significant than either later historians of the ancient Church or modern scholars thought that it was.” (RH, 170)

“What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.” (Hanson)

“Homoousios was in fact a foreign body or stumbling block for all the people attending the council, without distinction, Arians and anti-Arians, and for this very reason it soon disappeared in the following debates.” (P.F. Beatrice)

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

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

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

7. Ecumenical Councils

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

Ultimate Authority in Doctrine

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

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

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

General Councils

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

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

Presiding Officers

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

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

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

Head of the Church

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

 

7. Did Arianism deviate from Orthodoxy?

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

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

Arianism was ‘orthodox’.

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

The Logos-theology of the Apologists was “the main, widely-accepted, one might almost say traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was … the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted.” (Hanson)

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

Nicene theology deviated.

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

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

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

 

 

10. Does the Creed describe a Trinity?

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

(a) The Father is the One God.

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

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

(b) No One Being

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

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

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

(c) No Holy Spirit

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

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

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

11. Was Athanasius falsely accused?

Athanasius, who is regarded by many as the hero of the ‘Arian’ Controversy, was exiled five times by four different emperors, spending almost half of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile (Blue Letter). In the conventional account, “supporters of the orthodox point of view such as Athanasius of Alexandria … were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile.”

But Hanson stated:

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

10. Is Arianism a contradictory system?

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

But Hanson states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Is Nicene theology distinct from Sabellianism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. The solution came from Semi-Arians.

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

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

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

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

13. Did Arius corrupt theology with Philosophy?

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

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

Arius inherited a theology based on pagan philosophy.

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

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

Arianism opposed philosophy.

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

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

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

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

Nicene Theology relies on Greek philosophy.

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

This is indicated by the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were there only two sides in the Controversy?

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

The reality is that most of those who opposed the Nicene Creed also opposed Arius’ theology. There were at least four main competing views:

Same Substance – The pro-Nicenes are called Homoousians, from the word “homo-ousion” in the Nicene Creed, which means the “same substance.” They taught that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. Following the Cappadocians, this became later to be understood as ‘one substance’. 

Different Substance – The Hetero-ousians were the extreme Arians, saying that Christ is of a “different substance” than the Father. This is perhaps what Arius had taught. It was rejected in the Nicene Council of 325 but continued as a minority view.

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

Like the Father – The Homo-ians, like good Protestants, maintained that it is arrogance to speculate about the substance of God because the Bible does not say anything about His substance. The most that they were willing to say is that the Son is like the Father because that is what the Scripture teaches (e.g., Col 1:15). This view was accepted at the Council of Constantinople in AD 359 (not 381) and, when Theodosius became emperor in AD 380, the bishop of the capital was a Homoian.

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

Did an Ecumenic Council bring an end to the Controversy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Role of Emperors

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

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

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

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

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

Constantius (Constantine’s son – 337-361) was an Homoian. In 359, the Western bishops met in Ariminum and accepted a Homo-ian creed. But the eastern bishops, who met in Seleucia, accepted a Homoi-ousian creed. Emperor Constantius did not accept this outcome and called for another council in the same year in Constantinople where both the eastern and western bishops were present. In the initial debate, the Hetero-ousians defeated the Homoi-ousians. However, Constantius rejected this decision as well and exiled some of the delegates. Thereafter the council agreed to the Homo-ian creed that was agreed to at Ariminum, with minor modifications.

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

In the Roman Empire, the emperor always had the final say with respect to the doctrine of the church. When the emperor was an Arian, the church was Arian but when the emperor supported the Nicene side, the church followed. For all practical purposes, the emperor was the head of the church. He made all key decisions for the church. Church and state were united. (Boyd) In practice, the emperor was more than the head of the church for he was the ultimate authority with respect to doctrine:

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

Conclusions

A Complete Travesty

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

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

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

The Religion of the Roman Empire

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

Still exists today

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

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

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

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


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FOOTNOTES

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

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