Arianism Versus the Council of Nicaea
By Brother John Raymond
Arianism with its fundamental Trinitarian controversy must not be looked upon as an isolated theory by its founder Arius. Its appeal, which began in Alexandria and spread through the whole Empire, must be seen in the context of the times. The Church emerged in a Jewish and Greek world. The question occupying this non-Christian world was the contrast between the “One and the Many, between the ultimate unity that lay behind the visible universe and the incalculable variety that exists in the world (Ward 1955, 38).” The relationship between God and the world had to be solved. The Jews proposed a supreme God who created by His word. It was an idea of a mediating “Word or Wisdom - the Word which is pronounced, the Wisdom which is created - whereby the Father communicated Himself to man and took possession of him (Guitton 1965, 81).” The Greeks could not see how a finite and changeable world could come from an eternal and changeless God. They proposed the idea of a “mediating Intelligence or even Word, a first emanation of the first principle which reduced the distance between God and the world (Guitton 1965, 81).” The primitive Church had to “reconcile the notions they had inherited from Judaism with those they had derived from philosophy. Jew and Greek had to meet in Christ. They had to find an answer that would agree with the revelation they had received from Christ as recorded in the scriptures (Ward 1955, 39).” This struggle for a reconciliation of thought reached its climax with the Arian controversy. The Church responded with the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea that brought together Scriptural and philosophical thought to explain the Trinity. The Council did triumph over Arianism but only after fifty years of bitter battling. Imperial support and confusion in theological terminology were the principal reasons for such a long drawn out battle as we will see.
Arius and His Doctrine
Arius, who was born in Egypt in 256 A.D., was a parish priest in Alexandria. He had studied under St. Lucian of Antioch, the founder of the school of Antioch, who had earlier been condemned for holding that Christ was only a man; although he was later reconciled. He is called the “Father of Arianism” because “Arius and almost all the 4th-century Arian theologians were his students. Calling themselves Lucianists and Collucianists, they developed his adoptionist and subordinationist tendencies into a full heresy (Harkins 1967, 1057, 1058).” With this background Arius struggled with the question of the Trinity. His teaching in Alexandria was the following: “Personal distinctions were not eternally present within the nature of God. . . the Godhead Himself was responsible for them. . . Identifying the eternal Godhead with the Father and regarding the Logos as no more than a power or quality of the Father, he said that before time began the Father had created the Son by the power of the Word to be His agent in creation. The Son was not therefore to be identified with the Godhead, He was only God in a derivative sense, and since there was once when he did not exist He could not be eternal. Arius stressed the subordination of the Logos to such an extent as to affirm His creaturehood, to deny His eternity and to assert His capacity for change and suffering (Ward 1955, 41).” This doctrine of Arius “drove the distinctions outside the Deity and thus destroyed the Trinity. It meant solving the difficulty of the One and the Many by proposing a theory of one Supreme Being and two inferior deities (Ward 1955, 43).” The Person of Christ “belonged to no order of being that the Church could recognize. . . He was neither God nor man (Ward 1955, 42).”
Arius Versus the Alexandrian Bishop
Arius’ views began to spread among the people and the Alexandrian clergy. Alexander the Bishop called a meeting of his priests and deacons. The Bishop insisted on the unity of the Godhead. Arius continued to argue that since the Son was begotten of the Father then at some point He began to exist. Therefore there was a time when the Son did not exist. Arius refused to submit to the Bishop and continued to spread his teaching. Alexander called a synod of Bishops of Egypt and Libya. Of the hundred Bishops who attended eighty voted for the condemnation and exile of Arius. After the synod Alexander wrote letters to the other Bishops refuting Arius’ views. In doing so the Bishop used the term “homoousios” to describe the Father and Son as being of one substance. Alexander “used a term which was to become the keyword of the whole controversy (Ward 1955, 43, 44).”
With the decision of the synod Arius fled to Palestine. Some of the Bishops there, especially Eusebius of Caesarea, supported him. From here Arius continued his journey to Nicomedia in Asia Minor. The Bishop of that city, Eusebius, had studied under Lucian of Antioch. He became Arius’ most influential supporter. From this city Arius enlisted the support of other Bishops, many of whom had studied under Lucian. His supporters held their own synod calling Arius’ views orthodox and condemning Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. Arius seemed to have good grounds for this condemnation. The term homoousios was rejected by Alexander’s own predecessor Dionysius when arguing against the Sabellians (who claimed the Father and Son were identical). All this controversy was taking place just as the Church was emerging from Roman oppression.
Constantine and Ossius
With the rise of Constantine to power Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine had politically united the Empire but he was distressed to find a divided Christianity. Constantine, certainly not understanding the significance of the controversy, sent Ossius his main ecclesiastical adviser with letters to both Alexander and Arius. In the letters he tried to reconcile them by saying that their disagreement was merely just a matter of words. Both of them really were in agreement on major doctrines and neither were involved in heresy. The letters failed to have an effect.
In 325 A.D. Ossius presided over a Council of the Orient in Antioch that was attended by fifty-nine bishops, forty-six of whom would soon attend the Council of Nicaea. This Council in Antioch was a forerunner of the latter Council in Nicaea. Under the influence of Ossius a new Church practice was inaugurated - that of issuing a creedal statement. At this Council Arianism was condemned, a profession of faith resembling the Alexandrian creed was promulgated and three Bishops who refused to agree with the teaching of this Council were provisionally excommunicated until the Council of Nicaea.
In the summer of that year, probably under the suggestion of Ossius, Constantine called for a general council of the Church at Nicaea in Bithynia. That an Emperor should invoke a Council should not be considered unusual since in Hellenistic thought he “‘was given by God supreme power in things material and spiritual (Davis 1987, 56).’”
The Council of Nicaea
The General Council was well attended by the major sees of the Eastern Empire. Also some Western Bishops were present. Because of old age and sickness Pope Sylvester did not attend but sent two papal legates. The total number of Bishops who attended the Council has been disputed. Eusebius of Ceasarea who attended it claimed 250; Athanasius also in attendance mentioned 300; after the Council a symbolic number of 318 was used; modern scholars put the number at 220.
If there were minutes taken of the Council proceedings they are no longer in existence. We know from the writings of Rufinus that “daily sessions were held and that Arius was often summoned before the assembly; his arguments attentively considered. The majority, especially those who were confessors of the Faith, energetically declared themselves against the impious doctrines of Arius (LeClercq 1913, 45).”
Concerning the Creed that was drafted at the Council “Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria and Philostorgius have given divergent accounts of how this Creed was drafted (DeClercq 1967, 792).” But from one reconstruction of the events Eusebius of Nicomedia offered a creed that was favorable to Arian views. This creed was rejected by the Council. Eusebius of Caesarea proposed the baptismal creed used in Caesarea. Although accepted it does not seem to form the basis of the Council’s Creed. Attempts were made to construct a creed using only scriptural terms. These creeds proved insufficient to exclude the Arian position. “Finally, it seems, a Syro-Palestinian creed was used as the basis for a new creedal statement . . . The finished creed was preserved in the writings of Athanasius, of the historian Socrates and of Basil of Caesarea and in the acts of the Council of Chalcedon of 451 (Davis 1987, 59).” When the creed was finished eighteen Bishops still opposed it. Constantine at this point intervened to threaten with exile anyone who would not sign for it. Two Libyan Bishops and Arius still refused to accept the creed. All three were exiled.
The Creed and an Analysis
Some parts of the literal translation of the Nicaea Creed are as follows:
“We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance (ousia) of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance (homoousios) with the Father, through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth . . . Those who say: ‘There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten;’ and that ‘He was made out of nothing;’ or who maintain that ‘He is of another hypostasis or another substance,’ or that ‘the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change,’ the Catholic Church anathematizes (LeClercq 1913, 45).”
The Arians were very clever in twisting phrases in creedal statements to reflect their own doctrine. The Son being “begotten of the Father” was seen by them as saying that the Son was created from nothing. But to counter their doctrine the phrase “begotten not made” was added to the creed that totally ruled out their position of the Son having a beginning. Another Arian teaching was that the Son was God by grace and name only. The creedal statement “true God of true God” was an affirmation that the Son was really truly God against this Arian position. The most important statement in the creed that affirms “that the Son shares the same being as the Father and is therefore fully divine” was the phrase “of one substance (homoousios) with the Father” (Davis 1987, 61). This statement totally destroyed the Arian view of the Son as an intermediary being between God and Creation.
In case the creed was not enough to end the Arian controversy anathemas were attached directly condemning Arian positions. The Arian denial of the Son’s co-eternity with the Father is expressed in the two phrases “there was when the Son of God was not” and “before He was begotten He was not.” The Arian belief in the Son being created out of nothing is expressed in the phrase “He came into being from things that are not.” The Arian doctrine that the Son being a creature was subject to moral changeability and only remained virtuous by an act of the will is expressed in the phrase “He is mutable or alterable.” Finally the Arian position of the Son as subordinate to the Father and not really God is expressed in the phrase “He is of a different hypostasis or substance.” With these specific anathemas against them the Arians and their heresy seemed to be finished.
With the Eastern Church using Greek and the Western Church using Latin misunderstandings were bound to arise over theological terminology. Once instance of confusion is the statement “He is of a different hypostasis or substance.” The two words in the Eastern Church were seen to be synonymous. In the West hypostasis meant person. So for a Westerner the Council would look as if it was condemning the statement that the Son was a different Person from the Father, which would clearly be erroneous. Only later would the East come to distinguish hypostasis from substance (ousia) as in the West. This instance of confusion “points up the terminological difficulty which continued to bedevil Eastern theology and to confuse the West about the East’s position (Davis 1987, 63).”
A second and very important termed used by the Council was homoousios. At that time this word could have three possible meanings. “First, it could be generic; of one substance could be said of two individual men, both of whom share human nature while remaining individuals. Second, it could signify numerical identity, that is, that the Father and the Son are identical in concrete being. Finally, it could refer to material things, as two pots are of the same substance because both are made of the same clay (Davis 1987, 61).” The Council intended the first meaning to stress the equality of the Son with the Father. If the second meaning for the word was taken to be the Council’s intention it would mean that the Father and Son were identical and indistinguishable - clearly a Sabellian heresy. The third meaning gave the word a materialistic tendency that would infer that the Father and Son are parts of the same stuff.
Along with these possible misunderstandings of the meaning of the word homoousios the history of the word is closely associated with heresies. The word was originally used by the Gnostics. The word had even been condemned at the Council of Antioch in 268 regarding its use by the Adoptionist Paul of Samosata. Another factor making the word unpopular was that it was never used in Sacred Scripture.
The Council’s defeat by Arianism
It is not surprising that with its use of the word homoousios the Council could be called into question. Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia gained the confidence of Emperor Constantine. He convinced Constantine that the Council’s use of the word homoousios was Sabellian (Father and Son were identical). The Emperor now favored the Arians. With the death of Constantine the Empire was divided between his sons. Constans who ruled in the West favored Nicaea while his brother Constantius who ruled the East was anti-Nicaea. Supporters of Nicaea in the East especially Bishop Athanasius were deposed and excommunicated by the Dedication Council of Antioch. This Council directly attacked the Nicaea Council by promulgating its own creed that omitted the phrases “from the substance of the Father” and “homoousios.” Some attempts were made to find a substitute word for homoousios. As many as fourteen Councils were held between 341 and 360 “in which every shade of heretical subterfuge found expression . . . The term ‘like in substance,’ homoiousion . . . had been employed merely to get rid of the Nicene formula (Barry 1913, 709).” Not all Arians, or their new name of Semi-Arian, agreed with this new word. One group emphasized that the Father and Son were “dissimilar” or anomoios. Another group used the word “similar” or homoios to describe the Father and Son relationship.
With the death of Constans in 350 his anti-Nicaea brother Constantius became sole ruler of the Empire. The new Emperor demanded that all the Bishops of his Empire should agree with the homoios formula. In 359 he summoned two Councils, one in the East at Seleucia and the other in the West at Rimini. Both Councils, under the Emperor’s threats and with rationalizing arguments aimed at calming consciences, were induced to sign the homoios formula. “This Homoean victory was confirmed and imposed on the whole Church by the Council of Constantinople in the following year” which condemned the terms homoousios, homoiousios and anomoios (Ward 1955, 57). It seemed that the Arians had triumphed over the Nicaea creed.
The Final Battle
The seeming triumph of homoeism was short lived. First it gained its popularity solely by imperial imposition. With the death of Constantius in 361 it collapsed. Second by persecuting both homoousios and homoiousios supporters alike “it brought about better understanding and, ultimately, reconciliation between the two groups (DeClercq 1967, 793).” Athanasius an ardent defender of the homoousios position and following the Alexandrian train of thought had begun his reasoning with the unity of God. From their he had concluded that the Son and Spirit Who shared that unity must have the same essential substance. The Cappadocian Fathers Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa were associated with Homoiousians. The point of departure for them as well as the Antiochenes had been the individual aspect of the divine personality. With the help of Athanasius they came to the realization that the three Persons as God must share the same identical substance also. By using the term homoiousios the Cappadocian Fathers “had never meant to deny the unity but only to preserve the distinction of persons (Ward 1955, 58).” Both came to the conclusion that although they used different terms what they meant to say was the same. The Cappadocian Fathers came to accept the term homoousios. Athanasius, on the other hand, accepted the Cappadocian formula for the Trinity - one substance (ousia) in three persons (hypostaseis).
The Council of Nicaea was victorious in the end. It took over fifty years of bitter battling between the upholders of the Council of Nicaea and those against it. The Arian heresy seemed finished when the Council so specifically anathematized their teachings one by one. The Arian doctrines condemned were the following: The Son was created by the Father out of nothing. Thus the Son was not God in the strict sense but by grace and in name only. The Father and Son did not share the same substance. The Son being a creature was subject to moral changeability and only remained virtuous by an act of the will.
Terminology difficulties had kept the door open for the Arians to continue after the Council. This was especially true with the term homoousios (of the same substance) used by the Council to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Arians took advantage of one of the term’s other meaning, that of identity, to claim that the Council said the Father and Son were identical thereby invalidating the Council. The Arians then started producing their own creeds either eliminating this term or substituting another for it. This lead to the breaking up of the Arians into diverse groups according to which term they supported - anomoios (dissimilar), homoios (similar) or homoiousion (like in substance).
It is obvious that Imperial involvement in the controversy determined at any given moment whether the Council of Nicaea or the Arianism was dominating the controversy. With the imposition of the term homoios on the Church by the Emperor Constantius the work of the Council of Nicaea seemed doomed. But the popularity of this term died with the Emperor. The persecution of both the Homoousians and the Homoiousians forced them to begin to dialogue. With the two great representatives of these positions, St. Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers, finding theological grounds for their eventual agreement the way was paved for the triumph of the Council of Nicaea. This incident later coupled with Eastern and Western Emperors who were pro-Nicaea led to the final Arian downfall.
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