Versus the Council of Nicaea
By Brother John Raymond
with its fundamental Trinitarian controversy must not be looked upon
as an isolated theory by its founder Arius.
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)."
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)."
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,
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)."
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.
and His Teaching
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.
themselves Lucianists and Collucianists, they developed his adoptionist
and subordinationist tendencies into a full heresy (Harkins 1967, 1057,
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 ('Logos' is simply a Greek word for 'word')
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.
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 teaching 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)."
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)."
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
Dionysus 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.
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.
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.
Emperor Calls Council of his Church (Universal or Catholic Church of
was the year 325 AD in what is now Turkey and 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).'"
Council of Nicaea
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.
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)."
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 (LeClercq 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.
Creed and an Analysis
parts of the literal translation of the Nicaea Creed are as follows:
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,
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.
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.
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)."
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.
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.
Council's defeat by Arianism
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.
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, homoousios and anomoios (Ward 1955,
57). It seemed that the Arians had triumphed over the Nicaea creed.
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 homoousios 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 homoousios 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).
about the same time as Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers were reaching
an agreement another development was taking place. The East and the
West were arriving at a better understanding of each others theological
terminology. At the Synod of Alexandria in 362 the Nicene Creed was
re-affirmed, the terms ousia and hypostasis were explained and Macedonianism
(sometimes referred to as another form of Semi-Arianism in its subordination
of the Holy Spirit) was condemned. Under the Eastern Emperor Valens
(364-378) homoeism still had imperial favor.
the West Ambrose of Milan led the fight for the Nicene Creed. At the
Council of Sirmium in 378, with the support of the Western Emperor Gratian,
six Arian Bishops were deposed. A series of laws were passed in 379
and 380 the Emperor prohibited Arianism in the West.
the East with the succession of Valens by a Nicene sympathizing Emperor
Theodosius I all exiled Bishops under Valens to return to their sees.
In 381 he convoked a regional Council at Constantinople. The first canon
from this Council states that "`the faith of the 318 fathers who assembled
at Nicaea in Bithynia is not to be made void, but shall continue to
be established (Davis 1987, 126).'" In 380 the Emperor Theodosius outlawed
Arianism. The last victory over Arianism came in 381 with the Council
of Constantinople in the East and the Council of Aquileia in the West.
Both of them "sealed the final adoption of the faith of Nicaea by the
entire Church (DeClercq 1967, 793)."
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.
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).
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 Homoiousians 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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