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In response to my question why Theodosius was successful in bringing the Arian Controversy to a close, @Anne gave me references to some articles. I have read one by Steven Wedgeworth. It is a very interesting article (for people with such morbid interests). It discusses the large number of creeds that were formulated in the decades after the Nicene Creed was accepted in 325, culminating in the Homoean creed that was accepted, under the ‘guidance” of Emperor Constantius, at the Council of Constantinople in AD 360.

(The Homoeans or Homoians were the people that maintained that the Bible does not reveal anything about the substance (ousia) of God and, therefore, to speculate about His substance is arrogance. This is in contrast to the Nicene Creed that claimed that the Son is of the same substance as the Father.)

The creed of the Council of Constantinople in AD 360 became the official creed of the Christian Church. All use of ousia was forbidden and it seemed as if Arianism has triumphed.

I am also currently reading RPC Hanson on the Arian Controversy. Some regard him as our greatest authority on that controversy (e.g., Hart). Hanson and Wedgeworth present the same interesting historical facts, such as:

But there is one contextual matter where Hanson and Wedgeworth seem to disagree: While Hanson claimed that no 'orthodoxy' existed when the controversy began and that orthodoxy was only created through that controversy, Wedgeworth speaks of Orthodoxy as something that already existed when the Arian Controversy began. To illustrate the difference in more detail:

Steven Wedgeworth

Wedgeworth refers to “the orthodoxy of Athanasius,” “the orthodox bishops” in the year 360, and the “early church historians” who defended “the orthodoxy” at the Western council at Arminium in 360. He describes the Homoean synod of Constantinople in 360 as “the defeat of Orthodoxy.”

Wedgeworth also refers to “supposed orthodox arguments (that) could perhaps be made against using “substance” language in regards to the godhead.” In this regard, he mentions Origen who have already rejected the term years before, and Paul of Samatosota who had been condemned for his use of homoousios, which the Church condemned as a Sabellian theology.

(Sabellianism is the teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three faces of one single Person. For a discussion, see my question on the difference between Modalism and the traditional understanding of the Trinity doctrine.)

In opposition to the orthodox writers and bishops, Wedgeworth referred to the “heretics.“ He said, for example, that “the heretics typically took pre-existing Christian or Jewish tradition, combined it with certain philosophical rhetoric.”

RPC Hanson

Hanson, in contrast to Wedgeworth, wrote (link):

“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no 'orthodoxy' on the subject of 'how divine is Jesus Christ?', certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople.”

Hanson adds that the controversy raged for no less than sixty years. It is highly unlikely that a controversy will last that long if the orthodox form was perfectly well known when it began.

Subordinationism

There is a third option, namely that, when the controversy began, there was a general agreement in the church that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Hanson explains the build-up to the Arian Controversy as follows:

During the first three centuries, Greek philosophy was still a strong force in the Roman Empire. In that philosophy, God is immutable and is only able to communicate with our world of change and decay through an intermediary. For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world. (link)

During those centuries, Christians were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire. The Apologists (the pre-Nicene fathers) defended Christianity before the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire. For this purpose, they found it effective to identify “the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis.” (link) Since the nous of Greek philosophy was “a second, created god lower than the High God,” (link) the pre-Nicene fathers described Christ as “a subordinate though essential divine agent.” (link) Therefore, as Hanson explains, going into the controversy, the orthodoxy was that Christ is subordinate to the Father:

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god.” (link)

The pre-Nicene fathers did regard Christ as divine, but as Hanson noted:

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

In the thinking of the pre-Nicene fathers, “of course Christ was divine,” but since they assumed that many levels of divinity exist, the question that started the Arian Controversy was: “How divine, and what exactly did 'divine' mean in that context?” (link)

(Theos is the Greek word that is translated as "god" or "God," depending on the context. Deus is its Latin equivalent.)

In conclusion, although Hanson says that, at the beginning of the controversy, there was no 'orthodoxy' on the subject of 'how divine Jesus is, he does use phrases such as "traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God" and "conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century." In other words, there was no agreement on how divine Christ is, but there was agreement that He is not as divine as the Father.

The Question

So, my question is: What was the 'orthodox' view of God and Christ when the Arian Controversy began?:

  1. The Trinity doctrine as per Wedgeworth;
  2. None, as per Hanson, or
  3. Subordinationism?

Or am I making a category error? Why would Hanson state that the pre-Nicene fathers believed that Christ is subordinate to the Father but still say there was no 'orthodoxy' on the subject of 'how divine is Jesus Christ?'

And why would Wedgeworth talk about 'orthodoxy' as if it is the present-day Trinity doctrine, already existing in 360 AD? Did he use the term 'orthodoxy' proleptically (the representation of a thing as existing before it actually does)?

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  • If Wedgeworth were correct, I'd expect individuals like Nicholas not to be canonized saints. And, we wouldn't recite the Nicene Creed today. What does he mean by "The creed of the Council of Constantinople in AD 360 became the official creed of the Christian Church."? I've never even heard of this creed.
    – jaredad7
    Nov 30, 2021 at 19:00
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    Why is it assumed that the Son being subordinate to the Father equals a lessening of Divinity? Subordination does not have to do with ontology but with relationship. Good question, though.+1 Dec 1, 2021 at 13:34
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    @OneGodtheFather thanks for the link! This is about to send me down a rabbit hole.
    – jaredad7
    Dec 1, 2021 at 14:40
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    @MikeBorden Thanks Mike, I suspect that some people vote in terms of whether questions and answers align with their theology, rather than whether it is well motivated. I think I understand your argument, namely that the Son is subordinate to the Father only in the sense that He is begotten by the Father. As Aquinas argued, relations (begat, proceeds) are the only things making a distinction between the Persons. But you also argue that the Father and Son are equal ontologically (in terms of substance). Therefore the subordination of the Son in terms of relations is not real subordination.
    – Andries
    Dec 2, 2021 at 3:45
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    @MikeBorden If I understand you correctly, my response would be that the question above is about the doctrine of God with which the church entered the fourth century, and the difference between person (hypostasis) and substance (ousia) was only worked out later in the fourth century. As Wedgeworth noted, Origen rejected the notion of ousia and a third century council rejected the term homoousios link. The pre-Nicene fathers did not yet have these concepts. For them, I argue above, the Son was also subordinate ontologically.
    – Andries
    Dec 2, 2021 at 3:58

2 Answers 2

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First of all I'd like to apologize that I'm not an expert so my answer may not be correct.

What was the 'orthodox' view of God and Christ when the Arian Controversy began?

The counterquestion is: What exactly does "orthodox" mean?

From my understanding, it means that somebody is believing in what the official doctrine of some religion is saying.

Around the year 300, there was no "official" doctrine (such as the Catechism today). And if there really were an agreement among Christians at that time, there would not have been so many Arians. So we also cannot say that whatever was the agreement can be seen as "official doctrine".

So Hanson's point of view makes sense.

Did he use the term 'orthodoxy' proleptically ...

Definitely yes.

This is more or less the "official" way used by the Catholic Church when judging a person that was living in the past.

Why would Hanson state ... subordinate ... but still say ...

Because the word "subordinate" is not very specific:

It would both describe Arianism and the Orthodox Church'es idea of the Tinity - and everything in between.

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All use of ousia was forbidden and it seemed as if Arianism had triumphed.

What you're describing is a standstill, not a victory (for either side).

the Arian Controversy, to an extent, was a dispute between the East and the West

Are you referring to Sabellius and Arius being polar opposites, with the former hailing from Libya (to the East of North Africa), and the other from Egypt (to the West of North Africa) ?

If you are simply referring to Rome and Constantinople, then bear in mind that the West was in multilateral decline, whilst the Orient was on the rise (no pun intended), and traditionalism is usually characteristic of rural, rather than urban, societies; which is also why Christianity initially spread in major cities, and the word for pagan originally meant villager. This is also the reason why all major heresies before the rise of the Carolingian Empire happened in the East, and Old Rome was well-regarded as a bastion of traditionalism and orthodoxy, whilst New Rome was constantly assailed by new and new heresies. Needless to say, the tables have turned in the second millennium, with the East as the new bastion of conservatism, and the (Wild?) West as the new Byzantium of heterodoxy.

Wedgeworth speaks of Orthodoxy as something that already existed when the Arian Controversy began.

Perhaps he is using the term retroactively, anachronistically, or proleptically ? If so, then there is no actual contradiction between him and Hanson.

Origen who has already rejected the term years before, and Paul of Samosata, who had been condemned for his use of homo-ousios, which the Church condemned as a Sabellian theology.

Origenism, adoptionism, and Sabellianism are about as (un)related as whales, flowers, and mosquitos: the former three are all heresies, the latter three are all living things, but, in both cases, one would have to cast a rather large or vaguely-defined net to encapsulate all three.

To the extent to which both Paul and Lucian, Arius' teacher, are both of Samosata, given the latter two's staunchly anti-Sabellian stance, the passage reads like a train wreck.

Sabellianism is the teaching that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three faces of one single Person.

The Latin persona, related to the Greek prosopon, comes from the Etruscan term for mask, metaphorically referring to one's various social roles or functions; thus, one relates as a parent to one's children, as a child to one's parents, as a servant to one's master, as a master to one's own servants, etc.

“the heretics typically took pre-existing Christian or Jewish tradition, combined it with certain philosophical rhetoric.”

That's like saying heretics talked; everybody did that, not just the heretics; Greek philosophy was the language of the day.

the controversy raged for no less than sixty years. It is highly unlikely that a controversy will last that long if the orthodox form was perfectly well known when it began.

Speaking of orthodoxy, picture Arius, the Egyptian (North-East African) priest, as an ultraorthodox; the heresy of the day was Sabellianism, a Libyan (North-West African) heresy, which was unanimously condemned throughout the entire empire, and everybody was taking a shot at it. Lucian of Samosata was the author of a strongly anti-Sabellian creed, vehemently condemning well-established or well-worn Sabellian expressions, such as homoousios, or (second) light from (the first) light; as such, when Arius initially appeared on the scene, he seemed to many or most as simply proclaiming well-known truths; even as late as the first council, there were many that were certain that it was all either a big misunderstanding, or that his opponents were animated by ill-will and were intentionally portraying his (interpretable) words in a deeply perverted manner. According to Eusebius, when Athanasius took the stand during the council, he simply read passages from Arius' writings out loud, without too much (personal) commentary; at which point, Arius lost most of his supporters, because it became increasingly clear to the ecclesial gathering that his views simply weren't what they innocently and sincerely believed them to be.

when the controversy began, there were a general agreement in the church that the Son is subordinate to the Father

All sons are subordinate to their fathers; Arians interpreted this ontologically, rather than hypostatically. To provide a few modern examples:

  • Feminists, for instance, argue that the traditional biblical interpretation of wives being obedient to their husbands is inherently misogynistic, relegating women to an inferior ontological status.
  • In military terms, the one issuing the order is called superior, and the to whom it is given, inferior or subaltern; yet, they are both fellow soldiers.
  • Similarly, racists, whether American or South-African, argue that masters are of necessity ontologically superior to their servants.

God is immutable and is only able to communicate with our world of change and decay through an intermediary

A belief common to Greek philosophers (such as Plato), Hellenistic Jews (such as Philo), and early Christians of all stripes, both orthodox (Justin Martyr and Tertullian) or heretical (Gnosticism and Arianism).

The intermediary is called demiurge, or logos, the latter term being notoriously borrowed by the fourth gospel.

Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis as intermediary between the God and the physical world.

they found it effective to identify “the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis.”

the nous of Greek philosophy was “a second, created god lower than the High God”

No, the Platonic Nous is, to my knowledge, consistently identified, by both Hellenistic Jews and early Christians, with the One God and Father. The mind (nous) thinks (logos means thought), and eventually speaks out, in a loud voice, its inner thoughts (logos also means word). And God said, let there be light, etc.

the orthodoxy was that Christ is subordinate to the Father:

If so, then everybody except the Sabellians were orthodox.

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god.”

If so, then Arianism is conventional Trinitarian doctrine; that it is Trinitarian, is no doubt; only the Sabellians weren't, and Arius was their greatest enemy; but I'm not sure if that's what he meant by conventional.

am I making a category error ?

The only error or imprecision I detected is that you fail or refuse to distinguish between (at least) two (different) types of subordination-ism: one Arian (ontological, heterodox or ultraorthodox), one Nicaean (hypostatical, moderate or orthodox).

Ultra-orthodoxy is no less prone to theological errors than hyper-corrections to grammatical ones.

Why would Hanson state that the pre-Nicene fathers believed that Christ is subordinate to the Father but still say there was no 'orthodoxy' on the subject of 'how divine is Jesus Christ?'

Because there was no unity on how to interpret the term; children are subordinate to their parents, animals are subordinate to their owners, tools to the craftsmen, etc.

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