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The views that are condemned in the last part of the Nicene Creed may be divided as follows:

  1. There was a time when he was not (Wikipedia). Or probably more literally, “There was when He was not” (Earlychurchtexts).
  2. He was not before he was made.
  3. He was made out of nothing.
  4. He is of another substance or essence,
  5. The Son of God is created, or changeable, or alterable.

The first two anathemas are about WHEN He began to exist. Apart from stating that all things came to be through Him, the affirmations earlier in the creed do not say anything specific in this regard. If we assume that “all things” include time, then there was no literal “time when he was not.”

The third anathema is about OUT OF WHAT He came to exist. Rather than “out of nothing,” as in the anathemas, the affirmations say that He is “begotten of the Father … that is, of the essence (ousia) of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.”

My question relates to the fourth anathema. What is the meaning of the Greek word or phrase that is translated as “of?" Stated differently, is this condemnation:

  • About OUT OF WHAT substance He came to be, or is it
  • About the substance HE CONSISTS OF?

Just reading the English, the following seems to indicate that this condemnation is about OUT OF WHAT substance He came to be:

(a) Just like the first two anathemas form a pair, it seems as if the third and fourth anathemas also form a pair. (See above.)

(b) The phrase “He is of another substance” seems to be the opposite of the affirmation, He is “begotten … of the essence of the Father”

(c) Earlier in the creed, it is said that the Son is “God of God” (Wikipedia). In this phrase, "God" describes WHAT the Son is and "of" describes OUT OF WHAT He came to exist. If the word “of” has the same meaning in the fourth anathema, then that anathema may be about OUT OF WHAT He came to exist.

Alternatively, this anathema could be an elaboration of the word homoousion in the body of the creed. In that case, it would be a statement about the substance HE CONSISTS OF.

Why do I ask this question?

I ask this question because I am trying to work out what exactly the main issue of the debate was at Nicaea.

Given that 80% of the words of the creed are about Christ, they did not argue about the Father or about the Holy Spirit. The dispute was only about Christ. But what was the core issue in that dispute? I can think of at least three possible core issues:

  1. Whether the Son always existed,

  2. Out of what the Son was begotten, and

  3. What the substance of the Son now is.

  4. Always existed


The anathemas state that He ALWAYS EXISTED, but that is not explicitly mentioned in the body of the creed. So, I assume that that was not the main point of dispute.

  1. Out of what the Son was begotten

Most of the text about Christ in the affirmations is about HOW HE CAME TO EXIST, namely:

“Begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made.”

These words do not seem to refer to what Christ’s substance now is. It seems to describe only the substance OUT OF WHICH He was begotten. The third anathema contains a similar statement, namely that He did not come into existence out of nothing. Given the emphasis on this point in the creed, I would assume that this was the main matter of dispute.

  1. What the substance of the Son now is.

The affirmations say that He is homoousion with the Father. This refers to His own substance; not to the substance out of which He was begotten. But this statement seems quite isolated. Unless the fourth condemnation relates to the word homoousion, nothing else in the creed refers directly to His own substance. It is for that reason that I am trying to work out what the statement, that "He is (not) of another substance or essence," means. Does it mean:

  • That He is begotten out of the substance of the Father, or
  • That he has the same substance as the Father?
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    @MikeBorden That was also an argument during the fourth century. The counterargument was that one should not interpret "beget" in a literal, material sense, as if the Son is a broken-off part of the Father, but in terms of what the Bible elsewhere says about the Father and Son, where we read that the Father is the only Being who is immortal and exists without cause. Eusebius argued that, if you say that the Son has the same substance as the Father, then you are saying that the Son has the same unoriginated substance as the Father, which contradicts the statement that the Son is begotten.
    – Andries
    May 2, 2023 at 15:09
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    @MikeBorden Yes, He is eternally begotten in the Nicene Creed. The question is what that means. Origen said that the Son was eternally begotten. He said that God has always existed and, since God's essence is to create, God never began to create. In other words, there never was something that was God's first creation. And since God created all things through the Son, the Son must exist without beginning. Arius had a different proposal. He made a distinction between the timeless reality beyond time and our existence within time. He said that the Son was 'produced' in that timeless reality.
    – Andries
    May 5, 2023 at 10:11
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    @MikeBorden I think, in this matter of whether the Son is eternal. we come up against infinity and we must accept that created beings cannot fully understand the One that exists without beginning or cause. We must be careful not to say things that humans are unable to understand. For me, the important point is that the Son was begotten. Therefore He does not exist without cause. Whatever we say about the Son must not contradict this fundamental principle.
    – Andries
    May 5, 2023 at 10:22
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    @MikeBorden What you describe is what Alexander and Athanasius also said. For example, Lewis Ayres (Nicaea and its Legacy, 2004) wrote, “In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (p54) Alexander wrote: "As Word or Wisdom the Son must be eternal or the Father would, nonsensically, have been at one time bereft of both.” (44) And yes, this is the view that Arius opposed. One of his objections was that this is Sabellianism. In the view of Alexander and Athanasius, the Son is part of God. According to Von Mosheim, that is what Sabellius also taught.
    – Andries
    May 6, 2023 at 16:00
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    @MikeBorden "Sabellianism doesn't go far enough" - that's right. In Sabellius' day, Logos-theology, in which the Son is a subordinate intermediate being, was the standard teaching of the church. In contrast, Sabellius described the Son as equal with the Father but he also did not want to describe three Gods. Therefore, he described God as one Person with the Father, Son, and Spirit as three portions. The Trinity doctrine is a refinement of Sabellianism. Trinitarians should refer to Sabellius as 'the great' rather than as 'the heretic'. See - revelationbyjesuschrist.com/sabellius
    – Andries
    May 8, 2023 at 14:06

1 Answer 1

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That phrase was written both as a condemnation of individuals within the Church, and religious groups that maintained that Jesus Christ was "of another substance or essence". As you rightly point out, the controversy revolved around the meaning of Greek words. Although the 325 Nicene Creed tried to clarify, so as to prevent people twisting words to allow them to remain within the Church despite holding to unorthodox beliefs about Christ, it did not succeed. More problems arose later, continuing such arguments about words. Let me quote from this scholarly book dealing with this troubled time in the Church.

"While Athanasius was in exile in Trier, Arius died - one day before he was to be restored as a Christian presbyter in a special ceremony in Constantinople in 336, only months before Constantine's own death on May 22, 337. Constantine lived as a pagan and died as an Arian... > Constantine's successor was his son Constantius... who ruled until his death in 362, [and] constantly hounded the bishop [Athanasius] who seemed the last key holdout for trinitarian orthodoxy against Arianism and semi-Arianism. The emperor wanted peace, and uniformity was it> path, [wanting to] replace homoousios in the Nicene Creed with homoiousios which means, 'of a similar substance' and would be acceptable to the semi-Arians...

"In all, Athanasius endured five exiles.' Seventeen years, out of forty-six as bishop, Athanasius had spent in exile. Politics and theology had ever intermingled...' 7... His own synod in Alexandria met in 362. The bishops gathered there reaffirmed homoousios as the only proper description of the relationship of the Son of God to the Father and explicitly rejected both the semi-Arian homoiousios and Sabellianism as heresies... Athanasius died in 373 in Alexandria."

As the Council of Constantinople adjourned and the bishops departed for their home sees, the differences and resentments between Alexandria and Antioch were just beginning to boil... The Council of Constantinople had made official the use of terms and concepts like nature and person for explaining the Trinity. Alexandrians... would argue more and more vehemently that just as the Trinity is one substance, or nature, and three persons so Jesus Christ is one nature and one person... When it comes to personhood, Antiochenes averred, two can become one while remaining two. The stage was set for a theological blowout... [which] came in 428." The Story of Christian Theology, Roger E. Olson, pp 164-166, 197 & 210 (Apollos 1999)

My answer to your question is that the Nicene Creed was using words to convey the belief that just as the Father is of divine essence, so the Son of God is of the same divine essence. In other words, the Son is not another God. Whatever God consists of, the Son consists of. And as God the Father is true God, so the Son also is true God, and not a lesser god. The deity of the Son is just as total as the deity of the Father.

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  • Excellent answer. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 6, 2021 at 20:17
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    You seem to assume that Nicene theology was the orthodoxy when the Arian Controversy began. In contrast, RPC Hanson wrote that the Arian Controversy “was not a history of the defence of an agreed and settled orthodoxy against the assaults of open heresy. On the subject which was primarily under discussion there was not as yet any orthodox doctrine." He adds that Athanasius & co "wanted their readers to think that orthodoxy on the subject under discussion had always existed and that the period was simply a story of the defence of that orthodoxy against heresy and error” (RH, xviii-xix)
    – Andries
    May 1, 2023 at 7:05
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    On Athanasius, he was deposed a number of times, but not for his theology. He was accused of violence, barring the Melitians from churches, having some arrested, and at least agreeing in the beating of some, and “interrupting the grain supply from Egypt.” A commission was sent to Egypt to investigate and Athanasius was guilty on at least some of these charges. (Lewis Ayres, 102-3). Hanson wrote: “Evidence that has turned up in the sands of Egypt ... has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt.” (see – Faults)
    – Andries
    May 1, 2023 at 7:25
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    RPC Hanson noted that the conventional account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. Lewis Ayres in his 2004 book - Nicaea and its Legacy - wrote that “the four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century” (LA, 11). I would recommend the books by Hanson, Rowan Williams and Lewis Ayres. These guys are trinitarians and specialists on the Arian Controversy. The person you are quoting is a generalist.
    – Andries
    May 1, 2023 at 7:35
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    When I say that John and I drive the same car, it can mean that we drive one and the same car or that we drive two different cars that are the same in all respects. The same applies to the term homoousios (same substance). It may mean that Father and Son have one and the same substance, meaning that they are numerically one, or that they have two distinct substances that are the same in all respects. I am not sure in which sense you use the term. Can you clarify?
    – Andries
    May 1, 2023 at 8:42

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