Purpose of this article
In his excellent book, Decoding Nicea, Paul Pavao wrote:
“It is commonly said that the Council of Nicea was called to determine
whether Jesus was God. … But if we really want to understand Nicea,
then that description will not suffice. It would be more accurate to
say that the Council of Nicea met to determine what the Son of God was
The purpose of this article is to explain this somewhat strange statement.
The Two Phases of the Arian Controversy
The Arian Controversy of the fourth century consisted of two phases:
The first phase began around AD 318 in Alexandria with a dispute between elder Arius and his bishop Alexander. After this dispute spread over a large part of his empire, Constantine the Great called the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to address this controversy. At the Council, Arius’ Christology was presented but soon rejected.
However, after Arius’ Christology was rejected, the council meeting evolved into a dispute between the two other parties at Nicaea over how the creed must be formulated. As Eusebius of Caesarea explained, the minority party of Alexander of Alexandria, because they enjoyed the protection of the emperor, was able to add the terms ousia (substance) and homoousion (same substance) to the Nicene creed even though the majority was uncomfortable with these terms. As Bettenson stated, "The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority” (Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41). As the reformed website Bible.ca states:
"We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. … The
majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!"
That dispute, which arose during the council meeting, became the second phase of the Arian Controversy, continued after the meeting and lasted for another about 50 years.
While the first phase of the Arian Controversy was between the Arius-faction and everybody else, the second phase of the controversy was a dispute between four different views of the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son:
- Same substance (homoousian - as per the Nicene Creed)
- Different substance (heteroousian - the view which Arius maintained)
- Similar substance (homo-i-ousian - attempted to find a view midway between the homoousians and the heteroousians.)
- God’s substance is not revealed. Therefore, we should not formulate doctrines that refer to God’s substance. This is known as the homoian (or homoean) view which simply taught that the Son is similar to the Father.
During the 50 years of the second phase of the Controversy a string of further church councils considered and approved various alternatives for homoousion, but the homoian view became the dominant view.
With the homoian creed, the church returned to the theology of Origen, who warned against attempts to overly define God:
"If then, it is once rightly understood that the only-begotten Son of
God is his Wisdom existing in substance, I do not know whether our
curiosity ought to advance beyond this." (De Principiis. I:2:1-2. c.
The Doctrine of God evolved after Nicaea.
Through the debates of that second phase of the Arian Controversy, many new concepts were developed, for example:
The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “God,” p. 568, states
that the teaching of the three Cappadocian Fathers “made it possible
for the Council of Constantinople (AD 381) to affirm the divinity of
the Holy Spirit, which up to that point had nowhere been clearly
stated, not even in Scripture.”
“Finally, following the authoritative example of St. Basil the Great,
it became accepted to understand by the word Hypostasis the Personal
attributes in the Triune Divinity.” (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p.
94-95) (To understand what this means, see Why the Nicene Creed uses
ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.
Many other Trinitarian concepts were developed even after the Creed of Constantinople in 381. For example:
A German theologian named Gieseler stated that the first person who
asserted “the numerical sameness of nature in the three divine
persons” was Augustine. [Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Volume 1
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 reprint) p. 463.]
(For an explanation, see Should homoousion in the Nicene Creed be
translated as "same substance" or as “one substance?”)
How the delegates in 325 understood the creed
Given the significant development of the Trinity doctrine, during the fourth and fifth centuries, to read the Nicene Creed of 325 using concepts and definitions that were developed later will fail to reveal its true meaning. It is only possible to grasp the meaning of the creed of AD 325 when one understands the nature of the controversy at that time and what the delegates in 325 understood the creed to say.
Furthermore, the Nicene Creed of 325 was formulated by a minority and only accepted by the majority due to the pressure applied by the emperor. And, as we see in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, the majority defined the terms “substance” and “same substance” is a way that made it possible for them to accept the creed. Therefore, we need to determine what meaning that majority assigned to the creed because it is on that basis that they accepted the creed.
For this reason, this article focuses on the development of the doctrine of God prior to the Nicene Creed of 325. It will discuss, in brief, the Christology of:
- The Bible,
- The Apostolic Church,
- The Gentile Church, namely Logos-Christology, and
- The Nicene Fathers, and
- The Lucians (Arius' Christology).
The Bible associates the Son with God. For example:
The church is commanded to baptize believers “in the name of the
Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).
He will be honored equal with the Father, has life in Himself like the
Father, and in Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form
(John 5:23; 26; Col 2:9). These things seem to indicate divinity.
But the Bible also describes Him as subordinate to the Father. For example:
He received honor equal with the Father, life in Himself, and the
fullness of Deity the Father (John 5:22; 26; Col 1:19).
The Bible describes the Father as His God (e.g., Eph 1:3; Rev 3:12)
and as His Head (e.g.,1 Cor 11:3).
This creates the challenge to explain the tension between the divinity and subordination of the Son.
R.P.C. Hanson stated, "the Bible does not give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God." (link) It almost seems as if Hanson is saying that the Bible’s description of the relationship between God and His Son is inadequate and we need to develop a more advanced description.
The renowned ecclesiastical historian, Philip Schaff (1819 – 1893) stated:
“At the beginning of the fourth century the problem of how to preserve
the Godhood of Christ and at the same time his subordination to the
Father … had not been solved.” (Prolegomena: "The Outbreak of the
Arian Controversy. The Attitude of Eusebius." The Nicene and
Post-Nicene Fathers. Series II. Vol. I.)
If Schaff could say that with respect to the fourth century, he would have said the same of the first century.
Development within the Bible
While the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not clearly state the divinity or even only the pre-existence of Christ, John and Paul present a much higher Christology. Perhaps the reason is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written earlier and only describe the literal historical events as seen from the perspective of people on earth, while John and Paul, who wrote later, were assisted by the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-13) to understand more clearly who the Son is relative to the "one God" of the Bible. In other words, even in the New Testament, we see a development of thought on the question of the relationship between the God of the Bible and His only-begotten Son.
In the Apostolic Church of the first century, while Jews remained the majority in the church, Christians did not attempt to explain the relationship between God and His unique Son in more detail. They simply repeated what the New Testament said about God and Jesus. (For more information. see Jewish Dominated Church)
Somewhere during the second century, Gentiles became the majority in the church. Gentile Christians, in order to explain their religion to their fellow Gentiles people of the empire, needed an explanation of the God of the Bible. Greek philosophy was still a dominant force in the culture of the Roman empire and the Gentile Christians were themselves very familiar with that philosophy. In that Greek philosophy, God’s Logos (word, mind, wisdom, or reason) existed through two stages:
- First, inside of the high God but
- When God determined to create, God’s Logos was emitted and became a separate being through whom God created all things and communicated with the creation.
Based particularly on the "wisdom" of Proverbs 8 and the "word" of John 1, the Gentile Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (also known as the Apologists) thought and explained that the Son of God of the New Testament is the same as the Logos of Greek philosophy. As B. B. Warfield, stated:
“In the 2nd century, the dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas
deflected Christian thought into subordinationist channels, and
produced what is known as the Logos-Christology.” (Warfield, Benjamin
B. "Trinity, 2." International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.)
This section provides an overview of the Logos-Christology of the 2nd and 3rd centuries:
Logos-Christology distinguished between created and uncreated substances. Created substances, including spirit beings, did not always exist and exist only by God’s grace. Uncreated substances, in contrast, is inherently eternal. Uncreated substances, therefore, always existed and must necessarily always exist. For example:
“The Deity is uncreated and eternal ... while matter is created and
perishable.” (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians. 4. AD 177)
On the basis of John 1:1, Logos-Christology agreed that the Logos existed inside God from the “beginning.” For example:
“God was in the beginning … was alone, but ... the Logos … was in him”
(Tatian, c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.)
“’ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God’, showing
that at first God was alone, and the Word was in him.” (Theophilus,
bishop of Antioch, To Autolycus. II:22. c. AD 168)
As stated, in Greek philosophy, the Logos was emitted from God to become a separate being. In Logos-Christology, this event was described as that the Logos was begotten of God to become a distinct being; identified as “the only-begotten Son of God” who later became the man Jesus Christ. For example:
“But when God wished to make all that he determined, he begot this
Logos, uttered, the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15)” (Theophilus,
c. AD 168)
As Biblical proof, they used verses such as, “My heart has emitted a
good Word” (Psm 45:1) and “I begat you out of my bosom before the
dawn” (Psm 110:3).
“The only-begotten Son of God is his Wisdom existing in substance.”
(Origen. De Principiis. I:2:1-2. c. AD 230)
This, however, did not leave God without His wisdom; God and His Logos always remained integrated. For example:
“The Father has not divested him ... of the Logos power” (Tatian, c.
AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.).
“Always conversing with his Reason” (Theophilus, c. AD 168. To
Since the Son was begotten from the uncreated substance of God, He is of the same uncreated substance as the Father. It is not clear whether the Logos theologians used the exact word homoousios which we find in the Nicene Creed, but the concept is similar. For example:
“The Logos … came into being … not by abscission [i.e., cutting off],
for what is cut off is separated from the original substance” (Tatian,
c. AD 165. Address to the Greeks. 5.). (In other words, the Son has
not been separated from the uncreated substance of the Father.)
“We employ language which makes a distinction between God and matter
... For we acknowledge a God and a Son, his Logos, and a Holy Spirit,
united in essence.” (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians. 24.
In an analogy, Tertullian stated that, like the sun and a sunbeam, the
Father and the Son are “two forms of one undivided substance”
(Tertullian, Against Praxeas. 13)
“For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation
and portion of the whole, as [the Son] himself acknowledges: ‘My
Father is greater than I’” [Jn. 14:28]. (Tertullian, Against Praxeas.
Since the Logos was part of the uncreated substance of God "in the beginning," He always existed and must necessarily always exist. There never was a time that He did not exist. For example:
“The Son of God is the Logos of the Father ... He is the first product
of the Father, not as though he was being brought into existence, for
from the beginning God, who is the eternal Mind, had the Logos in
himself.” (Athenagoras, AD 177 - A Plea for the Christians. 10.)
Since, in Logos-Christology, the Son is part of the substance of the Father, Father and Son have the same substance qualitatively but the Son is ontologically (in terms of substance) subordinate to the Father. It follows that the Son is subordinate to the Father in all respects. As B.B. Warfield (quoted above) noted:
"The dominant neo-Stoic and neo-Platonic ideas deflected Christian
thought into subordinationist channels."
R.P.C. Hanson wrote:
"The conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered
the fourth century ... (made) the Son into a demi-god" (Hanson).
And as Philp Schaff stated:
“The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain
subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of
consubstantiality. But we must distinguish between a subordination of
essence (ousia) and a subordination of hypostasis." (Schaff, Philip.
History of the Christian Church. Vol. III. Section 130.)
In other words, Schaff stated that, while Father and Son were regarded as equal in essence (substance), the hypostasis (Person) of the Son is subordinate to the hypostasis of the Father.
For a further discussion of Logos Christology, see The Apologists by R.P.C. Hanson.
Due to Logos-Christology, Christianity was often accused of having two or three gods. Tertullian stated:
They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of
two gods and three gods. (Tertullian. Against Praxeas. 3. c. AD 210.)
Sabellianism (Modalism) was the first challenge to Logos-Christology. Sabellianism was an attempt to defend Christianity against the accusation of polytheism.
Kevin Giles (The Academic Journal of CBE International) stated:
"One of the first suggestions as to how God might be three and one at
the same time was that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were
merely successive modes of revelation of the one God. ... This error,
which was called modalism, was rejected by the Church Fathers."
Wikipedia states that Modalism has been mainly associated with Sabellius, who taught a form of it in Rome in the 3rd century. This had come to him via the teachings of Noetus and Praxeas.
Tertullian condemned Modalism (c. 213, Tertullian Against Praxeas 1, in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 3). Sabellius was excommunicated in AD 220. (GotQuestions).
The Christology of the Nicene Fathers
With Modalism formally condemned, Logos-Christology was the theology with which the church entered the fourth century.
“Among those who were, three basic "parties" were discernible: Arius
and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia; the Origenists, led
by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and Alexander of
Alexandria, with his following.” (Erickson) (God in Three Persons,
Millard J. Erickson, p82-85)
Arius and the Lucianists
The quote from Erickson above refers to "Arius and the Lucianists." Arius was the main spokesperson of this Christology, but he did not invent it. Pavao noted, "all the major players of the early Arian Controversy were trained in the school of Lucian." (Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicea (p. 273). Kindle Edition.) And Boer (A Short History of the Early Church, Harry R. Boer, p113) described Arius as “a disciple of Lucian.” Lucian was martyred in 311 or 312; at the very end of the Great Persecution.
While Logos-Christology taught that the Son is the Logos that always was inside God, “Arius and the Lucianists” taught that the Son was created from nothing. In other words, the Arius-delegation rejected Logos-Christology. The first great challenge to the Logos-Christology of the Apologists was Sabellianism. The second great challenge was the Lucian Christology which Arius proclaimed.
The Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea
This group was the majority at Nicaea and maintained the traditional Logos-theology:
“The most important of the Eastern bishops were present, but the West
was poorly represented” (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson,
"The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of
Origen. Future generations have tended to dub them "Semi-Arian." In
fact they were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional
Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church" (Frend, W.H.C. The Rise
of Christianity. see also, Bible.ca).
Alexander of Alexandria, with his following
Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, where the dispute with Arius began, explained Arius’ ex-communication in a letter (The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus. I:6.). In that letter, he explains what Arius taught and why his views were rejected. But it is also clear from that letter that Alexander continued the traditional Logos theology of the previous century. For example:
He stated that “the Son is the Word and Wisdom of God.”
And he used verses that were often used by Logos theologists, but
which we would not necessarily today associate with the Son:
- "My heart has dictated a good Word," and,
- "I begat thee out of my bosom before the dawn"? [45:1; 110:3, LXX]
All the delegates at Nicaea, except the Arius-group, maintained the traditional Logos-Christology. R.P.C. Hanson, a great authority on the Arian Controversy, wrote:
"The theological structure provided by the Apologists lasted as the
main, widely-accepted, one might almost say traditional framework for
a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was, in
differing form, 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." (link)
This means that the Nicene Creed was formulated and interpreted at the time on the basis of Logos-Christology. This further means that the word “begotten” in the creed must be understood as that the Logos, who always was inside God - part of God's uncreated substance - was emitted from God (when God wanted to create) and became the Son of God.
This analysis allows us to read the Nicene Creed from the perspective of the delegates at Nicaea.
Since more than 80% of the words in the creed are about Jesus Christ, the issue before the council was about Him; not about the Father or about the Holy Spirit. The question is, what did they dispute about the Son?
Compared with 1 Corinthians 8:6
The first part of the creed seems to be based on 1 Corinthians 8:6, but notice the section inserted to describe the Son. It is proposed that this additional section specifically affirms what Arius disputed:
the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of
the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of
very God, begotten, not made,
consubstantial with the Father;
(To see this better explained, refer to the original article at The Real Issue.)
This added section may be divided into two subjects:
Firstly, how the Son was generated in eternity past, namely that He is
the only being ever to be begotten of the essence of the Father;
Secondly, what His nature now is, namely, of the same substance
(homoousion) as the Father.
This phrase "God from God, light from light, true God from true God" indicates both HOW He was generated and WHAT His nature now is. However, the part of the added section that begins with “begotten” and ends with “begotten not made” seems to form an inclusio, indicating that this part is a unit with the word “begotten” pointing to its main meaning, namely the generation of the Son from the being or substance of the Father.
Compared with the Anathemas
In addition to this added section, which described the Council's agreed view of Christ, the creed of AD 325 also includes a list of statements that are categorized as heretical, and all of these statements are about Christ. These statements reflect Arius' Christology. The following table compares the affirmations with Arius' view (See the original article for the table - The Real Issue):
The Nicene Creed, therefore, basically says 4 things about the Son, namely that He:
- Always existed.
- Was begotten from the substance of the Father.
- Is of the same substance as the Father.
- Is not subject to change.
The main point of dispute
It is proposed that, of those four issues, the primary issue of dispute was how the Son was generated, namely, whether He was generated out of nothing (as Arius said) or out of the substance of God, as the creed suggests. This is justified as follows:
Firstly, the previous table shows that most of the words that were
added in response to the Arian controversy are about HOW He was
generated; repeating the word "begotten" three times.
Secondly, all the other differences are consequences of this
If the Son was created out of nothing, as Arius claimed, then, (a) He did not exist before He was begotten, (b) He consist of created
substances, which is a different substance from the Father's uncreated
substance, and (c) He is mutable.
Given how the Council understood “begotten,” namely that the Son is the uncreated Logos that always was inside God but that was emitted
from the essence of God to become God's only begotten Son, means that
(a) He always existed, (b) is of the same uncreated substance as the
Father and (c) is as unchangeable as God.
Thirdly, that He always existed and that He is immutable are not
mentioned in the affirmations; only in the anathemas, implying that
these are not fundamental issues.
Fourthly, after the meeting, Eusebius, the leader of the majority
Eastern Greek delegation, explained the dispute with Arius and
identified Arius’ main argument as that the Son was created out of
nothing. It also shows that Eusebius’ response was that, because the
Son was begotten from the Father, He came out of the being of the
Father and was not created from nothing. (See The Ecclesiastical
History of Socrates Scholasticus - Book II (mb-soft.com))
That He is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father is also mentioned in the affirmations of the creed. For that reason, that may indicate that this was the main point of the creed.
However, the word homoousios was proposed and enforced by the emperor. Eusebius and the other Origenists resisted this word to the last and, in the end, accepted this word only because of the pressure applied by the emperor. (See Eusebius of Caesarea's explanation of Nicaea for more detail.) In other words, at least from the perspective of the majority at the council, this word does not reflect what they wanted to say in response to Arius’ Christology. For that reason, this word was the cause of the second phase of the Arian Controversy during the 50 years after Nicaea.
The Son is God
It is often stated that that creed identifies Jesus as God (e.g., Bible.ca) but, as R.P.C. Hanson - who studied the Arian Controversy of 20 years - stated, the traditional account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. In fact, the issue was decidedly not whether Jesus is God. As discussed above, all the delegates to Nicaea, except the Arius-group, held to the traditional Logos-Christology in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. As Philip Schaff noted with respect to perhaps the most respected theologian at Nicaea:
“That Eusebius [of Caesarea] was a decided subordinationist must be
plain to every one that reads his works with care” (The Nicene and
Post-Nicene Fathers. Series II, Vol. 1)
As quoted above, Philip Schaff also stated that, while Father and Son were regarded as equal in essence (substance), the Nicene Fathers regarded the hypostasis (Person) of the Son as subordinate to the hypostasis of the Father (Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. III. Section 130. Emphasis mine, parentheses his. (pp. 251-252).
The Arius-group denied that the Son always existed and, therefore, had an even lower Christology. Therefore, if we use the word “God” for the Ultimate Reality, then none of the delegates thought of Christ as such. All of them regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.
This is confirmed by the creed itself which identifies the “one God” of Christianity as the Father alone:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty ... And in one Lord Jesus
Christ, the Son of God … And in the Holy Ghost. (cf. 1 Tim 2:5; cf. 1
Cor 8:6; John 5:44)
Whereas the Apostles’ Creed declared only that Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, and our Lord, the Nicene Creed added the following declaration dealing with eternal subordination:
“and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the
Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all
things came into being."
As Schaff makes clear, these statements reflected a belief in the eternal subordination of the Son. The idea that the Son is begotten and the Father unbegotten means that the Father is primary and Sonship secondary. Schaff declares that “all important scholars since Petavius admit subordination in the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III (311–600) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950) 683.
Conclusion - Out of what
At the beginning of the article, I mentioned that Paul Pavao wrote that the main point of the Nicene Creed was “what the Son of God was made of.” I propose that that is not entirely correct. What the Son of God was made of is only a consequence of the question out of what He was generated; out of God or out of nothing.
I propose, therefore, that the main point of the creed is that the Son was begotten out of the eternal, uncreated substance of the Father. That principle is foundational to everything else in the creed. Consistently, the Nicene Creed states three times that the Son was "begotten."
Stackexchange limits articles to 30000 characters. Therefore, I was not able to capture the full article here. See The Real Issue at Nicaea for the full article.