The First Seven Ecumenical Councils
, Their History and Theology


  Besancon BM 434, 109, 1372.





2.1.The Trinitarian Problem and Proposed Solutions before Nicaea;  [summary]
2.2. Arius and the Beginning of Controversy 2.3.The Events of the Council of Nicaea;
2.4. The Significance of the Council of Nicaea; [Four Crucial Differences] 2.5. Aftermath 2.6. Chronology
2.7.Select Bibliography




 THE problem which would confront the bishops assembled at Nicaea had long been the basic question confronting all previous Christian theologians. It was not simply whether Jesus is God. For in the pagan milieu of the early Church, any mysterious power could be endowed with attributes of divinity as Paul and Barnabas found to their horror when the Lycaonians attempted to offer sacrifice to them after their cure of a cripple (Acts 14:8ff). The problem was, as G. L. Prestige defines it, “how within the monotheistic system which the Church inherited from the Jews, preserved in the Bible, and pertinaciously defended against the heathen, it was still possible to maintain the unity of God while insisting on the deity of one who was distinct from God the Father.”

 [ 2.1.1.  Jewish Christians ]

[ 2.1.1.  Jewish Christians ]

BY the fourth century a bewildering array of solutions had been offered to the problem. As Bernard Lonergan remarks, “The abundance and variety of the material, unless it be drawn together in a manner that displays a pattern or order, are more likely to obfuscate than to illuminate the mind, to cloud the issue rather than clarify it.” It is largely his pattern which will be used to order the various solutions to the trinitarian problem proposed before the Council of Nicaea.

  As the post-apostolic Church emerged from the Jewish world, Judaeo-Christianity still fashioned its solutions from images drawn from the Old Testament and the apocalyptic literature. The heretical Ebionites of the second century, to cite only one group out of many, continued to insist on the observance of Jewish law and custom. For them Jesus was the elect of God and a true prophet, but they denied His virgin birth and eternal pre-existence. The Son was created as one of the archangels who rule over the other angels and over creatures of this world. This heavenly archangel descended upon Jesus the man. His primary mission in coming to earth was to end the Old Testament priesthood. Jesus earned His name of Christ by fulfilling the Law, and the Law not Jesus Himself remained the true way to salvation.

  Judaeo-Christianity, as a cultural form, went beyond the deficient theology of groups like the Ebionites and left its imprint, the use of Old Testament images to describe Christ, on many more orthodox Christian thinkers. For the Jews the “name” meant normally more than a mere name in our modern sense, but the person, power, and nature of the one named; it meant for the Jews what “being” meant for the Greeks. So for the Jews the name of God is glorious; through the name mankind is delivered; one trusts in the name of God. The author of the mysterious Shepherd of Hermas who wrote at Rome perhaps as early as AD 96 adopts this terminology to develop his theology. The name of the Son of God is great and incomprehensible; it implies complete transcendence and pre-existence of the invisible part of Jesus, the only-begotten Son, who sustains the whole cosmos as the foundation and support of creatures who bear His name. The name is present too in Christians as a result of their baptism and confession of faith. The name of the Son of God is the only door, the only entrance to salvation for those who receive His name. Thus by the use of the name, the author of the Shepherd of Hermas established a distinction within God and somewhat vaguely allowed the foundation of a trinitarian or at least binarian belief. Yet God not the Son founded the Church; it is God not the Son who comes at the Last Judgment.

  Another way used by those influenced by Jewish ideas to express the significance of the Son was to identify Him with the Law, the Torah taken in its active sense as God establishing laws. Justin Martyr (d. 165) calls Christ at the same time Law and Covenant: “It was prophesied that Christ, the Son of God, was to be an eternal law and a new covenant for the whole world.” Christ is Law and Covenant in His existence, in His all-embracing divine reality which is present in the man Jesus in the world.

  Another more popular attempt to express the transcendence of Christ was “angel Christology,” the designation Christos angelos. This is a useful way to hint at Christ’s function in the economy of salvation, but it came soon to be recognized as quite insufficient to express His true nature. For the Jews the angel Michael was the supreme leader of the heavenly host. This position the Shepherd of Hermas assigned to the Son of God but with a difference. “Have you seen,” the Shepherd asks, “the six men and the glorious and great man in their midst? The glorious man is the Son of God and those six are the glorious angels who support him on right and left. Of these glorious angels none can enter the presence of God without him. Whoever does not receive his name will not enter the kingdom of God.” For the Shepherd the Son of God is like Michael but more; for He is the way to God even for the angels. The point of all this is that the Judaeo-Christian mentality was content merely to illustrate the doctrine of the New Testament concerning Jesus Christ and His relation to God the Father by images drawn from the Old Testament and the apocalyptic literature without fashioning these often profound insights into a coherent explanation.

 [ 2.1.2.  Gnosticism]

[ 2.1.2.  Gnosticism]

BUT new problems arose as Christianity encountered Hellenistic speculation, moving, as Lonergan remarks, “from a cast of mind which saw a chosen race meeting its God, conceived as a person, in the concrete events of history to an intellectualized outlook that created a world of theory which directed and controlled the world of practical common sense.” Christian Gnostics of the second and third centuries elaborated a system of knowledge purporting to answer the questions whence we came, what we have become, whither we are heading. Within their various systems they had, as Christians, to account for Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Their attempt has been called pseudo-symbolic speculation: speculation because they dealt with ultimate questions; pseudo-symbolic because they personified abstract ideas, mingling them in with sensible representations.

The Valentinians, followers of Valentinus who taught at Rome and Alexandria in the mid-second century, to resolve the ancient Greek problem of the one and the many, began by postulating

a supreme Father, unbegotten and perfect, who had by his side Silence, the thought of the Father.

From this primal couple, Mind and Truth, Word and Life, Man and Church flow out successively, by a process akin to that whereby thought proceeds from mind or desire from will.

From this first group of eight proceeds in turn a group of ten

and then another of twelve,

so there are at last thirty divine entities or aeons, half of whom are male, half female, forming the divine order or pleroma and bridging the abyss between the single source and the realm of multiplicity.

But the lowest of the thirty aeons, Wisdom, yearns illicitly to understand the Father and thus gives birth to Desire. In order to rectify this primal disorder, Mind and Truth produce Christ and the Holy Spirit to instruct the aeons about their proper relation to the Father. Formless Desire, offspring of Wisdom, meanwhile gives rise further to matter and psyche, whereupon Christ impresses form upon Desire who then gives rise to spirit or pneuma. Wisdom then proceeds to fashion the Demiurge or Creator, equivalent to God of the Old Testament, out of psychic substance. From matter and psyche, the Demiurge forms heaven and earth and the creatures inhabiting it. Among these creatures, the Demiurge fashions carnal man and breathes into him his own psychic substance. But Desire secretly plants spirit as well into certain men. This spiritual element yearns for the Father, and salvation consists in liberation of spirit from the lower psychic and carnal elements of the human constitution to ascend to the Father. The Savior Jesus provides the means of salvation through his revelation of the workings of the system. Merely carnal men, however, cannot be saved; psychic men can be saved with difficulty through knowledge and imitation of Jesus; spiritual men need only apprehend the teaching of Jesus to be saved.

All of this fantastic system is supported by an equally fantastic exegesis of the Scriptures where it is regarded as lying hidden. Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. 180) provided an example of this sort of exegesis; he said, according to the Gnostics, the thirty aeons are signified by the thirty years of the Lord’s hidden life; the group of twelve aeons, by the fact that Jesus at the age of twelve disputed with the doctors of the Law in the temple; the group of eighteen aeons, by the eighteen months which Jesus supposedly spent among His disciples after His resurrection. As Lonergan observes, this system is related to theology as alchemy to chemistry or legend to history.

   Yet it contains certain conceptions of great value to scientific theology.[:]

One of these is the process of emanation; aeon proceeds from aeon as human thoughts and desires proceed from mind and will. This idea has a long future ahead of it in the history of trinitarian thought.

A second conception is that of consubstantiality. What is emitted is of the same nature (homoousion) as that which emits it. So the Demiurge breathes into the soul which is earthly, material, irrational and consubstantial with the beasts something which is consubstantial with himself, the spirit of life which forms the soul into living soul. This conception, purged of material overtones, will be the key to the later pronouncements of the Council of Nicaea, yet unwelcome to many because of its connnection with the various Gnostic systems.

  These systems are clearly dualistic, opening a chasm between spirit and matter. Matter is not the creation of the ultimate God but the result of primal disorder and fall, formed into creatures by a Demiurge or Creator equivalent to the God of the Old Testament. The historical dimension of the material world is totally disregarded. The spiritual element yearns to be freed from matter to ascend to its true home among the aeons, helped along by a series of mediators. The means whereby the spiritual element frees itself from material entanglement is knowledge of the system and its workings. This knowledge is revealed by Jesus, an aeon distinct from the aeon Christ, who dwelt in a man but left him before the crucifixion. One Jesus Christ is divided into the aeons, Christ and Jesus, and a man upon whom the aeon Jesus descends.

  The second century heretic, Marcion, has some kinship with Gnostic ideas, though he did not adopt their mythical speculations about the aeons. A native of the Black Sea region, he broke with the Church in Rome in 144. Raised a Christian, he rejected the Old Testament because in his view its legalism and strict justice conflicted with the grace and love of the New. Of the New Testament, he accepted only the Gospel of Luke, purged of its Hebrew conceptions, and ten Pauline Epistles. Theologically, he concluded that there must be two gods, a lower creator identified with the God of the Old Testament, and the Supreme God made known by Christ. He is similar to the Gnostics only in the fact that he distinguished between the Gods of Old and New Testament.

 [ 2.1.3.  Irenaeus ]

[ 2.1.3.  Irenaeus ]

THE theologian who attempted the first full-scale refutation of the Gnostic systems was Irenaeus of Lyons. Probably from Smyrna in Asia Minor, he crossed the Mediterranean to settle at Lyons in Gaul (France). Carrying out a mission for the Church of Lyons at Rome, he thus was in contact with theological views in major centers across the Roman world. About 180 he became bishop of Lyons where he wrote his principal work, Against the Heresies. He took great pains to insist that the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Gospels, and the God attainable through reason are all one and the same God. The first article of our faith, he said, is “God the Father, increate, unengendered, invisible, one and only Deity, creator of the universe.” The world has only one creator identical with the God proclaimed in the Old Law and the Gospels. That there is only one God is a fact ascertained by reason: “Either there must be one God who contains all things and has made every creature according to His will, or there must be many indeterminate creators or gods.... But in this case we shall have to acknowledge that none of them is God. For each of them ... will be defective in comparison with the rest, and the title ‘Almighty’ will be reduced to naught.” Since God is rational, added Irenaeus, He created whatever was made by His Word. It is the Word who establishes things, bestows reality on them, the Spirit who gives them order and form. In addition, according to the economy of our redemption there are both Father and Son. If anyone asks how was the Son produced by the Father, Irenaeus answered that no man understands that production or generation or may describe it. But the Father begat and the Son was begotten. Thus God has been declared through the Son who is in the Father and has the Father in Himself. Since whatever is begotten of God is God, the Son is fully divine; the Father is God and the Son is God. It was the preexistent Word who became incarnate, and Irenaeus applied again and again the formula one and the same to the Lord Jesus Christ to rebut the Gnostic distinction between the aeons Jesus and Christ. Only if the Word is fully divine and entered fully into human life, earthly and historical, could redemption be accomplished. Jesus Christ then is truly God and truly man, summing up in Himself the whole sequence of mankind, sanctifying it and inaugurating a new, redeemed human race. In order to control the fanciful exegesis practiced by the Gnostics, Irenaeus appealed to the canon of written scriptures and their authoritative interpretation by the bishops who are the lineal successors of the Apostles and the particular locus of the action of the Holy Spirit.

 [ 2.1.4.  Adoptionism ]

[ 2.1.4.  Adoptionism ]

ADMIRABLY balanced though Irenaeus’ system is, it has its problems. The Word is God’s immanent rationality which He extrapolates in creation and redemption; the Word is co-eternal with the Father, but as a person He does not seem to have been eternally generated from the Father. Nor are Father and Son precisely equal; what is invisible in the Son is the Father, said Irenaeus, and what is visible in the Father is the Son. But Irenaeus did yeoman service for the early Church in refuting the Gnostic distinction between the Supreme God and the lower Creator God, between Jesus and the Christ.

  Other currents within Christian theology would accept the one God of the Old Law and the Gospels but would explain His relation to Jesus Christ in different ways. On one hand, the Adoptionists answered the questions about Jesus by arguing that He was a mere man in whom God dwelt in a special way. On the other, were the Monarchians, a general term for those who stressed the unity of God in such a fashion that they acknowledged the divinity of Christ but denied His distinction from the Father.

  The earliest Adoptionist of which we have record seems to have been a second century shoemaker of Byzantium teaching at Rome, Theodotus by name. For him Jesus was merely man, though born of a virgin according to divine will. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, He did not become God but received the power to work miracles, for a spirit, the heavenly Christ, descended upon Him and dwelt within Him. The condemnation of Theodotus by Victor of Rome (d. 198) did not prevent one of his disciples, Theodotus the Banker, from alleging that Jesus was even inferior to Melchizedek, since the latter is fatherless, motherless, without genealogy, whose beginning and end is neither comprehended nor comprehensible.

  A far more troublesome advocate of Adoptionism than these amateur lay theologians was Paul of Samosata who was bishop of the great metropolis of the East, Antioch in Syria, from 260 to 268. He seems, to say the least, to have been a bizarre sort of bishop, allied with Queen Zenobia of Palmyra who controlled Antioch at this time. He went about attended by a large cortege of body-guards, consorted freely with unmarried women, and preached to his tumultuous congregation while clapping his hands and stamping his feet from a high throne erected in his cathedral. He reasoned that “the Word is from above, Jesus Christ is man from hence; [Mary] gave birth to a man like us, though better in every way, since He was of the Holy Spirit.” Apparently, he did not say that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one and the same, but gave the name God to the Father who created all things, that of Son to the mere man and that of Holy Spirit to the grace which dwelt in the Apostles. The Logos, the expression of God’s immanent rationality, descended upon the man, Jesus, born of Mary, but their mode of union was simply a coming together. The Logos did not enter into substantial union with the man, for this would compromise the dignity of the Logos. It was Jesus’ moral progress that won for Him the title Son of God. It seems that Paul applied the term homoousios to the relationship of the Logos to God the Father. According to Athanasius he used it in a reductio ad absurdum arguing that the Logos and the Father could not be consubstantial, using the word in its material sense, as two pennies are consubstantial because both are of the same substance, copper. If consubstantiality were true of Father and Son, Athanasius said Paul reasoned, there must then be an antecedent substance of which both would partake, a manifest absurdity. Perhaps more correctly, Hilary of Poitiers says that Paul claimed that the Logos was homoousios with the Father, that is He was identical with the Father, one and the same as the Father, opposing the contention of his episcopal accusers that the Word was a substance (ousia), that is, a real entity distinct from the Father. The bishops assembled in Antioch in 268 deposed him and condemned both his adoptionist teaching and his use of consubstantial. Again, as in the case of the Gnostics, homoousios was tainted by objectionable connotations for the orthodox because of its connection with the condemned Paul.

 [ 2.1.5. Modalism ]

[ 2.1.5. Modalism ]

A SECOND group of theologians would admit the divinity of Christ but deny His distinction from the Father. This particular view afflicted the Church at Rome in the late second and early third centuries. That this was the view of Praxeas who taught at Rome is known only through the writings against him of Tertullian (d. 220). It has been suggested with some plausibility that the name Praxeas, Busybody, was Tertullian’s pseudonym for Callistus, Bishop of Rome (217-222), who was, as we shall see, concerned to protect the divine unity. At any rate, said Tertullian, “He is such a champion of one Lord, the Almighty, the creator of the world that he makes a heresy out of unity. He says that the Father himself came down into the virgin, himself was born of her, himself suffered, in short himself is Jesus Christ.”

  This view that the Father himself suffered on the Cross earned for its advocates the title Patripassians, Fathersufferers. Teaching, too, at Rome and opposed by Hippolytus (d. 235) was Noetus of Smyrna who alleged that “Christ was the Father himself, and that the Father himself was born, suffered, and died.” However, the theologian who gave his name most prominently to this view was Sabellius, a native of what is today Libya, where his teaching would linger for some time after his death. Sabellius came to Rome during the pontificate of Zephyrinus (199-217) where he later enjoyed the confidence of Callistus (217-222), was opposed by Callistus’ arch-rival Hippolytus, and where he was in the end condemned by the previously friendly pontiff. Hippolytus reports that Sabellius said the Logos himself is the Son who is given, too, the name Father, but there is only one undivided spirit who is God; Father and Logos are one and the same. The Spirit, clothed with flesh in the virgin, is one and the same as the Father. What is visible, namely the man, is the Son, but the Spirit who descended upon the Son is the Father. It was the Father who deified the flesh and made it one with Himself, so that Father and Son, one person, suffered together. Sabellius also used the analogy of the one sun which can be distinguished into form, light and warmth; so in the one God, form is the Father, light the Word, warmth the Holy Spirit. Possibly, he may have employed the Stoic idea of the expansion of the primal One, the Father, by a process of development projecting Himself as Word for the purpose of creation and redemption and as Spirit for inspiration and the bestowal of grace. Though Sabellius was condemned by Callistus and became in the minds of its adversaries the principal proponent of the Monarchian viewpoint, the theologians of the West would continue to be more preoccupied than those in the East with safeguarding the unity of the Godhead while rejecting strict Monarchianism.

  Callistus of Rome himself was accused by Hippolytus of condemning the arch-heretic Sabellius only to dispel rumors of his own sympathy with the heresy. Unfortunately, this accusation was colored by Hippolytus’ hatred of Callistus, whose election as bishop of Rome dashed his own hopes for the office and led him into schism as the first anti-pope. Indeed, Callistus whole-heartedly insisted on the divine unity, the single Godhead being the indivisible spirit pervading the universe. He admitted the distinction of Father and Word, the Word being the pre-temporal element which became incarnate, the Son being the historical figure, the man. But the Son was not one thing and the Father another, nor was the Word another thing alongside the Father. Yet since the Father was the unique divine spirit, Callistus spoke of him as identical with the Word and even as becoming incarnate, but in his view the Father only co-suffered with the Son. Callistus was clearly in sympathy with the Monarchians, but aware of the difficulties of their position, he groped inadequately for some form of compromise. Others would seek to do greater justice to the reality and distinction of the Three within God’s being.

 [ 2.1.6. Subordinationism - Tertullian ]

[ 2.1.6. Subordinationism - Tertullian ]

BUT distinction was sometimes achieved only at the price of subordinating the Son to the Father as in the case of the great African theologian, Tertullian (d. c. 220), a pagan-born lawyer who broke with the mainstream Church in 207 to join the rigorist, prophetic sect of the Montanists. In his work against the Monarchian Praxeas, Tertullian reasoned that the Word of God is not empty and hollow like the sound uttered by a human being. Since it proceeds from so great a substance, God Himself, it too must be a substance. But of what sort? The mistake of the Gnostics, argued Tertullian, was that they separated their emanations from their source so that an aeon could not know its father. But Tertullian himself would not separate the Son or Word from the Father. The Word alone knows the Father and reveals the Father’s mind and heart; it is the Father’s will that He manifests, having known it from the beginning. The Word is in the Father, was always with God, never separated from the Father, was never other than the Father. This Tertullian explained in images: God brought forth the Word as the root brings forth a shoot; the spring, a stream; the sun, a ray. Each of these proceeds from a source, yet shoot is not separated from root, nor stream from spring, nor ray from sun. Each pair remains conjoined, undivided, coherent. In such fashion the Father and the Word are two, yet the Word is never separated from the Father. Moreover, just as the fruit comes from root and shoot, river from spring and stream, point of light from sun and ray, so there is a third, the Spirit, with Father and Word. But God is one because the three elements are conjoined and cohere; nothing is separated from its source. “The mystery of the divine economy,” said Tertullian, “should be safeguarded, which of the unity makes a trinity, placing the three in order not of quality but of sequence, different not in substance but in aspect, not in power but in manifestation; all of one substance, however of one quality and of one power, because the phases, the aspects, the manifestations are all of the one God, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” He further explained the divine monarchy by an analogy with human monarchy: “If he who is monarch has a son, and if the son is given a share in the monarchy, this does not mean that the monarchy is automatically divided, ceasing to be a monarchy. For the monarchy belongs principally to him by whom it was communicated to the son, and being exercised by two who are so closely united with each other, it remains a monarchy.” In fine, the unity of rule among a plurality of rulers guarantees the unity of the monarchy.

  Western theologians were greatly indebted to Tertullian for enriching theological vocabulary with new terms, none more important than “substance” and “person.” For Tertullian, substance connoted the divine essence, that which God is, with emphasis on its concrete reality. “God,” he said, “is the name for the substance, that is, the divinity.” Hence, when he speaks of the Son as being of one substance with the Father, he means that they share in the same divine nature, and since the Godhead is indivisible, they are of one identical being. Person, the Latin persona, originally meant an actor’s mask or face, then role, and finally individual with the stress on the external aspect. Thus for Tertullian person meant the concrete presentation of an individual, and when applied to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, meant the otherness or independent subsistence of the Three within the unity of the divine substance.

  Though a step forward in trinitarian thought, it is clear that Tertullian’s view is still somewhat immersed in the sensible. Spirit is for him really only attenuated matter, and imagination so pervaded his thinking that he could explain the unity of the divine substance in terms of a kind of organic continuity and of concord within a human monarchy. His view of Father and Son as of one quasi-material substance is different from the consubstantiality (homoousion) that will form the basis of Nicaea’s pronouncements. To this difficulty in Tertullian’s thought are added certain notions contradicting his fundamental view. “There was a time,” he said, “when there was no Son to make God a Father.” Immanent in God from all eternity, the Word came forth from God as Son, making God a Father, for the purpose of creation and redemption. His thought clouded by sensible imagination Tertullian could say, “the Father is the whole substance, whereas the Son is something derived from it.” In his struggle to express diversity within unity, Tertullian ends by subordinating the Son to the Father.

 [ 2.1.7.  Hippolytus - Novatian]

[ 2.1.7.  Hippolytus - Novatian ]

TO an even more marked degree this same difficulty appears in the thinking of Hippolytus of Rome, opponent of the Monarchians Noetus and Sabellius and first anti-pope in opposition to Callistus, who died a martyr in 235. For him the generation of the Word was a progressive development, the Word appearing as Son only at a time determined by the Father. Hippolytus described the process thus: while existing alone, God yet existed in plurality, for He was not without reason, wisdom, power and counsel. Determining to create the universe, He begat the Word through whom all things come to be. God next made the Word visible, uttering Him and begetting Him as Light of Light, in order that the world might see Him in His manifestation and be capable of being saved. Thus there appeared another beside God Himself, but there are not two Gods, but only Light from Light, Word coming from God as water from a fountain or as a ray from the sun. This is the Word which came into the world and was manifested as Son. Prior to His incarnation, the Lord was not yet perfect Son, although He was the perfect, only begotten Word. He was manifested as perfect Son of God only when He took flesh. Moreover, the generation of the Word was a free act like creation itself. Hippolytus’ trinitarian thought has a more primitive air about it than does Tertullian’s, but there is some of the same immersion in sense categories and a more marked stress on the voluntariness of the generation of the Son from the Father and on the subordination of the Word to God.

  Following Hippolytus’ line of thinking was Novatian, a morally rigorous yet brilliant Roman priest who led a schism as anti-pope against the morally more moderate Pope Cornelius (251-253), yet died a martyr in 257. Since he was the first theologian in Rome itself to write in Latin, his work is important in revealing the sophistication of western theological vocabulary. According to Novatian, since the Son is begotten of the Father, He is always in the Father, otherwise the Father would not always be Father. Yet the Father is antecedent to the Son, and because the Son is in the Father and is born of the Father, He must be less than the Father. At a time willed by the Father, the Son, whose name is Word, proceeded from the Father and all things were made through Him. Yet the unity of God is assured because the Son does nothing of His own will and renders due submission to the Father in all things. By His obedience He shows that the Father, from whom He drew His origin, is one God. To describe this unity of God, Novatian conceived a kind of circular movement whereby the power of divinity transmitted to the Son is directed back to the Father. “Hence all things are laid at His feet and delivered to Him who is Himself God, but, since He refers back to the Father everything that is subjected to Him, He returns to the Father the whole authority of the divinity; and so the Father is the one true, eternal God, from whom alone the power of the divinity comes, which He transmits and extends to the Son. Because, being turned back into the Father, the Son shares His substance, the Son is also God, for to Him the divinity has been extended; nevertheless, the Father is the one God; for in stages, by a backward flow, the majesty and the divinity, given by the Father to the Son, is turned back by the Son Himself and returns to the Father.” To some extent as well, Novatian anticipated the later doctrine of mutually opposed relations that found the diversity of persons within the divine unity. “. .. The Son is indeed a second divine person, God proceeding from God, but this does not mean that the Father is no longer the one God. If the Son had not been born, but, like the Father, had known no birth, then they would both be equal, alike in all things, and thus there would be two gods.” Powerful though Novatian’s thinking is, it still remains entangled in subordinationism.

  Sabellianism too was at this time troubling the Egyptian Church, and Dionysius, formerly head of the great catechetical school of Alexandria and now bishop there (248-265), made an attempt to combat it. His attempt was an unfortunate foreshadowing of the teaching of Arius. He wrote: “..that the Son of God is a work of God, a thing that was made, not by his own nature God, but other than the Father in respect of His substance; as the farmer is different from the vine, and the carpenter is different from the bench he makes. For since He is a thing that was made, He did not exist before He was made.” Dionysius exemplifies the concern of the East to do greater justice to the distinction and reality of the Three within the One than did the Sabellians or even the other orthodox theologians of the West. He spoke of three substances (hypostases), that is, three distinct subsistent beings in the Godhead. But when reproached for this, he objected that other statements of his were overlooked and that, in fact, he had added “that a plant coming from a seed or root was different from that whence it sprang and yet was absolutely of one nature with it.” Dionysius, the Bishop of Rome (259-268), intervened in the dispute between his namesake of Alexandria and the Sabellians to set both on the right path. The Bishop of Rome rebuked the Sabellians who say that the Son is the Father and those who preach in some sort three Gods, dividing the sacred Monad into three substances foreign to each other and utterly separate. Though Dionysius of Alexandria was not mentioned by name, it is clear that he was the one referred to. “For it must needs be,” said the Bishop of Rome, “that with the God of the Universe the Divine Word is united, and the Holy Spirit must repose and dwell in God; thus in one as in a summit, I mean the God of the Universe, the Almighty, must the Divine Triad be gathered up and brought together.” He continued, “Equally must one censure those who hold the Son to be a work, and consider that the Lord has come into being, as one of the things which really came to be. ... For if He came to be Son, once He was not; but He was always, if He be in the Father, as He himself says.... In many passages of the Divine oracles is the Son said to have been generated, but nowhere to have come into being. ...”

  This dispute points up the differing theological vocabulary of East and West. The Greeks, like Dionysius of Alexandria, commonly spoke of three hypostases, not as affirming three Gods but as expressing the real subsistence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, hypostasis and ousia were often for practical purposes equivalent, though not strictly identical in meaning. G. L. Prestige comments, “Both hypostasis and ousia describe positive, substantial existence, that which is, that which subsists.... But ousia tends to regard internal characteristics and relations, or metaphysical reality; while hypostasis regularly emphasizes the externally concrete character of the substance, or empirical reality.” But since the Latin substantia is the exact equivalent of the Greek hypostasis, when the western theologians heard talk of three hypostases, they immediately understood three substances, therefore three Gods. The Latin West, on the other hand, distinguished substance, by which they designated what is one, from the persons which are three in the Godhead. Until the East too agreed to use ousia for what is one and hypostasis exclusively for what are three, there was fertile ground for misunderstanding on all sides.

 [ 2.1.8.  Origen ]

[ 2.1.8.  Origen ]

THE western inability to rise beyond materialistic thinking, as is evidenced especially in Tertullian, was not shared by the great eastern theologian Origen. Born at Alexandria of Christian parents (his father was martyred), Origen was well educated and at the early age of eighteen became head of the catechetical school at Alexandria, while attending the classes of Ammonius Saccus, the founder of Neoplatonism. At odds with his bishop, who objected to his ordination to the priesthood by a Palestinian bishop despite his self-mutilation, he continued his teaching and incredibly prolific writing at Caesarea in Palestine until his death in 253 at the age of sixty-nine, his health broken by tortures undergone in the Decian persecutions. Resolutely Origen rejected any account of the generation of the Son according to analogies of human or animal generation and materialistic extrusions from the Godhead. He insisted on transcending any sensible representation of Father and Son. God the Father is strictly immaterial, the source and goal of all existence, transcending mind and being themselves, God in the strictest sense, being ingenerate. Since He is perfect goodness and power, He must always have had objects on which to exercise His perfections. So He brought into being a world of spiritual beings, souls, co-eternal with Himself. He needed, however, a mediator between His own unity and the multiplicty of souls; this is His Son, the very image of the Father. Beyond time, eternally, the Son proceeds from the Father. Father and Son are two hypostases, one coming from the other yet related by mutual understanding and willing. But the Son does not know the Father as the Father knows Himself and the Son’s will is only the image of the Father’s. Yet the Son, as it were, draws divinity to Himself by perpetually contemplating the Father, following the Father’s will, doing all the Father does. The Father is called by Origen ho theos, the God, while the Son is simply theos, God by participation and sharing in the Father’s divinity. The Father is in consequence greater than the Son, for as Christ said, “The Father is greater than 1,” and the Son is in turn greater than the Holy Spirit. Yet the three are incomparably greater than all else, and though three in hypostasis, they are one in unanimity, harmony and identity of will. The Father’s action extends to all reality, the Son’s to rational beings, the Spirit’s to the sanctified. Although Origen did verbally call the Son a creature, and on this score the Arians would claim him as their own, he did so because he lacked a clear distinction between being begotten and being created, and because of his reliance on Proverbs 8:22: “He made me in the beginning of His ways.” Yet Origen held that the Son is eternal, and though not Himself made in the same sense as creatures, was the first born of all that was made, and he denied that the Son had a beginning. Profound though his insights were, Origen, caught up in Platonic essentialism, ended by making the Son and the Holy Spirit divine beings subordinate to the Father.


[ 2.1.9.  Summary ]

   Now at long last we are in a position to view the overall development of Pre-Nicene trinitarian speculation.

Jewish converts could not transcend Old Testament categories of thought and would insist that Jesus was only a teacher, prophet or angel.

For the Hellenistic mentality of the Gentile converts, much of the Old Testament was nonsense, and they turned to symbolic speculation in the Gnostic style, separating the supreme God from the Creator, the Christ from Jesus.

Thinkers like Irenaeus insisted that the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Gospels and the Supreme Being knowable through reason were identical.

The Adoptionists accepted one Supreme God, but saw Jesus only as man.

Monarchians too accepted the one Supreme God, but argued that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were one identical being.

Many western Fathers would recognize a distinction between the Three while insisting that all were of one substance, often conceived in too material and too subordinationist a fashion.

Origen and many Easterners after him would transcend the sensible but, adopting a form of Platonism, would conceive the Three as distinct subsistences, one subordinate to the other, yet one in harmony and concord of intellect and will.

With Arius a new stage of development was reached. He ruled out anthropomorphic and metaphorical language, set aside Origen’s Platonic categories and posed the question in Scriptural terms of Creator and creature, and argued logically that the Son was a creature. The Church’s reaction to this would bring about the Council of Nicaea.




 ARIUS, the theologian who brought trinitarian speculation to the crisis stage, was born in Libya, about 256. By 318, the date accepted by most scholars as marking the opening of the controversy (though some would put the date as late as 323), Arius was an elderly priest, tall, austere, ascetically dressed, grim of countenance, urbane in manner. After having joined in the schism of the bishop, Meletius, against the legitimate line of bishops of Alexandria in Egypt, he was reconciled and given by Alexander, the bishop, the care of the fashionable church Baucalis in the port district of the city. Here he was popular, especially with women, and was reputed to have had a following of some seven hundred consecrated virgins. The problem of tracing Arius’ intellectual pedigree centers about our ignorance of the teachings of Lucian of Antioch, martyred in 312, under whom Arius had studied. He had been a renowned theologian and exegete and many who later supported Arius were proud of having been Lucian’s disciples. Perhaps it was from Lucian that Arius drew certain Antiochene positions:

[1] a taste for the literal exegesis of Scripture,

[2] a determination to preserve the unicity of God,

[3] a tendency to distinguish between the Logos and God.

From his Alexandrian milieu Arius was possibly influenced by the apologist Athenagoras (late 2nd century) who insisted that God is one, sole, prior to and separated by an abyss from matter and who avoided the idea of the Son’s generation. From Origen (d. 253) he could have drawn the emphasis on the Son’s subordination to the Father, and from Dionysius (d. 265) the insistence that Son is distinct from the Father and was made by the Father. The Old Testament concept of a God who is absolutely one and who acts as an artisan in creating all from nothing and not by emanations from Himself seems to have weighed heavily on Arius.

Perhaps Arius was influenced by the Jewish exegete Philo of Alexandria (d. 50) in[:]

[1] his resolute monotheism,

[2] his notion that the contingent universe could not bear the work of the omnipotent hand of the uncreated Creator,

[3] and his conception of the Word created from nothing to serve as the intermediary of further creation.

Finally, the rigorous use of syllogistic reasoning by Arius points to the influence of Aristotelian dialectic on his thought. At any rate, Arius fashioned all these ideas into a coherent synthesis that would bitterly divide the Church for years to come.


2.2.1.  Arius' Doctrine

[ 2.2.1.  Arius' Doctrine ]

FUNDAMENTAL to his system is the absolute transcendence and unicity of God who is Himself without source but is the source of all reality. Since the very essence of God is transcendent, unique and indivisible, it cannot be shared. For God to impart His substance to some other being would mean that He is divisible and changeable. There can, of course, be no duality in divine beings for God is unique. Therefore, whatever else exists must come into being not by communication of God’s being but by creation from nothing. Since the contingent world could not bear the direct impact of the all-powerful God, He needed an instrument of creation through which to mediate His power. This instrument is the Word, who is a creature, generated or made (these terms, be it noted, are synonyms for Arius), perfect and beyond all other creatures, but a creature nonetheless because he has a source, while God Himself has none.

[1] The Word had a beginning; though born outside of time, prior to his generation or creation he did not exist. The Arians would insist that “there was when he was not.”

[2] The Word can have no communication with nor direct knowledge of God beyond that of other creatures; the titles of Word and Wisdom are his only because he shares in the essential Reason and Wisdom, God Himself.

[3] The Word is liable to change and even to sin, though this last affirmation was modified to say that, though he could sin, God foresaw his virtuous steadfastness and bestowed grace upon him in advance.

[4] Finally, wrote Arius, “Even if He is called God, He is not God truly, but by participation in grace. ... He is God in name only.”

What then is the nature of Jesus Christ? In Christ the created Word, distinct from the Logos, reason immanent in God, united himself to a human body lacking a rational soul, the Word himself taking the place of the rational element within the human composite.

  As Arius’ views began to spread among his circle and within the highly independent body of Alexandrian clergy, Alexander the bishop called a meeting of his priests and deacons. An open discussion ensued in which Alexander insisted on the unity of the Godhead. Arius labeled his bishop’s position Sabellian and insisted that if the Father had begotten a Son, then the Son began to exist; and therefore there was a period in which He did not exist. Though called upon to recant, Arius refused and continued to spread his teachings in the city. By 320 Alexander called a synod of the bishops of Egypt and Libya. Of the hundred bishops gathered at Alexandria eighty voted for the condemnation and exile of Arius. Two bishops continued to support him without qualification, Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarica in today’s Libya, along with some seventeen Alexandrian priests and deacons.

With Alexandria rapidly growing too hot to hold him, Arius fled to Caesarea in Palestine where he was welcomed by the eloquent and erudite father of ecclesiastical history, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who was strongly influenced by Origenist theology with its insistence on three distinct hypostases within the Godhead. Some of the bishops of Palestine rallied to Arius, but most notably the bishops of Antioch and Jerusalem opposed him. Arius continued on to Nicomedia in northwestern Asia Minor where the emperors were frequently in residence and where a second Eusebius [of Nicomedia], bishop of the city and Arius’ fellow disciple of Lucian of Antioch, became his staunchest and most influential supporter. From Nicomedia Arius enlisted the allegiance of an increasing number of bishops, many of whom were disciples of Lucian, including those of neighboring Chalcedon and Nicaea.

 Meanwhile from Alexandria, Alexander sent out the customary synodal letter to at least seventy bishops informing them of the condemnation of Arius and soliciting in return letters of communion, thus effectively excommunicating Arius. This Alexander followed up with letters refuting Arius’ views. Though accused by Arius of Sabellianism, Alexander conceived of the Word as a person or nature distinguishable from the Father. In Origenist fashion, the Word mediates between the Father and creation, but the Word is not a creature Himself, being derived from the Father’s being. The Word is co-eternal with the Father, for the Father must always have been Father. The sonship of the Word is, for Alexander, natural, not adoptive. The Word is eternally generated from the Father and is the Father’s express image and likeness, not subject to change.

  The party supporting Arius held their own synod at Nicomedia, proclaiming Arius’ orthodoxy and condemning Alexander. While soliciting episcopal support at Nicomedia, Arius wrote up his teaching in popular poetic form called the Banquet (Thalia). This was sent back to Alexandria by way of sailors sympathetic to Arius to keep his views before the crowds of the great metropolis. The whole situation became even more confused as the emperor of the East, Licinius, launched the final persecution of the Christian Church before going down in defeat before the Christian-sympathizing emperor of the West, Constantine, in 324.

  With his victory over Licinius, Constantine became sole ruler of the Roman world. Much to his distress he found religious division within his politically unified realm. Thereupon he dispatched his chief ecclesiastical advisor, Ossius, bishop of Cordoba in Spain, who at sixty-seven was a veteran in Church politics, to Alexandria armed with personal letters to Alexander and Arius, who had returned to the city amid the political turmoil. As his letters show, Constantine was far from understanding the significance of the controversy. He reproached both Alexander and Arius for raising such questions at all. They were mere debating points arising from misused leisure, results of intellectual exercises which should have been kept to oneself and not unadvisedly entrusted to the ears of the crowds. For, he asked, who can comprehend or explain subjects so sublime and abstruse in their nature? Counseling mutual forgiveness, he advised the two that they were not really divided by any major doctrines or involved in any heretical opinions but were actually of one and the same judgment and so should join in communion and fellowship. He ended by warning them: “For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions, I believe it indeed to be not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that so large a portion of God’s people which belongs to your jurisdiction should be thus divided.” Needless to say, Ossius’ attempts at reconciliation failed.

  On his way back to Nicomedia, Ossius stopped at Antioch to order affairs there. Early in 325 he presided over a Council of Antioch attended by fifty-nine bishops of the civil diocese of the Orient, forty-six of whom will later be at the Council of Nicaea. Under Ossius’ direction, the bishops introduced an innovation in ecclesiastical practice: they issued a creedal statement. Hitherto, creeds were for catechumens, this one was designed for bishops. Rather tortuously, the Council declared its belief in

 “. .. one Lord Jesus Christ, only begotten Son, begotten not from that which is not but from the Father, not as made but as properly an offspring, but begotten in an ineffable, indescribable manner ... who exists everlastingly and did not at one time not exist. . .but the Scriptures described Him as validly and truly begotten as Son so that we believe Him to be immutable and unchangeable, and that He was not begotten and did not come to be by volition or by adoption. ... For He is the image, not of the will or of anything else, but of His Father’s very substance.” The bishops continued, “And we anathematize those who say or think or preach that the Son of God is a creature or has come into being or has been made and is not truly begotten, or that there was when He was not. .. Furthermore, we anathematize those who suppose that He is immutable by His own act of will, just as those who derive His birth from that which is not, and deny that He is immutable in the way the Father is.”

Eusebius of Caesarea and the bishops of Neronias and Laodicea were provisionally excommunicated until the forthcoming general council for not confessing the otherwise unanimous teaching of the council. In addition, Eustathius, who will later be one of the principal leaders of the Nicene party, was elected to the vacant bishopric of Antioch.

  But all this was just preliminary to the main bout. In 324 Constantine had called a council of all the bishops to meet at Ancyra; he now changed its venue to Nicaea, today the insignificant village of Isnik in Turkey. Nicaea, he said, was more accessible for the bishops of Italy and Europe and had a more congenial climate. The city was also more accessible for the emperor only thirty miles away at Nicomedia. “Wherefore,” said the emperor, “I signify to you, my beloved brethren, that all of you promptly assemble at the said city.”




 THE battle was now well and truly joined. But before continuing the narrative of the events of the council, it might be well to reflect for a moment on the fact that it was the emperor who summoned the bishops to the council.

Colossal Bust of Constantine
4th cent.
Christ the Sun-God, 
Mosaic, 380s
Mosaic of Constantine as Saint,
Hagia Sophia

Only in the seventh and eighth centuries did the legend arise that Sylvester, bishop of Rome, was responsible, although there may have been extensive discussions between the emperor and the principal bishops over the matter. Francis Dvornik argues that Constantine thought he had the right to call a council because “. .. in the spirit of the definition of Hellenistic royal competence, he regarded himself as legally entitled to interfere in religious affairs. He represented the Divinity on earth and was given by God supreme power in things material and spiritual. He thought that it was his foremost duty to lead men to God.” After the council Constantine wrote to the bishops: “As I discovered from the prosperous state of the Republic how great the divine power has been, I thought it my primary duty to bring it about that the saintly multitudes of the Catholic Church shall preserve one faith, a sincere charity and a profound reverence for the Almighty.”

  Even though his political outlook was colored by Hellenistic conceptions, as we have seen, Constantine was no longer simply pagan in belief by the time of the Council of Nicaea, nor a cynical manipulator of the Christians for his own purposes. Also, as we have seen, he found in the organization of the ecclesiastical synods a procedure akin to the workings of the Roman Senate itself. In Dvornik’s view this customary procedure helped shape church-state relations in the Constantinian period. One important element of procedure saved the relative autonomy of the bishops in doctrinal matters: the emperor though present never had the right to vote in the Senate. Constantine took an active part in its debates, but there is no evidence of his voting at the Council of Nicaea; he only confirmed the decisions of the bishops and made them binding under Roman law. Conciliar procedure thus modeled on that of the Senate enabled the Church to safeguard a certain independence in all matters of doctrine by encouraging the emperor to work through assemblies of bishops to achieve unity of belief. As Constantine would write later to the bishops on the subject of Easter: “Whatever is decided in the holy councils of the bishops must be attributed to the divine will.” In addition, this procedure provided a privileged position for the Bishop of Rome. His representatives gave their opinion and signed the acts before the other bishops as did the Princeps Senatus, the senior member of the House. That Ossius alone signed before the papal legates at Nicaea was due to his special position as imperial counsel as well as the fact that he was a bishop, the legates being only priests. As Dvornik admits, it cannot be proved conclusively that Senatorial procedure was followed point by point at Nicaea, but it was followed by local councils before Nicaea and at the subsequent six general councils.

  Firmly invited by the emperor and conveniently provided with transport by state agencies, bishops headed toward Nicaea. How many came? There exist lists of the bishops who signed the final creed and canons, but none seems to be complete or in full agreement with another. Eusebius of Caesarea, an eyewitness, said there were 250; Athanasius, a 25 year old deacon and secretary of Alexander of Alexandria present at Nicaea, said 300. Some modern scholars analyzing the extant lists estimate as few as 220. Soon after, however, the symbolic number 318 was assigned to the Council, the number of Abraham’s armed servants in Genesis 14:14, a number which in Greek read TIH, symbol of the Cross and Jesus. These 318 of Nicaea will be appealed to in the six subsequent general councils.

  The major sees of the Eastern Empire were well represented: on the anti-Arian side were Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra (modern Turkish Ankara) and Macarius of Jerusalem. On the Arian side were Eusebius of Palestinian Caesarea, Arius’ fellow Lucianists Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nicaea, Maris of Chalcedon and the diehard Libyans Secundus and Theonas. Some western bishops were present as well: Caecilian of Carthage (near modern Tunis), Domnus of Pannonia (roughly modern Austria), Nicasius of Gaul, Mark of Calabria and Ossius of Cordoba, who was present as an imperial counselor and not as papal legate, as was once thought. The papal legates were the priests Vito and Vincent, Sylvester of Rome having asked to be excused on the score of old age and infirmity. Two bishops came from beyond the confines of the Empire—John of Persia and Theophilus of Scythia, the ill-defined area north of the Black Sea. As confessors of the faith, some of the bishops bore the signs of the recent persecution on their persons: Paul of Neo-Caesarea had lost the use of his hands because of torture, the half blind and hamstrung Paphnutius of Egypt was kissed by Constantine himself in a touching diplomatic gesture. Another bishop, Nicholas of Myra, noted for his charity, would live long in human memory as Santa Claus.

  Yet, as one of the curial cardinals said before Vatican I1, a council is not a Boy Scouts’ meeting; Nicaea was to prove no exception. Before the opening of proceedings, Constantine was deluged with denunciations submitted by the bishops against one another. It is said that in a statesmanlike gesture the emperor publicly burned these unopened. On about May 20, 325, as nearly as we can judge, the Council was formally opened in the airy precincts of the imperial summer palace. The bishops, ranged down each side of a large hall, stood expectantly silent as the emperor in purple and gold entered with three members of the imperial family and a few senior advisors. He was, said Eusebius, “distinguished by piety and godly fear. . .indicated by his downcast eyes, the blush on his face, and his gait.” Proceeding to a low golden chair, he refused to sit until all the bishops had seated themselves. An unknown bishop on the emperor’s right, perhaps Eustathius of Antioch, senior bishop of the East since the bishop of Alexandria’s case was under review by the Council, gave a speech of welcome. Constantine himself addressed the bishops in Latin, perhaps because of his imperfect Greek or more likely because Latin was the language prescribed even in the East for official state functions.

  Unfortunately, if there were any official minutes of the sessions, they have not survived. It seems that Eusebius of Nicomedia was first off the mark and offered a creedal statement favorable to Arian views. This the Council indignantly rejected. Eusebius of Caesarea seems next to have offered the baptismal creed of Palestinian Caesarea. This was accepted by the bishops and the emperor and served the purpose of rehabilitating Eusebius personally under provisional excommunication decreed by the earlier Council of Antioch. However, it seems not to have been, as was often claimed, the basis of the Council’s new creed. Then apparently various attempts were made to fashion a creed using only scriptural terms, but it proved impossible to word such a creed so as to exclude the Arian position in the strictest fashion possible. Arian-sympathizing bishops could be seen, it is said, winking and nodding, confident that they could twist a scripturally worded creed to their advantage. Throughout this prolonged discussion, according to Eusebius, the emperor himself took an active and kindly part in debate. Finally, it seems, a Syro-Palestinian creed was used as the basis for a new creedal statement designed to bar the way to Arian interpretation. The deacon Hermogenes, later bishop of Cappadocian Caesarea, was the secretary in charge of the work. The finished creed has been 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.

WE believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of 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, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation came down and became incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose on the third day, And ascended into heaven, And is coming with glory to judge living and dead, And in the Holy Spirit.

But those who say, There was when the Son of God was not, and before he was begotten he was not, and that he came into being from things that are not, or that he is of a different hypostasis or substance, or that he is mutable or alterable —the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.

   It is clear that the Arians could easily accept the phrases “begotten from the Father” and “only begotten,” for they could understand begotten as the equivalent of made from nothing by the creative fiat of the Father. But the phrase “from the substance of the Father” excluded their interpretation and emphasized that so far from being produced like creatures from nothing, the Son is generated from the Father’s very substance or being. “True God from true God” was added to rebut the Arian contention that even though the Son is God, He is not true God but is God only by grace and is called God in name only. However, when pressed, the Arians would even call the Son true God in the sense that He is God by grace and is a really existent being. So the phrase is not fully effective against the Arian position. “Begotten not made” was a more direct attack against the Arian view that the Son is a creature, though the most perfect of all, who came forth from nothing at the will of the Father. In the view of the anti-Arians, it is of the very nature of the Father to beget the Son; the Father was never other than Father; therefore, Son and Father must have existed from all eternity, the Father eternally begetting the Son. The vitally important phrase in the orthodox reply to Arianism was “of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.” This phrase asserts that the Son shares the same being as the Father, and is therefore fully divine.

  However, homoousios was at the time a notoriously slippery word and could have three principal 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.

Secondly, 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.

Constantine himself explained that “homoousios was not used in the sense of bodily affections, for the Son did not derive His existence from the Father by means of division or severance, since an immaterial, intellectual and incorporeal nature could not be subject to any bodily affection. These things must be understood as bearing a divine and ineffable signification.” The point was that the third meaning of homoousios, with its connotations of materiality was not the meaning used in the creed. That left the two previous meanings. It seems that the Council, intent on stressing the equality of the Son with the Father, had the first meaning explicitly in mind. Father and Son are homoousioi in that they are equally divine. But implicit in their statement was numerical identity, that Father and Son are of a single divine substance, an aspect brought out by Athanasius in the course of the long struggle following the Council.

  The word homoousios had a long history as we have previously indicated, and, even though accepted in the creed, it was objectionable to the majority of the bishops for at least four reasons. First, the term, despite Constantine’s statement, had strong materialist overtones which would connote that Father and Son are parts or separable portions of the same “stuff.” Secondly, if Father and Son were of one numerically identical substance, then the doctrine of the creed could well be Sabellian, Father and Son being identical and indistinguishable. Thirdly, the term was associated with heresies since it had been coined by the Gnostics and had, in fact, been condemned at the Council of Antioch in 268 as used by the Adoptionist Paul of Samosata. Fourthly and importantly for many of the more conservative bishops, the term was not scriptural.

  Despite the misgivings of perhaps the majority of the attending bishops the term was added to the creed. lt seems clear that the authority of Constantine was the main motivating force. Yet behind Constantine was his long-time chief ecclesiastical advisor, Ossius of Cordoba, a bishop immersed in the theology of the western church. Though the Latin equivalent of homoousios, consubstantial, was not yet a fully accepted term in the western theological vocabulary, it was suited to describe the type of Trinitarian theology fashionable in the West with its strong insistence on the divine monarchy. It is likely that in pre-conciliar discussions Ossius had gained the support of Alexander of Alexandria and the cooperation of Constantine to urge the term on the assembled bishops. The very ambiguity of the word would possibly have appealed to the politician Constantine was. Within limits the bishops could read their own meaning into the term which still had the merit of scotching the Arian view. So homoousios, coined by Gnostic heretics, proposed by an unbaptized emperor, jeopardized by naive defenders, but eventually vindicated by the orthodox, was added to the Creed of Nicaea to become a sign of contradiction for the next half-century.

  The final anathemas of the Creed directly attack the Arian positions. The phrase, “there was when He was not,” and its near equivalent, “before being born He was not,” summed up the Arian denial of the Son’s co-eternity with the Father. These two phrases are singled out for the Council’s specific condemnation. The phrase, “He came into existence out of nothing,” had already been excluded in the Creed by its statement that the Son was begotten not made and was from the substance of the Father; now it too is specifically condemned. More important is the anathema against the phrase, “the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance.” The idea had already been dealt with positively in the Creed with the statement that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. The phrase also points up the terminological difficulty which continued to bedevil Eastern theology and to confuse the West about the East’s position

  substance (ousia) and hypostasis were regarded as synonymous. Athanasius himself wbuld say at a far later date: “Hypostasis is ousia, and means nothing else than being.” Only gradually, as we have indicated earlier, would hypostasis come to mean theologically what the West would call person, while ousia remained equivalent to the Latin substance. The final anathema strikes against Arius’ doctrine that the Son, as a creature, was morally changeable and remained steadfast in virtue only by an exercise of will. The Council affirms rather that the Son is of the substance of the Father; immutable, therefore, as He is.

  When the Creed was finished, perhaps by June 19, eighteen bishops still opposed it. Constantine then intervened to threaten with exile anyone who would not sign it. Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nicaea and Maris of Chalcedon then consented to sign the Creed itself but not the anathemas. In the end, only Arius and his die-hard supporters, the Libyans Secundus and Theonas, refused to sign anything. Secundus and Theonas were deposed as bishops and with Arius sent into exile. It is said that as Secundus left the chamber, he called to Eusebius of Nicomedia, “You signed only to avoid exile; I prophesy that you will be in exile within the year.” and so indeed did Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nicaea and Maris of Chalcedon go into exile before the year was out.

  Finally, the bishops turned to matters of church discipline and drew up twenty canons dealing with actual problems affecting the orderly administration of ecclesiastical affairs. The canons are in no particular order but they do fall into five main categories — church structures, the dignity of the clergy, the reconciliation of the lapsed, the readmission to the Church of heretics and schismatics, and liturgical practice.

  The fourth canon prescribed ordination of a bishop by all the bishops of a province or at least by three in cases of emergency accompanied by a written approval by the absent bishops. In a novel addition to this canon, the Council reserved confirmation of episcopal elections to the metropolitan of the civil province, thus increasing his jurisdiction. In the fifth canon, bishops were forbidden to receive into communion laymen or clerics excommunicated by another bishop, though they could inquire into the justice and legality of the excommunication. Bishops were told to assemble in provincial synods twice a year, preferably before Lent and in the autumn, to resolve cases of excommunication. The much discussed sixth canon foreshadowed the rise of the super-metropolitans, the great patriarchs of later centuries. It specified that the ancient customs of Egypt, Libya and the Pentapolis should hold good whereby the bishop of Alexandria had authority over these areas. The reason for insisting on this was, apparently, to submit Libya and the Pentapolis where Arianism was especially strong to the firm discipline of the Nicene bishop of Alexandria. Vague referral was made to the customs of the bishop of Rome by which he had supra-provincial authority over the bishops of central and southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia, and of the bishop of Antioch who supervised an unspecified area in Syria. Again the bishops insisted in this canon that the metropolitans have the right to confirm the choice of bishops in their areas.

  The seventh canon gave the bishop of Aelia, the name the Romans had imposed on conquered Jerusalem, a position of honor, while still subjected to the metropolitan of Caesarea. The canon perhaps reflected the successful lobbying of Macarius of Jerusalem with the emperor who, like his mother Helena, had a mystical devotion to the holy places.

  The fifteenth canon forbade bishops, priests and deacons to transfer from place to place and ordered them to remain attached to the church for which they were ordained. In canon sixteen clerics were enjoined to return to the churches in which they were enrolled under pain of excommunication and bishops forbidden to ordain persons from another church without permission of their own bishops, otherwise such ordinations were void. ln these canons the organizational structure of the Church was beginning to emerge: priests and deacons were attached to local churches which were presided over by local bishops tied for life to their charge, forbidden to poach clergy from other bishops or receive those excommunicated by them; above these bishops were the metropolitans residing in the chief cities of the civil provinces who could approve the election of local bishops and preside at the semi-annual provincial synods; above all were the super-bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch whose territory and supervisory powers were as yet specified only by custom.

   Six other canons dealt with the dignity of the clergy. The first canon forbade those who had castrated themselves to continue to minister as clerics or to be promoted to the clergy in the future. Those who were so mutilated for reasons of health or by violence were excepted. Eunuchs, quite numerous in those times especially as servants within the women’s quarters of the imperial palaces, had a bad reputation for immorality and political intrigue; this caste was now barred from the clerical ranks. The second canon prohibited the hasty promotion of the newly baptized to the rank of priest and bishop. Such persons, if found unworthy, were to be deposed from the clergy. Still, this practice continued and not always with evil results, as in the promotion of St. Ambrose from catechumen to bishop of Milan some fifty years later. The third canon forbade any of the clergy to have a woman dwelling with him except mother, sister, aunt or someone above suspicion. The canon referred only to that section of clergy who were celibate, for the Church allowed a married clergy. It is said that the bishops considered a canon enjoining celibacy on deacons, priests and bishops as did the western council of Elvira, c. 306, but were dissuaded from such a course by Paphnutius, the famous celibate bishop and confessor from Upper Egypt. The ninth canon forbade the ordination of notorious sinners even after they had reformed their lives, for, said the bishops, “the Church vindicates only those of irreproachable life.” Canon 10 enjoined the deposition from clerical ranks of anyone who had denied his faith, whether he had been ordained in ignorance of this fact or not, and canon 17 forbade clerics to engage in usury even if they charged only the 12% interest allowed by Roman law.

  Four other canons dealt with the reconciliation of those who had lapsed from the faith during the recent persecutions and with their public penance. Canon 11 provided that those who fell away from the faith without having been threatened must repent and then spend two years among those who could only hear, not participate in the liturgy, seven years among those required to kneel before their fellow Christians on Sundays to beg forgiveness — two classes which with the catechumens were compelled to leave the liturgy before the beginning of the Canon and for an additional two years continue to remain during the whole liturgy but without receiving the Eucharist. In canon 12, those who left the eastern emperor Licinius’ army because of the measures he took to expel Christian soldiers and then by bribery returned to the colors to fight under Licinius against Constantine were ordered to spend three years among the hearers at the liturgy. After that time those who were clearly repentant could be allowed by the bishop to participate in the entire liturgy; those not obviously repentant were condemned to an additional ten years among the kneelers. According to canon 13, the lapsed who were dying were allowed to receive the Eucharist, but if they recovered, they were to attend the liturgy only. In canon 14, catechumens who had lapsed were ordered to remain among the hearers of the liturgy for three years and then take their places as catechumens once again. Severe as these measures were, they were more moderate than any previous synodal decrees, especially in providing that the lapsed when dying could receive the Eucharist.

  Two canons dealt with the more difficult problem of the readmission to the Church of schismatics and heretics. Since the Novatianists, who broke with the Church over the question of penance from 251 on, differed only in discipline and not in doctrine, they were treated with great moderation. After having received the imposition of hands and professed in writing that they would follow the decrees of the Church and in particular that they would communicate with the twice married and the reconciled lapsed (two classes of sinners which as Novatianists they shunned), they might berestored to the clergy at the rank they held as Novatianists. However, in places where there was a Catholic bishop, the reconciled Novatianist bishop was to be made only a chorepiscopus, a rural auxiliary bishop, so that no city would have two bishops. Another group, the Paulianists, followers of Paul of Samosata, condemned in 268, were involved in his Adoptionist heresy. The bishops thought that their heresy concerning the divinity of the Son rendered their baptismal formula invalid. Thus all Paulianists were to be rebaptized, and since their original baptism was invalid, their subsequent ordinations as clerics were invalid as well. Consequently, all clerics and even deaconesses were to be reordained. One should not forget that the Donatist controversy, centering on the question of rebaptism, was raging at this time in North Africa, and the Catholic bishop Caecilian of Carthage, the storm center of the controversy, was at the Council. Since no Trinitarian or Christological question was at stake in the case of the Donatists, Catholics denied the necessity of their rebaptism. But because the heresy of the Paulianists so centered on Christ’s nature, it was regarded by the bishops as invalidating baptism and orders conferred among them.

  Finally, two liturgical matters were dealt with in canons 18 and 20. Deacons were to stay properly subordinated to bishops and priests, and were not to administer the Eucharist to them nor receive it before them. Nor were deacons to be seated among the priests at the liturgy. Failure to comply with these regulations would result in expulsion from the diaconate. Lastly, the Council prescribed standing at prayer during the liturgy even on the Lord’s Day and during Pentecost when some were accustomed to kneel. As is obvious, the Canons of Nicaea are by no means a systematic code of canon law but rather a collection of ad hoc measures characterized by cautious moderation. However, they became important and respected additions to the growing corpus of church law.

  In a separate declaration, the Council dealt with the Meletian schism in Egypt which grew out of the attempt of the priest Meletius to exercise episcopal functions while the bishop Peter of Alexandria was imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian. Since Meletius too had been imprisoned in the quarries of Egypt, he used his prestige as a confessor of the faith to put himself at the head of the Church of Martyrs, a group of fanatical confessors, who thought that their privileges as sufferers for the faith were not sufficiently recognized by the Church. By 325 Meletius’ church numbered some twenty-eight bishops. Overriding Alexander of Alexandria’s apprehensions, the Council promised the Meletians that their ordinations would be recognized when they returned to the Church, on condition that their bishops cease exercising their functions in favor of those consecrated by Alexander. Meletius himself was ordered to withdraw to Lycopolis, content himself with his title of bishop and discontinue further ordinations.

  In a second declaration, the bishops ruled that Easter should be celebrated at the same time throughout the empire. Those churches which observed Easter on the Sunday after the Passover reckoned according to Jewish calculations were ordered to observe the custom of Alexandria and Rome where a different and non-Jewish cycle of calculation was employed. Unfortunately for the peace of the church, the bishops did not realize that Alexandria and Rome themselves differed in their methods of calculation.

  The council finished its work perhaps on August 25, and its closing coincided with Constantine’s vicennalia, the twentieth anniversary of his elevation by the legions to imperial rank in succession to his father in far-off York in Britain. The bishops were invited to an imperial banquet held in the innermost parts of the palace. Eusebius assures us quite humanly that none of the bishops missed the event. As they passed into the palace between the ranks of the palatine guardsmen with drawn swords, it seemed to them, says Eusebius, “that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth, a dream rather than a reality.” Gifts were given by the emperor to all according to rank, and the Council was ended. Later Constantine wrote to all the churches enjoining obedience to the Council’s decrees:

That which has commended itself to the judgement of three hundred bishops cannot be other than the judgement of God; seeing that the Holy Spirit dwelling in the minds of persons of such character and dignity has effectually enlightened them respecting the Divine will. Wherefore let no one vacillate or linger, but let all with alacrity return to the undoubted path of truth; that when 1 shall arrive among you, which will be as soon as possible, I may with you return due thanks to God, the inspector of all things, for having revealed the pure faith, and restored to you that love for which we have prayed.





 FOUR additions to an older baptismal creed, two inefficacious decisions concerning the date of Easter and the Meletian schism at Alexandria, and a hodgepodge of twenty disciplinary canons verbally this is the sum total of the work of the Council. Much ado about very little, or so it seems. But what is the real significance of what was done at Nicaea? Bernard Lonergan appears to me to have best described the real meaning and importance of the Council. He argues that within the dialectic of the pre-Nicaean speculation about the Trinity there was operative a twofold movement which reached its goal at Nicaea. Trinitarian and Christological doctrines were evolving explicitly, but implicitly the very notion of dogma was evolving as well. Three aspects of this twofold evolution need consideration: objective, subjective and evaluative.

 [2.4.1 From Faith to Dogma]

[ 2.4.1 From Faith to Dogma ]

Objectively, the Gospels and the apostolic writings teach the truth about Christ but in a way that appeals to all human powers; as Lonergan says, “they penetrate the sensibility, fire the imagination, engage the affections, touch the heart, open the eyes, attract and impel the will of the reader.” However, the creedal statements of Nicaea declare the truth but bypass senses, feelings and will to appeal only to the intellect. Two kinds of transition occur in this objective doctrinal development. The first is from the Scriptures addressed to the whole person to conciliar statements appealing only to the intellect. The second is from the scriptural statement of a multitude of truths to conciliar decrees which emphasize a single truth which is the foundation of the multitude of truths in Scripture.

  Corresponding to this objective transition is a subjective one. What Lonergan calls undifferentiated consciousness is the response of the whole person operating with all powers of sense, imagination, emotion, will and intellect. Differentiated consciousness, however, subordinates or checks all other levels of consciousness to concentrate on the intellect. The Gospels appeal to all levels of human operation; dogmas focus attention on the truth grasped by a judgment of the intellect. To appreciate the significance of dogma requires personal intellectual effort proportionate to the intellectual effort of the framers of dogma.

  There is as well an evaluative aspect to this Trinitarian and Christological evolution. Some would judge that the Gospels are clear; dogmatic statements obscure. But one has only to consult the vast literature dealing with the Bible so full of conflicting opinions to realize that the Gospels are not limpidly clear. Nor when one is trained to the exercise of intellect are dogmas so very obscure. Others would judge that the Gospels with their appeal to all human powers are more properly religious, whereas dogmas with their single appeal to intellect are not. But surely, argues Lonergan, the intellect should not be regarded as outside the orbit of religious values. For the intellect passes judgment on religious matters and can affect the whole tenor and direction of religious life. To appeal to it alone, without denying the further appeal to the other levels of human consciousness, cannot be simply irreligious. Dogma is thus a religious appeal to the intellect inviting it to assent to the word of God as true, as stating objective reality, prescinding for the time being from all its other riches.

  The Judaeo-Christians did not take this step, being content to apply Old Testament images to illustrate the New. The Gnostics saw truth as a matter of things emerging from concealment to reveal themselves. The Adoptionists denied that objectively the Son is God; the Sabellians affirmed that He is the same person as the Father; the Arians proclaimed Him a creature made by God as are all other creatures. These views forced the Church to search the Scriptures to see if these assertions really correspond to the truth enunciated there. Tertullian and others could not rise above sense perception and imagined the Son as a portion of “stuff’ of the Father. Origen, moving up to a purely spiritual realm, could conceive the Son only as the subordinate image of the Father, an essence sharing in essence. But what the Council of Nicaea was doing through its creedal statements with its use of the term homoousios was enunciating a judgment about reality as revealed in the Scriptures: what is said of the Father is also said of the Son, except that the Son is Son and not Father; therefore, the Son is of the same substance as the Father but not the same person as the Father. What the Council of Nicaea did in its creedal statement was simply to attend to what the Scripture asserts as true about the Word of God, reduce that multitude of true statements to the one judgment which is the foundation of all the rest and appeal to the intellects of Christians for their assent to this judgment as the foundation of further religious belief and experience.

  Explicitly the Council moved from one kind of clarity about the Son of God contained in Scripture appealing to undifferentiated human consciousness to another kind of clarity contained in dogmatic statements directed to differentiated, intellectual consciousness. But, implicitly, without their fully adverting to what they were about, they paved the way for the development of dogma. This first defined dogma in the history of the Church is what the old Latin liturgy expressed succinctly in its Preface of the Holy Trinity: “What from your revelation we believe about your glory, that without difference or distinction we hold about your Son....”

  That this judgment of the truth about the Son is truly fundamental and affects other aspects of belief and practice is well illustrated in G. H. Williams’ analysis of the differing views of Church and State among Nicenes and Arians. The Nicenes were loyal to what they regarded as the truth of revelation, even though rationally it was difficult to reconcile monotheism with the subsistence of two equally divine persons, Father and Son. The Arians, more rationally, reduced the Son to the most perfect of creatures or to a subordinate deity and could thus reconcile belief in the Trinity with monotheism more easily. The Arians too conceived the Son primarily as a mediator between God and the universe in a cosmological sense; subordinate to the Father, he orders the universe, human society and human personality. The Incarnate Son had the rather modest role of proclaiming the oneness of God and reminding humans of their natural immortality. But for the Nicenes the Son is the Savior, a mediator between the just and eternal God and sinful, mortal humans in an economy of historical redemption. Christ is the divine mediator with the Father, and through His life, death and resurrection reconciles us to the Father that we too may become divine. For the Nicenes scriptural law and tradition center on Jesus Christ and His law may run counter to imperial dictates. The Nicenes held tenaciously to the historic Christ who by His divine self-sacrifice secured the salvation of humankind and established the law to which even the Christian sovereign is subject. In contrast, the Arians with their low Christology could see in the emperor an instrument used by God for the ordering of society. Law centered upon the historical Christ could not take precedence over the living law, the emperor himself, ordained as such by God.

[ 2.4.2 Four Crucial Differences ]

[ 2.4.2.  Four Crucial Differences ]

THESE differing views affected four crucial sectors of religious life in the fourth century[:]

[1] the authority of the emperor in respect to creed and canons;

[2] the Eucharist;

[3] the office of bishop;

[4] the headship and kingship of Christ.

[1] Given his markedly subordinationist view of the Logos, Eusebius of Caesarea saw both Christ and Constantine as instruments of the Logos, one to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom; the other to establish monotheism. Constantine was for Eusebius a kind of second savior: Christ as the universal Savior opens the gates of his Father’s kingdom; the emperor purging his earthly realm of error, desires to save all the crew of the vessel of which he is pilot. Also in establishing order and harmony, the emperor does on earth what the Logos does in the cosmos. The emperor, said Eusebius, “directs his gaze above, and frames his earthly government according to the pattern of that divine original, feeling strength in its conformity to the monarchy of God.” Christ and the emperor are for Eusebius almost coordinate under God, each leading men to knowledge and worship of God, each bringing order and peace to mankind. The Nicenes, however, feeling the heavy hand of imperial disfavor throughout the struggles after the Council of Nicaea, thought differently. Eustathius of Antioch denounced the Arians as atheists in denying the full divinity of the Son and sycophants in their excessive devotion to the emperor. Athanasius excoriated those at Sirmium in 359 who denied the eternity of the Son but spoke of the eternal emperor. At Sardica the Nicenes would insist that Christ is Son of God by nature; Christians, the emperor implicitly included, became what He is only by grace. Athanasius, Lucifer of Cagliari and Hilary of Poitiers finally went to the length of denouncing the emperor as the forerunner of Antichrist or even Antichrist himself.

[2] Both parties regarded the Eucharist as the center of liturgical life, but Nicenes emphasized the Eucharistic community in which members of the Body were sustained and united, while Arians viewed the Eucharist as the unbloody, reasonable sacrifice, the substitute for the pagan sacrifices. The Nicenes refused to recognize the Arian Eucharist as valid and went to great lengths to demonstrate this, even throwing the bread consecrated by Arians to the dogs. Nor would the Nicenes admit the sacrilegious Arians to their own Eucharist, confident they were participating together in the body of Christ and drawing therefrom energy to oppose the foes of Christ’s full divinity. On the other hand, Arians for the most part strove for intercommunion. The union of believers within the body of the empire was for them more important than union in the Body of Christ. Thus the liturgical counterpart of the Nicenes’ belief in the full divinity of Christ was their exclusion of Arians from communion.

[3] The Nicene bishops attempted to preserve their bonds with their local churches and trace their lineage to the earthly Christ through the Apostles. The Arians, seeing the emperor as the instrument of the Eternal God, were more inclined to accept imperial appointment and imperial approval as validation of their episcopal authority and willingly accepted transfer from see to see. Lucifer of Cagliari scorned the Arian bishops as pseudo-bishops because where two or three of them were together, Christ, fully God, was not among them; nor could they be channels of the Holy Spirit whose full divinity they denied. Ambrose of Milan developed the concept of bishop as priest deriving by apostolic succession authority from the earthly Christ and as prophet endowed with authority stemming from the eternal Christ. As prophets the bishops had the duty to rebuke even emperors, as Ambrose did Theodosius I and Valentinian II. Their experience with imperially convened councils developed a distaste for them in the minds of the Nicenes. Athanasius, comments Williams, “moved all the way from the original acceptance of the Christian emperor’s right to call an ecumenical council, to judge on matters of faith and discipline, and to interfere in local affairs of the Church — through an intermediate ‘theory’ of a free Church protected by the State — to an insistence. . . upon the complete independence of a council from the emperor. . .the only function remaining to him being to summon the council.” Perhaps the growing insistence of Nicenes on the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit was partly motivated by the desire of the bishops to enhance their collective authority over that of the emperor as conduits of the divine Spirit.

[4] For the Nicenes, the Son, their head, consubstantial with God, true God from true God, was King of Kings and protector of the Church. They saw the Church as the reflection of the heavenly kingdom. In the Church the bishops, tracing their credentials to the historic Christ, could exhort, even rebuke Christian rulers on the basis of apostolic tradition and biblical law. The Arians, denying the consubstantiality of the Son, were more inclined to emphasize the fact that while Christ is head of man, God is head of Christ and that thus the God-enthroned ruler is superior to the bishops instituted by Christ. For the Arians, the Christian empire was the earthly image of the heavenly kingdom. At the beginning of the century, Eusebius hailed Constantine as the instrument of the Supreme God, raised above men, the earthly counterpart of the cosmic Logos. By the end of the century, Ambrose could successfully rebuke an emperor and assert confidently that Theodosius 1 was a subject of Christ. Concludes Williams, “The sense of disparateness between the Christ-founded Church and the God-ordained Empire, recovered in the course of the Arian controversy under Constantius, became a permanent feature of Western Christianity even after the reestablishment of Nicene orthodoxy to imperial favor under Theodosius, as the resounding words of Ambrose testify: ‘The Emperor is in the Church, not above it.”‘




 BY 327 Constantine was having second thoughts about the work of the Council. In this he was perhaps influenced by Eusebius, bishop of the imperial capital, Nicomedia, who was related by blood to the imperial family and was the spiritual confidant of Constantine’s half-sister. As a disciple of the martyred theologian Lucian of Antioch, he would have been acceptable to the Empress Mother Helena who had a special devotion to that saint. An amnesty was granted to the Arian leaders, and Eusebius himself together with Theognis of Nicaea and Maris of Chalcedon returned to their sees by 328. Alexander of Alexandria died that year and his successor Athanasius, under pain of deposition and exile, was ordered to grant free admission to all who wished to return to the Church. Ruthlessly, Eusebius of Nicomedia now led the effort to undermine the Nicene bishops. Eustathius of Antioch was the first to go. Accused of inciting tumults at Antioch, he apparently made the mistake of speaking disparagingly of the Empress Mother Helena, calling her a stabularia, a chamber-maid, a term which, says Duchesne, given the standards of hospitality of the age, implied a good deal. He was deposed from Antioch, to die in exile in 330. Eusebius of Caesarea, sensing trouble, declined to accept transfer to Antioch. Eustathius’ supporters refused to accept his imperially appointed successor and a prolonged schism opened at Antioch, crippling that great metropolis’ influence in ecclesiastical affairs for the next sixty years. Marcellus of Ancyra was next. He was perhaps the staunchest supporter of the homoousios of Nicaea since it seemed to support his basically Sabellian views. For Marcellus, Son and Spirit emerged from the Godhead as distinct persons only for the purposes of creation and redemption. At the end of the world, both would be resumed into the divine unity. These statements of Marcellus convinced many that the Creed of Nicaea was suspect of Sabellianism, and he would long be an albatross about the necks of the orthodox Nicenes. Marcellus made the mistake of sending a book embodying his views to Constantine. For his pains he was deposed in 336, surviving through many vicissitudes until his death at the age of ninety in 374.

  Finally it was the turn of Athanasius who in 328 had embarked upon his troubled forty-five year episcopate at Alexandria. He was accused, among many charges, of immoral conduct, illegally taxing the Egyptians, supporting rebels against the throne, tyrannizing dissident bishops, breaking the chalice of a rebellious priest and murdering a bishop, keeping his severed hand for magical rites. Athanasius successfully refuted the charges, even bringing the man supposedly murdered into the courtroom and dramatically revealing his intact two hands. But he was again called to stand charges in 335 before the Synod of Tyre, stacked with his enemies, fresh from the dedication of Constantine’s great new Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Athanasius was condemned by the Synod, but fled to the newly founded Constantinople where he confronted the emperor unexpectedly on a road leading into the city and obtained exoneration in a personal interview with him. Still his enemies persisted in accusing him before the emperor of interfering with the grain supply from Egypt to the growing new capital. Since Constantinople was dependent on the export through Alexandria of the 80,000 bushels of grain a day it was soon to need, Constantine could brook no tampering with the food supply by an Egyptian bishop. The emperor exiled Athanasius in 336 to Trier in Rhineland Germany. The reaction in Alexandria was tumultuous; even the great hermit Antony, reputed founder of monasticism, wrote a protest to the emperor. But since the three leaders of the Nicene party were now out of action, Arius was to be rehabilitated. Because Alexandria was still too hot to hold him, he went to Constantinople for his formal readmission to the Church. However, on the day before the ceremony in 336, he suffered an intestinal hemorrhage in a public bathroom and was found dead.

   In 337, the first Christian emperor, Constantine himself passed from the scene. After putting aside the imperial purple, he was clothed in the white garment of the new-born Christian and baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia before his death. He was buried by his son Constantius in his new Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople surrounded by the cenotaphs of the Twelve. A coin was issued showing him seated on a horse-drawn chariot, a hand reaching from heaven to welcome him. With his passing the first round in the battle after the Council of Nicaea was ended.






c. 96

Clement of Rome.


Shepherd of Hermas completed.

c. 160

Marcion died.

c. 165

Justin martyred.


Pope Victor.


Councils against Montanism.


Irenaeus of Lyons

c. 220

Tertullian died.


Pope Callistus.


Hippolytus died.


Pope Cornelius.

c. 254

Origen died.


Novatian martyred.

c. 264

Dionysius of Alexandria died.


Dionysius, bishop of Rome.


Paul of Samosata deposed by Council of Antioch


Accession of Emperor Diocletian.


Constantine proclaimed Caesar Augustus at  York in Britain.


Constantine completed conquest of the Western Empire


‘Edict of Milan’ proclaimed universal religious toleration.


Council of Arles against Donatists.

c. 319

Beginning of the Arian Controversy.


Constantine defeated Licinius to become sole emperor


Council of Antioch under Ossius condemned Arius.




Exile of Arius.


Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria.


Arius returned to Constantinople from exile.


Council of Tyre; first exile of Athanasius to Trier


Marcellus of Ancyra exiled.


Arius died in Constantinople.


Constantine died, succeeded by sons Constantine, Constantius, Constans.


Eusebius of Caesarea died.





 THE events of Church history in this period are well covered by the Protestant Hans Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church, vol. 2 (London, 1961) and the Catholic Louis Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (London, 1912). Many of the pertinent documents dealing with all questions are to be found in J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337 (London, 1957). Brief sketches of the lives, works and theology of the various Fathers of the Church are in J. Quasten, Patrology, vols. 1 and 2 (Utrecht, Antwerp, 1965). Perhaps the best history of early theology is J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York, 1958); more synthetic is Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, vol. 1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago, 1971). A splendid book which clarifies early theological vocabulary is G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London, 1936). The best brief history of the councils is H. Jedin, Short History of the Councils (New York, 1964); useful too are the essays in H. J. Margull, ed., Councils of the Church (Philadelphia, 1966). Most recent is Colm Liubheld, The Council of Nicaea (Galway, 1982). This chapter draws heavily on the interpretation of the work of the Council of Nicaea in Bernard Lonergan The Way to Nicaea: The Dialectical Development of Trinitarian Theology (London, 1976). The creed issued by the Council is carefully analyzed in J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (London, 1972). Useful discussions of Arianism are T. E. Pollard, “The Origins of Arianism,” Journal of Theological Studies, 9 (1958), 103-111; H. A. Wolfson, “Philosophical Implications of Arianism and Apollinarianism,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 12 (1958), 5-28; L. W. Bernard, “The Antecedents of Arius,” Vigiliae Christianae, 24 (1970), 172-188. For a revisionist view that Arius was not really concerned about the Trinity but about soteriology, see now R. Gregg and D. Groh, Early Arianism: A View of Salvation (Philadelphia, 1981). Other factors relating to the Council are discussed in Henry Chadwick, “Ossius of Cordoba and the Presidency of the Council of Antioch, 325,” Journal of Theological Studies, 9 (1958), 292-304, and his “Faith and Order at the Council of Nicaea: A Note on the Background of the Sixth Canon,” Harvard Theological Review, 53 (1960), 171-195, and especially G. H. Williams, “Christology and Church-State Relations in the Fourth Century,” Church History, 20-II1 (1951), 3-33; 20-IV (1951), 3-26. A useful survey of recent scholarship is F. M. Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon (Philadelphia, 1983). The principal texts of the Councils of Nicaea, Ephesus and Chalcedon may be found in T.H. Bindley and F.W. Green, Oecumenical Documents of the Faith (London, 1950).


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[ 2.1.3.  Irenaeus ]