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Nicaea I, 325 CE: Arianism

Bill East

Note: This article first appeared as a series of postings on the Medieval-Religion discussion list and is posted here with the kind permission of the author.

The first council of Nicaea was summoned by Constantine to deal with the Arian controversy. Whatever one tries to say about the fist council of Nicaea is bound to be contradicted, because if the council kept minutes of its proceedings, they have now vanished. The canons passed by the council, which have survived, have nothing to do with the Arian controversy, but with various disciplinary matters. Canon 1, for example, deals with priests who have been castrated, or who have castrated themselves. The council did issue a creed, but it was not the one now in use, commonly referred to as the 'Nicene Creed.' I quote the 'Creed of Nicaea' from Bettenson, 'Documents of the Christian Church,' p. 35:

We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, 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, of the substance of the Father, God of God,
Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one sustance with the Father
[homoousion to patri], through whom all things were made, things in heaven and on the earth;
who for us men and our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man,
suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens,
is coming to judge living and dead.
And in the Holy Spirit.
And those that say, 'There was when he was not,'
and 'Before he was begotten he was not,'
and that 'He came into being from what-is-not,'
or those that allege that the son of God is
'of another substance or essence'
or 'created,'
or 'changeable,'
or 'alterable,'
these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.

I mentioned in an earlier posting that Antioch and Alexandria were the two great intellectual centres of the early Church, and that in its Christological thinking Antioch tended to emphasize the humanity of Christ, sometimes to the neglect of his divinity; whereas Alexandria tended to emphasize his divinity, sometimes to the neglect of his humanity. Someone immediately objected that Arius, the Alexandrian, who denied the full humanity of Christ, is an exception to this rule. The exception, however, proves the rule. I quote from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (henceforth, ODCC):

"Arius appears to have held that the Son of God was not eternal but created before the ages by the Father from nothing as an instrument for the creation of the world; He was therefore not God by nature, but a creature, and so susceptible of change, even though different from all other creatures in being the one direct creation of God; His dinity as Son of God was bestowed on Him by the Father on account of his foreseen abiding righteousness."

We see immediately that the opinions of Arius do not spring from any particular desire to safeguard the humanity of Christ, but appear to arise form exactly the kind of philosophical speculation for which Alexandria was famous. Or perhaps not. The ODCC again:"Earlier scholars tended to see this teaching as the adulteration of Christian faith by essentially pagan philosophical concerns. More recent writers have argued that a major objective of the Arians was to distinguish the Divinity of the Father from that of the Son in order to express the Incarnate Son to the full Divinity which they attributed uniquely to the Father." We should notice that Arianism is really a Trinitarian, rather than a Christological, heresy. That is to say, it is not concerned with the person of the man/God Jesus, but with the make-up of God in Himself. The Son of God, considered by orthodox Christians to be co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father, is for Arius a creature, with a beginning-admittedly an earlier beginning than the rest of the created universe, but not co-eternal with the Father. With this in mind, let us look again at the anathemas of the Creed of Nicaea:

And those that say, 'There was when he was not,'
and 'Before he was begotten he was not,'
and that 'He came into being from what-is-not,'
or those that allege that the son of God is
'of another substance or essence'
or 'created'
or 'changeable'
or 'alterable,'
these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.

1. 'There [a time] was when he was not'-i.e. there was a time when the Son of God did not exist.
2. 'Before he was begotten he was not'-i.e. that the Son of God came into existence at a moment in time, when he was 'begotten' by the Father; rather than through the 'eternal begetting' of orthodox Christianity.
3. 'He came into being from what-is-not'-i.e. the Son of God was created ex nihilo, like the rest of creation.
4. or those that allege that the son of God is 'of another substance or essence'-i.e. not of the same nature, being, substance or essence as God the Father.
5. or 'created'-i.e. created; the word speaks for itself.
6. or 'changeable,' or 'alterable'-i.e. not sharing in the eternal changelessness of the Father.
These the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.

The key word in the Creed of Nicaea is 'homoousion,' 'of one substance [with the Father].' This contradicted the Arian assertion that God the Son was of a different nature (substance, being-the Greek word is 'ousia') from God the Father. 'Homoousion' became the watchword of those opposed to Arianism.

However, it was a word with a not entirely happy history. It had previously been used, in a very different sense, by the heretic Paul of Samosata, who lived in the third century; in 260 CE, he became Bishop of Antioch. In 268 CE, he was excommunicated for heresy. He was accused of Unitarianism (though we should treat the accusation with caution). He was called a 'psilanthropist,' that is, one who claims that Christ is 'psilos anthropos,' a mere man. It would perhaps be fairer to say that he was concerned (as was the Antiochene tradition generally) to stress the full humanity of Christ.
He exhibits what is called a christological dualism, making a clear distinction between the 'Logos' or Word of God on the one hand, and Jesus Christ on the other. He writes: 'allos gar estin Iesous Christos, kai allos o Logos'-'Jesus Christ is one [person], and the Logos another.' He claims, too, 'The Messiah is anointed, the Logos is not anointed.' He says, 'Mary did not bear the Word'-repudiating the title, 'theotokos.' He describes the union between divinity and humanity in Christ in terms of 'indwelling' and 'inspiration.' Manhood is a house, a temple in which the divinity dwells; Mary gave birth to a man like us, only better; he was inspired, filled with the Holy Spirit.

The orthodox fathers point out in reply that a house is a temporary dwelling; we all live in houses, but we are not part of them nor they of us. Likewise, they find the language of 'inspiration' inadequate.
But if Paul believed that the Logos and Jesus were two separate things, he believed that the Logos was very much one and the same thing as God the Father. He rejected the idea that they were two distinct 'hypostases' or persons-thus ruling out the idea of the Trinity. And the word he used to indicate the identity between God the Father and God the Word was 'homoousios.'Thus, the word 'homoousios' had previously been used in a quite heretical sense. Consequently, many people who had no sympathy at all with Arianism found the word odious, and declined to use it. Many Origenists preferred the word 'homoiousion,' 'of like substance,' feeling that it left more room for distinctions of person within the Godhead.

Another unfortunate effect of Paul of Samosata's thought (and, for other reasons, that of Origen) was the loss of interest, and belief, in the human soul of Christ. It falls out of sight in the middle of the third century. People did not warm to the idea of a soul of Christ distinct from the divine Logos. It seemed to them to smack of Paul's dualism, providing Christ with, as it were, two souls, a human one and a divine one.

So, the Christology of this period is what we call a 'Logos-christology.' Christ is a union between the Logos and a human body. Tertullian and Athanasius emphasize the Logos as the source of all creation. Ordinary people merely partake of, participate in, the Logos. Christ, being the Logos itself, has no need of a human soul to participate in the Logos. Such is the approach of the Logos-theologians. According to the Alexandrians, Christ is the perfect man because the Logos is the archetype of humanity.

The one theologian who did insist on the need for a human soul in Christ was Origen. However, some of Origen's views became suspect, and he was not therefore the best champion for the idea.
The early Arians therefore did not believe in a human soul for Christ; they believed that the function of the soul was performed by the Logos. In this, they believed no differently from the 'orthodox' Christians of their day; both (to our way of thinking) had a blind spot for the necessity of a human soul in Christ. What the Arians denied was that the Logos residing in Christ was divine. Their opponent, Eustathius (Bishop of Antioch, 324-327), wrote, 'Why do the Lucianists think it important to prove that Christ took a body without a soul?' His answer was, because they wanted to prove that the Logos suffered, and therefore could not be God. Lucian of Antioch (d. 312) had been the teacher of Arius; indeed, his 'subordinationist' teaching seems to have been the immediate source of the Arian heresy. He was however, a biblical scholar of some significance, and in a different context we might have cause to priase his work.

The plot thickens; let me try to thin it up a little.

In the latter half of the third century, the human soul of Christ is the dog which did not bark. Of course, just because a dog doesn't bark, it doesn't mean that there is no dog; but it was remarkably quiet. Nobody has much to say about the soul of Christ. People thought about the Logos, or Word of God, as being united with flesh (Greek, 'sarx') in the person of Jesus. They were encouraged to do so by the verse of St. John's Gospel, 1:14, 'kai o Logos sarx egeneto'-'and the Word became flesh.' They regarded the Logos as the sentient, rational component in Jesus, equivalent to the soul in anybody else. But it is evident that Jesus suffered. Harm done to the flesh is clearly felt by the soul. We do not say, 'My flesh hurts, but I feel no pain.' The 'I' is precisely what feels the pain. Now if the 'I' in the case of Jesus was the Logos, then the Logos suffered.
But God is impassible, that is to say, he does not suffer. Therefore, said the Arians, the Logos is not God, but a creature, capable of suffering.

An alternative approach was to say that Jesus did not suffer, that he only 'seemed' to suffer. People who believed this were called 'Docetists,' from the Greek 'dokeo,' 'I seem.' The Docetists had existed long before Arianism, perhaps even in NT times. 1 John 4:1-3 may be an attack on Docetism: "every spirit which acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God"-the implication being, that those who denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh, but only 'seemed' to take flesh, were not of God. Polycarp, early in the second century, relates that St. John had fled from the public baths on hearing that Cerinthus, a Docetist, was inside, fearing that the building would fall in on the enemy of the truth. The first person to have used the word, 'Docetism,' seems however to have been Serapion, Bishop of Antioch (190-203).

With hindsight we can see that the answer to both heresies was to insist that Christ had a human soul, which suffered, while the divine Logos, of one substance with the Father, did not suffer; and such was the faith eventually encapsulated in the orthodox Christian formularies (cf. the verse of the 'Quicunque Vult:' 'perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting'). But this was not obvious at the time, and it took a long time for this position to evolve.

Let us now turn our attention to Athansius of Alexandria, the chief opponent of Arianism at the Council of Nicaea. He was born in 295 CE, attended the council as a deacon, representing his bishop, Alexander, whom he succeeded in 328 CE, and died in 373 CE.
Like most other theologians of his period, he does not seem to have realized the theological importance of the human soul of Christ. He nowhere explicitly discusses the problem. He did not see that the Arians were vulnerable through their Christology.

Steeped in the writings of St. Paul, he was conscious of sin and of the need for redemption. Therefore, his emphasis is soteriological: the Logos [word] must equal Theos [God] in order to effect our salvation. Therein lies his quarrel with the Arians. One might have thought this would have been agreed by all, on the basis of John 1:1, 'Kai theos en ho Logos'-'And the Word was God.' But this the Arians did not believe.

It has been said that Athanasius' understanding of sin was too physical. He understood it as something done by the flesh ['sarx']. It was therefore sufficient that Christ has taken on our flesh and redeemed it. He does not consider the moral aspect of sin, that it is a defect of the will, of the intention-functions of the soul.

Athanasius' 'De Incarnatione' contains no reference to Christ's human soul. The Logos dwells (enoikei) in the temple of the body: language more typical of Antioch, of Paul of Samosata, than of Alexandria.
Athanasius is strong on the Incarnation, in the sense of the Logos taking 'carnis,' flesh ('sarx'); but the motivating force of that flesh is the divine Logos, not a human soul. What about human ignorance, human suffering, human death as exemplified in Christ? In a late work, the 'Tome to the Antiochenes,' Athanasius makes a distinction between 'ignorance according to the flesh' and knowledge according to the Logos. But what is 'ignorance according to the flesh?' Precisely what is ignorant? 'Ignorant flesh' is an odd phrase; usually one thinks of the mind, rather than the flesh, a being ignorant. But Athanasius cannot of course say that the Logos is ignorant. Nor does Athanasius mention the human soul of Christ with reference to his suffering. And the death of Christ is seen as the separation of the body from the Logos. Athanasius probably did not consider the question of the human soul of Christ to be of deep theological significance. From the ODCC:

'By his refusal to compromise with Arianism he incurred the enmity of the powerful Arianizing party in the reigns of Constantine and Constantius. His use of violence and intimidation also contributed to the strength of opposition to him and was the specific ground for his deposition at the Council of Tyre in 335 and his exile to Trier in 336; he returned on the death of Constantine in 337; but in 339 he was forced to flee Rome, where he established close contacts with the W. Church, which continued throughout his life to support him. He was restored in 346 by the influence of Constans, the W. Emperor, against the will of Constantius, who in 356 again drove him from his see. He remained in hiding near Alexandria till the accession of Julian (361). He returned to the city in Feb. 362, but Julian exiled him again later in the year. On Julian's death (363) he was able to come back in 364, and, after yet another brief exile (365-6), helped for the rest of his life to build up the new Nicene party by whose support orthodoxy triumphed over Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381. He died at Alexandria on 2-3 May 373.'

At the Council of Nicaea, the term 'homoousios' was used to define the consubstantiality of Father and Son; Arius and the bishops who supported him, including Eusebius of Nicomedia, were banished. This, however, did not end the matter. The Emperor Constantine began to have second thoughts. Eusebius of Nicomedia and other banished bishops were allowed to return, and began to intrigue against the Nicene party. Eustathius of Antioch and Athanasius himself had to go into exile; we saw in the last posting some of the vicissitudes which Athanasius had to suffer. Arius was to be recognized as orthodox; his death in 336 prevented his being received back into the Church.

Athansius's orthodoxy was upheld by a Council held in Rome in 341 CE. In the same year, a Council held in Antioch produced no less than four statements of faith. While repudiating the teaching of Arius, they avoided the word, 'homoousios.' The text of these creeds can be found in J. Stevenson, "Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents illustrative of the history of the Church, A.D. 337-461," pp. 11-14.

Three groups with Arian tendencies emerged:

1. One party was known as the 'Anomoeans' from Gk. anomoios, 'dissimilar.' They stressed the difference between Father and Son. They are sometimes referred to as 'Neo-Arians.'

2. A second party was known as the 'Homoeans' from Gk. homoios, 'similar.' They affirmed that the Son 'is similar to the Father.'

3. A third group, known as the 'Semi-Arians' favoured the term, 'homoiousios,' or 'of similar substance'-only one letter different from the orthodox 'homoousios,' but actually a world apart.

A highly unorthodox creed was drawn up at Sirmium in 357; this is sometimes known as the 'Blasphemy of Sirmium.' One can easily see why (text in Stevenson, "Creeds, Councils and Controversies," p. 35):

"But since some or many persons were disturbed by questions concerning substance, called in Greek 'ousia,' that is, to make it understood more exactly, 'homoousion,' or what is called 'homoiousion,' there ought to be no mention of this at all...

"There is no question that the Father is greater. No one can doubt that the Father is greater than the Son in honour, dignity, splendour, majesty...that the Father is greater, and that the Son is subordinated..."

This travesty of the faith was accepted by a double council of eastern and western bishops who met at Seleucia and Ariminum in 359. It was of this year that St. Jerome wrote his famous comment: "The whole world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian."

However, it was for the Arians a creed too far. The Semi-Arians took fright and returned to the ranks of the Orthodox. The Emperor Constantius, chief supporter of the Arians, died in 361. Athanasius returned to Alexandria in 362 and held a council to reconcile the various factions. He died in 373, and the baton of the Nicene faith was picked up by the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa.

Basil of Caesarea, known as 'Basil the Great' was, with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the three 'Cappaddocian Fathers.' Cappadocia is a region in what is now eastern Turkey from which all three originated.

Basil (330-79), was educated at Caesarea in Cappadocia, at Constantinople and Athens, in the best pagan and Christian learning of his day. He became a hermit by the river Iris near Neocaesarea. About 364, he came out of his retreat at the request of his bishop, Eusebius of Caesarea in Cappadocia, to defend orthodoxy against the Arian emperor, Valens. In 370, he succeeded Eusebius as Bishop of Caesarea, and held this office for the rest of his life.

This brought him into conflict with the extreme party of the Arians, led by Eunomius, and with a new group called the Pneumatomachi, literally 'spirit-fighters'-i.e. those who fought against the Holy Spirit by denying his divinity.

He tried to reconcile the 'Semi-Arians' with the formula of Nicaea, and to show that their word 'Homoiousios' had the same implications as the orthodox 'Homoousios.' "The virtual termination of the Arian controversy at the Council of Constantinople in 381/2 shortly after his death is a tribute to his success." (ODCC)

There is a huge bibliography which will be familiar to specialists; beginners and amateurs, like myself, may be content to know of a selection of his works in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 8. Selected works of Athanasius can be found in volume 4 of the same series, Gregory of Nyssa in volume 5, and Gregory of Nazianzus in volume 7.

Gregory of Nyssa (330-395), Bishop of Nyssa, was the younger brother of Basil. Biography from the ODCC:

"Though early destined for an ecclesiastical career he temporarily became a rhetorician, but returned to his first vocation and entered a monastery founded by his brother. He was consecrated bishop of Nyssa, c. 371. A supporter of the faith of Nicaea, he was deposed by the Arians in 376, and remained in exile until the death of the Emperor Valens in 378, when he regained his see. In 379 he attended the Council of Antioch, and in the next year he was elected Bp. of Sebaste, but protested and was soon replaced by his brother, Peter. After the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Emperor Theodosius I charged him to promote orthodoxy in the civil diocese of Pontus. In his later life he was much in demand as a preacher. In 394, he took part in the Council of Constantinople convoked by the Patr. Nectarius; he seems to have died soon afterwards."

Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, volume 5, is devoted to the works of Gregory of Nyssa, as follows:

I. Dogmatic treatises:
1. Against Eunonius. This Eunomius was an Arian bishop, specifically Anomoean (i.e. the most extreme party of the Arians). He had set out his views in an 'Apology' which was answered by Basil; Eunomius then wrote a 'Second Apology.' ODCC comments, "His chief importance for the history of theology lies in the reaction his theses provoked, esp. from the Cappadocian Fathers, whose doctrine of God and of human knowledge of God largely took shape as a critique of Eunomius."
2. Answer to Eunomius' Second Book.
3. On the Holy Spirit against Macedonius. Macedonius (d. 362) was Bishop of Constantinople and a supporter of the 'Semi-Arian' cause. He was believed to be (though this may not be correct) the founder of the 'Pneumatomachi,' those who 'fought against' the Holy Spirit by denying his full divinity. Gregory affirms his divinity:

"We confess that, save His being contemplated with peculiar attributes in regard of Person, the Holy Spirit is indeed from God, and of the Christ, according to Scripture; but that, while not to be confounded with the Father in being never originated, nor with the Son in being the Only-begotten, and while to be regarded separately in certain distinctive properties, He has in all else, as I have just said, an exact identity with them." (p.325)

"If then, the Holy Spirit is truly, and not in name only, called Divine both by Scripture and by our Fathers, what ground is left for those who oppose the glory of the Spirit? He is Divine, and absolutely good, and Omnipotent, and wise, and glorious, and eternal..."(p.316)

4. On the Holy Trinity.
5. On "Not Three Gods" to a certain Ablabius. Against 'Tritheism,' the teaching that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct Gods.
6. On the Faith.
The volume also contains Ascetical and Moral, Philosophical, Apologetic and Oratorical treatises, together with the letters of Gregory. ODCC again:

"He was an ardent defender of the Nicene dogma of the Trinity, and distinguished carefully between the generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit, the Second Person of the Trintity was incarnate in the womb of Mary, who therefore is truly Theotokos [Mother of God, or more literally, 'God-bearer], for Christ is one person in two natures."

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