In the last part of our series we looked at a serious disagreement in the North African Church between the Egyptian bishop (Alexander) and a Libyan presbyter (Arius). The issue concerned whether Jesus Christ was the eternal Son of God or was a created being.
Arius claimed that “there was a time when the Son was not.” Arius believed and taught that God the Father created Jesus and that Jesus had a different nature and essence from God the Father. This became known as Arianism, named after Arius.
Alexander, along with his chief deacon and secretary Athanasius, responded about 320 AD –
“For who ever heard such assertions before? or who that hears them now is not astonished and does not stop his ears lest they should be defiled with such language? Who that has heard the words of John, “In the beginning was the Word,” will not denounce the saying of these men, that “there was a time when He was not?” Or who that has heard in the Gospel, “the Only-begotten Son,” and “by Him were all things made,” will not detest their declaration that He is “one of the things that were made.” For how can He be one of those things which were made by Himself? or how can He be the Only-begotten, when, according to them, He is counted as one among the rest, since He is Himself a creature and a work? And how can He be “made of things that were not,” when the Father saith, “My heart hath uttered a good Word,” and “Out of the womb I have begotten Thee before the morning star?” Or again, how is He “unlike in substance to the Father,” seeing He is the perfect “image” and “brightness” of the Father, and that He saith, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father?” And if the Son is the “Word” and “Wisdom” of God, how was there “a time when He was not?” It is the same as if they should say that God was once without Word and without Wisdom. And how is He “subject to change and variation,” Who says, by Himself, “I am in the Father, and the Father in Me,” and “I and the Father are One;” and by the Prophet, “Behold Me, for I am, and I change not?” For although one may refer this expression to the Father, yet it may now be more aptly spoken of the Word, viz., that though He has been made man, He has not changed; but as the Apostle has said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.” And who can have persuaded them to say, that He was made for us, whereas Paul writes, “for Whom are all things, and by Whom are all things?” Deposition of Arius
Alexander and almost a hundred bishops of Egypt and Libya agreed to “anathematize” Arius and his followers. However, that did not end the challenge to Christ’s eternal Deity.
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
4th Century Church Councils
The first council after Christianity became a legal religion was held in Arles, Gaul (now France) in 314 AD. Emperor Constantine I called together leaders from more than 40 bishoprics from North Africa. The primary concern was about the beliefs and practices of the Bishop of Carthage and his followers. Donatus had been found guilty of re-baptizing clergy who had lapsed. The Bishop of Rome believed that the traditores clergy did not have to be re-baptized and could baptize and give communion to Christians as long as they followed Church ritual. The Donatists opposed that ruling and said that any baptisms and communion by traditores clergy were invalid. Donatus was excommunicated from the Church and Donatism was condemned as a heresy.
The debate about Jesus’ nature and essence began in the 1st century AD and continues to this day. Disagreements among powerful forces in the early Church reached such an extreme point in the early 4th century that Emperor Constantine I called a special council of bishops and other Church leaders to convene in the city of Nicea (modern day İznik, Turkey). Hundreds met in 325 AD to discuss the teachings of Arius as well as other ecclesiastical issues.
Alexander and almost 100 bishops from Egypt and Libya had disciplined Arius several years earlier, but Arius fled his home in Libya and found support from bishops Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia.
Here are some of the beliefs of Arius as stated in letters to supporters prior to the council meeting in Nicea.
[Notice that Eusebius of Caesarea was one of those early supporters of Arius.]
“Since Eusebius, your brother in Caesarea, and Theodotus, and Paulinus, and Athanasius, and Gregory, and Aetius and all those in the East say that God pre-exists the Son without a beginning, they have been condemned, except for Philogonius and Hellenicus and Macarius, unlearned heretics some of whom say that the Son was “spewed out”, others that he was an “emanation”, still others that he was “jointly unbegotten.” (4.) We are not able to listen to these kinds of impieties, even if the heretics threaten us with ten thousand deaths. But what do we say and think and what have we previously taught and do we presently teach? — that the Son is not unbegotten, nor a part of an unbegotten entity in any way, nor from anything in existence, but that he is subsisting in will and intention before time and before the ages, full <of grace and truth,> God, the only-begotten, unchangeable. (5.) Before he was begotten, or created, or defined, or established, he did not exist. For he was not unbegotten. But we are persecuted because we have said the Son has a beginning but God has no beginning. We are persecuted because of that and for saying he came from non-being. But we said this since he is not a portion of God nor of anything in existence. That is why we are persecuted; you know the rest.” Letter of Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia, 318 AD
“Since you think properly, pray that everyone will think that way. For it is clear to all that the thing which is made did not exist before it came into being; but rather what came into being has a beginning to its existence.” Fragment of a letter of Eusebius of Nicomedia to Arius, 318 AD
“For we do not say that the Son is coexisting with the Father, but instead that the Father existed before the Son. For if they coexisted, how could the Father be a father, and the Son be a son? Or how could one indeed be the first, and the other second? And how could one be unbegotten and the other begotten? For the two, if they are equal, likewise exist mutually and are honored equally, one must conclude that either they are both unbegotten or both begotten, as I have said, but it is clear that neither of these is true. For they are neither both unbegotten nor both begotten. For one is indeed the first and best and leads to/precedes the second, both in order and in honor, so that he is the occasion for the second’s existing and for his existing in this particular way. (2.) For the Son of God himself, who quite clearly knows all things, knows that he is different from, less, and inferior to the Father, and with full piety also teaches us this when he says, “The Father who sent me is greater than me” [John 14:28].” Fragments of a letter of Eusebius of Caesarea to Euphration of Balanea, 318-323 AD
“Our faith from our forefathers, which also we learned from you, Blessed Father, is this: We acknowledge One God, alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone without beginning, alone true, alone having immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign, judge, governor, and provider of all, unalterable and unchangeable, just and good, God of the Law and the Prophets and the New Testament; who begat an only-begotten Son before time and the ages, through whom he made both the ages [Heb 1:2] and all that was made; who begot Him not in appearance, but in reality; and that he made him subsist at his own will, unalterable and unchangeable, the perfect creature (ktisma) of God, but not as one of the creatures; offspring, but not as one of the other things begotten; (3.) nor as Valentinus pronounced that the offspring of the Father was an emanation (probolē); nor as the Manicheans taught that the offspring was a one-in-essence-portion (meros homoousion) of the Father; nor as Sabellius, dividing the Monad, speaks of a Son-Father; nor as Hieracas speaks of one torch [lit] from another, or as a lamp divided into two; nor that he who existed before was later generated or created anew into a Son, as you yourself, O blessed father, have often condemned both in church services and in council meetings; but, as we say, he was created at the will of God, before time and before the ages, and came to life and being from the Father, and the glories which coexist in him are from the Father.” Confession of faith from Arius and his followers to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, 320 AD
“Your letters have misrepresented them [the Arians] as though they were saying that since the Son came into being from nothing (ek tou mē ontos), he must therefore be just like the rest of creation (‘eis tōn pantōn). But they have brought forth their own document, which they have written for you, in which they explain their faith, confessing it with these very words: “The God of the Law and of the Prophets and of the New Testament begat an only begotten son before time began (pro chronōn aiōnōn), through whom he also made the ages (aiōnas) [Heb1:2] and all things, begetting him not in appearance but in reality, causing him to exist by his own will. He is unchanging and unchangeable, God’s perfect creation, but not a creation in the same way like one of God’s other creations.” And so surely indeed their writings speak the truth, since these opinions are certainly held by you also when they confess that the son of God existed before time began, that God also made the ages through him, that he is unchanging, God’s perfect creation, but not like God’s other creations. (3.)But your letter surely misrepresents them as saying that the son is the same as the other created things. They are not saying this! But they clearly draw a distinction, saying that he is, “not like one of the created things.” Take care, then, lest immediately again a pretext be found for arresting them and keeping them from moving about as much as they wish. (4.) Again, you accuse them of saying, “He-who-was begat he-who-was-not”? I would be astonished if someone were able to speak differently. For if there is only one who exists [eternally], it is clear that everything which exists has come into being from him, whatever indeed exists after him. If it were not he alone who exists eternally, but the son also exists eternally, how indeed could one who exists beget another who already exists? It would have to follow that there would actually be two who exist eternally.” Fragment of a letter of Eusebius of Caesarea to Alexander of Alexandria, 320 AD
Constantine wanted to get the matter resolved (this was a year after he defeated Licinius and became sole ruler of the Empire, so his concern at this point may have been more political than theological), so he invited hundreds of bishops to meet in Nicene. Most of the bishops who attended were from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, though some Church representatives came from the west.
Arius presented his case before the other bishops, but was eventually excommunicated by the vast majority of those who voted. Some of the bishops who eventually voted against Arius did so hesitantly, including Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius had been excommunicated at the Council of Antioch (early 325 AD) because he refused to condemn the teachings of Arius. However, he did attend the Council of Nicea and eventually voted against Arius and for the Nicene Creed.
The original Nicene Creed was signed by more than 300 bishops in August of 325 AD.
“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 from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down, and became incarnate and became man, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and dead, And in the Holy Spirit. But as for those who say, There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or created, or is subject to alteration or change – these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.” THE CREED OF NICAEA – AGREED AT THE COUNCIL IN 325
I say “original” Nicene Creed because a later council of bishops (381 AD) modified it. That council is known as the Council of Constantinople I. Other councils were held at Constantinople in 553 AD (II), 680 AD (III), 870 AD (IV), and 880 (IV). [The last two councils have the same number, IV, because the first one was not recognized by the Western churches and the second one was not recognized by the Eastern churches.]
Here is how the original Nicene Creed of 325 AD was modified by the Council of Constantinople I of 380 AD –
“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into existence, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down from the heavens, and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man,
and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge living and dead, of Whose kingdom there will be no end; And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is together worshipped and together glorified, Who spoke through the prophets; in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church. We confess one baptism to the remission of sins; we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen” THE NICENE CREED – AGREED AT THE COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE IN 381
The 381 AD Council of Constantinople is often said to have been the end of Arianism, but there’s much more to the story. Here is a brief history of what happened between Nicea and Constantinople –
“The debates and the politics continued in the years after Nicea. Eusebius of Caesarea and Eustathius, anti-Arian bishop of Antioch, debated the word homoousios; Eustathius was deposed in the late 320s for murky reasons, and Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia were recalled by Constantine from exile, for reasons that are equally unclear. Athanasius, Marcellus of Ancyra and others were deposed in their turn in the mid-330s by some sharp political maneuvering; they were allowed to return to their sees after the death of Constantine in 337, only to be deposed again two years later. Athanasius and Marcellus fled to Rome at the invitation of Julius, the bishop there, who invited the Eastern bishops to an ecumenical council in Rome to discuss the cases. The Easterners declined and held their own large council, the Dedication Council of Antioch, in 341 instead, which ratified three creeds, all avoiding the characteristic language of Nicaea. The so-called Fourth Creed of Antioch, issued a few months later, became the basis for a series of creeds over the next fifteen years, with more and more detailed anathemas being added. Events of the 340s were partly shaped by the rivalry between Constantine’s two surviving sons, Constantinus and Constans, emperors of the Eastern and Western Empires respectively. Constans insisted on an ecumenical council, which was this time called to the frontier capital of Serdica (modern Sofia) in 343, but the leaders of the Eastern party used wrecking tactics to ensure the full council never met. Constans continued to insist that Athanasius and a further exiled bishop, Paul of Constantinople, be restored to their sees, finally threatening war. This was achieved in 345-6, but at a price: Paul was executed on Constans’ death in 350, and Athanasius, who, having played his hand with greater skill, managed to hold on until 356, then had to flee for his life. By 357, the defeat of the pro-Nicene party seemed secure. Athanasius was in hiding, Marcellus, who had become a lightning-rod for anti-Nicene sentiment, had withdrawn from the controversy, and his pupil and deacon Photinus of Sirmium was finally condemned in 351. A number of sympathetic Westerners had also been deposed. Meanwhile, the aged Ossius of Corduba, who had presided at Nicea, had been kidnapped, held under house arrest and finally persuaded to sign a creed (the so-called ‘blasphemy of Sirmium’) which forbade the use of any ousia language as unscriptural, and particularly the expression homoousios. It was the symbolic death of Nicea.” New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic, IVP Academic, 2016, p 61
Did you see the phrase “any ousia language .. particularly the expression homoousios“? What was that all about? We’ll find out in the next part of our special series, A Reading Plan for Christian Apologists.