We are currently looking at how Christian Church leaders dealt with heresies in the 4th century AD. The most challenging of the heresies was Arianism – the claim that there was a time when the Son of God “was not” and was a creation of God the Father.
Emperor Constantine I called hundreds of bishops together in the city of Nicene to debate this important doctrine. A vast majority of the bishops who attended voted against Arius (namesake of the doctrine of Arianism), excommunicated him and his followers, and wrote a creed known as the “original” Nicene Creed.
That decision in 325 AD did not end the debate or disagreement among leaders in the Church. We detailed some of what happened between the year 325 AD and the Council of Nicea in 325 and the year 381 AD and first Council of Constantinople. You can read that article here.
Before moving to the next stage of the Church’s battle with heresy in the 4th century, let’s take a closer look at what may be the most important aspect of the challenge of Arianism – a challenge still faced today.
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
The Language of Ousia
“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 Athanasius was in hiding, Marcellus, who had become a lightning-rod for anti-Nicene sentiment, had withdrawn from the controversy, and his pupil and deacon Photinus of Sirmium was finally condemned in 351.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 word homoousios? That word is central to the 4th century debate. Words matter and it was a battle of words within the early Church about the nature of Jesus Christ that caused many divisions.
The Greek word ousia (οὐσία) translates as “substance, property.” It is the feminine participle of the verb eimi (εἰμί) which means “I am, I exist.” It carries the idea of “being.”
The Latin translation for ousia is substantia and essentia. Our English words “substance” and “essence” come from the Latin.
The term ousia was a philosophical term in ancient Greece and pre-dates Christianity. Greek philosophers viewed it as being equivalent to the “real thing.” Christians in the early Church believed the word should be used for God. However, using the word ousia in reference to Jesus, the Son of God, became a sticking point in the early Church.
Three different groups developed within the Church concerning the question of the nature of the Son of God following the Council of Nicea. Was Jesus Christ of the same ousia as God the Father or of a different ousia?
- homoiousios group (also spelled homoousios) – the Son is “like in substance” to the Father
- homoios group – the Son is “like” the Father (the word ὅμοιος means “similar to, resembling”)
- heterousians group – the Son is “unlike” the Father (of a different substance) .. they were also known as the anomoians, sometimes called Neo-Arians
The lines were drawn in the Church. Which would it be? The Son of God is like in substance to the Father? The Son of God is similar to the Father? The Son of God is unlike in substance to the Father?
The Roman emperors played a role in this debate based on what they believed or who they supported at the time. The emperors involved from the Council of Nicea to the Council of Constantinople I include Constantine I, Constantinus, Constans, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian, Valens, and Theodosius.
“Theodosius, the new emperor, proclaimed that orthodoxy lay with those who were in communion with Damasus of Rome and Peter of Alexandria, Athanasius’ pro-Nicene successor. A council, called to Constantinople in 381, while almost entirely Eastern and dominated by internal squabbles, ratified the Nicene creed, though it also composed one of its own, the one most often described today as the ‘Nicene Creed.’ The Eastern homoians and heterousians retired for good to small churches outside the walls of the major cities, and to monastic communities on their country estates. But the Gothic and Vandal kingdoms in the West would continue to be homoian for centuries to come.” New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic, IVP Academic, 2016, pp 61-62
I wrote earlier that we still face the challenge of Arianism today. Though the decision of the bishops at the Council of Constantinople became the orthodox position of the Church, there have been pockets of resistance to the Deity of Jesus Christ (co-equal with the Father and the Spirit) from then until now.
Modern Day Arianism
Some of the best-known groups that deny the Deity of Jesus Christ today are Jehovah’s Witness, Mormons, Christian Science, Christadelphians, Armstrongism, Oneness Pentacostals, Unification Church, Unity School of Christianity, Unitarian Universalists, Islam, and Scientology. Some leaders and members of mainline Christian denominations (liberal and progressive ‘Christianity’) also deny the Deity of Jesus Christ.
Each of these groups have their own explanation about why they don’t believe Jesus is eternal and co-equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit, but much of their argumentation goes back to what was so contentious in the 4th century. However, the decisions of the councils at Nicea and Constantinople I have placed those non-deity groups outside of Christian orthodoxy. We can learn ways to respond to today’s Arian’s
One of the benefits of reading the writings of early Christian apologists is seeing how those people close to apostolic times dealt with unorthodox and hertical teachings. As King Solomon once wrote –
“That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, ‘See, this is new’? It has already been in ancient times before us.” Ecclesiastes 1:9-10
Answering Atheist Objections
A prime objection from atheists is that Emperor Constantine I “created” Christianity in the 4th century AD. They often bring up the Council of Nicea as an example of how he did it. Atheists point to the belief of some Christian leaders prior to the 4th century that Jesus Christ was a created being and not equal to God to show that what we believe today is not what early Christians believed. Atheists especially like the writings of gnostic ‘Christians’ of the 2nd and 3rd centuries that present Jesus as a created being and not Eternal and Divine.
While the decisions made in the 4th century councils are something we can point back to (e.g. Nicene Creed), we don’t have to rely on that as the reason we believe Jesus Christ is eternal and co-equal with the Father and Spirit. We have the writings of the Apostles and Church leaders who lived long before Constantine and Nicea.
The purpose of A Reading Plan for Christian Apologists Part 3 (3.1 – 3.28) has been to show from ancient writings and arguments that the Christian Church has believed in the Deity of Jesus Christ from the beginning of the Church in the early part of the 1st century and has endured many attacks through the early centuries of the Church. Though this vital doctrine continues to be attacked, millions of Christians around the world continue to believe and defend our Lord’s Deity.
Here is a catalog of the Reading Plan studies so far. We hope it will be helpful to you as you defend the truth of Scripture. We will share more about this topic in the future.
Part 1 – Reading the Bible
Part 1.1 – Truth About God
Part 2 – Studying Bible in Original Languages
Part 3 – Ancient Christian Apologists (Jesus and Apostles)
Part 3.1 – Apostolic Fathers, Clement of Rome
Part 3.2 – Apostolic Fathers, Ignatius of Antioch
Part 3.3 – Apostolic Fathers, Polycarp of Smyrna
Part 3.4 – Apologists, Justin Martyr First Apology
Part 3.5 – Apologists, Justin Martyr Second Apology
Part 3.6 – Apologists, Irenaus of Lyons
Part 3.7 – Apologists, Irenaus of Lyons Against Heresies Book I
Part 3.8 – Apologists, Irenaeus of Lyons Against Heresies Book II
Part 3.9 – Apologists, Irenaeus of Lyons Against Heresies Book III
Part 3.10 – Apologists, Irenaeus of Lyons List of Heretics
Part 3.11 – Apologists, What and Who To Trust
Part 3.12 – Apologists, Quadratus and Aristides of Athens
Part 3.13 – Apologists, Tertullian and His Writings
Part 3.17 – Christianity and the Empire
Part 3.18 – Apologists, Hippolytus of Rome and His Writings
Part 3.19 – Apologists, Clement of Alexandria Writings
Part 3.20 – Apologists, Clement of Alexandria Writings II
Part 3.21 – Apologists, Clement of Alexandria Writings III
Part 3.22 – Apologists, Origen of Alexandria Writings I
Part 3.23 – Apologists, Origen of Alexandria Writings II
Part 3.24 – The Persecutions
Part 3.25 – Dealing with Lapsed Christians (Lapsi)
Part 3.26 – 4th Century Heresies
Part 3.27 – 4th Century Church Councils
Part 3.28 – The Language of Ousia, Arianism, Modern Day Arianism, and Answering Atheist Objections
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