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Nicaea I, 325 CE: Arianism
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:
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):
'There [a time] was when he was not'-i.e. there was a time when the Son of God
did not exist.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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
'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:
"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.
"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."