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The Myth of the Ecumenical Early Church

One of the most enduring misconceptions of the pre-Nicene and Nicene church (what sometimes goes by the nomenclature “the early church”) is that it was more or less united, both doctrinally and politically. One can see this assumption at work in the use of the definitive article as well as the title of “ecumenical councils.” In contemporary discourse, “ecumenical” carries the meaning of trans-denominational or all-inclusive. In Late Antiquity, however, the term had a very direct reference: the Roman Empire. Thus, the ecumenical councils and confessions were the ones which were backed by the Emperor, the ones which carried imperial recognition.

The councils which we deem “ecumenical” are also typically named after the fact. For instance, there are several councils which, at the time, did receive imperial backing but were later overturned. Today many Christians are content to assume that these were obvious impostors, never held to be “true councils.” But that wasn’t nearly so obvious at the time, and what we think of as the very first ecumenical creed, the Nicene Creed, is a great case in point.

You see, after the famous Council of Nicaea, there were nineteen regional synods, all of which continued the homoousion debate. Some of these assemblies upheld the definition of Nicaea, and others rejected it. Still others tried to chart viæ mediæ or offer up new alternatives. Finally there was an empire-wide council, backed fully by Emperor Constantius, which made the Homoian (neo-Arian; also Homœan) creed the official confession for the Roman Empire. For 21 years, this creed was, while always disputed in portions of the empire, the ecumenical statement of faith. It would not finally be rebutted until what is now known as the second ecumenical council at Constantinople, the council which produced the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The warring synods and confessions can be listed as follows:

325, The Great Council of Nicaea
Arius is condemned and homoousios is put into the creed.
335, The Synod of Tyre
Athanasius is first condemned.
335, The Synod of Jerusalem
The first of the “Arian” councils, this synod asks for Arius to be reinstated to Christian communion.
339, Synod of Antioch
Athanasius is again condemned.
340, Synod of Rome
Athanasius is restored and proclaimed to retain episcopal authority.
341, Synod of Antioch
Anti-Nicenes react and draft a new creed, the “Dedication Creed.”
343, General Council of Serdica
Failed attempt at reconciliation between Pro-Nicenes and Anti-Nicenes.
347, Council of Milan
Valens and Ursacius are restored to their sees.
351, 1st Synod of Sirmium
The “Dedication Creed” is adopted.
353, Synod of Rome
Athanasius is again restored to his see.
353, Synod of Arles
Athanasius is again condemned.
355, Synod of Milan
Athanasius and his supporters are again condemned and banished.
356, Council of Beziers
Hilary of Poiters is exiled for his excommunication of Saturninus, Valens, and Ursacius.
357, Council of Sirmium
The “Blasphemy” is first written which explicitly excludes the homoousios.
358, Synod of Ancrya
Homoiousians reject Anomeanism.
359, Council of Sirmium
The “Dated Creed” is written.
359, Council of Seleucia
Homoians adopt the “Dated Creed.”
360, Council of Arminium
Western Bishops reject the “Dated Creed,” but their later delegates are later persuaded to adopt the conclusion of Seleucia.
360, Council of Constantinople
With Constantius presiding, the conclusion of Seleucia is adopted as the official creed of the Roman Empire.
360, Synod of Paris
Led by Hilary of Poitiers, the Western Bishops condemn Homoianism and vindicate Athanasius.
362, Synod of Alexandria
Led by Athanasius, the Egyptian Church condemns Homoianism and confesses again the homoousios.
381, Ecumenical Council of Constantinople
Under the new imperial leadership of Theodosius, Nicæa is reaffirmed and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed is composed. Homoousios is vindicated.

We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of those 21 years when neo-Arianism seemed to carry the day. During that stretch of time, the official confession of the Roman Empire was that the Son was like the Father, but not necessarily of the same substance. This little-known position, seen as a sort of “middle way” in its day, was known as Homoianism. While Athanasius and other pro-Nicene theologians were happy to continue to simply call it “Arianism,” the Homoians thought of themselves as quite sophisticated and the true “big tent” theologians.

You see, the triumph of Nicaea was short-lived. Alexander and Athanasius had managed to get approval for the term homoousios, that the Son was of the same substance as the Father, but shortly after Nicaea, Athanasius fell out of political favor. Those who wanted to affirm homoiousios, that the Son was of similar substance with the Father, were always in better political favor, especially since Eusebius had such a close relationship with Constantine. After Constantine’s death, the political landscape was thrown into turmoil, and the favored party would shift from the Homoiousians to the Eunomians and then back to the Homoousians and then back again.

In a move not wholly unlike that of modern-day social Trinitarians, the Homoians claimed to simply avoid the quarrelsome philosophical problem altogether. Instead of debating whether the Son was of the same nature as, a like nature with, or a different nature from the Father, good Christians could simply omit any use of the term ousia. Simply affirm that the Son was “like” the Father, and all would be well. This was the theology that seemed most reasonable to Emperor Constantius, and it was what he enforced as the ecumenical confession. There was always significant dissent to this settlement, of course, but it cannot be overly stressed that such dissent was in the political minority for 21 years.

It was not until Theodosius assumed the throne and backed the Nicene party that the homoousious could again become the symbol of orthodoxy. Between the Council of Constantinople in 360 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, the creed of Nicaea was an outsider. It may have been a prophetic outsider (and true!), but it was an outsider nonetheless. And it should be obvious to say that this truth is of more than academic value.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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