My post entitled “The Myth of the Ecumenical Early Church” was actually taken from a paraphrase of a paper I wrote while in seminary in 2007. As a part of the assignment, my paper had to present a “problem” in church history and leave the resolution open-ended. This was not intended to question the resolution or its integrity but instead to put the reader back into the historical situation as it occurred. Too much of our historical conversation is really post hoc in nature. We assume that the developments which we like were always a part of “the true faith” and those developments which we do not like were always “corruptions” or “distortions.” Sometimes this is demonstrably true. More often, it is entirely subjective, to be eventually backed by a later “official statement” (which statement itself is rarely free from dissent).
As Protestants, we at TCI have no theological quarrel with the Council of Nicaea or its theological heritage. Indeed, we fully embrace what is now referred to in scholarly circles as “pro-Nicene” theology. We do not do this because of the rulings of councils, however, nor of the subsequent “reception” of the doctrine in various ecclesiastical circles (for to do so would to locate the authority in those places). Instead we accept Nicaea because we believe its doctrine to be a faithful exegesis of the Holy Scriptures. We also have no problem admitting that Greek philosophy and post-Biblical doctrinal tradition were employed to articulate the pro-Nicene theology. This is to be expected and fully consistent with our own views of reason and revelation. This feature is important to note, however, because it also explains the nature of the early church debates. As Rowan Williams has shown, even the Arians could credibly claim the Alexandrian school for their own inspiration and as precedent. Despite what the great orthodox writers of the time said (and we do esteem them as great) it was not the case that the heretics sprouted up spontaneously with only evil intent. Instead the heretics typically took pre-existing Christian or Jewish tradition, combined it with certain philosophical rhetoric, and made better or worse use of church politics. And indeed, sometimes those initially labelled heretics were later vindicated, sometimes they were only partially vindicated, and sometimes they were posthumously denounced. Not a few remain somewhere in the middle. The wise reader today must be willing to take all of this into account and form a critical and prudent opinion of both the content of the doctrinal rulings, as well as the means by which they were achieved. And so in this spirit I reprint my 2007 paper.
At a synod in Constantinople in 360, under the guidance of Emperor Constantius, the Homoean creed of Seleucia became the official creed of the Christian Church. It rejected the term homoousia and banned all use of ousia in theological discussions about the godhead. This move also sought to overturn the earlier creed made at the great council of Nicaea, thus casting doubt on the boundaries of the Christian Church, as well as the orthodoxy of Athanasius of Alexandria. Constantius was able to effect such a major change, and indeed a grave blasphemy in the eyes of many, in part because of the role that the Emperor had began to play ever since his father, Constantine, sanctioned the council of Nicaea. Civil and political disruption had also earned Athanasius of Alexandria five different exiles, thus greatly reducing his authority in the Church. Nevertheless, his influence remained strong, and as the Arians and semi-Arians, more accurately termed Homoeans and Homoiousians, called council after council, the defenders of Athanasius and Nicaea continued to stand fast, rejecting all proposals for innovation. At least sixteen regional synods were called between the Nicaea in 325 and the Homoean synod at Constantinople in 360. This war of attrition, combined with the increasing hostility of Constantius, seemed to finally cow the orthodox bishops into submission. Despite the difficult climate though, many bishops remained loyal to Athanasius, among them the influential Hilary of Poitiers and Liberius the bishop of Rome. This study will seek to examine the events leading up to the Homoean synod of Constantinople in 360, identifying prior criticisms of Nicaea, as well as the political factors that could allow for what seems to be the defeat of Orthodoxy. How could the Church fall to such a low? Had the world indeed awoken to find itself Arian?
Athanasius of Alexandria took over the bishopric after the death of his predecessor Alexander in 328. He had been raised in the church by Alexander and won notoriety for his defense of the homoousios at the council of Nicaea. Athanasius was ordained at a very young age, and many of his opponents protested that his ordaination was invalid because he was under the canonical age of thirty. Athanasius reigned as metropolitan of Alexandria for nearly forty-five years, but spent seventeen of those years in exile. Having to defend his authority against Melitians and those whom he dubbed “Arian maniacs,” Athanasius was not above using force to maintain control. Indeed, some of his behavior certainly helped his opponents to condemn him on so many occasions.
Constantius was one of Constantine’s three sons and a semi-Arian (Homoean) sympathizer. Originally he ruled the Eastern third of the empire, with his two brothers Constans and Constantinus in the west, taking office after the death of Constantine in 337. But by August of 353, both Constans and Constantinus had been killed in battle, thus leaving Constantius the sole monarch over the empire. Constantius was always close with Eusebius of Nicomedia, the bishop who had baptized his father and been a long-time counselor. Athanasius’ earlier alliances with Constantinus and Constans also served to earn hostile feelings from Constantius, with even a charge of sedition being laid at Athanasius’ feet once. This politically charged atmosphere played a large part in controlling ecclesiastical affairs from the years between Nicaea and the eventual second ecumenical council at Constantinople.
Valens was the bishop of Mursa, and Ursacius was the bishop of Singidunum. These two bishops were prominent Homoeans who did much to oppose the Homoousian cause. They worked alongside Eusebius of Nicomedia, forming the core opposition to Athanasius. Eusebius of Caesarea was another key semi-Arian leader, but he died in 339, leaving a strong group of followers to continue his cause. All of these figures were termed “Arians” and “Arian Maniacs” by those who supported Nicaea, but these bishops protested that they were of higher rank than Arius, who was but a presbyter. They confessed that their faith was the faith confessed by the Catholic Church from all times, and thus they are more properly titled Homoeans, taken from the Greek “like.” Their primary distinctive was the opposition of all use of ousia or “substance” in reference to the godhead. Most of these bishops were from the East, and they often appealed to Constantius to obtain the requisite power to bring about their many councils. The exact content of their theology is disputed, as some supposed orthodox arguments could perhaps be made against using “substance” language in regards to the godhead. Origen had rejected the term years before for fear that it attributed materiality to the divine. The Homoeans could also appeal to the condemnation of Paul of Samatosota’s and his use of homoousios, the Church having deemed such a theology inherently Sabellian. Athanasius continued to claim that these Homoeans made Christ a creature, and with regard to Valens and the Eusebii, there seems to be some support for this charge.
Athanasius was privileged to have significant support from the Western Bishops, perhaps most notably in the figures of Ossius of Cordoba, Liberius of Rome, Hilary of Poitiers, and Lucifer of Cagliari. Ossius had served as a close confidant to Constantine and presided over the council of Nicaea. He was a long-time defender of the homoousios; however, he was also quite aged. He was said to be a centenarian by 357. Liberius was one of the more influential of Athanasius’ supporters, mostly due to the possession of the Roman see. Hilary won notoriety for his writings and defense of the theology of the Gauls in the East, while exiled there. Lucifer was perhaps the staunchest of supporters, going so far as to refuse to receive those who had previously rejected homoousios back into communion. Athanasius also had an Eastern ally in Marcellus of Ancrya, who unfortunately would later be condemned as a heretic. This proved to be somewhat of a liability for Athanasius, for it cast more doubt on his own orthodoxy, and it is to be noted that Athanasius never fully condemned Marcellus, even as he distanced himself from him personally and theologically.
The Council of Nicaea had been thought by many to have successfully preserved the essential equality of God the Father and God the Son. With the full support of Constantine it was the official creed of the empire, and the Arian controversy looked to be forever settled. This was most definitely not the way history would have it be. Ten years after Nicaea, Athanasius was condemned at the council of Tyre. The influence of both Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia was strong, and they were successful in bringing about this regional council. Eusebius of Nicomedia had been exiled for his refusal to sign the anathemas attached to the creed at Nicaea, but within a few short years he was restored to his see, even being granted the privilege of baptizing Constantine in 337. At Tyre in 335, and thus while Eusebius of Nicomedia was still in exile, Athanasius was condemned for crimes, not heresies, with the most memorable charge (and one that would be constantly resurrected) being that he had used violence in repressing schismatic churches. Athanasius fled Tyre, hoping to gain counsel with Constantine. Constantine was initially sympathetic to Athanasius, but when Athanasius’ enemies charged him with obstructing the grain trade in Alexandria, Constantine banished Athanasius to exile. Athanasius’ enemies would continually cite his condemnation at Tyre in attempts to discredit him theologically. Athanasius never accepted the validity of Tyre, due to the presence of secular powers at the council, but as many have pointed out, this seems starkly inconsistent with his own appraisal of Nicaea, wherein Constantine certainly held center stage.1
With Constantine now suspicious of Athanasius and the Eusebians with seeming ecclesiastical power, a string of councils began to be called in which the formula of Nicaea was called into question and even drastically modified. Athanasius was first condemned at Tyre in 335. A group of bishops sent from Tyre to Egypt stopped in Jerusalem for the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While there, they wrote a letter to Constantine, asking for the reinstatement of Arius to communion. Athanasius regards this as the beginning of the Arian councils.2
Constantine died in 337, and when his three sons were proclaimed Augusti, all the ecclesiastical banishments were ended. Athanasius thus returned to Alexandria. This sparked another synod called at Antioch in 339. Athanasius was again condemned, and so he fled to Rome to seek imperial support, as well as that of the bishop there. A synod was called in 340 where Athanasius was vindicated of orthodoxy and proclaimed to be the true bishop of Alexandria. His opponents in the East reacted to this news by calling yet another council in Antioch in 341. There they gave their own confession of faith in which Jesus Christ the Son of God is said to be the “exact Image of the Godhead, Essence, Will, Power and Glory of the Father.” Jesus is said to be “the first born of ever creature” yet he is not a “creature as one of the creatures.”3
With the church and empire again split and Constantius at war with Persia, peace became a necessity. In 343 Constantius called a council at Serdica, a town near the border of Constantius and Constans’ regions. Constans attended this council, defending Athanasius and the homoousians. This would of course lead to the later tensions between Constantius and Athanasius, as Athanasius could easily be seen as a political threat. All in all, the council at Serdica, what would have surely been deemed an ecumenical council, was a disaster. The Eastern bishops, upon realizing Constans’ support for the Westerners, refused to participate and the two sides never met as one body. Each side exchanged letters with attached demands. The Easterners wanted the condemnation of Marcellus, a condemnation first given at Tyre in 335 but overturned in Rome in 340, while the Westerners demanded that only one hypostasis or ousia be confessed in the godhead.
Though Serdica was a definite failure, its very existence is instructive for how the Church at this time viewed Nicaea. Though the Westerners were always in support of the theology of Nicaea, indeed confessing their firm allegiance to it, they were willing to turn to an alternative, if only in their minds “fuller” expression of the faith. Among the Westerners present were Ossius of Cordoba, Athanasius, and Marcellus, three of the most prominent defenders of the Homoousian position. They were not willing to grant the Easterners’ demands, and they continued to call them “Arians,” however, they were willing to come to some sort of new conciliar statement. Such was, of course, never to be.4
After Serdica, the competing parties hardened. A synod was called in Milan in 347, and the Homoean bishops Valens and Ursacius were restored to their positions. They would prove to be major antagonists to Athanasius. This synod is also significant because it represents the encroachment of Homoean sympathies in the West.5 Another synod was called at Sirmium in 351 in which the earlier creed of the 341 synod of Antioch was again adopted along with new anathemas. In 350 the emperor Constans was killed, and by 353 Constantius was the sole rule of the empire.6 This new climate gave the Homoeans a significant boost in both morale and influence.
More councils were called. Athanasius was again restored in Rome in 353, but quickly condemned again in Arles in 353. Another council was called in Milan in 355 and was dominated by Valens. Upon protest from Homoousian bishops that the church was bound to Nicaea, Valens uttered these famous words, “Whatever I wish must be considered church law. The bishops of Syria allow me to speak thus. Either obey or go into banishment.”7 At Milan Athanasius was again condemned and his supporters were sent into exile. Among them were Dionysius of Milan, Eusebius of Vercelli, and Lucifer of Cagliari. Around this same time Hilary of Poitiers was moving into a position of influence, and he began writing against the Homoeans in the West. He apparently excommunicated Saturninus, Valens, and Ursacius and for this he was himself exiled by a council at Beziers, presided over by Saturninus, in 356.
In 357 another council was called at Sirmium. Here the so-called Dated Creed was first written. It is also given the title “The Blasphemy of Sirmium” by Hilary. Athanasius called it the Dated Creed because it was the first creed to have a date ascribed to it. This allowed Athanasius to retort that the confession obviously did not date back to the earlier tradition, and thus it was new to its day. The Blasphemy of Sirmium rejected all use of the term ousia and claimed that the introduction of this term was to blame for the turmoil in the Church. Ossius of Cordoba was present at this council, and Hilary attributes the creed directly to him.8 Athanasius supposed that Ossius must have been tortured and forced to participate, while Eusebius of Vercelli opposed Ossius when he returned to Spain. There is much dispute over Ossius’ participation at Sirmium. It should be noted that he was quite old, over 100 years old at this time, and it could be the case that he was eager for peace and supposed that a simple omission of ousia could achieve this. It could also be the case that he was threatened with excommunication and feared what this would mean for Spain. Most Westerners, though certainly disappointed, continued to defend Ossius’ honor thanks to his many years of fidelity prior to 357.
In 358 a rupture occurred between the anti-Nicene party. The Homoiousians became distinct from the Homoeans, and both condemned the Anomeanism of Aeitius and Eunomious who dared to say that the Son was of an “unlike substance” than the Father. Following this another ecumenical council was called by Constantius with hopes of finally achieving a new creed. The original desire was to hold the council at Nicomedia, but an earthquake in the area raised fears of the judgment of God. Another plan was to have the council meet at Nike, with the intention of creating a new creed of Nice (Nicaea). This too was not to be.
A council met at Sirmium in 358. It was lead by Basil of Ancyra, Valens, Ursacius, and George of Alexandria, the Homoean rival bishop to Athanasius. The council adopted the Dated Creed of 357 (“the blasphemy”) and greatly influenced the proceedings that would come at Seleucia. There was still no empire-wide agreement though, and thus Constantius still desired an ecumenical council. The eventual result was a calling of joint councils with Easterners meeting at Seleucia in 359 and Westerners meeting in Arminium in 360. Much like the earlier attempt at Serdica, the Easterners were mostly anti-Nicene and the Westerners were mostly pro-Nicene.
The Easterners at Seleucia adopted the earlier conclusion of Sirmium in 358, however they omitted the phrase “in all things” after “like” in reference to Jesus’ relationship to the Father. All ousia language was forbidden, and thus a decidedly Homoean creed was composed. Hilary of Poitiers was present at this council, as he was exiled to the East. He refused to participate in what he no doubt considered to be a rejection of the faith; however, he was called upon to defend the orthodoxy of the Gauls. In this he was successful, but this success would be bittersweet as any acceptance by Homoeans immediately cast doubt on true Nicene orthodoxy.
The Western council at Arminium was more complex. Valens appeared and unveiled the Dated Creed which Seleucia had adopted, and it was rejected out of hand. Indeed the delegates forbade any additions to the Creed of Nicaea as well as the deletion of ousia. Some delegates were sent to Nike where they were influenced, upon news of the results of Seleucia, to remove ousia from the creed. The majority at Arminium protested, and most of the early church historians defend the orthodoxy and intentions of the delegates there. Arminium sent 10 delegates to the emperor in Constantinople with a letter confessing the Nicene faith and an anathema of Arius and his supporters. The minority party, as well as the Eastern Bishops from Seleucia also sent 10 delegates, who, upon separation from the rest of the orthodox bishops, were able to persuade the pro-Nicene delegates to again adopt the Seleucian conclusion.
When the delegates from Arminium arrived in Constantinople, Constantius was already prepared to adopt the conclusion of Seleucia. The conclusion was a Synod of Constantinople in 360 where Constantius forcefully enacted the modified Dated Creed. This effectively made a Homoean creed the official confession of the imperially church. All use of ousia was forbidden, and in the eyes of the pro-Nicene, Arianism had triumphed.
The Synod of Constantinople in 360 was controversial to say the least. It had effectively replaced Nicaea as the official creed of the empire, but the Pro-Nicene party was still very significant in size and influence. Subsequent regional synods in Paris and Alexandria would reject Constantinople’s ruling, and Hilary and Athanasius wrote several treatises condemning Arianism. The status of the Church and its creed would be unstable for the next twenty years, and it is important to remember that there was no established precedent for creedal authority at this point. Constantine could claim divine inspiration for Nicaea, but Constantius could just as easily claim it for himself and Constantinople, noting the myriad of councils between the two. The Homoeans could now legitimately appeal to authority for their position, but Athanasius would always retort that Arian bishops are only bishops over other Arians.
The Church was in seeming disarray. Beyond the question of Nicaea’s authority, the very divinity of Christ was called into question by the Homoean dominance, and the situation seemed to be incapable of resolve. Should the orthodox finally submit to the wishes of emperor and “church” (as it would no doubt be claimed) or should they continue to fight, risking excommunication and death? What would it take to reclaim the earlier confession of the true deity of Jesus Christ and his consubstantiality with the Father? What was the Christian Church to do to secure its future?
Thus ends my historical paper. We know how history unfolded. The pro-Nicene party continued to fight for its position, sometimes both spiritually and physically. The Cappadocians in particular were able to mount a spirited defense of Nicaea, and eventually, with the aid of Theodosius I, the pro-Nicene theology achieved lasting victory.
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Ayres, Lewis. Nicaea and Its Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
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- Lewis Ayres comments, “The argument is a strange one: those councils were appropriately constituted, and, one might say, were so on the basis of Nicaea’s own insistence that regular provincial meetings be held. Having seen the story of Nicaea itself it is difficult to typify Tyre as not truly a council because of imperial support and involvement! Athanasius’ argument demonstrates the difficulties inherent in arguing for the superiority of any one council at this point in the fourth century.” (Nicaea and Its Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, 108)
- De Synodis 21-22
- De Synodis 23
- The Council of Serdica in 343 also shows the folly of attributing the terms “Eastern” and “Western” to the competing theologies of the Church at this time. Among the “Westerners” at Serdica, one would find Athanasius of Alexandria and Marcellus of Ancrya. The “Easterners” would, of course, have the unfortunate stigma of being Arian and semi-Arians.
- This again shatters any validity in an East/West theological distinction at this time.
- The political history at this time is difficult to reproduce. Originally the empire was divided into thirds, with Constans and Constantinus ruling in the West. Constantinus invaded Constans’ territory and was killed, and his name was subsequently erased from the historical records. Even Athanasius has to modify his letters, removing Constantinus’ name.
- C. F. Borchardt, Hilary of Poitiers’ Role in the Arian Struggle. Marintus Nijhoff, 1996. 23.
- De Synodis 11