Significant Changes in Homoousian Creeds in the Post-Nicene Era

The ‘Homoousian’ fathers were those church fathers who during the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century favored the Greek word ‘homoousias’, to describe the relationship of the Son to the Father. This word was employed in this manner by the Nicene Creed, and was highly controversial. To understand why the word was controversial we must first understand that it was a philosophical term not understood the same way by everyone.

Secondly we must note that its meaning prior to the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century was effectively equivalent to the modern English word “being”. Just as “being” in English can  be used in significantly different ways, to indicate either a nature/genus, or an individual (such a “human being”), so ‘ousia’ could be understood to indicate an individual, or a nature shared by many individuals. Therefore, when initially introduced to theological discussion, the word “ousia” was actually used to indicate an individual, with Sabellius, an early classical modalist, using the term ‘homoousias’ (same ousia) to say that the Father and Son were the same person. Similarly, Paul of Samosata used the term ‘homoousias’ to portray the Son as a part of the Father’s person, and thus the same person, or ‘homoousias’. This idea, and the word itself, were therefore condemned by church council, which rather proclaimed that Christ was ‘heteroousias’ or a different ousia, that is, in this usage, a distinct person.

When the Nicene Council used the term to describe the Son’s relationship to the Father, it was intended by its authors to be understood differently. Now, instead of ‘ousia’ indicating person, it was intended to indicate nature. Athanasius and the Nicene Council intended the word as used in the Creed to communicate that the Son of God, as His true Son and not merely a creature, shares His Father’s divine nature, and has the same divine nature as He. Thus ‘homoousias’ was intended to mean ‘same nature’, not ‘same person’ as heretics had previously used it.

While the intention behind the Nicene council’s use of the word was a good and orthodox one, changing the way the word was being used, and using a word that had been condemned as heretical, understandably resulted in widespread controversy, with the vast majority of Eastern bishops opposing the usage of the word for these reasons. They initially proposed the term ‘homoiousias’ instead, meaning “like ousia”; this was largely motivated not by thinking that the Son’s nature was not the same as that of the Father, but out of concern that saying the Son was the same ousia would be to say that the Son was the same person; therefore, they would declare that the person of the Son was like the person of the Father by the term ‘homoiousias’. They agreed that the Son had the same divine nature as the Father, but viewed ousia the same way it had previously been used, as equivalent to person. Therefore, it was blatantly modalistic in their thinking.

To add further difficulty, some of those who supported the Nicene Creed and use of the word ‘homoousias’ actually did intend it in a modalistic way, such as Marcellus of Ancyra, who was condemned for teaching modalism. The heretical usage of the term, therefore, was by no means a thing of the past. Just as many homoousian bishops, therefore, suspected those who rejected the term of Arian tendencies, the majority of orthodox Eastern bishops likewise suspected those who favored ‘homoousias’ of modalism.

With all these difficulties surrounding the terminology of ‘ousia’, which is not used in scripture, it is easy to see why eventually the church opted to give up the language of ‘ousia’ altogether and simply say that the Son was “like” (homoi) the Father. This likeness was understood to include that the Son had the same divine nature as the Father, although He is a distinct person from Him. This language prevailed for some twenty years until emperor Theodosius I purged the church of bishops who would not accept ‘homoousias’, and insisted that the Nicene formula be the lone confession of the church. After these decisions were made by the emperor without the consent of the church, the emperor called the council of Constantinople in 381 to make his decision official for the church, those who disagreed with his decision not being allowed to participate.

The church was now wholly homoousian, and things quickly went in a modalistic direction, although this was not how men like Athanasius and Hilary of Poitier had intended the word. By observing Creeds accepted by the homoousians after 381, we can see how things changed over the next few decades.

Whereas the first two ‘homoousian’ creeds, those of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381, had both shared in common that they began by acknowledging “one God, the Father Almighty”, this important first article of the faith quickly disappears from later Creeds and confessions, despite the fact that this is not only the language and teaching of scripture, but was also the clear teaching of the ante-nicene fathers (see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty).

That the one God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, is an important point of Christian doctrine, and an integral part of classical trinitarianism as taught by scripture and witnessed to by the early church. But both due to semi-modalism’s emphasis on the “one essence”, or one divine nature shared by the persons as “one God”, as well as the association of the doctrine that ‘the one God is the Father in particular’ with Arianism, which had blended that scriptural truth with its errors, later Homoousian theologians greatly de-emphasized the church’s historic belief that the one God is the person of the Father in particular. Thus when we come to these creeds, we find a very lacking trinitarianism, and something that cannot be considered classical trinitarianism at all.

First let us examine an excerpt from the decision of the Council of Rome held in the same year as that of Constantinople, 381:

“If anyone shall think aright about the Father and the Son but does not hold aright about the Holy Ghost, anathema, because he is a heretic, for all the heretics who do not think aright about God the Son and about the Holy Ghost are convicted of being involved in the unbelief of the Jews and the heathen; and if anyone shall divide the Godhead, saying that the Father is God apart and the Son God, and the Holy Ghost God, and should persist that they are called Gods and not God, on account of the one Godhead and sovereignty which we believe and know there to be of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost -one God- or withdrawing the Son and the Holy Ghost so as to suggest that the Father alone is called God and believed in as one God, let him be anathema…

…This is the salvation of the Christians, that believing in the Trinity, that is in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and being baptized into the same one Godhead and power and divinity and substance, in Him we may trust.”

Much could be said on this. Let us note that there is a failure to identify the Father as the one God. The idea of doing so is mentioned only in respect to doing so in denial of the Son and Spirit’s divinity, which is condemned; yet that He is the one God, even while His Son and Spirit share His divine nature and have the same divine nature, is not explained. Not only is this significant change noteworthy, but we see that in place of the traditional grounding of monotheism, namely, the person of the Father as the one supreme uncaused Cause of all and one Supreme Authority over all, the grounding of monotheism is innovated to be the one common divine nature the persons share, and one lordship over creation They share (see Why Are We Monotheists?). Additionally, this is the among the earliest instances of a singular personal pronoun (“Him”) being used for the Trinity as a whole, or for the single divine nature the persons share; such language betrays the semi-modalism of the council.

In the previous centuries Rome had been home to multiple modalist bishops, such as Callixtus. Sabellius had been at Rome, as had Noetus. One must wonder from this and following developments if Rome ever truly supported an orthodox understanding of ‘homoousias’, or if they accepted it so readily during the fourth century controversies as a convenient way to express their own native modalism. Certainly this would not be the last step that Rome took to lead the church away from classical trinitarianism to semi-modalism, as the papal anti-christ later officially redefined the concept of co-essentiality in a semi-modalistic way in the Fourth Lateran Council.

Next we see the Creed of the First Council of Toledo (400 AD):

“1. We believe in one true God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, creator of that which is visible and invisible, through whom everything in heaven and on earth was created.

2. This one God also has one divine name – the Trinity.

3. The Father is not the Son, but he has the Son, who is not the Father.

4. The Son is not the Father, but is by nature the Son of God.

5. Also the Spirit is the Paraclete, who himself is neither the Father nor the Son, but proceeds from the Father.

6. Therefore the Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten, the Paraclete not begotten, but is proceeding from the Father

7. It is the Father whose voice is heard from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

8. It is the Son who said, “I came forth from the Father and I came into this world from God.”

9. It is the Paraclete himself about whom the Son said, “Unless I go to the Father, the Paraclete will not come to you.”

10. This Trinity is distinct in persons, of one substance, virtue, power and undivided majesty, unable to be differentiated.

11. Besides him there is no one else with a divine nature, neither angel nor spirit nor anything else of excellence which one ought to believe to be God.

12. Therefore, this Son of God, being God, born from the Father before everything, the beginning of all, made holy the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary and assumed true humanity from her without procreation through a man’s seed,

13. that is, the Lord Jesus Christ.

14. His body was neither imaginary nor did it merely have form but had substance.

15. And so he had hunger and thirst and suffered pain and wept and felt every kind of bodily hurt.

16. In the end he was crucified, died and was buried, and rose on the third day;

17. afterwards he spoke with his disciples;

18. he ascended to heaven on the fortieth day.

19. This Son of Man is also named the Son of God; however, the Son of God is God and should not be called a son of man.

10. We truly believe in the resurrection of the human body.

21. However the soul of man is not a divine substance or a part of God, but rather a creation which by divine will is imperishable.

Anathemas:

1. Therefore if anyone should say or believe that this world was not made by the omnipotent God and his instruments, let him be anathema.

2. If anyone should say or believe that God the Father is himself the Son or the Paraclete, let him be anathema.

3. If anyone should say or believe that God the Son is himself the Father or Paraclete, let him be anathema.

4. If anyone should say or believe that the Paraclete, the Spirit, is either the Father or the Son, let him be anathema.

5. If anyone should say or believe that the human Jesus Christ was not assumed by the Son of God, let him be anathema.

6. If anyone should say or believe that the Son of God as God suffered, let him be anathema.

7. If anyone should say or believe that the human Jesus Christ, as a human, was incapable of suffering, let him be anathema.

8. If anyone should say or believe that there is one God of the Old Testament and another of the Gospel, let him be anathema.

9. If anyone should say or believe that the world was made by another God that by the one of whom it is written, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” let him be anathema.

10. If anyone should say or believe that the human body will not rise after death, let him be anathema.

11. If anyone should say or believe that the human soul is a part or substance of God, let him be anathema.

12. If anyone should say or believe that there is another Scripture than that which the Catholic Church accepts or believes to be held as authoritative or has venerated, let him be anathema.” (Translated by GLT and PSAM- source )

Here we see again that the first article of the faith is neglected, and in its place, the Trinity is identified as the one God of Christianity. Rather than identifying the one God with the Father as scripture does, the one God is given the name “Trinity”. Modalism is ostensibly avoided by declaring that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not each other; the issue of making Them out to be a single person, which is the heart of the modalist heresy, is not directly addressed.

Signs of semi-modalism can be found in this Creed, but it is not as explicit as other authors such as Augustine make it. In points 10-11 of the Creed, we see the Trinity get identified as a “him”; which serves to illustrate that when the Trinity is made out to be the one God, conceiving of it as a person is soon to follow, for it is obvious that the one God is a person. The misidentification of the this person with the Trinity as a whole, rather than as the person of the Father as scripture reveals, is heterodox, and indicative of semi-modalism.

5 thoughts on “Significant Changes in Homoousian Creeds in the Post-Nicene Era”

  1. You write: “…the association of the doctrine that ‘the one God is the Father in particular’ with Arianism…”

    But in fact, just the opposite is true. Read Arius’ confession to Alexander, or Eunomius’ creeds in his apologies. Although Arius and Eunomius both, at certain points, will *refer* to God as “the Father,” they both studiously avoid *defining* God as “Father.” Naturally, because if God is *defined* as “Father,” then there can be no point in time, and no possible world, in which God is not a Father, and therefore no time or world in which there does not exist a Son. Hence, the Son turns out to be necessary and eternal, not created.

    Gregory of Nyssa points this out in his Contra Eunomius II.14:
    “…he [Eunomius] avoided using the name ‘Father,’ that so he might not include the Son in the eternity of the Father, so he avoided employing the title ‘Son,’ that he might not by it suggest His natural affinity to the Father..” But Gregory *defines* the One God as the Father (II.5):
    But let us examine the words that follow [in the creed composed by Eunomius]:
    “He is always and absolutely one, remaining uniformly and unchangeably the only God.”
    ***If he is speaking about the Father, we agree with him,*** for the Father is most truly one, alone and always absolutely uniform and unchangeable, never at any time present or future ceasing to be what He is [=*a Father*]. If then such an assertion as this has regard to the Father, let him not contend with the doctrine of godliness, inasmuch as on this point he is in harmony with the Church.
    For he who confesses that the Father is always and unchangeably the same, being the one and only God, holds fast the word of godliness, if in the Father he sees the Son, without Whom the Father neither exists nor is named [“the Father”].
    But if he is inventing some other God, besides the Father, let him argue alongside the Jews, or alongside those who are called ‘Hypsistians,’ [‘Most-High-ists’] between whom and the Christians there is this difference: That they acknowledge that there is a God (Whom they term ‘the Most High’ or ‘the Almighty.’) But they do not admit that He is the Father. While a Christian — if he believe not in the Father — is no Christian at all.

    You can see a similar dynamic going on in the deposition of Arius. Arius defines God as “the alone wise, the alone good,” yada yada. Alexander defines God as “Father.” And the first heresy listed that Arius is condemned for is not “there was a time when the Son was not,” but “that God was not always a Father, but that there was a time when God was not Father.”

    Thus, I think it’s not accurate to say that Arianism is (logically) or was (historically) associated with the claim that the one God is the Father. Rather, it is and was associated precisely with a *refusal* to identify the one God as “Father.” It was the Trinitarians (the Early or Classical Trinitarians, or what I call Monarchical Trinitarians) who identified the one God with the Father.

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    1. Certainly the association of the one God with the Father in particular was not something special to arianism. But as time went on, and things polarized between arians and homoousians in the post-nicene era, the homoousians effectively abandoned the doctrine in favor of the idea that the one God is the Trinity.

      That the Father is the one God can still be seen in the Cappadocians, but Augustine and others following him denied it, and eventual the whole western homoousian tradition came to reject it. On the other hand, the doctrine lived on among the “arianism” of the barbarian tribes outside the roman empire for a few centuries after nicea.

      My point was never that the identity of the Father in particular as the one God is truly arian or necessarily related to arianism, but that as time passed, that came to be the association, even though it is an illegitimate association, IMO.

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      1. Thanks for your response, Andrew. (And by the way, let me say for the record that I love this blog and recommend it often. It is nearly unique on the internet as a source of accurate information on the Trinity in the early church.)

        You write:
        “Certainly the association of the one God with the Father in particular was not something special to arianism. But as time went on, and things polarized between arians and homoousians in the post-nicene era, the homoousians effectively abandoned the doctrine in favor of the idea that the one God is the Trinity.”

        I think I understand what you want to say. But I think it’s misleading in at least a couple of ways.

        1. The debate between the Monarchical view and the Egalitarian / Symmetrical (quasi-modalist) view of the Trinity is precisely what was at issue in the Great Schism during the filioque controversy. Starting in sections 11-12 of St. Photios’ “Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit,” he argues that the filioque is incompatible with the monarchy of the Father. The creed of the anti-Photian council of 869-870 indeed gives a quasi-modalist creed (just as St. Photios predicted the filioque would lead to): “we declare our belief in one God, in three persons consubstantial, divine and autonomous, as, for example, we may look at the one nature of light in three suns not unlike each other or in the same number of dazzling objects. We confess, indeed, God to be one, unique in respect of substance, but threefold or three if we are speaking of him in respect of persons…” But in Photios’ council 879-880, they simply re-affirmed the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. This is precisely because Photios affirmed the monarchy of the Father.

        So it’s not accurate to say that “homoousians” (in general) abandoned the (monarchical) doctrine in favor of quasi-modalism. Rather, it’s that the *filioquists* did so.

        2. Although we, today, like to think of Arians taking the one God to be the Father and (semi-modalist) Trinitarians as identifying God with the Trinity, even acknowledging that early (Classical, Monarchical) Trinitarians *also* identified the one God as the Father is misleading. It is not *merely* that the Trinitarians identified the one God as the Father, it is that they identified the one God as the Father *in a far stronger sense* than the Arians did (if the Arians can be said to have made this identification at all). I think it’s important to note this, since modern-day Unitarians (Biblical Unitarians) like to imagine that they identify God with the Father. But note (as Nyssa, Hilary, and others point out), that on an Arian (or any other Unitarian) view, God cannot be *strictly* identical to the Father.

        If there was a time such that there was no Son, then there was a time such that there was no Father. But there is no time such that there was no God. So God and the Father do not have all the same qualities (in particular, they do not exist at all of the same times). So, they are not, strictly speaking, identical after all.

        You write:
        “That the Father is the one God can still be seen in the Cappadocians, but Augustine and others following him denied it,”

        I used to take this position, as do a lot of other Orthodox. I’m less sure now. Largely due to the sorts of things posted on articulifidei, which I know you are well aware of.

        “and eventual the whole western homoousian tradition came to reject it.”

        Definitely agree on that.

        “On the other hand, the doctrine lived on among the “arianism” of the barbarian tribes outside the roman empire for a few centuries after nicea.”

        This is one thing that I find interesting. As I note above, Arians have a difficulty consistently maintaining that God and the Father are *strictly* identical. Arius and Eunomius themselves avoided this by either (a) not using the term “Father” in their definitions of God (as in Arius’ Confession and Eunomius’ Expositio Fidei), or else (b) giving some traditional creed, but then going in and re-defining and re-interpreting everything so that “Father” no longer means a father (as in Eunomius’ Apology).

        But then you do have people like Wulfilas who use a traditional creed in which God is the Father. Of course, I’m not sure how philosophically sophisticated Wulfilas was. You may know more about that.

        “My point was never that the identity of the Father in particular as the one God is truly arian or necessarily related to arianism, but that as time passed, that came to be the association, even though it is an illegitimate association, IMO.”

        I agree it’s illegitimate. But, like I said, not only because the classical picture is *also* compatible with the one God being the Father, but because Arianism is *not* compatible with the idea.

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      2. Good to hear from you again.

        After pointing out the continued importance of a monarchial view of the Trinity in Eastern thought into the middle ages, you said “it’s not accurate to say that “homoousians” (in general) abandoned the (monarchical) doctrine in favor of quasi-modalism. Rather, it’s that the *filioquists* did so.”

        I concede that what I said was an overgeneralization, and apologize for that. Rather than regarding the abandonment of the monarchy of the Father as a broader homoousian development, it would be more accurate to view it as a development among western/latin homoousians.

        I am aware of a continued emphasis on the monarchy of the Father, and continued usage of the language of the Father in particular being the “one God” in the East much later than in the west- as you pointed out, Photinus, and also John of Damascus, do give attention to this point of doctrine.

        In the West, however, the doctrine that the one God is the Father was abandoned to “arianism” (which often was homoian trinitarianism being slandered under a dishonorable label) fairly quickly in the post-nicene era. I think the primary sources I cite in the article speak for themselves in showing that. This pre-dates the filoque controversy, and is more a deficiency in western homoousian thought than it is specifically related to the filoque.

        Concerning Augustine, I would recommend to you Augustine’s debate with Maximinus, a homoian, (https://contramodalism.com/maximinusvsaugustine/) if you have not already gotten to read it, as in it Augustine is confronted with the argument that the one God is the Father in particular, and rejects it in favor of defining the whole Trinity as the one God. IMO how Augustine argues in this debate proves that he embraced semi-modalism and rejected the monarchy of the Father (even if vestiges of it remained in his theology).

        In Christ,

        Andrew Davis

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      3. Thanks for the link to the debate between Augustine and Maximinus — I have not read that, but will go through it. From just the first little bit, it sounds like Maximinus caught Augustine on a really bad (grumpy) day!

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