The Homoians: Proto-Protestants of the Post-Nicene Era

‘Homoian’ is a term used for those who subscribed to the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity formulated by the ecumenical councils of Arminium and Seleucia, which were held in 359 AD in an attempt to resolve the ongoing doctrinal controversies of the fourth century. Their theology and practice is marked by several noteworthy traits shared in common with later Protestantism:

1) The translation of the Bible into the vernacular: Ulfilas, the ‘missionary to the Goths’, a prominent Homoian, translated nearly the entirety of the holy scriptures into the ancient Gothic tongue. Martin Luther was not the first to translate the scriptures into a vernacular German language for use by the people.

2) Sola scriptura: The ancient Homoians repeatedly appealed to scripture as the authoritative source of doctrinal knowledge; not merely as one source of many, or one on equal footings with councils, but as the ultimate and only ordinary source from which legitimate Christian doctrine and practice could be known. Bishop Maximinus makes clear, for example, that the Homoians held the council of Arminium to be authoritative as a subordinate authority to the holy scriptures. “I wanted the decree of the Council of Ariminum to be present, not to excuse myself, but to show the authority of those fathers who handed on to us in accord with the divine scriptures the faith which they learned from the divine scriptures.” (Debate with Augustine)

3) That scripture can offer a corrective to errors made by ecumenical councils and popes: This really falls under sola scriptura as well, but it is such a noteworthy point that it really deserves special emphasis. The Homoian councils of Arminium and Seleucia ruled that while the fathers as the council if Nicea thirty-four years earlier had intended the extra-biblical language of ‘co-essentiality’ to have a biblical meaning, the introduction of such ambiguous, ill-understood, and extra-scriptural language had proved too problematic to retain it as dogma. The mistake of the first ecumenical council would be rectified on a scriptural basis:

“But the word ‘substance,’ which was too simply inserted by the Fathers, and, not being understood by the people, was a cause of scandal through its not being found in the Scriptures, it has seemed good to us to remove, and that for the future no mention whatever be permitted of the ‘substance’ of the Father and the Son. Nor must one ‘essence’ be named in relation to the person of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And we call the Son like the Father, as the Holy Scriptures call Him and teach; but all the heresies, both those already condemned, and any, if such there be, which have risen against the document thus put forth, let them be anathema.” (Council of Arminium)

And so we see that a concern of the Homoians was that the church’s dogma be simple enough to be easily understood by the average Christian, as the ancient rule of faith was, and that it not be allowed to become so complicated and esoteric by the introduction of difficult philosophical terms that the average Christian could have no meaningful comprehension of the church’s doctrine.

It is noteworthy here that the fact that the language of Nicea is foreign to scripture is cited as a major aspect of why it should be removed, and replaced with a confession that was indisputably biblical. According to the Homoians, such vague expressions as those of Nicea, when they are ill-understood, need not be retained, even though the have the authority of an ecumenical council behind them. The endorsement of an ecumenical council was not enough to put the ‘homoousian’ articulation of the Trinity beyond question; when the language became a problem, it could be jettisoned, because a council was not enough to make the matter indisputable. Scripture was the standard, and since the problematic terminology was not given in the scriptures, it need not be retained when it had outlived its usefulness. Such an attitude towards the dogmas of councils clearly prefigures that of later Protestantism.

While the issue of the Pope’s opinion does not seem to have factored as heavily into these fourth-century disputes as it would in the Reformation, its noteworthy that the Homoian councils of Arminium and Seleucia just as much implied that the Papacy had erred, as it did the council of Nicea. The papacy had strongly supported the Nicene articulation of the Trinity, and the Pope at the time adamantly refused to assent to the decisions of these Homoian ecumenical councils. Yet the Homoians did not see a problem with disagreeing with the Bishop of Rome; scripture was the authority, and the Pope’s opinion could safely be disregarded when it contradicted the scriptures and the best interest of the church. In this way too, the ancient Homoians prefigured later Protestantism.

4) The Homoians ended up separated from the ecclesiastical hierarchies of the Roman churches by no fault of their own: Like later Protestantism, the Homoian position was eventually condemned by a later council, that held in Constantinople in 381, which, despite being local rather than ecumenical in representation, is remembered by many as an ecumenical council. Those bishops within the church hierarchies that fell within the bounds of the Roman Empire who disagreed with the new Emperor Theodosius I’s effectively unilateral doctrinal decisions, were unceremoniously ejected from their episcopates, and replaced by others who would comply with the Emperor’s wishes. Those Homoians who found themselves within the expansive bounds of the Roman Empire found themselves forced to continue on apart from the Imperial hierarchy and the papacy, continuing to meet together for centuries to come in houses and private settings, living as a persecuted minority. Outside the bounds of the Empire, the established churches of the Vandals, Goths, Gepids, and other Germanic peoples continued to be Homoian. For centuries these often existed side-by-side with Roman churches, as these tribes conquered and settled the territories formerly belonging to the Western Roman Empire. Like later Protestantism, the institutional split between Homoians and the Roman churches occurred because the Roman churches wrongly excommunicated them, forcing them to continue on without the fellowship of the Roman hierarchy.

All in all its interesting to consider the many similarities that the Homoians had with Protestantism. This is especially so when we consider the reactive influence that these Homoian traits may have had on the development of the Roman Catholic church; the church that Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers faced was not one that had never dealt with these things in the past, which had never considered such a way of looking at the authority of scripture and councils, etc, but one which had already effectively rejected the Protestant positions on some of the most central issues of the Reformation (such as sola scriptura) some thousand years prior to the Protestant Reformation. It is a shame that Protestantism, instead of examining the theology of their Homoian forefathers, and recognizing it as biblical, have generally remained mostly ignorant of this history, and have generally looked at it from the perspective of the Roman Catholic church, rather than with sympathy for their fourth-century counterparts.

One thought on “The Homoians: Proto-Protestants of the Post-Nicene Era”

  1. Yes, and there are other major problems with the council of 381:

    – Non-nicene bishops were simply denied admission to the council while they represented a significant portion of the Church. Only those sympathetic to Meletius (a homoousian) were allowed to take part. So it’s not a big surprise that the homoousios camp would prevail, their bishops represented 99% of the participants…

    – Theodosius had already decreed that only the homoousios position would be accepted in the Empire (through several edicts). The council of 381 was essentially convened to justify what he had already decreed.

    – Even the bishop of Constantinople himself (Demophilus) had been expelled by Theodosius for his refusal to subscribe to the homoousion position just a couple of months prior to the council.

    It’s a shame those historical facts are largely ignored even by most theological nerds.
    Personally, I find them highly disturbing.

    Liked by 1 person

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