How Different Would Church History Look If the Nicene Creed Had Not Won?

In the trinitarian debates of the fourth century, many differing articulations of the doctrine of the Trinity competed with one another. After Arianism had been condemned not only prior to the council of Nicea by regional authorities in Alexandria and Antioch, but also by the first ecumenical council itself, debate over the Trinity continued. It centered much on the language of the Nicene Creed in itself; language which, at the suggestion of the emperor, had been included more for the sake of excluding Arianism, than for sake of articulating the church’s beliefs in a precise way.

This lead to prolonged controversy for the next 50 years surrounding he terminology of ‘homoousias’ or ‘same being’ in the Nicene Creed. The language had a history of association with both modalism and the gnostic heresies, which made it suspect; on top of that, bishops such as Marcellus of Ancyra, prominent supporters of the Nicene Creed, employed its terminology in a modalistic fashion. This is because ‘same being’ is vague; it can mean generically the same, that is, that two distinct individuals share the same nature, or it can mean individually the same, that is, that two persons are the same person, the same individual being. The usage of the ‘homoousias’, ‘same being’ by Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, and Marcellus of Ancyra lead to the conservative majority of bishops to rejecting the language of Nicea altogether, as not necessarily wrong, but at least wide open to a dangerous and heretical interpretation.

Alternative suggestions included ‘homoiousias’ which is ‘like being’, and simply ‘homoi’, which is to say that the Son is ‘like’ the Father, without reference to substance or ‘ousia’. In 359, two joint councils, considered ecumenical at the time and representing the churches of the entire Roman Empire, met and decided on the ‘Homoian’ formula, to remove the language of Nicea from the church’s dogma and simply state that the Son is like the Father. This was ratified at another synod at Constantinople in 360 and gained acceptance not only within the Empire, but also among the churches of many barbarian nations in Europe. Although these creeds were slandered as ‘Arian’ by the pro-nicenes, who had effectively lost for a time, the Homoian formula does not teach any peculiar tent of Arianism, but rather rejected it, and specifically left Arianism anathematized, again proscribing its doctrines.

In 381, some twenty years later, Theodosius I became emperor and enacted changes to the church’s doctrine again, this time establishing a modified form of the Nicene Creed as the church’s official dogma, and deposing any dissenting bishops, including the patriarch of Constantinople himself. After making his opinions law and enacting strict anti-heretical laws, he called a small council in Constantinople, at which his decision was approved of by some 150 bishops, the dissenting bishops being barred from participating. With this, the Nicene Creed became the dogmatic standard of the churches of the Roman Empire, and had remained in force to this day, even as those churches have changed and become the Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches of the modern world.

Its interesting to consider what church history might have looked like, had Theodosius never became emperor, and instead, an emperor who was willing to maintain the status quo -the Homoian theology of the Councils of Arminium & Seleucia- had taken the throne instead, leaving Nicea’s decision as a more obscure point of history, rather than a dogmatic standard. When considering such a scenario there are four things especially worthy of consideration:

1. Political Ramifications: The first thing of interest to consider is more to do with the environment the churches found themselves in than the churches themselves. The Western Roman Empire fell, in the end, to Barbarian invasion; the nations of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, and other smaller groups like the Gepids and Burgundians conquered the enormous area that once belonged to the Western Roman Empire. It was not long after the decision of Theodosius to make the imperial churches Nicene that incursions began to eat away at the Empire’s borders, until its ultimate collapse in the early sixth century.

All of these Barbarian tribes shared in common the Homoian theology articulated by the councils of Arminium & Seleucia; a faith which they had for some twenty years held in common with the churches of the Roman Empire. Once the changes Theodosius made went through, relations between the Barbarians and the Romans changed, however; the Romans saw the Barbarians as Arian heretics, and the Barbarians decried the heretical ‘Roman Religion’ of Theodosius. These sharp differences and the animosity they entailed made it that much easier for both sides to freely view the other as enemies, and subject to the cruelties of war. Had the Romans retained the Homoian theology they held in common with the Goths, it is possible that this common faith and cultural exchange that accompanied it could have drastically altered the course of Roman history; wars may have been less frequent; in short, the Barbarian nations may not have conquered the Western Roman Empire, or at least, not done so nearly as soon as they in fact did, had they continued to share a common faith, and so fostered friendly relations with one another.

Since the fall of the Western Roman empire is generally seen as having ushered in the dark ages of Europe, it is possible that by maintaining Homoian theology, the cultural losses of the dark ages could have been avoided, or lessened.

2. Ecclesiastical Unity: Some historians like to speak of an era of a ‘united church’; and they place the end of that unity at different points in history. The great schism in 1054 is often cited by Roman and Orthodox historians; others note a much earlier date can be found at the council of Chalcedon (451), which resulted in the separation of the Coptic churches, or Ephesus (431), which resulted in the separation of the Assyrian churches. But in fact, the first major split among national lines occurred in 381, when Theodosius returned the imperial churches to the Nicene Creed, thereby breaking communion with the Homoian churches among the Vandal, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, and Gepid nations of Europe. Had Homoian Theology remained the imperial dogma, it is quite possible that this period of unity would have gone on much longer.

This is not only true in respect to the schism of 381, as though schism at Ephesus in 431 would still be inevitable. For the later schisms at Ephesus and Chalcedon built upon a strictly Nicene theology; had this not been dogma, such later developments in dogma would have been nearly impossible, requiring to the churches to continue using the simple rule of faith as a dogmatic standard of orthodoxy, rather than perpetually adding more and more details to the dogma of the churches, to divide over. When we look the the Homoian churches among the Barbarians, we see that for centuries they continued on simply using the Creed of Arminium, never going through the intense, highly philosophical and speculative debates that the Imperial churches went through over christology. That likely has much to do with the exegetical and biblical, rather than speculative, character of Homoian theology. By sticking to a less-strictly defined, and less speculative theology, the churches of the Empire, like the Homoian churches among the Barbarians, could have been able to avoid the intense debates that led to so much schism in the following centuries.

Its also noteworthy that had Homoian theology been retained by the Imperial churches, the growing power of the papacy, which eventually lead to both the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation in 1517, could have been curbed. That’s because the papacy had been strongly pro-nicene throughout the conflict; and Homoians frequently flouted the claims of the bishop of Rome to have jurisdiction over them, maintaining their offices even after having been ‘deposed’ on paper by a pope powerless to enforce his rulings. Had they continued to hold many high positions in the church throughout the end of the fourth century, rather than being deposed, this may have severely limited the influence of the bishop of Rome on future generations of Christians.

3. The Threat of Arianism: Had the Nicene Creed never been reintroduced as a dogmatic standard, and the Creed of Arminium & Seleucia remained ‘orthodoxy’ for the imperial churches, would Arianism have widely prevailed? Certainly, this is the narrative given by many pro-Nicenes; for them, the Homoians were simply Arians in disguise. Such a narrative, however, avoids the expressly stated beliefs of the Homoians, who, at their councils, condemned Arianism. Maximinus the Homoian, in his debate with Augustine, complained of such misrepresentation by pro-Nicenes, and cited a canon of the council of Arminium condemning Arians christology:

“Do you want to know how great is the wisdom of the Father? Look at the Son, and you will see the wisdom of the Father. For this reason Christ himself said, One who has seen me has also seen the Father (Jn 14:9). That is, in me he sees his wisdom; he praises his might; he glorifies the Father who, one and alone, has begotten me, one and alone, so great and so good before all ages. He did not look for material out of which to make him, nor did he take someone as an assistant. Rather, in the way he knew, he begot the Son by his power and his wisdom. We do not profess, as you say when you falsely accuse us, that, just as the rest of creation was made from nothing, so the Son was made from nothing like a creature. Listen to the authority of statement of the Synod; for our fathers in Ariminum said this among other things, ‘If anyone says that the Son is from nothing and not from God the Father, let him be anathema.'”

The idea, then, that Homoians, on the whole, were Arian has no good basis in historical fact. Two issues remain to examine, here though; firstly, those Homoians who, according to the testimony of pro-Nicenes, were in fact Arian; and secondly, the tendency among Homoians to, while condemning Arianism, use the language of ‘creature’ for the Son (a hallmark of Arianism). Concerning the first point, it is indeed possible that such Arians existed; if, however, an Arian were willing to lie about his beliefs, and anathematize his own theology by subscribing to the decision of Arminium, why would he be any less likely to lie and hide his beliefs when the Nicene Creed replaced that of Arminium? It is difficult to see how changing the dogmatic standard of the church from Homoian to Nicene theology could have helped such an issue. As for the Eunomians, who said that the Son was unlike the Father, these were roundly condemned by the Homoians in 360 at Constantinople; and so any Eunomians, like the Arians, would have needed to lie in order to find acceptance under such dogmatic standards; and so, they could have done the same with the Nicene Creed.

Concerning the second point, it is noteworthy that while calling the Son a “creature” is not distinctly Arian. Inaccurate or otherwise, it had a long precedent in the ante-nicene church, such language being used in respect to the Son by notable theologians in the second and third century, such as Tertuallian and Origen. Such language can simply be understood to signify causation, without respect to the mode of it.

Finally it remains to frankly be said that a Homoian dogma would constitute a more friendly environment for Arianism than Nicene dogma; this is mostly due to how Nicene dogma developed in the following era, however, than what it meant when first championed by men like Athanasius. Since Nicene dogma quickly devolved into modalism, and modalism is even farther from Arianism than biblical trinitarianism, it is clear that it would be harder for people to make the leap from modalism to Arianism, than from Homoianism to Arianism. That does not, however, make Homoian theology less desirable; for going to the opposite heretical extreme of Arianism in order to avoid it, is no better than to fall into Arianism itself. Ultimately, while Homoian dogma would have been more favorable to Arianism than Nicene dogma, neither one was favorable to Arianism, and as far as anyone can tell, Arianism would have remained a small and strongly rejected heresy, regardless of whether the churchse’ dogma had been Nicene, or Homoian.

4. The Threat of Modalism: Finally we consider the threat modalism faced to the churches; this is one area where the difference in history would be very stark, in the opinion of this author. Many bishops warned, during the Nicene era, that the Nicene language of ‘same being’ was susceptible to a modalistic interpretation, and dangerous, as allowing such a reading, by taking the term in reference to the same *individual being*, rather than the same *generic being*. Once Nicene theology became again the dogma of the imperial churches in 381, the Homoian Vandals and Goths soon criticized the Roman churches for being modalistic in their theology; and indeed, we can see that they quickly embraced a form of modalism, with influential men like Augustine of Hippo paving the way for future generations to believe in a Trinity of persons united not by one generic nature, but by being one individual being.

The fact is, that without the Nicene terminology of ‘same being’ (homoousias) as a dogmatic standard for the churches, it is very unlikely that such modalism could have taken root in the churches. Such language had been banned from dogma by the councils of Arminium & Seleucia; and one of the greatest concerns of many Homoians seems to have been to avoid the modalist heresy. Had this remained the theology of the imperial churches, modalism would have remained the by-word it was in the ante-nicene era, rather than becoming the dominant ecclesiastical theology of the West, and much of the East as well at times. Modalism succeeded, fundamentally, thanks to the terminology of Nicea; and had this remained banned, Christian, rather than modalistic theology, would likely have remained the dominant position of the imperial churches. The creed of “one being” which is Father, Son, and Spirit became the life-blood of modalism through the middle ages and the Reformation; having allowed it to remain cut off from 359 onward would have deprived modalism of one of its greatest advantages in gaining ascendency in the ecclesiastical hierarchies.

It remains then, an interesting exercise, to imagine what might have been; a medieval  Europe built upon an enduring Western Roman Empire, with Barbarian allies to the North, united by a common Christian Creed; and a church characterized by the lack of an emperor-like Pope, the ecclesiastical schisms of later church history, and the modalistic theology of scholasticism. Such things, however, while interesting to imagine, remain mere fiction; and we must steel ourselves to bring about change in our own time, if we will see the errors of the past rectified. The tools we need to know the truth, and to publish it widely, lie at our fingertips, if only we are willing to make the effort to use them: firstly to fix firmly in our own minds a true knowledge of God, and His Son, and His Spirit; and then to make that knowledge known to our neighbor, for God’s glory, and the good of His church.

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