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.

The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council

When doctrinal error is mentioned in respect to the Fourth Lateran Council, a number of issues could be brought up depending on what tradition is examining the council. Protestants reject its teaching on transubstantiation as error; Eastern Orthodox reject its teaching on the Filoque as heretical; the Oriental Orthodox would reject its Chalcedonian articulation of the hypostatic union. Everyone but the papists themselves takes issue with the council’s strong assertion of papal supremacy and authority (written, conveniently, by the Pope himself, as all the canons). But in this article, I want to draw attention to a lesser-known doctrinal error the council did much to promote: the anti-trinitarian doctrine of semi-modalism.

The Fourth Lateran Council is not primarily known today for its decisions regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. The thirteenth-century Papal Council, held in a Roman palace, dealt with a host of issues, including crusades, defining and officially confessing the doctrine of transubstantiation, the filioque, and papal authority. Yet its impact on trinitarian doctrine for Roman Catholicism is actually very great (the council is generally rejected by protestant and Eastern churches, as it took place after the Great Schism, and prior to the Reformation, with significant parts of its rulings being rejected by the Reformers).

The council’s importance to Rome’s views on the Trinity is primarily because of the council’s dealings with Abbot Joachim of Fiore’s treatise on the Trinity, in which Joachim accused Peter Lombard of teaching heresy in his famous Sentences. The heresy Joachim had in view was none other than semi-modalism. Abbot Joachim recognised that teaching that the Trinity was a single conscious thing who is the three real persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, is far different than scripture’s teaching of three distinct persons of one essence, and made efforts to draw attention to this departure from scripture’s teaching. He correctly pointed out that Peter Lombard’s semi-modalism effectively made the Trinity itself into a fourth divine person, ultimately to the destruction of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The bishop of Rome and the council he had called did not agree with Abbot Joachim’s assessment. His teachings on the subject were condemned, and the council affirmed the already well-entrenched error of semi-modalism as the official Roman Catholic belief, as they officially redefined the doctrine of consubstantiality to no longer teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one and the same divine nature to instead mean than the Father, Son, and Spirit were the same conscious “reality”- in concept, a person. They avoided the language of “person” for this reality, denying Abbot Joachim’s criticism that conceiving of the Trinity this way was to believe in a fourth person of the Trinity, since to admit such would be obviously heretical.

This equivocation on the terminology of “person” and on the subject of consubstantiality have continued down to our own day, as semi-modalists continue to follow the pattern of substituting out another word besides “person” for the singular, personal, conscious, rational reality that they teach is the three persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit. They call this “thing” the “essence” or “substance” which exists in the three persons of the Trinity, while originally the Nicene church fathers introduced this language not to indicate that a person was three persons, but to speak of the single divine nature shared by the three persons of the Trinity. This fact can be seen clearly from their own writings.

Hilary of Poitiers, for example, wrote thus:

“IV. If any one dares to say that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary: let him be anathema.

42. The fact of the essence declared to be one in the Father and the Son having one name on account of their similarity of nature seemed to offer an opportunity to heretics to declare that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary. The danger was met by the wholesome resolution that he who declared this should be anathema. For the unity of the name which religion employs and which is based on the exact similarity of their natural essence, has not repudiated the Person of the begotten essence so as to represent, under cover of the unity of name, that the substance of God is singular and undifferentiated because we predicate one name for the essence of each, that is, predicate one God, on account of the exactly similar substance of the undivided nature in each Person.” (De Synodis)

Even in the post-nicene period, this classical understanding of co-essentiality can be clearly seen in the Chalcedonian Definition when it says:

“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divine nature and also perfect in human nature; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the divine nature, and co-essential with us according to the human nature; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the divine nature, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the human nature…”

Notice Christ is said to be co-essential with man according to his human nature. This is consistent with an understanding of essence as a general nature considered in abstract, such as human nature, or the divine nature. Christ being co-essential with man literally means he is of the same human nature as all other men. By way of parallel, which is obviously drawn by the Definition, Christ is also eternally co-essential with the Father as His Son, in that He has from all eternity the same divine nature as the Father. This same understanding can also be seen articulated by Basil the Great (see: https://contramodalism.com/2018/01/12/basil-the-great-on-the-distinction-between-essence-and-person/ ).

In contrast, the idea that co-essentiality would somehow mean that the subjects were one “thing”, with its own real concrete existence, does not fit at all with the Chalcedonian Definition. Christ is co-essential with man- yet there is no real existence to the human nature considered in abstract. Human nature finds real existence in human persons; but considered in abstract, it is only an idea, lacking concrete existence. Yet if we apply the Fourth Lateran Council’s semi-modalistic re-definition of co-essentiality to the Chalcedonian Definition, this is exactly the way we must understand it. Yet clearly, this idea is nonsensical.

So we are able to see a medieval papal redefinition of co-essentiality:

“We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds.” (From Canon 2)

This redefinition of co-essentiality is erroneous, as it ultimately makes the Father, Son, and Spirit into a single person who is all three together. This doctrine is mutually exclusive to the classical doctrine of the Trinity taught by scripture and the orthodox church fathers of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene eras which is summed up in the Nicene Creed.

The Roman Catholic Church needs to abandon this grievous error and return to the classical trinitarianism contended for by such Western church fathers as Irenaeus of Lyons and Hilary of Poitiers. Those of other traditions should take heed of this error hidden among the historically more conspicuous problems with the rulings of the Fourth Lateran Council. We may be thankful that both Protestant and Eastern churches are free from commitment to the canons of this council, and thus are not, like the Roman Catholic church, bound to the error of semi-modalism in an official capacity by the ruling of the Papal council.