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.

The Creed of Ulfilas

Ulfilas, also known as Wulfia, was an important missionary to the Goths in the fourth century. Having been raised among the Goths as the child of captives taken from within the Roman Empire, he came to Constantinople as part of a Gothic ambassador’s delegation, where he stayed for a time, and was educated. Whether he was already a Christian prior to this, or was converted during his time in Constantinople isn’t known. After being educated there, however, he was sent back to his people as a missionary, an endeavor at which he enjoyed great success.

The spread of Christianity not only to the Gothic tribes, but also to the Gepids, Vandals, and others, is often seen as a result of his missionary endeavors, which included a translation of most of the scriptures into the Goth’s native language.

Theologically, historians report that Ulfilias was Homoian in christology, having been present in Constantinople in 360 for the confirmation of the Creed approved by the joint councils of Arminium and Seleucia (which were considered to be the second ecumenical council at the time). He took this understanding of christology with him to the Goths, who along with the other barbarian tribes mentioned, continued to subscribe to this creed even after emperor Theodosius returned the churches of the Roman Empire to a homoousian theology in 381.

Towards the end of his life, in the early 380s, Ulfilas returned to Constantinople again to meet in council to condemn a heretical ‘arian’ view of Holy Spirit. There he is reported to have gotten sick and died. It is reported that he made this confession of faith:

“I, Ulfila, bishop and confessor, have always so believed, and in this, the one true faith, I make the journey to my Lord; I believe that there is only one God, the Father, alone unbegotten and invisible, and in His only-begotten Son, our Lord and God, creator and maker of all things, not having any like unto Him. Therefore there is one God of all, who is also God of our God, And I believe in one Holy Spirit, an enlightening and sanctifying power. As Christ says after the resurrection to his Apostles: “Behold I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem until ye be clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49) And again: “And ye shall receive power coming upon you by the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:8) Neither the God, nor our Lord, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son. And I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.”

The extra emphasis given to the Holy Spirit is probably specially directed against the heresy he was there to condemn. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is the only part of the creed in which he cites scripture at length, and he goes into considerable detail in noting that the Holy Spirit is neither “God” (that is, the Father), nor “our Lord” (that is, the Son), but a third distinct person, who is under the authority of the Son.

The Homoian theology of this creed is of great interest. Of special curiosity is the description of the Son as “not having any like unto Him”, which at first hearing sounds like a denial of the Homoian position in favor of a Eunomian christology. But in light of both the recorded confession of Ulfilas of the Homoian Creed of Arminium, and the continued vehemence the barbarian churches continued to affirm the decisions of these councils with, it is unlikely that the “bishop of the Goths” intended this as a denial of the Homoian position that the Son is “like the Father according to the scriptures”.

More likely this should be read in congruence with the Creed of 359, not as a denial that the Son, as the true “brightness of [God’s] glory”, “the exact representation of His person”, and “the image of the invisible God” is like the Father whose image He is, but should rather be seen as a positive assertion of the Son’s uniqueness as “only-begotten”. The Son, as the only being begotten by God, stands in a totally unique position between God and all creation; neither being unbegotten, as the Father is, nor created, as the creation that God made through Him is. So just as the Father’s ontological uniqueness is denoted by the confession of Him as being “alone unbegotten and invisible”, so the Son is also confessed to be ontologically unique, as the only-begotten Son of God.

This emphasis on the unique ontological qualities of the Father and Son serves to exclude modalism in any form, since this emphasis on personal uniqueness excludes the possibility that the Father and Son could be the same individual.

Also noteworthy is how this creed shows Ulfilas understood the concept of Godhood. Like in scripture, “God” is used in a relative way, denoting dominion and headship, rather than ontological essence or substance. This is interesting to see, as it stands in contrast with the dominant post-nicene western tradition’s tendency to understand Godhood as something ontological, rather than relational.

As such, the Godhood (dominion) of God over His Son is emphasized by referring to the “one God of all”, the Father, as He “who is also God of our God”, and stating that “the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father”. The Son is described as “our God”, again showing the relative nature of Godhood as dominion/headship in Ulfilas’s thought. Similarly, the Spirit is said to be “the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son”, paralleling the Son’s relationship to the Father as His God, in which the Son is “subject and obedient in all things to God the Father”.

A hierarchy of headship and dominion is then laid out in this brief creed, with the one God being defined as the Father, Who alone is God over all, even of the Son, Who in turn has authority over the Holy Spirit, and Godhood over man. This confession matches well with scripture’s teaching that the Father is the one God (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6), the Lord God “Pantokrator” (usually translated “Almighty”), meaning, ‘Ruler over all’ (Rev 4:8), Who “is the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3), the God of the Son (Rev 3:12), Who in turn has Godhood over all other things from the Father (1 Cor 15:28), even having authority over the Holy Spirit (John 15:26).

Also noteworthy in comparison to most other trinitarian confessions of faith is the notable absence of any confession of ontological essence or substance. As mentioned above, Ulfilas was Homoian, and therefore eschewed attempts to define the metaphysical ousia of the Son in relation to the Father. Thus Wulfia’s creed, like scripture, focuses on the attributes and roles of the persons of the Trinity, rather than attempting to define Their metaphysical essence(s?).

As we have observed above, then, much of the brief creed’s attention is focused on the hierarchy of authority among the persons of the Trinity, as well as the causal distinctions between God, Who is unbegotten, and His Son, Who is unique in being only-begotten. The one ontological attribute of God that is noted stands out then, and deserves mention- that the Father alone is invisible. Also emphasized by Maximinus, the invisibility of the Father in contrast to the visibility of the Son was seemingly a point frequently made by Homoian trinitarians. This is better understood in reference to the Son being visible even prior to the incarnation, as, for example, when He was seen by Isaiah (John 12:41), and as the Angel of the Lord, rather than in reference to His humanity.

Again we must note the scriptural fidelity of Ulfilas’s confession, as the Father is repeatedly stated to be invisible in the scriptures (“No man can see me and live”, Exodus 33), while the Son is compared and contrasted with Him as “the Image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Noting the Father’s invisibility then serves as another way to distinguish the Father from the Son, contra modalism.

All in all, whatever deficiencies Ulfilas may have had in his overall theology, this creed is noteworthy at once for its fidelity to what scripture teaches as well as its relatively unique emphases for a fourth-century creed.