"Homoousios" (of the same substance)
In the 4th century AD the church was embroiled in a bitter
controversy over the nature of Christ, and his relationship to the Father. A
pastor and teacher named Arius believed and taught what came to be called
Arianism: that God was greater than His Son, as a father must be superior to a
son, and that the Son in turn had a literal beginning -- thus, that he did not
exist from all eternity, as had his Father. In general outline, at least, this
was much closer to the truth of the Bible than were the "orthodox" views of the
time -- which should be considered the beginnings of the formulation of the
false doctrine of the Trinity.
While the whole content of the Arian position was condemned by
the orthodox church, the terms of the debate turned upon two very similar Greek
words: "homoousios" and "homoiousios". The difference was that the second word
had one letter added, an iota. But the difference in meaning was very
significant. The supporters of Arianism claimed that the Son was subordinate to
the Father, who was the one true God. Thus they believed the Son was 'like or
similar in substance' ["homoi" = similar] to the Father, but not identical. The
word they used to denote the SIMILAR (but not exact) substance was
However, the Council of Nicea selected the word "homoousios"
for what came to be called the Nicene Creed. [See Lesson,
Nicene Creed] This word means 'of one or the same substance'; thus
the Church insisted on the essential and absolute unity of the Father and the
Son; in English translation: "And [I believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the
only-begotten Son of God... being OF ONE SUBSTANCE with the Father..."
[The actual words, "homoiousios" and "homoousios", do not
appear in the text of the NT. The root word, "ousios", does occur -- but only
twice: in Luke 15:12,13, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, where it signifies
the possessions of the father, and the inheritance of the son. It is derived
from the verb "to be", and thus seems to suggest -- very fundamentally (but also
very vaguely and flexibly) -- what one is or what one has. (It may have been
this very vagueness, as applied to what God the Father and His Son share, that
commended this word and its derivatives to the different camps of
Thus the only difference in the two terms was the Greek letter
iota (similar to the English letter i) between the two halves of the words; this
significantly changed the meaning of the first part of the word -- either "homo"
(the same or identical) or "homoi" (similar). Later this doctrine summarized in
"homo-ousios" was expanded to teach, even more fully, the one substance of the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit -- ie the Trinity!
Arianism Versus the Council of Nicaea
The Church emerged in a world which reflected both Jewish and
Greek values. One question occupying this non-Christian world was the contrast
between the "One and the Many, between the ultimate unity that lay behind the
visible universe and the incalculable variety that exists in the world" (Ward
1955, 38). In short, philosophers were already questioning and seeking to
understand the relationship between a Creator-God and the world which He had
The Jews believed in one unique and supreme God who created by
His word. They generally saw this "Word" as an Eternal Wisdom from the one God
-- the Word which He pronounced in the beginning, or the Wisdom which He
created. Thereby the Father communicated Himself to man (Guitton 1965, 81).
The Greeks, on the other hand, could not see how a finite and
changeable world could come from an eternal and changeless God. They proposed
the idea of a "mediating Intelligence, a first emanation of the first principle
which reduced the distance between God and the world" (Guitton 1965, 81) -- a
sort of semi-God who bridged the gap between a perfect God and an imperfect
The Church, as it developed its teachings, felt the need to
"reconcile the notions they had inherited from Judaism with those they had
derived from Greek philosophy. Jew and Greek had to meet in Christ. They sought
to find an answer that would agree with the revelation they had received from
Christ as recorded in the scriptures" (Ward 1955, 39). (It may be observed that,
as more time passed, the official Church and its teachings got further and
further from this presumed purpose.) This struggle for a reconciliation of
thought reached one climax with the Arian controversy. The Church responded with
the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea that sought to bring together Scriptural
and philosophical thought to explain the "Trinity". The Council did triumph over
Arianism but only after fifty years of bitter battling. Imperial support (which
wavered back and forth) as well as confusion in theological terminology (which
included difficulties in translating complex terms from Greek to Latin, and vice
versa) were the principal reasons for such a long drawn-out battle.
Arius and His Teaching
Arius, who was born in Egypt in 256 AD, was a parish priest in
Alexandria. He had studied under Lucian of Antioch, the founder of the school of
Antioch, who had earlier been condemned for holding that Christ was only a man;
although he was later reconciled. Lucian is called the "Father of Arianism"
because "Arius and almost all the 4th-century Arian theologians were his
students. Calling themselves Lucianists and Collucianists, they developed his
subordinationist tendencies into a full heresy" -- so writes a Catholic
historian (Harkins 1967, 1057,1058). (Of course, "subordinationist" tendencies
might properly describe just what Christadelphians believe today: ie, that Jesus
was a begotten Son and thus subordinate, or subject, to his Father.)
With this background Arius struggled with the question of the
Trinity. His teaching in Alexandria was as follows: "Personal distinctions were
not eternally present within the nature of God... the Godhead Himself was
responsible for them... Identifying the eternal Godhead with the Father and
regarding the Logos as no more than a power or quality of the Father, Arius said
that before time began the Father had created the Son by the power of the Word
to be His agent in creation. The Son was not therefore to be identified with the
Godhead. He was only God in a derivative sense, and since there was a time when
he did not exist he could not be eternal. Arius stressed the subordination of
the Logos to such an extent as to affirm his creaturehood, to deny his eternity
and to assert his capacity for change and suffering" (Ward 1955, 41). This
teaching of Arius "drove the distinctions outside the Deity and thus destroyed
the Trinity. It meant solving the difficulty of the One and the Many by
proposing a theory of one Supreme Being and two inferior deities" (Ward 1955,
43). The Person of Christ "belonged to no order of being that the Church could
recognize... He was neither God nor man" (Ward 1955, 42). [It ought to be noted
here that, while Arius denies the teaching of the Trinity, as described by the
pro-Catholic historians above, his view of Christ's "creation" and involvement
in the literal creation of the world were certainly not scriptural
Arius versus the Alexandrian bishop
Arius' views began to spread among the people and the
Alexandrian clergy. Alexander the bishop called a meeting of his priests and
deacons. The bishop insisted on the unity of the Godhead. Arius continued to
argue that, since the Son was begotten of the Father, then at some point he
began to exist. Therefore there was a time when the Son did not exist. Arius
refused to submit to the bishop and continued to spread his teaching. Alexander
called a synod of bishops of Egypt and Libya. Of the hundred bishops who
attended, eighty voted for the condemnation and exile of Arius. After the synod
Alexander wrote letters to the other bishops refuting Arius' views. In doing so
the bishop Alexander used the term "homoousios" to describe the Father and Son
as being of one substance. This term "was to become the keyword of the whole
controversy" (Ward 1955, 43,44).
With the decision of the synod Arius fled to Palestine. Some
of the bishops there, especially Eusebius of Caesarea, supported him. From here
Arius continued his journey to Nicomedia in Asia Minor. The bishop of that city,
also named Eusebius, had studied under Lucian of Antioch. He became Arius' most
influential supporter. From this city Arius enlisted the support of other
bishops, many of whom had studied under Lucian. His supporters held their own
synod, which found Arius' views to be correct, and condemned Bishop Alexander of
Alexandria. Arius seemed to have good grounds for this condemnation. The term
"homoousios" was rejected by Alexander's own predecessor Dionysius when arguing
against the Sabellians (a group who claimed the Father and Son were absolutely
All this controversy was taking place just as the Church was
emerging from Roman oppression -- so that Imperial involvement in these matters
would add more twists and turns to future events.
Constantine and Ossius
With the rise of Constantine to power, Christianity became the
religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine had politically united the Empire but
he was distressed to find a divided Christianity. Constantine, who most
certainly did not understand the full significance of the controversy, sent
Ossius his main ecclesiastical adviser with letters to both Alexander and Arius.
In the letters he tried to reconcile them by saying that their disagreement was
merely a matter of words. He felt that both of them really were in agreement on
major doctrines and neither were involved in heresy. The letters failed to have
any calming effect.
In 325 AD Ossius presided over a Council of the Orient in
Antioch that was attended by 59 bishops, 46 of whom would soon attend the
Council of Nicaea. This Council in Antioch was a forerunner of the latter
Council in Nicaea. Under the influence of Ossius a new Church practice was
inaugurated -- that of issuing a creedal statement. At this Council Arianism was
condemned, a profession of faith resembling the Alexandrian creed was
promulgated, and three bishops who refused to agree with the teaching of this
Council were provisionally excommunicated until the Council of Nicaea.
In the summer of that year, probably under the suggestion of
Ossius, Constantine called for a general council of the Church at Nicaea in
Bithynia. That an Emperor should invoke a Council should not be considered
unusual, since in Hellenistic thought he "was given by God supreme power in
things material AND spiritual" (Davis 1987, 56).
The Council of Nicaea
The General Council was well attended by the major church
leaders of the Eastern Empire. Some Western bishops were also present. Because
of old age and sickness, Sylvester the bishop of Rome (whom Catholic historians
call "Pope Sylvester"!) did not attend but sent two representatives. The total
number of bishops who attended the Council has been disputed. Eusebius of
Caesarea, who attended, claimed there were 250; Athanasius, also in attendance,
mentioned 300; modern scholars put the number at 220.
If there were minutes taken of the Council proceedings they
are no longer in existence. We know from the writings of Rufinus that "daily
sessions were held and that Arius was often summoned before the assembly; his
arguments attentively considered. The majority, especially those who were
confessors of the Faith, energetically declared themselves against [what they
called] the impious (!) doctrines of Arius" (LeClercq 1913, 45).
Concerning the Creed that was drafted at the Council,
"Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria and Philostorgius have given
divergent accounts of how this Creed was drafted" (DeClercq 1967, 792). But it
appears, from one reconstruction of the events, that Eusebius of Nicomedia
offered a creed favorable to Arian views. This creed was rejected by the
Council. Eusebius of Caesarea proposed the baptismal creed used in Caesarea.
Although accepted it does not seem to form the basis of the Council's Creed.
Attempts were made to construct a creed using only scriptural terms. These
creeds proved insufficient to exclude the Arian position. [Of course they did!
How could Scriptural terms exclude a Scriptural idea?!] "Finally, it seems, a
Syro-Palestinian creed was used as the basis for a new creedal statement... The
finished creed was preserved in the writings of Athanasius, of the historian
Socrates and of Basil of Caesarea and in the acts of the Council of Chalcedon of
451" (Davis 1987, 59). When the creed was finished, eighteen bishops still
opposed it. Constantine at this point intervened to threaten with exile anyone
who would not sign it. Two Libyan bishops and Arius still refused to accept the
creed. All three were exiled.
The Creed and an Analysis
Some parts of the literal translation of the Nicaea Creed are
"We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and
invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that
is, of the substance (ousia) of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God
of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance (homoousios) with the
Father, through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth... Those
who say: 'There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was
begotten;' and that 'He was made out of nothing;' or who maintain that 'He is of
another hypostasis or another substance,' or that 'the Son of God is created, or
mutable, or subject to change,' the Catholic Church anathematizes [condemns]"
(LeClercq 1913, 45).
In case the creed was not enough to end the Arian controversy,
anathemas (official, formally pronounced judgments) were attached directly
condemning Arian positions (think of these as "doctrines to be rejected" by the
emerging Catholic church!):
- The Arian denial of the Son's co-eternity with the Father;
- The Arian
assertion that "there was [a time] when the Son of God was not";
- The Arian
assertion that "before Jesus was begotten he did not exist."
- The Arian
doctrine that the Son -- being a creature and not a creator -- was subject to
moral changeability and only remained virtuous by an act of the will; ie, that
"He is mutable or alterable" [Note: this seems to contradict an earlier
statement that Arius saw Jesus as one who assisted the Father in the actual work
of creation; thus this later statement is at least closer to the truth of the
- The Arian position that the Son was subordinate to the Father
and not really God, as expressed in the phrase "He is of a different hypostasis
A very important term used by the Council was "homoousios". At
that time this word could have three possible meanings. "First, it could be
generic, ie, of one substance; and could be said of two individual men, both of
whom share human nature while remaining individuals. Second, it could signify
numerical identity, that is, that the Father and the Son are identical in
concrete being. Finally, it could refer to material things, as two pots are of
the same substance because both are made of the same clay" (Davis 1987, 61). The
Council intended the first meaning -- so as to stress the equality of the Son
with the Father. If the second meaning for the word was taken to be the
Council's intention, it would mean that the Father and Son were identical and
indistinguishable -- this was a "heresy" even to the Catholic Church at this
point! The third meaning gave the word a materialistic tendency that would imply
that the Father and Son are parts of the same stuff.
The Council's defeat by Arianism
It is not surprising -- given the possible differences in
meaning of the word as outlined above -- that the Council by using the word
"homoousios" could be called into question. And of course, the need to translate
between Greek and Latin probably in some cases contributed to the confusion and
Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia gained the confidence of Emperor
Constantine. He convinced Constantine that the Council's use of the word
"homoousios" (suggesting that Father and Son were identical) was heretical. The
Emperor now favored the Arians. With the death of Constantine the Empire was
divided between his sons. Constans who ruled in the West favored Nicaea while
his brother Constantius who ruled the East was anti-Nicaea. Supporters of Nicaea
in the East -- especially Bishop Athanasius -- were deposed and excommunicated
by the Dedication Council of Antioch. This Council directly attacked the Nicaea
Council by promulgating its own creed that omitted the phrases "from the
substance of the Father" and "homoousios." Some attempts were made to find a
substitute word for "homoousios". As many as fourteen Councils were held between
341 and 360 "in which every shade of heretical subterfuge found expression...
The term 'like in substance,' homoiousios... had been employed merely to get rid
of the Nicene formula" (Barry 1913, 709).
Not all Arians agreed with this new word, however. One group
emphasized that the Father and Son were in fact "not similar" -- or "anomoios"
(the "a" or "an" prefix signifying "NOT") -- while another group used the word
"similar" or "homoi" to describe the Father and Son relationship. [Thus at least
groups may now be discerned: the "Homo" (identical) group; the "Homoi" (similar)
group; and now the "Anomoi" (not similar) group!]
With the death of Constans in 350 his anti-Nicaea brother
Constantius became sole ruler of the Empire. The new Emperor demanded that all
the bishops of his Empire should agree with the homoios ("similar") formula. In
359 he summoned two Councils, one in the East at Seleucia and the other in the
West at Rimini. Both Councils, under the Emperor's threats and with
rationalizing arguments aimed at calming consciences, were induced to sign the
homoios formula. This "homoios" (similar) victory "was confirmed and imposed on
the whole Church by the Council of Constantinople in the following year" which
condemned the terms homoousios ("identical") and anomoios ("not similar") (Ward
1955, 57). Now it seemed that the Arians had triumphed over the Nicaea
The Final Battle
The seeming triumph of homoiousios ("similar substance") was
short-lived. First it gained its popularity solely by imperial imposition, and
with the death of Constantius in 361 it collapsed. Athanasius reasserted the
homoousios ("identical substance") position, and brought other church leaders to
the "realization" that the three Persons as God must share the same identical
In the West Ambrose of Milan led the fight for the Nicene
Creed. At the Council of Sirmium in 378, with the support of the Western Emperor
Gratian, six Arian bishops were deposed. A series of laws were passed in 379 and
380 by the Emperor which prohibited Arianism in the West.
The Council of Nicaea was victorious in the end. It took over
fifty years of bitter battling between the upholders of the Council of Nicaea
and those against it. The Arian "heresy" seemed finished when the Council so
specifically anathematized their teachings one by one.
Works Cited (essentially pro-Catholic publications):
[For a timeline, see Lesson, Arian controversy.]
- The New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1967. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, Vol 1:
Arianism, by VC Declercq.
- The New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1967. New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Co, Vol 8: St Lucian of Antioch, by PW Harkins.
- Davis, SJ,
Leo D. 1987. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and
Theology. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc.
- Guitton, Jean. 1965. Great
Heresies and Church Councils. New York: Harper and Row.
- Herbermann, Charles
G, Edward A. Pace, Conde B. Pallen, Thomas J. Shahan, John J. Wynne, editors
1913. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: The Encyclopedia Press, Vol 1,
Arianism, by William Barry.
- Herbermann, Charles G., Edward A. Pace, Conde B.
Pallen, Thomas J. Shahan, John J. Wynne, eds. 1913. The Catholic Encyclopedia.
New York: The Encyclopedia Press. Vol 11, Councils of Nicaea, by H
- Ward, DD, Bishop JWC 1955. The Four Great Heresies. London: A.R.
Mowbray and Co Ltd.