The Arian controversy in the fourth century was arguably the greatest theological controversy in the history of the church. As Protestants, we might think that the Reformation controversies of the sixteenth century were the most momentous. Without wishing to minimize their importance, however, the Arian controversy was greater, because it went deeper. The Reformers were arguing about how we receive the benefits of Christ; the men of the fourth century were arguing about something even more basic—who Christ is. Unless a right foundation is laid in the person of the Redeemer, little is gained in disputing about His benefits.
The Arian controversy was sparked, not by Arius himself, but by the outstanding Christian thinker of the previous century, Origen (185–254). Origen had fought vigorously and successfully against one of the gravest threats to the orthodoxy of the third century—Modalism (or “Sabellianism”, after one of its leading advocates). Modalism tried to solve the mystery of how God could be one God yet three persons by denying that there is any real, ultimate distinction between the persons of the Godhead. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are merely three different “modes” of one divine person—much as a single human person can have three different roles in life (a spouse, a parent, a business executive).
Origen, to his credit, vehemently resisted this collapsing of the persons of the Trinity into a single person with three “modes of activity.” He insisted that there were genuine, ultimate, personal distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit. How, for example, could Christ have a real, personal relationship with His heavenly Father if the two were actually the same person in two different guises?
So far, so good. But Origen muddied the waters quite ominously in the way he explained the distinction between Father and Son. Taking his cue from the Greek philosophy of his day, he argued that there were “degrees of divinity.” The Father possessed the divine nature perfectly, one hundred percent; but in eternally begetting the Son, this divine nature lost a degree of its perfection, like light becoming slightly dimmer when transmitted from its source. So the Son, although eternal and divine, was not quite as divine as the Father. The Son, as it were, possessed the divine nature 99.9 percent.
The church in the Eastern Greek-speaking half of the Roman Empire largely accepted Origen’s theology as a convincing response to Modalism. Certainly Origen had vindicated the personal distinctions within the Trinity. But his concept of “degrees of divinity” was more problematic, and was soon to be challenged.
Arius (256–336) was one of the challengers. A cultured and popular preacher from Libya, Arius stirred up a storm of contention in the Alexandrian church (the most important church in the East) with his attack on Origen’s legacy. There can be no degrees of divinity, Arius insisted. One is either God or not-God: either Creator or creature. In saying this, Arius was truer to the Bible than Origen had been. But Arius drew conclusions that outraged the orthodox. The Father alone, he declared, is God and Creator; the Son is but a creature, and therefore not truly God at all. Christ is simply the first and greatest of God’s creations, by means of whom everything else was created.
Origen’s bishop, Alexander (d. 328), was equally unhappy with Origen’s “degrees of divinity.” But he drew opposite conclusions from Arius. Alexander maintained that Christ was equal with the Father in possessing the divine nature. The Son is one hundred percent divine. What Alexander struggled to explain was how, on his understanding, Father and Son were not two gods. It fell to Alexander’s secretary, Athanasius (296–373), who succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria in 328, to lay the groundwork for an explanation that the whole church would embrace as enshrining the orthodox faith.
At first, those who confessed the deity of Christ (the majority) tried to deal with Arius and his supporters by disciplinary action. Alexander excommunicated Arius. When the Libyan preacher refused to lie down and die, his troublesome campaign against Christ’s deity was then halted by the great Council of Nicea in 325. This was the first “ecumenical” council of bishops and presbyters, which has nothing to do with the modern movement of the same name. Ecumenical comes from a Greek word meaning “the inhabited earth.” The Council, in other words, claimed to represent all Christians everywhere.
Arius suffered a profound defeat at the Council. Hardly anyone supported him. One bishop angrily tore up Arius’ confession of faith as blasphemous! Sometimes today the Council of Nicea is portrayed as “inventing” the doctrine of Christ’s deity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The overwhelming majority at Nicea saw itself as preserving the ancient apostolic faith against the vile innovations of Arius. After much discussion, the assembled fathers and brethren were persuaded that the best way to do this was to authorize a creed—known as the Creed of Nicea—as a test of orthodoxy.
This Creed crucially states that the Son is homoousios with God the Father. The term derives from the Greek word ousia, which could be variously translated “nature, being, essence, substance.” It refers to the innermost reality of a thing. Father and Son, the Council was saying, share the same innermost reality—whatever the Father is in the depths of His being, the Son is the same. Arius could not subscribe to the Creed, because the whole point of his theology was that Christ did not share the innermost reality of God the Father. One was divine, the other not; one was Creator, the other creature. So Arius found himself completely outmaneuvered at the Council, and deposed from the ministry.
That ought to have been the end of the story. Strangely, though, the church was to be rent asunder by the Arian controversy for another fifty years, some of the most exciting and scandalous years in her colorful history.
The continuance of contention was for two main reasons. First, a few Arians were skilled politicians, such as the wily Eusebius of Nicomedia (d. 342), and they gained influence in the imperial court. Having “Christian” emperors turned out to be a very mixed blessing. Indeed, a very different word springs to mind, as church and empire were cursed with a long series of emperors who backed the Arian heresy. This is the period from which we get the famous Latin tag Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world). Athanasius never really stood alone; despite the spineless grovelling of many bishops before Arian emperors, the grass roots faithful in the church remained largely loyal to the faith of Nicea. But Athanasius many times found himself fairly isolated among church leaders, and spent seventeen of his forty-five years as bishop of Alexandria in exile, often hiding in the desert, hunted by imperial troops.
The other reason for the duration of the controversy was that conservative opinion in the church, although utterly opposed to Arianism, took a long time to shake off Origen’s dubious legacy of “degrees of divinity,” and to accept the validity of the key term homoousios. Many objected because the word was not found in Scripture. Hard experience, however, eventually taught them that they had to use words and phrases not found in the Bible to explain what the Bible meant and to guard against Arian heresy. The language of the Bible would trip off the tongue of the most extreme Arian, and he would simply put his own heretical gloss on it. But no Arian—at least, no honest one—could subscribe to the homoousios of the Creed. It put clear blue water between the Arian understanding of the Bible and the orthodox understanding. And that, finally, was the arena of controversy: not the language of the Bible, but the understanding of what it meant.
It took a second ecumenical council to settle the controversy: the Council of Constantinople in 381, made possible by—at last!—an orthodox emperor, Theodosius. This Council authorized a new creed, what we know today as the Nicene Creed. (Confusingly, the Creed that emerged from Nicea in 325 is not the Nicene Creed, but the Creed of Nicea. The Nicene Creed is an expanded version and hails from Constantinople in 381.)
The brains behind the orthodox victory at Constantinople were the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil of Caesarea (330–79), his brother, Gregory of Nyssa (335–94), and Basil’s friend Gregory of Nazianzus (330–90). Building on foundations laid by Athanasius, the Cappadocians fashioned the language of Trinitarian orthodoxy that we still use today. In addition to the term ousia for the divine nature, they defined the term hypostasis to express the reality of the divine persons. We usually translate hypostasis as “person.” What the Cappadocians meant by “person” was the particular and distinct form in which the divine nature exists in Father, Son, and Spirit, differentiating them from each other.
The Council of Constantinople, then, and the Nicene Creed, brought an end to the Arian controversy within the church. Endorsing the Cappadocian formula, the Church acknowledged her God to be three hypostases in one ousia—three persons in one nature or essence. Each Trinitarian person was as divine as the other two (no more “degrees of divinity”), yet each was distinct, because each possessed the one divine nature in a different way.
This was the view transmitted from the early church to the Middle Ages, and reaffirmed by the Reformers. It is enshrined in our Reformed confessions. If we take the Bible and our own history seriously, it will be the view we find ourselves, too, embracing and confessing.