Trinity and Controversy in the Third and Fourth Century

Another (slightly rushed and unformatted) paper related to the purpose of the blog...

Trinity and Controversy in the Third and Fourth Centuries

Today, of course, the doctrine of the Trinity is relatively uncontroversial among most Christians (with some notable exceptions).[1] For the first few centuries of Christianity’s history, however, the true nature of the Triune God was hotly contested; in fact, “[i]t was not until the 4th century that the distinctness of the three and their unity were brought together in a single orthodox doctrine of one essence and three persons.”[2] Though Trinitarian formulæ did exist in the New Testament,[3] their exact theological and metaphysical implications were left unexplored. This lack of fixity in apostolic doctrine concerning the Trinity – “the Church entered [the Trinitarian] dispute possessing no established doctrinal consensus concerning the understanding of God as Triad”[4] – provided the impetus for subsequent controversy: “The occurrence of a major debate in the Church concerning an understanding of God as Trinity was inevitable. The issue was too central and basic and too open to conflicting and contradictory positions to be avoided.”[5] Put simply, the need to reconcile the putative divinity of Christ and of the Spirit with the clear Old Testament proclamation of the one God (seen especially in the Shema) was pressing.[6]

What, specifically, was at stake? The broad question involved the entire Trinitarian conception of the Godhead; however, discussion about the exact role and status of the Holy Spirit often appeared peripheral in comparison to the analogous disputations over the Son.[7] Indeed, Novatian, in his third-century treatise De trinitate,[8] summarized the contemporary disagreement in the following manner: “Some heretics have thought [Jesus] to be God the Father, others that he was only God without the flesh.”[9] The former heresy was modalism (also known, in its various forms, as Monarchianism and Sabellianism, or Patripassianism[10]), the latter subordinationism, which developed into Arianism.[11] Both began with the principle of monotheism and concluded either (in the case of modalism) that there was only one person in God or (in the case of subordinationism) that Christ was necessarily inferior to the Father.[12]

The central idea of Sabellian modalism is this:

[A]n only God, Father and Legislator in the Old Testament … became flesh and Son in the New and sanctified the Church as Holy Spirit after Pentecost. […] God was one originally and eternally but … became trinity in time: Father at creation, Son at the time of the Incarnation and Sanctifier at the time of Pentecost. Thus the Three Persons were conceived as modes or functions of one really single Person, just as the same human person could be successively priest, doctor, and magistrate.[13]

For Sabellius and other modalists, the Trinitarianism of what would become Nicene Orthodoxy was, in fact, implicitly tritheistic.[14]

The obvious alternative, which denied the equality of the Son with the Father, was subordinationism. Importantly, subordinationism, though essentially anathematized in the Council of Nicæa,[15] was not terribly dissimilar to earlier theological beliefs that were (in their time) thoroughly orthodox; in fact, Lonergan implies that the ante-Nicene Fathers were, in certain respects, subordinationists.[16] (He cautions, however, against an anachronistic evaluation of “the doctrine of the ante-Nicene authors according to the criteria of a later theology.”[17] We should understand the alleged subordinationism of the ante-Nicene Fathers not as heresy, but simply as an indication that they “were not well up in the theology of a later age.”[18]) Nonetheless, more explicit strands of subordinationism were always rejected as heterodox.

One such strand was adoptionism, according to which “Jesus was a mere man, in whom God dwelt in a special way.”[19] “The son of Mary … was not the Son of God by nature but only by adoption.”[20] Some, such as Cerinthus, extended this notion and argued that Jesus, “superior to other men only in prudence, justice, and wisdom,” was conceived naturally by Mary and Joseph; God sent His Spirit (called Christ) upon Jesus during his ministry, but the Spirit abandoned Jesus before his death.[21]

Others – the Docetists – suggested instead that “Jesus of Nazareth was not really a human being at all. Jesus only seemed to be human; in reality, he was divine. His humanity was a phantasm, an illusion.”[22] Such ideas could be traced backward at least to the time during which the three Johannine epistles were written.[23] Docetism never emerged as an organized movement within non-Gnostic Christianity but enjoyed popularity among Gnostics such as Valentinus and Basilides.[24]

The most important branch of subordinationism, of course, was due to Arius, a presbyter in the church of Alexandria who publicly criticized the doctrine of the co-eternality of the Son and Father maintained by Alexander, his bishop.[25],[26] Arius’ objection to Alexander was simple: Scripture clearly taught that Christ was begotten,[27] yet Alexander contended that he was eternal. For Arius, such a conjunction was impossible: “[Christ] was either unbegotten and eternal, as the Father was, or he was begotten and had therefore come to be.”[28] Arius opted for the latter option:

God was not always a Father, but [that] there was a time when God was not a Father. The Word of God [Jesus] was not always, but originated from things that were not … wherefore there was a time when He was not; for the Son is a creature and a work. Neither is He like in essence [κατ' 'ουσίαν] Neither is He like in essence to the Father … but He is one of the things made and created, and is called the Word and Wisdom by an abuse of terms, since He Himself originated by the proper Word of God, and by the Wisdom that is in God.[29]

Though Jesus was a “very perfect creature … he did not really know the incomprehensible Father, for the finite cannot know the infinite.”[30] The line between God and creation was absolute; rather than reconcile the immutable, transcendent God with the mutable, earthly Christ, Arius chose instead a dissociation of the former from the latter.[31],[32]

Arius’ criticisms of Alexander eventually led to his excommunication in 318 by the Synod of Alexandria; nevertheless, “he continued to spread his own doctrine, and even managed to find favour with other bishops.”[33] Marsh writes,

Arius … did not accept his degradation easily. He already had … considerable support … in Alexandria, but he now sought support also from farther afield and in more powerful quarters. He pleaded his cause to bishops in the Greek East outside of Egypt…. Arius could not but have been gratified by the support he received, especially from the two Eusebiuses [of Nicomedia and of Cæsarea]. Any hope Alexander had of confining the dispute within his own jurisdiction … had now vanished. He too was now obliged to circulate his Episcopal colleagues in the East in order to discredit Arius and vindicate his own position. But the affair had now effectively passed outside his control and had become a public controversy involving and dividing the whole Church of the East.[34]

The repercussions of this parochial squabble were thus far-reaching.

In response, the Emperor Constantine convened a church-wide council to come to a resolution.[35] In Luibhéid’s words, “The bishops who assembled in 325 at the Council of Nicaea dealt with several matters, but the main reason for their gathering lay in [the controversy between Arius and Alexander] which had broken out in Alexandria.”[36] The significance of this first ecumenical council is unmistakable. Such an opportunity to formulate a single, universal proclamation of faith – to address the emerging theological fissures before they ruptured completely – was unprecedented.

The Council, of course, rejected the Arian tenets of the Son’s creaturehood, non-eternality, and mutability.[37] But its enterprise was not entirely negative; in what would become a pivotal moment in the Church’s history, the Council affirmed the ὁμοούσια (consubstantiality) of the Son and the Father, “[proclaiming] inseparably the dogma of the perfect divine unity and of the divinity of the Word, equal to the Father.”[38] Such terminology was not without its drawbacks – it ran the risk of a modalist interpretation – nor was it, strictly speaking, biblical.[39] Nonetheless, it determined the course of all further theologizing concerning the Trinity.

The bishops assembled at Nicæa subscribed to the proposed Creed with near unanimity. (Several bishops – among them Eusebius of Cæsarea, the famed church historian – chose not to endorse it out of concern over the exact meaning of ὁμοούσια.[40] Furthermore, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicæa, both of whom had signed the Creed, soon thereafter “let it be known that they were now dissatisfied with the conciliar document.”[41]) The controversy, however, was far from over. Arius had been exiled by imperial decree following the Council, but Constantine subsequently decided to accept Arius’ return to the Empire.[42] It was this decision of Constantine’s that effectively “brought into existence two opposed parties and initiated the real controversy” in the East.[43]

Athanasius, an Alexandrian deacon and vigorous opponent of Arianism who had succeeded Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria in 328, was commanded to receive Arius back as a priest in the Alexandrian church; his subsequent refusal led to banishment for him and for other prominent anti-Arians.[44] The tide had turned. Arianism was far from dead; in fact, the controversy would persist for another sixty years (long after Arius’ death) until the Council of Constantinople in 381.[45]

How did Arianism persist for so long? Any sufficient answer must address the political dimensions of the controversy. As de Margerie argues,

The gravity of the Arian crisis, in the course of which, some thirty years after Nicaea, about half of the bishops abandoned the orthodox doctrine, becomes more comprehensible when we perceive that the divine unicity … appeared to offer a better justification for the existence of the monarchical Roman Empire. The eternal monarchy of God was the supreme exemplar of the Empire, a projection of the eternal in time. Such a mentality … inclined [the official theologians of the Empire toward the side of Arianism.[46]

Regardless of the truth of this (somewhat Freudian) claim, the political divisions which followed Constantine’s death in 337 must have exacerbated the theological divisions in the Church.[47] The emperor’s three sons (Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius) all adopted competing Trinitarian views; afterward, the co-emperors and brothers Valens and Valentinian would also espouse conflicting stances (Valens, in fact, went as far as to persecute non-Arian Christians in the eastern empire).[48] Only after Valens’ death in 378 did the Emperor Theodosius I succeed in establishing Nicene Christianity in the East as Damasus had already done in the West.[49] (The entire sequence of events, of course, was much more complicated. At one point, four distinct theological positions – the Nicene, Arian, pro-Arian Conservative, and anti-Arian conservative – coexisted in the East.[50])

The Trinitarian controversy, then, was an iconic moment in Christian history. It was during this time that orthodox conceptualization of the Trinity was solidified, and ecclesiastical precedents for settling doctrinal disputes among the different bishops and churches were set; however, it was also the time during which the heavy hand of the Roman State began to meddle in internal Christian affairs. The events of the fourth century involving Arius and Nicæa would thus set the stage for the next thousand years of Western history.

[1] Examples include Christian Unitarians and Oneness Pentecostals.

[2] “Trinity.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[3] cf. Matthew xxviii. 19, 2 Corinthians xiii. 14.

[4] Thomas Marsh, The Triune God (Blackrock: The Columbia Press, 1994), 97. Adds Luibhéid: “What has to be remembered here is that at the start of the Arian controversy the establishment of a consensus on such great problems as the nature of the Trinity … was still in the future.” Colm Luibhéid, The Council of Nicaea (Galway: Galway University Press, 1982), 3.

[5] Ibid., 95.

[6] “Trinity.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[7] Marsh, 96.

[8] “Novatian.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[9] Novatian, De trinitate, XXIII.

[10] Bernard Lonergan, C.C., S.J., The Way to Nicea (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1976), 36.

[11] Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., The Christian Trinity in History (Still River: St. Bede’s Publications, 1982), 72. It should be noted that different scholars use these labels in inconsistent ways.

[12] De Margerie, 73.

[13] Ibid.

[14] For example, Hippolytus quotes the modalist Callistus as saying the following: “I will not profess belief in two Gods, Father and Son, but in one. For the Father, who subsisted in the Son Himself, after He had taken unto Himself our flesh, raised it to the nature of Deity, by bringing it unto union with Himself, and made it one; so that Father and Son must be styled one God, and that this Person being one, cannot be two.” Hippolytus, Refutatio Omnium Hæresium, IX.VII.

[15] Maurice Wiles, “Attitudes to Arius in the Arian Controversy.” Michael R. Barnes and Daniel H. Williams, Arianism After Arius (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 32.

[16] Lonergan, 41.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Lonergan, 36.

[20] “Adoptionism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[21] De Margerie, 87. While adoptionism per se may not explicitly contradict the New Testament, a denial of the virgin birth clearly goes against the Gospel narratives.

[22] Alister McGrath, Heresy (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 111.

[23] Ibid., 111. cf. 1 John iv. 1-3: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references come from the English Standard Version.)

[24] Ibid., 113-116.

[25] Luibhéid, 25.

[26] Such criticism, Luibhéid observes, should be understood in its historical context rather than in the context of “a later age when the major doctrinal issues had long been settled and bishops … had come to be regarded as the custodians of a received and unalterable tradition.” In this light, Arius’ actions do not seem quite as mutinous. Luibhéid, 3.

[27] On this point, Arius was in agreement with his opponents; the Nicene Creed itself states that Jesus is “begotten of the Father.”

[28] Luibhéid, 25.

[29] Athanasius, de Arii depositione, II.

[30] De Margerie, 88.

[31] McGrath, 144.

[32] Recent scholarship has proposed a slightly different interpretation of Arius’ theology, beginning not with a particular view of God’s transcendence but with “a particular view of redemption and the Redeemer-figure which this view entails. Arius saw redemption, according to this view, in moral terms, as a breaking out of the cycle of moral weakness and evil which envelops the human scene to union with God. […] The Redeemer was the one who achieved this union with God…. […] But since the Redeemer achieved this union with God, he could not have been one with God from the very beginning or in his essential being.” Marsh, 103.

[33] Lonergan, 69.

[34] Marsh, 99.

[35] “Council of Nicaea.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[36] Luibhéid, 1.

[37] De Margerie, 91.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 90-91.

[40] Lonergan, 73. Theodoret preserves a letter from Eusebius to Paulinus in which Eusebius writes, “[W]e affirm that the unbegotten is one and one also that which exists in truth by Him, yet was not made out of His substance, and does not at all participate in the nature or substance of the unbegotten, entirely distinct in nature and in power, and made after perfect likeness both of character and power to the maker. We believe that the mode of His beginning not only cannot be expressed by words but even in thought, and is incomprehensible not only to man, but also to all beings superior to man.” Theodoret, Historia ecclesiastica, I.V.

[41] Luibhéid, 126.

[42] Marsh, 101.

[43] Ibid., 101-102. Of the party opposed to the Nicene Creed, not all were necessarily Arians: “This latter body was … a heterogeneous group which included strict Arians, pro-Arians like Eusebius of Nicomedia and a large middle group which … were very uncomfortable with the statement of Nicaea.”

[44] Ibid., 102.

[45] Ibid., 117-118.

[46] De Margerie, 89.

[47] Marsh, 111.

[48] Ibid., 116.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., 113.