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Jesus Christ God, Man and Savior Week Six: God the Son at Nicaea and Constantinople

Peter Brown, Author

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The Homoousios Controversy and Semi-Arianism

But the homoousios language began to cause consternation after the council. A little background will illustrate why. All things have an ousia or substance or essence which discloses what they are. Two trees can share the shame ousia because they are the same kind of thing. But clearly two different things cannot share the divine ousia because there is only one God. It is okay to say that there are many trees but it is not okay to say that there are many gods. Therefore, to share the same ousia seemed to suggest that the Father and Son not only shared a divine nature but were in fact one and the same thing. And this, it was feared, would smuggle in through the back door the old error of Sabellianism which had collapsed the Father and the Son into one being with no individual distinction at all. The problem here could be stated differently. The Father and the Son were not two gods, of course. But they also were not one God in the sense that the Sabellians had maintained, in the sense of having two different appearances.

They were one God but also two . . . but two what? The Council of Nicaea had taught that the Father and Son were of the same nature, but had not provided language to say in precisely what sense the Father and the Son were two.  It had implied his divinity by placing him in parallel to the section on the Father and the Son but had left the precise relationship ambiguous.  Indeed by anathematizing the belief that the Son could be a separate hypostasis than the Father, Nicaea had seemed to many to reintroduce a form of Modalism which refused to permit any real subject object distinction between the Father and the Son at all.  Were the Father and Son the same thing after all?  And what of the Holy Spirit..what ousia did he have and how did he relate to the Father and the Son?  Was he simply an emanation of the Father or different mode of his presence or was he a separate being of slightly lower status than the Father?
The fear of a recrudescence of Sabellianism, was what provoked the sudden popularity in the decades after Nicaea of a watered down form of Arianism known as semi-Arianism. For this reason, the influence of Arius would be felt long after his demise. In 337, the Roman Emperor Constantine died and with his death also died the official imperial support for the results of the Council of Nicaea. His son, Constantius, became the sole emperor in 350 and his determination to maintain peace prevailed over his concern for truth even through the use of force and threatening exile. In the confusion that prevailed in the intervening period between Nicaea and Constantinople, more than a half-dozen local councils would be held in various cities each trying fruitlessly to solve the problem.

The local councils’ intention (often undertaken with imperial support) was to force on wavering bishops compromise solutions to the Arian question, but "solutions" which inevitably watered down or rejected the Nicene faith. Some attending capitulated; others resisted. Some were tortured and others even murdered, so intense was the heat of this issue both in the political and religious arenas. From these local councils, at least nineteen variations on the Nicene Creed were proposed. None, however, received final acceptance though the semi-Arian opponents of Nicaea were able to get the support of most of the bishops in the world, including the see of Alexandria which had driven the pro-Nicene Bishop Athanasius into exile. Athanasius would defend staunchly and unyieldingly the decision of the council. His perseverance in the Faith would earn him the title “Pillar of the Church” and from which arose the phrase Athanasius contra mundum or Athanasius against the world.

The semi-Arians took direct aim at the term homoousios. In the confusion that followed Nicaea, they suggested all sorts of substitute terms to avoid the perceived problem with the term. One term was homoia which meant of “like nature.” Another of the variant formulations included the Greek term homoiousios, declaring the Son to be similar to the Father but not the same as the Father (homoousios).

The difference seemed very small, simply the letter i, the Greek iota, being added to the variant formula. It is from this controversy that we derive the expression, “there is not an iota of difference,” meaning the difference is not significant—but the Church always has understood that the “iota of difference” was literally all important with respect to expressing her timeless doctrine of who and what Jesus Christ is. But the critics of Nicaea made tremendous inroads until people began to realize what was at stake.

For his part, St. Jerome would later write:

At that moment the term ousia was abolished; the Nicene faith stood condemned by acclamation. The whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian.

Yet as bleak as things looked for the Church, by the 360's the tide was beginning to turn in favor of Catholic orthodoxy. The Roman Emperor Constantius II, who had lent much prestige and support for the semi-Arian cause, died in 362 AD. With the accession to the throne by Emperor Theodosius in 379 AD, an orthodox Spaniard, the decisive defeat of the semi-Arians was all but guaranteed. Theodosius demanded allegiance to “the religion which the Apostle Peter had handed to the Romans and which the Pontiff Damasus as well as Bishop Peter of Alexandria professed; ‘hence that we believe in the one divinity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in equal majesty and holy Trinity.’” This was backed up with the demand that those unwilling to profess this truth surrender any Church buildings as they were no longer in communion with the universal Church.
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