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Homoousios: A 100 year debate

Constantine, an Emperor with an agenda

THEOLOGICAL DEBATE is nothing new for the Christian church and just like today earlier disagreements were not easily resolved.

In the early fourth century a debate erupted over the concept of ‘homoousios’, a Greek word used to describe Jesus being of the same essence, being or substance as the Father.

A hundred years earlier Origen, a theologian based in Alexandria with an interest in exploring faith in terms that made sense to those schooled in Greek philosophy, had talked about God being one ‘ousios’ or essence, with three distinct expressions or forms of being – hypostasis.

He described Jesus in terms of the Logos, a phrase well known to followers of Greek philosopher Philo.

Over time discussion began over whether to talk about Jesus and God having homo ousios (one substance) or homoi ousios (similar substance).

In 264-268 the Synods of Antioch condemned the term ‘homoousios’ (same substance) because of its connections with Greek philosophy. They were also concerned that the concept, taken to extremes, could lead to a perception of Jesus that overlooked his humanity.

In 313 Arius, a Libyan trained in Antioch, was appointed as a presbyter (minister) near Alexandria. It wasn’t too long before Arius fell out with his bishop.

He constantly warned his congregations against speculation on the pre-existent life of Jesus, opposing what he saw as an extreme and invalid form of Origenism.

Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, put up with the tension for years but finally called a synod meeting, telling his colleagues that not only was Arius a threat to good theology, but his morals were in question – he was seen to have a disproportionate number of female supporters. The synod decided that Arius must go.

Like the Uniting Church in Australia, the early Church was governed by councils so what was agreed in Alexandria was not necessarily agreed elsewhere. It wasn’t long before synods were called in Antioch and Bithynia which repudiated the Alexandrian decision.

Enter Constantine. The Emperor appears to have believed that he was ordained by God to unite the Eastern and Western parts of the Empire.

He had already advocated for the tolerance of the Christian movement and was hoping that the churches would be able to promulgate monotheism throughout the empire.

Perhaps with this in mind Constantine attempted to persuade Alexander and Arius to regard their dispute as trivial and to be reconciled. It was not to be.

In 325 Constantine called together Christian representatives from across the empire (from everywhere but Britain) to a council in the imperial city, Nicaea. The delegates were charged with ascertaining what had been taught from the beginning of the church.

As the writings of Arius were read out, it became clear that much of his theology was blasphemous and was downplaying the significance of Jesus. So a creed was written for use at baptisms and for instruction of Christians and the word ‘homoousion’ was included to describe Jesus as being one in being with the Father.

All but two members of the Council of Nicaea signed the creed. Constantine is said to have announced the penalty of banishment for those who abstained.

For those in Alexander’s group the wording of the creed seemed to be the only one that was close to Scriptural intent and yet unacceptable to Arius.

Others at the Council, although uncomfortable with Alexander’s theology, were shocked by the extremist views of Arius and his colleague Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Despite the ruling of the Council, the debate had not been resolved. The identification of Jesus with God could be interpreted specifically as personal or in a vague symbolic sense. With this ambiguity, delegates could return home without having changed their theology. The use of an unpopular and ambiguous word as the focus to the solution to the Arian crisis created the semblance of unity, but only provided more material for disagreement.

The new link between the Em-pire and the direction of Christian theology led to ‘homoousios’ or ‘homoiousios’ views being in or out of fashion in the East depending on which Emperor was in power.
With the death of Constantine in 337, Constantius took an even more direct approach to church government. With the support of some theologians he forced synods to issue Arian statements of faith and depose bishops sympathetic to the Nicene creed.

It was not until the time of Theodosius (379–395) that a constant imperial policy sympathetic to the Nicene faith was linked to genuine dialogue and anything close to a lasting resolution was brought about.

A hundred-year controversy was resolved through the agreement to use the messy-middle concept of ‘homoousios’, a position the majority were not entirely happy with.

Writing ‘homoousion tſ patri’ (one in being with the Father) into the Nicene Creed was the way to protect the future of the Church from extremist views on either side of the debate.

Duncan Macleod is Vision for Mission Consultant with the Queensland Synod and believes understanding the history of the church helps us to live more effectively in its future.

Photo : Constantine, an Emperor with an agenda