{NB: This is an old unedited paper from seminary. There is much I would probably change in it now that I have read more primary and secondary literature since then. However, I don’t have time to go back through and make adjustments so I am keeping it the way it was. I hope it is still of some use to someone somewhere.}


One of the key defining features of Christianity is its unique understanding of God as a Trinity. In order to understand this difficult doctrine of one God existing eternally as three persons, one must go back to the time in the early church where it was hammered out with much toil and even many lives. The following will be a summary of that significant period, from the brilliant yet controversial figure of Origen in the late second and early third century until the council of Constantinople in 381 which officially confessed (though in a roundabout way), the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Each figure and event will be examined for their significant contribution to the debate, and how their ideas relate to each other in what R. P. C. Hanson dubbed the search for the Christian doctrine of God. This survey will begin with the struggle to understand the relationship of the Son to the Father in Origen, Arius, the Council of Nicaea, and Athanasius. Then, in response to new Christological problems raised by the Nicaean solution and the rising concern over the position of the Holy Spirit, the understandings of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Council of Constantinople will be examined bringing this survey to an end.


One of the first systematic and most influential explanations of the Trinity came from Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-c. 254).[1] While he attempted to pass on what he had received from the Church, he also paved the way for later theological reflection.[2] While it is difficult to know all that Origen thought about the Trinity due to the stigma attached to him by the later Origenist controversy and most of his writings are only available through the translations of Rufinus and Jerome and the excerpts contained in the Philocalia compiled by Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus.[3] Nonetheless, what can be reconstructed can be summarized under three main topics: 1) God’s nature and theological language, 2) the eternal generation of the Son, and 3) the pre-existence of souls.

For Origen since Scripture is divinely inspired, it holds the key to a proper understanding of God. What Scripture says about God, especially the names it attributes to him, reveals something about who God is. It is by no mere accident that Scripture refers to God as good, just, and powerful for this is what God by nature is. Origen also firmly believes that names ascribed to God, being unchanging, must always be true.[4] If God is to truly be powerful, that is, if God’s titles in Scripture truly reflect God’s nature, then God must always have subjects over which to exercise his power.[5] Origen concludes from this that souls have existed eternally, at least potentially in the mind of God.[6]

Besides a title like ‘powerful’, Scripture also attributes the term ‘father’ to God. This is interesting because ‘father’ is a relational term that inherently implies the existence of a son.[7] As with the word ‘powerful,’ there can be no time when he was not ‘father,’ for God is unchanging, so God must have always had a son. Yet, this language of father and son sounds too human, as if God were generating offspring. One should rightly wonder how God can be unchanging and yet produce a son, to which Origen would respond by reminding such inquisitors that God exists timelessly. Thus, if God has always been a father, and the language of generating a son within time is inappropriate to God who dwells timelessly, then the son must be eternally generated (ajei\ gennavˆ aujto/n, aei gennai auton) from the Father.[8] Origen understands this generation to be something that is internal to the nature of God, bridging the gap between the Father’s and Son’s individual identity by a common nature.[9] Thus, Origen will use images such as the will coming forth form the mind, or light from the sun, as analogies to explain the relationship between the Father and Son.

The difficulty in assessing Origen’s understanding of the Trinity is the changing technical vocabulary. One specific example is that of the terms hypostasis (uJpo/stasiß) and ousia (oujsi/a). After the Arian controversy through the process of rigorous theological debate, hypostasis came to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit individually, whereas ousia was that which was common between them. However, for Origen, hypostasis and ousia are nearly synonymous for a distinct individual thing.[10] So, if one were to ask Origen if the Father and the Son shared the same ousia (i.e., if the Father and Son were homoousia as later Niceans would insist), he would respond negatively, for to say that they did would make them indistinguishable. Yes, the Son is eternally generated by the Father of the same nature, but they do not share the same individual nature.

While Origen conceives of the Son as being generated by the Father, he understands the Holy Spirit to derive from the Son, though not as from a principal source. The Father is the fount and first principle (ajrch/, arche) of all things for Origen, but the Father relates to the world through the Son who in turn interacts with creation through the Holy Spirit.[11] It is clear that Origen proposes subordination within the Trinity, but one should remember that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all participate the same nature. This should not be confused with the subordination proposed by Arius and his followers at the beginning of the Arian controversy which will posit an ontological subordination between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Origen may call the Son a creature (kti/sma, ktisma), but he is a creature eternally begotten from the nature (i.e., internally) of the Father and so is distinct from the rest of creation.[12]

One more critical point in Origen’s understanding of the Trinity which is relevant to the later Arian controversy is his understanding of the incarnation. Whereas Arius will stress that the Logos was incarnated merely in a body, Origen sees a human soul as the key to the incarnation.[13] The human soul of Jesus, which was pre-existent along with other souls, attached itself to the Word so devoutly that it did not fall away from the contemplation of God as did the rest of them. This attachment creates a substantial union (e¢nwsiß, henosis) or commingling (ajna/krasiß, anakrasis) of the two natures to the point where they are almost indistinguishable, like fire in iron, although practically the Logos remains the dominant feature (hJgemoniko/n, hegemonikon). This allows Origen flexibility to speak Christ in the singular, while also maintaining the human and divine natures, a distinction that will later become important for Athanasius in his battles against the Arians.


With Arius (256-336), early Christian thinking on the Trinity comes to a turning point. Responding to the preaching of his bishop Alexander of Alexandria, Arius sought to promote what he believed to be the true teaching of the Church as found in Scripture and had passed down from faithful men who came before him.[14] Unfortunately, very little of Arius’ actual writing survives, and most of the extant pieces are embedded in the polemical works of his enemies.[15] It may be possible, however, to reconstruct the basic contours of his thought from his earliest supporters in addition to his actual writings compared against the reports of his enemies. What follows will attempt to summarize the basic structure of Arius’ thought on the natures of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their relations to each other, as well as the implications for such teaching.

For Arius, the Father is the one true God. In this, he agrees with Origen, Athanasius, and the other orthodox writers in the centuries to follow.[16] What sets him apart from his opponents is what he says about the Son and Holy Spirit, but these depend upon his prior understanding of the Father. Because the Arian controversy dealt mostly with the relation of the Father to the Son, what has been preserved of Arius’ teaching says little beyond this. God is unbegotten (ajge/nnhtoß, agennetos), unoriginate (a¡narcoß, anarchos), the wholly alone (monw/tatoß, monotatos), the origin (ajrch/, arche) or cause of all things, ineffable (a¡lektoß, alektos), invisible (ajo/ratoß, aoratos), mysterious (a¡rrhtoß, arretos), and so on.[17] While these titles express various aspects of God’s nature, they all point to one fact: God (i.e., the Father) is the one true God. This makes him distinct from and transcendent above the creation.

Arius taught that the Son was a distinct creation, both from the Father and from the rest of creation created through him (the Son), and it is this affirmation around which the Arian controversy is centered. Arius and his fellow Arians were adamant that the Son is of a different nature than the Father. Part of the difficulty lies in the ambiguity of terms, and, as noted with Origen, to say that the Father and Son share the same essence is to make them one indistinguishable thing. Arius saw his bishop as a Sabellian.[18] Instead, Arius fought to keep the Father and the Son distinct. While creation came through the Son, the Son was not the origin (ajrch/) of all that is for that title belonged properly only to the Father. Instead, the Son was an instrument created by the Father for the purpose of creation. Thus, the Son acts as a mediator between the Father and the creation. He himself is created, but remains distinct from the rest of the creation which was created through him.

One may ask, then, how it is that the Son is able to have the title of Son. For Athanasius, the Son relates to the Father ontologically, that is, by sharing the same nature. Arius, on the other hand, articulates the Son’s relation in moral terms around the will of the Father. The Son is ascribed the title of Son in view of his execution of the Father’s will. While Origen, and later Athanasius, see the title Son as appropriate to the Son because of his nature, Arius conceives sonship in an adoptive sense–a sonship by grace.[19] In this way also, the Father only becomes Father through the adoption of the Son.[20] Whereas Origen argued that the Son must share in the divine nature because the terms “Father” and “Son” are relative and require each other, Arius nuances his terminology to create room for there to be a time when the Son was not.

Scholars beginning from these statements have often concluded that Arius’ system was concerned primarily with philosophical and logical extensions of the belief in the transcendence and oneness of God.[21] That is, Arius was so devoted to the oneness of God so that the Son, by logical extension, had to be a creature of some kind. This approach has been challenged recently by Robert Gregg and Dennis Groh in their book, Early Arianism– A View of Salvation and to an extent in R. P. C. Hanson’s book, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Their specific theses will be discussed below, but it is worth mentioning here because such an idea (i.e., that Arius was corrupted by philosophy) ignores Arius and the early Arians deep commitment to Scripture, to which they thought they were being faithful.[22] If Arius was influenced by philosophy, it was no more than any other educated teacher in the Church would have been in his day. Thus, to understand how the Son relates to the Father, Arius looked not to philosophy, but to Scripture.[23]

From Scripture Arius taught that the Son was created, had limited knowledge, was lesser than the Father, and could change. A key text concerning the creation of the Son was Proverbs 8:22 in which personified Wisdom, take to be the Son, proclaims that she was created before the foundations of the world. Since Wisdom was created, and it would be absurd to think that God had no wisdom prior to creating it, there must be two wisdoms.[24] One eternal belonging immutably to the Father who is the source of all things, and the other created and inferior belonging mutably to all creatures in a derivative sense. The Son has wisdom in the second sense, not the first. Arius applies this distinction for the other titles given to Christ such as power.[25] The Father obviously could have never been without power so the Son is given the title of power. In fact, referring to Joel 2:25 which calls locusts and caterpillars powers of God, Arius asserts that there are many powers of God. Thus, Arius contended that to assume that every title given to the Son necessarily refers to his nature would lead to nonsense for Scripture is full of references to other people or things sharing similar titles with God.

Concerning the Son’s knowledge, Arius would use passages such as Luke 2:52 where the young Jesus learns and grows in wisdom to show that the Son was not omniscient. He explicitly states that not only does the Son not know the essence of the Father, but that he is even ignorant of his own essence.[26] Such knowledge belongs only to the Father. That the Son was lesser than the Father was argued from texts such as John 14:28 taken in the most literal sense possible. In a way, Arius thought that if Jesus said, he believed it, and that was good enough for him. Finally, that the Son was susceptible to change seemed to be evident throughout the Gospels. The Son grew hungry, ate, slept, and experienced fear. What the Son was in his incarnation, so was he in his pre-existent state because there was only one person, the Logos, contrary to what Origen taught.

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit was pushed to the side during the Arian controversy, only to be addressed later around the Council of Constantinople in 381. As such, only a few points can be derived from his understanding of the Son. If the Son cannot share in the essence of the Father, then it follows that neither can the Holy Spirit, which would make the Holy Spirit into a creature. Yet, the Son is the greatest of the Father’s creations, so the Holy Spirit would have to be relegated another step down just below the Son but just above the creation. If the Spirit is given any titles, it is done so similarly to the Son: by conformity to the will of God.

What one sees in the Arian Christ is a creature who suffered and experienced, as the author of Hebrews says, every temptation common to humankind. As noted above, many scholars write this off as merely the outcome of rigorous logic and philosophical corruption. However, others have seen something of greater significance, namely, salvation. Gregg and Groh argue that the Son, as a creature, underwent all the difficulties of life as an example for humanity to follow and acts as the instrument through which the immutable God engages with mutable creation.[27] Thus, the Arian Christ saves humanity by showing them what they are meant to be, what it means for a creature to live completely according to the will of God. The fact that the Son can change and progress morally is the foundation of Arian soteriology.

P. C. Hanson thinks that they are right to point out the soteriological aspects of Arian thought, but he specifically critiques their proposal in that if the Son was kept from falling by grace, then he cannot progress morally. Instead, he understands the Arian Christ not so much as a suffering creature, but a suffering God. Under his proposal, God (i.e., the Father), cannot suffer for the world directly and so creates the Son for this purpose giving him divinity at such a level where suffering is possible.[28] Christ is not so much an example of the ideal human, but of a God who suffers as humanity suffers.

While Hanson’s proposal is interesting, it is not exactly clear how God suffering through Christ redeems humanity. Specifically, there is no indication as to whether redemption involves a change in human nature (as Athanasius will argue) or human conduct (as Gregg and Groh propose). More so, his critique against Gregg and Groh ignores how they describe the Arian understanding of grace. Whereas his critique poses it as the efficient cause which keeps the Son from failing in his mission, Gregg and Groh are clear that it is not the cause of the Son’s perseverance but of his adoption as Son.[29] It is only because the Father foreknows that the Son will not fail that he adopts him as Son. Whatever may be the case, recent evaluations of Arius have raised the scriptural and soteriological concerns had by him and his followers. Yet, this pious concern did not easy the consciences of those who opposed Arius which called for a more official resolution to the conflict: the council of Nicaea.

The Council of Nicaea

The controversy between Arius and Alexander escalated to the point where the Emperor Constantine felt a council needed to be called.[30] Originally set for Ancyra, the council was moved to Nicaea on account of the better air and location, meeting in 325 from May until the end of June. While Constantine was present and did play a part in the council, it was most likely headed up by his ecclesiastical advisor, Ossius the bishop of Cordova.[31] Somewhere between 250 to 300 bishops attended the council, mostly from the Eastern part of the Empire.[32] Little can be reconstructed of the events that took place at the council, and though there is evidence that they dealt with other issues such as the date of Easter and the Melitian schism, the following discussion will be restricted to the Arian controversy and the resolution proposed at Nicaea. The creed of Nicaea will be presented with a brief comment on its origin, followed by an analysis of specific theological terminology used in the creed and its intended meaning.

The creed of Nicaea, not to be confused with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed commonly used by many churches today, attempted to summarize the Christian doctrine of God. Since the nature of the Son was on the table, little is said of the Father or the Holy Spirit, the latter of which had to await a clearer definition at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

We believe in one God Father Almighty Maker of all things seen and unseen:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten as only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance (ousia) of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came into existence, both things in heaven and things on earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate and became man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge the living and the dead:

And in the Holy Spirit.

But as for those who say, “there was a time when he did not exist”, and, “Before being begotten he did not exist”, and that he came into being from non-existence, or who allege that the Son of God is of another hypostasis or ousia, or is alterable or changeable, these the Catholic and Apostolic Church condemns.[33]

The creed follows the Father-Son-Holy Spirit order common in baptismal formulas, though it itself is not a baptismal formula. It bears no similarity with any known antecedent baptismal formula and even a cursory reading reveals specifically anti-Arian terminology, to which this essay now turns.

In order to address the troubles raised by the Arian controversy, the creed of Nicaea used specific terminology to clarify and mediate between the two entrenched parties. Unfortunately, the chosen terminology actually caused more confusion than clarification, but a brief discussion of the important terms is essential to understanding the theological development which followed. The terms to be discussed are, hypostasis, ousia, homoousios, and gennetos.

As already noted, during the Arian controversy, the terms hypostasis and ousia were almost synonymous. Hypostasis first appears as a metaphysical/ontological term in the Stoic Posidonius and picked up by later Platonists meaning something like the underlying foundation or reality of a thing.[34] It appears in the New Testament five times (2 Cor. 9:4, 11:17, Heb 1:3, 3:4, 11:1) either meaning confidence or assurance. Hebrews 1:3 is the only occurrence that means something like “being” or “nature” of God. In the Septuagint, the term appears 20 times, but with only one occurrence, Wisdom 16:21, meaning “being” or “nature” of God.[35] That fact that it does appear in Scripture may have lead many to prefer it to ousia, which does not.

Ousia, on the other hand, had a wider use and a larger semantic domain. It could mean existence, category, substance, material, form, definition, or truth.[36] For Aristotle, ousia denotes what a thing is as distinct from its accidents or properties–the sine qua non of what a thing is. By the time of the Arian controversy, Hanson finds four different ways that the relation between hypostasis and ousia related. They were 1) synonymous and could be used to describe the three-ness or oneness of God, 2) hypostasis described the “persons” without consideration of ousia, 3) hypostasis spoke of an individual thing’s existence where ousia referred it its nature, or 4) complete uncertainty.[37] This confusion may account for the odd anathema at the end of the creed which condemns those who say that the Son is from another hypostasis or ousia, both being used in an ambiguous sense. While it seems to be trying to say that the Son didn’t come from anything outside of the Father (or from non-existence), the fact that both are listed to refer to some internal aspect of the Father points to general terminological ambiguity and confusion.

Homoousios was an even more contentious term. To the Arians, it sounded too materialistic, as if the Son was of the same essence of the Father as humans share a common essence. Or worse, that saying homoousios required a division within the nature of God (as seen in Manichaeism), as if the Son was one part of the essence leaving the remaining parts to the Father. Or, instead, it could imply a third greater “being” of which the Father and Son participate. If not making a division of the divine nature, then homoousios might imply Sabellianism which blurred the distinctions between Father and Son. The situation is worsened by the fact that the Gnostics were known to use the term meaning something like same kind or substance of being.[38] Not only that, but the council at Antioch (325) had condemned the term along with Paul of Samosata. Thus, by the time homoousios is used at Nicaea, not only is there confusion about what the term means, but the term is marred by its association with heretics.

One may rightly wonder why the term was chosen at all, especially if the council was supposed to resolve the conflict. One must be careful not to read later definitions of homoousios into Nicaea. The view that Ossius pushed for a Tertullian-type “of one substance” (unius substantia) not only overestimates Ossius’ philosophical clout, but fails to account for the earliest appearance of this proposal being 100 years after Nicaea.[39] Eusebius of Caesarea, who disliked the term, found a way to interpret it in a manner more congenial to his own views, which by itself shows that the term was probably not as concrete as it later would be interpreted by Athanasius and the Cappadocians. Instead, homoousios probably meant nothing more than to affirm that the Son has no source outside of God.[40] This would only have excluded Arius and the few who agreed that the Son was created out of nothing, which not all Arians affirmed. It seems that homoousios was chosen precisely because it was ambiguous and offered a temporary compromise to the theological controversy.

Gennetos refers to that which is generated or begotten and is used in the creed as a way of describing the Sons relation to the Father and what it means exactly is less clear than it was after Athanasius. A similar term that becomes important later on is genetos, which refers to that which has come into being. At this point in the debate, however, there is little distinction between the terms. While not in the creed, the alpha privatives of both these terms were often used in the debate. Agenetos referred to that which always has existed (lit. ‘has never not existed’) and agennetos, ingenerate (lit. ‘has never been generated’). Both convey the sense of eternal existence and are used primarily of the Father. It was the Arian concern that if one did not affirm the Sons begottenness or createdness, then it necessarily implied that he was agennetos and thus a second ultimate principle alongside the Father. Nicaea clearly refers to the son as being gennetos, but the mechanics of such an affirmation (i.e., how can he be both begotten and of the same ousia as the Father) is open to interpretation.

This brief summary of the council and creed of Nicaea has shown that Nicaea was ultimately an attempt to compromise. While the creed is anti-Arian in general (i.e., the Son can not be from anything outside the Father), there was room for multiple interpretations of the term homoousios such as found in Eusebius of Caesarea. Beyond homoousios, the important terminology covered in this summary has been shown to be nebulous as well. There was still no clearly defined meaning for hypostasis nor ousia as both were used to refer to the nature of God or to the ‘persons.’ More so, what it meant for the Son to be gennetos did not have the connotations at Nicaea as it would after Athanasius and the Cappadocians. The Son was fully divine, deriving his being from the Father, but how it all worked out would have to wait for later thinkers beginning with Athanasius.


Athanasius, a young deacon of Alexander who attended the council of Nicaea, would turn out to be one of its most ardent defenders and re-interpreters. He would eventually become the archbishop of Alexandria, not to mention being exiled five times and being the proverbial gadfly of the Emperors, and would help to iron out some of the ambiguous terminology and lay the groundwork for later orthodox thinkers such as Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus.[41] The following will focus on the importance of Father/Son terminology for Athanasius, his understanding of eternal generation, how he reshaped homoousios, the centrality of the incarnation for his thinking, and his work on the Holy Spirit.

For Athanasius, the best way to understand God and the relationship between God and Jesus is through the terms “Father” and “Son”. It is not as if such terminology had never been used before, but with Athanasius one sees it thrust into center stage usurping the Arian (and indeed, previous orthodox Christians) preference for agen(n)etos and gen(n)etos.[42] Athansius prefers Father/Son terminology for three reasons. First, agen(n)etos is an unscriptural term. It would be better to speak of God in the language that he himself has provided. Indeed, Jesus most often refers to God as Father, and consequently so should Christians.[43] Secondly, Athansius finds the term agen(n)etos to be too ambiguous to be of any help in the debate. There are many ways to understand these terms. Agenetos (ingenerate) could refer to something that could possibly exist but is not yet, something that cannot and never will exist, or something that does exist and never came into existence (i.e., exists eternally).[44] Agennetos (unbegotten) could either mean that which exists but was never begotten or that which is uncreated–both of which for Athanasius could be applied to the Son.[45] Finally, Athanasius prefers Father/Son terminology because “Father” and “Son” are correlates. One cannot be a father without a son, nor a son without a father. However, if one prefers to speak of God primarily as agen(n)etos, then one must construct elaborate arguments about how Jesus is gen(n)etos but somehow unique and different from the rest of the gen(n)eta. Instead, argues Athanasius, it is more accurate and simpler (and more scriptural) to speak of God as Father.[46] To use agen(n)etos is to confuse God’s relation to the creation and God’s relation to the Son.

Since the most appropriate terminology is Father/Son, the best way to understand the relation between them is by eternal generation. However, this generation must not be thought of in terms of human generation. While it is similar to human generation in that the ousia of each is the same, it is different in that God, existing eternally, generates the Son eternally. More so, the analogy between human generation and divine generation will always break down at some point, but that point must not be on the divine side. It is human generation which is a deficient imitation of divine (i.e., true) generation. The example of divine generation must be primary for the way human generation is understood. As for the Arian objection that speaking of the Son in terms of generation and not will sounds too Gnostic as some type of emanation which the Father cannot help but produce. To this Athanasius asks if God is good because he wills to be good. If the Arians are willing to admit that God can be good prior to God’s will, then likewise, argues Athanasius, the Son can be generated from the Father’s ousia but not against his will.

As shown above, at the time of Nicaea, the term homoousios was ambiguous and was mostly an attempt at political peacemaking. Nonetheless, Athanasius found in the term a summary of his understanding of the relation between the Father and the Son. He did not rely much on the term initially (occurring once in his Orationes contra Arianos), but after the mid-350’s beginning with his work De Decretis, it became a staple of his theology. Homoousios was something peculiar to the Father/Son terminology he so ardently pushed for. It is in light of the statement of Nicaea that the Son is “from the Father’s essence” which homoousios clarifies. This is clear from the fact that Athanasius is willing to join with the homoiousians because they can affirm that the Son is “from the Father’s essence” but are only cautious of homoousios which sounds Sabellian.[47] By having this phrase and the Father/Son terminology control the term homoousios, Athanasius is able to counter Arian objections that homoousios implies two ultimate principles or a division in the essence of God. By using the image of a ray of light coming from the Son, Athanasius can argue that in the same way as the ray of light is distinct from the sun yet has the same essence, so the Son can be homoousios with the Father. The Father still has primacy (and thus there remains only one ultimate principle), but the Son participates in the divine being.[48]

It may be an understatement to say that the incarnation was the most important doctrine for Athanasius. For him, the incarnation is the critical event of human salvation. In it, the Son, who is homoousios with the Father, deigns to take on human flesh and in so doing, restores it. Salvation is not restricted to a change in the human moral character, as it was for the Arians, but a fundamental change in human nature, and this occurs in the incarnation. Athanasius doesn’t think like the Arians that God created the Son to mediate between him and creation, but instead views the incarnation as the primary point of mediation. The incarnation for Athanasius was the event of the Son putting on human flesh. Here he differs from later orthodoxy which concluded that Christ also had a human mind.[49] It was enough for Athanasius to see the principle agent of Christ as the logos. The logos was the stable undiminished divinity. Any Scripture that hinted at a weakness or humanness of Christ, the kind that the Arians placed so much emphasis on, could easily be explained by Athanasius as referring to the human flesh. Thus, in the famously debated passage of Proverbs 8:22ff, when wisdom proclaims that God created her, it refers to the incarnation because the Son is eternally begotten and therefore came into being at no specific point in time. Indeed, the stable logos in the weak flesh is a model for human salvation such that what occurs in the human body of Christ is the destiny that Christians await. The Arian Christ cannot do this because he suffers from instability just like the rest of humanity. Only the incarnate Son who is homoousios with the Father can assure salvation to the Christian.

Finally, Athanasius offers the first exploration of the divinity of the Holy Spirit in his Letters to Serapion around 356-362 in response to questions posed to him by Bishop Serapion of Thmuis. Apparently, he was encountering some Christians who, while denying Arianism, denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. First, argues Athanasius, the idea of the Trinity (a term that been used since the second century with a variety of meanings) precludes the creaturliness of the Holy Spirit because as Athanasius has already argued, there is no mediating activity of God beyond the incarnation.[50] Secondly, Serapion’s questioners raise the problem of 1 Timothy 5:21. In this verse, a triad is listed which includes God, Jesus, and angels. If the other passages which list God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are understood in light of this verse, then the Holy Spirit would be a creature. Here Athanasius has to argue from the clarity of other texts which show the inseparability and mutual indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which necessarily means that the Holy Spirit cannot be a creature. Another objection of which Serapion informs Athanasius is that if the one could call the Holy Spirit a son if he proceeds from the Father, or a grandson if he proceeds from the Father and Son. To this Athanasius replies first by criticizing them for taking such language too far. Just as with the Father/Son terminology, one must not read human idiosyncrasies into terminology when speaking about God. Instead, one should think of the Holy Spirit as relating to the Son in the same way the Son relates to the Father. Thus, what is true of the Son will be true of the Holy Spirit without any implications of another son or grandson in the Trinity.

With Athanasius, a turning point has taken place in the Arian controversy. He marks the beginning of a new way to talk about the Trinity. First, by pressing the Father/Son terminology he avoids the complexities and ambiguities of Nicaea and those before. Secondly, this Father/Son terminology allows him to explain the mechanics of the Son’s divinity through eternal generation. Thirdly, Athanasius began to see homoousios as a valuable term for summarizing what is means for the Son to be from the Father’s essence and made it into a staple of Nicaean orthodoxy. Fourthly, his reorientation of salvation around the incarnation raised the priority of the debate to a critical level. This is not just about speculative doctrine but speaks to the heart of the Christian message. Finally, his work on the Holy Spirit opened the doorway to a discussion that would be tackled by thinkers such as Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus culminating in the creed of the Council of Constantinople in 381 and the classic definition of the Trinity.

Basil of Caesarea

Basil of Caesarea is another figure who marks another step in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Emerging from the homoiousians under the tutelage of Basil of Ancyra, Basil of Caesarea hammered out his understanding of the Trinity in contention with the so-called neo-Arians, especially Eunomius of Cyzicus and the Pneumatomachians, and in dialogue with Athanasius and the other Nicenes.[51] First, Basil makes some moves towards greater clarity of theological terminology such as hypostasis, ousia, and homoousios. This development in terminology has lead some in the past to see Basil’s understanding of the Trinity as best explained through the Aristotelian categories of primary and secondary substance.[52] Finally, Basil also said some important things on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, even if he never stated it explicitly.

So far, this analysis of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity has noted repeatedly the important role played by language and terminology when speaking about God. Sometimes, it seems that arguments could have been resolved quickly and painlessly through a better articulation of terms. This, of course, is easy to say by those who have reaped the rewards of that which they did not plant. In reality, the process is an arduous one, but a study of the process can produce greater clarity in understanding what and how the writers of the third and fourth centuries thought about the Trinity. By the time one gets to Basil, there has been significant work done by Athanasius and others on clearly distinguishing between the terms hypostasis and ousia, but even then, there was still some confusion. Basil himself uses hypostasis as synonymous to ousia, but more often than not he uses it to refer to a person of the Trinity.[53] By ‘person’ Basil did not mean a mere character or mask, but a distinct individual reality and for this reason he does not tie himself to the specific term. Indeed, prospon (person) is sometimes used by Basil instead of hypostasis as well as hyparxis (subsistence) or tropos hyparxeos (mode of subsistence).[54] The point is that the terms used must be conformed to the reality to which they point. As long as one understands that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as really distinct but essentially equal things, then one can use whatever term most clearly expresses that reality.

This may be understood as an influence from Basil’s homoiousian background. The homoiousians agreed with Athanasius that the Son is ‘from the essence of the Father,’ but they retreated at the term homoousios which smacked of Sabellianism. Eventually, Basil would prefer homoousios as a more accurate term to use when speaking of the relationship between the Father and the Son (he never uses it of the Holy Spirit) but he is sympathetic with those who are suspicious.[55] For Basil, homoousios does not entail a division of the divine essence for this takes the divine essence to be a generic substance which would, according to Basil, have to precede the Father and the Son. This, however, is absurd. Instead, homoousios should be understood in a sense similar to that of Athanasius in that the Son essence is derived from the Father’s essence.[56] On the other hand, Basil finds an argument against Sabellianism in the term homoousios as well. Simply put, homoousios necessarily implies at least two distinct things for nothing can be of the same essence as itself. If there were only one ousia, then using homoousios would be confusing and superfluous.

As with Athanasius, Basil also sees the terms Father/Son as giving greater clarity than agen(n)etos, and this comes out in his debate with Eunomius, bishop of Cyzicus. Eunomius, a neo-Arian, held that the term agennetos (ingenerate) is the primary term for understanding God’s essence (ousia), not Father. This is not a quality of God’s ousia, but is his essence, which makes it the best term to understand God. Eunomius has an almost allergic reaction to any talk of God generating the Son for generation encompasses everything that God is not (i.e., death and decay). Basil disagrees. He sees agennetos as an aspect of God’s ousia and Fatherhood as something essential and gives three reasons for doing so. First, Father, when used of God, and ingenerate means the same thing: from no one.[57] Father, however, is to be preferred because it covers a larger semantic domain. Secondly, Father is a relative term that necessarily implies a son (as Athanasius and others also argued), whereas ingenerate has no necessary relation. Third, Jesus specifically uses the term Father (here he cites Matthew 28:19), and Christians should follow his example. Jesus never says, “Go and baptize in the name of the Ingenerate…” More so, Basil goes so far as to say that God’s ousia is fundamentally unknowable by human beings.[58] One may know God’s activities (ejnergi/a) and his works in the world, but not his ousia. Scriptural language about his ousia must be understood as figures of speech grasping like John the Revelator to describe something that is incomprehensible.

As to whether or not Basil thought of the Trinity in terms of Aristotle’s primary and secondary substances, is difficult to determine. Indeed, there are times when Basil sounds as if he is expressing such an idea, specifically when he compares hypostasis and ousia in terms of general and particular. However, as other scholars have noted, physis (i.e., nature) is used by Basil to refer to characteristics that can be shared generally between multiple subjects, whereas ousia cannot be divided, which may indicate that ousia is not taken generically.[59] Unfortunately, Basil also can uses physis as a synonym for ousia. Nonetheless, reading ousia as a secondary substance would mean that the ousia of God/Father could be divided, something both he and the neo-Arians are adamant to deny. That he uses physis and ousia as synonyms may be a hangover from the wide range of meanings that ousia had and against which he is trying to bring clarity. The Son shares the same essence as the Father, not as if it were a piece taken off, but derivatively and without separation because it takes place eternally.[60] Yet, it is not only the Son who derives his ousia from the Father, but the Holy Spirit as well.

Basil’s understanding of the Holy Spirit is best seen in his work, On the Holy Spirit. In it, Basil defends against the Pneumatomachoi (“spirit-fighters”) his use of a doxology, “glory to the Father with the Son with the Holy Spirit,” although the fundamental underlying objection is to the lack of explicit biblical testimony for the divinity of the Spirit.[61] Basil must argue his case in a more roundabout way. First, he deconstructs his opponent’s objection by showing that the prepositions “to,” “through,” and “in” are used throughout Scripture with various subjects and thus one cannot take the prepositions to be a necessary indicator of an essential difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Secondly, Basil argues that if one investigates the actions of the Holy Spirit reported in Scripture, it is clear that he must share the divine essence for it would be impossible for a creature to do what the Holy Spirit does (i.e., prophesy, make holy, etc…). Third, he adapts his argument for the homoousios of the Son and applies it to the Spirit.[62] If one accepts the divinity of the Son, as the Pneumatomachoi did, and part of one’s argument for the divinity of the Son is that he performs certain actions which cannot be done by a creature, then if the Holy Spirit is also attributed such actions he must be equal in essence with the Son. Fourthly, Basil argues from the practice of baptism. It doesn’t makes sense to baptize in the name of God and two creatures (or even one creature for that matter). One is baptized in the faith of the true God, and since the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the referents of baptism, then they must all be God. While he does not explicitly say that the Spirit is God, his arguments leave no other conclusion.

Basil of Caesarea represents a new stage in the development of the Trinity, one that needed to be articulated against a new set of objections in a new context removed in time and space from the events surrounding Nicaea. In doing so, he offered greater clarity of theological vocabulary such as hypostasis, ousia, and homoousios, which would become valuable for later theological discussion. As this understanding developed, new problems began to emerge such as whether or not the Trinity was to be understood in terms of Aristotle’s primary and secondary substance – a point which Basil’s writings leave open for further discussion. Finally, Basil represents the next stage in giving greater clarity to the understanding of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, even though he was still cautious not to directly identify the Holy Spirit as God. This task was left to one of his closest friends and the temporary leader of the Council of Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus.

Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory of Nazianzus, also known as “the Theologian” was a close friend of Basil of Caesarea and briefly the bishop of Constantinople and head of the Council held there in 381. Known for his rhetorical abilities, modern scholarship has often disparaged Gregory as a populizer and propagandist who lacked the theological clout and acuity of Basil and his brother Gregory of Nyssa.[63] However, as one recent assessment argues, while Gregory may not have articulated himself in a systematic way relying on precise philosophical terminology (which would make the job of scholars easier), if one looks beyond the Five Theological Orations to Gregory’s corpus as a whole one sees a unified theological vision of the Trinity.[64] Gregory’s understanding of the Trinity can be approached under three themes: the incomprehensibility of God’s nature, the Father as cause of the Son and Spirit, and the epistemological relevance of the Holy Spirit.

Whether or not one can know the essence of God seems like an esoteric and, pragmatically speaking, irrelevant question. However, with the neo-Arian Eunomius, it could not be divorced from his argument against the divinity of the Son.[65] Basil, and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, responds to this question negatively. One can never know God’s essence. Instead, one can only know God in and through his actions (ejnergei/a). One knows God is good not by having direct access to his essence, but by analyzing God’s actions in the world, past and present.[66] Gregory of Nazianzus, however, takes a different approach. He distinguishes between forms of knowledge in terms of comprehension. Small finite things may be comprehended, or known fully, by finite human minds. Larger things, however, are too grand to be fully grasped and can only be apprehended. One still has knowledge of the object, but it is not comprehensive knowledge. God essence, being so prodigious as he is, is impossible to comprehend. Nonetheless, one may still have essential knowledge of God, only on a very small scale and very difficult to achieve.[67]

Though still sounding esoteric, the problem of the knowledge of God raises two corollary issues, both of which are aspects of his understanding of the Trinity. First, the way one knows God is through the Son and the Holy Spirit.[68] Secondly, in order for the Son and the Holy Spirit to reveal essential knowledge of God, they must both be homoousia with the Father. That is, Gregory must show that the Son and the Holy Spirit distinct in themselves yet equal in essence with the Father, and he does this through the idea of the Monarchy of the Father. Simply put, Gregory balances the individuality and essential equality of the three persons not in terms of hypostasis and ousia but by viewing the Father as the source and cause of the Son and the Holy Spirit.[69] The difficulty with this proposal is that causality is generally taken to imply essential superiority, which would be self-defeating for Gregory. However, Gregory thinks one is able to have the Father as the cause of the Son, and thus in this, and only in this sense, the Father is greater than the Son, while simultaneously having an equality of essence.[70] This is possible because, as with other Christian writers before him, Gregory holds firmly to the doctrine of eternal generation.

Yet, there remains one more problem for Gregory’s proposal, and that is understanding how the three hypostases relate to each other. Contrary to Basil, the unifying feature of the Trinity is not the essence (if the primary/secondary substance reading is accurate of his view). That seems to create a fourth “thing” from which all three hypostasis arise, and it seems to drive a wedge between the ousia and hypostases.[71] Gregory, however, does not place too much weight on the terms ousia and hypostasis, but instead subsumes those categories under the more important term of Father. One must not think of the Father as a hypostasis, who has a divine ousia. The Father is hypostasis and ousia.[72] Thus, one must say that the Son is generated from the Father, without trying to figure out whether it was the Father’s ousia or hypostasis from whence he came. Yet, it is not only the Son who is from the Father, but the Holy Spirit as well. Because Gregory is explaining the Trinity in terms of their relations to the monarchy of the Father, he must invent a new term to balance the begottenness of the Son, and he chooses procession based on John 15:26. Thus, for Gregory, there is unity and diversity within the Trinity because the Father is the source and cause of the Son and Holy Spirit. As source and cause, he is distinguished from the Son and Holy Spirit, but also as such he imparts his own essence to them and so they can then be understood as equal to him. For this reason, Gregory rightly exclaims that in thinking of the one, he immediately perceives the three, and in thinking of the three is immediately drawn back to the one.

That the Holy Spirit is divine is an essential part of Gregory’s Trinitarian vision, and he is more bold than Basil in directly calling the Holy Spirit God. Basil is hesitant because there is no explicit reference in Scripture to the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Gregory recognizes this as well, yet his Trinitarian vision allows him to formulate his answer in a different way. He is particularly cautious about arguing for the divinity of the Holy Spirit by reference to his works. That is, the Holy Spirit does x, only God can do x, therefore the Holy Spirit must be God. Gregory knows that God works through creatures to accomplish great things, things that no creature could do of themselves, so this type of argument to him is weak. This does not mean, however, that he finds no value in them. Taken together with scriptural evidence rightly interpreted, one is on the way to recognizing the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Gregory sees the greatest proof to be in the experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church today, specifically the Holy Spirit’s work of deification in the lives of individual Christians.[73] As the Holy Spirit works, the individual is purified.[74] As they are purified, so they are illuminated into the knowledge of the Son and from Christ into the knowledge of the Father.[75] One could say, then, that this proves the divinity of the Holy Spirit, but to do so would miss Gregory’s point. The greatest proof of the divinity of the Holy Spirit is the direct experience of the Holy Spirit.

Gregory of Nazianzus had a vision of Christian theology and practice which was founded upon and centered around the Trinity. What is said about the Trinity is only a small piece of who and what God is, but it is still knowledge of God nonetheless. That knowledge is that the Father, as the monarchy, has generated both the Son and the Holy Spirit and that though he is greater because of and in reference to that fact, they are all equal in essence for it is from the essence of the Father whence they came. This knowledge is only made possible by the active work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, who purifies and illumines Christians to know the Father through the Son. Gregory fought for this vision throughout his life, even after becoming overwhelmed with political power plays and resigning his seat as bishop of Constantinople and as the head of the council which took place there in 381.

Council of Constantinople

The Council of Constantinople was called by the pro-Nicene emperor Theodosius, possibly in connection with Meletius of Antioch, in 381 meeting throughout May until July. Unfortunately, very little survives from the actual council. There are some descriptions from those who attended, the most detailed being in Gregory of Nazianzus’ poem De vita sua, who presided as head of the council for a short time while he was bishop of Constantinople after Meletius suddenly died. Even the creed that is so commonly associated with the Council is known in the manuscript tradition only from the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Some have questioned because of this whether the creed should be associated with the Council at all, but there exists references coming before Chalcedon to something produced at the Council which “added” to the Nicene Creed. [76] It seems most likely that the Creed really was produced at the Council and sometime before Gregory resigned. As it stands, the creed has many similarities to the creed of Nicaea, yet there are differences both minor and major which reveals something of the theological aim of the Council, namely, the divinity of the Holy Spirit and ecclesiastical unity among the contentious sees.

As it stands, the creed follows the structure of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as did Nicaea with an additional section on the Church, baptism, and the resurrection in the place of the anathemas.

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, make of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Only-begotten, begotten by his Father before all ages, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came into existence, who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens and became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became a man, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures and ascended into the heavens and is seated at the right hand of the Father and will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and there will be no end to his kingdom;

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-giver, who proceeds from the Father, who is worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, who spoke by the prophets;

And in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church;

We confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins;

We wait for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming age. Amen.[77]

First, the minor differences are either additions or omissions to Nicaea which none of the theological parties involved would have quarreled with. These include the statements that the Father is the maker of heaven and earth, the placement of only-begotten after Son of God (instead of after “from the Father”), and the omission of the phrase “the things in heaven and the things on earth” (after “through whom all things were made”). Other minor changes are the phrase “by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” the name of Pontius Pilate, that Jesus was buried, that he rose, and that he will come again. Again, it is hardly possible that any of the theological parties would have substantial quarrels with these changes. Indeed, that such minor changes exist may indicate that the creed is not so much a replacement of Nicaea as much as a supplement or affirmation of it.[78]

Nonetheless, there are significant changes or additions, the most obvious of which is the removal of the anathemas and the addition of the clause on the Holy Spirit which will be dealt with in more detail below. The first significant difference is the removal of the phrase, “from the essence of the Father.” Some have taken this to show a subtle shift to a more “Cappadocian” view of the divine ousia as a generic substance.[79] Unfortunately, as was shown above, there was no unified Cappadocian theory, and whether Basil intended this is unclear. Others see an attempt to assuage the Macedonians who denied that the Spirit is from the essence of the Father, but such pacifying would be utterly ruined by the final clause on the Holy Spirit.[80] If the compilers of the creed saw it in relation to Nicaea, not as a replacement of it, and that the majority of the participants were not Arians or neo-Arians, then too much should not be read into its omission.[81]

The second significant difference is the addition of the phrase, “and there will be no end to his kingdom.” The addition of this phrase at this time indicates that it is a direct confrontation of the teaching of Marcellus of Ancyra. Marcellus had taught on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, though he later recanted, that at the end of all things the Son would give up his kingdom to the Father and, in a sense, be reabsorbed into the divine essence.[82] By inserting this phrase, the authors of the Constantinopolitan creed are indirectly affirming the eternal distinct identity of the Son.

The third and most significant difference between Nicaea and Constantinople is the addition of the extended clause on the Holy Spirit. Previously, Nicaea had only affirmed belief “in the Holy Spirit.” Such a short phrase cannot help but suffer from a wide range of interpretations, and it was at Constantinople that these various interpretations collided.[83] On the one side were the Macedonians who, while confessing the divinity and homoousios of the Son, denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit on account of the lack of specific scriptural testimony. Then there were those who followed a similar position to that of Basil of Caesarea who affirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit but in tentative terms. Finally, there was Gregory of Nazianzus who taught explicitly that the Holy Spirit was God and that anything less was insufficient. Upon examining the wording of the creed of Constantinople, it is clear that there is an affirmation of the worthiness of the Holy Spirit for worship, something with which the Macedonians would have disagreed. Likewise, there is no explicit declaration of the Holy Spirit’s divinity to the liking of Gregory of Nazianzius. This may explain why he became so dissatisfied with the proceedings of the council, for while what they declared was not heretical, they did not express what he saw as the complete picture of the Trinity.[84] It seems likely then, that something more akin to Basil’s approach was taken at the council. The Holy Spirit is not said to be homoousios with the Father, nor from the same essence, but he is said to be worthy of worship, a statement with which the recently deceased Basil would whole-heartedly agree.

By comparing the creed of Constantinople with that produced at Nicaea, one comes to see the specific challenges faced by the 150 bishops presided at Constantinople in 381. While the Arians are still a presence throughout the Mediterranean world, their specific quarrel with the divinity of the Son is fading into the background.[85] The bishops who came to Constantinople heartedly affirmed Nicaea. Different questions loomed over the council, the most important of which was the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Constantinople, however, turned out to be just as political as Nicaea by affirming the divinity of the Holy Spirit in a roundabout way and thus providing an easier transition for those who remained hesitant.


With the Council of Constantinople, a new era of theological discourse began. The controversies to follow could embark to explain in more detail how it was that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could in fact be one and yet three. Yet, three-in-one they were confessed to be. This survey began with the enigmatic Origen whose doctrine of eternal generation would reappear again and again through the controversy. The challenge of Arius followed next, forcing a reexamination of the Scripture, and a reatriculation of theological language. The Council of Nicaea sought to compromise by using nebulous language that cut off only the extreme views of those who believed the Son to be created out of nothing. Athanasius next took up the banner of Nicaea reorganizing the question around the terms Father/Son and homoousia, and placing a priority on the incarnation as the pivotal mediating and saving event. Basil of Caesarea offered further clarification on the terms ousia and hypostasis, while also offering a delicate position on the Holy Spirit. Gregory of Nazianzus made the Trinity the foundation and center of his theological paradigm, centered around the monarchy of the Father and the intuitive experience of the Holy Spirit for the individual Christian. Finally, the Council of Constantinople officially summarized the belief of the Church in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is worthy of worship, and through whom humankind is saved.


Aristotle. Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics. Translated by H. P. Cooke and Hugh Tredennick. Loeb Classical Library 325. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Ayres, Lewis. “Athanasius’ Initial Defense of the Term ÔOmoousioß: Rereading the De    Decretis.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 12, no. 3 (2004), 337-359.

Beeley, Christopher A. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Chin, Catherine M. “Rufinus of Aquileia and Alexandrian Afterlives: Translation as Origenism.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 18, no. 4 (2010), 617-647.

Cross, Richard. “Divine Monarchy in Gregory of Nazianzus.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 14, no. 1 (2006), 105-116.

DelCogliano, Mark. “The Influence of Athanasius and the Homoiousians on Basil of Caesarea’s   Decentralization of ‘Unbegotten’.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 19, no. 2 (2011), 197-223.

Gregg, Robert C. and Dennis E. Groh. Early Arianism– A View of Salvation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.

Hanson, R. P. C. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-       381. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Janowitz, Naomi. “Theories of Divine Names in Origen and Pseudo-Dionysius.” History of Religions 30, no. 4 (1991), 359-372.

Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1978.

Origen. On First Principles. Translated by G. W. Butterworth. Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1973.

Rasimus, Tuomas, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, and Ismo Dunderberg. Stoicism in Early        Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.

Young, Frances M. with Andrew Teal. From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and Its Background. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.


[1] Whether and to what extent Origen influenced Arius will be discussed in the section on Arius below. For a negative assessment of his influence, cf. R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 62-70. For a summary of Origen’s positive influence on Gregory of Nazianus, cf. Christopher A. Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 271-273.

[2] Origen, On First Principles, tr. G. W. Butterworth (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1973), 2.

[3] Rufinus admits to ‘correcting’ errors supposedly inserted into Origen’s writings. Cf. Ibid., lxii-lxiv. However, this must be kept in context of the differing views of textual criticism in Late Antiquity. Cf. Catherine M. Chin, “Rufinus of Aquileia and Alexandrian Afterlives: Translation as Origenism,” JECS 18, no. 4 (2010), 617-647.

[4] For a more detailed summary of Origen’s theory of language, cf. Naomi Janowitz, “Theories of Divine Names in Origen and Pseudo-Dionysius,” HR 30, no. 4 (1991), 360-365.

[5] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1978), 128.

[6] This becomes important for how Origen understands the soul of Christ discussed below.

[7] Cf. Aristotle, Categories 7.6a36-7.8b21 (Cooke, LCL).

[8] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 128.

[9] Hanson, Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, 65-66.

[10] Ibid., 66.

[11] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 128-129.

[12] Hanson, 63-64. Hanson also notes that at this time, there was no clear distinction between ‘coming into existence’ (genh/toß) and being ‘begotten’ (gennhto/ß).

[13] Ibid., 65. Cf. Kelly, 155.

[14] Hanson quoting Orationes contra Arianos I.5-6, cf. Hanson, 12-13.

[15] Hanson reports a total of three letters, a fragment of another, and excerpts from his Thalia (a poem propagating his views). What is more frustrating is that his own “followers” don’t even quote him as an authoritative source! So, one is left with what his enemies (especially Athanasius of Alexandria) claim him to teach. Cf. Hanson, 5-6.

[16] For Arius, as well as Origen and the Greek Christian writers to be discussed later, God is a term applicable only to the Father. Popular Trinitarian theology today often sees the persons of the Trinity as interchangeable for the term ‘God’, but this can make understanding the early Christian understanding of the Trinity difficult. For Origen, Athanasius and the Pro-Nicenes, the Son shares the nature of God and this is what makes him divine. As the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople both being, “We believe in one God, the Father…” Note also that ‘orthodox’ is here being used descriptively for those who would eventually win at Nicaea and after.

[17] Ulfias, Arian bishop of the Goths, gives about 33 titles to the Father in his confession! Cf. Hanson, 105.

[18] R. D. Williams, as Hanson summarizes, claims this conclusion to be more logically consistent with Aristotelianism than with Platonism. He says, “Aristotle’s theory of participation and that of his successors rejected the Platonic theory and substituted one which held that for two substances to participate in each other they had to be identical , on the same level, and to have the same essence, genus, and species.” Hanson, 93. Unfotuantely, at this time Aristotelianism was read through the lens of Platonism (i.e., Porphyry’s interpreation of the Aristotle’s Categories), so how he can so easily distinguish the two is unclear.

[19] Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh, Early Arianism– A View of Salvation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 9. How the Arians understood grace will be discussed below as it is important for the thesis of Gregg and Groh.

[20] Hanson, 92.

[21] Hence Kelly’s claim that this is the fundamental principle of Arianism. Cf. Kelly, 227.

[22] Indeed, before the controversy, Arius taught the Bible in Alexandria. For a summary of Arius’ influences, cf. Hanson, 60-98.

[23] Frances M. Young and Andrew Teal, From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and Its Background, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 46.

[24] Hanson, 13.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Hanson, 15.

[27] Their argument is premised by positing a Stoic influence on Arius’ thought, and while Hanson is correct to note that there is a lack of Stoic terminology (but the presence of Middle Platonic and Aristotelian terminology) in Arius’ writings (cf. Hanson, 97), his objection is weak. First, as noted above, the Arians were adamant about basing their beliefs on Scripture. Indeed, one of the arguments against the orthodox was their use of non-scriptural language. Also, one must also factor in the broader cultural influence that Stoicism had prior to the rise of Middle Platonic (even as early as Philo) and Neoplatonic thought which would have firmly ingrained its concepts enough to be accepted without the necessity of technical terminology. Cf. Troels Engberg-Pedersen, “Setting the Scene: Stoicism and Platonism in the Transitional Period in Ancient Philosophy,” in Stoicism in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 1-14.

[28] Hanson, 121-122.

[29] Gregg and Groh, 28.

[30] And this only after his initial attempt to quell what he called a “controversy of futile irrelevance.” Letter to Alexander and Arius quoted in Hanson, 137.

[31] Hanson, 155-156. On the influence of Constantine on the council, cf. Hanson, 171.

[32] Over time, the number 318 became associated with the council, but that is more of a theological statement of the victors (its the same number of men Abraham took to rescue Lot in Genesis 14:14), than a historical one.

[33] Hanson, 163. For the Greek, cf. Hanson, 876.

[34] It is difficult to grasp the meaning of Hanson’s description: “It meant on the whole ‘realization turning into appearance’, but with this distinction that to Stoics each thing counted as non-existent before its realization, whereas to the Platonists (that is the neo-Platonists), the ground of the existence of each thing before its realization is ‘more than existing’. Cf. Hanson, 182.

[35] Indeed, Hebrews 1:3 may have this passage in mind. The other occurrences in the LXX are: Deut. 1:12, 11:6; Jud. 6:4; Ruth 1:12; 1 Sam. 13:21, 23, 14:4; Job 22:20; Ps. 39:6, 69:3, 89:48, 139:15; Jer. 10:17, 23:22; Ezek. 19:5, 26:11, Nah. 2:8. Cf. Hanson, 182.

[36] Hanson, 183.

[37] Hanson, 184.

[38] Hanson, 191.

[39] Hanson, 198-201. Hanson also notes that Eusebius, who didn’t like the term homoousia, portrays Ossius in a positive light in his Life of Constantine. More so, it is likely that una substantia (which Tertullian would have taken as a material substance) was taken at the Council of Serdica in 343 to mean ‘one hypostasis.” Cf. Hanson, 201.

[40] Hanson, 201.

[41] This is not to say that Basil and Gregory were heirs of an “Athanasian” tradition. The complexities of Athanasius’ influence will be discussed briefly for both Basil and Gregory. What is important to note here is that Athansius’ work literally changed the terms of the debate and it is these changes which Basil and Gregory both engage, adopt, and adapt for their own purposes.

[42] For Athanasius and those before him, there was little difference between agennetos/gennetos (unbegotten/begotten) and agenetos/genetos (ingenerate/generate).

[43] Some passages that Athanasius uses are John 14:9-10, 10:30; Matthew 6:9 (cf. Luke 11:2); and Matthew 28:19.

[44] Hanson, 432.

 [45] Ibid., 433.

[46] Mark DelCagliano, “The Influence of Athanasius and the Homoiousians on Basil of Caeasarea’s Decentralizaiton of ‘Unbegotten’.” JECS 19, no. 2 (2011), 213-214.

[47] At least this is how Athanasius paints the picture in De Synodis. Cf. Lewis Ayres, “Athanasius’ Initial Defense of the Term ÔOmoousioß: Rereading the De Decretis,” JECS 12, no. 3 (2004), 355-357. On p. 356, Ayres clarifies that Basil of Ancyra (a leading homoiousian) never uses the phrase “of the Father’s essence” but that Athanasius understands his affirmations that the Son is “Wisdom from Wisdom” to imply the same thing.

[48] Hanson, 443-444. Hanson is here quoting from Christopher Stead’s work, Divine Substance, in which Stead notes that Athanasius never uses homoousia to refer to the Father. It is always the Son who is homoousia with the Father. More so, this is not the sense of numerical identity as it was to become later. Hanson quotes Stead saying, “The idea is not one of a single reality, but of organic continuity…On the whole then, we may conclude that in using homousios Athanasius did not mean the equal dignity of the Father and Son as members of the same species, and he did not mean that the Father and Son possessed numerical identity, though he moved further in that direction than his predecessors.”

[49] It wasn’t until sometime after 362 that he would have considered the issue and even then, it didn’t play a major part in his theology. Cf. Hanson 447-455.

[50] It was common for the Arians and earlier Christians to see the Son and Holy Spirit as mediators; the Son of creation and the Holy Spirit of Christians (as, for example, in Origen). Athanasius forces the hand of the Tropici (as they were called) to admit that if they can accept the divinity of the Son (as he understood it), then there is no need for another mediator and thus the Holy Spirit cannot be a creature.

[51] For a discussion on Athanasius’ influence on Basil, cf. Mark DelCogliano, “The Influence of Athanasius and the Homoiousians on Basil of Caesarea’s Decentralization of ‘Unbegotten,” JECS 19, no. 2 (2011), 197-223. DelCogliano notes that while there are similarities between Athanasius and Basil, there is significant divergence in the specific arguments proffered by both. This difference can be explained, he argues, by the influence of key Homoiousians Basil of Ancyra and Greorge of Laodicea. Basil of Caesarea shows influence and divergence from both parties.

[52] I.e., ‘generic’ and ‘particular’ as in people sharing the generic essence of humanity but existing as particular individuals. This will be discussed in more detail below.

[53] Hanson quotes Basil as defining hypostasis as “that which presents and circumscribes that which is general and uncircumscribed within any object by means of the peculiarities which are manifested,” 690.

[54] Hanson, 692-693.

[55] Ibid., 694.

[56] Basil still understands the Father to be the cause (ἀρχέ) of the Trinity.

[57] DelCogliano, “Influence of Athanasius,” 219-220. Basil also clearly defines a father as “he who provides to another the beginning of beginning to a nature similar to his own,” 221. While reading some aspects of fatherhood into God (i.e., that a father was at one time a son) is erroneous, there is an essential feature of the term which much be retained, namely, the derivation of essence.

[58] Eunomious thought that on could comprehensively know God’s essence. Cf. Hanson, 689,

[59] Hanson, 697.

[60] Hanson, in his usually verbose way, articulates Basil’s positions as, “a doctrine of God as a single ousia with three distinct sets of recognizable proprieties or peculiarities (gnwristikai\ ijdio/thteß (Adv. Eunom. II.28)), each set forming an authentically existing hypostasis, the whole bound together inseparably in a common ousia or nature, no hypostasis being subordinate to or less than the others, but the Second and Third deriving from the First as their source or ultimate principle.” 699.

[61] They argue that it is more appropriate to use the “traditional” phrase, “glory to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit,” which uses different prepositions to indicate a clear distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is, all glory goes to the Father alone and the Son and Holy Spirit are instruments by which creatures glorify the Father.

[62] Even though he is hesitant to use the term homoousios for the Spirit. Cf. Hanson, 776.

[63] As Hanson comments, “Gregory can be said to display no great originality…His articulation of Trinitarian doctrine id clearer, rather more forceful and expressive than that of his friend, as becomes a great stylist, but that is all.” 714.

[64] Christopher A. Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). His entire book is a polemic against the prevailing scholarly consensus on Gregory.

[65] Cf. the section on Basil above. Eunomius has a strong correlation between the nature of language and terminology and epistemology. Names reveal the essences of things, thus if one knows the name, one knows the essence in its entirety. For him, the primary name of God is “unbegotten” which he argues precludes the possibility of a essential relationship between God and Jesus. Hanson, 630.

[66] Hanson, 689. This distinction will be important for later writers such as Gregory of Palamas.

[67] The mechanics of purification and illumnation, while interesting, are beyond the scope of this paper and are dealt with in more detail in Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, 65-110.

[68] The details of this will be discussed below under the section on the Holy Spirit.

[69] There is no consensus on Gregory’s views on the monarchy of the Father. Beeley (who will be followed in this paper) argues throughout his book that it was Gregory’s central organizing feature, where others see it as either a bit of rhetorical flair or an isolated instance in the Eunomian debates. For a balanced alternative to Beeley, cf. Richard Cross, “Divine Monarchy in Gregory of Nazianzus,” JECS 14, no. 1 (2006), 105-116.

[70] This allows Gregory to handle the difficult biblical texts used by the Arians in a more consistent way than Athanasius’ appeal to the incarnation which required significant ability in hermeneutical gymnastics to make coherent.

[71] Which may be tied back to Basil’s distinction between knowing God’s essence and knowing his actions.

 [72] Beeley, 212.

[73] Also called theosis. Deification is a misleading name since people don’t become gods and cease to be human, or loose their individuality in the divine essence. This is Gregory’s soteriology which sees salvation as a healing of the human nature by divine power begun in this life and never completed until the resurrection. Christ healed human nature (creating the potential for salvation), and the Holy Spirit actualizes that healing at the individual level. Cf. Beeley, 180.

[74] Gregory believes that the only way to know the Holy is to be Holy. Thus, the individual must be purified in order to be illumined. Knowledge of God, then, can never be a type of rational proof. Cf. Beeley, 65-110.

[75] Beeley puts it aptly, “The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is thus the epistemic principle of all knowledge of God in Christ.” 179. Or, more elaborately, “While the effect of the Spirit is to divinize Christians, the content and structure of that divinization is to bring about the transforming knowledge of God in Christ, so that the recognition of the Spirit’s divinity is the confession that the very means of the knowledge of God in Christ is itself God––that Christians see God from God in God (31.3).” 180.

[76] For a summary of the issue, cf. Hanson, 812-815. The Creed of Constantinople’s relation to the Nicene Creed will be discussed in more detail below.

[77] Hanson, 816.

[78] Hanson, 819-820.

[79] Hanson, 817.

[80] Hanson, 818.

[81] Hanson also notes that the Nicene Creed had not become a part of the worship services and so not producing a word for word replica of Nicaea was not a problem for the compilers of Constantinople. They are affirming the essence of Nicaea. Ibid.

[82] “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ but when it says, ‘all things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subejcte3d to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all,” (ESV).

[83] There was also fierce political battles between the major sees of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople, which themselves cause no little confusion. Rome and Alexandria, who had grown close, disliked Antioch and were suspicious of Constantinople for their association with Meletius of Antioch (cf. Hanson, 810). It goes without saying that the feeling was mutual due to the betrayal of Gregory by Maximus (an Alexandrian) and the power-hungry politics of Damasus of Rome. Indeed, the council began before any of the Egyptian party arrived, and when they did arrive, they tried to reopen all that had already been settled. Yet, the politics had little to do with the actual doctrinal controversies to be outlined. The list isn’t so much a list of parties attending, but a general summary of the rival theological positions that were prevalent at the time of the council and to which the council sought to address.

[84] In his poem De vita sua, Gregory says that, “The mediating doctrine was indeed orthodox, but was an offspring quite different from its parents,” (i.e., Nicaea). Cf. Hanson, 815.

[85] Of course, it helps when the Emperor, Theodosius, proclaims himself to be pro-Nicaean and outlaws heretical groups from meeting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s