The Trinity in the 4th Century-Part 3

The Trinity in the 4th Century-Part 3

by David Burke

By AD 325 there was still no resolution in sight and Constantine’s patience was exhausted. He summoned every bishop in the empire to an ecumenical[1] council at his summer palace in Nicaea, where a new Christian creed would be drafted for the entire church. Attendance is open to debate. Eusebius says more than 250 bishops attended. Athanasius gives the figure of 300 on one occasion but amends this to 318 in another account. Eustathius claims “over 270.”[2] Christians of a much later period settled on Athanasius’ second estimate of 318[3] (no less than six subsequent church councils recalled this number and appealed to it as authoritative.)[4] Wand is one of many who observe a connection to Genesis 14:14,[5] while Davis points out that in Greek, 318 is a cipher for “TIH,” widely interpreted by early Christians as representative of Jesus and the cross.[6] Symbolism was often more important to the ancients than numerical precision.

Representation at Nicaea was grossly unbalanced, with a negligible Western contingent. Only four or five bishops from the Latin church were able to attend, not counting Hosius of Cordoba and the two Roman presbyters Vitus and Vincent, who attended as the delegates of Silvester I. The remaining company was composed of Eastern bishops. Chief among them were Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius (Bishop of the Syrian capital), Marcellus of Ancyra and Macarius of Jerusalem—all stridently opposed to the Arian view. On their side, Arius and his friends were led by the irrepressible Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia and his brilliant namesake, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. Contemporary accounts claim the pro-Arian faction seized initiative almost immediately, proposing a creed which incorporated essential elements of Arianism. But violent protest arose from the opposing side; bishops read aloud passages from Arius’ work, arguing his formulations were extreme and intolerable to the majority.

Eusebius of Caesarea intervened with a compromise, recommending the acceptance of the baptismal creed employed in his diocese. While this was recognized as being orthodox by Constantine and the majority of the bishops, there were a few who disagreed. Debate raged over the significance of the word homoousios (“one in being”[7]) which was rejected by both Arian and anti-Arian Eastern bishops, but preferred by the Latins. Eusebius of Caesarea records that Constantine himself settled the debate, declaring homoousios was the definitive orthodox term.[8] Ironically, this word originated in Greek philosophy and had been anathematized at the Council of Antioch.[9] Now it became the lynchpin of the Nicene Creed, which refuted Arianism in explicit terms.[10] Henceforth, those who accepted the Creed were known as “Nicenes.” Only three attendees refused to sign it: Arius himself, and the bishops Theonas and Secundus, who confessed his Christology. They were excommunicated and exiled to Illyria. Yet, Arius’ doctrine continued to spread, for it had not been countered in any serious way.[11]

The task of defending the Nicene Creed fell to Athanasius, successor to Alexander of Alexandria. Controversially appointed as Bishop of Alexandria in AD 328 while still less than thirty years old,[12] he was influenced by Western theologians he had met in Rome during a politically advantageous flight from his diocese. Infamous for his use of violence and intimidation against opponents, Athanasius became leader of the Nicene faction, openly defying Constantine and mocking the Arians as “Ariomaniacs.” Exiled five times over seventeen years (largely for political reasons), he was supported by the desert monks of Egypt and numerous firebrands among the Alexandrian clergy. Although despised for his unscrupulous methods, Athanasius was never accused of heresy. He began the attack on Arius with his famous book On the Incarnation, which deals with the fall of man and his need of a saviour. Instead of arguing Arius’ proof-texts, Athanasius sought to demonstrate that the logic of the Scriptures as a whole made the incarnation of Christ inevitable.

Athanasius was not so concerned with the expression of theology as he was with the preservation of its principles. He defended the Nicene Creed because in his mind the alternative—Arianism—constituted an unintelligible attempt to explain the reconciliation of God to man. According to Arius, the Logos was simply manifested in Christ the Son, but Athanasius was convinced that unless the Son was considered co-eternal and co-equal with the Father he could have no personal relationship with the beings he came to save. Following their victory in AD 325, the Nicenes found it difficult to maintain imperial support. Constantine’s favour swung back and forth between Arian and Nicene parties as he struggled to contain their destructive influences.

At some point the emperor must have realized that the Council of Nicaea had failed. Its consensus was a sham, and the divisions he had hoped to repair were even deeper than before. In AD 332, he reconciled with Arius and embraced a revised version of Arianism himself. By AD 336, four councils had declared Arius orthodox, and preparations were made to receive him into the church. Unfortunately he died on the night before his formal reconciliation, leaving Athanasius to gloat over the corpse with snide allusions to Judas.[13] Many Nicenes hoped this would bring an end to the heresy but Arius was no longer central to Arianism and his Christology had developed its own momentum.


[1] “Worldwide.” This word is derived from the Greek οἰκουμένη, meaning ‘the inhabited world.’ In ancient times it referred specifically to the Roman world.

[2] Modern estimates lie between 200 and 330; the most commonly accepted is 225.

[3] Evagrius, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome & Rufinus.

[4] “How many came? There exist lists of the bishops who signed the final creed and canons, but none seems to be complete or in full agreement with another... Soon after, however, the symbolic number 318 was assigned to the Council, the number of Abraham’s armed servants in Genesis 14:14, a number which in Greek read TIH, symbol of the Cross and Jesus. These 318 of Nicaea will be appealed to in the six subsequent general councils.” Davis, Leo D. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787), Their History and Theology, 1994, Michael Glazier, Inc.: Wilmington, Delaware, pp.57-58.

[5] “It was attended by about 300 bishops; Eustathius gives the number as 270, while popular prejudice preferred the number 318, but that was probably arrived at through the mystical connexions of the number of the armed servants of Abraham (Gen. xiv 14).” Wand, J. W. C. 1965. A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500, Methuen Publishing Limited: London, p.153.

[6] This was a pre-Nicene tradition; we find it as early as the Epistle of Barnabas (9:7-9).

[7] The alternative was “homoiousius,” meaning “similar in being.” This was the term favoured by Arians. Homoousios defined Father and Son as one being sharing identical substance; homoiousius defined them as separate, individual beings of similar substance. Thus the new creed would declare that the Father and Son are two persons who share identical substance as one being.

[8] Historians generally agree the decision was made by Hosius of Córdoba, who allowed the emperor to take credit for political reasons. Constantine’s native language was Latin, and there is no indication that he ever truly understood the theological minutiae of this highly complex debate.

[9] The Council of Antioch was one of three local councils convened in opposition to, a 3rd Century proto-Adoptionist. His teachings were unequivocally condemned.

[10] “The catholic and apostolic church condemns those who say concerning the Son of God that ‘there was a time when he was not’ or ‘he did not exist before he was begotten’ or ‘he came to be from nothing’ or who claim that he is of another subsistence (hypostasis) or essence (ousia), or a creation (ktistos), or changeable (alloiōtos), or alterable (treptos).” Nicene Creed in contemporary English, retrieved 12.05.12 from:

[11] “The anathema at the end attacks a series of statements believed to be Arian. In fact Arius could evade most of them. There is no evidence he actually wrote ‘There was when he was not.’ He would certainly deny ‘alterable’ or ‘mutable,’ as we have seen. He appears to have written ‘before he was begotten, he was not,’ and, ‘he is from nothing’ (Letter to Eusebius, Theodoret, HE 1.5.4 [New Eusebius 325]); but even there ‘from nothing’ may be what he is accused of and not what he admits to asserting (note what follows, ‘this we do say, that he is neither part of God nor of any lower essence.’) ‘Created’ he did say, but it is not in the original text [of the Nicene Creed].” Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, p.131.

[12] Contrary to church tradition, which mandated 30 as the minimum age of a bishop; perhaps in emulation of Christ.

[13] “...Arius, who had great confidence in the Eusebians, and talked very wildly, urged by the necessities of nature withdrew, and suddenly, in the language of Scripture, falling headlong he burst asunder in the midst [Acts 1:18], and immediately expired as he lay, and was deprived both of communion and of his life together.” To Serapion, concerning the death of Arius, 3.

David Burke is a Christadelphian pastor with 25 years of experience in public speaking, formal debating, and teaching biblical exegesis.