The Trinity in the 4th Century-Part 4

The Trinity in the 4th Century-Part 4

by David Burke

Upon Constantine’s death in AD 337, the empire was divided among his three sons: Constantine II,[1] Constantius II,[2] and Constans.[3] Each convened local councils to uphold localised versions of orthodoxy. Arianism became increasingly refined during this period[4] and benefited from the deaths of the two Nicene emperors.[5] Having outlived his brothers, Constantius II established Arianism as official Christology throughout the empire[6] but was killed en-route to fight his half-uncle Julian the Apostate, in AD 361.

Reigning for only two years, Julian was a pagan who tried to restore paganism as the state religion of Rome. During this period three Cappadocians emerged as champions of the Athanasian legacy: Gregory Nazianzen,[7] Gregory of Nyssa, and his brother, Basil of Caesarea.[8] Today they are known as the Cappadocian Fathers.

Following almost two decades of political unrest, Theodosius I came to power as co-Augustus of the East in AD 378. With the assent of his fellow rulers, he declared Nicene Christology the only orthodox position of the church[9] and convened a new ecumenical council at Constantinople in AD 381. This was necessitated by inadequacies in the Nicene Creed, which had neither elaborated on the nature of the Holy Spirit nor defined an explicit Trinity. A lack of definitive vocabulary made it difficult to work through these issues and establish consensus.[10] The Cappadocian Fathers proposed a delineation between “essence” and “being.” Under their definition, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate beings,[11] each with his own individual characteristics. But they are one and the same in “essence.” It was Basil of Caesarea who provided the critical breakthrough, affirming that Jesus and the Holy Spirit both shared the Father’s nature.[12] Yet he could not bring himself to deify the Holy Spirit unequivocally[13] (a prejudice widely shared by the common people[14]).

In AD 451, the Council of Chalcedon finally hammered the Trinity into its current shape: three distinct persons sharing one divine essence, following the Cappadocians’ formulae. This somewhat anticlimactic event marked the end of an era. It had taken three and a half centuries to achieve a definitive post-apostolic Christology.[15]


[1] A “Nicene Christian”

[2] “Arian”

[3] Another “Nicene Christian”

[4] The 4th Arian Confession (AD 341) affirms Jesus’ eternal existence as a product of the Father’s own subsistence: “But those who say, that the Son was from nothing, or from other subsistence and not from God, and, there was time when He was not, the Catholic Church regards as aliens.” (Athanasius, De Synodis, 25. LPNF, ser. 2, vol. 4, 462.) The 5th Arian Confession (AD 344) goes even further: “But those who say, (1) that the Son was from nothing, or from other subsistence and not from God; (2) and that there was a time or age when He was not, the Catholic and Holy Church regards as aliens... Nor may we, adopting the hazardous position, ‘There was once when He was not,’ from unscriptural sources, imagine any interval of time before Him...” Athanasius, De Synodis, 26. LPNF, ser. 2, vol. 4, 462-464.

[5] Constantine II was killed in battle against Constans in AD 340 while Constans was murdered by a former bodyguard in AD 350.

[6] It was of this period that Jerome would later write, “The whole world woke up and groaned to find itself Arian” The Dialogue Against the Luciferians, 19.

[7] Also known as Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory the Theologian.

[8] Also known as Basil the Great.

[9] “Theodosius declared that true Christians were those who believed in ‘the single divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within an equal majesty and an orthodox Trinity.’ He named Damasus of Rome and Peter of Alexandria as examples of episcopal orthodoxy and labelled Arians and other dissenters as heretical madmen deserving punishment.” Rubenstein, R. E. 2000. When Jesus Became God. Harcourt: San Diego, CA, p.220.

[10] “Even great theologians such as Athanasius still used terms like ‘essence’ (ousia) and ‘being’ (hypostasis)  interchangeably, sometimes exchanging these words with other terms like ‘person’ (prosopon.) The Nicene Creed itself anathematised not only those who denied that the Father and son were ‘one in essence’ but those who denied that the Father and son were one in ‘being’.” Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, p. 206.

[11] Though not in a strictly ontological sense; in other words, they are not three separate and individual beings.

[12] “Adopting an idea of Origen’s that easterners would appreciate, Basil of Caesarea described Jesus as a ‘sharer of [God’s] nature, not created by fiat, but shining out continuously from his ousia.’ And the Holy Spirit, which the Arians and some Nicenes considered a principle or person lower down the scale of divinity than either the Father or Son, shares that same divine essence. The Holy Spirit, that is, a third individual being (or Person) ‘consubstantial’ with the Father and the Son.” Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, p.206.

[13] “It is therefore notable that, while adopting formulae and language which plainly imply the substantial Trinity, Basil does not write of the Holy Spirit as ‘God’ or as ‘consubstantial with the Father.’ So in a letter asserting the one essence, he concludes ‘God the Father’ and ‘God the Son’ (Gk theon huion), but ‘the divine Holy Spirit’ (Gk to theion pneuma to hagion). He does not want to expose his case to the retort that it adds unbiblical titles to the Spirit, though there can be no doubt about what he believes.” Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, pp.158-159.

[14] “But, they go on, what have you to say about the Holy Ghost? From whence are you bringing in upon us this strange God, of Whom Scripture is silent? ...Now the subject of the Holy Spirit presents a special difficulty, not only because when these men have become weary in their disputations concerning the Son, they struggle with greater heat against the Spirit…” Oration XXXII, The Fifth Theological Oration; On the Holy Spirit, 1.

[15] “Brought into the open were tensions that had lain underneath the theological surface for years, and it is as the catalyst of this situation Arius is known in hindsight. Therefore, in this sense the popular ecclesial description of Arius as ‘arch-heretic,’ or as the founder of archetypal Christian deviation, something aimed at the heart of the Christian confession, is not a wholly fair one...” McDowell, J. C. 1994. Arius: A Theological Conservative Persecuted? Retrieved 12.05.12, from:

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