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A study of the Arian debate and the Trinitarian controversy from AD 360-380.

The history

Framing in a picture of the Trinitarian controversy between ad 360 and 380 must begin with a step back three years to 357, when a small group of bishops whose precise identity remains something of a mystery,R.P.C. Hanson posits the six-bishop attendance list of Germinius of Sirmium, Valens, Ursacius, Potamius of Lisbon, Ossius, and Mark of Arethusa, with the possible addition of George of Alexandria; Hanson, Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, 343-4.  Sozomenus (HE 4.16.1-16) additionally offers the name of Basil of Ancyra, but this is unlikely: he has apparently copied Socrates’ listing of attendees from the 351 council of Sirmium (Socrates, HE 4.76). met at Sirmium in the second council to be held at that location since the onset of the Arian debates. Its production of the Second Sirmian Confession, which by at least 378 was formally referred to by pro-Nicenes as ‘the Blasphemy of Sirmium’,Possibly as early as 360; cf. the title to Hilary, De Synodis 2.  Hanson, however, rightly questions the originality of this title, which could easily be a later insertion. had perhaps unwittingly set the tone for the future of the entire Arian controversy: so strong was its tone, so obvious and forward were its open attacks on Nicea, that by its reflection members on all sides of the debate could see more clearly than ever where they stood. The middle-of-the-road Arians therein adopted a general formula slightly modified from Arius’ original views and more in line with Western Arianism, but were so dramatically anti-Nicene that the pro-Nicenes would see in the Confession proof that there could never be any rapport between them. Extreme Arians, on the other hand, especially those beginning to formulate the Neo-Arian views that would soon be formalised by Aetius and Eunomius, will have been horrified at the lack of philosophical sophistication of the Confession and its unbending proclamation of the unknowability of the Father to all but the Son. They, too, could never agree to such a statement of belief. The Second Council of Sirmium polarised and divided members of the controversy, but perhaps for the first time in the debate’s now 39-year-old history, the Confession divided them into a relatively small number of devoted and—thanks to the extreme character of ‘the Blasphemy’—even more notably patriotic camps. Past overtures of reconciliation would begin to fade away. Compromise began, finally, to be seen as an impossibility: only one view could survive and win the day for the controversy as a whole.

Yet the formation and definition of which groups precisely would battle out the debate to its end was by no means complete, and there were still one or two more attempts at mediation to be made. Homoian Arianism, for some time favoured by Constantius, combined with the rapidly spreading onset of the Neo-Arianism of Aetius (who had not published is Syntagmation by the time of the Second Sirmian Council, yet whose ideas were nonetheless becoming knownSo says Hanson, Search p. 348.) were seen by Basil of Ancyra and others as threats to the future of the Arian cause. The group known as Homoiousians (or less accurately the ‘Semi-Arians’) soon arose under his influence, and its attempt at a compromise midway between the Homoousians on the one hand, and the Neo-Arians and Homoians on the other, soon gained the favour of the Emperor. A council in 358, again at Sirmium, marked out the influence of this group, but it was at the ‘Dated Creed’ of 359, intended as a document for separate consideration by Eastern and Western bishops in Constantius’ split council, that made the most potent presentation of Homoiousian influence on the larger spirit of the controversy. Claiming that the Son is ‘like the Father in all respects’ (o3moion kata\ pa/nta) and speaking strongly against the use of ou0si/a and its compounds in theological discussion, the Dated Creed nonetheless stops short of abandoning these altogether, going so far as to anathematise the Anomoeans. It is a concept theoretically pleasing to both the Homoians and the Homoiousians (though in the end the former benefited most from the creed), less offensive than past creeds to the pro-Nicenes, and entirely untenable to the extreme Neo-Arians (precisely its intent). Yet the notion of the Son being ‘like in substance’ (o3moioj katou0si/an) would not ultimately satisfy the pro-Nicenes, for even Basil of Ancyra was willing to admit that ‘that which is like can never be the same as that to which it is like’Recorded in Epiphanius, Panarion 73.8.8.; and Constantius did not fully appreciate the influence of the rising Neo-Nicene movement. The Homoiousian party, despite its profound influence upon the controversy and especially the thought of the Cappadocian Fathers, would ultimately fail and fall away.Its influence as a party was all but destroyed through the proclamation of the Creed of Nice in 359. The Neo-Arians, standing alongside but certainly not in concord with the lingering Homoians, would remain. For the final years of the conflict, the battle would be primarily between the Nicenes and the Eunomians.

So the situation from 360, when a council at Constantinople proclaimed the victory of the Homoian party over the Homoiousians. Proponents of the latter group were deposed and exiled, and with Constantius’ return to the Homoian party, it was proclaimed loudly throughout the Empire. Jerome’s famous statement that the world ‘awoke with a groan to find itself Arian’,Jerome, Dialogus contra Luciferianos 19. made in response to the proclamations of the split council, can hardly have been too far off in its sentiments: it must genuinely have seemed that the Arians had won the day. But the Arianism that now seemed stronger than ever within the Empire, was itself splitting apart. The Homoians were directly challenged by the Neo-Arians who, with the publication of Aeitius’ Syntagmation in 359 or 360,The precise date is uncertain; cf. n. 51 in Hanson, Search p. 610. now had a precise philosophical grounding on which to base their arguments. This philosophical basis would prove a two-edged sword for the Neo-Arians as a group, for it gave them their strongest arguments in the intense debate that ensued with the pro-Nicenes and especially the Cappadocians, yet it was so intellectual and academic that it never had the hold over the common populous that the more straightforward Homoian doctrine was able to obtain. ‘Eunomius’, Hanson wrote, ‘is interesting for his own sake, but not because he was representative of the thought of the church of his day’.Hanson, Search p. 636. This may be to understate Eunomius’ (and the Neo-Arian’s) influence to some degree, yet it is accurate in its betrayal of the fact that the Arian debate had become to intricately philosophical at its end that it was beyond the general understanding of the larger part of the church.

Constantius’ death at the end of 361 wrought a radical change to the character of the Trinitarian controversy. Julian, to whom he had bequeathed the entirety of the Empire on his deathbed, was far less interested in ecclesiastical affairs than had been his predecessor. Constantius’ continual interjection into and influence upon the Arian debates was over; state control over the theological dispute dramatically decreased (though it will have remained at a standard which, from a contemporary perspective, seems unusually high), and the activity of resolving the controversy was moved more fully into the scope of the church. Whether this made the conflict any less ‘political’ is an impossible question, but it was now primarily church politics rather than politics of the imperial court. The three remaining camps, the Homoians, the Neo-Arians and the pro-Nicenes, would have to battle out the remainder of the debate on their own merits and not on the weight of the Emperor’s favour.

The theology

Even so brief an historical survey of the period leading up to and during the years 360-380 as that offered above, betrays the great complexity of ecclesiastical and theological controversy during the period. The force of the Arian debate was intense not only because of the energetic involvement of Constantius, but, and more fundamentally, because the main theological issue at stake was nothing less than the very conception of God within the Christian Church. Though Nicea had attempted to answer the questions surrounding the notion of Trinity in 325, the attempt at a final solution offered in its Creed proved unsuccessful in quieting the multiple dissident voices of its generation and those immediately to follow. Where Chalcedon would much later be faced with such a daunting question as ‘Who or what is Christ?’, the post-Nicene era struggled with the even bigger ‘Who or what is God?’ Though the political aspect of the Trinitarian controversy is unquestionable, one must not overlook the genuine need for theological clarification that was at its heart. Individual bishops may have had political influences and aspirations motivating their particular activities to varying degrees, but it is doubtful that the majority of them was not driven by a true desire to clarify and preserve the very heart of Christian doctrine.

Within our current timeframe (c. ad 360-380), the three primary theological camps were those of the aforementioned Homoian Arians, Neo-Arians and pro-Nicenes. Though the Homoiousians were to exert a considerable influence up through the Council of Constantinople in 381 and then far beyond through their influence upon the Cappadocians, the thrust of their activity as a distinct group had already largely died down by 360 and thus a specifically Homoiousian theological doctrine will not be addressed in this limited paper. Additionally, space and time considerations must force a detailed investigation of the pro-Nicene party into the scope of another paper, for that group had a unique and complicated history all its own. The present text will examine the doctrines of the two Arian groups that dominated the twenty-year span immediately preceding the Second Ecumenical Council.

Homoian Arianism

Hanson rightly notes that the key concept in Homoian Arianism is that of God’s incomparability.Ibid., p. 563. One of the Mai/Gryson fragments proclaims that ‘the Father is a unique simple spirit, alone good, alone possessing immortality and dwelling in light inapproachable’,Mai/Gryson fragment 19. and that with respect to this unique, individual transcendence, the Son ‘cannot be compared to the Father, nor can the Spirit be compared to the Son’. There is an incomprehensibility to the transcendent deity which effectively prevents any detailed comparison of attributes between the Father and his subordinate Son and Spirit (the Homoians were unequivocally subordinationists, as revealed in the Sirmian creed of 357). To claim, for example, that the Father and Son are ‘like according to substance’ (o3moioj katou0si/an) is to introduce a conceptual comparability into theological discussion which, in the thought of the Homoian Arians, went beyond the witness of Scripture. In fact, to speak of ou0si/a at all, as was almost universally recognised, is to theologise beyond the precise record of Scripture; but where other groups (most notably the pro-Nicenes, but also to some degree the Homoiousians) felt the term and its cognates to be helpful in the explanation of what Scripture leaves somewhat vague, the Homoians were steadfast in assiduously avoiding these terms altogether. Discussion on the Son’s existence from the Father’s ousia was, for them, ‘impertinent speculation’.Hanson’s characterisation, Search p. 560. P. Rousseau notes rightly that ‘they were content, more or less, to say merely that the Son was “like” the Father (o3moioj)’.P. Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea p. 97.

In this contentedness with describing the persons of the Trinity as ‘like’ without further qualification, the Homoians demonstrated themselves to have modified Arius’ own doctrines in the formulation of their own, for Arius had certainly spoken of God’s ou0si/a. For this modification there will have been several motivating factors: the rise of the Neo-Arian movement following Aetius and Eunomius, often characterised in its own day as ‘anomoean’ or teaching that the Father and Son are unlike one another, was in the Homoian view to push the Arian cause too far: certainly there are some rather obvious respects in which the two are indeed similar. The pro-Nicenes were too far in the opposite direction, their support of homoousios creating the same problems for the Homoians as it had for Arius. Even the middlemen, the Homoiousians, they saw as problematic: the presence of ou0si/a in o9moiou/sioj was overly speculative and un-Scriptural. If they saw Arius as having been right in his correction of what they believed to be a dangerous discussion of the ousias of the Father and the Son, they saw him as having erred in not going far enough to eliminate discussion of divine substance altogether.

Thus the ‘simpler’ method of leaving out discussion on substance altogether and insisting only on the ‘likeness’ of the Son to the Father. But here, too, the great problem with Homoian thought: what does it actually mean to say that the Son is ‘like’ the Father? At the end of the day, does this phrase in fact mean anything at all, or is it so vague a concept as to mean nothing in particular? Obviously, the Homoians believed it served certain necessary functions: it stopped short of Anomoeanism in maintaining a certain likeness between the Father, Son and Spirit, thereby guarding for the Homoians the status of each of these as beyond and above that of the rest of creation and equally protecting them from the charge of tritheism. More importantly, they felt that the term ‘like’ safeguarded against Sabellianism and other modalistic theologies, following a line of thought similar to that of Basil of Ancyra’s statement that things like unto each other cannot thereby be the same as one another.See full quotation above.  Interestingly, this line of though could quite easily open the door to charges of tritheism, against which o3moioj was also meant to guard!  The vagueness of ‘like’ becomes readily apparent. However, it is on precisely this point that Homoian Arianism is open to its most effective criticism: as both the extreme Neo-Arians and the pro-Nicenes were quick to realise, the affirmation that the Son is ‘like’ the Father can, from a certain perspective, leave wide open the door to the conclusion that they are the same. Basil of Caesarea, as Rousseau notes, did not mind the term o3moioj when it was understood as meaning o3moioj katou0si/an and clarified with a0paralla/ktwj (thus ‘like in substance without variation’): this was, for him, simply a long way of saying homoousios.Cf. Rousseau, Basil p. 102.  I have not yet been able to locate the passages in Basil’s writings which give explicit statement to this effect (Rousseau curiously does not offer any references), though it is certainly accurate. Were the Homoians in the end, then, actually Nicenes? Obviously they were not—their doctrine held to plenty of points that could never be harmonised with the creed of that council or its later pro-Nicene clarificationsFor example, their claim that the Son was a creature; their belief in the limitations of the Logos; their insistence upon the extreme ontological subordination of the Son to the Father and the Spirit to the Son; their entirely metaphorical understanding of the ‘begetting’ of the Son; etc.  Cf. Hanson, Search p. 562.  It is also worth noting that the Homoians were unhappy with the phrase o3moioj katou0si/an , given its inclusion of the term ou0si/a.  But their counter-suggestion of o3moioj kata\ pa/nta (‘like in all things’ or ‘like in every way’) hardly solves the problem; cf. Rousseau, Basil p. 98.—but that their reflections upon the Trinity were so vague as to allow for both a strongly Arian and a seemingly pro-Nicene interpretation, meant that Homoian thought could never be adopted for the purposes of doctrinal clarification.

Still, it was the least philosophical of the three major camps in the last decades of the Trinitarian controversy, and perhaps for this reason gained widespread popularity in the East as well as the West. Constantius, always eager for unity within the Empire, certainly admired its centrism and theoretical potential for appeasing all sides in the debate. Yet he, like his father, underestimated the tenaciousness of the Arian and pro-Nicene causes. Resolution would never come through avoidance of the issue at hand: whoever was to win the debate would have to do so by a sound answer to the principles in question.

The Neo-Arians: Aetius and Eunomius

The Arian group to take up this challenge most directly was that now known as the ‘Neo-Arians’, or sometimes ‘extreme Arians’ or ‘Eunomians’. This latter title is especially unsatisfactory, as is coming now to be appreciated more widely, given the fact that it was not from Eunomius’ but Aetius’ work that the group gained impetus. They have also long been termed ‘Anomoeans’, and many scholars of the present day continue in this characterisation.E.g. P. Rousseau, who uses the title more than once in his references to Aetius and Eunomius. This is certainly unfair treatment. Hanson is strongly against it, and while I feel that he perhaps goes too far in understating the concept of a0no/moioj in Neo-Arian doctrine, he is certainly right in suggesting that it is not a central or defining concept of their thought.Cf. Hanson, Search p. 607 for this suggestion in reference to Aetius, and more strongly p. 634 in reference to Eunomius.

Where defining concepts are to be found is in the Neo-Arian insistence upon the literal interpretation of the meaning of theological terminologyOne might also say ‘Scriptural terminology’, save for the fact that the Neo-Arians were not especially occupied with Scripture as an interpretive tool for theological discussion.  They certainly gleaned key terminology from its pages, but their doctrinal arguments are generally drawn from philosophical reasoning rather than Scriptural exegesis. applied to God, especially with respect to the term ‘unbegotten’ (or ‘ingenerate’, both from a0ge/nnhtoj). For Eunomius, to call God ‘unbegotten’ is not simply to describe one attribute of the Father, but to name—and thus fully disclose—the Father’s essence. Says Rousseau: ‘According to Eunomius, there was an inseparable correlation between the ou0si/a, the intimate being of God, and the vocabulary used in referring to that ou0si/a—for example, when one called God “unbegotten”’.Rousseau, Basil p. 108. For the Father to be unbegotten meant that His entire essence (ou0si/a) was that of unbegottenness (ou0si/a a0ge/nnhtojEunomius, Second Apology 7.), and this had a dramatic effect on the Neo-Arian interpretation of the Father’s self-communication: that which is unbegotten cannot in any real sense beget, for begetting (ge/nnhsij) involves the ‘transfer’ or ‘regeneration’ of the begetter’s ou0si/a to the begotten, just as is the case with human generation.Though it should be noted that most Arian groups were rightly cautious in comparing the Father’s divine begetting of the Son to the human father’s begetting of a child.  Cf. Basil of Ancyra: ‘he [the Son] was not born as men are’, in Epiphanius, Panarion 9.1. But if the Father’s ou0si/a alone is unbegottenness, then it becomes absolutely impossible to say that He can share this ou0si/a with anything else (such as the Son), for simple logic precludes the possibility of anything generated being ingenerate. In short form: the Father cannot beget.One of the ‘basic assumptions’ of Neo-Arianism according to Hanson, Search p. 610. He cannot share His ou0si/a with anyone or anything. Put in a still more direct manner: the Father cannot have a Son in any real sense, for a son must be begotten. Writes Aetius: ‘If God is beyond transformation and greater than cause, then talk of a son (to\ kata\ to\n ui9o/n) must be confessed to go no further than the name’.Aetius, Syntagmation 8. The title ‘Son of God’ only expresses a certain similarity of will and energy between the unbegotten Father and that which by default must be a created ou0si/a, and here the Neo-Arians hearken back to Arius’ central teaching. The Son must be a creature. With respect to ou0si/a he is certainly not the same as (homoousios with) the Father, but more dramatically he is not even like (homoios) the Father in this particular regard; the Homoians were as errant as the pro-Nicenes. It is only when in reference to ou0si/a, and not in any global sense, that the title ‘Anomoean’ can be applied to the Neo-Arians. In this category of investigation the Father and the Son must been understood as e9terou/sioj, of different substances, unlike to each other in any way with respect to these substances, and of this particular word Eunomius seems to have been especially fond.So notes Hanson, Search p. 625.

Another aspect of Neo-Arian thought sets it apart from its contemporary counterparts, and this is the issue of the knowability of God. While to most other parties involved in the debates there was at least some aspect of the Father’s essence that transcended human knowledge (the issues of how much and to what degree depend on the group in question), but to Eunomius there was nothing unknowable about the Father’s essence. If we are to trust Socrates’ record of Eunomius’ words (which Hanson believes may not be pure invectiveHanson, Search p. 629.), the latter went so far as boldly to claim ‘God does not know more about his own ousia than we do […] whatever he knows, that knowledge you will find exactly in us’.Socrates, HE 4.7. The foundation for such a belief comes again from the Neo-Arian understanding of names and language as directly representing and the things described: ‘unbegotten’ is not a description of the Father’s essence, it is His essence. In one sense, there is nothing more to know. This idea must be interpreted with a certain level of caution, for certainly Eunomius and Aetius both understood that there is more to the Father than His unbegottenness: there is also His nature as Creator, Master, Good, King, and so on. What is marked about their doctrine of the knowledge of God is the belief that these terms themselves are terminal in setting forth understanding: there is nothing ‘more’ to the knowledge of God as creator than the name ‘Creator’, the name and the reality being so linked together as to impart full knowledge of the one by means of the other. Mysticism would have no place in Neo-Arianism.

The philosophical character of much of the Neo-Arian discussion should be readily apparent. Aetius sounds positively Aristotelian in his Syntagmation, and Eunomius reflects a strong dependence on both this and Neo-Platonic thought. As Hanson has pointed out, both Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa attacked Eunomius’ ‘technology’ (texnologi/a).So notes Hanson, p. 630-631. This highly rational, philosophical approach to the Trinitarian problem marks a distinguishing feature of Neo-Arian thought, and certainly stands in contrast to the Homoian tendency to avoid speculative philosophy in the theological pursuit. It will have been this intricate and academic tone that attracted the full force of the Cappadocian attack, for the Neo-Arians addressed the Trinitarian question with full rigour and detailed, precise doctrine (something the Homoians lacked), and this made them a potent threat to the pro-Nicene cause. Yet it also made their theology rather inaccessible to the general mass of Christians, as I have already mentioned, and for this reason they never seemed to have the popular following of the Homoians or the Homoiousians in their day. Still, the followers of Aetius and Eunomius cannot have been all that minute in number, and Hanson certainly overstates his case in this regardIbid., p. 636; cf. above.: it is extremely doubtful that St Basil and the two Gregories would have spilled so much ink in opposition to a mere ‘eccentric’.

The followers of Nicea

To the above description of the two principal Arian schools in ad 360-380 we must add a discussion of the pro-Nicenes and their own reactions to the events of the 35 years following the First Ecumenical Council. Though Jerome may sarcastically have lamented his impression that all the world had gone Arian, the fact was that it had not, and the supporters of the Creed of Nicea had made use of the time since that Creed’s composition to clarify and elaborate upon the concepts it presents. Much of their doctrinal clarification was, in typical Patristic style, formulated in reaction to the threat of heresy and heretics, and it would in fact take no less than the pen of Eunomius to finally trigger the Cappadocian reaction into gear, building upon the groundwork laid by Athanasius of Alexandria and presenting what was to become the most cogent explanation of orthodox Trinitarianism. But such investigation of the pro-Nicene movement must await treatment in a separate paper.

Helpful works for further study

  • Baus, K., From the Apostolic Community to Constantine.
  • Hanson, R.P.C., The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God.
  • Meredith, Anthony, The Cappadocians.
  • Rousseau, Philip, Basil of Caesarea.
  • Rusch, William G., The Trinitarian Controversy (collection of source texts)
  • Socrates, Ecclesiastical History.
  • Sozomenus, Ecclesiastical History.
  • Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius (source texts).
  • Zachhuber, Johannes, The Antiochene Synod of AD 363 and the Beginnings of Neo-Nicenism.


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