Yesterday, Today and Forever

Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity in the

Teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils

by Peter Toon

Preservation Press, 1996

All Scriptural quotations are taken from or based upon the Revised Standard Version.  Quotations of texts from the Seven Ecumenical Councils are taken from H. R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils and R. B. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon, as cited in the bibliography.


Table of Contents

Prologue                                                 Through Part 2, see this page below


I.          Nicea I (325) and Constantinople I (381)

II.         Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451)

III.       Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (681) and Nicea II (787)



IV.       From the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit

V.        Arianism Rejected

VI.       Orthodoxy Proclaimed – The Homoousios


PART III – THE LORD JESUS CHRIST            Parts 3-End

VII.      The Son of God Incarnate

VIII.     Apollinarianism, Nestorianism and Monophysitism Rejected

IX.       Orthodoxy Affirmed – One Person in Two Natures



X.        No Graven Images

XI.       Iconoclasm Rejected

XII.      Orthopraxis Explained – Veneration of Icons



Appendix I – I Believe/We Believe

Appendix II – New Formula: Novel Doctrine

Appendix III – The Council of Trent on Images

Select Bibliography

Index  (omitted for web site)


Christianity is one of the three major religions of the world which confess belief in and commitment to one God and one God alone (Monotheism); further, it is the one and only religion which is wholly based on Trinitarian Monotheism.  Christians are those who have been baptized into “the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and who receive in worship “the Blessing of God Almighty the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Christianity engages all aspects of the life of the baptized person, who is called to love God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love his neighbor as he loves himself.  Christian worship is offered to the Father through Jesus Christ, the Son, and in the Holy Spirit, not only by the minds, but from the hearts and with the bodies of baptized believers.

The sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, preserved by the Christian Church, are addressed not merely to the minds of hearers and readers, but to people as living, thinking, feeling and acting beings; the reading of the Bible, as well as the teaching and preaching from its pages, informs the mind, warms the heart and moves the will.  There can be no true religion unless the affections of the heart are involved –e.g., desire, love, joy, fear (reverence) and peace.  Yet the affections have to be guided by the mind (thus the expression “the mind in the heart”) towards the right ends – i.e., enjoying and glorifying God forever. Further, the human will also has to be energized by the affections and guided by the informed mind so that the Christian obeys the Lord’s commandments in word and deed.

We need to be clear on one important matter.  The major statements and pronouncements of the doctrinal decrees of the Seven Ecumenical Councils are not addressed, as are the Gospels, in common‑sense language and narrative form to the whole person to move him at all levels of his being towards God and his kingdom.  No.  They are addressed primarily to the mind in order to be understood, considered and received as truth.  They declare what is right Christian teaching concerning (a) the relation of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to God (i.e., to the One who is called “Yahweh” [LORD] in the Old Testament and “the Father” in the New Testament), (b) the full identity of Jesus Christ, One Person made known in two natures, who is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb.13:8), and (c) the nature and use of icons.

In addressing the mind and providing clarity concerning what is true and what is false, the declarations from these Councils presume that right thinking is intimately related to right worship, right speech, right action and right behavior.  This said, their primary function is to declare what is true and right and thus also to make clear what is false and wrong.  For only those who rightly believe can rightly pray and rightly obey.  Devout feelings and moral decisions will flow from right doctrine lodged in the mind and heart.

I have heard people, who know a little about early Church history and who are very conscious of wanting to be modern and relevant Christians, make comments such as the following concerning the Councils.  (i) Because of their intellectual nature, the pronouncements of Councils seem to be intended only for those whose religion is primarily of the head and who understand Greek philosophical terms.  (ii) Because they have apparently no concern for the feelings (which have such an important place in contemporary forms of the Christian religion), the doctrinal decrees appear to have no immediate relevance for those whose religion is primarily “of the heart.”  (iii) Because they insist not only on proclaiming what is true but also on anathematizing those who teach heresy, the Councils lack charity and are out of touch with modern ecumenism and ecclesiastical dialogue.  And (iv) because the Councils belong to a period when Church and State were closely integrated and when there were no individual rights and no genuine freedom of speech, they belong to a totally different world and culture and thus have little or no relevance today.

Of course, there is some truth in what these people have to say, but it is certainly not the whole truth.  They are missing much by dismissing the Councils too easily and quickly.  It is reasonably clear to me that, in order to appreciate what the Councils achieved and what their legacy to the modern Church genuinely is, Christians today, even if well motivated, have to make a big effort to seek to understand the reasons why Councils were called, the way they addressed the doctrinal questions and problems of their times, and what their members thought they were giving to and providing for the Church of their day and of the future.  Further, we need to have an appreciation of what has been called the development of doctrine – the relation between the way doctrine is presented and taught in the New Testament and the way it is presented and taught by the Councils.

This book is intended as a positive contribution to the fuller appreciation of what is the legacy of the Councils for the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church today.  It is written as simply as possible, bearing in mind that the solid subject matter does not lend itself to over-simplification!

In particular, the book is addressed to a growing number – not a vast but a worthy company – of people in America, who have entered on what I often call the “liturgical trail,” a search for wholeness in worship and spirituality in the major, deeply historical traditions of Christendom.  The “Canterbury trail” into classical Anglicanism is not as popular as it used to be in the 1960s and 1970s, primarily because the modern American Episcopal Church does not often support or express that classical Anglican Way today; more popular now for those on the journey are the “Antioch [or the Constantinople] trail,” the “Roman trail” and a general “symbiotic [syncretistic?] trail” (which embraces East and West).

In this absorbing search for sound liturgy and right appreciation of the sacramental, symbolic and aesthetic dimensions of worship and spirituality, travelers are led sooner or later to discover the patristic period when the Ecumenical Councils convened and the Fathers wrote.  In part, this is because they recognize that they need to know how the first major pastors and teachers of the Church sought to read, use and interpret Scripture.  In fact, all roads of the liturgical trail appear to lead in one direction – back to the Fathers of the first five to eight centuries, to their Councils, to their Creeds, to their Episcopate, to their Canon Law and to their Liturgies.

Those who search for authentic origins in the patristic period represent, I suspect, a good proportion of those who buy the modem reprint of the nineteenth century edition of the translations of selected writings of the “Pre-Nicene, Nicene and Post Nicene” Fathers.  Here such worthies as Irenaeus, Tertuilian, Origen, Athanasius, Basil, Augustine, Cyril, Leo and John of Damascus may be encountered; and included in this multi-volume edition is one volume dedicated to providing a translation of documents from the Seven Ecumenical Councils and other synods.  It was also printed on its own as a separate volume – H.R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church (New York and London, 1900).  We shall have cause to refer often to this volume, which though dated in its historical information is still most useful for its translation of the texts.

I have also written this book for those who are members of the older Churches (which are committed to the dogmatic statements of the Seven Councils as their received doctrinal heritage and teaching) and who have not yet wholly explored, recognized or benefited from that precious heritage.  An illustration may help make the point.  Often we have within our personal libraries valuable books we have never read and which we ought to read.  Likewise, it is often the case that there is in the Tradition of the Church a legacy of which we are hardly aware and ought to become aware.  I hope this modest book will serve to make people in the historic Churches aware of that legacy in terms of the dogmatic pronouncements of the Seven Councils.

And now a few words about the actual contents of the book.  The main emphasis is upon exposition of dogma and doctrine and the difference between orthodoxy and heresy.  To the modern ear and mind the distinction between these may seem at times merely verbal or minimal – even far-fetched.  If so, all the more reason why I urge my reader to work hard at appreciating why the differences were regarded as crucial in the early Church!  Therefore, I provide the important primary texts from the Seven Councils in English translation from the Greek or the Latin.  And, while I certainly provide a general, simple, historical introduction to each Council and narrate the more important events and circumstances surrounding it, the emphasis is not upon the historical context as such.  For greater detail, I refer my reader to the various histories of the Early Church and the Councils.  My purpose is to provide what I hope is a reliable and readable introduction to an appreciation and understanding of the doctrinal debates and decrees.

In two of the three Appendices, I deal with two modern questions.  Is the Creed of the Eucharist to be in the “I believe” or “We believe” form?  And, is the formula, “God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, correct? 


A useful and readable history of the early Church is The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) by W. H. C. Frend.  The only recent book on the Councils for the general reader is by Leo Donald Davis, S.J., The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325–787): Their History and Theology (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1987).  In this book are valuable bibliographies for the further study of each Council, but the doctrinal decrees and canons are generally summarized rather than printed in full.  The most accessible translation of the documents of the Councils is that of Henry R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, vol. 14 of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1994), originally published in 1900.

For those who desire to have the Greek and Latin texts, along with modern (and sometimes politically correct!) translations of them done by a team of Jesuits, there is the most useful Norman F. Tanner, S.J., ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991).  The Latin and Greek texts in this volume are taken from G. Alberigo, ed., Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta (Bologna: 1973).

Also of great help for the first four Councils is T. H. Bindley, ed., The Oecumenical Documents of the Faith, 4th.ed. (London: Methuen and Co., 1950).  [This was the text I used when doing my B.D. degree in London University.] 

Part One:

Seven Ecumenical Councils

Though we gladly give great honor to the Councils, especially those that are General, we judge that they ought to be placed far below the dignity of the canonical Scriptures; and we make a great distinction between the Councils themselves.  For some of them, especially those four, the Council of Nicea, the first Council of Constantinople, and the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, we embrace and receive with great reverence – and we bear the same judgment about many others held afterwards, in which we see and confess that the most holy Fathers gave weighty and holy decisions according to the Divine Scriptures, about our Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, and the redemption of man obtained through him.

Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, Church of England, 1553.


Chapter One

Nicea I (325) and Constantinople I (381)


      We need to distinguish between the modern use of “ecumenical” (= “oecumenical”) as in the expression, “the Ecumenical Movement,” and its traditional use as in the expression, “an Ecumenical Council.”  The Ecumenical Movement, closely tied to the World Council of Churches, is a movement for the unity of Christians throughout the world.  Here “ecumenical” means “worldwide” or “universal.”

The Greek words, he oikoumene, literally mean “the inhabited world” (i.e., the Roman Empire).  Thus, a Council to be ecumenical has to be called by appropriate authority and has to be representative of the whole Roman Empire.  Further, an Ecumenical Council is a Synod, the decrees of which have found acceptance by the Church at large.  Only Seven Councils merit the full title of “Ecumenical” since they are the only Councils whose decrees were wholly accepted by the Eastern and the Western branches of the Church – that is, by the Church as represented by the Pope of Rome and the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria.

Since the year 787, when the last Ecumenical Council met, the Orthodox Church has refused to call any of its synods or councils “ecumenical.”  This is true even of the Council of Constantinople in 869–870, which the Roman Catholic Church has designated the Eighth Ecumenical Council since the late Middle Ages.  In fact, in the West only Seven Councils were deemed Ecumenical as late as the pontificate of Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085).  Today the Roman Catholic Church claims that there have been a further thirteen “General Councils” (from Lateran 1 in 1123 to Vatican II in 1962–1965) which are truly “Ecumenical.”


Iznik in Turkey, now a predominantly Muslim country, was the place where the first Ecumenical Council met.  The Emperor Constantine summoned the Bishops of the Christian Church in his empire to meet together with him at what was then Nicea, a city of Bithynia, in 325.  In his Letter to them, he explained that he intended to be both a spectator and participator in what would be done.  He also stated why he had chosen this city – the excellent temperature of the air, ready access for the Bishops from Italy and Europe, and near to his summer palace at Nicomedia.

For Americans, the separation of Church and State is a fundamental belief which they confess with enthusiasm.  In contrast, after suffering repeated persecution at the hands of imperial Rome, the early Christians heartily welcomed the support and protection of Constantine, who was sole emperor from 324, and who was eventually baptized by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia in 337.  While there had been regional church synods and councils for over a century, the calling of an Ecumenical Council was only possible because of the personal involvement of Constantine himself.  Further, when it was over, Constantine caused its decrees to have the force of imperial law.  The Church and State were henceforth closely linked and the Roman emperors were necessarily involved in the calling and organization of the rest of the Ecumenical Councils.

The reason why Constantine called the Bishops to meet at Nicea was simple.  He wanted to see the Church united and not divided.  At the center of the divisions were the name and teaching of Arius, a presbyter of the church in Alexandria.  His teaching, which made use of many quotations from Scripture, differed from that of his Bishop, Alexander, and from the received tradition of doctrine concerning the deity of Jesus.  Arius and his supporters maintained with enthusiasm and learning that Jesus Christ is the highest and the best of all God’s creation, but still a created being.  That is, though highly exalted, the Son who is the heavenly Logos is not of the same divinity as the Father.

The precise number of Bishops present on May 19, 325, to hear the Emperor’s opening speech and take part in the work of the Council is not known.  Later the Council was known as “The Synod of 318 Fathers.”  This number is probably a symbolic figure, based on the number of Abraham’s servants (Gen. 14:14).  The Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem were present, but the Pope was represented by Legates.

Two things are reasonably clear from our fragmentary accounts of this Council.  First, the genuine Arians were a small and hopeless minority; secondly, the means proposed and adopted to outlaw and exclude Arianism was a startling measure.  After intense debate a Creed, containing the word homoousios (consubstantial), was approved.  It was probably intended to be understood at a layman’s not a professional philosopher’s level – that is, that Jesus Christ is really and truly divine and not in any way a creature.  Theologians saw in it deeper meaning, and the reason why some were hesitant both in and after the Council to use it was that it suggested to them the idea of Godhead broken into fragments.

The Creed with four anti-Arian anathemas was promulgated and signed by all the bishops except two.  Further, twenty canons were promulgated.  Decisions were also reached on the Melitian schism in Egypt and the Paschal controversy.  Thus a synodical Letter was sent to the church in Alexandria and the Antiochene custom of following the Jewish reckoning of the date of Easter was condemned.

The Creed of the Council was probably based on the Creed of the church in Jerusalem and adapted so as to reject the Arian doctrine of Christ.

We believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, who for us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead;

And in the Holy Spirit.

But as for those who say, There was when he was not, and, Before being born he was not, and that he came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance (ousia), or is created, or is subject to alteration or change – these the Catholic Church anathematizes.

Since the Bishops spoke together in synod they said, “We believe...”  However, the baptismal creed on which the Creed of Nicea was based began, “I believe...”  In other words, before the Nicene Creed, creeds were for catechumens.  At Nicea and at later Councils creeds were also for Bishops in synod and so began, “We believe...”  (See further Appendix I, “I believe/We believe”)

The pronouncing of the anathema upon persons with heretical opinions is based upon Scriptural example in the Old Testament and apostolic precedent in the New Testament.  In Greek, anathema means “suspended” or “cut off” and is used in verbal form by St. Paul in Galatians 1:8–9, where he writes of those who preach and teach a false message: “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.”

The Canons promulgated by the Council may be summarized as follows:

1.  Concerning castration of the clergy, and whether or not they should be suspended.

2.  Concening the need for time between the baptism of a convert and his being ordained to the presbyterate.

3.  Concerning which woman may live with a bishop or presbyter or deacon.

4.  Of the number needed to appoint and ordain a Bishop.

5.  Concerning the excommunicated in one diocese, who ought not to be received in another diocese.

6.  Concerning the forms of primacy which belong to certain cities (and thus of their Bishops).

7.  Concerning the Bishop of Jerusalem.

8.  Concerning those who are called the Cathars (katharos=pure) and their reception into the Catholic Church.

9.  Concerning those who have been ordained to the presbyterate without proper examination.

10.  Concerning clergy who denied the faith during persecution.

11.  Concerning laity who denied the faith during persecution.

12.  Concerning those who have made a renunciation of the world and then returned to the world.

13.  Concerning giving Holy Communion to the dying.

14.  Concerning catechumens who lapse.

15.  Concerning clergy who transfer from city to city.

16.  Concerning clergy who do not stay in the diocese where they are ordained.

17.  Concerning clergy who practice usury.

18.  Deacons should not give Holy Communion to presbyters or be seated above them at the Eucharist.

19.  Concerning the disciples of Paul of Samosata and how they are to be received in the Catholic Church.

20.  Concerning standing and kneeling on Sundays and in the season of Pentecost.

      A study of these Canons gives a good indication of the pressing disciplinary problems in the Church caused by persecution, of the existence of sects, and of the ease of travel within the Empire.

In Part Two of this book, we shall examine in detail the theology of the Nicene Creed and the heresy of Arianism condemned by the Council.


      The history of the Church from 325 to 381 involves the relation of the Emperors to the Church and their support either of a form of Arianism or (more rarely) of the Orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed and its primary defender, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.

From a theological point of view, the debates in this period – concerning the relation of Jesus Christ to the Father, and of the Holy Spirit to the Father and to the Son, and what kind of Holy Trinity is God – were most useful for the purpose of clarifying the truth, even if they were mostly acrimonious!  They served in the long term to clarify and develop the doctrine of Nicea that Jesus Christ is homoousios (not homoios or homoiousios) with the Father and that the Holy Trinity is of Three Persons and one Substance or “One ousia in three hypostases.”

During the reign of the Emperor Constantine from 325 until his death in 337 there was a widespread reaction among many churchmen against the perceived doctrine and the vocabulary of the Nicene Creed.  This was led by Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, but they knew that the Emperor would allow no change in the Creed and so they were careful in what they did.  However, they were able to get him to agree to the deposition and exile of the three leading supporters of the homoousios, Athanasius of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus of Ancyra.

From 337 to 350 the western Emperor, Constans, supported the Creed in the Latin West and protected the Bishops who stood by it.  However, the eastern Emperor, Constantius, did not favor the Nicene Creed and sided with Eusebius and other critics.  Therefore, when Constantius became the sole Emperor in 350 it seemed as though there was the triumph of Arianism in the Empire.  New Creeds declared that the Son is only like (homoios) the Father.  But the opponents of the Nicene Creed went too far in their enthusiasm for novelty and in their rejection of traditional faith.  A general reaction set in and their cause lost ground.  Those who have been termed “Semi-Arians” or “Moderates” began to move towards the traditional supporters of the homoousios.  By 381, there was not too much difference between those who now spoke of Jesus Christ being of “like essence” (homoiousios) and those who insisted on the “identical essence” (homoousios) with the Father.

The Emperor Theodosius I, convened the Council in Constantinople at the imperial palace in May 381 in order to unite the Church on the basis of the faith of the Creed of Nicea.  Some 150 orthodox and 36 heretical bishops from the East took part in the opening sessions, but the 36 heretics soon left.  The 150 orthodox remained to produce some Canons and a long theological document expounding the doctrine of the Trinity called “The Tome,” in which was contained the Creed approved by the Council.  Regrettably, this Tome has not survived as a whole.

      We know of its contents from a Letter sent out in 382 by a local synod in Constantinople and preserved in the Decrees of the Council of 381.

Although neither western Bishops nor Roman Legates were present, the Council of 381 was eventually accepted in the West and came to be regarded there as the Second Ecumenical Council.

The Creed of this Council, contained in “The Tome,” was probably an enlargement, strictly speaking, not of the actual Nicene Creed of 325, but of a local Creed developed from the Nicene Creed and used in a church as a baptismal Creed between 325 and 381.  It is possible that it was the Creed used for catechumens in Constantinople at that time by Gregory of Nazianzus.  Whatever its precise origins, it came to be called “The Faith of the 150 Fathers.”

Today we call this Creed either “the Nicene Creed” (which technically speaking is inaccurate but was a term which came into use in the Middle Ages) or “the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed” (which is a mouthful!).  At later Councils, the Creed of Nicea (that of the 318) and the Creed of Constantinople (that of the 150) were clearly distinguished and each one fully accepted.

The Creed of the 150 in the “I believe” form became the Creed of Catechumens in the East and from the late fifth century the Creed recited in the Eucharist there.  It is found in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Churches as it is also found (with the addition of the filioque) in the Divine Liturgy of the Western Catholic (i.e., Roman) Church.  (See further Appendix I, “I believe/We believe.”)

The Creed adopted by the Bishops declares:


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


And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into existence, who because of us men and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there will be no end;


And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life‑giver, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is together worshipped and together glorified, who spoke through the prophets; in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.  We confess one baptism to the remission of sins; we look forward to a resurrection of the dead and life of the world to come.  Amen.


      The major difference between the Creed of Nicea and the Creed of Constantinople is the longer third part on the Holy Spirit.  While the Holy Spirit is not specifically said to be homoousios with the Father, he is said to be worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son B which is to say much the same thing!

The Canons promulgated by the Council may be summarized as follows: 


1.  Concerning the continuing validity of the decrees of Nicea I.

2.  Concerning the privileges due to certain cities and the need for proper order in dioceses.

3.  Concerning the Bishop of Constantinople being honored after the Bishop of Rome.

4.  Concerning the invalid ordination of Maximus.

5.  Concerning the Tome of the Westerners about Paul of Antioch.

6.  Concerning accusations against clergy and who may bring them.

7.  Concerning the reception of former heretics who embrace orthodoxy.

Again, as with the Canons of Nicea, these provide a glimpse into some of the problems being faced by the Church, especially in the Eastern part of the Empire.

The third Canon is important for our study.  It states: Because it is new Rome, the Bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy the privileges of honor after the Bishop of Rome.  In 330, Constantine inaugurated Constantinople as his capital.  It was on the site of the old Greek city of Byzantium.  This meant that the status of the Bishop there, who had been subject to the nearby See of Heraclea, began to rise until at the Council of Chalcedon (451) he was given the status of Patriarch (to which old Rome objected!).  The rise of the status of the Bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century was seen as a threat by the Patriarchs in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria, and especially by the latter.  Rivalry between Constantinople and Alexandria was a major factor in some of the controversies in the Church in the fifth century.

In Part Two of this book, we shall examine the theology of the Creed of the 150 Fathers and note the heresies faced and rejected by them.

Before we leave the description of the Council of Constantinople (381), it will be advantageous to print a summary of the lost Tome (Confession of Faith) produced by this Council.  This is found in the Synodical Letter of the local Council of Constantinople which convened in 382.


For whether we endured persecutions or afflictions, or imperial threats or the cruelties of governors, or any other trial from the heretics, we withstood all for the sake of the gospel faith (creed) as authenticated by the 318 Fathers at Nicea in Bithynia.  This faith should satisfy you and us, and all who do not pervert the word of truth – for it is the most ancient, it accords with the creed of our baptism and teaches us to believe in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – believing, that is to say, in one Godhead and power and substance of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, of equal dignity and coeternal majesty, in three perfect Hypostases, that is three perfect Persons.  Thus no place is found for the error of Sabellius in which the Hypostases are confused and their individualities taken away, nor does the blasphemy of the Eunomians and Arians and Pneumatomachi (= “Fighters against the Spirit”) prevail, in which the substance or nature of the Godhead is cut up and some kind of later nature, created and of a different substance, is added to the uncreated and consubstantial and coeternal Trinity.  We also preserve unperverted the doctrine of the incarnation of the Lord, receiving the dispensation of the flesh as neither without soul nor without mind nor incomplete, but knowing that he existed as perfect God, the Word, before all ages, and became perfect man in the last days for our salvation.

      We shall return to this summary in chapter six, when we shall be addressing the subject of the Holy Trinity.

However, here we may note that one word has changed its theological reference and meaning since the Council of Nicea in 325.  In the anathemas of Nicea, the word hypostasis is used as a synonym for ousia.  Literally, hypo–stasis is “that which stands under” and refers to the permanent being which underlies the appearance of things.  Ousia has the more abstract but similar meaning of essence or being.  Because of the work of the Cappadocian theologians (for whom see chapter six), the word hypostasis was used in theology to refer to the subsistence of being, not to being itself – thus they spoke of the hypostases, that is, the subsistences of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity.  At the same time, the word ousia kept its general meaning of “essence” or “substance” or “being” and was used of the deity, common to all Three Persons, in such statements as “one ousia and three hypostases”.


For the general background to and proceedings of these two Councils see Leo Donald Davis, S.J., The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, chaps. 1‑3, and Peter L’Huillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995).  The texts in English are in Henry R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, chaps. 1–3.  For the Greek and Latin texts see Norman P. Tanner, S.J., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol.1., pp.1–36.  The history and meaning of the Creeds of Nicea and Constantinople, from which the texts cited in this chapter are taken, are presented in J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (London: Longmans, 1970).  For the origin of the title, “Oecumenical” (“Ecumenical”) see Henry Chadwick, “The Origin of the Title, Oecumenical Council,” Journal of Theological Studies 23 (1972): 132–55.  On the religious and ecclesiastical role of the Emperors see Charles N. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1944). 


Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451)

      The first two Ecumenical Councils addressed and set forth the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity – that is theology proper, of God as God‑is‑in‑Himself and thus of the relation within the Godhead of the Father and the Son, the Father and the Spirit, the Son and the Spirit.  The next two Councils focused on the actual identity of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word, the Son of God with His human nature and flesh – i.e., the doctrine of the Person of Christ.  To say that Jesus is truly God and also truly Man, as the Creeds of the 318 and the 150 had declared, is to raise the question as to whether he is two persons joined together in perfect harmony or one Person who has two natures.  This and related questions cried out for answers.


      To appreciate this Council we need to be especially familiar with the names of two famous Bishops, Nestorius of Constantinople and Cyril of Alexandria, and one theological term, theotokos, a title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Nestorius opposed the use of the word theotokos (“God-bearer”) alone, unless it was balanced by anthropotokos (“man-bearer”), but he preferred christotokos (“Christ-bearer”).  His opponents took him to be teaching that within Christ there are not only two different natures, but also two different persons and that Mary gave birth to the human person with the human nature.  In contrast, Cyril insisted that there is one and one only Person, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Thus the human mother of Jesus Christ is truly theotokos, for her Son is the Son of God with his human nature.

Nestorius was condemned as a heretic at a Council in Rome in August 430.  Therefore, he asked the Emperor Theodosius II to call a council in the East to establish his orthodoxy.  With the agreement of his co-emperor, Valentinian III, and Pope Celestine I, Theodosius II summoned the Bishops to meet at Ephesus at the Feast of Pentecost, June 431.  Two weeks after the feast, yet before the arrival of the Roman Legates or the eastern Bishops led by the Patriarch John of Antioch, Cyril of Alexandria actually began the council.  Nestorius, who was in the city, refused to attend, claiming that his accuser was to be his judge.  In his absence, his teaching was examined and condemned by 197 bishops.

When John of Antioch arrived, he set up a rival council to that of Cyril.  However, the Roman Legates, who arrived after John, joined Cyril and confirmed the condemnation of Nestorianism.  Later, Cyril’s council proceeded to condemn John of Antioch, but it did not depose him.

The council presided over by Cyril is the one which came to be accepted as the Third Ecumenical Council.  It declared that Cyril’s teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ was in harmony with the Nicene Creed, and it included in its decrees (a) Cyril’s second Letter to Nestorius; and (b) A letter with twelve anathemas against Nestorianism produced by Cyril and the synod of Alexandria in 430, and sent to Nestorius in that year.  This meant that the Council was giving its approval to the use of the word theotokos for the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The Council declared that she did not give birth merely to a man with a human nature: her Son is the eternal Son of the Father, who took His human nature and flesh in her womb.  She truly is the “God-bearing” Virgin!

The first of the twelve anathemas directed against Nestorianism concerns those who deny the truth concerning both Jesus and Mary:


If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (theotokos), inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [as it is written “The Word was made flesh”]: let him be anathema.

After the Council, John of Antioch changed his mind concerning Nestorianism and the use of theotokos, accepted the decrees of Cyril’s council, produced a theological Statement now known as the Formula of Union, and made peace with Cyril, who accepted the Statement.  The Formula of Union has been preserved in the decrees of the Council of Ephesus.  Here it is:

We confess, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man composed of a rational soul and a body, begotten before the ages from his Father in respect of his divinity, but likewise in these last days for us and for our salvation from Mary the Virgin in respect of his manhood; consubstantial with the Father in respect of his divinity and at the same time consubstantial with us in respect of his manhood.  For a union of two natures has been accomplished.  Hence we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord.  According to this understanding of the union without confusion, we confess the holy Virgin to be the Mother of God [Theotokos] because the divine Word became flesh and was made man and from the very conception united to himself the temple taken from her.  As for the evangelical and apostolic statements about the Lord, we recognize that theologians employ some indifferently in view of the unity of person, but distinguish others in view of the duality of natures, applying the God-befitting ones to Christ’s divinity and the lowly ones to his humanity.

      Obviously, this declaration amounts to a definite rejection of the heresy associated with the name of Nestorius and a positive acceptance of the title of Theotokos (“God-bearer”) for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It is interesting to note that in terms of etymology the Latin equivalent of Theotokos is Deipara; but, in fact, the Latin expression generally used in the West to translate Theotokos was Dei Genitrix (“Mother of God”).  Some modern translators – including those who translate the Orthodox Liturgy – seem to prefer not to translate theotokos into English but to render it as a title, “Theotokos,” so that it effectively becomes an English word.  Dr. Percival translates theotokos as “Mother of God” throughout his volume on the Councils and also provides a justification for doing so (The Seven Councils, p. 210).


      If Nestorius is the heretic uniquely associated with the Council of Ephesus, then Eutyches, an Archimandrite at a large monastery in Constantinople, is the heretic uniquely associated with the Council of Chalcedon.  Eutyches denied that the manhood (human nature, humanity) of Jesus was consubstantial with ours; further, he also taught that while there were two natures before the union there was only one after the union in the one Person of Jesus Christ.  So his theology became known as Monophysitism (from monos, one, and physis, nature).

At a Synod in Constantinople in August 449, which had been called by the Emperor Theodosius II, Eutyches was acquitted of heresy and restored to his monastery, from where he had been expelled the previous year as a heretic.  This synod was later called “the Robber Council” because Pope Leo described it in a letter to the Empress Pulcheria in these words – non iudicum, sed latrocinium (“not a Just but a Robber Council”).

The decisions of the Latrocinium were reversed by the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which was called by the Emperor Marcian and which met over the water from Constantinople in Chalcedon on October 8, 451.  Included in its decrees is the Letter of Pope Leo to Flavian, Patriarch of Constantinople, about Eutyches and his heresy; the Letters of Cyril, Patriarch of Alexander, to Nestorius and to John, Patriarch of Antioch; and a Definition of the Faith and 29 Canons.  The Definition accepts both the Creed of the 318 Fathers at Nicea and the Creed of 150 at Constantinople and stands opposed to all heresy – in particular to Nestorianism and Eutychianism.  And it proceeds:


The Synod opposes those who would rend the mystery of the economy into a duad of Sons; and it banishes from the assembly of priests those who dare to say that the Godhead of the Only-begotten is passible; and it resists those who imagine a mixture or confusion of the two natures of Christ; and it drives away those who fancy that the form of a servant taken by him of us is of a heavenly or any other kind of being; and it anathematizes those who first idly talk of the natures of the Lord as “two before the union,” and then conceive but one “after the union.”


      We shall return to the heresies here rejected in our exposition in chapter eight.

The positive Definition of the Faith produced by the Bishops was in these terms:


Following, then, the holy fathers, we all with one voice teach that it should be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same consisting of a rational soul and body; consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father as to his Godhead, and the same consubstantial [homoousios] with us as to his manhood; in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of the Father before the ages as to his Godhead, and in the last days, the same, for us and for our salvation, of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God [Theotokos], as to his manhood;


One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, made known in two natures which exist without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved, and both concurring into one Person [prosopon] and one Hypostasis – not parted or divided into two Persons [prosopa], but one and the same Son, only-begotten, the divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from of old have spoken concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us and the Creed of our Fathers has handed down.


These things, therefore, having been expressed by us with the greatest accuracy and attention, the holy Ecumenical Synod defines that no one shall be allowed to bring forth a different Faith, nor to write, nor to put together, nor to think, nor to teach it to others.  But such as dare either to put together another faith, or to bring forward or to teach or to deliver a different Creed to such as wish to convert to the knowledge of the truth from the Gentiles, or Jews or any heresy whatever – if they be Bishops or clerics let them be deposed, the Bishops from the episcopate the clerics from the clergy; but if they be monks or laity, let them be anathematized.


      We shall return to the study of this orthodox dogma of the Person of Christ in chapter nine below.

The Canons of this Council may be summarized in the following way:


        1.  Concerning keeping the Canons of previous synods.

        2.  Concerning Bishops who perform ordinations for money.

        3.  Concerning clergy who engage in business for financial gain.

        4.  Concerning monks who act against the wishes of the local bishop.

        5.  Concerning the transferring of a cleric from one diocese to another.

        6.  Concerning the necessity of a cleric to have a “title” when he is ordained.

        7.  Concerning clerics or monks who go back into the world.

        8.  Concerning clerics who are in charge of almshouses, monasteries and martyrs’ shrines.

        9.  Concerning the duty of clerics not to go to a secular court but to the Bishops= court.

        10. Concerning those clerics who are wrongly appointed to churches in two cities at the same time.

        11. Concerning the supplying of ecclesiastical letters for travelers.

        12. Concerning dividing one province into two so that there are two metropolitans.

        13. Concerning foreign clerics without letters of commendation from their own Bishop.

        14. Concerning the marriage of those in holy orders.

        15. Concerning the age and behavior of deaconesses.

        16. Concerning virgins and monks dedicated to God who contract a marriage.

        17. Concerning the stability of dioceses.

        18. Concerning the formation of secret societies for clerics or monks.

        19. Concerning the need to have local synods regularly.

        20. Concerning the transfer of a cleric from city to city.

        21. Concerning the bringing of charges by clerics against Bishops.

        22. Concerning the taking of the possessions of a deceased Bishop.

        23. Concerning expelling unemployed foreign clerics and turbulent monks from Constantinople.

        24. Concerning the error of turning monasteries into hostelries.

        25. Concerning the length of time within which an ordination of a Bishop for a vacant diocese should occur.

        26. Concerning the employment of an administrator by a Bishop.

        27. Concerning the carrying off of girls into cohabitation.

        28. Concerning the prerogatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

        29. Concerning the status of a Bishop who has been removed from his office.

      To read these Canons and then to ponder them is to get a good grasp of some of the major disciplinary problems being faced by the Church at that time in the East.

It is worth remembering that even the prestige and authority of the Emperor along with the imperial bureaucracy could not cause and maintain the visible unity of the Church.  After the Council of Ephesus a separate Church of Nestorian Christians, which has survived into the present as the Assyrian Christians, came into being; further, after the Council of Chalcedon separate Monophysite Churches (e.g., the Copts and Syrian Jacobites) began to exist which have also survived to the present day.


Leo Donald Davis, S.J., The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, chaps. 4–5, provides a good account of the background to these two Councils, as does L’Huillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils.  The texts in English are found in Henry R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, chaps. 4–5.  For the Greek and Latin texts see Norman P. Tanner, S.J., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol.1., pp. 37–104.  A thorough study of the Fourth Council is R. V. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon (London: SPCK, 1961).  A good study of the Church history of this period is provided by W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).  An older book, which has many insights concerning the relation of the Emperors to the Church and of the Church to the culture, is Charles N. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1944).  Further, an essay which provides an excellent introduction to the role of Christianity in the Roman Empire is Christopher Dawson, “St. Augustine and his Age,” in St. Augustine (New York: Meridian Books, 1957).


Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (681), & Nicea II (787)

      Where there is any interest at all in the history of the Early Church, the decrees of the first four Ecumenical Councils are generally reasonably well known.  However, in contrast, those of the next three Councils are generally known only vaguely or in part.  This state of affairs is understandable, since not only is the history surrounding them complicated by the relation of Church and State and rivalry between the Patriarchates, but also because the decrees of the fifth and sixth only make clearer what had been already taught by the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).  Further, their reception in the West – at least initially – was very mixed.  Then, it must be admitted that the decrees of the Seventh Council are of little interest to most Protestants.  This is because they are not involved in their worship or devotions with the use of icons or the cult of the saints and so do not need guidance in this matter!  Further, they are also of minimal interest to Roman Catholics since the subject of icons/images and decorative art was addressed with clarity by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century (see Appendix III).

Our aim is to gain a general appreciation of these three councils, so that in later chapters we can understand both the content of the Catholic Faith with respect to the Person of Christ and the right use of icons in Christian worship and devotion.


On May 5, 553, in the great hall next to the magnificent Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the Council convened.  Initially it had been called together at the agreement of the Emperor Justinian and Pope Vigilius, who was in exile from Rome in Constantinople.  The president of the assembly was Eutychius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and most of the 151 to 168 Bishops present were from the East.  Vigilius did not attend but was in constant communication with the Council, which went along paths he did not favor.  In particular, he did not agree with the formal anathematizing of three leading Antiochene theologians (Theodore of Mopsuestia [d. 428], Theodoret of Cyprus [d. 466] and Ibas of Edessa [d. 457]), who had actually died in the communion of the Catholic Church.  Later, however, he was to change his mind and accept what the Council said and did concerning them.

Without the presence of the Bishop of Rome, the Council, seeking to please the Emperor and to finish its business, proceeded in its sentence against the three topics known as “The Three Chapters” (ta tria kephalaia) to condemn them and to anathematize their authors.  [“The Three Chapters”, already condemned by Justinian in an edict in 533‑534, were (1) the person and works of Theodore of Mopsuestia; (2) the writings of Theodoret against Cyril of Alexandria, and (3) the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Maris.  All three were considered to be sympathetic to, or exponents of, the heresy of Nestorianism.]

Towards the end of the lengthy “Sentence” the Bishops summarized their position:


Consequently we anathematize the aforesaid Three Chapters, that is the heretical Theodore of Mopsuestia along with his detestable writings, and the heretical writings of Theodoret, and the heretical letter which Ibas is alleged to have written.  We anathematize the supporters of these works and those who write or have written in defense of them, or who are bold enough to claim that they are orthodox, or who have defended or tried to defend their heresy in the names of the holy Fathers or of the holy Council of Chalcedon.

      However, to make absolutely clear where they stood they also set forth fourteen anathemas.  The first – a splendid statement of the Holy Trinity as both the ontological and economic Trinity – we shall quote in full.  The next six teach the unity of the Person of Jesus Christ and pronounce anathemas on false teaching, while those that follow teach the duality of natures in the One Person and pronounce anathemas on false teaching.  The heresies associated with the names of Arius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Theodore and Eutyches are particularly in view in the condemnations.

Anathema 1

If anyone will not confess that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have one nature or substance, that they have one power and authority, that there is a consubstantial Trinity, One Godhead to be adored in three Subsistences or Persons; let him be anathema.


There is only one God and Father, from whom all things come, and one Lord Jesus Christ through whom all things are, and one Holy Spirit, in whom all things are.

It is now generally agreed by scholars that the additional fifteen anathemas against doctrines of Origen of Alexandria and of Evagnius of Pontus (d. 399), often attributed to this Council, did not actually come from this Council.  Therefore, we shall not discuss them here.  (They may be read in Percival, The Seven Councils, pp. 318–19, and are discussed by Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Thought, chap. 3.)

Finally, it is to be noted that this Council provided no canons on ecclesiastical discipline.  Its sole concern was with doctrine.  This was also the case at the next Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (for which see below).  However, the Synod of Trullo (sometimes called “Quinisext” or “Fifth–Sixth”), which was summoned by the Emperor Justinian II in 692, produced 102 canons which have been regarded as equivalent to decrees of an ecumenical council in eastern canon law.  (These 102 canons may be read in Percival, The Seven Councils, pp. 356–408.)


If the cause of the calling of the Sixth Ecumenical Council is to be put in one word it is “Monothelitism” – the heresy that there is only one will in the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.  The Emperor, Constantine IV, instructed Patriarch George of Constantinople to call the Council, and it met on September 10, 680, in the imperial palace.  Six months earlier a synod had met in Rome under Pope Agatho and had set forth a Confession of Faith, which included the rejection and condemnation of Monothelitism.  This Statement was taken to Constantinople by the papal Legates to the Ecumenical Council and was influential in the process of the production of the “Exposition of the Faith” produced by the Council.

The central portion of this Confession is as follows:


Following the five holy Ecumenical Councils and the holy and approved Fathers, with one voice defining that our Lord Jesus Christ must be confessed to be very God and very man, one of the holy and consubstantial and life-giving Trinity, perfect in Deity and perfect in humanity, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and human body subsisting; consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of his Father before all ages according to his Godhead, but in these last days for us men and for our salvation made man of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, strictly and properly the Mother of God according to the flesh; one and the same Christ our Lord, the only-begotten Son to be acknowledged of two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no separation, no division, the peculiarities of neither nature being lost by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, concurring in one Person and in one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons but one and the same only-begotten Son of God, the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, according as the prophets of old have taught us and as our Lord Jesus Christ himself hath instructed us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has delivered to us.


We likewise declare that in him are two natural wills and two natural operations which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, in accordance with the teaching of the holy Fathers.  And these two natural wills are not opposed to each other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will.  For it was right that the flesh should be moved but subject to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius.  For as his flesh is called and is the flesh of God the Word, so also the natural will of his flesh is called and is the proper will of God the Word, as he himself says: “I came down from heaven, not that I might do my own will but the will of the Father which sent me” where he calls his own will the will of his flesh, inasmuch as his flesh was also his own.  For as his most holy and immaculate animated flesh was not destroyed because it was deified but continued in its own state and nature [or “in its own limit and category”], so also his human will, although deified, was not suppressed, but was rather preserved according to the saying of Gregory the Theologian: “His will, when he is considered as Savior, is not contrary to God but is totally deified.”


We glorify two natural operations in the same our Lord Jesus Christ our true God which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion – that is to say a divine operation and a human operation, according to the divine preacher Leo, who most distinctly asserts: “For each form does in communion with the other what pertains properly to it, the Word, namely, doing that which pertains to the Word, and the flesh that which pertains to the flesh.”


For we will not admit one natural operation in God and in the creature, as we will not exalt into the divine essence what is created, nor will we bring down the glory of the divine nature to the place suited to the creature.


We recognize the miracles and the suffering as of one and the same Person, but of one or the other nature of which he is and in which he exists, as Cyril admirably says.  Preserving, therefore, the “no confusion” and “no division” we make this brief confession of faith: Believing our Lord Jesus Christ to be one of the Trinity and after the incarnation our true God, we say that his two natures shone forth in his one Subsistence in which he both performed the miracles and endured the sufferings through the whole of his providential dwelling here, and that not in appearance only but in very deed, and this by reason of the difference of nature which must be recognized in the same Person, for although joined together yet each nature wills and does the things proper to it and that without division and without confusion.  Wherefore, we confess two wills and two operations, concurring most fitly in him for the salvation of the human race.

      We shall reflect upon this theology of two wills in Christ in Chapter nine.

NICEA II (787)

      The Empress Irene, acting as Regent for her son, Emperor Constantine VI (780–797), set in motion the events which led to the assembly of Bishops at Nicea in 787, which became the Seventh Ecumenical Council.  Unlike her deceased husband and several emperors before him, she was wholly in favor of the artistic decoration of churches and the use of icons.  She was an iconodule, not an iconoclast, and wished to reverse her husband’s policy of removing and destroying holy pictures (icons).  Her task was not easy since much of the army, some of the Bishops and many of the married clergy in the parishes were committed to Christian worship and piety without icons – put negatively, they were in favor of iconoclasm.

She intended that this Council would achieve two major purposes – (a) to condemn the decrees in support of iconoclasm passed by the Council of 338 Bishops held at Hieria and St. Mary of Blachernae in 754 (a Council which claimed to be the seventh ecumenical council), and (b) to restore unity to the Church which was divided over the issue of the legitimacy of the use of icons in churches, monasteries and homes.

Pope Hadrian I, Bishop of Rome, agreed to the calling of the Council.  The Patriarch of Constantinople, Tarasius, informed the three eastern Patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch, and the assembly convened on August 1, 787, in the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.  Its session was brief because soldiers, who supported the policy of iconoclasm, entered and brought the proceedings to a halt.  The Empress, however, was determined that the Council would meet and achieve the ends she desired.  So, with the cooperation of faithful soldiers, she moved the Bishops and Legates across the Bosphorus to Nicea, where they reassembled on September 24, 787, some 452 years after the First Ecumenical Council had met in the same place.

Having finished their work there, they were able to reassemble in Constantinople in the Magnaura Palace on October 23 in the presence of the Empress Irene and the Emperor Constantine VI, to approve the Definition (Decree) and Canons passed at Nicea.  These documents made clear that the aims of the Empress were achieved; the use of icons was restored to the Church and the Bishop of Rome was again in communion with the Patriarchs of the East.

The Bishop of Rome was not present but represented by two legates.  With Patriarch Tarasius they shared the presidency of the Council, whose membership varied between 258 and 335 Bishops and Legates (due in part to the reinstatement of iconoclast Bishops).  The Definition of the Iconoclast Council of 754 was read and refuted point by point, line by line; an orthodox Definition, explaining the purpose and use of icons, was agreed upon and canons were promulgated.

The Definition of Nicea 11 (787) celebrates the providence of God in the assembly of the Council, accepts the previous six Ecumenical Councils, confesses the Creed of Constantinople (381), anathematizes all the major heretics, and defends all genuine, holy traditions whether written or unwritten (especially that of the production of representational art). Then it states:


To make our confession short we declare that we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel: a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, so that the Incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely imaginary, and brings us a similar benefit.  For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message.


We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with full precision and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy pictures (eikonas), as well in painting and mosaic as in other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on the hangings and in the pictures (sanisin) both in houses and by the wayside, namely, the picture (eikon) of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady (despoines) the holy Mother of God (theotokos), of the honorable angels, of all holy and pious men.


For the more frequently they are seen in artistic representation the more readily are men lifted up to the memory of, and the longing after, their prototypes; and to these should be given salutation and honorable reverence (aspasmon kai timetiken proskunesin), not indeed the true worship (latreian) which is fitting (prepei) for the Divine nature alone; but to these, as to the figure (tupo) of the holy and life‑giving Cross, and to the holy Gospels, and to the other sacred objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom.  For the honor which is paid to the picture (eikon) passes on to that which the picture represents, and he who reveres (proskunon) the picture reveres in it the subject represented.


So it is that the teaching of our holy fathers, that is, the Tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other has received the Gospel, is strengthened.  And so it is that we follow Paul, who spoke in Christ, and the entire, divine apostolic company and the holy fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received.  So we sing prophetically the triumphal hymns of the Church: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout,


O daughter of Jerusalem: rejoice and be glad with all thine heart.  The Lord hath taken away from thee the oppression of thine enemies.  The Lord is a King in the midst of thee; thou shalt not see evil any more, and peace shall be unto thee for ever [Zeph. 3:14–15, Septuagint].”


Those, therefore, who dare to think or teach otherwise, or who follow the wicked heretics to spurn the traditions of the Church and to invent some novelty, or who reject some of those things which the Church has received (e.g., the Book of the Gospels, or the image of the Cross, or the pictorial icons, or the holy relics of a martyr), or who devise perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing the lawful traditions of the Catholic Church, or who turn to common uses the sacred vessels of the venerable monasteries, we command that they be deposed if they be Bishops or Clerics and excommunicated if they be monks or lay people.


If anyone does not confess that Christ our God can be represented in his humanity, let him be anathema.

If anyone does not accept artistic representation of evangelical scenes, let him be anathema.

If anyone does not salute such representations as standing for the Lord and his saints, let him be anathema.

If anyone rejects any written or unwritten tradition of the Church, let him be anathema.

      In the final part of this book, we shall return to reflect upon the theology of this Definition, which, regrettably, because of inaccurate translations into Latin, was misunderstood and misrepresented in the West for a long time.

Those who formulated the Definition and who opposed iconoclasm did so at least in part for theological reasons.  They were wholly committed to the Chalcedonian doctrine that the Word of God became Man, with real manhood.  Thus as Man he could be presented in an art form.  Their opponents tended towards or were committed to Monophysitism, saw the manhood as temporary and partial, and thus were opposed to representations of real and full manhood on icons.

The twenty-two Canons of Nicea II were intended to establish the rightful freedom of the Church in spiritual matters, and to bring discipline and good order back into the Church after the disturbances caused by the Iconoclast controversies in the East and the collapse of the Empire in the West.  Here is a brief summary of their contents.

      1.  Church canons exist to be observed by all clergy.

      2.  A Priest should only be ordained a Bishop if he agrees to keep the canons.

      3.  Secular rulers ought not to elect Bishops.

      4.  Bishops should not accept gifts in exchange for favors.

5.  Clergy who disparage fellow clergy, who were appointed without distributing gifts, are subject to penalties.

      6.  Local synods are to be held each year.

      7.  Any church consecrated without the installation of holy relics is to have this defect made good.

      8.  Jews should only be received into the Church if they are genuine converts.

      9.  Books commending or supporting iconoclasm are to be handed in.

      10.  Clergy must not change dioceses without the agreement of the Bishop(s).

      11.  There should be administrators in episcopal houses and monasteries.

      12.  A Bishop or monastic Superior is to be a faithful steward of property.

      13.  To turn a monastery into a public inn is a sin.

      14.  Only those ordained should read from the ambo in church services.

      15.  A clergyman should not be appointed to office in two churches at the same time.

      16.  Clergy should not wear expensive clothing.

      17.  A monk should not attempt to found a house of prayer unless he has adequate funding.

      18.  Women should not live in the houses of Bishops or in male monasteries.

      19.  Candidates to be priests, monks or nuns are to be accepted without the presentation of gifts.

      20.  No more double monasteries (monks and nuns) are to be started.

      21.  Monks ought not to transfer from one monastery to another without permission.

      22.  Monks should always say grace and act with propriety when eating in public and in the company of women.

      As we have noted with other Canons, these provide indications of the kinds of tensions and problems being faced by the Church, especially in the East.

The decrees of this Council were not immediately received by all parts of the Church.  It took a long time and much controversy and strife before iconoclasm ceased to be an important movement in the East.  The Feast of Orthodoxy was established in the East in 842 to celebrate the final downfall of the Iconoclastic party and the full restoration of icons. Celebrated on the First Sunday in Lent, this Feast became the joyous commemoration of the orthodox, true and right Faith and its victory by the grace of the Holy Trinity over all heresies.


For the historical background to each of the three Councils see Leo Donald Davis, S.J., The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, chaps. 6–8, and L’Huillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils.  For the texts in English see H. R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, chaps. 6–10; and for the texts in Greek and Latin see Norman P. Tanner, S.J., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, pp. 105–56.  For the history of the Church in this period see H. Jedin, ed., History of the Church, vol. 2 (New York: Herder, 1980).  There is much that is helpful for the understanding of the controversies over Icons in John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Thought (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1975), especially chap. 9, and in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600–1700) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), chap. 3.  See also Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1990).



Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One.  For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages.

      The Lord Prayer Orthodox Liturgy


Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages.

      Liturgy of the Catechumens, Orthodox Church



Chapter Four

From the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit

      It is very difficult if not impossible for us to place ourselves alongside the Fathers of the early Church and read the Bible exactly as they actually read it.  Therefore, in this chapter I shall not attempt to enter the minds of the Fathers to explain the way they read, studied and meditated upon the books of the Bible.  However, I shall first make some preliminary remarks to provide a context in which to look at the biblical evidence.

      First of all, and of fundamental importance, is that the early Church was self-consciously Trinitarian in that all baptisms from the earliest times were “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  These words of Jesus did not specifically state the exact ontological or metaphysical relation of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father, but they did place the Three together in an inseparable way.  So the Church spoke of the Holy Triad or the Holy Trinity from the earliest times.  Yet, while speaking of the Triad, they clearly believed that “the God” was not “the Godhead” but “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The belief in Yahweh (= Jehovah or the LORD) inherited from the Jews and proclaimed in the holy pages of the Bible was in Christian terms belief in “the Father Almighty.”  And this Yahweh, the One God and the Father, was the God who has both an Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and a Holy Spirit, who proceeds from him and rests upon his Son.

      Secondly, in the worship of the local churches and in private devotion, prayers were addressed to Jesus the Lord.  This both assumed and raised the question as to his divinity.  And the question, given the conviction that Yahweh, the One God, is the Father, was itself a question of the relation of Jesus Christ to the Father.  Jesus can only be God if he has an eternal relation to the Father, in and by which the Father’s deity is communicated to him.  The metaphysical question arose out of the apparently simple form of Christian prayer and worship.  And the same question arose in other contexts as well – e.g., when Christians explained their Faith to Jews and to pagans and when they claimed that through Jesus Christ alone they received the salvation of God.  What Christians were saying in effect was that the answer to the question “Who is God?” is intimately and inextricably related to the questions “Who is Jesus?” and “What is the exact relation of Jesus to the One he called the Father?”

      What I shall attempt to do in this chapter is to gather together and present the basic scriptural evidence for belief in the Holy Triad.  My purpose is to give my reader sufficient grasp of the biblical teaching that he can appreciate the doctrinal debates and conclusions reached in the patristic period concerning the relation of both the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father.  And what I present is not in the patristic sense, strictly speaking, theology ( the contemplative study of the Holy Trinity in terms of the inner relations of the Three), but the economy of God ( the activity of the Father with his Son and his Spirit in the creation and redemption of the world).  In modern terminology, I present the “economic Trinity” of the sacred Scriptures, not the “ontological Trinity” (“the immanent Trinity”) of holy Dogma.  In Revelation, of course, the latter is only known through the former.

(i) Creation

      The Old Testament makes it clear that Yahweh is the Creator of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1–3; Is. 42:5).  He creates and sustains the cosmos by his creative word/wisdom and his powerful breath or Spirit:

By the word of Yahweh were the heavens made;

And all their host by the breath of his mouth (Ps. 33:6).

      Three New Testament writers build upon this teaching concerning the word and wisdom of Yahweh – which in the Old Testament is found in both the canonical and deuteron-canonical books of the Septuagint – as they develop their Christology.  For them, Jesus is the personal Word and Wisdom of God.

      First of all, in the Prologue of the Gospel of John there are these statements:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made (1:1–3).

      The whole of creation is included in one broad sweep, as it is said that the Father created through (not “by”) the Word, who is the Son.

      In the second place, in Paul=s Letter to the church in Colossae there is this teaching:

For in him [the Lord Jesus Christ, the beloved Son] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him and unto him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (1:16–17).

      By the prepositions in and through, Paul communicates the agency and participation of the Son in the creation of heaven and earth.  In another place, Paul presents the activity of Christ in the sustaining and maintaining of the creation: “There is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6).  Further, God’s plan is “for the fullness of time to unite all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10).  Here the movement is towards God, what shall be when Christ’s redeeming work is totally completed.

      Finally, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, making use of description of Wisdom in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible), wrote:

In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power (1:2–3).

Here Christ is presented as active with the Father in both the creating (through him) and the upholding of the universe.

      In none of these texts is there a mention of the Holy Spirit.  However, it is surely right to assume that his presence and activity were taken for granted.  For the first Christians the biblical (O.T.) teaching concerning the Spirit’s activity in creation was revealed by God and could not be set aside.  Thus the Father through the Son [the Word] and by the Holy Spirit [the breath of his mouth] is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.

(ii) Salvation provided

      Under the old covenant, Yahweh, the LORD, descended into his creation in a variety of ways – e.g., in theophanies, by sending angels and by placing his word in the mouths of prophets and sages.  The new covenant was established to replace the old (a) by the descent and incarnation of the Word, who is the Son of the Father, and (b) by the descent of the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and by his Son.  Salvation, which presupposes the created order and thus occurs within creation, is from the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit.

      The narratives of the conception and birth of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel assume and proclaim that God sent his own Son to become man; to achieve this miracle of Incarnation he sent his own Spirit to Mary so that she could and would conceive Jesus.  The message is clear – Yahweh is active as Creator again, creating a new epoch, order and creation through his Son, who is Immanuel, and by his Spirit, the Life-Giver.

      At the beginning of his second book, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke presents the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled apostles and disciples.  Now the new creation is beginning to take practical shape.  The Son has descended and ascended and he has poured out his Spirit, who is the Spirit of the Father, upon his own disciples.  Through this anointing and indwelling Spirit, the Lord Jesus will always be with his disciples on earth until the end of the age; and salvation from God in his name will be proclaimed throughout the world.

      Speaking of the descent of the Son, St. Paul wrote: “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law...” (Gal. 4:4–5).  Here is Incarnation to achieve redemption.  The Lord Jesus Christ who was “rich” (in heavenly glory) for the sake of man and his salvation became “poor” (in earthly humiliation) so that, through his poverty, poor sinners might become rich (I Cor. 8:9).  The descent of the Son from the heaven of heavens into the world of sin and shame, followed by his glorious exaltation back to the heaven of heavens, is powerfully dramatized by Paul in Philippians 2:5–11.  Here the Son sets aside his eternal privileges and position with the Father and descends into the evil world for the salvation of mankind.  To achieve this, he becomes a servant and dies on a cross.

      In his Letters, Paul assumes that the Holy Spirit has descended and is present as the Spirit of Christ in the churches and within individual lives.  He is present because many are confessing “Jesus is Lord,” and this is only possible by the Spirit (I Cor. 12:3).  Evidence of spiritual gifts given by the exalted Lord through the Spirit abound in the congregations (I Cor. 12).  Believers know that God has sent the Holy Spirit for they experience the Spirit of the Father and the Son in their hearts as they cry out, “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6).  In his own ministry as he proclaimed “Christ and him crucified,” Paul knew that his speech was “in demonstration of the Spirit and power” and not in the wisdom of men (I Cor. 2:1–5).

      For the apostle to the Gentiles, the work of salvation was the work of the Father and of his Son and of his Spirit.  As he explained to Titus, his son in the Faith: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God [the Father] our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Tit. 3:4–6).

      At the beginning of his Letters, Paul usually wrote, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (e.g., Rom. 1:7).  This is the downward movement from God the Father and from (through) his Son.  The presence and work of the Holy Spirit is not stated but is assumed – by the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, grace and peace become realities in the souls of believers.

      Caught up in prayerful adoration of the Holy Trinity, Paul wrote these words at the beginning of the Letter to Ephesus:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.  He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed upon us in the Beloved [Son].  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us (1:3–7).

He continued by blessing God because “you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (1:8–14).

      The gracious, saving work of God in space and time is traced back here, as Paul engages in holy contemplation, to the purposes of the Father before the creation of the world.  Yet the movement for the salvation of man is the same as elsewhere in Paul’s writings – the Father (in his transcendent, eternal glory) through the Son (by the shedding of his blood) and by the Holy Spirit (the living guarantee of the fullness of the life of the age to come).

      The Prologue to the Gospel of John declares that the Word, who is the only Son, comes into the world from the Father and that grace and truth (salvation and revelation) come through him.  As Incarnate God, he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29).  And in the much quoted words of John 3:16–17: “For God [the Father] so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

      The sending and giving of the Spirit by the Father and the glorified Son to the disciples is given much emphasis in John 14–16.  The Paraclete comes from the Father in the name of the Son: he brings the virtues of the Son to the disciples and continues the mission of the Son in the hostile world.  Yet already in John 3:1–8 it was made clear that the same Spirit, who alone causes spiritual birth into the kingdom of God, is the Holy Spirit who is “from above,” that is from the Father.  There is salvation only for those who believe in the Son and are “born of the Spirit” and thus “born from above.”

      In I John, it is made clear that the fellowship of Christians is not only with each other “but is with the Father and the Son;” further, this is because they have “an anointing from the Holy One” which abides in them.


By this we know that we abide in him [God] and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.  Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.  So we know and believe the love God has for us (4:13–16).


      God the Father sent his Son into the world and gives his Spirit to those who believe in his Son in order that they may abide in God.

      The same movement from the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit may be seen in the rest of the books of the New Testament.  In fact, it may be claimed that one unifying theme either implicit or explicit in all the books is that of the economic Trinity.

(iii) Salvation received

      The four Gospels were not written merely to provide information concerning Jesus and satisfy curiosity as to his identity.  They were written with an evangelistic purpose – to declare the Gospel of the Father concerning his Son, Jesus Christ, so that Jew and Gentile would believe in Jesus as Lord and Christ and in believing receive God’s salvation.  The purpose of the Gospels is to cause men to turn from sin and idolatry to trust, serve and worship the Father through his Son and by his Spirit.  So while they certainly assume and powerfully declare the economic Trinity, practically speaking they were written to make the movement towards God the Father possible by providing the content of the good news of Jesus, in and by whom alone men know and come to the Father.  In fact, we could say that everything in the New Testament was written in order to make possible the “Ascent” from earth into the “new heaven and earth,” and from this evil age into the glorious age of the kingdom of God.

      To be saved by God the Father into his everlasting kingdom of grace, it is necessary to be united in the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ and be presented or brought to the Father by this divine agency.  Such a removal out of sin into friendship with God is stated with clarity and power in the Letter to Ephesus, where the apostle is discussing the unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ and before God:


Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near [to God] in the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who has made us [Jew and Gentile] both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility ... that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us to God in one body through the Cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.  And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father (2:13–18).

The last words are very important: “Through Christ we have access in One Spirit to the Father.”  Here is the basis of both salvation and worship. Then he continues:

So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple to the Lord, in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (2:19–22).

      Here is a powerful picture of a living temple centered on Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit and made not of stones of granite but of apostles, prophets and all true believers, both Jews and Gentiles.  The temple rises from earth towards heaven, which is its goal.  This divine household is built upon the saving work of Jesus Christ, energized and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Christ, and is oriented towards the Father, who draws it to himself.

      The Letter to the Hebrews contrasts that to which the Israelites were brought by the old Exodus through the Red Sea with that to which Christians are brought through the new Exodus of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.


For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them.  For they could not endure the order that was given.  “If even a beast touches the mountain it shall be stoned.”  Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”  (12:18–21)

The writer is recalling what is recorded in Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 9.  He continues:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (12:22–24).

Entry into the new creation is clearly only possible because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who is the Mediator of the new covenant.

For Christ has entered.. .into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf (9:24).

      Knowing through the Gospel what the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit has done in establishing the new covenant, Christians are to respond wholeheartedly.  Because they know that the way to God is now wide open unto those who believe the good news, they are to respond in worship and service.

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (10:19–22).

And in terms of practice:

Let us hold fast the confession of our faith without wavering, for he [the Father] who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and to good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (10:23–25).

As they wait for the Parousia of Christ, the Day of the Lord, Christians are to ascend to the Father in spiritual communion by offering him the sacrifice of good works and the corporate activity of spiritual worship.

(iv) Worship as response

      Salvation has three tenses in the New Testament.  By the unique, sacrificial, atoning death of Jesus Christ, salvation is procured once for all and forever.  We are saved by the propitiatory and expiatory death of the Lord Jesus.  Once a person believes in Jesus and confesses that he is Lord, then he enters into salvation – he is being saved from sin and into the life of the Holy Trinity.  Salvation is for him “already” experienced, but it is “not yet” fully realized.  He knows that he is still a sinner in a mortal, sinful body.  However, he will certainly enjoy the fullness of salvation when, after the Parousia of the Lord Jesus Christ, in his resurrection body and with all the saints he beholds the glory of God the Father in the face of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

      The New Testament has a lot to say about the privileges and duties of those who are being saved from this evil age into the fullness of salvation in the life of the age to come.  Within these privileges and duties we find worship and prayer.  In such holy activities, the Church on earth is united in the Holy Spirit with the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Father and High Priest in heaven: her worship ascends to the Father within the worship and prayer offered unceasingly by Jesus, the Priest, to the Father.  Christ at the right hand of the Father, interceding for his Church: and the Holy Spirit is interceding from within the souls of his people (Rom. 8:26, 34.).  This activity of the Spirit with the Son to the Father for the elect will continue until the end of the age when Christ shall come again to judge the living and the dead.

      Speaking as a Christian to Christian believers, Paul told the church in Philippi: “We are the true circumcision who worship God in spirit, [or “worship by the Spirit of God”] and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (3:3).  Here is Paul’s simple theology.  Because of Jesus Christ (who he is and what he has done and is doing), worship ascends in the Spirit to the Father.

      Worship [Prayer] is not only thanksgiving, praise and worship; it can also be petition and intercession.  Thus Paul made this request of the church in Rome, a church he had not yet visited: “I appeal to you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s [the Father’s] will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.  The God of peace be with you all.  Amen” (15:30–33).

      In writing to the church in Colossae, Paul put it simply: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father through him” (3:17).  Likewise he told the church in Rome: “I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1).

      The First Letter of Peter is clear that, as those who are chosen by the Father, redeemed by the precious blood of Christ and being sanctified by the Holy Spirit (1:1–2, 19), Christians are placed in such a privileged relation to God that they have a joyous duty both to proclaim the Gospel and offer spiritual sacrifice in worship and service:


You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s [the Father’s] own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy (2:9–10).

And recalling Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 28:16, which refer to Christ as the chief cornerstone of God's new Temple, Peter wrote:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s [the Father’s] sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built up into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God [the Father] through Jesus Christ (2:4–5).


The assembled local church, as the holy priesthood, offers its worship, prayer and service in the Holy Spirit to the Father through Christ the High Priest.

      In his very short Letter Jude told his fellow Christians, whom he addressed as “those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ,” to “Build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Spirit; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”  He ended the Letter with this doxology which points to the “Ascent” of the faithful to the Father.


Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever.  Amen.

      So the Church, the Bride of Christ, invokes her Lord, giving him the honor which is his due, and moves in, with and through him to render her worship to the eternal Father.  In this movement from earth to heaven, and from forgiven sinners to the heavenly Father, the Holy Spirit is wholly present, but invisible and often anonymous.  Thus in the New Testament there is no example of prayer being offered directly to the Holy Spirit.  This practice came later, after the dogma of the Trinity had been clarified and the divine personhood of the Holy Spirit clearly established as a truth of the Faith at the Council of Constantinople (381).

      Even so, in Christian liturgy and devotion, direct addressing of the Holy Spirit is rare.  The Father is made known to the Church through the Son and the Son is made known by the Spirit.  However, there is no fourth divine Person to make the Spirit known.  The Holy Spirit is the locus, even as the Son is the agent, rather than the object of divine revelation.  Creation is from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, and the response of the creature is to the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.  Thus the Spirit is experienced within the Church rather like the air that is breathed.  He is known in his effects and not like a visible, external object.

      From this brief presentation of the Trinity in the economy, it is possible to see how and why controversy could arise concerning the status of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  It is clear that “God” is “the Father” and “the Father” is “God.”  However, it is not absolutely clear in what sense the incarnate Son, who is called “Lord,” actually possesses and participates in the Godhead.  To be pre-existent is one thing; but to be “God” is another.  All agreed that the Son is pre-existent.  Yet this does not settle the nature of his unique relation to the Father.  Further, it is even less clear in what sense the Holy Spirit, who is also clearly pre-existent, is to be called God, or is to be said to possess the Godhead of the Father.  So, though Baptism was in the Name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, there was still room for debate as to the precise relations of the Three, one to another before and after the creation of space and time.


For studies of the doctrine of the economic Trinity see A. W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1965) and Peter Toon, Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996).  For the dogma of the Trinity see Bertrand de Margene, S.J., The Christian Trinity in History (Still River, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1982).

Chapter Five

Arianism Rejected

      It has been said, that a person has first to be a Christian to become a heretic, and that there has to be truth before there is heresy and error.  In the early Church, the truth of the Gospel was known, believed, taught and preached before it was formally stated by synods of bishops in Ecumenical Councils.  Thus, heresy existed from the apostolic age through to the first Council in 325.  Not only the books of the New Testament, but also the writings of the early Fathers confirm this.  For example, in the latter part of the second century, Irenaeus wrote a book against false knowledge, which is known in English through the translation of its Latin (not original Greek) title, Against Heresies.


      The specific teaching, which was declared to be a heresy at the Council of Nicea in 325, is known as Arianism, after Arius, a presbyter of the church in Alexandria in Egypt.  Arius and others who supported him were influenced by the teaching of Lucian, who ran a theological school in Antioch, and to whom they were exceedingly loyal.  Lucian was absolutely clear that there is one and one only God, who is both the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus Christ.  This Antiochene theologian was a Unitarian in contrast to a Trinitarian, since he taught that there is no plurality within the unity of God.  Further, he held that the Logos, incarnate as Jesus, is a supremely unique, created being, who is supernatural but not divine in the sense that the Father is divine.

      Commenting on the origins of the Arian controversy, Dr. J. N. D. Kelly, wrote:


The outbreak of the Arian debate is probably to be placed somewhere in 318, when Arius was presiding as priest over the church of Baucalis.  The broad lines of his system, which was a model of dovetailed logic, are not in any doubt.  Its keystone was the conviction of the absolute transcendence and perfection of the Godhead.  God (and it was God the Father whom he had in mind) was absolutely one: there could be no other God in the proper sense of the word beside him.  (Early Christian Creeds, p. 232.)

      Arius explained his own theology to his Bishop, Alexander, in a letter sent about 320 from a refuge outside the city.  His clear belief in the absolute unity of God and the distinctiveness of the Son as a unique creature cannot be missed:

We acknowledge One God, alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone unbegun, alone true, alone having immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign: judge, governor and administrator of all, unalterable and unchangeable, just and good, God of Law and Prophets and New Testament; who begat an Only-begotten Son before eternal times, through whom he has made both the ages and the universe; and begat him not in semblance, but in truth: and that he made him subsist at his own will, unalterable and unchangeable; perfect creature of God, but not as one of the creatures; offspring, but not as one of things that have come into existence... (A New Eusebius, p. 346.)

      To establish his own orthodoxy, Arius proceeded to declare that he rejected the teaching of the heretics Valentinus, Manichaeus and Sabellius.  In doing this, he rejected the use of the (soon to be famous) word, homoousios, of the Son, since he believed that it implied that (as used by Manichaeus and others) the Son is an actual portion or piece of the Father and thus, there is actual division within the divine essence (ousia) of the Godhead.

      About the same time, Arius also wrote a letter to Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, his friend and former fellow student in the academy of Lucian in Antioch. He said:

I want to tell you that the Bishop [of Alexandria] makes great havoc of us and persecutes us severely, and is in full sail against us: he has driven us out of the city as atheists, because we do not concur in what he publicly preaches, namely, that, “God has always been, and the Son has always been: the Father and the Son exist together: the Son has his existence unbegotten along with God ever being begotten, without having been begotten: God does not precede the Son by thought or by any interval however small: God has always been, the Son has always been: the Son is from God himself.  (Ibid., p. 344.)

      Apparently, the Bishop’s teaching that the Son is as eternal as is the Father and also that he is of the same deity as the Father, was heard by Arius and others as meaning that the Son is an actual part of the Father – and God who is indivisible is now divisible.  His own position was:

That the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; nor from some lower essence (i.e., from matter); but that by the Father’s will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before ages as God full of grace and truth, only-begotten, unchangeable.  And that he was not, before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established.  For he was not unbegotten.  (Ibid., p. 345.)

      Arius proceeded in his self-defense to explain to Eusebius the real cause of their persecution in Alexandria and Egypt:

We are persecuted because we say, ‘the Son had a beginning, but God is without beginning.’  This is really the cause of our persecution; and, likewise, because we say that he is from nothing.  And this we say because he is neither part of God, nor of a lower essence.  (Ibid., p. 345.)

      Certainly, Arius clearly identified the basis of the bitter division.  His Bishop said that the Son is not a creature, not even the highest possible form of a created being, because he is divine in the same way that the Father is divine.  In contrast, Arius wanted to give the highest possible place to the Logos/Son in the divine scheme of things, but without stating that the Son possesses deity as the Father possesses deity.

      Some of the theological sayings of Arius from his book, Thalia (= “Banquet,” a popular medley of verse and prose), were collected by Athanasius and included in his own book, On the Synods of Ariminum and Seleucia.  Here is a selection of them:


We praise him [the Father] as without beginning, because of him [the Son] who has a beginning. 


For the Son is not equal, no, nor one in essence [homoousios] with the Father.


At God’s will, the Son is what and whatsoever he is.  And when and since he was, from then he has subsisted from God.


To speak in brief, God is ineffable to his Son.  For he is to himself what he is, that is, unspeakable.  So that nothing which is called comprehensible does the Son know how to think about; for it is impossible for him to investigate the Father, who is by himself.  For the Son does not know his own essence: for, being Son, he really existed at the will of the Father.  (Ibid., p. 351.)

      From these quotes, it is obvious that for Arius there was a great metaphysical gulf between God, the Father, and his (uniquely created) Logos or Son.  Even though divine titles may be given to the unique, creaturely Son, he has no intimate relation with God for the simple reason that, in the final analysis he is a creature.

      It may be said that Arius, his teachers and his supporters, were reading the Scriptures and interpreting theology from a Greek or hellenistic point of view.  In the common cosmology of their time, the supreme God was seen as wholly separate from all created and material existence.  Since Godhead is absolutely unique, wholly transcendent and totally indivisible by nature, its essence cannot be shared or communicated.  The fact of the matter is that God is God and God is inescapably One!  This position is not negotiable!

      So the Son must be a creature, formed out of nothing by God, who in forming him becomes his “Father.”  As a creature, the Son had of necessity a beginning, even though this beginning is before the beginning of the universe and the angels.  Further, being a creature, the Son has no direct, genuine knowledge of the Father, since he belongs to an entirely different plane of existence and is of a wholly different essence.  So the Father remains ineffable to his Son, who, being a creature, is by definition liable to change and error (for only the true God is unchangeable).  Nevertheless, the Arians did allow that the Son as creature could be called by divine names, but these were only courtesy titles.  However, they searched the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to come up with texts which suggested that the Son was a creature and that, as such, he was subject to ignorance, weakness, suffering and personal development.

      The late Dr. Philip E. Hughes, an Anglican clergyman, gave a very good summary of the nature of Arianism as a theological system when he wrote:


The Christ devised by Arius was in being as remote from man as he was from God.  Sharing neither in man’s time nor in God’s eternity, he was supposed to serve as a buffer to keep God and matter from direct contact with each other; but then he had to be defined as himself the first creature, before whose begetting God was not the Father, and whose own creation was willed in order that he might become the agent of the creation of all things else.  To postulate that he was brought into being nontemporally or pretemporally in no way saved him from being bounded by temporality.  The assertion that “there was once when he was not,” even though the word “time” is not mentioned, is an inescapably temporal assertion.  Estranged from the essential nature and the essential power of God, he cannot in any absolute sense be described as the Son of God and the Divine Word, but only in a reduced deferential sense as a concession to the uniqueness of his intermediate position.  Arius’ Christological statements define an ontology that is concerned with and controlled by questions of cosmology rather than soteriology: and it was soteriology that was ultimately at issue.  (The True Image, p. 268.)


      Put very simply, the Arian Christ could be neatly fitted into current hellenistic cosmology, but he could not be presented as the Savior of the world to whom the Gospels and Epistles witness!  In Arianism, the Gospel is in the service of hellenistic metaphysics and cosmology.  In orthodoxy, as we shall see, hellenistic techniques are in the service of the Gospel!

      In the light of this exposition of the theological position of Arius, it is not surprising that the following anathemas containing its characteristic tenets were added to the Nicene Creed in 325 at the First Ecumenical Council.


Those who say that “There was once when he was not,” and “Before he was begotten he was not,” and that “He was made of things that were not,” or say that he is “of a different substance or essence,” or that the Son is a creature or changeable or transformable – these persons the holy, catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes. 

      While Arianism was defeated at the Council, it was not immediately defeated within the Church throughout the Roman Empire.  Its appeal there, as indicated above, was its seeming agreement with current and widely known hellenistic cosmology.  Arianism was culturally acceptable while Orthodoxy was not.


      Arius and his supporters rejected the use of the word homoousios (“consubstantial” or “of the same essence”) to describe the relation of the Father and the Son.  To them the Son was heteroousios, “different in substance/essence.”  However, some of the less radical were happy to use the similar (in terms of spelling) but very different word (in terms of meaning), homoiousios.  The addition of the iota changes the meaning from “of the same” to “of similar” ousia (essence), and thus, can serve the aim of separating the Son metaphysically and ontologically from the Father.  So it is not surprising that the opponents of the Nicene Faith – Arians and others – were ready to speak of the Trinity as consisting of Three Persons (treis hypostaseis), but not of Three equal Persons (as in classic orthodoxy) within one Godhead.  In Arianism, the Three – the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – were three different beings, with only the Father being truly God and the other two being unique creatures of this God in unique relations of order to him (hence a holy Trinity).

      Later, during the rule of Constantius from 350 to 361, the Nicene Faith was openly attacked, and a radical form of Arianism made its position known, whose advocates and supporters were known as the Anomoeans.  They taught that the Son was unlike (anomoios) the Father.  A statement of faith produced by a synod held at Sirmium in 357 explicitly forbad the use of either the homoousios or the homoiousios (which by this time was the word favored by the moderates who did not think of themselves as heretical Arians)!  The content of this confession of belief led St. Hilary to describe the document as a blasphemy!  Though a Trinity was confessed by the Arians it was a Trinity in which the Son is unlike the Father in essence; and the Spirit, though a creature like the Son, is also unlike the Son in essence and being.  Here the Spirit is a “third power” and of “the third rank.”

      The opponents of the Nicene homoousios who favored anomoios went too far and efforts were made by some who took a middle ground to try to find a compromise.  In this context, the word homoios (like in all respects) was suggested and approved by the Emperor.  For all practical purposes the public faith of the Church soon became Homoean, a position which the Emperor believed allowed all reasonable churchmen to exist alongside each other in the one Church.  This “neutral” faith (which effectively opened the door wide for all kinds of Arianism) was set forth in creeds produced by various synods in 359 and 360.  As he pondered all this, St. Jerome wrote his now famous words – “the whole world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian” (Dialogue of a Luciferian and an Orthodox Christian, p. 19).  We may also recall that between the years 336 and 366 that most celebrated defender of the Nicene Faith, Athanasius, who had become Bishop of Alexandria in 328, was often assailed by wicked slanders of the Arians and endured five periods of banishment or exile from his diocese.

      The most well known product of the Homoean position is the Creed produced at a synod in Constantinople in January 360.  It is rather clumsy in style, but does exclude the Anomoeans:


We believe in one God, the Father almighty, from whom are all things;


We believe in the only begotten [unique] Son of God, who was begotten from God before all ages and before all beginning, through whom all things came into existence, both visible and invisible, begotten uniquely, alone from the Father alone, God from God, like [homoios] the Father who begot him, according to the Scriptures, whose generation no one knows save alone the Father who begot him.  We know that this only-begotten [unique] Son of God came from heaven, the Father sending him, as it is written, for the destruction of sin and death, and was born of [the] Holy Spirit, of Mary the Virgin as regards the flesh, as it is written, and consorted [companied] with the disciples, and having fulfilled all the economy according to the Father’s will, was crucified and died, and was buried and descended to the lower world (before whom hell itself trembled): who also rose again from the dead on the third day, and sojourned with the disciples, and when forty days were fulfilled was taken up to heaven, and sits on the Father’s right hand, purposing to come on the last day, of the resurrection, in the Father’s glory so as to render to each according to his deeds.


We believe in the Holy Spirit, whom the only‑begotten [unique] Son of God himself, Christ our Lord and God, promised to send as a Paraciete to the race of men, as it is written, “The Spirit of truth,” whom he sent to them when he had ascended into heaven.


But as for the word “substance” [ousia], which was used by the Fathers in simplicity, but, being unknown to the people caused scandal because the Scriptures themselves do not contain it, it has pleased us that it should be abolished and that no mention at all should be made of it in the future, since indeed the divine Scriptures nowhere have made mention of the substance of the Father and the Son.  Nor indeed should the term “hypostasis” be used of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.


But we say the Son is like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach.  But let all heresies which have either been condemned previously, or have come about more recently and are in opposition to this creed, be anathema.

      This Creed became the official statement of what was to be (by the supporters of the Nicene homoousios) called Arianism in the period leading up to the Council of Constantinople in 381.  However, as far as the Emperor was concerned the Creed was the Faith of the Church and he sent it to all Bishops requiring them to sign it.

      Between 360 and 381, there was a drawing together in understanding of the Homoeousians (who favored the homoiousios and opposed both the Anomoeans and the Homoeans) and the Homoousians (who stood by the Nicene homoousios).  By this time the debate also specifically included the status of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Father.  Is the Holy Spirit “of like essence” or “of unlike essence” to, or just “like,” the Father?  Therefore, due to the convergence of aim and doctrine, it was possible at the Council of Constantinople in 381 for the 150 bishops both to confirm the Faith of Nicea, with its homoousios and its anathemas against original Arianism, and to promulgate a further Creed, which confirmed the faith of Nicea and also stated the full divinity of the Holy Spirit.

      Further, the Fathers at the Council of Constantinople (381) declared the following in the first of their seven canons:


The profession of faith of the holy Fathers who gathered at Nicea in Bithynia is not to be abrogated, but is to remain in force.  Every heresy is to be anathematized and in particular that of the Eunomians or Anomoeans, that of the Arians or Eudoxians, that of the Semi-Arians or Pneumatochoi, that of the Sabellians, that of the Marcellians, that of the Photinians and that of the Apollinarians. 


      We must attempt to identify the groups which are anathematized.

      The “Eunomians or Anomoeans” were the ultra Arians who said that the Son and the Spirit are unlike the Father.  Eunomius was the Bishop of Cyzicus in Mysia, Asia Minor, and he was very active in promoting the rejection of both the homoousios and the homoiousios.  He served the orthodox cause in the sense that the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa) shaped their doctrine of God and human knowledge largely in response to what they perceived to be the errors of Eunomius.

      The “Arians or Eudoxians” were the new Arians of the period from 360 onwards.  They preferred the vague statement that the Son and the Spirit are “like” (homoios) the Father.  Eudoxius was first Bishop of Antioch (358) and then Bishop of Constantinople (360–370).  He first favored the Anomoean position, but later embraced the Homoean theology.

      The “Semi-Arians or Pneumatochoi [Spirit-fighters]” referred to those who were opposed to the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, but who counted in their number some who were prepared to say of the Son that he was at least homoiousios (and maybe even homoousios) with the Father.  What they were generally prepared to affirm of the Holy Spirit is that he is neither God nor a creature, but occupies some middle position.  They claimed that Scripture did not clearly state that the Holy Spirit belonged wholly to the Godhead.

      The “Sabellians” were named after Sabellius, of whom virtually nothing is known.  Sabellians sought to safeguard monotheism and at the same time be Trinitarian by claiming that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three manifestations or phases or showings of the One God (as if God were a Triangle with a name for each of the three sides).  Thus, white the Unity of God was absolutely real, the Trinity of God was metaphysically unreal, for the Three were only an appearance and an accommodation to mankind.  Other names for this heresy are Modalism or Modalistic Monarchianism.  Naturally Sabellians could use homoousios of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but not in a Nicene sense!  For them it meant that God is One indivisible Substance or Essence or Nature, whom Christians see as Three in One.

      The “Marcellians” were named after Marcellus, Bishop of Ancyra, an extremist who strongly supported the homoousios but in what seemed to many to be a Sabellian direction.  Apparently he taught that the Son and the Spirit only emerged within the Godhead for the purpose of creation and redemption.  Thus when all the work of redemption is done they will be “reabsorbed” into the unity of the Godhead.  The clause, “his kingdom will have no end,” in the Creed of Constantinople (381) was inserted against this heresy.

      The “Photinians” were the supporters of Photinus, Bishop of Sirmium and a disciple of Marcellus of Ancyra.  He also taught a provocative form of Sabellianism.

      The “Apollinarians” were the followers of Apollinarius, who was Bishop of Laodicea in the second part of the fourth century.  Their heresy is strictly speaking a Christological heresy in contrast to a Trinitarian heresy for it relates to the make-up of the Person of Christ (the union within him of the divine and human natures).  We shall examine its content in Part Three.

      Finally, a word about the translation of homoousios.  The traditional translation into English is either “consubstantial” or “of the same substance.”  Some favor “coessential” or “of the same being” because of the connotation widely attached to the term “substance” as descriptive of three-dimensioned solidity.  We shall use any of these translations according to context, and to present a justifiable variety of expression.


The two books by J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev, ed. (San Francisco: Harper, 1978) and Early Christian Creeds (New York: Longman, 1991), are of great value.  For translations from original documents see J. Stevenson, ed., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337 (London: SPCK, 1957).  The exposition of patristic Christology by Philip E. Hughes in his The True Image. The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) is accurate and readable.  Also valuable is R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318–381 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988).

Chapter Six

Orthodoxy Proclaimed B The Homoousios

      Outside the inspired and authoritative content of the Holy Scriptures, there is probably not a more important word in the Christian vocabulary than the Greek word homoousios as it is found in both the Creed of Nicea (325) and the Creed of Constantinople (381).  Another way of stating this is to say that the phrase, “Of one substance [essence] with the Father” ( in Greek, homoousion to patri) as declaring the truth concerning Jesus Christ is crucial for the existence of Christianity.  However, it is a phrase which must be clearly understood in terms of what it is stating both positively and negatively.  The Creeds declare that there is one Godhead and that Godhead is wholly possessed not only by the Father, but also by the Son.  Thus, in terms of Deity the Father and the Son, though distinct as Persons, are of one essence (or “of one substance” or “consubstantial”).  And if the Father and the Son, though distinct, each possesses the whole Godhead entirely, then it cannot be said of the Son that his deity (“essence” or “substance”) is like that of the Father.


      The confession of faith by the Bishops began with the expression of belief in the one true and living God, known in the Old Testament as Yahweh Elohim (the LORD God) and known in the New Testament as ho Pater, “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  It is important to note that the “one God” is not the Godhead but “the Father Almighty.”  This God, the Father, is the Creator of the whole universe, wherein man dwells, and of the whole invisible heaven, wherein the angels dwell.

      In the second paragraph, the Bishops described and proclaimed the Lord Jesus Christ in whom they believed.  Using titles and descriptions from Scripture, especially the Gospel of John, they called him the “Son of God” and “the only-begotten of the Father.”  Following the teaching of John 1, Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1, they proclaimed that the Father created the heavens and the earth through this same Jesus Christ.  And following the Gospel accounts they spoke of the Incarnation of the Son, his manhood, his suffering, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and his future coming as the Judge.  In all this they took for granted the pre-existence of the Son before his becoming man.

      The big question they faced was not whether or not the Son was pre-existent.  All agreed that the Son existed before he actually became man.  The question was: “What is the relation of the Son to the Father?”  In answer the Bishops at Nicea declared:

[the only‑begotten Son is] from the substance of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father...


The wording was intended to be anti-Arian and to make it very clear that the Son was not a creature.

      That Jesus Christ is “from the very essence or substance (ousia) of the Father” was intended to clarify the previous words, begotten from the Father.  Contrary to the Arian claim that the Son had been created out of nothing before the creation of the heavens and earth, the Bishops insisted that the Son is generated out of the Father’s very essence, substance and being.

      Jesus Christ is “true God from true God” B the Father Almighty is “true God” and Jesus Christ is also “true God” from the One who is the “true God.”  That is, Jesus is not called God as a title of honor as Arians maintained.  He is truly God in whatever sense the Father is truly God.

    Jesus Christ is “begotten not made.”  Arians used the verb “to beget” of the Son in relation to the Father, but by it they meant “to make.”  In contrast, the Son, as the tradition since Origen had taught, is eternally begotten of the Father.

      Finally, Jesus Christ is “of one substance with the Father.”  Here is the use of homoousios and it is clearly intended to imply that the Son fully shared the deity, divinity and Godhead of the Father.

      To make the rejection of Arianism as clear as possible, the bishops pronounced anathemas at the end of the Creed of 325 upon several typical phrases, catchwords and slogans written by Arius in his book of verse, Thalia.  The statements condemned were:


There was when the Son was not.

Before being born the Son was not.

The Son came into existence out of nothing.

The Son is of a different hypostasis or substance to the Father.

The Son is created.

The Son is subject to alteration or change.

Thus the positive faith is that the Son is from the same eternity as is the Father, that he is of the same essential deity as is the Father and that he is immutable. 


      In affirming that the Son is of the same, identical essence, substance and being as the Father by using the word homoousios, the Bishops moved outside Scriptural language.  They would certainly have preferred to have used only Scriptural phrases and words in confessing the precise relation of the Son to the Father.  However, when they tried to do so they found that the Arians had already given their own interpretation to those phrases.  Thus, in order to state what they believed the sacred Scripture actually taught concerning Jesus Christ, they turned to the compound adjective, homoousios, with ousia as its principal element.

      The word ousia had several meanings in Greek philosophical writings and the Bishops were obviously aware of these.  So they were aware that in using the adjective, homoousios, as well as the noun, ousia, in the Creed, they were using words with several possible meanings – but they knew, and the Arians knew, that all the meanings were within the range of “substance” and “being” and “essence” and thus “identical substance” and “identical being” and “identical essence.”  Thus, in selecting this word for inclusion in the Creed, the Bishops intended it to make clear in as formal a way as possible that the truth of the Gospel is that the Son is truly God, in the sense that he fully shares the one, divine nature which his Father has.

      In setting forth this teaching concerning the relation of the Son to the Father, the Bishops not only proclaimed the truth of the Gospel, they also produced the first statement of dogma – that the Son is of one substance with the Father.  In short, the use of the homoousios is the first, official statement of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, even though the Nicene Creed of 325 expresses belief “in the Holy Spirit” in minimum words.  At later Councils, the full dogma that both the Son and the Holy Spirit are of one substance with the Father and with each other will be set forth in detail.  In fact, the general doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene Creed is what has been called the doctrine of the economic Trinity – creation and salvation “from the Father through the Son and in the Spirit.”  But into this presentation of the economic Trinity there is placed a truth – the homoousios – which belongs to what is called the doctrine of the immanent or ontological Trinity (God–as–God–is–unto–himself).

      The presentation of the Holy Trinity in the Bible is of God in action as the Creator, the Savior, and the Judge.  The movement from God to man is “from the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.”  Likewise the movement from man to God is “to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.”  In the use of the homoousios the Bishops were describing God as God is unto himself.  They were speaking of the internal relation of the Father and the Son, and by implication of the Father and the Holy Spirit.  In fact, the word “theology” developed the restricted meaning in the Church of the contemplation of the immanent or ontological Trinity, the true study of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, one in ousia.  (Later the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity was put in terms of the contrast of the essence and the energies of God.  However, the essence is known only through the energies of God and the immanent Trinity known only through the economic Trinity.)

      Of course, there were dangers in using the word homoousios.  One such danger was encouraging the development of Sabellianism and another was of being interpreted as Sabellian.  Certainly some Arians, as well as others more kindly disposed to the Nicene Creed, believed that to use homoousios was actually to mean that God is a Unity and that in that Unity there cannot be any genuine plurality (Trinity).  Thus, what Christians call the Holy Trinity would be a Trinity of appearance, not a Trinity of reality.  For Sabellianism there are three Modes or Manifestations of the Unity, so that the one God is known successively (or even simultaneously) as the Father, the Son and the Spirit.  In terms of salvation history, some Sabellians said that the Old Testament reveals God in the Mode of Father, the Gospels reveal God in the Mode of the Son, and the Acts and Epistles reveal God in the Mode of the Holy Spirit.

      We may note in passing that Sabellianism was a continuing problem for the Church in the West and that the Quicunque Vult or the Athanasian Creed was composed and used to combat the doctrine that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were simply Modes of the One God.  (See further J. N. D. Kelly, The Athanasian Creed, 1965.)

      Though some of the orthodox party of the fourth century did lean towards Sabellianism, the major supporters of the Nicene Creed always insisted that the Holy Trinity is a genuine Trinity of Persons.  The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father even though, importantly, they share one and the same deity and divinity.  Apart from having to make clear that they were not Sabellians, the orthodox also had to develop a vocabulary to speak of the Holy Trinity in such a way that what was being affirmed could not easily be misunderstood and misinterpreted. 


      But why was precision of definition so necessary?  Why did the orthodox fight so long and so hard to retain the homoousios?  Why was a right doctrine of the relation of Jesus Christ to the Father so important?  Several answers were given and may still be given to these questions.

      First of all, the Bishops believed that God had acted and spoken in Jesus Christ and that the Church had the solemn and sacred duty of speaking rightly of Jesus Christ, his identity and his mission.  If God had provided a revelation of who he is and who is his Son, then the Church must surely study and set forth that truth.

      In the second place, they judged that Arianism, when fully seen for what it was, was nothing more than a form of polytheism.  Instead of the Holy Triad/Trinity, the Arians were worshipping three deities related to one another in a hierarchy – a form of tritheism.  Certainly one (God the Father) was absolutely supreme, but the other two (the Son and the Spirit) were certainly not either angels or men and so were inferior deities.

      Thirdly, the Bishops knew that Arianism undermined their whole tradition of worship and prayer.  Not only did they baptize converts in the one name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, they also addressed prayers both to the Father and to the Son.  They worshipped God in and through God – the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.

      In the fourth place, the Bishops, Athanasius in particular, knew that Arianism proposed a Mediator, who could not truly be a Savior.  A created being, however wonderfully created and gloriously endowed, could not save a people from sin, death and Satan.  He could teach them, perform miracles and provide an example to them, but he could not save them from eternal death into eternal life.  Only a Savior who is truly God become man can restore sinful, diseased man to a right relation and communion with the Father.  That is, only a Savior who is homoousios with the Father can be the Savior of the world.

      Finally, as we noted in the last chapter, the Bishops judged that Arianism was primarily a form of Greek cosmology.  It used the Christian biblical data to fill out in a religious sense the commonly held Greek view of God (gods) and the cosmos.  Thus, it was a sell-out to a sophisticated form of paganism.


      We have already noted that the Creed of 381 is not identical with that of 325.  In fact, it is a related but different Creed, which retains the homoousios concerning the Son and declares the true deity of the Holy Spirit.

      The first part of the second paragraph of the Creed of 381 sets forth the relation of Jesus Christ to the Father in these words:


We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance [homoousiosl with the Father, through whom all things came into existence, who because of us men and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.... 

      This is somewhat less emphatic than is the similar paragraph in the Nicene Creed.  One reason for this is that the Nicene Creed is taken for granted as being in existence and as being received as the Faith by the Church.

      Here, in the context of proclaiming the economic Trinity (creation and redemption from the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit), the Bishops proclaim the reality of the immanent Trinity.  They confess the truth concerning the Son of God – the truth to which the Scriptures point and bear witness.  Thus, as with the Nicene Creed, they make clear that the relation of the Son to the Father is not that of being created or physically procreated before or with space and time.  Rather, the relation is that of the Son always possessing the very essence or substance or deity of the Father without being the Father.  The Son is “true God of true God.”  Always and forever (“before all ages”) the Father shares his deity with his Son so that the Son always has exactly the one and the same deity as does the Father.  The Son is “of one substance with the Father.”  Yet the Son, is not the Father, and the Father is not the Son.  And, it is the Son not the Father who is incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

      The words “was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” serve to make clear the fact that there was a real and true incarnation of the eternal Word.  As the incarnate Son, and known as Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Word loved, trusted and obeyed the Father and did all that he did in his manhood through the inspiration, illumination and power of the Holy Spirit.  So he was confessed as the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord.  It is this Story which the Four Gospels tell and the Epistles interpret.  It is the Story of the “oikonomia” (the ordered process of the self-disclosure of God), the action of God as the economic Trinity.  Yet in and through the economic Trinity is necessarily seen by the eyes of faith the immanent Trinity; and (as the Bishops so clearly recognized) the only way to safeguard the economic Trinity and ensure the confession that the Son of God is truly and really the genuine Savior of the world is to speak truthfully of the immanent Trinity.  Thus, the inescapability of the confession that the Son is homoousios with the Father (and with the Holy Spirit).

      By the time of the Council of Constantinople, there was a general agreement among the orthodox concerning the vocabulary to be used to speak of the Holy Trinity – i.e., one ousia in three hypostaseis; three Persons in and of one Substance or Essence.  There had been a clarifying of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit initially by Athanasius (see especially his Letters to Serapion, who was the Bishop of Thmuis in the Nile delta in Egypt) and then by the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil and the two Gregorys.  Between 370 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, the latter brought clarity of expression to the doctrines concerning both the Person of the Holy Spirit and the nature of the Holy Trinity.

      Basil composed De Spiritu sancto (375) in which he argued that the Holy Spirit is to be given the same glory, honor and worship as are the Father and the Son, for he is not below them but with them in the Unity of the Godhead.  Also in this treatise, he discussed the various possible renderings of the doxology (“glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit,” and “glory be to the Father with the Son and with the Holy Spirit”) claiming that both were orthodox.  However, as a result of the desire to avoid possible Arian teaching, what we now know as the Gloria (the second of those cited) won out in the liturgy of the Church.  Thus, today in the West we say, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.”

      Gregory of Nazianzus proclaimed even more clearly than did Basil the divinity of the Holy Spirit and the truth that the Spirit is homoousios with the Father and the Son.  However, he was very conscious of the late development in the Church of a clear sense of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit and he offered this brief explanation.  “The Old Testament announces the Father clearly and the Son obscurely.  The New Testament has manifested the Son, but it has only indicated the divinity of the Holy Spirit.  At present, the Spirit is among us and shows himself in all his splendor.  It would not have been prudent, before one recognized the divinity of the Father, to preach openly the divinity of the Son, and as long as that of the Son was not accepted, to impose the Holy Spirit – if I may dare to express myself thus” (Oration 31.26).

      Both Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa were active in the Council of Constantinople (381).  The third paragraph of the Creed approved there, is much longer than that of the Nicene Creed and reads:


We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is together worshipped and together glorified, who spoke through the prophets...

      There is no claim here that the Holy Spirit is actually one in substance with the Father and the Son.  The word homoousios is avoided in order to gain the acceptance of the Creed by all present in the Council.  However, what is said of the Holy Spirit is clearly sufficient to make clear that he possesses true divinity and is really God.

      To call the Holy Spirit “Lord” is to follow St. Paul (II Cor. 3:17ff.); to call him the “life-giver” is to follow St. John and St. Paul (John 6:63 and II Cor. 3:6).  The description of the Spirit proceeding from the Father is based on the words of Jesus recorded in John 15:26 (see also St. Paul in I Cor. 2:12).  And the claim that the Spirit spoke through the prophets is based on St. Peter in II Peter 1:21.

      However, it is in the words “who with the Father and the Son is together worshipped and together glorified” that the Council set forth most clearly its belief in the divinity of the Holy Spirit.  These words were taken from St. Basil’s treatise on the Holy Spirit, to which we made reference above.  To say that the Church is to worship and to give glory to the Father with the Son and with the Holy Spirit is to say in the language of worship what the homoousios states in the language of dogma.  This fact was recognized by the Second Council of Constantinople (554) which confirmed that the confession of orthodoxy is: “We believe there is one substance (ousia) of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in three most perfect Subsistences or Persons .”

      Worship (adoration) and glory are what the Church offers in its praise to the Three Persons (not specifically to the Godhead which they share).  The expression “together with” emphasizes that the Three who are “co-adored” are distinct from each other, but that the motive of their adoration is one and the same.  Therefore, one can adore the Father alone, but one cannot adore the Father exclusively for he is truly the Father of the Son and the Father from whom proceeds the Holy Spirit.  To adore the one Person is by necessity to adore all Three, because there is one substance of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

      Regrettably no copy of the Ecumenical Council’s doctrinal decisions known as “The Tome” has survived.  However, there is a summary of its doctrine in the Synodical Letter produced by the local synod of Constantinople in 382, the year after the Ecumenical Council in the same city.  It will be helpful to quote from it where it expounds the orthodox teaching on the Holy Trinity with reference to the received Faith:


This the most ancient, and accords with the creed of our Baptism, and teaches us to believe in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: believing, that is to say, that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have a single Godhead and power and substance, a dignity deserving the same honor and a coeternal sovereignty, in three most perfect Hypostases [subsistences], or three perfect Persons.  So there is no place for Sabellius’ diseased theory in which the Hypostases are confused and thus their proper characteristics destroyed.  Nor may the blasphemy of Eunomians and Arians and Pneumatomachi prevail, with its division of substance or nature or of Godhead, and its introduction of some nature which was produced subsequently, or was created, or was of a different substance, into the uncreated and consubstantial and co-eternal Trinity.

      Thus by 381, the full dogma of the consubstantial Holy Trinity had been created and received by the Church.  From now on anything that fell short of this dogma, or exceeds it, or is contrary to it, would be judged as erroneous and heretical.  (For the addition of the Filioque to the Creed in the West see Appendix I, “I believe/We believe.”)

      When the doctrine of the Trinity finally came to be formulated as one ousia in three hypostaseis, this implied the following.  God, from the point of view of internal analysis, is one object; but, from the point of view of external presentation, God is three objects.  His unity is safeguarded by the teaching that these three objects of presentation (hypostaseis) are not merely precisely similar (as the Semi Arians admitted), but in a true sense, identically one.  So the sum God+God+God is not three Gods, but is simply God!  This is “because the word God, as applied to each Person of the Trinity distinctly, expresses a Totum and Absolute which is incapable of increment either in quantity or in quality” (Prestige, God, p. 169).


G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: William Heinemann, 1936), is still excellent reading, as is also Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London: James Clarke, 1957).  The writings of Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers, Basil and the two Gregorys, may be read in English in the appropriate volumes of the series A Select Library of Nicene and Post‑Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890–1900; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994).  Of great value also is the selection of documents in J. Stevenson, ed., Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church, A.D. 337–461 (London: SPCK, 1966).  Some of the writings of the two Gregorys are in Edward R. Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966).  For a detailed study of ousia see G. C. Stead, Divine Substance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).

Next Section    Toon Home