Posted by: rogermitchell | June 10, 2010

May be it should be the Nicolaitan Creed!

Over the last few days I have been writing up Eusebius of Caesarea and the fourth century Christology controversy and the famous Council of Nicaea. You know, the one where the relationship between the Father and the Son in the incarnation was supposed to have been resolved. [So I didn’t promise only to stick with wheelbarrows!] Eusebius claims in his History of the Church, written at the time, that the emperor Constantine, who was responsible for initiating the council, was the person who came up with the formula ‘one substance– that’s homoousios in the Greek. This was a bit surprising as both Constantine and Eusebius had a bit of a penchant for Arius who was the theologian in the controversy who opposed the idea of one substance and preferred ‘of like’ or ‘of similar’ substance, but with the Son less than equal with the Father. He was supported by others including, just to confuse, another Eusebius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was bishop to Constantia, Constantine’s sister and the wife of the emperor Licinius, who was  at this stage Constantine’s bitter rival. This Eusebius was the one who after Constantine had thrashed Licinius and his army, pleaded together with  Constantia outside the gates of Nicomedia for mercy to be shown to Licinius. Eusebius of Caesarea wrote that Constantine did show mercy in the end when he killed Licinius outright rather than burning him alive, which by Roman law he was apparently allowed to do.

Anyway, if you are still following this rigmarole, the point is that these were the types working on the theology of the incarnation, and they liked Arius’s position because it recognised a hierarchical sovereignty of the Father over the Son which justified Constantine’s hierarchical role as emperor and Eusebius’s role as monarchical bishop of Caesarea. So how come Constantine came up with ‘one substance’ and Eusebius liked it? Well it turns out, if you go along with the rather convincing research of one Pier Franco Beatrice, professor of Patristics at the University of Padua [I really like these Italians], that the Greek word homoousios wasn’t really a Christian term at all, and comes from ancient Hermetic texts relating to the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus and rooting back to Isis and Osiris of ancient Egypt. In that context it was used to show that the likes of Hermes and Zeus and Isis and Osiris were ‘one substance’ – homoousios – even although the hierarchical supremacy of Zeus and Isis was not in doubt. In this way the formula put forward by Constantine carried the hierarchical power of ancient empire while apparently affirming the deity of Christ! Hence my suggestion that the Nicaean Creed might better be named the Nicolaitan Creed, if you believe like me, that the sin of the Nicolaitans was the sin of conquering the people. In any case Nicaea also means victory – coming from the same root ‘to conquer’ – and took place immediately after Constantine had conquered Licinius to become top man on the planet.

So am I still a trinitarian? To be sure, as long as it isn’t about Jesus being of one substance with a sovereign, dominating God, but instead the upside down theology where God is just like Jesus; kenotic, self-giving love. Yes I’m OK with that.



  1. Yeah, it’s good, very useful, thanks 🙂

  2. Well, Roger, you have certainly demonstrated the value of knowing all those big and largely disused words. My head is spinning. It will take a wee bit to reread and muse upon your thoughts. In the meantime I came across this article today in the Guardian – it mentions the controversy over the divinity of Christ in the 6th century. So just for fun . . .


  3. Slightly tickled by the idea of ‘same ooze’, though you lost me briefly at the idea of a ‘christian word’ 😉

    help me with the Greek, please. Doesn’t ‘homo-‘ speak of sameness in the sense of similar order/species/subset more than it speaks of oneness? Have later translations further emphasised the idea of ‘one substance’, which even in archaic English means little more to my ear than being the same thing in the sense of diamonds being of one substance with graphite (they are both composed of carbon atoms)?

    In any case, isn’t the idea of the expansive trinity a little beyond (deconstructive to) our codification systems? Isn’t that the point, that we are required to see God as utterly and incontrovertibly social? Of same ooze with humanity? Too far?

    • Thanks for the comments Stephen. You are right that homoousios is more accurately rendered ‘same substance’ or better still ‘same being’. But if the Father and Son are of the same substance then it was generally held that they were of one substance, at least as I understand it. The Nicene Creed proper did not contain the word homoousios in the end as it was put together at a succeeding council but called Nicene after the ‘same substance’ decision at Nicaea. The Creed actually substituted mia hypostasis instead which means one substance, sediment, foundation or subsistence, whereas homoousias was strictly speaking the same being. Beatrice argues that this change indicated that the anti-Arians were concerned about the pagan roots of homoousios. Oh, and my use of the phrase Christian word – actually Christian term – was simply to refer to words developed primarily in the attempt to convey meanings consistent with the gospel testimony. My point is that many of these words were formed in the attempt to make statements about God, Christ and the people of God that confused concepts of imperial power with God’s totally different, kenotic kind of power. The homoousios formula was an extreme example. This was singularly unhelpful generally.

      • Interesting stuff. Is this ( wikipedia entry a bit wrong then? I’d be interested in Heidegger’s thoughts because he often has revealing things to say.

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