Homoousian: The One Word Behind “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever, Amen”

The Shield of the Trinity, symbol of homoousios

The “scutum fidei” or Shield of the Trinity, symbol of homoousios

Homoousian (/ˌhɒmoʊˈuːsiən/ HOM-oh-OO-see-ən; Ancient Greek: ὁμοούσιος, from the Ancient Greek: ὁμός, homós, “same” and Ancient Greek: οὐσία, ousía, “being”) is a technical theological term used in discussion of the Christian understanding of God as Trinity. The Nicene Creed describes Jesus as being homooúsios with God the Father — that is, they are equally God. This term, adopted by the First Council of Nicaea, was intended to add clarity to the relationship between Christ and God the Father within the Godhead. The term is rendered “consubstantialis” in Latin and in related terms in other Latin-derived languages which lack a present participle of the verb *to be*. It is one of the cornerstones of theology in Christian churches which adhere to the Nicene Creed.

Please resist the urge to close your browser. Hopefully I’ll make some sense out of this for you and provide you with some insight into “why” you believe in the central tenant of Christianity, the Trinity.

First, to understand why this is important you need to have a picture in mind of what the church looked like by the third century. The Apostolic missionaries preached a simple faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Savior. Not much more. No time, and they had an entire world to cover. The churches they planted worked it out for themselves. They had the Eucharist, the “love feast,” that we now call communion. Many times it was a full meal as was the original. Most of the earliest Christians were Jewish and still worshiped in the Temple or a synagogue. They considered Jesus as the promised Messiah and gave thanks for Him in these places. James the Just, Christ’s brother, was first head of the church and bishop of Jerusalem. He was a Levite of the priestly class and is often described as the second most blameless and pure man in Judea after Christ Himself. He was a frequent visitor and worshiper at the Temple before and after his conversion. He did not become a follower of Jesus until after the resurrection and Christ appearing to him as reported in 1 Corinthians 15:6-8:

“…6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; 7 then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.…”

Many scholars believe that James was held in high esteem by all seven major sects of Judaism, and that they hoped he would tone down the growing number of followers of “The Way,” which Jesus followers called themselves until after Antioch. James did not, and they killed him. Not the Romans, but a high priest named Ananus. In fact, the Roman procurator Albinus promptly removed him from office for this action.

It is at that very moment that the church as a separate faith to replace Judaism entirely amongst gentiles can be traced. Without it, and if James had survived, things might have been quite different. But the Jews actions cause the growing “Way” movement to begin to distance itself from the Temple and with the work of Paul it set off in an entirely different direction.

A hundred years later and Christians can be found all over the Empire, including Gaul (France) and Britain…as and even as far away as India thanks to Thomas. But the “doctrine” of each church varied widely and included things we would consider heresy. Yes, they all shared the idea of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, but what that translated to in this world varied. Remember, there are no creeds at this point. The only guidance came in the form of epistles from the Apostles at first, then their chosen successors, the first bishops of the church. By the mid second century, the works of the Apostles were not yet considered “The Word of God” but had been “beatified” at least into words written by God’s chosen servants…and to be obeyed. But these Epistles still didn’t spell out a definition of the faith. Many today are surprised, even shocked, to learn that the “Trinity” is NOWHERE mentioned in the New Testament. Probably a third or more of Christians believed Jesus was the Son of God, but did not believe Him to be equal to and consubstantial with the Father. One of the books circulated and believe at the time was the “Gospel of the Hebrews,” said to have been written by Matthew. It implied that Jesus became the “Son of God” at His baptism as indicated by the descent of the Holy Spirit and God’s words. Most of this “gospel” is lost, but some was quoted by the early church writers including this quote from that lost gospel by Jerome:

“And it came to pass when the Lord was come up out of the water, the whole fount of the Holy Spirit descended upon him and rested on him and said to him: My Son, in all the prophets was I waiting for thee that thou shouldest come and I might rest in thee. For thou art my rest; thou art my first-begotten Son that reignest for ever.” (Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 4

It’s easy to see why the early Christians would believe this. After all, nothing is heard from Jesus aside from the Temple visit until this day, and all of his ministry and miracles occur afterwards. That is one “deviant” belief, but there were many, many more.

The fathers of the church themselves were all over the place, but beginning to come together as they read each other’s works and those of the Apostles. Now comes Constantine.

Contrary to popular belief, his “In this sign, conquer” vision at the Milvian Bridge was NOT a conversion experience. It was a political one. Christianity was likely the largest single sect (not a majority, as there were so many religions), and this was especially true in his Army. His own primary faith was of Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun. Son/sun…you can see the connection and how this could work nicely.

In fact, the much improved situation for the Christians had more to do with Constantine’s predecessor Galerius who had issued his “Edict of Toleration” in 311. The Romans had never hated Christianity. The Christians were persecuted for treason: Refusal to honor the state religion along with their own as everyone else did. However, Galerius finally gave up, after a fashion, with this statement:

“Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the commonwealth may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.”

In other words, if you won’t pray for the Emperor and the Republic to our gods, at least do so to yours.

Maps-Spread_of_ChristianityConstantine, with his own rulings that property should be restored to the Christians and that they be considered good citizens, now became their pontifex maximus, or chief priest. The emperor was, by Roman law, chief priest of ALL religions within the empire. While he was not baptized until he was on his death bed, his mother Helena was a fervent Christian who had churches built all over the empire, especially in the holy land and Jerusalem. By ten years or so, Constantine was sick to death of the doctrinal fractures and condemnations of the various bishops and scholars, and said “ENOUGH!”

He issued orders that basically told the entire church to choose emissaries, send the Nicaea, and don’t leave until you’ve defined the faith, and what books are fundamental to the faith and which are not.

So, we really have to get to that word now as it is the key to the definition of “church” that 98% of the believers in Christ hold to whether they know it or not, the Nicene Creed.

I ask you to pay attention to the often only a single letter difference between some of the variants of “homoousios” below as they are far more than semantic, and in fact determine “Christian” from “Non-Christian” by human definition.

Pre-Nicene use of the term

The term ὁμοούσιος had been used before its adoption by the Nicene theology, mainly the Gnostics, that group of highly educated, converted pagans who first set to work to attempt to create a mythology for Christianity more like that of the world of gods, goddesses, and other realms they were familiar with. Don’t condemn them immediately, and realize they were simply trying to make sense of something not yet explained. The Gnostics were the first theologians to use the word “homoousios”, while before the Gnostics there is no trace at all of its existence. The early church theologians were probably made aware of this concept, and thus of the doctrine of emanation, by the Gnostics.  In Gnostic texts the word “homoousios” is used with these meanings:

(1) identity of substance between generating and generated;

(2) identity of substance between things generated of the same substance;

(3) identity of substance between the partners of a syzygy.

Ouch. Yes, the first two are hard enough. But “syzygy?” Here’s the short and simple: Syzygy (Gnosticism), male-female pairings of the emanations known as aeons. There, better? Of course not, and no time to get into here, so just think of it as a union of opposites, or a wholeness like the Ying/Yang symbol from the East.

Moving on, Basilides, the first known Gnostic thinker to use “homoousios” in the first half of the 2nd century, speaks of a threefold sonship consubstantial with the god who is not.  The Valentinian Gnostic Ptolemy claims in his letter to Flora that it is the nature of the good God to beget and bring forth only beings similar to, and consubstantial with himself.  “Homoousios” was already in current use by the 2nd-century Gnostics, and through their works it became known to the orthodox heresiologists, though this Gnostic use of the term had no reference to the specific relationship between Father and Son, as is the case in the Nicene Creed.

Adoption of the term in the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed is the official doctrine of most Christian churches – the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Church of the East, Anglican Church, Lutheran, Reformed, Evangelical, and most mainline Protestant churches – with regard to the ontology of the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Origen seems to have been the first ecclesiastical writer to use the word “homoousios” in a nontrinitarian context, but it is evident in his writings that he considered the Son’s divinity lesser than the Father’s, since he even calls the Son a creature.  It was by Athanasius and the Nicene Synod that the Son was taken to have exactly the same nature or essence with the Father, and at the Nicene Creed the Son was declared to be as immutable as his Father is. Some theologians preferred the use of the term ὁμοιούσιος (homoioúsios, from ὅμοιος, hómoios, “similar” rather than ὁμός, homós, “same”) in order to emphasize distinctions among the three persons in the Godhead, but the term homoousios became a consistent mark of Nicene orthodoxy in both East and West.

According to this doctrine, Jesus Christ is the physical manifestation of Logos (or the divine word) and consequently possesses all of the inherent, ineffable perfections which religion and philosophy attribute to the Supreme Being. In the language that became universally accepted after the First Council of Constantinople (in the year 381), three distinct and infinite “hypostases” or Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, fully possess the very same Divine Essence (ousia).

This doctrine was formulated in the 4th century during the Christological debates between Arius and Athanasius. The several distinct branches of Arianism which sometimes conflicted with each other as well as with the pro-Nicene homoousian creed can be roughly broken down into the following classification:

Homoiousianism (from ὅμοιος, hómoios, “similar” – as opposed to homós, “same”) which maintained that the Son was “like in substance” but not necessarily to be identified with the essence of the Father.

Homoeanism (also from hómoios) which declared that the Son was similar to God the Father, without reference to substance or essence. Some supporters of Homoian formulae also supported one of the other descriptions. Other Homoians declared that God the father was so incomparable and ineffably transcendent that even the ideas of likeness, similarity or identity in substance or essence with the subordinate Son and the Holy Spirit were heretical and not justified by the Gospels. They held that the Father was like the Son in some sense but that even to speak of ousia was impertinent speculation.

Heteroousianism (including Anomoeanism) which held that God the Father and the Son were different in substance and/or attributes.

All of these positions and the almost innumerable variations on them which developed in the 4th century AD were strongly and tenaciously opposed by Athanasius and other pro-Nicenes who insisted on the doctrine of the homoousian (or as it is called in modern terms consubstantiality), eventually prevailing in the struggle to define the dogma of the Orthodox Church for the next two millennia when its use was confirmed by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 or 383. The struggle over the definition of the nature of Christ’s divinity was not solely a matter for the Church. The Emperor Theodosius had published an edict, prior to the Council of Constantinople, declaring that the Nicene Creed was the legitimate doctrine and that those opposed to it were heretics.

It has also been noted that this Greek term “homoousian”, which Athanasius of Alexandria favored, and was ratified in the Nicene Council and Creed, was actually a term reported to also be used and favored by the Sabellians in their Christology. And it was a term that many followers of Athanasius were actually uneasy about. And the “Semi-Arians”, in particular, objected to the word “homoousian”. Their objection to this term was that it was considered to be “un-Scriptural, suspicious, and of a Sabellian tendency.” This was because Sabellius also considered the Father and the Son to be “one substance,” meaning that, to Sabellius, the Father and Son were “one essential Person”, though operating as different faces, roles, or modes. This notion, however, was also rejected at the Council of Nicaea, in favor of the Athanasian formulation and creed, of the Father and Son being distinct yet also co-equal, co-eternal, and con-substantial Persons.

So, you are ready to read a much more accomplished writer to explain how he’s carried out his orders from the emperor to define the faith. I almost imagine his parishioners asking him on his return “What have you brought us?” and him responding in a similar way as Ben Franklin did after signing the U.S. Constitution when asked that question: “A church, if you can keep it.”

Episcopal Epistle of Eusebius from Nicaea to his Diocese

Eusebius of Caesarea was a major player at Nicaea and his record of the deliberations of that event in his “Ecclesiastical History” the most detailed available.  As Bishop of Caesarea, he also felt it his job to inform his diocese of his activities, positions on issue, and decisions being made there.

The following epistle was distributed in his diocese and provides a vivid look into the workings of the council that, perhaps more than any other, defined the church for all time.  I have broken it up into some degree of organization as the translation I had was only about 3 paragraphs and rather difficult to parse.  The variants on the creed that progress through this epistle might be confusing until you realize he didn’t sit down and write this in one sitting, but added notes as the council’s deliberations and iterations developed.  Read with that in mind one gets a sense of the incredibly heady and passionate debate that must have gone on in there.  Note that Constantine is never mentioned as “Christian,” but as “pious” and “most religious.”  That’s because there remained many millions of non-Christians and by Roman law he was “pontifex maximus,” or chief priest, of ALL of them. 

You have probably had some intimation, beloved, of the transactions of the great council convened at Nicæa, in relation to the faith of the Church, inasmuch as rumor generally outruns true account of that which has really taken place. But lest from such report alone you might form an incorrect estimate of the matter, we have deemed it necessary to submit to you, in the first place, an exposition of the faith proposed by us in written form; and then a second which has been promulgated, consisting of ours with certain additions to its expression. The declaration of faith set forth by us, which when read in the presence of our most pious emperor, seemed to meet with universal approbation, was thus expressed:

“According as we received from the bishops who preceded us, both in our instruction [in the knowledge of the truth], and when we were baptized; as also we have ourselves learned from the sacred Scriptures: and in accordance with what we have both believed and taught while discharging the duties of presbyter and the episcopal office itself, so now we believe and present to you the distinct avowal of our faith. It is this:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible:—and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God of God, Light of light, Life of life, the only-begotten Son, born before all creation, begotten of God the Father, before all ages, by whom also all things were made; who on account of our salvation became incarnate, (NOTE: No mention of the Virgin Mary in this early draft.  Amongst scholars there is still debate on how necessary such birth might be as opposed to simply being a product of the Greek concept of parthenogenesis) and lived among men; and who suffered and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We believe also in one Holy Spirit.

We believe in the existence and subsistence of each of these [persons]: that the Father is truly Father, the Son truly Son, and the Holy Spirit truly Holy Spirit; even as our Lord also, when he sent forth his disciples to preach the Gospel, said, ‘Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ (NOTE: Is this a clear reference to the Trinity?  It does not in any way suggest “Homoousian,” but simply three aspects.)  Concerning these doctrines we steadfastly maintain their truth, and avow our full confidence in them; such also have been our sentiments hitherto, and such we shall continue to hold until death and in an unshaken adherence to this faith, we anathematize every impious heresy. In the presence of God Almighty, and of our Lord Jesus Christ we testify, that thus we have believed and thought from our heart and soul, since we have possessed a right estimate of ourselves; and that we now think and speak what is perfectly in accordance with the truth. We are moreover prepared to prove to you by undeniable evidences, and to convince you that in time past we have thus believed, and so preached.”

When these articles of faith were proposed, there seemed to be no ground of opposition: nay, our most pious emperor himself was the first to admit that they were perfectly correct, and that he himself had entertained the sentiments contained in them; exhorting all present to give them their assent, and subscribe to these very articles, thus agreeing in a unanimous profession of them, with the insertion, however, of that single word “homoousios” (consubstantial), an expression which the emperor himself explained, as not indicating corporeal affections or properties; and consequently that the Son did not subsist from the Father either by division or abscission: for said he, a nature which is immaterial and incorporeal cannot possibly be subject to any corporeal affection; hence our conception of such things can only be in divine and mysterious terms. Such was the philosophical view of the subject taken by our most wise and pious sovereign; and the bishops on account of the word homoousious, drew up this formula of faith.

The Creed.

“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, the only-begotten of the Father, that is of the substance of the Father; God of God, Light of light, true God of true God; begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father; by whom all things were made both which are in heaven and on earth; who for the sake of us men, and on account of our salvation, descended, became incarnate, (NOTE: Still no mention of the Virgin Mary in this draft.) was made man, suffered and rose again on the third day; he ascended into the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead. [We believe] also in the Holy Spirit. But those who say ‘There was a time when he was not,’ or ‘He did not exist before he was begotten,’ or ‘He was made of nothing’ or assert that ‘He is of other substance or essence than the Father,’ or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or susceptible of change, the Catholic and apostolic Church of God anathematizes.”

Now this declaration of faith being propounded by them, we did not neglect to investigate the distinct sense of the expressions “of the substance of the Father, and consubstantial with the Father.” Whereupon questions were put forth and answers, and the meaning of these terms was clearly defined; when it was generally admitted that ousias (of the essence or substance) simply implied that the Son is of the Father indeed, but does not subsist as a part of the Father. To this interpretation of the sacred doctrine which declares that the Son is of the Father, but is not a part of his substance, it seemed right to us to assent. We ourselves therefore concurred in this exposition; nor do we cavil at the word “homoousios” having regard to peace, and fearing to lose a right understanding of the matter.

On the same grounds we admitted also the expression “begotten, not made”: “for made,” said they, “is a term applicable in common to all the creatures which were made by the Son, to whom the Son has no resemblance. Consequently he is no creature like those which were made by him, but is of a substance far excelling any creature; which substance the Divine Oracles (NOTE: Rather fascinating use of a Greek concept in the context of Christianity…there was a LOT of that at the time.)  teach was begotten of the Father by such a mode of generation as cannot be explained nor even conceived by any creature.”

Thus also the declaration that “the Son is consubstantial with the Father” having been discussed, it was agreed that this must not be understood in a corporeal sense, or in any way analogous to mortal creatures; inasmuch as it is neither by division of substance, nor by abscission nor by any change of the Father’s substance and power, since the underived nature of the Father is inconsistent with all these things. That he is consubstantial with the Father then simply implies, that the Son of God has no resemblance to created things, but is in every respect like the Father only who begat him; and that he is of no other substance or essence but of the Father. To which doctrine, explained in this way, it appeared right to assent, especially since we knew that some eminent bishops and learned writers among the ancients have used the term “homoousios” in their theological discourses concerning the nature of the Father and the Son.

Such is what I have to state to you in reference to the articles of faith which have been promulgated; and in which we have all concurred, not without due examination, but according to the senses assigned, which were investigated in the presence of our most highly favored emperor, and for the reasons mentioned approved. We have also considered the anathema pronounced by them after the declaration of faith inoffensive; because it prohibits the use of illegitimate terms, from which almost all the distraction and commotion of the churches have arisen.

Accordingly, since no divinely inspired Scripture contains the expressions, “of things which do not exist,” and “there was a time when he was not,” and such other phrases as are therein subjoined, it seemed unwarrantable to utter and teach them: and moreover this decision received our sanction the rather from the consideration that we have never heretofore been accustomed to employ these terms.

Nay, our most religious Emperor did at the time prove, in a speech, that He was in being even according to His divine generation which is before all ages, since even before He was generated in energy, He was in virtue with the Father ingenerately, the Father being always Father, as King always, and Savior always, being all things in virtue, and being always in the same respects and in the same way.

We deemed it incumbent on us, beloved, to acquaint you with the caution which has characterized both our examination of and concurrence in these things: and that on justifiable grounds we resisted to the last moment the introduction of certain objectionable expressions as long as these were not acceptable; and received them without dispute, when on mature deliberation as we examined the sense of the words, they appeared to agree with what we had originally proposed as a sound confession of faith.
Eusebius Episcopal Letters from Nicaea

While untold hundreds of thousands of pages of commentary have been written on the nature of the Trinity and of the basics of the church, I ask you to consider the above and realize that for 300 years there was only a single binding concept:  Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.  Then, there was a truly catholic church, temporally headed by the Emperor and the 5 metropolitan bishops of the most important dioceses of the Empire:  Constantinople, Antioch, Rome, Jerusalem, and Alexandria.  This remained essentially the case until 1453 when the next to last city of the Pentarchy and the Emperor himself fell to the Muslims.  However, despite the demise of the Empire, the one catholic and apostolic church formed at this council remains the one that from snake handling holiness to Orthodox billions of Christians believe in without question, world without end, amen.

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2 Responses to Homoousian: The One Word Behind “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever, Amen”

  1. Monster amount of work in this article! Well written. I recently discovered an academic paper on the Corpus Hermeticum, specifically the Poimandres, that may indeed predate the Gnostics. Gnostics themselves marrying an earlier Egyptian/Greek Pagan theology to Christianity. Yes the word Homoousios features! If you would like me to send you the paper, I will gladly do so. drshlc@gmail.com.

    Thanks again….regards Stewart

  2. malletteblog says:

    Please do! Email sent.

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