The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy

This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”, running in the Winter Term 2023 (January to March), and convened by Dr. Matthew Hoskin.

If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.

Growing up in an Anglican church, we recited the Nicene Creed every Sunday—you know, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” I remember being quite surprised in confirmation class when I learned that the creed we recited at Holy Communion wasn’t actually the Nicene Creed but a later Creed, from Constantinople, with some added bits about the Holy Spirit. As I recall, I was a bit put out about this. Why didn’t we use the original? Why did we use some interloper masquerading as the Nicene Creed? Somehow, whatever lessons I got from confirmation class about why these two creeds exist just didn’t stick. I blame, of course, my teenage self. The priest who taught me was very good and a huge church history buff. I still talk church history with him to this day.[1]

The question of my teenage self, setting aside the bizarre feelings that the Creed of Constantinople is an interloper, is a worthwhile question though: why do we have two creeds that we think of as the Nicene Creed? Isn’t one Nicene Creed enough? And why is the second such creed the one we use at Holy Communion?

The answer to this creedal question is the story central to my upcoming Hilary Term course with Davenant Hall, “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy (325-407).” While sometimes you might meet someone who thinks that the Council of Nicaea convened by Constantine in 325 settled the Arian debate, the fact that I consider this the “Nicene Controversy” immediately shows that the debate did not die out or fizzle in 325. It quietened down for a while—until 337, when Constantine died and was no longer around to enforce Nicene orthodoxy.

In 337, those bishops opposed to the teaching of Nicaea seized the opportunity to undo the work of the council of 325. And Constantine’s sons were in on it, especially Constantius II (r. 337-361). From 337 to 381, fifty-four councils that were related to this controversy were held. Some tended towards what we call “Arianism” in its various forms. Others tended to favour Nicene teaching. Others tried to avoid the contentious questions altogether. Along the way, bishops were exiled, recalled, exiled, deposed, and so forth—most famously St Athanasius of Alexandria.

What also happened as the ecclesiastical history rolled along and the councils met and the bishops were deposed was a clarifying of the terms of debate and what was at stake. In particular, the term homoousios, or “consubstantial” or “of the same essence/being” was clarified and argued over. This was the crux of the debate between Nicene and “Arian”—was the God-Word who became incarnate as Jesus Christ of the same essence as the Father? The Nicenes, of course, said yes. Their opponents said no.

Sometimes the Constantinian settlement is seen in its purely negative aspects. But one benefit for debates like this was that the leaders of the Church were able to form networks and find likeminded bishops—sometimes providence would send them in forced exile into the arms of allies they would otherwise not have met, such as Athanasius in Rome or Hilary of Poitiers in Phrygia. With a growing network of Nicene allies, people like Athanasius in the first instance, and then, taking up his mantle, Basil of Caesarea, were able to articulate and clarify the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity as they sought to explain why the term homoousios was true and to sort out which of the various councils and creeds were legitimate and which were not.

In 381, the imperial church—that is, the church within the Roman Empire that had the support of the emperor—settled these arguments and debates with a second council that was meant to be ecumenical, to represent all the Christian communities of the Empire, convened at Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius I, himself a supporter of the Nicene cause. Out of one of the sessions at this council came the creed that we recite on Sundays under the name “the Nicene Creed.” This Creed of Constantinople was, on the one hand, a necessary rearticulation of the disputed points. On the other hand, it also expanded the section on the Holy Spirit and the church, making a more clearly Trinitarian creed than that of Nicaea.

That is why we have a second, revised creed from Constantinople—and it’s not an interloper!

In “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy,” students will have the opportunity to study the twisted history of the fourth century from Nicaea in 325 to the death of St John Chrysostom in 407. Besides seeing how the doctrine of the Trinity was hammered out, they will also have the opportunity to see the wider “theological world” of the Nicene century, with particular emphasis on biblical exegesis and prayer. To grasp the richness of this era, students will read a selection of major works by the leading fathers of the fourth century, including St Athanasius of Alexandria’s On the Incarnation, Ephraim the Syrian’s Hymns on the Nativity and Homily on Our Lord, Aphrahat the Persian’s Demonstration 17: Of Christ the Son of God, Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit, Gregory of Nazianzus’s Five Theological Orations, Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses, Hilary of Poitiers’s On the Trinity, Ambrose of Milan’s Exposition of the Christian Faith, and John Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans.

By the end of this course students will be able to identify the main players and events in ecclesiastical history from 325-407, will know how to engage critically with the primary sources for fourth-century history and with the major theologians of the Nicene era, will understand how the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated, and will be able to place fourth-century Trinitarian dogma within a wider theological milieu.

This Christian History course will be taught by Dr. Matthew Hoskin. This course will run from January 9th through March 18th. The syllabus will be available soon. Register here.

Dr. Matthew Hoskin (PhD, University of Edinburgh) teaches ancient and medieval Christian history for Davenant Hall. His research focuses on manuscripts, monks, popes, canon law, and councils, which all feature in his book The Manuscripts of Leo the Great’s Letters (2022), and he blogs about the historic faith at CLASSICALLY CHRISTIAN. He lives on Superior’s northern shore in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with his wife and sons.

  1. Full disclosure: My priest was my dad.


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