“BUT WHAT I WISH, THAT MUST BE THE CANON”1 Emperors and the Making of Christian Doctrine


On the death of Constantine I in 337, Constantine’s three surviving sons, Constantine II, Constans and Constantius, eliminated other members of their family and divided the empire between them. Constantine II was killed in 340 when he tried to invade Constans’ territory. Constans was assassinated in a palace coup in 350 led by one Magnentius, who was in his turn defeated by Constantius in a debilitating battle at Mursa in Gaul in 351. Constantius was now the sole ruler of the whole empire and remained so until his death in 361. He is known as Constantius II, with his grandfather becoming Constantius I.2

This was a particularly unsettled time for the church as it adapted itself to its new role as a religion sponsored by the empire. The immediate challenge for the new emperors, as it had been for Constantine, was to bring some form of order to the Christian communities, above all by establishing and, if necessary, imposing a doctrine that defined the natures of God and Jesus and the relationship between them. It was not only a matter of good order. Once Constantine had provided tax exemptions for Christian clergy, eventually including exemptions for church lands, it became imperative to tighten up the definition of “Christian.” As Constantine had put it in a law of 326, “The benefits that have been granted in consideration of religion must benefit only the adherents of the Catholic [e.g., ‘correct’] faith. It is our will, moreover, that heretics and schismatics shall not only be alien to those privileges but shall be bound and subjected to various compulsory public services.” The definition of “Catholicism” and heresy took on a new urgency for the state. This explains why the emperors came to play such a large part in the determining of doctrine, although their roles varied: some had personal convictions to impose, others were more concerned to find formulations of doctrine around which consensus could be built. By the end of the century emperors were imposing doctrinal solutions that were backed by imperial edicts.

The issue was a live one because Nicaea had solved nothing. The “startling innovations”3 proclaimed by Constantine at the council, in particular the final declaration that Jesus was homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father, proved easy to attack on the grounds that they both offended the tradition of seeing Jesus in some way as subordinate to his Father and used terminology that was nowhere to be found in scripture. As we have seen, the council’s formula was largely ignored. Yet how was an alternative to be found around which the churches could be gathered? Given the variety of sources and influences on the making of Christian doctrine—scripture, Greek philosophy, tradition, the Nicene Creed and the works of the Church Fathers—any coherent solutions seemed impossible, and the debates now entered a period of confusion. Personal rivalries became so hopelessly entangled with theological wranglings that it is hard to separate them. Accusations of heresy, deceit and fraud flew across the empire.

The Gospels, especially those of Matthew, Mark and Luke, seemed to support a subordinationist interpretation, but none of them treated the issue unambiguously (because no one perceived it as an issue when they were written), and in the Latin-speaking west there were as yet no reliable texts of the scriptures in any case. For the Old Testament, western theologians relied on weak Latin translations, themselves taken from the uneven Greek translations of the original Hebrew and Aramaic on which the eastern churches relied. (Very few Christians could read Hebrew, rendering the original scriptures beyond their grasp.) There were also immense problems in making use of Greek philosophy, the only language sophisticated enough for such debates, as the key terms— such as ousia, homoousios, hypostasis and logos— had all been developed in non-Christian contexts (and even in them had unstable meanings). They could not easily be reformulated to deal with specific Christian issues such as the precise nature of Jesus and his relationship with God the Father.4 Formulating these concepts in two languages, Latin and Greek, when there was no strict equivalence between them further complicated the situation. Latin theologians translated the Greek ousia as substantia, but the Greeks translated substantia as hypostasis, “personality.” So when the Latins talked of una substantia, in the sense of one divine substance (within which might be found the distinct personalities of the Trinity), it appeared in Greek as if they were affirming that there was only one hypostasis for the three persons of the Trinity, in effect preaching what was to become heresy.5

Constantius was nevertheless determined to find a workable formula; he appreciated that it would need to include some element of subordinationism and thus implicitly a rejection of Nicaea. A number of meetings of small groups of eastern bishops who were sympathetic to this approach hammered out some possible creeds (most originated in the imperial city of Sirmium in the Balkans and are known as the Sirmium Creeds—there are four in all). They were prepared to accept Jesus the Son as divine (as was Arius himself), but they all agreed that there could be no mention of the Nicene homoousios—given that the word was never found in scripture, it should be abandoned. One attack captures the flavour of the debate in describing the term homoousios as “hated and detestable, a distorted and perverse profession which is scorned and rejected as a diabolical instrument and doctrine of demons.”6 The word substituted for homoousios was much less charged, homoios, “like.” The Son was thus declared to be “God from God; like [homoios] the Father who begat him” and “like the Father in all things,” to which was later added “just as the Holy Scriptures say and teach,” thus reaffirming the importance of the scriptures, seemingly bypassed by Constantine at Nicaea, to the debate. The vexed question of how the Son came into being was sidestepped by a declaration of ignorance. “The Father alone knows how he begot his Son, and the Son how he was begotten by the Father,” as the First Creed of Sirmium tactfully put it.7

The breadth of these “Homoean” creeds offered the hope that a wider spectrum of opinion could accept them so that the Constantinian policy of consensus could be sustained. Yet for many this breadth was also their weakness. The use of the word “like” was to many simply blurring the issue. “The kingdom of God is ‘like’ a grain of mustard seed,” one witty bishop who knew his parables remarked, “but not much.”8 “Homoios,” said another, “was a . . . figure seeming to look in the direction of all who passed by, a boot fitting either foot, a winnowing with every wind.”9 A wide variety of alternative formulas were championed in these years. In 358 Bishop Basil of Ancyra and a small group of bishops proposed the formula homoiousios, “of similar substance,” rather than the Nicene homoousios, “of identical substance.” These shifts in terminology and the intense debates which they provoked earned ridicule from Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who wrote sarcastically of “furious contests over a single diphthong.” Others, following Arius, believed that the “unlikeness” of Father and Son should be stressed—the Son was a separate creation and totally distinct from the Father. Constantius eventually accepted the Fourth Creed of Sirmium, the so-called Dated Creed, of 359, as a rallying ground for consensus. The creed was awkwardly phrased. Jesus was declared:

one only begotten Son of God who before all ages and before all beginning and before all conceivable time and before all comprehensible substance was begotten impassibly from God, through whom the ages were set up and all things came into existence, begotten as only begotten, sole from the sole father, like to the Father who begot him, according to the Scriptures, whose generation nobody understands except the Father who begot him.

It ended:

. . . the word ousia because it was naively inserted by the Fathers, though not familiar to the masses, caused disturbance, and because the Scriptures do not contain it, we have decided that it should be removed and there should be absolutely no mention of ousia for the future . . . but we declare that the Son is like (homoios) the Father, as also the Holy Scriptures declare and teach.10

Constantius’ aim was to establish this cumbersome creed at two councils, one meeting in the western empire at Ariminum (modern Rimini) in the spring of 360 and the other planned for the autumn of the same year at Seleucia in the east.11 Things did not go smoothly. The Ariminum council met and proved highly suspicious of this “eastern” creed. Even though there had been virtually no western representation at Nicaea, the western bishops seemed happier with the straightforward monotheism of the Nicene formula. It was close to the idea, always strong in the west even if not formulated with any precision, that Father and Son shared a divinity. Having revived the Nicene Creed, a delegation of ten bishops, together with a group representing the minority anti-Nicene view, set off to Thrace to put their views to Constantius. The emperor was away on campaign, but after discussions with eastern bishops the delegates changed their minds and persuaded a reconvened Ariminum council that they should accept the Dated Creed, possibly also arguing that they would be out of step with the eastern bishops if they did not.12 There is some evidence that a consensus of the eastern bishops at Seleucia was then achieved by persuading them not to be out of step with what the western bishops had agreed!

The consensus that was achieved was hardly a stable one, but it was real enough for Constantius to call a joint council in 360 at Constantinople with delegations from each of the two earlier councils, at which he pushed through the Dated Creed (with additions that also proscribed the word hypostasis and declared all other earlier creeds heretical). It was promulgated through the empire in an imperial edict. Whatever the methods by which it had been achieved, the Dated Creed offered hope that the majority of Christian communities would accept it.

This was, however, to prove far from the end of the story. The acceptance of the Dated Creed clearly depended on consistent support from the emperors, but this could be achieved only if they were Christian and ready to enforce the Homoean formula that the Council of Constantinople had endorsed. Constantius’ successor was his cousin Julian, the son of one of his father’s half-brothers, who was not even Christian. Julian’s survival to manhood was in itself remarkable, in that most of his family had been eliminated by Constantine’s three sons. His father and seven immediate members of his family were executed in 337, when Julian was only six. His teenage years had been spent with his half-brother Gallus on a remote estate in Asia Minor, but Gallus himself was executed by Constantius in 354. Then Constantius, isolated and desperate to strengthen his legitimacy, appointed Julian as a Caesar with responsibility for the imperial troops in northern Gaul. Julian proved to be a fine general and had soon restored order to the borders. In 360 his troops acclaimed him as Augustus, to the fury of Constantius, who hurried back from the Persian border to confront him. When Constantius died unexpectedly in 361, Julian found himself sole emperor.13

Julian knew Christianity well—he had been brought up as a Christian and served as a lector—but he had been dismayed by the vicious infighting he saw around him. “Experience had taught him that no wild beasts are so dangerous to man as Christians are to one another,” wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, who went on to suggest that Julian believed that the Christians left to themselves would simply tear each other apart.14 The roots of Julian’s distaste for Christianity may well lie in the brutal treatment of his close relations by Christian emperors. In any case, once he had buried Constantius with suitable Christian piety, Julian adopted “paganism,” proclaiming that the very fact that he had come to power showed that the traditional gods were on his side. 15 Summoning the bishops, he ordered them “to allow every man to practise his belief boldly without hindrance.” The clergy lost all their exemptions, and in 362 they were forbidden to teach rhetoric or grammar. It was absurd, declared Julian, for Christians to teach classical culture while at the same time pouring scorn on classical religion—if they wished to teach, they should confine themselves to teaching the Gospels in their churches.

Julian was a throwback, a philosopher emperor. For Julian, philosophy did not involve a withdrawal from the world (though he had spent most of the 350s as a student in Athens and other cities) but provided the underpinning for wise and moderate rule. His inspiration was the emperor Marcus Aurelius. However, although Julian left more writings than any other emperor, untangling his religious and philosophical beliefs from them has proved enormously difficult. Like many educated pagans, he drew on a variety of beliefs and movements (although Neoplatonism was probably the most significant) and combined mysticism with rationalism, particularly in his defence of traditional Greek secular learning.16 In his Contra Galilaeos (Against the Galileans), written in 362–63, Julian challenges what he sees as the irrational nature of Christian belief. The work draws heavily on conventional pagan criticisms of Christianity, but it is enhanced by Julian’s own knowledge of the scriptures, which enabled him to highlight their apparent contradictions. Only John among the Gospel writers accepts the divinity of Jesus; why did not all do so if he was truly a god? The so-called prophecies of Christ’s coming in the Old Testament are based on misinterpretations of the texts—there is, for instance, no unequivocal prophecy of the virgin birth. Christian teachings about God, especially those which draw on the all-too-“human” Old Testament God with his sole commitment to the Jews, lack the sophistication of pagan conceptions of the divine. Why did God create Eve if she was going to thwart his plans for creation? Why did he deprive Adam and Eve of the knowledge of good and evil? Turning to Paul, Julian questions why God neglected most of humanity for thousands of years but then arrived to preach to a small tribe in Galilee. Why were the Greeks not also favoured by his presence if he was, as Paul argues, a universal God? Do not the latest bitter arguments over Christian doctrine deprive Christians of their claim to have found the truth? In contrast, Julian argues, the Greeks have achieved superiority in every area of knowledge; in Contra Galilaeos he gives examples from law, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy as well as theology.

Contra Galilaeos also includes a sophisticated defence of the traditional deities. While Julian was happy to accept, along, as we have seen, with many pagans, that there was a supreme god, he saw no reason why that god should not preside over lesser deities. He proposed an argument, implicit in the nature of Roman government but rarely stated (note, however, Constantine’s Edict of Toleration of 313), that an acceptance of different manifestations of God was essential to a flourishing empire.

Since in the father all things are complete and all things are one, while in the separate deities one quality or another predominates, therefore Ares rules over the warlike nations, Athene over those that are wise as well as warlike, Hermes over those who are more shrewd than adventurous; and in short the nations over which the gods preside follow each the essential character of their proper god.17

Surely, Julian continues, a caring “supreme god” would want to encourage diversity and be happy to allow lesser gods to oversee a variety of nations and cultures. He even managed to find some biblical texts to support his argument. While Julian had no particular love of Judaism, being alienated by the exclusivity of its God, he accepted the logic of his position to put in hand the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. His motives, however, may primarily have been to reclaim Jerusalem from the Christians while contradicting Jesus’ assertion that the destruction of the Temple would be permanent.

Julian’s was a pointed challenge and is evidence of the extent to which Christians, despite their adoption of elements of Platonism, still failed to convince the pagan philosophers. However, Julian’s own eclectic beliefs did not arouse enthusiasm either. In many ways he was traditional, a fervent believer in prophecy who regularly consulted oracles. He reintroduced blood sacrifices as part of his enthusiasm for the old gods but by doing so offended the more sophisticated pagans. He thus missed the opportunity to build an anti-Christian power base, although by this stage Christians had somehow to be accommodated. Naturally, the Christians themselves were furious with his policies, especially as these involved the withdrawal of their lucrative tax exemptions. There was great rejoicing when a fire brought the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to a halt (“proving” to Christians that Jesus had indeed been right in saying the destruction of the Temple would be permanent).18 Nor did Julian’s military success, so vital to the maintenance of imperial power, last. A campaign against Sassanid Persia ran into difficulties, and Julian himself was killed, by a spear throw by an unknown assailant, in 363. His reign had lasted only eighteen months.

With Julian’s death the house of Constantine came to an end. The army in the east acclaimed a staff officer, Jovian, as emperor, but he died eight months later, shortly after ceding large areas of the eastern empire to the Sassanids. The next emperor, Valentinian (364–75), a tough if tempestuous army officer, was more successful.19 Indeed, Valentinian has been seen as the last of the great Roman emperors; it was during his reign that the northern borders were effectively defended for the last time. He attempted to establish a dynasty. His brother Valens was appointed co-emperor in the east and his son Gratian, only eight at the time, became a co-emperor in 367. When Valentinian died in 375, Valens and Gratian remained as co-emperors, but the army also proclaimed Valentinian II, Valentinian’s son by his second marriage, as Augustus.

Then, in 378, came disaster. The pressures on Rome’s borders had been unremitting for decades, but following the reconstruction of the armies under Diocletian and Constantine they had been contained. Now a new people, the Huns, were on the move westwards. The Goths were driven before them, and in 378 a mass of refugees poured across the Danube. Valens hoped to recruit them as mercenaries for the over-stretched Roman armies, but the situation was hopelessly mishandled by unscrupulous Roman officers, and the Goths began rampaging across Thrace.20 Confronted by Valens and the elite of the Roman army at Adrianople in August, the Goths stunned the empire by achieving a crushing victory. Valens and some 10,000 of his men were killed. The battle of Adrianople has often been seen as the moment when the Roman empire finally lost the initiative against the “barbarians.” Gratian hastily called on an experienced general, Theodosius, to become his fellow Augustus, but Theodosius was unable to avoid permitting the Goths to settle within the empire, ostensibly as allies to the Romans, but in reality, as it turned out, as a very substantial body of armed men with no real allegiance to Rome. In 383 the young Gratian was murdered by his own troops, forcing Valentinian II, aged twelve and still in the shadow of his formidable mother, Justina, to emerge as emperor in the west in his own right.

All these emperors were Christian, but their policies towards the churches differed. In the west Valentinian I chose to stand back from the debates. What mattered above all in a troubled empire was good order, and, following Constantine’s lead, Valentinian was tolerant of diversity, both within Christianity and of paganism. “He took a neutral position between opposing faiths, and never troubled anyone by ordering him to adopt this or that mode of ‘worship,’ ” according to Ammianus Marcellinus. 21 It was within this atmosphere of tolerance that the debate over Father and Son revived. As we have seen, the west had always been more sympathetic to a monotheistic formula in which they were of equal divinity, and there remained considerable resentment of Constantius’ tactics at Ariminum. In the east, by contrast, there had been much less sympathy for Nicaea, but in the 350s for the first time an eastern bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria, attempted to provide a defence of the Nicene formula.

We have already met Athanasius as a determined anti-Arian. “He could,” writes John Rist, “scent Arianism like a police dog sniffing out drugs.”22 His professional career was one of some turmoil. Appointed bishop in 428, he is known, from Egyptian papyri, to have enforced his authority with violence and to have been challenged on his right to hold his see.23 On no less than five occasions, and for a total of fifteen of the forty-five years he was bishop, he was in exile, sent there by emperors (including, as we have seen, Constantine, who took exception to his anti-Arian intransigence) and his fellow bishops. It is impossible to establish the extent to which, in such troubled times, he was personally responsible, but the sources do suggest that his tendency towards violence and intimidation of opponents was partly to blame for his troubled career. On the other hand, it is hard to deny the courage and resolution with which he faced his ordeals.

It is as the champion of the shared and equal divinity of the Father and Son that Athanasius’ theological reputation rests. In other words, he denied any separate creation of the Son: Jesus was part of the Godhead from all eternity. However, for many years Athanasius, like his fellow theologians, avoided using the charged word homoousios to describe the relationship, and it does not appear in his work until about 356 (in what appears to have been the first favourable use of the term for two decades).24

Given the term’s association with Nicaea, its very use was enough to connect Athanasius with the Nicene Creed and thus to elevate his status into that of a revered theologian when the creed was eventually declared orthodox. (He also wrote the first full treatise on the Holy Spirit.) Christ as logos is incarnated because the human race is sunk in sin and cannot be left to suffer without redemption. So the logos becomes actively interventionist, appearing on earth as Jesus.25 However, Athanasius got into enormous difficulties (as, it should be stressed, did most theologians) when he tried to make sense of a Jesus who is divine yet human. He created an elaborate distinction between the human body of Jesus, which appears to suffer, as when on the cross, and the divine logos, which is somehow inside the human body but does not suffer. So, for instance, the mind of Jesus, which he allocated to the logos rather than to his body, could not feel anything and was not even subject to moral dilemmas. “He was not subject to moral law, he did not weigh two choices, preferring one, rejecting another,” as Athanasius put it. This goes as far as suggesting that Jesus lacked free will.26

Secure in his own beliefs, Athanasius let loose his invective on the Arians. His tactics were unscrupulous, and he brought a new level of intolerance into church politics. It is, Athanasius argued, the devil who inspires the “Arian” use of scripture in their cause, while any attempt by “Arians” to quote earlier theologians in their support is a slander on those theologians. Sometimes the Arians are described as no better than Jews; at others they are indistinguishable from pagans. This was clearly caricature, but unfortunately it was caricature that became embedded in the Christian tradition when the anti-Arian Nicene Creed became orthodox. Athanasius’ elevation as a champion of orthodoxy had the unfortunate effect of legitimizing such intolerant invective.

Furthermore, in order to justify the incarnation, Athanasius provided a definition of man as inherently sinful. While a hundred years before Origen had looked optimistically at the human condition—“the universe is cared for by God in accordance with the conditions of the free will of each man, and . . . as far as possible it is always being led on to be better”; in other words, man is free to improve himself in a world which is itself getting “better,” with, as we have seen, a final state of forgiveness of all—Athanasius was much more pessimistic. Men were inherently disobedient and “the cause of their own corruption in death.” Things were not getting better but worse. Not satisfied with the sin of Adam, men “again filled themselves with other evils, progressing still further in shamefulness and outdoing themselves in impiety.” These were important and enduring shifts in perspective, and they contrast strongly with the earlier optimism of Greek thinking.27

In the west the Nicene cause was furthered by a number of formidable protagonists, of whom Hilary of Poitiers was the most celebrated.28 In 355 Hilary had been deprived of his see in Gaul by Constantius for his pro-Nicene views, but he had refused to be silenced and even demanded of Constantius that he be allowed to attend the Council of Constantinople in 360 to expound the Nicene cause. Rebuffed, he returned to Gaul and took advantage of the emergence of Julian to denounce Constantius as anti-Christ. He developed his ideas in De Trinitate, probably the first full defence in Latin (Athanasius wrote only in Greek) of the doctrine of God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit as a single Godhead. Together with an Italian bishop, Eusebius of Vercelli, and with the support of the bishops of Rome, he recruited a large party of pro-Nicene bishops. Their cause was later to be energetically endorsed by the formidable Ambrose in Milan, whose own work (in Latin) in support of the Nicene Creed, De Fide, was written between 379 and 381.

So the struggle between the opposing factions raged on. The view that the Godhead was essentially unitary, that Jesus as the Son was simply a way in which God could show himself (during the Incarnation, for instance), a view associated with the Roman Sabellius in the early third century and endorsed in the fourth century by Marcellus of Ancyra, gained little support. The challenge for those who wished to revive the Nicene formula was to find a means of differentiating the Father and the Son that did not compromise their sharing of the same substance. It was the so-called Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) and his brother Gregory of Nyssa (d. c. 395), together with another Gregory, of Nazianzus (d. 390), who came up with a solution that eventually was to be accepted. There is one Godhead, of uniform substance, ousia (in other words, the Cappadocians accepted the homoousios), but the Godhead has three distinct hypostaseis, or personalities.29

The Cappadocian Fathers are an attractive trio. All were steeped in classical philosophy, Gregory of Nazianzus declaring that Athens, where he and Basil had studied, was “a city truly of gold and the patroness of all that is good.”30 Despite some disputes between themselves over doctrine, they had a mutual affection, and they drew into their circle Basil’s sister Macrina, whom they revered for her saintliness and her own intellectual qualities. Basil, a fine administrator, is remembered for his monastic and charitable foundations, Gregory of Nazianzus for his impressive oratory (his funeral oration for Basil is often seen as one of the great speeches of late antiquity, fully equal to those of the fourth-century B.C. Athenian orator Demosthenes), and Gregory of Nyssa for his fertile mind. Their works, orations and letters present a fascinating example of the way in which classical philosophy could be yoked to Christian theology to formulate doctrine. In his important study Christianity and Classical Culture, Jaroslav Pelikan shows how they used a variety of arguments from both Christian and Greek culture to support and develop what was to become the Nicene orthodoxy.31

Although this remains a matter of scholarly dispute, Basil’s inspiration for the terminology of the Trinity appears to have been the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. As we have seen, Plotinus had proposed three entities in his metaphysical system: “the One”; nous, or Intellect, which presents the Platonic Forms to the material world; and the World-Soul. In his Enneads, published early in the fourth century, parts of which Basil of Caesarea is known to have studied in detail, Plotinus had argued that each one of these three entities had a distinct hypostasis, or personality, although they also shared a likeness, “as light is from the sun” (“the ousia of the divine extends to the [three] hypostaseis, [namely] the supreme god, the nous, the world soul”). As we have noted, Plotinus even used the word homoousios to describe the relationship of identity between the three. Here was “a vocabulary and a framework of ideas,” as Henry Chadwick puts it, that was used by the Cappadocians to describe Jesus the Son as an integral part of a single Godhead but with a distinct personality, hypostasis, within it.32

The Cappadocians went further, incorporating the Holy Spirit as a third person of a Trinity, as part of the single Godhead but with a distinct hypostasis. The earliest treatise that presents the Spirit as a distinct personality is that by Athanasius dating from 350. The inclusion of the Holy Spirit satisfied those who wished to believe that God was, in some form, still actively involved in the world. The three are, it was argued, equal in status but differ in their origins. God always was, the Son was “begotten” from God the Father, and the Spirit “proceeded” in some way from the Father.33

Thus Greek philosophical terms, in themselves complex, were adapted and adopted to produce a solution that allowed the Nicene formula to be reasserted and the Holy Spirit integrated into the Trinity without reverting to Sabellianism. The doctrine of the Trinity is embedded so deeply in the Christian tradition that it is easy to forget how precarious was its birth. To the Cappadocians, in fact, it seems to have been a compromise formula. Within Christianity they had to find a middle path between the condemned Arianism and Sabellianism. In a wider world, the doctrine of the Trinity stood between the Jewish conception of a monotheistic God, in whose worship Jesus and the Holy Spirit had no place, and Greek polytheism that had no difficulty in accepting Jesus and the Spirit as lesser divinities. Gregory of Nyssa suggested: “It is as if the number of the Three were remedy in the case of those who are in error as to the One [i.e., the Jews], and the assertion of the unity for those whose belief are dispersed among a number of divinities [i.e., Greek polytheists].”34

One can understand why the concept of the Trinity was so difficult for many to accept. There is comparatively little in scripture that can be used to support the idea in its final form. The terminology of Father and Son used in the Synoptic Gospels, in fact, suggests a Jesus who saw himself as genuinely distinct from his “Father.” This terminology could hardly be disregarded, and it needed some clever linguistic analysis by the Cappadocians to suggest that Father and Son could be equal and of the same substance as each other. It had, of course, to be accepted that Mary had carried the infant Jesus without providing any “substance” of her own. Although there was some scriptural backing for the concept of the Holy Spirit, it is not portrayed as enjoying a relationship with God the Father as powerful as that experienced by Jesus (as would have to be the case if the Spirit were to be accepted as an equal part of the Godhead). Basil had to fall back on “the unwritten tradition of the fathers” and “reason” to make his case. One particular challenge was that the only use in scripture of the term hypostasis in a context in which the Father was related to the Son refers to the Son as “a perfect copy of his [God the Father’s] hypostasis” (Hebrews 1:3), in other words denying the distinction between them which the Cappadocians had so painstakingly formulated.35

Then there was the issue of the eternal existence of the Son. The Nicenes had to deny that God could have “created” Jesus as his Son. Yet the only aspect of Jesus which gave him a distinct hypostasis from God the Father was the fact that he had been begotten as Son. Even if the terminology of “begetting” could be used instead of that of “creating,” “begetting” still involved some kind of action that had to be fitted in without undermining the “eternal” status of the one begotten. As Gregory of Nyssa admitted, the concept of time could not be allowed to enter the process at all. So what did “begetting” mean in this context if there could not be a time when Jesus was not begotten? Athanasius too had got himself tangled up in this one. Then again, if the Spirit proceeded from the Father only, did that not assume some pre-eminence of the Father that the Son did not share with him? If so, could they then be said to be equal parts of the Godhead? In due course this problem was to lead Augustine to suggest that the Holy Spirit must process from both Father and Son, the so-called double procession, although this idea never travelled to the east. Further problems arose over reconciling the One of the Godhead with the Three of the Trinity. The Cappadocians drew on complex arguments based on the natural world. If there is one world made up of many different natures, fire, water, air and earth, as Basil put it, then the Trinity is the opposite, a oneness of nature but not of number.36

Was it acceptable, however, simply to manipulate pagan philosophical concepts in this way to create Christian truth?37 Even Thomas Aquinas—himself highly ingenious in finding reasoned support for Christian doctrine—admitted that “it is impossible to arrive at a cognition of the Trinity of the Divine Persons by means of natural reason.” It must, Thomas continues, be taken as a revelation from God.38 When challenged themselves, the Cappadocians fell back on claims of the ultimate mystery of these things. As Gregory of Nazianzus retorted to one critic who had asked him to explain “proceeding”: “You explain how it was impossible for the Father to be generated and I will give you a biological account of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s proceeding—and let us go mad the pair of us for prying into God’s secrets!”39 Basil argued that ultimately faith must be given primacy. Just because the hypostaseis could be counted singly, it did not mean that “an ignorant arithmetic could carry us away to the idea of a plurality of gods . . . Count if you must, but you must not by counting do damage to the faith!”40 As Pelikan shrewdly remarks, the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity did not lead to any greater knowledge of God. It just increased the extent to which he was unknowable!41

The formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity did not mean, of course, that it was adopted as orthodoxy. Imperial support for the doctrine was essential, which made it necessary for the emperor to enforce the Nicene Creed. The Cappadocian Fathers developed their ideas in an imperial context that was still Homoean. Valens, emperor from 364 until his humiliating death at Adrianople in 378, was a keen supporter of Constantius’ settlement of 360, and he actively promoted bishops in the Homoean cause. It was in this climate that large numbers of Goths were converted to Christianity. Although “a bishop of Gotha” had attended the Council of Nicaea, the first widespread conversion of the Goths came at the hands of the missionary Ulfila, a descendant of a Roman taken prisoner by the Goths. Ulfila was a remarkable man, fluent in Latin, Greek and Gothic and clearly an inspired missionary. He was consecrated bishop in 341 and worked with the Goths beyond the borders through the 340s. However, persecution drove him back into the empire with many of his flock, and Constantius gave him shelter. Ulfila supported the Homoean creed and in particular had great reverence for the scriptures, which he himself translated into Gothic (probably creating “the Gothic alphabet” in the process). The Goths’ adherence to Homoean Christianity was consolidated when Valens insisted that Goths who entered the empire convert to his favoured formulation of Christianity; soon Homoean Christianity became inextricably associated with the ethnic identity of all the Gothic groups. They were to take it with them on their later migrations into the disintegrating empire.42

When Valens died, however, Homoean Christianity lost its main supporter. His successor, Theodosius, was pro-Nicene. Why is not clear. The traditional view is that his beliefs derived from his aristocratic Spanish background. In February 380, while in Thessalonika, which he was using as a base for his campaigns, he announced that the Nicene faith as supported by the bishops of Rome and Alexandria would be the orthodoxy and the alternatives would be punished as heresies. He was still not a baptized Christian, but his views and his determination to impose them appear to have been consolidated when he suffered a severe illness and was baptized by the staunchly pro-Nicene bishop of Thessalonika, Acholius.43

Theodosius then made for Constantinople. His arrival in late 380 was greeted with anger in a city where, in so far as tax exemption would be linked to the new orthodoxy, the majority of Christian communities stood to lose heavily through the imposition of a Nicene solution. Gregory of Nazianzus, who accompanied him, described his entry into Constantinople as being like that of a conqueror into a defeated city. In January 381 Theodosius issued an imperial decree declaring the doctrine of the Trinity orthodox and expelling Homoeans and Arians from their churches: “We now order that all churches are to be handed over to the bishops who profess Father, Son and Holy Spirit of a single majesty, of the same glory, of one splendour, who establish no difference by sacrilegious separation, but the order of the Trinity by recognizing the Persons and uniting the Godhead.”44The Homoean bishop Demophilus was removed, and the emperor then called a council of pro-Nicene bishops (there were some 150 of them, “prelates of his own faith,” as the fifthcentury church historian Socrates put it, all of them from the east), whose first act was to install Gregory of Nazianzus as the new bishop of the city. The council appears to have been chaotic—at least according to Gregory, who spoke at one of its later sessions. However, it appears to have proceeded to affirm a creed based on Nicene principles. This affirmation remains one of the mysteries of the period. No record of it survives, and the first reference to a creed from this council comes only in 451, when it was read out twice at the Council of Chalcedon. It emerged then as an expanded form of the Nicene Creed, with the homoousios intact and the Holy Spirit referred to as “Lord and Life-giver who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified together.” At Nicaea the Holy Spirit had been mentioned, but with no elaboration of “his” status. This is, of course, consistent with the Trinitarian formulation that had already been decreed by Theodosius in his edict, and in this sense the Council of Constantinople must have bowed to his influence, although the details of the wording suggest that earlier creeds were drawn on and that some parts of the creed were added at the council itself. At the end of the council a new imperial edict vigorously enforced the creed as orthodoxy.

We authorise the followers of this law to assume the title of orthodox Christians; but as for the others, since in our judgment, they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious names of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the names of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation, and in the second the punishment which our authority, in accordance with the will of heaven, shall decide to inflict. 45

This council, together with the imperial edicts that accompanied it, was the moment when the Nicene formula became part of the official state religion (if only for the moment in the eastern empire). All those Christians who differed from it—Homoeans, Homoiousians, Arians and a host of other minor groups—were declared to be heretics facing not only the vengeance of God but also that of the state. The decision of Constantine to privilege one Christian community over another was consolidated in that a “truth” was now defined and enforced by law, with those declared heretical to be punished on earth as well as by God. It was unclear on what basis this “truth” rested, certainly not one of exclusively rational argument, so it either had to be presented as “the revelation of God,” as it was by Thomas Aquinas, or accepted that “truth” was as defined by the emperor. Bearing in mind the degree to which the emperors either handpicked councils in advance or manipulated them, one must hesitate in claiming that the church as a whole had freely come to a consensus on the matter. The Nicenes spoke of their beliefs as traditional but they were countered by Palladius, bishop of Ratiaria, the most sophisticated of the Homoean bishops of the day, who claimed that it was the Homoean view that was the tradition and the Nicenes who were the innovators. After the edicts of February 380 and January 381, the council of 381 had been left with relatively little room for theological manoeuvre.46

In effect, the edict finally confirmed the emperor as the definer and enforcer of orthodoxy. In the future, when debates within the church began to get out of hand and threaten the stability of the empire, it would be the emperor who would intervene to establish the boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy. This was not simply a theological issue. “Orthodoxy” was now associated with tax exemptions for clergy as well as access to wealth and patronage and the high status enjoyed by the state church, while “heretics” lost all these. The commanding position exercised by the emperor in the definition of orthodox doctrine may well have rested on the need to control the numbers of those able to claim exemptions and patronage, but the language in which the heretics were condemned suggests that there was something more powerful behind the development. This was an empire under desperate threat from outside, and the activities of Theodosius in his first years as emperor were dominated by the need to regroup and inspire the Roman forces that had been so demoralized at Adrianople—it is certainly arguable that his religious policy should be seen in terms of the need to find symbols around which to define the unity of the empire and consolidate its counter-attack. Theodosius used orthodoxy as a focus for loyalty to the empire, so, for instance, the devastating defeat of Valens was reinterpreted as the judgment of God effected through the hand of those, the Goths, “whom he [Valens] had perfidiously led astray when they had sought the true faith, turning them aside from the flame of love into the fire of hell,” that is, by initiating them into the Homoean Christianity they sustained after 381.47 Every subsequent attack by the Goths on the empire could be characterized as the assault of evil on the true faith. It is possible to see the rise of Christian intolerance as essentially a defensive response to these threats.

In his fine study of these developments Richard Hanson concludes that “the religious policy of Theodosius on the whole succeeded, whereas that of Constantine, Constantius and Valens failed, because it was supported by a genuine widespread consensus of opinion in the church.”48 But there is little evidence to support this hypothesis—rather, as Hanson himself admits, it is clear that the expulsions of Homoean bishops were met with riots in many parts of the empire.49 Moreover, Valentinian, emperor in the west 375–92, remained Homoean, even engaging in a power struggle with Ambrose of Milan over the issue. It is clear that the majority of the population in Constantinople were not Nicenes and were outraged when they lost their churches. A rare instance of popular gossip from Constantinople recorded by Gregory of Nyssa even suggests continuing sympathy for and from full-blown, traditional Arianism: “If you ask for change, the man launches into a theological discussion about begotten and unbegotten; if you enquire about the price of bread, the answer is given that the Father is greater and the Son subordinate; if you remark that the bath is nice, the attendant pronounces that the Son is from non-existence.”50

Some Homoean communities, expelled from their churches, continued to hold services in the open air. Although gradually the record of their activity diminishes, there are reports of Homoean processions in the city at the time of John Chrysostom in the early fifth century. Stephen Mitchell, in his study of early Christianity in Anatolia, draws together evidence from a mass of inscriptions to show that an extraordinary diversity of Christian belief, much of it “heretical,” flourished in the fourth century, and it was only gradually that orthodox bishops were able to impose their authority.51 The speed of the process must not be overestimated. Christian literature may suggest a complete triumph of Christianity, but the discovery in the sixth century of large areas of coastal Asia Minor where Christianity had not yet penetrated speaks for caution. Common sense alone suggests that remote, largely illiterate communities, many of them beyond the effective control of imperial and church authorities, were not likely to be able to distinguish between orthodox and heretical doctrine (pace the bath attendants of Constantinople), particularly when the concepts around which the debates turned were themselves so hard to grasp.

The adoption of the Nicene formula had other consequences. As we have seen, it is clear that many Christians understood the Synoptic Gospels as giving the impression of a Son who sees his Father as greater than himself, even to the extent of pleading with his Father to be relieved of the agony of the cross. It was this evidence of Jesus’ suffering that underpinned the belief of Arius and others that he must be a lesser being than God, who must by his nature be above all feeling. This impression of Jesus as a human being, eating, drinking, arguing, beset by emotion, undergoing the agonies of humiliation and crucifixion, tended to be eclipsed by his elevation into the Godhead. This problem underlay the entire Arian debate in that the adoption of homoousios threatened the primacy of the scriptures in the making of doctrine, not only because the term could not be found in the scriptures but because a Jesus “one in substance” with the Father seemed incompatible with the recognizably human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. The differences between the Arians, Homoeans and their supporters on one side and the Nicenes on the other were intensified by what seemed to be an abandonment of the scriptures by the Nicenes. They were accused by their opponents of ignoring crucial passages of the Gospels if they did not support their case or of interpreting them in ways that stretched credulity.

So when Ambrose of Milan produced his De Fide, a defence of Nicene doctrine, he was countered by Palladius, who wrote tellingly: “Search the divine Scriptures, which you have neglected, so that under their divine guidance you may avoid the Hell towards which you are heading on your own.”52 Hanson makes a full survey of the attempts by the Nicenes to fight the charge by making their own interpretations of scripture, but he does not rate them highly. He agrees with Palladius on the quality of Ambrose’s efforts. “Generally speaking, throughout all his writings Ambrose tends to produce interpretations of the Bible whose undoubted poetic quality may charm the uncritical thinker but which in fact represent little more than fantastic nonsense woven into a purely delusive harmony.” As we have seen, it required considerable ingenuity for the Cappadocians to equate the Father and Son of the Gospels with the Father and Son of the Trinity.53

The declaration of Nicene orthodoxy led over time to a gradual silencing of “Arians” and the suppression of their literature, but enough survives to show that the debate over the scriptures rumbled on. For example, the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, a commentary on St. Matthew’s Gospel, preserved among the papers of John Chrysostom and probably originating from a beleaguered Homoean community in earlyfifth-century Illyria, claimed to represent “true” Christianity, now being persecuted by “false” (orthodox) Christians. The distinguishing mark of this community, the writer stresses, is its fidelity to scripture.54 The Homoean Goths were noted for their reliance on the scriptures. 55 Maximinus, a bishop who claimed that his faith rested on the creed accepted in 360 at Constantinople, engaged in public debate with Augustine in Hippo in the 420s and put the Homoean (and the literalist) position well: “We believe in the Scriptures and we reverence those divine Scriptures; and we do not desire to pass over a single iota, for we dread the punishment which is to be found in the Scriptures themselves.” Forcefully making the point that the pro-Nicenes distort scripture, he taunted Augustine: “The divine Scripture does not fare so badly in our [Homoean; my emphasis] teaching that it has to receive improvement.”56

Maximinus’ accusation against Augustine was that he was “improving” the scriptures to suit his orthodox case. Augustine would not have disagreed. He fully accepted that scripture should not be left open to individual interpretation but to the Church: “I would not believe the Gospel unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me,” he writes in one of his tracts against the Manicheans. This is, on the face of it, an astonishing assertion, but it is one which reflects the consolidation of Church authority. Now that the doctrine of the Trinity had been proclaimed, scripture had to be reinterpreted to defend it.57 In his De Doctrina Christiana (completed in the 420s), Augustine considers the opening of John’s Gospel. Different texts have different punctuations. One “heretical” punctuation “refused” to acknowledge that the Word was God, and Augustine says, “This is to be refuted, by the rule of faith, which lays down for us the equality of the members of the Trinity, and so we should say ‘and the Word was God,’ and then go on, ‘This was in the beginning with God.’ ” In other words, it is now orthodox faith that shapes exegesis. 58 When considering a problem text, an occasion, for instance, when a holy person utters words appearing to be sinful, Augustine argues that these should not be taken literally but as allegorical of some other meaning. “Anything,” writes Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana, “in the divine discourse [the scriptures] that cannot be related to good morals or the true faith should be taken as allegorical.”59

Such flexibility, which gave the interpreter enormous scope in dealing with awkward passages, echoed that of Origen. While the latter had used allegory to reconcile the scriptures with Platonism, Augustine used it to reconcile the scriptures to Nicene orthodoxy. Augustine’s attitude to the scriptures can be said to have reached fruition in the profession of faith of the (Counter-Reformation) Council of Trent (1545–63), in which a Catholic is required to swear that “I accept Sacred Scripture in the sense in which it has been held, and is held, by Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge the true sense and interpretation of the Sacred Scripture, nor will I interpret it in any way other than in accordance with the unanimous [sic] agreement of the Fathers.” It is certainly arguable that the declaration of the Nicene Creed forced the church into taking greater control over the interpretation of the scriptures and in doing so reinforced its authority over doctrine as already instituted by Theodosius. The effect, of course, was to make reasoned and open debate on theological matters increasingly difficult.

If Jesus was now fully part of the Godhead, how did the divinity of Christ and the common humanity of Jesus co-exist in one being when Jesus was on earth? The greater the divinity accorded to Christ, the more difficult it was to relate his divinity to his humanity. So was born what Jaroslav Pelikan has called “the almost insuperable task of attributing genuine birth, suffering and death to the Son of an impassible Deity.” 60 Who or what actually suffered the agony of crucifixion, and was that agony in any way diminished or affected by the divine nature of Christ? Did Jesus suffer as much in his mind as he did in his body, or was his suffering alleviated by the knowledge that he was divine? Athanasius had encountered difficulties in tackling these problems (as we have seen, he concluded that the mind of Jesus was incapable of suffering), and his successors found it no easier. In the first half of the fifth century an entirely new set of debates on the issue, as bitter as any over Nicaea, consumed the church, and eventually, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the emperor, Marcian, would again have to intervene to settle them. This was another of the legacies of Nicaea—by “solving” one theological issue, it appeared to make another more difficult to solve. The assumption behind all these debates was, of course, the conviction that there could be coherent and unassailable solutions to them. This assumption is so deep-rooted in Christian theology that it is seldom questioned, but it was, in fact, a revolutionary development and reflects the successful integration of Platonism into Christian theology.

The transformation of Christ from the man of the Synoptic Gospels to the God of the Trinity was accompanied by a transformation in the way he was represented. A good place to see the result is in the church of S. Pudenziana on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. The apse mosaic of Christ in Majesty, the earliest known mosaic on this theme, dates from about 390, only a few years after the proclamation of Theodosius. It is not now at its best, botched restorations in the sixteenth century having led to the disciples losing their lower halves and two being cut out altogether. Their faces have been largely restored, and only Christ survives fully in his original form. He sits on a purple cushion on a throne facing down the basilica, wearing robes streaked with gold. He is shown bearded and with a halo, and in his left hand carries a scroll announcing his role as protector of the building. His right hand is stretched outwards in a gesture traditionally associated with teaching. Above Christ are a jewelled cross standing on Mount Zion and the symbols of the four evangelists. Below them is a representation of Jerusalem as a restored and ornate city. The representation may be drawn from Revelation 21:2, where “the Spirit carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the heavenly Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,” or from chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which contrasts an enslaved Jerusalem on earth with a free one in heaven.61

What is striking about the mosaic is the degree to which Christ has been adopted into traditional Roman iconography. The fully frontal pose echoes the cult statues placed in pagan temples (it is comparable to the traditional representation of the robed and seated figure of Jupiter, the father of the gods, not least in the portrayal of both Jesus and Jupiter with beards), and this pose was frequently used in the representations of emperors. Only a few hundred yards from S. Pudenziana on the Arch of Constantine near the Colosseum (A.D. 315), the emperor is shown distributing largesse. He sits face on in authority, and the supplicants around him raise their arms in acclamation just as several of the disciples do in the mosaic. Another symbol of imperial power is the halo, representing the sun. It is not necessarily a mark of holiness—in the neighbouring church of S. Maria Maggiore, Herod himself is shown on a mosaic wearing one—so its appropriation in this early context suggests imperial rather than religious power. It has also been noted how close Christ’s throne is to the seats of authority used by Roman magistrates.62

Another feature of the mosaic is the prominence of Paul. In its original form there were twelve disciples in the mosaic, with Paul being given the place left by Judas and seated immediately to the left of Christ. Thus he is given almost equal status to Peter, who sits in a similar position to the right of Christ, and they are distinguished from the other disciples in being accompanied by two female figures, one representing the Church of the Jews and the other the Church of the Heathen, offering wreaths to Christ. The elevation of Paul to equal status with Peter was a recent development. When Constantine built churches in Rome at the beginning of the fourth century, he honoured Christ the Redeemer (now St. John Lateran) and Peter (on the Vatican Hill). Paul’s supposed burial place, on the road out from Rome to the port of Ostia, was marked only with a small shrine. In the late fourth century, in Rome in particular, Christianity was involved in a bitter struggle with the pagan aristocratic families who were well able to counter its teachings, especially, as we shall see, through appeals for intellectual tolerance. Rather than looking to Peter, the Apostle to the Jews, Christians increasingly focused on the “intellectual” Paul, whose authority rested on his conversion of the pagans. Between 384 and 392 Paul’s modest shrine was transformed into a great new basilica, San Paolo Fuori le Mura, which rivalled St. Peter’s in size and which appears to have been financed by the ruling emperors, Theodosius among them. It is symbolic of the revival of Paul’s influence throughout the empire. So we find that the verse that converted Augustine to Christianity (in 386 in Milan) is from Paul’s letters, not the Gospels, and that in his Confessions Augustine makes twice as many references to Paul’s letters as he does to the four Gospels. In her fine study of the sermons preached by John Chrysostom on Paul, The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation, Margaret Mitchell notes that John’s involvement with Paul borders on the obsessional.63 Much further research is needed in this area, but it is arguable that the concentration on authority shown by Paul in his letters (a concentration, as has been argued, probably stemming from his own insecurities) met the needs of the imperial church more adequately than the Gospels, which show Jesus challenging the religious and imperial authorities of his day.

Paul’s influence ran deep. In his letters he had inveighed against idols (by which he meant statues of the gods), Greek philosophy and sexuality, and attacks on these now became central to the Christian mission to eliminate paganism. So the S. Pudenziana mosaic reflects not only the reception of the criminal crucified by an imperial governor into the full majesty of imperial iconography (we might note also Ambrose’s astonishing assertion that it is Christ who leads the legions) but also the strengthening of the attack on paganism. This transformation of the image of Jesus in both doctrine and art went hand in hand with the assertion of control by the emperors over the church hierarchy. As a result of the transfer of both power and massive economic resources to the church, European history was to be set in new directions.

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