In this blog, I want to explore the controversial word ‘homoousios,’ which was introduced as a result of the Nicene Council in 325AD. This was a very controversial decision by the council as it was regarded as a ‘non-scriptural’ word. Even though this is true, it was adopted to give precise meaning to the relationship between the Father and the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. This word did not suddenly drop out of the sky. It was a steady evolution of the attempt by the church to give precise meaning to the Incarnation that maintained both the unity of the Divinity and Humanity of Jesus Christ as well as His union with the Father. There had to be union but there also had to be distinction so the words chosen had to bring this context in a very precise way so that the Pagan world could not misconstrue the Christian message.
As the Christian message started to enter into the world outside of Israel, they took with them the terms they employed to give a precise definition of the gospel into this community. The problems they encountered is these Greek terms had many other applications in the wider community. As time went on, the fathers had to qualify what these terms meant by introducing other terms to give more definitive precision to the implications of the Incarnation. So there was an evolution of terminology that occurred from the second century through to the fourth century where each term had to be given qualification in a very specific theological context.
The way the Incarnation is to be understood is that this is something completely new. Therefore this unique event required new terms and new language to describe in minute detail the implications for us and our salvation. It was established very early on that Jesus Christ was True God as well as True Man. The language that followed this had to nail this down in such a way as not to compromise one or the other. Their first problem was to hold together the monotheistic assertion of the Old Testament of the “one True God,” with the advent of God in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. They had to begin with Jesus Christ to help them find a new way of speaking and knowing.
There were numerous fathers immediately following the Apostles who were quite clear in their assertion that Jesus Christ was born of Mary by the will of the Father and Jesus Christ our God (Ignatius of Antioch). They speak of God, the minister who suffered, suffering at the hands of Israel (Tatian). “Believe , O man, in Man and God; believe, o man, in the living God that suffered and is worshipped” cries Clement of Alexandria in Exhortation to the Heathen 10. Then we have Tertullian who used phrases such as the sufferings of God, the blood of God, God crucified, God dead, the flesh of God and the murderers of God. This flowed into the likes of Athenagoras who spoke of “God the Father and the Son-God”(A Plea for the Christians 10). Irenaeus uses phrases such as Christ Jesus our Lord and God and Saviour and King (Against Heresies 1.10.1). These are but a few of the numerous examples upon the emphasis that the Godness of Jesus Christ is the also of the same Godness of the Father. We find very similar statements in Origen. Even though much of his work was speculative, he had no problem asserting the fact of the Incarnation of God in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Yet, Origen laid the ground for what was to occur in the crisis that brought about the Nicene Council in 325AD. There were such problems in his work, however, that gave fuel to the Arian controversy but there were some useful terminology that also helped to overthrow this threat to the church.
For the first few centuries it was the challenge of the church to articulate the gospel in such a way that it would not be corrupted and turned into something else. When the church employed a terms such as the Logos for Jesus Christ, it was appropriated by the Gnostics where their worldview was impressed on Him undermining both His divinity and humanity. By contrast, the church believed the Incarnation not only falls within created life but also within the life of the Triune God. It appears to me that it was the kind of debates with the heretics of the church that actually helped the church to refine its language where it reached its pinnacle at the Nicene Council.
Let’s use the word hypostasis (ὑπόστασις) as an example. Its meaning is: that which has foundation, is firm, that which has actual existence, a substance, real being, the substantial quality, nature, of a person or thing, the steadfastness of mind, firmness, courage, resolution, confidence, firm trust, assurance
Though this word is found in Scripture, in the secular world, it has a wide variety of uses and is strongly dependent on the context in which it is employed. In Christian theology it has to be employed in such a way as to reflect the dynamic nature of the Triune God, the image from which we have been created. The fathers endeavoured to begin with Jesus Christ according to His nature (κατὰ φύσιν) as the place where the integrity of the gospel is to be maintained. What they strongly asserted that it was necessary, for the sake of humanity, for God to come down and join Himself to humanity as a human being, as we are, so that we might be “in God.” This word had to show the distinct Personhood of Jesus Christ, the distinct Personhood of the Father and of course the distinct Personhood of the Spirit. At the same time, there also had to be a unity in their divinity without the risk of subordinationism or its collapsing into a Monad revealing itself into three forms. The clearest way this can be expressed is One Being, Three Persons, Three Persons One Being (μία οὐσία, τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις) is the Greek word Homoousios (ομοούσιος). This was not a stand-alone word but a description that brought together other words to give clarity to the nature of Jesus Christ as both God and human in His relationship to the Father and the Spirit. In addition it qualified the term hypostasis so that it was mutually beneficial for both the terms.
Up until this point in time at the council of Nicaea, the word hypostasis was also used in conjunction with other terms to give it clarity to the precise meaning the fathers wanted to give. Hypostasis was used along with the Greek word prosopon (πρόσωπον) and in the Latin it was persona. When hypostasis is given the the context with the Latin and the Greek terms, we find it narrows down the definition to that nature having real existence, with the addition of the Greek prosopon, the face as seen externally by an onlooker, and the Latin persona (meaning a sounding through), this person not only has a face but actually is a face that speaks. When we use it in the context of theology, all these terms were used together along with the term ousia (οὐσία). It was of great importance that the nature of the Logos(κατὰ φύσιν) from eternity with the Father was the very same nature (κατὰ φύσιν) as the Incarnate Jesus Christ manifest in creation in Israel. There is entire and complete union with the nature (κατὰ φύσιν) of the Word (Logos) and the human nature He assumed so that when He acts and speaks as the man Jesus Christ, it is the nature (κατὰ φύσιν) of God in visible form who acts and speaks in this Person.
Up until the time of the Council of Nicaea, these words were used rather sparingly but it was the controversy of Arius who brought it to a crisis. Arius logically concluded that if God is impassible, then Christ could not be God at all therefore there must have been a time He did not exist. In addition to this, they held the idea that human beings could not stand the absolute presence and hand of God. As a result, God first created the Logos and then through this Logos as his agent, he brought the rest of creation into existence (Athanasius De Decretis 7ff). They wanted to keep God and humanity at an infinite distance apart. The current language prior to this council was not adequate to categorically oppose this heretical idea.
Ousia on its own was not enough. So the term homoiousios (ὁμοιούσιος) was given consideration which means the Son is ‘like the Father’ but that left a gap on the Son having some ‘unlikeness to the Father’ which risked playing into the hands of the Arians. All ambiguity had to be ruled out in the light of what Arius declared to the council. The delegates were so outraged they covered their ears and refused to listen to Arius’ statements. Even Athanasius in recalling what happened had to cleanse his mind as he wrote in his epistle to the Egyptians (ad Episcopus 12ff). As a result, it was decided the only way to clear the ambiguity of the relationship between Jesus Christ, His humanity with the Father was to introduce the term homoousios (ομοούσιος) into the Creed. This rejected all ideas that objected to the utter unity of being between the Father and the Incarnate Son.
The homoousion brought to the relationship between the Father and the Son as having the very same “stuff” or the very same “Godness” as one another ruling out all ideas grounded on separation. It brought redemption, and creation into the life of the Triune God as the ultimate reality on which all things are grounded. This meant the redemption of the whole of the human race was not only being played out in Jesus Christ but it was also being played out in the entire human race while at the same time His action was brought into the life of the Triune God.
Prior to the council, the word ousia, hypostasis, physin were often used interchangeably and given equality in the meaning. This is especially so with ousia when it is used like hypostasis and can be found in Contra Arianos 1.11; 3.63; De Decretis 22.27; De synodis 35, 41; Ad Afros 4, 8; Ad Serapionem 2.5 (This is seen more clearly in the Greek text). In time, people started to misuse these terms in such a way that they were advocating three Gods rather than the three Persons who were One God. So distinctions had to be drawn between the One ousia (Being) of God and hypostasis was to describe the three Persons of the Godhead. It described in a strict and precise way the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their Being (as opposed to residing in the Father alone, i.e., monarchianism) and also in their onto-relations to one another. This was developed through a careful analysis with homoousian between the Father, Son and Spirit as the means through which a clearer and precise theology could be laid out.
The only way the gospel can have divine strength is the unity of the Being of the Son and the Father is maintained. In this way we see Jesus Christ as the real intervention of God into the human race who came to us “as man”. All of what He did was for our sake so that we might be brought into the Life of the Father, Son and Spirit and experience for ourselves, “Life in God.” Furthermore, when we become aware of the very same strength of unity between the Father, Son and Spirit, means the very Spirit of Christ continues on in our own lives with precisely the same nature as Jesus and the Father. When we hear the Spirit speak, we know it is the Word spoken from the very heart of the Triune God Himself.