The council held in the early weeks of 325AD furnishes a much more overt and instructive example of synodical creed-making prior to Nicaea. the ostensible purpose of this gathering of fifty six bishops belonging to the provinces of Palestine, Arabia, Phenicia, Coele-Syria and Cappadocia, was to elect a successor to the deceased occupant of the metropolitan see of Antioch, Philogonius. But they took advantage of their meeting together to condemn the Arian heresy and to publish a full-dress declaration of their own position. Possibly they were aware of Constantine’s determination himself to settle a controversy which was becoming a festering sore in the Church’s body, and wanted to anticipate by a fait accompli any chance there might be of the imperial decision going the wrong way. A synodal letter announcing their resolutions and setting out their faith in credal forms was issued at the same time. It reported that three bishops–Theodotus of Laodicea, Narcissus of Neronius, and Eusebius of Caesarea–had withheld their signatures, and had in consequence been provisionally excommunicated, with an opportunity of changing their minds before the forthcoming “great hieratic synod” to be held at Ancyra. The letter was given wide publicity, and secured the hearty approval of the bishops of Italy.
Our detailed knowledge of the affair and the credal document has only been obtained this century. It rests, first, on the Syriac text of the synodal letter preserved in Paris MS (Cod. Par. Syr. 62) as an appendix to the canons of the better known council of Antioch 341, and , secondly, on the Syriac canon of the synod of 325 itself, which occur somewhat later in the same MS. It was E Schwartz who first lighted upon these texts, guessed they were connected with the synod of 325, and substantiated his with argument. Both A. von Harnack and the French scholar F. Nau vigorously contested the identification. Schwartz found a laborious and persuasive advocate to plead his cause in Erich Seeberg. The twin pillars of which their argument was supported were, first, the intrinsic character of the documents, which presupposes a situation prior to the decisions of the Nicene Council, and, secondly, the illumination which the events of the synod, on the assumption that they followed the course mapped out in the documents, throw on the procedure of the ecumenical council itself. Many obscurities remain to be cleared up, and Schwartz and Seeberg themselves fully admitted their inability to find answers to all their riddles. But a growing body of responsible opinion seems today prepared to accept the Syrian texts as supplying us with a reliable picture of what happened at the synod of 325AD.
Despite its great length, the creed appended to the circular letter sent round by the bishops deserves to be reproduced here, both because of its intrinsic interest, and because it is not to be found in the ordinary collection of creeds.
“The faith is,” say the writers, “as follows: to believe in one God, the Father almighty, incomprehensible, immutable and unchangeable, protector and ruler of the universe, just, good, maker of heaven and earth and of all the things in them, Lord of the law and of the prophets and of the new covenant; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, only begotten Son, begotten not from that which is not but from the Father, not as made but as properly an offspring, but begotten in an ineffable, indescribable manner, because only the Father Who begot and the Son who was begotten know (for ‘no one knows the Father but the Son, nor the Son but the Father’), Who exists everlastingly and not at one time not exist. For we have learned from the Holy Scriptures that He alone is the express image, not (plainly) as if He might have remained unbegotten from the Father, nor by adoption (for it is impious and blasphemous to say this); but the Scriptures describe Him as validly and truly begotten as Son, so that we believe Him to be immutable and unchangeable, and that He was not begotten and did not come to be by volition or by adoption, so as to appear to be from that which is not, but as it befits Him to be begotten; not (a thing which is unlawful to think) according to likeness or nature or commixture with any of the things which came to be through Him, but in a way which passes all understanding or conception or reasoning we confess Him to have been begotten of the unbegotten Father, the divine Logos, true light, righteousness, Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour of all. For He is the express image, not of the will or of anything else, but of His Father’s very substance (ὑποστάσεως). This Son, the divine Logos, having been born in flesh from Mary the Mother of God and made incarnate, having suffered and died, rose again from the dead. Furthermore, as in our Saviour, the holy scriptures teach us to believe also in one Spirit, one Catholic Church, the resurrection of the dead and a judgment of requital according to whether a man has done well or badly in the flesh. And we anathematize those who say or think or preach that the Son of God is a creature or has come into being or has been made and is not truly begotten, or that there was when He was not. for we believe that He was and is and that He is light. Furthermore, we anathematize those who suppose that He is immutable by His own act of will, just as those who derive His birth for that which is not, and deny that He is immutable in the way the Father is. For just as our Saviour is the image of the Father in all things, so in respect particularly He has been proclaimed in the Father’s image.
The patently anti-Arian tone of this tortuous compilation, combined with its transparent ignorance of the Nicene theological solutions, is a powerful argument for its authenticity. All the emphasis is in the assertion that the Son was not created out of nothing, but was begotten in an ineffable way, and that He is the express image of the Father in every respect. Yet there is no mention of the technical phrase FROM THE SUBSTANCE OF THE FATHER or OF ONE SUBSTANCE or anything equivalent. If the creed which Arius submitted to St Alexander is set alongside it, the close relationship between the two documents becomes at once visible. The anathemas at the end deal point by point with matter raised in Arius’s Thalia branding such typical theses of his as that Christ was a creature, that there had been a time when He was not, and that His immutability was due to the exercise of His will. The drift of the language, moreover, seems to re-echo that of St Alexander and the creed he sent to his namesake of Byzantium. For us its striking importance lies in the fact that is is the forerunner of all synodal creeds. Despite its diffuseness (not without abundant parallels in the formulas of later councils), it is constructed as a creed and has the unmistakable ground-plan of one. Its basis, manifestly, was some already existing creed, by methods afterwards to be exploited by creed-framers at Nicaea and elsewhere, by freely interpolating passages bearing on the controversy into the underlying framework. The anathemas are particularly interesting, for the anticipate, with closer attention to the genuine thought of Arius, the ones to be adopted by the Nicene fathers. Altogether the discovery of this document has conferred an immense boon on the student of creeds. The synod of Antioch was evidently an overture to the council of Nicaea, and some of the themes which were to be taken up there were played over the effect at Antioch first.
J N D Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, Longmans Green and Co Ltd, 2nd Ed, 1960, pp. 208-11