Homoousios

During the third century Antioch became the centre of an interesting controversy. The theologians of this city found it very important to insist that Jesus from Nazareth while on earth was a real man. They had had some trouble with people claiming that Jesus just looked like a man but in fact was something else.

This viewpoint was already spreading in the first century. In verse 7 in his second letter the Apostle John wrote: “Because a number of false teachers have gone out into the world, who do not give witness that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. Such a one is a false teacher and Antichrist.” It is believed that John wrote this letter from Ephesus (Efes) at the Aegean coast several hundred kilometres from Antioch, but the doctrine also found supporters here.

While John was living in Ephesus Ignatius was the overseer (or bishop) of the congregation in Antioch. In a letter to the congregation in Smyrna (İzmir) he wrote (chapter 5): “For what does any one profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death. I have not, however, thought good to write the names of such persons, inasmuch as they are unbelievers. Yea, far be it from me to make any mention of them, until they repent and return to [a true belief in] Christ’s passion, which is our resurrection.”

The problem had its roots in Gnostics thinking. The syncretistic world scheme of the Gnostics had it that everything material was by nature bad. Consequently the body of Jesus could not have been material.

This idea seems to have been very popular in and around Antioch. Nearly a hundred years after Irenaeus a letter claimed to have been written by the Apostle Peter was in circulation. As this letter contained “modern” doctrines based on Gnostic ideas, a bishop named Serapion (d. 211) wrote a letter to the small town of Rhossus (Arsuz) at the Mediterranean coast on the other side of the Amanus Mountains:

“We, brethren, receive Peter and the other Apostles even as Christ; but the writings that go falsely by their names we, in our experience, reject, knowing that such things as these we never received. When I was with you I supposed you all to be attached to the right faith; and so without going through the gospel put forward under Peter’s name, I said, `If this is all that makes your petty quarrel, why then let it be read.’ But now that I have learned from information given me that their mind was lurking in some hole of heresy, I will make a point of coming to you again: so, brethren, expect me speedily. Knowing then, brethren, of what kind of heresy was Marcion … From others who used this very gospel— I mean from the successors of those who started it, whom we call Docetae, for most of its ideas are of their school— from them, I say, I borrowed it, and was able to go through it, and to find that most of it belonged to the right teaching of the Saviour, but some things were additions.”

In Antioch, however, there were people who fell into the opposite ditch. They believed that the divine Logos (λογος: word) mentioned in the Gospel of John (1:1) was a quality of God, His Reason indwelling or Reason expressed. They claimed that Jesus by birth was no different from others but that this Divine Reason, nearly as an emanation from God, had been dwelling in Jesus since his baptism by John.

In connection with the relationship between God and his Word (λογος) a later bishop of Antioch named Paul of Samosata (d. 275) was teaching that they were consubstantial (͑ομοουσιοι: homoousioi).

This word might have the denotation “of the same substance,” but it could also mean “of the same being.” And besides, it had unpleasant connotations.

Words do not have denotations only. They also have connotations, for example the thoughts they create in your mind because of their history. Until the first half of the 20th century the word Führer was a neutral German word. But after the Second World War it has taken unpleasant connotations.

The same was the case with the word homoousious. Although it may have been used by certain Christian philosophers it was mainly popular among the Gnostics, groups of people who had built up religious systems on a mixture of paganism, theosophy, Greek philosophy and Christianity. And they were not at all popular with the mainstream Christians.

Pier Franco Beatrice has the following comments on the early use of the word:

“Basilides, the first known Gnostic thinker to use homoousios in the first half of the second 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… So homoousios was certainly in current use by the second-century Gnostics, and through their works it became known to the orthodox heresiologists. Nevertheless, it must be stressed that in Gnostic texts homoousios has no reference to the specific relationship between Father and Son, as is the case in the Nicene Creed.”

That the word homoousios took on different shades of meaning dependent on the ones who used it did not matter. The word was foreign to Christianity and by its connotations it would easily give some people ideas about the relationship between God and Jesus that were foreign to subordinationist Christians.

Consequently, when Paul of Samosata started to use the homoousion on God and Logos the Church reacted strongly. A council was held in Antioch where the attending bishops had Paul deposed and excommunicated.

But this was not the end of it. In 325 at the Council of Nicaea (İznik, Turkey) the Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great in his attempt to unify his empire suggested that the Church should agree that the Father and the Son were homoousioi, of the same substance.

This was an embarrassing situation. The term with its Gnostic connotations had been anathematized by a council of bishops in Antioch only 57 years earlier, and now the unbaptised Emperor wanted it reintroduced!

The bishops, or most of them, accepted. After all, it was Constantine that had had brought an end to the persecution of the Church. And furthermore, although still a pagan he regarded himself as a sort of bishop for both Christians and idolaters.

Notes.
  • Philip Schaff, ed. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002), 144.
  • Wikipedia, Serapion of Antioch, accessed March 27, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serapion_of_Antioch
  • Pier Franco Beatrice, “The Word “Homoousios” from Hellenism to Christianity Author(s)” Church History, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Jun., 2002), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History), 243-272.
  • A. H. M. Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe, (Harmonsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 155–159.
  • D.S. Wallace–Hadrill, Christian Antioch: A study of early Christian thought in the East, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) 7.
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About Antiochene

Writer, living in Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya, Turkey).
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