In 319 an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius began to propagate his doctrine that the Son was not ofthe same substance with the Father, but was rather created by the Father before the beginning of the world. This marked the beginning of the great trinitarian controversy, which lasted through the end of the century and gave us the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds. Although Alexandrian theologians like Origen, in contrast to Tertullian, had argued that the begetting of the Logos from the Father did not have a beginning but is from eternity, the reason most theologians found Arius's doctrine unacceptable was not, as Arius fancied, so much because he affirmed "The Son has a beginning, but God is without beginning'' (Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia 4-5). Rather, what was objectionable was that Arius denied even that the Logos preexisted immanently in God before being begotten or was in any sense from the substance of the Father, so that his beginning was not, in fact, a begetting but a creation ex nihilo and that therefore the Son is a creature. As Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, was later to protest, on Arius's view, God without the Son lacked his Word and his Wisdom, which is blasphemous (Orations Against the Arians 1.6.17), and the Son is "a creature and a work, not proper to the Father's essence'' (1.3.9). In 325 a council at Antioch condemned anyone who says that the Son is a creature or originated or made or not truly an offspring or that once he did not exist; later that year the ecumenical Council of Nicaea issued its creedal formulation of trinitarian belief.
The creed states,
We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through whom all things came into being, both in heaven and in earth; Who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, becoming human. He suflsred and the third day he rose, and ascended into the heavens. And he will come to judge both the living and the dead.
And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.
But, those who say, Once he was not, or he was not before his generation, or he came to be out of nothing, or who assert that he, the Son of God, is a diflerent hypostasis or ousia, or that he is a creature, or changeable, or mutable, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.
Several features of this statement deserve comment: (1) The Son (and by implication the Holy Spirit) is declared to be of the same essence (homoousios) as the Father. This is to say that the Son and Father both share the same divine nature. Therefore, the Son cannot be a creature, having, as Arius claimed, a nature different (heteroousios) from the divine nature. (2) The Son is declared to be begotten, not made. This anti-Arian affirmation is said with respect to Christ's divine nature, not his human nature, and represents the legacy of the old Logos Christology. In the creed of Eusebius of Caesarea, used as a draft of the Nicene statement, the word Logos stood where Son stands in the Nicene Creed, and the Logos is declared to be "begotten of the Father before all ages.'' The condemnations appended to the Nicene Creed similarly imply that this begetting is eternal. Athanasius explains through a subtle word play that while both the Father and the Son are agenetos (that is, did not come into being at some moment), nevertheless only the Father is agennetos (that is, unbegotten), whereas the Son is gennetos (begotten) eternally from the Father (Four Discourses Against the
Arians 1.9.31). (3) The condemnation of those who say that Christ "is a different hypostasis or ousia' from the Father occasioned great confusion in the church. For Western, Latin-speaking theologians the Greek word hypostasis was etymo-logically parallel to, and hence synonymous with, the Latin substantia ("substance"). Therefore, they denied a plurality of hypostaseis in God. Although the Nicene Creed was drafted in Greek, the meaning of the terms is Western. For many Eastern, Greek-speaking theologians hypostasis and ousia were not synonymous. Ousia meant "substance," and hypostasis designated a concrete individual, a property-bearer. As Gregory of Nyssa, one of three Cappadocian church fathers renowned for their explication of the Nicene Creed, explains, a hypostasis is "what subsists and is specially and peculiarly indicated by [a] name,'' for example, Paul, in contrast to ousia, which refers to the universal nature common to things of a certain type—for example, man (Epistle 38.2-3). The Father and Son, while sharing the same substance, are clearly distinct hypostaseis, since they have different properties (only the Father for example, has the property of being unbegotten). Therefore, the Nicene Creed's assertion that the Father and Son are the same hypostasis sounded like modalism to many Eastern thinkers. After decades of intense debate, this terminological confusion was cleared up at the Council of Alexandria in 362, which affirmed homoousios but allowed that there are three divine hypostaseis.
What were these hypostaseis, all sharing the divine nature? The unanimous answer of orthodox theologians was that they were three persons. It is customarily said, as previously mentioned, that we must not read this affirmation anachron-istically, as employing the modern psychological concept of a person. This caution must, however, be qualified. While hypostasis does not mean "person,'' nevertheless a rational hypostasis comes very close to what we mean by a "person.'' For Aristotle the generic essence of man is captured by the phrase "rational animal.'' Animals have souls but lack rationality, and it is the property of rationality that serves to distinguish human beings from other animals. Thus a rational hypostasis can only be what we call a person. It is noteworthy that Gregory of Nyssa's illustration of three hypostaseis having one substance is Peter, James and John, all exemplifying the same human nature (To Ablabius That There Are Not Three Gods). How else can this be taken than as an intended illustration of three persons with one nature? Moreover, the Cappadocians ascribe to the three divine hypostaseis the properties constitutive of personhood, such as mutual knowledge, love and volition, even if, as Gregory of Nazianzus emphasizes, these are always in concord and so incapable of being severed from one another (Third Theological Oration: On the Son 2). Thus Gregory boasts that his flock, unlike the Sabellians, "worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, One Godhead; God the Father, God the Son and (do not be angry) God the Holy Spirit, One Nature in Three Personalities, intellectual, perfect, self-existent, numerically separate, but not separate in Godhead'' (Oration 33.16). The ascription of personal properties is especially evident in the robust defense of the full equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son as a divine hypostasis. Basil states that the Holy Spirit is not only "incorporeal, purely immaterial, and indivisible,'' but that "we are compelled to direct our thoughts on high, and to think of an intelligent being, boundless in power'' (On the Holy Spirit 9.22). Quoting 1 Corinthians 2:11, he compares God's Spirit to the human spirit in each of us (16.40) and states that in his sanctifying work the Holy Spirit makes people spiritual "by fellowship with Himself'' (9.23). The Cappadocians would have resisted fiercely any attempt to treat the Holy Spirit as an impersonal, divine force. Thus their intention was to affirm that there really are three persons in a rich psychological sense who are the one God.
In sum, while modalism affirmed the equal deity of the three persons at the expense of their personal distinctness, orthodox Christians maintained both the equal deity and personal distinctness of the three persons. Moreover, they did so while claiming to maintain the commitment of all parties to monotheism. There exists only one God, who is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
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