10 March 2014

Patristics (2014): 3, The Greek Fathers

An icon of the Council of Nicaea, with the Emperor Constantine and the bishops holding a scroll with the words of the Nicene Creed

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Introduction to Patristics,

Brown Room,

Mondays, 10.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.

Outline of Module:

10.30 a.m., 3 March 2014: Introducing Patristics

2, 11.30 a.m., 3 March 2014: The Apostolic Fathers

3, 10.30 a.m., 10 March 2014: The Greek Fathers

4, 11.30 a.m., 10 March 2014: The Latin Fathers

5, 10.30 a.m., 24 March 2014: The Desert Fathers

6, 11.30 a.m., 24 March 2014: The Legacy, especially for Anglicans

Monday, 10 March 2014:

10.30 a.m., 10 March 2014: The Greek Fathers


This week, I want us to look first at the Greek Fathers and then at the Latin Fathers, and to provide a brief introduction to them within the context of the heresies at the time, the development of the Creeds, and the conflicts that were decided on the first Councils of the Church.

Although the Orthodox tradition tends to put no closing date on the Patristic Age, it is generally accepted that this period came to a close in the West at the death of Saint Isidore of Seville in 636 and in the East with the death of Saint John of Damascus ca 750.

The works of Early Fathers, who wrote before the Council of Nicaea, were translated into English in a 19th century collection, the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Those who wrote after the First Council of Nicaea are collected in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.

The Apostolic Fathers were followed by the Greek Fathers, so first of all this morning we are travelling through the East Mediterranean, from Alexandria to Caesarea, from Constantinople to Jerusalem, back to Alexandria again and from there on to Damascus.

In these places, we meet the great Greek Fathers from the fourth to eighth centuries, hear the voice of the great Fathers of the Christological debates; we listen to Saint Athanasius; to Saint Basil, one of the greatest of that younger generation of bishops who carried on the fight that Athanasius had fought and finally defeated the Arian heresy; to Saint Basil and his dear friend, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, the patron saint of people who do not want to be bishops; and to Saint John Chrysostom, the great model and patron of preachers.

There too we also meet two Saints Cyrils: Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, who spent 16 of his 35 years as a bishop in banishment; and Saint Cyril of Alexandria, the champion of the Mother of God against the Nestorian heresy.

And if we stay long enough we finally meet Saint John of Damascus in the eighth century, the first of the Christian Aristotelians who lived his entire life under Muslim rule.

These Greek Father offer us the opportunity to do theology by reliving the gritty events in which it was originally hammered out. We see its champions suffer and at times take questionable paths. Yet we also witness their fortitude and perseverance, and we glimpse in their struggles a tangible sanctity.

The first of these Greek Fathers is Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (ca 130-ca 200), but the most important Greek Fathers lived between the years 293 to 754, most of them living in the 200-400s.

When we are looking at the writings of the Fathers, it is helpful to understand the historical background to their writings. During the period between the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451 and the death of Saint John of Damascus ca 750, the relationships between Empire and Church were so close that they seemed seem almost one, with the Emperor in the East often playing a prominent role in religious matters, while in the West the Papacy assumed increasing secular authority.

The domination of the East – reflected in the triumph of Greek over Latin as the language of administration – meant that Rome and the Western provinces were seen as rather provincial. On the other hand, the Church in the East faced challenges from a range of theological ideas. Nestorian and Monophysite doctrines were not suppressed by the Council of Chalcedon, new disputes arose, and there were strong differences over icons or images. Islam became a major threat to the Empire from the 7th century on, and Islamic ideas also carried weight in religious matters.

The Greek Fathers include:

● Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (ca 293-373).

● The Cappdocian Fathers, including:

● Saint Basil the Great, of Caesarea (330-379).

● Saint Gregory Nazianzus (330-390).

● Saint Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-ca 395).

● Saint John Chrysostom (344-407).

● Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386).

● Saint Cyril of Alexandria (died 444).

● Saint Maximus the Confessor (ca 580-662).

● Saint John of Damascus (died 754).

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (ca 130-ca 200):

Saint Ignatius of Antioch ... writes against the Docetics

Saint Irenaeus (ca 130-ca 200), Bishop of Lyons, was a disciple of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna and became Bishop of Lugdunum (present-day Lyons) in Gaul (France) – so, he bridges the gap between the Apostolic Fathers and the Greek Fathers, and the gap between East and West.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons was a notable early apologist, his writings were formative in the early development of theology, and so he is often seen as the first great theologian. He was born, perhaps in Smyrna, some time in the 2nd century and died at the end of the 2nd or beginning of the 3rd century. Saint Irenaeus was a disciple of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, one of the Apostolic Fathers, who in turn was said to be a disciple of Saint John the Divine. He became Bishop of Lugundum in Gaul, which is now Lyons in France.

His writings were formative in the early development of theology. His best-known book, Adversus Omnes Haereses (Against Heresies) (ca 180), is a detailed attack on heresies, particularly Gnosticism, which threatened the Church at the time. A second work, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, was found in recent decades in Armenian collections.

Saint Irenaeus opposed Gnosticism, not by setting out a rival Christian gnosis, but by emphasising the traditional elements in the Church, especially the episcopacy, Scripture and the religious and theological tradition.

One of the first heresies was Docetism. The word Docetic comes from the Greek word meaning “to appear.” This heresy held that Christ really did not have a physical body, but only appeared to have one, that he was truly a spiritual being, and as such, could not have had a true body.

Some scholars believe Saint John’s Gospel contains some anti-Docetic texts. For example, in Chapter 21 Christ eats fish with his disciples (see John 21: -14). It seems I John was also written to combat this heresy: “... every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (I John 4: 2).

Saint Ignatius of Antioch is clearly writing against Docetics when he says: “He was then truly born, truly grew up, truly ate and drank, was truly crucified, and died, and rose again” (Philippians 3).

Saint Irenaeus wrote that the only way for Christians to retain unity was to humbly accept one doctrinal authority – episcopal councils.

He is also the first patristic writer to propose that the four Gospels according to Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke and Saint John, should be accepted as canonical Gospels. He also cites passages from almost every other New Testament book.

He developed a doctrine of the ‘recapitulation’ or summary of human evolution in the Incarnate Christ, thereby giving a positive value of its own to Christ’s humanity.

Saint Irenaeus gives us many details about his time, recounting the succession of bishops in Rome from Saint Peter and Saint Paul to his day, and gives us the basis for a creed recited during his times.

Saint Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-ca 215):

Saint Clement of Alexandria … the most influential of the apologists

Saint Clement of Alexandria (Κλήμης ὁ Ἀλεξανδρεύς or Titus Flavius Clemens, ca 150-ca 215) was perhaps the most influential of the apologists and represents a period when the Church in Egypt was recovering from a 50-60 year period when Gnosticism was the dominant force.

He was one of the most distinguished teachers in the Church of Alexandria, the first member of the Church of Alexandria to be more than a name. He was born about the middle of the 2nd century, and he died ca 215. He was trained in Alexandria’s Catechetical School, where he was a pupil of Pantaenus in Alexandria, and assumed the role of teacher ca 190. However, he was forced to flee Alexandria during a persecution ca 202.

Saint Clement unites Greek philosophical traditions with Christian doctrine and valued gnosis that with communion for all people could be held by common Christians. He developed a Christian Platonism. Like Origen, he arose from the Catechetical School of Alexandria and was well versed in pagan literature.

His surviving writings include: the Protrepticus, or an “Exhortation to the Greeks”; the Paedagogus, on Christian life and manners; and eight books of Stromateis, or “Miscellanies,” although the last of these books is probably a misplaced fragment on logic.

Saint Clement’s work represents an attempt to counter the charge that Christianity is a religion for the ignorant. He presents Christianity as the fulfilment of the Old Testament of Greek philosophy, uniting Greek philosophical traditions with Christian doctrine.

Saint Clement depicts the Logos as exposing the error and immorality of Greek religion and leading people, through Baptism, to the true religion of Christianity. He applies the term “Gnostic” to the Christian who has attained a deeper understanding of the Logos.

Saint Clement presents the ultimate goal of the Christian life as “deification.

Origen of Alexandria (ca 185–ca 254):

Origen Teaching the Saints … an icon of the Theologian Origen of Alexandria (Eileen McGuckin)

Although he cannot be not regarded as one of the Fathers, Origen, or Origen Adamantius (ca185–ca 254) is important as a Biblical critic, theologian and spiritual writer.

According to tradition, he was an Egyptian who was brought up as a Christian and taught in Alexandria, reviving the Catechetical School where Clement had been a teacher. At first, the Patriarch of Alexandria, Demetrius, supported Origen.

When trouble broke out in Alexandria in the year 215, Origen fled to Palestine. But his preaching there was regarded as a breach of the church discipline in Alexandria, and Patriarch Demetrius called him back.

Origen went to Palestine again in the year 230, and there he was ordained priest by the bishop who had invited him to preach on his previous visit. As a consequence, Demetrius deprived Origen of his teaching position in Alexandria and deposed him from the priesthood for being ordained without the patriarch’s permission.

In 231, he relocated to Caesarea Maritima, where he established another school that became a famous. During the Decian persecution, Origen was imprisoned and tortured. He died ca 254 after being tortured during a persecution.

Origen wrote much, but many of his works have perished and most of the others survive only in fragments or in Latin translations. His main work on Biblical criticism was his Hexapla, his unique, corrected Septuagint in parallel columns, using his knowledge of Hebrew.

He wrote commentaries on all the books of the Bible. His principal theological work is his Peri Archon (First Principles), in which he articulated the first philosophical exposition of a wide range of Christian doctrines. His two ascetical works, Exhortation to Martyrdom and On Praying, were well read in the past. He also wrote an apologetic work against Celsus.

He interpreted scripture allegorically and showed himself to be a stoic, a Neo-Pythagorean, and a Platonist. Like Plotinus, he wrote that the soul passes through successive stages before incarnation as a human and after death, eventually reaching God. He imagined even demons being reunited with God.

For Origen, God was not Yahweh but the First Principle, and Christ, the Logos, was subordinate to him. His views of a hierarchical structure in the Trinity, the temporality of matter, “the fabulous pre-existence of souls,” and “the monstrous restoration which follows from it” were declared anathema in the 6th century.

As a Biblical scholar, Origen recognised a triple sense – literal, moral and allegorical – of which he favoured the allegorical. The point of departure of his doctrinal teaching was faith in the unity of God. This unity, in its fullest sense, is understood of God the Father, and for Origen the Son is divine only in a lesser sense than the Father.

In his philosophical speculations, he affirmed that creation is eternal, that all spirits are created equal, but that through the exercise of their free will they have developed in hierarchical order and that some have fallen into sin, so becoming demons or souls imprisoned in bodies. Origen held that death does not finally decide the fate of the soul, which may turn into an angel or a demon. He believed that this ascent and descent goes on until the final Apocatastasis, when all creatures – even the Devil – will be saved.

Because of his heretical views, Origen is technically not a Church Father by many definitions of that term but still needs to be considered as an ecclesiastical writer. Origen’s teaching on the pre-existence of souls and his denial of identity of the mortal and resurrection bodies was rejected by the Church, as well as his Trinitarian teachings in Peri Archon.

His teachings were attacked by Saint Jerome, Saint Methodius of Olympus, Bishop in Lycia, and by Saint Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus.

In his treatise on the Resurrection, Methodius took issue with Origen and upheld the identity of the resurrection body with the physical body of this life.

In an attempt to vindicate Origen’s orthodoxy, Rufinus issued a Latin translation of Peri Archon in the year 398. However, a Council of Alexandria in 400 condemned Origen’s teachings. The controversy over Origen’s teachings re-emerged in the 6th century, but they were condemned finally in 553 at the Second Council of Constantinople.

His writings remain important as early serious intellectual attempts to describe Christianity. His teachings were not merely theoretical, but were imbued too with intense ethical power, and he has left mediating images and symbols, as well as the final goal of attainment.

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (ca 296-373):

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria … remembered for his role in the conflict with Arianism and for his affirmation of the Trinity

Athanasius I of Alexandria (ca 296-373), Patriarch of Alexandria, Saint Athanasius the Great or Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, was a theologian, Church Father and a noted Church leader of the 4th century. He is best remembered for his consistent role opposing Arius and Arian party in Alexandria.

In his De Incarnatione, written perhaps ca 318, Saint Athanasius expounds how God the Word, the Logos, by his union with humanity, restored to fallen humanity the image of God, and by his death and resurrection overcame death.

At the first Council of Nicaea (325), Saint Athanasius argued against Arius and his teaching that Christ is of a distinct substance from the Father. Three years later, he succeeded as Bishop of Alexandria, but his continuing conflicts with the Arians led to his forced exile on a number of occasions between 336 and 366.

Between 339 and 359, he wrote a series of works defending the true divinity of the Son. From about 361, he worked on reconciling the semi-Arian party to the Nicene term ὁμοούσιος (homoousios, “of one substance”). In his Epistles to Serapion, he argued for the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

He should also be remembered as the friend and biographer of the Desert Father, Saint Antony, and as a bishop who encouraged the early ascetic movement. He is credited with introducing knowledge of monasticism to the Western Church.

The Cappadocian Fathers:

Saint Basil of Caesarea; Saint Gregory of Nyssa; and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Patriarch of Constantinople ... the Cappadocian Fathers made important contributions our understanding of the Trinity, as settled in the Nicene Creed

The Cappadocian Fathers set out to demonstrate that Christians could hold their own in conversations with learned Greek-speaking intellectuals. They argued that Christian faith, while it was against many of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle (and other Greek Philosophers), it was an almost scientific and distinctive movement with the healing of the souls of humans and their union with God at its centre.

They made major contributions to the definition of the Trinity, finalised at the First Council of Constantinople (381) and the final version of the Nicene Creed.

The Cappadocians were a fourth-century monastic family, led by Saint Macrina the Younger (324–379), who provided a central place for her brothers to study and meditate, and provided a peaceful shelter for their mother. They are:

Saint Basil the Great (ca 330–379), who was the second oldest of Saint Macrina’s brothers, became Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (ca 335-post 394), his brother, who was the Bishop of Nyssa.

Saint Gregory Nazianzus (ca 329/330-ca389/390), a close friend of this family, became Patriarch of Constantinople.

They are closely associated with Saint Peter of Sebaste (ca 340-391), who was a brother of Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and their eldest brother was the Christian jurist Naucratius.

The Cappadocian Fathers set out to show that Christians could hold their own in conversations with learned Greek-speaking intellectuals and that the Christian faith, while it was against many of the ideas of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, was an almost scientific and distinctive movement with the healing of the soul of a person and his union with God at its centre.

They made major contributions to the definition of the Trinity finally accepted at the First Council of Constantinople in 381, and to what we now accept as the final version of the Nicene Creed.

Despite the First Council of Nicaea, Arianism did not simply disappear. The semi-Arians taught that the Son is “like in substance” to the Father (homoiousios) as against the outright Arians who taught that the Son was like the Father (homoean). So the Son was held to be like the Father but not of the same essence as the Father.

The Cappadocians worked to bring these semi-Arians back to the Orthodox cause. In their writings, they made extensive use of the now orthodox formula “three substances (hypostases) in one essence (ousia).” In this way, they explicitly acknowledged a distinction between the Father and the Son – a distinction that Nicaea had been accused of blurring – but at the same time insisting on their essential unity.

Saint Basil the Great (ca 330-379) was a hermit near Neocaesarea when he was called on by his bishop to defend orthodoxy against the Arianism of the Emperor Valens. He became Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in 380, and as bishop was involved in disputes with the extreme Arian party, who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He tried to reconcile the semi-Arians and tried to show that their term ὁμοιούσιος (homoiousios, “of similar substance”) had the same implications as the term ὁμοούσιος (homoousios, “of one substance”) in the Nicene Creed.

Due primarily to Saint Basil’s exertions, the controversy over Arianism came to an end at First Council of Constantinople in 381.

Saint Basil also had great organisational talents, and provided Eastern monasticism with the structure and ethos it has to this day.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-ca 395) was a brother of Saint Basil the Great. He was a monk before becoming Bishop of Nyssa in Cappadocia ca 371. He was deposed as bishop in 376, but regained his see in 378. In his defence of doctrinal orthodoxy and the doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene Creed, Gregory distinguished carefully between the generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit.

This Saint Gregory is remembered for his sermons, his exegeses, his polemical treatises against heretics, his defences of doctrinal orthodoxy, and his spiritual guide for monks, De Instituto Christiano.

Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (ca 329/330-ca389/390) was the son of a Bishop of Nazianzus in Cappadocia and was educated in Athens before becoming a monk. Around 372, he was consecrated Bishop of Sasima in Cappadocia, and assisted his father as a suffragan bishop. He was brought to Constantinople in 379, when his preaching helped to restore the Nicene faith. In 381, Gregory was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople, but he retired later that year.

His Five Theological Orations include an elaborate treatment of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

Together, Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory Nazianzus compiled a major part of the Philokalia, an important anthology and source of Patristic writings.

A prayer of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus:

Merciful Father, take pity on me.
Have mercy on your servant who implores your grace.
Stretch forth your hand, and cleanse my inmost thoughts,
and snatch me from the jaws of death.
Never deprive me of your Holy Spirit.
So pour your courage and your strength into this soul of mine
that I may ever hymn you with all my heart and voice.

Saint John Chrysostom (ca 347-ca 407):

Saint John Chrysostom … the ‘golden-mouthed’ Patriarch of Constantinople

Saint John Chrysostom (ca 347-ca 407), Ἰωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος, Patriarch of Constantinople, is known as an eloquent preacher and public speaker – the name Chrysostom means “golden-mouthed.” John Chrysostom is known chiefly as a preacher, theologian and liturgist, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. But he is also known for his denunciation of abuse of authority by both ecclesiastical and political leaders, for his for ascetic sensibilities, and for his sermons and writings that make him the most prolific of the Eastern Fathers.

He was a hermit before being ordained deacon and priest, and his sermons began to receive acclaim from 386 on. His famous sermons “On the Statues” were preached in 387 after a series of riots in Antioch when the imperial statues were torn down. His sermons on the books of the Bible brought him the reputation as the greatest Christian expositor.

Saint John Chrysostom wrote: “Where the Church is, there is the treasure of the unutterable Mysteries.” (Homily XIV on I Corinthians).

His works combine a great ability to see an author’s spiritual meaning with an equal ability to provide the immediate, practical application. He opposed the allegorical exegesis of scripture, instead stressing the literal meaning.

In 398, he became Patriarch of Constantinople, but he was deposed in 403 after he opposed those in Alexandria who continued to follow Origen’s teachings.

After his death ca 407 – or, according to some sources, during his life – he was given the Greek epithet chrysostomos, meaning “golden mouthed,” rendered in English as Chrysostom.

He has given his name to the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the normal liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and to the Prayer of Saint Chrysostom, which Thomas Cranmer introduced from that liturgy to Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer.

Saint John Chrysostom is known chiefly as a preacher and theologian, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is the patron saint of orators in the Roman Catholic Church.

However, eight of his sermons play a considerable role in the history of Christian anti-semitism, and they were extensively cited by the Nazis in their ideological campaign against the Jews.

A mosaic of Saint John Chrysostom in the Aghia Sophia in Constantinople

Prayers of Saint John Chrysostom:

1. O Lord, deprive me not of your heavenly blessings.
2. O Lord, deliver me from eternal torment.
3. O Lord, if I have sinned in my mind or thought, in word or deed, forgive me.
4. O Lord, deliver me from every ignorance and heedlessness, from pettiness of the soul and stony hardness of heart.
5. O Lord, deliver me from every temptation.
6. O Lord, enlighten my heart darkened by evil desires.
7. O Lord, I, being a human being, have sinned; I ask you, being God, to forgive me in your loving kindness, for you know the weakness of my soul.
8. O Lord, send down your grace to help me, that I may glorify your holy Name.
9. O Lord Jesus Christ, inscribe me, your servant, in the Book of Life, and grant me a blessed end.
10. O Lord my God, even if I have done nothing good in your sight, yet grant me, according to your grace, that I may make a start in doing good.
11. O Lord, sprinkle on my heart the dew of your grace.
12. O Lord of heaven and earth, remember me, your sinful servant, cold of heart and impure, in your Kingdom.
13. O Lord, receive me in repentance.
14. O Lord, leave me not.
15. O Lord, save me from temptation.
16. O Lord, grant me pure thoughts.
17. O Lord, grant me tears of repentance, remembrance of death, and the sense of peace.
18. O Lord, grant me mindfulness to confess my sins.
19. O Lord, grant me humility, charity, and obedience.
20. O Lord, grant me tolerance, magnanimity, and gentleness.
21. O Lord, implant in me the root of all blessings: the fear of you in my heart.
22. O Lord, grant that I may love you with all my heart and soul, and that in all things I may obey your will.
23. O Lord, shield me from evil persons and devils and passions and all other lawless matters.
24. O Lord, who knows your creation and what you have willed for it; may your will also be fulfilled in me, a sinner, for you art blessed for evermore. Amen.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria (ca 376–444):

Saint Cyril of Alexandria … known as the ‘Pillar of Faith’ and ‘Seal of all the Fathers’

Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Κύριλλος Ἀλεξανδρείας (ca 376–444) was the Patriarch of Alexandria when the city was at its height of influence and power within the Roman Empire. Cyril wrote extensively and was a leading protagonist in the Christological controversies of the late 4th and early 5th centuries.

He was a central figure in the First Council of Ephesus in 431, which led to the deposition of Nestorius as Patriarch of Constantinople. Cyril’s reputation within the Christian world has resulted in his titles “Pillar of Faith” and “Seal of all the Fathers.”

Saint Cyril regarded the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus Christ to be so mystically powerful that it spread out from the body of the God-man into the rest of humanity, to reconstitute human nature into a graced and deified condition of the saints, one that promised immortality and transfiguration to believers.

There are negative accounts too of Saint Cyril. He excluded Patriarch John of Antioch, a supporter of Arius, from the Council of Ephesus for arriving late. He is also known for his involvement in the expulsion of Novatians and Jews from Alexandria and the murder of the Hellenistic philosopher Hypatia by Egyptian monks. However, historians disagree on the extent of his responsibility for these events.

Saint Maximus the Confessor (ca 580-662):

Saint Maximus the Confessor and His Miracles … a 17th-century icon from Solvychegodsk

Saint Maximus the Confessor (also known as Maximus the Theologian and Maximus of Constantinople) (ca 580–662) was a monk, theologian, and scholar. In his early life, he was a civil servant and an aide to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. However, he gave up this life in the political sphere to enter into the monastic life.

After moving to Carthage, Saint Maximus studied several Neo-Platonist writers and became a prominent author. When one of his friends began espousing the Christological position known as Monothelitism, Saint Maximus was drawn into the controversy, in which he supported the Chalcedonian position that Christ had both a human and a divine will.

His Christological positions eventually resulted in his torture and exile, soon after which he died. However, his theology was vindicated by the Third Council of Constantinople, and he was venerated as a saint soon after his death on 13 August 662. His feast day is celebrated twice during the year: on 21 January and on 13 August. His title of Confessor means that he suffered for the faith, but not to the point of death, and thus is distinguished from a martyr. His Life of the Virgin is thought to be the earliest complete biography of Mary, the mother of Christ.

Evagrios Pontikos (349-399)

Evagrios Pontikos, Εὐάγριος ὁ Ποντικός (349-399), was a contemporary of many of these Eastern Fathers. He was a noted preacher in Constantinople, but in 382 he withdrew to the Desert, where he spent the rest of his life in prayer.

Evagrios Pontikos was born in 345 or 346, probably at Ibora in Pontus, and is considered one of the major founding fathers of Christian spiritual writing. A disciple of the Cappodocian Fathers, he was ordained a reader by Saint Basil the Great and he accompanied Saint Gregory the Theologian to the Council of Constantinople in 381. He draws upon the living experience of the Desert Fathers of Egypt, among whom he spent the last years of his life.

Identifying and editing the works of Evagrios works is a continuing process. After his posthumous condemnation, his writings often survived in anthologies; in Syriac, Armenian, or Latin translations; or in pseudonymous collections ascribed to other more acceptable figures, such as Saint Basil or Saint Nilus.

Evgarios was one of the great teachers of prayer, and many of the later writers on prayer acknowledge their indebtedness to him. There is a dictum in the Philokalia attributed to Evagrios, in which he says: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” [Treatise on Prayer, 61.]

He greatly influenced Saint John Cassian who introduced Evgarios’s thinking to western monasticism, and his ideas are reflected in the writings of Saint John Klimakos, especially The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Some thoughts from Evagrios:

“You must choose a way of life that suits your lesser abilities. Travel your road and you will find life there, for your Lord is merciful, and he will find you acceptable not because of your achievements, but because of your heart’s intention, just as he received the poor widow’s gift.”

“When you are praying, do not shape within yourself any image of the Deity, and do not let your intellect be stamped with the impress of any form; but approach the Immaterial in an immaterial manner, and then you will understand.”

“Allow the Spirit of God to dwell within you. Then, in his love, he will come and make a habitation with you.”

“God’s angels are standing around you, do not be afraid. The hosts of demons are watching opposite you, do not grow careless.”

His main works include:

Praktikos, Λόγος πράκτικος (Practicus et epistula ad Anatolium): The first of three works (along with Gnostikos and the Kephalaia Gnostica) considered one of his more important works. This treatise comprises 100 chapters discussing praktika – the preliminary disciplines of the ascetic life, dealing with the passions of the body.

Gnostikos, Γνωστικὸς ἢ Πρὸς τὸν καταξιωθέντα γνώσεως (Gnosticus): The second part of the trilogy, comprising 50 chapters. This treatise discusses gnostika – the mental or spiritual front of the ascetic life.

Kephalaia Gnostica, Ἑξακόσια προγνωστικὰ προβλήματα (Kephalaia gnostica): The third part of the trilogy in 540 chapters or 90 chapters in each of six “centuries,” discussing gnostika further.

Skemmataor Reflections, Σκέμματα (Capita cognoscitiua): These 65 sentences fall into three sections: 39 from the Gnostic Chapters, 23 from On Thoughts, and three unparalleled, and so termed a supplement. The number 65 is derived from textual criticism. This text, according to Mar Babai (569-628), who wrote an extensive commentary on the Kephalaia gnostica, was a supplement to the 540 chapters of the 600 promised in the Kephalaia gnostica (Mar Babai’s version of Reflections contained only 60 chapters).

Antirrheticos, Ἀντιῤῥητικός (Antirrheticus): Comprises lists of Scriptures that are effective in combating the eight passions. The text is organised according to the eight passions with scriptures listed according to their biblical order.

Sentences to the Monks, Πρὸς τοὺς ἐν κοινοβίοις ἢ συνοδίαις μοναχούς (Sententiae ad monachos): 137 chapters on the monastic life, written in distychs, in imitation of the Proverbs, directed probably to a monastic community in Jerusalem associated with Melania and Rufinus. Evagrios discusses matters foundational to the coenobitic monastic life, so the material resembles, in some ways, a rule. This work is often associated with the next work under the title The Mirrors.

Sentences to a Virgin, Παραίνεσις πρὸς παρθένον (Sententia ad Virginem): 56 sentences of spiritual instruction addressed to a virgin. She is unnamed, but probably was an associate of Melania and Rufinus. This work is written in distychs in imitation of the Proverbs. Evagrios discusses matters foundational to the coenobitic monastic life for women, so the material resembles, in some ways, a rule. It is often associated with the previous work under the title The Mirrors.

62 Letters (Epistula LXII): 62 letters of various lengths, all letters of spiritual counsel to various figures such as Rufinus, Saint Melania the Elder, Saint Gregory Nazianzus and Bishop John of Jerusalem.

Letter to Melania (Epistula ad Melaniam): This may be his last and longest extant letter. It deals extensively with Christology and the ministry of letter writing, as well as the apokatastasis. The recipient may have been Melania the Elder, or Rufinus.

Dogmatic Letter (Sermo sive dogmatica epistula de sanctissima trinitate): His first extant letter, dealing with Trinitarian doctrine and his flight from Pontus, among other things. It was written around 380, when Evagrios was with Saint Gregory of Nazianzus during his stormy time in Constantinople. The letter was included in the first printed editions of Saint Basil’s letters, despite the mixed attributions in manuscripts.

On Prayer, Περὶ προσευχῆς ἢ Λόγος εἰς ρνγʹ κεφαλαῖα διειλημμένος (De oration): This treatise, a prologue and 153 chapters on prayer, was shown in the 1930s to be by Evagrios, despite its attribution in the Greek manuscript tradition to Saint Nilus.

Saint John of Damascus (ca 676-749):

Saint John of Damascus ... ‘the last of the Fathers’

Saint John of Damascus (Ἰωάννης Δαμασκηνός, Iôannês Damaskênos), also known as John Damascene, Χρυσορρόας/Chrysorrhoas, “streaming with gold” — i.e., “the golden speaker”) (ca 676-749) was a Syrian monk and priest. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, he is regarded as the “last of the Fathers.”

He was born in Damascus ca 676 and raised there. A polymath whose fields of interest and contribution included law, theology, philosophy, and music, before being ordained, he served as a chief administrator to the Muslim caliph of Damascus, wrote works expounding the Christian faith, and composed hymns which are still in use in Eastern Christian monasteries.

He wrote in the First Homily in Defence of the Holy Icons:

In times past, God, without body and form, could in no way be represented. But now, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can depict that which is visible of God ... [for Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1: 15).] I do not venerate the matter but I venerate the Creator of matter, who became matter for me, who condescended to live in matter, and who, through matter accomplished my salvation; I do not cease to respect the matter through which my salvation is accomplished.

However, his most important work is his three-part Fount of Knowledge, which includes his comprehensive defence of the Orthodox Faith. This is one of the most important single works produced in the Greek Patristic period, offering an extensive and lucid synthesis of the Greek theological science of the period. It is the first great Summa of theology to appear in either the East or the West.

He composed hymns that are still used liturgically in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Two of his hymns are included in the Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland: ‘Come, ye faithful, raise the strain’ (No 262) and ‘The Day of Resurrection’ (No 283).

His writings include treatises defending Orthodox Christianity against many of the heresies of the day, including the Jabobites, Nestorians, Monophysites and Monthelites. He was fluent in Arabic and well-read in the Quran, and in one of the first Christian refutations of Islam, he describes Islam as the “Heresy of the Ishmaelites,” and compares it with Arianism.

He died at his monastery, Mar Saba, near Jerusalem, on 4 December 749. Long after his death, his writings made an important contribution to the debates at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. The council was called by the Empress Irene to settle the Iconoclastic Conflict, and its decision is celebrated in the Orthodox Church as “The Triumph of Orthodoxy.”

Three prayers of Saint John of Damascus:

Hold dominion over my heart, O Lord: keep it as your inheritance. Make your dwelling in me, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Widen in me the cords of your tabernacle, even the operations of your Most Holy Spirit. For you are my God and I will praise you, together with the Eternal Father and your quickening Spirit, now, henceforth and forever. Amen.

O Lord and Master Jesus Christ, our God, who alone has power to forgive the sins of humanity, I pray to you, O Good One who loves humanity, forgive all the sins that I have committed in knowledge or in ignorance, and make me worthy to receive without condemnation your divine, glorious, immaculate and life-giving Mysteries; not unto punishment or unto increase of sin; but unto purification, and sanctification and a promise of your Kingdom and the Life to come; as a protection and a help to overthrow the adversaries, and to blot out my many sins. For you are a God of Mercy and compassion and love towards humanity, and unto you we ascribe glory together with the Father and the Holy Spirit; now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

I stand before the gates of your Temple, and yet I refrain not from my evil thoughts. But, O Christ my God, who justified the publican, and had mercy on the Canaanite woman, and opened the gates of Paradise to the thief; I pray you to open unto me the compassion of your love towards humanity, and to receive me as I approach and touch you, like the sinful woman and the woman with the issue of blood; for the one, by embracing your feet received the forgiveness of her sins, and the other by but touching the hem of your garment was healed. And I, most sinful, dare to partake of your whole Body. Let me not be consumed but receive me as you received them, and enlighten the perceptions of my soul, consuming the accusations of my sins; through the intercessions of her that without stain gave birth to you, and of the heavenly Powers; for you are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

The New Testament Canon:

The Book of Kells … how did we agree on the canon of Scripture?

As we saw, Marcion had his own canon that included Saint Luke’s Gospel and an edited form of most of the Pauline letters in edited form. His list is the first known listing of what is called a New Testament canon.

Justin Martyr gives several New Testament citations although he cites no New Testament writings by name.

Later, ca 170-175, Tatian produced a harmony of the four Gospels known as the Diatessaron, which reveals that the church recognised four Gospels.

The four Gospels are confirmed ca 175 by Irenaeus of Lyons in Against the Heresies. He also refers almost all the documents that become part of the New Testament, including most of the Pauline letters and, all three Pastoral letters, but not Philemon, II Peter, III John, and Jude, yet including I Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas.

Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian cite hundreds of references from almost every New Testament document, apart from four or five small epistles. From then on, the writings of an increasing number of Fathers are filled with biblical references.

The Muratorian Canon represents the oldest known list or canon of the New Testament, although the beginning and end of the manuscript are missing. The document, from ca 170 AD, was discovered in a library in Italy by Ludovico Antonio Muratori, and it lists:

● [Matthew and Mark are apparently in the missing fragment at the beginning]
● Luke and John
● The Acts of the Apostles
● All 13 Pauline letters
● I and II John ( the writer refers to two letters of John)
● Jude
● the Revelation of John

What is missing? This list omits Hebrews, I Peter, II Peter, and III John. But it also names some books documents not later accepted as canonical.

By the middle of the second century most of the 27 documents in the canonical New Testament have gained wide acceptance, especially the four gospels. Many Gnostic texts and many orthodox texts were not accepted as canonical.

By the third century there is a noticeable increase in citations from the “inspired” writings that become the New Testament, from writers such as Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, Origen of Alexandria and Cyprian of Carthage.

By the fourth century, there is a degree of consensus among writers about the content of the New Testament. These writers include Lactantius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus), John Chrysostom, Jerome, Rufinus, and Augustine of Hippo.

The first historical reference listing the 27 canonical writings in the New Testament is in the Easter Letter of Athanasius in 367, when he states that these are the only recognised writings to be read in church.

The first church council to rule on the list was the Synod of Hippo in 393. But we only know of this decision because it was referred to at the third Synod of Carthage in 397. Even Canon 24 of Carthage does not list every single book, and there is no comment about why or how this list was agreed upon.

The New Testament developed, or evolved, over the course of the first 250 or 300 years of Church history, and no one person, no one council, made the decision.

The debate about the Trinity:

Trinitarian symbolism in the clerestory lights in Lichfield Cathedral … how did the doctrine of the Holy Trinity develop? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Belief in the Trinity begins at an early stage, but there is no significant theological writing about the Trinity outside the New Testament until the first part of the third century in the works of Origen of Alexandria.

Around 220, Sabellius, a Libyan Church leader, rejected the concept of three personalities, and sought to hold tightly to a monotheistic position. Sabellius taught a type of modalism, in which each part of the Trinity was revealed through energies but did not have a separate personality.

This theological discussion was taken up by the Bishop of Rome, Dionysius, and the Bishop of Alexandria, also named Dionysius and a student of Origen. Dionysius of Rome understood the Greek word ὑπόστᾰσις (hypostasis) to mean “substance,” while Dionysius of Alexandria was actually talking about “personality.” This linguistic struggle only made a delicate and technical discussion more difficult.

In addition, the Greek word ὁμοούσιος (homoousios), “same substance,” was introduced to the discussion to talk about whether the Father and the Son were of the “same substance.” Dionysius of Alexandria used the term “same substance,” but refused to rely on it theologically because the word was not used in any biblical text. However, Dionysius of Rome was fully prepared to accept this usage.

In the end this discussion showed the willingness of regional bishops to work together for a common faith, but it also opened the door for the future problems. The concept of ὁμοούσιος would resurface and the bishops at Nicaea would act in a definitive fashion.

Paul of Samosata

Paul of Samosata became the Bishop of Antioch ca 260, when the differences between Antioch and Alexandria come to the surface. Paul of Samosata held that Jesus had not been eternally united with the Logos, but had been infused with Logos at his baptism. Dionysius of Alexandria called a council and at a council ca 265 the Alexandrian bishops affirmed the pre-existence of Christ. Another council in 268 called on Paul of Samosata to recant. When he refused, he was condemned.

These struggles foreshadowed the principal controversy of the fourth century. The Arian controversy, in part, lead to the first major Church Council, the Council of Nicaea in 325, when the bishops were summoned by the Emperor Constantine.

Donatus and Donatism:

The Emperor Constantine in a mosaic in the great basilica of Aghia Sophia

A dispute arose in Carthage about Bishop Caecilian who was consecrated by a traditor (“betrayer”). At the same time, Donatus was active around the region of Numidia rebaptising priests who had lapsed and giving them a commission to preach and administer the Eucharist again. It had been greed earlier that it was not necessary to rebaptise people, even if they had been baptised into a less than orthodox sect. But Donatus was doing this within the region of an accepted bishop, and without his authority.

The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments from someone who had lapsed during persecution. The Numidian bishops called a council in 312 and deposed Caecilian, but shortly afterwards Constantine ruled in favour of Caecilian and those he had appointed. The Donatists appealed to the emperor for another council and asking for bishops from Gaul.

Constantine agreed to call a council headed by Miltiades, the Bishop of Rome. When that council ruled in favour of Caecilian, the Donatists appealed again on the grounds that Miltiades had been appointed by Marcellinus, who had also lapsed during persecution. Constantine called a larger council at Arles. In all, 33 bishops, including three from Britain, attended and approved a number of canons on the date of Easter and regulations on clergy moving from one region to another. They also decided that churches would not rebaptise the lapsed or those who came from heretical sects.

In the end, Donatus and his churches continued, and the Donatist movement continued into the fifth century.

Arius and the Arian Controversy:

Arius … radical or conservative?

The story of Arius also begins during the period of persecutions. During the Diocletian persecution, bishops in Egypt were divided on how strictly to treat lapsed Christians. In prison in Alexandria, Peter, the more lax-minded Bishop of Alexandria, and Meletius, a much stricter bishop from Upper Egypt, disagreed so sharply that they hung a curtain to separate themselves in their shared prison cell to separate themselves from each other.

The dispute continued after they were released from prison. Arius was initially among the people loyal to Bishop Meletius. Meanwhile, Bishop Peter rearrested and martyred. When Arius was ordained a priest by Bishop Peter’s successor, the Meletians treated him as a traditor.

Another controversy revolved around some of the writings of Origen of Alexandria, and became the first major theological struggle over the definition of the Trinity and the main reason for Constantine calling the Council of Nicaea in 325.

After Origen’s death, Arius held that the only “unbegotten” being was the Father, and that no other was like him. Jesus, the Son, was begotten, so Arius maintained that the Son was created. If he was created, then “there was a time when he was not.”

The Meletians demanded that Arius be disciplined. At a council called in 318, 100 bishops condemned Arius to exile. His continuing influence, though, brought Constantine to call the Council of Nicaea in 325.

At first, Constantine sent Hosius, a bishop from Spain, to seek to reconcile Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and Arius. Constantine also sent envoys across the empire, inviting bishops to a council at his summer retreat in Nicaea. Around 220 bishops attended, mostly from the eastern churches, although there were eight representatives from western churches – Rome sent only two priests.

During the debates, Constantine chided Bishop Acesius for his rigid stance, saying: “Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone into heaven.”

Constantine was more interested in attaining peace and unity in the Church than he was with theology or doctrine. Three men who had been excommunicated at a previous, smaller council, including Eusebius of Caesarea, were readmitted. But the principal debate was about the views of Arius.

As Arius defended his position on the nature of Jesus, some of the bishops refused to listen. Arius was condemned in a unanimous vote, with two bishops abstaining. But this vote was not a vote on the divinity of Jesus, or on the Trinity, but specifically on the views of Arius and whether or not he should be allowed to stay in his position.

Constantine insisted on the use of the term ὁμοούσιος in a creedal formula from the council, but it was not a new term, and had been used 70 years earlier by Dionysius of Alexandria.

In the end, the teachings of Arius were condemned, a creed was drafted, and 20 canons were passed, including one on the date of Easter and others regulating how bishoprics were to operate. For example:

Canon 4: a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops of that province...at least three bishops should meet to make this decision.

Canon 5: provinces should honour excommunications pronounced by other bishops in other provinces.

Canon 6: The Bishop of Alexandria has authority over bishops in Libya and other African provinces.

Canon 10: No lapsed believer should be ordained.

Canon 15: Priests and bishops shall not move from city to city on their own accord.

The Council of Nicaea closed on 25 July 325.

The Nicene Creed:

One of the most important achievements of the Council of Nicaea was the adoption of a creedal form that defined much of our theology, Christology, and the Trinity.

However, within a short f time the creed was under attack, and eventually it was rewritten at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

The Original Creed of 325 AD:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];

Who for us, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was born in human flesh;

He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;

From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

At the end of the original creed, a clause directed against Arius was added:

But those who say: “There was a time when he was not;” and “He was not before he was made;” and “He was made out of nothing,” or “He is of another substance” or “essence,” or “The Son of God is created,” or “changeable,” or “alterable – they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

The Ecumenical Creeds:

The ecumenical creeds as we understand them within the Anglican tradition are three in number: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed.

These three Creeds have long been accepted as an integral part of Anglicanism. For example, Article 8 of the 39 Articles states: “The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’ Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture” (The Book of Common Prayer 2004, p. 780).

The common focus in Anglican theology is based on an appeal to scripture, tradition, and reason. But this was expanded in that dictum by Lancelot Andrewes.

In effect, Lancelot Andrewes is saying the tradition of the Church in Anglicanism finds its foundations in the three creeds – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed – the decisions of the first four General Councils of the Church:

● Nicaea (325)

● Constantinople (381)

● Ephesus (431)

● Chalcedon (451)

and in the first five centuries of the history of the Church, and the corpus of Patristic writings.

The three ‘ecumenical’ Creeds

1, The Apostles’ Creed:

The Twelve Apostles ... but did they write the Apostles’ Creed?

The Apostles’ Creed is used by Anglicans traditionally in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, and for most Anglicans this is the Creed first memorised, as part of the preparation for Confirmation. Although we call it one of the “ecumenical” creeds, it is only used in the Western Church and it is not found in the Eastern or Orthodox Churches.

This creed is first referred to as the Apostles’ Creed in a letter written by Saint Ambrose ca 390. By that time, there was a legend that it was written by the 12 Apostles, each writing a separate clause or phrase. It was first used as a baptismal creed in the West, and was introduced into the daily offices some time between the eighth and ninth century.

2, The Nicene Creed:

The Church of Aghia Sophia in Nicaea

Although we know the creed used at the Holy Communion or the Eucharist as the Nicene Creed, this is not what it actually is.

The Creed, which was approved at the Council of Nicaea in 325, was drawn up to defend the orthodox faith against Arianism, and includes the term ὁμοούσιον homoousion (consubstantial, of one substance with) to express the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Godhead. Four anti-Arian anathemas were appended to the original Nicene Creed and came to be regarded as an integral part of the text.

But what we know and use as the Nicene Creed is a longer formula, used in the Eucharist in both the East and West. This is more accurately known as the “Niceno-Contstantinopolitan Creed.” It is said to have been adapted at the Council of Constantinople in the year 381, although it may have been endorsed rather than drafted at that council, using the baptismal creed then in use in the Byzantine capital.

From the time of the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451, this Creed has been the defining creed of the church.

3, The Athanasian Creed:

Saint Athanasius … but did he write the Athanasian Creed?

The third of the so-called ecumenical creeds – the so-called Athanasian Creed or Quicunque Vult – is still included in The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (see pp 771-773) but has been omitted, for example, from Common Worship and New Patterns for Worship.

This creedal statement was traditionally ascribed to Saint Athanasius (ca 296-373), who succeeded Alexander as Patriarch of Alexandria. But it is a Western document, probably written around the year 428, and is used only in Western Christianity.

It sets out the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, adding a list of the most important events in Christ’s life. It also includes anathemas against those who do not subscribe to its creedal statements and definitions.

How do we know it was not written by Saint Athanasius?

It contains a number of doctrinal expressions that arose as a consequence of debates long after the time Saint Athansius, who died in Alexandria in 373. And its statements on the procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son could not be accepted in any Orthodox tradition.

The Book of Common Prayer includes the Athanasian Creed (see pp 771-773), after the Catechism of 1878 and before the Preamble and the 39 Articles. But there are no rubrics about when and how it should be used. Can you imagine situations or occasions on which you would use it? Can you ever remember it being used?

And so, although we call three creeds “ecumenical,” in reality there is only one ecumenical creed, the Nicene Creed.

The Nicene Creed and the Four Ecumenical Councils:

Like most doctrinal statements, however, the Nicene Creed was not written in one sitting, nor was it written in a vacuum. This creed was developed, worded, phrased and edited at the Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), and the version we have in The Book of Common Prayer (2004) is not the only and only, definitive, ecumenical version.

The First Ecumenical Council, Nicaea (325):

An icon of the Council of Nicaea, with the Emperor Constantine and the bishops holding a scroll with the words of the Nicene Creed

At the first draft of the Nicene Creed in 325, the principal problem to wrestle with was the heresy of the presbyter Arius of Alexandria, who taught, among other peculiar beliefs, that Jesus Christ, “The Son,” was a creation of the “The Father.”

A popular way of expressing this belief for those who agreed with Arius was: “There was a time when he [The Son] was not.” Arius taught that the Father, in the beginning, created (or begot) the Son, who then, with the Father, created the world. For Arius, then, Christ was a created being; his “god-ness” was removed.

Alexander, the Patriarch of Alexandria, summoned Arius for questioning, and Arius was subsequently excommunicated by a council of Egyptian bishops. In exile in Nicomedia, Arius wrote in defence of his beliefs. His following and influence grew to the point that the Emperor Constantine called a council of bishops in Nicaea (Νίκαια, present day İznik), where the first draft of what we now call the Nicene Creed was promulgated by a decided majority as a creedal statement of faith – and a firm rejection of Arius’ teaching that Christ was the “begotten” son of an “unbegotten” Father.

The principal argument for the full deity of Christ was made by Athanasius, a deacon in Alexandria who later succeeded Alexander as Patriarch. The Creed the bishops assented to in 325 is, for the most part, contained in the Nicene Creed as it appears in The Book of Common Prayer (2004), beginning with “We believe in one God . . .” and ending immediately after “in the Holy Spirit” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 205).

The purpose was clear: to refute the teachings of Arius and to affirm the orthodox doctrine of One God in Three Persons with specific attention to the Christology of the Son.

The Second Ecumenical Council, Constantinople (381):

The interior of the former Church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople, once the largest church in Christendom for centuries

However, the Council of Nicaea did not end the Arian controversy. By 327, the Emperor Constantine had begun to regret the decisions of 325. He granted an amnesty to the Arian leaders and sent into exile Athanasius, by now Patriarch of Alexandria, who continued to defend Nicene Christianity.

An additional heretical teaching by Macedonius – who was twice Bishop of Constantinople (342-346, 351-360) – denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The followers of Macedonius were referred to as pneumatomachians or “fighters of the spirit.” These pneumatomachians also believed that God the Son was a similar essence of substance as the Father, but not the same substance.

Macedonianism taught that the Holy Spirit was not a person – or hypostasis – but merely a power of God. The Spirit, then, was inferior to the Father and the Son.

Yet another group, led by Bishop Apollinarius who opposed the teaching of Arius, argued that Jesus did not have a human soul and was not fully human.

In 381, the Emperor Flavius Theodosius convoked the First Council of Constantinople, the second meeting of bishops (also known as the Second Ecumenical Council). Among the influential theologians at the time were Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Patriarch of Constantinople, who presided at the Second Ecumenical Council, and Saint Gregory of Nyssa, two of the Cappadocian Fathers – the third being Saint Basil the Great.

The Cappadocian Fathers, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nazianus and Saint Gregory of Nyssa

At that council, the bishops reaffirmed and expanded the Nicene Creed of 325 to address further questions about Christ’s divinity and humanity. They added five articles to the Creed concerning the Holy Spirit: the Lord, the giver of life; who proceeds from the Father (see John 15: 26): who is worshiped and glorified with the Father and the Son; and who has spoken through the prophets.

This expanded and modified Creed became the definitive document on the doctrine of the Trinity: one God in three persons or hypostases. Although more Councils and heresies followed, the Creed was essentially codified in 381 and received in 431 when the Council convened to discuss the Nestorian controversy.

However, a heavily disputed clause was added in 589 by the Third Council of Toledo primarily to counter Arianism among the Germanic peoples. Where the original Creed reads “We believe in the Holy Spirit . . . who proceeds from the Father,” the amended creed reads “. . . from the Father and the Son.”

Pope Leo III forbade the addition of the filioque clause (the words “and the Son”) and ordered the original Nicene Creed to be engraved on silver plates so that his conclusion would not be overturned in the future.

The filioque clause was one of the causes that eventually contributed to the Great Schism between East and West in 1054. The phrase “and the Son” still appears in the 2004 Book of Common Prayer, although a resolution of the 1988 Lambeth Conference called for its removal.

The Third Ecumenical Council, Ephesus (431):

Saint Mary’s Basilica … the Double Church where the Council of Ephesus met in 431 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Emperor Theodosius II called the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 to address the Nestorian controversy. Saint Cyril of Alexandria was a central figure in the Third Ecumenical Council as its spokesperson and president.

Nestorius, who was Patriarch of Constantinople, objected to the popular practice of calling the Virgin Mary the “Mother of God” or Theotokos. Nestorius taught that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a man, Jesus Christ, not God the Logos.

Nestorianism taught the Logos only dwelt in Christ, whose physical body provided a kind of temple for the Logos. Nestorius promoted the term Christotokos for Mary: the Mother of Christ.

Having summoned Nestorius three times to no avail, the Council condemned his teaching as erroneous and stripped him of his bishopric. The council declared Christ to be both a complete man and a complete God, and upheld the Virgin Mary as Theotokos because she gave birth not just to a man. The Council declared the text of the Creed, in its present form of 325 and 381, as complete and forbade any changes.

The Fourth Ecumenical Council, Chalcedon (451):

The Fourth Ecumenical Council met at Chalcedon in 451

Flavius Marcianus, Emperor of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire (450-457), called the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon (Χαλκηδών, present-day Kadıköy), across the Bosporus from Constantinople and now a suburb on the Anatolian side of Istanbul.

Once again, this council was concerned with the nature of Jesus Christ. Monophysitism, from the Greek mono (one or alone) and physis (nature) argued the Christological position that Christ had only one nature, which was Divine. While Christ was human, they believed, his less-perfect human nature was dissolved into his more perfect divine nature.

The council condemned Monophysitism and reaffirmed that Christ has two and complete natures as defined by previous councils. These two natures, the Council argued, operate harmoniously and without confusion. They are not divided or separate, as the Nestorians argued; nor did they undergo any change, as the Monophysites contended.

The Council gave a clear and full statement of orthodox Christology in a document defining the union of the divine and human natures of Christ. This document, which concentrates specifically on the nature of Christ, reflects a very clear, final statement on the orthodox theology that Christ is at once man and God.

The statement declares that is the unanimous teaching of the Church that Christ is perfect in humanity and in divinity; truly God (an Alexandrian notion) and truly man (an Antiochian notion); consubstantial with God and with humanity. It established the absolute limits of theological speculation using words like “unconfusedly,” “unchangeably,” “indivisibly” and “inseparably.”

The 1888 Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral does not list the Chalcedonian Creed among the fundamental doctrines for Communion based on scriptures, creeds, sacraments and the historic episcopate.

The Chalcedonian Creed does not appear to contain any doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit, nor does it use the word Trinity. This is a single paragraph lifted from a larger document that speaks about the decisions reached at Nicaea in 325 by the “318 Fathers” in attendance and at Constantinople in 381 by the “150 Fathers” in attendance.

Selected reading:

The Book of Common Prayer, the Church of Ireland (Dublin: Columba Press, 2004).

Alison, CF, The Cruelty of Heresy (London: SPCK, 1994).
Ayers, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy (Oxford: OUP, 2004).
Bettenson, H., and Maunder, C. (eds), Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford, OUP, 3rd ed, 1999).
Geitz, ER, Gender and the Nicene Creed (New York: Church Publishing, 1995).
Gregorios, Paulos, Lazareth, WH, and Nissiotis, NA (eds), Does Chalcedon divide or unite? (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1981).
Micks, MH, Loving the Questions: an exploration of the Nicene Creed (New York: Seabury, 2005).
Stevenson, J, and Frend, WHC, Creeds, Council and Controversies (London: SPCK, revised ed, 1989).
William, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Eerdmans, revised ed, 2002)
Young, Frances, The Making of the Creeds (London: SCM Press, 1991/2002).


4, 11.30 a.m., 10 March 2014: The Latin Fathers

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This lecture on 10 March 2014 was part of the Year I MTh module, Introduction to Patristics.

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