{6}           Arianism & church councils

ERA 2 << Early Church (2): Stability (AD 300–600) >> SESSION 2

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 1, chapters 16-18, appendix

        6.1.1  The problem of traditors

·         Traditors: During the persecutions, some Christians gave up copies of the Scripture to persecutors but later wanted to returned to the church. They were called the traditors.

·         Complexity of the problem: The problem was not a simple one because some Christians (including leaders) avoided persecution by handing heretical books over to the authorities, and misleading them to believe these were Christian Scripture.

·         Treatment: Most believed that the confessors should rule on how they would be treated. There were differential treatments by different confessors. Some confessors did not require any conditions for the return of the traditors while other confessors insisted on greater rigour.

·         Donatism: In northern Africa, some of those who argued for greater rigous were called Donatists because their leader was Donatus Magnus (??–355). They were regarded by the official church as an illegitimate group that caused schism. Their movement was called Donatism.

        6.1.2  Controversy & Struggles

·         Background: Bishop Felix was accused of being a traditor during Diocletian’s persecution. But he was one of 3 bishops who consecrated Caecilian to be bishop of Carthage. Donatus, a church leader, believed that Felix’s authority was questionable because he had committed an unpardonable sin. Donatus and his group elected Majorinus as a rival bishop [311–315], followed by Donatus himself [315–355]. The Donatists continued to elect their own bishop of Carthage until around 400.

·         Theological arguments: The Donatists declared that the validity of an act depended on the worthiness of the bishop performing it. Since one of the bishop was a traditor, the consecration was therefore not valid. Caecilian and his followers responded that the validity of an act cannot be made to depend on the worthiness of the one administering them, otherwise all Christians would be in constant doubt as to the validity of their own baptism or communion.

·         Rebaptism: Donatists regarded the sacraments administered by the Caecilian’s party invalid. They believed those bishops who consecrated Caecilian had sinned by joining in communion with the sinners so that their sacraments and ordinations were also invalid. If a member of Caecilian’s party decided to join the Donatists, a new baptism was required.

·         Supporters: Donatism was supported by the lower classes in Carthage and also by areas to the west. They saw the joining of the powerful people and the church as a corruption of the church. They hoped that Constantine would support them but they were discouraged by the Roman church.

·         Judgment by the church: A synod held at Rome decided that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the character of the one administering the sacrament. Hence the Donatists had no authority and did not receive financial aid from Constantine. Another council of western bishops at Arles [314] again decided against the Donatists.

·         Circumcellions: There was a group of Donatist peasants in North Africa called circumcellions [c.340]. They were religious fanatics. Some were convinced that there was no death more glorious than those of the martyrs. The quest of martyrdom was so strong that some committed mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. They also resorted to violence, attacking rich travellers. As a result, the rich and empire officials did not dare travel though countryside without heavy escorts. Trade was disrupted. Land holding in distant places had to be abandoned. The Roman authorities resorted to force through massacres and military occupation but still could not stop the circumcellions. Donatism and the circumcellions continued until the Muslim conquest in 7th-c.


6.2  Arianism & Conflicts

        6.2.1  Dealing with controversies

·         Different controversies: From the beginning, the church had been involved in theological controversies. In Paul’s time, the burning issue was the relationship between Jewish and Gentile converts. Then came the debates about Gnosticism. In 3rd-c, when Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage, the main issue was the restoration of the lapsed. All these controversies were significant, and often bitter. But frequently, the only way to win such a debate was by solid argument and holiness of life.

·         Appeal to the emperor: Previously, the government was not involved in the arguments and the issues were properly settled through debates among Christian leaders and eventually reaching a consensus. After the conversion of Constantine, the empire had a vested interest in the unity of the church so it used power to force theological agreement. As a result, many sought to convince the emperors instead of debating in the church. The belief of the emperor became the deciding factor but it could change when there was a new emperor and the issues were not solved properly. That was a contributing factor to the long survival of Arianism.

·         Major Christological heresies: The early church spent much time in the first 5 centuries against 4 heresies concerning Christ. It was summarized in the Chalcedon Definition which defends: [1] true deity—against Arius (Arianism), [2] full humanity—against Apollinaris (Apollinarianism), [3] indivisibility united in one person—against Nestorius (Nestorianism), and [4] without confusion—against Eutyches (Eutychianism). The definition can be summarized in the phrase “one person in two natures.”


Orthodoxy vs Christological heresies


One person

Three persons

One God



Son less than Father


Arius, Ebionites

Spirit less than Father




CHRIST (nature)

Deity suppressed

True deity

Humanity suppressed



Full humanity




CHRIST (person)

One person

Two persons

One nature



Two natures




        6.2.2  Arian Controversy

·         Influence of philosophy: Early Church Fathers appealed to the teaching of the classical philosophers in order to get acceptance of the existence of a supreme being, God. Some also adopted the philosophers’ concept of God—immutable (without change), impassible (without emotion), and fixed.

·         Contradiction with the Bible: The problem occurred when verses in the Bible contradict with this concept. For example, an immutable being does not really walk and talk as recorded in the Bible. One solution was to interpret the Bible allegorically, not taking the words literally. The other solution was the development of the doctrine of the Logos, in the writings of Justin, Clement, Origen, etc.

·         Theory on Logos: According to this doctrine, God the Father is immutable and impassible and there is also a Logos—Word or Reason of God—and this is personal, capable of direct relations with the world. According to Justin, when God spoke to Moses, it was the Logos of God who spoke to him.

·         Argument in Alexandria: Bishop Alexander of Alexandria clashed over several issues with Arius (256–336), who was a prestigious and popular presbyter. The main issue was whether the Word of God was coeternal with God, whether the Word was God. Alexander held that the Word existed eternally with the Father and was not created; this is the position in John 1.

·         Arianism: Arius argued that the Word was not coeternal with the Father. Arius admitted the preexistence of the Word before incarnation but he held that the Word had been created by God out of nothing and that He had a different (heteros) essence or substance from the Father. Because of the virtue of His life and His obedience to God’s will, Christ was to be considered divine. But Christ was not equal but subordinate to the Father; neither was Christ co-eternal or consubstantial with the Father. Christ was divine but not deity.

·         Conflict: The conflict broke open when Alexander called a synod which condemned Arius’ teaching and removed him from all posts in the church. Arius did not accept this judgment and appealed directly to the people of Alexandria and other bishops in the Eastern church. Soon there were popular demonstrations in Alexandria supporting Arius. Some bishops also wrote letters supporting Arius.

·         Calling of the council: Because the issue threatened to divide the entire Eastern church, Constantine decided to intervene. He sent his advisor to reconcile the two sides but was unsuccessful. Constantine then called a council of bishops from the whole empire to meet in Nicea, near Constantinople.


        6.3.1  The Council of Nicea [325]

·         Composition: There were about 300 bishops and presbyters in the council, the majority from the Greek-speaking Eastern church. Many had the experience of being persecuted. For the first time, they had physical evidence of the universality of the church. The council was presided by Constantine.

·         Work: The bishops discussed many legislative matters. They approved standard procedures for the readmission of the lapsed, for the election and ordination of presbyters and bishops, and the order of precedence.

·         Different positions: In relation to Arianism, there were several different groups: [1] A small number of convinced Arians, led by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. Arius was not a bishop and was not present. [2] A small group believed that Arianism threatened the core of Christian faith and wanted to condemn Arianism. [3] Bishops from the Latin-speaking western church had secondary interest in the debate as the controversy was only among followers of Origen in the East. They were satisfied that Tertullian’s “three persons and one substance” was sufficient. [4] A few people favoured “patripassianism” which held that the Father and the Son are the same and that the Father suffered the passion. [5] The vast majority regretted the controversy and hoped to achieve a compromise, including Eusebius of Caesarea.

·         Athanasius: He was the secretary of bishop Alexander, and was the chief exponent of the orthodox view. He insisted that Christ had existed from all eternity with the Father, and was of the “same” essence (Latin homoousios) as the Father, although He was a distinct person. He believed that if Christ was less than God, He could not be the Saviour of men.

·         Compromise rejected: Eusebius of Caesarea proposed a compromise that Christ was begotten of the Father before time in eternity. Christ was of a “similar” substance or essence as the Father (Latin homoiousios). But the compromise was rejected.

·         Decision: They first sought to use passages from the Scripture to reject Arianism but found it difficult. They then decided to agree on a creed that would express the faith of the church. It appeared that Eusebius of Caesarea read the creed of his own church and the council modified and accepted it. The council then agreed on a formula rejecting Arianism.

·         Result: Very few refused to sign. These few were declared to be heretical, and were deposed. Constantine added his own sentence, banishing the deposed bishops from their cities. He probably intended to avoid further unrest. But it set a bad precedent of using a civil sentence for ecclesiastical matters.

        6.3.2  Nicene Creed

·         Definition: A creed is a statement of faith for public use; it contains articles needful for salvation and the theological well-being of the church. Creeds have been used: [1] to test orthodoxy, [2] to recognize fellow believers, and [3] to serve as a convenient summary of the essential doctrines of faith. Passages resembling a creed can be found in the NT: Romans 10:9-10; 1 Corinthians 15:4; and 1 Timothy 3:16.

·         The Apostles’ Creed: It is the oldest summary of essential doctrines. It was likely developed in 2nd-c [c.150], based on the lack of clarity in addressing Christological issues prominent in later creeds. The earliest reference to the creed was found in a letter of the Council of Milan [390]. Being Roman in origin, it is used only in the churches of Western origin—the RCC, and the Protestant churches.

·         The Creed of Nicea (not the same as today’s Nicene Creed which was adopted in the Council of Constantinople [381])

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

o        And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father, through whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth, who for us humans and our salvation descended and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.

o        And in the Holy Spirit.

o        But those who say that there was when He was not, and that before being begotten He was not, or that He came from that which is not, or that the Son of God is of a different substance (Greek hypostasis) or essence (Latin ousia), or that He is created, or mutable, these the catholic church anathematizes.

·         Acceptance: The formula, with a number of later additions, and without the anathemas of the last paragraph, provided the basis for what is now called the Nicene Creed which was later finalized in the Council of Constantinople [381]. It is the most universally accepted Christian creed, accepted by almost all churches, including the Greek Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox churches.

·         Details:

o        Deity of the Son: The main concern of the creed was to reject any notion that the Son was a creature, or being less divine than the Father. Thus the affirmation was “God of God, light of light, true God of true God,” in order to reject Arianist belief (and also Origen’s belief) that only the Father is “true God”.

o        Problem with “begotten”: The phrase “begotten, not made” was to assure that the Son is not part of the “things visible and invisible” in the first paragraph. The term “only begotten” (Greek monogenes) (John 1:14; 3:16) caused lots of theological discussion in the early church. Discoveries of papyri records in the 1970s showed that “only begotten” is better translated “one and only kind”.

o        Same substance: The phrase “of one substance (homoousios)” or “same substance/essence” was a clear refutation of the Arian belief. However, the word has its deficiency as it seemed to imply that there was no distinction between Father and Son, leaving the door open for patripassianism (believing that God the Father suffered the passion).

        6.3.3  Aftermath of Nicene

·         Ascent of Arianism: The council did not end the controversy. Eusebius of Nicomedia was an able politician. His strategy was to court the approval of Constantine who soon allowed him to return to Nicomedia. After more persuasion, Constantine decided that he had been too harsh on the Arians. Arius was recalled from exile, and Constantine ordered the bishop of Constantinople to restore him to communion. At this point, Arius died.

·         Exile of Athanasius: Bishop Alexander of Alexandria was succeeded by Athanasius [328] who became the chief defender of the Nicene formula. But Eusebius of Nicomedia was able to have Athanasius exiled by the order of Constantine. Most of the Nicene leaders were also banished. When Constantine asked for baptism on his deathbed, he received the sacrament from Eusebius of Nicomedia.

·         Compromise: Even after Nicea, many in the Eastern church still followed Origen’s belief about 3 separate hypostases. Athanasius and the Nicene party suggested a compromise formula: The 3 hypostases of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Origen) are of one substance with each other (Nicea). This was the position of the Cappadocian fathers who guided the Council of Constantinople [381].

o        “Substance”: In Greek, hypostasis literally means “that which stands beneath”. It was first used to mean “substance” or “substantive reality” but later was used to emphasize “being” or “person”. The compromise then became “three persons of one substance”.

·         Divided empire: After Constantine’s death [337], the empire was divided by the 3 sons: Constantine II in the West, Constantius II in the East, and Constans in the centre (Italy and North Africa). Constantine II was on the side of orthodoxy so Athanasius and others were recalled from exile. But Constantius was Arian and Athanasius was later exiled again. Eventually, Constantius became the sole emperor [350]; Arians became the powerful party and many bishops, including Liberius of Rome, had to sign Arian confessions of faith. The situation changed again when Julian the Apostate became emperor [361].

·         Councils: Only the first 7 councils (4th-c to 8th-c) were described as ecumenical, representing the universal church. The later councils (since 9th-c) actually represented only the RCC, not including the Eastern Orthodox Church nor the Protestants.

·         Athanasian Creed: The creed was not written by Athanasius but was originated in 5th-c. It is a masterly summary of the doctrine of Trinity, drawing heavily upon Augustine, so it has been called “codified and condensed Augustinianism.” It affirms 3 main elements of the doctrine of Trinity: [1] There is one God. [2] Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God. [3] The Father is not the Son is not the Holy Spirit.


        6.4.1  The two natures of Christ

·         Civil interference: Because the capital of the Empire was in Constantinople, the Eastern church was tightly controlled by the autocratic emperors. This led to civil intervention in ecclesiastic matters, particularly in theological debates. Those who wanted to win the debates sometimes appealed to the emperors. Theological controversy became one of the hallmarks of Eastern Christianity.

·         Question: The question of the divinity of Christ (and of the Holy Spirit) had been settled by the councils of Nicea [325] and Constantinople [381]. Although the conversions of some of the barbarians to Arianism brought about a brief resurgence of Arianism, this eventually disappeared. All agreed to the doctrine of Trinity and all agreed that God was immutable and eternal. The next main issue was the question of how divinity and humanity are joined in Jesus Christ.

·         Different schools: The Western church was content in accepted the Tertullian formula of “two natures united in one person.” But in the Eastern church, the were two currents of thought: [1] Antiochene: For Jesus to be the Saviour of man, He had to be fully human. The Godhead dwelt in Him but this must not be understood to mean His humanity was diminished or eclipsed. [2] Alexandrine: In order for the Saviour to be a full and clear revelation of the divine, His divinity must be asserted, even at the expense of His humanity.

·         1st confrontation: Apollinaris of Laodicea (??–390) explained that Jesus had a physical body and did not have a human intellect. The Antiochenes objected this as a human body with a purely divine mind is not really a human being. They believed that salvation of man could only be achieved by a true man. Apollinaris’ theory was rejected in the Council of Constantinople [381].

·         Council of Constantinople [381]—This is the 2nd ecumenical council. It adopted the Nicene Creed based on the Creed of Nicea. It affirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit. It condemned Apollinaris.

o        Nicene Creed: Canon 1 stated that the faith of the fathers at Nicea “shall not be set aside but shall remain dominant.” The Nicene Creed was finalized to the version used today.

o        Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople [341–360], taught that the Holy Spirit was “a minister and a servant” on a level with the angels and was subordinate to the Father and the Son. His followers were called Macedonians. The council insisted on the true deity and the person of the Holy Spirit as coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial with the Father and the Son.

o        Apollinaris, the bishop of Laodicea, tried to avoid the undue separation of the human and divine natures of Christ. He taught that Christ had a true body and soul but that the spirit in man was replaced in Christ by the Logos. The Logos as the divine element actively dominated the passive element, the body and soul, in Christ. He stressed the deity of Christ but minimized His true manhood. His view was officially condemned in the council.

o        Summary: The belief in the council can be summarized as: “one Godhead, power and substance of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, whose dignity is equal and majesty coeternal, who are in three perfect hypostases or three perfect persons.”

o        Addition to the Nicene Creed: When the creed adopted in Constantinople was recited at the Council of Toledo [589], the word “filioque” was added. The statement “that proceedeth from the Father” became “that proceedeth from the Father and the Son.” It was intended to define the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Son. This addition contributed to the East-West Schism [1054].

·         2nd confrontation: Nestorius (386–451), patriarch of Constantinople [428–431], represented the Antiochene school, thus opposed by the Alexandrine school. He meant to distinguish the humanity and the divinity of Christ. He further explained that Jesus had “two natures and two persons”, one divine and one human. By so arguing, he made Christ out to be a man in whom the divine and human natures were combined in a mechanical union rather than in an organic union. Christ was in effect only a perfect man who was morally linked to deity. He was a God-bearer rather than the God-man. He was opposed by Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, who defended the doctrine of incarnation that God the Word is united to His own complete human nature into one hypostasis, one being (hypostatic union). Because Nestorius emphasized Christ’s humanity, he declared that Mary should not be called theotokos (bearer of God) because it seemed to exalt her unduly. He suggested that she be called Christotokos (bearer of Christ), arguing that Mary was only the mother of the human side of Christ. Emperor Theodosius II called an ecumenical council at Ephesus to deal with the issue.

·         Council of Ephesus [431]—This is the 3rd ecumenical council. Nestorius was condemned as a heretic, and Mary was called theotokos (“bearer of God”). Bishop John of Antioch, Nestorius’ main supporter, was delayed on his journey, but the council opened without their attendance. Nestorius was not allowed to defend himself. The party of John arrived and convened a rival council which condemned Cyril and restored Nestorius. Cyril then condemned John. The emperor intervened by arresting both Cyril and John who then negotiated and agreed to let the condemnation of Nestorius stay. However, Cyril’s formula of “one incarnate nature of the Word” became the source of the Monophysites (believing Christ has only one nature).

·         3rd confrontation: Eutyches, a monk at Constantinople, insisted that after the incarnation, the two natures of Christ were fused into one nature, the divine. This view denied the true humanity of Christ. Flavian, patriarch of Constantinople, condemned Eutyches. But Dioscorus, bishop of Alexandria, was a manoeuvrer holding extreme Alexandrian position. Dioscorus turned it into a conflict, and another Council of Ephesus [449] was called by Theodosius II. Dioscorus took steps to predetermine the outcome and the council declared that the teaching of “two natures” in Christ was heretical.

·         4th confrontation: Pope Leo I stressed that “each nature (of Christ) retains its own properties without loss.” He objected to the proceedings at Ephesus and called it the “Robber Synod”. It was not recognized as a legitimate council by the universal church. A new council was called at Chalcedon [451] in northern Asia Minor.

·         Council of Chalcedon [451]—This is the 4th ecumenical council. Eutyches and Dioscorus were condemned. The two natures (divine and human) in Christ was specified in the Chalcedonian Definition. It did not seek to explain how the union of the two natures took place, but rather to set the limits beyond which error lies.

·         Decision: The council held that Christ was “complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man,” having “two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” This became the orthodox view. The Definition makes 4 points in opposition to the 4 ancient Christological heresies. The Tertullian formula “two natures in one person” was affirmed.

·         Non-compliance with Chalcedon: Most Christians subscribe to the Chalcedonian definition, except 2 groups. [1] Some in Syria and Persia followed Nestorius and insisted on a clear distinction between the divine and the human in Christ. They were called Nestorians. They sent missionaries to Persia, Arabia, India, and China [635]. Monasteries were founded in China but they were destroyed at the end of 9th-c. [2] Some took the opposite extreme, rejecting “two natures”. They were called Monophysites (meaning one nature). They comprised the Armenian, Ethiopian, Egyptian (Coptic), Lebanese, and Syrian (Jacobites) churches. [But the Melchites in Egypt follow Chalcedon.]

·         Efforts for compliance: Different Byzantine emperors tried to regained the allegiance of his subjects who rejected the council of Chalcedon. Their wavering of support brought the conflict out in the open.

o        Emperor Basiliscus annulled the decisions of Chalcedon [476].

o        Emperor Zeno published an edict [482] ordering the reversal to what was commonly held before the controversy. Pope Felix III declared that the emperor had no authority to prescribe what to believe. But Zeno got the support of Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople. The schism of Acacius separated the two churches until 519.

o        Emperor Justin and Pope Hormisdas reached an agreement to return to the decisions of Chalcedon.

o        Emperor Justinian called the Council of Constantinople II [553] to appease the Monophysites by presenting a Cyrilline interpretation of Chalcedon.

·         Council of Constantinople II [553]—This is the 5th ecumenical council. It condemned the anti-Cyrilline writings of 3 Antiochene theologians: Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa (called “controversy of the Three Chapters”). It also condemned the teachings of Origen.

o        Concessions: The council also accepted that Chalcedon was to be understood in an Alexandrian way. In addition, an Alexandrian formula popular with the Monophysites was approved: Christ was crucified in the flesh. Despite these concessions, the Monophysites were still not reconciled to Chalcedon.

o        Theodoret of Cyrus (393–457), bishop of Cyrus, was an important theologian of the Antioch school which interpreted the Bible literally. When he was young, he supported Nestorius because he misunderstood Cyril, believing him to teach that the Word suffered as God, in His deity. But Cyril clearly believed that the Word is impassible or incapable of suffering as God, but He suffered for us as a man, in the flesh. Later, Theodoret came to accept the orthodox position so he was deposed at the heretical council at Ephesus [449], the so-called “Robber Synod”. He was reinstated in the Council of Chalcedon [451]. However, his early writings were condemned in Constantinople [553].


        6.5.1  Augustine against Pelagius

·         Main question: The Greek mind in the East made its contribution in the field of thought, whereas the more practical Roman mind in the West was more concerned with matters of practice in the church. For example, Augustine and Pelagius were concerned with the problem of the nature of man and how man is saved. Is man to be saved by divine power only, or is there a place in the process of salvation for the human will? In other words, the argument is between predestination by God and human free-will.

·         Pelagius (369–420): He was a British monk and theologian, famous for his piety and austerity. He went to Rome in about 400. With the help of Celestius, he formulated his idea of how man is saved. Pelagius was a cool and calm individual and had known nothing of the struggle of soul experienced by Augustine. While Augustine had found his will helpless to save him from sin, Pelagius was more willing to give the human will a place in the process of salvation.

·         Pelagianism: Pelagius believed that: [1] Each man is created free as Adam was and that each man has the power to choose good or evil. [2] Each soul is a separate creation of God and, therefore, uncontaminated by the sin of Adam, that is, no original sin. Adam merely set a bad example for men to follow. The universality of sin is explained by the weakness of human flesh, not by the corruption of human will by original sin. The human will is free to cooperate with God in the attainment of holiness. [3] A Christian could lead a life without sin, with no more help from God than His teaching and the example of Jesus Christ. He saw Christian life as a constant effort through which one’s sins could be overcome and salvation attained.

·         Augustine’s opposition: Augustine opposed Pelagius’ teaching as a denial of the grace of God. Augustine insisted that: [1] Regeneration is exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit. [2] Man was originally made in the image of God and free to choose good and evil, but Adam’s sin bound all men (original sin) because Adam was the head of the race. Man’s will is totally depraved and unable to exercise his will in the matter of salvation. [3] Salvation can come only to the elect through the grace of God in Christ. God must energize the human will to accept His grace, which is only for those whom He has elected or predestined to salvation.

·         Result: Pelagius’ views were condemned at the Council of Ephesus [431], but neither the Eastern or the Western churches ever fully accepted Augustine’s views. The problem raised by Augustine and Pelagius has been perennial in the church. The church has always been closer to Augustine’s view, although the views of the medieval church were similar to those of the Semi-Pelagians who followed Cassian.

·         Semi-Pelagianism: John Cassian (360–435), a monk at Marseilles, one of the great leaders of Western monasticism, tried to find a compromise position by which the human will and the divine will could cooperate in salvation. He taught that all men are sinful because of the Fall and their wills are weakened but not totally corrupted. Man’s partial free-will can cooperate with divine grace in the process of salvation. He feared that the doctrine of election and irresistible grace might lead to ethical irresponsibility. This view was condemned at the Synod of Orange [529] in favour of a moderate Augustinian view. The synod affirmed our need for grace, but this grace is tied to the sacraments and good works.

·         Extreme Augustinianism: Medieval English theologian Thomas Bradwardine (1290–1349) reacted strongly to Semi-Pelagianism. By emphasizing God’s sovereignty, he taught that God determines all our actions to the point that no room is left for human free-will. He held that all things happen because God causes and directs them. God does not merely permit evil, He even wills it. Bradwardine believed that man has psychological freedom but no ethical freedom to choose the good unless God’s grace moves him.

·         Danger of theology: The emphasis on theological issues may lead to the danger of: [1] People might hold extreme positions on non-essential issues leading to disunity. [2] People might be orthodox in faith but not live up to the ethical implications of that faith. Creed and conduct must always go hand in hand.


Views of sin: Pelagius vs Augustine (from Enns’s book)




Effect of Fall

only Adam affected

All humanity affected

Original sin



Hereditary sin



Man at birth

born neutral

born with fallen nature

Man’s will


enslaved to sin

Fact of universal sin

due to bad examples

due to man’s innate sinfulness

Turning to God in salvation

possible independent of God’s grace

only possible through God’s grace



[1] treasure our heritage

Creeds are precious Christian heritage with many uses.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

The influential Arianism did not win over the church.

[3] avoid past errors

Solving theological issues must not involve political authorities.

[4] apply our knowledge

Issues that led to so much debates in the early church are important and should be taught in church. Yet, issues concerning Christian living are equally important.

[5] follow past saints

Athanasius suffered repeated exiles for persisting in orthodoxy.



        Were the decisions of the councils correct decisions? Were they following the will of God? If not, how can the united universal church make wrong decision(s)?

o        Only the first 7 councils (4th to 8th centuries) were described as ecumenical, representing the universal church. The later councils (since the 9th-c) actually represented only the RCC, not including the Eastern Orthodox Church nor the Protestants.

o        Decisions in the ecumenical councils were generally correct. However, the decision on the veneration of icons in the 7th ecumenical council was without Biblical support. In addition, the naming of Mary as the “bearer of God” in the 3rd ecumenical council was logically correct but unfortunately led to later non-Biblical veneration of Mary.

o        The later non-ecumenical councils certainly made many wrong decisions. Often, they did not follow the will of God. Since they were not true representation of the universal church, they often represented sectarian interests.

o        Some decisions were controlled by one or a few influential persons, such as the Council of Lateran IV [1215] rubber-stamping Innocent III’s personal decisions, with all those important decisions made in 3 days.

        What can we learn from the Donatist schism with respect to [a] treatment of the lapsed, [b] rebaptism, and [c] qualification of ministers?

o        [a] treatment of the lapsed: A standard procedure should be developed and applied for each case, in order to prevent arguments.

o        [b] rebaptism: If baptism is, as the Roman Catholic Church believes, effective because of the act (Latin ex opere operato), then there is always doubt whether it is effective. What if the baptizer of your baptism was in fact an unbeliever? The important point in baptism is the genuine faith accompanying the act, including the understanding that it symbolizes the washing of sins and the entry into the church. The act by itself is not effective. Otherwise, does it mean that the confessing robber on the cross would not be saved because he did not receive baptism?

o        [c] qualification of ministers: A minister is not rejected because of some wrong behaviour in the past. No sin is unforgiven if there is genuine repentance. Of course, it also depends on whether future ministry of the sinning minister is effective or not in the future. In general, a minister is qualified with the confirmation by God through the demonstration of spiritual authority.

        How can we prevent fanaticism like the circumcellions (who grew gradually from theological conflicts and resorted to violence after holding extreme theological positions)?

o        Grievances should be seriously addressed before they turned into fanatic beliefs and actions.

o        Theology should be treated seriously in church. Differences in theology should be solved before they develop into extreme positions. However, solution of the problem does not always mean total agreement. If the issue is non-essential, a solution of “agreeing to disagree agreeably” is sufficient.

        What were the problems when civil authorities intervene into religious affairs?

o        The church could be led down a wrong path by young believers or even non-believers who knew little about the Christian faith.

o        The use of a civil sentence to ecclesiastical matters, such as in Nicea, led to the later use of political influence in deciding matters in the church. The proper way should be for the church to decide on their internal matters through consensus.

o        The intervention by civil authorities was largely based on the fear that disunity in the church would lead to disunity in the country. This unfounded fear led to persecutions of religious dissenters—Protestants during the Reformation, Anabaptists and Puritans after the Reformation.

o        It led to the control of the church by political leaders which may exploit their influence over religions to achieve selfish objectives.

        What were the benefits and drawbacks of councils?

o        Benefits:

          The bishops witnessed in real life the universality of the church.

          Heresies could be fought by a united church guided by the Holy Spirit.

          Unity of faith through creeds could be achieved.

o        Drawbacks:

          Decisions of councils may depend on their representation. Non-ecumenical councils were in most cases biased.

          The decisions could do great damage to the whole church if the council is controlled by a small group or one person.

          Monarchical popes could use councils as instruments to gain power, as demonstrated many times in Middle Ages and after Reformation.

        How did the battle with Arianism demonstrate God’s providence?

o        Before the Council of Nicea, Arius had support of some populace in Alexandria and bishops in the Eastern empire. Yet, at the council, the heresy was almost immediately identified even when most bishops wanted to avoid the controversy.

o        God sent great polemicists to defend orthodox faith, such as Athanasius.

o        Eusebius of Nicomedia was successful in changing the view of Constantine and Constans. Yet their interference in the church did not last long.

o        The influence of heresies eventually shrank and most times died out like Arianism.

        Julian the Apostate attempted to suppress Christianity by forbidding Christians to teach classical literature and by ridiculing them. What was his purpose for such action? Can we find parallel occurrences today?

o        Julian’s intention was to impede the progress of Christianity by controlling the education system. The teaching of great works of classical antiquity was one of the most respected profession in Roman times. By prohibiting Christians from teaching classical literature, he tried to put Christianity under a bad light, indicating that Christianity was not worthy of respect. He reinforced such attitude by ridiculing Christians.

o        Today, being a scientist is one of the most respected profession in this materialistic and secularist era. The deliberate effort by atheists to monopolize the teaching of Darwinism and to exclude creationism and theories of intelligent design from classrooms represents a similar effort to place the Bible under a bad light. It is an attempt to ridicule the accuracy of the Bible and to imply that the Bible does not measure up to the standard of science. The intention is to impede the progress of Christianity by controlling the education system.