Creed of the Council of Sardica – One Hypostasis or Three?

As many of you know, I have recently taken an interest in the study of 4th Century Christianity. In looking at the final development of the Trinity, the Council of Sardica had to be denied as valid by Athanasius:

And prohibit even the reading or publication of the paper, much talked of by some, as having been drawn up concerning the Faith at the synod of Sardica. For the synod made no definition of the kind. For whereas some demanded, on the ground that the Nicene synod was defective, the drafting of a creed, and in their haste even attempted it, the holy synod assembled in Sardica was indignant, and decreed that no statement of faith should be drafted, but that they should be content with the Faith confessed by the fathers at Nicæa, inasmuch as it lacked nothing but was full of piety, and that it was undesirable for a second creed to be promulged, lest that drafted at Nicæa should be deemed imperfect, and a pretext be given to those who were often wishing to draft and define a creed. So that if a man propound the above or any other paper, stop them, and persuade them rather to keep the peace. For in such men we perceive no motive save only contentiousness. For as to those whom some were blaming for speaking of three Subsistences (hypostasis) on the ground that the phrase is unscriptural and therefore suspicious, we thought it right indeed to require nothing beyond the confession of Nicæa, but on account of the contention we made enquiry of them, whether they meant, like the Arian madmen, subsistences foreign and strange, and alien in essence from one another, and that each Subsistence was divided apart by itself, as is the case with creatures in general and in particular with those begotten of men, or like different substances, such as gold, silver, or brass;—or whether, like other heretics, they meant three Beginnings and three Gods, by speaking of three Subsistences.

This was the same Council that had declared both Athanasius and Marcellus free from heresy. I have to wonder if those declarations were seen as equally invalid.

We have to notice that the Council was strict on it’s use of theological terms, not even allowing for ousia to be used. Marcellus would later comment that it was the gnostic Valens which had first used the plurality of natures:

Now with the heresy of the Ariomaniacs, which has corrupted the Church of God…These then teach three hypostases, just as Valentinus the heresiarch first invented in the book entitled by him ‘On the Three Natures’. For he was the first to invent three hypostases and three persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he is discovered to have filched this from Hermes and Plato.

Before the Creed can be found the anathemas against the Eusebians who believed in three hypostases.

We declare that those are to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church who say that Christ is God, but not the true God; that he is the Son, but not the true Son; and that he is both begotten and unbegotten for such persons understand the term ‘begotten’ to signify, they say, that which has been made. And although the Son of God existed before all ages, they attribute to him a beginning and an end, and yet admit that he existed before all time.

The Creed can be found in Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History, here:

“Valens and Ursacius have, like two vipers brought forth by an asp, proceeded from the Arian heresy. For they boastingly declare themselves to be most undoubted Christians, and yet they affirm that the Word and the Holy Ghost were both crucified and slain, and that they died and rose again; and they pertinaciously maintain, like the heretics, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are of diverse and distinct hypostases.

We have been taught, and we hold the catholic and apostolic tradition and faith and confession which teach, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost have one hypostasis, which is termed essence (ousia) by the heretics. If it were asked,  “What is the nature of the Son? we should confess, that it is the same as that of the Father; for the Father has never been, nor could ever be, without the Son, nor the Son without the Father. It is most absurd to affirm that the Father ever existed without the Son, for that this could never be the case has been testified by the Son himself, who said,  “I am in the Father, and the Father in me” (John xiv. 10); and “I and the Father are one”‘ (John x. 30). We cannot deny that he was begotten; but we say that he was begotten before all things, whether visible or invisible; and that he is the Creator of archangels and angels, and of the worlds, and of the human species. It is written, “The wisdom which made all things has taught me; (Wisdom 7.22)” and again, “All things were made by him” (John i.).

“As the Word is said to have always existed, it is plain that He could have had no commencement; for if he had had a beginning, he could not have always existed. God will never have an end. We do not say that the Father is the Son, nor that the Son is the Father; but that the Father is the Father, and that the Son is the Son of the Father. We confess that the Son is the Power of the Father. We confess that the Son is the Word of God the Father, and that beside him there is no other. We believe the Word to be the true God, as well as wisdom and power.

We affirm that he is truly the Son, yet not in the way in which men are said to be sons: for they are said to be the sons of God on account of their regeneration, or of their merit, and not on account of their being of one hypostasis with the Father, as is the Son. We confess that he is the only begotten Son; for he has always been and always is in the Father. He is the Firstborn with respect to human nature. He differs from those who have received the new birth, inasmuch as he is the Firstborn from the dead. We confess that there is but one God, and that the divinity of the Father and of the Son is one. No one can deny that the Father is greater than the Son: this superiority does not arise from any difference in their nature, nor indeed from any diversity existing between them, but simply from the name of the Father being greater than that of the Son.

The following words uttered by our Lord, “I and the Father are one are” by some persons explained as referring to the concord and harmony (symphonia) which prevail between the Father and the Son; but this is a blasphemous and perverse interpretation. So far as we are Catholics, we have condemned this foolish and lamentable opinion: for just as mortal men sometimes quarrel and afterwards are reconciled, so do such interpreters infer that disputes and dissension are liable to arise between God the Father Almighty and his Son; a supposition which is altogether absurd and untenable. But we believe and maintain that those holy words, “I and the Father are one point” out the oneness of the hypostasis, and the unity of the Father and of the Son. We also believe that the Son reigns with the Father, that his reign has neither beginning nor end, and that it is not bounded by time, nor subject to any contingencies: for what has always existed can never have commenced, and can never terminate.

We recognise and we receive the Holy Ghost the Comforter, whom the Lord promised to send, and whom we believe has been sent. It was not the Holy Ghost who suffered. He who suffered was the Christ, who took the nature of man, and was born of the Virgin Mary. As man, He was capable of suffering; for man is mortal, whereas God is immortal. We believe that on the third day the man rose in God, but that God did not rise in the man; and that Christ presented the human nature which he had delivered from sin and corruption as a gift to the Father. We believe that in his own appointed time, He will judge all men and all their actions. So great is the ignorance and mental darkness of those whom we have mentioned, that they are unable to see the light of truth. They cannot comprehend the meaning of the following words: ‘ that they may be one in us.’ It is obvious why the word ‘one’ was used; it was because the apostles received the Holy Spirit of God: yet there were none amongst them who were the Holy Ghost, neither was there any one of them who was the Word, the Wisdom, the Power, or the only begotten Son. “As Thou”, He said, “and I are one, so let them be one in us.” These holy words that they may be one in us are strictly accurate: for the Lord did not say, “Let them be one in the same way that I and the Father are one,” but he said, Let the disciples be united together, and be one in faith, in doctrine, in the grace of God the Father, and in the love of our Lord Christ.’ “

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