Creating  Liturgical anti-Arian Polemic: The Nicene Creed in the Liturgy of Saint Gregory the Theologian



he history of Christianity in the fourth century Roman Empire hinges on two important figures: the emperors Constantine the Great and Theodosius I. Both of these emperors presided over radical changes in the religious landscape of the Roman Empire, the emperor Constantine legalizing Christianity in 313 with the Edict of Milan, and in 380 the emperor Theodosius[1] made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica.[2] These two emperors also played central roles in the first of the Christological controversies, Arianism.

In 318, soon after the legalization of Christianity in 313, a presbyter in Alexandria named Arius disagreed with the Christology of patriarch Alexander of Alexandria.[3] What exactly Arius taught is difficult to reconstruct, since most of his own writings are lost, but in essence: “God was not always Father, he was once in a situation in which he was simply God and not Father…The Logos or Son is a creature. God made him out of non existence…the Son has been created for our sakes, as an instrument for creating us.”[4] This anthropocentric Christology, that Christ is not true God, but an instrument of creation, caused an immediate uproar in the Christian world. Especially in the eastern empire, the controversy caused such great divisions, that the emperor Constantine was forced to call a council of bishops to decide the matter. During this council, which met in the city of Nicaea in 325, the term homoousios, of one essence, was proposed to describe Christ’s relationship with the Father. The origin of this term in Gnostic theology and in Neoplatonic and Hermetic philosophy,[5] however, proved problematic for some of the attendees at the council, especially the Arians, and a counter term homoiousios, of a similar essence, was proposed as a compromise position. Eventually, it was the homoousian position that was adopted by the Council, which then formulated the first sections of what would become the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:

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, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance 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 which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion(3)–all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.[6]

Despite this rather major setback, Arianism did not cease to exist in the Roman Empire, especially in the form of Acacianism and Macedonianism. Both of these evolutions of Arianism rejected the homoouosian position, and embraced the term homoiousios. Homoian Arians inhabited some of the most powerful ecclesiastical positions, especially in the eastern empire, so for example Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was bishop of Constantinople from 338-341 and Eudoxius, who was bishop of Constantinople from 360 to 370.[7] Macedonianism, one of these offshoot Homoian Arian groups, takes its name from another Arian patriarch of Constantinople, Macedonius (342-346 and 351-360). Since Macedonius not only applied homoiousian theology to Christ, but to the Holy Spirit as well, the Macedonians are also called Pneumatomachians.

The homoousian, or Nicene, party was not lacking in a new generation of defenders as well. Perhaps the best known of these are the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and Gregory of Nyssa. Especially Gregory the Theologian was an avid enemy of the Macedonians, and was the first to use the term homoousios for the Holy Spirit as well as for Christ: Τί οὖν; θεὸς τὸ πνεῦμα; πάνυ γε. Τί οὖν, ὁμοούσιον; εἴπερ θεός.[8]

As before the first council at Nicaea, the controversy did not contain itself in the world of theologians and philosophers:

Πάντα γὰρ τὰ κατὰ τὴν πόλιν τῶν τοιούτων πεπλήρωται, οἱ στενωποὶ, αἱ ἀγοραὶ, αἱ πλατεῖαι, τὰ ἄμφοδα· οἱ τῶν ἱματίων κάπηλοι, οἱ ταῖς τραπέζαις ἐφεστηκότες, οἱ τὰ ἐδώδιμα ἡμῖν ἀπεμπολοῦντες. Ἐὰν περὶ τῶν ὀβολῶν ἐρωτήσῃς, ὁ δέ σοι περὶ γεννητοῦ καὶ ἀγεννήτου ἐφιλοσόφησε· κἂν περὶ τιμήματος ἄρτου πύθοιο, Μείζων ὁ Πατὴρ, ἀποκρίνεται, καὶ ὁΥἱὸς ὑποχείριος. Εἰ δὲ, Τὸ λουτρὸν ἐπιτήδειόν ἐστιν, εἴποις, ὁ δὲ ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων τὸν Υἱὸν εἶναι διωρίσατο.[9]

The societal crisis prompted by the continued fighting between these theological groups prompted renewed intervention by the emperor. In 381, the emperor Theodosius convened a second council, this time in Constantinople, which discussed the issue of Homoian Arianism and Pneumatomachianism, reaffirming the ruling of the first council at Nicaea concerning the term homoousios and condemning Pneumatomachianism. This council added a section to the creed formulated at Nicaea on the Holy Spirit, creating the completed form of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:

καὶ εἰς τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ Ἅγιον, τὸ Κύριον καὶ Ζωοποιόν, τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον, τὸ σὺν Πατρὶ καὶ Υἱῷ συμπροσκυνούμενον καὶ συνδοξαζόμενον, τὸ λαλῆσαν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν.[10]

While there continued to be, and still are groups which professed an Arian understanding of Christology, or at least a similar Christology, the ruling of this council and the affirmation of homoousianism effectively ended the conflict within the Roman Empire, to be quickly replaced by other Christological controversies such as Nestorianism in the fifth century and Monophysitism in the sixth.

Christusanrede and the Arians

On feast days of Christ, the Coptic church celebrates a liturgy attributed to St. Gregory the Theologian. This liturgy is unique in that it is in its entirety addressed the Christ, rather than to God the Father.[11] This focus on the person of Christ could be interpreted in the context of “Christusanrede,”[12] as an extreme example of “Christusfrömmigkeit.”[13] A number of other liturgical texts include prayers addressed to Christ, such as the Didache, the anaphora of Sts. Addai and Mari, some early Byzantine baptismal liturgies allow “die Möglichkeit einer provisorischen Systematisierung der heutigen Erkentnisse über die Christusanrede im Eucharistiegebet…”[14] While these liturgies do contain prayers addressed to Christ, none of them are exclusively in the format of  “Christusanrede.”[15] By choosing to write every prayer of the liturgy following this paradigm, the author transcends the tradition of “Christusanrede” and creates something new, a liturgical text that functions as anti-Arian polemic.

There is no overt attack on the theology of the Arians in this liturgy, however, no mention of Arius himself, or any of the leaders of the semi-Arian groups that arose following the decisions of the council of Nicaea. This is not a text full of subtle theological arguments with which the author hopes to convince Arians of the merits of the homoousian position, instead, the author creates a theological environment that is exclusionary. Addressing every prayer to Christ, even the Anaphoral prayers and those surrounding the Eucharist, makes it impossible for someone who does not share this Christological understanding to participate, how can one worship Christ in the liturgy, if one does not believe Him to be divine?[16] This same exclusionary definition of the community can be seen in the Jewish daily prayers, the Amidah. The twelfth of these nineteen prayers is the Birkat Haminim, in which the destruction of certain groups is prayed for:

For the apostates let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the noẓerim and the minim be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant.[17]

This prayer, like the direct address of Christ, serves as an exclusionary, since the noẓerim and minim would not pray for their own destruction.[18] The minim, whom Teppler identifies as Christians,[19] would stand in a similar situation to the larger world of Judaism as the Arians would in the larger world of Christianity. To what purpose, however, would such exclusion be necessary? An Arian would likely not need to be excluded from such a liturgy, as the two theological groups would have held separate services.[20] Instead, this text, by excluding Arians, defines who belongs to the community of homoousians.

The Nicene Creed in the Liturgy of St. Gregory[21]

That the “Christusanrede” in the liturgy of St. Gregory functions as a way to portray anti-Arian theology is confirmed by other elements of the text. One interesting example of this is in the final prayer of the liturgy, the Εὐχὴ τῆς κεφαλοκλισίας.

Εὐχὴ τῆς κεφαλοκλισίας.[22] The Prayer of the Bowing of the Head
Ὁ Διάκονος λέγει· Τὰς κεφαλὰς ἡμῶν τῷ Κυρίῳ κλίνατε.                                                  Ὁ ὤν, ὁ ἦν, ὁ ἐλθὼν εἰς τὸν κόσμον τοῦ φωτίσαι αὐτόν. Ὁ σαρκωθείς καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσας, καὶ σταυρωθεὶς δι’ ἡμᾶς, καὶ παθὼν ἑκουσίως σαρκί, καὶ μείνας ἀπαθής, ὡς Θεός. Καὶ ταφείς καὶ ἀναστάς τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ καὶ ἀνελθὼν εἰς οὐρανούς, καὶ καθίσας ἐν δεξίᾳ τῆς μεγαλωσύνης δόξης  τοῦ Πατρός· τό τε θεῖον καὶ ἅγιον καὶ ὁμοούσιον καὶ ὁμοδύναμον καὶ ὁμόδοξον καὶ συναίδιον Πνεῦμα καταπέμψας ἐπὶ τοὺς ἁγίους σου μαθητάς καὶ ἀποστόλους, καὶ διὰ τούτου φωτίσας μὲν αὐτούς …τὴν ο..ουμ… Χριστέ, ὁ ἀληθινὸς θ…μ… ….. καὶ Γαβριὴλ καὶ Ῥαφαήλ. Καὶ τῶν ἀγγέλων τετραμόρφων ζώων ἀσωμάτων· καὶ τῶν ἀγγέλων, καὶ τῶν εἴκοσιτεσσάρωνπρεσβυτέρων. Τοῦ ἁγίου ἐνδόξου προφήτου προδρόμου βαπτίστου καὶ μάρτυρος Ἰωάννου. Τοῦ ἁγίου Στεφάνου τοῦ πρωτοδιακόνου καὶ πρωτομάρτυρος. Τῶν θείων ἱερῶν ἐνδόξων ἀποστόλων ἀθλοφόρων προφητῶν καὶ καλλινίκων μαρτύρων. Καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου καὶ μακαρίου πατρὸς ἡμῶν Μάρκου τοῦ ἀποστόλου καὶ εὐαγγελιστοῦ. Καὶ πάντων τῶν χόρων τῶν ἁγίων σου.                                                  Καὶ σῶσον, καὶ ἐλέησον, καὶ εὐλόγησον, πάντα χριστιανόν. Καὶ σοι τὴν δόξαν,                           καὶ τιμήν, καὶ προσκύνησιν, σὺν τῷ ἀνάρχῳ σου Πατρὶ, καὶ τῷ ἁγίῳ Πνεύματι νῦν καὶ ἀεί, καὶ εἰς. Ἐν εἰρήνῃ τοῦ Θεοῦ ἐτελειώθη ἡ θεία λειτουργία ἡ ὡρισμένη τῷ ἐν ἁγίοις  πατρὶ ἡμῶν θεολόγῳ Γρηγορίῳ.   The Deacon says: Bow your heads to the Lord. You who are, who were, who came into the world to illumine it; who took flesh, became man and was crucified for us, and suffering willingly in the flesh, You remained passionless, as God; You were buried, rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens and were enthroned at the right hand of the great glory of the Father; You sent down upon Your holy disciples and apostles the divine, holy, consubstantial Spirit, equal to You in power and glory, who is equally eternal with You, and through it You illumined them. …crux… Christ the true …crux…. And Gabriel and Raphael. the angels, the bodiless four formed creatures; and the angels, the twenty four elders; the holy, glorious prophet, forerunner Baptist and martyr John. St. Stephen the protodeacon and protomartyr; the divine, holy, glorious Apostles, the victorious prophets, the triumphant martyrs; our holy and blessed father Mark the apostle and evangelist; and the whole choir of Your saints. Save, have mercy on and bless every Christian. To You we offer glory, honor and worship; with Your beginning less Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto… In the peace of God, the Divine Liturgy is completed, which was laid down by our Father among the Saints, the Theologian Gregory.  

Almost immediately, the reader, or the congregant, recognizes the great degree of influence exerted on this prayer by the Nicene Creed. The author borrows both the language and imagery of the Nicene Creed in building the first part of the prayer:

The Nicene Creed and the historical actions of Christ.[23]

  1. The Nicene Creed   2. The Liturgy of St. Gregory  
  1. καὶ σαρκωθέντα 2. καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα 3. Σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν 4. καὶ παθόντα 5. καὶ ταφέντα 6. Καὶ ἀναστάντα τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ κατὰ τὰς Γραφάς 7. Καὶ ἀνελθόντα εἰς τοὺς οὐρανοὺς καὶ καθεζόμενον ἐκ δεξιῶν τοῦ Πατρός   1. ὁ σαρκωθείς 2. ἐνανθρωπήσας 3. καὶ σταυρωθεὶς δι’ ἡμᾶς 4. καὶ παθὼν 5. καὶ ταφείς 6. καὶ ἀναστάς τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ 7. καὶ ἀνελθὼν εἰς οὐρανούς, καὶ καθίσας ἐν δεξίᾳ τῆς μεγαλοσύνης δόξης  τοῦ Πατρός  

The adoption of this language functions similarly to the pervasive address of Christ, excluding the participation of those who cannot agree with this theological position reaffirming the boundary of the community. Incorporating the text of the Nicene Creed in to the prayer itself is a powerful repudiation of homoian Arianism, even more powerful than the “Christusanrede” the very words with which Arianism was defeated at the Council of Nicaea. By ending the liturgy with what nearly amounts to direct quotation from the Nicene Creed, the author sends the congregation out with a final reminder of the shared faith of the community. The direct parallels with the Nicene Creed end with Christ: ἐν δεξίᾳ τῆς μεγαλοσύνης δόξης  τοῦ Πατρός.[24]

The following section of the text: τό τε θεῖον καὶ ἅγιον καὶ ὁμοούσιον καὶ ὁμοδύναμον καὶ ὁμόδοξον καὶ συναίδιον Πνεῦμα καταπέμψας ἐπὶ τοὺς ἁγίους σου μαθητάς καὶ ἀποστόλους…[25] stands in the place of the statements added by the Council of Constantinople concerning the Holy Spirit. While both of these passages transition to a discussion of the Holy Spirit, the author of the Liturgy of St. Gregory reframes the discussion of the Holy Spirit in terms of Christ, who sends the Holy Spirit upon His disciples and apostles. Altering the dynamic of the procession of the Holy Spirit developed at the Council of Constantinople in removing any reference to God the Father, the author is able to keep the attention of the listener on Christ, keeping to the exclusionary nature of the liturgy. The phrasing of this section also calls to mind the Epiklesis prayer: Αὐτὸς τὸ Πνεῦμά σου τὸ πανάγιον κατάπεμψον…[26] underscoring Christ’s place in the Trinity as well as in the celebration of the Eucharist, as both the offerer and the offering.

Particularly striking is the series of epithets modifying the Holy Spirit: τό τε θεῖον καὶ ἅγιον καὶ ὁμοούσιον καὶ ὁμοδύναμον καὶ ὁμόδοξον καὶ συναίδιον.[27] Why would the author, who is careful to keep the focus of this section on Christ, to the near exclusion of God the Father, and who discusses the Holy Spirit here in terms of Christ, put such a lengthy set of epithets on the Holy Spirit and not on Christ? This helps to orient the liturgy historically, the emphasis on the equality of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity suggests the late fourth century and the context of the Council of Constantinople, dealing with the Pneumatomachians rather than Arianism proper. Especially important is the transference of the term ὁμοούσιον, which is used in the Creed for Christ, to the Holy Spirit. This is one of the few places in a Greek liturgy in which this occurs,[28] and gives credence to the authorship of this liturgy by Gregory the Theologian, or at least someone in his circle, as he was the first to use the term for the Holy Spirit.[29]

Works Cited:

  1. Albert Gerhards, Die Griechische Gregoriosanaphora: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Eucharistischen Hochgebets (Aschendorff sche Verlagsbuchhandlung,1984).
  2. Beatrice, P.F., The Word Homoousios from Hellenism to Christianity. In The American Society of Church History 71/2 (2002), pg. 243-272.
  3. Hanson, R.P.C., The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2005).
  4. Jungmann, The Early Liturgy (University of Notre Dame Press, 1959).
  5. Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Creeds third edition (London: Continuum International, 1972).
  6. Newman, N., The Liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian: Critical Text with Translation and Commentary (forthcoming from St. Dominic’s Media).
  7. Newman, N., The Use of the Term Homoousios in the Liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian. In St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 58:3 (2014), 281-306.
  8. Percival, H.R. (ed.), The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church. In Schaff, P. and Wace, H. (eds.) Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol. XIV (Grand Rapids MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1988).
  9. Schlechter, G., Gezinah Specimens. In JQR Vol. 10 (1898), 657.
  10. Teppler, Y., Birkat haMinim: Jews and Christians in Conflict in the Ancient World. Weingarten, S. (trans). (Mohr Siebeck, 2007).


[1] Together with his co-emperors Gratian and Valentinian II.

[2] Imperatoris Theodosii Codex XVI.1.2 ff.

[3] Hansen (2005), pg. 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cf. Beatrice (2002), 243-272.

[6] Percival (1988).

[7]  Socrates Scholasticus, Church History book 2, chapter 37.

[8] Gregory Nazianzen. Theological Oration 5. 11.2 “Is then the Spirit God? Certainly. Is He of one essence? If indeed He is God.”

[9] Gregory of Nyssa On the Deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit PG 46 557. “The whole city is full, the alleys the marketplaces, the streets, the neighborhoods; the clothes dealers, the money-changers, the food sellers. Should you ask concerning an obol, he philosophizes concerning the begotten and the unbegotten; or if you should wish to learn about the cost of bread, he responds that the Father is greater and that the Son is lesser. Even if you wish to ask: “Is the bath prepared?” The one preparing it says that the Son came from non-being into being.”

[10] Kelly (1972)  “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-giver, who proceeds from the Father. Who, together with the Father and the Son, is worshipped and glorified. Who spoke through the prophets.”

[11] There is only one example of a prayer addressed to God the Father, the Εὐχὴ ἄλλη καταπετάσματος μαρ’ Αἰγυτίους, the “Other Prayer of the Veil among the Egyptians.” This prayer is a later addition, added in as an alternate to the original “Prayer of the Veil.”

[12] “Address of Christ” Gerhards (1984), 176–210.

[13] “Christ piety.” Ibid.

[14] Gerhards (1984), pg. 210 “ provide the possibility to establish a provisional systematization of prayers addressed to Christ in the Eucharist.”

[15] Newman (2014): 282-283.

[16] The Arian controversy and its influence on liturgical development is discussed in Jungmann (1959), pp. 188-198.

[17] Schlechter (1898), 657.

[18] Newman (forthcoming)

[19] Teppler (2007), 56 and 207.

[20] The increased anti-Arian liturgical language generally in the fourth century is not a likely scenario in mixed congregations. Ibid.

[21] This section is based on a chapter of the commentary in my dissertation.

[22] Section 11 of the post anaphora section.

[23] A copy of Table III.XII.3 from my dissertation.

[24] “at the right hand of the great glory of the Father”

[25] “You sent down upon Your holy disciples and apostles the divine, holy, consubstantial Spirit, equal to You in power and glory, who is equally eternal with You.”

[26] Section 7 of the Anaphoral prayers. “Send down Your All-Holy Spirit…”

[27] “the divine, holy, consubstantial … equal to You in power and glory, who is equally eternal with You”

[28] This is not an unusual use of the term in Coptic and Syriac liturgies, however.

[29] xxxxx

Author Profile

Dr. Nicholas Newman
After completing his undergraduate work in Ancient Greek and Classics at the University of New Hampshire, Nicholas Newman did his graduate work in Ancient Greek, Latin and Medieval History at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, completing his dissertation in 2014. Since finishing his doctoral work, he has been teaching Latin, Greek and Humanities at Kearsarge Regional High School and Northeast Catholic College in New Hampshire.