After the Council of Nicaea, the Arian controversy was far from over, and the battle raged on partly through the composition and dissemination of church songs. Portions of Arius’s (c.256–336) songbook, the Thalia, are preserved in the polemical writings of Athanasius (c.296–373). These songs teach that the Son, who was created by the Eternal Father, was not equal to the Father and was of a different substance. On the other hand, the Nicaean position was also promulgated by means of songs; in no place is this more evident than in the Ambrosian hymnal. One such hymn, “God, the Creator of All Things,” by Ambrose of Milan (c.339–c.397), exclaims, “We beseech Christ and the Father, and the Spirit of Christ and the Father who are one and omnipotent. O Trinity, assist us who pray to you!” (trans. Ramsey).
This hymnic theology reflects the church’s vigor to defend and teach the doctrines revealed in Scripture and formalized in the Nicene Creed, while also highlighting an approach to church music that is exemplary. The use of music to promote doctrine—whether it be orthodox or heterodox—is in keeping with Paul’s command to use psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to teach and admonish. Given the church’s efforts to use music to instruct after Nicaea, what did the songs of the church teach about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit prior to 325?
The doctrine of the Trinity is not only found in hymns of the fourth century and later; “by the early second century, the uniquely Christian Trinitarian form was common” in Christian hymns, nearly two centuries before Nicaea (ed. Ferguson, 1999). This essay will examine ante-Nicene Christian hymnodic material to shed light on early Christianity’s view of the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit ante-Nicene church. In doing so, I will argue that the didactic nature of music is integral to the ethos of Christianity.